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Le corpus heuristique : un outil qui montre mais ne démontre pas

Tobias Scheer


The heuristic corpus : a tool that shows the way, but does not demonstrate anything
This article proposes to recognise two different functions that a corpus can endorse: heuristic and validating. The latter is common: a corpus is used in order to demonstrate the plausibility or the validity of a hypothesis which has an independent existence. By contrast, the former shows the way, rather than demonstrating anything. The linguist does not try to convince anybody - he tries to understand. He ventures into unknown land with a question, but without solution, not even with a hypothesis, holding in hands only a few pieces of the puzzle that needs to be put together. It is the corpus itself which will provide new pieces, a hypothesis and, ideally, a solution. The corpus acts as a counsellor, makes appear the "reality" in a new light and restricts the pool of possible solutions. The property of the corpus which allows it to play this role is consubstantial with its existence: classification. There is no corpus without classification of the data at hand. And it is a peculiar classification that will shed light on the "reality" in a way so to produce the "heureka" situation on the linguist's side. As a consequence, there could not be any corpus, in linguistics or elsewhere, without a project of exploitation or without theoretical activity prior to its actual genesis. Any corpus, of the heuristic as much as of the validating kind, is an oriented, hence a theoretical object.
The heuristic corpus is also peculiar in that it is promised to oblivion: as soon as it has served, the linguist will transform it into a validating corpus (he wants to convince the world). This change of orientation supposes an organisation and a presentation that are quite different from those that have promoted the discovery in the first place. Therefore, the present article also aims at rescuing the heuristic corpus from oblivion: after the battle, its only existence are often some sheets of paper in a forgotten folder or some old file lost on a harddisk, and the linguist will have completely forgotten that there is any such file, and how it helped him to discover what now has become a reality. I attempt at isolating some invariable properties of heuristic corpora: the moment when they enter the scene (i.e. when the linguist is facing a dead-end), the situations where they may be helpful and those where they will not advance the research.
The overall purpose of the article is illustrated by a case study from my own experience, i.e. the alternations in vowel length that are found in Czech iteratives.

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Electronic reference

Tobias Scheer, « Le corpus heuristique : un outil qui montre mais ne démontre pas », Corpus [Online], 3 | 2004, Online since 02 December 2005, connection on 27 October 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Tobias Scheer

« Bases, Corpus et Langage », UMR 6039, CNRS

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