Radical Linguistics.

Ross Perlin, whom we met here as a reviewer (of the Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary/Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh/Idisshu-go jiten), has a very interesting essay in Dissent, called “Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction.” I doubt anyone will agree with everything he has to say, but it begins unassailably — “Modern linguistics is founded on a radical premise: the equality of all languages. … Where native speakers are concerned, no language, dialect, or accent can meaningfully be described as primitive, broken, or inferior” — and continues to describe linguistics in a politics-drenched way that is not often seen. He terms what I had thought of simply as linguistics, or structural linguistics, or pre-Chomskyan linguistics, as “radical linguistics,” and I guess in the terms he outlines it is. He writes:

Equality, diversity, respect for orality, descriptivism (not prescriptivism), and “going to the people”: these remain fundamental tenets for any program of radical linguistics, and for anyone who cares about human language. But today there are sobering realities. The concept of linguistic equality has done little to change popular perceptions. Nor have two centuries of revolutionary political and social movements, though certain large-enough languages have been elevated to official status in the course of national liberation struggles. Nearly everywhere, a persistent stigma clings to minority languages, provincial dialects, “non-standard” accents, and working-class “sociolects,” not to mention the linguistic registers used by women, young people, and LGBTQ speakers. The vitriol routinely trained on Black English in America is representative, although politically committed linguists like William Labov and John Rickford have devoted their careers to documenting and defending its integrity. Debates about language are rarely just about language—they’re always about the speakers.

And he pithily describes Noam Chomsky as “a radical and a linguist but not a radical linguist.” Read the whole thing if you’re not allergic to the language of radical politics. (I forget where I got the link, but it may have been the Facebook feed of Franz Boas, who’s surprisingly hip and lively for a guy who’s been dead since 1942.)

Comments

  1. Maybe Perlin’s “going to the people” needs some comment. It is a translation of Russian идти в народ, but it does not mean “to go to the common folk to learn something from them (like a dialect)”, though it was also a part of Narodniki’s program. It means something more like “to go to the common people to help them”, and if carried out at all (intelligentsia is more prone to talk then to action) was something like becoming a teacher or a doctor in a village or small town .

  2. In “Marxist-Leninist” practice, “go to the common folk to learn something from them (like a dialect)” was just a variant of “go to the common people to instruct them”. What was learned helped to better instruct, that is, control politically. For the communists, political control was the common denominator of learning, helping and teaching.

  3. While I agree with the points put forward in this essay, some of his terminology caught my eye.

    The term “radical linguistics” is confusing to me. What other kind of linguistics is there? I have never encountered a linguist who is a descriptivist or claims the superiority of any language. I don’t consider people who are just well-schooled, or fluent, in a foreign language but without a broader knowledge of language generally to be “linguists.” Maybe, it is a matter of definition.

    Also, I am not sure what he means by describing Labov as “politically committed.” I would guess, he means those who are active in language preservation, but I am not sure.

  4. Does Chomsky “ignore actually existing linguistic diversity?” Does interest in language commonalities constitute opposition to, or ignorance of, surface differences?

  5. Does Chomsky “ignore actually existing linguistic diversity?” Does interest in language commonalities constitute opposition to, or ignorance of, surface differences?

    We have had discussions of this before, though I can’t remember where. Whether Chomsky would actually say “Screw linguistic diversity, I don’t care about it” is irrelevant; the practical effect of his insistence that all languages are the same beneath the surface was that everybody gave up bothering to do the arduous work of studying undocumented languages and settled in to the comfortable task of navel-gazing, analyzing their own native tongue and maybe a few easily available other languages, usually also Indo-European, to show how they do exactly the same thing if you just jiggle the terminology properly.

  6. Ian Press says:

    How true about Chomsky. I wasted so much time trying to make sense of it and wondered why it just didn’t make sense, tending to blame myself. I got over it, and so much else which seemed to seek to reduce the wonder of languages. I saw him speak once, at the British Academy. It was really good, and he must have been the draw, but the real stars were the psychologists and biologists.

  7. “. . . the practical effect of his insistence that all languages are the same beneath the surface was that everybody gave up bothering to do the arduous work of studying undocumented languages . . .”

    Do you really think that Chomsky motivated disinterest in undocumented languages? Actually, I would think it would motivate study of a wide variety of languages to test his theories and discover their parameters.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    I am old enough to have started my linguistics studies (in the US) at a time when Chomsky was starting to become influential but the majority of linguists were still anthropologically or structurally oriented people who loved learning languages, the more obscure the better, and interacting with their speakers. With the rise of Chomsky a completely different breed of linguists came to the fore: students who were very articulate in English (their own language) but did not like learning foreign languages with their strange sounds and irregularities, and were comfortable with Chomsky’s abstract approach to language in general, or rather, to syntactic structure. Rather than relying on (foreign) “native speaker intuition” of what did or did not “sound right” to them (and therefore being in an inferior position compared to speakers), Chomsky’s students could rely on their own intuition, trying to explore the limits of English in thinking up convoluted sentences which might or might not be possible. There is nothing wrong with this technique as such, but it went along with a superior attitude to everything that had been done before. Linguistic studies of other languages (many of them the first languages of foreign students) in the new fashion were more or less grudgingly accepted if they “proved” a point made in studies of English, often forcing those languages into an unsuitable mold or encouraging a “pick and choose” attitude as to which aspects of those languages were considered interesting: those which could be made to agree with a thory actually based on English. Where earlier linguists had written grammars of “exotic” tongues (including indigenous minority tongues the world over), often after years of study, Chomsky and his followers despised such activity as “taxonomic” rather than “explanatory”. Existing grammars were useful as sources of non-English examples of particular points supporting the theory, but grammar-writing was considered a low-level activity unworthy of the new linguists’ superior intellects. As for historical linguistics, the foundations of which are morphology and phonology rather than syntax, just forget it.

    I haven’t tried to follow the development of Chomsky’s theories in detail since those early beginnings (and they have had many twists and turns), but things have been shaken up somewhat as some of Chomsky’s best, most creative students broke up with him and started their own models. Another specialty which developed in parallel but unrelated was sociolinguistics, which focuses not on linguistic structure but on the actual use of language in relation to social interaction (both individually and in relation to groups). As Etienne mentioned a while ago, this had been part of the focus of older European linguists which took a comprehensive approach to language, but “what language is for” is an aspect totally ignored by Chomsky’s abstract considerations.

    My feeling is that Chomsky’s early work introduced a needed emphasis on syntax in American linguistics, but this emphasis and more importantly the intellectual snobbishness that went along with it resulted in a “cancerous” growth in the field which almost suffocated it. However, there are signs elsewhere of a return to a more balanced and comprehensive approach to language, including its diversity and its history. The recovery will take time, but I trust the patient will survive.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    I doubt anyone will agree with everything he has to say, but it begins unassailably — “Modern linguistics is founded on a radical premise: the equality of all languages. … Where native speakers are concerned, no language, dialect, or accent can meaningfully be described as primitive, broken, or inferior”

    Depending on the meaning of “primitive”, I don’t agree that that’s a premise. I think it’s a finding. From the principle of parsimony we can deduce the prediction that language didn’t fall from the sky fully formed, but evolved more or less gradually; it is not a priori impossible that an older, in whichever way simpler or more conservative stage might have survived to the present day – and yet, no evidence of such a thing has been found.

    If, by some miracle, something like this were discovered, I don’t think we’d get a “paradigm shift”. Among linguists, that is. We might well get one among funding agencies. 🙂

  10. David Marjanović says:

    …There’s a Trojan in the essay. It’s called JS:Iframe-EKM.

  11. I agree with David that the equality of languages is a finding, not a premise. But as a finding it quite predates the birth of linguistics as a science: some of the first missionaries in New France in the sixteenth/seventeenth century, for example, were quite impressed with Native American languages (all the while bemoaning how difficult it was to master them): one of them, for instance, wrote that the Huron language, in its lexical and grammatical richness, and as a tool to express complex thoughts with rhetorical elegance, could only be compared to Latin or to Ancient Greek.

    I am in this light irritated that Ross Perlin, like so many “progressives”, seems to have a purely teleological view of history, whereby some individuals or groups (say, modern-day secular linguists) are at the forefront of “progress” and hence make the “true/politically correct” discoveries. That what is scientifically true and what is ideologically orthodox are two different things seems never to occur to him. Nor does it seem to occur to him that true discoveries can be made by individuals whose beliefs would make him reach for his stake and garlic without hesitation (a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary discovering the lack of fit between linguistic complexity and proximity to European culture, for instance…). His core belief seems to be that the new is better than the old, by definition.

    The near-total collapse of historical linguistics in the wake of the rise of generative grammar actually quite wholly belies this belief: Historical Linguistics, which made predictions which subsequent archival or archeological discoveries proved to be true, is quite superior to generative grammar, which despite its huge number of cult follow– err, I mean scholars– and funding, has utterly failed to make a single non-trivial prediction validated by subsequent findings. A teleological view of the history of science would predict Historical Linguistics would have driven generative grammar to near-extinction, not the other way around.

  12. Do you really think that Chomsky motivated disinterest in undocumented languages?

    Yes. See marie-lucie for details.

  13. I think it’s a finding.

    Indeed. It reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s dictum that human equality is a contingent fact of history. We could have had Homo erectussurviving to this day, as in Harry Turtledove’s A Different Flesh, where they were the only hominins in the New World until Columbus’s time — but we didn’t. In the alternative universe, as a consequence of the discovery of “sims”, what they call the “transformational theory of life” is developed two centuries early by Samuel Pepys.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m sure Professor Labov has said something positive about AAVE somewhere along the way, but Perlin’s suggestion that it has been the focus of his work is not true and not even truthy. Instead, Labov has spent decades documenting the language variety of people who would never read Dissent magazine and whom the snotty elitist readers of magazines like Dissent loath — i.e. the not-very-“progressive” working-class whites of Philadelphia who voted for Frank Rizzo every chance they got and who think Mumia should have been executed and can tell you the name of the cop he murdered without having to google it. (I have no idea how “progressive” in a stereotypical college-town way Labov’s personal politics are, but it speaks well of him that he would choose a population for fieldwork based on their intrinsic linguistic interest rather than on whether they were well thought of in “progressive” circles.)

    And really? The language variety/varieties spoken by “LGBTQ people”? There were in my youth certain pecularities of speech that were stereotypically associated (perhaps with some empirical validity) with gay males (or the subset of gay males active in the urban gay-male subculture of the day) and were deprecated, but I am entirely unaware of any negative stereotypes about how lesbians talk, or how bisexuals talk, etc etc etc.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think that the equality-of-all-languages thing might have started as a finding but then evolved into a premise, or an axiom, or an unreflective signal of in-group membership that is no longer thought about in an evidence-based way. It’s just something we learn in Linguistics 101 that we then use to show our social superiority to the benighted masses who are unaware of how massively cool the verbal morphology of such-and-such Australian aboriginal language is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t *true,* of course, although I’m not sure just what sort of features or lack of features a newly-documented language would have to possess to falsify the claim.

  16. Everything that m-l says is true. TG people weren’t interested in going out to study or preserve exotic languages; that was old fashioned and boring. They preferred to find out the “truth” from thinking deeply about a single language, usually English, and mostly that was based solely on introspection. If someone had some suitable material in another language that could further their theories of course that was grist for their mill, but other languages were not their main concern. Nor did they care that much about how language is actually used. And historical linguistics was positively antediluvian.

    The people who seemed to love Chomskyan grammars most were mathematicians and logicians who were turned on by the idea of manipulating abstract deep structures this way and that to come up with the less interesting surface structures.

    I only had a modest knowledge linguistics until I went to university and ran full bore into Chomskyanism. While I did learn something from it, it put me off linguistics for a very long time and left me full of strange beliefs like ‘the grammar of a language must be capable of generating all and only valid sentences/utterances in that language’. I was guilty of getting impatient with people who told me, “Well, grammatically we could say it that way but we don’t”. From my point of view, if you didn’t say it that way then that’s exactly what the grammar should be explaining! I know better know.

  17. The concept of linguistic equality has done little to change popular perceptions. Nor have two centuries of revolutionary political and social movements, though certain large-enough languages have been elevated to official status in the course of national liberation struggles. Nearly everywhere, a persistent stigma clings to minority languages

    Sure, but of course the concept of linguistic equality — or of linguistics (or “radical linguistics” or whatever you want to call it) — is, historically, nothing but an embryo. This line reminds me of what you often here in introductory economics courses: that — let’s get real here, you silly idealists — wealth has never, not once in history, changed hands significantly through redistribution. As if that means some natural law has and always will make it so — greed, in my mind, qualifying not as a law but a a perennial obstacle; and as if the world weren’t radically wealthier than it were two centuries ago, rendering appeals to the whole of history meaningless. I’m not sure if any of this is anywhere near as relevant as I first thought when I began this comment, but calls for pessimism of any kind on the subject (of politically linguistic progress, that is) do seem way premature.

  18. I spend a lot of my time time dealing with Chomskyan concepts, or perhaps it might be better to say concepts developed by John Backus that have had Chomsky’s name attached to them. However I am only generally familiar with his linguistics work.

    I watched a PBS show a few years ago. It was about a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that was trying to recover their language. They had only a few songs and other remnants left. However a good deal had been recorded about their language 100 or more years ago, plus it was related to other better-known languages in the same family. The tribe approached the MIT Linguistics Dept. for assistance in this project. Chomsky comes only peripherally into this story. There was some controversy in the the department about whether the project should be supported. Chomsky came down very much in favor of the project and was a big factor in pushing it through. So this is a point of evidence that he wasn’t so opposed to linguistic diversity after all.

  19. I don’t think he was opposed to linguistic diversity. It’s just that his approach marginalised it in favour of head games.

  20. “Chomsky came down very much in favor of the project and was a big factor in pushing it through. So this is a point of evidence that he wasn’t so opposed to linguistic diversity after all.”

    I think I have read that a number of Chomsky’s ideas were triggered by his knowledge of Hebrew (with a structure very different from English). In fact, his father was a Hebrew scholar and wrote about the structure of Hebrew. So, I suspect he is appreciative of the fact that languages other than English exist and are worthy of study.

    The fact that his theories intrigued linguists at the time and, perhaps, directed the attention of many to focus on UG, I don’t think deserves being characterized as antagonistic to language diversity or inspiring antagonism toward it.

    I have never encountered a linguist who is antagonistic to language diversity, whether inspired by Chomsky or not. For many, this is not their primary interest, but it doesn’t follow that they are indifferent, or opposed, to diversity.

  21. Red herrings. The effect of his approach and prominence was to virtually wipe out study of languages other than well-known ones; who cares what his inner thoughts were or are?

  22. “The effect of his approach and prominence was to virtually wipe out study of languages other than well-known ones’

    Don’t most linguistics departments encourage the study of less well-known languages. One that I am familiar with requires, for graduate students, the study of a non-European language.

  23. One that I am familiar with requires, for graduate students, the study of a non-European language.

    In other words, you could study, say, Hebrew. That’s hardly the same thing as going to Indonesia and spending a couple of years writing the first grammar of an undocumented language, which is the kind of thing linguists used to do in the heyday of American linguistics.

  24. “That’s hardly the same thing as going to Indonesia and spending a couple of years writing the first grammar of an undocumented language, which is the kind of thing linguists used to do in the heyday of American linguistics.”

    True. I absolutely agree that this is a valuable thing to do. But, I don’t think it should be the sum total of linguistics. I think that theory, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, SLA, etc., etc. are also important should not be discouraged or demeaned.

  25. Very true. There’s only one side that’s been engaged in discouraging particular forms of linguistics, and it’s not my side (unless you consider transformational theory a form of linguistics — I’ve certainly done by best to discourage that, but linguistic theory as such is a noble thing).

  26. “unless you consider transformational theory a form of linguistics”

    Yeah, I think I do think it is a “form of linguistics” and a worthwhile linguistic pursuit. But, that doesn’t mean that I must necessarily accept it 100%.

    I think that the underlying premise that language has an underlying innate foundation is important. Language acquisition is not the same as learning math, the name of bugs, physiology, etc. And, the fact that language is innate suggests some basic structure. And, IMO, theories that attempt to account for this are worthwhile to consider.

    George

  27. Concept of linguistic equality is like the notion that God created all men equal.

    It’s a fine declaration of rights and noble principles, but it does not reflect reality.

    Bolsheviks knew very well that languages have to developed to have any chance of competing with Russian, so they devoted enormous amount of money and effort to this goal, building schools, writing grammars, educating national cadres and translating everything they could think of into languages often spoken by only a few hundreds or even a few dozen people.

    After Soviet language policy died with Soviet Union’s demise, the only people in the world really doing something to develop small languages are the various Bible translation groups.

  28. a worthwhile linguistic pursuit

    It could also be seen as a worthless dead end. The underlying premise is one of its problems and has been challenged.

    The problem for me has always been this: In its single-minded commitment to probe deeper and deeper into innate theories of language, language universals, etc., Chomskyan linguistics not only demands that you drop the study of everything else and concentrate on increasingly abstruse and often arbitrary constructs, it also continually shifts the ground under your feet to fit in with new ‘insights’ (usually conceptual, not linguistic) and has come up with no answers to the questions that it is asking. It’s like a giant black hole that sucks the life out of everything else, with no discernible compensating benefits. There is no doubt it’s a ‘form of linguistics’, but it is a crazy, destructive form of linguistics, a form of madness that spells the death of any other rational study of language.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think it’s a contingent rather than necessary fact that proper modern descriptive linguistics is “radical” in the political sense, but it’s certainly a fact.

    I recall googling the name of Franz Boas (“the teacher, in one or another sense, of us all” as Bloomfield wrote) and discovering that he is a major hate figure to racists, who seem rather more aware of him than the general public is.

    Mind you, though I say “contingent”, it’s hard to learn a language well if you despise the speakers, and hard to maintain an unreasoning prejudice against the speakers if you know their language well. As a matter of sober linguistic fact, anybody who describes any natural human language as defective or inadequate is either very poorly informed about that language, or a bigot, or of course, both.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    If I had sixpence for every excellent descriptive grammar I’ve seen which contains a disclaimer to the effect that it eschews the “latest modern theory” … I could afford another volume in the Mouton Grammar Library.

    I doubt very much if this is because field linguists are inevitably theory-averse. Anyone who has ever tried to produce a useful description of a previously undocumented or poorly documented language surely knows the systematizer’s thrill of beginning to see a beautiful order in seeming chaos. The problem is more that the various iterations of Chomsky’s systems are so *unhelpful* in describing and understanding new things. They don’t suggest fruitful lines of study when you’re actually trying to understand why the new language works the way it does. It’s true that the more enlightened sort of Chomskyans have often looked at more exotic languages – but there’s ever the uneasy feeling that the beautiful theory trumps the messy data, and ultimately the point of the exercise is just to add another ingenious epicycle.

  31. “Chomskyan linguistics not only demands that you drop the study of everything else and concentrate on increasingly abstruse and often arbitrary constructs”

    Really? Demands?

    Linguistics is filled with people who studied transformational grammar as students yet went on to live fruitful, productive lives as people and professional linguists – and who do not denigrate language preservation.

  32. Really? Demands?

    If you are a true Chomskyan it does.

    Linguistics is filled with people who studied transformational grammar as students yet went on to live fruitful, productive lives as people and professional linguists

    That is in spite of their Chomskyan beginnings.

    I don’t recall anyone saying that Chomskyans “denigrate language preservation”. maidhc has already pointed out that Chomsky wasn’t opposed to linguistic diversity. The point is that the nett effect of Chomskyan linguistics is to divert linguistics away from the study of language in all its aspects and into the fruitless pursuit of unproductive theories.

    The effect is a little like that of urging someone not to waste their life working in the real economy when the big action is on Wall Street — playing with the fruits of other people’s work.

  33. As a matter of sober linguistic fact, anybody who describes any natural human language as defective or inadequate is either very poorly informed about that language, or a bigot, or of course, both.

    This recalls to mind the troller who suddenly turned up a couple of years ago denigrating Quechua. If I remember rightly, he beat a hasty retreat (and I’m 100% certain it was a “he”) when he publicly lost face for his ignorance.

  34. “The point is that the nett effect of Chomskyan linguistics is to divert linguistics away from the study of language in all its aspects and into the fruitless pursuit of unproductive theories.”

    In my limited experience with college linguistics (in which Chomskyan linguistics was taught) there was anything but this situation. Students went on studying a number of different areas of linguistics and teachers went on teaching a wide variety of linguistic subjects. I observed no diversion and total consumption with “Chomskyan linguistics.” But it has been a few years. I would be interested if you know of linguistics departments consumed by “Chomskyan linguistics” to the exclusion of all else.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    It occurs to me that all too often those who denigrate a language may actually *be* the native speakers. Sometimes this is the result of being on the receiving end of all too successful cultural persecution; sometimes the situation is more complicated, as with Japanese, where there are some very peculiar ideas around about its simultaneous superiority and inferiority to other languages, whether Chinese or European. Cultural cringe can take unobvious forms, I suppose.

    Strictly, this falls under the case of being poorly informed about the language. You can be a perfect speaker of a language and still have amazing misconceptions about it, after all. (The evidence is all around us …)

  36. “It occurs to me that all too often those who denigrate a language may actually *be* the native speakers.”

    I personally encountered this with Arabic speakers in the Middle East. They thought my interest in learning Arabic was very strange. I was asked a number of times why I would want to learn Arabic. To them, English was the relevant language. And, with respect to economics, they were correct. In many countries, advancement in life depends on speaking English fluently.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Bolsheviks knew very well that languages have to developed to have any chance of competing with Russian, so they devoted enormous amount of money and effort to this goal, building schools, writing grammars, educating national cadres and translating everything they could think of into languages often spoken by only a few hundreds or even a few dozen people.

    And then, a few decades before the USSR fell apart, they discontinued all teaching in Nivkh (Gilyak) because everyone spoke Russian now anyway. That’s one of the reasons why the Nivkh language is so endangered now.

    Soviet language policy was unique and had a number of goals that would seem contradictory at first glance. The long-term aim, at least in the early decades, was to make all languages slowly merge into Russian.

  38. I’m not in a linguistics department. I think that if linguistics as a discipline had gone completely Chomskyan it would have been a complete disaster. As it is, linguistics survived because people who study linguistics are at heart generally interested in language, not in unbridled theorising.

    The point where I got off the Chomskyan bandwagon was during the Linguistics Wars. When generative semanticists started proposing that “kill” should be derived from “cause to die” I knew they were a bunch of crazies. For the simple reason that even I could see that Japanese 殺す korosu ‘kill’ and 死なせる shinaseru ’cause/allow to die’ are different concepts. I couldn’t see the point of devoting valuable mental energy to even thinking about such loopy theorising. The time you spent trying to follow these arcane games could be more profitably used to learn a language or two and maybe look into more fruitful linguistic theories.

    Nothing I’ve seen since then has enticed me to re-enter that crazy world. Not X-bars nor LF and PF nor Minimalist Theory. It’s difficult to speculate what would have happened to linguistics if Chomsky hadn’t started his “revolution”. I can only say that the world is much more interesting once you’re outside that crazy maelstrom.

  39. The long-term aim, at least in the early decades, was to make all languages slowly merge into Russian.

    Is it possible that “developing” these languages indirectly led to their demise? Could a language of the home cling on in the purely domestic sphere even as the dominant literary language monopolises the public sphere, but “developing” the home language into a direct competitor of the dominant language not only makes its inferiority in terms of quantity of material available painfully apparent, but also smooths the path for the abandonment of this “developed” language for a better one.

    I’m speculating here. I’ve got a Russian-Buryat dictionary, a Buryat version of the Secret History of the Mongols, and a Buryat version of The Little Prince. But despite what appears to be considerable resources poured into the “development” of Buryat, it is now completely on the back foot compared to Russian. From all accounts, most Buryats are either Russian speakers or very poor speakers of Buryat. What is the mechanism that led to this catastrophic decline?

  40. From all accounts, most Buryats are either Russian speakers or very poor speakers of Buryat.. What is the mechanism that led to this catastrophic decline?

    Pragmatism. Specifically, a desire to get ahead by increasing the number of contacts you can make, learn from and do business with. The answer is pretty obvious when you consider motives instead of theories. When you take the speakers seriously as people like you and me, instead of idealising them as custodians of linguistic diversity.

    Perlin regards languages as exploitable resources, much as pharmaceutical companies regard plants in the Amazonian forest: “What might this mean for Tibetan speakers’ ideas about law, justice, and ethical behavior? These can be intricate and difficult connections to trace, but time is running out to investigate, let alone learn from, our linguistic differences.”

    If the author had put his money where his mouth is, he would have published his article in Quechua. If he had applied his analysis to himself, he might never have written the article: “We hardly realize how deeply embedded capitalist mentalities now are in our very language—the ways we talk about time, space, relationships.”

  41. The problem was caused by economic development, not by development of the language.

    Massive influx of Russian miners, proliferation of schools and TV and the result is pretty easy to predict.

    -Soviet language policy was unique and had a number of goals that would seem contradictory at first glance

    Soviet language policy aimed to develop local languages and cultures. And Soviet economic policy aimed to develop these regions for the benefit of a country as a whole.

    And sometimes the results of the latter would annul the accomplishments of the former.

  42. —despite what appears to be considerable resources poured into the “development” of Buryat, it is now completely on the back foot compared to Russian. From all accounts, most Buryats are either Russian speakers or very poor speakers of Buryat. What is the mechanism that led to this catastrophic decline?

    Soviet language policy has been dead for a couple of decades, so current generation of poor Buryat speakers is a logical result of what happens when the state support for native languages stops or greatly reduced.

    Situation in 1980s was better, but I agree that same trends were observable back then as well.

    I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Buryats are better educated than the ethnic Russians (the share of Buryats with college degree is higher than share of college-educated Russians).

    When you have people who are culturally conditioned that education success is the most important thing in your life and the best education in the country can be had only in Russian (and nothing could change this basic fact of life), you logically end up with families who push their children to concentrate on learning Russian as a key for their future education.

    And Buryat gets neglected in the process (and Russian demographic dominance in Buryatia does not help – ethnic Russians outnumber Buryats in Buryatia two to one)

    Same old story over and over again.

  43. In 19th century, Mongolian and Buryat parents displayed similar devotion (bordering on fanatism) trying to make their children to get a good Buddhist education and become learned lamas.

    I am pretty sure that there were Buryats back then whose Tibetan or Sanskrit was better better than their Buryat.

  44. Not to mention that there was no literary Buryat language back then. Buryats used classical Mongolian instead.

  45. What SFReader describes for Buryat more or less also applies to Kazakh, as far as I can observe. Despite Independence and despite the fact that ethnic Kazkhs, 20 years after independence, now are about 50% of the Population of Kazakhstan, Russian is still the main language of communication, and especially of higher learning. Kazakh has a strange double Image – on one hand, it’s the official language of administration, and lots of offical text and public signage are produced in Kazakh, but in actual fact it’s mostly (sloppily) translated from Russian and most people regard the Kazakh version of official texts as an obligatory but useless decoration. There also is a small bubble of a Kazkh literary intelligentisia, writing literary works in Kazakh. But most active speakers are in the countryside, especially in the South, and so speaking Kazakh is mostly seen as a sign of being uneducated and a country bumpkin. Those who want their children to gain a higher education, try to educate them in Russian and, a small elite, in English.

  46. Re: Kazakh

    The government of Kazakhstan is pursuing a policy of repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs from Mongolia and China offering them subsidies for the move.

    Unfortunately, what these Kazakh repatriants discover upon arrival in Kazakhstan is that they are unable to converse effectively with locals since the language of everyday life in Kazakhstan is Russian, not Kazakh.

    I was told that quite a few of them have failed to adapt to life in Kazakhstan and returned back to Mongolia.

    Some returnees use basic Russian they picked up in Kazakhstan to deal with Russian tourists in western Mongolia.

  47. This said, I’d note that both Kazakh and Buryat face no danger of extinction. While they occupy subordinate position to Russian and this situation is likely to continue in the future, they are still spoken by hundreds of thousands and even millions (in case of Kazakh) of people.

  48. J. W. Brewer says:

    Once we accept that Soviet language policy was either sui generis or at least not the inevitable outcome of “progressive” politics, we are still left with the question of what places have had better or worse experiences with respect to language policy (either explicit or de facto) over the last couple centuries and whether they tended to have “progressive” regimes or not-so-progressive or whether there’s just no obvious correlation at all. Perlin seems to think the Indonesian approach (promote a lingua franca L2 as a national unifying force without fatally undercutting anyone’s L1, at least that’s how he characterizes it) is a good one. Well, is that a policy that was pursued by the “progressive” Sukarno regime or the “reactionary” Suharto regime or the mixed-bag post-Suharto governments? (I think the answer may actually be “all of them.”) The country in the Americas where the highest percentage of the population is fluent in an indigenous non-IE language (that’s good, right?) is Paraguay, which . . . is not usually said to have a political history that is notably “progressive” even by regional standards. The pre-1789 rulers of France were more tolerant of regional/minority languages than their “progressive” successors (who were motivated by the internally-consistent notion that if The Peepul were going to control the government in accordance with their mystical Volunte Generale they would all need to be able to understand one another, which thus required making them all Francophones at bayonet-point or otherwise). Etc etc. Perlin’s complaint is that progressive regimes fail to promote good language policy as systematically as he thinks they ought to, but it would be good to have some examples that they manage to do so at least occasionally for the notion that the political implications of decent linguistics are “progressive” to pass the straight-face test.

  49. J. W. Brewer says:

    OK, Volonte. Please accept my inability to spell French properly as a gesture of resistance to Jacobinism.

  50. I think you are mixing up a “progressive” with a “radical”. The latter is a Saul Alinsky type or maybe an anarchist, someone highly suspicious of rigid top-down organization. “Progressives” are people who sort of stuck in the Enlightenment mindset (I say it in a good way) that if you research everything thoroughly and build the most thought through system and put the best people to govern it, it would be the best possible arrangement.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    This said, I’d note that both Kazakh and Buryat face no danger of extinction. While they occupy subordinate position to Russian and this situation is likely to continue in the future, they are still spoken by hundreds of thousands and even millions (in case of Kazakh) of people.

    Well, yes, but how many of them are children? I’m sure children in rural southern Kazakhstan grow up speaking Kazakh, but how many children are growing up speaking Buryat right now? (No matter if they also speak Russian.)

    There are hundreds of thousands of speakers of Viennese dialect. It’s in actual use; in fact, if you want to communicate with the bureaucracy in Vienna, you need to have fairly good passive fluency in it. Almost none of these speakers are in my generation, and in the next generation there are probably none at all. (They speak something they think is the colloquial register of Standard German and Germans think is the dialect.)

    It was probably here that I learned there are millions of speakers of Yucatec Maya – who have mostly decided not to pass it on to their children, speaking only Spanish to them and even punishing them when they reply otherwise.

  52. In Republic of Buryatia, Buryat language is taught in schools, so even children from completely Russified families (and some ethnic Russian children as well) end up with certain (not very high) knowledge of Buryat.

    But of course, classes in school won’t make you fluent in any language.

    According to studies I’ve seen, about half of Buryat children spoke primarily in Buryat before they went to school and 25% have been taught basic Buryat in school.

  53. @David, how many children are growing up speaking Buryat right now?

    That is a good question. It seems like the tipping point for a language to go from fairly healthy to endangered can be arrived at very quickly, within a few generations, and in most cases probably happens well before most native speakers are aware that there is no longer a younger generation actively carrying the language forward. I agree with you that the Viennese dialect is probably gravely endangered, despite the fact that is still in fairly common use among adults today. I have always had the impression that this is what happened to Irish – the language was already far weaker in 1922 than the founders of the Free State realized. Or maybe they were just idealists.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: The pre-1789 rulers of France were more tolerant of regional/minority languages than their “progressive” successors (who were motivated by the internally-consistent notion that if The Peepul were going to control the government in accordance with their mystical Volunte Generale they would all need to be able to understand one another, which thus required making them all Francophones at bayonet-point or otherwise)

    In pre-1789 France a 16th century law known as Edit de Villers-Cotterêt required all official documents to be written en langage français and none other (probably meaning mostly “not in Latin” which few people could have read), thus putting an end to the use of Occitan in official documents as had been usual in the South (beginning the decline in the use of the language among the upper classes). But outside of official documents the royal governments were not concerned about what ordinary people spoke.

    Shortly before the Revolution the king convened an assembly known as the Etats Généraux with representatives of the “three estates” (nobility, clergy and the rest) from each province, who brought with them lists of complaints and requests from local people (known as cahiers de doléances« “complaint books”). In many places one of the requests was from dialect speakers who begged for local education in Standard French, with which the illiterate rural population was not familiar, and therefore could not fully participate in the affairs of the nation or even their own province (and could also be taken advantage of by Standard speakers). From the point of view of the revolutionaries, local languages and dialects were an obstacle to spreading the new values and enable participation by all citizens, not only because of the communication difficulties but also because they were identified with “superstition” including (religion) and other antiquated customs. People were more likely to keep listening to the priests who spoke their language than to government representatives who did not.

    Attempts to provide universal public education did not really succeed until 1883. My Occitan-speaking grandparents, born around that time, learned French in elementary school (whether public or private – the latter meaning religious). They never referred to any forcible means used to prevent them from speaking their language, but in many places the children were at least shamed into speaking French. Similar means were used in Scotland to prevent the use of Gaelic, for instance.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    GW: It sounds like you studied at a healthy department!

    I would be interested if you know of linguistics departments consumed by “Chomskyan linguistics” to the exclusion of all else.

    A few years ago I ran into a poster from a linguistics department in the US (I don’t remember where) which specified something like “the department is committed to the [insert latest Chomskyan] theory”.

    David E: I love your paragraph above! I especially like the conclusion: ultimately the point of the exercise is just to add another ingenious epicycle

    The “epicycles” of medieval astronomy are exactly what come to my mind when I happen to see an article displaying the current formal representation of a sentence, with a vaguely tree-like structure punctuated by a variety of unusual symbols, curved arrows, and a few words hanging here and there on the branches. The early transformational model was quite straightforward and even still helpful from a pedagogical point of view (at least when applied to English), but for many years I have felt that the theory would eventually collapse under its own weight as it gets further and further away from actual language.

  56. “With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er, / To save appearances.”

  57. David Marjanović says:

    “the department is committed to the [insert latest Chomskyan] theory”

    Wow, that’s almost like the Statement of Faith of Answers in Genesis.

  58. Stefan Holm says:

    I agree with marie-lucie. Why must we be so ’either/or’ minded? Chomsky was right in claiming the existence of a universal grammar – reflecting the fact that the human brain and thus our basic perception of the world is essentially similar, may we live in Amazonas or NYC. We perceive objects, concrete or abstract (nomina). We perceive movements, changes and actions (verbs). We ascribe properties/characteristics to these objects and/or movements (adjectives, adverbs, participles, numerals). We connect all this stuff into meaningful (well?) sentences by functional words (adpositions, conjunctions, subjunctions etc.) or by inflectional means.

    This is universal and means that it wasn’t true what I heard in my youth, that there are ‘advanced’ vs ‘primitive’ languages. In every tounge everything human can be expressed as soon as the users experience a need for it.

    This however doesn’t mean, that you could construct a detailed universal grammar (through transformational tree structure diagrams or whatever) applicable to any human language. There are after all some differences between our brains and our environments (i.e. our perception). And there are some grey areas between word categories (e.g. participles). Those attempts have in my opinion since long reached a road’s end.

    I also agree that this could be a particular problem in the USA, where ‘over-interpretation’ of Chomsky seems to be stronger than elsewhere. A humble advice is: make studies of at least one foreign language (no matter which) mandatory in education – preferably from an early age. Not only linguistics but both the US, the UK and the whole world would benefit from that.

  59. Amen!

  60. Stefan Holm: actually, there are some linguists who deny the existence of a “Universal grammar” altogether, if one means by that term an aspect of the brain devoted solely to language, and argue that the human ability to learn and use language is part of a broader range of cognitive abilities which make language possible for us humans, but which likewise makes other uniquely human things possible (music for instance).

    Marie-Lucie’s example of a Department of Linguistics openly claiming that it is dedicated to such-and-such a linguistic theory is something which I have seen several times while hunting for academic jobs: while my initial reaction was much like David’s (I used to refer to such Departments as “Jonestowns”), I am increasingly inclined to give such Departments “brownie points” for honesty: most Departments, in my experience, only tolerate the narrowest range of thinking on any topic they deem important. To my mind it would be better if they all said so openly.

  61. “A humble advice is: make studies of at least one foreign language (no matter which) mandatory in education – preferably from an early age.”

    Agreed. I guess it is theorectically possible to study linguistics without knowing a second language, but I can’t imagine a program in which this would not be a requirement. The program I am most familiar with requires two including a non-European language.

  62. Stefan Holm says:

    You touch upon something essential, Etienne. We are alike but still different. In Sweden it’s a truth, that to achieve good linguistic (and other) skills you should read a lot. By that is meant fiction and novels. I believe that’s true – but not for everybody. I myself have never (unlike Hat and many other Hatters) been a great reader. But already in early years I was aware of a skill for mathematics and in school I understood grammar (language structure) easy as a pie.

    This should be taken seriously in terms of education: there is not one single way into knowledge. From my school years half a century ago I perfectly remember that the German prepositions durch, für, gegen, ohne, um, wieder are followed by the accusative case, that aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu are followed by the dative, that an, auf, hinter, neben, über, unter, vor, zwischen, in are followed by accusative when concerning direction and dative when concerning a state and that finally während is followed by genitive.

    Such things make me read German without problems but, as David and others have remarked, make me do errors writing in the language. So – let us study languages. Which road we feel more convenient to take ought to be a secondary issue. I have earlier on this blog confessed myself to the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza and his dualism: there are several ways leading to knowledge.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    We perceive objects, concrete or abstract (nomina). We perceive movements, changes and actions (verbs). We ascribe properties/characteristics to these objects and/or movements (adjectives, adverbs, participles, numerals).

    There are lots of languages that use nouns or verbs instead of adjectives.

    A distinction of nouns and verbs (with various quirks) is almost universal, but apparently not quite; it’s way too late tonight to dig up the paper, but I’ll try later.

  64. @Stefan Holm: to take just one example that was mentioned earlier in the thread, it’s uncontroversial that Guarani has no adjectives.

    More controversially, Bloomfield argued that there is no noun/verb distinction in Tagalog:

    In Tagalog, the parts of speech are, again, full word and particle, but here the full words are subdivided into two classes which we may call static and transient. The latter resemble our verbs in forming a special kind of predicate (the narrative type, with four sub-types, § 11.2) and in showing morphologic distinctions of tense and mode, but they differ from our verbs because, on the one hand, they are not restricted to the function of predicate and, on 200the other hand, there exist non-narrative predicates. (Bloomfield 1933:199–200)

    A good discussion of these issues can be found IIRC in Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. (1993). ‘Das Nomen – eine universelle Kategorie?’, Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung, 46(3):161–236.

  65. I had a look at Bloomfield’s discussion of Tagalog. As usual, I found this brand of structuralist linguistics hard to follow. In their determination to get away from classical grammatical categories, the structuralists created a highly mechanical way of looking at language based on syntactic patterns.

    Bloomfield claims that “Syntax is obscured… in most treatises by the use of philosophical instead of formal definitions of constructions and form-classes.” And yet I would submit that the use of such “formal definitions” makes language harder to understand than the philosophical categories.

    Bloomfield takes as an example a construction in present-day (colloquial standard) English — “the construction which we may call character-substance, as in fresh milk.”

    For instance:

    “A number of features subdivides the determiners into two classes, definite and indefinite. Of these features, we shall mention only one: a definite determiner can be preceded by the numerative all (as in all the water) but an indefinite determiner (as, some in some water) cannot.”

    Described in this mechanistic way, determiners are indeed hard to follow. And yet, they are easier to intuit in real-world language than this would suggest. Perhaps it’s because I’m already familiar with English, but these phenomena seem to me easier to grasp with linguistic intuition than a laundry list of syntactic patterning without relation to meaning. (In this case, it’s easier to apprehend the totality of something definite than of something indefinite, precisely because it is indefinite).

    The structuralists were criticised by Chomsky for their strict exclusion of meaning from linguistics, and here I tend to agree.

  66. Stefan Holm says:

    Knowing very little, Alon, about Guarani and Tagalog I still bet that the speakers of those can express adjectival, nominal and verbal concepts just as good as any other humans. You’re talking about how these concepts are formally rendered. Think of it: a great bunch of our adjectivally used words in Gmc languages are formally (participles of) verbs – loving, boring, written, spoken, blessed.

    Like in Tagalog our ‘full words’ are also divided into ‘classes’ (which we happen to call verbs, nouns etc.). And at least in English there are plenty of words, where there is no formal difference between these ‘classes’ – love, hate, sleep, step, trust…. So if a ‘transient’ can form a predicate with distinctions in tense and mode, what’s the difference from a verb – in essence?

    This is like the 100 (or whatever) Eskimo words for ‘snow’. Swedish, with its practically unlimited possibilities of forming compounds can also express every thinkable variety of snow – in just one word. Languages come in many superficial appearances but under the surface they are very much alike reflecting the basic human perception of three dimensions in space and one in time.

  67. Described in this mechanistic way, determiners are indeed hard to follow. And yet, they are easier to intuit in real-world language than this would suggest.

    You could just as well say “Described in this quantum-mechanical way, objects are indeed hard to follow. And yet, they are easier to intuit in real-world language than this would suggest.” Well, sure, if what you want is vague real-world intuition, then screw science, real-world language is fine. If you actually want to understand how the world, or language, works, you have to be prepared to encounter difficulty and probably give up some of your intuitive understanding. I agree that the structuralists went too far in the direction of exclusion of meaning, but (like the comparable exclusion of biographical and historical material in literary criticism around the same time) it was a necessary corrective. (And in both cases, the corrective to the corrective was far worse: respectively Chomskyism and postmodernism.)

  68. Bathrobe,

    “A number of features subdivides the determiners into two classes, definite and indefinite. Of these features, we shall mention only one: a definite determiner can be preceded by the numerative all (as in all the water) but an indefinite determiner (as, some in some water) cannot.”

    English in this sentence is represented by “two”, “one”, “we”, “all”, “water” and function words.

    The rest is Latin or French.

  69. @Stefan Holm:

    I still bet that the speakers of those can express adjectival, nominal and verbal concepts just as good as any other humans

    Let it be clear that I’m utterly ignorant of Tagalog (I just happened to remember Bloomfield making that example), and have no working knowledge of Guarani, just a technical acquaintance with some aspects of its grammar.

    That said, the notional definitions of grammatical categories are of no use (which is what I take your “adjectival, nominal and verbal concepts” to mean), as Geoff Pullum is fond of pointing out. Many nomina do not designate “objects” of any sort: a fistfight is not an object, but a series of actions, yet it is undoubtedly grammatically nominal: it’s inflected by number, it can be qualified by adjectives and determiners, it has a genitive form, etc.

    Guarani simply does not parcel out its lexicon in the same kind of classes that English does. There are no lexical items that act as adjectives, in the sense of having the main syntactic role of qualifying a noun. A term like poră can act as an adjective ‘beautiful’ when it follows a noun, but also as a verb ‘to be beautiful’ when it follows a personal pronoun, or as a noun ‘beauty’ when sentence-initial.

  70. Stefan Holm says:

    Nomina and adjectives express, what we perceive as some form of a state. Verbs on the other hand express some kind of (perceived) change, motion or process – normally requiring some elapse of time. If a quarrel turns into a fistfight a quarrel is still a quarrel and a fistfight still a fistfight. But for the one state to turn into the other you need a verb.

    The crucial difference is with the verbs. In your example from Guarani, poră, the variety ‘to be beautiful’ does not express a change but a state. The copula, ‘to be’, can readily be omitted in many languages. In Russian you just say ‘she beautiful’. And your example also shows, that Guarani does differ grammatically between adjectives and nouns, namely through syntax.

    So even if grammar don’t follow our concepts slavishly, there is a basic connection. After all it can’t emerge from nowhere.

  71. Nomina and adjectives express, what we perceive as some form of a state.

    You should really read Pullum. You’re going purely on your habitual ideas; when linguists actually study how languages work, they find that traditional ideas of “nouns,” “verbs,” and the rest are ill-founded and impossible to use accurately.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    SH: Nomina and adjectives express, what we perceive as some form of a state. Verbs on the other hand express some kind of (perceived) change, motion or process

    … such as rest, remain, stay, sleep, and many others.

    Sure, there are semantic concepts which are more likely to be lexicalized as nouns or as verbs, but semantics is not enough to decide whether a word is a noun or a verb: to make such a differentiation you need morphology or syntax or a mix of both (depending on the language). English has a limited amount of inflectional morphology, so whether sleep (for instance) is a noun or a verb can only be determined by its use in a given sentence, as in Did you sleep well? vs. Did you have a good sleep?. On its own it is ambiguous. A good dictionary lists the two uses separately, with examples of each use.

    The fact that (at least in English) one can use the same word as either a noun or a verb shows that semantics is not enough to determine the category of a word. In many languages, derivational morphology creates nouns out of verbs and vice-versa. The basic meaning is the same, but the syntactic use requires formal identification of the word category.

  73. Stefan Holm says:

    In languages with few or no inflectional markers it’s of course natural, that words denoting either the process (to sleep) or the state (a sleep) of something can turn up the same. All I believe is that it is secondary. The construction of a phrase (i.e. syntax, which is as much a part of grammar as inflections) shows unambiguously which one of the two ‘sleep’ concepts it is. Were I to here a phrase containing ‘a good slept’ I might reconsider my view about states vs processes in the minds of anglophones.

  74. You’re deciding “which one of the two ‘sleep’ concepts it is” based on grammar. Don’t you see the self-contradiction?

  75. Looking at constructed languages can help clarify things, because there are fewer eccentricities to look past. In Esperanto, every root can accept a noun, a verb, or an adjective ending, respectively -o, -i, -a, but roots nonetheless are “innately” one or more of these. For example, ŝtono is ‘stone’ and ŝtona ‘stony’, but ŝtoni does not seem to mean ‘be a stone’ or ‘be stony’, as one would expect, though ŝtoniĝi (with the suffix -iĝ- ‘to become’) does mean ‘become stone, petrify’. Similarly martelo is ‘hammer’, but marteli is not ‘to be a hammer’ but ‘to hammer’.

    In Lojban, the story is different. Every root can be freely used as verb, noun, adjective, or adverb. The verb definition is official, and the noun, which is formally the same but is preceded by a determiner, means ‘to be the subject of the verb’. Ergo mruli in verb context means ‘to be a hammer’, in noun context ‘hammer’; ‘to hammer’ must be paraphrased as ‘to use a hammer’. Adjective-noun and adverb-verb combinations are really noun-noun and verb-verb combinations, so in adjective context it means ‘hammer-like’ and in adverb context ‘in the nature of hammering’. You can also add a particle to create a noun meaning ‘the direct object of the verb’ or ‘the indirect object of the verb’. However, the subject of verbs is not always predictable: it is often the agent, but in the case of mruli it is the instrument, and there is by default no agent case at all (it can be added with a preposition derived from the verb meaning ‘act’).

    Finally, in Voksigid (much less well-known than the others), all roots are verbs, and to make a noun you add a suffix to a verb specifying which semantic case of the verb the noun would fit into. Thus dona is the verb ‘give’, donator is ‘giver’, and donatum is ‘recipient’. (The resemblance to Latin is no coincidence.) These same suffixes are also used as prepositions or case markers to specify the role of a noun in a sentence, so dona tor Alice tum Bob means ‘Alice gives (something) to Bob’. (I can’t remember the dative tag.)

    Note that none of these languages permit verbs to be omitted, and all have copulas, but they are used only to specify that two expressions refer to the same thing, as in ‘Cicero is Tully’.

  76. You could just as well say “Described in this quantum-mechanical way, objects are indeed hard to follow. And yet, they are easier to intuit in real-world language than this would suggest.”

    Invalid analogy. Language is not quantum physics. Language is something that is spoken by human beings. Quantum physics is quantum physics.

    I understood what Bloomfield wrote about English because I know English. Did you understand what he wrote about Tagalog?

    I noticed his analysis of Chinese with its division into three principal constructions. And I think it sucks. I’ll sit down and tell you why later, but you might like to look at it yourself. It’s not quantum physics, but it sure makes it hard to understand how Chinese works.

  77. (And one of the problem is that he doesn’t want to use terms like ‘noun’, ‘adjective’, or ‘verb’).

  78. Bloomfield’s brief introduction to Chinese tells us that the following sentences are equivalent structurally:

    他是好人 tā shi hǎo rén ‘he is a good man’.

    他到田里去 tā dào tián lǐ qù ‘he went into the field’

    That is because both are subject-predicate constructions, and within each predicate there is an attribute-head construction, thus:

    Subject-Predicate

    () + (hǎo rén) — shi is inserted as a ‘particle’
    () + (dào tián lǐ qù)

    Attribute-Head

    (hǎo) + (rén)
    (dào tián lǐ) + ()

    Yes, this is an interesting insight and it is one of the triumphs of structuralism that it broke away from old traditional categories and looked at language afresh from the point of view of pure form and structure.

    But it can get pretty confusing when you try to construct an entire grammar on that basis!

    For example the third construction he lists is action-goal, with two examples:

    关门 guān mén ‘shut the door’

    在中国 zài zhōngguó ‘in China’

    Formally they are equivalent — an endocentric construction, in which the attribute
    follows the head — but syntactically their behaviour is rather different. This is not a good basis for a grammar.

    I know you don’t like Chomsky, but he did have a point in Syntactic Structures when he called the structuralists out on their rampant slot-filling, which lost sight of the wood for the trees. (The example he used was the passive.)

  79. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe (to LH): I know you don’t like Chomsky, but he did have a point in Syntactic Structures when he called the structuralists out ontheir rampant slot-filling, which lost sight of the wood for the trees. (The example he used was the passive.)

    As I mentioned before, Chomsky’s early work in syntax was indeed progress, but it has evolved a long way from those promising beginnings.

    What Chomsky objected to in the structuralist “slot-filling” was the fact that it had no way of showing that sentence types could be related to each other, as with corresponding active and passive sentences, or questions and answers. He solved the problem with the notion of “transformations”. But Chomsky failed to take into account the reasons why one might prefer active to passive (or vice-versa), or why it might be important to differentiate questions and answers, in other words to relate the different types of sentences to their communicative functions.

  80. @m-l

    That is what I had in mind at the third construction. It’s easy to do some slot-filling with:

    关门 guān mén ‘shut the door’

    在中国 zài zhōngguó ‘in China’

    But the folly of this analysis is shown when you apply the 把 structure to the two sentences. (把 fronts the object in the clause, although there are restrictions on the use of this structure.)

    他把门关了 tā bǎ mén guān le ‘he closed the door’.
    *他把中国在了 tā bǎ zhōngguó zài le ‘*he inned China’.

    Reducing Chinese grammar to three ‘principal constructions’ model makes no direct provision for transitive and intransitive verbs. They are just a byproduct of the rules.

    The other two constructions are also flawed.

    The treatment of 是 shì as a ‘particle’ is reasonable enough, but in many ways shì actually resembles the copula in English. (Although it is also used for emphasis, a bit like English do/does, and it is not needed with predicative adjectives).

    The very neat Attribute-Head construction ignores the rather complicated nature of double verb constructions. That sentence could also be given as 他去田里 tā qù tián lǐ, literally ‘he go field-within’, which would necessarily be subject to a different treatment under the structuralist analysis. It’s not wrong to use slot-filling to analyse grammatical structures, but you can’t build an entire grammar on it. How do you deal with variation between the two different structures tā dào tián lǐ qù and tā qù tián lǐ when you’ve tied yourself down to analysing everything with those three ‘principal constructions’?

    This is similar to my objection to the mechanistic analysis of English. ‘Slot-filling’ says you can’t put ‘all’ before ‘some’, but the restriction is not some arbitrary rule; it is (at least partially) semantically motivated. Just pointing out ‘how complicated the slot-filing rules are’ doesn’t cut it.

  81. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe, I am sorry if I gave the impression that I was defending the “slot-filling rules” or advocating a return to them. “Structural linguistics” was good for phonology and morphology but not so good for syntax.

  82. No, no, I was simply pointing out that what you said (“it had no way of showing that sentence types could be related to each other”) is exactly what I was getting at!

  83. Stefan Holm says:

    Hat: Don’t you see the self-contradiction?

    I do – and I do not. My whole idea was:

    + One one hand, in defence of Chomsky, we do have an internal grammar common to all humans and making it possible to express anything in any language.

    + On the other hand, in criticism of some modern Chomskians, this internal grammar manifests itself formally in different ways making attempts to construct a universal formal grammar fruitless. For each language we still need a textbook with its classical division into inflectional system and syntax (besides lexicon and phonology of course).

    In addition: maybe inflectional systems are easier to grasp after all? On English blogs I repeatedly see linguists annoyed over even literate people not understanding active vs passive voice. That’s no problem in Sweden where we simply add an –s suffix to a verb to make it passive.

  84. in defence of Chomsky, we do have an internal grammar common to all humans and making it possible to express anything in any language

    I have yet to see it.

    Don’t you see the self-contradiction?

    I think Hat was alluding to the fact that you are switching back and forth between ‘semantic’ criteria for parts of speech and grammatical criteria. The fistfight example is a good one. It refers unequivocally to an ‘action’, but it’s grammatically formalised as a noun. There’s no way you can use semantic criteria to define this as a noun.

    Your definition, based on Guarani, of adjectives expressing not a change but a state, does not work in Chinese, where the simple addition of a particle indicates a change of state. Yèzi hóng ‘leaf is red’, Yèzi hóng le ‘leaf became/has become red’.

  85. Bathrobe: “I have yet to see it.”

    How do you account for children acquiring language? A five-year old can create grammatical, novel sentences they have never before heard.

  86. That means kids are (unsurprisingly, given the importance of language) good at acquiring language; it says nothing whatever about some supposed universal grammar.

  87. @Stefan Holm:

    we do have an internal grammar common to all humans

    there can be little doubt that humans tend to share a set of cognitive abilities, but there is absolutely zero evidence that these abilities include a separate, dedicated ‘grammar’ module. Language acquisition and performance can be explained as expressions of the same kind of skills we deploy for other purposes.

    your example also shows, that Guarani does differ grammatically between adjectives and nouns, namely through syntax

    Nope. There are no syntactic patterns in Guarani that characterise a set of lexical items we could call ‘adjectives’ as opposed to ‘verbs’ or ‘nouns’. What we translate as adjectives are syntactically uninflected stative verbs.

    @Bathrobe:

    Invalid analogy. Language is not quantum physics. Language is something that is spoken by human beings. Quantum physics is quantum physics.

    The fact that humans can easily do language does not mean that humans can easily understand how they do language. Our intuitive understanding of our own behaviour is often misleading.

    That is, of course, no defense of structuralist linguistics, with its obsession with compositionality and binary disjunctions.

  88. “That means kids are (unsurprisingly, given the importance of language) good at acquiring language; it says nothing whatever about some supposed universal grammar.”

    What does “good at” mean? What is claimed is that children, without instruction, determine the rules of their language simply by being exposed. They intuitively determine very complex rules that, in most cases, the adults around them don’t even know they know (like word-final devoicing, assimilation, do-support, etc.). As a result, there must be some innate mechanism that allows a very young child to acquire it. This was, IMO, the most important insight that Chomsky had.

  89. Hmmm, sounds like ‘intelligent design’ creationism.

  90. Actually, “we do have an internal grammar common to all humans and making it possible to express anything in any language” is a claim for universal grammar. Please tell me the features of that grammar. From what I’m given to understand, they haven’t found many (if any) that anyone can agree on.

  91. As a result, there must be some innate mechanism that allows a very young child to acquire it. This was, IMO, the most important insight that Chomsky had.

    It was not an insight, it was a guess, and the guess (universal grammar) has turned out to be wrong.

  92. “the guess (universal grammar) has turned out to be wrong.”

    Proof please.

  93. marie-lucie says:

    They intuitively determine very complex rules that, in most cases, the adults around them don’t even know they know (like word-final devoicing, assimilation, do-support, etc

    “Rules” of phonology like devoicing and assimilation are hardly very complex, unless the formalism makes them so: they are not “abstract rules” at all but consequences of tendencies inherent in the functioning of the vocal tract. As for “do-support” (something which is indeed quite complex), this phrase has not been used for a long time as the theory has moved on (and become more complex).

    The development of Chomskyan syntax in more and more abstract ways makes the learning of a language (first or second, third etc) a more and more amazing achievement, especially by toddlers. I on the other hand think that the fact that children acquire language little by little in the first few years of their lives means that the feat cannot be as difficult as the theory makes it. But I am sceptical of the idea that language learning is just another facet of regular learning. No other type of learning is so obviously linked to age, with the learning ability varying so much among individuals after childhood. This does not mean that children are born with “universal grammar” somehow embedded in their brains.

  94. Proof please.

    Every proposed universal has been shot down. That’s the downside of losing interest in foreign languages — you start thinking the simplistic ideas that work for your supposed example language are universally valid.

    And anyway, the onus of proof is on the claim of universality, not on me. It’s prima facie evident that languages vary widely; if you’re going to claim they’re all really the same, it’s up to you to prove it.

  95. David Marjanović says:

    As far as I’m aware, adjectives as a category that is clearly separate from both nouns and verbs are actually not even that common; “adjectives” are appositional nouns in the Semitic languages and stative verbs in languages from Japanese to Yorùbá.

    A distinction of nouns and verbs (with various quirks) is almost universal, but apparently not quite; it’s way too late tonight to dig up the paper, but I’ll try later.

    It’s in this rather big pdf, which consists of a paper and the lengthy following discussion.

    Naturally I think everyone should read the whole 64 pages, but the most pertinent quotes are:
    Pp. 434–435 (brackets in the original, UG is Universal Grammar):

    2.2.4. Syntax and word-classes. Purported syntactic universals lie at the heart of most claims regarding UG, and we hold off discussing these in detail until sections 4 through 6. As a warm-up, though, we look at one fundamental issue: word-classes, otherwise known as parts of speech. These are fundamental to grammar, because the application of grammatical rules is made general by formulating them over word-classes. If we say that in English adjectives precede but cannot follow the nouns they modify (the rich man but not *the man rich), we get a generalization that holds over an indefinitely large set of phrases, because both adjectives and nouns are “open classes” that in principle are always extendable by new members. But to stop it generating *the nerd zappy we need to know that nerd is a noun, not an adjective, and that zappy is an adjective, not a noun. To do this we need to find a clearly delimited set of distinct behaviors, in their morphology and their syntax, that allows us to distinguish noun and adjective classes, and to determine which words belong to which class.

    Now it has often been assumed that, across all languages, the major classes – those that are essentially unlimited in their membership – will always be the same “big four”: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. But we now know that this is untenable when we consider the cross-linguistic evidence. Many languages lack an open adverb class (Hengeveld 1992), making do with other forms of modification. There are also languages like Lao with no adjective class, encoding property concepts as a sub-sub-type of verbs (Enfield 2004).

    If a language jettisons adjectives and adverbs, the last stockade of word-class difference is that between nouns and verbs. Could a language abolish this and just have a single word-class of predicates (like predicate calculus)? Here controversy still rages among linguists as the bar for evidence of single-class languages keeps getting raised, with some purported cases (e.g., Mundari) falling by the wayside (Evans & Osada 2005). For many languages of the Philippines and the Pacific Northwest Coast, the argument has run back and forth for nearly a century, with the relevant evidence becoming ever more subtle, but still no definitive consensus has been reached.

    A feeling for what a language without a noun-verb distinction is like comes from Straits Salish. Here, on the analysis by Jelinek (1995), all major-class lexical items simply function as predicates, of the type “run,” “be_big,” or “be_a_man.” They then slot into various clausal roles, such as argument (“the one such that he runs”), predicate (“run[s]”), and modifier (“the running [one]”), according to the syntactic slots they are placed in. The single open syntactic class of predicate includes words for events, entities, and qualities. When used directly as predicates, all appear in clause-initial position, followed by subject and/or object clitics. When used as arguments, all lexical stems are effectively converted into relative clauses through the use of a determiner, which must be employed whether the predicate-word refers to an event (“the [ones who] sing”), an entity (“the [one which is a] fish”), or even a proper name (“the [one which] is Eloise”). The square-bracketed material shows what we need to add to the English translation to convert the reading in the way the Straits Salish structure lays out.

    There are thus languages without adverbs, languages without adjectives, and perhaps even languages without a basic noun-verb distinction. In the other direction, we now know that there are other types of major word-class – e.g., ideophones, positionals, and coverbs – that are unfamiliar to Indo-European languages.

    From a comment on pp. 469–470:

    Lexical category distinctions (sect. 2.2.4). Certainly, there is no invariant set of lexical or functional categories. But it remains to be demonstrated that a language may lack any distinctions between lexical categories, or, more specifically, may lack a noun/verb distinction. E&L note that languages of the Pacific Northwest Coast are frequently claimed to have no noun/verb distinction, illustrating with Straits Salish. Similar claims have been made for a nearby, unrelated family, Southern Wakashan (e.g., Makah, Nuuchahnulth). Here, nouns can function as predicates (i.e., not only arguments) and bear predicative inflections, including tense, aspectual, and person/number marking, and verbs can function as arguments (i.e., not only predicates) and bear nominal inflections, including determiners; (1) and (2) give Nuuchahnulth examples from Swadesh (1939):

    1. mamuuk-maa quuʔas-ʔi
    work-3s:INDIC man-the
    “The man is working.”

    2. quuʔas-maa mamuuk-ʔi
    man-3s:INDIC work-the
    “The working one is a man.”

    Thus, nominal and verbal roots cannot be identified either by distribution or morphology. Additionally, essentially any lexical root in Nuuchahnulth, including (the equivalents of) nouns, adjectives, and quantifiers, can take verbal inflectional morphology, superficially suggesting that all words are predicative, and thus that there is no noun/verb distinction. Immediate evidence against this (Braithwaite 2008) is that verbs only function as arguments when a determiner is present, whereas nouns function as arguments even without a determiner.

    Close inspection reveals further behavioral differences between noun and verb roots (Braithwaite 2008). For instance, proper names can take nominal inflections, such as the definite -ʔi, shown on noun and verb stems in (1) and (2), but cannot take the third singular indicative verbal inflection -maa:

    3. *Jack-maa
    Jack-3s:INDIC
    (“He is Jack.”)

    Names, a subclass of nouns, therefore cannot be predicates, clearly distinguishing them from verb roots.

    Moreover, although both nominal and verbal predicates can bear possessive markers, nominal predicates with possessive morphemes display a systematic ambiguity in terms of which argument an accompanying person marker is understood to refer to, whereas verbal predicates display no such ambiguity. A similar ambiguity arises in tense marking. Verbal predicates in Nuuchahnulth display a past tense suffix: -(m)it:

    4. mamuuk-(m)it -(m)aħ
    work-PAST-1s.INDIC
    “I was working.”

    This suffix also appears on nouns. Even nonpredicative nouns, including names, can bear tense morphology, apparently supporting the lack of a noun/verb distinction:

    5. ʔaħʔaaʔaƛ qaħšiƛ–’aƛ mista-(m)it
    and.then die-EVENTIVE Mista-PAST
    “Then (the late) Mista died.”

    The past-tense marker -(m)it on the name conveys the specific meaning “former”; since names cannot be predicative in Nuuchahnulth, as (3) shows, this is evidently not a nominal predicate. However, past-tense markers also attach to nominal predicates, which are then interpreted in one of two ways: (6) shows a past-tense nominal predicate, exactly parallel to (4), except with a noun root; (7) displays a predicate nominal in which -(m)it bears the alternative “former” meaning:

    6. quuʔas-(m)it-(m)aħ
    person-PAST-1s.INDIC
    “I was a man.”

    7. ʔuunuuƛ ʔani ʔuumiik-(m)it-qa
    because that whaler-PAST-SUBORDINATE
    “because he was a former whaler”

    Critically, -(m)it on a verbal predicate never exhibits the “former” meaning but is always interpreted simply as past tense. In sum, careful investigation such as that of Braithwaite provides ample evidence for a noun/verb distinction in Wakashan languages, despite superficial appearances.

    From the response, p. 481:

    R6.3. Straits Salish noun versus verb distinction

    We pointed out that it was still unclear whether in fact there is a universal noun/verb distinction. We mentioned the Wakashan language Straits Salish as an example of a language plausibly claimed to lack a noun/verb distinction. Instead of presenting counteranalyses of the Straits Salish data, Tallerman cites data from Nuuchahnulth (Nootka), from another language family, with no demonstration that the arguments can be transferred to Straits Salish. A crucial difference between the languages is that names can be predicative in Straits Salish but not in Nootka. Tallerman’s major arguments for the existence of a noun/verb distinction in Nuuchahnulth were already given in Jacobsen (1979) and Schachter (1985), and Jelinek (1995) takes care to show that they don’t apply to Straits Salish, which is why we used Salish rather than Nootka as an example. We agree with her, though, that further investigation of the Salish case is needed (a point also articulated in Evans & Osada 2005); hence our statement that no definitive consensus has been reached.

    Yèzi hóng ‘leaf is red’, Yèzi hóng le ‘leaf became/has become red’.

    Or indeed “is red now”; you can look out the window and say xiàyǔ le to mean “it’s raining now”, where xià is “down, under, Volume 2 of 2” and is “rain” as in yǔsǎn “umbrella”.

    What is claimed is that children, without instruction, determine the rules of their language simply by being exposed. They intuitively determine very complex rules that, in most cases, the adults around them don’t even know they know (like word-final devoicing, assimilation, do-support, etc.). As a result, there must be some innate mechanism that allows a very young child to acquire it.

    Imitation, pattern-seeking, and extrapolation from those supposed patterns. Indeed, sometimes the patterns are wrong, and that’s an important cause of language change.

    This was, IMO, the most important insight that Chomsky had.

    I don’t know if imitation, pattern-seeking and extrapolation are enough to learn a language from scratch, and I don’t know how to test that hypothesis. But then, to the best of my knowledge, neither do the Chomskyans. They just assert it as self-evident and proceed from there. They assume it.

    Quantum physics has been mentioned. It’s a good example of a field where pretty much everything that was thought to be self-evident turned out to be dead wrong.

  96. Stefan Holm says:

    Please tell me the features of that grammar. From what I’m given to understand, they haven’t found many (if any) that anyone can agree on.

    Let me give it a try! Back in stone age I read an article in Scientific American (July 1983 – I haven’t seen it digitalized) by Derek Bickerton, University of Hawaii, about Creole languages. Those emerged where slaves from diverse linguistic backgrounds were forced together in plantations, mines or whatever by colonial powers speaking e.g. English, French, Spanish, Portugese, Arabic or Japanese.

    Initially they had to communicate in a primitive way with the help of the basic vocabulary of their masters. But it turned out that just within a generation or two they had a fully developed literary language capable of receiving a Nobel Prize award. What Bickerton did was to study the grammar of those Creoles. Even if their vocabularies differed due to the languages of their colonial masters, did they have anything in common grammatically?

    Yes, Bickerton concluded – a lot! He found e.g. that tense, modus and aspect of verbs were always expressed by particles (and never inflectionally). He also found that the order of these particles (syntax) always came in the above mentioned order. The rendering of the phrase ‘He would have been walking’ in Hawaiian Creole (based upon English) is:

    He bin go stay walk

    If you don’t mind I would consider ‘he’ as a nomina and ‘walk’ as a verb. 🙂 Then ‘bin’ is the tense marker for preterite. ‘Go’ expresses the modus, i.e. it is not a fact (indicative) that he did walk but something wished (optative) or provided (subjunctive). ‘Stay’ says that it is not a completed (perfective) action but an ongoing (imperfective) one. This pattern Bickerton finds in all the Creoles.

    Furthermore he finds the same patterns in the ‘errors’ children make vis-a-vi their mother tounges until they are taught better. He exemplifies with ‘Where I can put it?’, ‘I go full Angela bucket’, ‘Johnny big more than me’, ‘Let Daddy get pen write it’ etc.

    In my humble opinion this indicates that there *is* an innate grammar in humans. The comment from somebody above in this thread that this looks ‘creationist’ is of course nonsense. Evolution and natural selection is enough to explain it.

    Where do then inflections come from? I think they are contractions of main words and particles taking place in communities of relatively few and homogenous people living isolated from others (e.g. the highly inflected or agglutinative circumpolar languages of Eurasia). On the contrary: big languages spoken in the crossroads of the world by many (in particular non natives) tend to develope in the opposite direction, towards the original Creole or infantile stage with particles and strict word order. That’s probably what’s happened to Englisc since 1066 AD.

  97. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @David Marjanović: fascinating stuff.

    On a lighter note, I’m surprised no mention has been made so far of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

    In Tlön’s putative Ursprache, from which its ‘modern’ languages and dialects stem, there are no nouns but only impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes that function as adverbs. For example, there is nothing equivalent to our word ‘moon’, but there is a verb that for us would be ‘to moonrise’ or ‘to moon’. ‘The moon rose over the river’ would be ‘Hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö’ or, literally, ‘Upward behind the lasting-flow it moonrose’. (Xul Solar translates this more succinctly as ‘Upward, behind the onstreaming, it mooned.’)

    (The translation, unfortunately, lacks the elegant cadence of Borges’ prose.)

  98. They intuitively determine very complex rules that, in most cases, the adults around them don’t even know they know (like word-final devoicing, assimilation, do-support, etc

    Having raised children, I disagree that a lot of the language learning is even “intuitive”. Parents, siblings, peers and even random strangers are constantly correcting or reinforcing small children in pronunciation and syntax patterns. I am sure there are studies, but my hunch would be that we tend to underestimate how much energy it takes to teach a child language. The rewards for the parent of having a child who can express its needs verbally repay the effort many fold, which probably leads us to discount that effort. Even with that, most children don’t have an adult grasp of their native language even by age 6.

  99. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Stefan Holm: I don’t see what the well-attested isolating morphology of most creoles may have to do with the existence of a universal grammar.

  100. “I on the other hand think that the fact that children acquire language little by little in the first few years of their lives means that the feat cannot be as difficult as the theory makes”

    If it is so easy, think how hard it can be for an intelligent, educated adult to learn a second language.

  101. Stefan Holm: I do have some knowledge of creolistics and must tell you that a core claim of Bickerton’s (To wit, that children are the ones who, because of the variability of the highly variable parental pidgin input, “create” a creole on the basis of the most “natural” linguistic patterns found in the human mind) has been found to be false: in most creole-speaking societies it is clear that the creole must have arisen at a time when practically no children were born and when the “society” grew through large-scale importation of (adult!) slaves. Furthermore, the better-studied creoles arose in a context where knowledge of a European language must have been quite widespread, so any claim that creoles are a window into the innate linguistic abilities of humans must be taken with extreme caution.

    As for the claim that “big” languages tend to lack inflections because of their acquisition as L2’s: this is frequently claimed, but there are so many counter-examples that I cannot take the claim seriously. Algonquian, Bantu, Iroquoian, Athabaskan, Slavic and Turkic are all language families whose expansion involved massive language shift: yet there appears to be no correlation whatsoever between the morphological conservatism of any of the languages belonging to any of the above language families and the geographical distance from the Urheimat.

    For example, as an Athabaskan scholar once told me, Navaho or any of the Athabascan languages of the American Southwest, i.e. those languages furthest removed from the Urheimat (which was probably close to or within present-day Alaska) are quite typical Athabascan languages and would serve as a good starting point for a seminar on comparative Athabascan morphosyntax.

    Even within Western Europe your generalization is dubious: even before their expansion into the Americas Spanish and Portuguese had spread as L2’s over the Iberian peninsula, yet both languages remain morphologically more complex than Sardinian, a Romance language which during the same period was definitely NOT acquiring new speakers on any significant scale. Among Germanic languages English is far more typical than you appear to believe: its closest relative, North Frisian, has been contracting and not expanding for the past millennium, and despite this is rather analytical (more so than your native Swedish, for instance): certainly more so than Swiss German, which after all is spoken on what must originally have been mostly or wholly Romance-speaking territory.

  102. J. W. Brewer says:

    One can notice some theoretically-possible types of language structure that are either extremely rare (OVS default word order, possibly lack of a noun-verb distinction) or non-existent (marking a noun as plural by saying the singular form backwards, to use an example I dimly remember from some undergraduate class; given the right sort of phonotactic constraints on what singular nouns could be like, this could work in practice without undue risk of ambiguity). Typology/universals is in some sense a massive lumper-v-splitter problem. You can either look at the seemingly wide range of variation among attested languages or you can instead look at their similarities (which includes the rarity or non-existence of lots of theoretically possible alternatives). Maybe what’s common and what’s uncommon/non-existent is largely a matter of historical contingency – if only the speakers of the O-initial word order Amazon language had conquered the rest of the world instead of IE speakers doing it, the situation would look different. Or maybe we can infer something about the nature and limitations of the neurological human capacity for language from what sorts of things we do and don’t see in natural language. Whether that in turn implies a “language module” or anything even vaguely resembling UG would not necessarily be the same question.

  103. LH: The statement “the guess (universal grammar) has turned out to be wrong” is pretty strong and stated as an established fact.

    You are right, UG has not been proved or universally accepted, and there are problems with the existing proposals. However, to my knowledge, the idea that humans have an innate language structure at some level has also not been disproved. At this point, everything is abstract theory. Hopefully, in the near future, brain science will develop the point that the ‘language instinct’ can be understood. But, I hope we can discuss it, propose and test abstract theories until that day comes.

  104. marie-lucie:
    But I am sceptical of the idea that language learning is just another facet of regular learning. No other type of learning is so obviously linked to age, with the learning ability varying so much among individuals after childhood.
    What about motor skills? No one really teaches them to kids on purpose in any real way (though various activities help).
    What about math (or writing, for that matter)? It is almost completely explicitly taught.

    It would be impossible to come up with a language that required several decades to master, because it would be impossible to transmit, at least not for the entire population. It seems that there must be a tension in any language. It should be simple enough to give a possibility for young kids to use it to some degree and it should be complicated enough for adults to communicate quickly about complicated subjects. In fact theoretically there might have been a special kiddy language which would be completely abandoned for the more sophisticated language of the adulthood, but it doesn’t seem there is. Someone should try to figure out how this tension influences real languages and maybe someone did, but forgot to tell me.

  105. For those who don’t like UG, how about OT (Optimality Theory)? This takes into account unusual structures like OVS sentences or languages with consonant clusters that would choke an English speaker.

    As I understand it, this too is based on the idea of a special brain function, but a different way of operating than UG.

  106. Stefan Holm says:

    Alon: If, as you say, the well attested morphology of Creoles are similar. don’t you ever ask why? If one or two of them were synthetic I wouldn’t raise my eyebrowes. But when it’s all over the place? Aren’t you a bit curious?

  107. marie-lucie says:

    SH: If it is so easy, think how hard it can be for an intelligent, educated adult to learn a second language.

    But that’s the point: after childhood the ability to learn another language varies considerably between individuals. But there is also a great difference in the circumstances of learning: children are normally surrounded by adults and older children who provide constant exposure (and opportunities for the small child to respond), but adult learners may or may not be even “exposed” to the language they want to learn. Adult immigrants who become immersed in the language of the new country usually manage to learn the local language at least to their own satisfaction (functional ability), while those who learn through lessons or self-teaching away from the places the language is normally spoken often find it very hard. It also depends on their expectations: of course beginners should not expect to understand everything and express themselves with ease without quite a bit of effort. But some of us like the challenge and find it fun!

  108. I have known intelligent, highly motivated second-language learners immersed in the language who could not speak it as well as a native five-year old. And, many, many highly ‘fluent’ second-language speakers will still exhibit some non-native features.

    Example: I had an acquaintance years ago who was a native Arabic speaker with a PhD in linguistics from a prestigious American university and highly fluent in English after studying and teaching here for a number of years. I had noticed non-native ‘do’ insertions by a number of Arabic ESL speakers and asked him what he thought motivated it (since there is no equivalent Arabic structure). He said he wasn’t aware of it and then a few minutes later, he did it himself. I told him, you just did it.

  109. David Marjanović says:

    Even within Western Europe your generalization is dubious: even before their expansion into the Americas Spanish and Portuguese had spread as L2′s over the Iberian peninsula, yet both languages remain morphologically more complex than Sardinian, a Romance language which during the same period was definitely NOT acquiring new speakers on any significant scale.

    But most of the people who shifted to Spanish and Portuguese presumably spoke similar Romance languages with similar grammars; and most of the others presumably spoke Arabic or Basque, whose grammars are very different but rather even more complex.

    Among Germanic languages English is far more typical than you appear to believe: its closest relative, North Frisian,

    …Do you think Frisian is paraphyletic, with North Frisian closer to English than to West Frisian?

    Swiss German, which after all is spoken on what must originally have been mostly or wholly Romance-speaking territory

    The most conservative dialects, though, meaning those with the most complex grammar, are spoken above currently or formerly Romance-speaking territory, at heights that were simply uninhabited before the High (heh) Middle Ages.

  110. David Marjanović says:

    and asked him what he thought motivated it (since there is no equivalent Arabic structure)

    Perhaps a hypercorrectivism? Native German speakers tend to overuse the progressive in English because 1) it’s common in English and 2) absent from German.

  111. David Marjanović says:

    Alon: If, as you say, the well attested morphology of Creoles are similar. don’t you ever ask why? If one or two of them were synthetic I wouldn’t raise my eyebrowes. But when it’s all over the place? Aren’t you a bit curious?

    Pidgins arise when people learn words – just words, or nearly so. An isolating grammar is the inevitable outcome; evolving a more synthetic one takes a creole a while.

    “Everything is the way it is because it got that way.”
    – D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917)

  112. n most creole-speaking societies it is clear that the creole must have arisen at a time when practically no children were born and when the “society” grew through large-scale importation of (adult!) slaves.

    This is actually a point in favour of some kind of innate learning ability. The parents created a creole from their knowledge of European languages, etc.; the children grew up as ‘native speakers’.

    If the observation by m-l and Vanya that children have a great deal of adult input into learning to speak a language, how does this work with creoles? Are creoles fully-formed languages from birth or are they still to some extent a ‘mishmash’? How much correction and input could a child expect with such a language? (Sorry, I’m totally ignorant about the genesis and elaboration of creoles, so I would appreciate any clarification.)

  113. David Marjanović: “Perhaps a hypercorrectivism?”

    Yeah, maybe. I am inclined to think it is imperfectly learned pragmatics. I hear it in contexts in which it is perfectly grammatical, but something a native speaker would only use in that particular context.

    I think I have read that phonology and pragmatics are the most difficult areas for second-language learners. Some fluent second-language speakers never acquire a native-like accent and some never acquire complete command over pragmatics.

  114. Whoops! A sentence above should read, “but something a native speaker would not use in that particular context.

  115. …some never acquire complete command over pragmatics
    I find it strange, but then I am not sure that I know precisely what that means. Phonetics (not phonology per se) is insurmountable for me, but next in difficulty was/is usage and idiom.

  116. J. W. Brewer says:

    David M.: what sort of minimum timescale would you expect necessary for a creole to “naturally” evolve into something less isolating? Are all the currently extant creoles (um, that we recognize as creoles . . .) young enough that one shouldn’t expect any such evolution to be evident yet? Some currently-extant creoles are probably getting close to their 500th birthdays (perhaps Cape Verdean is already past it), but whether that’s a long time or short time from a historical-linguistics perspective may depend on the feature.

  117. “I find it strange, but then I am not sure that I know precisely what that means.”

    A person can utter a completely unaccented, grammatical sentence which is not appropriate to the context. Issues such as politeness norms would, as example, come under this category.

    I would also add semantics generally to the area of second-language difficulties. Many times, there are connotations that are lost on second-language speakers.

  118. marie-lucie says:

    Some fluent second-language speakers never acquire a native-like accent and some never acquire complete command over pragmatics.

    Phonetic control is completely different from mastery of the more abstract elements of a language. In childhood, muscles (including those of the mouth) are not fully developed or controlled and little by little get adapted to the prevailing phonology of the language, whether L1 or L2. Only rare individuals past puberty retain a child’s flexibility which allows them to produce the sounds they hear in whatever language they are learning. This ability for mimicry has little to do with control of morphology and syntax. I once had a colleague (in Vancouver BC) who was born and raised in France by Russian parents, Russian was the language of the home, and as a youth he had spent several years in a Russian-language boarding school. His French pronunciation and pragmatics were those of a French speaker, but his written French was not quite standard, for instance in his use of prepositions (this was much less noticeable in his speech, since the rapidity of speech joined with his native French phonology prevented the listener to pay much attention to such details).

    Pragmatics refers to appropriate use of the language in social communication in various contexts. This word covers things like terms of address and endearment, politeness, swearing, etc. This aspect of language use is best learned through immersion in a community that uses the language as its sole or at least primary means of linguistic communication. Reading a lot of literature, especially older literature, may cause the reader to use not only some antiquated vocabulary and syntax, but antiquated pragmatics, which will likely be the cause of much hilarity in the native hearers.

  119. It is very difficult for adult males to aquire native accent in a foreign language even if they speak it fluently.

    Younger women usually do much better.

    I don’t know why, perhaps younger women simply talk much more often.

  120. marie-lucie says:

    the observation by m-l and Vanya that children have a great deal of adult input into learning to speak a language

    In my case, I meant that most small children do not just interact with family members but hear them a lot, whether or not those people provide explicit correction. The influence of other children, whether older siblings, neighbours or schoolmates has been shown to be more decisive than that of the parents (for instance, immigrant parents may speak the dominant language with a strong foreign accent, but even if their children started their linguistic life with this accent they will soon shed it once surrounded by children speaking the local language variety).

    Perhaps many literate parents spend much time “correcting” their small children’s “errors” (many of which are quite predictable at various stages of a child’s language development), but even in non-literate cultures or dialect-speaking areas the children do end up speaking the local speech variety whether they are explicitly corrected or not.

  121. Every proposed universal has been shot down.

    Absolute universals aren’t that interesting anyway, because we know about only a tiny fraction of all the languages that have ever existed. If the Khoi-San languages had died out before meeting up with Zulu, Xhosa, etc., we’d surely say it was a universal that clicks are only expressive sounds, like teeth-grinding. Conditional and statistical universals carry more weight.

    Parents, siblings, peers and even random strangers are constantly correcting or reinforcing small children in pronunciation and syntax patterns.

    In WEIRD cultures where acquiring the standard language is socially very important. There are other cultures where parents don’t even speak to children, never mind correct them, until they can already talk, their attitude being “What’s the point? Might as well talk to the dog.”

  122. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Exactly my point about literate parents.

    There are other cultures where parents don’t even speak to children, never mind correct them, until they can already talk, their attitude being “What’s the point? Might as well talk to the dog.”

    But the kids start talking within the usual time frame anyway!

    About not talking to babies: When my daughter was about 6 years old I was asked to take care of a baby girl for a few hours. Of course if she was not asleep I talked to her in the normal course of holding her or otherwise caring for her. My daughter was surprised that I talked to the baby, since “she doesn’t know how to speak!” I reminded her (I had told her many times) that I had talked to her in French from the day she was born and that’s why she was now able to speak French.

  123. There are other cultures where parents don’t even speak to children, never mind correct them, until they can already talk

    What do you mean “already talk”? It is one thing not to talk to a baby directly, are you saying people in these cultures won’t talk to an 18 month old? Do they wait until the child can utter complete sentences on its own? People talk to dogs and other animals all the time, it would be very bizarre to just ignore a toddler or pointedly use only non-verbal communication. In fact, pointedly ignoring a non-speaking child is just another tool to make the child try to acquire language, since it would see the other humans around it relating to each other using language. Your example doesn’t necessarily mean language is inate, it just implies the human desire to make social connection is inate. I would assume that children in these cultures also still get significant positive reinforcement from their community once they start speaking. “Correction” doesn’t mean conscious prescriptivism from parents trying to get their children to speak “standard”. If you observe speaking human beings interact with small children, the speakers make all sorts of unconscious efforts to improve communication. “Correcting” happens every time the speaker doesn’t understand the child, doesn’t respond the way the child expects, or, mostly in the case of peers and siblings, mocks the child for “talking like a baby”.

  124. Stefan Holm says:

    m-l: his written French was not quite standard, for instance in his use of prepositions

    Prepositions are notoriously un-universal. If I were to translate directly from my mother tounge I would say on the street, countryside, summer or evening, get angry on people, talk about what happened for three years since (instead of ago), what took place under that year (instead of during).

    Sometimes the confusion gets total. In school I learned that in England they are waiting for somebody and that the Swedish-like expression wait on meant attend. Then I heard Mick Jagger sing I’m just waiting on a friend.

    Anyway, besides prosody use of prepositions must be a fool proof way to separate natives from non ditto.

  125. “Your example doesn’t necessarily mean language is inate, it just implies the human desire to make social connection is innate”

    Children have any number of desires which they are unable to fulfill until they have acquired the maturity and are taught the skills.

    Language is acquired, not taught. You can’t stop a child from acquiring a language except by depriving them of any exposure. One must teach them car mechanics, computer programming, law, engineering, etc., etc. even to bright, motivated students. Even dull, unintelligent children acquire language without any instruction.

    Language is special. Language is complex. Language is universal among humans and it is exclusive to the human species. This should suggest something about the innateness of language.

  126. Wait on ‘wait for’ was in general use up to the 19C, and even now remains as a regionalism (not really non-standard) in the Southern U.S. and perhaps elsewhere. Furthermore, it is used with non-human subjects: the OED gives a 1960 quotation “The nation waits on the railwaymen, to see if there will be a strike or not”, and a computer program may wait on a flag.

  127. @GeorgeW:

    Language is special. Language is complex. Language is universal among humans and it is exclusive to the human species. This should suggest something about the innateness of language.

    What a petitio principii! If you start by asserting that language is special, then of course you will conclude that language is special.

    In any case, no-one in this discussion has doubted that humans have a facility for acquiring language. However, this facility does not require that we posit a distinct, dedicated mental capacity for language (which is what Chomsky’s UG is supposed to be), at least any more that humans’ facility for walking requires Universal Perambulation to be hard-wired. Language acquisition can be explained through the same mechanisms in which we acquire a variety of other skills, from facial expression recognition to stone-throwing.

    @Stefan Holm:

    If, as you say, the well attested morphology of Creoles are similar. don’t you ever ask why?

    That is an interesting question (to which David Marjanović suggests a parsimonious answer), but it has absolutely no bearing on Universal Grammar, which is supposed to deal with properties that all human languages would share. To which one can ask, what properties exactly?, and the Chomskians remain without an answer.

  128. “Wait on ‘wait for’ was in general use up to the 19C, and even now remains as a regionalism (not really non-standard) in the Southern U.S. and perhaps elsewhere.”

    I (SoAmE) can use either. And, I don’t think I have a preference. And, I don’t think there is a context/situational difference. ‘Wait on’ may have a little more implied impatience, but I need to think about that a little more.

  129. “However, this facility does not require that we posit a distinct, dedicated mental capacity for language”

    It is my impression that cognitive scientists generally accept the idea of modular brains. And, by the way, although I don’t think I have ever read anything about it, but I do suspect that walking has some innateness and necessary wiring. I don’t think it is taught like biology or geometry. Non-human animals are not specifically instructed on walking.

  130. “What a petitio principii! If you start by asserting that language is special, then of course you will conclude that language is special.”

    I think it is special because it is unlike many other cognitive endeavors which must be taught. It is highly complex and acquired by very young children with ease through simple exposure.

  131. marie-lucie says:

    I think it is not a coincidence that children start to speak around the same time as they start to walk. Before that, they must be physically very close to a parent or other caregiver. Once they can walk, they can walk away from such a person, so communication at a distance (relatively) becomes necessary. An infant cries, but the cries are not precisely interpretable. Language enables precise communication, not just with caregivers but with larger and larger circles of social interaction.

  132. marie-lucie says:

    acquired by very young children with ease through simple exposure.

    “Exposure” needs to be defined. Children not only need to hear the language, but language directed at them, to which they will start to respond. For instance, in many immigrant or minority families the parents speak their own language between themselves but decide to raise their children in the majority language and only speak that language to the children. As a result, the children do not speak the parents’ language, although they may develop a passive knowledge from hearing it spoken by the parents together. The situation is different if there are grandparents living with the family or nearby, who speak their language with both the parents and the children.

    I have a memory – I can’t have been more than about 3 years old – of being in a gathering where there were a number of adults standing around talking, and a few children sitting or crawling on the floor. I remember being puzzled that I could not understand what the adults were saying among themselves (it literally “went above my head”), but if one of them leaned down talked to me I understood everything. This was all in the same language of course, but if the adults speak one language between themselves and another to the child, the child will speak the latter language.

  133. David: Pidgins and Creoles ALWAYS have an isolating structure, no matter what the languages in contact were like, morphologically.

    As a result, we would expect, if the expansion of a language via L2 acquisition involves large-scale pidginization/creolization, that such an expanding language would grow morphologically more impoverished (in terms of loss of bound morphemes present in the proto-language) the further away from the Urheimat it is found.

    In the case of Spanish and Portuguese it is clear that there must have been a massive shift from Arabic to these two Romance languages: and yet neither language exhibits an unusual reduction of inherited (Late) Latin bound morphemes when compared to Sardinian (or to Aragonese or to Languedocian Occitan or indeed to any of the many other Romance varieties whose history did not involve expansion via language shift at the expense of non-Romance languages).

    Indeed the correlation between morphological loss, on the one hand, and a history of language shift on the part of non-Romance speakers, on the other, is something which in Romance “brille par son absence”, as we say in modern standardized Northern Gallo-Latin.

    This is conspicuously true in most of the language families of the world as well, and thus I conclude that pidginization/creolization is a separate process from language change. To make use of your own data: Walser dialects are transplanted varieties of earlier Swiss German, a variety which itself arose as a result of massive language shift from Romance (? and Celtic?) to Germanic. Tellingly, there is to my knowledge nothing about the degree of loss of Proto-Germanic morphology in Walser or in other Swiss German dialects that would indicate, indeed that would even make us suspect, that most of the ancestors of today’s speakers of Swiss German varieties were not Germanic speakers fifteen centuries ago.

  134. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: In the case of Spanish and Portuguese it is clear that there must have been a massive shift from Arabic to these two Romance languages:

    Do you mean that with the Arabic conquest of Southern Iberia, there would have been such a large number of Arabic-speaking immigrants so as to overwhelm the presumably Latin-speaking population, followed centuries later by the “massive shift” in the opposite direction?

  135. Marie-Lucie: we know that a large number, quite possibly a majority, of the inhabitants of the Central and Southern Iberian peninsula, at the time of the Reconquista, were native speakers of Arabic. Arabic had indeed been expanding at the expense of Romance there over the course of previous centuries, chiefly through language shift. I don’t think anyone has established whether or not Arabic first spread in Iberia as a result of large-scale migration or large-scale language shift: in a sense the latter was more important, as a large number, possibly a majority of the initial wave of North African Muslim invaders were Berber speakers, who subsequently seem to have shifted to Arabic in the cities, and possibly in some instances to Romance (especially in the countryside).

    So in effect the various languages of the Iberian peninsula, over the past thirteen centuries or so, have expanded and contracted through massive L2 acquisition, in a context where such things as mass literacy were wholly absent. Yet just as Spanish and Portuguese have not lost more Vulgar Latin morphology than most of their Romance sisters, which have not expanded at the expense of a non-Romance language, the Arabic once spoken in the Iberian peninsula was not, to my knowledge, a variety which had lost more Classical Arabic morphology than other Arabic varieties spoken closer to Arabia. There was massive exchange of vocabulary and mutual linguistic influence, but the most conspicuous mark of pidginization/creolization, namely wholesale loss of all or most bound morphemes, seems not to have been operative. Hence my conclusion: language expansion via language shift, on the one hand, and pidginization/creolization on the other, are two distinct phenomena.

    Arabic: yet another language to add to my list above of languages/language families where morphological loss does not increase as geographical distance from the Urheimat does.

  136. Stefan Holm says:

    You must take into account, Etienne, who make the shift from L1 to L2. Is it the elite or their subjects? In the latter case at least I wouldn’t expect any major simplification of e.g. the inflectional system. After all we are a social species (pack animals) inclined to follow leaders.

    That’s why the up to 20 percent of modern Swedes who are L2 speakers have practically no impact on the language. Such influence lyser med sin frånvaro (literal rendering of ’brille par son absence’, thanks to you I now know the origin of this common Sw. expression – if it isn’t Latin). That’s also why the medieval hanseatic merchants succeded so well in breaking down the Old Norse inflections. I suppose the same is valid for the Anglo-Saxons – it was their masters who became L2 speakers.

  137. I assume that conspicuous by its absence is at least a semi-calque.

  138. Stefan Holm says:

    Compared to other species the brain of the human offspring is the least complete one, i.e. it continues to develope after birth – more than in any other species. The evolutional reason is that a fully developed size of it would have made it impossible for women to give birth (it’s already problematic).

    This means that we are born rather with dispositions than skills. It’s a known fact, that defects on a new born child’s eyes must be corrected very soon or the child will be life-long blind. The visual cortex needs stimulus to develope the ability ‘to see’. Me thinks that goes for quite a lot of our other abilities like walking – or comprehension of language!

    The presumed Chomskian ‘hardwired’ grammar is thus not a fixed one but a disposition to learn language, which needs stimulus. This disposition however is genetically hard-coded, common to all of us and can’t look like just anything. In the words of chairman Mao:

    In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken.

    In my book this is the essence of ‘universal grammatics’. It’s not a matter of semantics vs morphology but rather of mind vs language. Professional linguists (like the rest of us) often seem to be stuck within their own discipline. The ‘great helmsman’ again:

    A frog in a well says, “The sky is no bigger than the mouth of the well.”

  139. “The presumed Chomskian ‘hardwired’ grammar is thus not a fixed one but a disposition to learn language, which needs stimulus.”

    I would say this just a little differently: Language is an innate, hard-wired ability to acquire language.

    Now, what the wiring is, how constrained it is and how it works remains to be specified.

  140. A frog in a well says, “The sky is no bigger than the mouth of the well.”

    That is a common Chinese expression that goes back well before the Great Helmsman.

  141. Stefan,
    “That’s why the up to 20 percent of modern Swedes who are L2 speakers have practically no impact on the language. ”

    Not quite so simple. I lived in Sweden for a year in 19701-72, and learned the language pretty fluently, to the point of never being mistaken for a foreigner. Now when I watch the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies I am stunned at the amount of English lexical borrowing, and not only of items that really only have English terms for them. There is a lot of unnecessary “okay” and so on, but it goes a lot deeper and farther.

  142. Professional linguists (like the rest of us) often seem to be stuck within their own discipline.

    This is simply not correct. Most professional linguists simply prefer to be agnostic on issues that they do not have sufficient evidence to judge. Chomsky believed in a LAD and people have been searching high and low for evidence of this and what it might look like. They haven’t got much to show for it yet. Investigating brain functions, etc, is a flourishing area of linguistics, but it’s very difficult for any person to be an expert in all areas of linguistics.

    Of course, many people have their own feelings on the matter, including you, GeorgeW, LH, and many others. I alluded to “intelligent design” above. While you dismissed the comparison, there is actually a similar element of belief involved. Since life is far too complex and amazing to have arisen out of nothing, there must be someone who designed it all. Since people are so adept at acquiring language from infancy, there must be some kind of innate, hard-wired ability.

    GW’s formulation seems to be a fair one:

    UG has not been proved or universally accepted, and there are problems with the existing proposals. However, to my knowledge, the idea that humans have an innate language structure at some level has also not been disproved. At this point, everything is abstract theory. Hopefully, in the near future, brain science will develop the point that the ‘language instinct’ can be understood. But, I hope we can discuss it, propose and test abstract theories until that day comes.

  143. marie-lucie says:

    Professional linguists (like the rest of us) often seem to be stuck within their own discipline.

    Most professional linguists study specific languages, in order to ascertain their structure, functions and usages and also (as far as possible) their classification, history and development. They have their hands full with just existing languages (modern or ancient), or even just some specific aspects of them, as they see these aspects and details or as they have been seen by others. Some details of the languages under study turn out to make interesting contributions to a given theory or model, whether to confirm or deny various points, or to propose “tweaks” (of which there have been very many in the last 50-odd years). Some linguists do specialize in acquisition of various languages, whether by children or adults, using sometimes very ingenious experiments (Chomsky’s wife is or was a specialist in child language). But thus far nobody has succeeded in demonstrating the relevance of current abstract theories of language to children’s (or adults’) acquisition of a language, or to its origin among human ancestors. Brain science may be better suited to the goal of understanding the phenomenon, but it is not part of the training of linguists. I am not aware that Chomsky teamed up with brain scientists to investigate the nature, location etc of the “language acquisition device”.

  144. an innate, hard-wired ability to acquire language.

    Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

  145. David Marjanović says:

    David M.: what sort of minimum timescale would you expect necessary for a creole to “naturally” evolve into something less isolating? Are all the currently extant creoles (um, that we recognize as creoles . . .) young enough that one shouldn’t expect any such evolution to be evident yet? Some currently-extant creoles are probably getting close to their 500th birthdays (perhaps Cape Verdean is already past it), but whether that’s a long time or short time from a historical-linguistics perspective may depend on the feature.

    I’m guessing at the same kind of timescale that makes other isolating languages less isolating. That probably means most or all creoles haven’t had much of a chance yet; and it also means it’s not something that happens inevitably as opposed to statistically.

    Not all creoles are exactly equally isolating, but I have no idea if there’s a correlation between those small differences and their age.

    Hence my conclusion: language expansion via language shift, on the one hand, and pidginization/creolization on the other, are two distinct phenomena.

    I agree: language shift involves learning the grammar as well as the lexicon, the origin of a pidgin involves learning only words (or thereabouts).

    Intermediate cases are Afrikaans, which arose when native Dutch speakers lived more or less together with lots of people who learned some but not all of the grammar, and English (northern Middle onwards), where Old English and Old Norse speakers developed something close to a least-common-denominator grammar.

    if it isn’t Latin

    It probably is, even though the explanation I’ve read for durch Abwesenheit glänzen sounds maybe a bit too fanciful to be true (something about Roman statues).

    There is a lot of unnecessary “okay” and so on

    Okay, as a word, has spread far and wide. It’s all over the German dialect landscape now, complete with sound substitutions that follow more or less regular sound correspondences to Standard German. I think it hasn’t reached Russian…?

  146. I think it hasn’t reached Russian…?

    It’s reached Chinese.

  147. David Marjanović says:

    True. Even though the syllable kei (at any tone, in this case it’s the first) didn’t previously exist in Standard Mandarin.

    That’s why karaoke is transcribed as a character pronounced kǎ followed by a character pronounced lā followed by the Latin letters OK.

  148. Lots of hits for окей.

  149. Stefan Holm says:

    Jim – you illustrate my point. English lexical borrowings are flowing into Swedish, because of the US dominant position in, particularly, the entertainment industry. What I meant was, that Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Serbocroatian, Albanian, Kushitic, Spanish etc. have no impact.

    When you however say that you learned the language pretty fluently, to the point of never being mistaken for a foreigner I can swear upon your being wrong. It is one thing to be perfectly well understood. It’s also considered impolite to make comments upon somebody’s accent.

    But I have never ever heard an Anglophone speaking Swedish without instantly being recognized as a such – and I know several who have been living here for 20-40 years:

    + You usually don’t ever grasp the trilled ‘r’ (unless you’re from Scotland the br-r-rave).
    + The front rounded vowel ‘u’ never comes perfectly native.
    + The double-tone accent is per se no problem – but non-natives frequently ‘hyper-use’ it, i.e. when it shouldn’t be there. And there is no simple rule to tell which accent to use (unless you aren’t acquainted with Old Norse).
    + Most of all: Anglophones simply can’t give up their tendency to ‘diphtongize’ each and every vowel. There is always, at least a tiny, ‘glide’.

    Again though, nowadays nobody is disturbed by accents. That’s a good thing with globalization.

  150. –What I meant was, that Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Serbocroatian, Albanian, Kushitic, Spanish etc. have no impact.

    They probably haven’t been in Sweden long enough to have an impact.

    Earlier immigrants did manage to influence Swedish

    Most obvious example would be Swedish “tjej” – girl, from Gypsy “chav” (kid), related to British slang “chav” and Russian “chuvak, chuvikha” (boy, girl) of same origin

  151. I don’t know anything about Swedish, but of all the things you mention the only one that would give me a problem is the double-tone accent. The other things are dead simple. I can pronounced trilled ‘r’ with ease, /y/ is a cinch, and I never diphthongise my vowels when speaking a foreign language.

  152. (unless the language calls for it).

  153. /y/ is a cinch

    What’s hard for anglophones is to distinguish between [ʉ] and [u], because most varieties of English have moved from the latter to the former in the last fifty years or so. The trick is to consistently distinguish between three separate high rounded long/tense vowels where English has only one; I can manage two without problem, but the third one, whichever it is, gets to me.

  154. Stefan Holm says:

    SFReader: You are absolutely right about Romani. Tjej is just one of many Gypsy words which have made their way into modern Swedish through criminals → lumpenproletariat → workers → cultural elite → common vocabulary. Other examples are lattjo, ‘fun’, lira, ‘play’, tjacka, ‘sell’, pava, ‘bottle’.

    But it’s after all nothing compared to the English. And they were never even here. Well, the Scots (together with the Dutch) played a significant role in the early history of Gothenburg. They provided us with today’s most vulgar word for a certain part of male anatomy: a synonym to rooster pronounced in Scottish as /u/ rather than /o/ and prolonged and then, following a Swedish vowel shift, changed into /ʉ/.

    Bathrobe: I think the problem is, that we ourselves don’t hear when we don’t pronounce exactly like a native. When you say, that you ‘never diphtongise’ when speaking a foreign language – ask for the opinion of a native! (I myself think that I’ve got a pretty good RP pronunciation but am afraid I pretty soon would be revealed as a silly Swede).

    John: Front rounded vowels are rare in human languages but have a concentration in (central and northern) Eurasia. By some strange reason this map doesn’t mark Sweden, where we have both a high and mid variety.
    http://wals.info/feature/11A#2/22.6/152.8

  155. What varieties use [ʉ]? Did anyone really ever say [rʉm] or [mʉn]?

    I speak English as a second language. The high vowels are relatively easy. I don’t find it hard to distinguish between [u], [ʉ], [ʊ] and [ɨ] in hearing and pronunciation. In contrast, [a], [ɐ], [ɑ], [ɒ], [ʌ] are to me a tangled ball of string from which I am prone to pull out the wrong strand, though I’m very slowly getting better at it over the years.

  156. Stefan Holm says:

    Well, Y, the words ‘rum’ (room – or space) and ‘mun’ (mouth) represent an exception from the otherwise pretty straightforward spelling system. Some monosyllables ending in ‘m’ or ‘n’ should really have ‘mm’ and ‘nn’ instead. In those two cases the vowel is short (and the following consonant, according to Swedish phonetic laws, consequently long – we only accept V:C or VC: in stressed syllables). So it is not a /ʉ:/ but more or like an /e/, however rounded.

    If somebody cares about the details, they are here (although with a Stockholmish distortion):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_phonology

  157. marie-lucie says:

    Two years ago I took Swedish lessons in preparation for going to a conference in Stockholm. My teacher was a Norwegian lady, a former colleague (as a French teacher). I am not sure if she pronounced the two front rounded vowels just like a Swede, as they did not sound very different from each other. She did not know any phonetics, and had never heard of minimal pairs, so I ignored the difference. Once in Stockholm I tried to use what I had learned, which was not often what I needed on the spot, but I did very well with “Tala du engelska?” The lessons were not wasted though: I could recognize or figure out a lot of written signs and read a map. A year later we switched to Norwegian as I was going to a conference in Oslo. My teacher was of course much more comfortable in her own language, and she spoke much faster!

  158. “David.

    There is a lot of unnecessary “okay” and so on
    Okay, as a word, has spread far and wide”

    I could not have come up with a worse example. Here’s one – the hacker is named “Plague”. That’s Gothic-sounding and all, but why does it have to be the English word?

    Stefan,

    “+ You usually don’t ever grasp the trilled ‘r’ (unless you’re from Scotland the br-r-rave).”

    I was in Stockholm, Skaerholmen specifically (back when Swedish was still spoken there.) and the “r” was pretty palatal. It wasn’t trilled at all.

    “+ Most of all: Anglophones simply can’t give up their tendency to ‘diphtongize’ each and every vowel. There is always, at least a tiny, ‘glide’. ”

    They do if they are bullied hard enough and young enough when the L2 speaker still cares about that kind of thing. I said it was 40 years ago – how old an old fart are you calling me!!!???? I went as a teenager and other teenagers – thank God when it comes to pronunciation – can be pretty harsh and non-observant of social niceties. And BTW, there are plenty of Anglophones that don’t have many diphthongs in their variety of English.

    Just thought of something – something else that may cover a slightly off sound in an L2 speaker is that he may sound like he’s from some other part of the country rather than outside altogether. AME sounds kinda sorta like Beijing Mandarin, if you aren’t really, really familiar with either, and I am not the only AME speaker who has had Fooks or Shanghai people or whatever compliment them on how “accurate, standard’ they speak Mandarin. It’s not much of a compliment, considering the standard of comparison.

  159. marie-lucie says:

    Y, are you trying to imitate every English speaker you come in contact with? I don’t think anybody uses all of those vowels.

  160. Silly me—I thought he was speaking about English (the words ‘room’ and ‘moon’). The vowels are diphthongized of course, but I thought he was making a convenient approximation.

  161. Stefan Holm says:

    The difference between Norwegian and Swedish /ʉ/ and /y/ (the latter being similar to French in ‘sur’ or ‘tu’ I imagine) can only be detected electronically (and differs probably more within the dialects of the two ‘langugages’). For the study of Old Norse the difference between West Nordic (Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian) vs. East Nordic (Danish and Swedish) is important. For the understanding of modern Scandinavian you must differ between:

    1. ‘Atlantic’ (Icelandic and Faroese).
    2. ‘Pensinsular’ (Norwegian and Swedish).
    3. ‘Danish’. All cedit to Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kirkegaard and Niels Bohr but their language has run completely out of touch for the residue of mankind.

  162. m.-l., I probably have used all of these sounds at times when speaking English. [a] not so much, [ʌ] not enough. People always notice I speak with an accent, and often guess German/Swedish/Dutch, none of which I speak.

  163. Stephen Bruce says:

    I agree that none of the items Stefan Holm’s should provide too much difficulty for someone with some background in phonetics, but the combination of difficulties is somewhat daunting.

    I was recently in a choir that was singing Grieg’s piece “Hvad est du dog skjön“, a setting of a Danish text, and unfortunately the pronunciation was a mess. Here’s the first verse:

    Hvad est du dog skjön,
    Ja skjön, ja skjön.
    Du allerlifligste Guds Sön!
    O du min Sulamit, Sulamit,
    Ja mit, ja mit,
    Alt hvad jeg har er også dit.

    I don’t know Danish, but I gather that some of the words here are archaic. I privately wondered whether we should use modern Danish pronunciation, an older “singing pronunciation” (as happens in other languages in classical singing) or perhaps a Norwegian-influenced Danish that Grieg might have used. Meanwhile, the conductor brought in a recording of his Swedish friend reading it, and others were trying to pronounce it like German!

    We didn’t end up performing the song partly because of this, though it’s a beautiful piece.

  164. marie-lucie says:

    Y : People always notice I speak with an accent, and often guess German/Swedish/Dutch, none of which I speak.

    I could say almost the same thing! People usually think I am German or Dutch. I took German in high school but can’t say I speak it, although I can managa a few simple phrases here and there if necessary, which rarely happens. But I don’t think my scanty German has any influence on my pronunciation of English.

  165. Stefan Holm says:

    Hey, Stephen, if you’re singing Grieg please do it in Norwegian!.

    The linguistic issue is that from late 14th centuty until 1814 Norway was goverened by the Crown of Copenhagen. During these years all legal documents.in Norway were written in Danish and that’s the origin of the Norwegian ‘Book language’ (Bokmäl). However, while the pronunciation of Danish in Denmark proper changed (until today’s beyond recognition) the Norwegians stuck to their old speech (close to Swedish).

    So it turned out that modern Norwegian is ‘Danish pronounced in Swedish’. That is, Norwegians and Swedes understand each others freely. But at the same time Danes and Norwegians can read each other’s texts just as freely. That’s why I claim: If you are interested in Scandinvia – learn Norwegian! That way you will be able to commnicare with Swedes orally and with Danes by writtern mrssages.

  166. Trond Engen says:

    We didn’t end up performing the song partly because of this, though it’s a beautiful piece.

    But it’s a ridiculous lyric. It won’t work well in any variety.

  167. As I said, I don’t know Swedish, but the things that tend to give you away are not the raw vowels, which can be mastered (or at least I can generally master) but things like intonation, prosody, contractions, ‘proper slurring’, and the like. The little things that native speakers can instantly pick up on.

    I have a Beijing accent but I’ve never worked at sounding like a Beijing native — I was never so passionate about the language that I wanted to sound indistinguishable from a Beijing native. As a result, if they hear me on the phone, people from other places think I’m from Beijing and people from Beijing think I’m from other places.

  168. David Marjanović says:

    But I have never ever heard an Anglophone speaking Swedish without instantly being recognized as a such – and I know several who have been living here for 20-40 years:

    I know an American whose fluent Swedish doesn’t sound English at all. I’m completely unqualified to tell what she does to the pitch-accent system, but all the rest sounds native.

    What little I’ve heard of the same person’s German (whole sentences, but not many) sounds native; what gives her away are wrong word choices.

    I also know a Québécoise who learned her first foreign language, English, when she went to an English-speaking university at age 20. A few years later, when I first met her, she already sounded native throughout longer conversations. Her Swedish sounds native to me as well – again, no idea about the pitch accent, but she sounds neither French nor English when she speaks Swedish.

    And sometimes you simply run into surprises. I know a Texan whose only native and only fluent language is English. Unlike the vast majority of native Anglophones, she has no trouble whatsoever with a front [a]. As a result, her accent in German sounds French if anything – definitely not English.

  169. —people from other places think I’m from Beijing and people from Beijing think I’m from other places.

    In China, people automatically assume that someone who speaks Chinese (however badly) is actually Chinese, just from a different province.

    I’ve read about such case in memoirs of one Soviet specialist back in 1950s. He wasn’t even Asian, just dark-haired Russian, but it was enough to assume that he is Chinese.

  170. Stefan: Swedish doesn’t happen to be in the 200-language sample that all authors are supposed to include on their maps (English and German are the only Germanic languages in the sample), so its omission from the front rounded vowels map was either Ian Maddieson’s choice or (perhaps more likely) happenstance.

    Y: I assume you are asking about English varieties and the English words room, moon. Yes, almost all of North America has at least some degree of fronting in their /u/ phoneme. It’s thought that the do/dew merger, whereby /ju/ became /u/ after coronals, is responsible. Half a century and more ago, it was normal for do to be [du] and dew to be [djʉ], as it is in conservative Southern American speech and in RP today. (Historically, dew was originally [dɛw], as the spelling suggests, and then [dɪw], until [iw] merged with [y] in loanwords (native /y/ was gone) to produce [ju].

    In the first stage of the merger, /j/ was lost, leaving a contrast between [du] and [dʉ], and then the vowels also merged, leaving both pronounced as [dʉ], which then spread to all instances of /u/ even if there had been no contrast before. You can hear William Labov talking about it on this National Public Radio broadcast (which is mostly about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift) at about 5:40. As he says, even our ghosts now say [bʉ] rather than [bu]!

    The same tendency is going on in other parts of the Anglosphere, even those that have moved from [dju] toward [dʒu] (the dew-Jew merger). I don’t know how that comes to be. But with only one high rounded tense vowel, it’s easy for its frontness to drift, because it has no effect on the rest of the vowel system. Indeed, I have noted that when Michael Drout recorded the Anglo-Saxon corpus, his /u/ ~ /y/ contrast is articulated as [ʉ] ~ [y], which in my opinion is not enough of a contrast to be readily heard by North Americans. As I noted here some years back, my grandson was at that time articulating /u/ with a consistent [y]; he has now shifted to [ʉ], just like those around him.

    Bathrobe: “things like intonation, prosody, contractions, ‘proper slurring’, and the like” aren’t so diagnostic in languages like English, where it can be hard for naive native speakers to distinguish someone with a very different but equally L1 accent from an L2 accent, or one L2 accent from another. I am always astonished by Americans who can’t tell Australian from RP; even though they are phonologically similar, they could hardly be more different phonetically. Swedish is doubtless a different story, though.

    David M.: Throughout the American South, including East Texas, there are speakers who pronounce the PRICE vowel as a monophthong [a], quite distinct from the PALM vowel [ɑ]. My grandson (now six) is at the invented-spelling stage in his writing, which is encouraged by his school, and he consistently writes final /ɑ/ as I (the tire-tar merger) and non-final [ɑ] as O (the much more widespread LOT-PALM merger). He currently associates A with TRAP and FACE only.

  171. David Marjanović says:

    Throughout the American South, including East Texas, there are speakers who pronounce the PRICE vowel as a monophthong [a], quite distinct from the PALM vowel [ɑ].

    Yes; I’m talking about someone from North Texas who doesn’t do this. 🙂 And… I think the low vowels of English, including the PRICE vowel, are pharyngealized or something; people who turn PRICE into [a] keep this feature, which would sound quite out of place in German or French. Unfortunately I’ve never heard one of the East Caucasian languages where pharyngealization is phonemic for all vowels.

  172. John, I listened to that NPR show. I was confused for awhile, then looked at the recording in Praat. The first two formants in the middle of the vowel of Labov’s ‘old style’ boo are roughly 300 and 700 Hz, which are fine for a [u]. The ‘new style’, is a diphthong, which starts at about 350-1300-2400, which you could reasonably call [ʉ], and ends at 300-900-2500 a slightly advanced [u], but far from [ʉ] (For comparison, Labov’s ‘French’ vowel is at 300-1600). So I would call the two boos [bu] and [bʉu] (or [bʉᵘ̟], to be fancy).

    It could be that what I perceive to be the salient part of the diphthong is not what others do. It’s happened to me before.

    On a tangent, even the [u] in Labov’s ‘old-style’ [bu] is not as extreme as that of some Welsh accents that I’ve heard and read about, which is not only backed, but also has more lip protrusion and rounding than anything else I’ve heard.

    On another tangent, I can’t place the accent of Labov’s interviewer, Robert Siegel.

  173. I am always astonished by Americans who can’t tell Australian from RP

    My hypothesis as to why this happens is that to a (rhotic) American ear, the most prominent feature of both English and Australian accents is their non-rhoticity. This is just so shocking that all the other differences sound small in comparison.

    The flaw in this hypothesis is that rhotic Americans never mistake non-rhotic American accents for foreign ones (at least as far as I know–maybe Bostonians are constantly mistaken for Australians).

  174. Similarly, I’ve encountered quite a few Americans who claim to find all English accents indistinguishable, and can’t tell the difference between, say, a Londoner and a Yorkshireman. Even as a rhotic American whose experience with British speech is mostly from TV, it puzzles me that people can fail to notice the difference between such variegated accents. Indeed, I’ve never known New Yorkers or Bostonians to be confused with Brits, so perhaps an accent gets exempted from this cognitive block as soon as people have a cultural context for it.

  175. I am always astonished by Americans who can’t tell Australian from RP

    As an American, I find that assertion dubious. Americans have trouble distingushing Australian from “low prestige” English dialects (like Essex) but I would be surprised if many Americans confuse broad Australian with true RP. On the other hand there is a “cultivated” accent that some Australians use (Cate Blanchett for example) that sounds more like RP than most regional English accents do.

  176. I would be surprised if many Americans confuse broad Australian with true RP

    You may be underestimating the number of Americans with absolutely no awareness of how foreigners actually sound beyond childhood exposure to cartoons with stereotyped “pip pip” Englishmen and “ooh-la-la” Frenchmen. I have a friend from Texas, in many ways a highly cultured and well-read man (he’s written a huge amount and had a couple of books published), whose attempts to imitate an English accent sound much more like Australian and whose attempts to imitate any Continental accent sound pretty much like Colonel Klink. Awareness of foreign accents doesn’t happen magically; you normally have to be exposed at an appropriate age.

  177. Since accent does not play the same kind of social role in American society that it does in Britain (and some other parts of the English-speaking Commonwealth), Americans are also probably less inclined to pay attention to the accents of foreign native English speakers.

  178. Frankly, I’m pretty ignorant of American dialects. They don’t all sound the same, but they all sound… American. Of course certain accents stand out, like New York and Southern, but I have a tin ear for most other dialects. So I understand perfectly why Americans might not be able to pick among British and Commonwealth accents.

  179. Since accent does not play the same kind of social role in American society that it does in Britain

    Some accents do. I doubt if Obama would have been elected if he had spoken Standard English with an AAVE accent. It’s true, though, that there is no Top Accent in the U.S., as indicated by the fact that all our Presidents except Reagan (an actor) and Obama have had marked regional accents. (Eisenhower might be another exception: he comes from the part of the country that spoke “General American” when there still was such a thing.)

  180. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @David Marjanović:

    “adjectives” are appositional nouns in the Semitic languages and stative verbs in languages from Japanese to Yorùbá.

    The recent discussion of Circassian led me to read about Ubykh morphosyntax, in which nouns (insofar as the concept makes sense for Ubykh) can take all the normal inflections of a stative verb.

  181. David Marjanović says:

    Whoa. Even proper names?

  182. Inuit has something similar, where certain nouns in citation form (absolutive) look very much like intransitive verbs with 3s absolutive agreement, and in possessed (absolutive) form they look like transitive verbs with 3s absolutive agreement and agreement for the ergative possessor. So ‘a car’ looks like ‘it cars,’ and ‘my car’ like ‘it cars by me’ (trying to simulate the ergative construction).

    If I remember right, proper names don’t belong to that class of nouns, and wouldn’t normally take possessors anyway.

    The above is true for Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) but I assume it’s a common Inuit thing.

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