Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Introduction to Linguistics

The first thing you need to know about linguistics is that there are a few competing schools of thought. Generative linguistics is the dominant school of thought in the U.S. (though not Europe), or was, at least, 10 years ago when I was in college. Generative linguistics is a theory espoused by Noam Chomsky. It's hard for me to explain without using pejorative terms so I'll defer to Wikipedia:
Chomsky's approach is characterized by the use of transformational grammar – a theory that has changed greatly since it was first promulgated by Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures – and by the assertion of a strong linguistic nativism (and therefore an assertion that some set of fundamental characteristics of all human languages must be the same).
With "nativism" comes the idea that there is a specific "module" in the brain devoted to language, which all humans have (and which other animals do not). (See Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which argues that the human brain is "hard-wired" for language.)

In contrast, functional linguistics posits that language evolved to serve a function (e.g., humans need ways to describe objects, so they invented nouns; they need ways to describe actions, so they invented verbs). Cognitive linguistics is similar and bases the study of language on the concepts that underlie its forms. Both functional and cognitive linguists reject the idea of an autonomous language module in the mind.

Below I'll outline some of the major subdisciplines of linguistics. Caveats: 1) I studied functional/cognitive linguistics and think generative linguistics is dumb. 2) Much of this may have changed in the past decade; I haven't kept up with the field.

LING 101

The first things you learn in an introductory linguistics course are basic phonology and morphology.

Phonology is the study of phonemes, which are the fundamental units of the phonetic alphabet, the smallest units of sound that can be used to distinguish meaning. These do not correspond perfectly to the regular alphabet – for example, a hard C and a hard K are not two different phonemes, but a soft C (AKA an unvoiced S) and a hard K are. Generally in LING 101 (actually it was LING 200 at Rice) you learn the international phonetic alphabet and how to represent English words with it. You also learn about minimal pairs, which are used to help identify phonemes in a language. For example, "lass" and "lash" constitute a minimal pair, because the only difference is the final sound, indicating that an unvoiced S and the SH sound (a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative) are understood by English speakers to be distinct sounds, and can therefore be used to distinguish between two different words. In contrast, an aspirated p and an unaspirated p (aspiration is the little puff of air you emit from your mouth if you make the p sound at the beginning of a word) are in free variation, meaning that whether you aspirate the p at the end of "nap" or not, it still means "nap."

Morphology is the study of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a language. These are the chunks that we build words with. Some words are morphemes (e.g., dog.) Affixes are also morphemes. The word "nondogs" contains three morphemes, non-, dog, and –s.

Phonetics

Phonetics is the study of the physical sounds of speech, and in my memory it involved making recordings of speech and analyzing the wave forms in a lab. Dullsville.

Historical (Diachronic) vs. Synchronic Linguistics

Diachronic linguistics is the study of languages across time (for example, how has English changed since the Norman invasion or the Great Vowel Shift?). Synchronic linguistics looks at the properties of language in a given time slice, generally the present.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

Y'all know what this is. Linguistics aims to describe language in use, not prescribe rules to govern language.

Syntax

The study of the way sentences are built (also known as grammar). One of the most basic ways to describe a language syntactically is by word order. English is an SVO language (subject-verb-object), e.g., "Sally walks the dog." Most languages in the world are SOV or SVO. Some languages put the verb first; very few languages put the object first.

Semantics

The study of meaning in language. Semantics involves sitting around picking apart the differences between, say, "scurry" and "scamper." I find this shit endlessly interesting and almost went to Berkeley for grad school to study this further, so when people complain that a conversation is devolving into "quibbling over semantics," I take offense. Semantics isn't boring!

Sociolinguistics

The study of social effects on language, including regional and class differences (in phonetics, syntax, etc.) and slang.

Other subfields include pragmatics, etymology, conversation analysis, anthropological linguistics, neurolinguistics, computational linguistics, corpus linguistics, language acquisition, etc.

What did you study in college? How would you describe it in 500 words?

*This post was commissioned by Christen Enos.

42 comments:

  1. (I think "semantics" means something subtly different as a subfield of linguistics than it does in "this argument is purely semantic.")

    (Are you really soliciting 500-word comments?)

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  2. I don't really think so. It means "we're arguing over the meaning of words" and that's pretty much what semantics is.

    And it would probably be better if people wrote their 500-word synopses on their own blogs.

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  3. Well there is at least a difference of emphasis. When I say "this has devolved into a semantic argument" what I normally mean is something like "my position can easily be rephrased as something you'd agree with," not "I think we have a real difference of opinion as to what this word means."

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  4. I bring it up because people always act like semantics is the most boring place for a conversation to end up, when I often find it just as interesting as whatever the original topic was.

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  5. I think a serious shortcoming of semantic arguments is that, esp. in an age of smartphones, they are frequently (though not always) susceptible to factual resolution. In this they differ from all the very best arguments, which have no factual basis.

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  6. That's where I'd disagree -- semantics is usually more about connotations and context than denotations, so it's not so easy to just check on a smartphone.

    I certainly wouldn't trust Wikipedia to get subtle semantic distinctions correct.

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  7. Yay! Thanks, Elisa! My mind was significantly blown/expanded.

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  8. Excellent. Sorry I didn't say anything about the intersection of politics and linguistics, but George Lakoff is the person I was thinking of who has done some work in that area.

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  9. In hindsight, one of the early formative events in my life was when my dad showed me how to look up words in the dictionary. Not just the spelling and definition, but also the etymology, how to decipher the string of symbols and abbreviations dictionaries use to outline word derivations.

    To this day (and I know I'm not alone in this) when I'm looking up a word in the dictionary, I inevitably get sidetracked by four or five other words I come across as I'm flipping through the pages. Sometimes I get so engrossed, I forget what the original word was that I was looking up.

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  10. You know, Lyle, I rarely look up words in an actual physical dictionary anymore. I usually use Google.

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  11. Elisa,

    Thanks. This is really interesting. I know there's lots of speculation about this but, as a cog/funcl person, do you believe there's a window of time in which one can learn (a first) language--syntax in particular? Or do you think the inability or decreased ability to learn a first language is caused from mental retardation or social deficiencies that occur as a result of isolation--or other extreme situations that leave a person unexposed to language for several years of their early development?

    Also, I know that it's possible for people who acquire a second language late in life, let's say when they're 50, to become more proficient than a native speaker and to learn a second language faster than a child b/c of internal vs external motivation. But what do you think explains the phonology part, i.e., the inability (or extreme difficulty) to sound like a native after some point? Is this due to muscle memory or something?

    P.S. Did you read that feature on Dani the feral child? I think it was a long feature written by a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel? Whoa.

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  12. Liz, I never studied language acquisition at all, so anything I say will be pure speculation. But I imagine it's easier for babies to learn languages because the brain is so plastic at that stage.

    Is it so difficult to sound like a native? It seems to me that when immersed among native speakers, this can be learned, but it's hard to learn the accent long-distance. See: the perfection of Hugh Laurie's American accent. ;)

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  13. My posts are so long.

    Yeah, I should say that I don't know what I'm talking about either, having never really studied this.

    I guess I'm interested in why it's impossible--at least in the cases of feral children (from all different parts of the world)--for the brain to learn syntax after a certain point, but not vocabulary. They can pick up some individual words but the sentences they put together make no syntactical sense. No matter how much instruction they get, they can only speak in jumbled poetry language. :) Hopefully there won't be enough cases of kids being locked in closets for a decade for linguists to definitely figure this out.

    It's funny you should mention that abt accents. The thing that I read about acquiring a second language and perfecting accent mentioned that there are exceptions this of course, e.g., actors who have a gift for language. Abt Hugh Laurie...he's amazing. But he is speaking English, which he learned as a first language, I'm assuming. Could Hugh Laurie learn Chinese at 40 and speak with a perfect Chinese accent? Maybe. I think it's more likely he could if he were being fed the words beforehand--given a script and could practice over and over and over, just a couple of sentences/paragraphs. Maybe it would be harder to have a perfect accent if he were having an at-length convo with some Chinese guy in China. Then again, who knows? The issue of accent may come down to motivation. I think it feels weird to try to speak perfect Spanish. Like, "Look at me, Ms. Spanish over here." But if somebody were paying me a lot, I might be more inclined to try to be Ms. Spanish.

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  14. I didn't know that feral children can't learn syntax. That's interesting. To me that's an argument against the whole "language instinct" hypothesis. (There's a theory out there, which I am inclined toward, that "instincts" in general are bunk and animals are just smarter than we give them credit for.) Can feral children learn math? Computer languages?

    I bet Hugh Laurie could speak with a damn good Chinese accent if he lived in China for a couple of years.

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  15. He could totally do it. That's why he's Hugh Laurie. The first time I saw him on a talk show, I thought "Why is Hugh Laurie speaking in that ridiculous English accent?

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  16. Ha! I always forget he has an English accent too.

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  17. When I first heard Hugh Laurie in an interview, I was taken aback, as well -- even though I remember him from BBC's Jeeves and Wooster.

    On a similar note, I remember how clear and Americanized were the lyrics of The Beatles and the Stones (for example) and how they were completely unintelligible in interviews. Conversely, I heard Gillian Welch lying and dying and crying in a twangy country song on NPR, and then Terri Gross started interviewing her and she sounded like any old Middle American.

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  18. Is this theory--"There's a theory out there, which I am inclined toward, that "instincts" in general are bunk and animals are just smarter than we give them credit for.)"--named or summed up anywhere?

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  19. Whimsy, I find it similarly weird that Hugh Laurie sings in an American accent on his ill-conceived new album.

    Kathy, I'm afraid I don't know. I've just heard it alluded to that recent studies of one sort or another indicate that animals can learn all kinds of things, where it seemed in the past that animals were stupid and anything they could do was a matter of innate ability.

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  20. Named or nameless, that theory is right up my alley. The idea that animals are dumb and humans are all-around superior/smarter has always seemed kind of vain and silly.

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  21. Yeah, "instinct" seems like an easy way to explain away everything.

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  22. don't people talk about human instincts though? like, "she was acting on instinct when she threw herself between her child and the oncoming car..."

    i've always thought that talk about instincts was an attempt to make humans seem more like animals, not the other way around...

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  23. (edit that to say "i've always thought that talk about instincts was an attempt to make humans seem more like animals, rather than less.")

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  24. Your example sounds like a metaphorical use of instinct.

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  25. that's not an instinct? the decision to put your offspring's life ahead of your own without even thinking? i thought it was an evolution thing...

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  26. Not everyone would do that, so how is it an instinct?

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  27. i can't imagine anyone not doing that, unless they're mentally ill.

    but if not instinct, what word would you use to describe the ways that animals, including people, know how to do the things they do, like birds flying south for winter or humans having sex (which wasn't always something that could be learned from outside sources)?

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  28. Humans don't know how to have sex! We totally have to learn that. Anyway you don't need to hear it from a sixth grader, if you can't figure it out yourself -- you can see animals doing it, it's not that different.

    It just seems to me that many of the things that we think of as instincts could be learned.

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  29. i don't know, i just use the word instincts to describe the instructions our DNA gives us for how to do things.

    anyway, i wonder if a human raised in isolation, without knowledge of sex and without exposure to animals of any kind, could figure out how to have sex when the time came. i'm assuming yes. but i'm not a scientist.

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  30. Well, humans raised in isolation end up completely stunted (as in, they literally act like babies and don't respond well to human interaction at all), so evidence doesn't bear your assumption out.

    Even if that weren't true, you could figure it out not "by instinct" but by putting two and two together: hey, masturbation is nice, what's this, another person who also thinks masturbation is nice, but has a hole whereas I have a peg. I know, let's invent sex!

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  31. maybe there's a gray area between instinct and learning? sex may be learned, but when people first discover masturbation, they don't even know why they're doing it--everyone thinks they invented it!

    so maybe instead of "instinct" i should just say "biological imperative"...

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  32. Are you kidding? They don't know why they're doing it? They do it because it feels good. You brush your hand against your genitals and it triggers pleasure centers in the brain, so you do it again. That's why people still masturbate and have sex using condoms once they realize what it's actually for (propagation of the species).

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  33. they do it for the pleasure, but i would say that the pleasure is the instinct, the thing "put there" by evolution to ensure the continuation of the species.

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  34. "Instinct" is invoked to explain *behavior*, not evolution. Humans (and other animals) *evolved* brains that are capable of pleasure, and sex and eating bring pleasure. That doesn't mean sex is an instinct. We do it because there's an incentive to do it, and we have to learn to associate those activities with pleasure. It's not hard to learn, which is why pretty much everybody figures it out.

    Saying pleasure is an instinct doesn't make much more sense than saying hair is an instinct, and we instinctively grow it to protect our heads.

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  35. well, i'm lost now, but i admit i don't have much of an instinct for complex arguments:)

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  36. Maybe everybody knows this but I found out the other day that behaviorist theory in large part shifted to include cognitive theory because one of Skinner's loyal students set up an experiment to further support the ideas of behaviorism but ended up disproving them--or at least expanding them. The student set up these mazes and put mice in them. Then he watched the mice wander around--stop, back up, wait, oh, go forward, wait, let me look at that again, what was that--and create mental maps. The mice, from their own cognitive processes (not from a response to an external factor) ended up creating all these novel ways to get through these mazes they had never been exposed to before. After that, he (Watson maybe?) was still a behaviorist guy but he expanded his beliefs to include the idea that we think about and make decisions based on our own cognition, we don't just respond to things based on instinct and we don't just respond to things based on what we know from the consequences of our first instinctual response.

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  37. Coming back to accents, I can switch between Québécois (more Montréaler) and metropolitan accents without thinking about it. Ditto between a BBC and a Western American accents (although I tend to have a Canadian upturn at the end of my sentences).

    John Barrowman of Torchwood and Doctor Who also switches without any trouble between Scottish and American accents.

    Ah, linguistics. Once you get past the basics, you get into the fun of Combinatory Categorical Grammar and Hybrid Logic Dependency Semantics.

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  38. My other linguistics is a hybrid.

    Liz, mice are hell of smart (and cute). Did you know that scientists systematically euthanize male mice because they're too aggressive to work with in a lab?

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  39. I didn't know that. Mice are cute! I don't like the idea of sharing an apt with hundreds of them though, I must admit.

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  40. Yeah, it's not so cute when they're pooping in your pantry.

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  41. Yesyesyes--animals as dosh garn smart, not merely instinctual: this feels utterly true to me; I've always felt swallows ending up in San Juan Capistrano is amazing/displays a dazzling grasp of calculus.

    Is the desire to procreate (talkin' humans not other critters) perhaps much more or as tied up in socialization as biology? The amount of media yelling woman, have a baby is rather freaky--I'd argue.

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  42. i don't know about the desire to procreate. the desire to fuck, on the other hand...well, that's what i mean by instinct.

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