John B. Gatewood
[ Copyright (c) 1998, John B. Gatewood ]
Presented in a session entitled, "Cognitive Anthropology and Formal Linguistic Models: Their Uses and Their Limitations" (Frederic K. Lehman and David B. Kronenfeld, organizers), at the 97th Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, December 2-6, 1998, Philadelphia, PA.
Formal linguistic models are useful to anthropologists to the extent that language shares fundamental properties with other forms of human cultural behavior. The notion that language is composed, mostly, of discrete and easily identifiable units -- phones, phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and sentences -- is a fundamental starting point for linguistic models. Another fundamental notion is that the segmental units of language are linearly ordered (strictly sequential in time). By contrast, the stream of behavior is notoriously difficult to segment, and strict linear orderings among behavioral-action units, even when they do occur, transpire in limited contexts, usually in concert with multiple behavioral-action strands, and often involve more than a single person. This paper reviews different ways researchers have attempted to segment 'the stream of behavior' and suggests that the difficulties they have encountered call into question the appropriateness of linguistic models for more general behavioral-action analysis. For example, if there is no compelling way to analyze the behavioral stream into stable constituent units, then the metaphor of a 'cultural grammar' may be fundamentally misleading. The enduring appeal of this metaphor may be due to the fact that anthropology's end-products (ethnographic descriptions) are abstracted, linguistic renderings. Any verbal condensation of action will, inherently, sustain the illusion of regular, segmentable action sequences.
My question is can anthropologists, interested in general behavior-action, follow this linguistics lead? If we can find reasonable ways to segment the behavior-action stream, then the "grammar" approach is at least plausible. So, let us examine a few of the serious attempts to segment the stream of behavior and see how these efforts have fared.
- SPEECH SOUND = ??? not well defined ... but people seem capable of distinguishing "speech sounds" from other vocal-auditory tract noises
(- difference between articulatory and acoustic phonetics)
- PHONE = a category of sounds identifiable by a distinctive configuration of articulatory features
- PHONEME = a category of phones, identifiable as a minimal code element in a given language, i.e., the categories of speech sounds that make a difference to speakers of the language
- phonological rules ... 'underlying form' --> 'surface form' of allophones in complementary distribution
- SYLLABLE = ??? not well defined ... syllable = [onset +] peak [+ coda]
'Peak' is composed of vowels or sonorants (nasals, liquids)- phonotactic constraints ... combinatorics of permissible syllable structures in a given language
'Onset' is composed of any consonants that may precede the peak
'Coda' is composed of any consonants that may follow the peak
- MORPHEME = the smallest units of sound that carry meaning (i.e., that have semantic consequences)
- LEXEME [word] = ??? not well defined ... free morpheme [+ bound morpheme(s)]
e.g., "antidisestablishmentarianism" is a single word because its meaning is compositionally determined from its constituent morphemes all but one of which are bound morphemes, but "hot dog" is also a single lexeme even though its meaning is not compositionally determined from its two constituent free morphemes ... at what point do 'adjective-noun' combinations become a single lexeme?? ... is "caesar salad" a single lexeme or two lexemes??
- SENTENCE = referring expression (NP) + predication (VP) ??
SYNTACTIC ROLES --> syntactic rules ... combinatorics of permissible sentence structures in a given language(Note: "...knowing a word required having at least four kinds of information:
SEMANTIC ROLES ... permissible lexical insertions
- PRAGMATIC CATEGORIES... information structure
- SPEECH ACTS... Grice's cooperative principle, etc.
- CONVERSATIONS... turn-taking, cueing, etc.
Deductive behavioral-action analyses of limited domains are formally most similar to the linguistic paradigm. But all these start with some a priori, intuitively determined, or ad hoc set of 'human goals/purposes,' and do not demonstrate or really argue that the segmentation itself is empirically based. Further, there is little sense of what scale the action units correspond to in language. For example, does "getting married" correspond to morpheme, word, sentence, discourse, or conversation levels of language?
In short, behavioral-action analyses have not yielded a clear hierarchy of interrelated levels of analysis in which lower-level units combine in rule-governed ways to constitute higher-level units, and so on. And, even those higher level, deductive analyses of behavior that explicitly adopt the rhetoric of linguistics have as their starting point human intentions. Note the irony here. The big divide in linguistics between Chomsky's competence and performance rests precisely on distinguishing what is possible to say from what may be appropriate or inappropriate to say in a given speech situation. Yet, the anthropologists who borrow most from the linguistic competence paradigm generally focus precisely on appropriate behaviors in a given context. This would be like a linguist, who wants to write a grammar for Language X, starting the inquiry by cataloging the communicative intents of speakers saying particular things in particular contexts, then noting classes of linguistic forms that accomplish these objectives. In linguistics, this approach leads to speech act theory and pragmatics, not to formal grammars of linguistic competence.
Why, then, is the 'cultural grammar' notion so enduringly appealing? Perhaps its appeal is due to the fact that anthropology's end-products (ethnographic descriptions) are themselves abstracted, linguistic renderings. And, as any verbal condensation of action will, inherently, sustain the illusion of regular, segmentable action sequences, the very language we use when describing what people do lulls us into a misguided complacency, glossing over the formidable difficulties involved in more serious efforts to segment the stream of behavior.
In conclusion, and going a bit beyond what I've said above, let me end by simply proclaiming that there is no periodic chart for culture, no foundational level of discrete and stable parts from which higher order structures are constituted. If this is the true nature of our beast, then the powerful combinatorics paradigm of chemistry and linguistics will be of little value to us. We need instead quite different paradigms for dealing with the essential non-discreteness of human behavior. 'Chunky-sort-click' formalisms will just not work (Gatewood 1978; 1985). Combinatoric orderings of non-discrete entities is a misguided undertaking.
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