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Searching for a new, universal grammar

German-British project approved

Munich, 03/13/2009

In the view that has prevailed for the past 400 years, language is a means to express thoughts that exist independently of it. Languages are arbitrary tools for designating objects, to which they are connected by means of agreement and convention. There is, however, an older tradition dating back to the 13th century, in which language is not arbitrary. The new “Un-Cartesian Linguistics” research project takes inspiration from this tradition and aims to show that language not so much expresses thoughts as generating them. The project is based on a cooperation between researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität (LMU) München and Durham University, and aims to work out a new concept of universal grammar based on these medieval ideas. They are supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and its British counterpart, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The project is directed by Professors Elisabeth Leiss of German Linguistics at LMU and  Wolfram Hinzen at Durham University.

That language reflects and expresses thoughts is a major tenet of the axiomatics which underpins the tradition described by linguist Noam Chomsky as “Cartesian linguistics”. Cartesian linguists maintained that thinking possesses a certain degree of autonomy in regard to language: language “translates” the accomplishments of the intellect or reason, which supplies the “content” for language. Here language itself is no more than a material or phonetic vehicle, whose symbols only have a random or arbitrary relationship with the thoughts expressed. Thoughts have an existence independent of language, being determined by the laws of logic and reason rather than by grammar.

In an “ideal” language, in contrast, grammar and logic would be accorded equal value. This was indeed one aim of the numerous general or philosophical grammars published since the 17th century. These focused on preserving the unity of the grammars of all human languages, to counter the emerging tradition of national philologies.

As opposed to this, the “Un-Cartesian Linguistics” project aims to link back to an alternative tradition of universal grammar: that of the so-called modistic grammars which arose in the 13th century, and attempted to provide philosophical grounds for grammatical categories. According to this tradition, the structure of existence is reflected in the structure of language, in the same way in all languages. In line with these early universal grammars, the German-British project regards language as non-arbitrary, and thus not random: the pattern and system of language symbols is, according to this paradigm, also the pattern and system of thinking. Both systems reflect the ordering principles of reality.

Modistic grammars were “philosophical” in the sense that language is the mode by which we attain knowledge of the world. Thus a modistic philosophy of language is a theory of language as “copy” or “reflection”, but additionally provided with an elaborated theory of grammar which defines the latter as an instrument of perspectivist representation of the world. Grammar is thus the tool by means of which we codify systematically structured perspectives of the world. Language provides a template allowing us to grasp the world and bring it into a specifically human-related, cognitive format.

The “Un-Cartesian Linguistics” project takes its starting point from these fundamental ideas. Its aim is to connect linguistics and philosophy in a seamless whole, so as to systematically develop a new philosophical perspective on language.

Professor Elisabeth Leiss
Chair  of German Linguistics
Tel.: ++49 (0) 89 / 2180-2339

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