Is Linguistics a science?

I’ve been having a long-running argument with a friend about whether modern Linguistics can be called a science.

I maintain what I have written in my published papers that Systemic Functional Linguistics offers a complete description of the English language, which entitles it to be called scientific. There is no utterance in spoken or written English that cannot be exhaustively described in terms of this system. My friend argues that language is too complex and dynamic to be described in truly scientific terms. No linguistic school, she says, offers a universally agreed description of language such as the periodic table has established for the material world.

Some scientists argue that science is the mathematisation of knowledge. If that means that the elements of language can be reduced to numbers (as the elements of the material world are describable in terms of their atomic weight), then it is hard to see how Linguistics can ever be a true science. I am not sure, however, whether this may be too narrow a definition of mathematics.

What I have to admit is that there is no single description of language that is agreed by all linguists. When I did my MA in Applied Linguistics at Essex in the seventies, Chomsky’s Transformational Generative grammar dominated our studies. It formed the chief part of our course and examinations. At that time Systemic grammar was taught as an unexamined extra by a lecturer brought in on Thursday afternoons by an enthusiastic member of the academic staff. I was very happy about this because Systemics offers a much better description of actual texts than T.G. I first used it to describe literary texts in what was then the new discipline called Stylistics. It is also the system I used to describe academic texts in what became Breakthrough to Learning and The Language of Ideas.

However, T.G. is still going strong. Such influential popularisers of Linguistics as Steven Pinker are Chomskyans. Another school of Linguistics which claims to offer a definitive and quite different description of language is Kenneth Pike’s Tagmemics. I was also lucky enough to hear Michael Hoey lecture on the system which he has put forward, based on probability theory and the databases that computers have made possible. Maybe this will bring about the mathematization of Linguistics.

I have been looking at textbooks to recommend to teachers who want to learn about Linguistics and I have to admit that even written by academics working in the same framework (e.g. Systemic Functional grammar) do not use the same terminology for even basic linguistic entities. One replaces the traditional term deixis with pointers, for instance. This is not important in itself, but it does suggest that Linguistics is not a clearly fixed and agreed scientific subject.

Whatever the scientific status of Linguistics, there has been an eager market for the practical applications of the new and expanding knowledge about language, which will be the subject of another blog.







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