Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Speech & Writing

3. Sources of the Written Language Bias in Linguistics

4. On the Scope of our Claims

5. Linguistics & the Overall Theory of Language

6. Grammar

7. Semantics

8. Phonology

9. Linguistic Communication

10.Language Acquisition

11 Linguistic Variation

12 Epilogue




"To exist is to be a thing or an object"
(Stenlund 1980:86, my translation)


In this book the modern linguist's view on language is discussed from a rather unusual point of view. It is argued that our conception of language is deeply influenced by a long tradition of analyzing only written language, and that modern linguistic theory, including psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, approaches the structures and mechanisms of spoken language with a conceptual apparatus, which - upon closer scrutiny - turns out to be more apt for written language in surprisingly many and fundamental aspects. I will refer to this situation as the written language bias in linguistics.

My focus is on the predicaments of present-day linguistics. Since my background is that of an ordinary linguist rather than that of a historian of linguistic science, I cannot undertake the enormous task of tracing the ideological and social history behind current linguistic theory. However, I will indicate the extent to which linguistics, like most other sciences, is still dependent on important events of the past, both technological inventions - in our case the development of alphabetical writing, book printing and today's computers - and practical political goals and social concerns that have motivated the practice of linguistic science since antiquity.

Our conception of linguistic behavior is biased by a tendency to treat processes, activities, and conditions on them in terms of object-like, static, autonomous and permanent structures, i.e., as if they shared such properties with written characters, words, texts, pictures and images. Though my discussion will be confined to linguistics, I am well aware that the same type of bias can be found in many other sciences. Thus, the history of psychology illustrates very well the very strong tendency to reify mental, or mentally governed, processes, actions and behaviours; compare the common analyses in terms of images (sensory images, memory images), mental representations (e.g. of knowledge), engrams and various other kinds of structures. Cognitive psychology has exploited a great many metaphors depicting memories as objects stored in a mind space, and the process of retrieval has been conceived as a search for these objects (Roedinger 1980). In general, most of Western philosophy and science has been stuck with the metaphysical assumption that the world is made up of "things" or "objects". Thinking in terms of things (e.g. Stenlund 1980:86, 98-9, 121, 148) has a very long tradition, which only recently and very reluctantly has been seriously questioned in natural science. Interestingly enough, one may venture to propose that this whole philosophy may be related to the structure of (certain) natural languages, i.e. the fact that everything that we talk about (topics, "logical subjects") tends to be designated by nouns and, therefore, assumes the character of "primary substances" (in Aristotle's sense).

Pictures and other static models ("object models") have deeply influenced thinking in many sciences. In the words of Walter Ong:

Milic Capev's book The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics (196l) calls for physicists to supplement their view of the world as basically a "picture", which is certainly not all it is, and to avail themselves of auditory phenomena with their strikingly dynamic character, as models of physical phenomena, so as to open the way out of certain dead-ends in present physical sciences." (Ong 1974:169)

We shall not probe the question of how true Ong's picture (sic!) of the natural sciences is. As I have already stated, this book will deal with people's thinking about language. If we focus on linguistics and philosophy we will see that in these the object metaphor is very pervasive. It is applied at all levels of linguistic structure(1), e.g.:

Meanings are objects.
Linguistic expressions are objects.
Linguistic expressions have meanings (in them)
In communication, a speaker sends a fixed meaning to a hearer
via the linguistic expression associated with that meaning.
(Lakoff & Johnson 1980:206)

Metaphorical concepts are a special type of concept; they are understood in terms of other concepts, as if the things to be understood were of the same nature as the things they are compared to (i.e. metaphorically related to). But our thinking is easily caught by the habitual use of such metaphors - Lakoff & Johnson (1980) argue that a very large part of our language use and our thinking is basically metaphorical - and we may soon begin to think that meanings (etc) are indeed (abstract) objects, and that they cannot be explicated in other terms. (This will be discussed at some length below, especially in sections VII.1-2, VII.9-l0.) The main point of this book, however, is that our most common ways of thinking about language in general, our most cherished metaphors, are, if not wholly derived from, at least heavily influenced by our time-honored traditions of dealing with language mostly, and often exclusively, in its written forms. 





1. Note the metaphorical content of "structure", "level", and many other concepts commonly used in linguistics.