Sunday, July 10, 2005

L&S: Tacit Knowledge and Language

Steve has been discussing the notion of spontaneous order – mostly markets, but also language, common law, etc. When he got to Hayek’s notion of tacit knowledge, that is, knowledge that you have but that you cannot articulate, he used the example of a child who can speak a grammatical sentence without being able to state the rules of English grammar. This reminded me of my brother Neal’s contribution to the Two Things list:
The Two Things about Linguistics:
1. You already know more about the grammar of your native language than could ever be taught in a class. (synchronic linguistics)
2. Language change is inevitable, and neither bad nor good. (diachronic linguistics)
The first point is about tacit knowledge. In hearing Steve’s example about the speech of children, a critic might say that adults can articulate the rules of English grammar. But that is false; even accomplished native speakers cannot state everything there is to know. One thing I’ve found surprising about Neal’s work in linguistics (which I assume is fairly typical of the discipline) is how much of it involves trying to reconstruct mostly unrecognized, but nonetheless operative, rules of syntax. He does so by studying the actual utterances of speakers and writers who are speaking English without necessarily even thinking about it, and then trying to find underlying principles that describes all or most of them.

(Incidentally, I have taken issue with Neal’s item #2, on diachronic linguistics, here.)

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