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Chapter 1

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University of Toronto St. George
Marcel Danesi

The survival of human civilization depends on the preservation of world’s languages. The ancient Greek philosophers - Defined language as part of logos, the faculty of human brains that had transformed human being from insentient brute into a rational sentient. - They also saw language as potentially a dangerous tool as it could be used for deception Panini - Interest in language started with him who described Sanskrit language with about 4000 grammar rules - Showed that many words are made up of smaller words in + complete + ly ( in +ly = affixes) This chapter looks at the birth of linguistics as the science of language and an approach known as linguistic anthropology- more than just the grammar - It deals with how language interlinks society, concepts and activities such as how people talk to each other Difficult to define language - Use of tongue to create thoughts known as words or more accurately signs - E.g. we do not think of individual sounds of r e d – we think of it as a unit –as a colour - More than half of the languages are expected to disappear in the next 100 years All languages have 5 basic things in common: 1. They all have a finite set of distinctive sounds used to make words and convey various types of meanings 2. Units that bear meanings of one kind or another known as words 3. Grammatical structure for making words and putting them together in sentences 4. Strategies for using language in various personal and social way (speech) 5. Resources for making new words and for using languages in new ways Language vs. speech - Language = a sign system - Speech= the use of that system to transmit verbal messages o Can be vocal or non-vocal (writing, gesturing) - Can have a language without speech but no speech without a language Learning a language - You don’t need to learn a language in infancy – you just have to be in contact with people speaking it and can imitate it by the age of 5 or 6 - In early infancy, the larynx is located high in the neck- infants breathe, vocalize and swallow like other primates - But in their third month, the larynx descent downward- consequences include food easily being stuck in it but on the bright side it permits vocal speech by leaving a chamber above the vocal folds that can modify sound Plato (427- 437 BCE) - How can children know so much about language? - Claimed that much of what we know is inbreded in us, coming from earlier existence and simply reawakened in each individual - Poverty of stimulus reasoning – this idea that language is an innate biological endowment ignores the conncetion between the environment a child is raised in and instinctive urge to learn language- or even the opposing idea that mind is an empty slate upon which the environment writes the rules - Today this nature theory has been further supported by saying that language faculty or organ is already present in us and the speech simply triggers the organizational principles that come with the faculty - The counterclaim is assimilation through imitation - The answer lies in between- great synergy between language (as a system of principles and rules) and speech (as the use and understanding on language in context) Noam Chomsky- 1928- - American linguist - Put forward the notion of a universal grammar (UG) – based on which all language grammars are built and thus explain why children learn to speak so naturally - These rules are available to all children hence when they learn one fact about a language they can easily infer other facts Stephen pinker - Supported UG theory - The idea that children are born with a “language of thought” – little grammarians – so they can infer different syntax of sentences - Claimed that this language is present in the genes It has been found that if a gene called FOXP2 goes wrong , language impairment can happen. - Burlington points out negatives with this thinking - More than one gene can code for building human brain and hence language - Also the influence FOXp2 is not proven to language or even brain-its actually associated with lungs, heart and intestinal tissues Problems with UG theory - It accounts for development of syntax- sentence formation but doesn’t say anything about the ability of a kid to understand and apply words - E.g. moon being described as a round - Lev Vygotsky- described the kids as little poets Eric Lenneberg - When does the process of language acquisition end? - Lenneberg claimed that it came to an end at puberty - He found that language impairments called aphasias if happened in childhood to a person, he/she can still develop language abilities o If it happened after puberty- the impairments are usually permanent - This hypothesis received support after a case of a child named genie o She was locked up till 14 (after puberty) by her abusive father o She was never able to speak like a normal person o Potential issues with this study:  Maybe she was mentally challenged from birth  The extreme deprivation= damaging effect on her brain making it difficult for her to acquire knowledge Not all verbal deficits from brain damage; some are genetic abnormalities - Example Specific Language impairment (SLI)- word recognition conflict - Williams syndrome- good vocabulary but cannot select words appropriately (tiger vs. cat) Aristotle (384- 322 BCE) - A Greek philosopher -took a similar step to Panini with grammar rules - Identified subject vs. predicate Dionysius Thrax (170-90 BCE) - First to write grammar for greek language - Showed how different parts of the speech interconnected – pronouns, nouns etc. Priscian (6 Century) - Roman grammarian – followed Dionysius grammar rules and extended it to latin - These rules apply even in today’s textbooks Port Royal Circle (16 - 17 century) - A group of French scholars broke away from Priscian model - They said that the sentence “An all-knowing God created the visible world” is made up of smaller sentences: o God is all-knowing o God created the world o The world is visible - They argued that such rules were part of inborn capacity of the mind- common everywhere - Noam Chomsky’s UG grammar credited Port Royal Circle William Von Humboldt (1767 -1835) - Viewed inner sprachform (internal speech form), a particular structure of the spoken language - The idea that although the capacity for language is universal- the individuality of each language is a property of the people who speak it - Every language has its internal structure which determines the outer form and is a reflection of speaker’s mind- the language and thoughts of people are hence inseperable Neither the work of Von Humboldt or Port-
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