[Repost] What is language? 8 myths about language and linguistics (by AllThingsLinguistic)

What is language?
8 myths about language and linguistics


What is language?

Language is an arbitrary, conventionalized association between a symbol and a meaning: there’s no necessary connection between the meaning of a word and how it’s represented in language (spoken, signed, or written). This idea comes from Saussure.

If there was a necessary connection between symbol and meaning, we would expect there to be only one possible language. Even for domains where there’s a closer link, such as onomatopoeia and the first words that a baby speaks (often mama, baba, papa, dada since these are easy to articulate), there are still differences cross-linguistically. And for other words, such as dog, chien, perro, languages differ even more.

The conventionalization criterion distinguishes language from other, non-linguistic forms of communication, such as body language and gesture. Two monolingual speakers of English are equally likely to produce similar or dissimilar gestures in describing a given situation (such as a ball rolling down a hill) as a monolingual speaker of English and a monolingual speaker of another spoken language, but two speakers of ASL will produce signs to describe that situation in a way that are systematically similar to each other and different from another sign language such as BSL.

What is grammar?

In linguistics terms, your mental grammar is the system of unconscious rules and patterns behind how you speak. It’s what tells you that “the cat sat on the mat” sounds natural in English but not “cat the mat the on sat” (although the equivalent could be fine in another language), or that “blick” could be an English word but no “bnick” or “tlick”. You aren’t formally taught a mental grammar, and it’s not just a list of all the words and sentences you’ve heard, because you can also understand words and sentences that you’ve never heard before:

“Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.” (via Language Log)

anti-paper, anti-anti-paper, anti-anti-anti-paper “people who are against people who are against using paper” (etc)

What is a language?

A language like English, French, Japanese, etc. is an accumulation of all the unconscious rules in the brains of all the speakers who can understand each other. Mutual intelligibility is generally how linguists distinguish languages from dialects, although in practice there are also social factors at play. (Hence the quote: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”). For example, although Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, they’re spoken in different countries so people often call them languages, while Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible at all but are sometimes both referred to as Chinese.

Even with the mutual intelligibility test, there are inevitably going to be some inconsistencies between the mental grammars (idiolects) of various speakers, but there are enough general similarities that we can all understand each other and can thus be said to speak the same language. And although a language exists in the minds of speakers, as a speaker if you just up and decide some day that you’re going to call a pen a “frindle” that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is part of the language, because no one will know what you mean, but maybe if you do it long enough it might eventually spread more broadly. Linguists often study language in just a few individuals because any individual is a representation of how the human mind works with respect to language, even though there is also variation between individuals.

What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of human language, as we actually speak it, both in terms of an individual language spoken by an individual person and what that tells us about language in general. Linguists seek to answer questions like: what are the unconscious rules that we use when we speak? And, since no one ever actually taught us these rules, how did we come to learn them?

Myths about language

Myth #1: Children learn to speak through explicit teaching or memorization

Children learn language long before they enter a classroom, just from exposure to it, and they produce language that they couldn’t have ever heard before based on figuring out linguistic patterns. A classic example showing that children figure out patterns in language that they can generalize to unfamiliar data is the wug test, but another source of evidence comes from children’s overgeneralizations of irregular forms. For example, children may produce goed, eated, foots despite the fact that they’ve only ever heard went, ate, feet.

In fact, children may even resist explicit teaching of language, as this example shows:

Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
Father: You mean, you want THE OTHER SPOON.
Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
Father: Can you say “the other spoon”?
Child: Other … one … spoon.
Father: Say … “other.”
Child: Other.
Father: “Spoon.”
Child: Spoon.
Father: “Other … Spoon.”
Child: Other … spoon. Now give me other one spoon?

Myth #2: Animals have language just like humans

Animals can communicate with each other, but human language is unique for several reasons. Firstly, human language is recursive: sentences can be infinitely long (or as long as your breath/memory will hold out) by embedding one phrase or sentence into another. Some examples from children’s songs: “the branch on the tree and the tree in the hole and the hole in the ground…”, “…she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and I don’t know why she swallowed the fly…”, “…who lived in the house that Jack built”.

Human language is also creative and productive: you can make sentences and even words that no one has ever heard before (e.g. snowpocalypse, I’m all cookied-out). Finally, human language is more abstract than animal communication: we can talk about past and future and even hypothetical events and entities. Although bee dances can communicate information about food and distances, and dogs can recognize names of toys and even whether you’re happy or angry, neither of them can tell you about how their weekend was or what they’d do if they had a million dollars.

Myth #3: Reading and writing are an essential part of language

Not all languages are written, and language has been around at least a hundred thousand years before any writing. Spoken and sign languages (at least for young children) are acquired naturally and without conscious effort, whereas reading and writing can take years of formal instruction and effort that results in varying levels of proficiency. Writing is also idiosyncratic and doesn’t reflect everything about spoken language (and is often even less accurate for sign languages). Spelling doesn’t change as quickly as speech and is more standardized.

English spelling is also complicated and inconsistent. For example, the sound /i/ can be spelled at least 8 different ways, as in meet, eat, Pete, funny, key, quay, machine, and ceiling. And the symbol “e” can represent at least 4 different sounds, as in pen, game, redo, and the. Even in languages with more logical spelling systems, like Spanish, the spelling doesn’t reflect the whole language because it misses important aspects like prosody (the intonational pattern of a sentence or phrase).

Linguistics looks at the sounds of language and analyzes the words based on their sounds, not their spelling, although “non-standard” spellings can often give clues as to how words were pronounced when we don’t have recordings of speakers.

Myth #4: Some languages/dialects are more complex or better than others

Children learn whichever language they are exposed to at a similar rate (although children exposed to multiple languages may learn each language slightly slower, they will catch up and often exceed their monolingual peers within a few years). What seems “simple” or “complicated” to you as an adult depends on what you already know: for example, if you speak a language that already has tone or case marking or definite/indefinite articles or a tense/lax vowel distinction, these concepts will seem easy to you, but if you haven’t been exposed to them early, these concepts will seem hard.

Languages that are straightforward in one area are often complicated in another area. For example, a language with a rigid system of word order and many prepositions may lack case marking, while a language with many cases may have freer word order and/or fewer prepositions. Another example is that a language with fewer sounds overall is likely to have longer words than a language with many sounds (the number of possible words of length CV is the number of consonants C in the language times the number of vowels V in the language), and languages with less complicated syllable structure tend to be spoken faster.

There’s some evidence that languages that have been learned by a lot of speakers in adulthood are likely to be more isolating, while languages that have predominantly been learned by speakers in childhood are more likely to be more agglutinative/polysynthetic, suggesting that these might be factors in relative ease or difficulty, but children are still equally capable of learning any language and even if we end up finding some differences, this is not evidence for one language being superior. (There are definitely easier and harder writing systems though: English-speaking children, for example, take longer to learn to read andare diagnosed with dyslexia at higher rates than Spanish-speaking children, because the English orthography is far more irregular than the Spanish one.)

Languages or dialects that people think of as “better” reflect a social (and often racist) judgement about who has power or who is considered more important, not anything intrinsic about the language itself (here’s one example).

Myth #5: Languages deteriorate over time

It’s common to think that “kids these days” aren’t talking as well as previous generations, but all living languages change over time and it is not a sign of inferiority: any language at any stage still consists of complex subconscious patterns. Borrowing words also doesn’t make a language inferior or corrupt: all languages borrow, and borrowed words get adapted into the sound system and grammar of the borrowing language.

Myths about linguistics:  

Myth #1: Linguists speak all the languages

Linguists aren’t necessarily polyglots, and a linguistics course will definitely not teach you how to speak all the languages (if only it were that easy!), although an awareness of the diverse features of language may make it somewhat easier to learn languages in the future. Although some organizations such as the military use “linguist” to refer to people who speak multiple languages, this is not the same as an academic/theoretical linguist. For more, see Why linguists hate being asked how many languages they speak.

Myth #2: Linguists correct/criticize how people talk

Linguists analyze language how it exists, not how some people wish it exists: for a linguist to tell someone that they’re speaking wrong is like a biologist telling a bird that it’s singing wrong. You may be thinking of grammar mavens, editors, and/or lexicographers, although many editors and pretty much all lexicographers are actually quite tolerant about this kind of thing and only give feedback when asked. For more on the interplay between prescriptivism and copyediting, see this post.

Myth #3: Linguistic/grammar rules include things like don’t split infinitives, don’t use ain’t

Linguists analyze the part of grammar that is automatic and generally subconscious. Grammar rules that you have to be taught in English class or a style guide are:

a) Often about spelling/punctuation, not the structure of the language, and we’ve already established that writing doesn’t reflect the full language anyway

b) Often based on the misapplication of Latin grammar to English by 18th or 19th century grammarians (for example, the confusion about “you and me” vs “you and I”)

c) Often modelled on the speech of people who have historically had power (rich old white men).

None of these are particularly relevant to answering the question of how language in both its diversity and commonality came to exist in the human mind: linguists analyze what people actually do when they’re speaking, not what they or someone else thinks they should do.


Cf. original: http://allthingslinguistic.com/post/82231926822/what-is-language-8-myths-about-language-and

[Repost] Vuoi fare conversazione in una lingua straniera? (by Francesca Cosi e Alessandra Repossi)


Articolo originale apparso su:
Studio editoriale Cosi e Repossi –> http://www.cosierepossi.com/2014/03/imparare-lingue-scambi-di-conversazione.html

Vuoi fare conversazione

in una lingua straniera?

Hai mai fatto scambi di conversazione per imparare o perfezionare una lingua straniera? Per metà del tempo parli italiano e per l’altra metà la lingua del tuo interlocutore.

Se una volta era necessario incontrarsi di persona, oggi su internet è possibile organizzare gratuitamente scambi con utenti di tutto il mondo, grazie al sito ConversationExchange.

Su ConversationExchange la procedura è semplicissima: cliccando su “Cerca un partner di conversazione” al centro della pagina, si apre un form in cui dobbiamo inserire la lingua del nostro interlocutore, la nostra e spuntare la casella “Usando un chat software“. In base a questi dati, il sito ci offre una lista di utenti che rispondono alle nostre esigenze e che potremo contattare via Skype o con uno degli altri software suggeriti.

Se poi vogliamo incontrarli di persona, è sufficiente selezionare la casella “Conversazione faccia a faccia“, il paese e la città in cui vogliamo organizzare lo scambio.

Abbiamo messo alla prova il sito cercando interlocutori madrelingua portoghesi e i risultati sono stati incoraggianti: abbiamo trovato 251 utenti disposti a scambiare online conversazioni in questa lingua con l’italiano e 2 brasiliani che accettano anche incontri face to face a Firenze.

E tra una conversazione e l’altra è possibile ampliare il nostro vocabolario con Memrise, che permette di creare e rafforzare i collegamenti mentali tra una parola italiana e il corrispettivo nella lingua scelta arrivando a memorizzare 1000 vocaboli stranieri in 22 ore. Da provare!

La foto è stata scattata nel 1973 da Charles O’Rear ed è disponibilequi.

[Repost] Gli occhiali traduttore: l’incredibile invenzione made in Japan (by Marianna_Servizi Traduzione)

Cfr. originale: http://www.servizitraduzione.com/gli-occhiali-traduttore-lincredibile-invenzione-made-in-japan/

17 ott by Servizi Traduzione

Gli occhiali traduttore:

l’incredibile invenzione made in Japan 


Potrebbe sembrare improbabile l’incredibile invenzione degli occhiali traduttore della NEC eppure la corporation giapponese conferma che sarà presto possibile ascoltare una lingua straniera e avere la traduzione direttamente riflessa negli occhi di chi li indossa.

Il TeleScouter si basa su una combinazione di software di riconoscimento vocale e di una domanda di traduzione automatica. Un microfono e telecamera raccolgono il discorso in lingua straniera che viene inoltrato a un piccolo computer “indossabile” e poi ad un server remoto.

Il server fornisce una traduzione delle frasi che viene poi inviata indietro sulla retina creando un “effetto di immagine residua” a detta della NEC. Il testo viene visualizzato con i sottotitoli in modo da permettere a chi li indossa di continuare a vedere la persona con cui si sta parlando.

NEC lancerà il dispositivo il prossimo anno. I servizi di traduzione sono ancora in una fase iniziale, però. Quindi, in un primo momento gli occhiali saranno commercializzati come un semplice display per permettere ai tecnici di leggere manuali o altro. L’implementazione del servizio di traduzione integrale dovrebbe venire l’anno successivo.

E se tutto andrà come ipotizzato, a breve, potremmo iniziare a capire qualsiasi lingua del mondo anche senza conoscerla. Che ne dite, comprereste questi occhiali traduttore oppure pensate che sia meglio continuare a studiare le lingue e sforzarsi di capirle nel modo tradizionale?

[Repost] 10 Ways to become a better proofreader (by Daphne Gray-Grant)

10 ways to become a better proofreader

become a better proofreader

by Daphne Gray-Grant

Cf. original: http://www.publicationcoach.com/become-a-better-proofreader/

If you can afford to outsource your proofreading, do it. If you can’t here are some tips that will help…

Do you clean your own gutters?Change the oil in your own car? Bake every birthday cake from scratch? I’m guessing you don’t do many — if any — of these things. And you shouldn’t proofread, either.

Proofreading is a specialized job requiring someone with talent and training. I’m not a natural proofreader myself, but I know how to hire excellent ones. They should cost about $40/hour.

But if I must proofread, I can do it using the following tricks. You can use them, too:

(1) Allow some time to pass after you finish writing/editing and before you start proofreading. We all make unconscious mistakes and they are hard to spot because our brains “fill in” the correct word. You may have meant to write trickier but somehow it came out as tricker. The trouble is, if you’re familiar with the story, you eye will glide right by the error. If you take a break, however, you’re far more likely to catch the problem.

(2) Print out your text and proofread on paper. In part, because using a computer shines a light in our eyes, we all read material onscreen much more quickly and less carefully than we do in print. Try to print out your work before proofing it.

(3) If there is some reason that prevents you from printing, use a distinctive typeface and dramatically increase the point size before proofing. When I am forced to proof onscreen, I like to use Papyrus or Candara18 point – this makes it easier to spot errors.

(4) Pay particular attention to names (people, books, movies, songs), addresses, titles and dates. Be aware the single most common mistake is to mismatch days with dates. (For example: saying Monday, Feb 12, when in fact it is Tuesday, Feb 12.)

(5) Check what I call the “ big, obvious yet somehow invisible” stuff.By this I mean logos, company names, and extra-large headlines. Ironically, the bigger the type, the more likely you are to miss a typo.

(6) Start at the end. Professional proofreaders often read at least once backwards. No, I don’t mean they read the words backwards. I mean, they read the last sentence first. Then the second last sentence, then the third last sentence…until they work their way back to the beginning. This forces them to read each sentence in isolation – breaking the familiarity with the piece that might cause them to miss errors.

(7) Put a ruler under each line as you read the text. This forces you to work much more slowly and stops your eye from jumping ahead to the next line.

(8) Consider what you might have left out. For instance, if the piece requires an RSVP, it needs a phone number or e-mail address to which someone can respond. It should also have the date of the event and an address.

(9) Make a list of your own common spelling or grammar errors and check for those specifically (do you mix “affect” and “effect” for example?)

(10) Read your work aloud at least once. You’ll catch a lot more errors this way.

Repost: 5 Unexpected Ways Punctuation Affects Our Relationships That You Aren’t Aware Of (by Leslie Frey)

5 Unexpected Ways Punctuation Affects Our Relationships That You Aren’t Aware Of


Cf. http://bit.ly/1hhjQQi

How can something like punctuation affect your relationships?

Punctuation may be having more of an impact on your relationships now than at any previous point in human history.

At no other time have we communicated on such a broad scale through written communication.

When you combine emails, instant messaging, online chatting, and text messaging, not to mention snail mail, post cards, and handwritten notes, the communication of most of your thoughts comes in writing.

Punctuation marks have developed to help capture the meaning conveyed through the inflection of the voice. Without your voice to accompany the text, sometimes it can be difficult to understand the intended meaning. Because you are not there to witness the impact of your words and clarify any miscommunication, something as simple as punctuation may greatly impact how people “see” you.

We’re not going to get bogged down in rules here.  If you want grammar lessons, look elsewhere.  And you should, because grammar mistakes can demolish what you’re trying to say.

For now, let’s look at some common punctuation habits that could be affecting your relationships that you aren’t aware of. By breaking these bad habits, you can communicate better with others and improve your relationships.

1. Are your parentheses passive-aggressive?

When I taught English, my students learned that parentheses convey ideas that you would say with your hands cupped around your mouth to share a secret.

We’re going to Disney World for vacation again this year (because Mom has to have her way).

Parentheses can come across as tongue-in-cheek, playful, j/k.  If you’re not careful, though, parentheses come out as claws, sharing information that draws blood.

It takes skill to use parenthetical phrases for humor without coming across as passive-aggressive.

If you find that people are taking offense to your asides, try leaving them out, especially in work-related messages.  Here’s a chance to keep your foot out of your mouth.

2. Are you over-using exclamation marks?

Hey! Exclamation marks are great! They tell you that I am excited! Or I am outraged! Or I stubbed my toe!

When you use exclamation marks too frequently, though, you can come across like a chihuahua. While chihuahuas are lovely creatures, I have a difficult time taking them seriously. Chances are, if you overly-use exclamation marks, people have come to think of you as overly-excited, overly-dramatic, or insincere.

Aim to use exclamations when you truly want to convey intense feelings or opinion.  Or, if you truly are that indefatigable spirit or want to be the Cranky Old Man, keep using those exclamations! Just make sure you mean it!

3. Are your texts inadvertently angry?

The period can make you seem pissed. Ben Crair at “The New Republic” suggests that short texts ending in periods can come across as short-tempered.

The first rule of punctation is that all sentences should end in a punctuation mark, yes? But maybe this could change for texts.  When I’m speaking, I don’t say “period” at the end of each sentence. There is a tonal implication of the end.

In texting, try using line breaks to convey thoughts without seeming to make statements with finality. Consider the meaning sent by this text:

I’d like to go see a movie.

How does that compare with the meaning sent by this text:

I’d like to go see a movie

Which one means, “I’m open to seeing a movie but I could do whatever” versus “The only thing I want to do is see a movie”?

If your texts are short and direct, but you don’t want to convey that you are short-tempered and bossy, try cutting out periods and use line breaks instead.

4. Are you too passive and unsure?

At the other extreme, some folks can communicate a lack of confidence.

The over-use of questions and lack of punctuation signals that you don’t know what you want.  Look at these examples:

After reviewing the report’s findings, option C seems to have more benefits?

get some things from the store for me?

you room should be clean when I get home

People feel secure in relationships that have clear boundaries. If you communicate with too many question marks or consistently without punctuation, people may see you as uncertain.

Assertive communication, however, is clear with no room for confusion.

The report will be on your desk by 3.

When you want to come across with more authority, use periods at the end of non-negotiable statements.

5. Are you too aggressive?






If you have been a caps lock addict, it’s time to get some help. (Ah, doesn’t that feel better?) You may make some mistakes as you go through withdrawal, but in the long-run you will connect with others.

Are there other ways punctuation can rub you the wrong way? Got any real-life examples?  Please share them in the comments below.