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And the faculty of language

Empathy and the conventions of conversation and good listening,  or why the conversation should or shouldn’t move in some particular direction, are quite different from an understanding of  the Faculty of Language, often known as FL, and Universal Grammar UG underpinning any negotiation about what things mean. This critically affects the natural process of language acquisition.

On the one hand, there are the shades of meaning, encoded in FL, and gradually learnt bit by bit by most children over the first ten years of life in discussions and arguments about people, animals, and all the other interesting aspects of child experience. And on the other hand, there is politeness, respect, and the understanding that what it is appropriate to say to a brother or sister may be quite inappropriate to say to an adult or colleague at work, and that between adults there are many different degrees of honour and respect.

Children are very sensitive to the way aspects of FL are  indicated – by the form of questions, descriptions, and in various other ways.

The grammar of plays on words, legal agreements, and comedic nuances, is quite different from the ebb and flow of discourse. Irony reverses truth values. Metaphor has references upside down.

The study of discourse is critically endebted to the work of John Langshaw Austin (1962) who introduced the notion of ‘illocutionary force’ – what you are DOING if you say, “I beseech you just to tell me the truth”.

In 1944, Austin was an intelligence officer in the team which led the D-Day invasion. Austin insisted that it was crucial to make sure that intelligence was accurate, and then that it was listened to. The invasioned was planned for June 5th. But a team of meteorologists determined (correctly) that the weather would be bad that night. So the invasion was delayed for a day. Without Austin, the invasion might have taken place on a stormy night, with many thousands of soldiers drowning on the crossing. The invasion might have failed. And European history might have been different – with the war lasting significantly longer.

Most aspects of discourse are outside the scope of grammar. There are single words which can be highly meaningful, just used on their own about an artistic performance or a move in sport, disaster, about some event, natural or by human cause. There are structures like “Here we are”, “There you go”, which seem to use grammatical form, but with significant limitations – in these cases, consisting in the fact that they can’t be questioned or negated or even qualified in some way. “Here we nearly are”, “Here are we”, “Here we aren’t” are all almost uninterpretable. The words can be deceptive. There steps in as a ‘proxy subject’, as in “There is one nice argument in the book”. It does much the same in “It is rumoured that the opposition is split”.

Other structures break the rules of grammar, as in the case of “The bigger the better”. Lacking a verb, it can’t be questioned, negated, or qualified.

It may be that adverbs like sadly, perfectly, unfortunately, represent similar cases, as suggested by the fact that some adverbs can go almost anywhere in the sentence, as in “Sadly, he told us he wanted to give up teaching”, “He sadly told us he wanted to give up teaching”, “He told us sadly he wanted to give up teaching”, “He told us he sadly wanted to give up teaching”, “He told us he wanted to sadly give up teaching” (allowing an infinitive to be split, which on some views should be disallowed), “He told us he wanted to give up teaching sadly”. Not all adverbs have this degree of freedom of occurrence. But in a language like English with a largely rigid ordering of the words in sentences, adverbs are the black sheep of the family, popping up unexpectedly in various places, with some subtle and not so subtle changes in meaning.

Discourse is massively mediated by rhythm, intonation, and physical gesture, which can all supplement literal meaning. For the sake of irony, they can even contradict it. In the limit, gesture can take the place of words – by a wink, raised eyebrow, frown, nod, shake of the head, or look of pain.

By the proposal here, FL has evolved from forms in which there was no distinction between discourse and grammar. These have evolved separately, but as cognitive neighbours. Many of the functionalities of grammar satisfy needs which are plainly rooted in discourse, questions satisfying curiosity, and so on.

Without FL, there is no sense in discourse. Without discourse, there is no sense in FL.

Non-humans can display empathy and gratitude. But they don’t have FL.

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