Grammar neep redux

March 14th, 2007

One of the things I’ve done recently is look at a few introductory books on linguistics in order to mention them here for those readers who might be interested in the modern approach to grammar, ie, transformational or generative grammar. The book I learned out of, John Lyon’s THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, is probably o.p. and gads, I wouldn’t wish it on any one but another fanatic for the subject like myself. Fortunately, there are newer and more readable texts out. Andrew Radford’s TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR: A FIRST COURSE, published by Cambridge UP, is about the best I’ve seen for a hardcore but very carefully arranged study of grammar itself. He’s tried to make it usable for home study and as far as I can tell, he’s suceeded.

LINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION by Akmajian, Demers, Farmer, and Harnish, pub. by MIT, is a very good introduction to the entire field, with introductory chapters on grammar among many other subjects. I decided to recco this one because it’s arranged so that the casual reader/student can understand the rest of the book without memorizing the material on phonetics and phonology. Most linguistic ovreviews start, logically enough, with phonetics, but this is a hideously detail and technical subject. People such as writers of fiction who simply want to know a little about linguistics in general really don’t need it, and believe me, memorizing the details is the only way to really understand phonology. The foursome who collaborated on this book have thoughtfully circumvented the problem, though the material’s there for those who want it.

Howsomever, both the books I’m recommending and a lot of the others I looked through contain a really odd error, concerning the history of their subject. They all seem to think that Noam Chomsky created or invented transformational grammar in the 1960s. In actuality, the baskc concepts were laid down by Leonard Bloomfield in the early 1930s and developed further by Zelig Harris in the 1940s. Chomsky most certainly added much new material and expanded the discussion into the field of psycholinguistics, but he sure didn’t invent it!

Chomsky has been controversial in his life because of his far-leftist politics, which should not have influenced discussions of his work but inevitably did. He was roundly attacked in the early days by the more craven species of academics. His defenders seem to have inflated his work as a kind of compensation, or so I’d guess — I don’t know why for certain, but he seems to have gone beyond lionization to deification, never a good fate for any original thinker.

Be that as it may, Chomsky’s early work in the structure of language is immensely valuable. (His later work, particularly his “minimalist program”, looks flawed to me but that needn’t concern us here, really.) Just remember that he’s not the Font and Wellspring, no matter who assumes he is.

64 Responses to “Grammar neep redux”

  1. Lois Tiltonon 14 Mar 2007 at 10:40 am

    I admire Chomsky, for his political stands as much as anything, but I was always irked by his dismissal of the language claims for other species.

  2. Constance Ashon 14 Mar 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I certainly see what Lois is saying.

    He’s a national treasure though.

    Love, C.

  3. Katharine Kerron 14 Mar 2007 at 2:40 pm

    The problem isn’t Chomsky so much as his drum-beating disciples. I should add that I’m not really qualified to judge all of his Minimalist program, but it sure looks short on evidence and long on doctrine to me. Real linguists, particularly in Europe, have published assorted critiques of it for those who are interested.

    To clarify, Chomsky’s work covers a number of areas. First are his writings on language structure, which are extensions of the Bloomfield/Harris work and not all that original. Nor is it in dispute. This is the part of transformational grammar that covers Grammar and Syntax as we all generally think of them.

    Second, he got into the question of “how does the brain produce language?” This is a field better served by neuroscience, and his writing on the matter is pretty murky. Lois, I share your annoyance about his belief (and it’s a belief, not a reasoned conclusion) that only man has language. He bolstered these theories by a discussion in his later works of how children acquire language.

    I know nothing about Chomsky’s personal life but he can’t have spent a lot of time around children, or so it seems to me. His theories about language acquistion go back to Plato’s MENO. :-) Welll, it’s not quite that bad, but like too many other thinkers about language, he’s determined to believe that language is somehow hard-wired in the brain not as a mere capability (no argument there) but as a kind of ready-made grammar and syntax, waiting to be “transformed” into speech. (Lots of argument here.) At this point we have left linguistics for metaphysicis, again in my opinion.

    The underlying Minimalist theory, vigorously defended by Chomskyites, is that all languages share the same “deep structure” within the brain. The differences between the actual languages get explained away by various devices. The few I understand I do not find convincing.

  4. Katharine Kerron 14 Mar 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Further clarification: by “real linguists” I don’t mean “people who speak a lot of languages,” though that’s part of it. :-) I mean “people with enormous expertise in linguistics as a scientific discipline”.

  5. Lois Tiltonon 14 Mar 2007 at 3:25 pm

    There is work being done now in philosophy [Baird Searles] to the effect that neuroscience is now sufficiently advanced to be able to discover these and other answers.

  6. Constance Ashon 14 Mar 2007 at 7:50 pm

    As well, new work coming from primatology and the origins not just of language but of tool making —

    Not to mention what music dna forensics can tell us. BTW, when Vaquero mentioned that sort of thing, with that label in his first book, it was strange and shocking. But just in the last 3 – 4 years, that has changed.

    This is one of those very exciting, constantly expanding realms of learning about our origins.

    Love, C.

  7. Brendan Podgeron 14 Mar 2007 at 9:14 pm

    I know my mum when she was doing her Post Grad in Literacy Education, she is a kindergarten teacher by trade, was very dismissive of Noam Chomsky. Almost to the point that she refused to listen to anything he had to say on any topic.

  8. longtime lurkeron 15 Mar 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Working linguist here. Katherine Kerr is absolutely right that Chomsky has been deified by his supporters and that his work did not come out of a vacuum, as introductory textbooks tend to suggest. On the other hand, Chomsky really was hugely influential in syntax (especially in the US, but to some extent in Europe too), and I usually take the claim that Chomsky invented transformational grammar as the sort of convenient oversimplification that crops up in introductory textbooks. Frederick Newmeyer’s book Linguistic Theory in America is a good place to go for a more complete history of the field, if anyone is interested in such an obscure topic.

    Also, I wish that science fiction writers would read just a little about phonetics before designing their aliens. This is probably just an occupational hazard, but I find it very frustrating when tentacled bug-eyed monsters just happen to have vocal tracts that are identical to humans’, and none of the characters even mention how lucky they are that the aliens and the humans can pronounce each others’ languages.

  9. Katharine Kerron 15 Mar 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Lurker, that’s a good point about the structure of aliens’ vocal apparatus! I’ve been guilty of that oversimplification myself, though at least in SNARE I did mention the ChaMeech as having “extraordinarily moblie lips” or some such phrase. :-)

    I agree that the oversimplification of Chomsky’s role is probably just an introductory book problem, but alas, how many people go on with linguistics past the introductions? (If they get that far.) This is how myths are made . . .

    Have you read Pieter A.M. Seuren’s critique CHOMSKY’S MINIMALISM? I’ve just started it, and he certainly goes after the “principles and parameters” material hammer and tongs! I was wondering if you had and if so, what you thought of it.

  10. Constance Ashon 15 Mar 2007 at 6:09 pm

    She isn’t exactly writing SF — seems billed as a ‘gothic thriller’ sort of writer, but Natasha Mostert appears to be a writer with those qualifications that Kit would like more of us to have (and so would I, starting with myself — Vaquero did do a lot of linguistics, as well as Chinese, in grad school, and I can see how useful this knowlege is):

    Educated in South Africa and at Columbia University, New York, Mostert holds post-graduate degrees in Lexicography and Applied Linguistics and a bachelors in Modern Languages majoring in Afrikaans, Dutch, English and German.

    I’d not heard of her previously, but Dutton just sent me her 4th novel.

    Love, C.

  11. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Mar 2007 at 1:03 pm

    I have to confess my ignorance here, but this is the first time in 22 years of academia and post-academia that I’ve actually heard anything of Noam Chomsky’s academic work. My first introduction, some 22 years ago, was to a rabid right-winger demanding to know “Are you a student of Professor Chomsky?” to which I blandly replied “No. Where does he teach?” which put an end to that discussion (discussion here used in the broad sense).

    On the subject of aliens with interesting vocal chords, this is a subset of the “Wow, everyone speaks English!” school of science fiction/fantasy writing, where not only do fantasy continents the size of Europe only have one “common tongue” (to use the D&D phrase), but absolutely no regional dialects or accents, let alone separate languages. Add to that the hyper-primness of F&SF where nobody noticeably swears on the page, even people one might expect to (pirates, space marines, wizards who spill potions down their robes) and we skip right over a fact that every gradeschool child knows: If you live with folk who speak another language, the first thing you learn are the insults and curse words. Even if the sacred language of the dwarves is not meant for topdweller’s ears and the dwarven diplomatic mission studiously and scrupulously use the courtly variant of the common tongue of men for their visits, this lasts until the dwarven high priest drops a thurible on his toe and everafter the elven princess (away with daddy on this important diplomatic mission) knows how to say “Mother of a Balrog” with perfect dwarven enunciation.

    Add to that the silliness whenever books mention the dark speech of demons with the stock ritual phrase which has no words for the concepts of ”Love” or “Mercy” but skips over the fact that it probably has 37 different ways of of saying “effing ho!” which perhaps explains why the demonology classes are always packed and the dark wizards are so much more fun to go have a beer with. And also explains why the barwench at the local Hooters equivalent (Hecate’s Owl) knows five of the nine forms of ritual address for the Queen of the Succubi.

  12. David Louis Edelmanon 16 Mar 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Also, I wish that science fiction writers would read just a little about phonetics before designing their aliens.

    Us science fiction writers have to choose our battles. Either we can write a long description of the bug-eyed alien’s physiology and a description of how technological advances have enabled them to build a subatomic vocalizer that can translate vibrations of (etc. etc. ad nauseum snooze snore).

    Or we can just simply have the bug-eyed alien start talking so we can get on to whatever it is that we’re really trying to talk about. Politics or human nature or love or whatever.

  13. Stacyon 16 Mar 2007 at 3:38 pm

    I’m so glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read Kevin’s post – I read it ten minutes ago and I’m still chuckling. Wonder what flavor wings they serve at Hecate’s Owl?
    More seriously, he’s entirely right about the “common” language problem, but I think it’s part of a larger problem caused by poor education in the US – no funding for foreign language classes and no real exposure to foreign languages, making it natural to assume a landmass the size of the US would have only one language.

  14. Katharine Kerron 16 Mar 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Kevin, I too am still grinning over your post. I’ve had lots of people ask me why the mercenary soldiers in some of my books use “bad language.” My usual answer is that I can’t imagine a merc who doesn’t.

    Dave, I know what you mean, but you know, it doesn’t take a lot of words to set up that a character has trouble with certain sounds from another language — consider the French and the common English phoneme /th/. Or that someone has to use an artificial voice device to communicate. It can even generate plot — what if said character loses the device or has it taken away at a crucial moment? Just the occasional touch can add a lot of that ever-desirable versimilitude to a book.

    This “one language only” mindset also produces all those names that all sound alike, unless one group throws apostrophes around with wild abandon, no matter how different the language that appear in the story. Hmmm, I may have to revise my earlier statement about learning phonetics and phonology if I keep this up. :-)

    Another thought about language sounds — many readers never read Pronunciation Guides, I know, I know, but they have a real function in an imagined world. A little effort on the reader’s part can return a big payoff. A common plaint: why can’t all the names in a fantasy/SF book “just be pronounced as if they were English?”. Those who so complain obviously have never looked criticially at English spelling, to say nothing of the various varieties of World English, most of which pronounce a varying selection of “letters” (graphemes would be a better term, to allow for diphthongs, digraphs, and such) in many different ways.

    Here’s a good example: I was reading an article in a British publication the other day about the Australian designer Florence Broadbent Lewis, who was trying to pass as an upper class British woman. To that end she changed her speech patterns, ie, her ‘accent’. According to the author, she pronounced Australia as “Orstralia.” Now, about that ‘Ors-‘ at the beginning. To an American, it means she pronounced it to rhyme with ‘horse’. Since this is not at all congruent with upper class British speech, the author must mean something different, unless she got it all wrong and that’s his point. Since people believed her act, I suspect the writer meant she pronounced it like the British suppressed R-sound in words such as yard or carpark — which do NOT include the New Englander’s heavily nasalized vowels, of course.

    I also am not sure how an unabashed native Australia would pronounce the first syllable of his homeland’s name and how that differs from the Received British and/or Hollywood American pronunciation, to say nothing of the Anglo-Indian pronunciation or Anglo-Celtic, plus other regional variants. No doubt New Zealanders would have their own take on the vowels, too.

    So the next time someone says to you, “can’t you just write your names so they’ll be pronounced like English?”, you can tell them it’s impossible — unless of course your book is going to be published by a small press for one specific locality. And needless to say, we’d all like a bit more of an audience that that. :-) There quite simply is no one single way to pronounce English — or Spanish, or Russian, or any other language that is spoken widely in different parts of the world.

  15. kateelliotton 16 Mar 2007 at 5:49 pm

    The ‘bad language’ question is an interesting one. Certain of my characters ought to be swearing a lot more than they do, but I admit to some hesitancy to layer in the kind of language they really would be using. One way I get around this is to use words that are innocuous enough to us but can be parsed as swearing, and also to use what outright swearing I do use to judicious (one hopes) effect.

    A show like Deadwood uses very strong language – as a viewer it doesn’t bother me personally, but I am sure there are people who won’t watch because of it. This is one of those cases where I would never recommend to Deadwood’s writers that they change their language. But at the same time I’m not going to belittle or sneer at people who are genuinely uncomfortable with swearing. Fortunately our system of entertainment allows for the presence of both.

    And meanwhile, Kevin is absolutely right about learning curse words first.

  16. Lois Tiltonon 16 Mar 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Of SF authors who have seriously attempted to convey alienity of language, CJ Cherryh has to be mentioned.

  17. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Mar 2007 at 9:00 pm

    I’m not certain what sort of wings they serve at Hecate’s Owl, but the names are likely cribbed from demonic slang for various levels of the Inferno, with Purgatory and the Vestibule being the equivalent of “Gringo Spicy.”

    And yes, Hell has to have slang. It’s enough of a stretch to believe in one single demonic language (rather than lots of them) but one that doesn’t change, despite a constant influx of new clients? Plus, it’s just amusing to think of the demons opinions of the demonologists using ritual forms of address 300 years out of date.

    Also, while the dark speech may not have a word for “Love,” there’s likely one for the particular glee you get when disembowling kittens, so it is possible to translate, if imperfectly.

    Plus, there are the more fun words to translate: What’s elven for “gemutlichkeit”? Dwarven for “tacky”? Demonic for “garish”? Is it all idiom, ie. “Blinged out like Mammon’s right nipple ring” or are there actual words and shades of meaning?

  18. Constance Ashon 16 Mar 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Well, actually the very first words soldiers, sailors and so on learn in a new language is the commerce of sex, the vernacular, street terms for sexual parts and preferences and HOW FRACKIN’ MUCH?!?!! THAT’S TOO MUCH.

    Or maybe I’ve read too much Sir Richard Burton, and listened too much to the men I know who have, well, traveled.

    Love, C.

  19. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Mar 2007 at 10:45 pm

    Well, if you were reading Burton’s translation of “The Tale of the Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad,” you would have gotten useful phases such as “This is my sturdy mule, which feeds on honey, delights in sesame, and spends the night at the Inn of Abu Mansoor.”

    I have to admit when I heard about Baghdad’s fashionable Mansoor district, my mind immediately flashed to the third girl’s entertainingly named naughty bits. Direct evidence that anyone who says you can’t learn anything from porn is wrong.

    Also interesting that you could film “The Pizza Delivery Dude and the Three Girls of San Fernando” and very little of the story would need to be changed: “This is Motel 6 where we leave the light on.”


  20. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 16 Mar 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Actually, come to think of it, reality has immitated art. Or at least I’m expecting a certain “That’s Hot!” girl has used the line “This is the Hilton….”

    Again, hee.

  21. kateelliotton 16 Mar 2007 at 11:09 pm

    That’s right, Constance.

    Curse words, and sex words, and – for those with rectitude – general words and phrases regarding commerce. What am I missing? Besides the location of the necessary.

  22. kateelliotton 16 Mar 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Lois, agreed on Cherryh. I loved the Chanur books for that reason.

  23. Danion 17 Mar 2007 at 1:06 am

    Kevin wrote,

    but absolutely no regional dialects or accents

    It can be a challenge to effectively communicate dialect without resorting to apostrophe wars. For ex, what’s another way of expressing the Cockney dropped “h’s”?

    I realize that a accents and dialects can be implied through careful word choice and phrasing — if one character speaks in long, rambling sentences wth multsyllabic words and another chooses single syllabie words, the characters, then you can imply some kind of difference.

    Kate wrote,

    What am I missing?

    Ein bier, bitte. :-)

  24. Constance Ashon 17 Mar 2007 at 11:41 am

    C. J. taught latin, for how many years?

    Meaning that just having fluency with another language is terrificly useful for a writer.

    And apposite to I don’t know what exactly in this discussion I’ll state that I loathe italics in fiction as much as Damon loathed apostrophes as an empty, silly, unexamined, hollow convention to convey … what?

    Love, C.

  25. Lois Tiltonon 17 Mar 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Yes, CJ taught Latin. She had a bunch of Latin stuff on a webpage at one point.

  26. kateelliotton 17 Mar 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Dani – ach! what was I thinking? of course!

  27. Carol Bergon 17 Mar 2007 at 7:59 pm

    Dani wrote:

    It can be a challenge to effectively communicate dialect without resorting to apostrophe wars.

    There are a number of other tricks you can use to convey the feel of dialect: word ordering (watching out for Yodaisms, of course), dropped words, different articles (the a, an, the kind), odd word usage, slurred words (eg. “didna”). Have characters refer to the “dropped endings” or rising inflections – give one or two examples, and you’ll have the reader hearing it without overdoing. The tough thing is not falling into cartoonish or over-cliched speech.


  28. Katharine Kerron 18 Mar 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Apostrophes have no place in conveying dialect in modern times. The forest of apostrophes in, to use Dani’s example, Cockney speech dates to the years of Prescriptive Grammar, when one class in Britian, speaking one dialect, decided that theirs was right and everyone else’s wrong.

    Consider this sentence: He wore his hat into church. This is so-called Standard English though bad manners on his part. The Cockney version is usually written ” ‘E wore ‘is ‘at into church.” Now, the apostrophe in English stands for something missing. Its use here means that there is something missing, ie, wrong with, the lack of aspiration in the Cockney dialect. Well, no. There was nothing there in the first place in that particular dialect, so nothing can be missing. If you want to write the sentence correctly, it’s: E wore is at into church.

    The use of apostrophes is an example of hypercorrection, which pops up all over the place in English. Another example is the possessive, for example, Jack’s book. Here something is missing, the Anglo-Saxon genitive, ie, originally it was Jackes book. Most people still believe the grammar legend that the apostrophe refers to Jack his book. Not true. This matters when a singular noun ends in S. Jaques’ book is incorrect. It shoudl be Jaqueses book, or, in modern terms, Jaques’s book. I have argued with a platoon of copy-reditors over this over the years . . .

    Hypercorrection creeps into participles, too. Many dialects of English use a northern form of the participle: He went huntan and fishan. This tends to be written huntin’ and fishin’. People say, “Oh, they drop the g.” This is looking at spelling, not speech. The g exists only to indicate the nasalization of the ending in the London dialect of English which became Standard Middle Class speech. The attitude toward the spelling of these participles drifted with the tide to America. So did the original form of the particles, though the pronunciation changed slightly. “He went huntin and fishin” is perfectly okay. No apostrophe needed, folks.

    You’ll never get the Grammar Smug to see this, of course.

    Another kind of hypercorrection occurs in spelling — consider “island”. The original word in English was eyeland, ie, a bit of land shaped like an eye. Somewhere around Shakespeare’s time, someone decided that iland was a bastardized form of insula, the Latin word for island, and stuck the S in, though not the N. Why, I don’t know.

  29. Katharine Kerron 18 Mar 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Italics: have a legit use, in my opinion, or rather several legit uses. One is to set a word or words apart from the rest of the text in factual writing, as I did with hypercorrection above, to show that it’s a technical term or that it’s being defined in the text. The other is to show a word would be emphasized in spoken language, ie, it’s an attempt to reproduce the prosody of the spoken language. Prosody in linguistics can refer to prose as well as poetry. In prose, prosody covers inflection, pitch, and even habitual gestures that add to or change the bare meaning of the words.

    I was just conned by an editor into use italics for the thoughts of the characters in GOLD FALCON and subsequent Deverry books, to “make it easier” for the readers. Why my editors think my readers are cretins is beyond me . . . They do make it easier to distinguish psionic speech from spoken in various SF works, come to think of it. In SNARE, I did use them to set apart the communications Ammadin was getting via the nanotube radio receiver behind her ear from what was being spoken.

    What is annoying is when authors are too lazy to rewrite a sentence that isn’t dialogue in order to let the rhythm of the sentence supply the emphasis. Stephen King is particularly bad at this, throwing italics and exclamation points around like a junior high school girl. Obviously his millions of readers don’t mind, however. :-)

  30. Katharine Kerron 18 Mar 2007 at 3:42 pm

    I wrote a longish post answering various points raised above, and then either WordPress or AOL ate it. I hate that.

  31. Katharine Kerron 18 Mar 2007 at 3:48 pm

    A show like Deadwood uses very strong language –

    What’s interesting about DEADWOOD to me is that the historical figures being portrayed would never have used the slang words put into their mouths. They did use — there are sources for this — the strong language of their times: religious blasphemy. Damn you, by God, Jesus Christ! carried much more impact then than words about sex and excretion. The writers made the change because the culture’s changed, and they felt that the religious terms weren’t offensive enough to convey the spirit of the dialogue.

  32. longtime lurkeron 18 Mar 2007 at 4:55 pm

    re Pieter Seuren: I haven’t read his book, but he is well regarded, so I would expect him to give a reasonable critique (bearing in mind, as you have no doubt noticed, that syntacticians sometimes get overexcited about their theories 😉 ).

    Kevin Andrew Murphy, you are so right about the everyone-speaks-English thing. Thanks for saying it better than I could.

  33. Emanuel Quadroson 18 Mar 2007 at 10:12 pm

    I don’t think that regarding Chomsky as the inventor of transformational grammar, narrow sense, is a real mistake. It is uncontroversial that Harris’ work played a great role in shaping Chomsky’s thoughts about language (though, I wouldn’t say the same about Bloomfield’s).

    Still, you can’t say that someone has not been original, just because he’s been influenced by another one who came before… Harris may have introduced the notion of ‘transformation’, but a more careful look into this matter reveals that Chomskyan tranformations are different much different from those used by Harris. Also, Chomsky has pushed this notion into a whole new program of research, to the point that the two kinds of transformations couldn’t really be the same.

    As for his dismissal of the language claims for other species, Chomsky, and none of his followers, has never said that animals don’t have means of communication. If you equate language with communication, then, yes, animals have it. If you define language in the narrow way Chomsky does, then, no, they don’t have it. It may well be, at first, a matter of definition, but once Language is defined, with its recursive procedures, with its infinite use of finite means, then it is an empirical matter if animals have it or not – the hypothesis is that they don’t. Up to now, this hypothesis is still well corroborated.

    Ok, my text is mess – sleepy ¬¬

  34. Constance Ashon 18 Mar 2007 at 10:34 pm

    There are other legitimate uses of apostrophes, as in Spanish. Which indicates the conjoining of articles and prepostions in pronunciation. In languages such as this one, not using the apostrophes, as the accents and so on, means you’re spelling incorrectly. This is particularly interesting with Spanish as it had a grammar earlier than any of the other ‘modern’ European languages, so it’s been rather more stable in evolution from the 14th – 15th centuries to these decadent days than some other languages have been. Which includes, of course, titles of members of the blood of this and that.

    Generally my experience with italics is that that setting off long sections of text into italics means that this is supposed to be SIGNFICANT AND DEEP or at least, MYSTICAL or something like that. Then — we have a flashback or something else, where then we have to go back to non-itals, and then we have to pick them up again, and it all looks very silly. Which is why italics tell me to just skip ahead. And since I learned that, I’ve learned I didn’t miss anything.

    Especially when the book begins with a long italicized prologue.

    Generally speaking.


    Love, C.

  35. Constance Ashon 18 Mar 2007 at 10:37 pm

    I love Deadwood. It has had the most interesting use of language of any series I’ve followed, except The Wire. Buffy reached those levels at various times in various seasons, but not as consistently. There were long periods when Willow’s missing referent, subject, object mode got so out of hand one dearly felt the need to slap Somebody. Probably the writers.

    Love, C.

  36. Brendan Podgeron 18 Mar 2007 at 11:35 pm


    I hate to disagree with anything you say, but the problem with writing Cockney as you want to is the reader soon requires a degree in Cockney dialect with a minor in Cockney Rhyming Slang to understand a single thing that is being said. While the hypercorrection may be incorrect and ugly(something that no one should discount when over-using apostrophes), it does give an idea of what the words may be for those without the Cockney to English lexicon at hand.

    Another example of the perils of writing a dialect is Strine(Australian dialect and slang). I am reliably informed that anyone from outside Australia who happens to hear the National Anthem as sung by someone other than Julie Anthony hears this:

    Or stoyliahns or lettuce rejoi
    Four weir yung an frei
    Weave goldne soilun wellth fat oil
    Ower ohm is gur bysee

    Although this is correct Strine it is completely meaningless and any reader who comes across it is going to have no idea what is going on.
    Probably the easiest thing to do would be to not try to “write ” the accent at all and just shortly describe it. You could even say the the hero had trouble understanding these people and let the reader imagine what they sound like. If they get it wrong (as far as the author is concerned) is it going to matter?

  37. Carol Bergon 18 Mar 2007 at 11:57 pm

    When it comes to italics, dialect, apostrophes, or any other prose construction, I think it’s good to bear in mind that clarity is the purpose. Good grammar enhances clarity, and these other elements can be used to the same end, allowing the construction to fade out and the story and characters to take on vivid reality.


  38. Lois Tiltonon 19 Mar 2007 at 11:52 am

    As I understand the Chomskyan definition of language, it seems to have been set up in a manner that no non-human use of language could pass the test, no matter how much like “language” such communication might otherwise seem.

  39. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 19 Mar 2007 at 12:21 pm

    But what about when you use apostrophes to indicate prosody? I personally detest when authors preface a passage with He spoke with a strong southern accent or worse, tack on a revision to what I already mentally heard, such as she said, lisping. It’s bad enough with fantasy being the world of “Everyone speaks English” without it also being “Everyone uses the same Received Pronunciation.”

    Imagine Twain’s Huck Finn with all of Jim’s thick dialect rendered into ordinary English words.

    Personally I think we should use all the tricks in the bag, apostrophes included, to try to convey what we want the reader to hear.

  40. Katharine Kerron 19 Mar 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Carol wrote:

    Good grammar enhances clarity,

    Ah, but the question is, how do we define “good”? Generally this means “how the ruling class speaks.” There are many situations — job interviews for instance — where one needs to speak as the ruling spreaks. But life and fiction present us with many other situations.

    There are plenty of instances of “good grammar” rules that are just plain wrong, like Jacques’ book and that silliness about “not splitting infinitives.” (English has no single word infinitive to split.)

    Brendan, however, you make an excellent point. This is why Spelling Reform for English is a lost cause. Soon English words will become utterly divorced from pronunciation, like the oldest stratum of Chinese ideolects. :-)

  41. Katharine Kerron 19 Mar 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Emanuel wrote:

    Also, Chomsky has pushed this notion into a whole new program of research, to the point that the two kinds of transformations couldn’t really be the same.

    There is a big difference between “developing someone else’s idea and years later taking it in a whole new direction” and “inventing the idea in the first place.” He did not invent the ideas in the first place — that was my point — in the area of the structure of language as we know it. The new direction is part of the “mentalist” program, ie, what does language tell us about the human mind and its power of thought? That is new. It’s also not my original subject — though we seem to have got into it here.

    As for the issuse of animal language:

    We perhaps need to break down a few terms here: “Animal communication” can cover what Lorenz called “call notes,” ie, vocal signals of alarm, estrus, feeding, that have no real symbolic content. These used to be considered “innate, instinctive” but it’s possible they are learned, even though they tend to be the same across an entire species, no matter where the individuals live. They are not part of a system, they are not as arbitrary as words, and thus they cannot be called a “language.” The same goes for certain gestures, like the mating dances of cranes and bowerbirds — patterned motion, rather than sound, but communication nonetheless.

    Language requires an ability to process symbols. Here’s where the battle lines have been drawn recently over the mental capacities of animals. There have been a large number of experiments that have been carefully constructed to ensure that the experimenter is not influencing the outcomes — ie, the experimenter is not somehow “signalling the right answer” to the animal being tested. Those who insist that animals cannot process symbols or reason tend to ignore these and fall back upon the old arguments about ponies that are trained to pretend to count and the like. The interesting question is why the avoidance?

    I suspect, and this is just subjective opinion on my part, that those avoiding the evidence still want to believe that humans are somehow set apart from all other animals. If they can’t believe in the idea of a Soul, they are left with Reason and ultimately language as the mark of our “special nature”.

    In the case of Chomsky’s theories, if apes like the famous Nim Chimpsky are really understanding and using symbolic language, no matter how rudimentary, then his theories have a serious hole in them.

  42. Katharine Kerron 19 Mar 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Constance, I totally agree with you on that particular use of italics. Maybe we can file it under the heading of “Say, what?”

    Kevin, dropping the apostrophes means the opposite of turning dialogue into Standard English. It means honoring the dialect, at least as long it’s intelligible and not like Brendan’s example.

    You know, several people here seem to think that by dropping the apostrophe I meant abandoning the dialectical spelling when I meant just the opposite.

  43. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 19 Mar 2007 at 3:27 pm


    So your talking about dropping the apostrophes but not adding the unpronounced letters back in? That’s understandable, but with the plain funkiness of English spelling, very often you have to use the apostrophes to get the correct pronunciation. I just went and took a look at Twain and found a reasonable passage, not of Jim’s dialect but Huck and Huck’s pa:

    A body would a thought he was Adam — he was just all mud. Whenever his liquor begun to work he most always went for the govment. his time he says:

    “Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him — a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment! That ain’t all, nuther. The law backs that old Judge Thatcher up and helps him to keep me out o’ my property.

    Not a lot of apostrophes, but if you bobbed the one off suthin it would be harder to tell that it was from something and likewise spelling of as o’ has a pretty long provenance, and likewise keeps the reader from confusing the sense of the word, since o by itself is an invocation.

    I think the best rule with apostrophes is the same one used with commas: clarity. If you need an apostrophe to make your meaning clear, use one.

  44. kateelliotton 19 Mar 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Kevin writes:

    I personally detest when authors preface a passage with He spoke with a strong southern accent or worse, tack on a revision to what I already mentally heard, such as she said, lisping. It’s bad enough with fantasy being the world of “Everyone speaks English” without it also being “Everyone uses the same Received Pronunciation.”

    Kevin, how would you go about showing the reader that people are speaking the same languge with different pronunciations, either because of regional variation or because they are a foreigner? Without it being a mash of weird spellings?

  45. Amanda Weinsteinon 19 Mar 2007 at 4:33 pm

    What about having the characters have trouble with each other’s speech? If Character A uses a dialect unfamiliar to Character B, it strikes me that Character B will not only notice the difference in pronunciation, but will probably be confused by some of the things Character A says, either because the idiom is unfamiliar (I’m thinking of the British vs. American usage of “knock you up”) or because the change in pronunciation leads to mishearing.

  46. lyssabitson 19 Mar 2007 at 4:55 pm

    I’d argue that you learn the names of food first, but then, I don’t *live* with the Catonese speakers in my family. However we do talk about food a lot, and out of self-preservation, I’ve had to learn the names of the foods I like and how to order water in a restaurant. My pronunciation is *terrible* however, so most of the time the servers stare at me like I’m speaking a foreign language. Which, yanno, I guess I am. 😉

  47. Nicole L.on 19 Mar 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Hi Constance,

    Are you sure you meant Spanish?

    There are other legitimate uses of apostrophes, as in Spanish. Which indicates the conjoining of articles and prepostions in pronunciation. In languages such as this one, not using the apostrophes, as the accents and so on, means you’re spelling incorrectly.

    Spanish doesn’t use apostrophes. Italian, yes; French, yes; maybe other Romance languages I don’t know about.

    About the “everyone speaks English”: everyone “speaks” American gestures too — or maybe don’t have many gestures at all. Is this because it’s too complicated to transfer to the page? A nod is always “yes,” a head shake from side to side is always “no,” and the obscene gestures are always vaguely defined as “he made an obscene gesture at their backs.”

    Of course this isn’t the case. In Mexico for example if you’re trying to motion for the check at a restaurant, you might accidently be coming very close to the equivalent of giving someone the finger.

    And of course there’s “do you bite your thumb at me?” “I do bite my thumb sir.” in Romeo and Juliet.

  48. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 20 Mar 2007 at 1:01 am

    Kate asked:

    Kevin, how would you go about showing the reader that people are speaking the same languge with different pronunciations, either because of regional variation or because they are a foreigner? Without it being a mash of weird spellings?

    Well, I think the mash of weird spellings works pretty well, so long as it’s in quotation marks, and even outside of it if you’ve got a strong first person narrator. With foreigners, you have the added device of peppering in a few italicised foreign words and phrases into their regular English speech, as well as conforming the English to the foreign grammar.

    If I wanted to convey an Asian immigrant, I’d mess up the articles and verb tenses, since a lot of Asian languages don’t have those and Asian folk learning English confuse them far more than folk who speak European languages. With Spanish speakers, swapping the adjectives after the nouns is the proper Spanish grammar. African languages include cumulative negatives as well as the habitual tense, both of which survive in African-American English dialect.

    Fantasy languages obviously follow different rules, but they still follow rules, so there’s no trouble grabbing what you need from various past and current English dialects and other languages.

  49. berna hulon 20 Mar 2007 at 8:03 am

    Linguists have known since decades before Chomsky’s dazzling and controversial career that the grammar of a language is one (exquisitely complicated) thing and that the respectability of always grammatical USES of language is something altogether else.
    Most American teachers are unable to discern or to describe the grammar of any English sentence. Of course the ignorance informs teachers’ zeal to inculcate anxiety about respectability in the name of grammar. Of course the misguided caprice of their teachers confuses and disables students, many of whom grow up to mimic their smirking president in confessing with ill-disguised pain that “I was never much good at grammar….”

  50. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 20 Mar 2007 at 12:42 pm

    Berna wrote:

    Most American teachers are unable to discern or to describe the grammar of any English sentence.

    Huh? What American teachers are you talking about? I still remember Mrs. McCarthy teaching us how to diagram sentences. It’s rather hard to diagram a sentence if you can’t discern or describe the grammar.

    As for mimicking our smirking President, a whole lot of American students were stoned in the back of the classroom. With that to deal with, it’s rather hard to teach grammar or even ” inculcate anxiety about respectability in the name of grammar.”

    And I have to admit that even though I was not stoned, I admit that I burst into a fit of laughter when Mrs. Wagner said, “Kevin, tell the class the use of the colon.”

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