Thursday, April 19, 2012

Robin Lakoff's introduction (2004) to Language and Woman's Place (1975)

In 2004, a new annotated edition of Robin Lakoff's Language and Woman's Place came out. I addtion to the orignal text, this new edition includes a number of essays on the topics raised in the book as well as a new introduction by Lakoff herself.

The Frustration of a Comskyan

The introduction is interesting for several reasons. One of them is that it contains an interesting personal account of the ideas that were splitting transformational grammar apart in the era of Aspects:
By the late 1960s it had become clear to several of us that Chomsky's linguistic revolution wasn't the recolution in which we had enlisted. Chomsky had promised us a theory that would make language a "window into the mind." But within standard transformational theory that possibility could be realized only to a very limited dregree, if at all. While investigators could use their minds as interpretive instruments—to judge the grammaticality or semantic similarity of sentences—they were not permitted to investigate meaning, much less a speaker's intention in uttering a sentence in a particular form, or the effect of that utterance on the addressee.
Consequently, Lakoff and others got the idea of starting from meaning representations of a certain form and then deriving syntactic form out of that. To the extent that it ever was a single or coherent theory, this new framework is what we now call "generative semantics":
We devised rules and representations to relate externally accessible linguistic forms to mental states—for example, desires, assumptions, and personal identities—while retaining the Chomskyan belief in the primacy of the syntactic component of the grammar. Deep structure got deeper, wider, and more complex.
"Deep structure got deeper"—what a wonderful summary. Remember also George Lakoff's comment that he and his gang just wanted to be "good little comskyans," quoted in The Linguistics Wars. How wrong they both were—about what they were doing, and how much linguistics would change.

Grammar Unlimited?

Interestingly, the orthodox Chomskyan argument against this augmented view of grammar was, in Lakoff's rendering:
If you followed generative semantics to its logical conclusion, everything speakers know about the world would have to be included within the transformational component, which therefore would become infinite. [...]
Not necessarily, said the generative semanticists. The linguistic grammar need only include those aspects of the extralinguistic world that have direct bearing on grammatical form: just a small subset of everything. [...] But we still had to answer, at least to our own satisfaction, the question that these claims raised: What parts of our psychological and social reality did require linguistic encoding, in at least some languages?
Lakoff's point in the essay is of course that gender is one of the important variables of linguistic expression—not just "in a few 'exotic' languages (Japanese, Dyirbal, Arawak, and Koasati)," but in solid, run-of-the-mill English as well.

But at the same time, the quote points right at the big taboo of linguistics, whether or not Lakoff herself intends it to do so: Once we admit that syntax can't be isolated from meaning, the floodgates are open to seeing that there really isn't any such thing as a "language" at all; the difference between syntax and anthropology is really more about differences in interests than about anything inherent in the "object of study."

Is Linguistics Linguistics?

Lakoff is also aware that something in transformational grammar and generative semantics was holding it back from saying anything intelligent about discourse structure on a larger level:
Linguists spoke on occasion of "structure above (or beyond) the sentence level," but mostly about how it couldn't be done. When we attempted it, we thought of larger units as concatenations of sentences: S+S+S ..., rather than as structures with rules of their own, wholes different from the sum of their parts.
While I think that this has something to do with the game of showing-and-hiding that linguistics necessarily entails, Lakoff seems to attribute it more to the fact that different tools fit different situations:
While a generation ago, "structure above the sentence level" had the status of the basilisk (mythical and toxic), now it is an accepted area of linguistics [...] These analyses made it clear that discourse should be understood not as concatenations of S's, but as language directed toward particular interactive and psychological purposes.
So now we're OK, the message seems to be; we just had to realize that a different set of concepts was needed (turntaking, politeness, power, identity, etc.).

While I agree that conversational analysis has something new and interesting to say about language use, I also think that there's something genuinely wrong about saying that it does the same thing as Chomskyan grammar, only with a different tool. It's not just a shift of attention or of measuring equipment, it's a shift of standards, mindset, ethics, and goals.

Not that there's anything wrong with either hermeneutics or with mathematics—it's just that they are never going to be unified into a single methodology. There is a tension between the picture of what counts as data and valid argument that Lakoff's book drew attention to, and I don't think it's a tension that can or should be resolved.

No comments :

Post a Comment