Critique of Archaeological Reason
5. Excerpts and summaries

Zellig Harris

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2014

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Excerpts from Harris Zellig 1960 Structural

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1. Introductory

      This book is, regrettably, not easy to read. A single reading should be enough for a picture of the operations and elements of linguistics. But anyone who wants to use these methods or to control them critically will have to work over the material with paper and pencil, reorganizing for himself the examples and general statements presented here. [p. v (from the Preface to the first edition)]
Theoretical statement and operational shortcuts
      These procedures also do not constitute a necessary laboratory schedule in the sense that each procedure should be completed before the next is entered upon. In practice, linguists take unnumbered short cuts and intuitive or heuristic guesses, and keep many problems about a particular language before them at the same time: they may have figured out the positional variants of several phonemes before they decide how to cut up into segments certain utterances [p. 1]
Differences in actual operation
      The methods described here do not eliminate non-uniqueness in linguistic descriptions. It is possible for different linguists, working on the same material, to set up different phonemic and morphemic elements, to break phonemes into simultaneous components or not to do so, to equate two sequences of morphemes as being mutually substitutable or not to do so. The only result of such differences will be a correlative difference in the final statement as to what the utterances consist of. The use of these procedures is merely to make explicit what choices each linguist makes, so that if two analysts come out with different phoneme lists for a given language we should have exact statements of what positional variants were assigned by each to what phonemes and wherein lay their differences of assignment. [p. 2]
No Procustean bed
      The particular way of arranging the facts about a language which is offered here [...] should not have the undesirable effect of forcing all languages to fit a single Procrustean [sic!] bed, and of hiding their differences by imposing on all of them alike a single set of logical categories. [p. 2]
Explicitness of description
      The central position of descriptive linguistics in respect to the other linguistic disciplines and to the relationships between linguistics and other sciences, makes it important to have clear methods of work in this field, methods which will not impose a fixed system upon various languages, yet will tell more about each language than will a mere catalogue of sounds and forms. [p. 3]

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2. The notion of distributional analysis

      Descriptive linguistics, as the term has come to be used, is a particular field of inquiry which deals not with the whole of speech activities, but with the regularities in certain features of speech. These regularities are in the distributional relations among the features of speech in question, i.e. the occurrence of these features relatively to each other within utterances. [p. 5]
      The essential method of descriptive linguistics is to select these parts and to state their distribution relative to each other. [p. 20]
Freedom of occurrence
      The present survey is thus explicitly limited to questions of distribution, i.e. of the freedom of occurrence of portions of an utterance relatively to each other. [p. 5]
      This totality of environments is called the distribution of the segment, or its freedom of occurrence. ('Privileges of occurrence' in Bloomfield's Language.) [p. 61]
Complementary distribution
      This procedure takes the segmental elements [...] and groups them into phonemes on the basis of complementary distribution. [p. 59]

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3. Relevance of corpus size

Impossibility of having all the environments
      [...] only a very large corpus would permit of the extraction of so many morphemes that no matter how much more material we collect in that language, we would hardly ever find any new morphemic segment. However, even a corpus large enough to yield almost all the morphemes of the language will, in most cases, fail to give us anything like all the environments of each morpheme. [p. 253]
      The argument for using approximations in morpheme classification is strengthened by the fact that the predictive usefulness of an exact morpheme classification need not be greater than that of an approximate one. If we could state the phonological elements and their distribution for a corpus consisting of all the utterances which have occurred in the language over some adequate period, we could be quite sure that no utterance occurring in that language for some short time in the future would contain a new phonological element or a new position of an old element. [p. 254]
      However, if we could state all the morphemes, each with its exact distribution, for a corpus consisting of all the utterances in the language over a period, showing that a given morpheme has not occurred in a given environment in any utterance of that language, we would still not be able to predict with high probability that that morpheme might not appear in the given environment, for the first time in the history of the language, in some new utterance soon to be said. [p. 254 f.]

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4. Operational procedures

Rigorous application of procedure
      The only preliminary step that is essential to this science is the restriction to distribution as determining the relevance of inquiry. The particular methods described in this book are not essential. They are offered as general procedures of distributional analysis applicable to linguistic material. [p. 5]
      Although the only criterion relevant to our procedures will be the distributional one, we may find that the grouping based on distributional grounds will in most cases also involve least difference in phonemic composition and social situation correlation among the members of each morpheme. [p. 208, note 20]
      Phonemes are more convenient for our purposes than our former segments, since there are fewer of them, and each has a wider distribution. Our elements now no longer necessarily represent mutually substitutable segments; only the segments in any one environment are mutually substitutable (free variants). [p. 72]
      For many purposes, it is very convenient to reduce the phonemic stock, to simplify the segmental interrelations within each phoneme, and to broaden the distribution of the phonemes. The current development of linguistic work is in part in this direction.[p. 94]
      When we supplant the stock of phonemes of a language by a smaller stock of long components, we have in effect broken down the distributional interrelations (mutual restrictions) of each phoneme into partial restrictions (in respect to particular other phonemes) which are independent of each other and the sum of which constitutes the total limitations of occurrence of that phoneme (in respect to all other phonemes). [p. 135]
      Considerable economy would be achieved if we could replace these by a single statement, applying to the whole set of distributionally similar morphemes. [p. 243]
Required qualities
      All that matters is that the defining of the elements and the stating of the relations among them be based on distribution, and be unambiguous, consistent, and subject to check. [p. 9]
      Two utterances or features will be said to be linguistically, descriptively, or distributionally equivalent if they are identical as to their linguistic elements and the distributional relations among these elements. [p. 16]
      [Phonemic length] is not an absolute time measurement, but marks the number of segments per utterance as defined in 5.3. Length is thus a distributional and relative term. It measures how much of the duration of the utterance is dependent upon other parts of the duration of the same utterance (5.2), or is equivalent to parts of the duration of other utterances (4.4). [p. 44, note 4]
      If successive tones are restricted, then each tone is dependent on the other tones in the utterance. Distributionally, the tones are not independent, and hence need not be regarded as separate elements. The independent elements are the whole sequences of tones within the utterance. [p. 49, note 8]