Covert Structures in Science Discourse

and the Issue of Linguistic Intuition.

By C. George SANDULESCU, Stockholm.

(Paper given in March 1976 at the 27th Annual Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, that year devoted to "Semantics: Theory & Application", The 'English for Special Purposes' Section.)


1.            One of the goals of the present paper is to point to the acute need of differentiated and sustained research into discourse typology; the results of such endeavours should meet both theoretical and applied requirements in such a way as to bypass the existing gaps between theory and application, basically deriving from deliberate disregard of semantics. There are clear-cut differences between general and special discourse, which are obvious at the level of both the linear manifestation and the semantic interpretation.

2.            In addition to overt structures obviously expressed in its linear manifestation, discourse is also characterized by covert structures, basically illustrated via presuppositions. Quite in line with Heidegger, who asserts that there is no such thing as 'presuppositionless understanding', it is here advanced that science discourse is characterized by a definitely outlined pattern of assertions, accompanied by an equally definite pattern of presuppositions. The balance between assertion and presupposition is typologically specific in science discourse.

3.            Native intuition is the L1-speaker's ability to make spontaneous linguistic judgments expressible in terms of Grammaticality, Well-formedness, and Acceptability. In the present research we will be dealing with sentences which are both grammatical and well-formed. Acceptability, however, should be further qualified, as we are here concerned with two basic kinds:

            (a) acceptability of the assertive content of science discourse, and

            (b) acceptability of the presuppositional content of science discourse. A few unsystematic remarks will also be made on the place of Appropriateness in science texts.

4.            The fundamental contention of the present paper is that the overall linguistic intuition of an L1-reader/writer is not sufficient in order to detect flaws in the covert patterning of semi-special discourse.

5.            Theoretical and practical implications. The frame of reference of the sentence is not at all sufficient for an adequate investigation of science discourse. Whereas sentence linguistics can satisfactorily handle assertive content, its frame of reference is far too narrow in order to handle presuppositional patterning and discourse structure. Science discourse therefore justifies independent research that may lead to theoretical results.

                One of the tasks deriving from exposing the non-expert to science discourse is to expand the boundaries of his linguistic intuition. It has repeatedly been observed (but there is so far only anecdotal evidence) that the L1 non-expert is less able to detect semantic and lexical failure in L1 science discourse than the L1 science expert in Ln texts. The present problem evinces clear pragmatic parameters: it arises in the non-expert and semi-expert communicative situations. Progress in the teaching and learning of Ln science discourse depends in the last analysis on advance in the theory of discourse.