Langston, Psychology of Language, Notes 2 -- Language
A. What is a language?
B. Some language fallacies.
II. What is a language?
A. A global definition: Ferdinand de Saussure: Language
consists of two components:
1. La parole: The utterances. This is something we can
observe and record.
2. La langue: Knowledge of the language. We can't see this,
and we don't know how this is represented or exactly what people know about
We use la parole to deduce what la langue must be, but we're never sure.
For instance, I might know that "data" is plural but still say "the data
is." If you only have my utterance to base judgment on, then it looks
like I don't know.
This is like Chomsky's competence/performance distinction.
B. A more specific definition: Define a language (by describing
1. Duality of patterning: A finite set of meaningless elements
are combined to produce a nearly infinite set of meaningful utterances.
For English speakers about 40 sounds combine to an infinite number of words.
2. Arbitrary symbolic reference: You rarely have onomatopoeia
(ding dong). Instead, the meaning of a word is unrelated to its sound.
Children go through a stage where they believe that the words are inherent
in objects (like the word "moon" is part of the moon). To see how arbitrary
the correspondence between sound and meaning is, look at any foreign language.
For Romanians "peste" is as inherent in fish as "fish" is for us.
3. Creativity/Productivity: Experience is continuous and nearly
infinite, and language has to be able to capture this. You have to
be able to combine the elements of a language in novel ways to account for
whatever might happen.
4. Rule-governed: Language has a grammar: A set of elements
and rules for combining these elements. All utterances are formed as
a result of the grammar. Keep in mind this is not the prescriptive grammar
of elementary school. Anything you can understand has to be a part
of your grammar or you couldn't have understood it.
This notion of a grammar will be one framework for the course. We will
start by asking: What are the elements and what are the rules for combining
a. What are the properties of an ideal grammar? Some general characteristics:
1. Simpler is better. A grammar for English could be a list of
every possible sentence, but that's pretty crummy. Even if it takes
infinity-1 rules, that's less than an infinite number of sentences.
Whenever we have more than one choice, we'll prefer the simplest.
2. We prefer grammars that are closest to language users' intuitions
about language. For example, if people feel that there's a relationship
between two sentences, the rules that make them should also be related.
For example, look at these two sentences:
(1) John kicked the ball.
(2) The ball was kicked by John.
Do you sense that there's a relationship between these two sentences?
On the other hand, if people don't sense a relationship, the rules should
3. We prefer grammars whose rules could apply to many languages.
b. Where will we work out a grammar? Grammars operate at every
1. Phonetics: Patterning of speech sounds. For ex., English
has a rule against starting words with /pt/.
2. Morphology: The combination of meaningful units. For
example, in English adding "-s" makes a noun plural.
3. Syntax: Sentence formation (what you think of when I say grammar).
For example, adjectives precede nouns.
4. Semantics: Combination of meanings.
5. Pragmatics: Cultural or social rules governing the interaction
of utterances. This determines appropriate responses to other people's
III. Some language fallacies. Early eurocentrism led to
a lot of conclusions about languages that weren't correct. We'll spend
a little time clearing these up so we don't encounter them later:
A. Only some languages have a grammar: Languages like Walbiri
that don't use word order to convey information seem agrammatical to an English
speaker, but they still have a grammar. The morpheme -lu marks the
subject. Example in English:
(3) The boy kicked the dog.
*(4) The dog kicked the boy.
When you go from (3) to (4) you get an entirely different sentence because
English uses word order to determine the subject. In Walbiri
(5) The boylu kicked the dog.
(6) The dog kicked the boylu.
(5) and (6) mean the same thing.
B. Some grammars are primitive. If you compare English and Spanish,
English looks more primitive because it only has one article for plural and
single, whereas Spanish uses multiple forms. But, just having fewer
forms doesn't make a language primitive, it's just different.
C. People must be taught the grammatical rules of the language.
Most knowledge of language is tacit (meaning you know it but can't express
it), very little is explicit. So, it's unlikely you were taught these
rules. This operates at all levels. Ex: Without making any
sounds, which part of your tongue do you raise to make an "eeee" sound (front,
D. Grammatical rules are logical. Why is the plural of goose
geese, but the plural of sheep sheep?
E. Grammars deteriorate with the passage of time. Since the rules
were pretty arbitrary to begin with (look at D above), it's more accurate
that they evolve, not deteriorate.
F. Grammars differ in unpredictable ways. Consider the sounds
used in languages. There are about 4000 possible sounds with the human
vocal apparatus. In a survey of the worlds' languages, about 800 of
those are actually used, and the top 100 make up all of the sounds of most
of the languages. We'll get into this more when we talk about speech
perception. The point: Languages are similar, the differences
are easily predicted and explained.
Psychology of Language Notes 2
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