Linguismstics: /lɪŋˈgwɪzm̩stɪks/
Plato’s Problem

When children learn their native language(s), they receive very little in the way of explicit instruction if any at all. The utterances a child is exposed to are not perfect - they contain false starts, repetitions, and various other mistakes and errors. Furthermore, children are not told what is grammatical and what is not. This latter point is especially important because it means that there is no negative evidence. Yet somehow a child is able to glean from such data the grammatical rules of their language(s). Consider the following:

(1) What did you say that Bill thought that John saw?

(2) *What did you say that Bill met the man who saw?

Despite perhaps never coming across utterances like (1) or (2), English speakers know that (1) is a grammatical sentence of English whilst (2) is not. But where did this knowledge come from? Another way of putting this question is to ask how we can know so much given how little we have to learn from. This is Plato’s Problem.

In modern linguistics, the solution to Plato’s Problem is to say that humans come equipped (i.e. it is in our genetics) with certain bits of knowledge, e.g. we instinctively/innately know how to analyse certain types of data in our environment. If we believe that any of these certain bits of knowledge that we make use of in language acquisition is specific to language, we arrive at the idea of Universal Grammar (UG). 

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

In Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by M. J. Shields

The full letter may be read here.

(via unconsciousplots)

…a lifetime of linguistic study assured Ransom almost at once that these were articulate noises. The creature was *talking*. It had language. If you are not a philologist, I am afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realisation in Ransom’s mind. A new world he had already seen - but a new, an extraterrestrial, a non-human language was a different matter… The love of knowledge is a kind of madness. In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing instant death, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar. ‘An Introduction to the Malacandrian Language’ - ‘The Lunar Verb’ - ‘A Concise Martian-English Dictionary’ … the titles flitted through his mind. And what might one not discover from the speech of a non-human race? The very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages, might fall into his hands.
C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet (chapter 9), when Ransom (a Cambridge philologist, and based on J.R.R. Tolkien) first encounters a hross on the planet Malacandra.
Three Factors

I haven’t written anything for a while since I’ve been so busy recently (been working a lot on the typology of relative clauses - perhaps I’ll post something about that soon). This evening I watched an interview (on YouTube) from the late 1970’s (1977, I think) with Chomsky. The interview is from a series called “Men of Ideas” produced by the BBC.

It’s a great interview - stimulating and perceptive questions and, of course, stimulating and perceptive answers! Many things caught my attention, one of which being that Chomsky spoke of two factors playing a role in language design, namely the biological endowment (i.e. Universal Grammar (UG) - the species- and domain-specific cognitive ‘organ’ dealing with language) and linguistic experience (i.e. the primary linguistic data from which we acquire our native language(s)). The idea was that all humans are born with a capacity for language, i.e. UG is innate in humans, provided by our genetic makeup. The data we encounter as children is so scant and degenerate (full of false starts, sentence fragments, etc.) that it would be virtually impossible to acquire a grammar in the short amount of time that it takes any normal child to do so the world over…unless we came pre-programmed for such a task. The idea was that UG was this pre-programming. UG was thought to be richly specified with linguistic principles (all genetically encoded) that would help children in the task of language acquisition by severely constraining the possible hypotheses that any child would postulate when acquiring a grammar to generate the data the child was exposed to. That was then.

Nowadays, Chomsky speaks not of two factors, but of three factors of language design. UG and the primary linguistic data are the first and second factors respectively. The third factor is made up of general principles of data analysis and efficient computation. The idea is that children can bring these domain-general (i.e. not exclusively related to language) tools to language acquisition. The third factor allows the first factor, i.e. UG, to be made much smaller. In other words, UG is no longer thought to be as richly specified as it once was. In fact, the aim is to make UG as small as possible. This is desirable for a number of reasons, but a particularly pertinent reason concerns the evolution of language, i.e. the evolution of the capacity for language in humans. As an ‘organ’ of the mind, UG is a biological entity, and as such it must have evolved (though not necessarily through direct selection, as Chomsky points out in the interview!). Given that chimpanzees do not have UG, UG must have evolved some time in the last 5-7 million years or so. It is therefore unlikely that something as rich and complex as UG as it was originally conceived could have evolved in such an evolutionarily short space of time. The third factors, however, need not be specific to language, nor do they need to be specific to humans. Therefore, it is conceptually desirable if we can explain the design of language in terms of third factors. This is, in fact, viewed as the only source of principled explanation in Chomskyan syntax nowadays.

Importantly, although UG is far smaller than it was and may only consist of very few things (a recursive structure building operation at the very least), it is nevertheless still thought to exist. The UG hypothesis in its modern incarnation is thus still very different from approaches which deny the existence of UG altogether.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I suggest reading Chomsky’s (2005) paper:

Chomsky, N. (2005). Three Factors in Language Design. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 1, 1-22.

francofanatique:

Quick question: I understand when to use être vs avoir as the helping verb for the French passé composé. However, what are the linguistic reasons as to why être is used in some cases and why avoir is used in others? At first glance, it seems that one can decide based on transitivity (avoir used…

I think that in French the auxiliary is largely lexically determined, i.e. ‘être’ is used with the 13 MRS VAN DE TRAMP verbs when these are used intransitively. If one of these verbs is used transitively then ‘avoir’ is used as the auxiliary instead. So, descriptively we can say ‘avoir’ is used as the auxiliary for all transitive verbs and all non-MRS VAN DE TRAMP intransitive verbs. In other languages, such as Italian and German, I think the relationship between auxiliary selection and (in)transitivity is more transparent than in French. Bear in mind too that many linguists will subdivide intransitives into unergative and unaccusative verbs based on whether the language treats the argument of an intransitive as being an external- or internal-argument. If I remember correctly, I think that auxiliary selection in Italian depends on whether the verb is considered unergative or not, but don’t quote me on that!

I always start off groaning about puns, but by the time I got to the end I think I was genuinely amused!

I always start off groaning about puns, but by the time I got to the end I think I was genuinely amused!

Parseltongue

I went to a talk given by the man who developed Parseltongue for the Harry Potter films, Prof Francis Nolan. Just a few ‘facts’ about the language with some of the ‘explanations’ given:

Phonology

It’s got no rounded vowels or labial consonants (because snake lips aren’t very flexible)

It’s got pharyngeal consonants (because some snakes like to constrict things)

It’s got a large number of fricatives, which also exhibit a length contrast (because…snakes)

Syntax

It’s got basic VSO order

It’s got postpositions (typologically highly unusual for a VSO language)

It’s ergative

Borrowings

The word ‘muggle’ has been borrowed into English from Parseltongue ‘ŋaʔalas’ - obviously!

The male counterpart to the map I reblogged a few days ago!

Found in translation

While it is perhaps unfortunate that we do not know the meaning of some Etruscan words, it does result in several gems when an author simply italicises an untranslatable word in the gloss and translation:

Flere                in         crapsti

Divinity            which   in crap

“divinity, which [is] in crap

Flereś crapśti

“of the divinity in the crap

(Etruscan is an ancient language that was spoken and written primarily in northwest central Italy. It is also a language isolate meaning, with a few exceptions, it is unrelated to any known language ancient or modern. The alphabet used for Etruscan is based on the Greek alphabet, which means scholars are able to read many of the texts. Working out what they mean, however, is essentially informed guesswork. Check out Helmut Rix’s chapter on Etruscan in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, for more examples and information!).

linguisten:

The animated map is »here«Source and background: http://jezebel.com/map-sixty-years-of-the-most-popular-names-for-girls-s-1443501909

There will always be people out there picking weird names for their kids, but when you look at the choices that make their way to the top you’ll see that Americans tend to play it safe. The maps above, based on data from the Social Security Administration, show the most popular baby names for girls by state, for babies born from 1960 through 2012, with the colors representing the most popular single name for that year.
Baby naming generally follows a consistent cycle: A name springs up in some region of the U.S.—”Ashley” in the South, “Emily” in the Northeast—sweeps over the country, and falls out of favor nearly as quickly. The big exception to these baby booms and busts is “Jennifer”, which absolutely dominates America for a decade-and-a-half. If you’re named Jennifer and you were born between 1970 and 1984, don’t worry! I’m sure you have a totally cool, unique middle name.

(via LanguageLog)

Such an interesting animation! It makes me wonder what actually drives names to become so popular at particular times. Not only that but some names seem to achieve (almost) complete dominance. If anyone knows of something similar for boys’ names or other countries, I’d be interested to hear about it!

linguisten:

The animated map is »here«

Source and background: http://jezebel.com/map-sixty-years-of-the-most-popular-names-for-girls-s-1443501909

There will always be people out there picking weird names for their kids, but when you look at the choices that make their way to the top you’ll see that Americans tend to play it safe. The maps above, based on data from the Social Security Administration, show the most popular baby names for girls by state, for babies born from 1960 through 2012, with the colors representing the most popular single name for that year.

Baby naming generally follows a consistent cycle: A name springs up in some region of the U.S.—”Ashley” in the South, “Emily” in the Northeast—sweeps over the country, and falls out of favor nearly as quickly. The big exception to these baby booms and busts is “Jennifer”, which absolutely dominates America for a decade-and-a-half. If you’re named Jennifer and you were born between 1970 and 1984, don’t worry! I’m sure you have a totally cool, unique middle name.

(via LanguageLog)

Such an interesting animation! It makes me wonder what actually drives names to become so popular at particular times. Not only that but some names seem to achieve (almost) complete dominance. If anyone knows of something similar for boys’ names or other countries, I’d be interested to hear about it!