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Chapter 1
File 1.1 - Introducing the study of language
Language makes humans unique - no other species is comparable in the complexity of their languages
All humans are capable of language, whether hearing or deaf
Emerges very early in the development of children
Indispensable for social interaction, as it reflects our self-identity - we speak differently depending on
where we come from, whom we talk to, where the conversation is carried out, etc.
All languages are variable, and reflect social and cultural aspects of a society
Most of what we say and hear has never been uttered before
Any group of speech sounds could have any meaning
Language is systematic, and thus can be studied scientifically
It is systematic on many levels
We can express an infinite number of ideas in an infinite number of ways
There is variation at every level of structure
There are many universal properties of language - some are shared by all, and some are used by none
Many properties of language are arbitrary, and cannot be predicted by general principle
We aren't aware of the principles that govern our speech
All languages change over time
File 1.2 - What you know when you know a language
Linguistic competence: Unseen potential to speak a language
Linguistic performance: Observable realization of that potential
Performance errors: Simple mistakes in the performance of language, that do not reflect a poor linguistic
competence - disregarded when studying linguistic competence, because there is no pattern behind
Communication chain: Composed of an information source and transmitter, which sends a signal to
communicate a certain message, to a receiver and destination, who then interprets the message
Noise: Interference in the communication chain, may affect the success of the communication
Phonetics: Sounds involved in speech, what is/isn't speech, what sounds are used in your language
Phonology: Language-specific knowledge about the distribution of sounds (whether pt at the start of a
word can occur in your language, etc.), also allows you to recognize sounds spoken by different speakers
Morphology: Word formation, allowing us to create and understand combinations of parts (such as
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Syntax: How words combine to form phrases and sentences, involved in the ability to construct and use
sentences you've never heard before
Semantics: Interpreting meanings based on context, how words combine to mean different things
(green duck), includes a general meaning behind the words that you know (for example, a sofa cannot
duck, and a sofa is the same as a couch)
Pragmatics: Using context to determine the meaning of an utterance (not just one word) and when is
the right time to say things
Language exists only in the minds of its speakers, and so your linguistic competence is the language itself
existing in your mind
Lexicon: All the words that you know, what they mean, how they are pronounced, how they are used
Mental grammar: The elements and rules involved in your language (phonetics through to pragmatics) helps you to produce well-formed utterances and interpret those of others
All humans can acquire the language that they are exposed to as children, and will do so naturally
without being taught
Language variation: The differences between people's mental grammars based on dialect and past
experience - no two people have exactly the same mental grammar
Descriptive grammars: Rules someone has deduced based on observing speakers' linguistic
performances, attempting to deduce the nature of the linguistic competence behind their language
File 1.3 - What you don't (necessarily) know when you know a language
Writing is a representation of language, but because it does not exist everywhere, must be taught, uses
extra parts of the brain, and can be edited - it is secondary to language itself as spoken/signed
Writing is a later historical development than spoken language, and there is an extra step between
conceptualizing the message and the reception of the idea
No naturally occurring society uses only a written language with no spoken form
Writing is associated with education, and so the form of speech used is perceived as the "standard"
Prescriptive grammar: Rules to tell people what the correct/proper way to use a language is, based on
the beliefs of a single user of a language - tries to enforce a norm that does not exist in natural human
Your mental grammar cannot be incorrect, because you are a speaker of the language and know
perfectly well how to speak it, regardless of what a grammarian thinks - there is no "good" or "bad" way
to use a language
Descriptive rules account for different varieties of language, while prescriptive rules do not accept other
In the 17th and 18th centuries, people prescribed rules to make English more like Latin because they felt
it was somehow "purer" than the base English spoken by the general populace
Usage, not logic, must be the basis of descriptive grammars - if people use double negatives for
emphasis, then you can't just say they cancel each other because it makes logical sense
These rules survive because there's a social status attached to them - speaking "properly" shows that
you are educated
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you are educated
Prescriptive rules are used as an aid in social identity, to allow speakers of a nonstandard dialect to learn
the rules of the standard
File 1.4 - Design features of languages
Design features: The characteristics that apply to all human languages, some of which do not apply to
non-human languages - these allow the identification of languages when they are discovered, as only
communication systems that display all of the features can be considered a language of its own
Mode of communication: A system for transferring the message
Modality: Different modes of transfer for language, such as spoken and signed - how they are produced,
and how they are perceived
Semanticity: Words have a meaning or function, and always have the same meanings - this also leads us
to assume that even words we have never heard before have a meaning, rather than classifying them as
useless noise
Pragmatic function: The communication system serves a useful purpose (survival, social bonds, etc.) even gossip and habitual greetings have a purpose
Interchangeability: All users of the language can produce and receive messages
Cultural transmission: Aspects of language that we acquire by communicative interaction with other
uses of the language - even though our ability to learn a language is innate, we must learn the specific
signals of our language through interaction with other speakers
Arbitrariness: The form and meaning of a word are not necessarily connected - for example, the pit of a
peach can also be a seed or a stone, and so the relationship between a group of sounds and its meaning
is merely an arbitrary convention
Form: The way a word is communicated (the sounds or signs it comprises)
Meaning: What the form represents
Linguistic sign: The combination of a form and a meaning (the sound of pit, plus the meaning "the inner
core of a peach" equals the word 'pit')
Iconic: A non-arbitrary connections of form and meaning
Evidence for arbitrariness - There are many possible forms to express a single meaning, there is nothing
intrinsic in the combination of sounds to denote its meaning, words with the same meaning have
different forms in different languages, similar forms express different meanings in other languages
Onomatopoeia - Words that imitate natural sounds or have meanings associated in such a way with
nature, yet they are not the same across languages, and so many of them are simply conventions used
by different languages and cultures
Sound symbolism: Sounds that evoke a particular meaning ([i] meaning small things across different
languages), associated with the meaning of the word the sound occurs in
Discreteness: Discrete parts in a language that can be combined and reformed - every language has a
limited number of sounds in its vocabulary, from 10 to 100, that are combined to mean many things
Duality of patterning: The fact that we can create a large number of meaningful elements from a few
meaningless sounds
Displacement: A design feature unique to human language, the way our languages can communicate
things that are not physically present
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things that are not physically present
Productivity: Also limited to human language, it is the capacity for novel messages to be built from
discrete units - we can create infinite meanings with what we have to work with, rather than being
limited in the ways we can combine the sounds in our language
Every rule in linguistic structure allows greater productivity, telling us which forms are allowed, and how
they can be used
Natural languages: Languages that have evolved naturally though a speech community, these contain all
of the design features, because they have developed over generations by their native speakers
Constructed languages: Invented by a human, and so generally do not imitate all of the design features
of a natural language - but they have the potential to become a natural language if they have native
speakers and a speech community
File 1.5 - Language modality
Auditory-vocal (aural-oral): Spoken languages
Visual-gestural: Signed languages, may also be acquired in childhood as a child's native language
Code: An artificially constructed system for representing a natural language, rather than a fully formed
and unique language on its own - such as Signed Exact English II, which could not have native speakers
as they must learn English first
Signed languages, such as American Sign Language, are structurally distinct from each and from the
spoken languages they may have been based on, and can have native speakers - there is no requirement
of another language to give meaning to the signs
Sign languages are governed by the same unique phonological, morphological, and syntactic rules as
spoken languages
Signed languages aren't pantomime - signs don't always represent the same thing in different languages,
as pantomime would be universal, and they can represent abstract things which pantomime can't
Signs in signed language are often just as arbitrary as words in spoken languages, and are merely
arbitrary conventions of the users of the language to convey a specific meaning - they may be iconic
when they are introduced, but they change over time and can be modified for casual conversation
There are multiple signed languages, not just one universal "sign language" - speakers of British Sign
Language and American Sign Language could not understand each other without knowing the other
signed language as well
There have been places where such a large percentage of a community's population is deaf that all
individuals are capable of using a signed language to communicate (such as the Al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe
in Israel, where the ability to sign fluently is considered a status symbol among hearing individuals)
Both auditory-vocal and visual-gestural modalities are viable options for human language, and the
aspects they share allow us to study universal properties of language and find out which are modality
Textbook exercises
3. Why do linguists tend to ignore speech performance errors in their study of linguistic competence?
Linguists tend to ignore speech performance errors because they're abnormalities, rather than
consistent patterns, and don't represent anything about linguistic competence.
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consistent patterns, and don't represent anything about linguistic competence.
7. What are five descriptive rules of your native language?
a. The "p" in Ptolemy is essentially silent.
b. Past tense verbs are often the same as the present tense, but with a -d at the end.
c. Double negatives are common in casual conversation.
d. Passive forms are often used for formal situations.
e. Speak and talk are usually used interchangeably.
p. 31:
12. For each of the following statements: i) identify which ones are prescriptive rules and which are
descriptive, and ii) give an example of how the rule could be written the other way.
a. It's me is ungrammatical; it's I is the correct way this idea.
i) This rule is prescriptive.
ii) Most speakers of English prefer the phrase it's I over it's me.
b. People who say ain't may suffer some negative social consequences, because many speakers of
English associate ain't with a lack of education.
i) This rule is descriptive.
ii) Never say ain't, to show that you've been properly educated.
c. In casual styles of speaking, English speakers frequently end sentences with prepositions; ending
sentences with prepositions is avoided in formal styles.
i) This rule is descriptive.
ii) Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
d. Between you and me is correct; between you and I is ungrammatical.
i) This rule is prescriptive.
ii) Both between you and me and between you and I are used by native English speakers.
e. Some speakers of English accept the sentence My mother loved.
i) This rule is descriptive.
ii) My mother loved is grammatically incorrect.
p. 32:
19. You are given the following information: the word for * is pronounced as [xua] (written as ?) in
Mandarin Chinese. Can you fill out the formula below with the two elements "[xua]" and "*"?
[xua] + * = the word ?
23. In Chinese, expressions for moving from one city to another by way of yet another city must take the
form 'from X pass-through Y to Z' and cannot be expressed as 'from X to Z pass-through Y'; this is
illustrated in the examples below (the * indicates that a sentence is unacceptable).
a. Ta cong Sanfanshi jingguo Zhijiage dao Niuyue
He from San Francisco pass-through Chicago to New York
'He went from San Francisco through Chicago to New York'
b. *ta cong Sanfanshi dao Niuyue jingguo Zhijiage
He from San Francisco to New York pass-through Chicago
'He went from San Francisco to New York through Chicago'
How would you characterize the form-meaning relationship exhibited by these Chinese expressions?
The form of the sentence reflects the trip as it was completed, and so the meaning of the
sentence is meant to illustrate the trip itself - from San Francisco, through Chicago to New York.
The relationship, then, is an iconic one.
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The relationship, then, is an iconic one.
p. 34:
28. Over the years, many people have (mistakenly) associated signed languages with pantomime. Give
three arguments that this association is unwarranted.
a) Signed languages can communicate abstract concepts, which would be impossible with
b) Signs are modified over time without a change in meaning, and if they were meant to be
pantomime they would lose their meaning completely.
c) The same sign can mean something different in different signed languages, exactly the same as
sounds can signify different meanings in different spoken languages.
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