Linguistics

By David A. Cooper

There are many different areas of study within linguistics, but most of them are rather woolly. The area that I find most interesting is grammar, and in particular the way in which language is related to the structure of the thoughts which underly spoken sentences. Sentences have to be linear so that they can be spoken, but they represent thoughts based on tangled networks of ideas which must be translated into linear strings before they can be spoken, and they then have to be translated back into networks before they can be understood by others. The process of turning a network into a string is much harder than turning the string back into a network, and this is why many intelligent animals seem to understand what people say to them, but are unable to communicate their own complex thoughts in return. Young children are the same: they can understand complex language before they are able to speak, and yet it takes a long time for their ability to speak to catch up with their level of understanding. Many "experts" believe that the level of children's speech closely mirrors their actual level of understanding, but they are badly mistaken in this. I can still remember an event when I was about twelve months old where I had complex thoughts and understood a number of things which were said to me that should, according to the experts, be far beyond the capability of a child who hasn't yet learned to speak. These experts even deny that it is possible to remember being that young, claiming that any memories an adult has of being under the age of three are false. I obviously don't regard them as experts, but that's a discussion for another place.
indentI have learned the basics of over forty languages in order to study their structures, and the ones I have looked at fit into two categories: inward-reading and outward-reading. Outward-reading languages start in the centre of the network of ideas that make up a thought and read all the branches outwards from the centre, while inward-reading languages do the opposite, starting at the ends of branches and working in towards the centre. English is an outward-reading language, though it does have a number of inward-reading features, while Japanese is entirely inward-reading. The English sentence: "the fat man that you met shot the ugly cat owned by the woman who eats snails" comes from the thought:-
                   you             woman - eats - snails
                     \               |
                     met            owns
                       \             |
                       man - shot - cat
                        |             \    
                       is             is
                        |               \
                       fat              ugly
The central idea of the thought is that a man shot a cat. The other branches are read outwards from there, so the part saying "you met man" is read as "the man (that) you met", with the man mentioned first, and the same thing happens with the part saying "woman owns cat" which is converted into "the cat owned by the woman", the cat being mentioned first. The "is fat" and "is ugly" branches are read inwards in English, coming ahead of the man and the cat that they link to, but many other outward-reading languages would read these branches outwards as well, saying "man fat" and "cat ugly" instead of "fat man" and "ugly cat". After the woman is mentioned, we continue to go out along that branch to the bit about her eating snails. Inward-reading languages like Japanese are radically different because they start at the end of the branches, even when the branches are long. The sentence in Japanese might be something like this: you met fat man, snails eats woman owns ugly cat shot. The most important word is saved up till last (the verb "shot") and it is only then that the two main players (the man and the cat) are connected together. To my mind, this is a horribly awkward word order, but perhaps the Japanese feel the same way about outward-reading languages.
indentEnglish reads possessive branches inwards by using the 's construction, as in "John's book", but most outward-reading languages have to say "the book of John" instead. When the possessive branch is rather longer, this inward-reading behaviour of English tends to break down: "I'm the boy who broke your window's uncle" usually needs to be turned into "I'm the uncle of the boy who broke your window", but in Japanese there is no outward-reading construction to retreat to, so they have to say "I, your window broke boy's uncle am". A rare inward-reading feature of English is found in the expression "shoot-'em-up games" which could otherwise be expressed as "games in which one shoots people up" (the "up" in this case meaning "to completion", as in "eat up" or "tidy up"). Another example is "glow-in-the-dark stickers" (stickers that glow in the dark). It is extremely rare for English to move the content of a relative clause in front of its noun in this way, but it is the standard way to do things in Japanese with any relative clause. Relative clauses are the way a language deals with the conversion of a network to a string wherever a branch is encountered. The adjective in "fat man" is a disguised relative clause, as can be seen when it is decompressed: "a man who is fat". When a relative clause is put in front of its noun it then behaves like an adjective, so "a spider that eats birds" can be converted into "a bird-eating spider". Languages like Japanese take things a lot further, converting "a spider that eats birds in my garden" into "my garden-in birds eats spider", where "my garden-in birds eat" behaves as if it is a very long adjective. It takes a long time for English speakers to get used to the word order of Japanese, and it is the biggest difficulty they face when trying to learn that language.
indentJapanese adjectives behave more like verbs in some ways, being able to change tense. If you remember that a "fat man" is a "man who is fat", then you could also say "an is-fat man". It is then easy to see that you could say "a was-fat man", so that has effectively become a past tense adjective. Japanese adjectives are even more like verbs in sentences like "he is fat", because the word "fat" already means "is-fat" and so there is no need for an extra "is" to be used, although an extra "is" is often added anyway, though for an entirely different reason to do with politeness, but that's another issue. You may think it strange that there can be such a blurring of the difference between adjectives and verbs, but things go much further than that. Verbs can easily turn into nouns. Take a look at the verb in this sentence: "he kicked the ball". Now here is a sentence with exactly the same meaning, but the kick has become a noun: "he gave the ball a kick". "He kicked the ball hard" is also the same as "the kick he gave the ball was hard", except that the latter sentence draws attention to a specific aspect of the event which means that the two sentences are only exactly equivalent if the last word of the first one is emphasised. If we look at this sentence in network form, it has the following shape:-
                             he - kicked - ball
                                     |
                                    was
                                     |
                                   hard
Whether a verb turns into a noun or not depends on how the net is translated into a linear sentence. When you break them down properly, adjectives turn into nouns as well. "A hard kick" is "a kick that is hard", and that in turn is a compressed form of "a kick that has a force that has an amount that is substantial", though as we dig deeper into the components of meaning that underlie any sentence we soon get to the point where standard words are not precise enough in their meaning to do the job properly. Prepositions also break down into chains of verbs and nouns when we look at the meanings behind them, so "he is in the kitchen" turns into "he has position that is part of the interior of the kitchen". Notice that the word "of" is a backwards version of 's: "the kitchen's interior's part is the location that he has. In network form, "he is in the kitchen" looks like this:-
                           kitchen
                              |
                             has
                              |
                           interior - has - part
                                              |
                                             is
                                              |
                               he - has - position
In Japanese this sentence can be expressed as: "he kitchen's interior at is". Similarly, "the dog is under the table" would be "the dog, table's underneath at is". So, Japanese is often closer than English to the deep structure of the idea that underlies a sentence, perhaps because of the way Japanese people have to think their way inwards towards the core of an idea instead of going outwards as we do in English, although they do have to think their way out from the core first before speaking their way back in from the far end when they find it, so perhaps it doesn't really make any difference. The important thing to understand is that the ideas underlying sentences ultimately take the form of SVO groups of words (subject, verb and object), joined up into networks. The "subject" of a sentence, if there is only one, is the thing that carries out the action of the verb, while the "object" it the thing that has that action carried out upon it, though this description doesn't always fit as some verbs aren't actions (such as being or resembling), while other verbs make no impact on their object (eg. looking at things). It is also possible to have two verbs which work in opposite directions, so in Spanish you would say "it pleases me" instead of "I like it". What matters is that verbs connect two nouns in some way, and one will always be its subject while the other is its object. Every sentence can be broken down into networks of SVO groups, and this system of analysis is known as SVO-Net Grammar. Some verbs take more than one object, such as "combine" in "he combined iron and carbon to make steel", though you could say that "iron and steel" is actually a single object. There are many other complications with SVO-Net Grammar, but we won't discuss them here.
indentWe've looked at nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions, but what about the other main types of word? A conjunction is rather like a preposition, but it connects at SVO-Net level to a verb instead of to a noun, and it is really more of a kind of superverb. The following diagrams will explain what I mean:-
                            he - went - home
                                   |
                                before
                                   |
                          lady - sang - (song)
                            |
                           is
                            |
                           fat
That represents the sentence "he went home before the fat lady sang", but it is clearer if we use a verb instead of a conjunction, as follows:-
                            he - went - home
                                   |
                                precedes
                                   |
                          lady - sang - (song)
                            |
                           is
                            |
                           fat
The main verb in the sentence is actually hidden inside the preposition when we turn the net into a linear sentence and the main subject and object are two other verbs. Some conjunction words can also be used as prepositions, connecting two nouns instead of two verbs, as in "the day before Monday", but when you build the complete net for this you need to extend things to something more like "the day whose occurrance precedes the occurrance of Monday. The other main category of word is the adverb, but this is a kind of dustbin category into which all manner of misidentified words get flung. What I like to think of as true adverbs are simply adjectives used to describe verbs instead of nouns, so "hard" is an adjective in "hard kick", but it's an adverb in "he kicked it hard". You can tell that this is the case if you replace it with a different word: "he kicked it softly" - that's a "soft kick". Perhaps "hard" would turn into "hardly" if the latter didn't already have a special meaning of its own. "Hardly" is in fact a word like "not" and "nearly", and it's therefore closer to being a number than a normal adverb. "Very" is also more of a number, being a form of "much". I won't go into any more detail on adverbs because it would need to take us into some industrial secrets relating to artificial intelligence.


Tense

Everyone is familiar with the idea that there are three tenses (past, present and future), but there are actually quite a few more. Most people think that the verb in "he eats fish" is in the present tense, but is that really the case? He might not be eating fish right now, and he may suddenly decide never to eat fish again, so it's really a description of past events and an expectation of continued future ones. Because it refers to more than one event, it is in fact a plural verb. The real singular present tense is found in "he is eating fish". The past tense singular form of the sentence is "he ate fish", while the plural is either the same as the singular or "he used to eat fish", though the latter also implies that he then stopped eating them for a long length of time. The future singular and plural both take the form "he shall/will eat fish".
indentThere is also a "recently happened" tense, "he has (just) eaten it", and a "soon to happen" tense, "he is about to eat it", or "he is going to eat it". Similar tenses exist for events in the past: "he had (just) eaten it"; "he was about to eat it"; "he was going to eat it"; and the same happens again in the future: "he will have eaten it"; he will be about to eat it"; "he will be going to eat it". There is also a double past tense which takes the same form as the recently happened tense, as you can see in the sentence "he was a teacher, but he had been a doctor".
indentThere is another tense which I call the "tick tense": you can use it to describe things that you have done in your life or during a certain time, so it's like ticking off items in a list of your ambitions, or a list of things which you may want to avoid happening. In English this again takes the same form as the "recently happened" tense, so this disguises the radical difference between "he has been to the shops" and "he has been to the moon". It really means "he went to the moon, made it back and is still alive today". "He has eaten a poisonous fish" can either be an expression of concern about an event which has just occurred, but if it is a tick tense, then it actually means: "he once ate a poisonous fish, survived, and is still alive today". The same idea can be hidden in other tenses, such as "he had been to France".
indentThere is also a special kind of plural present tense used in the sentence "people come here from all over the world", though in English it takes the same form as the standard plural present: while more than one journey is involved and they occur at different times, there may only be one journey involved for each person.
indentMany languages also have subjunctive tenses. In a sentence like "I hope he is alive" it is not known whether he is actually alive, so the verb "is" can be put into a special form to make it clear that it isn't necessarily the case. The way the subjunctive is actually used in languages is not always so rational: it may be that it is used with a verb following the verb "expect", but not with a verb following the verb "doubt", so it's a hit or miss business as to when to use subjunctive forms, but the original idea behind subjunctive tenses was a sound one. Many languages also have conditional tenses, meaning that they have a special form of verbs used in situations where English uses the word "would" (as in "I would if I could").
indentYou might think that's more than enough tenses, but the whole lot are repeated in the "passive", when the subject and object are switched round to the opposite sides of the verb: eg. it is being eaten by him; it has been eaten by him; etc.


Some Interesting Features of Various Lanuages

Hausa, a language spoken in parts of Africa (and one of four hundred spoken in Nigeria), is a beautiful lanugage which is worth learning for that reason alone, but its most interesting feature is the way that words like "it" and "he" have to be included with the verb even when the thing or person is fully described, so "the man saw the bird" has to be expressed as "the man he saw it the bird". This may not seem that interesting, and it may even seem silly because of the unnecessary extra words that have to be used, but is is significant because it gives a clue as to how languages evolve, as you will see shortly.
indentSwahili, another beautiful African language, also has this kind of repetition with words like "it" and "he", though this time they are fully incorporated into the verb, and they're also built into nouns and adjectives. There is a set of prefixes used with nouns such that most nouns have one of the following prefixes assigned to them: ki-, vi-, n-, m-, wa-, mi-, ma-, u-, pa-/ku-, mu-. An adjective or number used with a noun is given the same prefix as that noun, so "five men" would be expressed as "wa-man wa-five" (or in actual Swahili, "watu watano"). The same prefixes, or related ones, are repeated in the verb, so "the little children are reading the big book" becomes "wa-children wa-small wa-now-ki-read ki-book ki-big" (or more elegantly, "watoto wadogo wanakisoma kitabu kikubwa").
indentArabic does a similar thing, adding endings to verbs to indicate their subjects and objects, so "the man saw the bird" would be "saw-he-it the man the bird", while "he saw it" would simply be "saw-he-it" (a single word). Now that we have seen how these three languages attach bits into verbs to represent their subjects and objects, we can begin to imagine how the complex systems of word endings found in many European languages must have originated. If you take a quick look at the verb endings in french (click here) you will see a great deal of unnecessary complexity, far worse than the most complex English verb (I am, you are, he is, thou art, I was, you were, to be). In Spanish, the differences in endings are more useful because you can miss out the I/you/he-type word and just say the verb on its own (somos = we are), whereas in French the personal pronoun must be used as well (nous sommes = we are). Many of the different endings are now pointless, but they have survived from an earlier time when they were still useful. The same applies to the endings of nouns and adjectives. Many languages put different endings on them depending on whether they are the subject or object of a verb, as can be seen in Esperanto (an artificial language) where the object takes the ending -n: "la viro vidis la birdon" means "the man saw the bird". In Esperanto, all nouns end in -o, unless another ending is added to that. Adjectives end in -a, so "the little man saw the big bird" is "la malgranda viro vidis la grandan birdon". Like in Latin, it is possible to change the word order to an extreme degree without changing the meaning at all, and the adjectives can even be put with the wrong nouns because the endings will always reveal the true connections: "la malgranda birdon la grandan viro vidis" means the same as "la malgranda viro vidis la grandan birdon". I don't know if any Esperanto speakers ever do that in real life, but Latin speakers certainly do. The grammar of Esperanto is simple, but the natural language which add such endings to nouns and adjectives are anything but: there can be multiple sets of endings to do exactly the same things but with different nouns, and the adjectives have to take endings from the right set of endings to go with the endings used by the noun that the adjective is attached to. The result of this is that you have to do ten times as much work to learn Russian as you need to do to learn French. The different groups of noun endings found in languages like Russian may be the result of a number of different languages or dialects of a language merging together into one, each of them bringing with it its own set of endings which persist with with all the nouns brought in from that language. Whatever the case, it does mean that you have to be extremely keen if you are ever to learn to speak Russian well, though it is not such a massive task to learn to understand and communicate in it.
indentEsperanto was created over a hundred years ago for use as an international language. It takes its vocabulary from a variety of European languages, using whichever words are most likely to be understood by the greatest number of people. It hasn't taken off, probably because it's long-winded and it sounds ugly, but it does have some interesting features, in particular in its attempts to reduce the number of words you need to learn in order to speak it. It has a word for big (granda), but instead of using a completely different word for small, it adds a prefix to the word for big instead (malgranda). This trick is used throughout the language, thus halving the number of adjectives that you need to learn. Another trick is used with nouns, so the word for house (domo) can be converted into the words for cottage and mansion just by adding affixes into it (dometo and domego), and again this trick is used throughout the language. Esperanto will now never succeed for another reason: films and pop music have made English the language that everyone wants to learn, and it makes a particularly good international language because it has junked all the complicated word endings that make so many other European languages a nightmare. There is no danger of English being pushed aside until a new artificial language comes along with a perfect grammer and a perfect system of vocabulary (where as many words as possible are logically derived from others). I have created such a language and will publish it some day, though it still needs a lot of fine-tuning before I'll be happy with the sound of it.
indentThere is a complication in many languages called "case". We have already seen this with Esperanto where an -n ending has to be added to any noun that is the object of a verb, so Esperanto is a language with two "cases". Some languages (including Russian) have a whole bunch of cases, meaning that they have many different noun endings which change the way the noun is tied into the sentence, often in bizarre ways. The origin of this system was fully rational: we saw it with Japanese where postpositions are used instead of prepositions, so they say "house in" instead of "in the house". In Finnish the postpositions have become word endings, so "house-in" is used instead of "house in" (if you learn Finnish you'll get the feel for how these endings are part of the words they attach to rather than just being separate words which happen to follow them). In Russian this becomes much more complicated because prepositions are used as well, so we now have "in house-in". It looks as if two languages have merged: one with prepositions and one with postpositional endings, and both systems have survived. The result of this is that the original meanings of the prepositions and postpositional endings have been able to become blurred, and this makes it hard to predict which preposition and endings are needed for all the different possible meanings that you might want to express. If you want to say "with something" or "without something", "the something" will take a different ending for each of these, even though there is no obvious reason why it should need to do so. There are often several different prepositions and several different endings for you to choose from which might combine to form the meaning you're looking for, so there's a lot of learning to be done.
indentChinese is a simple language much like English, though it is inward-reading like Japanese, so you have to get your mind round the business of relative clauses comeing before the noun they describe. Chinese verbs don't change for different tenses, so you have to use timewords to show tense instead (eg. "tomorrow I go"). It is a relatively easy language to learn, but unfortunately it is a tone language, meaning that the meanings of words can change radically depending on the musical pitch at which they are spoken, and most of them actually slide from one pitch to another. It is this that gives Chinese its distinctive oriental sound, a sound which is also mirrored in Chinese music. It is often said that Chinese is very logical, but this is not really the case: it is just the impression people get from the simple way it does certain things, such as saying "very not good" instead of "very bad". In logical terms the meaning of "very not good" doesn't imply any badness at all. Modern Chinese words have lost some of their clarity because of the simplification of their syllables: the consonants have been stripped off the ends, so many words which used to be distinct from each other are now identical. The result of this is that where words used to be expressed mainly as single syllables, they now typically built out of two syllables, and the meaning of the two when combined is the meaning shared by both syllables (out of the many meanings which each is capable of carrying). In writing, however, the meaning can be clear from a single syllable because there is a different written character for each meaning of the syllable, so it is possible to write things which are perfectly clear in their meaning using single syllables instead of doubles, but the meaning is lost the moment it is read out loud to someone who hasn't seen it written down.

Universal Grammar

Linguistics has for most of its history been a soft subject, a place where people take refuge when they have failed to hack it in other fields of study. This began to change when Noam Chomsky (nom ttqmsci) shook things up. He began to break beneath the surface of language and to search for the deeper structures underneath. He eventually came up with the idea that there is a universal grammar underlying all languages, and this idea was popularised in a book "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker. The idea is that many grammatical rules must be genetically programmed into us. Much as I like Chomsky and Pinker and appreciate their contribution to the field, I'm sad to say that the theory of universal grammar is an absolute farce. Listen to the some of the "universals" listed in Pinker's book: no language forms questions by reversing the order of words in a sentence (that do to want language any would why!); if a language uses nasal vowels it will also use non-nasal vowels (what's that got to do with grammar?); if a language has a word for "purple" it will also have a word for "red"; and if a language has a word for "leg" it will also have a word for "arm". It strikes me that the words "red" and "arm" are more important than the words "purple" and "leg", and that that is a better explanation than any idea that we are genetically programmed to make sure that any languages we create have to follow such pointless rules, and in any case, you could create a perfectly viable new language specially to prove each of these universals to be wrong. I haven't picked the most ridiculous of these so-called universals either: those were actually four of the six best ones.
indent The nearest thing to a convincing rule is the one relating to an experiment done with children between three and five years old. The child is told to "ask Jabba (a doll) if the boy who is unhappy is watching Mickey Mouse". The child successfully moves the correct "is" to the start of the sentence when turning this into a question, thus saying: "Is the boy who is unhappy watching Mickey Mouse?" No child ever moves the wrong "is", so they never say: "Is the boy who unhappy is watching Mickey Mouse?" We are supposed to take this as evidence for there being an innate grammatical rule, programmed into our genes. In reality, the child simply recognises that the "who is unhappy" part of the sentence is a relative clause, a branch in the network of the idea behind the sentence, and so he is not going to want to break it up by taking the "is" out from the middle of it. "The boy who is unhappy" is thus treated as a single item in the bigger sentence, so it is obvious that the "is" from the "is watching" part of the sentence it the one that must be moved to the start of the sentence to turn it into a question. Because many languages do the same thing (moving the main verb to the start of the sentence to form a question) and they always move the main verb rather than extracting a preceding one from inside a relative clause, this is claimed to be a universal innate rule! This is ludicrous: the sentence becomes nonsense if you move the wrong verb, so is it any wonder that no language ever does that? You don't need a universal rule to tell you not to join things up the wrong way. When you convert a sentence from the statement form to the question form, you don't just mechanically hunt for the first verb you come to and fling it to the front: you work out the meaning of the sentence first by turning the linear string into a network, and then you translate that back into the linerar string necessary for it to become a question, moving the main verb in the net to the front in the process.
indentThe remaining top "universal" rule relates to the following example. "John is too stubborn to talk to." Young children easily understand that this means there is no point talking to John, even though they are not used to hearing this kind of sentence: they don't take it to mean that he is too stubborn to talk to someone. The idea is that there must be some innate rule of universal grammar which stops them interpreting the sentence in the same way as they would with the sentence "John is too stubborn to eat". The truth is that the comparison between these two sentences is not valid, and young children are in fact perfectly familiar with the structure of the former sentence: it is much the same as "this box is too small to climb into". These lingusits have made an astonishingly basic error in not noticing that when a sentence ends in a preposition it leaves a space after it which must be filled with a noun from an earlier part of the sentence ("talk to John", "climb into this box"). That is what shows the child how to interpret the sentences. If you change the sentences to "John is too stubborn to talk" and "this box is too small to climb", then the indication is that John must be the subject of the verb "talk" and that the box is the subject of the verb "climb". Similarly, we can add a preposition or two to the other sentence to stop John being the subject of the verb "eat": "John is to stubborn to eat next to" - this doesn't make much logical sense, but it's absolutely clear that it is someone elso who can't tolerate being next to John when he is eating. It has nothing to do with any universal rules of grammar: it is simply that the sentence has made it clear by ending in a preposition that the head noun of the sentence logically connects into the net at the end point.
indentMany of the other "universal" rules are simply not universal at all: they are just tendencies. If a language has its verbs at the end of sentences rather than in the middle or at the beginning, it is more likely to have postpositions than prepositions. This is not a genetically programmed rule: it's simply the natural result of the difference in the way outward-reading and inward-reading languages translate between networks and linear sentences. The only real universal rule of grammar is that everything ultimately translates down into nets of SVO groups, and even then it is not certain that this is genetically programmed into us: it is possible that we just happen to have enough brain capacity to handle the conversion processes from nets to strings and that the only genetic programming necessary for this is the amount required to specify sufficient brain cells in the right places to enable us to reach that level of capability. There is a genetic fault in some people which leads to a condition called SLI, or specific language impairment. This condition results in people having difficulty with word endings in general, and it's as if many of these endings get lost in the post: they speak in a confuse way with many of the end of word miss out. Clearly there are genes involved in language - there have to be, or chimpanzees would be able to speak to us - but these genes are far more blunt instruments than anything which would formulate any of the kinds of proposed rules of universal grammar identified by Chomsky and his followers.