Here is an utterly left-field video I saw today, in the context of my day job (because my CTO is awesome). It’s knowledge management consultancy stuff, but I think it goes some of the way to explaining why I love linguistics:
- Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.
- Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
Language, like most interesting human phenomena, is a Complex system:
- Things aren’t utterly random, as in Chaotic systems. It is possible to make sense of what is going on.
- Things aren’t just “one plus one equals two, why are you even asking me?”, as in Simple systems. You need expertise and discernment to make sense of what is going on.
- Of course, ill-informed laypeople think language is Simple. That’s the whole Mencken aphorism: “life is full of simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”
- Because language is Complex, you’ll never solve everything, because the interplay is too complex. But you can keep poking away at it with a succession of hypotheses, and getting a better handle on it. And because it is Complex, you’re never going to run out of things to discover.
- Language is not Complicated, such that an Expert can come up with the complete solution. However, the hypotheses you come up with in the Complex slice are the business of experts, herding together and debating. And they’re fun, because they exercise your expertise. As long as you remember that they are, ultimately, just models.
So I love linguistics because it is a mental challenge (not Simple), and it is inexhaustible (not Complicated), yet it is still tractable (not Chaotic), and it is amenable to the scientific method (Complex).
Of course, that makes linguistics the same as the social sciences, which are Complex for the same reason: humans are involved, so a lot of causal factors are colliding at once. That doesn’t say why I love linguistics and not sociology. I guess that was simply because I was interested in language learning and linguistic patterns. But that’s what kept me interested.
Do you get why I loathe Chomsky now? His approach makes a point of discarding everything in language that makes it Complex. When you reduce language from a Complex to a Complicated system, you’ve reduced it to maths.
Maths is truly a beautiful thing. But language isn’t maths.
(Neither is neurology, which is what Chomsky thinks he’s doing.)