Linguistic Theorizing – Approaches

Linguistic theory is the theoretical framework used in the study and understanding of language. There are three (Externalists, Emergentists and Essentialists) main approaches to theorizing the science of linguistics. These three approaches differ in what they consider as subject matter, the approach adopted to studying it and the answer considered right to subject of discussion.

The Externalists

Externalists are of the belief that the goal of linguistic theory is development of the right models for speech, words, sentences, phrases and similar linguistic matter. This would also include written and spoken material which has been recorded and filed for the purpose of studying linguistic structures. The goal, according to the externalists is to describe how the models show individual characteristics which are predictable and projectable. Corpora plays the main role for the externalists in their study of linguistics. The externalists believe that clear discernment and understanding between the speaker and listener is important for linguistics to play a role.

Early and mid 20th century American structural linguists were the champions of this approach. This approach is still popular in computational linguistics where corpora undergoes automatic analysis to study language. With the advancement of technology, easy availability and access of information, computationally available and searchable corpora is regularly used in the study of the structure of language.

The Emergentists

This group of scientists approach linguistics not simply as science but heavily influenced by social factors. Human nature, like thinking, socializing, communicating are factors that affect the nature of language. Sociolinguists, a branch of the emergentists, study the interdependence and influence of social and language structures. For instance, social class and stature has been found to have an influence and affect the very structure of language and speech. Functionalists, another branch of the emergentists, perceive language as a system of communicative social interaction. Mind and its capacity to interpret and apply signs and symbols to the use and understanding of language by humans is studied in this branch. Functionalists believe that syntax is influenced by pragmatic, cognitive and semantic factors.

The Essentialists

The Essentialists study the very basic properties and characteristics of language to understand what gives language its particular character and feature. They look for unique, unusual characteristics of language which are not obviously evident, readily interpreted from available information and generally not really predictable when studying human nature or communication. They try and understand how it is that irrespective of socio-economic upbringing and general intelligence level, young children start communicating, talking and writing at an equal level. It stands to reason then that there is some inherent features common in all languages that help in learning the understanding it unconsciously.

Each of the three approaches are different and have very strong points to their case. However, most researchers while studying linguistics, do not just apply one approach, but take relevant elements from one or more of them. Even followers from one of the approaches can take inspiration and ideas from the other as long as it is relevant to the subject matter at hand.