@wired: M.I.T. did “Gangnam Style” parody. Noam Chomsky is in it. That is all.



Components of Language

From: Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human? by Robert H. Lavenda and Emily A. Schultz.

Linguistic study involves a search for patterns in the way speakers use language; linguists aim to describe these patterns by reducing them to a set of rules called a grammar. As Edward Sapir once commented, however, “All grammars leak” (1921, 38). Over time linguists came to recognize a growing number of language components; each new component was an attempt to plug the “leaks” in an earlier grammar, to explain what had previously resisted explanation. The following discussion pinpoints the various leaks linguists have recognized (as well as their attempts to plug the leaks) and demonstrates how culture and language influence each other.

Phonology: Sounds
The study of the sounds of language is called phonology. The sounds of human language are special because they are produced by a set of organs, the speech organs, that belong only to the human species. The actual sounds that come out of our mouths are called phones, and they vary continuously in acoustic properties. However, we hear all the phones within a particular range of variation as functionally equivalent allophones of the same phoneme, or characteristic speech sound, in the language. Part of the phonologist”s job is to map possible arrangements of speech organs that human beings may use to create the sounds of language. Another part is to examine individual languages to discover the particular sound combinations they contain and the patterns into which those sound combinations are organized. No language makes use of all the many sounds the human speech organs can produce, and no two languages use exactly the same set. American English uses only 38 sounds. Most work in phonology has been done from the perspective of the speaker, who produces, or articulates, the sounds of language using the speech organs.

Although all languages rely on only a handful of phonemes, no two languages use exactly the same set. Furthermore, different speakers of the same language often differ from one another in the way their phonemes are patterned, producing “accents,” which constitute one kind of variety within a language. This variety is not random; the speech sounds characteristic of any particular accent follow a pattern. Speakers with different accents are usually able to understand one another in most circumstances, but their distinctive articulation is a clue to their ethnic, regional, or social-class origins. The sound changes that occur over time within any particular phonemic system (accent) are equally orderly.

Morphology: Word Structure
Morphology, the study of how words are put together, developed as a subfield of linguistics as soon as linguists realized that the rules they had devised to explain sound patterns in language could not explain the structure of words.

What is a word? English speakers tend to think of words as the building blocks of sentences and of sentences as strings of words. But words are not all alike: some words (book) cannot be broken down into smaller elements; others (bookworm) can. The puzzle deepens when we try to translate words from one language into another. Sometimes expressions that require only one word in one language (préciser in French) require more than one word in another (to make precise in English). Other times, we must deal with languages whose utterances cannot easily be broken down into words at all. Consider the utterance nikookitepeena from Shawnee (an indigenous North American language), which translates into English as “I dipped his head in the water” (Whorf 1956, 172). Although the Shawnee utterance is composed of parts, the parts do not possess the characteristics we attribute to words in, say, English or French.

To make sense of the structure of languages such as Shawnee, anthropological linguists needed a concept that could refer to both words (like those in the English sentence above) and the parts of an utterance that could not be broken down into words. This led to the development of the concept of morphemes, traditionally defined as “the minimal units of meaning in a language.” The various parts of a Shawnee utterance can be identified as morphemes, and so can many English words. Describing minimal units of meaning as morphemes, and not as words, allows us to compare the morphology of different languages.

Morphemic patterning in languages like Shawnee may seem hopelessly complicated to native English speakers, yet the patterning of morphemes in English is equally complex. Why is it that some morphemes can stand alone as words (sing, red) and others cannot (-ing, -ed)? What determines a word boundary in the first place? Words, or the morphemes they contain, are the minimal units of meaning. Thus, they represent the fundamental point at which the arbitrary pairing of sound and meaning occurs.

Syntax: Sentence Structure
A third component of language is syntax, or sentence structure. Linguists began to study syntax when they discovered that morphological rules alone could not account for certain patterns of morpheme use. In languages like English, for example, rules governing word order cannot explain what is puzzling about the following English sentence: “Smoking grass means trouble.” For many native speakers of American English, this sentence exhibits what linguists call structural ambiguity. That is, we must ask ourselves what trouble means: the act of smoking grass (marijuana) or observing grass (the grass that grows on the prairie) that is giving off smoke. In the first reading, smoking is a gerund working as a noun; in the second, it is a gerund working as an adjective.

We can explain the existence of structurally ambiguous sentences if we assume that the role a word plays in a sentence depends on the overall structure of the sentence in which the word is found and not on the structure of the word itself. Thus, sentences can be defined as ordered strings of words, and those words can be classified as parts of speech in terms of the function they fulfill in a sentence. But these two assumptions cannot account for the ambiguity in a sentence like “The father of the girl and the boy fell into the lake.” How many people fell into the lake? Just the father or the father and the boy? Each reading of the sentence depends on how the words of the sentence are grouped together. Linguists discovered numerous other features of sentence structure that could not be explained in terms of morphology alone, leading to a growth of interest in the study of syntactic patterns in different languages. Although theories of syntax have changed considerably since Chomsky”s early work, the recognition that syntax is a key component of human language structure remains central to contemporary linguistics.

Semantics: Meaning
Semantics, the study of meaning, was avoided by linguists for many years because meaning is a highly ambiguous term. What do we mean when we say that a sentence means something? We may be talking about what each individual word in the sentence means or what the sentence as a whole means or what I mean when I utter the sentence, which may differ from what someone else would mean even if uttering the same sentence.
In the 1960s, formal semantics took off when Chomsky argued that grammars needed to represent all of the linguistic knowledge in a speaker”s head, and word meanings were part of that knowledge. Formal semanticists focused attention on how words are linked to each other within a language, exploring such relations as synonymy, or “same meaning” (old and aged); homophony, or “same sound, different meaning” (would and wood); and antonymy, or “opposite meaning” (tall and short). They also defined words in terms of denotation, or what they referred to in the “real world.”

The denotations of words like table or monkey seem fairly straightforward, but this is not the case with words like truthor and. Moreover, even if we believe a word can be linked to a concrete object in the world, it may still be difficult to decide exactly what the term refers to (a challenge to which Hockett”s design feature of “semanticity” draws attention). Suppose we decide to find out what monkey refers to by visiting the zoo. In one cage we see small animals with grasping hands feeding on fruit. In a second cage are much larger animals that resemble the ones in the first cage in many ways, except that they have no tails. And in a third cage are yet other animals who resemble those in the first two cages, except that they are far smaller and use their long tails to swing from the branches of a tree. Which of these animals are monkeys?

To answer this question, the observer must decide which features of similarity or difference are important and which are not. Having made this decision, it is easier to decide if the animals in the first cage are monkeys and whether the animals in the other cages are monkeys as well. But such decisions are not easy to come by. Biologists have spent the last 300 years or so attempting to classify all living things on the planet into mutually exclusive categories. To do so, they have had to decide, of all the traits that living things exhibit, which ones matter.

This suggests that meaning must be constructed in the face of ambiguity. Formal linguistics, however, tries to deal with ambiguity by eliminating it, by “disambiguating” ambiguous utterances. To find a word”s “unambiguous” denotation, we might consult a dictionary. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, for example, a pig is “any of several mammals of the family Suidae, having short legs, cloven hoofs, bristly hair, and a cartilaginous snout used for digging.” A formal definition of this sort does indeed relate the word pig to other words in English, such as cow and chicken, and these meaning relations would hold even if all real pigs, cows, and chickens were wiped off the face of the earth. But words also have connotations, additional meanings that derive from the typical contexts in which they are used in everyday speech. In the context of antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s, for example, a pig was a police officer.

From a denotative point of view, to call police officers pigs is to create ambiguity deliberately, to muddle rather than to clarify. It is an example of metaphor, a form of figurative or nonliteral language that violates the formal rules of denotation by linking expressions from unrelated semantic domains. Metaphors are used all the time in everyday speech, however. Does this mean, therefore, that people who use metaphors are talking nonsense? What can it possibly mean to call police officers pigs?

We cannot know until we place the statement into some kind of context. If we know, for example, that protesters in the 1960s viewed the police as the paid enforcers of racist elites responsible for violence against the poor and that pigs are domesticated animals, not humans, that are often viewed as fat, greedy, and dirty, then the metaphor “police are pigs” begins to make sense. This interpretation, however, does not reveal the “true meaning” of the metaphor for all time. In a different context, the same phrase might be used, for example, to distinguish the costumes worn by police officers to a charity function from the costumes of other groups of government functionaries. Our ability to use the same words in different ways (and different words in the same way) is the hallmark of openness, and formal semantics is powerless to contain it. This suggests that much of the referential meaning of language escapes us if we neglect the context of language use.


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