Thursday, September 13, 2012

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.

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