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Four Kinds of Evidence (Adapted from Lamb 1999:8-10)

Findings and beliefs about language, like findings in any field of knowledge, can come from evidence and analysis, or they can come from hearsay or from speculation. Some widespread beliefs about language are just survivors of a long tradition of mythology. Some of the basic assumptions can be traced back through the academic generations all the way to ancient Greece.

How can we separate myth from reality? For one thing we have to consider evidence of all the relevant kinds, not just what is traditionally examined in linguistics. Much of linguistics examines only two of the four major kinds of real-world phenomena that are relevant to language. We could call them the four bases of linguistic reality:

First Base. The organs and processes of speech production. Here the field of articulatory phonetics, along with acoustic phonetics, provides excellent scientific grounding. Why? Because it has been found that there is a high degree of correlation between positions and movements of the speech-producing organs (tongue, lips, etc.) and the resulting patterns of sound waves. As a consequence, the trained phonetician is able to accurately and objectively transcribe and analyze speech of any human language. Such analysis is essential for getting to second base.

Second Base. The things people say and write, which are also things that people can comprehend (to varying degrees). We can call them 'texts', using the term 'text' to include either written or spoken discourse. The analysis of such material is the task of analytical linguistics.

Third Base. Linguistic processes. These include speaking and understanding and related processes, especially learning. (Compare operational and developmental plausibility.)

Fourth Base (home plate to baseball fans). The neurocognitive basis of language — the human brain. (Compare neurological plausibility .)

A basic problem of analytical linguistics is that there are many different ways to analyze texts and classify their components — the data of the second kind. As a result we have many schools of thought in analytical linguistics with many modes of description.

There is no principled way to choose among them using just the first two kinds of evidence. It is only by confronting the other two kinds that we can separate the sheep among them from the goats. For example, some linguists have proposed complex systems of phonological and syntactic rules, far too complex in their operation to be executed by a human brain in real time, also far too complex to be learned by the ordinary child. A grammar with no way of being put into cognitively realistic operation and no reasonable means of being learned is one which must remain forever unable to get to third base. The real linguistic systems in our minds are able to perform, and children are able to learn them.


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