Descriptive linguistics – Part 4

July 26th, 20125:46 am

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Descriptive linguistics – Part 4

Descriptive linguistics – Part 1
Descriptive linguistics – Part 2
Descriptive linguistics – Part 3

It should be noted that the approach suggested within descriptive lin­guistics for syntactic studies is of use for machine translation, since it may lay the foundation for formalized symbolic syntactic description. Issues of text processing and further transferring texts to machines have become the subject of a branch of linguistics called machine translation. Thorough re­search into the subject has given interesting results, both positive and criti­cal, which has corroborated certain claims of descriptive linguistics but also has revealed its inadequate or fallacious postulates. The unsolved issues are expected to be solved by generative grammar.

Charles Fries, in his turn, tries to prove that rigorous application of for­mal methods is impossible, if the aim is to describe the syntactic structure of a language used in various communicative situations. In his work The Structure of English published in New York in 1952, Fries defines the sentence as “singular free utterance”. The sentence is free as it is incorporated into a larger syntactic structure with the help of grammatical means.

Fries applies the fundamental notions of behaviourism and classifies sentence on the ground of the notions “stimulus” and “reaction”. Depending on the type of reaction, sentences are divided into:

I. Communicative utterances:

1. utterances stimulating only verbal reactions:

a) greetings,

b) forms of address,

c) questions;

2. utterances, stimulating actions, i.e. requests and orders;

3. statements, i.e. utterances that attract the communicative partners’ attention without interrupting their speech.

II. Non-communicative utterances, i.e. expression of grief, joy, dis­appointment, etc.

Fries does not support the traditional analysis in terms of sentence parts because the aim of this type of analysis is to study meaning, whereas, from the scholar’s point of view, grammar should consider structures that signal meanings such as the meaning of number, time, doer, object, etc. Therefore, Fries believes that linguistic analysis should begin with the descriptions of rules and move on to meanings only as the final result. The main task is, then, to describe those structural rules, structural forms and their arrange­ment which signal structural meanings.

As we have seen in Chapter I, the English sentence, according to Fries, consists of formal classes. The main structure of the Eng­lish sentence is made up of Classes 1 and 2. Words which belong to the first four classes are of ambiguous formal nature, since they are characterized both by properties, peculiar to their class, and by the position they occupy in a sentence. Fries notes that sometimes the former and the latter proper­ties may contradict each other: e.g. the poorest need state support, where the word poorest has a formal property of Class 3 (-est) and simultaneously is preceded by the, which is typical of Class 1. Thus, functionally, poorest should be referred to Class 1. Therefore, we may draw the general rule of syntax: properties, peculiar to a position (i.e. function) in the sentence, dom­inate over morphological characteristics, since a part of speech, according to Fries, is a function performed by a word in a sentence, i.e. a part of speech is identified on the basis of syntactic rather than morphological criteria.

In fact, Fries returns to the previously refuted notion, namely “sentence part”, interpreted as a syntactic class. The scholar also concludes that the notion “sentence part” should be distinguished from the notion “part of speech”. However, Fries, as well as other descriptive linguists, is preoccu­pied with speech and does not intend to study the correlation between parts of speech as language units and sentence parts as speech units.

According to Fries, the subject, the direct object and the indirect object are grammatical terms of certain formal structures within the sentence. Fries notes that one and the same situation may be described with the help of dif­ferent structures. This leads Fries to state that the subject is a Class 1 word, related with a Class 2 word, where they together make up the main structure of a sentence. The object is interpreted as a technical term to denote struc­tures that include Class 1 word and may have various meanings.

As a result, Fries’ syntactic analysis operates with the traditional catego­ries, but they are provided with new definitions, based on formal criteria. In his work, Fries demonstrates the positive aspects of descriptive syntactic theory, in that he does not refute the accumulated linguistic experience, he develops rational ideas of the descriptive school whose principal require­ment is to ground conclusions on observations of actual speech, to draw syntactic notions out of speech structure and avoid imposing speculative conclusions. Meanwhile, Fries, as well as other descriptive linguists, prefers describing immediate application of syntactic rules without their generaliza­tion. As a result, he fails to produce a systemic description of language as a means of communication, he also does not succeed in analyzing the function performed by language units within this system as well as in acquiring insight into language development.