LINGUIST List 5.1285

Sat 12 Nov 1994

Disc: Sentence a star, Data/judgments/teach, Language evolution

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  1. , RE: 5.1250 language Acquisition/Analogy/Pragmatics
  2. Steven Schaufele, Data, judgments thereon, and the teaching of linguistics
  3. Jacques Guy, Language evolution context

Message 1: RE: 5.1250 language Acquisition/Analogy/Pragmatics

Date: Tue, 8 Nov 1994 12:34:54 -RE: 5.1250 language Acquisition/Analogy/Pragmatics
Subject: RE: 5.1250 language Acquisition/Analogy/Pragmatics

does have meaning! A passerby one evening in Brentwood several weeks ago
witnessed a cruel double murder, but his testimony, in very broken English,
required the services of a Professional Linguist to interpret. The latter
wasn't sure what to make of "I see there once O.J.Simpson not.", so he
starred the sentence. The result is [future] history!
--Jules Levin 8-)
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Message 2: Data, judgments thereon, and the teaching of linguistics

Date: Thu, 10 Nov 1994 18:22:59 Data, judgments thereon, and the teaching of linguistics
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Data, judgments thereon, and the teaching of linguistics

In LINGUIST 5-1247, Benji Wald said

> I once heard a syntactician suggest that in introductory syntax
> classes certain theories ... have to be taught as if they were
> true, without attending to known fallacies in the theories.
> That way the students get a foundation for LEARNING HOW TO MAKE
> SYNTACTIC ARGUMENTS. The fallacies would then be exposed in more
> advanced courses. (Would the way of making syntactic arguments
> change too? I guess whoever doesn't take the more advanced syn-
> tax classes can go to hell, or assume that theories of syntax do.
> To make this semi-anecdote more relevant maybe the syntactician
> was insisting that introductory classes may not challenge the
> grammaticality judgments used as data for an illustrative analysis
> (sound familiar?). Otherwise the lesson could not be taught.
> That's a form of DISCIPLINE that might be hard to unlearn and hard
> for the teacher to resist taking advantage of in the more advanced
> don't I'll say "I thought not!")

I suppose i'm taking up Benji's gage, though i want it understood that
i'm very much in sympathy with what he has to say. I remember a little
over 10 years ago i was taking a course in Lexical Phonology, and got
into an argument with the prof. because he insisted that one of the co-
rollaries of the theory was that 'people' is inherently plural, which
explained the non-existence of the overt plural 'peoples'. I insisted
that the word 'peoples' certainly does exist and that therefore any theo-
retical claim that it doesn't was ipso facto falsified.

(Cf. Rev. vii 9: 'A great multitude which no one could number, from every
nation, from all tribes and *peoples* and languages'. Now, presumably
'people' in this passage means something like 'ethnic group', and is not
therefore precisely equivalent to 'people' meaning 'many persons', or
'the set of all human beings'. I would also note that one common meaning
of 'universe' is 'the set of all existing things', which would also imply
that the word 'universes' ought not to exist either, but it does. For
one thing, there is a variant usage of 'universe' which makes it roughly
synonymous with 'galaxy' or 'group of galaxies', of which of course there
are many. It is also freely used in talking about 'parallel universes',

>From a paedagogical point of view i think it is perfectly legitimate for
a linguistics teacher to say, 'Here's a bunch of strings, with attendant
grammaticality judgments. What generalizations can we draw from these
data?' We can save ourselves from the threat of the protest of a student
who happens to be fluent in the language under discussion against a gram-
maticality judgment by invoking the notion of 'idiolect' and claiming
'These judgments are an accurate reflection of one particular individu-
al's own linguistic behaviour. What can we deduce about the internalized
grammar of that individual?'

This, of course, assumes that what we as linguists are concerned about is
language as a psychological/cognitive phenomenon, and i believe that that
is legitimate. But we are also, in my opinion legitimately, concerned
about language as a social phenomenon. In which case language is not
(simply) the property of an individual mind but of a community, and 'gram-
maticality judgments' may be different at the communal level from the
individual level. I think as teachers we need to be honest with our stu-
dents about this, which means allowing ourselves the luxury of a certain
type or level of judgment on one occasion and a different one on another,
but as much as possible each time making it clear to our students what
level we're working at.

Addressing the broader issues that have come up following Joseph
Stemberger's posting in LINGUIST 5-1163, i think we also need to make
clear the difference between 'grammaticality' and 'acceptability' judg-
ments. I have an introductory lecture, prepared for a course i have as
yet had no opportunity to teach, in which i attempt to explain that a
given string (e.g., '3 is angry' or 'My toothbrush is pregnant') may be
perfectly grammatical but semantically or pragmatically anomalous, and
might be rejected for that reason, while another string (e.g., 'Tooth-
brush my am orange' or 'There are a rabbit in garden') may be fully in-
terpretable and therefore not semantically anomalous but nevertheless
violate certain constraints of grammar. I would be inclined to reject
any claim that, as Georgia Green occasionally put it (facetiously) in
class and elsewhere, 'The rules of grammar must include the rules of
arithmetic and all other real-world knowledge'.

Thus, if my son were to say, 'The moon is made of green cheese' i might
challenge him on the *content* of his statement, but not on its *con-

Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801

**** O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum! ***
*** Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis! ***
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Message 3: Language evolution context

Date: Sun, 6 Nov 1994 09:50:52 +Language evolution context
From: Jacques Guy <>
Subject: Language evolution context

>From: Gerard Gautier <>

[interesting stuff]

 >I sometimes realise that, while talking to my sister in France by
 >phone, I find myself unthinkingly telling her :
 >"J'habite dans une petite hsiang derriere l'ecole."
Ditto here, with English. Need I describe the puzzled looks when once I
let "les achevements academiques" slip into my French ("Cesar achevant
les prisonniers gaulois", par Salvador Dali, a la maniere de
Meissonnier!). The case of "hsiang" is different, though, just as that
of "le milk-bar du coin" (which my wife and I constantly use). I expect
that "ruelle" is not strongly associated in one's experience with the
thing, but it would be if you had been living in a French-speaking
Chinese town. Since it is usually not French but Chinese which you hear
in Chinese towns (merci, Monsieur de La Palisse), "hsiang" is strongly
associated, so much so that it creeps into even a French sentence. Ditto
with "milk-bar" in Australia, and, I guess, "Trinkhalle" in Germany. The
closest I can think of in French would be "l'arabe du coin", but that
would be only Parisian French I imagine.

> So does it not mean that the evolution should depend on the education
>level of people - so that it would be DIFFERENTIAL inside a society
>according to, say, the social class ?

Well, Great Britain provides prime examples of cants. I have come across,
a few weeks ago, "Language in the British Isles", Peter Trudgill (ed),
Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-28409-0. I cannot recommend
it too highly. Chock-a-block full of engrossing, well-presented data,
from "Rural Dialects in England" to "Romani and Angloromani" via "Shelta
and Polari". Even discounting cants, I remember my father mentioning
having started learning Breton (we lived in Douarnenez, then with Breton
speakers), and given up after finding the Breton he learnt from the
fisherment was well nigh useless for communicating with the farmers.
Back to cants, aren't Francois Villon's poems in argot incomprehensible

>- I am also aware of phenomenons of RESISTANCE to acculturative evolution
> (conscious or not) as for the quebecquois telling, not "un hot-dog" as
> the french do, but "un chien chaud" (Toubon being in my opinion but a
> marginal impedement on the natural evolution, whatever direction it takes)...
>- another exemple of the complexity of those issue would be the
> "rigidification" of a language facing a threat.
> (phonology, vocabulary, syntax...).

Two facets of the phenomenon, isn't it?

> To resume my questions : how can we ascertain that THIS language
>has had THIS reaction without having to resort to extra-linguistic
>implicit hypothesis as : homogeneity through classes, identity of
>evolution whatever the number of speakers would be (lng-switching vs
>creolisation...), existence (or not), type, and evolution of a scripting
>system(**) etc... ?

Can we? And further, can we, even resorting to extra-linguistic
hypotheses? Those hypotheses seem to me post hoc, and hold only for a
subset of the data. In other words, you may find counter-evidence galore
if you do not blind yourself to it. Further, have those hypotheses any
useful predictive value? What I mean is this: they may be significant at
99.99% confidence level and beyond, yet remain useless. Example: having
recorded the outcomes of 100,000 spins at the roulette table, you find
50.5% red and 49.5% black, grab you pocket calculator, and yes, yes,
yes, that particular roulette wheel must be biased towards red. With
dreams of untold riches prodding you, you start betting on red. You
might realize now that you after all you are not going to get very rich
very quickly with just a 0.5% edge: your ability to predict the outcome of
the next spin is, for all PRACTICAL purposes, UNCHANGED. Not only that
but, unless you have almost as much money to play with as the casino,
you are certain to be wiped out in the long run. But that is another
story, called "the drunkard's walk".
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