What is the basis of your approach to the study of Linguistics?*
You know what the principle of relevancy is. This is essential, basic, fundamental. Science begins with the principle of relevancy. You have a tree in front of you and you want to describe it. Can you describe it? No, you can’t. A tree is an infinitive thing. Before you can present a description of the tree you have to tell what you want to present your description about, what it is meant for.
It is the same with languages. We have to know what we want to do when we face a language. Do we want to give a description of the language? A scientific description of the language? Or do we want to philosophize about languages? And do we, from the start, decide that we want to reduce all languages to one and only one things? If you want to do that, don’t come to me.
We want to be scientists. We’ve been educated to be more or less philosophers, but we have, at a certain point, to forget about that. Then we revert to it later on, but basically we don’t want to do that.
So, what is the difference between our science of language, linguistics, and sciences like chemistry and so on? There is a basic difference, that is, the realities we want to study are cultural realities: they are things which vary from one place to another, from one community to another and this is very important.
If you speak and read German, try to get hold of Karl Buehler’s work on phonology, because he was the man who launched the “Relevanzprinzip”, which is basic. We can’t do any science without having a principle, which will lead us in a certain direction. We give a description of that object considered from the point of view we have chosen and, on the basis of my experience of language, I think we should choose the principle of communication.
The basic fact is communication. The philosophical tendency in all countries, and particularly in Italy, has been to consider language the tool for thinking. It is. But principally, when we try to study the functioning of language and the evolution of language, we notice that it is not the needs of the mind which are in… The reason for which we have a language, basically, is to communicate our needs. And this is the point of view we have to choose.
It is not the only point of view, but the basic point of view, the starting point of view: our basic relevancy is communication. And we have to organize our presentation in relation to that. I suppose you are in agreement with me on that. It is important to know that we are scientists, but we study cultural facts, that is, facts which vary from one language to another.
For example in Germanic you study Verner’s Law: all those facts describe an evolution which is very specific, which probably took place, not easy to tell, let’s say… it probably started fairly recently, maybe 200 years B.C. and went on until 300 years A.C., thereabouts, you see? That is a limited period in which you had the working of that Verner’s Law. Later on, in English, you had a new appearance of that Verner’s Law; for example, you have the word to possess in English, which is from the French posséder with [s], but you received the [z] sound, because the stress was after the [s] sound and therefore the [s] was voiced. So, it’s a new version of Verner’s Law, which is interesting to us, to see that it can work this way at different stages of the language. Of course it is not a basic Germanic change in English: it is something which you apply to the French vocabulary. It is compared to an event.
So, this is really very important: considering that we are scientific, we are scientists, we want to look for things, real things, and with the minimum of hypothesis, and, although with hypothesis, we have to know that we are responsible for it. And we have, at some point, to account for it, or maybe we don’t account for it, we keep it in our minds and we try to check later on, whether it works or not. But we are cultural scientists, that is, we study things and we study them in a purely scientific spirit with no idea of anything but the presentation and understanding of what takes place.
*Conversazione con André Martinet
San Marino, 13 ottobre 1993