UMass(Amherst) / SOAS(ULondon)
Abstract About: the tensions between the inner and outer view of R-languages ("real languages"), the language-centered and theory-centered study of languages, the (often foreign) linguist and the (sometimes linguist) native speaker, description and theory, a language as a set of choices and extensions of universal grammar and as a concrete realization in a particular culture and history. The materials for this paper are drawn mostly from First Nations languages, especially those of the Pacific Northwest.
Let's start with two views of language:
I. Languages are "basically" all the same, the differences between them are
II. Languages are "basically" very different.
These two views have predominated at different times and among different people:I: Chomsky, 1995; Pinker, 1994
For example, Chomsky has written:
The primary [task at hand for the Minimalist Program] is to show that the apparent richness and diversity of linguistic phenomena is illusory and epiphenomenal, the result of interaction of fixed principles under slightly varying conditions.'' (N. Chomsky, 1995: 8)
One may ask: Why is the richness and diversity only "apparent"?
Languages are not all the same. Do contemporary linguistic theories deal adequately with linguistic diversity? Some writers say No (Nichols, 1992; Bach, ; Baker, 1988)
Theories of Universal Grammar are calculated to deal with the ways in which languages are similar. But if the Language Faculty is supposed to offer a basis for understanding language acquisition then it must have some room for quite deep and surprising differences among languages.
It used to be that linguists were enjoined to describe each language on its own terms. Now it is often presumed that all languages are basically the same.
Ordinary people who speak one or another of the languages of the world will be surprised to hear that all languages are basically one ("Earthese"), not to say chagrined, especially if they have struggled as adults to learn a new language that is very different from their own.
Linguistic theories have to deal with two questions:
A. How come languages are so different?
B. How come languages are so similar?
The attention paid to these two questions has varied a lot over the years. If you start from the sense that languages are basically very similar, then Question B should be uppermost, if you start from the sense that they are very different then it is Question A that burns. In fact, both questions presuppose that we have some way of characterizing differences and similarities among languages as well as some expectations about what is expected in the way of variation. In my opinion, neither presupposition is met at present, a view expressed by Johanna Nichols:
....standard historical method ... has no theory of diversity and no way of scientifically describing diversity. Hence, diversity has no theoretical status in historical linguistics (or, for that matter, in synchronic linguistics). (Nichols, 1992: 5)
Here, I want to emphasize that languages can be pretty different, and that linguistic theories that do not accomodate these differences are not adequate.
The main questions of this talk:
i. How different or similar are languages anyhow?
ii. Where are the differences and similarities in languages?
iii. Can the two views be reconciled?
We need to ask the question: What do we mean by "language" anyway?" Kinds of language:
Chomsky introduced a distinction between two sense of language:
(Think: Extensional language.)
(Think: Ideal or Intensional language.)
We might add:
(Think: Real language, Bach , Bach, .) I mean by this a language in the sense that a speaker "has" a language with all its special quirkiness, in a cultural context, and in many of its aspects present in consciousness (more on this toward the end of the essay).
These questions are not just theoretically or academically relevant. They have a practical, ethical, and political resonance as well, especially in the context of First Nations languages, and the crisis of minority and dominated languages in the face of continuing linguistic imperialism.
Inventory: Front and back velar (uvular) sounds contrast in many languages of British Columbia:
Smalgyaxian (Tsimshianic): Coast Tsimshian, Nisg̱aʼa, Gitxsan.
Wakashan: Nuuchahnulth, Makah, Kwakʷ'ala, Heiltsuk, Ooweky'ala, Haisla, Henaaksiala
The contrast is represented in various ways in the practical
orthographies of the languages:
x vs x̄ x̱Structurally, these languages all differ from English. Phonetically, English also has front and back velar sounds:
c vs x
k vs q (ḵ)
g vs ḡ (g̱)
keep vs cool have a predictable difference in pronunciation of "k" sound (front vs back).
Structural change: Coast Tsimshian x becomes i so in the spelling "x" means back x (x̱)
Phonetic realization of structural difference:
Haisla/Henaaksiala and Smalgyaxian have palatalized front sounds: k , g = ky, gy.
Southern Wakashan (Ahousat) does not palatalize.
But: palatalization gone in rounded versions: kʷ, gʷ
in N. Wakashan
compare: Haisla: gʷia `wake someone up' or ḡʷix̄em bread, flour
Compare labialized palatals in Gyong (Nigeria): [dyʷu gyʷu], Ngamambo (Cameroon).
Northern Wakashan: Kwakʷʼala, Haisla, Henaaksiala unround before u
sounds, but not Ooweky'ala:
Haisla: guxʷ [gyuxʷ] vs Ooweky'ala: gʷukʷ `house'
The exuberant use of lexical suffixes is an areal feature shared by Wakashan, Salishan, Chemakuan (Quileute), etc. e.g.:
(Haisla) X̅aʼislakʼala `Haisla language':
x̅aʼ =is -(e)la -[k]!al -a
downstream/downchannel -on beach -to live -sound/language completive
(Details on the formal structure of Haisla words can be found in Bach,
Here -[k]!ala is a typical lexical suffix (sometimes referred to as
"semantic suffixes"). It is typically used to make words for speaking a
particular language or for the language itself. We might think of an English
analogue like the suffix -ese, but the meaning of -[k]!ala is
considerably broader as the following comparisons show:
English -itis as in tendinitis, sinusitis and similar
affixes have the sorts of meanings that might be found with lexical suffixes
in Northwest languages.
An important difference is this: in English, the vocabulary is divided into learned/Greco-Latinate vs native English. Compare also Japanese: Yamato vs Sino-Japanese
I think not, in such analyses polysynthetic languages (in the classical
sense) are assimilated to isolating languages.
Why not do the opposite? English compounds might be looked at as reductions of free forms to affixes.
Verb-Final: Tlingit, Haida:
Verb-Initial: Smalgyaxian (Tsimshian), Wakashan, Salishan, Chemakuan;
free word order: Alaskan Yup'ik Eskimo
But again: details vary a lot: compare Smalgyaxian (Tsimshianic) with Wakashan:
A good theory of Universal Grammar is supposed to help explain how kids acquire their particular languages. Such a theory must have room for the diversity of Parochial Grammars. The actual diversity we find cannot, in my opinion, be solely attributed to global parameters, in the sense of setting properties for a language as a whole. Finally, there must be a place in this picture for linguistic creativity at the level of grammar creation.
Evidence for this creativity lies both in the retention of special characteristics of a language or language group over time and in the (sometimes quite rapid) changes of languages (Thomason, 2001).
Differences among languages as perceived and used by real speakers have to do both with the basic structures of the language and with the texture of the language as used among groups of people and in particular contexts.
Likewise: individual languages, "real languages," show individual characteristics as well, in the choices that they make within and even in the ways that they stretch the limits of Universal Grammar.
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