An introduction to linguistics

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An introduction to linguistics

#1  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 08, 2012 5:26 pm

I have a bunch of posts in my drafts folder that've been maturing for about half a year, a number of essays on topics in linguistics. I've tried to word them in a way that would explain some important ideas and topics in linguistics. I will shy from the more Chomskyan parts of it, though, as I ultimately don't see how that's of any relevance to most people. I genuinely think most people that talk about language are very uninformed about it.

As an illustrate, try answering the following questions. If you get them right, try thinking what people in general will think about these questions.
  • How many vowels does English have?
  • Is double negation illogical? Should two negations cancel out? Is this a thing languages in general should/do conform to?
  • What is the oldest language in Europe?
  • Is the language of the San the purest, oldest language of the world?
  • Is French (or English, or ...) more logical than other languages?

I will dismantle myths about language, I'll try to get rid of faulty notions of language, and I hope to introduce some basic familiarity with the methodology available in research regarding language. Not only do I hope to dispel you of myths, I hope to establish a healthy ability to reject bullshit claims regarding languages in general.

The first installment will come later today.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#2  Postby Onyx8 » Apr 08, 2012 7:45 pm

I look forward to it. Hopefully, for my sake, it won't be too erudite.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#3  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 08, 2012 8:25 pm

A thing to ponder while I finish writing the first post (since I realized phonetics and phonology needs to go first - the one I haven't got even a draft for yet).

How many vowels does English have?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#4  Postby The_Metatron » Apr 08, 2012 8:27 pm

What's with the trick question?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#5  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 08, 2012 8:28 pm

The_Metatron wrote:What's with the trick question?

Trying to establish what people know, so I know what level to start at. What's your answer?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#6  Postby Wiðercora » Apr 08, 2012 8:45 pm

Are we supposed to post answers...? And will you be taking requests for topics?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#7  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 08, 2012 8:56 pm

Wiðercora wrote:Are we supposed to post answers...? And will you be taking requests for topics?

I won't make any quizzes or anything, but in a way I want to demonstrate that there's a lot of mistaken 'knowledge' about language even among educated people, that's one reason I will ask questions every now and then.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#8  Postby virphen » Apr 08, 2012 9:11 pm

I won't be able to answer exactly how many vowels English has, but I am sure the expected wrong answer is 5 (or 6), as people do tend to regard the written language as the "real" language. I'd guess there were at least 15.

Double negation doesn't have to be illogical... the way it has been explained as working in French to me is that the first negation acts more as a signal that a negation is actually going to follow ... e.g. je ne (signal) sais pas (negation). Even in languages where it's considered a sign of ill education that to me is more snobbery than anything else, it seems that language just mutates, and that is it's nature. Today's error can be tomorrow's hard and fast grammatical rule.

Aren't all languages essentially the same age?

What does it mean for a language to be more logical than another?
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#9  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 08, 2012 9:32 pm

PHONETICS AND PHONOLOGY

1. Phonetics, a very bare-bones introduction part I.

Phonetics is basically "how speech sounds come about and their properties".

The majority of languages in use consist of strings of sound. We produce these sounds by use of our lungs, oral and nasal passages, the tongue, lips and uvula, and so on.

The main method of generating sounds is by expelling air from the lungs, which by Bernoulli's law creates vibration whenever it runs into some kind of constriction. Our vocal cords is the source of what we call voicing, a quality that is shared by consonants such as l, w, d, n, m and almost every vowel uttered in a normal voice in most languages around the world. The sounds thus produced are fairly regular - they're tones. This contrasts with less regular sounds, e.g. sounds produced by friction. Some sounds exist in various languages that do not use pulmonary exhalation - clicks are one such type of sounds.

Basically, the mouth and nose are two tubes along which air passes, sometimes carrying a tone. Turns out the musculature we have can do pretty cool things, such as modulate the timbre, or obstruct the passage of air so that different noises are produced. We can open the tube up wider, and get our vowels more towards an "aw" or "aaargh" or "aaaa!"-like quality, or contract the tube and get something like "woo" or "you" or "eee". The difference between woo and yeeee is in how far towards the back (wooo) or the front (yeeee) of vowel space the narrowest bits are. Other tricks exist, such as lengthening the front part of the tube by rounding your lips, (Swedish, Estonian, Finnish and German ö, German and Estonian ü, Finnish and Swedish y, French u, Danish and Norwegian ø, ...). For some reason, most languages in the world prefer to round their back vowels (o, u), yet not round their front vowels (i,e). A minority have an added set of front rounded vowels (ü,ö,...), and some have an unrounded back vowel (Japanese 'u' apparently is such a vowel).

Another thing we can do is create a bit of double resonance by diverting some of the flow and tone into the nasal cavity, getting, you know, those French-style nasal vowels. (Also present in Portuguese and any number of other languages; ultimately, careful listening would reveal that they also are present in words like "nun", "none", etc in English.)

We can also stop the air flow temporarily - but keep on exhaling, letting a bit of pressure build up - and then release the pressure. We get what's called a stop. The sounds p, t, k, b, d, and g (in their most typical forms) are all results of this. The main thing that distinguishes them is where in the mouth they happen - the shape of the tube behind (and in part, in front of) the occlusion. In English, there's four locations where this occlusion occurs. Between the lips, at the alveolar ridge (roughly), at the soft palate/velum, and at the vocal cords. The last one is exceptional, in that since the vocal cords normally produce the tone associated with voicing, stopping the air stream at that point makes it impossible to have voicing going on simultaneously. Now, this only really distinguishes four consonants in English: p and b are pronounced with the mouth in the same position, d and t likewise and g and k likewise. (Don't mind the fact that the letter g sometimes marks other sounds, letters are a secondary thing, and will be dealt with later), the glottal one is usually written using the letter <t>, and its properties are better left for later.

These three pairs are distinguished by whether the vocal cords vibrate while they're produced, and by how long it takes from the release of the pressure until the vibrations resume. Not all languages distinguish k vs. g, b vs. p based on whether the vocal cords vibrate. Some distinguish them depending on how long it takes for the voicing of the vowel to resume. Some just have p t k, and some of those may have b d and g as functionally equivalent variations of p t and k - e.g. apa and aba would be the same word, and a speaker of those languages would perceive the different sounds in the middle as the same sound. Likewise, sounds we don't distinguish are considered distinct sounds in other languages. Russian, for instance, pretty much doubles the number of consonants, simply by distinguishing whether the tongue is raised towards the palate or not during pronunciation. (Although this also creates a bit of an off-glide effect in the next vowel. As well as having other effects on the vowels as well.)

Another kind of sound we can get when we stop the airflow through the oral cavity entirely is what we get when we redirect it through the nasal cavity: m, n and ŋ (written as ng in English, usually). These are therefore also called nasal stops. They're normally voiced in almost all languages that have them (which is pretty close to every language, although some don't have all three, and some have more. There's no special thing about the three English has.)

There's something to say about where the obstruction goes. One obvious obstruction, of course, is obtained by closing your lips. This is one of the few obstructions everyone can do identically - for most of the other ones, exact position in the mouth probably varies a bit between repeated productions of the same sound even for one individual. t and k are less obvious ones, and their exact position varies a bit in different languages. In English, the exact position of k in the words kit and cool is somewhat different. Essentially, i is articulated a bit in front of where k usually goes, and this kind of pulls k forward, whereas oo doesn't much move the k from its usual spot, as it's quite close to where k usually goes.

Now, speaking of sounds like I did there - i, oo, k ... is unclear and confusing. The letter i has any number of pronunciations, and it's also unhelpful that these pronunciations can vary by region. I could of course say something utterly useless like "like the 'is' in how a Glaswegian would pronounce 'haggis'", and less than a handful would know what that sounds like, and they'd probably disagree with each other to boot. It's also quite useless since even if I know a sound and exactly how it is articulated, there's no guarantee I know that some dialect has it, and nothing guarantees that this is a dialect you could be expected to know about, etc.

The scholarly method of dealing with this is to describe it in terms of articulation - what organ touches what organ, what manner is the air stream modulated, etc. We divide the top of the mouth into segments - lip, tip of the teeth, backside of the teeth, alveolar ridge, hard palate, soft palate, uvula, (and then we get into the throat, which has a few parts too - only one that has any relevance in English phonology now, though - the glottis, although some of the other parts have some slight relevance to English phonetics). The lower part of the mouth is also divided - this is mostly really the tongue. Usually these are given as adjectives, as you'll usually find them in adjectival form when describing a sound. Since the tongue is relatively mobile, the idea is "a part of the tongue is moved towards some part of the top of the mouth", so essentially the tongue is the active part of the process of articulation.
  • labial (pretty much exclusively though in the form "bilabial", meaning using both lips
  • (interdental)
  • subapical, using the bit of the tongue just under the tip
  • apical. using the tip of the tongue
  • laminal, using the blade of the tongue, the bid just behind the tip
  • dorsal, using the middle part of the tongue
  • radical, using the root of the tongue

Now we get to combine these to some extent: we get subapical alveolar, we get apical palatal, etc. Not all combinations are possible, though, because the tongue isn't infinitely flexible. The most flexible of the active articulators are the subapical, apical and laminal ones, usually termed the coronal ones. There's some extra orientations and whatnot available in the coronal area, but those are seldom spoken of, and they are not of very great interest.

As it's late right now, I'll resume this tomorrow, when I get more into manner of articulation as well as vowels - a trickier thing to describe.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#10  Postby John P. M. » Apr 08, 2012 9:38 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:How many vowels does English have?


The word 'English' has two, while the English alphabet has five, plus sometimes y? :? :hide:
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#11  Postby Wiðercora » Apr 08, 2012 9:47 pm

virphen wrote:I won't be able to answer exactly how many vowels English has, but I am sure the expected wrong answer is 5 (or 6), as people do tend to regard the written language as the "real" language. I'd guess there were at least 15.


Depends on the accent. My, Northern, accent lacks some vowels found in Southern english variants, notably that one which is like a halfway point betten 'uh' and 'ah'.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#12  Postby don't get me started » Apr 09, 2012 4:05 am

Interesting topic Zwaarddijk, I'm looking forward to your posts.

To try to answer the questions that you posed:
How many vowels does English have?

Well English orthography has five. In pronunciation, most standard dictionaries list about 15 vowels with a further 11 or so diphthongs. However, this list should be taken as a partial description of the range of vowels produced by speakers of English.
The way that I pronounce the word 'cake' (Cumbrian style... as flat as can be) is not found in many other varieties of English. Likewise the word 'vase' pronounced in typical 'cut glass' Upper Class English is not found in American English.
Vowels in English are really slippery...and are one of the main ways in which varieties of spoken English differ from each other. For example, the consonants of a word like 'house' remain pretty much fixed wherever you go in the UK, but the vowel varies extremely...Cockney, 'Haurse', Geordie, 'Hoose', RP 'Hice'.
(By contrast, vowel sounds in Japanese and, I believe, Spanish are pretty fixed. People in Hokkaido and Okinawa have pretty much the same way to pronounce the five vowel sounds of Japanese)

Is double negation illogical?

Not at all. This was discussed at length in another thread here a while back. Double negation is a feature of many languages, sometimes with the 'double negative equals a positive' outcome, sometimes with the 'reinforced negative' outcome. Since language is not a formal system of logic, but an organic, holistic and sometimes contradictory system, we can't really apply the term 'logic' to any of its components.

What is the oldest language in Europe?

Every living, spoken language in Europe is exactly the same age...about a day old. By this I mean that languages evolve all the time and the language that is spoken today is always going to be slightly different to the language that was spoken yesterday.
I once heard a quip that helps to explain what this means. "This is my grandfather's axe. My father replaced the handle and I replaced the head."
Basque is a non Indo-European language which appears to satisfy very narrow definitions of being old as long as you are defining old as a combination of geographical and historical particularism and ignoring language change.

Is San the purest, oldest language in the world?

See the previous answer.

Is French (Or English, or...) the more logical than other languages?
Language is not a formal system with unbreakable rules, rather a way of describing the world in a way that seems to make sense to its speakers. The speakers of any given language will be largely blind to the ways in which their language makes assumptions about the world that seem superfluous or just plain nuts to speakers of other languages.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#13  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 09, 2012 9:17 pm

I. PHONETICS AND PHONOLOGY (part II)

ARTICULATION

Not only are the sounds we make affected by where in the mouth the closure is, there's a number of manners of articulation that are relevant. While introducing the nasal-oral passages as a tube, I already presented the stop. The stop is a full closure, behind which some pressure is allowed to build up and then released. The stop part of it is actually fairly silent, what gives away what sound it is in that case generally is an effect on the surrounding sounds' frequency distributions just prior to and after the stop. Depending on where along this tube it occurs, it'll affect the neighbouring sounds in subtly different ways, which we parse as different actual sounds.

There's a number of things we can do with stops. We can voice them - this normally distinguishes /b/ and /p/, /d/ and /t/, /g/ and /k/ (although the situation in English is a bit more complex than just that, and in some languages, the distinction actually isn't so much voicing as it's voicing onset). To voice them, there's a need to keep the air stream going through the vocal cords, which normally happens even when they're not voiced, but in order to keep the phonation going, the required air stream is a bit stronger than in the unvoiced case. This leads to the result that in languages that distinguish length on stops, it's not unusual for long g not to be present. The pressure builds up too fast, as the space for it to spread out in is rather small. Length is of course a thing some languages distinguish as well. Estonian has a remarkable length distinction system, in that it distinguishes three lengths on its stops. (Orthographically, short consonants are marked by what corresponds to English voiced stops, middle ones by a single voiceless stop, and long ones by doubled voiceless stops).

If you divert the air into the nasal cavity instead, you get a nasal stop. English distinguishes three of them, corresponding to each pair of stops: /m/ (labial), /n/ (alveolar), /ŋ/ (velar). Some languages have nasal release of the stop pressure: initially, it is just like a stop, then some of the pressure is diverted through the nose. Generally, nasals are voiced, but this is not always the case. In many varieties of Swedish, the suffix -ism gets its final m devoiced. I have seen claims of languages that distinguish voicing on nasal stops, but I have not seen them verified - I suspect there's faulty analysis going on behind those conclusions.

Another important group of sounds that almost all languages on the earth have (the only exceptions being almost all Australian aboriginal languages) are fricatives. In a fricative, there is only a slight obstruction, but sufficient enough to produce turbulence in the airflow. English has the following fricatives: /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /s/ , /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /h/. At all stages, there's a voiced-voiceless distinction, except at h. The symbols used here are the IPA symbols encoding fricatives (unvoiced and voiced) at the labiodental, dental, alveolar, postalveolar and glottal. /h/ can be a bit exceptional as far as this goes, in English it apparently often is but fonation - e.g. the vocal cords causing a vibration and some turbulence and no other thing whatsoever.

If you slow down the release of a stop, the release will sound a bit like a fricative, and this gives one rather common kind of stop as well: the affricate. English has two (distinguished by voicing), /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/. German also has /p͡f/. Other possible manners of release exist.

There's yet another step obtainable by just reducing the amount of obstruction so that no turbulence appears, viz. the approximant. The most basic approximants in English are some varieties of /r/, (consonantal) y, transliterated in IPA as /j/, and most varieties of w. (Most dialects don't even have non-approximant variations of w).

There appear some varieties on these as well. Lateral approximants are what you get if there's closure at the top, but a passage on the side of the tongue. This gives l-like sounds. Some languages (notably Welsh, but also any number of languages in other parts of the world) have lateral fricatives. Stops can have lateral releases as well, but these are unusual in the languages of Europe.

Another kind of articulation is the trill, a vibration between the active and passive articulator. These can't happen everywhere in the mouth - e.g. labiodental ones are afaict unattested. Bilabial ones, alveolar/postalveolar/etc ones, and uvular ones at the very least are possible. Most English-speaking people would recognize at least the uvular and coronal trills as variations of r, and probably associate them with some foreign accent (French, East European, ...)

A tap is basically a single iteration of the vibration a trill consists of. In English, intervocalic d and t are often rendered as taps.

Next installment will be secondary articulations and some stuff on non-pulmonic airstreams, and I hope, an introduction to the ideas of phones vs. phonemes.
Last edited by Zwaarddijk on Apr 10, 2012 10:33 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#14  Postby Onyx8 » Apr 09, 2012 10:00 pm

Well, I'm still with you so far. :thumbup:

This is perhaps OT just yet, but in the words: WHy, WHere, WHen etc. why is it that the word is spelt W+H but is pronounced H+W?

Maybe that's a spelling question rather than linguistics? Or it's just dumb....
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#15  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 10, 2012 7:55 am

Onyx8 wrote:Well, I'm still with you so far. :thumbup:

This is perhaps OT just yet, but in the words: WHy, WHere, WHen etc. why is it that the word is spelt W+H but is pronounced H+W?

Maybe that's a spelling question rather than linguistics? Or it's just dumb....

This falls under orthography, which is part of linguistics, but you have to look at the history of a language to understand quirks like that. I'll get to historical linguistics a bit later (it's in fact the first post I wrote for this, and it's way better written than the two parts currently available - turns out phonetics and phonology is the kind of thing where I easily get lost in details.)
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#16  Postby Beatrice » Apr 10, 2012 9:21 am

Bookmarked and looking for forward to read more on the subject. I'm currently reading What Language Is by John McWhorter and loving it. :coffee:
Phew... for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself.....
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#17  Postby don't get me started » Apr 10, 2012 12:05 pm

@Beatrice, I haven't read that. I might give it a try. I did read and thoroughly enjoy 'The Power of Babel' by the same author.

@Zwaarddijk, looking forward to the historical linguistics section. I am interested in all things linguistic, but some more than others...
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#18  Postby Wiðercora » Apr 10, 2012 3:20 pm

History of language was my favourite topic when I studied English Language at A-Level.
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#19  Postby Onyx8 » Apr 10, 2012 4:19 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
Onyx8 wrote:Well, I'm still with you so far. :thumbup:

This is perhaps OT just yet, but in the words: WHy, WHere, WHen etc. why is it that the word is spelt W+H but is pronounced H+W?

Maybe that's a spelling question rather than linguistics? Or it's just dumb....

This falls under orthography, which is part of linguistics, but you have to look at the history of a language to understand quirks like that. I'll get to historical linguistics a bit later (it's in fact the first post I wrote for this, and it's way better written than the two parts currently available - turns out phonetics and phonology is the kind of thing where I easily get lost in details.)



All right be a tease, I'll wait. :thumbup:
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Re: An introduction to linguistics

#20  Postby Zwaarddijk » Apr 10, 2012 4:21 pm

Wiðercora wrote:History of language was my favourite topic when I studied English Language at A-Level.


How much did you learn about the more general case, i.e. methodology and how it's applicable to pretty much every language? How much of it was just the history of English?
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