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Linguistics 1: Introduction to the Study of Language

Class 1, Week 1 S. Shademan

Teaching Staff
Instructor: Shabnam Shademan Teaching Assistants: Niki Foster ( Mattyas Huggard ( Michael Lefkowitz ( Joe Buffington ( Ryan Sandell ( Lauren Winans (

Ponderings about Language

1. Why is it so easy to acquire, speak and understand our native language? 2. How is it that, despite differences in intelligence, culture, and environment, all children are successful at acquiring language? 3. Although each of us knows a language, what do we know about Language?

Human Linguistic Creativity

There are important, specific properties that contribute to the vast expressive power of human language.

We are able to memorize thousands of words, which are an arbitrary pairing of sound and meaning.
house maison dom casa

We can combine words to form sentences to communicate infinitely many messages.

John has a beautiful house. That house burned in a fire. I walked into my house and saw the new puppy.

Some questions we will address:

What is Language? What aspects of our linguistic knowledge are language specific and what parts are universal? What enables us to speak, understand, and make judgments about our language? How do children acquire a language, or more than one language? Is speech necessary to Language?

What is Language?
Language is:
(a) (b) (c) (d)

a cultural artifact communication thought an instinct

Language: a Cultural Invention?

All languages are exquisitely complex in structure. Chickasaw Akchihilhachoksha I am not making you dance yet Ak-chi-hilha-ch-ok-sha 1sg.neg-2sg-dance-make-neg.-yet

Southern Paiute
Words for we: tammi you and I tangwa you and I and one other nmmwi I and at least one other but not you

But there are Universals too

All languages have nouns and verbs. All languages have a way to indicate whether an event is completed or not:
John is building the house. John built the house.

More Universal Properties

All languages are discrete combinatorial systems, i.e. finite number of symbols (words) combine and permute to form larger units (sentences). All languages have ways of indicating negation, asking a question, indicating more than one.

More Universal Properties

All languages have recursive devices, i.e. ways of adding one sentence to another.
Coordination The war continued and more people died. The war continued and more people died and we stood by watching. Subordination No one cares that John is sleeping. Nobody knows that no one cares that John is sleeping.

More Universal Properties

All languages share certain constraints, e.g. you cannot question one member of a coordination. John and Paul sang a song. Who sang a song? *Who did John and ___ sing a song? (*means the sentence sounds odd or weird, i.e. it violates a rule of the language)

Universal Grammar
These grammatical properties hold regardless of culture. Proposal: there is a general blueprint that all languages follow. Cultures differ a lot. If Language were simply a cultural invention, we would not expect universals.

Language as Communication?
Some elements in language have no communicative value.
It seems like John is stressed out = John seems to be stressed out. There is a man on the roof. = A man is on the roof. Dude, that was, like, so not, you know, whatever.

Why cant we ask.

*Who did John and __ play the guitar? While we can ask John played the guitar and who else? Who did John play the guitar with?

Language is used for communication, but it is not only a communication system

Language as thought
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a
medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English socialism] but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words...

A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of politically equal or that free once had the meaning intellectually free than, for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to queen and rook. There would be many crimes and errors that would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.

George Orwell 1949, Appendix to 1984

Does language control thought?

Sexist language Everybody must hand in his h.w. on time. Chairman, fireman,

Change our language, change our thoughts?

Everybody must hand in their hw on time. Chairperson, chair, firefighter

Linguistic Determinism (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis)

Peoples thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language. Yesterday I cooked lamb. Tomorrow I will cook ham.

Linguistic Relativity (weaker version)

Differences among languages cause differences in the way their speakers think. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (Prof. Geoff Pullum, UC Santa Cruz) Snow, sleet, slouch, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting

If linguistic determinism were right:

How could a child ever learn any word? How could a L2 learner learn a word that does not have an equivalent in his L1? How could we ever translate from one language to another? How could we ever coin a new word, use slang, etc.?

If language were thought:

Expressions like the following would have no meaning: I meant to say I didnt mean to say I cant quite express what I mean... The gist of this lecture is Our thoughts are different from the language we use to express them.

What language is, and is not

Language is not thought, though it is used to express and influence our thoughts. Language is not a cultural invention, though it is culturally transmitted and an important vehicle for transmitting culture. Language is not communication, though we use language to communicate. Language is a biologically determined cognitive ability an instinct part of human genetic make-up.

Language as an Instinct

Language develops spontaneously in the child without instruction or conscious effort. Language unfolds in all children in essentially the same way and at the same time, regardless of parentage or culture. Humans acquire and use language with ease because our brains are designed to do so.

Language is an Instinct
All languages conform to certain rules or patterns: grammars Some rules are specific to a particular language or languages. Some rules are the same across all languages: Universal Grammar The universals reveal to us the essential character of human language. The study of language provides a window to the mind.

Do you think in French?