March 28, 2005

Noblesse Oblige

Found yesterday in our referrer logs, a link to Language Log from a blog at Despite (or because of?) the URL's status as a "naked celebrity site", the anonymous blogger has created a marvelously succinct example of pure structuralist social analysis:

The partnership you've been waiting for: France and Microsoft, thus allowing an important consolidation of hatred which might otherwise be too diffuse. Next in line to align: North Korea and Affleck.

My interest in this is purely scientific, of course. Language Log does not promote hatred of any countries, companies or actors, and takes no particular notice of naked celebrities. But as Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Structural Anthropology (1958):

Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences. In what does this revolution consist, as we try to assess its broadest implications? N. Troubetzkoy, the illustrious founder of structural linguistics, himself furnished the answer to this question. In one programmatic statement, he reduced the structural method to four basic operations. First, structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure; second, it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis the relations between terms; third, it introduces the concept of system -- "Modern phonemics does not merely proclaim that phonemes are always part of a system; it shows concrete phonemic systems and elucidates their structure" -- finally, structural linguistics aims at discovering general laws, either by induction "or . . . by logical deduction, which would give them an absolute character."

I'm sure that our astute readers don't need me to explain to them how the blogger has compressed this four-part program into a two brief sentences and a hyperlink.

But in fact, as a phonetician, I've never been easy about that guy Nicholai Trubetzkoy, who wrote in his (posthumous) Grundzüge der Phonologie (1939) that "Phonetics is to phonology as numismatics is to economics". In other words, speech sounds are merely the arbitrary (though, alas, necessary) tokens whereby linguistic exchange is carried out. The only thing that matters, on this view, is the system that these tokens implement: if you put someone else's face on the coins, or replace them with paper chits or digital messages, nothing important changes in the economic system. This is Trubetzkoy's version of the structuralist credo that language is a system of relationships, where only the relationships really matter, not the items related.

There's an important insight there, but also an important blind spot. At least, that's the opinion of those of us who spend our time studying the physical properties, psychological effect, and social distribution of speech sounds and gestures.

Most of the (considerable) prestige of mid-20th-century linguistics, which derived from the success of the comparative method and the historical reconstruction of Indo-European and other language families, and also from the expert analysis of hundreds of diverse languages newly encountered around the world, seems to have devolved temporarily on this powerful, flawed structuralist insight. It's amazing, from today's perspective, to read the beginning of chapter II of Levi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology, a few sentences before the description of the four-part method that I just quoted:

LINGUISTICS OCCUPIES a special place among the social sciences, to whose ranks it unquestionably belongs. It is not merely a social science like the others, but, rather, the one in which by far the greatest progress has been made. It is probably the only one which can truly claim to be a science and which has achieved both the formulation of an empirical method and an understanding of the nature of the data submitted to its analysis. This privileged position carries with it several obligations. The linguist will often find scientists from related but different disciplines drawing inspiration from his example and trying to follow his lead. Noblesse oblige. A linguistic journal like Word cannot confine itself to the illustration of strictly linguistic theories and points of view. It must also welcome psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists eager to learn from modern linguistics the road which leads to the empirical knowledge of social phenomena. As Marcel Mauss wrote - already forty years ago: "Sociology would certainly have progressed much further if it had everywhere followed the lead of the linguists. . . ." The close methodological which exists between the two disciplines imposes a special obligation of collaboration upon them.

Noblesse oblige indeed. If you're in the biz, ask yourself: when was the last time you heard an anthropologist or sociologist talking like that about linguistics?

Against that background, Roland Barthes' description of "a euphoric dream of being scientific" may be easier to understand.

Anyhow, I think that the "system of relations" concept was not as central to the successes of lingustics as Levi-Strauss (following Roman Jacobson) thought. The apparent failure of this concept to get very far in the social sciences may be partly due to the fact that social patterns and structures are different from linguistic ones, but in any case it takes more than a handful of abstract structuralist insights to make a success of an empirical analysis of any kind, linguistic or social.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 28, 2005 05:22 AM