Asking how languages work

linʛuischtick

If you hear scientists say something like “We don’t understand much about the climate on Jupiter” or “We don’t know why electrons behave in a particular way”, then that kind of ignorance seems reasonable. Jupiter is a huge planet, it’s far away, and it’s an inanimate object that can’t answer questions about itself. Same for electrons, except they are really small, presenting different problems.

But what about language sciences? Suppose a linguist says “we don’t really understand how determiners work in Salish” or “we don’t understand quantification in Hmong”. What does that mean? It doesn’t sound like a difficult problem to solve. It’s not like studying Jupiter or electrons. Dealing with languages means dealing with people. Can’t you just ask them how their language works? The short answer:

No.

Let’s consider the simplest case: asking someone what the name of something is. It usually works well enough to get someone…

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