Is “language isolate” a misnomer?

If you really think about it languages cannot be an isolate, that is, unless at the creation of the language it developed out of a population that had no language.

It is now accepted that about 70,000 years ago our species spread from Africa into Europe and Asia. As these populations migrated they some settled. It is possible language had yet developed, or least not fully. Nonetheless, there is a protolanguage that probably existed.

The influence of such a language, or influence of subsequent languages must exist. What is not noticed is that that influence remains within the language, much like how scholars noticed the similarities between Sanskrit and the languages of Europe.

And as much as people want to think of Japanese as a language isolate, people or peoples must have migrated from the main Asiatic continent. The idea of ‘peoples’ might explain the difficulty to trace a language like Japanese of its origin. Japan was a crossroad to the North American continent with routes from the south and the north as well as possible reverse migration from America as well.

Whatever the truth, it is now still possible to trace the genetic origins of people “fairly accurately”. And with genetics also comes influence of language, society, and culture.

Language Acquisition Device or shared common reality?

There are three claims that Chomsky makes about the existence of Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

The first claim is that children can understand all kinds of sentences without having to have heard or learn them before. To this we can say the same thing about adults as well. In fact, every time I open a book (or any other piece of new writing) I haven’t read before I am comprehending it as well. This act is so common and normal that we should be thinking so much about as being something special.

The second claim is that all language seems to have universal elements. To this, one can also argue that it is not the elements of language that is universal but the rather it is the shared reality that is universal.

The third claim is that some grammatical principles are acquired regardless of culture or intelligence. To this, I will argue in a similar to the second claim that the medium of language is universal so that any language only have a limited number of possible choices available to it. Furthermore, for what purpose or reason would their be a develop of a language away from general principles. If such a principle does exist surely it would have been developed and supersede the other languages as being inadequate.

While we probably do have more of a capacity for language it is probably more generalised than Chomsky would like to believe.

The linguistic sign

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.

Actants

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.

In praise of lexicogrammar

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.