Sunday, December 30, 2012

The SVO myth

There's a benefit to the world getting smaller, and our being able to know more information, have it at our fingertips, be more worldly, etc. And that is, people no longer pawn off assumptions based on parochial thinking, that don't stand up to the facts. At least they do this less, because they're more likely to be proven wrong, and they're more careful about their assertions, because it's so easy to check the great database and prove someone wrong. This is why I never make assertions.

Ah, but here's one I can't resist. It's all very tentative, because what do I know? That's why I put it in a blog, and not, say, in a published academic journal. But I've been around the block a few times, and I'm sharing the best of my observations here. Take them or leave them.

When I was in graduate school (80's), the concept of SVO languages came into my field of perception. English, they said, was an SVO language, and so was Chinese, but Korean was SOV, verb last. S=subject, V=verb, 0=object.

Now the assumptions behind this observation were not stated directly, but it could be inferred that S, V and O were the main building blocks of a language, and that all languages would have them. Sure, they'd also have genitive, and instrumental, and locative and all that other fine stuff. But at their base, they were the actor, the action, and the victim. He kicked the desk. In English, you could say, sometimes there was no object. But generally there was always a subject, except when it was understood, as in Kick the desk.

So I remember wondering: why would you separate the object from the verb? So I asked: is there any such thing as an OSV language? Or VSO? I was assured that there were such things but the proof wasn't immediately forthcoming. Someone at some point allowed that they weren't distributed evenly among the what, six possibilities?

But as it turns out, this view, that there are six different kinds, whether languages distribute evenly or not, is not very useful. I have found languages that don't really have subjects; instead, they have topics and they omit those whenever possible. So where we'd like to think of subject and predicate as the two basic placeholders, like Mom and Dad, of a sentence, the fact is, there are a lot of languages where even SOV, or (S)(O)V is a fairly inaccurate way of describing them, even though it may be true to the order. You end up saying that, for the vast majority of this language's sentences, they have a subject, but it's understood, they just give you the topic, and you figure out who did it. A sentence that can be translated literally as, "As for me, the desk-victim kick-past" forces you to interpret an actor, which is not really a problem if you get used to it, but makes it hard really to maintain that the actor is the big honcho of a sentence, one of two main characters. And a LOT of languages are like this.

So what to make of it? I've noticed that people use terms like "SOV" and "SVO" a lot less these days, and maybe it's just as well, rather than beat a dog that's down already, I'll just let it die a natural death and start talking about languages another way. But somehow, I've been unable to let it die peacefully in my mind. That's because I think it is representative of another problem: that we in the west are so quick to assume that the construction of every language we've ever learned (English, Spanish, maybe a tad of French or German) makes it necessary that all languages share these properties, that S V & O are building blocks of our language because they must be natural inherent big honchos in every sentence that's ever been made in any language. It's just one more case of a kind of western ethnocentrism, and ultimately isn't very helpful in classifying the worlds's languages.

So how should we classify them? I have no idea. Linguists use words like "agglutinative" vs. "non-agglutinative" but I fancy myself a linguist, and couldn't even explain what that is, let alone assure you that there is such a thing as that second one. One thing about S V O, is that at least we could explain what it meant...and that's why it stuck around linguistics books for so long. Not because evidence provided any support for classifying languages in that way.

One final irony: you'd think that, sharing an SVO structure would make a language essentially easier to learn. Thus, Chinese would be easier (for us) to learn than, say, Korean. I'm not sure that's true. The Chinese have that SVO order, all right, but everything else is so different, including the function of grammar within the language, that Chinese I think is one of the hardest languages for us to learn. It's one thing to say, I don't think a language is going to change its basic order very easily; in other words, if our languages are SVO today, they'll probably be SVO tomorrow. An order, or a way of constructing sentences, does in some kind of way seem to be a fundamental characteristic of a language. But, though we and the Chinese both construct our sentences with subject first (and they presumably have subjects, unlike Korean), Chinese learners are famously stumped by English grammar. It brings up the question of whether patterns that are similar to yours, but way different in some ways, are actually harder to learn, than patterns that are just way different from the very start. There's an argument to be had, in there, somewhere.

spanglish: two sources

Just before the term was out I got some information about so-called Spanglish, but things were busy and I was unable to write much of it down. Now, in the heart of break, I am remembering some of it and hoping to write down what I know so that it's not lost altogether. Sometimes ruminating about what I know helps me at least come up with the right questions. There will be more sources, I'm sure, but if I don't know how to approach the subject, I won't get much information.

One problem was that my students were very naive about grammatical rules and linguistics in general. I phrased the problem as this: We know that there is a lot of language-mixing going on. We know that people make sentences that use both languages (English and Spanish) freely. The question is this: Is this widespread enough, with a large enough community, that this language begins to have its own rules? And if it has its own rules, what are they? Would they be the same where Spanglish is spoken in California and New York? Can we prove that it's a language of its own? I invited them, in a prompt for a research paper, to enter the discussion and try to prove it one way or the other.

When I brought it up in class, I got very little argument, because they really had little concept of what I meant by "rules." They even now have little concept of rules, as we know them, in English, and corresponding but different rules in Spanish. My interest really is in the interaction of these rules. I wanted to know what happens.

One of the most helpful people to me was I.D., who identified herself as being from Lubbock, but seemed to have relatives elsewhere in Texas and roots in Mexico. She said that Spanglish was a way of life when she was growing up, but she called it Tex-Mex. "Isn't Tex-Mex a kind of food?" I asked her, but she was more comfortable using the term "Tex-Mex" for what she spoke. It's definitely not Pachuco, she said, though I was unfamiliar with that term. She explained that there was a Californian side of this picture, where it's glorified in movies and such, and made to sound fancy, or glorified. She felt that what happened on a day-to-day basis in Texas was quite removed from this and wasn't described adequately by what one could experience in the media.

She gave examples which all seemed to be English words or expressions that had been worked into a Spanish system. By Spanish system I mean they sounded Spanish and had Spanish endings, gender, Spanish grammar. Tex-Mex would simply take an English word, say "truck", and make it "troca", and "park" became "parquear" or some such; clearly borrowed words that were integrated into Spanish pronunciation and grammar. She admitted to mixing Spanish and English within a single sentence; it happened all the time.

One thing she made clear which was verified by the second source. It really depended on context, how much you used, and what you did. She had one grandmother who wouldn't tolerate it, either that, or didn't know the English words, so she in effect had to use Spanish 100% of the time at that grandmother's house. Another grandmother had very limited tolerance of it. It wasn't that she couldn't understand, but because she wouldn't use it and they respected her, they wouldn't use it around her. She said, the young used it all the time; they lived in a bilingual world, and switched freely. To the older generation, it had different meaning.

One thing that has become clear to me since I got here, independent of the sources, is that the Spanish-speaking Texan community feels a little isolated from Mexico itself. A whole swath of northern Mexico has been overrun by drug lords to such a degree that people don't feel as comfortable visiting, or traveling through, as they used to. They still call family in Mexico as often as possible, and visit whenever they can. They have problems at the border as there is a heightened sense of watchfulness of people coming and going. It is just not as easy as it used to be; Mexican-Americans have in effect stepped out of that problem but in the process have isolated themselves from their community back home, which in many cases is going through the political turmoil of adjusting to the terror of very wealthy drug gangs.

A second source, C.L., identified himself as from Austin, and also claimed that Spanglish was a way of life for him as he grew up. If there are no rules, he wrote, let's make some, because this is definitely a language. He also maintained that it was different for his generation and that of his parents. The parents, he said, would use it for a different reason, to show that they were trying to fit in to the new world. We kids, he said, would use a lot more of it, and would use it sometimes to aggravate the elders.

He gave a number of examples, but I was unable, overall, to answer my own questions. If it had rules, what were they? Also, I misplaced the paper; it does not seem to be where I left it, though I'm sure it's around and will bring up more questions when I find it and reread it. The impression I got, that stuck with me, was the emotional nature of its use. These were kids who lived in two worlds; they grew up in two worlds. They spoke two languages interchangeably with each other, as something they shared, but, being bilingual, could slip immediately into either all-English (school) or all-Spanish (grandmother's house). Their concept of rules for either language was somewhat limited, so they had no examples of times when one language's rules would interact with another's. I don't get a sense of an organized community developing something and going in its own direction, or having rules such as, "when we make noun phrase constructions in this mixed language, we generally do it this way". It happens spontaneously, but it happens a lot, because you are talking about millions of people now, in Texas alone.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

so far

1. Leverett, T. (2012, Jan.) Right metaphor, wrong conclusion. Google docs.

2. ___. (2012, Dec.) Principles of language construction and change.

3. ___. (2012, Dec.) The centrality of perception. Google docs.

4. ___. (2012, Dec. Differences in Self-organizing systems. Google docs.

a. ___. (2012, July). Symbols and the language learner. Google docs.

b. ___. 2012, July). Koutsoudas' first principle. Google docs.

c. ___. 2012, May). Saussure and the Oral-writing relationship. Google docs.

d. ___. 2012, Dec. The role of intonation. Google docs.

OK, so here's what I've got, besides what I wrote back eight or nine years ago. I wrote #1 as the introduction, a year ago, and then, in my opinion, #a-c were diversions. It was necessary to say them, I think, but as I read them, I notice that they are disorganized, and often say more than they imply, but not quite in good order, etc. I have now gone back and written #2 and will continue. #1 and #2 and the numbered ones are the book as it's developed. I want to save #a-c, as records of my thinking, but I will not use them or include them as chapters of the book.

I have a question about these Google docs. I put things here, because I can look at them, and revise them, and get comments on them, have my friends read them, etc. Yet I always feel that the computer is treating me differently, as an editor etc., than my friends who are coming in from some outside computer. How do I see them as they see them? How do I know they are seeing anything at all? And why, if they are "publicly available", do they not show up on searches, when I search for them?

Mysteries for another day.

In addition, by the way, here is more writing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chomsky, sometimes you're of full it

There are two things that always bugged me about Chomsky and his 50-year run dominating the field of linguistics. There are plenty of things that didn't bug me, including the fact that he really knew his grammar, and that he was against the Vietnam War; however, these things just tended to entrench his rule and kept people from seeing the more obvious problems with his philosophy.

Yes, so the first one was that he was wrong. He talked about universals, and he framed them in terms of restrictions, and worse yet restrictions that we have access to, as if being born into humanity is like being put into a genetic, biological straitjacket which now demands that we see things hierarchically, construct languages in certain ways, etc. Yet history and even modern textbooks are full of these alleged "universals" that haven't panned out. All languages have subjects? No, lots don't. All languages pluralize noun phrases at the phrasal level? No, many don't have a phrasal level, or even a concept of "pluralize" that we could call universal. All languages have ways to count? No. All languages express basic human relationships like father, mother, etc.? No. All languages have recursion?

This last one seemed to be Chomsky's last stand, and I have to stay out of it, partly because recursion could conceivably be defined so broadly that all languages must have it, but also because the one guy who disproved even that (pointing out that the Piraha of Brazil don't have it) - well, he could be right or could be wrong, depending on what you figure out after you put six or seven years into learning their language. So the jury's still our on that, but even if everyone had recursion, would that be a universal? And if so, what value would it have; what would it prove?

The second thing that really, really bothered me about Chomsky was the language. It's true that all academic fields have their own language, and that in many cases this language is incomprehensible to laymen. I accept that. But after reading enough Chomsky, and the work of his followers and those who have adapted the language of argument in this case, I've come to several conclusions. First, framing it negatively ("access" to restrictions) is the wrong approach to finding universals. Second, you don't have to get very deep into it before you realize that you've lost touch with the basic workings of the human brain. The whole point, after all, is to replicate the way the average person sees and explains the language. I think it's good to keep that in mind every step of the way. My international students are fond of saying that English grammar is very hard, very twisted, extremely hard to comprehend and master. Actually I think they're wrong about this. It may be extremely different from theirs, and may have patterns that are hard to get used to. But in its fundamental nature it's not made to confuse, it's made to be mastered by as many people as possible. And therefore the language we use to describe it should resonate with what we did as children to figure it out.

We in the native-English-speaking community learned our language as a basic part of our environment, much like mastering tying our shoes (which was common in that era) or riding a bicycle (also a common thing that kids did). We never really made a conscious choice to learn it, but we did have several years to listen to it before we felt pressured into actually using it, and even then our parents knew most of what we wanted without the words (they were in the habit of giving it to us anyway) and they greatly encouraged all our speaking efforts. But the intensity with which a two or three-year old attacks the organization of language shows that they really are developing a system, a machinery, an explanation for everything that happens. If there is such a thing as a "deep structure", native speakers ought to be able to say, basically, yes, that makes sense, that's how I do it, and that's how I've always done it. Yes indeed, that's the system I used to explain it and set up my own language production machinery.

Now I find that when Chomsky starts talking about deep structure, and c-command and hierarchical structure of language, he's already losing me. I'm not convinced that those trees adequately or clearly represent what is going on in my head or that of others. If there is a universal grammar that is calling the shots or determining how this system works, I have trouble seeing the separation of universal restrictions from local parameters that determine things such as, where do we put the preposition, or how do we show singular/plural in this particular construction. Chomsky has been unable to convince me that there is anything universal in the series of processes I use to construct a sentence.

Chomsky's whole point was, having postulated this universal set of rules or restrictions on all language learners everywhere, he should be able to show how our common humanity led us to construct things in certain common, universal ways. It seems to me that if we had found any of these, we would have been able to recognize them, and say something to the effect that, yes, that makes sense, I con see why that would be true for everyone. When I say that grammar has to be learnable and understandable, I think you should say, yes, that makes sense, if a culture is going to pawn this system off on many generations in a row, and expect them to grow up and use this language in this group to function and get what they want, then their grammar is going to have to be learnable and understandable, or else their system is not going to hold up over time. And you should recognize this and realize that, yes, no matter what language you grow up in, generally you can learn that language, and function in it, and the progression where you listen for a year or two, and you start speaking, and pretty soon you're making whole sentences: this progression is about the same, no matter what language you're born into. And you don't have to be a genius to become reasonably fluent in your first language, in a reasonably short period of time, with a working system that constructs verbs correctly, and puts prepositions in the right place, etc.

Now there are a number of things that I often say about this process, and I've noticed which ones resonate and which ones are going to be a little tougher to prove, because they are not so obvious. Let's play along as I start with the easier stuff. To me it's all an open question but I have no doubt about what I've written so far, and I'm willing to accept arguments about virtually everything. OK, here's the first. Children make hypotheses about how things work, and they actually test out the data (what they hear) against the system as they understand it, in order to come up with the best possible working explanation for how things are. Therefore language is, to them and to all of us native speakers, a system of best-possible-explanations for how things are made and how they are done. Our system can be described partly like this: "We start out with a subject...the subject is generally a noun and is marked as a hcan have several words but if it does, a determiner comes first and all adjectives come before the noun...adjectives are words that describe nouns...then, you have a verb...generally sentences have subjects and verbs...generally you mark both subject and verb as matching each other...

Now you may find fault with my system as I've begun to construct it, and you can certainly find exceptions, for example sentences that don't have a subject, or sentences in which some verb acts as a subject. But my point is this. My system as I construct it should make sense to the vast majority of native-speaker-readers, most of whom should recognize the machinery of their own system in the words I've used to describe it. They should be able to recognize fundamental truths of our system (like determiners, articles, subject-verb matching) though they may use different words for them or understand them slightly differently. The biggest difference between different speakers of the same language will be in relative importance of different rules in constructing a language; you will often understand something I say, yet disagree about when it should be said or how important it is in the grand scheme of constructing this language.

But in any case it will resonate with you at every step of the way, and you should find yourself agreeing by saying, yes, that explains why we do what we do. And the question is, why do we do it this way? And my main point is, the answer, "because all humans do it this way every time" has not proven to pan out very well, whereas the answer "because we in our community have done it this way for years, and taught our children to do it this way" is a far more accurate explanation, in almost every case.

Now, if linguists can stick to this principle - that what we explain should always make sense to native speakers, then, we can stay true to the science of what we are doing, and also stay true to the fundamental purpose of linguistics, which is to explain why people use language in certain patterns and why science can explain changes in these patterns over time. We can say that there is a reason for observable human behavior and that all of us, native speakers of a language, have similar or common understandings or perceptions of how things are done. We can, finally, I hope, find out what is truly universal in this set of sets of rules, and know when we recognize it: something that all people, everywhere, do, because they are people. If there's something universal, let's find it, identify it, put it on the table. Because it matters, and because, finally, Chomsky and his followers will back off.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Occam's razor and the point shavers

One of the points I've been mulling over from the Honda book is the assertion that Occam's razor (the principle of parsimony) would dictate that remembering two rules, say A & B, is harder and more complex than remembering the choice between those rules, A OR B. Thus, it would be more parsimonious to posit

1. John gave to Mary the book

as opposed to 2. John gave the book to Mary

ss the underlying structure of

3a. John gave the book to Mary and 3b. John gave Mary the book.

To get from #1 to the first sentence, you would delete "to"; to get to the second you'd move the prepositional phrase. Thus you have A OR B which Honda posits as parsimonious. However, to get from #2 to the first sentence, you'd do nothing, but to get to the second, you'd have to move the phrase forward AND delete the "to". Thus the second rule has more complexity?

At first my take on this was to wonder who said there's an underlying structure in the first place? Or, that the underlying structure itself has any order? When I was in graduate school we had this idea of marked/unmarked which didn't quite explain everything but we'd use it in a case like this: When the indirect object is right up against the verb, it must be marked, and it's marked by not having its preposition. OK, so it's like a sign of a specially marked indirect object.

Honda kind of flies through this without much soul-searching or discussion, but to me it brings up the heart of the problem: how do we explain the internal workings of our minds in the simplest way possible? We native speakers hear such sentences every day and have representations of these rules (transformations, allegedly) in our minds.

My students were of no help in the matter. They stared at me blankly when I told them that 3a. and 3b. were legitimate sentences in English; that we consider them both grammatical; that linguists would like to explain their relationship and explain the rules we native speakers use to get from 3a. to 3b., or from the underlying structure to each of them. They had no problem with the idea of "direct object" and "indirect object" which some had heard of, vaguely, at some time in their past. They really really didn't know which would be more parsimonious.

My second reaction is that any time you have A AND B, you have to possibility of bundling them, and saying something to the effect that, "any time you do this, you have to do these," putting A and B together, and remembering them together as basically one rule, one move. Remembering two rules AND remembering to choose one or the other but not both, seems to me more complex, and requires that you separate them out in your mind, and keep them separate. Oh bother!

What might be required here is a closer look at what the rule of parsimony really entails. I think that almost all linguists buy into the idea of Occam's razor to begin with; that's because, with language having as many rules as it does, everyone has to grab and remember them as well as possible, and what can't be remembered, doesn't survive. However you represent what is happening in our minds, it has to ring true with us; it has to make us say, "that's what I do, I've been doing that all along."

Now my students, as I said, were of no help here. They don't know what they've been doing all along, and they're not sure if "transformations" or "movement" is a fair representation of what is happening. Finally I challenged them: You tell me what is happening (I said). If you don't like Honda's explanation, find a better one! (silence again).

Two issues came up repeatedly. One was Chomsky's claim of hierarchical structure of trees. Thus we have trees which represent the underlying structure of the sentences we produce, and moving a prepositional phrase such as "to Mary" to the end of a sentence would allegedly move it to a higher node, thus would align with a generalization that all transformation moves things to a higher node (I have come to align this general rule with the rule about kittens and Christmas ornaments) - but, I don't really agree with this for several reasons. First, it seems that maintaining this theory would cause trouble with other structures, most notably passive (John kissed Mary becomes Mary was kissed by John) - in which you would have to go out of your way to posit underlying structures with nodes that were somehow lower than places where these structures would end up. But second, what justification is there for calling the whole picture hierarchical? None. I don't feel, deep in the quiet center of my mind, the need to take any language I hear and construct my understanding of it in a hierarchical way.

Now mind you, we construct most things in heirarchical ways. When we see a group of people, we try to figure out who their leader is. When we see trees, we say, it's a kind of elm, and elm is a kind of shade tree, etc. People have constructed hierarchies and have constructed hierarchies in our understanding of the universe, especially for other things we don't understand. But that doesn't mean that nature constructed them. Or that we, in our inner minds, constructed what we heard as hierarchical in nature.

So I would not be surprised that people believe that the structure of language is hierarchical in nature, and that they believe Chomsky when he claims that such hierarchy-based transformations make up what we do and understand as language; Chomsky has had a good run with this. But my question remains: what is parsimonious? What is the way that most people will remember this stuff?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Chomsky who mentioned?

I've just finished teaching Anthropological Linguistics, 3305, here in Texas, and it was kind of a review for me of what has happened over thirty years in the field of linguistics, based mainly on a book:

Honda, M. and O'Neil, W. (2008). Thinking Linguistically. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

(there was another book, but I'll say more about that later). This book was very well done in many ways, and it trained students to think linguistically (as promised), making hypotheses about how languages work and then testing them out. It also repeatedly brought up Chomsky's ideas and in many cases presented them as standard; in some ways it was the Chomskian language that irritated me more than the theories themselves, which as far as I am concerned are as good as any others in the open marketplace, until disproven.

My real bone to pick with Chomsky is this. It's ok to talk about universals, and human universals in language, since there probably are some, and in fact they could be universal to all symbol-producing animals but even then we'd want to know about them. What bothers me is the representation of them as restrictions, and worse yet, as restrictions that we have access to, as if it made a difference whether we could reach them or not. If they are universal, access is not an issue; but, even if it were, it makes it sound like we check with the rule book quickly before we do a transformation or create a question in our minds. And that that rule book is either right there on the seat next to us, or, in some limited cases, we don't have access.

The last section we did was about making questions, specifically WH-questions of the form, Where did he go? Whose car did he take to Chicago? Why did he go to Chicago? etc. These are quite complex and involve auxiliary movement (creating the do, moving it to the front); WH- movement (in some cases moving the entire noun phrase, as in whose car); adding upward intonation at the end, etc. The recognition that the intonation is a key aspect of the creation of a question is monumental since it implies correctly that grammar is only part of the story and that any given message is actually conveyed through the combination of grammar and other crucial elements. This quote is interesting: "languages form questions in structurally different ways, but Universal Grammar (UG) allows only a small number of structurally different ways." (p. 136). This is typical of the check-with-the-rulebook mentality; it's basically negative.

In fact in English you have several interesting variations on the above questions. One is using only intonation but using absolutely no other transformations or grammatical cues. That would look like this:
He went to Chicago?
Now this question is marked; we could say that it's a special kind of question, confirmatory perhaps, but clearly a non-standard variety. Nevertheless, it's valid; people do it; they mark questions with intonation only. Similarly, there is the following:
He went WHERE?
which follows some of the rules (putting the WH- into the right slot, for example) but ignoring the others (creating an AUX, moving the AUX, moving the WH-). What's up with taking or leaving these obligatory rules? Here again, this is a special question, one that has the question intonation, but not the question order; one that emphasizes the where in a special way; one that is clearly non-standard, untypical. But it wouldn't be considered ungrammatical in the same way this one would:
Whose did he take car to Chicago?
Here, you see, we are taking and leaving rules, and it's not working.

It occurs to me, after all this discussion, and going on and on about it with my students, who speak fluent English but don't have a clue about the inner workings of their own language production facility, that we should consider a number of possibilities in order to adequately explain the inner workings of our production systems. Those would be the following:

It seems fair to assume that questions derive from base structures, that questions are related to the declarative statements that are their answers, and that these transformations from base form to surface form do not change meaning. OK. But what if the question itself is the base form? Or the base form is simply the parts, and both question and declarative sentence are surface realizations? What if the AUX is there in the base form, for both declarative sentence and question (Or, for yet another variety, the tag, He went to Chicago, didn't he?, which seems intuitively to show that this AUX + V is readily available to us for every structure, and doesn't have to be created by a lengthy, distorted process unless we are truly a second-language learner and have no concept of how to use these effectively). My suggestion: We start out with the parts: SUBJ, AUX + V, TIME; we put them together; all the forms are derived from the parts.

It's not necessarily hierarchical. Honda makes a big deal of how all transformations move things to a higher node. With my students I compared this to moving Christmas tree ornaments to a higher branch (to keep them away from the kitty). You may be surprised by a "religious" reference in class but it really wasn't intended that way. What I was getting at was that Honda infers that, if all transformations move things up, then we have found a universal tendency in our hierarchical minds, and we can thus explain language behavior in millions of other places in the same way. But when we transform I broke the lamp to The lamp was broken by me, we have in effect moved something down, and my guess is that this isn't the only time. Now I'm sure Chomsky would come in with all guns loaded; he knows grammar better than anyone, and can explain reasonably well why anything has an exception. But we are trying to explain how humans set up an inner mechanism to explain and produce language that others will understand. Is there a reason it has to be hierarchical? I don't think so.

On the contrary; I think there is a hierarchy of salience which is to say, things are easier to notice at the beginning or the end of an utterance, so things go there that we need to show others. Or, s is more salient than p, so s is more likely to be a grammatical marker. These are natural hierarchies. Nature makes some things stronger, some weaker, some more salient, etc. But the human mind: does it make things like a tree, because it has a need to organize information in a hierarchical manner? I don't think so. I think there is nothing about language itself that is necessarily hierarchical, though with some languages, you can see it that way, if you so choose.

Chomsky's characterizing our internal mechanisms for understanding language structures hierarchically, I believe, sets up an unnecessary complication in a picture that is complicated enough already. Looking at it negatively, with a constant idea of restriction, you end up, as Honda did, saying that all languages must have noun phrases (for example), must have plural, must express plural at the noun phrase level, and must express it in one of several ways. But in fact Honda tells us, later in the book, that some (in particular Western Apache) express plurality in the verb. I believe that some in fact don't even have subjects (or, having expressed a topic, or having one understood, they don't generally need one, so that, grammatically, it is so often gone as to be insignificant). The wide variety of things that in fact do happen leads us to the following conclusion: if UG were to be the binding fence that contains everything we see, it must be a very wide, or useless fence, full of holes. In my mind there's still little benefit to positing a rule book that is by your side at every moment, and saying that we all have "access" to UG. Why not just say we tend to do things for positive reasons; we perceive a large number of things as possible but too much trouble; the main binding fence keeping us from doing all this vast number of things is simply our own laziness and desire to limit the new things we have to master in order to survive. We have a language; it works fine for us; we naturally assume that they all are like ours, and, when they're not, we're surprised, but, basically, we adjust and survive. Let's stick with what we know happens.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

spanglish, espanglish, etc.

Otheguy, R. and N. Stern. (2010, Nov.) On So-called Spanglish. CUNY.
We shouldn't use the term "Spanglish" because it robs North American Hispanics of the feeling of having their own language. What they have is a North American version of Spanish, and is a complete language.

Code-switching gives us a feeling of control over two worlds which we are caught between, to some extent, not fully accepted in the US, no longer completely Mexican either.
Code-switching takes skill; you can't just jumble the languages together. Certain combinations sound definitely wrong. Though code-switchers cannot verbalize the rules necessarily, they know the rules, because they can tell you which combinations are wrong.
"I must clarify that code-switchers usually are individuals who learn English out of necessity and not by choice. According to Valdés-Fallis, people who master a second language in an academic setting choose to become bilingual, but rarely will they code-switch. Social, cultural, and political purpose are essential to Spanglish. In general, non-Latino bilinguals will interact in either Spanish or English for different situations. In contrast, “natural” bilingualism will occur at those times when the speakers’ first language will not meet all their communicative needs” (Valdés-Fallis 3)." (Valdés-Fallis, Guadalupe. “Theory and Practice: Code-switching and the Classroom Teacher.” Language in Education. Virginia: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1978.)

Spanglish (Wikipedia)

Salvador Tio, Puerto Rican linguist, was credited with naming "Spanglish"...Tio does not have a Wikipedia page yet.
Spanglish is common in the following places: Panama, Belize, Texas/Mexico, California/Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, New York (Nuyorican), Florida (Cuban/English), Atlanta, New Jersey, Chicago, Gibraltar.

Spanglish the movie

Calo, a special language

Llanito, spoken in Gibraltar

Friday, October 26, 2012

I'm really enjoying teaching linguistics, partly because I get to revisit Saussure, Boas, and all these old historical characters. Today for example we reviewed Boas and went on to Sapir and Whorf, and what happened after them.

But I came to this one little segment of a chapter called "Relativism and Enactionism." I read it a few times before I realized I was onto something. But then, I googled "enactionism" and Google put me directly onto enactivism.

I read and reread Enactivism until I determined that they were talking about the same movement as the one the book had; it had the same people, same basic idea. They also mentioned Universal Darwinism and other biologically-based theories of cognition.

My book, Anthropological Linguistics by Foley, was published in 1997 and has been reprinted several times. I had a hard time believing this was just a typo, this idea of Enactionism. But Enactionism got no hits. Either they let the typo go because they didn't care, or didn't know, or whatever. It's somewhat surprising. It's like purposely misspelling someone's name to subvert the possibility that it could ever get any more famous.

Back in the 90's I found a friend poring over this movement. Back in those days people depended on these list-serves, where people of like interests would share comments and get involved in huge discussions. This is a group, he said, that was interested in the power of perception as the center, as an important force in making the world what it is. To learn about it, he said, write an e-mail joining the group. They will send you a great introductory piece that will explain it. But then, he said, get off the list immediately, or you will be flooded for days with thousands of e-mails.

I can't remember if I followed his advice or not. The movement, which posits that humans and the environment interact, develop together in sensitivity to each other, is difficult to grasp, or more of it would have stuck with me. I'm more interested in that now, because I believe in a Darwinist interpretation of the self-organized system of language. What are the little actors, that have within them the capacity to adjust, to adapt, to change? Human perception is at the center of this. It's true that it's the words, the pieces, the structures, etc., that live or die, let the strongest survive. But it's the human perception that gives them their strength, that either values them and uses them, or doesn't value them and lets them rot on the vine. It's my job to put this together somehow and explain it. I'm still mulling over how.

Friday, September 28, 2012

prescriptive grammar

One question on the test had to do with linguists' attitude toward prescriptive grammar. As an answer on the test, many students said that linguists don't care for it. It constrains us or keeps us from saying what we want, one student said. No, finally I stomped my foot and said, linguists have been maligned on this issue and I won't tolerate it.

In fact the mainstream media got the idea a little while back, and they were right about this, that linguists as a class disdain prescriptive grammar and the people who would try to impose rules on a language, and tell us all what's grammatical and what's not. This is hypocritical, critics said, because linguists are educated and write in good grammar, and can afford to make an argument that prescriptive grammar is useless. To the rest of us, it's a power-laden world where bad grammar is judged poorly.

This is why they miss the point. Linguists try to explain human behavior. Prescriptive rules sometimes help us explain what we try to do, say, when we write a paper. But they don't explain what we do the rest of the time. I gave as an example, the rules of "y'all" (which I am studying)...these are not prescriptive. Yet there are rules, and we follow them, and learning the rules will help linguists understand and explain human behavior.

Finally I told the story of the three girls with three violins in the monsoon in Korea. Three girls, three violins, one umbrella, and nobody got wet. I saw that and said, Americans could never do this; they can't work in such close harmony with anyone. Then one day, on Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago, I saw six lanes of traffic, all going 75 MPH, all bumper-to-bumper, for sixty miles into the city. My knuckles turned white while I stuck with them and stayed bumper-to-bumper the whole way. So, finally, I wanted to know how people could be in such incredible harmony; I decided we were acting like the girls with the violins.

But I also realized that the speed limit was 55. It had nothing to do with the speed limit. It happened at 7 am, and I don't think anyone seriously thought they'd be pulled over. Every single driver was acting in his/her own best interest, including me. and pushing it to the max, which was about 75. And not budging from that maximal rate. The law, like prescriptive grammar, can explain some of our behavior some of the time, and it can attempt to enforce what we all recognize as "the rules"...but other times, what happens follows its own rules.

In the end, linguists consider prescriptive grammar to be an interesting player in the game, but we can't confuse "the rules" with "everyone's rules" or "the reason you just did what you did". In short, prescriptive grammar doesn't explain human behavior as much as it tries to control it, and linguists will be the first to tell y'all, control doesn't always work.

sound change

The return of the test today caused a bit of a stir. It came down to what really causes great sound changes like the Great Vowel Shift. I told the truth as I knew it - that nobody really knows why all English's vowels shifted sometime between 1400 - 1700. There are dozens of theories.

Several things are notable about the era. People moved to southeast England from all over the country, to escape the black plague. There was a lot of social mobility for the same reason. The aristocracy who had spoken French for years started speaking English again. But people who wanted to move up spoke like them. During one of the many wars between France and England, it became a bad idea to sound too French, and people tried to sound more British. etc. etc.

The question comes up because of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and whether that is an entire language shift, or just the creation of a dialect. In the case of the NCVS, which is happening now, almost nobody is even aware of it; it is surely not happening for social reasons. I can see people changing their vowels to be similar to those around them (I am doing it as we speak), but, there is no social prestige involved in this particular shift, that I know of. I presented it to my class. Why do people do it? I don't know.

This is the story I present to them. We as linguists try to explain human behavior, and humans are indeed doing things that surprise us, defy explanation. The introduction of a new language would seem to tax people, give them too many rules to remember, stretch their possible number of vowels, etc. But why would this happen in the North before it happened in Texas? Or, why would Canadians refuse to budge or change anything? Because these are geographical questions, my interest is piqued. But I don't really have answers. More about this later, I hope.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

my friend Jessi

Jessi spent days up in this little office in our linguistics hallway (this was back before I retired from Southern Illinois University) listening to people make the sound -l. L as in little. Now little has two l's, the first one being what you'd call light, and the last one being what you'd call dark. My present linguistics book, by the way, ignores this distinction. Maybe it's because it doesn't matter any more, I'm not sure. What Jessi found was that people make all kinds. Some make all light, some make all dark, some have their own kind. I find this interesting and I look forward to hearing more about it (she will send me her paper, she's promised).

She found out a lot of things. It's kind of like court reporting. Once you train your ear, and by discipline or whatever, try to become very objective, you'll notice that you become better at just recording what exactly you heard, as opposed to what you expected, or what somebody said you'd hear, or whatever. And there really is an incredible variety out there in what people say and do.

I've been pressing Jessi on a single question that is on my mind, and it's possible she won't be able to answer it based on the work she's done, which really focused on -l, and not the vowels. The question is this: there is no doubt that there is a vowel shift happening in the northern cities (called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift), and that young people, women first, are changing and moving a whole set of vowels around in their mouths. My primary example is thank you which is coming out more and more sounding like think you or at least thenk you. In other words, it's moving way up. Now Wikipedia does not consider this a dialect, although it is a whole system of shifts that are happening and have been happening since the 60's. They maintain that Canadians are not taking it up, and that though it has moved down to St. Louis, it hasn't gone much further west than say Cedar Rapids or central Minnesota. So what's up? Is it a dialect? Is it a great change that's happening in our midst like the great vowel shift of the 1600's?

Some research has been done about the reasons for the Great Vowel Shift in the 1600's. Actually it happened any time between 1300 and maybe 1650, who knows? And all kinds of things were happening then: plague was wiping out all classes; people were moving around; the aristocracy was returning to English after speaking French for a while; people were practicing social mobility for the first time ever. Also, they were beginning to solidify and standardize the writing system, which meant that words that didn't make the shift got left behind in a very visible way; their spelling became irregular.

Now my questions may be obvious. Are all sound changes dictated by social movement? (If so what is up with those northern girls?....) Is it possible that whole populations change their vowels without being aware of it? What role does hypercorrection play in this picture?

All good questions, which I will return to later, I'm sure.

linguistics report

I'm surprised by how much linguistics has changed in the years since I studied it most intently, namely the early eighties. I should not be surprised that Chomsky still dominates the field. The Anthropological Linguistics text I'm using was actually written in the late nineties and has Chomsky all over it, but my impression has been that the last twenty years have been a kind of contest, in which Chomsky still maintains what is left of linguistic universals, and language hunters go out and steadily, one by one, prove them wrong.

Finally, he was backed into a corner: recursion, or reflexivity, the last of linguistic universals; but, someone proved that wrong...or at least, thought they did.

Now, I'll admit, I'm sure my version of this story is somewhat cloudy, and that's why I get it out, to help me sort it out in my own mind. For one thing, I notice recursion and reflexivity being used interchangeably, and I'm not totally comfortable with that. It's my understanding that reflexivity is when an object refers back to a subject (he washed himself) whereas recursion is a little wider, and deals with all self reference, from he gave his horse and car to John and Paul, respectively to he is the man whom I saw yesterday. I'll admit that I have no idea what Chomsky actually claimed in his final theory, or whether the language hunters of the Piraha actually proved that there is a language that does not do this. I base my knowledge on a single article, The Interpreter, that caught my fancy and proved to me that Chomsky was not really, in fact, indestructible. Yet he has totally dominated the field for what, sixty years now.

The way our book describes and distributes sounds is somewhat different from the way we used to. Some features, such as fricative, labial, dental-fricative, etc. seem to be gone. Are they unnecessary? I find myself impatient with the binary nature of features, also. If the entire universe is binary, then it's necessary to label an -h- as either sonorant or non-sonorant, whereas that probably doesn't matter to the person who is actually picking up or interpreting the sound. I'd like to develop my thinking on this topic a bit, but it seems that a lot of the work that has gone into describing sounds distinguishes them by how they are made, and I can see why; that's what we have, and in many cases that's the most salient thing: they're either voiced or non voiced, continuant or stop, etc. But it's at the receiving end that we must pick up the differences between them and then use them to calculate what we've heard. And our minds are not entirely binary. Our computers are, but our minds aren't. Koreans distinguish three kinds of p, for example: plain, tight, and aspirated. We can describe these in a binary way but it might be simpler if we described them in another way. Once again, it's the receiver, the listener, who has to tell them apart. Our hearing/listening must be as simple, as salient, as possible. Why should we tolerate complexity? We don't have time for it.

The book leads us through an exercise on the scientific analysis of the sound makeup of English plurals. Words end in -s, -z, or -Iz as in books, dogs/dogz, churches/churchiz. We want to make a rule that explains what native English speakers do based on the sound construction of every word. The book posits a base form. Should that be -s? How about -z? or -Iz? Since we're always spelling it with an -s, that might be a good place to start. But is it? Good question.

The rule of Occam's razor says, make your explanation as simple as possible. Clean, pure, simple, don't bog down the native speaker with too many rules. OK, I'll buy that. I'll even force it on my students. I'll be happy to. It's tomorrow's lecture.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Leverett, T. (2012). Saussure and the Oral-writing relationship. Google docs.

Leverett, T. (2012). Koutsoudas' first principle. Unpublished document.

Leverett, T. (2012). Symbols and the language learner. Unpublished document.

Cleaning out files as I move to Lubbock, TX later this month. I am still unclear about using Google Docs; I enjoy putting these things on google docs, but I really have no idea how they look to others, or whether you use the same "edit" URL that I have, as an editor. What do you see? Is it decent? I'm not even sure it's the same as what I see.

I'll further admit that they are not really in order; I have lost track of the book nature of what I was writing, and am now just trying not to lose stuff. On this blog, at least so I hope, I won't lose it.

The third article, though it's marked 2012, was written on the old Word, and I believe was on the old computer; I'm not sure when I wrote it. Let's just say, this blog is the most permanent place to store stuff like this, computers come & go, but the blog stays, with its sleepy organization by month. These, I guess, will remain as July 2012.

Friday, February 17, 2012

language, history, ramble

Two things have always bothered me about definitions of human language. The first is that we really know very little about animal language, or rather, the language of other animals, so we’re not in a very good position to discern the differences among them. We know that certain animals have language, and that those languages have symbols, and that in some cases those languages are made in the mouth. Since that is about all that human languages have in common, I am not yet ready to say that humans are all that much more sophisticated than the other animals, but I’m sure science has come up with some differences attributable to evolution. Sure, we’ve conquered the world and put many of our fellow animals in zoos. But that, to me, is not enough to allow us to call ourselves superior.

So we have language that is rich in use of symbols, in which sounds are put together into words, and these words have meaning which we remember as we go about our daily lives and create an infinite number of entirely original, meaningful sentences. We are so adept at these symbols that we make a writing system, so that written words correspond to spoken words which in turn symbolize concepts and now we are using symbols (the written words) that are a couple of steps removed from the concept itself. This is where it gets interesting, because here it may be assumed that the written word is derived from the spoken word, that the spoken word is more basic, more elemental, and capable of surviving just fine without a written word.

This is the other point that I’m somewhat stuck on, and in fact would like to explore. The fact that our languages have writing systems, and that these writing systems provide another level of abstraction beyond the spoken word and its referent, is in fact interesting, and it’s worth wondering how many other animals’ languages share this feature. But it might not be the only way human languages develop, or the only natural progression of languages in general. We are in the habit of looking around at the world’s languages, and perhaps looking down on the ones that have no writing system; perhaps they are undeveloped, or never had the means or reason to develop a writing system. But linguists made a big deal at one point out of the fact that these languages were every bit as complex in every other way, as those that had one. It was as if they had determined that the writing system didn’t change much in terms of the basic complexity of an already developed language.

A possible alternative might be that we used our mouths because it was more convenient, but that language could start from writing, be writing-based, or even writing-only, if that were more convenient or dictated by the environment.

I think it’s fair to say, given our historical record, that written languages have for the most part been derived from spoken languages, spoken languages which were already fairly complete, and had a history and evolutionary path independent of their written forms. Their evolutionary paths would not be entirely independent, as the written word would surely come to influence the evolution (natural change) of the spoken word, but nevertheless the assumption has remained: the written word represents the spoken word, however flawed the system; the spoken word in turn is connected directly to the concept.

It’s not hard to find arguments to support this general human tendency, since in history we have always carried our mouths around with us, whereas it was often much harder to come up with a pen and something to scrawl on. It can be said that entire languages were oral only, and when they finally got writing systems, those systems played very little role in the culture of the nations or peoples who spoke the language. Oral, in other words, was basic, whereas the written forms were temporal, optional, insignificant in terms of their influence on the language itself.

But it brings to mind several questions. The first was raised when study of deaf communities found many similarities between their language and spoken language, as if it was perfectly possible to have a fully functioning language, evolving and living by its own rules, entirely independent of speech. The question then would be, what did they find that enabled them to declare these languages of the deaf as complex as any other language? What are the essences of language that develop whether or not we are using the mouth as our primary instrument of communication? Or, on the other hand, in what way does the mouth influence the range or the ability of language to be what it is, or, more specifically, could it even constrict the development of language? That is to say, if we were to develop a language without the mouth, a chat language for example, could it have more vowels? Different kinds of vowels? Virtual vowels?

Chomsky seemed to believe in the idea that there was some genetic capability that we humans had access to, that helped determine the way we saw and used language. But, in life, there have been many languages that were written only, so my questions really apply to those. If a language were to develop as written only, how much of Chomsky’s innate mechanism would apply to it? I have several examples, and some may not hold up to the light of day. The claim was, in these deaf languages (used in a community in Israel in which deafness was quite common and in fact was so common that it was a good idea for anyone to use the deaf language), that the language evolved and changed in much the same ways that our oral languages have. Would this also be true, then, for chat languages, which develop in writing, and have no real oral counterpart, and in which, creating sound correspondences for common written chat expressions would actually be superfluous? Another example would be the isolated EFL learner, who has access to books but no soundtracks, no English sound whatsoever (impossible, you might insist?) – this person would crack the code through the books, perhaps, but have no idea of the sounds corresponding to each letter or word. The sounds now would be arbitrary, but the writing would be fixed, being shared between communities. Any community could then be free to interpret the words its people see (let’s say a group of learners has received a textbook, still with no access to English sounds) – assign sounds to them arbitrarily, and yet continue to use the language, and let it evolve, on its own, naturally, as a writing-based language. A genetic interpretation might insist that people continue to conceive of language as oral, and that these picture-first anomalies are just that.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ke, J. (2004). Self-organization and Language Evolution: System, Population and Individual. City University of Hong Kong, doctoral thesis. Available (pdf):

more on Saussure

from the Wikipedia entry on de Saussure:

"most modern linguists and philosophers of language consider his ideas outdated" - par. 1

Saussure's most influential work, Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale), was published posthumously in 1916 by former students Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye on the basis of notes taken from Saussure's lectures in Geneva. (Legacy, par. 1)

language may be analyzed as a formal system of differential elements, apart from the messy dialectics of real-time production and comprehension. Examples of these elements include his notion of the linguistic sign, which is composed of the signifier and the signified. Though the sign may also have a referent, Saussure took this last question to lie beyond the linguist's purview. (Legacy par. 2)

Saussure posited that linguistic form is arbitrary, and therefore all languages function in a similar fashion. According to Saussure, a language is arbitrary because it is systematic in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, all languages have their own concepts and sound images (or signifieds and signifiers). Therefore, Saussure argues, languages have a relational conception of their elements: words and their meanings are defined by comparing and contrasting their meanings to one another. For instance, the sound images for and the conception of a book differ from the sound images for and the conception of a table. Languages are also arbitrary because of the nature of their linguistic elements: they are defined in terms of their function rather than in terms of their inherent qualities. Finally, he posits, language has a social nature in that it provides a larger context for analysis, determination, and realization of its structure.(Legacy par. 5)

Holland[9] notes that up to the 1950s Saussure enjoyed some legitimacy in linguistics, but with the cognitive revolution which began in 1957, Chomsky had "decisively refuted Saussure." She writes: "Much of Chomsky's work is not accepted by other linguists . . . I am not asking you to accept Chomsky's own linguistics, however. My point is simply that Chomsky's work rendered Saussure's linguistics, indeed much of post-Saussurean linguistics, obsolete. I am not claiming that Chomsky is right, only that Chomsky has proven that Saussure is wrong. Linguists who reject Chomsky claim to be going beyond Chomsky, or they cling to phrase-structure grammars. They are not turning back to Saussure."

"Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language." Koster, Jan. (1996)

"Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics, Lacanians, and the occasional philosopher." Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN ISBN 0-231-07650-9, p. 140.
de Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. Online preview here.

Wikipedia. Ferdinand de Saussure. Father of structuralism.

Holdcroft, D. (1991). Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness. Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, M. (1994). Turtles, termites, and traffic jams: explorations in massively parallel microworlds. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge, MA.

Herman & Gardels, Vehicular traffic flow, Scientific American 260 (6)?, 1963

R. Herman, K. Gardels. Vehicular Traffic Flow. Scientific American. p. 35-43. December 1963.

(lack of) progress report

Over a year since I last posted, and almost nothing done on this topic...very little to say for myself. And, as I look down the blog, scan it in a cursory way, I don't even have what I need to get started on it. Here's what's going on:

1. I took out a Cooley book from the library, and ordered another: V. Cook's Inside Language. Cook is really where I start. Chapter 1 is: Right metaphor, wrong conclusion. I kind of wanted to start there and see where it took me, but that book might be a week getting here and I just ordered it today. I don't really want to depend on others' writing but there are a number of people I must research before I really lay it all out.

2. Where are the people who have already written about language as a self-organized system? I have a small collection somewhere (don't see it at the moment) and will unite my ideas using theirs, I hope.

3. What about Saussure? I assume he's the person I'm thinking about, from long ago, who set out (and I agreed) the idea that language was a social contract. I think it's necessary to go over that, review what it does and how it functions, before trying to explain it in any way.

4. Somewhere I have a piece of paper where I tried to organize my chapters, the progression of ideas; I didn't get very far. I got frustrated and gave it up for another season, this one the Christmas one, where one gets absolutely nothing done unless one has enormous unwrapped reservoirs of energy. Finally, after an exhausting Christmas season and a 2-week single parenting stint, I got a minute today with which to go to the library. How I am able to use that Cooley, remains to be seen. I have some organizing to do, as you can see.

As of now, I start. Sorry for the delay. It's like a New Year's resolution, only it's a little more inspirational than cleaning the garage!