Columbia School linguistics takes as its ultimate object of explanation the perceptible sounds of speech (or sequence of symbols in a written text). Instances of human communicative behavior, then, are its primary data. It accounts for these observables by postulating abstract cognitive systems upon which speakers appear to be operating. Columbia School is thus an avowedly explanatory enterprise and neither a throwback to behaviorism nor an instance of an Externalized (E-) language approach.
The basic structural unit in the cognitive systems is a sign—a signal paired with a meaning. (This is reminiscent of Saussure's signe linquistique composed of a signifiant and a signifié). Both the signals and their meanings are language-particular rather than universal; each language offers its own semantic categories. The analytical problem for the Columbia School linguist is to determine the actual identity of these signal-meaning units in a particular language. This is done by testing proposed signs against actual usage; a hypothesized meaning must fit every message for which its signal is used. This demonstration involves both case-by-case analysis of authentic examples in context, and quantitative testing for predicted skewings of signals throughout a text.
The explanation for the appearance of a particular signal in a text is that its associated meaning—hypothesized and tested by the analyst—contributes semantically to the message being conveyed. A typical Columbia School question would be, What motivates speakers of English to say sometimes broken hearts and other times breaking hearts? What is the difference in meaning between the signals -ing and -en that is guiding their choice? Or, What motivates speakers of Spanish to say sometimes le escribí and others lo escribí, sometimes le llamo, others lo llamo? The sequential order of signals is addressed as well; for example, what motivates the choice between the order of signals in he left the house windowless and he left the windowless house? Here we find two kinds of explanations: either a particular feature of word order is due to natural iconic principles, or it is itself a signal of a grammatical meaning.
This mode of explanation is goal-directed rather than formal because the choice of a sign, either grammatical or lexical, is explained in terms of what its 'chooser’—the speaker—is attempting to accomplish, rather than in terms of syntactic rules. While the linguistic system has a well-defined structure, its deployment is affected by an open-ended number of factors and is thus not amenable to algorithmic formalization. Language use is creative in the everyday sense of that word.
A second aspect of linguistic creativity is the conceptual leap that the hearer must make between individual linguistic meanings and the intended message. The message is more than the sum of its semantic parts because the meanings of many common signs are imprecise, functioning more as hints to the message than as conceptual fractions. Hearers must rely on context, social setting, life experience and common sense to jump to a message that is under-determined by the semantic input. This gap between semantic input and output means that Columbia School theory espouses an inferential model of communication rather than the familiar compositional model.
Typical Analytical Problems
All Columbia School grammatical analyses begin with a question about the appearance or position of a linguistic form in a particular language. Listed below are examples of such questions for which analyses have been done. (Full references in bibliography)
1. Why do English speakers sometimes select a–self pronoun, while on other occasions select a simple pronoun?
She bought flowers for herself.
She carried an umbrella with her. (Stern, 2001)
2. Why do English speakers sometimes opt for a gerund complement and on other occasions for an infinitive complement?
After a year she will like living in France.
Some day, she would like to live in France. (Wherrity, 2001)
3. Why do English speakers sometimes put the ‘recipient’ of a gift in a to phrase and elsewhere do not?
I sent a package to Mary.
I sent Mary a package. (Huffman, 1996)
4. Why do singular verbs sometimes occur with plural subjects (and vice versa)?
The sex lives of Roman Catholic nuns does not, at first blush, seem like promising material for a book. [Example from Newsweek] (Reid, 1991)
5. Why is subject-verb inversion used both for questions and non-questions?
Should he leave before supper? He can eat in town.
Should he leave before supper, he can eat in town. (Diver, ms)
6. Why does the word gun appear after the verb fired in the first sentence and before the verb fired in the second sentence when both sentences could describe the same scene?
The soldier fired a gun.
The gun fired a 40-mm shell. (Diver, ms)
7. In French, why is the accusative pronoun used for the (direct object) complement of some verbs and the dative pronoun used for others?
Je le suisI follow him.
Je lui obeisI obey him. (Huffman, 1983, 1997)
8. In English, why does the adjective sometimes appear before the noun and other times after the noun?
The boys painted the red barn. The boys painted the barn red. (Diver, ms)
9. Why do we typically say ‘she came in a taxi’ but ‘she came on a bus’? (Reid, 2002)
10. In Spanish why does the adjective sometimes appear after the noun and other times before the noun?
un viejo amigo an old (longtime) friend
un amigo viejo an old (elderly) friend (Klein, 1968 & 1983)
11. In Spanish why does combining an impersonal se with areflexive se result in an ungrammatical sentence in view of the fact it seems neither structurally nor semantically anomalous?
*Se se bañó One bathed oneself.(Garcia, 1977)
12. In German, why is the direct object of some verbs in the accusative case and in the dative case for others?
Sitta sieht den Jungen (Accusative) an.
Sitta looks (ansehen) at the boy.
Sitta sieht dem Jungen (Dative) zu.
Sitta looks (zusehen) at the boy. (Zubin, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980)
13. In Italian, why is the singular masculine pronoun egli sometimes used for the grammatical subject and other times the singular masculine pronoun lui used?
Egli non rispose. He did not answer.
Lui non rispose. He did not answer. (Davis, 1992, 1995a)
14. Can a connection be found between Hebrew triconsonantal roots (CCC) and their meanings? For example: /C-r-C/ roots appear to reflect ageneral semantic field of “Change in Structure". (Tobin, 2001)
15. In Swahili and other Bantu languages, a different and smaller set of tenses is used in the negative than in the affirmative.Why? (Contini-Morava, 1989)
16. In Swahili and other Bantu languages, noun class prefixes signal information about noun class membership as well as number.But the classes do not all pair into binary singular-plural sets. What number information is actually signaled by the noun class prefixes and how does it relate to the noun classification system? (Contini-Morava, 2000).
17. Is there a semantic difference between the synthetic and the periphrastic comparative and superlative constructions in English?
I couldn't have made a more distinct comment if I tried.
... In fact, a distincter comment than that is difficult to imagine. (Tobin, 1990)
18. Why is it more appropriate to respond to someone saying "I love you" with: "I love you, too" rather than: "I also love you" or "I love you also"? (Tobin, 1990)
What kinds of data do Columbia School analyses typically use?
Typically, Columbia School analyses rely heavily on data drawn from natural language use, often written but occasionally spoken. Fabricated data are occasionally used, but only to illustrate familiar and conventional usage. This is for two reasons. First, natural discourse provides examples of striking expressive creativity that would be suspect if fabricated by the analyst himself. Second, naturally occurring examples offer the possibility of appealing to redundant features in the context in support of the interpret-ation claimed by the analyst. If the analyst were to create both the example (with its interpretation) and the context, the former could not be tested against the latter.
Diver 1969 uses a single text, The Iliad. Huffman 1997 uses a wide variety of French novels, adding to them all three volumes of DeGaulle’s war memoirs. Davis 1992 uses texts supplemented by spoken data. Klein-Andreu uses taped, spoken conversation in her work (see papers in Contini-Morava & Goldberg 1995 and Contini-Morava & Tobin 1999). Reid 1991 draws heavily from contemporary written and spoken journalism. Questionnaire data play a significant role in Garcia and Otheguy 1972, Zubin 1976, Reid 1991 and Wherrity 2001. Wherrity 2001 also provides the first example of a corpus-based analysis.
The following was adapted from Alan Huffman, "The Instrumental Nature of Linguistic Meaning and the Human Factor in Language", a talk delivered before the International Linguistic Association, New York University, in April 1996.
The exact role of meaning in linguistic analysis is viewed in a seemingly limitless variety of ways by the various schools of linguistic thought. Yet nearly all, from formalism to functionalism, from traditional grammar to logical semantics, in practice agree on one thing: that linguistic meaning is compositional. The assumption is that sentence or propositional meaning is the sum total of the discrete meanings of the lexical and grammatical morphemes and the syntactic structures that compose it. This requires a mapping between each fraction of sentence meaning and some lexical, morphological or syntactic feature of a sentence.
Columbia School theory embraces an alternative view of linguistic meaning, one aptly called an instrumental view. In this view, linguistically encoded speaker input is very sparse compared to communicative output. The term ‘meaning’ is reserved for the constant input of a signal, such a grammatical or lexical morpheme. Meanings are versatile tools that nudge output in one direction or another, but this much richer output, the message, is inferred by the hearer. Messages are context dependent, but not derivable algorithmically. Their inference is helped by the hint-like meanings plus contextual and extra-linguistic knowledge. In this view, the role of human intelligence, creativity, and inference is given explicit recognition in the communicative process, but not built into the communicative instrument.
The English word with provides a very simple illustration of this conception of linguistic meaning. With occurs in messages of ‘means’ or ‘instrument’ as in
Henry cut the cake with a knife.
But a slight change to
Henry cut the cake with the bride.
changes the message radically. Now instrumentality is absent, and the message is one of cooperation. In retrospect, however, it is clear that the source of these messages can be traced to elements of context other than with itself. ‘Cutting’ requires an instrument; a ‘knife’ is a cutting instrument. A ‘bride’ is not a cutting instrument; rather, ‘bride’ and ‘cake’ conjure up images of harmony and cooperation. With another change, we get yet a third message:
Henry cut the cake with a smile
now a message of ‘manner’ or ‘accompaniment’. Yet ‘accompaniment’ is literally true also of the first two messages: if I cut the cake with a knife, or with a bride, I am in fact accompanied by the knife or bride. The meaning of with is something like ATTENDANT CIRCUMSTANCE. To be sure, this is a very sparse contribution, much less precise than the numerous messages for which it is used. Yet a sparse contribution is all that is required if speakers in fact rely largely on inference to derive messages. Moreover, this contribution seems to apply to all uses of with. If, for instance:
Henry had a fight with his bride,
We don’t need to set up an "adversarial" with, distinct from the others, since that element can be attributed to the word ‘fight’. It takes two to fight; and if the bride is the ‘attendant circumstance’ of Henry’s fighting, it can easily be inferred that she is his adversary. Thus, if we recognize that people put information together and jump to appropriate conclusions, we don’t need multiple with’s, neither homonyms nor polysemes nor prototype and network.
In Columbia School linguistics, grammar and phonology are complementary components of an essentially observational, empirical approach to the study of language. The two components are united in the theoretical construct of the meaningful signal. While grammar is the study of the distribution of signals in discourse, phonology is the study of the distribution of sound, and of the vocal gestures that produce sound, within the signal itself.
Phonology is especially instructive because it gives evidence of the importance of all the “orientations” that inform our work.
The role of communicationin phonology can be seen, first of all, in the very arrangement of gestures so as to produce signals: speech is not random noise. Then within almost all signals we find a highly audible “keystone” of vocal vibration and oral aperture (the traditional vowels); these provide the acoustic carrying power within the communicative channel. Both the keystones and, to an even larger extent, the units of greater constriction (consonants) flanking them contribute to communicative distinctiveness among signals. For example, it is presumably the function of communication, with its need for distinctiveness, that prevents languages from having only front vowels or only apical consonants.
The role of the human factor, or the peculiarities of human intelligence, economy and limitations of memory in phonology, can be seen, for example, in the tendency to avoid complexity in the structure of signals. Proportionately, more signals of canonical shape V are exploited in a language than of shapes CV or VC, and these are proportionately more exploited than CVC, CCVC, CVCC, CCCV, ad so forth.
Phonetics plays a crucial role in Columbia School phonology. That phonology is not an abstract, purely formal structure can be seen in the many phonotactic skewings observable in any language’s lexicon. For example, in phonetic environments where the communication load is relatively low, words show a tendency to end in ways that utilize the highly adroit and sensitive apex of the tongue, as opposed to the lips and the dorsum of the tongue (i.e., words like pot are more common than words like pop or pock), or, when there is an available phonological opposition, there is another tendency for words to end in ways that exploit fewer sets of articulators (i.e. words like pot are more common than words like pod or *pon).So distinctive phonological units ( p, t, k) are endowed with more than just distinctive value, to use Saussure’s term; they also have a phonetic substance which contributes to their functioning in language.
The following was adapted from Ricardo Otheguy and Betsy Rodríguez-Bachiller, "Syntax Without Rules: The Effect of Positional Signals in the Placement of Extra Information". To appear in Contini-Morova, Robert Kirsner, Rodriguez-Bachiller (eds.) forthcoming.
One of the most intriguing ideas of the late William Diver was his deep skepticism regarding the existence of an autonomous syntactic component. Diver’s position, stated often in his lectures and sketched out in some of his publications, has been echoed in the published writings of many of his followers (Diver 1977, 1982, Huffman 997:188, 341, Reid 1991, and, for a summary, Contini-Morava 1995). The Diverian position holds that while it is certainly true that one can observe syntactic patterns, such as words being grouped in phrases or constituents, or constituents appearing in certain orders or displaying certain co-occurrence restrictions, these observations do not justify the postulation of autonomous syntactic constructs in the underlying grammar of the language. The Diverian grammar consists only of signs, that is, constructs made up of lexical or grammatical meanings and the signals that express them. It is true that analytical experience has shown that the signal side of a sign is in some cases a syntactic positioning of words or constituents. But aside from grammatical meanings signaled by positional signals, the grammar envisioned by Columbia School analysts does not have any syntactic content; there are no parameters and no settings, no phrase markers, no rules of order, no phrase-structure trees delineating initial structures, no movement rules, no constructions, and no blocking or filtering mechanisms that interact to specify the allowable order of constituents.
In Diver’s view, the incorrect belief that such constructs are part of the grammar of language derives from the a-priori nomenclaturist assumption that (a) the basic concepts proposed by traditional grammar to study the Sentence and its parts are essentially correct and, more importantly, that (b) the data for the study of language consist of complementary sets of grammatical and ungrammatical Sentences, and of relations within and between Sentences, all already conceived of, prior to analysis, through the theoretical categories of traditional, sentence-based grammar. In the absence of these unwarranted assumptions, so the argument goes, no justification remains for the postulation of a syntactic component, as most of the 'facts' that would motivate it become epiphenomenal. Diver wanted to admit as data for linguistic science only those facts that would unavoidably force themselves on observers unencumbered by the a-priori, nomenclaturist categories of the tradition.
But how to account for those compelling syntactic facts that do meet Diver's requirement? For surely, even under Diver's uniquely austere definition of the data of linguistics, there remain syntactic patterns of order and co-occurrence that need to be explained. In simplest terms, Columbia School linguistics posits no syntactic component because it believes that other, non-syntactic constructs—linguistic and non-linguistic—provide a better account of the syntactic facts. In general terms, Columbia School scholars explain syntactic order by appealing to a linguistic factor, namely the language-specific meanings of positional signals, and to a psycholinguistic factor, namely language-independent principles of discourse organization and processing. Some facts of order can be explained through the meanings of positional signals alone, others solely through psycholinguistic principles, while still others, perhaps the majority, through the interaction of positional signals and processing principles. But in any case, once a successful analysis has produced robust hypotheses on the meanings of positional signals and the substance of processing principles, and provided that what Diver regarded as pseudo-facts are set aside, the need for an autonomous syntactic component disappears.
Contrasts Between Columbia School and Generative Frameworks
The following was adapted from the handout accompanying an oral presentation by Wallis Reid at the conference "Alternatives to Chomsky” held at Rutgers University, in September 2000.
The early outline of Columbia School theory emerged just as Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax appeared in the mid-sixties. While defining a linguistic position in terms of its relation to the Generative paradigm is no longer necessary, it is still a shorthand way of locating it on the linguistic map. Listed below are a series of pithy and provocative contrasts between the Columbia School framework and the Generative paradigm, many of which distinguish the Columbia School from various formal approaches as well.
It should not be surprising that a theory of language based on “performance” data (while being informed by independent bodies of knowledge such as communication, psychology and phonetics) should have practical applications. To date, Columbia School has only begun to explore this important aspect of the study of language, but this section should give an idea of the general kind of impact that a radically functional linguistic theory can have in applied linguistic areas.
Applications of Columbia School phonological theory have been explored by Yishai Tobin (1997), Phonology as Human Behavior: Theoretical Implications and Clinical Applications, Durham, Duke UP. The book contains chapters on Tobin’s and his students’ research into:
- Developmental phonology and functional clinical applications
- Clinical applications to organic disorders
- Audiology, hearing impairment, and cochlear implants
Other research is currently underway in applying the theory to automatic speech recognition systems.
For the past two decades, communicative pedagogies have dominated second language instruction. The idea has been that a concentration of effort on the rules of grammar would detract from the goal of basic communicative competence. The underlying assumption was that grammatical form per se does not carry meaning. Now we see that the unfortunate consequence of that approach is a widespread failure of learners to achieve the grammatical accuracy required for academic success.
Columbia School has a very different perspective. For us, grammar, like vocabulary, conveys meaning. These meanings are the tools that speakers and writers employ in the construction of messages. As a result, grammar is part of—not apart from—communicative competence. The goal for us, then, is to allow learners to achieve full communicative competence, including grammatical proficiency. One of our members wrote a paper on the role of linguistic theory in ESL pedagogy.
Since the 1960’s, research in early reading has been sharply divided between those who focused on language sub-skills as the key to learning to read, and those who favored more holistic, meaning-based approaches to early literacy. Labeled the “great debate” by Jeanne Chall (1967), the controversy was fostered, in part, by assumptions about the basic nature of language that characterized concurrent linguistic theory. At the heart of the debate lay different views on the relative contribution of print to the larger process of reading comprehension. One of our members wrote a paper that examines the debate at its most basic level, that of linguistic theory. A thorough analysis of the major linguistic theories that have contributed to the debate will reveal that many share common assumptions about language.
Naturally, a linguistic theory that holds that grammar is meaningful will have something to contribute to the problem of translation. If the task of translation is to render into another language the message expressed in an original language, and if grammatical meaning, like lexical content, contributes to that inferred message, and if grammars are language-specific, then a translator will need to take into account the grammatical systems available in each language, and will need to be sensitive to the differences between them.
One result of an adequate semantic analysis of a language’s grammar is that one is enabled to perceive inadequacies in translations of literary texts that rely, implicitly or not, upon traditional grammar. If the grammars of languages differ and communicate meaning, then the task of insightful translation depends partly upon the translator’s knowledge of those two semantics.
To illustrate: Traditional grammars of Latin recognize that the subjunctive mood of the verb is often used for hypothetical actions but sometimes used, like the indicate mood, for actions that do take place. In the latter case, translators may bypass the semantic contribution made by the subjunctive, being blinded by the fact of actual occurrence. In other words, an aspect of the scene being described in the text is substituted for an aspect of the message being intended by the writer.
We occasionally find passages [in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico] full of Subjunctives that are translated as through they were all Indicatives. [Below,] I have put the Subjunctives in all caps and underlined the Indicatives.
IV 28 2 Quae [naves] cum APPROPINQUARENT Britanniae et ex castris VIDERENTUR, tanta tempestas subito coorta est ut nulla earum cursum tenere POSSET, sed aliae eodem unde erant profectae REFERRENTUR, aliae ad inferiorem partem insulae, quae est propius solis occasum, magno sui cum periculo DEICERENTUR; quae tamen ancoris iactis cum fluctibus COMPLERENTUR, necessario adversa nocte in altum provectae continente petierunt.
Loeb: When they WERE NEARING Britain, and IN VIEW of the camp, so fierce a storm suddenly arose that none of them WAS ABLE TO hold on its course; some WERE CARRIED BACK to the selfsame port whence they started, others WERE DRIVEN AWAY, with great peril to themselves, to the lower, that is, to the more westerly, part of the island. None the less, they cast anchor; but when they BEGAN TO FILL with the waves they were obliged to stand out to sea in a night of foul weather, and made for the Continent.
The Subjunctives are completely ignored. As a corrective, let’s insist on translating the Subjunctives as Positive Certainty. Theme: So near and yet so far: A dramatic presentation.
Four days after the arrival in Britain, the eighteen ships weighed anchor, in a gentle breeze, from the upper port: leni vento solverunt.
The gentle breeze sets up the expectation of an easy passage. But then the unexpected sets in:
These, when they WERE ACTUALLY QUITE CLOSE to Britain, and WERE EVEN SEEN from camp, such a storm suddenly came up that non of them WAS EVEN ABLE to hold course, but some WERE ACTUALLY CARRIED BACK to the same port whence they set out, others WERE DRIVEN CLEAR DOWN to the lower part of the island, which is nearer the sunset, to their great peril; these even with anchors down WERE NEVERTHELESS FILLED with the waves, driven by necessity into deep water, in spite of hostile darkness, they sought the mainland.
Is this a daring translation, or conservative? Caesar apparently does not intend a tame recital of events here.