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The giJt of language is the single human trait thatmarks us al! geneticallYJ setting us apatt from the rest of liJe.
Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

A Preuiew

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thought, a vehicle for literary expression, a social institution, a matter for communication, a medium for building. AlI normal human beings speak aUeast one language, and it is hard to imagine much significant social or intellectual activity taking place in its absence. Each of us, then, has a stake in understanding how language is organized and how it is used. This book provides a basic introduction to linguistics, the discipline that studies these matters.

Language is many things-a of political controversy, a factor system in nation

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What is human language? What do es it mean to "know" a language? To. answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand the resources that a language makes available to its native speakers, those who have acquired it as children in a natural setting. The scope and diversity of human thought and exp~rience place great denands on language. Because communication is not restricted to a fixed set of topics, language must do something more than provide a package of ready-made messages. It must enable us to produce and understand new words, phrases, and sentences as the need arises. In short, human language must be creative-allowing novelty and innovation in response fo new experiences, situations, and thoughts. Underlying the creative aspect oLlanguage is an intricate mental systern that defines the boundaries within which innovation can take place. The operation of this system can be illustrated by a relatively simple phenomenon in English: the process that creates verbs (roughly, words naming actions) from nouns '(roughly, words naming things). As the following sentences show, there isa great deal of freedom to innovate in the formation of such verbs.


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l.. a)

He wristed the ball over the neL her

',1.2.:' OL:t

b) She would try to sr:ff-:<pper-l(D it through.

e) She Houdini'd

of the locked closeL

However, there are also cons:rai:::s::: :::i5 freedom. For instance; a new verb e:::: i=-_:::::-.:'c2 ::leaning already exists. Although is rarely coined if a word \\":::"'.



Table 1.1 Nouns Noun use

used as verbs Verb use beach the boat ground the airplane powder the aspirin knife the man spear the fish.> orphan the child

leave the boat on the beach keep the airplane on the ground trush the aspirin into powder stab the man with a knife catch the fish witha spear make the child an orphan'

we may say earton the eggs to mean 'put the eggs in the carton', we do not say hospital [he patientto mean 'put the patient in the hospital'. This is presumably because the well-established verb hospitalize already has the meaning that the new form would have. There are also narrow constraintson the meaning and use of particular subc1asses of these verbs. One such constraint involves verbs that are created from time expressions such as summer and holiday.


2. a) Julia summered in Paris. b) Kent wintered in Mexico. e) Martine holidayed in France. d) They honeymoonedin Hawaii.
WhiIe the sentences in 2 are all acceptabIe, not alltime in this way. (Througho.ut tence is unacceptabIe.) this book anasterisk expressions can be used is used to indicate that a sen-

3. a) * Jerome midnighted in the streets. b) *Andrea nooned at the restaurant. e) '*Philip one o'clocked at the airport.
These exampIes show that when a verb is created from a time expression, it must be given a very specific interpretation::-roughly paraphrasable as 'to be somewhere for the period of time X'. Thus, to summer in Paris is 'to be in Paris forthe summer,' to holiday in France is 'to be in France for the holidays' , and so on. Since noon and midnight express poin~s in time rather than periods of time, they cannot be used to create verbs of this new class. Constraints are essential to the viabiIity of the ereative process. If well-established words were eonstantly being repIaced by new creations, the be so unstable that eommunieation eould be vocabulary of Englishwould jeopardized.Asimilar danger would arise if there were no eonstraints on the mean 'make it snow in meaningof riew words. Ir winter inHawaiicould Hawaii' or 'wish itwere winter in Hawaii' or any other arbitrary thing, the produetionand interpretation of new forms would be ehaotie and would subvert rather than enrich communication. This rule-governed creativity characterizes a111eveIs of language, includir>; the way in which sounds ate combined to form words. The forms in 4, fe::instance, are recognizable as possible names for new products or invention~.

4. a) prasp b) flib

e) traf



Such forms contrast with the patterns "sound" of English words.

in 5, which simply. do not have the


psarp b) bfli c) ftra


The cntrast shows that our subconscious knowledge of English includes a set of constraints on possible sequences oI sounds. StilL other constraints determine how new words can be created [rom alreadyexisting forms with the help of special endings. Imagine, for example; that you learn that there is a word soleme (used perhaps for a newly discov~:red atomic particle). As a speaker of English, you then automatically know that something with the properties of a soleme can be called solemic. You also know that to make something solemiC is to solemicize it, and you call this process solemicization. Further, you know that the c is pronounced as s in solemicize but as k in solemic. Without hesitation, you also recognize that solemicize is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. (You would say . soLEmicize, not SOlemicize or solemiCIZE.) Nowhere is the ability to deal with novel utterances in accordance with rules more obvious than in the production ando comprehension of sentences. Apart from a few fixed expressions and greetings, much of what you say, hear, and read in the course of aday consists of sentences that are nqvel to you. In conversations, lectures, newscasts, alid textbooks you are regularly exposed to novel combinations of words, the expression of unfamiliar ideas, and the presentation of new information. Such is the case with the sentences you have just read. While each of thesesentences is no doub} perfectly comprehensible to you, it is extremely unlikely that you have ever seen any of them befbre. This ability to deal with. novel utterances does not ensure that you can understand or useany imaginable combination of words. You would no! drdi~ narily saya sentencesuch as 6a, although 6b would beperfectly acceptaBie. :.. . 6. a) *He brought a chair in order to sit on. b) He brought a ehair to sit on. Or, to take another example, 7a is wellformed-if bizarre-but 7b is gibberish.


a) b)

The pink kangaroo hopped over the talking lampo *Pink the the talking hopped kangaroo lamp over. your ability to produce and eomprehend

As,ith other aspects of Janguage, sentences is slibject to limitations.

As we have seen, speakers af a language are able to produce and understand an unlirnited number .af utterances, including many that are novel and unfamiliar. This ability, which is aften called linguistic competence, eonstitutes the central subjeet matter of linguistics and OI this boak. In investigating linguistic competenee, linguists foeus on the menta] system that allws hurnan beings to form and interpret the words and sentence~



of their language. This syste{Tlis called a grammar. For the purposes of this book, we will divide the grammar into the following cornponents: Table 1.2 The cornponents of a grammar
Component Phonetics Phonology Morphology Syntax Semantics Responsibility the articulation and perception of speech sounds the patterning of speech sounds . word formation sentence formation the interpretation of words and sentences

Linguists use the term grammar in a rather special and technical way. Because this usage may be unfamiliar, we wi11devote some time to considering several properties of the system that linguists call a grammar.

Have a Grammar


Qne of the most fundamental c1aims of modern linguistic analysis is that all languages have a grammar. This can be verified by considering a few simple facts. Since all languages are spoken, they must have phonetic and phonological systems; since they all have words and sentences, they also must have a m:orphology and a syntax; andsince these words an-d sentences have systematic meanings, there obviously must be sernantic principIes as well. As these are the very things that make up a gramrnar, it follows that all hurnan languages have this type of system. It is not unusual to hear the rernark that some language-Acadian French, Navaho, or Chinese-"has no grarnrnar." {This is especially common in the case of languages that are not written or have not yet been analyzed by Western scholars.) Unfamiliar languages sometimes appear to an untrained observer to have no grammar simply because their grammatical systems are different from those of better-knO\yn .1anguages. In Walbiri (an aboriginal language of Australia), for example, the relative ordering of words is so free that the Englishsentence The two dogs now see severa! kangaroos could be translated by the equivalent of any of the following sentences.

8. a) Dogs two now see kangaroos several.

b) See now dogs two kangaroos several. d) Kangaroos

e) See now kangaroos several dogs two; several now dogs two see. e). Kangaroos several now see dogs two.

Whereas Walbiri may not restrict the order of words in the way English does, its grammar imposes other types of requirements. For example, in the sentence types we are considering, Walbirispeakersmust place the ending !u on the word for 'dogs' to indicate that it names the animals that do the seeingrather than the animals that are seen. In English, by contrast, this information is con.. veyed by placing two dogs in front of the verb an~ several kangaroos after it. Rather th~m showing that Walbiri has no grammar, such differences simply demonstrate that it has a grammar unlike that of English in cenain respects. This important point is applicable to all differences among languages: although no two languages have exactly the same grammar, there are no languages without a grarnrnar.


A similar point can be made about different vanetles af the sane language. As you are probably already aware, English is the language of many different communities around the world. The particular variety of English found within each of these communities has its own characteristic pronunciation, vocabulary, an-cisentence patterns. This is just another way of saying that each variety of English has its own grammar. Just as' it is impossible to " have a language without a grammar,so no variety of language could exist if it ' did not have a grammar.

Equality:All Grammars Are Equal

Whenever there is more than one variety of a particular language, questii1s arise as to whether one is somehow better or more correct than another. FrolTI the pOint of view of modern linguistics, it makes no more sense to say that arte variety of English is better than another than it does to say that the grammar af English is better (or worse) than the grammar of 'Ihai. A11languages and all varieties of a particular language have grammars that enable their speakers to express anyproposition that the human mind can produce. In terms of this a11-important criterion, then, al! varieties of language are absolutelyequal as instruments of communication and thought. The goal of contemporary linguistic analysis is not to rank languages on some imaginary scale of superiority. Rather, linguists seek to understand the nature of the grammatical systems that allow people t.o speak and understand a language: 'Ihis same point is sometimes made by noting that linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive. 'Ihis means that linguists seek to' describe human. linguistic ability and knowledge, not to prescribe one system in preference to another. A parallel point of view is adopted in otber scientific disciplines as well. 'Ihe first concern of al! scientists is to describe and explain the facts that they observe, not to change them. Even though it rejects prescriptivism, modern linguistic analysis doesrrot deny the importance oLdear expression in writing and speech. Such skills are quite rightly anobject ,af concern among educators. However, the difficul'tles that arise in these are as-typically result from the inconsistent or careless use ofone's linguistic knowledge, not from any inherent flaw in the grammar itself. Linguists also acknowledge that certain patterns (1 seen that, They was there, He didn't do nothing, He ain't here) may be restricted to particular socioeconomic groups within the English-speaking community. As discussed in more detail in chapter 12, the useof these patterns may therefore have negative socialconsequences: it may be harder to win a scholarship, to get a job, to be accepted in certain cirdes, and so forth. Froma purely linguistic point of view, however, there is absolutely nothing wrong with grammars that permit such strllctures. Like grammars for other variants of English (andother languages), they permit their users to express and understand the same unlimited range of thoughts and ideas. It is a we11-established fact that the grammars of a11languages -are constantly changing. Sme of these changes ar relatively minor and occur very quickly (for example, the addition of new words such as g!asnost, yuppie, fax, cursor, and attrit to the vocabulary of English). Other changes have a more dnlmatic effect on the overall form of Ihe language and typically take place over a long


Grammars Change ayer




period of tim'e. The formation of negative structures in English has undergone this type of change. Prior to 1200, English formed negative constructions bv plating ne before the verb and a variant of not after it. 9. a) lc ne seye p.o1. (' 1 don't say.') b) . He ne spketh nawi. ('He does not speak.') By 1.400 or thereabouts, ne was used infrequently and not (or nawt) typically occurred by itself after the verb.
lO. a) 1 seye not the wordes.

We saw nawt the knyghtes.

It was not until several centuries later that English developed its current practice of allowing not to occur after only certain types of verbs (such as do, have, will, and so on).

a) 1 will not say the words. (versus *1 will say not the words.) b) He did not see the knights. (versus *He saw not the knights.)

These modifications illustrate theextentto which grammars can change over time. The structures exemplified in lO are archaic by today's standards and those in 9soundcompletelyforeign .. to mostspeakers of modern English. lhrough the centuries, individuals and organizations who believe that certain varieties of language are better than others have frequently expressed concern over what they perceive to be the deterioration of English. In 1710, for example, the writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) lamented "the continual Corruption of our English Tongue." Among the corruptions to whichSwift objected were contractions such as he 's for he is, although he had no objection to Tis for It is. In the nineteenth century, Edward S. Gould, a columnist for the New York Evening Post, published a bookentitled Good English; 01; Popular Errors in Language, in which he accused newspaper writers and authors of "sensation novels" of ruining the Ianguage by introducing "spurious words" li~e jeopardize, leniency, and underhanded. To this day, the tradition of prescriptive concernabout ;the use of certain words continues in the work of suchpopular writers as Edwin Newman and John Simon, who form a kind of seIf-appointed language police. Linguists reject theview that languages attain a state of perfection at some point in their history and that subsequent changes lead to deterioration and corruption. As noted above, there are simpIy no grounds for c1aiming that one system of grammar is somehow superior to another. There is therefore no reason to think tha! Ianguage change canorwill undermine the adequacy of Englsh any other Ianguage) as a mediumof communication.

lJniversality: Grammars

Are Alikein

ThererihaI1Y differences among languages, as even a superfiCial examinationof their sound patterns, vocabularies, and word order reveals. But this . doesnotrnean that there are no limits on the type of grammars that human beings can acquire and use~ Quite to the contrary, current research suggests that thereare important grammatical principIes and tendenciesshared by' all human languages.


One such principIe involves ine manner in which sentences are negated. With unlimited variation, one \'iould expect the eq'uivalent of English no! to occur in different positions within the sentence in different languages. Thus, we might predict that each of the following possibilities should occur with roughIy equaI frequencY. .
12. a) Not Pat is here.

b) Pat not is here.

c) Pat is not here. d) Pat is here noto As it happens, the first and fourth patterns are very. rare. In virtually .all Ianguages, negative elements such as no! either immediately precede or immediately follow the verbo The reIative ordering of qther elements is aIso subject to constraints. To see this, we need onIy consider the six logically possible orders for a simple three-word statement such as Canadians like hockey.
13. a) Canadians like hockey.

Canadians hockey like. c) Like Canadians hockey. d) Like hockey Canadians. e) Hockey like Canadians. J) Hockey Canadians like.

Interestingly, more than 95 percent of the world's languages adopt one of the first three orders fOLbasic statements. Only a handful of languages use any of the last three orders as basic. This once again reflects the existence of constraints and preferences that limit variation. amonglanguages. These are not isolated examples. As later chapters will show; some grammatical categories and principIes are universal. And where there is variatTon (as in the case of word order), there is typically a very limited set of opti0l1s. Contrary to first appearances, then, the set of grammars learned and used by human beings is limit'ed in significant ways. -

Tacitness: Grammatical Knowledge Is Subconscious

Because the use of language to communicate presupposes a grammar, it foll()ws that all speakers of a language must have knowledge of its grammar. }{owever, this knowledge differsfrom knowledge of arithmetic, traffic safety, andother subjectsthatare taughtat home or in school. Unlike these other t"ypesof knowledge,grammaticl kI10wledge is acquired without the help of instruction when one isstilla child and itremainslargely subconscious throughout life. As an example of this, consider your pronunciation of the past tense ending written as the followingwords.
14. a) hunted b) slipped

c) buzzed Notice thaf whereas you say id in hun!ed, you say t in slipped and d in b~zzed. Moreover, if you heard the new verb flib, you would form the past tense as flibbed and pronounce the ending as d. Although it is unlikely that you have



ever been aware of this phenomenon before now, you make these distinctions automatically if you are a native speaker of English. This is beca use the grammatical subsystem regulating this aspect of speech was acquired when you were a child 'a.nd now exists subconsciously in your mind. Even more sub tI e 'phonological patterning can be found in Ianguage, as the following contrasts help illustrate. 15. pint next fiend locked glimpse wronged *nexk *lockf *wrongv *paynk *glimpk *fiemp

The words in the left-hand column obey anobscure constraint on the selection of consonant sequences in word-final position: when a vowel is long and followed by two consonants (pint) or when a vowel is short and followed by three consonant sounds (next, pronounced 'nekst'), the final consonant must always be one made with the tongue tip raised. (The consonants t, d,s, and z are made v, and k_ are not.) Words that do in this manner, but consonants such as p, notadhere to this'phonologicaLconstraint (theright-hand column) are unacceptable tG speakers of English. Even linguists have to dig deeply to uncover such patterning, but in everyday language use, we routinely make decisions about the acceptability of forms basedon subconscious knowledge of such constraints . . Considerone final example. Spakers of English know that there are certain structures in whichthe word he can refer ta each member of a group or to asingle individual outside that group.

16. Eachboy

who the. woman interviewed thinks that he is a genius.

Sentence 16 can mean either that each boy in the group ihat the woman inter.viewedthinks ihat he himselfis agenius or that each boy thinks that a particular personnot mentioned in the sentence (say, the teacher) is a genius. However, only one of these interpretations is possible inthe following sentence. 17. The woman whoeach boy interviewed thinks that he is a genius.

In 17, he can refer only to someone not mentioned in the sentence. In contrast withwhat happens in sentence 16, hecannot refer to each individual in the group designatedby the phrase each boy. Since speakers are abIe to make this contrast, theymust have knowledge of the relevant grammaticalprinciple though thy are not consciously aware of it. even


Linguistsusethe term grammar t()~efer to asubconscious linguistic system of a particular type. Consisting of several components. (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, andsemantics), a grammar makes possible the production and comprehension o a potentially unlimited number of utterances. Because no language can exist without a grammar and no one can use a language withou.t knowledge of its grammar,the study of grammatical syslerr:s has come to be the focus of contemporary linguistic analysis.


As noted above, the grammatical knov,:ledge needed to use .and understand language is acquired without the benefi: of instruction and is for the most part subconscious. Since we therefore cannot investigate grammar by simply recalling prior training or by self-consultation, the study of human linguistic systems requlr'es considerable effort and ingenuity. As is the casein all science, information about facts that can be observed (the pronunciation of words, the interpreta~ion of sentences, and so on) must be used to draw inferences about the sometimes invisible mechanisms (atoms, cells, or grammars, as the case maybe) that are ultimately responsible for these phenomena. A good deal of this book is concerned with the findings of this research and with what they tell us about the nature and use of human language.

As far as can be determined, the languages spoken in the world today cannot be traced to a common source. Rather, they seem to belong to a number of distinct families whose histories can be tracedback no more than a few thousand 'years.Archaeological evidence suggests that language existed prior to that time for perhaps as long as 100,000 years, but virtually nothing is known about this period of linguistic prehistory or about how language originated in the first place. every reason to believe, though, that humans have a special capacity forlanguage that is not shared by other creatures. The evolutionary adaptation of certain physiological mechanisms for linguistic ends has occurred only in humans .. The so-called speech organs (the lungs, larynx, tongue, teeth, lips, palate, and nasal passages) did not originally evolve for speech; rather, they were-and still are-directly concerned with ensuring the physical survival of the organismo But each nonlinguistic use of tbese organs is paralleled by a linguistic use unique to humans. Table 1.3 compares the linguistic uses of the major speech organs with their primary survival functions in humans and other marnmals. In humans, these organs have all become highly specialized for llnguistic ends. The vocal folds, fQr example, are mOre muscular and less fatty in humans than in nonhuman primtes such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Because of a highly Table 1.3 Oual functions of the speech organs
Organ , Lungs Vocal folds Survival function to exchange COi, oxygen. to create seal over passage to lungs tomove food back to throat to break up food to seal oral cavity Speech function . to supply air for speech to produce voice for speech sounds to articulate vowels andconsonants to provide placeof articulation for consonants to articulate vowels and consonants

Tongue Teeth Lips



developed network of neural pathways, they also respond more precisely to commands from the braino The same extensive set of neural pathways allows a high degree of control over other speech organs, suchas the tongue, palte, and lips. Such control exceeds anything found in even our closest primate relativeso There are additioilJ indications of the evolution of linguistic vocalization. Unlike the breathing of survival respiration, speech breathing shows higher lung pressure and a longer exhalatian time than respiration. Abdominal muscles that are not normally employed for respiration are brought into play in a systematic and refined manner in order to maintain the air pressure needed for speech. Again, a specialized, exte!lsive set ofneurological controls exclusive to humans makes this type of breathing possible. In other words, the hurnan capacity for speech is superimposed on already existing biological structures. Evolution has produced a refinement both in degree and in kind through a long interplay between the demands of language and the development of the human speech-producing apparatus. We know considerably less about the evolutionary specialization for nonvocal aspects of language such as word formation, sentence formation, and the interpretation of meaning. Nonetheless, it is' clear that some sort of evolutionary specialization must have occurred. As we will see in Chapter 9, specific parts of the brain are associated with each of these linguistic activities. Moreover, the brain areas in question have no counterparts in other species~ These facts suggest that the human brain is specially structured for language, and that species with different types of brains will not be ableto acquire or use the types of grammars associated with human language. After devoting most . o(this book to the study of grammatical phenomena in human language, we will, in Chapter 14, return to the question of whether comparable linguistic systems occur in other species o

Buman language is characterized by rule-governed creativity. Speakers of a language possess a grammar, a mental system of elements and rules th~t allows them to form and interpret familiar arid novel utteranceso The grammar governs the articulation, perception, and patterning of speech sounds, the formation of words and sentences, and the interpretatian af utterances. Cantrary to popular belief, alllanguages have grammars that are roughly equal in complexity and are acquired subconsciously by their speakers. The existence of such linguistic systems in humans is the product of unique anatomical and cagI1itive specialization.

creative descriptive grammar linguistic competence native speakers phonetics phonology prescriptive semantics syntax