From the CanIL Blog

Read below for recent articles of linguistic tidbits and news from CanIL.


Explanation in Linguistics: Advocating a Functional Perspective

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Two goals of linguistics are (i) the description of natural languages, and (ii) an explanation for why languages are the way they are. One proposed explanation for why languages are the way they are comes out of the view that the capacity for humans to acquire language – the language faculty – is an innate (i.e. inborn) feature of the human mind. That is, it is a genetic endowment – something that humans have because of the way they are genetically wired, which would be the same reason why humans have five fingers on each hand (generally), a nose with two nostrils, a heart situated on the leftish side of the chest, etc.

To understand why languages are the way they are with this approach, one needs to analyze what languages are like and what they are not like in order to determine the makeup/structure/composition/content of the language faculty. In other words, one needs to pursue the first goal I made mention of above – the description of languages. Do all languages have property X? If so, the assumption is, that property must be a component part of the language faculty - that property must be coded in our genetic makeup. Is it impossible for all languages to have property Y? Then, following this view, that property cannot be a part of the language faculty. Assuming it were possible to determine all the component parts of the language faculty, then an explanation for why languages are the way they are would be because the language faculty is the way it is, in the same way that one could say that the human hand has five fingers because the genetic code of humans dictates as such. Assuming this view, languages could not be any other way since their constitution or shape would be constrained by the makeup of the language faculty (our genetic makeup that determines what languages are like).

Adopting an evolutionary perspective on the development of life, and humans and their capacities in particular, we could ask ‘what forces have caused the language faculty to have the composition it has?’ We could similarly ask, what forces were at work such that the evolution of the human genetic code resulted in five fingers on each hand (and not 3 or 6)? With respect to language, we could search out the types of functions that an effective ‘language’ would have – e.g. being able to link thoughts to sounds in order to communicate one’s wants, needs, etc. In this way, the explanation for why the language faculty is the way it is (and also for why languages are the way they are) would be that languages have evolved in order to fulfill the types of functions that are needed to communicate effectively.

From this perspective, it is possible to bypass the determination of the makeup of the language faculty altogether, and focus our attention on the functions that language serves, since this latter approach would allow us to determine why languages are the way they are – one of the goals of linguistics – without the need to postulate the existence of a language faculty. Theoretically, such an approach is simpler than one which postulates the intermediary of the language faculty. Figures 1 and 2 contrast these two approaches to explanation in linguistics.


Figure 1: Explanation for why languages are the way they are via the language faculty
Functions of Language ---> Language faculty ---> The way languages are


Figure 2: Explanation for why languages are the way they are via the functions that language serves
Functions of Language ---> The way languages are

Were we to assume a creationist perspective regarding the existence of the universe (as well as life on earth, and humans as we are), our capacity to acquire language – the language faculty – would come from an intelligent designer, who would have given it the makeup/structure/composition/content needed in order to carry out the functions that language was designed to fulfill. So, from either the creationist or evolutionary perspective, it would appear possible, and theoretically simpler, to provide an explanation for why languages are the way they are – one of the goals of linguistics – by bypassing the theoretical construct of the language faculty and exploring the functions that language fulfills.

 Contributed by Dr. Sean Allison

Sean joined our CanIL Faculty in 2012 as professor for Syntax and Semantics, Topics in Morphology and Syntax, and Advanced Field Methods.


Why are we literally in love with literalness?

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Can a word have an intrinsic “real meaning”? Is it possible for an identical one-to-one correspondence to exist between a word in one language and a word in another language? Do the same words mean the same thing to you as they do to me? Questions such as these have huge ramifications, especially for the legal system, which rests upon a strong emphasis on “definitions” and the assumption of “precision” in language.


The Art of Equivalence

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Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that translating from one language to another is easier said than done. Although virtually any text is translatable, it seems there is never a word-for-word or direct route from point A to point B.  I like to compare languages to fingerprints. Just as hands with distinct fingerprints have similar functions, so too are languages unique embodiments of the expressions of people groups, but all languages function to communicate what needs to be said.

For this reason, when translating, it is important to have cultural understanding of the source language and the receptor language, because the goal is to transfer a concept from the source language into the receptor language, with the result that it will be cogent for the latter. When it comes to translation, one CanIL instructor put it succinctly, “context is everything.”