A few months ago, there was a lively discussion at Languagehat of my proposal that grammatical theory should be framework-free (Haspelmath 2010), and that each new language should be approached without preconceptions. Some discussants agreed, but others disagreed. As so often, the physics analogy came up:
I cannot imagine a physicist publishing an article saying, “We have no chance of discovering the Higgs Boson, and even if we did it would not solve the problem of where gravity comes from. So we ought to close CERN and go back to tabulating meticulous measurements of planetary motion.” And it seems that this kind of retrenchment is what is proposed for linguistics.
But note that I was not suggesting that linguists should tabulate paradigms in a theory-free manner. The concept of a “framework” is often equated with that of a “theory”, but all I was objecting to was that our theoretical work should take the form of general frameworks that constrain our language-particular descriptions. Physics is not a good analogy, because we are now pretty certain that the same physical laws apply everywhere, whereas it’s clear that different languages have different categories and rules. If we are not born with specific innate categories and architectural formats for grammars (as I assume), then there is no reason to think that a category posited for one language should exist in another one – how would it get there? Another discussant resorts to an analogy from botany:
this seems like an argument that a botanist should describe a newly-discovered flower “on its own terms” without reference to any preexisting knowledge base of accumulated understandings of how previously-studied flowers typically work and what sorts of variations over what ranges have previously been observed. That seems like some sort of weird ascetic desideratum that would entail a lot of wheel-reinvention.
Since each organism is built in a different way, this analogy is much more apt, and I would think that botanists do not assume that they are restricted in their descriptions by pre-established categories such as petal, petiole, stipule, bract, ochrea. These are often helpful labels, but I would think that they are more like comparative categories that allow botanists to compare plants. If a new flower were discovered that has novel shapes, this would not be regarded as a problem for the “framework”.
Framework-bound linguists typically see their frameworks as hypotheses about what could possibly be acquired by human learners; botanical textbook categories are certainly not hypotheses about what kinds of plants could possibly exist. I would think that restrictions on possible plants mostly come from the requirement of survival (i.e. a plant must be adapted to its environment), not from some kind of “universal plant structure” that is instantiated somehow in the plants’ DNA (surely DNA can build many more kinds of plants than we observe, but most of the genetically possible plants have no chance of survival).
Mark Liberman writes in the same discussion:
I’m sympathetic to the idea of approaching new languages — and for that matter familiar ones — without (clinging to) preconceptions. But there’s another danger here, which anyone who has looked seriously at more than a few grammars will recognize. It’s common to find that the same phenomenon is described in superficially quite different ways, to the point that it takes quite a lot of work to see the relationship. This is just as likely to happen because different preconceptionless authors develop their ideas in random directions, as because different ideologically-committed authors bow to different theoretical idols.
Liberman is right that ignoring similarities between languages may be a problem, because we can learn a lot from descriptions of similar phenomena in different languages. Languages do exhibit plenty of similarities, of course, just like flowers. And the grammatical descriptions by American structuralists, who followed Boas’s imperative of describing each language in its own terms, are often difficult to read. This was because typology didn’t exist at the time. Nowadays, it is much easier to describe a language both in its own terms and in such a way that the similarities with other languages are apparent to the experienced reader, e.g. by using familiar labels such as Antipassive or Incorporation for phenomena that are similar to phenomena elsewhere that have been described in these terms. But the identity of labels should not mislead us to think that the categories are identical. The labels we have at our disposal are usually tailored to a few well-studied languages; they rarely even deserve the qualification of “hypotheses” about what is universal in language.
Update: See now also the discussion of framework-free grammatical theory with Richard Larson.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Framework-free grammatical theory. In: Heine, Bernd & Narrog, Heiko (eds.). The Oxford handbook of grammatical analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 341-365.