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Encyclopaedia of Language

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« on: July 20, 2022, 07:55:25 am »

An Encyclopaedia of Language, N. E. Collinge (ed.)

In the study of language the late 1980s may be seen in retrospect as an era of consolidation. No moderately aware eye will miss the epidemic of encyclopaedias of that time, their didactic sameness masked by a variety of style, even a desperate individuality. Some spread a single topic (say, dialectology) over an ample volume; some report on a kaleidoscope of topics under a summary, not always illuminating, heading (say, grammar). Some are terse and sober lexicons; some, like advertisers, seek their targets with a fine typographic frenzy. All suggest, no doubt involuntarily, that language and its study had for the moment stood still and might, while they caught their breath, conveniently sit for their portrait. And that is not a false picture.

It is not a true one, either. The truth is, as ever, muddy. Language is, after all, the medium of human interaction. Like humans, it is very rich in associations and enterprises and achievement, and fearfully complex in its own being. Neither it, nor its pursuit by scholars, ever stands still; even in apparently dormant parts lies a restless tic. At its heart are the sounds we use, the patterns we honour (however inadequately), the meanings we exploit; and phonology, grammar and semantics are their respective sciences. In the later 1980s phonology is perhaps not offering exciting new paths to the fuller understanding of how available sounds are organised. Phonetic facts, and products, are well known and documented; and hypotheses about systems have practically come to terms with one another.

The domain of description (segment or sequence?) is still debated; and a novel conception of how syllables are sequenced and stress placed is being energetically "sold". But preclusive devotion to specific theories has faded. Grammarians still admit to different allegiances. But they take in one another’s washing with surprising readiness: such a notion as "case" is currently to be found, comfortably at home, in several apparently competing schools. Semantics concentrates on, and refines, its delineation of the manifold relations of word-meaning; but there is an air of prevailing orthodoxy.

But it must strike the objective observer, contemporary or later, how anxious grammarians now are to handle real sentences and to construe what may occur rather than simply prescribe what must; or again, how semantics has a brave and realistic special force of pragmaticists, happy only when accounting for actual effects of attested utterances in natural contexts. Grammar may worry that we might say what we cannot interpret, and semantics admit that we seem always to mean more than we say. Yet both betray an urge to confront reality; language, not theory, is once more the starting point of description. This mood of realism, and an accompanying unevenness in scholarly dynamism, is paralleled in the fields where language meets (or conveys) other activities of mind or behaviour. One thinks of the "hyphenated" subdisciplines of "psycho-" or "neuro-" or "socio-linguistics"; or of language in computation, in education, in the hands of the literary artist or critic.

Where there is a will to encounter reality, there is ferment. Even where (at this volume's date) there is not much of either, there remains much solid old and recent progress to report and renewal of impetus to forecast. Still, what arrests the attention and quickens the pulses is (for example) the sheer fertility of inventive methods in neurological study of language in the brain, or the sociolinguists' empirical pursuit of facts of usage and mechanisms of change through recorded conversations within peer groups and social networks. Typology is pressed hard and rigorously verified; the problems of learners, or of the impaired, are precisely diagnosed; computation is applied to achievable ends; and a factual control on theoretical constructs is once again sought, without apology, in language history.

Sign language, for a last example, is discovered to be no clumsy and threadbare substitute for speech but a natural language with a variety of forms and all the required design features (including its own evolution).

Such are the stances of the time, and such is this volume’s background. Against that background, the lineaments of a serious survey must stand out pretty sharply. No longer does it do to pretend that the whole subject is quite unknown to, or misunderstood by, outsiders; interested and skilled practitioners of other sciences increasingly look to learn (and no doubt hope to criticise) what is at present merely unfamiliar to them in its ramifications. What has to be explained is just how the various branches of linguistics have arrived at their late 1980s position, just what past insights had better not be forgotten, just what are now the agreed aims and the respectable methods and the accepted results. Inanition and activity must equally be revealed; and what J.R. Firth somewhat archly desiderated of the most elegant hypotheses, a "renewal of connection" with the data, must be constantly applied as a touchstone. This volume consists of attempts to offer that sort of testing review; acquainting with all that is valuable but selling nothing. It presupposes a reader's intelligent interest, successively, in the essential features of how language works, of how human experience and thought are mediated through it, of how it is learnt and taught, of how we express it and study it - and even itch to refashion it into shapes of our own desiring. The three parts, like the individual chapters, may each be taken on its own. But everything connects with everything else, and the inevitable linkage (if only with where a hinted aspect or an implied kindred topic may be pursued more fully) is clarified by the titles, the cross-references and the guides to further reading. The essays are meant to complement, rather than corroborate, one another; they seek to fit together to form a composite demonstration of how a trade of deep disagreements and recurrent crises of faith has already, nonetheless, produced an astonishingly consensual body of knowledge about the most characteristic of all human activities. I think they succeed.

N. E. Collinge

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