Sunday, April 13, 2014

Linguistics in the Era of Technology


As heirs to over two millennia of language studies, we find ourselves at a point where the very role of linguistics is disputed and sometimes claimed to be incompatible with the rapid technological progress of our civilization. However, such assertions are usually made by those not familiar with the state of modern language science and its prospects for the future. The fact that the last fifty years saw more written studies on language than the previous 2, 500 is in itself indicative of the liveliness and maturity of the linguistic science. The number of universities offering courses in linguistics has been growing rapidly in the last three decades, and the number of linguists and linguistic theories has led to an amazing, though somewhat bewildering, development and expansion of the field.

 State of the art

 A common misconception in studying linguistics, or any other subject, is that it can be viewed from the perspective of the present moment.An intrinsic of property of human language is that it is a continually evolving system and the linguistic science is therefore faced with the challenge of following and describing this ever-changing object. Linguistics thus incessantly evolves, not only because of new ideas and theories, but also because of the external influences such as the social context and the dominant priorities, interests and intellectual premises. At present, these external influences are reflected in the growing scientificization of linguistics, which will be discussed in the next section. Language is today seen as a universal faculty that can be used by any living being as a means of conveying information.

The study of language in Europe has passed through a number of different stages and changed the main direction several times. We can trace the beginnings of modern linguistics to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the notion of grammars based on universalist principles and of all languages sharing common features was first developed. Since then, a number of different methods and theories have been proposed. Ferdinand de Saussure lay the foundations to the modern structural linguistics. Edward Sapir explored the relations between language studies and anthropology and his methodology remained very influential. After the Second World War linguistics began to fragment into a number of different sub-fields, leading to the emergence of psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics that have remained significant fields of study to the present day. Noam Chomsky's Transformational- Generative grammar determined the mainstream of linguistics in the last four decades of the 20th century. His Government and Binding Theory (1979) has had a great impact on the field, though since 1991 Chomsky himself turned his attention away from GB and toward the 'minimalist programme'. A large number of scholars today are working on the minimalist programme, investigating features shared by all languages. At present, however, it is not possible to see one single approach as mainstream in linguistics. It would be more accurate to say that the greatest significance is given to a group of generative theories: minimalism, GB, lexical-functional grammar, relational grammar etc. .

Noam Chomsky,Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at MIT. Father of modern linguistics.

The 20th century saw an expansion of the field of linguistics to include a number of non-Indo- European languages. Progress has been made in the classification of African and South-East-Asian languages, as well as the languages of Papua New Guinea, South America and Australia, to name just some. There have also been advances in reconstruction and subgrouping of Austronesian, Semitic and Uralic languages. Judging by the number of recent publications and conference papers, as well as by the number of scholars working in this area and the range of their activities, this field of research is likely to flourish in the coming years.
Another significant feature of contemporary linguistics is that it has developed into an interdisciplinary science, comprising of a number of subfields. Other areas of study have been incrporated into its subject material, leading to the emergence of psycholinguistics, biolinguistics, sociolinguistics, ethnolinguistics, computational linguistics and many other areas that are today linked more strongly than ever before. 

Apparently, the knowlegde of the neighbouring disciplines such as sociology, psychology or neuroscience has helped linguistics gain a deeper perspective. On the other hand, language science can for its own part contribute greatly to the store of knowledge in the other fields of science. For instance, a few years ago geneticists proudly announced their discovery that Finns have Asian origins, judging by the research into Y polymorphisms, male mutations prevalent in Asia that also turned out to be common in the Finnish population. If they had been familiar with recent linguistic research, they would not have given so much significance to this discovery. Namely, linguistic comparisons showed that the Finnish language is Uralic from Northern Asia several decades before this 'great breakthrough' in genetics.

Scientificization of linguistics
It would be unrealistic to believe that the amazing technological progress that marked the 20th century has not influenced the field of linguistics. However, contrary to the pessimistic claims of some of our conteporaries, the language science is today perhaps more alive than ever; technological revolution has only given it new methods and new perspectives. In this section we shall focus on the impact of technology on linguistics and the place and function of linguistics in the contemporary world.A unique property of linguistics is that it simultaneously belongs to the world of natural science on one hand, and the worlds of philosophy, aestetics, rhetoric and literary criticism on the other. However, we are today witnessing a rapid realignment of linguistics away from this second group of disciplines and its rapprochement with mathematics and computer science. The culmination of the scientificization of linguistics is reflected in the use of tables, formulas, statistics and calculations, in the use of mathematical schemata and the increased systematicity in the study of language. Further, wholly new directions and sub-disciplines have recently emerged and they seem to offer fruitful prospects for future research.

Technological developments have had an enormous impact on all areas of language study. The compilations of lexical databases have led to unprecedented advances in the study of the lexicon; research in phonetics is benefitting from new types of intrumentation and computational analyses; the use of statistics and computer-based experiments allows new kinds of research in psycholinguistics; computational analyses are also useful in sociolinguistics and language planning. Even space technology can be applied to the study of language: it was used in 1970 for the image enhancement of old manuscrips, and is today used to examine an illegible part ot tha Beowulf Manuscript.

New directions

The language science as we know it today has adapted itself to include and benefit from the technical innovations, rather than be overshadowed by them. The technical revolution has led to the emergence and rise of several new fields of study that are likely to play the leading role in linguistics in the coming decades. What is more, these linguistic sub-disciplines give evidence of the fact that language studies have pragmatic value in our modernized world, countering the claims that linguistics is today useless and outdated. In the following sections, I briefly describe and discuss such major new directions.

Computational linguistics

In the most general terms, computational linguistics implies the application of the concepts of computer science to the study of language. It is now growing immensely, especially in machine translation.
The idea of machines that would produce language is almost four centuries old; naturally, at that time, it was nothing but a fantasy of a curious mind. Today, there is nothing strange or even very challenging in the concept. Computers were first used for this purpose in 1946, generating translations from Russian into English. However, these and subsequent translations were very limited in possibilities and required a lot of post-editing. Since then, several systems have been developed and computational linguistics and machine translation began to attract increasing attention from scholars. Although certain advances were made, most systems of machine translation were usually limited to the language of certain professions and they did not progress beyond simple substitution of words in one natural language with words in another. In 1964 the ALPAC report, designed to evaluate the progress made in machine translation and computational linguistics, expressed a pessimistic and highly skeptical view on this matter. Consequently, the popularity of this field and the scope of attention and funding given to it decreased significantly.

At the close of the twentieth century, machine translation is once again a hot subject in both linguistics and computer science. With the development of corpus techniques, more complex translations may be attempted, trancending the old word-for-word approach. A number of models are being proposed and certain systems can achieve accuracy of 95% , though still only within the specific terminologies of certain professions. Judging by the number of institutes, seminars and conferences devoted to its study, machine translation is likely to remain a major field of research in the 21st century, as well as a commercially highly profitable discipline. We may thus expect an increase in funding and a rapid development of knowledge-based models, though, in my opinion, the problems such as syntactic ambiguity and world knowledge will not be resolved in the nearest future.

Cognitive linguistics

A growing and diverse field called cognitive science, the study of the structure and functioning of human cognitive processes, has had a huge impact on modern linguistics. Incorporating aspects of linguistics, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and computer science, cognitive science aims to discover the cognitive processes underlying the acquisition and use of knowledge. Its interdisciplinary nature allows it to view the world outside the mind as other sciences do and draw from their experience and expertise. For instance, understanding how programmes and hardware are related in computer science we may, by analogy, better understand how human knowledge is related to the neural structure of the brain.

Cognitive linguistics aims to explore language in terms of evolutionary-developed faculties, showing how human language is interestingly related to human cognition. It is now rapidly developing into different compatible frameworks. Although the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive linguistics is mostly reflected in its connections with other branches of cognitive science, it is nowadays expanding to include the domains of discourse, pragmatics, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics. The greatest step in this direction was made at the 8th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference held at the University of La Rioja in 2003, aimed to make relevant connections between cognitive linguistics and other approaches to language.

At the beginning of the 21st century, cognitive linguistics is one of the major fields of research, drawing increasing interest from scientists worldwide. International Cognitive Linguistics Association (ICLA) connects researchers in cognitive linguistics and is extremely active in organizing conferences, fostering regional affiliates and sponsoring various publications in the field. In the 2000s regional Cognitive Linguistics Associations, affiliated to ICLA, began to emerge. Cognitive linguistics conferences and publications are growing in number and range in many countries, to the extent that it is difficult to keep track of them all.

In 1980, in his book Schools of Linguistics, Geoffrey Sampson wrote: “I venture to predict...that as the linguistics of the immediate past has been psychological linguistics, so the linguistics of the near future will be biological linguistics”. At the birth of the twenty-first century, we may confirm that his prediction was accurate. Biolinguistics has become one of the major areas of research, drawing increasing interest from scientists.Basically, biolinguistics deals with the biological side of the language, trying to translate the linguistic phenomena into terms of muscular movement and glandular secretion. The first comprehensive book on the bilogical side of language was Handbook of Biolinguistics by Meader and Muyskens, published in 1950. They named the branch “biolinguistics” and laid the foundations of the area that is to prove extremely productive at the close of the 20th century. Interestingly, subsequent research mostly focused on the study of individuals with injured brains and has only recently begun to go beyond such studies.
Biolinguistics is today faced with the task of answering three main questions:
1)Where in the brain are speech and language localized?
2)How does the nervous system function to encode and decode speech and language?
3)Are the components of language – phonology, syntax, semantics – neuroanatomically distinct and therefore vulnerable to separate impairment?
The growing sophistication of available equipment and new generations of instrumentation have led to great advances in the field, but no definite answers to these questions have been found as yet. They remain the guiding principles for future research in the field that seems to be blossoming at the present moment.


As we have seen, modern linguistics has not diminished in significance under the influence of the tecnological revolution. Having adapted itself to conteporary trends and interests, it continues to attract great attention from scholars worldwide. Intensive research in computational linguistics promises to open the door to an entire new world of discovery, in ways we can hardly yet comprehend. Cognitive linguistigs offers useful help in understanding the general nature of human knowledge, whereas the growing field of biolinguistics can give significant insight into the functioning of the human brain, often described as the next intellectual frontier. Apparently, linguistics is mostly used for pragmatic purposes that are of value to the contemporary world and is more and more strongly related to other disciplines, espacially natural and computer science.