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One Word order ? : conceptual syntagmatics, linguistic imperialism, and the consequences of english syntax for scientific discourse

Abstract : Is there information encoded within English syntax? For J.J. Hayes-Rivas, and other scientists like him, this question has serious consequences. In his May 28, 2004, letter to Science, entitled "One World Scientific Language?" Hayes-Rivas raises this dire warning against our adoption of Standard English as a lingua franca in the sciences: What will we be losing when all scientists write and think in a language that hems the description of facts and theories into a single Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order? I do not think that one universal SVO language in science, to the exclusion of others, should be underestimated in its potential for severely skewing how scientists look at the world, time, space, and causality. (p. 1243)Steven Pinker (2007), in his book The Stuff of Thought, cites this passage as an example of the pervasive influence of a neo-Worfian Linguistic Determinism on our thoughts about language in general (p. 135), but he leaves Hayes-Rivas's specific allegations against English syntax untouched. In this paper, we will test the proposition that a form of linguistic imperialism is, necessarily, operating at the level of SVO in English--not to deny that concepts of time, space, and causality are embedded there--but rather to challenge the assumption that those concepts are the only ones available to English, or indeed, to any language. Our methodology will be to challenge generative grammar on its own terms. Our tools will be the establishment of a conceptual syntagmatics, an extension of conceptual semantics, which Pinker (2007) describes as the theory "that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought" (p. 150), from the paradigmatic axis of word choice to the syntagmatic axis of word order.As a demonstration, we compare topicalised, inverted or non-SVO, sentences against their standard, "fixed," SVO equivalents, to determine whether there is richer informational content present in the interplay between the two than is present in the strict SVO version alone. We conduct this thought experiment for three reasons: (1) to provide an alternative to generative linguistic's tendency (a) to view all topicalisations as information-neutral Surface Structures, (b) reduce them to their SVO Deep Structures, and (c) stop there, (2) to add information-generating topicalisations to the list of possible syntactic innovations that evolutionary linguists cite as adaptive advantages in the development of human language, and (3) to isolate what may be the very wholesale loss of information that Hayes-Rivas fears we would experience in our headlong conversion to the supposedly "one universal SVO" of English word order. Thus, what a conceptual syntagmatics can contribute to the debate over whether English's prevalence in world scientific discourse is a form of linguistic imperialism goes far beyond mere pedantry or hyperbole. It speaks to our underlying linguistic assumptions. It speaks to what amounts to our historical amnesia. It speaks to the rhetorical discursive walls we draw up between the "arts" and the "sciences." More importantly, however, in light of both our fears--and dreams--of English as a One World Scientific Language, it reminds us that ideologies, even at the syntactic level, are only as effective as we say they are.
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Peter J. Roccia. One Word order ? : conceptual syntagmatics, linguistic imperialism, and the consequences of english syntax for scientific discourse. Communiquer dans un monde de normes. L'information et la communication dans les enjeux contemporains de la " mondialisation "., Mar 2012, France. pp.334. ⟨hal-00826094v3⟩

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