news views family info
previous Language items
later Language items
Language Items from 2009:
to enlarge a photo, click on it
it so Speaking with elevation
Swalhili joke Grammar rant
Feeling terribly Why pronouns? The Plot
Blogging Standards Oral tradition 2 Bullshit Why genders in some languages? Thoughts on the origin of language
Were it so
I ran across a piece on the nature of grammar in Language Log. It was
dealing with the verb in this sentence - should it be were or was?
Two comedians make cruel jokes on BBC radio: heads must roll! (They
did-one of the comedians, plus two executives, were forced out.)
Should it be 'were' or 'was'? After many paragraphs filled with
different ways to look at the grammar of the sentence and giving pros
and cons for both verbs, it was somewhat of the toss up. And so the
author (Geoffrey Pullum) finished with the following good sense.
"More specifically, I think there are situations in which the
constraints set by the grammar of English leave things balanced in a
state where nothing is fully satisfactory - there is no unimpeachable
solution - so you just have to chance it, and go with one decision
rather than another on a basis of… well, taste and educated discernment.
I'm suggesting that perhaps the psychogrammar in your head is not an
automatically functioning module that strictly defines what's
grammatical for you and what's not. It's a rather disorganized
collection of conditions and prohibitions and desiderata, and it
doesn't always provide a unique answer to every grammatical question.
Sorry, but I think that might be the situation we face as linguists.
And if so, then we can't make things otherwise by just stipulating or
shouting - or by avoiding fine-detail description of subject-verb
Speaking with elevation
is a new emotion being studied. It is called elevation and is tied to
the hormone oxytocin (as fear is tied to adrenatlin) and to the vagus
nerve. What is it like? Activity of the vagus nerve causes a feeling of
spreading liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.
does a 'reset' so that cynicism and megativity are replaced by hope,
love, optimism and inspiration. Elevation prompts us to live better,
more moral lives. Elevation releases oxytocin, the hormone of social
connection, of caring and of transcending selfishness. Oxytocin is the
hormone that facilitates breast feeding.
Elevation can be the
emotional response to great oration. It can be fantastic with not a dry
eye or a bad thought in the house. But if you are planning a speech -
there is a fine line between creating elevation and looking ridiculous.
If the magic does not work, you can end up with laughter or disgust. Be
When we lived in Kenya, there were
language problems. Expats spoke English, Africans spoke their various
tribal languages and English if they had been educated in it, some on
the coast spoke proper Swahili. But everyone spoke some 'Kitchen
Swahili' or 'Up-country Swahili' which was a poor pidgin based on
At the Vet College we mostly spoke
English but there were a few staff that did not. One was an old man
who ran the animal house. We had to communicate but neither of us was
very good in even Kitchen Swahili. Never the less we had a little
joke that made us chuckle every time we greeted each other.
I would say, “Jambo Mzee”. This
literally means 'Hello old man'. In Swahili mzee is a term of respect
but he was aware that calling someone old was not a term of respect
He would answer, “Jambo Mama mkubwa”.
This literally means 'Hello big mama'. In Swahili mama mkubwa is a
term of respect but he was aware that calling a woman a big mama in
English was not respectful.
This was not really a bi-lingual joke,
more a semi-lingual joke. But we would have a good laugh and get on
with trying to communicate.
Let me rant a little about grammar!
On my book shelf is a copy of 'The
Elements of Style', by Strunk and White, given to me by an employer
when I was sent on a little English course. I have looked a few
things up in it but not many. Usually, what I wanted to know was not
there or the advice was not to my liking and I ignored it.
G. Pullum who is a co-author of 'The
Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' has written an article to
mark the anniversary of the publication of 'Elements of Style'. There
is no doubting Pullum's credentials because the Cambridge Grammar is
to grammar what the Oxford Dictionary is to words, the ultimate
reference. Pullum hates 'The Elements of Style'. He ends a long tirade
with this summing up:
“It's sad. Several generations of
college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness
of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people
who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write
'however' or 'than me' or 'was' or 'which' but can't tell you why.
The land of the free in the grip of 'The Elements of Style'.
“So I won't be spending the month of
April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed
little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of
grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying
English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and
interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a
bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of
idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their
own misbegotten rules.”
When I read Pullum's rant, I thought it
did not go far enough. What about all those people who use language
as a weapon? Some people feel righteous pride at criticizing other's
language in a rude way because they say protecting the language is
more important then not hurting people. Often these self appointed
language police are just a wrong as Strunk and White. They may even
have received their ideas from that book or other books just as bad.
Give me a break – it's my damn language and I'll use it as I
please. You can do the same.
There has been a discussion of adjectives following 'feel' as in 'I feel
good.' Someone was quoted as saying, “We feel terribly”, to which
some smart-ass columnist said, “No, you feel terrible; you merely
speak terribly.” They just couldn't resist it – their chance to
show their wit by belittling someone.'Feel' is a copula verb and links a subject to an adjective
complement. The usual copula verbs are: be, look, feel, taste, smell,
sound, seem, appear, get, become, grow, stay, keep, turn, prove, go,
remain, resemble, run, lie – although many of these can also be
used as ordinary verbs. In any case, the verb 'feel' is followed by
an adjective that modifies the subject and not an adverb that
modifies the verb. 'I feel terribly' grates on some peoples ears and
sounds perfectly normal to others. So the question becomes (1) is
'terribly' an adjective in this case, (2) is 'feel' not being used as
a copula verb, (3) is this an one-off idiom that is in normal usage
(4) or is this a grammar mistake that is made by people who are
over-correcting a different mistake (using adjectives instead of
adverbs with normal verbs)?The upshot of the discuss was that there were a small number
words, usually considered adverbs, that are adjectives when used with
'feel' in particular. 'Badly' is another one, also 'well'. There
seems a pattern to do with feeling regretful or ill. These particular
usages have a very long history.In going through various copula verb and adverbs in place of
adjectives, 'poorly' was finally mentioned. It is a northern English
dialect word for mildly ill. My dictionary lists 'poorly' as both an
adjective and an adverb, but with the meaning of ill, it is only an
adjective. 'Poorly' is somewhat dear to me because, when we moved to
England, it was the first dialect word that naturally came out of my
mouth and surprised my ears. What I said was, “T'wer me poorly
toe.”, which I have written about before in terms of the 'me'
instead of 'my'.It continues to intrigue me that the logic of copula verbs is
taken straight from Latin and applied to English where it often
conflicts with normal speech and no one cares about that. They care
about 'I feel terribly' but not that the grammar of some dead
language is being using to confuse English speakers. It also
intrigues me that, despite the evidence of any dictionary, people
still expect a word to be used as either an adjective or an adverb
but not both (ditto noun-verb, adjective-noun). Still, I seem to be
addicted to following the arguments.
Well it seems that when we hear a
proper name (of a particular person, place etc.) our brain
automatically assembles masses of information on that thing. The
brain lights up with activity collecting the looks and sounds and
smells and.... of that thing. That's how proper names differ from
other words. So what happens when we hear the same proper name in the
next sentence? The brain springs into action and assembles all this
information again. Time, energy and precious working memory is used
up creating two similar images of the proper-name-thing. And then
more time and energy is used in combining the two images in order to
recover the working memory space. During all this activity, the
listener may miss some parts of the conversation.
But if pronouns are used for subsequent
references to some proper-name-thing, no new image is created. The
only time pronouns make work is when there is ambiguity – more than
one image that the pronoun can refer to. Apparently, sign language
has its own way of doing 'pronouns'. When a proper name is signed, it
is placed in a particular place and then it can be referred to later
by pointing at that place.
to write a story? A timeless epic tale? Joseph Campbell (and others
independently) have a plot all ready for you. Your hero makes a
journey in 12 steps:
Ordinary world—The reader is allowed to see the
hero in his everyday world.
• Call to adventure—The incident
that beckons the hero to start his journey.
• Refusal of the
call—The hero's reluctance to leave the ordinary world.
Meeting the mentor—The mentor can be anyone from a hooker with a
heart of gold to an alien. As with Frodo, the mentor may appear
numerous times and there is often more than one mentor.
Crossing the first threshold—The action the hero takes from which
there is no turning back.
• Tests, Allies, Enemies—The meat of
the story where most of the action plays out.
• Approach to the
inner-most cave—At this stage the hero prepares to cross another
threshold, one after which he must confront the most frightening or
most critical part of his journey.
• Supreme ordeal—This is
the hero's greatest challenge. Here his character, intelligence, or
strength are put to the maximum test. The hero often appears to
die—metaphorically or otherwise—at this stage.
• The seizing
of the sword—This is the point at which the hero accomplishes his
task. His triumph may not last, or it may have unexpected
• The road back—Most hero's attempt to return to
the ordinary world and experience further adventures or difficulties
on the way back.
• Resurrection—The hero has been changed by
his experiences. In one sense his old self has died and his new self
born. To the reader, this transformation or growth is often the most
satisfying part of the story.
• Return with the Elixir—After
the hunt, the hero returns with his kill and shares it with those who
stayed in the village. Often the hero, since he has changed, no
longer fits in the ordinary world and must ride off into the sunset
unable to stay and enjoy the fruits of his journey.
you know better than the ancient poets, bards and tellers of
tales or modern screen writers and novelists, you can leave out a few
steps and change the order a bit. But be careful about leaving steps
out or you may miss the magic.
A year ago this month (things are even
bigger now), there were more than 50 million blogs, 175,000 new blogs
created per day, and 1.6 million postings to blogs per day. Of
course, some blogs died each day too, but the total 'blogoshpere'
doubled in size every 200 days.
A blog can be any thing from a personal
diary to a piece of citizen journalism to niche interest e-clubs.
There is the impression that this is just a big amorphous mess
without structure or rules, but it isn't. Apparently, according to
New Media Society, bloggers agree on what is important in standards.
“The researchers identified four
underlying ethical principles important to bloggers: truth telling,
accountability, minimizing harm and attribution. Truth telling
involves honesty, fairness and completeness in reporting.
Accountability involves being answerable to the public, bearing the
consequences of one's actions and revealing conflicts of interest;
and, minimizing harm underlies issues involving privacy,
confidentiality, reputational harm, consideration of others'
feelings, and respecting diversity and underprivileged groups.
Attribution covers issues such as avoiding plagiarism, honouring
intellectual property rights and giving sources proper credit.” I
think that there is also a commitment to good communication and good writing.
Or put the other way: don't lie, don't
hide, don't steal and don't hurt. And how are these standards
enforced? If a blogger is not being reasonable, his readers will
comment on it and other bloggers will point out the problem. A
blogger's credibility and therefore readership can be blown away by
unethical behaviour. Blogs list and give links to other blogs that
they themselves follows and there are reviews of blogs that share a
subject area called carnivals. Comments on postings often include a
link to the commentor's own blog. These interactions mean that good
blogs grow in readership and bad ones fade away.
The principles should not be a
surprise. The typical blogger is a young, well-educated, American
male who is in or aspires to journalism, science, technology,
politics, literature and the like. That description may account for
about half of all bloggers. (Some are retired women living in France
maybe.) These fields have ethical standards and the bloggers steeped
in those communities bring their ethics with them.
all the ages until writing was invented, knowledge was transferred
from one generation to the next by being recited. Some cultures are
just now entering the age of writing and we can see their oral
traditions clearly. Other cultures have lost the oral tradition but
still have the fossils. The
oral traditions required professionals who learned and recited the
knowledge. They were apprenticed to their elders for long periods.
Accuracy also depended on forms and formats that assisted
memorization, such as poetry, cycles, mental maps, ritual movements,
singing, illustrations etc. Many of these professionals were also
highly skilled entertainers who could hold an audience.
knowledge, that was not shared with everyone, traditional medicine or
metal working skills for example, also were handed down orally to
apprentices. Traces of these traditions are much harder to find.
is often surprising how accurate oral traditions are. For example,
Troy was thought to be entirely mythic until Schliemann followed the
Iliad to the ruined city. The Iliad was transmitted orally for many
centuries before being written down. A skeleton was identified by an
extremely accurate description of a particular man in one of the
sagas. The Iranian poetic recitals of Alexander the Great’s
conquest of the Persian Empire are highly accurate. Of course, much
of our inherited folklore is no longer accurate, but still great
story-telling material. It
takes an act of imagination to realize how important oral traditions
were. All of the knowledge that the culture possessed had to be
handed to the next generations or be lost. The accurate recitation of
the oral tradition was extremely important. Here
are some examples of the 'professional' speaker.
West Africa there are learned storytellers, historians and
entertainers called griot. They are professional, official historians
who memorize poems, praise-songs and accounts of events. Often they
have memorized the genealogy of everyone in a village going back
centuries. Alex Haley in Roots describes his meeting with a griot.
“The old griot had talked for nearly two hours up to then . . .
‘the oldest of these fours sons, Kunta, went away from his village
and he was never seen again’ . . . I sat as if I were carved of
stone. My blood seemed to have congealed. This man whose lifetime had
been in this back-country African village had no way in the world to
know that he had just echoed what I had heard all though my boyhood
years on my grandma’s front porch in Henning, Tennessee.” The
Griots had special training for years in order to master the complex
verbal, musical and memory skills. They can speak from memory for
days. Of course, in each generation a small part of the material is
lost and some new history is added.
chief has a linguist who puts the chief's whispers into poetic and
eloquent language. He is not only a month-piece but also an
ambassador and prominent courtier. The reputation of the chief
depends on the wisdom and eloquence of his linguist. He used to be an
authority on proper behaviour.
law-speaker was the person who kept order at ‘things’ or early
Germanic/Nordic parliaments. In Iceland he was called Logsogumadr. He
provided advice to the 'things', local rulers and courts. His
duties included the memorization of laws, the provision of advice on
legislative issues, and the recitation of all legislative acts at
least once while in office.
Celtic cultures there were bards (Wales)/ filidh (Ireland)/ ollave
(Scotland) who were the keepers of the oral knowledge. They were
inviolate and could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform where
they pleased. They were the bearers of the news and the carriers of
messages. They had memorized the Customs and were consulted in
matters of Law. The training was extensive: music, poetry and song
(original and from tradition), knowledge of history, law and custom,
folklore, and heraldry. In the places where the Celtic culture was
disrupted, the bards became just entertainers (trouveres, troubadors,
jongleurs, travelling players). Skald
were courtly poets of the Nordic cultures of in the Viking period.
There were equivalents in other Germanic groups. Like Old English
poetry, for example Beowulf, they used alliterative verse in a
panegyric style (formal public speech delivered to assemblies to
praise a person, give a eulogy, give testimonials to battles and
those who were slain in them, elegies). They gave us the sagas.
aboriginal Australian culture is unique in having been undisturbed
for 40,000 years. Its history goes back to the ‘Dream Time’ and
is maintained by singers going walkabout singing the songlines. Every
single rock and feature of the land has a song associated with it,
and the traveler knows exactly their location by their place along
the songline. The knowledge allows the traveller to survive, find
food, water and shelter in the unrelenting outback as well as making
a continuous history available. Hudhud
Ifugao of the Philippines used to chant hudhuds in unison as they
harvested rice by hand. Their elaborate rice terraces have been in
continuous use for over 2000 years. The hudhuds contain epic tales,
beliefs and histories. Some take three days to complete. Currently
they are being collected by scholars before the older generation dies
and the songs disappear.
Well, someone called Frankfurt has
written a book on bullshit, a whole philosophical exploration of
bullshit. I have not read it, but I love the idea and I have read
people who have read the book, so I am entitled to bullshit about it.
Frankfurt (I understand) has several
important things to say:
Why genders in some
- bullshit is not defined by what is
said but by the process used in saying it. Unlike a lie, bullshit
may be true or false, it doesn't matter. The bullshitter may not
even know whether it is likely to be true or false. The bullshitter
doesn't even care whether you believe it. What is important is what
it does to the bullshitter's image. A piece of bullshit has only
been said for its effect.
- A bullshitter is neither a honest
or dishonest, he is a-honest. And in a mutual bullshitting session,
so is the listener or more likely the other bullshitter. Truth has
absolutely nothing to do with it.
- A really good bullshitter does not
even care if you are annoyed by an inaccuracy of his, as long as you
are still influenced by the real message he is trying to convey. The
real message might be I am liberal, I am conservative, I am
artistic, I am scientific, I am a jock, I am nice, I am powerful or
whatever and never mind that I am also a little loose with the
- To be immune, you have to not only
recognize the lack of truth but also the end effect that is meant to
I recently started to
wonder why some languages have gender classes for their nouns. So I
tried to find out and, what do you think? There is no consensus, no
really convincing hypothesis on the matter.
Some things are clear.
Noun classes are not necessary because they do not appear in all
languages. But they must be of some use because they persist in the
language groups that have them, notably Indo-European, Semitic and
Bantu. English is really quite unusual in having lost its grammatic
gender. Most languages that have it are stuck with it.
In grammatical terms there
are a number of possible advantages:
And there are some
- it helps tie
adjectives to their nouns and so allows more freedom in word order,
- it allows more
freedom in using pronouns and multiple pronouns as it helps tie them
to their nouns,
- it allows subtle
differences in meaning to be given to the same noun root given
- it aids in parsing
especially with ambiguous word order.
Some languages have many
classes, like 8 or 10, and it seems that languages can merge classes
to decrease the number and can split classes to increase them. Some
languages have a firm relationship between their noun classes and the
physical nature of the noun, for example a male class including all
biological males, their traditional belongings and activities. Some
languages have a firm relationship between their noun classes and the
sound of the noun, for example the noun's final vowel. Some languages
are arbitrary in their classes and have only mild traces of some sort
of rhyme or reason.
- it identifies
non-native speakers as they are never fluent enough to avoid all
- it aids listeners in
noisy environments by adding redundancy to speech,
- when it is not
arbitrary, it helps categorize the real world (for example where all
non-human animals have their own class).
The theory goes that those
language families with noun classes started out in their
photo-language with a pair: animate or inanimate. The animate class
was divided into human and animal. The human into male and female.
The inanimate into various classes like vegetation, tools,
abstractions, large things, verbal nouns and the like. Classes
divided and merged over time to give the current groups in each
It may be that one among
many reasons that English is a popular second language throughout the
world is that it lacks noun classes and therefore does not set that
particular trap for adult learners.
Thoughts on the origin of language
Sometime, long ago, humans acquired
language. Without language, we would be just another great ape,
similar to chimps, gorillas and orangs. I assume (quite a few experts
would agree but not all of them) that we have had a modern-type
spoken language that for about 50,000 years, that we have had some
sort of language, primitive or modern, since about 150,000 years ago,
that a very simple language has being used for at least 400,000 years
and the roots go back much, much earlier. Of course the experts
disagree on what actually is the definition of language as well as
most other aspects of the problem and this affects how they would
characterize the history.
- In general I think that the ideas
of Blair Bolles are convincing. He sees language as a way of
'pointing' so that the speaker, the listener and the topic form a
'speech triangle'. Words are ways to direct someone else's
attention. What humans needed to start speaking was the trust in
others and the confidence that if they shared information it would
not be used against them. Once human society was based primarily on
mutual help then sharing your focus of attention with others is an
advantage rather than a disadvantage. This has also been called
'shared intentionality' and appears to be unique to humans at least
among the primates.
- The elements of language such as
words or signs, syntax, conventions of conversation, conceptual
meaning, ability to chain or nest actions etc. are all found to some
degree in the communication of other animals. There appears to be
nothing completely new. Any of the intelligent social animals could
have developed language as complex as ours if it was advantageous to
them because of shared intentionality (or other reasons). Many
animals have less complex 'language' that is probably optimal for
their level of sharing: whales and dolphins, elephants, other
primates, crows. Dogs have learned, because it is to their
advantage, to understand a good deal of our communication, to direct
attention and follow directed attention, but they have not developed
- Both gestures and music are
probably connected to the development of human language. The
evidence for gestures is that language can be done with gestures
(deaf sign languages), the area of brain that controls word
production is also used for fine hand control (language production
is done like tool use), gestures are a part of normal communication
and can even act as 'words'. The evidence for music is that pitch
and rhythm are important aspects of speech phonemes, some languages
(tonal languages such as Chinese) use pitch as part of the meaning
of words, other languages use the pattern of rise and fall of pitch
to carry emotional information, pauses and rhythm are used to mark
grammatical units of speech, song which connects speech with music
is universal in human societies. Even dance may have made a
- The language that is studied tends
to be proper written sentences. There many be many traces of more
primitive language available if spoken language was studied,
especially under circumstances where communication is difficult.
Much of the language that we ordinarily speak is not cast into
grammatical complete sentences. Newly formed languages (pidgins and
creoles) also may show forms from early language development.