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Scopes of linguistic description 2

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Scopes of linguistic description 2

  1. 1. FACULTY OF ARTS AND LITERATURE UNIVERSITY OF MOSTAGANEMDepartment of EnglishFundamental Contexts in Language TeachingDr. Bel Abbes Neddar THE SCOPE OF LINGUISTIC DESCRIPTION (II) Chomsky’s model is related to the notion of innateness. He is interested in a model oflanguage that reflects universal features of the human mind. Indeed, from the U.G.perspective, the essential nature of language is cognitive. It is seen as a psychologicalphenomenon: what is of primary interest is what the form of language reveals about thehuman mind. But this is not the only perspective, and not the only aspect of language, thatwarrants attention as being pre-eminently human. For although language may indeed be, inone sense, a kind of cognitive construct, it is not only that. It also, just as crucially one mightclaim, functions as a means of communication and social control. True, it is internalized in themind as abstract knowledge, but in order for this to happen it must also be experienced in theexternal world as actual behaviour.Another way of looking at language, therefore, would see it in terms of the social functions itserves. Indeed, one requirement of language is that it should provide the means for people toact upon their environment, for the first person (ego) “I” to cope with the third person realityof events and entities “out there”, to classify and organize it and so bring it under control by aprocess of what we might call conceptual projection. In other words (Halliday’s words)language has to serve an ideational function (the function whereby you conceptualize theworld out there). Another necessity is for language to provide a means for people to interactwith each other, for the first person “I” cope with the second person “you”, to establish a basisfor cooperative action and social relations: so language needs to discharge an interpersonalfunction as well. Finally, language has to provide for making links with itself and withfeatures of the situation in which it is used. We call this the textual function since it is thiswhat enables the speaker or the writer to construct ‘texts’, or connected passages of discoursethat is situationally relevant; and enables the listener or reader to distinguish a text from arandom set of sentences. In a lecture given at the Institute of Education, University ofLondon on 02.02.1995, Widdowson referred to these functions using the concept of trinity( his own concept actually ) which can be illustrated as follow:
  2. 2. 2 I ( I) II ( You ) III ( Other persons )Interpersonal relation with a Ideational, referring functionreference to the world out.Neither Chomsky, who is interested in the forms that language takes, nor Halliday who isconcerned with the function that these forms serve, talk about how to use language forcommunicative purposes. And so, it is also argued that knowing a language also includeshow to access grammar, and other formal features of language, to express meaningsappropriate to the different contexts in which communication takes place. This too is a matterof function, but in different sense. Here, we are concerned not with what the language means,that is to say, the internal function of forms in the language code, but with what people meanby the language, that is to say, what external function forms are used for communication.Knowledge in the abstract has to be made actual and this is normally done by putting it tocommunicative use, not citing random sentences. People do not simply display what theyknow. They act upon it, and their actions are regulated by conventions of different kinds. So,according to this point of view, competence is not only knowledge in the abstract, but alsoability to put knowledge to use according to convention.There are then two ways of revising Chomsky’s conception of competence, of redrawing thelines of idealization in devising a model of language by including aspects which reflect thenature of language as a communicative resource. This results in a functional grammar and, wemay say, broadens the concept of linguistic knowledge.Secondly, we might extend the notion of competence itself to include both knowledge andthe ability to act upon it. Performance, then, becomes particular instances of behaviour whichresult from the exercise of ability and are not simply the reflexes of knowledge. Ability is theexecutive branch of competence, so to speak, and enables us to achieve meaning by puttingour knowledge to work. If we did not have this accessing ability, it can be argued, the abstractstructures of knowledge-this purely linguistic competence-would remain internalized in themind and never see the light of day. We would spend all our lives buried in thought in a
  3. 3. 3paralysis of cognition. Since this ability is only activated by some communicative purpose orother, we can reasonably call this more comprehensive concept communicative competence.Level of descriptionFirst of all I see it of paramount importance to explain what I do mean by the expression levelof description. Indeed, this expression is used here to refer to the way units of languagecombine horizontally and syntactically.Linguistic signs, said Saussure, enter two kinds of relationship. Any sentence, e argued, is asequence of signs, each sign contributing something to the meaning of the whole, and eachcontrasting with all other signs in the language. This sequence can be seen as a syntagmaticrelationship – that is, a linear relationship between the signs which are present in thesentence. For example, in the sentence He can go tomorrow, we have a syntagmaticrelationship, consisting of four signs in a particular order. We would refer to this particularconfiguration of signs, defined in a more abstract way ( e.g. Pronoun + Auxiliary + MainVerb + Temporal Adverb ) as a structure. Now in addition to the syntagmatic relationshipsthat we can see in a language, there are also paradigmatic ones. A paradigmatic relationshipis a particular kind of relationship between a sign in the sentence and a sign not present in thesentence, but part of the rest of the language. For instance, in the above sentence, there is aclear relationship between the first sign he and the other signs she, you, I, etc. This set ofsigns form a little system in themselves ( ‘the personal pronoun sub-system’ ), one of whichcan be used at this point in the structure, and only one ( we cannot have ‘You he can gotomorrow’, for instance). Putting this another way, we have a ‘choice’ as to which sign wecan use at any place in the structure. The signs at the paradigmatic level have apermissibleplace in the same environment. It is worth noting, in passing, how in a system of this kind themeaning, or ‘value’, of each sign in the system is derivable by reference to the other signswhich are co-members of it. The pronoun system is a particularly clear example : we cangloss the meaning of he by saying ‘third person, male, singular’; but we could also ‘gloss’ itby process of elimination, as in ‘X can go tomorrow, and X is not I, you, she, he or they’.We thus have another dichotomy, of syntagmatic vs paradigmatic, as illustrated in thefollowing diagram:He---------------can------------go--------------tomorrow ( syntagmatic relationship )She may come soonI will ask next (paradigmatic association)You could sleep now
  4. 4. 4Disclaimer:I have no claim of originality so far as this paper is concerned. In fact, it has been prepared by referring to mypersonal notes taken during a lecturer given on 02.02.1995 by H.G. Widdowson and the bibliographical listmentioned below from which passages have been taken integrally. My job consisted simply in combining thesedifferent sources to make- and I hope I did manage in that- a homogeneous paper.Crystal, D. ( 1985 ) 2nd ed. Linguistics London: PenguinHalliday, M.A.K.( 1970) “Language structure and language function” in Lyons, J. (ed.) NewHorizons in Linguistics Penguin: LondonWiddowson, H.G. (1996) Linguistics Oxford: University Press

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