SOCRATES: Is a proposition resolvable into any part smaller than a name?(Cratylus, Plato)
HERMOGENES: No; that is the smallest.
In language there are levels of units. These are sentence, clause, phrase, word and phoneme. Here Socrates narrows down the meaningful unit to the word or name.
A phoneme in itself has no meaning as such. They are the building blocks of words. The three phonemes (and letters coincidentally in this case) which make up cat (C-A-T) have no meaning in themselves. Only when combined as a particular sequence have they been designated a particular meaning. It is not natural but agreed upon by convention.
In some ways, atoms are like phonemes. Atoms extant in the observed reality have “characteristics” unique to each element. Phonemes have characteristics given to them by language creators. Not all languages have identical number and range of sounds. Some have more. Others differentiate where another may make no such distinction. But one important thing is clear: before a unit is meaningful there are smaller units which have no meaning, but only a play of differences. Socrates (and Hermogenes) pointed this out as did Saussure two millennia later.
In English, to address the person you are speaking to, you use ‘you’ (I have just used ‘you’ four times in one sentence. lol). It is impossible to call them by name directly to him or her.
But that is English. In Japanese, you must use their name, or else drop the subject (which is permissible) all together.
In fact, to use the personal pronoun ‘you’ in Japanese can be rude, if it is to someone you are not on familiar terms with. anata is often and exclusively used between husband and wife.
So overgeneralising and then transferring a rule from L1 (one’s first language) to a L2 (one’s second language) is where common errors often come from. L2 often has to contend with the L1 in the brain. This is a sign of deep-seated habits and biases. Memory often interferes with learning. Unlearning is a very difficult process.
Consider the following sentence:
(1) He is at the station.
We could ask
(2) Where is he?
and we may also ask:
(3) He is at what?
(4) What is he at?
However (3) and (4) are marked in the linguistic sense. (2) seems the more natural question form. Consider (5):
(5) He is there.
We are no longer able to ask (3) or (4). This shows that at the station in (1) is equivalent to there in (5). It is a constituent, an adverbial to be exact, and in (1) a prepositional phrase more precisely.
In Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance (ISBN9780631198789) they quote the following in discussing the idea of mutual knowledge:
On Wednesday morning Ann and Bob read the early edition of the newspaper, and they discuss the fact that its says that A Day at the Races is showing that night at the Roxy. When the late edition arrives, Bob reads the movie section, notes that the film has been corrected to Monkey Business, and circles it with his red pen. Later, Ann picks up the late edition, notes the correction, and recognises Bob’s circle around it. She also realises that Bob has no way of knowing that she has seen the late edition. Later that day Ann sees Bob and asks, ‘Have you seen the movie showing at the Roxy tonight?’ (Clark and Marshall 1981: 13)
Here are the facts in the order of action:
- they both saw the morning edition of the newspaper
- they have discussed the movie showing that night
- Bob knows the movie has changed and circled it in the late edition newspaper
- Ann saw the circled changed movie name in Bob’s absence
- Ann knows Bob does not know she saw the late edition newspaper in which Bob circled the changed title being screened
- She asks, ‘Have you seen the movie showing at the Roxy tonight?’
To be honest, if Ann had been a good communicator would she not just have added an extra statement, ‘I saw the movie showing now is Monkey Business. Have you seen it?’
Was there any reason not to say she knows the newspaper listing has been corrected? Is there a reason why Ann decided not to acknowledge her own knowledge of the change with a simple statement?
The idea that sparsity of language equates to efficiency of language is wrong. Perhaps in poetry economy is valued. But in normal everyday communication such checks can be done without much disturbance to efficiency. In fact adding the extra statement may help in avoiding any misunderstanding.
And why would not Bob confirm with her that they are talking about the same movie? Why not just reply, ‘You mean Monkey Business? No, I haven’t’. That would save Ann, Bob, the authors – Sperber and Wilson – and us readers a lot of grief and pain.
Just remember this: the agent of a sentence is the one doing the action of the verb. Consider the following sentences:
(1) The car struck the fence.
(2) The fence was struck by the car.
In both (1) and (2) it is the car that is doing striking, even though in (2) it is NOT the subject. It is the subject that does the action of the active sentence, and the noun of the prepositional phrase in the passive (if the sentence has a prepositional phrase at all) that is the agent.
Saussure pointed to that language is mistakenly thought of as a matching of a thing to a name. To him the link is between a concept (signified) and a sound pattern (signifier). The signified is its meaning and the signifier is the “container”. The two together makes the linguistic sign.
The linguistic sign has two characteristics. One is that the link between signified and signifier is arbitrary. There is no natural link or reason that the concept should connected to its “container”. Secondly, the signifier is linear temporally and physically. It is a thing in its own right.
Furthermore, the value of a sign is summarised thus:
A language is a system in which all elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others.
And so, “in the language itself, there are only differences“.
Reference: Course in General Linguistics, Saussure.
About 85% of words in the English language are from three languages – Germanic, French and Latin. 12% are from Greek and other minor languages like Chinese and Japanese. About 4% are proper names.
Different languages had influence on English at different periods in history. Latin was the language of the Church. French came with the Norman conquest, etc.
Finally, these numbers are counting types (dictionary-like count of entries of words) and not actual usage of words (frequencies of individual words).
One of the reasons (there are many reason but this is just one) why we would like to change an active sentence into a passive one is because we would like to bring the object of the sentence into focus. Consider these sentences:
- My brother was hit by a car.
- A car hit my brother.
The focus on my brother is far more important than that of the car. So it would seem logical to put my brother in the subject position of the sentence, as in 1. The subject position should be seen as being reserved for more important information, or be the focus of the sentence. So if the sentence becomes a passive structure let it be so if it is appropriate. But when the choice of active or passive is an equally valid one, choose the active. The active is usually clearer and more efficient.
In any English sentence there are either zero, one, two or three actants.
Actants are the “participants” of the sentence. They are either people or things. In (1) below the action of “to rain” itself is the “zero” actant.
(1) It is raining.
“It” is the dummy subject.
In (2) and (3) the subjects “Peter” and “Charlene” are the actants respectively.
(2) Peter is swimming.
(3) Charlene is a teacher.
In (2) the act itself is performed by the subject “he”. In (3) “Charlene” and “the teacher” are one and the same person. Only one actant is involved in the description of the situation. In (4) and (5) below there are two actants. In (4) they are “Dave” and “the ball”. In (5) they are “the people” and “Hilary”. Since “Hilary” and “he president” are one and the same person we do not count the president as an actant.
(4) Dave kicked the ball.
(5) The people made Hilary the president.
In (6) we have three actants.
(6) Tony gave Leslie a presnet.
They are “Tony”, “Leslie” and “a present”.
Technically, it is possible to have more actants (and more than likely some languages do) but in English our limit seems to be three. More complex sentences will be simple sentences in disguise.
Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.
As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.
Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.