Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The ones I could see



I'm reading The City and the City by China Mi√©ville at the moment. I'm only about 60 pages in but I already really like it, partly for its clever ideas which are currently just emerging, but also for its languages. Mi√©ville has a linguistics background and this shows in the plot of some books (Embassytown, for example) and the writing in all of them: he's creative and clever and does really unusual things with words. Not that you need to have a linguistics background to be able to do that, but it seems like he really knows what he's doing with language. I don't know, I know nothing about literature, so I can only waffle in an uninformed way on that point. But his sentence structure is so clever sometimes, and in this book the characters are from somewhere in central Europe, so the names are all made up but completely believable, and things like that. I think there was even some zeugma at one point and I really love zeugma. 

[Very slight spoilers follow, maybe? Not sure, I haven't read enough of it myself to know.] 

One thing that made me stop and admire it today was a clever use of could. There are parts of the city that the main character can't see. The sentence that caught my eye was describing some railway arches. He says (my bolding):
Not all of them were foreign at their bases. The ones I could see contained little shops and squats decorated in art graffiti.
At this point in the story, the reader doesn't know what the concept is here. Is it that he was able to see the arches, or that he was permitted to see them? This latter idea is what other events have hinted towards, but so far it could be either. 

This is because can and could (present and past tense respectively) can mean two different things. The first meaning, where he was able to see the arches, illustrates logical modality, or the possibility of him seeing them. The second, where he was permitted to see them, illustrates deontic modality: what is possible within the rules. This is an absolutely lovely use of this ambiguity which allows him not to reveal too much of this conceptual device this early in the story. I'm pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote it that way. 

This ambiguity is also, by the way, why you get smartarses responding to a question like 'Can I go to the toilet?' with 'I don't know, can you?'. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Gretchen McCulloch on 'Getting linguistics out of the ivory tower'

Gretchen McCulloch, of All Things Linguistic fame, is very excitingly in the UK for a bit and managed to fit in a talk at our place. I livetweeted it and have storified the tweets. The hashtag search wouldn't work for some reason, so I located a couple more but will have missed some tweets - sorry.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Grammar! It's the bestest!

Schoolchildren in this country are currently mired in SATs. These are tests designed to assess how well a school (not individual children) is doing, but have been being roundly criticised because they're stupid and pointless. Michael Rosen in particular has been very vocal on Twitter about the SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) one, which I believe is happening today.

It does seem a stupid test, and many of the examples he has picked out do contain confusing or apparently pointless things. The main criticism many people seem to have is that young children don't need to know this stuff, that it's too hard, and that it doesn't take creativity or expression into account, and that grammar puts kids off language. This facebook post is (I think) an analogy which makes exactly that point - that focussing too much on the mechanics ruins the fun of it. Lynne Murphy has written a good post pointing out that learning grammar is good and useful and helps you to know more about language. I would go further, though, and make the case that grammar is absolutely bloody brilliant.

Spelling and punctuation are a bit dull. The types of grammar that kids are having to learn is a bit dull: they're essentially labelling parts of speech. But real grammar, the kind that I spend all day every day thinking about, the grammar that I chose to study for 8 years and then make my career, is fantastically and endlessly interesting.

How can you not be fascinated by the fact that words might not really exist, that adjectives occur in a particular order (small green apples, not green small apples), that the rules of be deletion in AAVE are precisely the same as the rules of be contraction in British English, that you can have a cheeky Nando's but not a cheeky salad, that speakers can innovate constructions like because noun and the exact same damn thing happens in Finnish and French and who knows what other languages, that through reanalysis and tiny shifts Latin became the romance languages, that languages all over the world are wonderfully diverse but equally astonishingly similar... hell, even the most basic fact about syntax, that it is a hierarchically-structured system, is still amazing to me and something that most people don't even realise.

And even more than this, most of what I've just said is controversial to some people. We don't know the answers. Language, and I take grammar to be central to language (some would disagree but I'm happy to be biased), is inextricably bound up with our humanity and we don't even know how it works. We are still finding out. Isn't that exciting?

Don't teach 8-year-olds about subordinating conjunctions. It probably will put them off writing stories for fun. And don't ban 'slang'. That'll make them scared to speak. Once again, I make my call for all teachers to study linguistics and then teach everyone grammar - but fun grammar. Learn a foreign language and see how it's like English, or different from English, and wonder why. Look at Beowulf and Chaucer and marvel at how far English has come, and what happened to that verb-second word order. And then come and study linguistics.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Acknowledgement text tokens

The other day, I was having a conversation with someone over social media. Bear with me, because I'm about to stray into conversation analysis and this is so far out of my area it might as well be cell biology.

Conversations are prototypically turn-taking exercises, with A saying something, B responding, A responding to that, and so on. But obviously this isn't always (or even usually) the way - we interrupt each other, talk over each other, don't finish our sentences, and so on. Another thing we often do is talk for an extended length of time because we have a long story to tell or whatever. When we do this, the other person typically nods, makes encouraging noises, smiles, and generally lets the speaker know they're still listening. But in a text conversation you can't do this. If you try and do it, the little symbol that shows you're typing can put off your interlocutor because they think you're saying something meaningful, and they might stop telling their story. But if you don't, might they think you've gone off somewhere or fallen asleep or lost interest? We need a button that just sends an 'mh-hmh' symbol to show we are still there and paying attention. These are called 'acknowledgement tokens', and we need a text version.