"The form, beauty, and order of an ideal world" : an ideological analysis of linguistic idealization



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This report presents a critique of the ideology that language is naturally "perfect" on some level of analysis, or, alternately, that it can be made to be perfect through processes of decontextualization or through the construction of a new language. I identify this ideology of linguistic idealization as one of the defining characteristics of formalist, Chomskyan linguistics. This report describes three features of this ideology and their impact on formalist linguistics: science envy, the elegance fallacy, and the teleological fallacy. In order to understand the idealizing trend in its social and intellectual context, I present historical background on the various versions of this ideology that theorists have adopted during certain periods in Western scholarship about language. This report ultimately argues that the dynamic paradigm, which currently holds a minority status in American linguistics, as well as the simple but profound recognition that language has evolved along with its users, can provide an instructive contrast to the idealizing trend in mainstream linguistics. An acceptance of the ways in which language is subject to dynamic functional pressures, rather than or in addition to static, asocial rules, can expand the field beyond its currently narrow and limited purview to accommodate more of what we know about the reality of language structure and use. The report will end with the claim that even if we accept as unavoidable some measure of idealization within linguistic research, we should do so only with good reason, not simply because it is standard practice. In addition, researchers should make such a decision with an awareness of the historical underpinnings and ideological consequences of idealizing the object of their inquiry.