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!

Sign Supported English

In my last blog I recorded my observations from regular visits to the Deaf Cultural Centre (for their excellent lunches). While some of the deaf people there were clearly using full BSL (British Sign Language) – quietly and undemonstratively communicating with their hands, others (including the friendly people who tried to teach some signs to my friend and me) were clearly using something quite different. These signs were not arbitrary but clearly related to the gestures and imitative movements that hearing people would use.

Alf Stewart, who fulfils various roles at the Centre, explained to me that this language is Sign Supported English, quite different from BSL but a lot easier to learn for limited everyday uses than BSL. It all goes to show how ingenious people are at overcoming handicaps to communication.

Afterthoughts on BSL

I am lucky enough to live almost next door to the Midlands Cultural Centre for the Deaf (which is open to the public for excellent lunches and snacks). The deaf and hearing people who run the centre are very welcoming and try to teach us bits of Sign. Contrary to what I was arguing in my last blog, most of the signs we try to learn are iconic (i.e. mimic the thing depicted) e.g. sausage roll, fish and chips. (Most of our vocabulary is food items.)

It is nice to see how relaxed and happy are the fluent Sign users – unlike our odd words, BSL is clearly a complex and arbitrary system, like any other language.

However, I sometimes watch the television programmes accompanied by an interpreter in BSL. It seems to me that they use a variety of semiotic systems, including lip-reading and finger spelling as well as BSL. I’d like to follow this up sometime.




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


Neither my webmaster nor I can find the blogs I claim to have written about the work my friends and I have been doing on the language of the law (Forensic Linguistics) and the language of medicine, so I shall leave them for the moment and consider our current preoccupation, which is pragmatics.

We made a wise decision to work through a workbook on the subject.* Many of insights we are familiar with (e.g. speech act theory) but we have no systematic knowledge of the area.

The first distinction we had to make was that between semantics and pragmatics. Briefly, semantics deals with the meanings encoded in the language system itself; pragmatics describes the use of language in making meanings in the world. Continue reading