Limiting the Arbitrary: Linguistic Naturalism and its Opposites in Plato's Cratylus and Modern Theories of Language. (Studies in the History of the Language Sciences Series, 96.) Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2000. Pp. ix, 224. ISBN: 1556197497.
The idea that some aspects of language are 'natural', while others are arbitrary, artificial or derived, runs all through modern linguistics, from Chomsky's GB theory and Minimalist program and his concept of E- and I-language, to Greenberg's search for linguistic universals, Pinker's views on regular and irregular morphology and the brain, and the markedness-based constraints of Optimality Theory. Limiting the Arbitrary traces the heritage of this linguistic naturalism back to its locus classicus, Plato's dialogue Cratylus. Part One is a detailed examination of the linguistic arguments in the Cratylus. Part Two follows three of the dialogue's naturalistic themes through subsequent linguistic history -- natural grammar and conventional words, from Aristotle to Pinker; natural dialect and artificial language, from Varro to Chomsky; and invisible hierarchies, from Jakobson to Optimality Theory -- in search of a way forward beyond these seductive yet spurious and limiting dichotomies.
"[A] must-read for any serious linguist, let alone a linguistic historiographer. [The author's] mission is to challenge linguists to reflect on their own fundamental assumptions and to recognize that there is nothing much new under the sun — and in this he succeeds admirably. The whole is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read." Nicola McLelland, Trinity College, Dublin
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