Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Does Language Work?

I only just now stumbled on to Liberman's post here about Stanly Fish's dark view of the future of The Humanities written about in "Will the Humanities Save Us?" and "The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two".

In 1996 I made the decision to quit graduate school in English Literature, near the beginning of a career in a field I was well suited to, to start fresh in a field I was woefully undertrained for: linguistics. I did this partly because I had lost the faith, so to speak. I shared Fish's "moments of aesthetic wonderment" but I just couldn't see what I would spend the next 30 years of my life doing. What do English professors do? I never found a satisfying answer to that question.

Linguistics, on the other hand, drew me in precisely because there were (and still are) so many unanswered questions. But the king daddy of them all, the fundamental question of linguistics, is this: How does language work? In the same way that you may look at a river and ask how does this work (Where does the water come from? Where does it go?), linguistics look at human languages and ask how they work.

Linguists are essentially reverse engineers. It is as if we have found a mystery box that does something: produces language. It appears to behave systematically and at least somewhat predictably. We'd like to know how it does that.

And the most tantalizing thing about linguistics is this: we have no answer to the fundamental question. We still don't know how language works.

I'm looking forward to reading Fish's article's more closely, but I fear we agree.

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