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Rethinking Comparative Syntax (ReCoS)

Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Studying at Cambridge


Un-Cartesian Linguistics

Un-Cartesian Linguistics (Durham University)

Project Website

For 400 years a guiding philosophical intuition on the nature of language has been that language is a - more or less deficient - medium for expressing our thoughts. But thoughts as such are independent of language. Linguistic signs, which serve the purpose of expressing thought, are arbitrary and regulated by convention. This view is a decisive component of the general, or rational, grammars arising in the 17th century, which was taken up and updated in the Chomskyan project of generative (universal) grammar. This project argues that this early modern, Cartesian axiomatics is at the root of a number of theoretical and empirical impasses in current linguistic theory. Another, non-rationalist, conception of universal grammar is developed, which is historically inspired by a second, today largely forgotten, universal grammar tradition: the late medieval Modistic grammars. These are guided by the leading idea that language is non-arbitrary: the organization of the linguistic sign is the organization of thought, with both organizations reflecting the structure of the real. Rather than assuming that thought is independent of language, the intuition that the grammaticalization of the hominid brain gave rise to a sapiens-specific mode of thought is pursued, which changed the organization of meaning radically. One of the more obvious challenges to this view is putative evidence supporting an 'autonomist' conception of grammar. Against such a conception it is heuristically assumed that there are no processes in grammar that are arbitrary in regards to either their phonetic or semantic interpretation.