Monday, 29 April 2013

Simpsons and more linguistic innovation

Yet again, I find myself noticing cute linguistic constructions in the Simpsons. Take this:
Marge: What did I say about joining La Cosa Nostra?
Bart: You said to not to.
And this:
Louie: Won't it be easier if we just take care of this Simpson lady?
Fat Tony: Louie, Louie, Louie, women are for taking care of, not 'taking care' of. 
The second one involves the use of the same string of words ('take care of someone') with two very different meanings (to look after vs to kill). We obviously do this all the time, using 'pick up' to mean 'elevate using the hands', 'pay' (as in 'pick up the bill'), 'seduce' and so on. It's not a problem. Context disambiguates. (Unless it doesn't, as in the memorable 'Comic Strip Presents...' when Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson mistakenly believe they're supposed to murder Nicholas Parsons when they are asked to 'take him out'.)

In this example, Fat Tony uses the two in the same sentence, in a kind of metalinguistic use. It's not quite true metalinguisticity, because that's when you refer to a word rather than use it, like 'How do you spell harlequin?'. Here, Fat Tony is using the phrase both times, but he is contrasting the different meanings. To do this, he will need to show contrast somehow. I saw this written down rather than heard it said, so I don't know for sure, but I'd put money on a contrastive intonation. If you imagine that someone says to you, 'You greedy pig, you've already had pizza once today', and then you correct them by saying, 'No, I had pizza yesterday, not today', then the stress on 'yesterday' and 'today' is your contrastive intonation. That'll be what Fat Tony uses on the two instances of 'take care of'. (He may also do bunny ears: in the written form, it's with inverted commas (or 'scare quotes').)

Now let's turn to the first example. This could just be a typo, of course, for 'You said not to', which would be the standard form. But that would be boring so let's assume it's not a typo. Given the frequency of language play in the Simpsons, I don't think that it's implausible. So Bart has an extra 'to' in there. What's it doing?

Imagine that Marge had told him not to go, rather than telling him not to [join La Cosa Nostra]. Then Bart could have said either of the following:
You said to not go.
You said not to go. 
'Not' can appear either before or after the infinitive marker 'to' (though the 'rules' would have you put it before so as to not split an infinitive). That's with an infinitive form of the verb, 'to go'. You can also omit the verb itself if it's repeated from before, leaving just the infinitive marker:
You said not to.
You said to not.
(The second one here isn't as good, but it's still acceptable, I think.) This is called ellipsis.

There are two explanations that spring to mind for Bart's utterance, 'You said to not to'. One is that he is using 'to' the second time as a stand-in for the elided material, in the same way that we might use 'do':
She said she'd get even, and she did. 
'Did' isn't in the first part of the sentence but we use it to replace the 'get even' which is omitted. Is that the reason for Bart using an extra 'to'? 'You said to not [join La Cosa Nostra]'? This isn't something which I've heard before, but it's not impossible. If Bart has a tendency to place the negation after the infinitive, then he either has to say 'You said to not', which (as noted) is a bit less natural than 'You said not to', or he has to say 'You said to not join them' or similar, which is more cumbersome. For maximum ellipsis without saying the less natural sentence, you need a stand in. 'Do' doesn't work in this case, because 'do' as a verb replacement is an auxiliary verb: not a main verb, but a 'helping' verb. In 'He did do all his homework', the first 'did' is an auxiliary and the second 'do' is a main (lexical) verb. 'Do' as an auxiliary can't occur with an infinitive 'to'; only the lexical one can. So we need a different verb replacement and what more appropriate than a word that's already associated with verbs, the infinitive marker 'to'?

The other explanation is that it's a speech error, like when people who wouldn't normally say 'might could' produce it because they 'forget' that they already said 'might' and then say 'could' as well. I'm hoping for the former, but if it is, there'll be other examples to find and testing to do, so let's get cracking.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Explore: Words around the world

You may remember that I did a talk for the Centre for Lifelong Learning's Explore programme last year, as part of a training exercise in presenting research to a public audience. I found it a very enjoyable challenge to present my PhD work to people who had no specialist knowledge of linguistics. 

Happily, they invited me back to do a session on the themed season 'The Word'. Well, seeing as words are a large chunk of what linguists study, that sounded like good fun. I've been teaching morphology all term, and so I thought I'd do a bit of a romp through some fun morphological stuff. 

The nice thing about doing a one-off session for fun is that you don't have to make sure they grasp all the fine points of the technical terminology, so you can essentially leave out the boring bits and just do the fun bits. I thought that for this session, I'd get them to think about what words are, so first of all we built words out of morphemes (parts of words) written on cards, and I introduced them to the concept of building words from smaller parts and how this works in different languages. We also covered a few 'language myths' (Eskimo words for snow, no word for X, Sapir-Whorf and colour terms, etc.) and finished by thinking about how to define 'word'. 

The venue was St Nicholas' cathedral in the centre of Newcastle, and rather than in one of the function rooms, I actually spoke in the south transept: 

This was a lovely venue for a talk, and made a nice change from seminar rooms. 

The audience was the best I could have wished for, interacting with me right from the start and asking intelligent questions that showed they were really interested in the topic. They contributed some interesting facts and examples of their own, and overall made it a truly fun afternoon. 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dawkins on 'not English'

You know, Richard Dawkins is a clever chap, I think he writes well and I've enjoyed many of his books. But sometimes he says such stupid things, it's like he wants people to misunderstand him.

Take this tweet:
'Grade' as in '7th grade' is not part of the English language
I mean, honestly, what a thing to say. He's making a perfectly good point, namely that if you're writing for an international audience it's more useful to state the age of a child in years rather than using a US-specific system. (In fact, because in the US children can skip or repeat a year in school, it is sometimes relevant to refer to the stage in their education that the child has reached. However, for the majority of children, this is not the case.) He clarified this, along with the statement that for a US audience, he has no problem with referring to grades. None of this is controversial.

So why on earth did he put it in such a stupid, guaranteed-to-cause-a-row way? Does he like getting into fights so much that even innocuous opinions must be stated in a controversial manner?

The bit I'm referring to, if it's not blindingly obvious, is the bit where he says that 'grade' is 'not part of the English language'. It... but... it... well, it obviously is. How can it not be? American English, or the collection of dialects of English spoken in that part of the world, are most definitely English. And if 'grade' (in this sense) is part of at least some of those dialects, then it is part of English.

It's possible that Dawkins was using some rather unusual definition of English. If you take any English speaker, let's say me, then we can agree that I speak English, I hope. And if you take another English speaker, let's say Richard Dawkins, then we can also agree that he speaks English. And so on and so on for any English speaker in the world. But our two Englishes are not precisely the same. In the case of me and Dawk, they're not far removed from each other. We're both speakers of British English dialects, although his is a bit more old-fashioned than mine. But if you compared Dawk and a teenage speaker of English from, say, California or South India or Grenada or Kiribati, then you're going to find a few more differences between the dialects. One might, then, wish to say that something is only 'English' if it is found in all dialects of English. This is a silly way to define English because it leaves you with about three words and a smattering of grammar and no sounds with which to pronounce them (I exaggerate, of course, but not much).

You can say the opposite, and say that something counts as 'English' if it is found in at least one English-speaker's dialect. But then you run into trouble defining English, as it can get a bit circular. You could also say that there is no such thing as English, merely a collection of idiolects (personal dialects) which converge with each other to a greater or lesser extent, some of which are mutually intelligible and some of which are not. Some people do say this, I think, but it's a somewhat extreme position to take. It's largely a philosophical problem, and for practical purposes one usually needs to define English in some partially arbitrary way. On any of those definitions, American English still counts as English and Dawkins is being a numpty.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Live Latin speakers wanted

Two weeks ago in the Guardian magazine, Mary Beard (who is becoming nearly as much of a regular on this blog as Marcus du Sautoy) said that if she could bring one thing back from extinction, it would be a 'live Latin speaker'. This week, a reader called Brian Bishop wrote in and said she needn't go that far: there are lots of them and Beard would be welcome at any of their 'Latin speaking weeks'.

Well. This does somewhat miss the point of why she wanted to bring this Latin speaker back. Beard is a classicist, which is not the same thing as a linguist, and she would have her own reasons which would be very different from the reasons I would give for bringing back a Latin speaker, I'm sure. But I think we would overlap in one opinion, which is that it really isn't the same thing at all!

I should think that Beard probably speaks Latin herself. If she doesn't she could of course learn it, if she wishes to hear it spoken so much. The main problem with this is that she is not a native speaker of Latin, and neither are any of the people at these 'Latin speaking weeks', unless any of them were brought up bilingually in Latin by extremely keen parents. (Incidentally, googling 'Latin speaking weeks' does not find any relevant results other than very dodgy-looking Latin summer schools.)

Linguists do lots of different types of research, but almost all of it involves finding out how people speak, recording that and using the resulting data to test a hypothesis. Some linguists use their own intuitions as data, some use other people's intuitions, and some use other people's natural speech.

Let's say I wanted to find out about the use of Isn't he not? and Isn't he? in the Geordie dialect, and what the differences are in the use of each. I might try to record some people's natural speech, and I might do some kind of survey where I asked people what sounded most natural to them. I might use my own intuitions to start me off, but I wouldn't rely on them, because I wasn't born and brought up in Newcastle so my intuitions might not be reliable.

When I wrote my PhD thesis, I needed to know facts about a lot of different languages. I used books for this, grammars that describe how the language works. That meant that I didn't have to spend a lot of time and money travelling around the world finding people to record. But these books can only take you so far. There are two problems with them: the first is that they might not be reliable. Modern descriptive grammars are good, thorough and accurate, written by linguists with a lot of training. The grammars written by missionaries from the SIL are generally very good, too. But an old grammar might be written by any unqualified person with little training, and with who-knows-what purpose. And grammars are almost never written by a native speaker of the language, so even with the best intentions they don't always know for sure that what they're being told is accurate: perhaps their consultants are subconsciously telling them how they should speak - like if you told a linguist that every sentence has to have a subject and then went off and said 'Don't know what he wants all this information for', without using a subject.

The second problem is that they can never tell you absolutely everything about a language. Hardly any of the grammars I looked at for my PhD could tell me if the question particle could be used in embedded questions. Therefore, I had to supplement this knowledge with intuitions about some of the languages. Obviously I don't speak these languages, so I couldn't give the intuitions, so I asked native speakers of those languages. And it is important that they are native speakers. Just because someone has learnt a language doesn't make them capable of making subtle judgements about what is and isn't grammatical, especially when you get into non-standard forms.

There are some linguists who can't ask people about their language because there aren't any people to ask. These are the historical linguists. Someone studying Old English can't ask a speaker of Old English what the language is like, but fortunately there are some texts written in Old English that still survive. Without those, we'd have no idea beyond the reconstructive work that can be done based on regular changes over time. There is a massive amount that can be learnt from historical texts, and historical linguists do some truly amazing things. But it is limited to what exists already, whereas a living language is infinite and can constantly provide new data.

Latin, similarly, has no living native speakers. It has evolved and become the modern Romance languages, but these are not the same as Latin any more than present-day English is the same as Old English (the language of Beowulf). There are living people who speak it, but they are not native speakers, and more than I'm a native speaker of French because I learnt it at school. In fact, these people are even further removed from being native speakers of Latin because they didn't even learn it from a native speaker (in fact, I didn't learn French from a native French speaker, but that's beside the point). There are lots of things we don't know about Latin, and those are the things linguists might be interested to find out, and there's no way we can find them out from modern Latin speakers because their knowledge of Latin is based only on what we already know, not their native competence. We aren't going to get very far trying to find out what we don't already know if we ask people who only know what we already know.

So whatever reason Mary Beard has for bringing back a real live Latin speaker, perhaps for the sheer pleasure of hearing them speak, I too would like to bring one (or ideally, several) back, so that I could do research on their language without having to rely on written sources.