Tag Archives: linguistics

What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































Books on linguistics for non-linguists

I recently asked Twitter for suggestions for introductory books on linguistics I could recommend to people who have no background in it and don’t want a full-on university text. Here’s what I got. If you have more suggestions, do add them in the comments!

Aitchison, Jean. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon.

Crystal, David. What Is Linguistics?

Everett, Daniel. Language: The Cultural Tool.

Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.

Matthews, Peter H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought.

Winkler, Elizabeth Grace. Understanding Language.

Vatikiotis-Bateson, Eric; Déchaine, Rose-Marie; and Burton, Strang. Linguistics for Dummies.

Yule, George. The Study of Language.

An online course was also recommended: Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. Which reminded me that you can access MIT courseware online for free too (see Introduction to Linguistics, for example), but that is full-on university.

Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

The tools of linguistics are like a fancy set of lock-picking tools, different ones suited to different locks. Some locks are hard to pick and linguists try a few different tools, proclaiming varying amounts of success in the effort. Sometimes you may want to conclude that a new tool is needed. One case that’s given a lot of fun in the attempt is the case of words such as abso-freaking-lutely. What, exactly, is taking place, morphosyntactically? Or is morphosyntax even the right way to look at it?

Well, here’s what I think, in my latest article for The Week:

Why linguists freak out about ‘absofreakinglutely’

They don’t even really know what to call it

There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitiveeat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little sis left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.

Californian accent? Or Canadian?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is about the similarities between the typical Californian accent and the typical Canadian one:

Why it’s difficult to tell a Canadian accent from a Californian one

For fun, Google some news or weather videos from Canadian TV stations and from Californian ones. Give them a listen, and you may be surprised just how similar they can be.

Between you and I, could you take a picture of my friends and I?

My latest article for TheWeek.com deals with a popular issue: pronouns in compound objects (the things in my title, above, that may have your teeth grinding). I talk about not just the rule but why so many people find it so hard to stick to it. The article is

‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’

In the past couple of days, I’ve also added a couple of longer posts on grammar. One of them tears to bits a web page of grammar advice: Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts. The other does a detailed dismantling and analysis of a potentially confusing sentence from a recent award-winning book: A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction.