Re: Language anyone?

Thomas W. Rimkus (trimkus@COMP.UARK.EDU)
Sat, 18 Mar 1995 14:08:01 -0600

On Thu, 16 Mar 1995, John Mcreery wrote:

> As we are looking for new topics to discuss, allow me to offer one of my
> own obsessions--the relation of ideas about language to the culture of
> the discipline (and more broadly the world) in which we live , work and
> think.
> I myself come at this issue as someone who did a year of formal logic as
> an undergraduate, got excited by reading Noam Chomsky in graduate
> school, and then went on to work for a while as a research assistant in
> an artificial intelligence project supervised by Roger Schank. To this
> day the prospect of finding (the words are Levi-Strauss's) a
> "Mendelevian table of the mind," whose permutations and
> combinations define the universe of human possibilities continues to
> excite me.
> I have, however, become increasingly sensitive to observations that the
> messy realities of human language do not yield easily to oversimplified
> abstract analysis. Looking back I recall a brilliant image offered by
> Wallace Chafe; the occasion was, I recall, a colloquium at either
> Berkeley or Cornell. Chafe noted that language as described by
> Chomsky and his followers is like a new erector set. All the parts are
> clean and shiney and designed to fit together. Real languages, he said,
> are more like old erector sets found when cleaning out a closet. The
> pieces are dirty. Original pieces are missing. Others are dented or
> damaged. Original pieces have been replaced by screws, rubber bands,
> blobs of old chewing gum. These sets have a history.
> Now when I think about language and how we use it in academic and
> other discussions, I start from a position best expressed by Donald
> McCloskey in _The Rhetoric of Economics_. I, too, was trained in a
> facts and logic, positivistic view of language that, looking back, we now
> recognize as part and parcel of Modernism. I, too, have learned that
> facts and logic are only part of what we say; more is stories and
> metaphors. Our problem is that while we share certain rules and
> procedures for evaluating the former, we are mostly confused about the
> latter. How we might get unconfused is the subject that refuses to leave
> me alone.
I, too, studied logic and liguistic formalisms in the 60's before
traveling extensively in Mexico, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. One
thing caught my eye was that the farther away from English speaking nations one
moved the less these formal structures held any insights. His deep semantic
structure seemed to me to be really only an interesting extension of
formal syntactic analysis. I think that this body of work somewhat
parallels the fundamental nature of science itself, in that the world
which currently lends itself to scientific scrutiny is only a very small
subset of the goo as a whole. There is always room to stretch the model
to incorporate more and I for one will be interested to see you develop on
this thread.

Tom Rimkus
Madison County