What is the Neo-Firthian theory?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the 1950's, the University of London was one of the first institutions to produce ongoing research on linguistics as a true and multidimensional field. The works of John Rupert (J.R) Firth earned him a reputation as the "first" linguist of Britain. This is because JR Firth was the first linguist to propose something quite new at the time, yet quite acceptable now: that language is not an automatic process, but one which is as complex as human life, itself. 

The humanity of language, Firth would argue, lies in its malleability. Language is unique each speaker; you will never find two individuals using language in the exact, same way. This entails that the production of language is a result of psychological, academic, social, and personal skills that are acquired as one goes through life.

Two things are constant in Firth's theoretical benchmarks. First, that language has a prosody. Second, that language is entirely contextual. By prosody, Firth means that the intonation, rate of speed, and use of verbiage is completely inherent to each individual. Hence, everyone's language has its own "personality".

By contextual Firth means that there is a tendency for "collocation"; to place words in a particular order in order to send out a specific message. This happens naturally in all humans and this is what, ultimately, creates open communication.

The NEO-Firthian school of thought abides by the same tenets of Firthian theory, and exists as a reaction to alternative methods of language study. Some theorists believe that language should be studied using very controlled variables in order to see certain patterns manifest. This strategy of language study is called probabilistic. Those who believe in this research model contend that language should be studied under a quantitative research style.

This being said, the quantitative research model proposed by "probabilistic" methods include:

  • a. That patterns in language usage must be studied using a variety of text samples (corpora), and that this corpora should encompass a number of genres.
  • b. That the size of each corpus must be monitored
  • c. That there has to be a monitoring system in place to predict the way in which language is used, so that correlations can be made.

Neo-Firthians disagree wholeheartedly. Using the original Firthian model, they counter-argue that

  • a) One corpora can tell a lot of information by itself, and a variety of genres is not necessary.
  • b) The size of the corpora does not matter; patterns can be found at first sight.
  • c) Language comes naturally and tendencies in usage are quite obvious. There is no need for additional quantitative models of research.

The conclusion of all of this is that Neo Firthians agree that the natural acquisition of language precludes the observance of specific behaviors, choices, and patterns in the way that words are placed within a context. They do not like the idea of breaking down language and exploring it under a scientific quantitative model, because language acquisition is not an exact or a mechanical process. Hence, "Corpus Linguistics", or the study of language through text samples, should be kept as simple as possible.


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