The new big picture for linguistics: Complex systems

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William A. Kretzschmar Jr.


In the history of linguistics there have been crucial moments when those of us interestedin language have essentially changed the way we study our subject. We standnow at such a moment. In this presentation I will review the history of linguistics inorder to highlight some past important changes in the field, and then turn to wherewe stand now. Some things that we thought we knew have turned out not to be true,like the systematic, logical nature of languages. Other things that we had not suspected,like a universal underlying emergent pattern for all the features of a language, arenow evident. This emergent pattern is fractal, that is, we can observe the same distributionalpattern in frequency profiles for linguistic variants at every level of scale inour analysis. We also have hints that time, as the persistence of a preference for particularvariants of features, is a much more important part of our language than wehad previously believed. We need to explore the new realities of language as we nowunderstand them, chief among them the idea that patterned variation, not logical system,is the central factor in human speech. In order to account for what we now understand,we need to get used to new methods of study and presentation, and placenew emphasis on different communities and groups of speakers. Because the underlyingpattern of language is fractal, we need to examine the habits of every group ofspeakers at every location for themselves, as opposed to our previous emphasis onoverall grammars. We need to make our studies much more local, as opposed toglobal. We do still want to make grammars and to understand language in globalterms, but such generalizations need to follow from what we can now see as the patternof language as it is actually used.


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Kretzschmar Jr., W. A. (2018). The new big picture for linguistics: Complex systems. Yearbook of the Poznań Linguistic Meeting, 4(1), 1-20.


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