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Plain English

As plain as possible

Many terms in linguistics are used in highly specialised ways. Like physics and other sciences, linguistics exerts its own discipline. The various professions in the area each have technical preferences. Here I try to keep my use of technical terms to a minimum, using words in the most familiar senses as far as possible.

Much of the terminology here we get from studies in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Rather than phonetics, found by many to be an impenetrable barrier, I use the much less precise device of capitals to represent speech sounds and their often quite variable pronunciations.

The term, language. is used in many senses, one referring to literacy or the use of the written word. Language is not used in this sense here, but in a more informal sense referring to the way words are put together, known as ‘syntax‘, to the way words are formed, known as ‘morphology‘, to the way language is used, known as ‘pragmatics‘, to the way meanings are assigned, known as ‘semantics‘. I use the term ‘speech’ to refer both to the organisation of the sound system, known as ‘phonology‘, to the formation of the sounds, known as ‘phonetics’, and to the way sounds are put together in syllables as ‘phonotactics’. In some cases, such as the awareness of language and its elements as such, known as ‘metalinguistics’, I just use the technical term  – for the sake of clarity, because there is no alternative.

I give a brief account of various areas of linguistics in Ax, ex, ics and ologies. And I thumbnail some diagnostic terms in Speech and language therapy.

Dialect and accent

Two particularly problematic terms are dialect and accent.

It is often suggested that where there differences in the words themselves or the order of them, these differences should be treated as matters of dialect, and that where the differences are in the pronunciation of words, these should be treated as matters of accent. But this is much less categorical than sometimes believed.

In 1917, the phonetician, Daniel Jones, coined the term ‘Received pronunciation’ for what he quaintly called “the speech of men educated at one of the great public schools of England.” What he thought of women’s speech or the speech of men educated anywhere else, such as members of the royal family at the time, he does not say. But the intention behind what is now mainly called RP is clear. It is the speech of privilege and inherited wealth in Britain. RP is sometimes characterised as an ‘accent’ of English, a particular way of pronouncing it. But this falsely assumes that there are no associated particularities in the grammar or the lexicon. The characterisation of RP as an accent coyly hides the sociology.

RP changes over time. Sydney Harbour Bridge was formally opened in 1932 in the RP of the time. In 1933 Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott’s last, fateful; voyage, voiced his own commentary to the film. Ivor Montagu, the first and original visionary of table tennis, who died in 1984, was one of the last speakers. But this version of RP is no longer spoken. Deliberately dodging the issue, here I just speak of VARIETIES of the language.

History and data

Much of linguistic philosophy and terminology is from Ancient India, Greece and Rome, possibly one Etruscan insight, but with a massive updating over the past 500 years, including the pathbreaking scholarship of William Holder, in 1669, William Jones in 1788, Jacob Grimm, otherwise known as the collector of fairy tales, in 1822, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle in SPE in 1968, and many more. In other words the intellectual tradition is far older than sociology or psychology – to name two areas of inquiry which are sometimes taken to call into question traditional and modern methodologies of linguistic research.

Both sociology and psychology lay great stress on the methodology of data acquisition. In a way which seems almost contemptible from many sociological and psychological perspectives, linguists working in the framework assumed here have not found any reliable alternative to the most informal methods of data acquisition – introspection and discussion wherever an attentive audience can be found – in the classroom, at conferences, in coffee breaks. This seems to work fine for the clear cases – like the contrast between ‘Something good’ and ‘Good food’, as meaningful English expressions, and ‘Good something’ and ‘Food good’ which most native English speakers find almost uninterpretable. But there is an obvious problem with the less clear cases – like “How many are we for dinner?” which for me, as a native speaker of RP, is perfectly acceptable, grammatical, interpretable, but for many British English speakers is highly questionable. Numerous other examples can easily be found.

This approach is strongly opposed by some of those proposing various alternatives to the model assumed here.

The clear cases

There is, I contend, significant data in the clear cases and the notion, from Chomsky (1957) and subsequent work, that the grammar should generate a full set of grammatical structures and none of the infinite set of ungrammatical structures. For instance, the little word, to, is sometime required and sometime not required. The sentence “I know him to be a liar” is wrong without to. “I saw him go in” would be wrong with to before go. Why should this be? How do speakers come to know this? It might be said that the question is just of no interest, that this is just part of learning the language. But from the biolinguistic perspective assumed here, the dismissal of such grammatical details entails a correspondingly huge amount of stipulation – to the extent that the system may be not finitely learnable – clearly contrary to fact.

In relation to speech and language pathology, it might be said that this is not the sort of area where children demonstrably have problems. But without an account of how language is learned or not learned in general, we do not have to good account of the first stages. Getting rid of the stipulation is all important. This is the core motivation of the proposal here – to the effect that by normal development a universal grammar is mastered by the age of three, with the details like the different treatments of clauses governed by know and see learned as subtle interactions between the syntax and semantics over the  next seven or so years.

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