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Contemporary linguistics turns to living world

Author  :  JIAN SHENGYU     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-10-19

Contemporary linguistics is shifting focus to the living world, in other words, from static studies of internal linguistic structure to dynamic research on the formation of language. In terms of research scope, it has extended from phonetics, lexis, grammar, and the like to a broader social space.

Meanwhile, more attention has been drawn towards connecting with other disciplines, thus generating cross-disciplinary influence. Research outcomes in contemporary linguistics have important implications for philosophy, literature, art, cultural studies, and other areas. Academia can not only examine linguistics itself with historical and dialectical attitudes, but also study a myriad of complicated language phenomena in daily life more holistically and clearly from linguistic perspectives.

Returning to live dialogues

Contemporary linguistics advocates for the idea of returning to the live scene of dialogue, with the key purpose of reflecting on and improving the mindset and research methodologies of traditional structural linguists.

Previously, structural linguistics, as represented by famed Swiss linguist, semiotician, and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, has been grounded in the philosophy of subjectivity, dividing speech acts into a dual structure of langue and parole. The dichotomy imposes a hierarchy upon langue and parole. It contends that langue is social, original, essential, and regular, while parole is individual, derivative, changeable, and phenomenal. In short, the former is superior to, and dominates, the latter.

Structural linguistics notices the crucial role of speakers in parole, but regards them as isolated individuals, arguing that parole is an individual act. It is also aware of langue’s social nature and resultant continuous changes, but still considers it a stable system beyond individuals. For example, Saussure believes that changes in evolution are merely accidental. Changes will never implicate the whole system, instead they only concern certain factors within the grand system.

Given the drawback of structural linguistics focusing solely on the internal structure of language, contemporary linguistics emphasizes that the external environment, in which language is generated, should also be taken into account. Importance should be attached to both the rich and complex social environment behind speech acts on the macro level, and the specific context of dialogues between subjects on a micro level.

Renowned Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who champions dialogism in linguistics, noted that there is no language system that goes without man, and highlighted the need to return to the scene where utterances take place, because speakers’ discursive practices create language.

In general, regarding the relationship between individual subjects and language, traditional structural linguistics upholds the idea that “language represents me,” suggesting that langue is the source and basis of parole, while contemporary dialogical linguistics reverses this idea, arguing that “I am speaking language.” It emphasizes that language is constructed by utterances.

Because they regard langue as ontology and parole as products, structural linguists often devaluate individual speakers and live scenes of dialogue. They envision that langue, as an integrative structure, is constant and abstract, while parole is fleeting and concrete, as acts of implementation. When speakers act within the grand structure of language as individual subjects, they can only fine-tune the structure and to a limited extent.

Dialogical linguists, on the contrary, frown upon the tendency to depreciate the subjective role of speakers, as well as the dualism that separates speakers and their speech acts. They firmly believe that language is anything but an abstract system. Rather it is a dynamic structure, progressively in the making through everyday speech activities. Speakers’ utterances are regarded as the most sensitive signs of social changes. Speech acts are social and dialogical, and the subjects are speakers.

Many new language phenomena at present necessitate analysis within the paradigm of dialogical linguistics. These phenomena are proof that speakers are not appendages to the language system but are active constructors of language. They enrich and create new words and phrases through their own speech activities. Language is a product from the continuous process of innovation and screening.

Humans always live in specific dialogical contexts, and utter words in language environments, all the while constructing language. Changes to many social concepts are presented in new discursive forms when they mature, which cannot be fully explained within the grand system of structural linguistics. Therefore, linguistics needs to return to vivid, live scenes of dialogue, breaking away from the narrow internal research paradigm to a down-to-earth one.

Intersubjectivity essential

Contemporary linguistics is increasingly inclined to interpret speakers’ speech acts on the basis of life realities, paying attention to concrete issues like contexts and others’ voices based on intersubjectivity.

In modern philosophy, subjectivity is defined as the basis for making sense of human behaviors. The core of the famous proposition “I think, therefore I am,” put forward by pronounced French philosopher René Descartes, is to establish what subjects think as the fundamental basis for all judgments. This kind of subjectivity-based philosophy has deeply influenced the basic thinking pattern and research methodology of many other disciplines, including linguistics.

Structural linguistics made landmark contributions to segmenting the language structure, but its research remains within the framework of subjectivity. While attending to abstract subjectivity, it overlooks specific individuals, ignoring the fact that individuals are only fully subjective when they converse and cooperate with others. In studies of structural linguistics, the language structure is above specific contexts, and speakers are passive undertakers of the huge language structure. Structural linguists view speakers’ speech acts by separating individuals, failing to notice that utterances of speakers actually contain a significant amount of “indirect speech” from others.

Contemporary linguistics, in comparison, strives to upgrade the subjectivity thinking pattern into intersubjectivity. As Karl Marx’s claim that “man is, in essence, a totality of social relations” reveals, there is no individual who is absolutely isolated from others in real life. Utterances from each of us interweave with others’ voices. Nor does language exist alone, in an ideal model. Instead, it evolves dynamically amid communication, gaming, and integration among a multitude of speakers.

In this process, contextual factors have a direct bearing on original codes of language, word formation, and grammar, either economizing the language’s initial content or endowing it with something new, and sometimes even distorting the original language structure.

In the long term, it’s exactly due to the existence of contexts and others’ voices that the language of each civilization evolves with history and absorbs new materials from discursive communication, making its content richer and more vigorous with time.

Traditional structural linguistics is criticized as abstract objectivism by contemporary academia because it does not pay sufficient attention to a series of historical and specific key factors, like speakers and their dialogical interaction. In fact, these factors are closely related to the generation of speech that builds and props up the entire dynamic structure of language. From a microscopic perspective, the intonation, pace, and tone of “my” speech are all critical to its meaning. It is therefore necessary to delve into the context of utterances.

On the macro level, “my” utterances contain various ideas from our times, reflecting many social thoughts. They usually echo voices of others and the times. The new meaning of utterances is presented in dialogues among different speakers.

Bakhtin writes that “our speech is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of ‘our-own-ness’…These words of others carry with them their own expression, and their own evaluative tone.” Speakers can use others’ words, but at the same time, they still make the words serve their own intentions.

For example, playing with geng, or a punchline, is a popular language phenomenon in China today, which vividly shows the influence of contexts and others’ voices in speech acts. The so-called geng originate from gen (fun) in Chinese xiangsheng (crosstalk), but it has gradually become a concept with increasingly rich connotations, referring to contemporary allusions in the internet context. The allusions stem from classical lines, buzzwords, and related creativities and scenes in films and TV shows, novels, and social phenomena. They have more extensive social impact than traditional idioms. However, due to limited scope of usage and influence, most gengs are short-lived, and have been, or will be, abandoned for aesthetic fatigue or because allusive sources are forgotten.

In conclusion, it is essential to place language in a dialogical structure through the lenses of dialectical and historical materialism, to lift linguistics from subjectivity to the height of intersubjectivity, and widen its research vision, thereby advancing the discipline from static internal research to studies of fresh utterances.


Jian Shengyu is a professor from the College of Fine Arts and Design at Yangzhou University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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