Friday, 17 May 2013

Learning grammar

Recently, English children aged 10-11 had to take their SATs (tests that children take every few years to check the school isn't useless). The English test included a test of their spelling, punctuation and grammar, a new thing introduced by the wildly unpopular and widely-derided Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
Michael Gove:
as much of an idiot as he looks.

I am, of course, in favour of these things being taught in schools. It seems sensible to me that children should learn how to write well and how to understand the language they speak. It would be even better if they learn how language works and were taught linguistics. This can be done, and I once read a very good proposal for how to implement it, which I now can't find. But anyway - that aside, yes, teach children how to spell. Good.

The problem is how Gove wants this taught and tested, as with all his reforms (his changes to history make the curriculum just a list of facts and figures, according to history teachers, because he felt that children were learning too much about Martin Luther King and not enough about ancient kings and queens of England).

Michael Rosen has written about this at great length and David Crystal has added his comments, so I won't add my thoughts here, but basically it's teaching children meaningless terminology out of context, which is at best confusing and at worst wrong. See the Crystal link for examples. It means that people end up with fixed rules that they don't fully understand and can't apply - one of the comments on the Crystal piece:
My son (an American) had a high school Advanced Placement composition teacher who would take points off for every "passive" sentence in a composition. Actually, what she did was go on hunts for instances of "was" and "is", and would deduct points even if the sentences weren't passive.
What I wanted to add to the conversation was this: is it actually useful to teach children grammar?

I know that's blasphemy to anyone of a certain age or temperament, but I'm serious. And I say that as someone whose job is basically grammar. What would the answer be?

If we teach it the way we do now, then I would be of the opinion that we don't teach it till they're older - 13 or so. Then they can cope with learning these unfamiliar terms and rules. But I also think we shouldn't teach it the way we do now, as if there are hard and fast rules. Knowing grammar is useful if you want to learn another language (although it is entirely possible to do it without, if you learn in an 'immersion' style), so perhaps we should introduce it earlier. Many people my age, who weren't taught English grammar at school, learnt all they know from their French lessons. In that case we could do it differently, showing children that there are basic categories of words and they're combined in certain ways, but that language is only real when it's used, and it behaves in interesting ways and the real skill is in learning how to investigate it.

Or, as an alternative, we could just not. I wasn't taught much grammar, as far as I remember. When my generation was at school it just wasn't on the curriculum. It hasn't done me any harm. If you need it or like it, you'll learn it later, and if you don't, well, there is literally no situation in real life where you will desperately need to know if a word is a noun or a verb.

There is one aspect of grammar that does affect real life, and that's using 'correct' grammar - you have to do that if you don't want people to think you're uneducated and not give you a job. That is important, but it's a different thing from learning grammar. That's learning the rules of how to use a particular register of the language to conform to a certain social group. There's no question that schools are failing children if they don't teach them how to do this, because like it or not, it's a vital life skill to be able to speak and write according to the standard language.

And you know what? Schools don't teach children this. I mark essays and there are so many mistakes in them, most students clearly haven't grasped all of the rules. There are maybe 5-10% of essays that are really well-written in any bunch. The rest are mostly not terrible, but they aren't great. This was shocking to me, because I assumed that most people who have managed to reach this stage of education have learnt this stuff along the way.

BUT I do not advocate more grammar lessons in school to remedy this problem. I've taught first-year syntax for long enough to know that if an 18-year-old struggles with grammar, a ten-year-old isn't going to fare any better. It's just going to make them hate writing and feel stupid.

I conducted a poll among my most writerly non-linguist friends - the ones who studied English literature. Some of these people have PhDs in English literature, or will soon, some make a career or hobby out of writing. They know their stuff. Almost all of them said that they don't have conscious knowledge of grammar, it's 'just instinct'. Even the stuff that these children are supposed to know, they wouldn't be confident if they were tested on it. But they can do it, and surely that's the important thing - who cares if you know what a gerund is, if you can use one right?

The way that they (and I) all learnt grammar was by reading a lot. If you read a lot, you pick up good grammar, is my hypothesis. Now of course it is possible that some child might read a lot but still not 'get it'. It might just be that these people picked it up easily AND liked reading, and one is not a cause of the other. I'd like to hear from you if you read a lot but still don't write well, or naturally write well but never read much.

I'm not pretending that this is an easy solution: a lot of children don't like reading and you can't force them to do it, or they end up hating it. I'm just saying, the way Gove is doing it is stupid. Maybe they do have to teach it explicitly. But if they're going to, then they should at least listen to the people they consulted, who specifically advised against the approach they've taken.

And I would bet Gove ten quid that he wouldn't be able to correctly identify, say, the subject of a sentence every single time, but it's not done his career any harm.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In which continent is Honolulu?

In linguistics papers, we often need to give examples of some linguistic construction or other, and so we use example sentences. It didn't strike me as at all odd until I talked to other people about linguistics, and they found it hilarious. Still. It's what we do. What I mean by this is that, say I'm writing about questions, and I need to illustrate what questions look like in various languages, I'll just give an example of a question. It doesn't matter what question, usually; it just has to be a normal question with nothing syntactically weird going on. So I might give these two examples:

neih johng hohk sahn ma
‘Have you  rushed into the crane god, eh?’ (Morrison 1828, cited in Cheung 2001: 223)

vok i2-­‐n vulʔ doon1 em2
‘Are you going to raise pigs?’ (Chhangte 1989: 162)
I can generally be relied on to pick the silliest examples I can find, so my thesis contained lots of examples involving trousers being covered in bitumen, and expressions with rude words in them. You don't always have a lot of choice, if you don't speak the language, but if you're working on a language you speak, you can make up good examples. I despair of the number of papers I read in which John lends Mary yet another book. In my constructed examples, all sorts of things happen: gorillas get seasick, Poirot solves murders, Richard Burton is a post-mortem actor, and we have to choose whether we would rather be able to fly or be invisible. (You have to make sure you don't go too far, though. The Generative Semantics movement of the 1970s got a bit silly in this respect.)

Reading examples in other languages can be informative: I learn the words for all sorts of things in other languages, for instance. Did you know that the Cantonese for 'Christmas' is literally 'Jesus birthday'? And the Swahili for 'lion' is 'simba'?

But today I was reading a paper and was baffled. It's Hamblin's classic 1958 paper on questions. In it, he discusses how some questions include a presupposition. The (in)famous example of this is 'Have you stopped beating your wife?', which the defendant cannot answer 'yes' or 'no', because either answer presupposes that he has, in the past, beaten his wife. Hamblin notes that a question like 'In which continent is Luxembourg?' also contains a presupposition (that Luxembourg is in a continent), but that it is unimportant because the presupposition is true. He gives this question as the equivalent example where the same presupposition would be untrue: 'In which continent is Honolulu?'. You cannot, says Hamblin, answer by simply saying what continent Honolulu is in, because it is not in a continent at all.

Clearly, this is now false because Honolulu is in Hawai'i, and Hawai'i is in the United States, and the US is in America (or North America - do we class North and South as separate continents these days or not?). In 1958, when this paper was written, Hawai'i was not yet a State: it became one in 1959. But it was a Territory, and so, I thought to myself, surely still considered to be in the continent of (North) America?

Anyone any idea?

Friday, 10 May 2013

They wait you

Sounds sinister, that title, like a line from a classic ghost story. It's not - I said it, in the perfectly pleasant surroundings of Côte in Covent Garden, talking about the lunch we'd had that day in the London Review Bookshop.

This bookshop is a very nice bookshop with a small selection of linguistics books hidden at the bottom of a small set of shelves in the basement. But I wasn't there to peruse the books. It was lunchtime, I was having a break from seeing Ice Age things at the British Museum with my parents and we needed some lunch before going to see Pompeii and Herculaneum things. There's a very nice cafe in the bookshop, selling home-made sorts of food and a million types of tea. It's small though, and popular, so we had to wait for a table. The waitress suggested we wait in the bookshop and she'd come and get us when there was a free table.

I was telling my aunt about this when we met her later on, and I said:
They wait you in the bookshop.
Wait is not normally used this way, but I liked it so I let it stand. Normally, wait doesn't have an object - that is, (roughly) something acted on by the verb. Sleep doesn't have an object (I slept) but catch does (I caught a rabbit), and eat either can or can't (I've eaten or I've eaten six Jaffa cakes). Wait is like sleep (I  waited). What I said included an object: They wait you (we can ignore in the bookshop for now, because it's optional in the sentence).

Sometimes, we have verbs that change the number of objects they have (in this case from 0 to 1) because of some syntactic difference. This is different from eat, which either has a 'null' object meaning 'some unspecified kind of food' or just has two very closely related meanings.

Wait normally has a subject which is the person doing the waiting: if I say I waited, it's me who's done the waiting. With eat, that subject stays the same whether we add an object or not: I ate or I ate six Jaffa cakes, it's still me who ate something. But look at the sentence above: the subject is not the person who is waiting. When I said They wait you in the bookshop, it's not 'they' who are waiting, it's the object of the sentence, you (=us, in that case). So when I added the object, I also changed the role of the participants in the action.

What I meant by that utterance was, I suppose, They make you wait in the bookshop or They cause you to wait in the bookshop. I've turned it into what linguists, in an uncharacteristic show of naming things transparently, call a 'causative'. It's comparable to grow: I can say either I grew, and then it is me who became larger, or I can say I grew a plant or I grew the profits and then it is something else that I have caused to become larger.

It's also related to something called 'middle voice'. It's called that because it's in the middle between active and passive. If you think about a sentence like The cake cuts well, then the cake is grammatically the subject of an active verb, but the meaning is that the cake is the thing that is cut, and that's the meaning you'd get from a passive form: The cake has been cut. English doesn't do this loads, compared to some other languages, and that's not what's happening with wait above. It's just a similar phenomenon.

Monday, 6 May 2013


OK, tell me this: can you translate the following conversation, in a language that you almost certainly speak?
Jon do?
A dee nah. 
Answer after the fold.

Friday, 3 May 2013


Someone who shall remain nameless recently said the following about a piece of technology:
It might defunk.
Wooohoooo, reanalysis in action! Reanalysis is when someone interprets the structure (or meaning, etc) of a word or phrase differently from previous speakers. This can result in widespread permanent change to the language in question, and in fact is how much language change takes place. For instance, we all know that apron and adder were originally napron and nadder, but because a nadder is identical to an adder when it's spoken, people reanalysed it as the latter. Ditto peas and cherries, which are now the plural forms of the singular pea and cherry, but when they were first borrowed from French they were pease and cherise - mass nouns. We still have pease pudding and the colour word cerise (that one was probably borrowed again later on, though).

The reanalysed word in question is defunct, meaning something like 'not working'. This comes from Latin, literally meaning 'not working' (dēfunctus, with the prefix de- and the past participle of fungī 'to perform', says the OED). We don't really think about the etymology when we use it though, especially if we don't know Latin, which most people don't. So it's just a word that means 'not working' or 'not in use'.

The reanalysis has come about because the word-final consonant /t/ sounds just like the past participle ending -ed. (This is because -ed can sound like /d/ or /t/ depending on the sound it follows.) Therefore, defunct sounds exactly like defunked. Defunked doesn't exist (with this meaning), but it follows the pattern for verbs in English, with a regular past tense ending. So we can postulate that the word is the past participle of defunk. If that's the case, the verb can be used in all its forms, including the bare stem form used in the original example, defunk.

The process I've hypothesised here takes a word which is used in its current form as an adjective and reanalyses it back into its past participle form (possibly even complete with negative prefix on the root funk) from whence it came!

(By the way, clever people have of course spotted the potential for the word as a band name, so it's hard to google for other examples. But the fact that hits for this interpretation don't outweigh the band's hits shows that this is either non-existent or very rare so far. In addition, Urban Dictionary notes the verb with the meaning 'to remove funk [dirt]' or 'to make less funky', both predictable meanings of de-+funk.)