Genetic Linguistics

Osiatynski: What, then, in the field of linguistics, are the greatest achievements?

Chomsky: I think the most important work that is going on has to do with the search for very general and abstract features of what is sometimes called universal grammar: general properties of language that reflect a kind of biological necessity rather than logical necessity; that is, properties of language that are not logically necessary for such a system but which are essential invariant properties of human language and are known without learning. We know these properties but we don’t learn them. We simply use our knowledge of these properties as the basis for learning.

Osiatynski: Do we genetically inherit this knowledge?

Chomsky: Yes, we must. In fact, by universal grammar I mean just that system of principles and structures that are the prerequisites for acquisition of language, and to which every language necessarily conforms.

Osiatynski: Does it mean that this genetic basis of language is universal?

Chomsky: Yes, that’s right. But we are only one species. You can imagine a different world in which a number of species developed with different genetically determined linguistic systems. It hasn’t happened in evolution. What has happened is that one species has developed, and the genetic structure of this species happens to involve a variety of intricate abstract principles of linguistic organization that, therefore, necessarily constrain every language, and, in fact, create the basis for learning language as a way of organizing experience rather than constituting something learned from experience.

Osiatynski: Would such knowledge also be helpful in understanding human nature?

Chomsky: It would, in two respects. For one thing, it is by itself a part of a study of human intelligence that is, perhaps, the central aspect of human nature. And second, I think, it is a good model for studying other human properties, which ought to be studied by psychologists in the same way.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

A Gene For Language

Ever more chat
500,000 years ago

A few people have mutations in a gene called FOXP2. As a result they struggle to grasp grammar and pronounce words. That suggests FOXP2 is crucial for learning and using language. The modern FOXP2 evolved in the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals: Neanderthal FOXP2 looks just like ours.

See other: What Makes Humans Human?

Protasis and Apodosis

In grammar, conditional sentences are “If …, then …” statements. They make a statement that if something happens, then something else will happen.

The ‘if’ clause is referred to as the protasis by grammarians. It comes from the Greek words ‘pro’ (meaning before) and ‘stasis’ (meaning ‘stand’). So, the protasis means ‘what stands before’ or ‘comes first’ as far as these two clauses are concerned. The ‘then’ clause is termed the apodosis; it is what ‘comes after’ the protasis.

Complements and Copulatives

‘The exception to the subject-verb-object rule concerns – guess what – the verb to be. It doesn’t take an object, it takes a complement. To be, and verbs used in a similar way, such as to become, to seem, to taste are called copulative verbs (honestly, they are – look it up in the dictionary if you don’t believe us) – they express a state rather than performing an action. So in sentences such as:

I am a Londoner
You became an artist
He seems respectable enough
The chocolates tasted of arsenic

the words after the verb are the complement, and they may be nouns, pronouns, adjectives or adverbs, or phrases serving the same purpose (e.g. in the above example, of arsenic is an adverbial phrase qualifying the verb tasted).’

– Taggart. C., Wines. J.A. 2008. My Grammar And I (or should that be ‘me’?) London, Great Britain: Michael O’Mara (2011) p. 125

Fourth Person

The fourth person is a variety of the third person sometimes used for indefinite referents, such as “one” in “one should not do that”.

It is a grammatical person in some languages distinct from first, second, and third persons; it is always semantically translated in English.

In some languages the fourth person is indicated by a special grammatical marker. In general linguistics, this marker is know as the obviation.

Potawatomi (a language spoken by the native Algonquin people of central Canada, one of a closely related group of languages and dialects of the Algonquian branch of the Algic language family) is notable for having two degrees of obviation, simply known as obviation and further obviation.

An obviative is a grammatical marker that distinguishes between a non-salient (obviative) third person referent from a more salient (proximate) third person.

“He cuddled his [another’s] rabbit.”

A further obviative referent is deemed even less salient than the obviative referent and is marked by an additional obviative suffix.

/proximate/ “rabbit” = waposo
/obviative/ “rabbit” = waposo-n
/further obviative/ “rabbit” = waposo-n-un

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.” – Zadie Smith

Definitely Indefinite

‘An Historical Note

‘He was sojourning at an hotel in Bond Street.’
Anthony Trollope

Here’s a hypothesis – or rather four separate but vaguely related hypotheses – on words beginning with h and an unstressed syllable (or why some people say an history, an hotel and an hypothesis):

  1. Once upon a time all educated people spoke French and so pronounced history, such as the French word histoire, with a silent h. Appropriately they gave it the article an.
  2. Some – less well-educated and therefore non-French-speaking – people spoke badly, were lazy about pronouncing their aitches, and so got into the habit of saying an ‘istory.
  3. Educated people disliked dropping aitches, so began to pronounce them in French words that traditionally used the article an: an history.
  4. People spoke too quickly, running together the words a and history, so that it became pronounced anistory. When they paused for breath, and separated things out a bit, they thought the word must be an history.

Note the inherent snobbishness of these hypotheses. It crops up a lot in the study of language.

But whatever the origins of the practice may be, the rule is: if the h is pronounced (as in history, hotel and hypothesis), the correct article is a; if it is not pronounced (as in honour and hour), use an.’

– Taggart. C., Wines. J.A. 2008. My Grammar And I (or should that be ‘me’?) London, Great Britain: Michael O’Mara (2011) p. 42-43

Mistakes to avoid

‘Grammar Rules (to avoid)

1. Verbs has got to agree with their nous.
2. Remember to never split an infinitive.
3. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
4. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
5. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others elude to them.
6. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
7. Eliminate unnecessary references. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘I hate quotations’.
8. Who needs rhetorical questions?
9. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
10. Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.’

– Taggart. C., Wines. J.A. 2008. My Grammar And I (or should that be ‘me’?) London, Great Britain: Michael O’Mara (2011) p. 12

Intermediate Mistakes (i)

Source: Swan. M. 2005. Practical English Usage Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press (2011).

Practical English Usage lists over a hundred common mistakes in the English language. Listed below are a number of mistakes that intermediate students of English often make according to Swan (2005).

“I promise I pay you tomorrow.” = I promise I will pay you tomorrow.
(217.3) We often use will in promises and threats. Note that the simple present is not possible in these cases.

“This is the first time I’m here.” = This is the first time I have been here.
(591.1) We use the present perfect in sentences constructed with this/it/that is the first/second/third/only/best/worst etc.

“I’ve been here since three days.” = I have been here for three days.
(208.1-2) For and since can both be used with a present perfect to talk about duration up to the present. They are not the same. Compare: for + period; since + starting point. We use for for duration – to say how long something lasts. To measure the duration up to the present, we use a perfect tense, not a present tense.

“If I’ll have time, I’ll go home.” = If I have time, I’ll go home.
(257.2) In an if-clause, we normally use a present tense to talk about the future. This happens after most conjunctions.

“If I knew the price, I will tell you.” = If knew the price, I would tell you.
(258.2) To talk about unreal or improbable situations now or in the future, we use a past tense in the if-clause (even though the meaning is present or future), and would + infinitive (without to) in the other part of the sentence.

“He said me that he was Chinese.” = He told me that he was Chinese.
(504.1) Both say and tell are used with direct and indirect speech. (Say is more common than tell with direct speech.) Tell is only used to mean ‘instruct’ or ‘inform’. So we do not use tell with greetings, exclamations or questions, for example.

“She told me she has a headache.” = She told me she had a headache.
(275.4) After past reporting verbs, we usually change the original tenses even if the things the original speaker said are true.

“There’s the man that I work for him.” = There’s the man that I work for.
(428.6) We do not use personal pronouns to repeat the meaning of relative pronouns. (494.7) As subjects or objects, who(m), which, and that replace words like she, him or it: one subject or object in a relative clause is enough.

“I’ve told you all what I know.” = I’ve told you all (that) I know.
(497.2) What is only used to mean ‘the thing(s) which’. It cannot be used as an ordinary relative pronoun after a noun or pronoun. (498.4) Instead, that is often used in identifying relative clauses instead of who/whom/which. That is most common as an object, or as a subject instead of which. (584.1/5) We can usually leave out the relative pronoun that when it is the object in a relative clause. Also, we can often leave out the conjunction that, especially in an informal style.

See other: Notes On English Grammar

See other: Hall of Fame Posts