Category: philosophy

UG and its contribution to methodology

languagefacultyAcademically I have always been a generative linguist trained in the strict sense of formal linguistics and Universal Grammar. To some extent, it is not easy to look beyond your academic belief system. But once in a while a heated philosophical debate between the Unversalists and the Cognitivists would still catch my interest. I remember four or five years ago when I was still doing my dissertation in graduate school, one of my professors circulated a paper written by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues to counter the arguments from Daniel Everett on the lack of recursion in the Pirahã language. It was quite an eye-opener. Before that I had never questioned the fundamental beliefs in the generative linguistic field. Thus I digged deeper into the debate and found that Michael Tomasello had written a paper saying that language is not an instinct at all and there is nothing to the program of Universal Grammar. Then I read the paper written by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch on the core principle of UG, i.e. recursion. These papers really inspired me to look at the foundational issues in linguistics and particularly in generative linguistics. Although the cognitivist view on language is very interesting and probably would correct some biases in the formal field towards pure description and functional cognitive theories of language, such a view in general still seems to me to be lacking in methodological rigor and explanatory power. So I just continued my research as usual while keeping an eye on the cognitive side of story. Read more… »

“Three Windows” in Action: Rice and Langugage

William S.-Y. Wathree windowsng’s classic paper “Three Windows on the Past” discusses how anthropology (especially archaeology), genetics and historical linguistics can be used in an interdisciplinary study to establish the history of peoples and their languages. A conference to be held September 22-25, 2011 at Cornell University titled “Rice and Language Across Asia: Crops, Movement and Social Change” will present research from all these related fields on the origin of the cultivation of rice in Asia and the migration of peoples, and along with it the spread of rice cultivation and languages. In an earlier blog, I discussed various theories of the origin of the concept of the qi in Chinese philosophy. Some scholar pointed out that the cultivation of rice was not widespread in northern China at the time of the classical period. Thus if rice was not an important factor in people’s daily life, then the origin of the concept of qi is more likely not related to the food, but rather to the natural phenomenon of air and clouds. I wonder what this new conference and the research to be presented will contribute to our understanding of this matter.

The Etymology of 气 “qì”

In JeeLoo Liu’s (2006) book titled An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, from Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism, we came upon the following passage:

Another important notion in Chinese cosmology is that of qi, in relation to which Dao should also be understood, since Dao is often seen as the rhythm or pattern of the movement of qi. There is no adequate English translation for qi, although it has been rendered variously as “energy”, “vital energy”, “pure energy”, “force”, “material force”, “spirit”, “vapor”, “air”, etc. Many commentators have pointed out the etymological root of the word “qi“. Originally, it referred to the steam or vapor coming from boiling rice (the Chinese character for qi contains the character for rice as a component). It came to represent the nourishing vapor or the moistening mist, both of which encompass the atmosphere, furnishing the bodies of all creatures and becoming the source of life. (p6)

At first sight, the etymological theory that Liu gave here is a little funny, and kind of naive too. Then I read some review on line that pointed out the same problem. The reviewer made two points: (1) the original form of the character does not have the rice component; (2) rice cultivation was not common in ancient China.

Indeed, this reviewer’s remark seems to make more sense. But we need more concrete evidence to favor either theory. So let’s examine the origin of the character first to see whether the original form has the rice component or not. Read more… »