A Science Of Human Language - Part #1

Quistic Grammar : A New Universal Grammar

In this series of articles I hope to build, on a sure foundation, a theory which explains language as a means by which evolution can encode information of value to the survival of a species so that it may be transmitted between individuals without the use of genes.  The core of the theory suggests that language, in order to transmit information most effectively, encodes that information as 'packets of ideas' which form the answers to simple questions.

Introductory Remarks

A grammar is simply a description of how the components of language fit together according to a method shared by two or more communicators.  The search for a Universal Grammar, UG, is supposedly a search for the most fundamental component of all grammars of all languages.  Currently, most theories of UG are founded in a grammar developed by the ancient Greeks, adopted by the Romans and then applied to English with brute force for pedagogic purposes.  In this grammar, syntax is king.

Syntax was first abstracted from written language and then used as a tool to encourage compliance with a mythical and agendist 'best practice'.  After many generations of schooling in formal grammar, it should not be a matter of surprise that analysis of written language samples reveals patterns which support the theory that language is based in syntax.  It is, I suggest, time to break that circularity of argument and seek a more firm foundation for a universal grammar in the scientific method.

Whilst the internet has given researchers access to greater bodies of materials for research purposes, this fact has tended to increase the focus of researchers on text rather than speech.  In language research it is important to remember at all times that language is merely the means by which ideas are encoded for transmission between communicators.  Spoken language is the primary coding scheme and is for the most part unconsciously applied.  Written language is secondary: it is a recoding scheme which is, unarguably, consciously applied.

Written language is not just a recoding of language to give it greater permanence.  The ability to edit what has been written, to 'unwrite', to 'recall' a thought and present it in a different light causes written language to be so different from speech that it is not a valid data source for the understanding of human speech: the data has been manipulated to fit an artificially designed curve.  Writing gives insights into the more logical processes which the author brought to bear in making the writing fit the author's intent.  When written and spoken language are compared, especially as proceeding from the same person, the difference between the two coding systems is striking.

Given the artificiality of writing, I suggest that any set of 'rules of grammar' based mainly or entirely on the analysis of texts will diverge significantly from the realities of how the brain deals with natural speech.  It may well be that most of the rules deduced from text samples are simply the rules of the literary art of ages past, rather than the natural laws that scientists pursue.  Further, no theory based on any examination of written language can even begin to explain how babies, who cannot read, acquire the gift of speech.

If linguistics does not found itself in science, if it does not use the tools and methods of science, then it cannot be properly called a science. Whether a linguistic theory describes a single component of language or is all-embracing, no theory of how human language functions should be accepted as a scientific theory unless it demonstrates a plausible basis in biology, evolution or psychology.

In Part #2 I discuss redundancy (entropy), and  ambiguity resolution as essential components of the evolved information-transmission system which we call language.

I am grateful to Gerhard Adam  for the description of writing as 'secondary coding', and for his many other contibutions to my thought processes.  I am also indebted to the many others whose comments have given me reason to re-think some of my assumptions.

Related reading:
I have written a number of articles about language in my blog,  The Chatter Box.  As an introduction to the topic of quistic grammar, I suggest these articles may be of interest:
What is Language ?
Mothers Rock!  - maternal influences on language use.
Digging Beneath the Surface of Grammar
A Grammar of Questions.