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Measurements do not create a theory

Keywords: philology, national identity, discovery and invention, theory and technology, measurements, deduction

The academic discipline of philology may have a different content in different cultures, but obviously philology as research of language (mother tongue), folklore, and national literature is important for national identity and the self-concept of a nation, even more so for small nations. In Estonia the scope of Estonian philology took shape in connection with the national movement in the second half of the 19th century, and more clearly at the beginning of the 20th century. Since the early 1920s Estonian Philology has been a subject taught at Tartu University, and there has been a rather unanimous agreement on what constitutes the realm of Estonian philology.

Historically, the study of language was foremost historical linguistics. This changed in the first decades of the 20th century with the rise of semiotics and the theories of sign systems (F. de Saussure, Ch. S. Peirce), and later with the development of phonology as functional phonetics. Those developments did not change the essence of philological disciplines as an area of the humanities. The philology of the time did not have much connection with natural sciences.

At the beginning of the 20th century phonetics turned towards experimental methods, including all kinds of measurements. Nowadays philology has different connections to physics, neurology, and other natural sciences. Sometimes research into language and language use leads to technological inventions which are, however, not entirely the same as scientific discovery. Up to now, new branches of linguistic philology – such as semiotics, phonology, and the generative grammar of Noam Chomsky – have all been created by deduction, without using methods of natural sciences.

This may change, especially taking into account the new possibilities in brain research and neurology. And, of course, language technology (the realm of invention) needs as exact as possible data about language use. But this must be kept apart from discovery and cognition.

There have been attempts to base phonological interpretations upon measuring of segments, clusters, syllables, or speech groups, but they have not lead to new phonological concepts. On the contrary, blind belief in numerical measures may lead to disputable theories. Therefore, a theory should precede measurements: one has to know the status of the units to be measured as well as what kind of explanation the measurements are expected to give.

The future of philology very much depends upon universities. In some respect the future of Estonian philology is not without concern, especially in Tallinn university, whose new curricula for this subject intend to omit some spheres (e.g., the knowledge of German), which have been traditionally important for Estonian philology. 


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