The Floating University

Outline


I. Linguistics: The Science of Language

A. An overview of language

1. Language is a window into the human mind

2. It’s the trait that most conspicuously distinguishes humans from other species

3. It’s essential for human cooperation, knowledge sharing, and coordinating actions

4. It is mysterious: how did language evolve in humans? How does the brain computer language?

5. It is central to human lie

6. Information is coded into exact sequences of sounds in a way that we can interpret and thus recover that information so we can share ideas

7. The miracle of language is its vast expressive power with a limited number of sounds

8. Language has been found in every society studied by anthropologists

9. There are over 6,000 languages spoken on Earth

10. Every known society has a complex language

11. Charles Darwin: man from birth “has an instinctive tendency to speak”

B. Components of Linguistics

1. Grammar – the assembly of words, phrases, and sentences

2. Phonology – the study of sound

3. Semantics – the study of meaning

4. Pragmatics – the study of the use of language in conversation

5. Psycholinguistics – the study of how language is processed in real-time

6. Language acquisition – the study of how language is acquired by children

7. Neurolingustics – the study of how language is computed in the brain

II. What is Language is Not


A. Written language

1. Writing is not found in every culture

2. Writing is relatively new, only 5,000 years old

B. Proper grammar

1. Descriptive grammar – the rules that characterize how we actually speak

2. Prescriptive grammar – the rules that characterize how we should speak

3. Some prescriptive rules don’t make much sense

4. Example of the split infinitive which is from Latin: Captain Kirk said “to boldly go where no man has gone before” but the rules say he should have said should have said “to go boldly where no man has gone before,” but that clashes with the rhythm and structure of ordinary English

5. Another example is to never use a double negative: Mick Jagger shouldn’t have sung “I can’t get no satisfaction” instead he should have sun “I can’t get any satisfaction,” but “any” is a double negative like “can’t” and “no”, and this is a hold-over from 17th century southern England (where the capitol is) that used “can’t… any” over “can’t… no”

6. There is nothing special about a language that is chosen as the standard for a given country

7. Rules of different dialects can be just as complex and sophisticated as the ones in a standard language

8. Example: African-American vernacular English /Ebonics: "He be workin’" is not a bastardization of Standard English, it is subtly expressing that "he" is employed whereas “He workin” means he is working at this moment

C. Language is not thought

1. Babies and other mammals communicate without speech

a. They register cause and effect, objects, and the intentions of other people

b. Types of thinking – like visual thinking - go on without language

c. Looking at three dimensional figures and deciding if they have the same shape is not solved by describing the cubes with words but rather by mentally rotating the image

2. We use tacit knowledge to understand language and remember the gist

a. Even when you understand language you usually come away with the gist of something, not the actual language

b. Long-term memory relies on the gist and content of words instead of their exact form

c. Example: so far in this lecture we don’t remember every single sentence the professor said but instead something more abstract which is meaning/content/semantics

d. To understand a sentence there’s a lot of non-linguistic processes happening to even make sense of the language

e. Example: “Wet hair, lather, rinse, repeat” – we know from tacit knowledge that we don’t need to keep wetting our hair, and we don’t “repeat” in an endless loop

3. If language isn't thinking, then where did it come from?

a. Language is the aggregation of tons of people who invent jargon, slang, and new constructions in an attempt to find new ways of expressing their thoughts

4. Language can affect thought:

a. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or the relativity hypothesis: language can affect thought

III. How Language Works


A. Words – stored in a mental lexicon

1. The basic principle of a word was identified 100 years ago by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure

2. He recognized the arbitrariness of the sign

3. Example: “duck” doesn’t look like a duck, but we have memorized through brute force the association with that sound and its meaning, thus it has to be stored in our memory

4. A typical high school graduate has a vocabulary of around 60,000 words

B. Rules – allow us to put bits of language into more complex stretches

1. Grammar - the ability to produce and understand new sentences

a. Noam Chomsky is the godfather of linguistics

b. He said the big puzzle is explaining creativity/productivity  

c. Almost every sentence we encounter is new, so we must have internalized a grammar or recipe for combining elements

d. This suggests linguistics is actually a branch of psychology

2. Syntax – the rules that allow us to assemble words into phrases

a. Not just word by word associations because two words together might not make sense, but in the context of the whole sentence they do

b. Language has long-distance dependencies where one word in a sentence dictates the word choice much later

c. Example: Either… or, if…. Then

d. Example: “Daddy, why did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of, up for?”

e.  Too many long distance dependencies can make a sentence hard to understand

3. Morphology – the rules that allow us to assemble bits of words (prefixes and suffixes) into complex words

a. Sentences are assembled in a hierarchial structure that looks like an upside down tree

b. Phrase structure rules allow for

(1) open-ended creativity

(2) expression of unfamiliar meaning

(3) production of basically infinite combinations

c. You can always make a sentence longer by adding to it

d. Example: “Pinker mentioned that Faulkner wrote that ‘They both bore it…’”

4. Rules are essential for knowing who did what to whom

a. Example: “On tonight’s program, Conan will discuss sex with Dr. Ruth.”

b. The geometry of branches in phrase structure help with this

C. Chomsky: children are hard-wired with a universal grammar

1. Children can’t just memorize sentences

2. They just somehow figure out the rules that go into sentence construction based on what they hear

3. Evidence children use rules from the beginning:

a. Children create sentences unheard from adults

(1) Example: “more outside,” “all gone sticky,” the child would not have heard these phrases from adults

b. The past-tense rule

(1) Phase of saying “he holded the baby rabbits,” apply rule though they don’t know about irregular verbs yet, they over-generalize the rule

(2) Wug Test – tell a young child a picture of a bird is a “wug” then when you ask them what there is when there are two of the birds they will say “wugs”, something they could not have imitated from hearing an adult say it

c. Poverty of input – children use structure dependent rules

(1) Chomsky proposed this simply by looking at what goes in the ears of a kid and the talent they end up with as adults; there’s a big difference that can be made up by assuming a child has a built-in knowledge of how language works

(2) Example: how children learn to form questions

(3) A child is exposed to two possible rules

(4) Word by word linear rule “the man who is tall is in the room” -> “Is the man who tall is in the room?”

(5) Structure dependent rule – looks at the geometry of the phrase structure tree, -> “Is that man who is tall in the room?”

(6) Children don’t make the mistake of using the linear rule, even though they might not hear the more complex version of the structure dependent rule used very often

(7) Chomsky says therefore that structure dependent rules are part of the universal grammar we are born with

D. Critics of Chomsky

1. Universal grammar may not be only specific to language

2. Chomsky and his researchers only studied a small number of languages

3. Chomsky has not show that more general purpose learning models like neuro networks models, are incapable of learning language along with the other things children learn

IV. Phonology – the rules that allow us to combine sound patterns, vowels and consonants, into the smallest words

A. Rules that tell us what is and isn’t a possible word in a language depending on how it sounds

1. Example: “bluk” could be an English word even though it isn’t

B. These rules also govern adjustments to sounds based on the other words the word is surrounded by

1. Example: “-ed” is pronounced differently in “walked” “jogged,” and “patted”

C. Language-specific rules of phonology are usually carried over when someone learns a new language, thus giving them an “accent”

D. Deliberate manipulation of phonology rules and structures is poetry and rhetoric

V. Language Interfaces – allow us to understand language from others and produce language others can understand

A. Language Production – we use many internal cavities to change the air from our lungs into words

1. The windpipe/trachea, larynx/voice box, vocal tract, throat behind the tongue, cavity above the tongue, the cavity formed by the lips, and when you block off airflow via the mouth it can come through the nose

2. We can move our tongue, change the shape of the cavities, stop airflow, etc to form different vowels and consonants

3. Having the larynx in the throat where food comes puts us at risk for choking, but Darwin pointed out it only would have evolved that way if the risk was worth the ability to produce language, so language must have a survival advantage

B. Speech Comprehension

1. A very complicated computational process highlighted by the struggles for voicemail menus or computer dictation to get things right

2. Why can’t computers understand language?

a. Each phoneme (vowel or consonant) comes out differently depending on what it’s surrounded by, example: “Cape Cod”; it is hard to program a computer with all of that variability

b. The absence of segmentation boundaries

c. We form liaisons between words so it’s hard to tell where one word ends and another starts without fluent  knowledge of a language thanks to our mental lexicon of words

(1) example: “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?”

d. We are usually unaware of how ambiguous language is

(1) Example: “has” is ambiguous – “Mary had a little lamb” vs. “Mary had a little lamb with mint sauce”

C. Pragmatics -how people understand language using their knowledge of the world

1. The cooperative principle

                       a. Assume that the person you’re speaking with is on the  same page as you when it comes to
                       conveying meaning

b. Example: “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome” we understand that as a polite request as opposed to a rumination on a hypothetical event; “give me a hand” doesn’t mean a literal hand, but instead “help me”; “I’m leaving you” “Who is he?”

IV. Why study linguistics


A. It’s a miracle of the natural world

B. Allows us to exchange an unlimited number of ideas using a finite set of mental tools

C. Many practical applications

1. programming computers

2. treating language disabilities

3. teaching reading, writing, and foreign languages

4. understanding law, politics, and literature

D. It speaks to fundamental questions of the human condition

E. Is at the center of different coners of thought, social relationships, human biology, evolution, and what’s special about the human species