Dissolving classifications: Rethinking linguistic typology

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Title: Dissolving classifications: Rethinking linguistic typology
Author: Cummings, Elisabeth Alma
Advisor: Tyler, Stephen A.
Degree: Doctor of Philosophy thesis
Abstract: The three traditional strands of linguistics--theoretical, typological, and genealogical--are discussed as constructed systems of classification seeking to impose order in various ways on the world's rambunctious languages. All three strands are based on Indo-European grammatical expectations, they are enabled by literacy, and they have been empowered by a scientific mode of thought which has been dominant in the West. The postulation of "Language" as an abstract object of study is seen to emanate from an epistemology of logico-mathematics, alphabetic literacy, and the demands of a scientific methodology; note is made of the power of the Platonic metaphor. There is a growing lack of dogmatic acceptance of the three traditional linguistic approaches: the classificatory attempts to tame language are, in fact, dissolving. A focus on typological linguistics is introduced by a tracing of typological thought from 1800 to 1963. Influences from within and from without philology and linguistics which contributed to the delineation of the subfield are commented upon. The historical and epistemological interface between theoretical, typological, and genealogical linguistics is probed. The concentration on typological classification is continued by in-depth discussions of two languages which are of the statistically rare word order in which the object precedes the subject: Hixkaryana (Carib) OVS, and Tzotzil (Mayan) VOS. Interpretations of sentential word order in these languages are provided from a psychological-functional approach to discourse. The order in these languages is found to constitute an anomaly from current theoretical viewpoints: they are grammatically object-subject, functionally rheme-theme, and psychologically "diffuse"-"focused". Grammatical subjects and objects are found to have limited relevance for an understanding of the discourse of these languages. The evidence from these languages and the detailed study of the imagination which has come to dominate the study of language are meant to comprise a contribution to the dissolution of the traditional classificatory linguistic approaches. Alternatives are suggested, both implicitly and explicitly. Unified attempts to classify the world's languages in the three traditional manners are possible; the many publications devoted to this enterprise bear witness to this fact. It is suggested that what can be principally learned from these publications is an insight into the self of Western culture, and into that mode of thought which has been dominant in the West for so long.
Citation: Cummings, Elisabeth Alma. (1989) "Dissolving classifications: Rethinking linguistic typology." Doctoral Thesis, Rice University.
Date: 1989

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