Descriptive linguistics

July 26th, 20125:46 am

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Descriptive linguistics

Absence of set terminology is typical of Western syntactic research. The most frequent term for “word combination” (Ukr. словосполучення) used by Western scholars is “phrase”. Still, some scientists choose some other term. Thus, “phrase” was quite popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries but at the beginning of the 20th century Henry Sweet condemned the use of the term, since it had acquired too many meanings and did not meet the requirements to scientific terminology. As a result, “phrase” was replaced with a number of new terms, namely “word group”, “word cluster”, “cluster of words”, etc.

In Western linguistics, the theory of the word combination appeared much later. It was only in the 30s of the 20th century when American linguist Leo Bloomfield, one of the most outstanding descriptivists, formulated the solid theoretical foundation of syntactic theory. It was Leo Bloomfield who returned to the term “phrase” in his new theory. (It is worth mentioning in passing that the “phrase” tends to be more typical of American linguists, while English scholars seem to be more inclined to speak of “word group”).

Speaking of descriptive linguistics, we cannot but mention that its cen­tral idea, its methodological foundation was to turn linguistics, speculative by nature, into an exact science. In order to achieve the goal, scientists tried to free linguistics from influence of philosophy, logic, and psychology. The general aim to transform linguistics into an exact science required to review the terminological system (and, consequently, notions) peculiar to tradition­al linguistics. As a result, descriptive linguists started to make use of mathematic symbols, since mathematics was viewed as the strictest and most exact way to deliver scientific observations. The aspiration to modify lin­guistic analysis also made some scholars reduce linguistic research to pure description, i.e. to simple enumeration of language facts and speech rules.

Another issue, important for descriptive linguistics, is meaning, namely the place that meaning occupies in linguistic analysis in general and syn­tactic analysis in particular. The term “meaning” has not yet been defined. The discussion still goes on over the question whether meaning is a part of language units or it should be regarded only as their function, as a cultural, behavioural, extralingual fact. While denying language units any meaning, Bloomfield, however, considers meaning to be important. Not once he notes that, in the language, the form may not be separated from the meaning; that while studying a language, relevant.characteristics of a sound may be dis­tinguished if and only if a researcher knows its meaning. It is not surprising, then, that descriptive linguists tend to develop a more tolerant attitude to methods and notions of traditional linguistics as well as to admit deviations from the strict requirements, accepted in descriptive linguistics.

Language forms, according to Bloomfield, may be divided into free and bound. Free forms may be “uttered in isolation”, i.e. they have their own lexical meaning. Bound forms acquire meaning only in combination with other forms. Roughly speaking, free forms are lexical parts of speech, whereas bound forms are grammatical and derivational morphemes.

Bloomfield claims that some languages lack the distinction between free and bound forms but if the distinction exists, constructions made up of free forms differ greatly from constructions with bound forms. As a result, grammars of such languages consist of two parts: syntax and morphology. It should be noted that though the linguist recognizes the distinction between syntax and morphology, he treats both syntactic and morphological phe­nomena in the same terms.

In Leo Bloomfield’s theory, the definition of “word combination” is rather broad. The scholar does not think it necessary to narrow the sphere of the word combination down to certain groups. In other words, Bloomfield treats any organized syntactic group as a word combination. According to Bloomfield, different language units in a certain syntactic position make up a formal class. The largest main formal word classes are parts of speech. Syntactic “formal classes” are phrases. Bloomfield distinguishes between endocentric and exocentric phrases. A phrase is called exocentric if it does not belong to the class similar to its principal elements (e.g. the boy is writ­ing is an exocentric phrase, since it cannot be treated either as nominal or as verbal). If, on the contrary, a phrase may be referred to the class similar to its principal element, it is called endocentric (e.g. poor John, fresh milk are constructions that may be regarded as “nominal phrases”).

Descriptive linguistics – Part 2
Descriptive linguistics – Part 3
Descriptive linguistics – Part 4