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The psychological status of words

Whereas Bloomfield and his successors regarded the practical utility of words as evidence that they were not suitable objects of scientific study (Hockett

Word and Paradigm Morphology. First edition. James P. Blevins © James P. Blevins 2016. First published 2016 by Oxford University Press

1987:81), proponents of word-based approaches drew the opposite conclusion, and attributed the pre-theoretical salience and practical usefulness of words to their ‘psychological reality’ in the minds of speakers. In a familiar discussion of this point, Sapir (1921) begins by considering the difference between abstracting words from sentences and abstracting roots from words:

But is not the word, one may object, as much of an abstraction as the radical element? Is it not as arbitrarily lifted out of the living sentence as the minimum conceptual element out of the word? (Sapir 1921:32f.)

In the continuation of this passage, Sapir suggests that it is the “psychological reality” of words that distinguishes them from roots and exponents:

Linguistic experience, both as expressed in standardized, written form and as tested in daily usage, indicates overwhelmingly that there is not, as a rule, the slightest difficulty in bringing the word to consciousness as a psychological reality. No more convincing test could be desired than this, that the naive Indian, quite unaccustomed to the concept of the written word, has nevertheless no serious difficulty in dictating a text to a linguistic student word by word; he tends, of course, to run his words together as in actual speech, but if he is called to a halt and is made to understand what is desired, he can readily isolate the words as such, repeating them as units. He regularly refuses, on the other hand, to isolate the radical or grammatical element, on the ground that it “makes no sense”. (Sapir 1921:33)

Hockett (1967) appeals similarly to the psychological status of words and paradigms in his comparison of WP and morphemic analyses of the verbal system of Yawelmani on p. 41 above. After acknowledging that a description of “the complex alternations of Yawelmani” in terms of paradigms and principal parts “would take much more space” in a written grammatical description than a morphemic analysis (221ft), he goes on to add that the loss of economy would be compensated by “a net gain in realism” on the grounds that “the student of the language would now be required to produce new forms in exactly the way that the native speaker produces or recognizes them—by analogy”.

For proponents of classical WP models, words are as central to first language acquisition as they are to explicit language instruction. Following on from a discussion of the pedagogical usefulness of words and paradigms (cited in the discussion of paradigms on p. 69 below), Matthews (1991:188) suggests that “it is not clear that, when native speakers learn a flexional language, they do not themselves learn words as wholes”. For Hermann Paul, the learning of paradigms and principal parts is merely a more explicit means of acquiring the knowledge of a native speaker, so that “the relation of the speaker to inflected forms in the moment of use”1 is “much the same as that which is gained through the natural acquisition of a first language”[1] [2] (Paul 1920:112).

From the ‘learning-based’ perspective outlined in Chapter 8, the pedagogical usefulness of words reflects the same formal and interpretive stability that determines the relevance of words to “the systematic study of language”. Within an approach that conceptualizes a speaker’s knowledge of a language in terms of a learning state, the optimal pedagogical description would be one that isolates the structure and patterns that learners must extract from input.

  • [1] “das Verhaltnis des Sprechenden zu den Flexionsformen in Augenblicke der Anwendung”.
  • [2] “ungefahr das namliche wie dasjenige, welches bei der naturlichen Erlernung der Muttersprachegewonnen wird”.
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