You are on page 1of 12


The gift of language i the single human trait s that marks us al1 genetically, setting us apart from the rest of life.
Lewis Thomas, The Lives o a Cell f


anguage is many things-a system of communication, a medium for thought, a vehicle for literary expression, a social institution, a matter for political controversy, a factor in nation building. AU normal human beings speak at least one language, and it is hard to imagine much significant social or intellectual activity taking place in its absence. Each of us, then, has a stake in understanding how language is organized and how it is used. This book provides a basic introduction td linguistics, the discipline that studies these matters.


What is human language? What does it mean to "know" a language? To answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand the resources that a language makes available to its native speakers, those who have acquired it as children in a natural setting. The scope and diversity of human thought and experience place great demands on language. Because communication is not restricted to a fixed set of topics, language must do something more than provide a package of ready-made messages. It must enable us to produce and understand new words, phrases, and sentences as the need arises. In short, human language must be creative-allowing novelty and innovation in response to new experiences, situations, and thoughts. Underlying the creative aspect of language is an intricate mental system that defines the boundaries within which innovation can take place. The operation of this system can be illustrated by a relatively simple phenomenon in English: the process that creates verbs (roughly, words naming actions) from nouns (roughly, words naming things). As the following sentences show, there is a great deal of freedom to innovate in the formation of such verbs.
1. a ) He wristed the ball over the net.

+ ,


b) She would try to sttff-upper-lip it through. c ) She Houdini'd her way out of the locked closet.
However, there are also constraints on this freedom. For instance, a new verb is rarely coined if a word with the intended meaning already exists. Although

it must be given a very specific interpretation-roughly paraphrasable as 'to be somewhere for the period of time X'. Martine holidayed in France. Noun use leave the boat on the beach keep the airplane on the ground crush the aspirin into powder stab the man with a knge catch the fish with a spear make the child an orphan Verb use beach the boat ground the airplane powder the aspirin knife the man spear the fish orphan the child we may say carton the eggs to mean 'put the eggs in the carton'. a ) *Jerome midnighted in the streets. well-established words were constantly being replaced by new creations. 2. we do not say hospital the patient to mean 'put the patient in the hospital'. including the way in which sounds are combined to form words.CHAPTER ONE Table 11 Nouns used as verbs .) 3. A similar danger would arise if there were no constraints on the 3 meaning of new words. While the sentences in 2 are all acceptable.' to holiday in Fmnce is 'to be in France for the holidays'. to summer in Paris is 'to be in Paris for the summer. These examples show that when a verb is created from a time expression. The forms in 4. They honeymooned in Hawaii. and so on. If . are recognizable as possible names for new products or inventions. the vocabulary of English would be so unstable that communication could be jeopardized. not al1 time expressions can be used in this way. they cannot be used to create verbs of this new class. There are also narrow constraints on the meaning and use of particular subclasses of these verbs. for instante. Thus. a) b) c) d) Julia summered in Paris. If winter in Hawaii could mean 'make it snow in Hawaii' or 'wish it were winter in Hawaii' or any other arbitrary thing. the production and interpretation of new forms would be chaotic and would subvert rather than enrich communication. 2 ) Constraints are essential to the viability of the creative process. c ) *Philip one o'clocked at the airport. b) *Andrea nooned at the restaurant. (Throughout this book an asterisk is used to indicate that a sentence is unacceptable. One such constraint involves verbs that are created from time expressions such as summer and holiday. Kent wintered in Mexico. This is presumably because the well-established verb hospitalize already has the meaning that the new form would have. 4. Since noon and midnight express points in time rather than periods of time. This rule-governed creativity characterizes al1 levels of language. a ) prasp b ) flib c ) traf .

Apart from a few f i e d expressions and greetings. a ) psarp b ) bfli C ) ftra The contrast shows that our subconscious knowledge of English includes a set of constraints on possible sequences of sounds. You would not ordinarily say a sentence such as 6a. you then automatically know that something with the properties of a soleme can be called solemic. speakers of a language are able to produce and understand an unlimited number of utterances. In conversations. a ) *He brought a chair in order to sit on. Such is the case with the sentences you have just read. Without hesitation.LANGUAGE Suck forms contrast with the patterns in 5. 6.2 GRAMMAR AND LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE - As we have seen. your ability to produce and comprehend sentences is subject to limitations. including many that are novel and unfamiliar. In investigating linguistic competence. a ) The pink kangaroo hopped over the talking lamp. the expression of unfamiliar ideas. (You would say soLEmicize. constitutes the central 7 b j e c t matter of linguistics and of this book. Or. Imagine. 7. This ability to deal with novel utterances does not ensure that you can understand or use any imaginable combination of words. and textbooks you are regularly exposed to novel combinations of words. Further. hear. b ) He brought a chair to sit on. As with other aspects of language. 7a is weli formed-if bizarre-but 7b is gibberish. 1. As a speaker of English. and the presentation of new information. you know that the c is pronounced as s in solemicize but as k in solemic. b ) *Pink the the talking hopped kangaroo lamp over. newscasts. although 6b would be perfectly acceptable. and you cal1 this process solemicization. lectures. While each of these sentences is no doubt perfectly comprehensible to you. much of what you say. it is extremely unlikely that you have ever seen any of them before. Stiil other constraints determine how new words can be created from already existing forms with the help of special endings. which is often called linguistic competence. 5. This ability. not SOlemicize or solemiCIZE. that you learn that there is a word soleme (used perhaps for a newly discovered atomic particle). you also recognize that solemicize is pronounced with the stress on the second syliable.) Nowhere is the ability to deal with novel utterances in accordance with rules more obvious than in the production and comprehension of sentences. and read in the course of a day consists of sentences that are novel to you. You also know that to make something solemic is to solemicize it. linguists focus on the mental system that allows human beings to form and interpret the words and sentences . which simply do not have the "sound" of English words. to take another example. for example.

- 8. for example. For example. b) See now dogs two kangaroos several. f t i s f l 0 ~ u r i u s u S T o ~ ~ rSmGkthatTome language-Acadian French. such differences simply demonstrate that it has a grammar unlike that of English in certain respects. Generality: Al1 Langua Have a Grammar lgeS ---- One of the most fundamental claims of modern linguistic analysis is that ali languages have a gramrnar.) Unfamiliar languages sometimes appear to an untrained observer to have no grammar simply because their grammatical systems are different from those of better-known languages.." (This is especially common in the case of languages that are not written or have not yet been analyzed by Western scholars. c ) See now kangaroos severa1 dogs two. d) Kangaroos several now dogs two see. we will devote some time to considering several properties of the system that linguists cal1 a grammar.. tke Navaho. they also must have a morphology and a syntax. the relative ordering of words is so free that the English sentence The two dogs now see seveml kangaroos could be translated by the equivalent of any of the following sentences. this information is conveyed by placing two dogs in front of the verb and seveml kangaroos after it.. or Chinese-"has no grammar.2 The comDonents of a nrammar Component Responsibility Phonetics the articulation and perception of speech sounds Phonology the patterning of speech sounds Morphology word forrnation Syntax sentence formation the interpretation of words and sentences Semantics Linguists use the term grammar in a rather special and technical way. a) Dogs two now see kangaroos sweral.. Table 1. Whereas Walbiri may not restrict the order of words in the way English does.. . and since these words and sentences have systematic meanings. we will divide the grammar into the'following components. there obviously must be semantic principles as well.. . Rather than showing that Walbiri has no grammar. since they al1 have words and sentences.CHAPTER ONE of their language. As these are the very things that make up a grammar. its grammar imposes other types of requirements. This important point is applicable to al1 differences among languages: aithough no two languages have exactly the same grammar. there are no languages without a grammar. it follows that all human languages have this type of system. This system is called a grammar. in the sentence types we are considering. In Walbiri (an aboriginal language of Australia). In English. This can be verified by considering a few simple facts. Walbiri speakers must place the ending lu on the word for 'dogs' to indicate that it names the animals that do the seeing rather than the animals that are seen. Because this usage may be unfamiliar. by contrast. Since al1 languages are spoken. they must have phonetic and phonological systems.. e) Kangaroos severa1 now see dogs two. For the purposes of this book..

to be accepted in certain circles. they permit their users to express and understand the same unlimited range of thoughts and ideas. This means that linguists seek to describe human linguistic ability and knowledge. As you are probably already aware. the difficulties that arise in these areas typically result from the inconsistent or careless use of one's linguistic knowledge. cursor. to get a job. From a purely linguistic point of view. linguists seek to understand the nature of the gramrnatical systems that allow people to speak and understand a language. not from any inherent flaw in the grammar itself. and so forth. however. The goal of contemporary linguistic analysis is not to rank languages on some imaginary 'scale of superiority. there is absolutely nothing wrong with grammars that permit such structures. This same point is sometimes made by noting that linguistics is descnptive. not to prescribe one system in preference to another. Other changes have a more dramatic effect on the overall form of the language and typically take place over a long Changeability: Grammars Change over Time .A similar point can be made about different varieties of the same language. As discussed in more detail in chapter 12. He didn't do nothing. Like grammars for other variants of English (and other languages). It is a well-established fact that the grammars of al1 languages are constantly changing. In terms of this aii-important criterion. then. yuppie. Equality: Al1 Grammars Are Equal Whenever there is more than one variety of a particular language. This is just another way of saying that each variety of English has its own grammar. fax. From the point of view of modern iinguistics. it makes no more sense to say that one variety of English is better than another than it does to say that the grammar of English is better (or worse) than the grammar of Thai. 1 Linguists also acknowledge that certain patterns ( seen that. Just as it is impossible to have a language without a grammar. Some of these changes are relatively minor and occur very quickly (for example. However. Al languages and al1 varieties of a particular language have grammars l that enable their speakers to express any proposition that the human mind can<produce. and sentence patterns. so no variety of language could exist if it did not have a grammar. the addition of new words such as glasnost. They was there. The first concern of al1 scientists is to describe and explain the facts that they observe. Rather. questions arise as to whether one is somehow better or more correct than another. Even though it rejects prescriptivism. not to change them. the use of these patterns may therefore have negative social consequences: it may be harder to win a scholarship. not prescnptive. and attrit to the vocabulary of English). The particular variety of English found within each of these communities has its own characteristic pronunciation. English is the language of many different com-munities around the world. Such skills are quite rightly an object of concern among educators. al1 varieties of language are absolutely equal as instruments of communication and thought. A parallel point of view is adopted in other scientific disciplines as well. He ain't here) may be restricted to particular socioeconomic groups within the Engiish-speaking community. modern linguistic analysis does not deny the importance of clear expression in writing and speech. vocabulary.

Gould. the writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) lamented "the continua1 Corruption of our English Tongue. (versus *He saw not the knights. a ) 1 seye not the wordes. there are simply no grounds for claiming that one system of grammar is somehow superior to another. vocabularies.) These modifications illustrate the extent to which grammars can change over time. 9. and underhanded. published a book entitled Good English.') b) He ne speketh nawt. To this day. although he had t no objection to Tis for Z is. and word G r a m m a r s 3 tion of their sound there are no limits on the type of order reveals. will. As noted above.') By 1400 or thereabouts. There are many differences among languages.) b) He did not see the knights. There is therefore no reason to think that language change can or will undermine the adequacy of English (or any other language) as a medium of communication. It was not until severa1 centuries later that English developed its current practice of allowing not to occur after only certain types of verbs (such as do. the tradition of prescriptive concern about the use of certain words continues in the work of such popular writers as Edwin Newman and John Simon. Edward S. and so on). individuals and organizations who believe that certain varieties of language are better than others have frequently expressed concern over what they perceive to be the deterioration of English. Linguists reject the view that languages attain a state of perfection at some point in their history and that subsequent changes lead to deterioration and corruption. 10. (versus *I will say not the words. The structures exemplified in 10 are archaic by today's standards and those in 9 sound completely foreign to most speakers of modern English. 11. Quite to the contrary. The formation of negative structures in English has undergone this type of change. Through the centuries. In 1710." Among the corruptions to which Swift objected were contractions such as he's for he is. for example. or. Prior to 1200. . ('1 don't say. who form a kind of self-appointed language police. In the nineteenth century. a ) Ic ne seye not.CHAPTER ONE period of time. leniency. But this does not mean that grammars that human Are *like in beings can acquire and use. current research suggests Basic Ways A t h a t there are important grammatical principles and tendencies shared by al1 human languages. have. a columnist for the New York Evening Post. ne was used infrequently and not (or nawt) typically occurred by itself after the verb. a ) 1 will not say the words. Popular Errors in Language. in whicb he accused newspaper writers and authors of "sensation novels" of ruining the language by introducing "spurious words" like jeopardize. b) We saw nawt the knyghtes. as even a superficial examinaUniversality: patterns. English formed negative constructions by placing ne before the verb and a variant of not after it. ('He does not speak.

we might predict that each of the following possibilities should occur with roughly equal frequency. Although it is unlikely that you have . we need only consider the six logically possible orders for a simple three-word statement such as Canadians like hockey. consider your pronunciation of the past tense ending written as ed in the following words. Pat is here not. Moreover. some gram~ a t i c a categories and principles are universal. Grammafical However. grammatical knowledge is acquired without the help of ins ( struction when one is still a child and it remains largely subconscious throughout life. Like hockey Canadians. Pat is not here. it fol?Iicitness: ~ O W Sthat aU speakers of a language must have knowledge of its grarnmar. As later chapters will show. And where there is variation l (as in the case of word order). 12. a ) b) c) d) Not Pat is here. Unlike these other s u b c o n ~ ~ i o utypes of knowledge. traffic safety. you say t in slipped and d in buzzed. . 13. In virtually al1 languages. the first and fourth patterns are very rare. As an example of this. this knowledge differs from knowledge of arithmetic. This once again reflects the existente of constraints and preferences that limit variation among languages.LANOUAGE One such principle involves the manner in which sentences are negated. you would form the past tense as flibbed and pronounce the ending as d. there is typically a very limited set of options. 14. 3 Interestingly. Canadians hockey like. Pat not is here. As it happens. To see this. one would expect the equivalent of English not to occur in different positions within the sentence in different languages. f) Hockey Canadians like. then. KnowledgeIS and other subjects that are taught at home or in school. Hockey like Canadians. Thus. a ) b) c) d) e) Canadians like hockey. the set of grammars learned and used by human beings is limited in significant ways. The relative ordering of other elements is also subject to constraints. Contrary to first appearances. if you heard the new verb flib. Because the use of language to communicate presupposes a grammar. These are not isolated examples. With unlirnited variation. Only a handful of languages use any of the last three orders as basic. Like Canadians hockey. more than 95 percent of the world's languages adopt one of the first three orders for basic statements. negative elements such as not either immediately precede or immediately follow the verb. a) hunted b ) slipped C ) buzzed Notice that whereas you say id in hunted.

Sentence 16 can mean either that each boy in the group that the woman interviewed thinks that he himself is a genius or that each boy thinks that a particular person not mentioned in the sentence (say. morphology. This is because the grammatical subsystem regulating this aspect of speech was acquired when you were a child and now exists subconsciously in your mind. Consider one final exarnple. 16. Because no language can exist without a grammar and no one can use a language without knowledge of its grarnrnar. phonology. S. v. a grammar makes possible the production and comprehension of a potentially unlimited number of utterances. and semantics). 15. Consisting of several components (phonetics. In contrast with what happens in sentence 16. Each boy who the woman interviewed thinks that he is a genius. the study of grammatical systems has come to be the focus of contemporary linguistic analysis.CHAPTER ONE ever been aware of this phenomenon before now. we routinely make decisions about the acceptability of forms based on subconscious knowledge of such constraints. (The consonants t. syntax. However. the final consonant must always be one made with the tongue tip raised. pint fiend locked wronged next glimpse *paynk *fiemp *lockf *wrongv *nexk *glimpk 9 The words in the left-hand column obey an obscure constraint on the selection of consonant sequences in word-final position: when a vowel is long and followed by two consonants @int) or when a vowel is short and followed by three consonant sounds (next. Speakers of English know that there are certain structures in which the word he can refer to each member of a group or to a single individual outside that group. pronounced 'nekst'). The woman who each boy interviewed thinks that he is a genius. you make these distinctions automatically if you are a native speaker of English. he can refer only to someone not mentioned in the sentence. d. and z are made in this manner. Even more subtle phonological patterning can be found in languaie. only one of these interpretations is possible in the foliowing sentence. he cannot refer to each individual in the group designated by the phrase each boy. 17. In 17. as the following contrasts help illustrate. but consonants such as p. the teacher) is a genius. and k are not. they must have knowledge of the relevant grammatical principie even though they are not consciously aware of it. Even linguists have to dig deeply to uncover such patterning.) Words that do not adhere to this phonological constraint (the right-hand column) are unacceptable to speakers of English. Summary Linguists use the term grammar to refer to a subconscious linguistic system of a particular type. but in everyday language use. Since speakers are able to make this contrast. .

palate. Table 1.. the grammatical knowledge needed to use and understand language is acquired without the benefit of instruction and is for the most part subconscious. In humans. these organs have a í become highly specialized for linguistic l ends. as the case may be) that are ultimately responsible for these phenomena. Since we therefore cannot investigate grammar by simply recalling prior training or by self-consultation. cells. But each nonlinguistic use of these organs is paralleled by a linguistic use unique to humans. and nasal passages) did not originally evolve for speech. to supply air for speech oxygen Vocal folds to create sea1 to produce voice for speech sounds over passage to lungs Tongue to move food to articulate vowels back to throat and consonants Teeth to break up to provide place of articulation for consonants food Lips to sea1 oral cavity to articulate vowels and consonants . the study of human linguistic systems requires considerable effort and ingenuity. and so on) must be used to draw inferences about the sometimes invisible mechanisms (atoms.3 SPECIALIZATION As far as can be determined. The vocal folds. that humans have a special capacity for language that is not shared by other creatures. they seem to belong to a number of distinct families whose histories can be traced back no more than a few thousand years. Because of a highly lsrble 1. but virtually nothing is known about this period of linguistic prehistory or about how language originated in the first place. teeth. are more muscular and less fatty in humans than in nonhuman primate such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Archaeological evidence suggests that language existed prior to that time for perhaps as long as 100. or grammars. The so-called speech organs (the lungs. There is every reason to believe. they were-and still are-directly concerned with ensuring the physicai survival of the organism. As is the case in al1 science.3 compares the linguistic uses of the major speech organs with their primary survival functions in humans and other mammals.3 Dual functions of the s~eech ornans Organ Survival function Speech function Lungs to exchange CO. tongue. 1. Rather. information about facts that can be observed (the pronunciation of words. The evolutionary adaptation of certain physiologicai mechanisms for linguistic ends has occurred only in humans. lips. the interpretation of sentences. the languages spoken in the world today cannot be traced to a common source. though. rather. for example. larynx. A good deal of this book is concerned with the findings of this research and with what they te11 us about the nature and use of human language.LANGUAGE ' - As noted above.000 years.

perception. The grammar governs the articulation. a specialized. Such control exceeds anything found in even our closest primate relatives. Speakers of a language possess a grammar. There are additional indications of the evolution of linguistic vocai~ation. Nonetheless. After devoting most of this book to the study of grammatical phenomena in human language. extensive set of neurological controls exclusive to humans makes this type of breathing possible. the formation of words and sentences. Summing Up Human language is characterized by rule-governed creativity. and that species with different types of brains will not be able to acquire or use the types of grammars associated with human language. we wiii. specific parts of the brain are associated with each of these linguistic activities. Evolution has produced a refinement both in degree and in kind through a long interplay between the demands of language and the development of the human speech-producing apparatus. the human capacity for speech is superimposed on already existing biological structures. Key Erms creative descriptive grarnmar linguistic competence native speakers phonetics phonology prescriptive semantics syntax . a mental system of elements and rules that allows them to form and interpret familiar and novel utterances. return to the question of whether comparable linguistic systems occur in other species. Moreover. they also respond more precisely to commands from the brain.CHAPTER ONE < developed network of neural pathways. sentence formation. Contrary to popular belief. ail languages have grammars that are roughly equal in complexity and are acquired subconsciously by their speakers. palate. The existence of such linguistic systems in humans is the product of unique anatomical and cognitive specialization. These facts suggest that the human brain is specially structured for language. In other words. We know considerably less about the evolutionary specialization for nonvocal aspects of language such as word formation. such as the tongue. Abdominal muscles that are not normally employed for respiration are brought into play in a systematic and refined manner in order to maintain the air pressure needed for speech. and the interpretation of utterances. Unlike the breathing of survival respiration. speech breathing shows higher lung pressure and a longer exhalation time than respiration. As we will see in Chapter 9. Again. in Chapter 14. it is clear that some sort of evolutionary specialization must have occurred. The same extensive set of neural pathways aliows a high degree of control over other speech organs. and patterning of speech sounds. the brain areas in question have no counterparts in other species. and the interpretation of meaning. and lips.

Eve and Herb Clark. We MG'd to Oregon. . Let's carton the eggs. 1979. 2. Imagine that you are an advertising executive and that your job involves inventing new names for products. edited by S. Glasgow: Fontana. Questions 1. You should Clairol your hair. Anderson and P. 1983.LANGUAGE Sources The discussion of word creation is based on an article by Eve Clark and Herb Clark." Lunguage 55:767-811. i ) Which of the following forms would be acceptable to native speakers of English? Discuss them with your friends. The Gould book is cited in Dennis Baron's Gmmmar and Good Tase (New Haven: Yale University Press.1. We'll have to Ajax the sink. We Concorded to London. He Gretzky'd his way to the net. Farb. Understanding and Producing Speech. Edward and Thomas Roeper. We Greyhounded to Toronto. The data on the positioning of negative elements within sentences in human language come from an article by O. Dahl. Make a sentence using each new verb you created. She Windexed the windows. The Walbiri data are based on K. ''Mology of Sentence Negation" in Linguistics 17:79-106 (1979). Peter. 1975. Kiparsky (New York: Holt. Word Play: What Happens When People Talk. i ) Describe the meanings of the new verbs in the following sentences. 1982). a) b) c) d) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) We punk-rocked the night away. Recommended Reading Clark. 1973). He dog-teamed his way across the arctic. "When Nouns Surface As Verbs" in Lunguage 55 (1979). He Khaddafi'd the American Embassy. New York: Bantam Books. Hale's article "Person Marking in Walbiri" in A Fmtschrift for Morris Halle. ii) Create five verbs from nouns. Matthei. We can create verbs from nouns as discussed in section 1. Rinehart and Winston. "When Nouns Surface As Verbs.

You was out when 1 called. My car needs cleaned 'cause of al1 the rain. Max cleaned the garden up. Max cleaned up it. Colin made Jane a sandwich. Murray hurt hisself in the game. describe the reason for its unacceptability and change the sentence to make it acceptable. each of which is acceptable to some speakers of English.CHAPTER ONE a) b) c) d) mbood frall coofp ktleem e) f) g) h) sproke flube worpz bsarn ii) Create four new forms that would be accepted by native spe8kers of English and four that would not. Jim and me are gonna go campin' this weekend. There's twenty horses registered in the show. 3. so be careful. Julie ain't got none. Me and Peter walked to school. . Somebody left their book on the train. This is the man who 1 took a picture of. Try to identify the prescriptive rules that are violated in each case. 1s the dog sleeping the bone again? Wayne prepared Zena a cake. That you likes liver surprises me. 4. a) b) c) d) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) 1) m) He don't know about the race. Part of linguistic competence involves the ability to recognize whether novel utterances are acceptable. Miriam is eager to talk to. Consider the following sentences and determine which are possible sentences in English. That window's broke. 1 desire you to leave. Max cleaned up the garden. a) b) c) d) e) : f) S g) h) i) j) k) Jason's mother left himself with nothing to eat. Consider the following sentences. He been lost in the woods for ten days. Who did you come with? 1 seen the parade last week. but not to others. For each unacceptable sentence.