Great Ideas in Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgements

Today’s Great Idea in Linguistics comes to use from syntax. One interesting difference between syntax and other fields of linguistics is what is considered compelling evidence for a theory in syntax. The aim of transformational syntax is to produce a set of rules (originally phrase structure rules) that will let you produce all the grammatical sentences in a language and none of the ungrammatical ones.  So, if you’re proposing a new rule you need to show that the sentences it outputs are grammatical… but how do you do that?

Wessel smedbager04.jpg

I sentence you to ten hours of community service for ungrammatical utterances!

One way to test whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone’s said it before. Back in the day, before you had things like large searchable corpora–or, heck even the internet–this was  difficult, so say the least. Especially since the really interesting syntactic phenomena tend to be pretty rare. Lots of sentences have a subject and an object, but a lot fewer have things like wh-islands.

Another way is to see if someone will say it. This is a methodology that is often used in sociolinguistics research. The linguist interviews someone using questions that are specifically designed to elicit certain linguistic forms, like certain words or sounds. However, this methodology is chancy at best. Often times the person won’t produce whatever it is you’re looking for. Also it can be very hard to make questions or prompts to access very rare forms.

Another way to see whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone would say it. This is the type of evidence that has, historically, been used most often in syntax research. The concept is straightforward. You present a speaker of a language with a possible sentence and  they use thier intuition as a native speaker to determine whether it’s good (“grammatical”) or not (“ungrammatical”). These sentences are often outputs of a proposed structure and used to argue either for or against it.

However, in practice grammaticality judgements can occasionally be a bit more difficult. Think about the following sentences:

  • I ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This sounds pretty good to me. I’d say it’s “grammatical”.
  • *I did ate the carrot yesterday.
    • I put a star (*) in front of this sentence because it sounds bad to me, and I don’t think anyone would say it. I’d say it’s “ungrammatical”.
  • ? I done ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This one is a little more borderline. It’s actually something I might say, but only in a very informal context and I realize that not everyone would say it.

So if you were a syntactician working on these sentences, you’d have to decide whether your model should account for the last sentence or not. One way to get around this is by building probability into the syntactic structure. So I’m more likely to use a structure that produces the first example but there’s a small probability I might use the structure in the third example. To know what those probabilities are, however, you need to figure out how likely people are to use each of the competing structures (and whether there are other factors at play, like dialect) and for that you need either lots and lots of grammaticality judgements. It’s a new use of a traditional tool that’s helping to expand our understanding of language.

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Great Ideas in Linguistics: Paradigm Levelling

One of the great things about being human is our ability to figure patterns and then apply them in new situations. In fact, that pretty much describes the vast bulk of scientific inquiry– someone notices a thing, notices other things like it, figures that they must be motivated by some underlying process and then tries to figure it out. From gravity to DNA to the fact that maybe DDT wasn’t such a panacea after all, all important scientific discoveries have sprung from that same general process of recognizing patterns.

And that process is at work in language as well. Let’s take a look at the following way of conjugating English verbs.

I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walks                    They walk

Now, if you’re the noticing type of person you might find that there’ s a glaring problem that’s messing up an otherwise nice, predictable pattern: that odd out-of-place “s” in “She walks.” Why, it’s downright irksome. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get rid of it entirely and have a nice, lovely, completely predictable conjugation like this one:

I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walk                   They walk

Of course it would. And in fact, there are some speakers of English who do just that. Dropping the third person singular “s”, as it turns out, is a common feature of African American English. And if similar processes in other languages, such as Latin, are any guide, we may all one day adopt this entirely sensible practice, which is commonly referred to as “paradigm levelling”.

In fact, English has already undergone a massive process of morphological simplification, including a lot of paradigm levelling, once before. During the transition from Old English to Middle English, we lost a whole bucketful of cases and person markings. This was partly due to language contact in the Danelaw, where Viking settlers interacted and intermarried with the local English-speaking population. Being no-nonsense second language learners, they did away with a lot of the odder patterns and left us with something that much more closely resembled the comparatively morphologically streamlined English of today.

And the same process has occurred over and over again the world’s languages.  People notice that something isn’t what you’d expect, given the pattern in place, and choose to follow the pattern rather than historical precedent, tidying away some of the messiness that inevitably creeps into languages over time. Paradigm levelling is a powerful force for linguistic change and a useful theoretical tool in historical linguistics.

Five tips for your first linguistics class*

So it’s getting to be the time of year when colleges start back up again (at least here in the US). And with that comes a whole batch of eager students taking their first linguistics class. If that’s you: congratulations! You’re going to embark on an academic journey that will forever change the way you look at language. But I’m sure you also have a lot of questions about what to expect and how to do well in a linguistics class. Well you’re in luck, because today I’m going to share my top five ten tips for doing well in an introductory linguistics class. These are drawn from my experiences both as a teacher and a student and I hope they help you as you begin to become a linguist.

  1. Expect rigour! Just to clarify here, by “rigour” I don’t mean difficulty. Rather, I mean rigour in the mathematical sense. Linguistics is a very exact discipline and part of learning how to be a linguist is learning how to carefully, precisely solve problems. There will be right and wrong answers. You may be expected to explain how you solved a problem. If you come from a background with a lot of mathematics or formal logic  linguistics problems will feel probably very familiar to you. (I have a friend, now a math PhD candidate, who really enjoyed phonology because, in his words, “It’s applied set theory!”.) A lot of students who have an interest in language from literary or foreign-language studies are often surprised by this aspect of linguistics courses, however.
  2. Be prepared for a little bit of memorization. Every introductory linguistics course I’m familiar with covers the International Phonetic Alphabet pretty early on in the class and students are expected to memorize at least part of it. I’m a fan of this, since knowing IPA is a pretty handy life skill and it allows you solve phonology problems much more quickly. But it can be a nasty surprise if you’re not ready for it and don’t set aside enough time for studying.
  3. Get ready to unlearn. You speak at least one language. You’re in college. You know a fair amount about how language works… right? Well, yes, but not in the way you think. You’re going to have to unlearn a lot of things you’ve been taught about language, especially about what you should do/write/say and a lot of the “grammar rules” you’ve been taught. Again, this can be frustrating for a lot of students. You’ve spent a long time laboriously learning about language, you’ve obviously developed enough of an interest in language to take a linguistics course, and in the first week of class we basically tell you you’ve been lied to! This can actually be a blessing in disguise, though. It lets the whole class start out at a similar place and you’ll be learning the basics of morphology and syntax right along with you classmates. Study group, anyone?
  4. Be patient with yourself. Introductory linguistics classes are always a bit of a whirlwind. You’re swept from subdispline to subdisipline and just as soon as you’re feeling comfortable with morphology suddenly it’s on to syntax with no chance to catch your breath. It’s just the nature of a introductory survey course, though; it’s a tasting menu, not a a la carte. Remember what catches your interest and pursue it in more coursework or readings later, don’t try to do it all just as you’re encountering ideas and methods for the first time.
  5. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid of asking for extra help! Go to office hours if you don’t understand something. Form a study group. (It’s even better if you can get people from different academic backgrounds.) There are also lots of great resources online. This blog post has a lot of great resources and this post gives a lot of great, really concrete advice about doing assignments in  intro linguistics courses.

But it’s also really important just to relax and have fun. You’ll cover a lot of material, granted, but that also means you’ll learn a lot! And introductory courses tend to be a great place to learn lots of fun facts and find the answers to language mysteries that have been niggling at you. Welcome to linguistics; I think you’re going to like it.

*Don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to the Great Ideas in Linguistics series after these short messages.

Great ideas in linguistics: Language acquisition

Courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood rng, this week’s great idea in linguistics is… language acquisition! Or, in other words, the process of learning  a language. (In this case, learning your first language when you’re a little baby, also known as L1 acquisition; second-language learning, or L2 acquisition, is a whole nother bag of rocks.) Which begs the question: why don’t we just call it language learning and call it a day? Well, unlike learning to play baseball, turn out a perfect soufflé or kick out killer DPS, learning a language seems to operate under a different set of rules. Babies don’t benefit from direct language instruction and it may actually hurt them.

In other words:

Language acquisition is process unique to humans that allows us to learn our first language without directly being taught it.

Which doesn’t sound so ground-breaking… until you realize that that means that language use is utterly unique among human behaviours. Oh sure, we learn other things without being directly taught them, even relatively complex behaviours like swallowing and balancing. But unlike speaking, these aren’t usually under concious control and when they are it’s usually because something’s gone wrong. Plus, as I’ve discussed before, we have the ability to be infinitely creative with language. You can learn to make a soufflé without knowing what happens when you combine the ingredients in every possible combination, but knowing a language means that you know rules that allow you to produce all possible utterances in that language.

So how does it work? Obviously, we don’t have all the answers yet, and there’s a lot of research going on on how children actually learn language. But we do know what it generally tends to look like, precluding things like language impairment or isolation.

  1. Vocal play. The kid’s figured out that they have a mouth capable of making noise (or hands capable of making shapes and movements) and are practising it. Back in the day, people used to say that infants would make all the sounds of all the world’s languages during this stage. Subsequent research, however, suggests that even this early children are beginning to reflect the speech patterns of people around them.
  2. Babbling. Kids will start out with very small segments of language, then repeat the same little chunk over and over again (canonical babbling), and then they’ll start to combine them in new ways (variegated babbling). In hearing babies, this tends to be syllables, hence the stereotypical “mamamama”. In Deaf babies it tends to be repeated hand motions.
  3. One word stage. By about 13 months, most children will have begun to produce isolated words. The intended content is often more than just the word itself, however. A child shouting “Dog!” at this point could mean “Give me my stuffed dog” or “I want to go see the neighbour’s terrier” or “I want a lion-shaped animal cracker” (since at this point kids are still figuring out just how many four-legged animals actually are dogs). These types of sentences-in-a-word are known as holophrases.
  4. Two word stage. By two years, most kids will have moved on to two-word phrases, combining words in way that shows that they’re already starting to get the hang of their language’s syntax. Morphology is still pretty shaky, however: you’re not going to see a lot of tense markers or verbal agreement.
  5. Sentences. At this point, usually around age four, people outside the family can generally understand the child. They’re producing complex sentences and have gotten down most, if not all, of the sounds in their language.

These general stages of acquisition are very robust. Regardless of the language, modality or even age of acquisition we still see these general stages. (Although older learners may never completely acquire a language due to, among other things, reduced neuroplasticity.) And the fact they do seem to be universal is yet more evidence that language acquisition is a unique process that deserves its own field of study.

Great ideas in linguistics: Sociolinguistics

I’ll be the first to admit: for a long time, even after I’d begun my linguistics training, I didn’t really understand what sociolinguistics was. I had the idea that it mainly had to do with discourse analysis, which is certainly a fascinating area of study, but I wasn’t sure it would weighty enough to serve as the basis for a major discipline of linguistics. Fortunately, I’ve learned a great deal about sociolinguistics since that time.

Sociolinguistics is the sub-field of linguistics that studies language in its social context and derives explanatory principles from it. By knowing about the language, we can learn something about a social reality and vice versa.

Now, at first glance this may seem so intuitive that it’s odd someone would to the trouble of stating it directly. As social beings, we know that the behaviour of people around us is informed by their identities and affiliations. At the extreme of things it can be things like having a cultural rule that literally forbids speaking to your mother-in-law, or requires replacing the letters “ck” with “cc” in all written communication. But there are more subtle rules in place as well, rules which are just as categorical and predictable and important. And if you don’t look at what’s happening with the social situation surrounding those linguistic rules, you’re going to miss out on a lot.

Case in point: Occasionally you’ll here phonologists talk about sound changes being in free variation, or rules that are randomly applied. BUT if you look at the social facts of the community, you’ll often found that there is no randomness at all. Instead, there are underlying social factors that control which option a person makes as they’re speaking. For example, if you were looking at whether people in Montreal were making r-sounds with the front or back of the tongue and you just sampled a bunch of them you might find that some people made it one way most of the time and others made it the other way most of the time. Which is interesting, sure, but doesn’t have a lot of explanatory power.

However, if you also looked at the social factors associated with it, and the characteristics of the individuals who used each r-sound, you might notice something interesting, as Clermont and Cedergren did (see the illustration). They found that younger speakers preferred the back-of-the-mouth r-sound, while older people tended to use the tip of the tongue instead. And that has a lot more explanatory power. Now we can start asking questions to get at the forces underlying that pattern: Is this the way the younger people have always talked, i.e. some sort of established youthful style, or is there a language change going on and they newer form is going to slowly take over? What causes younger speakers to use the the form they do? Is there also an effect of gender, or who you hang out with?


Figure one from Sankoff and Blondeau. 2007. (Click picture to look at the whole study.) As you can see, younger speakers are using [R] more than older speakers, and the younger a speaker is the more likely they are to use [R].

And that’s why sociolinguistics is all kinds of awesome. It lets us peel away and reveal some of the complexity surrounding language. By adding sociological data to our studies, we can help to reduce statistical noise and reveal new and interesting things about how language works, what it means to be a language-user, and why we do what we do.




New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
    • Paradigm levelling
    • Case
    • Tense and aspect
    • Affixes
  • Syntax
    • Hierarchical structure
    • Competence vs. Performance
    • Movement
    • Grammaticality judgements
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics

How to Take Care of your Voice

Inflammation, polyps and nodules, oh my! Learn about some common problems that can affect your voice and how to avoid them, all in a shiny new audio format. For more tips about caring for your vocal folds and more information about rarer problems like tumours or paralysis, check out this page or this page.

Why can’t dogs choke?

And, a related question, why can they bark but not speak? The answer has to do with one of the things that makes us both human and also significantly more vulnerable, right up there with brains so big they make birth potentially fatal. (Hardly a triumph of effective design.) You see, the human larynx, though in many ways very similar to that of other mammals, has a few key differences. It’s much further down in the neck and it’s pulled the tongue down with it. As a result, we have the unique and rather stupid ability to choke to death on our own food. Of course, an anatomical handicap of that magnitude must have been compensated for by something else, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And the pay-off in this case was pretty awesome: speech.

Alfred Dedreux - Pug Dog in an Armchair.jpg

All the comforts of agriculture, air conditioning and medicine and he can still breathe and swallow at the same time, the smug pup.

But what does all this have to do with dogs? Well, dogs do have a larynx that looks very like humans’. In fact, they make sound in very similar ways: by forcing air through abducted vocal folds. But dogs have a very short vocal folds and they’re scrunched up right above the root of the tongue. This has two main effects:

  1. There’s a very limited number of possible tongue positions available to dogs during phonation. This means that dogs aren’t able to modulate air with the same degree of fine control that we humans are. (Which is why Scooby-Doo sounds like he really needs some elocution lessons.) We do have this control, and that’s what gives us the capacity to make so many different speech sounds.
  2. Dogs have their soft palate touching their epiglottis when they’re at rest. The soft palate is the spongy bit of tissue at the back of your mouth that separates your nasal and oral cavities. The epiglottis is a little piece of tongue-shaped or leaf-shaped cartilage in your throat that flips down to neatly cover your esophagus when you swallow. If they touch, then you’ve got a complete separation between your food-tube and your air-tube and choking becomes a non-issue.

Some humans have that same whole palate-epiglottis-kissing things going on: very young babies. You can see what I’m talking about here. That and how proportionally huge the tongue is is probably why babies can acquire sign quite a bit before they can start speaking; their vocal instruments just aren’t fully developed yet. The upside of this is that babies also don’t have to worry about choking to death.

But once the larynx drops, breathing and swallowing require a bit more coordination. For one thing, while you’re swallowing breathing is suppressed in the brain-stem, so that even if you’re unconscious you don’t try to breathe in your own saliva. We also have a very specific pattern of breath while we’re eating. Try paying attention next time you sit down to a meal: while you’re eating or drinking you tend to stick to a pattern of exhale — swallow — exhale. That way you avoid incoming air trying to carry little bits of food or water into your lungs. (Aspiration pneumonia ain’t no joke.)

So your dog doesn’t choke for the same reason it can’t strike up a conversation with you: its larynx is too high. Who knows? Maybe in a few hundred years, and with a bit of clever genetic engineering, dogs will be talking, and choking, along with us.

That doesn’t mean that something large or oddly-shaped can’t get stuck in esophagus, though.

Why do people talk in their sleep?

Sleep-talking (or “Somniloquy”, as us fancy-pants scientist people call it) is a phenomena where a sleeping person starts talking. For example, the internet sensation The Sleep Talkin Man. Sleep talking can range from grunts or moans to relatively clear speech. While most people know what sleep talking is (there was even a hit song about it that’s older than I am) fewer people know what causes it.

A.Cortina El sueño

Sure, she looks all peaceful, but you should hear her go on.

To explain what happens when someone’s talking in their sleep, we first need to talk about 1) what happens during sleep and 2) what happens when we talk normally.

  • Sleeping normally: One of the weirder things about sleep talking is that it happens at all. When you’re asleep normally, your muscles undergo atony during the stage of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep. Basically, your muscles release and go into a state of relaxation or paralysis. If you’ve ever woken suddenly and been unable to move, it’s because your body is still in that state. This serves an important purpose: when we dream we can rehearse movements without actually moving around and hurting ourselves. Of course, the system isn’t perfect. When your muscles fail to “turn off” while you dream, you’ll end up acting out your dream and sleep walking. This is particularly problematic for people with narcolepsy.
  • Speaking while awake: So speech is an incredibly complex process. Between a tenth and a third of a second before you begin to speak you start brain activation in the insula. This is where you plan the movements you’ll need to successfully speak. These come in three main stages, that I like to call breathing, vibrating and tonguing. All speech comes from breath, so you need to inhale in preparation for speaking. Normal exhalation won’t work for speaking, though–it’s too fast–so you switch on your intercostal muscles, in the walls of your ribcage, to help your lungs empty more slowly. Next, you need to tighten your vocal folds as you force air through them. This makes them vibrate (like so) and gives you the actual sound of your voice. By putting different amounts of pressure on your vocal folds you can change your pitch or the quality of your voice. Finally, your mouth needs to manipulate the buzzing sound your vocal folds make to make the specific speech sounds you need. You might flick your tongue, bring your teeth to your lips, or open your soft palate so that air goes through your nose instead of your mouth. And voila! You’re speaking.

Ok, so, it seems like sleep talking shouldn’t really happen, then. When you’re asleep your muscles are all turned off and they certainly don’t seem up to the multi-stage process that is speech production. Besides, there’s no need for us to be making speech movements anyway, right? Wrong. You actually use your speech planning processes even if you’re not planning to speak aloud. I’ve already talked about the motor theory of speech perception, which suggests that we use our speech planning mechanisms to understand speech. And it’s not just speech perception. When reading silently, we still plan out the speech movements we’d make if we were to read out loud (though the effect is smaller with more fluent readers). So you sometimes do all the planning work even if you’re not going to say anything… and one of the times you do that is when you’re asleep. Usually, your muscles are all turned off when you’re asleep. But, sometimes, especially in young children or people with PTSD, the system will occasionally stop working as well. And if it happens to stop working when you’re dreaming that you’re talking and therefore planning out your speech movements? You start sleep talking.

Of course, all of this means that some of the things that we’ve all heard about about sleep talking are actually myths. Admissions of guilt while asleep, for example, aren’t reliable and not admissible in court. (Unless, of course, you really did put that purple beaver in the banana pudding.) It’s also very common; about 50% of children talk in their sleep. Unless it’s causing problems–like waking people you’re sleeping with–sleep talking isn’t generally problematic. But you can help reduce the severity by getting enough sleep (which is probably a good goal anyway), and avoiding alcohol and drugs.