Phonemic atomism

SOCRATES: Is a proposition resolvable into any part smaller than a name?
HERMOGENES: No; that is the smallest. 

(Cratylus, Plato)

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.

anata – ‘you’ in Japanese

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.

Constituent, adverbial, and the prepositional phrase

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?

or

(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.

Is not good communication about saying the right things and asking the right questions?

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:

  1. they both saw the morning edition of the newspaper
  2. they have discussed the movie showing that night
  3. Bob knows the movie has changed and circled it in the late edition newspaper
  4. Ann saw the circled changed movie name in Bob’s absence
  5. Ann knows Bob does not know she saw the late edition newspaper in which Bob circled the changed title being screened
  6. 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.

Agent

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.