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The Subject of Linguistics. Language and Other Communication Systems

The nature of language

Widdowson H.G. Linguistics. – Oxford

University Press, 1996. – pp. 3-5.

Linguistics is the name given to the discipline which studies human
language. Two questions come immediately to mind. Firstly, what is human
language? How, in general terms, can it be characterized? Secondly, what
does its study involve? What is it that defines linguistics as a

Clearly, the two questions cannot be kept completely separate. Whenever
you decide to study anything, you have already to some degree defined it
for your own indents and purposes. Nevertheless, there are a number of
very general observations about the nature of language that can be made,
and which will be the concern of this first chapter. These will then
lead us into more specific issues in linguistics which will be taken up
in subsequent chapters.

In the beginning…

According to the Bible: ‘In the beginning was the Word’. According to
the Talmud: ‘God created the world by a Word, instantaneously, without
toil or pains’. Whatever more mystical meaning these pieces of scripture
might have, they both point to the primacy of language in the way human
beings conceive of the world.

Language certainly figures centrally in our lives. We discover our
identity as individuals and social beings when we acquire it during
childhood. It serves as a means of cognition and communication: it
enables us to think for ourselves and to cooperate with other people in
our community. It provides for present needs and future plans, and at
the same time carries with it the impression of things past.

Language seems to be a feature of our essential humanity which
enables us to rise above the condition of mere brutish beings, real or
imagined. Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest ‘gabbles like a thing
most brutish’ until Prospero teaches him language. In the play he is
referred to as a monster, but that is better than being an ogre, who,
according to W. H. Auden, is quite incapable of speech:

The Ogre does what ogres can,

Deeds quite impossible for Man,

But one prize is beyond his reach,

The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,

Among its desperate and slain,

The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,

And drivel gushes from his lips.

We might note in passing, incidentally, that it is speech that the ogre
cannot master. Whether this necessarily implies that language is also
beyond his reach is another matter, for language does not depend on
speech as the only physical medium for its expression. Auden may not
imply such a distinction in these lines, but it is one which, as we
shall see presently, it is important to recognize.

It has been suggested that language is so uniquely human,
distinguishes us so clearly from ogres and other animals, that our
species might be more appropriately named homo loquens than homo
sapiens. But although language is clearly essential to humankind and has
served to extend control over other parts of creation, it is not easy to
specify what exactly makes it distinctive. If, indeed, it is
distinctive. After all, other species communicate after a fashion, for
they could not otherwise mate, propagate, and cooperate in their

The design of language

Other species communicate after a fashion. The question is after what
fashion? Birds signal to each other by singing, bees by singing, and
these song and dance routines can be very elaborate. Are they language?
One can argue that they are not in that they are indeed routines,
restricted repertoires which are produced as a more or less automatic
response, and so reactive to particular states of affairs. In this
respect they lack the essential flexibility of human language which
enables us to be proactive, to create new meanings and shape our own
reality unconstrained by the immediate context. As Bertrand Russell once
observed: ‘No matter how eloquently — a dog may bark, he cannot tell you
that his parents were poor but honest’. What are the features then (the
so-called design features) which provide for such flexibility, and which
therefore might be said to be distinctive of human language?

One of them is arbitrariness: the forms of linguistic signs bear no
natural resemblance to their meaning. The link between them is a matter
of convention, and conventions differ radically across languages. Thus,
the English word ‘dog’ happens to denote a particular four-footed
domesticated creature, the same creature which is denoted in French by
the completely different form chien. Neither form looks like a dog, or
sounds like one. If it did, then dogs in France would be unrecognizable
to English speakers, and vice versa. It is true that some linguistic
forms do seem to have a natural basis, that is to say, they are in some
degree onomatopoeic (they sound like the thing they describe). The word
form ‘bark’ for instance, does seem, to English speakers at least, to
sound like a dog. But it remains a conventionalized link all the same.
The corresponding form in French (aboyer) is quite different. In German,
the word is bellen: different again. And it is anyway hard to see what
natural connection there might be between the English word for the noise
a dog makes (no matter how eloquently) and the outer casing of the trunk
of a tree.

We should notice, however, that although the link between form and
meaning is arbitrary in this respect, that is not to say that there is
no relationship between them at all. Words are arbitrary in form, but
they are not random in their use. On the contrary, it is precisely
because linguistic forms do not resemble what they signify that they can
be used to encode what is significant by convention in different
communities. So the fact that there is no natural connection between the
form of words and what they mean makes it possible for different
communities to use language to divide up reality in ways that suit them.

What Linguistics Is About

Sobel S.P. The Cognitive Sciences:

An Interdisciplinary Approach. –

London; Toronto: Mayfield Publishing

Company, 2001. — pp. 144-155.

We acquired Rex, some sort of terrier, from a person who had
trained him well. My father would say «Rex, beg!» And Rex would get up
on his hind paws and hold up his front ones in a begging gesture. But
then, after praising him and encouraging him to come down from that
position, my father would say «Rex, eat soup!» And Rex would beg. If my
father instead said «Rex, lie down!» Rex would again beg. No matter what
words my father substituted in his command, Rex would respond
obligingly—by begging.

Jennifer was another story. At 21/2 she was interested in the
flowers outside her house. The colorful tulips never failed to draw her
attention as her mother exclaimed each time they passed them, «Oh, look
at the pretty tulips!» One day, at the end of tulip season, there was
only one blossom left. «Look, Mommy,» said Jennifer, «one lip!»

Both Rex and Jennifer were behaving in ways that amused the people
around them, and the behavior in both cases involved language. But Rex’s
indicated that his response did not depend on the actual sentence he
heard; rather, it was a learned response, apparently to a particular
tone of voice. He did not beg when my father said, in an affectionate
tone, «Good dog, Rex,» nor when someone summoned him by calling his
name. In themselves, neither the words nor their particular arrangement
seemed to convey anything to him.

Jennifer, on the other hand, was clearly sensitive to the words
themselves; furthermore, as early as age 21/2 she was able to do
something with them that Rex would never approach—something very complex
indeed. She had recognized the «tu» in «tulip;» it was a sequence of
sounds she had heard before, in other contexts, having a meaning she
understood quite well. Now she interpreted this sequence as meaning what
it meant all the other times she had heard it; then she invested the
other half of the word (that is, the «lip» that her mother knew to be
simply part of the flower name) with a meaning of its own. This done,
she went on to create a new sentence, one she had not heard before,
using her new word. All of this Jennifer did in a split second, without
having been explicitly taught to and without being aware of the
marvelously complicated feat it represented.

Jennifer was a very bright little girl. But her accomplishment at
the age of 21/2, though perhaps somewhat precocious, was not unique; all
children born with normally functioning brains and hearing arrive at the
ability to manipulate the stuff of language by, or not very much past,
the age Jennifer was when this incident occurred. No member of Rex’s
species, on the other hand, no matter how long or how closely associated
with humans, has ever learned by exposure, nor ever been taught, to do
what Jennifer did so spontaneously, so early—and so effortlessly.

We readily fall into the habit of thought that if something comes
easily to us it must be easy. In a real sense, it was easy for Jennifer
to engage in the behavior I have described. Why? Because Jennifer, like
you who are reading this now, was born equipped to learn language simply
from having it used around her, as Rex was born equipped to react to
moving objects by chasing them.

But when you examine human language—any language: yours, your
great-great-grandmother’s, your Japanese or Greek or Hungarian pen
pal’s—you find it characterized by a great deal of complexity. Think of
the difficulties we encounter in attempting, after childhood, to learn a
foreign language. No matter how many rules we absorb, we may never be
satisfied with our achievement, because we still have to stop, at least
sometimes, to think about whether or not we are following those rules.
Even when we succeed in putting the words together into flawless
sentences, someone may ask us where we are from, indicating by the
question that something is still not quite right in the way we speak the
language. These are difficulties we did not encounter the first time
around, when we learned to speak our native language or languages.

The data – the information on which all of our questions about
language rest and with which linguists grapple – are anywhere and
everywhere people are found, in all the statements they make, the
questions they ask, the many ways in which they express themselves in
language. What do these data indicate about the nature of the activity
itself – the very structure of language? Of what does its complexity
consist? «Doing» language, acquiring and using it, must be possible
because some commensurately complex mechanism in our brain exists to
support this activity. What sort of mechanism can this be? We are not
born with a particular language already in there and prepared to go to
work for us. What exactly is it that we are born with? How does it work
to allow us to catch on to the meanings and organization inherent in the
language or languages we are exposed to from birth? Where has this
ability gone when we need it, later on, to learn a foreign language?
What is the relation of our language capacity to thinking, as we humans
experience it?

These are some of the questions linguists pose, and the information
they gather and the understanding they achieve in the course of their
research into individual languages have implications for these basic
questions. As we have already noted, they are not alone in the quest.
Their concerns overlap with those of the other fields comprising
cognitive science. Linguistics figures importantly in the quest because
language, as a behavior unique to humans, can teach us much about the
human brain.

The Uniqueness of Human Language

Anyone who stops to consider the phenomenon of language is aware that
humans are the only species to engage in this behavior that we take so
for granted. (For this reason, when I use the term «language,» I will be
referring only to human language, the spontaneously developing system
that human children absorb from their environment and produce early and
without specific instruction.) Yes, members of other species communicate
with each other (and often with us) by means of bodily displays. Think
of a cat arching its back and appearing larger than it normally does by
virtue of its fur standing on end, or a peacock fanning out its tail to
reveal a magnificent color display. They communicate by gestures, as the
grimacing and chest pounding of the gorilla, for example, or the complex
«dance» of honeybees. They communicate as well by vocalizations, as in
the songs of birds and of whales, and the barking, growling, and whining
of dogs. Students of these various types of communication have been able
to describe and classify many of them and have observed their consistent
pairing with certain behaviors so that we can be quite sure of their
purpose. It is of course always possible that we, probing with our human
faculties, are missing something in these communicative
manifestations—that we simply do not understand complexities that it
takes a bird’s mind, or a gorilla’s, to appreciate. But science requires
evidence before hypotheses are considered confirmed, and we have no hard
evidence to support the notion that any other species is capable of just
the sort of complex system of communication that enabled Jennifer to
produce her «one lip» invention.

You may be wondering at this point what the real difference is
between what these other species are doing and what Jennifer did in
talking about the flowers—what we humans do all the time, whether the
communication is carried out in English or in Swahili or in Urdu. After
all, the various systems of communication employed by other species
serve them perfectly well. The cat with the arched back manages to scare
off an intrusive neighbor cat, and the bird singing so sweetly generally
succeeds in attracting a mate. What we have observed about the
communication of other species – often called their «language» – is that
each manifestation, whether of bodily display, of gesture, or of
vocalization, pairs with a specific and consistent meaning. That is, a
particular tail swish of your kitten or a particular utterance of a
vervet monkey or a particular cry of the crow in the tree outside your
window will occur under the same circumstance every time. The kitten
will not swish its tail just that way to indicate anything but readiness
to pounce. The vervet monkey will produce just that sound to alert other
vervet monkeys that there is a snake in the grass. The crow will caw in
just that fashion always and only to warn intruders to keep out of its
territory. The display or gesture or sound will be inseparable from the
given situation.

You, on the other hand, can separate your vocalization from a given
situation. For instance, you can communicate something about the future:
You can tell the friend who calls to invite you to lunch that you can’t
go because you have to finish this book on cognitive science, when what
you really have in mind is a nice nap. Not only are you expressing
something about the future, but what you are saying isn’t even true.
Your language affords you as much freedom in what you express by means
of it as your conscience allows. The bee that communicates the location
of food to its hivemates does not produce movements that will lead them
to fly south for a certain distance and then when they get there produce
movements that communicate «ha, ha, just kidding.» There is something
quite different in the process we are engaging in when we use our
language from what bees are doing when using theirs. One of the unique
and telling aspects of this difference is the fact that we are able to
separate what we express from the requirements of the moment, to convey
concepts ranging from the factual and true («I’m on my way to
work/class») to speculations about what would happen if the situation
were different («What if I were to hang out in the mall instead?») to
out-and-out lies («I’m really sorry I didn’t come in yesterday, but I
wasn’t feeling well»). This ability makes possible our use of language
for the large and varied set of intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, and
social purposes characteristic of human behavior, ranging from the
straightforward transfer of information to the exploration of ideas,
from poetry to deception, from sarcasm to joking and play.

Characteristics of Human Language

Although the differences among languages spoken in different parts of
the world fairly jump out at us, these languages are in fact far more
similar than we generally perceive. That this is so is not surprising,
for all human languages—those known only through historical documents
and comparative studies as well as those currently spoken—reflect the
linguistic capacity of the human brain.

The fact that it is possible for us to express so much that other
species cannot has to do with the way our language is constructed. We
are not limited to a specific utterance to express a given meaning,
though there are utterances that do this: «Ow,» for example. Nor are we
limited to a number of stock expressions, though we have those, too,
such as «How do you do?» Our language is not made up simply of a set of
expressions like these, wrenched from us or trotted out for social
purposes. Rather, it is constructed of a fairly small set of sounds,
known as phonemes (about 40 in English), that most often have no meaning
in themselves: nnn, eee. These we string together one after the other to
form meaningful bits and pieces: morphemes (ex-, -ism) and words
(needle). The number of words made from phonemes is large—about 600,000
in English—but finite.

Except for a small set of words exhibiting onomatopoeia (meow,
clang), the strings of sounds making up our words and parts of words
bear no necessary or logical relation to their meaning. Think for a
moment of the way English refers to one of our favorite pets, the dog.
Dog. French calls it chien, and in German it is Hund. These words sound
entirely different from one another, yet they all mean the same thing.
There cannot then be anything necessarily «dogish» about any of these
words. It’s just that members of each language» community, for
historical reasons, agree that the word they use refers to that animal
and nothing else. The fact that the sounds of words are not logically or
necessarily tied to the meanings, a characteristic often referred to as
the arbitrariness of the sign, is one of the reasons for the flexibility
of human language. It can express virtually anything speakers want or
need to express.

Before we look any further at the structure of language, let us
consider for a moment one of the words I have just been using, a word we
use all the time without giving it any thought because the concept it
expresses is so obvious. Or is it? The word I mean (there I go using it
again) is mean, or meaning. The question of the meaning of meaning is a
profound one that has been with us for a long time. But even what seems
to us most simple and obvious may in fact be quite complex, defying easy
definition. Sound sequences may be associated arbitrarily with meanings,
but the two are bound together in the linguistic structures we create in
a way that is anything but simple, and the way in which meaning is
expressed by language is anything but obvious.

In order to express meaning linguistically, once we have organized
the sound sequences of a language into words, we must arrange them,
again in sequence, into sentences. Sentences tend to express complete
thoughts. (Here is another word whose meaning I have just assumed. Take
a moment, if you will, to define sentence for yourself, without simply
reciting what you may have been taught in school. Does a sentence
express a complete thought’ Must it do so explicitly in order to be a
sentence? What about expressions like «Leave!» or «No!»?)

Although the number of words at any time in a given language is
large, it is, as I said, finite. Yet the number of sentences that can be
constructed out of these words is infinite. That’s why «I learned a new
word today» is a reasonable thing to say, but you would get some strange
looks if you said «I learned a new sentence today.» An unabridged
dictionary will give you some idea of the number of words in English at
the time the dictionary was compiled (words are being dropped from and
added to the language all the time), but see what happens when you try
to count the number of sentences you can make out of a simple one such
as «Amy likes Stan:»

I think that Amy likes Stan.

You know that I think that Amy likes Stan.

I think that you know that I think that Amy likes Stan.

You ‘re sure that I think that you know that I think that Amy likes

You will soon see the impossibility of the task. (I know that you will
soon see the impossibility of the task. You realize that I know that you
will soon see the impossibility of the task . . .).

The interesting property of human language embodied in these
sentences is called recursion. It is this property of allowing one
sentence to be contained, or embedded, within another that causes the
number of sentences in any language to be infinite—for all languages are
capable of such embedding. Embedding turns up in nursery games; perhaps
you remember «the house that Jack built.» It begins with a quite
ordinary sentence:

This is the house that Jack built.

What you undoubtedly never stopped to notice if you, as a child, uttered
this sentence was that it expresses two different ideas about the house,
two separate thoughts, really:

This is the house


Jack built this house.

The single sentence «This is the house that Jack built» is in fact a
compression of these two separate thoughts into one sentence. So far, it
looks easy. Then the sentence is expanded, including yet another idea,

This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built

and then to another

This is the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack

and still another

This is the cat that chased the rat that ate the cheese that lay in
the house that Jack built

By the time the game ends, memory is taxed: The players are hard put to
remember all the steps. They are aided, of course, by the fact that a
story is implicit in these steps, a story that follows a logical
progression. It turns out not to be so difficult after all.

But when sentences with multiple embeddings are produced that are
not based on a simple story pattern, what happens?

The dog chased the boy.

The boy the dog chased got lost.

The boy the dog the man trained chased got lost.

The boy the dog the man the book belonged to trained chased got

How long did it take you to get lost? Even as adults, we soon do. Why?
Because such a sentence is too involved to follow, let alone remember.
Therefore, we don’t usually create sentences like these. It’s hard to
follow them, to keep track of what’s happening, and once you’ve gotten
some distance into one of them, it’s hard to keep in mind all of its
earlier components. «Keeping track» is a part of the processing function
of the brain, as «keeping in mind» is the function of its memory
capability. But the fact is we can create such sentences, even though
our processing and memory limitations lead us to avoid them. This
property of language – that sentences can readily be placed one inside
the other and that the process can in principle be infinitely continued
– is characteristic of all human languages. Like the arbitrariness of
the sign, it is another of the properties that make our sort of language
unique. These properties lead us to puzzle over and marvel at the nature
of a brain that is capable of producing such sentences but then, because
of its limitations in other domains, has difficulty in managing them. As
we are led to considerations like this, we see how it is that
linguistics relates to other areas of cognitive science – in this
particular case, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, areas we
examined in Parts 1 and 2.

The Rules of Language

I have pointed out some of the building blocks of language: sounds,
meaningless in themselves, that combine in a linear order to make
meaningful units (prefixes, suffixes, words); combinations of words,
also in a linear order, making sentences; sentences that fit inside one
another, demonstrating that their nature is one of infiniteness. But
these building blocks by themselves are not enough to constitute
language. How do we know the order in which to put them? How do we know
that one sound is English (mm, as in me) and another is not (that French
r, for example, that we have such difficulty pronouncing)? How do we
know that one combination of sounds is English (tr, as in track, for
instance), and another is not’ (Try nl. Is nlack an English word? Could
it be? Why not’) How do we know that one ordering of words is a «real»
sentence («I think that Amy likes Stan») and another, using the very
same words, is not («Think likes I Stan that Amy»)?

It cannot be that we have learned each instance individually,
because the possibilities, at least for sentences, are infinite. But the
brain that accomplishes all of this is not infinite. Alhough it contains
a very large number of neurons that enable us to «do» language, that
number is finite. The elements used in doing language must be
finite—because the resources of the finite brain suffice to learn them.
The answer is that there is a finite set of rules that we have learned,
rules that enable us to put together the sounds, words, and sentences of
our language and to recognize when they are not being followed.

But each answer to a question leads to more questions. If we know
the rules, how did we learn them? We may have tried out the sequence
nnnlll when we were babies. No one told us that English does not contain
this combination of sounds at the beginning of a word (we did hear it
inside of words [only, unless]), but we know it’s not English to have it
at the beginning. No one explained that un- must go at the beginning of
a word and nowhere else, yet if you were told to put it on a new
adjective, one you’d never heard before—say, winky—you’d immediately
choose unwinky, not winkyun. Likewise, you know the rules that allow you
to produce a sentence about Amy’s feeling for Stan without scrambling


What sort of rules are these? They are not the sort you learn from
teachers, who tell you how you are supposed—and not supposed—to say what
you wish to express. Rules of that sort, called prescriptive rules, take
the form «Don’t split infinitives,» «Say ‘yes,’ not ‘yeah,'» «Say ‘I
don’t want any,’ not ‘I don’t want none,'» «A pronoun must agree in
gender and number with the noun to which it refers,» and the like. These
are prescriptions for speaking the language in the manner educated
people consider «correct.» Prescriptive rules may need to be taught. In
the case of learning a foreign language in school, they certainly need
to be taught.

But the rules linguists focus on when they are concerned with a
speaker’s implicit knowledge of linguistic systems are the rules
inherent in the language or dialect. They describe these rules—they do
not prescribe them. For this reason the endeavor is known as descriptive
linguistics. Research has demonstrated the vast number and complexity of
these rules in all of the many languages that have been studied, yet
these are the rules children absorb unconsciously, as their language is
spoken around them. They are not taught—indeed they cannot be taught,
for most speakers are generally unaware that they know them and could
not necessarily articulate them if they wanted to. (What are often
taught are the exceptions to the rules, for example: The way to make
sheep plural is not to add s but to add nothing; the way to speak of
swim in the past is not swimmed but swam.)

Our ability to use our language, what we know about it even if we
do not know that we know it, is referred to by linguists as our
linguistic competence. This contains the rules pertaining to every
component of the language: the phonology (the rules pertaining to the
sound system), the morphology (the rules governing word structure), the
syntax (the rules governing the structure of sentences), and semantics
(the rules concerning meaning). Taken together, all of these comprise
the grammar of the language, and linguistic competence is the (largely
unconscious) knowledge of that grammar. (Note that this is not the
meaning of «grammar» as we commonly use it, which is to refer
specifically to what they teach in school—the rules of syntax. A
linguist may use the term «grammar» in a number of ways. One of these
ways is as I have done here: to refer to the entire set of rules of the
language that an individual has internalized. But the term may also
refer to the linguist’s hypothesis about what this consists of.)

The rules that underlie our linguistic competence can be deduced or
inferred by studying the patterns observable in a language as it is
actually spoken by a given population. In the little demonstration that
follows you will see that, though you are generally unaware of knowing
these rules, you in fact know them well and, with some guidance, can
bring them to consciousness. A favorite example of linguists for
demonstrating phonological rules most people are unaware of knowing is
one that concerns the pronunciation of the plural marker—the sound added
to nouns to make them plural. This sound, as you all know, is spelled s.
The following are two short lists of nouns to which may be added this
plural marker:


ship tub

nap lab

cat bud

nut lid

park rag

wick wig

Try adding the plural as you say each of the words in column A,
listening carefully to the sound you make in doing so. Then do the same
for the words in column B. If you are indeed listening carefully, you
will surely hear the difference. To the words in the first column, you
have added the sound s, as you expected to. But to the words in the
second column, you have added the sound z. Now if you examine the words
in column A and those in column B, you will notice that all of them end
in a consonant. What you may not observe right away is that there is a
small but significant difference between final consonants in the two
sets. The final consonants in the column A words are articulated without
the voice, whereas those in the column B words are articulated with the
voice. Putting a finger on your larynx (your «Adam’s apple») as you say
the words will enable you to feel the vibration of your vocal cords; it
is this vibration that makes voice happen. You will notice that when you
finish saying the vowel sounds in the column A words, the vibration
stops. The final sound in each word is not accompanied by vibration.
Notice the way you say the plural of each of these words; there is no
vibration on the final s sound either.

If you now try the same experiment with the words in column B, you
will notice that the consonant at the end of each is accompanied by
vibration and voice. And so is the plural sound you attach to them;
that’s why it sounds like z. You quite automatically put the voiced
sound on the words that end with a voiced sound, and you put the sound
without voice on the end of the words that end with an unvoiced sound.
You can test this by adding the plural to, for example, talp and torb,
which you have no doubt never come across before. Because they are not
words of English, you have not heard anyone say them, either in the
singular or in the plural. Yet if you treat these nonsense words—and any
others you make up—as real ones, and make them plural, you will
unfailingly attach the version that follows the rule.

And this rule you have just discovered can be simply stated: When
forming the plural of nouns, add the voiceless version of the plural
marker to words ending in voiceless consonants, and add the voiced
version to words ending in voiced consonants. No one taught you this
rule, and you were in all probability unaware that you knew it. You have
acquired many such rules, which function in all the aspects of your
linguistic competence. Although the rules differ from one language to
another (the one we have just examined is a rule specifically of
English), all languages have such rules and all speakers learn them as
you did this one: effortlessly and usually without awareness.

Additional aspects of our linguistic competence concern certain
other abilities that we also tend to take for granted, that is, until it
is pointed out to us that they are really pretty impressive. For
example, we are immediately able to know when an utterance is «all
right»—that it accords with our notion of obeying the rules of the
language—and when it is not. In this sense it is all right to say, for

Hildegarde left home this morning without her keys.

But it is not all right to say

Left morning home this her without keys Hildegarde.

The words are all there, but they are in the wrong order. As you have
internalized the rule for the pronunciation of the plural of nouns, so
you have also internalized the rules for ordering the words of English
into sentences that feel right—that are, in other words, grammatical.

We are also able to understand utterances even when parts are left
out. «Stop it!» is an example. Complete sentences always have a subject,
a person or thing or idea that the sentence is about. «You stop it!»
expresses this subject: It is you. But we routinely leave this part out
of commands, knowing somehow that the subject of a command is always

There are still other rather amazing abilities that we possess with
regard to language. We are able to recognize—and create—sentences that
have more than one meaning: We call these ambiguous sentences. It is
clear that we know there are two meanings to a sentence such as the

Andrew saw the girl with binoculars.

What is not clear is who has the binoculars—Andrew or the girl. Has
Andrew seen her through them, or has Andrew seen her and perceived that
she has them? Or take a sentence such as

The zoo contained young llamas and anteaters.

Are both the llamas and the anteaters young, or just the llamas?

As we are able to recognize and create ambiguous sentences, so are
we able to recognize and generate sentences that paraphrase each other.
These are sentences that take a different form but have the same
meaning. You will recognize the common meaning within each pair of the
following sentences:

Ernest ate a sandwich.

A sandwich was eaten by Ernest

Sally is climbing the tallest tree in the yard.

The tallest tree in the yard is being climbed by Sally.

You know the pairs constitute paraphrases; in the first, the one who is
eating and that which is eaten remain the same. In the second pair, it
is always Sally doing the climbing and the tree that is being climbed.
That is, the grammatical relations remain constant—and somehow we are
equipped to know this, though we are taught in school that the subject
of these sentences changes as we change their form from active to

Nor is this all our linguistic competence allows us. At its most
fundamental level, language is constructed of sounds strung together,
one after another, in a linear order. Some of our basic abilities
concern the sounds and sound combinations that make up the words of our
language. When a native speaker of a language other than yours speaks to
you in your language, you notice immediately that he or she produces
sounds that do not strike your ear as you expect. When an adult native
speaker of Hungarian says the English word bad, it may be pronounced
bed, because Hungarian lacks the vowel sound in bad. When an adult
native speaker of French says the English word something, it may sound
like somesing, because French does not have the th sound English has.

I’m sure you have also observed that utterances in an unfamiliar
language seem less like sequences of words than like a steady,
undifferentiated stream of sound. Where does one word end and the next
begin? Without instruction, how can you figure it out? Yet this is
precisely what you did do as a baby, when you began to learn your own
language. Quite efficiently, and in a remarkably short time, you figured
out which sounds, among all those assailing your ears, were the ones to
pay attention to; where to assume boundaries between individual words;
how to manipulate the words so that when you yourself began to utter
them they came out in the right order and got you what you needed more
than anything else: to be understood. And you did virtually all of this
on your own, because a lot of what was said to you was incomplete and
simplified, if not downright babytalk (Tommy want his blankee? Bye bye

If all of this is not impressive, I don’t know what is. What
linguists seek to do is to account for, to explain these wonderful
abilities that characterize our species.


Crystal D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia

of Language. – New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1987. – p. 401.

The communicative use or touching behaviour, proxemics, has in recent
years attracted a great deal of research by psychologists, sociologists,
and anthropologists. A very wide range of activities is involved, as is
suggested by this small selection of terms expressing bodily contact:

embrace lay on (hands) punch

guide link (arms) shake (hands)

bold nudge slap

kick pat spank

kiss pinch tickle

The communicative value of tactile activities is usually fairly clear
within a culture, as they comprise some of the most primitive kinds of
social interaction (several of the activities are found between
animals). They express such ‘meanings’ as affection, aggression (both
real and pretend), sexual attraction, greeting and leave taking,
congratulation, gratitude, and the signalling of attention. They operate
within a complex system social constraints: some of the acts tend to be
found only in private (notably, sexual touching); some are specialized
in function (e.g. the tactile activities carried on by doctors,
dentists, hairdressers, or tailors); and some are restricted to certain
ceremonies (e.g. weddings, graduation, healing). Everyone has a
subjective impression about how these activities take place, and what
they mean. But there are many differences in behaviour between
individuals and groups, and it is not easy to make accurate
generalizations about society as a whole.

It is difficult to study tactile activity in an objective way: a
basic problem is how to obtain clear recordings in which the
participants are unaware of the observer (especially if the behaviour is
being filmed). There are thus few detailed accounts of the range of
communicative tactile acts in a society, and of the factors governing
their use. It is evident, however, that some societies are much more
tolerant of touching than others, so much so that a distinction has been
proposed between ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’ societies – those that
favour touching (such as Arabs and Latin Americans), and those that
avoid it (such as North Europeans and Indians). In one study of couples
sitting together in cafes, it was found that in Puerto Rico the people
touched each other on average 180 times an hour; in Paris it was 110
times an hour; whereas in London there was no touching at all (S. M.
Jourard, 1963).

§ ? © 1/2 3/4 u



*ing to be so close to the student. After both had circled the desk
several times, he capitulated, and asked her to sit down!

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