Linguistics as a Science

Linguistics as a Science


So let’s talk about science.
Science is awesome and important and it holds a lot of social value. It influences everything
from how we get around to how long and healthy our lives are.
Even my being able to talk with you right now, through the marvel of online video? You
can thank science for that. But wait, isn’t this a channel about linguistics?
Well, you might never have thought of it this way, but linguistics is a science too. I’m Moti
Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. When you think about language and how people
study it, science is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. After all, you don’t
really need to do science to it for it to be meaningful.
Language is beautiful and vital, it ties into our culture, in our literature, our poetry
and our music. Just as we can appreciate a spectacular night
sky without worrying about astronomy, or a butterfly without thinking about how its wings
work, we don’t need linguistics to appreciate the way that people use language.
We can just enjoy the style of a writer’s individual voice, or the rhythmic flow of
a well-turned set of syllables. But the thing is, whether or not you realize
it, the science is always there inside language! It’s part our biological heritage, and we
find a ton of things in common across every language of the world.
And it’s a really key social and cultural institution, too, that can define communities
and sell products and start wars. But all the different parts of language work
according to rules that we can describe, and if we want to do that, science is how
we make it happen. We need the same tools of hypothesizing, experimenting,
carefully judging, and reworking that make up the backbone of science the world over. Now, the case for linguistics as a science
is maybe at its strongest when you look at something like neurolinguistic testing.
If you’re sticking someone in an fMRI machine or an electrode cap, and you’re measuring
their brain activity, that just screams “science is happening!” And we’ve learned a ton
about the human brain and how it does its crazy language thing by using those kinds of techniques. We can say the same thing about psycholinguistic
research, too. There’s a lot we can observe about people’s behaviour and how it interacts
with language. We can measure how people look around a visual
space when they listen to a sentence, or where their attention goes first when they hear
something ambiguous. We can learn what kinds of sentences are easier
or harder for people to construct by looking at how quickly they interpret them, or by
checking where in a complicated sentence they get hung up.
We can see how people’s systems of sound work by playing them words that are mixed
with background noise or static, or chopped up in different ways. Some of the data from psycholinguistic research
is pretty amazing. So like, one of my favourite discoveries is
how people can just ignore errors or missing data and make sense of what they’re hearing
or reading anyway. The power of native speakers to overcome probems
is so huge that even when we just cut out sounds from words completely, on purpose, they
have no trouble filling in the blanks. A lot of the time, they don’t even realize
that anything was missing! How many of you noticed that there wasn’t an /l/ when I said
“problems” earlier? Did it stop you from understanding the rest of the sentence?
If you’re a native English speaker, chances are that even if you were eagle-eared enough
to hear it, you just skimmed right on by without thinking about it. And thanks to linguistic
science, we have all the experimental data we need to back this observation up. So experiments actually underlie a lot of
linguistics research. And our tools and techniques are pretty refined, too.
We’ve studied how super tiny infants react to language, before they can even speak.
We’ve isolated the exact kind of sentences that people with aphasia have problems with,
so we can figure out precisely what language impairments are made of. We can even get unbiased judgments from people
about language without them realizing what we’re trying to do.
The number of techniques and methods for examining language is pretty huge, and it keeps growing
as we find new ways to address the questions we’re interested in. But linguistics isn’t all experiments, though.
A lot of the work that gets done is theoretical, with nary a lab in sight. The trees that we build
in syntax or the rules that we describe in phonology don’t really seem like science, right?
Where’s the science when you’re just sitting there and thinking, “Hmmm, this sentence
is beautiful and perfect, and this other one is terrible garbage. I’m going to explain
why by proposing a rule to divide them!” Well, the theories we come up with about how
language works inform all the experiments that we do. Compare it to something like physics.
In both fields, phenomena happen all the time, whether we’re studying it or not. Stuff speeds up when it falls, and mouths move to make speech sounds.
And when you research those phenomena, you get a body of data about how the world works
– either physical movements and forces, or the positions and vibrations of your articulators. Both physicists and linguists then apply the
scientific method to that data: with the sum of their understanding, they’ll propose
a hypothesis that explains what they’ve observed. They’ll make predictions based
on that proposal, and then see whether those predictions are met, based on further analysis and
experimentation. Let’s see how that works for something like
syntax. A syntactician may like words and morphemes,
but what they really care about are the abstract structures underneath, the skeletons that
the meanings are built from. We can’t see these trees that form the base
for our sentences, any more than the naked eye can see an electron.
But we can see the effects that different kinds of proposed structures have on the world.
We can see what changes in meaning happen when you build one kind of tree rather than another, or when swapping things around makes something bad. The mission of syntax is ultimately to come
up with a system that describes the structure of every language in the world.
All the variation, all the kinds of meanings, all the deep similarities, we need to capture
all of that. And so to verify a syntactic hypothesis, we
need to test it against as many languages as we can find, and then adjust our thinking as
we get more data. Science! And just like other sciences, what we know
about linguistics and how we think of it has changed over time.
Since Noam Chomsky kicked off the generative linguistic parade in the 1950s, we’ve worked
out and refined explanations for all kinds of phenomena. You want to know whether you should use a
pronoun or not in Japanese or Italian, to get the exact meaning you want? We’ve come
up with a constraint for that. You want an explanation for why you can’t say “The
operating system said the woman should listen to itself”? We’ve worked that out, too. But let’s come back to that syntactician,
just sitting around trying to figure out where to start.
Maybe you’re a native English speaker, and you think, for me, “I’d like to know where
who hid the cake” is just bad, but “I’d like to know where who hid what” is better.
And that’s the basis for where you start from, to look at how we deal with questions.
The data comes from intuitions you have about these sentences from inside your own head!
Not everyone will agree right away about these judgments, but that was originally the case
for a lot of the sentences you find in journals or syntax textbooks. So is that science? It might not seem like it at first, but the
validity of that armchair linguist technique has been the target of some pretty thorough
analysis by a pair of linguists over the last few years.
They went through all the judgments from a commonly used syntax textbook, and built experiments
out of them. That’s, like, hundreds of sentences! They found that in 98% of the cases, the data
from the experiments matched the intuitions of the theoretical syntacticians. Then they went back and did similar work for
10 years of syntactic judgments from a leading linguistic journal – and got a similar outcome.
The judgments hold up really well to scientific testing, and the results can be reproduced.
And that’s because your image of the theoretical linguist going it alone in the dangerous world
of sentence judgments isn’t entirely accurate. By the time that theories go to print, they’ve
been vetted by a bunch of other linguists, colleagues and editors, so that they’re ready to take part in the wider scientific conversation. It turns out that the whole field of linguistics
– each part of it – is forging ahead, matching hypotheses and predictions with a growing body of data about how language works. We’re trying to understand the amazing capacity
we have for communication, and we’re learning more all the time. And that’s why the science of language needs
more love! When you think about scientific literacy, like, what people should know about the world
around them, linguistics doesn’t usually come up.
But linguistics is our portal to understanding this incredible thing that we do all the time.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of great linguistics outreach happening right now around the world,
as more and more people realize just how awesome language is, and how to do science to it. And there’s a bunch you can do without fancy
equipment or complicated techniques. Even a lot of the psycholinguistic testing software
that’s used by PhDs and professors is 100% free. Linguistics gives kids and adults an easy
way to engage with the nature and process of research. It’s a great way to present
the scientific method, and it lets you redo old experiments or design your own.
Language is our constant companion, and the more you get your hands dirty with the science
of what makes it tick, the more you realize that language is awesome. And that takes the
cake. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you ran sufficient tests, you learned that
linguistics is the science of language; that a lot of linguistic research uses experiments,
and even when it doesn’t, it usually yields reliable results; and that we can use linguistics
as an inexpensive and accessible method for teaching people about how science works. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us.
Our editor is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music
and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down
in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website, where
we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook,
and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And
we’ll see you next Wednesday. Bis bald!

Danny Hutson

4 thoughts on “Linguistics as a Science

  1. Those examples you gave are experiments done in fields of psychology and neurology and are applied in linguistics. But linguistics itself is so insulting to be called a science.

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