> Dialogue > Dialogue

Like language itself, linguistics continues to evolve

By Zhang Qingli and Zhang Jie | 2014-12-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

William S-Y. Wang

William S-Y. Wang, a distinguished contemporary linguist, served as professor of the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, between 1966 and 1994. He has established a Department of Linguistics and a Department of East Asian Languages at Ohio State University and served as the first chairman of both. He founded the Journal of Chinese Linguistics, the first international publication in the field, and was elected president of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics when it was founded in 1992.

In recent years, linguists have come out of the universities and headed into the field. Aided by the latest scientific methodologies, they are cooperating with anthropologists and geneticists to bring evolutionary Linguistics into the realm of interdisciplinary studies, generating a wealth of academic achievements. Wang is a pioneer in this field. Although he has turned 80, he still keeps in step with the latest trends in the development of linguistics. CSST reporters sat with Professor Wang to discuss hot issues and research achievements in contemporary linguistics.


CSST: Some have put forth the idea that linguistic research tends to be theoretical and marginalized. What value does linguistic research have as an applied science?


Wang: Issues of theorization and marginalization really exist in linguistic research. Previously, in the United States, some thought that linguistic research was too abstract and its study was far removed from the practical application of language. But in fact linguistic research can make a lot of contributions.


First of all, linguistic research is beneficial for language instruction. In order to understand how a person masters another language, linguists should compare the learner’s native language with the target language to predict potential issues and design textbooks accordingly.


Secondly, linguistic research can assist people in understanding congenital or accidental symptoms, such as aphasia and dyslexia, to develop medical treatments.


Lastly, linguistic research has been utilized in technology. The ability of modern-day computers to hear, speak, read and write, and things we use daily, such as telephone directory assistance and phonetic entry method in computers and mobile phones, are all applications of linguistics in technology. These technologies still have ample room for development.


CSST: In the past decade, have there been any notable changes in linguistic research?


Wang: Previously, linguists hadn’t fully realized the great discrepancy among different languages. In recent years, linguistic typology has drawn more and more attention. People have gradually started to realize differences among languages to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of its cause and meaning.


People who studied languages were once fond of drawing tree graphs but ignored bi-directional transmission. But today’s linguists have found that when they study linguistic changes, they must consider both vertical and horizontal transmission since each language is the outcome of these two transmissions. Also, more and more linguists are discussing the reflection of these two transmissions in the brain, which is a promising trend in the future studies of linguistics.


CSST: How does evolutionary linguistics evolve, and what theories is it based on?


Wang: Since Darwin and Mendel’s research findings came together to form a coherent theory of evolution, our knowledge of life and behavior has undergone dramatic changes. Both living beings (including humans) and behaviors, including languages and words, have diversified quickly. Languages are the outcome of the interaction between organic and cultural evolution. Therefore, evolutionary linguistics should not only study the existing linguistic phenomena but also explore why languages have changed in this manner.


In 1863, German linguist August Schleicher for the first time addressed the relationship between evolutionary theory and linguistics. In the past half a century, successive events have advanced the development of evolutionary linguistics. For instance, Charles F. Hockett published “The Origin of Speech” in Scientific American in 1960. The New York Academy of Sciences convened the Annual Meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City in 1975 which attracted approximately 1,000 attendees from multiple disciplines, such as anthropology and zoology.


The University of Edinburgh held the first seminar on linguistic evolution in 1996. In 2009, a series of seminars of China’s First Conference in Evolutionary Linguistics were convened in Guangzhou, and later Nankai University, Fudan University, Peking University and Chinese University of Hong Kong all held related seminars.


CSST: Compared to traditional historical linguistics, what fields does evolutionary linguistics advance?


Wang: Traditional historical linguistics, especially in the field of Indo-European languages, started early and accumulated extraordinary achievements. Since Indo- European linguistics originated in the 19th century, the fundamental research method was to draw tree graphs, which were roughly influenced by the theory of biological evolution.


August Schleicher began drawing one of the earliest tree graphs a long time ago. But the biggest shortcoming of a tree graph is that it can only show the vertical transmission of language and fails to show the horizontal. Moreover, these two transmissions are usual phenomena in linguistic evolution. Therefore, the method of historical linguistics for studying related languages has expanded from the perspective of vertical transmission to horizontal transmission.


Thirty years ago, I worked with Professor Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza to use a statistical approach of genetics to analyze the horizontal transmission in a group of languages from the South Pacific, which indicated the regularity of this horizontal evolution of language. Later, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza wrote an inspirational article on linguistics on the basis of genetics.


Recently, Shen Zhongwei from the University of Massachusetts has deeply analyzed a mass of horizontal transmissions among Chinese dialects and he took full advantage of ethnic minorities’ linguistic data to obtain meaningful results. When studying linguistic changes, importance should be attached to both vertical and horizontal transmissions. Every language is a mixture and a completely pure language has never existed in the world.


This is how linguistic transmission differs from biological transmission. Linguistic evolution is a significant part of cultural evolution and cannot be separated from many factors of society, which was clearly indicated in recent computer simulations.


CSST: How are new scientific approaches changing the study of linguistics?


Wang: Language is a complex adaptive system, and grammar, pragmatics, rhyme and characters are just a part of this complicated system. The study of different levels of languages requires diverse measures and cooperation with other disciplines. From the perspective of three scales of linguistic evolution, we should combine history, geography and cultural knowledge to study linguistic changes as well as understand childhood development and psychological experiments to study acquisition of language.


Research on two scales of linguistic evolution—change and acquisition— has made quite a bit of progress in the 19th and 20th century, but research on the third scale— applying science to linguistics —has evolved relatively late. So it requires us to completely understand similarities and differences between humans and other animals and be familiar with thousands of years of mankind’s unique evolutionary history in order to solve the mystery of how language emerges out of nothing.


Fortunately, brain research in recent decades has made extraordinary progress and brought about new opportunities to linguistic research. Previously, people could only dissect a brain to figure out whether or not certain areas of the brain have a direct relation with language. However, we can take advantage of technologies, such as EEG, MEG and MRI, to directly observe and measure the brain’s linguistic function.


These new technologies enable us to have a better idea of language, and linguistics has to make the best of new technologies and new knowledge to promote its own development.



The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 674, Dec. 1, 2014

The Chinese link: http://sscp.cssn.cn/xkpd/dh/201412/t20141201_1423150.html


                                            Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                             Revised by Justin Ward