Guy Deutscher: Through the Language Glass

We are now halfway through this book and enjoying it very much, not least the malicious wit with which the author challenges received opinions in Linguistics.

On looking up the author’s background, it is clear that he has come to the study of language after a successful academic career in Mathematics, which is notoriously exigent in demanding evidence for any statement. He finds Linguistics lacking in academic rigour in this respect.

For example, it has been axiomatic in Linguistic studies that “all languages are equally complex”. When I learned this, I realised that the reason for this statement was to counter the popular opinion that technologically primitive people are cognitively and linguistically primitive.

However, it has been left to Deutscher to challenge this statement as a matter of fact. He shows in this book that, not only is there no evidence from real languages for this statement, but there is no measure of complexity in language. Some languages are more complex than others at the morphological level – German, with its case and gender endings is more complex that English in this respect, for example. Which language is more complex at the level of the clause? No-one has done this research or attempted to produce a measure of complexity.

It seems that isolated languages spoken by few people are less complex phonologically than more widely used languages, clearly because people who know one another well cut down on the sounds for communication (by the force of linguistic destruction described in Deutscher’s previous book i.e. laziness). Otherwise the field is wide open for research.

The Unfolding of Language: Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher: The Unfolding of Language

We have “finished” this book at last. That is, two of us have read and discussed it, chapter by chapter. The third has been visiting her eighteen-month-old grandson and bringing back to us fresh data on language acquisition. We have been highly satisfied with our reading of the book and even more delighted by Isaac’s miraculous move into language.

In this book Guy Deutscher has made a convincing case for using the processes of language change which we can see at work now to propose a theory as to how these same processes have shaped language over the four thousand years or so for which we have evidence in the form of written records. He makes the parallel with Geology, which also uses evidence from the present day to understand the historical processes which have formed the earth. He firmly leaves on one side questions, such as the relation between animal language and human language, for which we have no evidence. Continue reading

Daniel Everett: Language: The Cultural Tool

Having wrestled with Tomasello’s Constructing a Language for several weeks, my friends and I decided to choose something easier for our next book.

Tomasello’s book was difficult because it was, as the author notes, intended as a textbook which he could not manage to write. The ideas were not particularly difficult but readers like us needed more examples to understand what he was referring to. The main purpose of the book was to join the growing chorus of linguists putting forward a sociological approach to language learning in opposition to the psycholinguistic approach of Chomsky and his followers, which has dominated academic linguistics for half a century. To people like us, used to systemic linguistics, this is hardly a new idea. It still astonishes me that Tomasello (and now Everett) make no reference to Halliday’s pioneering work in the field. Continue reading

Michael Tomasello: Constructing a Language

We are now studying chapter 7 of this heavy tome and have got the hang of what the author is doing. It is primarily opening up a new framework for research into language acquisition, one different from Chomsky’s Transformational Generative model that has dominated Linguistics for the last half century. Transformational Generative Grammar offers a mathematical schema for describing the syntax of language based on the idea that all languages can be described in the same way because they are the product of the innate system which all human beings share.

The new paradigm argues that the structure of language is determined by the social demands made on it and is learned by children from interacting with older members of the tribe. It is based on two capacities of the human being: one, looking for patterns and, two, communicating with another human being by pointing at something in the world. No other ape does this – Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and he should know! Continue reading

Language Acquisition

My friends and I have been meeting most weeks to study Cognitive Linguistics. It proved to be harder than we’d hoped, largely because the book we chose was not a teaching book but one written for scholars who already knew more about the subject than we did.

We’re now approaching the subject from another angle – that of child language acquisition. The timing could not be better, as one of us has a one-year-old grandson, who is ready to move into speech. His first word is /ka:/ for “cat”. My friend is technologically advanced and has taken some delightful video clips of Isaac for us to relate to the literature. We are all soppy about babies, so it is a huge pleasure to have this data to study. What is wonderful is to see Isaac’s total concentration and awareness as he tunes into the language around him and tries to become part of the speaking community.

We are using Tomasello’s Constructing a Language as our textbook, and we’re hoping to put some of his frameworks over data from Isaac – for example, rate of expansion of vocabulary over time and class of words understood and used.

We’ll keep you posted!

British Sign Language

Dictionary of British Sign Language / English, produced for the British Deaf Association by Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham, 1992

This is a huge brick of a book, necessarily so since it gives entries for the 1739 signs in British Sign Language (BSL). Each sign requires photos and a detailed descriptive entry. The bulk of the book is taken up with the signs of BSL.

About 160 pages of closely printed text at the beginning give a very clear outline of BSL as a language system. It is clear that at the time of making the dictionary (1992) there was still much linguistic analysis of BSL to be done (e.g. on categorising verbs). The book does not appear to have been updated, but there may well have been further work on a satisfactory description of sign language in the last twenty odd years. Continue reading

Pragmatics (continued)

We’ve had to take a couple of weeks off our study of pragmatics but resumed recently with chapters 5 and 6 of the book we are working through.*

Chapter 5 Speech Acts in Context brought us what we have been waiting for – a coherent framework for describing the interface between the language we use and the meaning we intend it to have in a social context. Several attempts at such a system are outlined, but none are an advance on the groundbreaking work of Sinclair and Coulthard in their 1975 book Towards an Analysis of Discourse.

They recorded lessons in primary schools and analysed them at the level of discourse, using a “rank-scale” of a social activity (in this case the lesson), which is made up of exchanges between teacher and pupils, which can be further sub-divided into acts (a single piece of dialogue). I remember how excited we all were in 1975  by this framework of analysis (especially those of us involved in teacher education). Continue reading

Pragmatics: deixis

Last week we had an interesting time working our way through the chapter on deixis.* I have a very happy memory of discovering deixis when I was doing my MA in Applied Linguistics at the University Essex in 1975-1976.

I’d come from teaching literature to very able fourth year B.Ed. students and we were tackling Dickens’ big books including Little Dorrit. It always makes an interesting class to go back to a novel’s opening paragraphs when one has finished reading the book to see how the themes of the book are adumbrated in the opening section. For two years I had attempted this with my students and we had realised eventually that there was something very odd about the opening of Little Dorrit. For two years we had had to declare ourselves defeated in our attempts to describe what this was.

I had chosen Stylistics as one of my options in my course at Essex and been delighted by the discovery that, at long last, there was a link between Literature and Language studies. The old failure to analyse the peculiarity of the opening of Little Dorrit seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my newly learned knowledge of Linguistics.

One happy afternoon I settled down to read it again and realised that the oddity of the text consisted in its failure to be precise about where and when the entities in the passage were operating. I took my problem to David Kilby, one of my lecturers, and he immediately recognised that what I had no word for was deixis and referred me to John Lyons Theoretical Linguistics. This has only a page and a half on the subject, but it was enough for me to do a word by word analysis of the passage. The precision of this stylistic analysis enabled me to account for the oddness of this opening of the novel and to relate it to the Christian message of the book as a whole.

I wrote it up for my course in Stylistics and shortly after Ron Carter published it in one of the early books of practical Stylistics  in this country.**


*Introducing Pragmatics in Use: Anne O’Keefe, Brian Clancy, Svenja Adolphs, Routledge 2011

**Language and Literature: ed. Ronald Carter, Allen and Unwin, 1982





Pragmatics (continued)

In my blog of 30th November, I shared my first thoughts about the book my friends and I were studying (Jean Stilwell Peccei: Pragmatics). I commented that, unlike syntax and phonology and even certain approaches to discourse analysis, semantics still seems to be a hotchpotch of disconnected attempts to impose a meaningful framework on language and its relation to the real world.

Having worked and argued our way through the book, it is clear that this first impression was well-founded. Historically, language study has always been part of philosophy and philosophers have made several critical contributions to the new discipline of pragmatics.

Peccei draws on the work of the philosophers Grice, Austin and Searle in chapters 4-7 of her  workbook on Pragmatics. In addition, the first chapters of the book come from another traditional area of Philosophy, that of Logic. I shall return to the example in the earlier blog: Continue reading

Seeing Voices

This is the title of a book by Oliver Sacks (1989) about the history of deaf people learning to communicate.

I first became interested in the topic when a former student rang me up: she had found herself teaching the deaf without any training, and she asked me what Linguistics had to offer on the subject. I had just happened to read an article in one of the journals, which supported the use of sign language, rather than the received wisdom of the time, which insisted on deaf people trying to learn to speak and lip read. While this worked for some people, many deaf learners were cognitively impaired because they never learned any full language. Sign language apparently offered full cognitive development because it is a complete language, one which uses the eyes rather than the ears for communication. (Hence Sacks’s title Seeing Voices.) Continue reading