Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Dual number in English

September 6, 2011

That English had a dual pronoun is not surprising — after all it belongs to the Sanskrit family:

Indeed, the English language more than a thousand years ago had not only singular and plural pronouns, but optional dual as well: wit for “we two,” and yit for “you two.”

Just that I did not know the words for the dual pronoun, which I learnt from this very interesting post, which incidentally talks about the respectful form of speech by addressing a singular person by a plural pronoun.


Linguistic survey of India: from 1920s

March 19, 2011

Thanks to Swarup, I had the pleasure of listening to some Kannada and Tamil stories, recorded sometime in 1920s. Nice one!

PS: The language of narration is obviously more literary and less colloquial. However, even now, sometimes, when you switch on Podhigai, you can listen to this kind of narration!

Influence of mother tongue on habits of thought

September 9, 2010

For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Guy Deutscher in NYTimes Magazine; link vis A&L Daily.

Two positives do make a negative

February 15, 2010

I just lo……ved this bit:

The eminent linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin of Oxford once gave a lecture in which he asserted that there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative — to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, sarcastically replied, “Yeah, yeah.”

From here. By the way, in case I forgot to mention, the entire piece is a great one and a must-read.

Discover weird and wonderful words

June 28, 2009

At Wordnik; via Language Log.

On yet and but

June 24, 2009

Here is Stephen Hugh-Jones in the Telegraph:

Why English has developed all these words to say very much the same thing is a mystery. Why yet (like still) should have grown from its sense of time into one of contrast is equally unclear. And why yet and but should have developed their subtly different usages is less clear still. I’ve met no scholarly explanation. But (or yet) a distinction there is — and one well worth observing.

Have fun!

Ms. : the first proposal

June 24, 2009

Benjamin Zimmer announces a discovery of his at Language Log.

On the creation of language crimes

August 7, 2008

Roger Shuy tells the story of how he got into forensic linguistics:

After the man sitting next to on the airplane asked me to take a look at the tape-recorded evidence in a solicitation to murder case, I agreed to do so and a day or so later the lawyer in that case, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, sent me the audio-tapes. The case was Texas v. T. Cullen Davis. The crucial conversations took place in Davis’s Cadillac, sitting in a sweltering Fort Worth parking lot.

It was possible to hear most of Davis’s speech while he was getting his sunglasses out of the trunk because he was shouting so that McCrory could hear him. He was unlikely to be able to hear McCrory, however, since he maintained an almost normal tone of voice, even lowering it a bit to sound more sinister.

I asked the jury to read down the speech of each separate column along with me and I pointed out that we could see two different and separate simultaneous conversations about two different topics here. Davis continued the previous topic about Art while McCrory talked into his mike about murder while Davis was out of hearing range. Davis’s allegedly damaging words, “good,” and “alright,” were part of his own topic, not McCrory’s.

This passage was the only time that McCrory made any effort to clarify what he meant earlier by “doing Priscilla and the judge.” But while Davis was out of the car and continuing his own topic of Art, he was very unlikely to have heard it.

The jury apparently liked my analysis because they acquitted Davis on all the charges. My experience in this case traveled quickly through the law community and my phone began to ring, which is why in my earlier post I referred to that casual conversation with my airplane seatmate as a “right angle turn” in my career.

Fascinating! Take a look!

The tales that names tell

May 9, 2008

Remember the Reith Lectures of V S Ramachandran, in which, 98% of his audience thought that a jagged figure that Ramachandran showed to be the Martian alphabet for kiki and a more rounded one bubba? Jo Walton seems to recommend a similar strategy here (link via Brad DeLong):

Also, if you want to have two fantasy countries that are different from each other, make all the different choices for the other language. (Excluded vowel becomes favoured vowel, etc.) That way their names and words sound different from each other, even if the reader can’t tell exactly how, but the patterns will be consistent for each one.

The Gonovians and the Camavese really will seem like different people.

A very interesting piece indeed!

On bastard tongues

April 21, 2008

Edmund Blair Bolles at Babel’s Dawn has a must-read post reviewing Derek Bickerton’s memoir Bastard Tongues:

Bickerton makes a striking point about pidgins. They are not just without rules, they actively destroy rules:

…in any language words come embedded in a grammar of some kind. Start plucking words at random from different languages, and any consistent grammatical structure disappears. That’s not happenstance; it’s a logical and inevitable consequence of macaronic speech. [p. 218]

No wonder then that pidgins are exhausting and alienating. Even as their speakers come together they are reminded that they are members of separate communities. If people are forced to speak only pidgin, they are perpetually reminded of how they are outside of a world they where once they belonged. It would seem inevitable then that people forced to live in a community of pidgin speakers would transform their speech into something more expressive. Those more expressive languages are called Creoles and there has long been a question of just how a language can be transformed from an ad hoc, clumsy, syntaxless mess into something with rules and a vocabulary. Bickerton forever won himself a place in linguistics history by solving that problem. The children transform pidgin into a true language capable of supporting a community.

Much of Bickerton’s memoirs describe how he traveled around the world examining the Creole languages of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Ocean to discover and then prove his thesis. The single best piece of evidence in favor of Bickerton’s it’s-the-children hypothesis comes from the way so many Creole languages share a common syntax. But to prove that the syntax comes from a common way of thinking Bickerton had to disprove the counter-thesis that Creoles all descend from a common first language. Bickerton does not refer respectfully to this older idea, and indeed is so scornful that his memoirs are a bit puzzling. Why did he have to keep working so hard at proving what he had already seemed to have proved, and at disproving what seemed disproved?

Nevertheless, he does keep working and establishes that Hawaiian pidgin was made in Hawaii and not imported from some rival first language. He showed that the records from around 1900 report that children were speaking Creole forms while adults used pidgin ones. He showed that when pidgin was the only available language, children will turn it into a Creole in one generation, and that this new language contains grammatical structures that are common to Creoles around the world, but were not part of any of the languages spoken by the children’s parents.

What’s in that universal grammar?

  • It uses verbs to link subjects and objects of sentences.
  • These linkages can be serial. In English, we use conjunctions to describe serial actions (e.g., I kicked the ball and scored a goal), but the universal grammar does not seem to have conjunctions (I kicked ball scored goal). English verbs may also imply serial actions. For example, the verb  to bring compounds two actions—carrying and traveling—and the verb to bring you compounds three actions, adding giving to the other two. In languages with serial linkages, however, all the verbs must be spelled out, so I brought you a book becomes Me carry book come give you.
  • The linkages can tell us something about the relative time of the event (e.g., I see Tom versus I saw Tom). They can also tell us if the linkage really happened (e.g., I saw Tom versus I could have seen Tom). They can tell us if a linkage has been completed or not (e.g., Bill Clinton ran for president versus Hillary Clinton is running for president).
  • Sentences can include a variety of markers indicating spatial location (e.g., We went to the house versus We went into the house), habitual action (e.g., He lied versus He always lied), or state of certitude (e.g., the dog barked versus a dog barked versus dogs bark).

This list does not imply that all grammars have rules for expressing these features. They are available if need be. Serial verbs are particularly important because they appear to be universal in Creoles and not so common in other languages, perhaps because we have other ways of expressing the same thing. The important point is that Bickerton has identified a series of relationships that are universally perceived although pidgins have no rules for expressing them, but which have universally been brought under syntactical control by Creole speakers.

I agree with the philosopher Willard Quine, who is reported to have said that Bickerton’s empirical evidence for a universal grammar is far more persuasive than Chomsky’s theoretical arguments. It is also less dogmatic, for it carries no implications on just how that universal grammar works. It could be, as Chomsky proposes, a separate, syntactical module in the brain that generates its output to other areas (in which case some distinct, evolutionary account will be required), or it could be some part of our perceptual tracking system that has its roots deep in primate biology. Bickerton takes no position, contenting himself with the empirical task of establishing that there is a universal grammar which is sufficient to produce a language when children are thrown into a community of pidgin speakers.