semantics

17 things (other than grammar) linguists know about language. And so should you. #lingchat

Languages are not a simple matter of grammar. Any language policy must consider what is known about language from the fields of pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cognitive linguistics. These are the key aspects of what we know about language collected from across many fields of linguistic inquiry:

  1. Every sentence communicates much more than just its basic content (propositional meaning). We also communicate our desires and beliefs (e.g. “It’s cold here” may communicate, “Close the window” and “John denied that he cheats on his taxes” communicates that somebody accused John of cheating on his taxes. Similarly choosing a particular form of speech, like slang or jargon, communicates belonging to a community of practice.)
  2. The understanding of any utterance is always dependent on a complex network of knowledge about language, about the world, as well as about the context of the utterance. “China denied involvement.” requires the understanding of the context in which countries operate, as well as metonymy, as well as the grammar and vocabulary. Consider the knowledge we need to possess to interpret “In 1939, the world exploded.” vs. “In Star Wars, a world exploded.”
  3. There is no such thing as purely literal language. All language is to some degree figurative. “Between 3 and 4pm.”, “Out of sight”, “In deep trouble”, “An argument flared up”, “Deliver a service”, “You are my rock”, “Access for all” are all figurative to different degrees.
  4. We all speak more than one variety of our language: formal/informal, school/friends/family, written/spoken, etc. Each of these variety has its own code. For instance, “she wanted to learn” vs. “her desire to learn” demonstrates a common difference between spoken and written English where written English often uses clauses built around nouns.
  5. We constantly switch between different codes (sometimes even within a single utterance). Think about what is going on in a sentence like “The Joe said unto Karen.”
  6. Bilingualism is the norm in language knowledge, not the exception. About half the world’s population regularly speaks more than one language but everybody is “bi-lingual” in the sense that they deal with multiple codes in their language. They may seem like very close but for a child without much familial academic background, entering school and learning to read may feel very much like a foreign language and they often need the same sort of support learners of second languages need.
  7. The “standard” or “correct” English is just one of the many dialects, not English itself. It is not something other dialects diverge from, it is their linguistic equal.
  8. The difference between a language and a dialect is just as much political as linguistic. An old joke in linguistics goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” There is no standard measure or universal definition of one language as opposed to another.
  9. Language prescription and requirements of language purity (incl. simple language) are as much political statements as linguistic or cognitive ones. All language use is related to power relationships. Language purists often just parrot half-remembered rules from school and personal peeves.
  10. Simplified languages develop their own complexities if used by a real community through a process known as creolization. (This process is well described for pidgins but not as well for artificial languages.)
  11. All languages are full of redundancy, polysemy and homonymy. It is the context and our knowledge of what is to be expected that makes it easy to figure out the right meaning. Speakers always use context, expectation and all kinds of inference to figure out the intended meaning.
  12. Language speakers have many tools to figure out what a statement is about other than just listening or reading carefully. In a dialogue, people use something called ‘conversation repair’, they raise their eye-brows, ask 'Sorry’, etc. With written texts, they use reference materials, highlight, bookmark, look things up in an index, etc. All of these strategies are a part of their language competence.
  13. There is no straightforward relationship between grammatical features and language obfuscation or lack of clarity (e.g. It is just as easy to hide things using active as passive voice or any Subject-Verb-Object sentence as Object-Subject-Verb).
  14. It is difficult to call any one feature of a language universally simple (for instance, SVO word order or no morphology) because many other languages use what we call complex as the default without any increase in difficulty for the native speakers (e.g. use of verb prefixes/particles in English and German)
  15. Language is not really organized into sentences but into texts. Texts have internal organization to hang together formally (John likes coffee. He likes it a lot.) and semantically (As I said about John. He likes coffee.) Texts also relate to external contexts (cross reference) and their situations. This relationship is both implicit and explicit in the text. The shorter the text, the more context it needs for interpretation. For instance, if all we see is “He likes it.” written on a piece of paper, we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning.
  16. Language is not used uniformly. Some parts of language are used more frequently than others. But this is not enough to understand frequency. Some parts of language are used more frequently together than others. The frequent coocurrence of some words with other words is called “collocation”. This means that when we say “bread and …”, we can predict that the next word will be “butter”. You can check this with a linguistic tool like a corpus, or even by using Google’s predictions in the search. Some words are so strongly collocated with other words that their meaning is “tinged” by those other words (this is called semantic prosody). For example, “set in” has a negative connotation because of its collocation with “rot”.
  17. All language is idiomatic to some degree. You cannot determine the meaning of all sentences just by understanding the meanings of all their component parts and the rules for putting them together. And vice versa, you cannot just take all the words and rules in a language, apply them and get meaningful sentences. Consider “I will not put the picture up with John.” and “I will not put up the picture with John.” and “I will not put up John.” and “I will not put up with John.”

More details and examples THE COMPLEXITIES OF SIMPLE: WHAT SIMPLE LANGUAGE PROPONENTS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT LINGUISTICS on MetaphorHacker.net

The causative-inchoative alternation

I’m not sure how interesting this is to other people because it seems like such a simple concept, but I find it inexpicably interesting and I ended up doing a baby thesis on it… It was something I’d never really thought about before until a lecturer mentioned it.

You know in English where you have the form of a verb that can be used both transitively and intransitively?

1. The vase broke.

2. John broke the vase. 

3. The ice melted.

4. The sun melted the ice.

In these examples, the intransitive form (1) is the inchoative, and the transitive form (2) is the causative (because y'know, you’ve added a ‘causer’) - hence 'causative-inchoative alternation’.

Native speakers of a language intuitively know whether or not a verb can participate in this alternation (for example, (6 and 8 sound obscure to me as a native English speaker), but how would you explain this to a foreigner? Some linguists have suggested that verbs entailing a change of state can participate, but:

5. Kim assassinated the senator.

6. *The senator assassinated.

7. The soldiers destroyed the city.

8. *The city destroyed.

There’s no denying that there’s been a change of state here: the senator was alive, and now he’s dead. The city was all good, now it’s not. Definite change of state. So why doesn’t it work?

As it turns out, only a finite number of verbs can have a causative and inchoative participle. These verbs are summarised by Smith (1970) as those that denote an activity that can occur spontaneously, but also over which external control can be assumed (that is, the addition of a 'causer’) - like the verbs 'break’ and 'melt’. 'Assassinate’ and 'destroy’ do not work because although it isn’t the 'causer’ that undergoes the change of state, assassination and destruction cannot occur spontaneously - they can’t have an inchoative participle. Likewise the following verbs cannot participate, because they lack a causative variant:

9. The flowers bloomed.

10. *John bloomed the flowers.

11. His health deteriorated.

12. *He deteriorated his health.

This isn’t just an English thing, either. In some Romance languages (French, Spanish and Italian at least, but I don’t know enough to speak for all) it appears in the absence or presence of a reflexive pronoun, for example in Spanish:

13. El vaso se rompió. (Inchoative)

14. Kim rompió el vaso. (Causative)

There are four different types of expressing this alternation, these are only two. The situation becomes a bit more complex when you consider agglutinative languages like Persian and Basque, which use three -maybe four - of the four different types. However, I don’t know how interesting this post is to anyone, so I’ll leave it there for now :-) 

Before we get to ergativity, unaccusitivity and other kinds of morphosyntactic funtimes...

Thanks so much to All Things Linguistic for setting up the Crowdsourced Linguistics project. We tend to prattle on about things we know, or find interesting, so it’s great to get an idea of what some people find bamboozling or tricky about language!

I offered to help explain the collected jargon of ergative, accusative, unaccusative and unergative. I still remember sitting in undergraduate classes and trying to get my head around ergativity, so for anyone trying to puzzle it out, I feel your pain.

Each Wikipedia page (linked above) explains the relevant phenomenon with as much detail as you’d find in an undergrad linguistics text book, but to make sense of it you have to start thinking about sentences like a linguist. For example, this is really a very elegant summary:

But only if you understand what the A, S and O stand for, and what that actually means for real language. I’ve given a short intro before (in this post), but I thought I’d write a post that goes right, right back to basics. Hopefully by time you’ve read this, the information on the various Wikipedia pages will be more accessible. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a long post by Superlinguo standards!

Keep reading

I JUST FEEL SO SPECIAL TO BE A PART OF THIS, WITH ALL OF YOU GUYS FROM ALL AROUND THE WORLD, CRYING AND ROCKING OUT AND MAKING ZANE LOWE PLAY THE TRACK TWICE AND JUST COMING TOGETHER TO CELEBRATE THIS I LOVE YOU ALL SO MUCH

The Lambda Calculus is often used in semantics as a way of representing meaning in a manner more independent of the specific words used in a particular language. For example, “the cat chased the dog”, “the dog was chased by the cat”, and “le chat a chassé le chien” would all have the same representation because they have the same literal meaning, despite a few pragmatic differences, such as putting focus on the dog or being comprehensible only to speakers of French. 

This accessible introduction to the Lambda Calculus is aimed at philosophers, but since semantics and philosophy end up having certain areas of intersection, it’s also very useful for linguists. Excerpt: 

It might look frighteningly mathematical from a distance (it has a greek letter in it, after all!), so nobody outside of academic computer science tends to look at it, but it is unbelievably easy to understand. And if you understood it, you might end up with a much better intuition of computation. […]

Don’t be intimidated by the word “calculus”! It does not have any complicated formulae or operations. All it ever does is taking a line of letters (or symbols), and performing a little cut and paste operation on it. As you will see, the Lambda Calculus can compute everything that can be computed, just with a very simple cut and paste.

To follow that, here are some notes on the Lambda Calculus as it relates to linguistics

honestly how can you sit there, in this fragile realm of existence, occupying space and honestly not think that folie à deux is one the best albums of all time?? how can you lie to yourself like that how can you honestly how can you lie to god like this i dont understand folie is so good i dont

i can’t date a man with potential, but i can date a man with ambition

what good is it for me to see potential in a man who doesn’t see potential in himself?

but a man who not only sees his potential but who puts things in motion and is willing to put in the work

that’s a man for me

i love a hard working man. i love a man who defines his own success, whether other people see his potential or not

potential energy is unused energy

but a man working with every fiber in his being is a man for me

that’s the man i got, and that’s the man i need

because that’s how i am

i will do whatever to get to my own terms of success

whether people see my potential or not

im so fuckign bitter about the fact that anyone with any kind of platform to talk about mental illness only ever talks about depression and anxiety like im so fucking bitter. where are the conversations about people with psychosis or ocd or schizophrenia or personality disorders??? all i want is a tiny slither of representation and comfort for a group of people who have been demonised and vilanised and isolated for so fucking long