This material has been prepared by the students of Group I. (Based on Van Valin and LaPolla 1997)

The goals of Linguistic Theory

  1. Introduction
  2. Goals of linguistic theory
    1. Describing linguistic phenomena
    2. Explaining linguistic phenomena
    3. Understanding the cognitive basis of language
  3. Explanation in linguistics
    1. Types of explanatory criteria
    2. Levels of adequacy in linguistics theory
  4. Contrasting perspectives on the goals of linguistic theory
    1. The syntactocentric perspective
    2. The communication-and-cognition perspective
  5. Concluding remarks


This book is about some of the devices users of human languages employ to put meaningful elements together to form words, words together to form phrases, phrases together to form clauses , clause together to form sentences, and sentences together to form texts. The emphasis here will be in the construction of units larger than words, in particular clauses and sentences. This has often been viewed primarily as the domain of syntax.

In many other languages, however, the order of words is irrelevant to the determination of the meaning of a sentence; the inflectional form of a phrase which is the crucial factor deter mining interpretation of the sentence.

It is a change in form, not the variation in position in the sentence, that signals the difference in meaning. The term "morphosyntax" is used to capture the interrelatedness of these twocentral areas of grammar: morphology and syntax.

In this chapter we will lay out the theoretical background against which current work in syntax, both theoretical and descriptive is carried out.

Goals of linguistic theory

While it is probably impossible to draw ua list of goals for linguistic theory which every linguist would agree with, it is nevertheless possible to caracterize a set of general goals which the majority of linguist would give assent to. They are: description of linguistic phenome na explanation of linguistic phenomena, and understanding the cognitive basis of language

Describing linguistic phenomena

Much of the work done in linguistics during the first half the twentieth century was devoted to discovering and refining the basic tools of linguistic description. In phonology this meant Jakobson, Bloomfield... defining and redefining the phoneme, in order to ensure its metodo- logical precision and validity. In morphology this meant Bloomfield and Harris, working out the concepts of morph, morpheme and allomorph, and in addition there was the crucial problem of the interface between phonology and morphology, morphophonemics, and its implications for the analysis of the two levels. The fundamental constructs in syntactic analysis were the result of Bloomfield's, Hockett's and Harris' efforts to extend the methods of structural analysis employed on the phonemic and morpheme levels to syntax.

Describing linguistic phenomena is one of the central goals in linguistics. This may include describing individual languages, describing what is common to all languages or describing how languages differ from each other.

Linguistic description is vitally important, for two reasons. First, language is a major part of our common human heritage, and languages are vanishing as their last speakers die or they are supplanted by a socioculturally dominant language. Documenting the diversity of human languages is a necessary and crucial aspect of linguistics. The second reason: developing serious explanatory theories of language is impossible in the absence of descriptions of the object of explanation. We cannot explain or posit cognitive mechanisms for something unless it has first been described.

Explaining linguistic phenomena

Here, we have to take into account an important linguist and his early work in generative grammar: Chomsky. In 1957, he argued that the proper role of linguistic theory is to provide criteria for selecting the most explanatory grammar from among a group of competing grammars. He says that what a theory seeks to explain has profound consequences for the content and organization of the theory, and he gives a partial list of topics for what a linguistis theory should explain:

  1. How speakers use language in different social situations;
  2. Why human languages have to structure that they do;
  3. What is common to all human languages;
  4. How human languages change over time;
  5. How speakers produce and understand language in real time;
  6. The nature of native speakers' knowledge of their language;
  7. How children learn language.

Of course, he admits that there are more points that could be taken into account but he focuses his attention on the list cited before. The main interest for Chomsky is to see how are human languages different or similar. He states that the first thing to be explained is the conception of what language is.

Understanding the cognitive basis of language

The last three topics refer to psychological questions and many linguists, following Chomsky, maintain that cognitive issues are in fact the most important issues to be explained; they do not necessarily agree on which questions are the most important. The three questions highlight three major facets of the psychology of language:

Explanations on linguistics

We want to clarify the explanatory criteria used in linguistics so we need some methods.

Types of explanatory criteria

Philosopers have based their studies in two basic types:

Sometimes they have more than one set of hypotheses of an observation. Then we have other two types of criteria:

As we have seen, the theory-internal criteria plays an important role in the theoretical argumentation in linguistics. External criteria deals with semantics, pragmatics, syntax,..., and also language-external facts as reasoning,perception, cognition,...

Levels of adequacy in linguistic theory

One of Chomsky´s most important argument was that linguistic should be considered a deductive rather than an inductive , and this main goal was to make linguistic theory explanatory and not simply descritive. He proposes some levels of adequacy in linguistic theory:

  1. observational adequacy.The grammar predicts which sentences in a language are well form and which aren´t.
  2. descriptive adequacy.The grammar assigns structural descriptions to the sentences in the language that capture native speaker intuitions about the structure and meaning of the structure.
  3. explanatory adequacy.The grammar is part of the theory which provides an account of how these facts are rise in the mind of the speaker.

For Chomsky´s the fundamental empirical problem of linguistic is to explain how a person can acquire knowledge of language. In term of criteria; observational adequacy is the criterion of empirical accuracy applied to the sentences of a language; descriptive adequacy is also based on empirical adequacy, in this case applied to native speaker instuitions about sentences; and in explanatory adequacy there is a point of desagreemant among theories as to whether extent criteria relevant here or not.

There are some other additional adequacy:

  1. psychological adequacy, which states that a theory should be compatible with the resolt of psycholinguistis research on the adquision, procesing, production, interpretation and memorization of linguistic expressions.
  2. pragmatic adequacy, the theory and the language descriptions based on it should be interpretable within a wider pragmatic theory of verbal comunication.
  3. typological adequacy, the theory should formulate such rules and principles as can be applied to any type of language, without adapting the language described to the theory already developed.

Contrasting perspectives on the goals of linguistic theory

There are different points of view regarding their formulation and relative importance to each other. We will sketch out two very general perspectives on these goals, each of which sub muses a variety of syntactic theories and approaches.

The syntactocentric perspective

In the syntactocentric view of language, syntax is the central aspect. The phonological and semantic aspects of language are derivative of and secondary to syntactic structure. From Chomsky´s point of view, language is an abstract object. Access to the object of study is primari ly through the linguistic intuitions of native speakers of languages. Chomsky´s own theories, Principles and Parameters Theory.

For him "human language is a system for free espression of thought" and " a set of structural descriptions of sentences, where a full structural description determines the sound and meaning of a linguistic expression ". Chomsky proposed a fundamental distinction between lin guistic competence and linguistic performance: competence is a native speaker´s knowledge of lan guage, whereas performance is the actual use of language on particular occasions. For Chomsky the proper object of study for linguistics is competence only. In his more recent work, e.g (1986a), he has further distinguished between "E[xternal]-language" and "I[internal]-language", where E-language corresponds to the pretheoretical idea of what a language is and I-language is a spea ker´s internal grammar.

E-language consists of of the overt phenomena of linguistic interaction in the socio-cul tural realm; I-language is an abstract object accessible only through native speaker intuitions, only I-language falls within the scope of linguistic inquiry. Linguistics is the science of gra mmar. Universals for Chomsky are generalizations about I-languages; he refers them as "linguistic universals".

Comsky is very concerned with the psychological aspects of language and his theories do not consider language to be an abstract object. The fundamentally "abstract object" outlook of the theory is confirmed when the criteria relevant to explanatory adequacy are examined. Compe ting descriptively grammars are to be evaluated with respect to economy, motivation and predicti veness. Dik`s principle of psychological adequacy is not acceptable to Chomsky. This is reflected in Chomsky´s theory of mind: language is a fully self-contained mental module, the inner wor kings of which are independent of and not accessible to other mental modules.

The communication-and-cognition perspective

Broader cognitive processes such as reasoning and conceptualization, and its relations with other cognitive systems such as perception and knowledge are all relevant to and indeed cru cial to the study of language structure. In this view, syntax is not the central aspect of langua ge. Indeed, the status of syntax vis-á-vis semantics and pragmatics is an issue with respect to which theories within this perspective differ; some of the more radical practitioners argue that syntax does not exist or is reducible to discourse patterns, whereas the majority of linguists are interested in how syntax interacts with semantics and pragmatics.

In addition, there are a number of individuals whose work has been very important in the development of this perspective but who are not associated with any of the above theories, in par ticular Michael Silverstein, Ray Jackendoff, Ellen Prince, T.Givón, Susumu Kuno, Leonard Talmy, Sandra Thompson and Anna Wierzbicka.

Rather, what they have in common is first, a rejection of the syntactocentric view of Chomsky, and second, an acknowledgement of the importance of communicative factors, cognitive fac tors or both in grammatical theory and analysis.The theories come be placed along a continuum, a ccording to whether they emphasized the communicative or cognitive aspects of language.

Language has evolved to satisfy human needs; and the way it is organized is func tional with respects to these needs. A functional grammar is essentially a "natu ral" grammar, everything in it can be explained, ultimately, by reference to how language is used.

Langacker´s CogG assumes that language is neither self-contained nor describable without essential reference to cognitive processing. Grammatical structures are claimed to be inhe rently symbolic, providing for the structuring and conventional symbolization of conceptual content.

CogG recognizes "only three broad facets of linguistic structure-semantic, phonological and symbolic, and Langacker specifically argues that the distinction between semantics and prag matics is artificial and arbitrary.

Language is a system, and grammar is a system in the traditional structurallu sen se; what distinguises the RRG conception... is the conviction that grammatical structure can only be understood with reference to its semantic and communicative functions.

Dik puts forth a similar view in FG. [ A ] language is considered as an instrument for communicative verbal interaction and the basic assumption is that the various preperties of natural languages should be understood and explained in terms of the conditions imposed by their usages.

One of the striking things that these various approaches have in common is the acceptance of external criteria in explanation, and this distinguishes them from the Chomskyan view. All acknowledge the central role of lnguage-internal non-syntactic criteria in explanation; semantics and pragmatics are not truly external at all from this perspective, and accordingly Dik´s notion of pragmatic adequacy could be applied to all of them. language-external criteria are also accepted by most of these theories; in particulr, all would recognize Dik´s principle of psychological adequacy as a valid standard by which to evaluate competing theories.

Chomsky`s level of explanatory adequacy is primarily concerned with explaning lenguage aquisition. From a communication and cognition perspective, the object of study is not the aquisition of grammatical competence, but rather communicative competence.

Dik also proposed the criterion of typological adequacy, and while all of these approaches would likely give assent to it in principle, they vary dramatically in terms of how typologically oriented they are. FG and RRG are the most explicity typologically oriented theories.

Typological questions invariably lead to the issue of universal grammar; what is UG from this point of view? The majority of these linguists would take a theory of UG to be a theory of the notion of `possible human linguistic communicative system´, in which the features of particular languages are to be grounded but not rigidly or mechanical derived.

The isues of typological adequacy and UG raise one of the major theoretical and methodolo gical conflicts that linguistics have faced in this century; namely, the balance between these two divergent perspectives. until the early 1960s, most American structuralist linguists eschewed formulating cross-linguistic generalizations in diference to the gol of producing a description of a language in terms that were appropriate for it. In contrast, Chomskyan generative grammar gave absolute priority to developing an explanatory theory of UG, and consequently within generative linguitics there has been little or no concern for language-particular issues except insofar as they impact on the theory of UG. The criterion of typological adequacy as formulated by Dik means that it is concerned with being flexible enough to capture the `structural genius´ of the language, and yet to be part of a serious theory of UG i must make strong cross-linguistic claims. What are the goals of linguistic theory from the communicatin-and-cognition perspective? All of the theories mentioned above would agree on explanation as the highest goal, with description as a secondary but important goal. The explanatory criteria adopted usually include external criteria.

Concluding remarks

In this chapter we have explored the goals of linguistic theory from two rather different perspectives.In the remainder of this book we will develop a framework for the analysis os syntax from the communication-and-cognition perspective. Our goal is two-fold: first, to present an expla natory theory of syntax which can address the major issues in contemporary syntactic theory; and second, to present a descriptive framework which can be used by field linguists for writing grammars.