Linguistics theories

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In linguistics, theoretical paradigms are broad theoretical frameworks that provide a general approach to understanding and analyzing language. There are many different theoretical paradigms in linguistics, and different linguists may favor different paradigms depending on their research interests and goals.

The main theoretical approaches to linguistics are generative (derivational and non-derivational), functionalist, and cognitive. All modern theories of language are descriptivist, in that linguists attempt to describe and analyze the structure of a language, be it a formal, informal, or dialectal variety. That is, we aim for descriptive rules or principles of languages, rather than finding rules of "correct" usage to impose on speakers or by which to evaluate them or judge them. General linguistics tends to focus on structure in the following areas.

  1. Syntax. While grammar might be thought of as the various rules and structures that comprise the structure of a language, an attempt to understand these rules, structures and patterns as a whole system is known as syntax. It is essentially at attempt to provide a theory, i.e., a coherent explanation, of the various rules, structures and patterns that comprise the structure of a language, and how they function together -- the how and why and the big picture of the grammar of a language. More generally, syntax can also involve the study of the possible structures of human languages in general.
  2. Phonology. While phonetics refers to the individual sounds of a language, or of various languages, and how they are produced, phonology is the study of the sounds of a language as a system. It is the general and theoretical study of the sound system of a language (or of various languages), and the principles that underlie the sounds and the overall system.
  3. Morphology. This refers to word formation, and the abstract principles that govern word formation and affixation in a language (or in languages in general). This includes grammatical morphology, or grammatical affixes (prefixes and suffixes), and lexical morphology, or word formation -- forming new words by componding, or by adding affixes.

The main theories that deal with language structure can be characterized as follows.

1 Structuralism

This is an older paradigm that once dominated the field in the first half of the 20th century, until the generative revolution and the emergence of modern linguistics in the 1960s. This approached focused on the systematic structure of language, including the rules and patterns that govern the way words and sentences are formed. For grammar and phonology, for example, the focus was on identifying discernable grammatical and phonological structures, and finding straightforward rules that constituted the grammar of a language. Techniques were developed for collecting data and comparing forms to deduce and analyze these grammatical, phonological, and communicative structures in languages. This was particularly fueled not only by work on known languages, but also by research by anthropologists, who studied less known or previously unknown cultures and languages; they collected data on and analyzed many new languages. Unlike the generativists, they did not focus on deeper, abstract grammatical rules at work. Structuralism was a major influence on the development of modern linguistics and is still influential in some areas of linguistic research, and in particular, the functionalist paradigm.

2 Generative linguistics

This paradigm was founded by Noam Chomsky, attempts to find the basic underlying rules that underlie any given language, and all languages. The term "generative" is a mathematical term that means to fully describe, account for, and explain a system (it has nothing to do with generating in a mechanical or mechanistic sense, like a machine cranking out grammar patterns or sentences).

Chomsky's theories began with a complex set of transformations in the original Transformational Grammar framework, which have been simplified in later theories - Principles & Parameters, Government & Binding Theory, and the current Minimalist paradigm. These have been reduced to a smaller set of so-called movements, but to make this simplification possible, the syntactic structure has been made more complex by adding abstract categories in the syntactic trees or syntactic structure. It rests on the following assumptions.

  1. Generative. Linguists aim to "generate" the grammar and structures of a language. This word is used in a technical, mathematical sense, meaning to analyze, describe, explain, and fully account for something. Thus, the aim is to find the abstract rules that govern a language, and that would describe and account for any possible utterance that a speaker of the language could say or understand. By extension, the aim is to find sets of rules that explain the structure of all the world's languages.
  2. Descriptivism. We are to find the rules or principles that govern the structure of a language, as native speakers actually use them, be it the grammar of a formal, informal, or dialectal variety of a language. We can investigate languages and grammars by finding out what native speakers would say or understand; as Chomsky said, the native speaker is always right.
  3. Performance versus competence. A native speaker has psychological knowledge of the rules of his/her language, and what one would or could say or understand in the language -- the native speaker's mental competence. The goal of generative linguistics is mainly to find the rules that comprise speakers' competence. In speaking, speakers might make occasional performance errors, due to other factors (stress, fatigue, memory load, etc.) that are not related to competence.
  4. Universalism. All languages developed from the same psychological stock, as language evolved in humans when or before humans began spreading over the globe. Thus, all languages make use of the same set of abstract principles and structures.

Thus, the theory consists of the following main goals.

  1. Generative. The goal of linguistics is to find the rules of the grammar of languages that fully account for the structure of those languages.
  2. Universal grammar. Rules come from a set of universal parameters, which can be set in different ways in different languages. These rules are abstract, and most often speakers are not aware of them. Children are born with an innate repository of the general parameters, and in learning their first language, they deduce how these various parameters work in their language, and thus they subconsciously learn the rules of their first language.
  3. Child language acquisition. Another goal of linguistics is to understand how children learn their first language, e.g., how they make use of the universal grammar to learn a language naturally. This ability is constrained by the critical period, a period of time before puberty when a child must learn a language.

Generative theory consists of several overlapping theories, such as generative grammar, universal grammar, and specific theories of generative grammar.

2.1 Generative grammar

Generative grammar is a linguistic framework that aims to provide a formal and systematic account of the structure and rules underlying human language. Its main propositions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Universal Grammar (UG). Generative grammar posits the existence of a universal innate linguistic knowledge, known as Universal Grammar, which is shared by all humans. UG contains a set of abstract principles and parameters that define the range of grammatical structures and rules possible in any natural language.
  2. Syntactic structures. Generative grammar places a strong emphasis on syntax, or the study of sentence structure. It proposes that all possible sentences of a language consist of, and can be desribed by, abstract hierarchical structure composed of phrases and constituents, which are formed through recursive processes.
  3. Transformations or derivations. Generative grammar incorporates the idea of transformational rules, which are operations that derive different surface forms of a sentence from a basic underlying structure. Transformations allow for movement of constituents, syntactic operations, abstract features, and the derivation of different grammatical structures.
  4. Deep structure and surface structure. The grammar of a language, and possible sentences, consist of structure at two levels. Deep structure represents the underlying abstract representation, abstract structures, and abstract features of a sentence, while surface structure represents the actual form of the sentence as it is produced.
  5. Generative capacity. Generative grammar aims to capture the generative capacity of human language, which refers to the infinite ability to produce and understand novel and meaningful sentences. That is, a finite number of rules in a language will generate or account for all possible sentences that a native speaker could utter in the langauge. Linguists then seek to identify the underlying rules and mechanisms that allow humans to produce and comprehend an unlimited number of grammatical sentences.

Specific versions of generative grammar are described below.

2.2 Universal grammar

Generative grammar overlaps with Universal Grammar, which can be viewed as a complimentary theory, and sometimes the two terms are used somewhat interchangebly. Universal grammar (UG), as proposed by Noam Chomsky, suggests that there is a biologically determined innate structure and set of principles that underlie human language -- the general language faculty, as well as the grammar of all specific human languages. The main components and propositions of UG can be summarized as follows.

  1. 'Innateness'. Universal Grammar proposes that humans are born with an innate language faculty that includes specific linguistic knowledge and principles. This innate faculty is unique to humans and enables language acquisition.
  2. Linguistic universals. Universal Grammar posits the existence of universal principles or parameters in all languages; these are common structural properties shared by all languages. These universals are constraints on the possible variation and structure of natural languages.
  3. Principles and Parameters. When children learn their first language, the process of language acquisition involves setting parameters based on universal principles. Principles are innate and universal grammatical rules or constraints, while parameters are variable settings that determine specific grammatical features and structures in a particular language.
  4. Poverty of the stimulus. The linguistic input children receive is not sufficient to explain the complexity and speed of language acquisition. Children must have innate knowledge that guides them in determining the underlying structure and rules of their language.
  5. Language acquisition device (LAD). In the minds of humans there exists a so-called language acquisition device, which is a hypothetical cognitive module responsible for language acquisition. The LAD provides children with the innate knowledge and mechanisms necessary to acquire language.
  6. Language-specific variation. While Universal Grammar posits a universal set of principles and parameters, it also acknowledges that different languages have specific grammatical features and structures. These variations are determined by the settings of parameters within the universal framework.

UG attempts to provide a common, universal, and coherent theoretical framework for understanding the nature of human language and the mechanisms involved in language acquisition.

2.3 Generative theories

Generative grammar has evolved over the decades, giving rise to different specific theories and approaches within the generative framework. These specific theories propopse different types of transformations, phrase structures, theoretical components, and abstract features that are used to account for the syntax of different languages. That is, ironically, Chomskyan theories of syntax have undergone several major developments and transformations over the years.

  1. Classical Transformational Grammar (1950s-1960s): Chomsky's earliest work on generative grammar introduced the notion of transformational rules, which allowed for the derivation of different surface structures from a basic underlying structure. This framework emphasized the deep structure, surface structure distinction, and the use of transformational operations to generate grammatical sentences. Over time, however, the number of different transformations propsed by linguists became unwieldly, leading to more structured theories,
  2. Principles and Parameters Theory (1970s-1980s): This builds on the previous frameworks and emphasizes the role of universal principles and language-specific parameters. It suggests that there are innate principles common to all languages and that parameters are set differently in each language to account for their specific grammatical properties. The theory investigates the nature and limits of variation across languages.
  3. Government and Binding Theory (1980s-1990s): This is a revision of Principles and Parameters Theory, with a more elaborate model of generative grammar and abstract structures involved. The theory included modules, some from other linguists, such as X-bar syntax, theta theory, government, and binding theory, to account for syntactic structure.
  4. Minimalist Program (1990s): The Minimalist Program (MP) attempted to simplify the theoretical framework by reducing the number of components and operations to the bare minimum required for language generation. The focus is on economy and efficiency in linguistic computation. The MP emphasizes the idea of merge as the fundamental operation for combining linguistic elements to form structures.
  5. 'Minimalism (2000s-present): This represents the current phase of Chomsky's work on generative grammar. It continues to emphasize the idea of economy and simplicity in linguistic analysis. The theory proposes that grammatical structures should be derived with minimal computational resources. Instead of complex sets of transformations, it relies on a simpler Merge function as the central operation, and it seeks to capture the essential properties of language with the fewest possible assumptions.

2.4 Alternative generative linguistics

Some linguistics, including some generativists, disfavor the use of transformations, derivations or movements, and in response, alternative theories have arisen, including non-derivational constrain-based theories, most notably, particularly Optimality Theory in phonology. Instead of movements or derivations, universal constraints are proposed, which are present in all languages, but work differently in various languages.

Lexical functional grammar (LFG) is a constraint-based theory of syntax. It posits multiple separate levels of syntactic structure, which map onto each other to account for surface structure. There exists one level of constituent structure for representation of phrasal and sentence constituent; a layer of grammatical functions such as subject and object; and a layer of thematic structure, for semantic roles (like Agent and Patient). The theory was developed by Joan Bresnan and Ronald Kaplan in the 1970s, in reaction to transformational grammar. LFG mainly focuses on syntax, including its relation with morphology and semantics.

Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG), developed by Carl Pollard and Ivan Sag, is a constraint-based grammar framework from the 1980s that emphasizes the role of syntactic and semantic constraints. It represents linguistic knowledge as a network of interconnected constraints that define the structure and interpretation of sentences. HPSG places emphasis on the use of grammatical features and the relations between the head and the dependents in a phrase.

Optimality Theory (OT) arose in the late 1980s in generative phonology, and is still popular in phonology. It was first proposed by Alan Prince and Paul Smolensky, and the theory was more comprehensively developed in the early 1990s. It emphasizes the role of constraints, rather than derivations, in determining the surface phonological forms. It assumes that languages are governed by a set of universal constraints, and the observed variation across languages is due to the different rankings of these constraints.

OT principles were later extended to syntax, leading to Optimality Syntax (OS). Two main approaches to OS have arisen. In American universities on the East Coast, one flavor of OS compbines OT constraints with Chomskyan minimalist syntax. On the American West Coast, Bresnan combined OT with LFG for a purely non-derivational and purely constraint-based version of OS.

3 Functionalism

This paradigm focuses on the social and communicative functions of language, including the ways in which language is used to convey meaning and facilitate communication in different social contexts. Functionalism is a broad and diverse theoretical paradigm that has influenced a wide range of research in linguistics, including sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and discourse analysis.

This approach is an attempt to ground language on pragmatic or usage-based and communication-based principles and categories. It focuses on surface forms rather than abstract structure. In fact, functionalists reject many or all notions of generative theory, and do not concern themselves with deep or abstract grammatical structure, and only focus on the surface forms and the communicative functions of surface forms. It has advantages in application to language pedagogy and the study of pragmatics.

Functional linguistics focuses on language as a tool for communication, and how the structure and use of language reflects the communicative needs and goals of the speakers and listeners. Another key principle is that language is shaped by its social context, and that the way language is used reflects the social identity, relationships, and power dynamics of the speakers.

3.1 More formal varieties

Functionalism as a whole tends to rely less on formal theories or universalist approaches. However, within this tradition, some specialized theories have arisen, that attempt to provide a more articulated theory, with some more abstract and universal principles.

Functional theories, such as Role and Reference Grammar (RRG) and Functional Discourse Grammar (FDG), focus on the functional motivations and communicative aspects of language, and attempt to explain structure based on communicative functions and puposes. Thus, pragmatic and social principles, such as the role of language in expressing meaning and achieving communicative goals, forms the basis of proposed structures.

Role and Reference Grammar (RRG), developed by Robert Van Valin Jr., focuses on the relationships between grammatical roles, semantic roles, and grammatical relations. It analyzes sentence structures based on the different roles and functions that participants play in a situation.

Functional Discourse Grammar (FDG), developed by Kees Hengeveld and J. Lachlan Mackenzie, views grammar as a resource for structuring and organizing discourse. It analyzes sentence structures and their functional relations in terms of communicative functions and discourse-level information.

Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) is a linguistic framework developed by or based on work by Michael Halliday and colleagues. Language is viewed as a social semiotic system, emphasizing its role in communication, meaning-making, and the expression of social functions. SFL analyzes language at various levels, from individual sounds to larger discourse structures, and it considers the interplay between form, function, and context.

4 Cognitive linguistics

This paradigm began with the insights of Gestalt psychology, and later, schema theory in cognitive psychology. It assumes that language is a cognitive domain that is grounded in cognitive psychology and other mental faculties, and that language must have arisen from cognitive faculties rather than just on its own, and hence, language is crucially connected with cognition - be it natural semantic categories in our world, or human social cognition. It combines these psychological insights with the key insights from the study of metaphor - that metaphor is a key element of meaning in language, and hence, a whole field of cognitive semantics exists for exploring this.

A more formal approach within this tradition that focuses on syntax is Construction Grammar (CG). This approach focuses on the analysis of linguistic constructions as the basic units of language. It views grammar as a set of form-meaning pairings or constructions that are learned and used by speakers. Construction Grammar emphasizes the importance of idiomatic and constructional patterns in language use. It does not attempt to be generative or universal, but as a more formal theory rooted in cognitive grammar, it can be more compatible with universalist assumptions or approaches.