The Reality of Sentences

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Sat Apr 12 19:56:47 UTC 2003

In a message dated 4/11/03 7:56:25 PM, kemmer at RICE.EDU writes:
<<  Written English is nobody's native language and students just have to
learn it. >>

After reading TG's awesome post on phonemes, one might ask how the same
perspectives might apply to this subject.

Aside from that, let me make one small, modest observation regarding the list
exchange here on the sentence.

On a very basic level, why do students have to learn this "second language" -
written English?  I'm not questioning the value of education here.  Rather
I'm asking what the specific advantage of written English above spoken
English is?

Why would we think that a spoken language is a truer representation of
process than the written version of that language?  Is spoken language more
reflective, more effective in communication, a more accurate representation
of "cognitive" processes?  Why would that be?

Perhaps some speakers are less competent at expressing themselves in speech
than in writing, depending on proficiency.  Perhaps speech is a poor rough
approximation of what is going on in writing.  In the real world, writing is
what lawyers, scientists and business people consider the higher level
representation of the actual intent of the persons involved.  Whatever extra
meaning is carried by intonation, can't it be also captured by more precision
in writing?

One might also even take the position that the sentence is the fundamental
unit of meaning in written English.  Neither single words nor morphemes are
enough to convey meaning in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Does the written word often set the standard of grammaticalness (and prosody)
in spoken language?  If it does to any significant degree, then might one
conclude that the actual processes can be more accurately reflected in
written language?  And from that conclude that the sentence is somehow real
and fundamental in those processes?

One might also conclude from the exchange here that sentences and grammar are
somehow separate from what they are supposed to do.  Why teach students
grammar or triple layers of language structure?  So that they can express
themselves better?  To what result?  And if they never learn their grammar
well what is the consequence of that?

Is language nothing more than an exchange of cognitive states?

A young child yelled "There's a bee by your head!" at me the other day.  When
I dodged and ran from where I was standing, he burst into laughter.  There
was no bee.   The sentence was properly constructed for me to understand it,
but it was false.  The child's objective was different from the clear meaning
of the sentence he spoke.  The meaning of his speech was one thing.  His
purpose was something different.

If his sentence had not been properly structured, his ruse would not have
worked.  If he had merely said "A bee am there!", the probability that I
would have been fooled would have been less, but it still may have worked.
But it may be relevant to remember that if he had merely changed my cogntive
state and nothing else -- if I didn't react -- the joke would not have been
satisfying to him at all and he might not try it again on someone else.

The success of language use in this case was to make me jump.  Anything less
would have been just as ineffective whether or not his sentence was
constructed properly or not and whether or not my cognition was affected.

Consider if you will that what makes sentence construction important in many
cases is the visible effects it produces in the listener.  And that the
intermediate "cognitive" effect may not really be the one that the speaker is
concerned with, even if we might assume it is a necessary component to the
end result.

Steve Long

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