Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Notes: Important Terms

Some Important Terms

Prototypical v. Peripheral: In grammar as in life, our categories leak. When, for instance, we are sorting fiction into boxes labeled fantasy and boxes labeled science fiction, we will find some examples that clearly go in one box or the other – Lord of the Rings is fantasy,The Left Hand of Darkness is science fiction – but others will fall in a grey area: Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels, for instance.

So it is in grammar. We have prototypical examples of categories, words which fit easily and squarely into the box. Dog is a noun, eat is a verb, red is an adjective, and so on. Prototypical examples follow all/most of the rules for the form. Peripheral examples are those that are fuzzier. They may only follow one or two rules, and for that reason they will give us the most trouble.

For instance, while justice is a noun, it’s not a prototypical noun. Most nouns can be made plural (dogs), and they take articles (a dog, the dog). But justice can’t do these things. (We desire the justice, Justices are necessary.)

It can do other things that nouns do, though – it can act as a subject or object, for instance, (We desire justice, Justice for all is an American value). It can take a possessive: Justice’s aims were served.

When we’re thinking about grammar, it’s better to think about prototypical cases (dog, run) than to think about peripheral cases (justice, facebooking).

Prescriptive v. Descriptive: There have traditionally been two main kinds of grammar. Prescriptive grammar holds that there is a correct grammar – usually just one correct grammar, one right way to speak and write – and attempts to mandate that correct grammar. This has been, for much of our pedagogical history since about 1650, the sort of grammar we teach. However, since the grammarians of 1650 were basing their knowledge of grammar on Latin grammar, and on their notions of logic, and not on linguistics, they built many errors into their English grammars, some of which we have adopted, and some of which we have rejected.

Descriptive grammar observes the language as it is used, and tries to understand that usage. What do most people who use the language agree is acceptable standard usage, in other words? How do those people use the language? This is what descriptive grammarians study.

For instance, prescriptive grammarians told us that we could not use double negatives in English. Their argument was derived from logic. Two negatives, they argued, made a positive, so using two negatives was just not reasonable.

This is a rule we’ve adopted. Other languages use double (and triple!) negatives quite readily, as a form of emphasis, as did writers and speakers of English before 1650 – as do many speakers of non-standard English even today.

Prescriptive grammarians are also responsible for us using the plural verb were with the singular you, so that when we say “You were at school yesterday, weren’t you?” even when we’re only talking to one person – which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all.

Why did the grammarians of 1650 invent this rule? Again, it was quite reasonable, from their point of view. You was a plural pronoun. (The singular form of the pronoun was thou/thee.) Therefore it was always incorrect to use a singular verb form with it, no matter how many people you were speak to.

While we’re at it, it’s also the grammarians of the 17th century who taught us that it was incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. Why? Well, look at that word: pre-position. Obviously, a preposition ought to come before the word it is attached to. I mean, before the word to which it is attached.

That’s one rule most of us have decided to begin ignoring, along with their rule about never splitting infinitives. But double negatives and saying you was when we’re talking about one person – don’t expect those to become standard any time soon. Those are powerful and handy shibboleths. We’re going to hang onto those.

(What’s a shibboleth? That’s a signal, a marker, that lets one group of people decide whether another person belongs to their group or not. If someone says you was, or I seen, or I ain’t never doing that, well, we know right away not to hire that person here at Yale Law. Not all shibboleths are linguistic, but many are. The original use of the word is from Judges, Chapter 12.) 

Form v. Function: Words have both a form and a function. Take the word dog. In form, it is noun. In function, it can serve as a subject, or an object, or as an indirect object, or in a few other ways.

The dog howled.
I walked the dog
Throw the dog the ball.

Rarely, it will function as a verb or an adjective or adverb –

The eager child dogged Elvis all the way home
Amelia searched doggedly through the closet.

Consider also the word run. In form, that’s a verb. Yet look at this sentence:

I took a run.

In that sentence, the word run, though it still has the form of a verb, is functioning as an object – as a noun. And in our examples with dogged and doggedly above, while dog still has the form of a noun, it is functioning in those sentences as a verb and an adverb, respectively.

A word’s form and its function prototypically agree – a noun serves as a noun, and so on. But English is famous for its functional shifts, so in many, many cases in our language, a word will have one form while having an entirely different function.

                I spend a lot of time on Facebook.
                I facebooked you that link yesterday.
                Please contact your professor.
                The red truck has a flat tire.
                Red makes me happy.


Morpheme: This is the term for the smallest meaningful unit of language. It can be a complete word; but it’s not always a complete word. So take the word smallest, for instance. That word contains two morphemes – {small} and {est}, while, for instance, doggedly has three morphemes – {dog} {ed} {ly}.

We’ve been using morphemes, and our understanding of morphemes, since we were toddlers. Morphemes indicate to us the grammatical or semantic relationship of the words we use to one another. Thus, in the word smallest, the morpheme {est} tells us that {small} is the most small – it’s the superlative form of the comparative. In doggedly, the morpheme {ed} tells us that the event is past tense, while {ly} tells us that this word is probably acting as an adverb.

Free morphemes are those that can stand alone. So, for instance, in the word smallest, {small} and {dog} are free morphemes, since they could stand on their own as independent words. Bound morphemes, such as {est}, {ed}, and {ly} don’t stand alone. (This is a very simple explanation of a much more complex subject.)

Derivational v. inflectional morphemes: Derivational morphemes combine with another morpheme to create a new word – {drive} + {er} to make driver, for instance, or {happy} + {ness} to make happiness. These are semantic changes: new words with new meanings are created.

Inflectional morphemes combine with other morphemes to create new grammatical relationships. So, for instance, we combine {dog} plus {‘s} to get dog’s. The meaning of the word hasn’t changed – but now we expect the dog to possess something. The dog has a grammatical relationship to something in his sentence. Similarly, we combine {walk} plus {ed} to get walked – the verb is still the same, but now it has a difference tense. Grammatically, we’ve moved it into the past.

Noun Plural Inflection: The morpheme added to a word to make it plural is known as the noun plural inflection. This is usually {s}, but in some cases it can be other morphemes {en} in children or oxen, {um} in data, datum. And some plurals have a Zero Allomorph, which means they shape their plurals by adding nothing at all – as the plural of sheep is sheep, for instance.

Verb inflections:  English has only four remaining verb inflections: one for number (third person present); one for tense (past tense) and two for aspect (perfect and progressive). This will be discussed in more detail later.

Infinitive: The uninflected form of the verb. To be, to run, to sail, to eat.

Semantics: The study of meaning. When we discuss semantics in this class, we’ll mean the meaning of the words in the sentence, as opposed to their grammar.

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