Saturday, December 17, 2011

thinking scientifically about language

I just submitted my grades for my fall LING 101 course, and I'm busy preparing for my spring LING 101 course, so the question of how to get people to think scientifically about language has been much on my mind recently. I've found that one of the most useful entry-level questions is "How is human language difference from other forms of animal communication?" The media loves animal language stories, and so the uniqueness and complexity of human language is one of the first things I cover. One of the most important things about discussing such topics is not "Is human language unique?", but "What concrete properties of human language distinguish it from animal communication?" We're doing science, and so we want to point to specific criteria to distinguish the two; we want a theory of human language that predicts specific empirical facts. This is not how the general public usually thinks about language (or about anything; critical thinking is far removed from the natural pattern of human cognition).

Another topic I've always wanted to cover in more detail is speech perception. Often when I tell non-linguists that I work on how we perceive speech sounds and assign them to various categories, I get blank stares. Certainly before I was in linguistics I gave no thought to speech perception. When I lived in Italy in elementary school it was inconceivable to me that Italian speakers couldn't understand English; my first hypothesis (admittedly quickly discarded) was that when someone spoke English they simply heard nothing. We think of language as magic: direct communication from one mind to another. It takes a bit of work to transition into the type of thinking that evaluates the creation of sound by the human vocal tract and analyses how these sounds are transmitted as vibrations through the air, and then perceived by the human auditory and perceptual apparati (yes, I know that's not the proper Latinate plural). The question of how we distinguish a bilabial nasal from an alveolar nasal is not a natural one to ask, but it's an important question for linguists.

These are some of the basic concepts I'm planning to use in my 101 class next semester. If anyone has suggestions for other concepts useful for introducing people to the scientific study of language, I'd be glad to hear about them in the comments.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

nominal tense

I read a headline the other day that gave me pause: "Cleveland to demolish serial killer's home". The reading I got initially was that someone charged with murder was living in a house, and the city of Cleveland was getting ready to tear it down, perhaps as additional punishment for the man's heinous crime. Of course, in reality the article was about the demolition of the house where the serial killer had lived and disposed of the bodies of his victims. It would be rather strange to demolish a home just because a criminal had formerly occupied it, but it makes perfect sense to demolish a home that had been used as a crime scene and tomb. I think it was "home" that threw me off -- this calls to mind homey connotations for me, rather that simply referring to an inhabited structure.

Another source of ambiguity is that English has no nominal tense. (There are numerous theoretical reasons to distinguish nominal "tense" from relative-to-utterance-time markers on verbs, but I'll stick with the term here since it's descriptively useful, especially in languages that use the same affixes on nouns and verbs.) In English, when I say "my house", it could mean a number of different things depending on context. I could say "I like my house", meaning the one I currently occupy, or I could say "My house was small", discussing the one I grew up in. To overtly signify that the house in question either no longer exists or is no longer attached to me, I could use "former". Some languages (such as Wakashan languages), on the other hand, have tense affixes that attach to nouns as well as verbs. The most natural translation in English is usually something like "my former house", with the ambiguity between whether the house is former because it no longer exists or still exists but is no longer in my possession. If we all spoke Nitinaht, maybe the headline would have been less ambiguous. Or maybe not.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

some, or all?

I ran into some difficulty during a LING 101 lecture the other day. I was talking about entailments, and focusing specifically on superset/subset relations. I started with some simple examples: "I eat bacon" entails "I eat meat", because bacon is a type of meat. I then moved on to what I considered were essentially identical statements. One of these was "John hates music" entails "John hates country music". Here I started getting blank looks. Several people didn't understand why this was the case, since John could hate some other type of music. After a second of musing, I found the problem: mass and bare plural nouns in English. If I say "John hates music", this can mean one of two things. The first is what I had in mind: that John hates all music. On this reading, "John hates music" entails "John hates country music", because country music is a subset of all music. However, there is another reading for "John hates music": that there is some type of music that John hates. On this reading "John hates music" does not entail "John hates country music", because John's hating black metal could satisfy the "some music" reading of "John hates music" without satisfying "John hates country music". General plurals (and mass nouns like "music") have a funny way of interacting with verbs in ambiguous ways, a fact that has led Mark Liberman to propose a voluntary ban on generic plurals to express statistical differences between populations.