[Lingtyp] spectrograms in linguistic description and for language comparison

Ilana Mushin i.mushin at uq.edu.au
Sun Dec 11 00:43:20 UTC 2022

Eloquently put Randy! I love your noodle analogy. As an Australian in the US I found the use of ‘take’ very difficult to feel right (‘take a shower’ vs AusE ‘have a shower’) I still find it confusing when someone talks of ‘taking a class’ in something - are they a student or a teacher?

I’ve come late to this thread so I haven’t read the whole history. One of the methodological challenges we face as descriptive and typological linguists is how to factor in the living environment in which language is produced. We often end up with what I think of as dead butterflies pinned on a board, which tell us a lot about the morphology of butterflies, with theories of how they work in flight, socialise to reproduce, engage with their food sources. But one can’t easily see what happens in actual flight, reproduction, eating and how butterflies deal with the contingencies of their environment in ‘real time’.


Ilana Mushin
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On 11 Dec 2022, at 10:27 am, Randy J. LaPolla <randy.lapolla at gmail.com> wrote:

 Hi Christian,
Thanks for your response! As Marianne said, we will have some things, particularly common constructions, that we have strong sensibilities about. But I don’t see language as a fixed thing, but as emergent human behaviour, and as Paul Hopper and others have pointed out, many constructions are co-constructed in the interaction of conversation. So language is changing all the time, and what can be acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to someone else speaking the the same language. As you talked about in your 1985 paper, people have a desire to be expressive and creative, and so we are always using language in new ways that were not acceptable until we started using them. For example, when I left Berkeley I had to sell my car, and to emphasise to the person I was trying to sell it to how well I took care of it, I said “I babied the hell out of it”. This was of course an extension of the construction “beat the hell out of”, which had already been extended to things like “polish the hell out of it”, but possibly my use of baby as a verb in the construction was the first time anyone had done that, but the buyer knew what I meant, and bought the car. In Chinese the so-called passive marker bèi has recently been used with verbs that it never would have been used with before, such as bèi zìshā ‘be committed suicide (declare a death that isn’t a suicide a suicide)’, bèi zìyuàn ‘be volunteered’, bèi héxié ‘be harmonised’ (usually refers to having your website shut down because you said something the government didn’t like). Not everyone accepts this usage.

Language doesn’t exist anywhere except as bits of memory we have. Our learning of language is subjective, as it is based on our experiences, and so each person’s sense of what is “right” will be based on their own sensibilities, which derive from their experiences and habits. Knowledge of language is like any other kind of knowledge. It is the same with other aspects of human behaviour:  I have a strong sensibility that one should cook noodles in a large pot of water with some salt in it and only cook it until it is al dente. I acquired this sensibility because of growing up in an Italian household. My wife grew up in a Chinese household and had very different experiences with the cooking of noodles (little water, no salt, cook them until they are very soft) and so her sensibilities about the right way to make noodles is quite different. There are certainly things that seem like rules, like men should wear trousers and not skirts, but that is also just a cultural convention, and doesn’t hold in Burma and many other countries.What we call grammaticalization and lexicalization is simply conventionalisation at the societal level and habitualisation at the individual level, and can change all the time (they are the same process but differ in generality). Most of us catch ourselves criticising new uses that do not fit out sensibilities, but over time we can come to accept them. Back in the early days of generative grammar, a lone voice pointing out the folly of the methodology used (determining grammaticalization values) was Dwight Bolinger. He showed that many of the examples of ungrammatical expressions used in early generative papers would become perfectly acceptable with a simple change of context. Y. R. Chao even showed how Colorless green ideas sleep furiously could be made to make sense in the right context. There was also psycholinguistic work showing that repeating an “ungrammatical” form enough times makes it acceptable (I experienced this myself when I lived in Australia: when I first got there I felt “How are you going” as a greeting was really aberrant—in the US we either say How are you doing or How is it going, but not How are you going, unless the answer is “By bus”, but I later got used to it and began using it myself all the time, so it became a habit, and I had a problem not saying it when I went back to the States!).

Sorry this is so long!

All the best,

Professor Randy J. LaPolla(罗仁地), PhD FAHA
Center for Language Sciences
Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences
Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai
A302, Muduo Building, #18 Jinfeng Road, Zhuhai City, Guangdong, China

ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6100-6196


On 11 Dec 2022, at 3:11 AM, Christian Lehmann <christian.lehmann at uni-erfurt.de<mailto:christian.lehmann at uni-erfurt.de>> wrote:

Randy, I certainly agree with the thrust of your argument. However, here as elsewhere, there are degrees. Grammaticalization is 'formalization', subjection to rules of grammar. The lower the grammatical level (the level of complexity), the more rigid the rules. It seems to me that there are straightforward grammaticality judgements at the lowest level, viz. the level of inflectional morphology. If an informant tells me that one does not say goed, but instead went, this is not a question of being able to think up a situation of use, but just a report on the linguistic experience of one's lifetime.

But again, I fully agree as far as judgements at higher levels of complexity are concerned.

Prof. em. Dr. Christian Lehmann
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