Language Theory Week 1

I knew it would happen. Jeff dropped the Milton seminar, so now, even though I’m not really in the class I volunteered to present Lycidas next week with Leslie. Shouldn’t be a problem, I love that poem and I’ve researched it a bit before. Really fun stuff, unlike the stuff that follows [don’t read it, it’s painfully dry scholastic shit placed here for archival review purposes]

Notes on:

Native Tongues by Nancy Lord
Nine Ideas about Language by Harvey A. Daniels
What Makes English Good? by John Algeo
Phonetics by Edward Callary
The Minimal Units of Meaning: Morphemes

From Language: Readings in Language and Culture Bedford 1999.

Lord morns the loss of native languages, viewing it as a holocaust of sorts. Locked inside each language is a unique worldview. In her Alaskan examples, she traces the richness of the language in describing distance and position through various affixes. Their lexicon is largely devoted to describing environmental features, important to the tribes survival. She also notes the unique difference of temporal perspective between Hopi and other languages, which alludes to their cultural view of time. Their lack of present, past, and future tenses is fascinating, though it is inconclusive whether the language creates their world view, or their world view dictates the rules of their language.

Daniels delineates some fundamental characteristics of language learned by modern linguistic studies:

  1. Children have the capability for language largely wired in: They learn language swiftly, efficently and largely without instruction.
  2. Language operates by a set of fairly consistent rules: though the choice of sounds and words is largely arbitrary, it does function in a discernable, rule-based order.
  3. Languages have three major components: phonetic system, vocabulary, and grammar.
  4. Everyone speaks a dialect: There are always varieties within a language, often brought about by isolation.
  5. Speakers of all languages employ a variety of dialects and sub-dialects based on situation. (Jargon)
  6. Language change is normal.
  7. Languages are intimately related to the people who use them.
  8. Value judgments regarding language are matters of taste.
  9. Writing is derivative of speech. Beliefs about writing are bound up in our literary traditions.

John Algeo’s article What Makes English Good blasts apart several misconceptions about the evaluation of language. Though he does not dismiss communicative criteria, he demonstrates how those who champion these criteria violate their own claims by insisting on easily misunderstood distinctions regarding proper word usage. Literary criteria are also flawed, because the choice of what constitutes a good author to model one’s language upon is culturally and economically biased. It also raises the question of how far back one should go for models. Scholarly criteria, he parallels with the “nine out of ten dentists recomend” school of thought. Pedagogical criteria are also dismissed even more soundly, due to the sorry state of education of most teachers. Logical criteria are dismissed, because even the brightest of people don’t often agree. Personal criterion is really no criterion at all, but at least it’s honest. Professional criteria are dismissed on much the same grounds as the pedagogical effort. Stylistic criterion is a social game; democratic criterion is much the same, emphasizing the fact that language at that level is often filled with error. This all culminates in a criterion that sums up all of the above: Elitist criterion. The overarching conclusion is that language can only be better “if I say it is.”

Phonetics by Edward Callary is an overview of this branch of Linguistics. He describes and presents a subset of the IPA phonetic alphabet, describing how transcription can be a difficult business due to the differing pronunciations of words not only across dialects, but also in situational usages of the words. Formal pronunciation differs from casual pronunciation. The next section reaches deeper into articulatory phonetics, describing the mechanism and physiology of sound production. The primary articulatory classifications are:

Points of Articulation

  1. Bilabial
  2. Labio-dental
  3. Interdental
  4. Alveolar
  5. Palatal
  6. Velar

Manner of Articulation

  1. Stops (Plosives)
  2. Fricatives (narrowing the airpath)
  3. Affricates (a combination of a stop and a fricative)
  4. Nasals

Each of these articulations can be voiced or unvoiced; variants in the same sound are called allophones. Phonemes, or sound units are contrastive units. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning, and often are pronounced differently while retaining the same meaning. The change in sound is often caused by the process of assimilation, where the sound changes to match a nearby sound. Another process of sound change is dissimilation (or simplification). An example of this is when three consonants are brought together, one of them becomes silent.

The Minimal Units of Meaning: Morphemes goes into greater detail regarding the definition and typing of meaning. The fundamental divisions can be easily flow charted:

  1. Can it stand alone as a word?
    Yes—it’s a free morpheme.
    No— it’s a bound morpheme.
  2. Does it have a principal meaning of the word it’s in?
    Yes—It’s a stem.
    No—It’s an affix.
  3. Does it create a new word by changing the meaning and/or part of speech?
    Yes—It’s a derivational affix
    No—It’s an inflectional affix
  4. Does it have a meaning, or cause a change in meaning when added to a word?
    Yes—It’s a content morpheme
    No—It’s a function morpheme.

The nature of bonding for morphemes, and the graphic representation of ambiguity for words composed of morphemes that may be chained in different ways is demonstrated through a series of tree diagrams. The bonding of language units is demonstrated to follow a rule based structure that can cause difficulties, ambiguities in meaning.

[repeat of material already covered in Grammatical Analysis class]