Friday, 30 March 2012


Sometimes, someone asks you a question that you wouldn't even have thought of.

I attended a training event on Tuesday, and the other people there were from various humanities and social science disciplines, none of them linguistics. We each had to present a talk on our research, and then there were questions afterwards. One woman, doing a fine art creative practice PhD (in ceramics), asked me this:
Is it important that everything is put into one category or another?
Typical creative type, you might think, not wanting things to be 'labelled'. She meant the labels like 'noun', 'verb', 'question particle' and so on. And it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Why do things have to be categorised? Without the categories, there's no problem to have to be solved.

Well, it's not just linguists doing it for the sake of it, because we like things to be rigid and ordered and follow the rules (though some of us do). These categories, although the labels are artificial, are natural classes. Consider the birds (as Brian didn't quite say).

A goldfinch is a natural thing, I think we can all agree. It occurs in nature without human intervention (all right, it's been captured, bred and sometimes escaped, and introduced to various bits of the world, but it wasn't created by humans).

This goldfinch is called Harold. That category (Harold) consists of just this one individual. Goldfinches generally, though, have a specific scientific classification: Carduelis carduelis. That's its species. Then we can identify the category of passerines, the larger category of birds, and the even larger category of animals. There are other categories in between too, each of which Harold is a member of.

The point is, although the names for these categories were chosen and imposed by humans, the categories themselves were not. Humans observed similarities between organisms, and those that share characteristics form a natural class (for example, birds, which have feathers and wings, or living things, which have the characteristics of MRS NERG - movement, reproduction, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, respiration, growth). Everything in nature is categorisable, and not because scientists have imposed those categories, but because they really are a category.

In the study of language, we do the same. We say that all nouns are nouns because they behave like nouns, they share all the characteristics of nouns, and they are different from things that are not nouns. We called them nouns, but the category was there before we came along and noticed it and named it.

I didn't give the questioner an answer quite as full as this because I couldn't think on the spot. But I hope I got across to her the message that we're not just making all this up - language is a real, natural object. We're just describing it and trying to explain how it is the way it is.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I'm good thanks

From my Tumblr:
[This is a reblog of a post by a meme tumblr which posts these memes made by 'English majors', and they're pretty snobby about correct punctuation and usage, though you wouldn't know it from the amount of mistakes in their posts. They're also snobby about everything else, including what books they've read, how books are better than everything else, and how nerdy they are. Their post consists of just the meme; the comments below are mine.]

Now, setting aside the fact that some adaptations are a gazillion times better than the book (Lord of the Rings springs to mind), this is about interchanging ‘well’ and ‘good’. Normally, this peeve centres around saying ‘I’m good’ when what the prescriptivists think you should say is ‘I’m well’. I have NEVER EVER heard anyone say anything like the text in the image (‘The adaptation did a well job of…’). I can’t imagine that anyone possibly could - it’s not just wrong in a prescriptive sense, it sounds wrong in a genuinely ungrammatical sense. But hey, dialects differ.
But my guess, if anyone actually did say this, is that it’s because they’ve been told so many times about not saying ‘good’ when you should say ‘well’, that they’ve hyper-corrected. That’s when you change something that was already right because you’re worried about getting it wrong and not quite clear on what the rules are. It’s like when stereotypical Cockney policemen put ‘h’ on words that shouldn’t have it, because they’re hyper-correcting and know they shouldn’t drop the h. So, you know, if this bothers you, stop telling people off for saying ‘I’m good’. If you hadn’t done that, none of this would ever have happened. 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Writer's retreat

I'm in Alnmouth, on the Northumberland coast. It's a lovely village, set at the mouth of the river Aln (I know - lucky coincidence with the name!).

It's been lovely weather since I got here yesterday too, considering it's still March and therefore technically winter, as you can see from this photo I took this morning:

I've been enjoying walks on the beach, I've popped into the local village store for some kippers for my breakfast, and I'm staying in an adorable little cottage (it really is tiny - just two rooms plus an en suite, but they've done such a good job of planning it that it doesn't feel cramped at all, and I've got a nice outside area to sit in the sun in.

But don't I have a PhD thesis to write? Why yes, I do - and that's the beauty of it. I've come here to write. I'm getting away from it all. I've brought my laptop and a few papers and things that I need, and the idea is to write as much as I can without the distractions of work. I've set a goal to write at least 2000 words a day, and I've done that yesterday (when I arrived) and today. I feel good about that. I'm actually really enjoying it and not finding the writing too hard - I don't, once I actually get going; it's the getting going that's hard. I don't want to get too complacent in case I find it gets suddenly much harder later in the week, but I'm hoping that I can write a decent chapter's worth while I'm here (14,000+ words, if I stick to the 2000 words a day goal), and that'll make a nice dent in what I've got left to do.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Living, sane and undivorced

I was a little taken aback to read the following in How to do things with words (Austin, 1962):
for (Christian) marrying, it is essential that I should not be already married with a wife living, sane and undivorced, and so on
He's discussing performatives and how uttering the words 'I do' is an act, not a statement, although certain other conditions are necessary for the words to constitute the act.

At first I read it that Austin himself should be sane and undivorced, but then I thought that it was a bit odd that he should say 'undivorced' - it's fine to be divorced if you want to marry, or not to have been married at all, but undivorced implies married. And being married is a serious stumbling-block to a chap who wants to take a wife.

So I realised that it is the wife that he shouldn't already have who is undivorced (he shouldn't already have  a wife who he isn't divorced from). All right, that makes more sense. However, it also means that this hypothetical pre-existing wife should also not be sane if he is to remarry. Also correct, but this implies that if she is insane he is free to marry. Does this mean that if a man's wife (or a woman's husband) is considered to be insane, the marriage is considered void?

I couldn't find any such law with my googling skills, although the search is hampered by the gazillions of websites about how it's insane to get married, the things that drive wives insane, and suchlike. But I don't know US law, and Austin's book is based on his Harvard lectures in 1955, so the law may very well have changed. I did find one article, here, from the worrying-sounding journal Eugenics Review, which from the looks of it is from the early 20th century and gives the legal status of marriage with a 'mentally defective person' (specifically: lunatic, idiot, imbecile, feeble-minded person, or moron) for England and many other countries. Here's what it says about Massachusetts, which is where Harvard is:

We've got off linguistics and onto law now. So to sum up, today we have learnt about performatives and the perils of ambiguous list items. I daresay the Oxford comma fanatics would argue that it would have eliminated the ambiguity.

Friday, 9 March 2012


George Orwell created a new form of English for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four called Newspeak. Its aim was to reduce the ability of the people to think unorthodox or subversive thoughts, so for instance the word free was reduced in meaning to have only the sense as in 'this dog is free from lice'. One couldn't use it to express other concepts of freedom such as free speech. It also aimed to simplify the language in other ways, such as eliminating antonyms (opposites). Thus there is no good/bad pair, but rather the opposite of good is ungood. Instead of warm we have uncold. It's suggested that the more unpleasant word is chosen to keep out of the pair, but I wonder if there's another explanation.

I was reminded of this when I was reading about marked and unmarked pairs in Greenberg (1966). The basic idea is that out of any correlation pair, one member is marked and the other unmarked. The marked member has a much more restricted meaning, whereas the unmarked member can stand for the neutral value. A few examples will clarify, from maths, lexicon and morphology (all from Greenberg).

-5 can only stand for the negative value of 5, whereas 5 may refer to +5 or to the abstract notion of 5.

Man, traditionally, could have a solely masculine meaning or could refer to humankind as a whole (that is, men and women). Woman could never be used with anything other than a feminine meaning.

Likewise, in Spanish, where nouns and adjectives are inflected according to whether they are masculine and feminine, the same pattern occurs. A group of men, if referred to as 'good', has the adjective buenos with the masculine -os ending. A group of women has the adjective buenas, with the feminine -as ending. A group of men and women together will be described as buenos but never buenas, even if there are ten women and only one man.

In each of the examples, the unmarked option is the one that is used in neutral contexts (and therefore shows up with greater frequency in corpora, so we can count if testing for a neutral context is not possible).

Back to Newspeak now, Greenberg also notes that
A considerable number of languages, African, Amerind and Oceanic, have no separate term for 'bad' which is expressed by 'not good'. On the other hand, there is as far as is known to me, no language which lacks a separate term for 'good' and expresses it normally by 'not-bad'. (Greenberg 1966: 52)
He gives this as one of a number of universal pairs in which one is always the marked member. It's this one that we use in questions such as 'How wide is it?' (not 'How narrow is it?'). It seems that of the pair bad and good, Orwell selected the unmarked option to keep (after all, he clearly didn't follow the rule of keeping the less pleasant adjective). If anyone out there doesn't have a PhD to write, it might be fruitful to test Orwell's adjectives and see if the one that is kept is the unmarked member of a pair. Sometimes this will be possible with looking at neutral contexts, at other times a corpus check of frequency will be in order (for example, I can ask both 'How warm is it?' and 'How cold is it?', so neither can immediately be said to be the neutral option. If, however, one turns up significantly more frequently in the corpus, it is likely to be because it is used to express the unmarked, neutral meaning as well as its own specific meaning, whereas the other member is restricted to its specific meaning).

Greenberg, J. H. 1966. Language universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies. Janua Linguarum. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Serial verbs, rhoticity and detective work


There's a song out at the minute called Come save me by a band (or maybe a person, I don't know) called Jagwar Ma. It's quite good - you can listen to it at Soundcloud. It caught my attention because although the title is Come save me, he clearly sings Come and save me in the chorus. I wonder if it was a typing error somewhere that's ended up becoming official.

The come save me construction, we'll call the serial verb construction (because that's what it is, basically, though it's not as productive as in languages that have proper serial verb constructions), and let's call the other, with and, the conjoined verb construction. It probably has a proper name but I'm teaching in a few minutes so don't have time for extensive (or any) research.

To my ear, the serial verb construction is much more a US usage, and in the UK we would tend towards the conjoined verb construction. This is unsubstantiated by anything other than my own intuitions, and corpus research would no doubt prove me wrong (especially as I think the serial verb construction has increased in use over here in recent years - though that may well be the recency illusion). But there we are, that's my intuition.

So then, I thought, where are they from, these Jagwar Ma people (or this Jagwar Ma person)? Rather than, you know, google it, I used linguistics. First, I eliminated the US, or at least most of it. Almost all US accents are rhotic (r-pronouncing) (some are not, in the South for instance), so they would pronounce the /r/ at the end of Jagwar. That would mean that the name wouldn't rhyme, and surely you don't give yourself a name like that without intending it to rhyme. That leaves the UK as a possibility, but what about Australia, for example? They're also non-rhotic down under. Well, it turns out that Jagwar Ma is from Sydney (yeah, I googled it), which fits just nicely with the non-rhoticity and also makes the words rhyme very well. I can't easily find out if the serial verb construction is more common than the conjoined verb construction, or vice versa. I'd bet that the singer/song-writer has the conjoined verb construction, though.

A side note: I expect that, if the serial verb construction is indeed on the rise in the UK, some people would complain about this terrible Americanism sweeping the language of today's young people. But Wikipedia tells me that Maggie Tallerman (1998) gives this as a construction surviving from Early Modern English, so yaa boo sucks to those people.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Thank heavens for Michael Rosen

It's good to see that sometimes, an article about 'grammar' can appear in the media and it's not a complete load of codswallop. Michael Rosen, who I already knew to be an intelligent and sensible chap, has performed this feat in the Guardian. Sadly, the sub-ed has added a headline which rather over-simplifies his point (I suppose that's the sub-ed's job) and this has led to numpties in the comments who've missed the point. 

The article is called 'Sorry, there's no such thing as correct grammar', and responds to the fact that some bloke called Martin Gwynne is giving 'grammar lessons' in Selfridges, reported in the Telegraph. The Telegraph commenters are even more of a bunch of mud-for-brains, immediately leaping on spelling and punctuation errors of their fellow commenters:
How can I criticize the grammar in this blog post? Only on minor points ... there's no need for a hyphen between an adverb and an adjective when there's no possible ambiguity (easily-accessible; privately-published). 
"How can I criticize the grammar in this blog post?" By going to America. Here in the UK, old bean, it's "criticise".
 Anyhoo, back to the Rosen piece. What is refreshing is that he says this:
Whereas linguists are agreed that language has grammar, what they can't agree on is how to describe it. So, while there is a minimum agreement that language is a system with parts that function in relation to each other, there is no universal agreement on how the parts and the functions should be analysed and described, nor indeed if they should be described as some kind of self-sealed system or whether they should always be described in terms of the users, ie those who "utter" the language, and those who "receive" it (speakers and listeners, writers and readers etc).
It would be nice if he made us sound a little bit less like an argumentative rabble who can't sort out what their own discipline is about, but he's broadly right. His main point is his last one, and he seems to be firmly of the opinion that language should always be described in terms of its users (he and I differ on this point, but we won't fall out over it).

He also says, quite rightly, that
In fact, we would neither be able to speak nor understand if we didn't know [grammar]. 
He also notes (again, quite accurately) that there are two meanings of 'learning grammar': 
whether we get to know grammar in order to be "correct", or in order to describe what people say and write.
Of course, what this Gwynne person is teaching (though the Telegraph doesn't say) will certainly be the former. As Rosen says,
People attending his classes will feel immensely pleased that they have been told what's right and will probably spend a good deal of time telling other people they meet or read where and how they are wrong.
And he is very down on this, arguing quite vociferously that it's not right to allow 'grammar' to become something that belongs to an elite, leaving the others to feel that they are doing it wrong. He makes what seems to be a proposal for teaching everyone how to write and speak standard English:
If we are serious about enabling those who want to acquire what we have called standard English then first we should be honest about change and its lack of encoded rules. Then, together with them, we should look closely at how such people's speech and writing diverges from the kind of English that they would like to acquire. There will always be social reasons for this and knowing these helps people take on the dialects they don't fully speak or write.
I think he's saying that rather than tell people 'you're wrong, this is the right way', we should instead accept the differences but ensure people know that they are non-standard. He is arguing against a 'grammar police' and suggesting that language should be more open, that the reasons for it varying should be known, and that variation should be embraced. I think he's saying that everyone should study linguistics. Well done that man.

He does also say this, however, which seems to contradict his point, which is that we can teach people standard English, and also be basically wrong (emphasis mine):
many people... imagine that because it is called standard, it is run by rules and that these rules are fixed. I've always understood rules to be regulations that are drawn up in some agreed list. They are fixed (until such time as they are amended) and they are enforceable. In fact, there is no agreed list, a good deal of what we say and write keeps changing and nothing is enforceable. Instead, language is owned and controlled by everybody and what we do with it seems to be governed by various kinds of consent, operating through the social groups of our lives. Social groups in society don't swim about in some kind of harmonious melting pot. We rub against each other from very different and opposing positions, so why we should agree about language use and the means of describing it is beyond me.
Well. No agreed list, all right. No one sat down and said 'let's put the subject first, and let's have objects following the verb. We'll have a negation particle, I think, and let's form questions by changing the word order'. But as I've said repeatedly, language is run by rules. It simply is a set of rules - that's pretty much its definition. Not in the sense of rules that have to be learnt and followed, but more like instructions. Like a computer programme: it comprises a set of instructions, which it follows in order to run. If the rules are wrong (altered in some way, like missing the final bracket off an html command), the programme crashes. We actually use the word 'crash' in syntax to describe what happens if some linguistic rule is not satisfied.