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LING 1 Lecture Notes - Lecture 6: Code Talker, Universal Grammar, Null-Subject LanguageExam

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Ling 1 - Introduction to the Study of Language UCLA
Introduction to Language - Lecture Notes
Language Diversity
Goal: Languages as we have described them so far are the product of three main
(i) the fixed principles of Universal Grammar
(ii) the parameters (or 'switches') of Universal Grammar, and
(iii) the vocabulary, e.g. the fact that a certain furry creature is called a 'cat' rather than a 'tac' (this
component is arbitrary and does not follow from Universal Grammar)
In this lecture we gave a more precise content to (ii), using the example of the 'Null Subject
Parameter', which accounts for a number of differences between English on the one hand and
Italian and Catalan (or Navajo!) on the other. We then briefly address the question of the
historical evolution of languages. We mention one important source of language evolution, the
phenomenon of reanalysis which ocurs because, as language transmission is imperfect. And we
discuss the logic behind the hypothesis that some languages (e.g. English, Russian, Latin and
Greek) have a common origin: the argument is not the general observation that these languages
have a lot in common (this could come from (i) or (ii), i.e. the fact that they are all the product of
Universal Grammar or that they happen to have similar settings of the parameters); rather, the
argument is that these languages display systematic similarities in their vocabularies, i.e. in the
part (iii above) that is in principle completely arbitrary. These similarities are easily explained if
the languages are descended from the same language - in this case, Indo-European.
1 Language Variation: Parameters of Universal Grammar
1.1 The Code Talker's Paradox
In The Atoms of Language (Basic Books, 2001) the linguist Mark Baker writes (p. 1):
Deep mysteries of language are illustrated by an incident that occurred in 1943, when the
Japanese military was firmly entrenched around the Bismarck Archipelago. American
pilots had nicknamed the harbor of Rabaul 'Dead End' because so many of them were shot
down by antiaircraft guns placed in the surrounding hills. It became apparent that the
Japanese could easily decode Allied messages and thus were forewarned about the time and
place of each attack.
The Marine Corps responded by calling in one of their most effective secret weapons:
eleven Navajo Indians. These were members of the famous Code Talkers, whose native
language was the one cipher the Japanese cryptographers were never able to break. The
Navajos quickly provided secure communications, and the area was soon taken with
minimal further losses. Such incidents were repeated throughout the Pacific theater in
World War II. Years after the end of the war, a US president commended the Navajo Code
Talkers with the following words: 'Their resourcefulness, tenacity, integrity and courage
saved the lives of countless men and women and sped the realization of peace for war-torn

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Ling 1 - Introduction to the Study of Language UCLA
lands'. But it was not only their resourcefulness, tenacity, integrity, and courage that made
possible their remarkable contribution: It was also their language.
Baker concludes:
This incident vividly illustrates the fundamental puzzle of linguistics. On the one hand,
Navajo must be extremely different from English (and Japanese), or the men listening to
the Code Talkers' transmission would eventually have been able to figure out what they
were saying. On the other hand, Navajo must be extremely similar to English (and
Japanese), or the Code Talkers could not have transmitted with precision the messages
formulated by their English-speaking commanders.
One should add that there is another reason Navajo should in certain respects be similar to
English: any normal child raised in a Navajo-speaking environment will end up acquiring Navajo
(in the same way that any normal child raised in an English-speaking environment will end up
acquiring English). But if the argument we gave in earlier lectures is correct, the child can
achieve this only because Universal Grammar is hardwired in him. Thus Universal Grammar
must be compatible both with English and with Navajo, which imposes severe constraints on
both of them. And yet English and Navajo are very different. How is this tension to be resolved?
Contemporary linguistics has attempted to solve this apparent paradox by postulating that
Universal Grammar contains free parameters, which may be set in any number of ways. The idea
has also been entertained that Universal Grammar comes with a 'default setting' of these
parameters; on some views this explains why creoles that evolved from unrelated languages end
up having a lot in common: a child raised in a pidgin-speaking environment does not have access
to any coherent linguistic input, and as a result does not modify the default value of the
parameters (or at least of some parameters). When the input is coherent, however, the child will
reset the parameters so as to acquire something very much like his parents' language. Viewed in
this way, language acquisition consists in the child's attempt to reset the parameters given to him
by Universal Grammar so as to match the linguistic input that he has access to (there is more to
language acquisition than just this - e.g. children must learn the vocabulary of their language; but
for the moment we will leave this aside).
1.2 Parameters: An Example1
While this may be somewhat abstract, an example will make clearer what linguists have in
mind when they talk of parameters. Consider the following data from French, English, Italian and
Catalan (unless otherwise noted, the word for word translation is given by the English example;
as usual a star * indicates that an example is deviant for native speakers; the absence of a star
indicates that the sentence is fine for native speakers):
A. Null Subjects
1 The following paragraph owes much to Luigi Rizzi's 'A Parametric Approach to Comparative Syntax: Properties of
the Pronominal System', English Linguistics 10 (1993): 1-27]

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Ling 1 - Introduction to the Study of Language UCLA
(1) a. __ parla (Italian)
b. __ parla (Catalan)
c. *__ parle (French)
d. *__ speaks (English)
Italian and Catalan allow verbs to have a null subject; French and English don't.
B. Person morphology (=endings that express person differences)
(Note: A kind of phonetic orthography is used for French in the example below. Several spelling
differences are not reflected in the pronunciation, and are thus irrelevant for our purposes.)
1st singular
2nd singular
3rd singular
1st plural
2nd plural
French and English have an impoverished person morphology; they only distinguish between two
or three person endings (in English, the only distinction is that between 'speak' and 'speaks'). By
contrast, Italian and Catalan have a rich person morphology: they both distinguish between six
different endings in the present tense.
C. Subjects that follow the verb
(2) a. __ ha telefonato Gianni (Italian)
b. __ ha telefonat en Joan (Catalan)
c. *__ a téléphoné Jean (French)
d. *__ telephoned John (English)
Although in all four languages the subject can precede the verb, in Italian and Catalan it may also
follow it. The latter option is precluded in French and in English.
D. Questions starting with 'who', where 'who' is the subject of the embedded verb
(3) a. Chi credi che telefonerĂ ? (Italian)
b. Qui creus que telefonarĂ ? (Catalan)
c. *Qui crois-tu que téléphonera? (French)
d. *Who do you think that will telephone? (English)
The preceding facts require a bit more background. In the examples in (3), the interrogative word
who is the subject of the embedded clause (the intended reading is: You think that who will
telephone? The latter sentence is possible in English if I said: 'I think that XYZ will telephone',
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