The Tagmemic Contribution to Composition Teaching

II. The Development of Kenneth L. Pike's Tagmemic Theory

In 1948, Kenneth L. Pike began the search for a syntactical counterpart to the phonological and morphological terms, phoneme and morpheme--something at the sentence level which could function as a key identifying unit in the same way that these well- established terms functioned. Pike was looking for a high- level generalization that could characterize all human language and which would simplify the training of missionaries and Bible translators who would encounter previously unstudied and thus grammatically uncharted languages. The result of Pike's search was the tagmeme and the linguistic system that has come to be known as tagmemics. But what was most interesting about his search was the fact that what started as merely a "language theory" soon evolved into a structural theory that attempts to account for all of man's behavior. Indeed, Pike's seminal work of three volumes is entitled, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior.

The impetus for this expansion of the tagmemic theory was an epistemological question: how is it that we can recognize objects without knowing everything about them? As Pike explains, "Tagmemic theory staked its claims on the belief that essential to the description of human behavior as we live it must be the ability to recognize a friend even though he has just had Wheaties for breakfast, cut his long hair, and replaced his necktie."11 What is it about a "unit," i.e., any person, event, situation, object, concept that allows one to recognize and describe it adequately? Pursuing the implications of this question further, Pike soon departed from the strictures of the structural linguistics he had been trained in; he could no longer treat language as a sui generis, autonomous phenomenon that could be studied in isolation from other, non- linguistic human behavior.

Pike insists that language must be considered a part of the whole of human behavior and his belief that a unified theory is needed to account for the whole is seen in two major contributions of tagmemics to linguistic thought: (1) the concept of the trimodal structure of behavior and (2) the distinction between emic and etic descriptions of behavior.

Pike argues that every unit of behavior to be well described must be characterized in these three ways: (1) how it differs from everything else in its class; (2) what its range of variability is, i.e., how much it can change and still be itself; and (3) what range of contexts can appropriately contain it, i.e., its distribution among other systems. 12 Theoretically, any unit of human experience can (and ultimately must) be viewed through this trimodal structure. Pike then combines this notion of the trimodal structure of behavior with a model from the physical sciences: any unit can be viewed as a particle, as a wave or as a field. The correlation of these two concepts results in a matrix which is useful in effectively defining and describing any unit of experience. This matrix forms the heuristic procedure Young, Becker and Pike employ in their textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. This will be explored in greater detail later.

One of Pike's other contributions to linguistic theory is his distinction between emic and etic viewpoints. Pike coined the terms from the endings of the words, phonemic and phonetic. The "emic" view is the perspective of the insider, the native, and is concerned with the contrastive, patterned system within a universe of discourse; the "etic" view of a unit is the perspective of the outsider who looks for universals and generalizations. The "emic" view is the view we expect from a participant within a system; the "etic" view is the view we expect of the alien observer. John Algeo has suggested a useful illustration of these kinds of perspectives.

A noncardplayer observing a game of bridge will see different things than a bridge- player will. The noncardplayer, who is an "alien" in this situation, may notice that the cards are handled and passed around, that the players pick up the cards in front of them and carry on a short conversation in cryptic phrases, that one player then puts all of his cards on the table while the other three put theirs down one by one as this player or that pulis little piles of cards in front of him . . . What the bridge- player sees as a "native" to the game is a distinct unit called a "hand," consisting of the deal, the bidding, the play and the scoring. The noncardplayer observes a number of etic facts, some of which fit into the emic categories of the bridge- player and some of which are irrelevant . . . To know which events at the card table are significant for the game, which are not, and how the significant events are related to one another, one must know the rules of the game--that is, one must know the events emically. 13

This etic/emic contrast is used by Pike to distinguish between those elements in an uncharted grammar which are crucial, indispensable factors (emic) and those which are incidental, insignificant (etic). We will also have more to say about this aspect of tagmemics below when we examine the use Young, Becker and Pike have made of this distinction for composition.

Pike's work in tagmemic theory has not, in general, been as widely accepted by scholars as the work of Noam Chomsky and other transformationalists. Nevertheless, individual concepts within tagmemics have been adopted and adapted by a variety of disciplines.l4 Tagmemics can be seen, in a sense, as being all things to all men, with a remarkably wide range of applications, especially in but not limited to, linguistics. Austin Hale confesses that "it is at present quite possible to be a tagmemicist in good standing without subscribing to any particular doctrine regarding the form of grammar. To one who received a good portion of his linguistic upbringing within the tradition of transformational generative grammar, this realization comes as a shock and a revelation."15 Though popularly categorized as a ''slot- grammar," Kenneth L. Pike's peculiar insights into the nature of language and behavior are compatible with and not in opposition to the insights of other schemes and systems. Two concerns do, however, set the work of Pike apart from the others: (1) Pike is interested in fashioning a total system of human behavior--not one that accounts just for language behavior; and (2) Pike is preeminently humanistic in his orientation, and decidedly opposed to any mechanistic view of man or his language behavior. These concerns will be of interest when we later consider attacks that have been made against the tagmemic conception of the composing process.

In view of its adaptability and intended scope, it is not difficult to see how there come to be such labels as "tagmemic rhetoric," "tagmemic discovery procedure," "tagmemic composition theory" and so on. It is not so much that a "grammar theory" has gotten out of hand and invaded territory once considered inaccessible and inappropriate for such theories, but that certain insights discovered in the study of language as language have been found to be useful and helpful in the teaching of composition. In 1964, in an article in College Composition and Communication, Pike suggested a possible contribution to composition teaching by linguistics, tagmemics in particular. In that ground- breaking article, Pike asked, "Would it be possible to explore a number of the axioms of such a language theory [as tagmemics] in order to develop exercises based on these axioms about language structure, but specifically designed to develop writing competence?"16

Pike's work in training linguists to analyze and write descriptions of foreign languages enabled him to "develop a body of theory general enough to apply to any language whatever . . . and at the same time to invent exercises which would break down the learning problem into small bits in terms of simulated language . . ."17 Pike and his colleagues attacked the problem by creating "languagettes" or artificial languages for analysis and inventing exercises to help students learn the effective use of such languages. Pike's ploy here is reminiscent of C.C. Fries' work in applying the insights of structural linguistics to English when he suggests that exercises formerly designed to teach effective use of foreign languages can be successfully used in the English composition classroom.

From that salvo in 1964, Pike, with Michigan colleagues Young and Becker, began to explore the application of the theory to composition teaching. The theory was initially employed to improve the grammatical competence of students; though helpful here, the theory's potential in serving rhetorical concerns soon became the focus of research and experimentation.18 While the three Michigan professors continued to collaborate throughout the decade, their work culminating in the text, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, the seventies saw Richard E. Young emerge as the major spokesman, theorist and researcher for "tagmemic composition theory." Starting "merely" as a language theory, tagmemics has now generated methodologies for helping native speakers to improve their use of their language, supplied the framework for "a modern theory of rhetoric" and, more recently, given impetus to a promising new means of discourse analysis.19 The stage is now set for the what and how of tagmemic theory: an exploration of the nature and application of the theory itself.

 Preface and Introduction

Chapter 1  Chapter 4  Works Consulted
 Chapter 2  Chapter 5  The Tagmemic Pages
 Chapter 3  Notes  SIL HomePage

(c) 1997, Bruce L. Edwards. All Rights Reserved.