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2.1.3.1: 1.4 Corpus data in other sub-disciplines of linguistics

  • Page ID
    201513
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    Before we conclude our discussion of the supposed weaknesses of corpus data and the supposed strengths of intuited judgments, it should be pointed out that this discussion is limited largely to the field of grammatical theory. This in itself would be surprising if intuited judgments were indeed superior to corpus evidence: after all, the distinction between linguistic behavior and linguistic knowledge is potentially relevant in other areas of linguistic inquiry, too. Yet, no other sub-discipline of linguistics has attempted to make a strong case against observation and for intuited “data”.

    In some cases, we could argue that this is due to the fact that intuited judgments are simply not available. In language acquisition or in historical linguistics, for example, researchers could not use their intuition even if they wanted to, since not even the most fervent defendants of intuited judgments would want to argue that speakers have meaningful intuitions about earlier stages of their own linguistic competence or their native language as a whole. For language acquisition research, corpus data and, to a certain extent, psycholinguistic experiments are the only sources of data available, and historical linguists must rely completely on textual evidence.

    In dialectology and sociolinguistics, however, the situation is slightly different: at least those researchers whose linguistic repertoire encompasses more than one dialect or sociolect (which is not at all unusual), could, in principle, attempt to use intuition data to investigate regional or social variation. To my knowledge, however, nobody has attempted to do this. There are, of course, descriptions of individual dialects that are based on introspective data – the description of the grammar of African-American English in Green (2002) is an impressive example. But in the study of actual variation, systematically collected survey data (e.g. Labov et al. 2006) and corpus data in conjunction with multivariate statistics (e.g. Tagliamonte 2006) were considered the natural choice of data long before their potential was recognized in other areas of linguistics.

    The same is true of conversation and discourse analysis. One could theoretically argue that our knowledge of our native language encompasses knowledge about the structure of discourse and that this knowledge should be accessible to introspection in the same way as our knowledge of grammar. However, again, no conversation or discourse analyst has ever actually taken this line of argumentation, relying instead on authentic usage data.6

    Even lexicographers, who could theoretically base their descriptions of the meaning and grammatical behavior of words entirely on the introspectively accessed knowledge of their native language have not generally done so. Beginning with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), dictionary entries have been based at least in part on citations – authentic usage examples of the word in question (see Chapter 2).

    If the incompleteness of linguistic corpora or the fact that corpus data have to be interpreted were serious arguments against their use, these sub-disciplines of linguistics should not exist, or at least, they should not have yielded any useful insights into the nature of language change, language acquisition, language variation, the structure of linguistic interactions or the lexicon. Yet all of these disciplines have, in fact, yielded insightful descriptive and explanatory models of their respective research objects.

    The question remains, then, why grammatical theory is the only sub-discipline of linguistics whose practitioners have rejected the common practice of building models of underlying principles on careful analysis of observable phenomena. If I were willing to speculate, I would consider the possibility that the rejection of corpora and corpus-linguistic methods in (some schools of) grammatical theorizing are based mostly on a desire to avoid having to deal with actual data, which are messy, incomplete and often frustrating, and that the arguments against the use of such data are, essentially, post-hoc rationalizations. But whatever the case may be, we will, at this point, simply stop worrying about the wholesale rejection of corpus linguistics by some researchers until the time that they come up with a convincing argument for this rejection, and turn to a question more pertinent to this book: what exactly constitutes corpus linguistics?

    6 Perhaps Speech Act Theory could be seen as an attempt at discourse analysis on the basis of intuition data: its claims are often based on short snippets of invented conversations. The difference between intuition data and authentic usage data is nicely demonstrated by the contrast between the relatively broad but superficial view of linguistic interaction found in philosophical pragmatics and the rich and detailed view of linguistic interaction found in Conversation Analysis (e.g. Sacks et al. 1974, Sacks 1992) and other discourse-analytic traditions.


    This page titled 2.1.3.1: 1.4 Corpus data in other sub-disciplines of linguistics is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anatol Stefanowitsch (Language Science Press) .