Saturday, December 5, 2009

Unsolved Problems in Linguistics

(pic from the Donders Institute)

Just discovered this page called Unsolved problems in linguistics. It's a rather incomplete list, but a start. This is the sort of topic that could easily form the core of a very interesting conference debate. Linguistics remains a wide open field with competing theories and emerging methodologies, and the big questions remain dark and murky. However, this page claims that the origin of language is the major unsolved problem. I definitely disagree. The main goal of linguistics, as I would state it, is to figure out how language works in the brain (hence, that is our major unsolved problem). From that, most other questions can be answered (btw, see The Language Guy's take down of a recent report regarding the word most here). As our understanding of the brain improves, so will our understanding of language. I don't dispute that understanding the origin of language could be of use, but it is hardly the center of the linguistics world )I realize the Derek Bickerton might disagree).

NOTE: After Googleing the phrase "Unsolved Problems in Linguistics" I found a number of other sites dedicated to the same topic, including a Wikipedia page; however there is clear plagiarism/borrowing going on somewhere as there is word for word similarity between these sites; not sure who's cutting and pasting from whom. But you need only go to one site to see the same stuff.


Anonymous said...

You'll find a lot of sites borrow Wikipedia content, since one is legally allowed to do so. This is especially true for ones using the GNU Wikimedia wikia (like the psychology one), since they simply need to copy and paste the markup code. Or if they want to mirror everything, just download the freely-available Wikipedia database files.

It's clear to see from it's history and discussion pages that the original wikipedia entry hasn't sustained much attention. Just random edits and complaints.

Chris said...

Thanks for the follow-up. I wonder how much editing goes on for the average linguistics page? This should be a relatively easy empirical question to answer. Is it the case that linguistics related pages in general are poorly tended, or this page is an outlier? Hmmm...

Michael said...
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Michael said...

Back in 2005 "Science" had a Special Issue to celebrate their 125th birthday in which they listed the 125 "most compelling puzzles and questions facing scientists today."

I believe two of them were language-related:

Why are there critical periods for language learning?

What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?

Also, in the Introduction to the 2003 volume "Language Evolution" Simon Kirby and Morten Christiansen provocatively asked whether Language Evolution was the "hardest problem in science"

But you're definitely right that it's not really the centre of the linguistics worlds but I think that it should be taken into account more than it is at the moment.

Chris said...

Michael, excellent links! A cognitive science professor of mine once made the following claim during a lecture: language may well be the single hardest problem in cognitive science because it requires the integration of all other cognitive faculties. In order for human language to work we must be constantly processing data from all the senses (context) while simultaneously reasoning about all that is going on in a conversation.

I don't know if he's right, but it's a good point.

josh said...

Your post only hits on one of the odd things in this list. The problems under "psycholinguistics" includes such generalities as;

How do children learn language?
How much language can animals be taught to use?
Where is language localized in the brain?

It would be easy to conclude from this list that nothing whatsoever is known about language. I won't dispute whether that claim is true, but it does question the utility of having a list.

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