Seeking a Foundation
The child is the most celebrated grammarian. Their ability for acquisition and the science uncovering a baby’s mind still baffles us at every level of linguistic inquiry. It is fundamental and brings to mind the unassailable question, the axiom that drives all linguistic pursuits in knowing what we already know—it is the first and final paradox of our field. To understand what we already know—that is the question I seek to explore in this post.
Linguists approach the unassailable question to describe what was previously tacit, implicit, and unaware and work to bring to consciousness the expression of our language. This effort of the linguists is the task we ourselves as budding scholars will begin to carry in our everyday lives, and in our speech and conduct. Therefore, it is the purpose of expression and in expression we come to know and be known. But is the question correct? What is the proper foundation of a linguistic desire to know a language as a concept? What does it mean to know a language as a linguist? Finally, what is it we know when we know a language?
Answering all these questions to our full satisfaction won’t be possible within one blog post. Nevertheless, the primordial quest in attempting these questions yields their own fruit. Even more so—mapping out these far-reaching questions allows fellow undergraduates to trace the depth of their own epistemic growth. Hopefully, this may benefit other emerging scholars in the same foundational seeking efforts of pursuing linguistic knowledge. It is like laying out all my tools and examining them for us to use together. That is—if they are proven useful.
We should begin framing these questions in contrast to the initial allure of that question —“what is it we know when we know a language.” It appears everywhere and takes multiple forms and contexts. The school of construction grammarians uses it—and every domain I’ve surveyed in my general linguistics course addresses some mode of that question. Syntax, morphology, phonology, phonetics all have, in some fashion, used “that question” to define and begin their research. In many ways, it is used as an epistemological tool. But like all tools let us name them that we might know them properly.
Epistemology is a big and scary word, yet we can define it as the study of knowledge by asking the fundamental question: “what is knowledge?” and “how do we know we have knowledge?” However, epistemology doesn’t just end attempting to answer those questions “what is knowledge”—it instead tries to establish a structure of knowledge after clearly defining the categories necessary to justify experience in that category. In other words, it asks questions like “am I justified for believing in proposition x,” and the reality of these kinds of statements has importance for linguistic concepts. The field of epistemology is as broad as linguistics, yet I hope to be wise in choosing what I think to be self-evidently advantageous for disciplines like linguistics. Therefore answering, how epistemology relates entirely to my linguistic research is yet to be made clear, yet I feel that the weight of its relevance is foundational to my research.
If you can’t see it already, the phrase “what is it we know when we know a language” is layered with epistemic underpinnings. It is an epistemological tool that assumes knowledge of some kind and seeks some underlying realities that we rightly take for granted. The main thrust of those realities is that our fundamental understanding of language is not primarily taught—it is instead caught, and our knowledge of the language is this tacit working out of our received speech. Patricia Kuhl gives a great talk describing this reality in the talk titled ‘the linguistic genius of babies” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2XBIkHW954
Our domain bracketing of this unconscious knowledge is artificial, mainly when you consider our natural language ability. To sum up, a folk understanding of language, or rather an unscientific approach as the only expression—reveals the location of “that question” concerning knowledge made explicit. Furthermore, denoting a folk understanding of language should not sound pejorative; it is far from it. Language can be defined as the experience of expression—which internalizes all the dominions of knowledge as, linguistically and evidentially sought, relevant for linguistics and prelinguistic knowledge about language. However, aiming for a foundation is not done without its dangers. The danger of that allure begins with uncritical uses of the phrase, “what is it we know when we know a language.” This phrase, in that sense, acts analogously, albeit loosely, like an axiom in mathematics. This is when the epistemic realization of that question takes shape—not merely as a question but now as an instructive axiomatic question with significant linguistic categories.
The question hides the axiom, but the axiom drives the results of research endeavors? This hiding—if left uncriticized—can find fault in specific domains of our shared linguistic effort. It will be like seeking answers to the wrong questions. The intention is correct, yet our justification’s structure will be untrue and blind to the axiomatic question “what is it we know when we know a language.” The usefulness of the results or the pragmatic effect of this justification cannot be judged if the axiom is never brought into the light and understood in foundational and systematic reasoning. It seeks to make reference to the system of linguistics. The irony is that there is no linguistic system that everyone agrees on, and, furthermore, linguistics has as many fields as the church has denominations. There is no underlying principle common to all linguistics besides the general idea that we are studying language. Therefore, there has to be a foundation even if nobody sees or agrees upon its contents. To deny a foundation is, in many ways, ironic. Because to deny a foundation is, at the same time, to posit a different kind of foundation, which raises additional epistemic questions that can lead to a balanced skepticism in our uses of linguistic systems.
Here is an excellent place to pause, and I realize this whole endeavor may conceptually feel like walking on a razor’s edge—and I don’t blame you! My ideas aren’t fully elucidated to where I desire; nevertheless, asking the hard metalinguistic questions I believe can significantly enrich our hypothesizing as we design our inquiry. Knowledge is possible.