Laziness vs. Niceness

So, I like to say that there are two forces at work in linguistics change: laziness and niceness. Well, that’s a little vague. When I say linguistic change, I really mean phonological change. Phonological change is whenever one sound or set of sounds is replaced by another, and it happens all the time.

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The guy with his legs in the air is laziness, the guy bending over backwards is niceness and the stamp is, uh, your mouth.
Let’s take an example. How about the glottal stop in English? Here, read this and then come back. I’ll wait.

We splash glottal stops around in our speech because they’re easy and quick to say. So that’s laziness; it doesn’t hurt anyone, it just makes the speaker’s life a little easier. But wait! Let’s say that you move to Egypt and start using Egyptian Arabic. In fact, let’s say that a whole bunch of English speakers move to Egypt, so many that there starts to be a really large native English speaker population in Cairo… but a population that still has to learn and use Egyptian Arabic just to get around during the day.

Now, in Egyptian Arabic, if you slosh glottal stops around like mop water on a dirty floor, you’re going to run into problems. Why? Because the glottal stop is a separate sound. It would be like if I used “b” and “p” interchangeably. There’s a big different between “Hand me the robe” and “Hand me the rope” (particularly if you’re a cultist). It’s confusing. And confusing people isn’t nice.

So, if you’re nice, you’ll use glottal stops only when you’re supposed to in English and Arabic, and use the other sounds where they belong. The downside? It’s more work for a speaker to make a full k-sound than just a glottal stop.

So you’ve got this tension between laziness and niceness, and in different languages and different situations, a different pressure will win out. Or,  you know, at least be something that you worry about more.

That’s so meta meta meta

Today, I’m going to introduce you to two of my very good friends in linguistics: “metalinguistic” and “recursive“. They’re not that closely related, but they tend to get asked if they’re sisters a lot. Why?

Well, metalinguistic knowledge is knowing about language, and the fact that you can read this shows that you must have some metalinguistic knowledge. But this blog (and the field of linguistics as a whole) is concerned with knowing about what you know about language, i.e. meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And just just talking about that, I’m adding another level. My discussion of what we know about linguistics gets us all the way to meta-meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And by talking about that… You get the picture.

The picture looks like this.

The picture is also recursive. One of my favorite examples of recursivity is PHP. Originally, the acronym stood for “Personal Home Page”, but it now stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor“. What does the PHP in that stand for? Why, for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”, of course. (Repeat ad nauseum, or at least ad getting-punched-in-the-arm.) Or, wait, maybe it’s cats looking at cats looking at cats looking at cast looking at cats…

So you can see how they’re related, right? They’re both all about making you feel dizzy and then fall down, or maybe puke if you get motion sickness.

But what you may not know about recursivity is that it’s a very important process in linguistics as well. How so, you might ask?  Well, remember in the days of yore (yesterday was totally a day of yore) when I told you all about generativity? Recursivity is a great example of one of those generative processes. You can have a recursive sentence that just goes on forever. How about when you’re describing where you learned something?

I heard it from Jen.

Well, what if Jen heard it from someone else?

I heard it from Jen who heard it from Ian.

And then you find out that Ian wasn’t the originator either.

I heard it from Jen, who heard it from Ian, who heard it from Zach, who heard it from Nick, who heard it from Clarice…

And so on and so forth.You can pretty much keep going on infinitely. You can do it with other types of phrases to.

Get the butter from the fridge by the stove behind the water buffalo next to the peat coal kiln…

Chomsky argued that recursion is the fundamental characteristic of human languge, and this has been the cause of some debate. (Pirahã  may be the most argued-about Non-Indo-European language ever.) So recursion has two main uses in linguistics. The first is as a generative process that allows speakers to form infinitely long sentences, and the other is to use language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language…

Talkin’ ’bout my generativity

Quick, who’s this guy:

I dunno... could be the front half of an old centaur?
Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, click for link to source.

If you answered “Einstein’s less famous brother, Einbert?” you wouldn’t actually be too far from the truth. It’s Noam Chomsky. He’s so famous his name comes pre-installed in Microsoft Word’s spell checker. (Did you mean “chomp sky?”)

If you’ve got a good history or government background, you may be thinking, “Oh yeah, the anarchy guy.” He may be, but his greatest intellectual achievement has nothing to do with anarchy and everything to do with linguistics. That achievement would be generativity.

Gen-er-a-tiv-i-ty. Write it down, it will be on the test.

Generativity was a game-changer for linguistics. Before that point, linguistics was basically phrenology, which I’ve mentioned before. Phrenology is to modern linguistics what naturalism is to modern biology. Phrenologists collected knowledge about languages haphazardly, without a whole lot of underlying theoretical structure. I mean, there was some, (I’ll talk about what the brother’s Grimm did on their weekends off later) but it was pretty confined. And a lot of it, let’s be honest, was about proving that Europe was best. The monumental Oxford English Dictionary is a good example of that mindset. They wanted to collect every single word in English language and pin it neatly to the page with a little series of notes about it and a list of sightings in the wild. It was, and remains, a grand undertaking and a staggering achievement… but modern linguists aren’t collectors anymore.

That’s because the end goal of modern linguistics is to solve language. The field is working to put together a series of rules that will actually describe and predict all human language. Not in the mind reader, fortune teller sense of predict. I mean that, with the right rules, we should be able to generate all possible sentences. In a generative way. By using generativity.

So why is this important?

Lots of reasons! Here, let me list them, because lists are fun to read.

  • This turned linguistics from an interesting hobby for rich people into a science. If you have rules, you can make predictions about what those rules will produce and then test those predictions. Testing predictions is also known as science. It’s also something that linguistics as a whole has been a little… hesitant to adopt, but that’s another story.
  • Suddenly computers! Computer programming is, at its most basic level, a series of rules. Linguistics is now dedicated to producing a series of rules. Bada-bing, bada-boom, universal translator. (It doesn’t work  that way, but, in theory, it eventually can.)
  • Now we have a framework that we can use to figure out how to ask questions. We have a goal. Things are organized.

Now for the promised test.

What term is used to describe the current goal of linguistics; i.e. to generate a set of rules that can accurately describe and predict language usage? (Seriously, I’m not going to give you the answer. Just scroll up.)