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November 2006 - Posts

  • Tackling tones

    The day is finally here! We've started our discussion of tones in phonology class, and I'm soooo excited! I'm sure that most of the other students in my class could really care less about how the tonal systems of languages around the world work, but for me and the few others who either speak or are learning a tone language, I'm sure that this unit of phonology, although brief, will be a welcome introduction to a phenomenon that we don't really get to learn about in our individual language instruction classes. Something seemingly simple that we learned just today really opened my eyes to how much we don't learn in our other classes. I've been studying two different West African tonal languages for almost two years now, and just today I finally realized how we write the tone marks that we use the way that we do. The acute, grave, and flat tone marks are pretty straight forward and intuitive, but I never consider the orthographic conventions for portraying rising and falling tones, as well as combinations of these two types of tones. Just a five minute explanation of these different conventions helps me to make much more sense out of the tone markings that we have been using in Bambara, especially for the N'ko script. Rather than just learning "that's the way it is", we now have been told the "whys" of the convention. I guess that there are so many things that we just take for granted that we know, but when it comes down to it, there is really a whole other level of things to learn. In addition to learning about the orthographic conventions used in writing tone languages, we learned that the prosodic tone system is actually suprasegmental, which means that it is considered on an entirely separate tier from a lot of other features of a language. We've only just gotten into this idea, but I'm sure that Dr D will talk a lot more about it in our final two classes next week. Did I just say final two classes?!...wow...so much still to learn. Unfortunately, I won't be able to take advanced phonological analysis in the spring semester...which makes me pretty sad since the class will cover optimality theory. But, alas, I'll just have to wait till the following spring to fit it into my schedule.
    Posted Nov 30 2006, 03:25 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Contested Tongues by Laada Bilaniuk

    It has taken all semester, but we finally arrived at the reading that I have been waiting for since August. This week in Ethnography of Communication we discussed Laada Bilaniuk's new ethnography about language politics in post-communist Ukraine, titled Contested Tongues. I have been looking forward to reading this particular book for some time now...I suppose since I first heard about it, because it's a great example of a successful culmination of a lot of work on sociolinguistics, language attitude, and language contact. I consider this book to be a real inspiration to me personally, especially on those tough days when I look towards the future and question my ability to be able to carry out valid, interesting, and innovative work in my field. It was also very interesting to read about how many years of careful observation, interviewing, and of course her native knowledge of the situation went into this book...and she still has many more years to study the area and the situation. Bilaniuk, through this contribution to the literature, has shown young scholars that success is fully possible, even relatively early on in one's career.

    I suppose that I should include a few details about the book in case any one out there finds this post and decides that Contested Tongues might be something they would like to read. This book explores the tense language situation that arose during late pre-independence Ukraine and on through post-independence Ukraine. The Ukrainian language have been formerly suppressed and marginalized by the Russian government in that Russian was the only acceptable form of speaking, etc for the area. Native Ukrainians preserved their language in some arenas, often depending on their connection to Russia, either politically, culturally, or socially. As expected, Russian thrived in the more metropolitan areas and areas nearer to the Russian border. Ukrainian, on the other hand, was used more extensively in smaller villages and in the western half of the country, away from the Russian border. Over the years of contact between Russian and Ukrainian, a mixed language called Surzhyk resulted. Speakers of both Ukrainian and Russian came to scorn speakers of this mixed tongue for a great number of reasons. As a result, Surzyhk has continued to be a frowned upon language choice and has even become a derogatory term in other arenas outside of language itself. There are some individuals who have begun to speak out against this marginalization of Surzyhk, but legitimatization of the language still has a long way to go. Bilaniuk's book truly covers the gamut of the attitudes expressed towards Surzyhk, Russian, and Ukrainian, both historically and contemporarily. If you have any interest in language policy, language planning, contact linguistics, or language politics, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book. I'm sure that you'll enjoy it!

    Posted Nov 29 2006, 02:59 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • I just can't hear it

    No matter how smoothly things tend to go, there can always be some minor upsets and bumps along the way. Such was the case this week in Bambara. We had become so accustomed to things moving along at a quick pace with minimal interrupts in the flow of information over the past couple weeks, that we had a pretty jarring experience today at the language listening lab. Our class, first thing in the morning, was just not awake enough to be dealing with listening to and interpreting some pretty difficult Bambara sentences. Our brains just were not engaged in learning when we first got to class, and things were slow-going at best, at least for the first little while. As I mentioned, we were to spend the class listening to one sentence at a time and figuring out what the sounds were and then figuring out what was actually being said. This is a really difficult thing to grasp on to for me personally. I have a very difficult time parsing out a sentence when I don't exactly know what I'm listening for. This would have been accomplished with a little bit of forward planning and a vocabulary list to look over before the class, but alas, this was not the case. After a few moments of frustration on the part of everyone involved, instructor and students alike, I spoke up and expressed how I was feeling about the exercise. I don't know if my statement really accomplished anything in the long run, but at least the expectation of instantaneous regurgitation of sentences was lessened. Maybe it's just the way that I learn, or the way that I'm trying to learn this language that is hindering my "blind listening" of these materials. I want to know what I'm listening to before I hear it. I very much understand the fact that such comprehension situations will not always happen in such a way, but at this point, it's not helping me to just identify sounds that I can write out in a string, then figure out what words they could possibly form, and finally figure out what they mean. I would rather build on what I know, and as my vocabulary increases, let the difficulty of the listening exercises increase. Yeah, maybe I'm whining a little bit, but I don't think what I'm asking for is really unacceptable. Alas, I suppose that this method can't really hurt, but I don't find it to be the most effective way to go about such things. As time went on through the first while in class, our brains began to wake or perhaps the sentences got a little easier...either way the tension subsided slightly. By the time we reached the 60 minute mark, our brains started to become pretty overwhelmed, and therefore our progress and accuracy began to decrease once again. Such a vicious cycle...if it's not one thing, it's another.
    Posted Nov 29 2006, 05:42 AM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Are your lines conflated?

    It's hard to believe that phonology class is coming to an end...but...we're not quite there yet. We have continued to discuss the features of syllabic stress this week, but we're moving quickly towards our final topic of tones. I'm particularly excited about our up and coming lectures on tones, ya know, since I work with west african tone languages. So yeah, anyways, back to stress. You might remember that just the other day I wrote about the metrical grids that we made in class to help us to support our observations of primary and secondary stress in a language. Lucky for us, we can still use these metrical grids to explain the stresses found in languages that exhibit only primary stress or those that have unusual stress patterns as a result of a phenomenon called quantity sensitivity. I think that, for this post at least, I'll concentrate on what happens when we only have primary stress in a language. I suppose that I should mention that we can arbitrarily name the stress in these "single stress type" languages as primary, although it's just a generic way to refer to "some kind of stress" in these cases. When we find languages that have just a single type of stress, we can actually go ahead and construct a metrical grid in much the same way as we did with any other language. We need to look at the binary-ness of the feet, the direction of feet parsing, the headedness of the feet, the headedness of metrical word, etc., however when it comes down to the end, we have to ignore many of these observations. If we find a language with a single primary stress, we can pretty much assume that it undergoes a rule called line conflation. What happens basically, is that, once we determine where all the stresses would be, we can then assign the primary stress (line 2) for the metrical word. The final step though, is conflating the line 1 stresses (those that would have allowed us to determine secondary stresses) onto line 0, thereby eliminating any secondary stress. What we're left with is one primary stress on line 2. I know that you might think that it's pretty ridiculous to go through the entire process just to delete the whole line and all the work that you've just put into it, but in truth, it's very necessary to do all that work into to determine where to put that single stress that will be represented on the surface of the word.
    Posted Nov 28 2006, 05:29 AM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Thinking like a linguist

    Have you ever had one of things that someone says, perhaps in passing, that just sticks with you and you never forget it? I came across one such thing just this past week as I was sitting in ethnography class and discussing the idea of expertise. We happened to be talking about our final class project in which we are going to be learning about how a particular group expresses its expertise through speech...either to others or among one another. We had recently read a paper that touched on this idea that explored the way in which first year law school students are taught to think and to speak like lawyers. I remember reading this and recalling something that my syntax professor said to the class on our first day this semester. He told us that his class would teach us to think and talk like linguists. I recall thinking at that point..."uh huh" and just worrying more about how I was going to possibly make it through an entire semester of generative syntax. Now though, it's a whole different story. I think that I've finally realized why our first year curriculum is set up the way that it is. Syntax and phonology don't make much sense coming before phonetics and historical linguistics in the grand scheme of things, but when professors are trying to get you to think critically about language and to express yourself in linguistic terms, these are the perfect classes to start with. Each week in phonology, we are forced to express ourselves in prose and through linguistic example in our homework assignments. We are also encouraged to express our thoughts in syntax class and through our exams, but only in jargon specific to the study of that subfield. In short, the professors are teaching us to think and speech like linguists...mostly without our really knowing it. It's really amazing to sit back in class and hear the questions that we are all able to ask at this point in the semester and compare them to just a few months back. We were so young and unexperienced about how to express ourselves and frame the questions that would receive the responses that we were seeking. Looking back at old homework assignments, I notice the same thing. I've learned how to express what I need to say, justify the arguments that I need to make, and support the claims that I make through language that will allow other linguists to understand what I am trying to prove. It just blows my mind how much can be accomplished in a single semester.
    Posted Nov 26 2006, 09:05 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Proving my proficiency

    As you all know from my post this past Thursday, I have been doing my best to look towards the future and plan out what I'm going to be up against as far as academic commitments for the spring semester. One of the first things that I will be attempting to cross off my list of commitments when I return to Bloomington after heading home to Syracuse for Christmas is my French language proficiency test. Graduate students in the IU linguistics department are required to prove their proficiency in at least three languages, although four is slowly becoming the suggested number, especially in African linguistics. Although we can technically use any language to fill our first requirement, it is generally suggested that, for linguistics, this language be French, German, or Russian. Why is that you ask?...well a lot of the big names and big publications in linguistics have been in these languages throughout history, so they want us to be able to read these papers, etc. So, luckily, I have had a lot of exposure to French over the years, so I should be good to go on this requirement. The thing that stinks is that we have to demonstrate our reading knowledge of the language by taking a proficiency test, consisting of grammar and comprehension questions, that looks a lot like the GRE at first glance. We have to get a least an 85%, I believe, in order to pass. I'm not personally anticipating getting below that mark, but it's nice to know that I have several chances to attempt the test, should something go terribly wrong. My second language requirement will be satisfied by my time spent in Bambara. The requirement for this second language is that it must be non-indo-european. Got that one...check! Our third requirement is knowledge of the structure of another non-indo-european language. We are able to demonstrate our proficiency of this structure either through personal work, by taking two semesters of language instruction, or by taking a year-long sequence of field methods classes. Although I would very much like to venture out and learn some totally different language, I'm sure it will be most beneficial to me to stick with the field methods choice, since the field methods class at IU is always based on an African language. I hoping that the language will be one that will be very useful for my work, or at least a west african language...maybe Yoruba, Hausa, Wolof, Fon...something fun like that. The fourth language requirement is not exactly officially endorsed, but it's highly encouraged. The graduate advisor here suggested that the African linguistics folks take some basic reading proficiency courses in German and French...and that is a little scary to me, because German is rough to learn. Nonetheless, I'm sure that I will end up auditing some German classes so I can learn enough to prove my proficiency in the language. I guess it can't hurt...
    Posted Nov 25 2006, 08:52 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Bambara.org

    I've learned that there is one particular resource that I have not been able to live without as this semester has progressed. I learned several months ago about a Bambara dictionary project that was finishing up and that was going to be available to uses for free online. This dictionary project was finished not long ago, and it has been a tremendous help as I continue to build my Bambara vocabulary. This Bambara dictionary is available at www.bambara.org, and represents one of the most useful and comprehensive Bambara dictionaries that I have been able to find. In addition to the Bambara dictionary, the content is also mirrored in French and English, so that many scholars, depending on their particular language experience, can use the dictionary. I believe that the dictionary is still under ongoing development, but the product that exists at this point far outweighs any traditional Bambara dictionary that I can find in print. The problem with a lot of the traditional dictionaries is that they just give a word and it's rough translation. Bambara.org provides multiple definitions, sample sentences, and translations in all three languages. It is now much easier to decide on the correct usage and semantic differences between various Bambara words. It's gotten to a point where I use the dictionary at Bambara.org nearly every day while I'm working on my homework, my own projects and research, or if I just want to learn a few new vocabulary words in my spare time between classes. It's a great tool and one that I hope to see continue to grow in scope and readership.
    Posted Nov 24 2006, 07:30 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Looking towards the Spring

    It's pretty scary to think that this coming Monday will mark the two week countdown to the end of my first semester of graduate school. It seems like I just moved to Bloomington last week, making that long trek from Tallahassee up to Indiana. It's just amazing to me how quickly four months flies by. I'm thankful (haha, it's thanksgiving!) that things have gone by as smoothly as they have this semester. I've really enjoyed my classes, I've had great professors, and I've made some great new people here in B-town. Most important of all, I've learned so much. It almost seems like I could take everything that I knew about linguistics before I got here, and put it into a week or two of classes in graduate school. It's not to say that I hadn't learned a lot previously, but things just come at such a quick pace here, and you've got to stay on your toes at all times. Besides just going to classes, there are Linglunches, colloquiums, seminars, office hours to attend, reading lists to make, clubs to form and participate in, and independent projects to do. True to what I had imagined, my grad school experience to far has been linguistics 24/7...and I love it! With that said, I'm a little bit sad at this point, knowing that the semester will be coming to an end shortly and there will be no more phonology, syntax, or ethnography of communcation. I'm sure I'll have to take advanced level classes in some of these classes in the future, but I'll be sad to leave the professors and the familiarity of the classes. In the Spring though, it's on to bigger and better things I suppose. I will be taking an advanced sociolinguistics seminar taught by my advisor Dr O on Language Politics and Pragmatics in Africa...talk about right up my alley! I'm really excited to be taking this course and to be able to work on a closer basis several times a week with Dr O. Of course, I will also be taking Bambara, but that's a given. Bambara is now a part of my future, and I'm making a lot of progress (along with my academic cohort Abbie) on learning the language and my ability to use it both conversationally and academically. Rather than taken the often-offered advanced phonological analysis in the spring, I decided to go ahead and take the course in semantics that is only offered once every few years. I feel towards this class the same way I did about syntax when I first learned I was going to have to take it. I'm a little bit apprehensive, but I'm sure that it will be worthwhile and turn out well in the end. My final class is one that I'm definitely looking forward to. One of the required courses for graduate students is to take phonetics. It seems a little bit backwards to be taking phonetics after phonology, but the powers that be decided that that is the best thing for us to do, and alas I'll be in phonetics in the spring semester. I'm particularly excited about taking the class, because it is being taught by yet another of the professors from the IU linguistics department that has a connection to African languages and linguistics. I'm sure that the phonetics course will be a great help in my overall experience of learning a new African language.
    Posted Nov 23 2006, 07:12 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Finishing up on conversations

    Today was really a great day, and not only because I know that tomorrow is Thanksgiving and there will be much turkey and mashed potatoes to be eaten. With the town of Bloomington pretty much cleared out and all of the students from IU gone home to celebrate the holiday, it was pretty difficult to find a place to plop myself down and get some work accomplished. As many of you might know, I have a very hard time getting much done sitting at home where it is usually pretty quiet and unexciting. I actually prefer to have a little bit of background noise and minor distractions in order to keep myself occupied and focused on whatever it is that I'm working on. I know that it doesn't make much sense, but it's just how I work. I guess that it's because, if I'm out at a coffeehouse or something doing my homework, my trailing off for a moment to rest my brain results in watching a car drive by or seeing a barista make someone's coffee, rather than me heading into the kitchen to see what might be in the refridgerator to snack or seeing what's on the news on the television. Since my regular Copper Cup study hangout was closed for the day, I headed up to the Starbucks on the edge of campus (against my better judgement). To my surprise, the store was open and relatively uncrowded, and it was going to be open until midnight. Score!!! I broke out the laptop and my conversation surveys and set myself to work, hoping to at least figure out what I was going to write my paper on for ethnography class. Three hours later, I had surprised myself by completing the entire project. I was so happy to have had the perfect environment (and two venti iced vanilla latt�s) in order to get done what I needed to. I reminded myself that this is how I work. When I have the right environment, supplies, and no major distractions, I can just work and work and work. Finishing this project allowed me to cross off yet another major milestone on the way to the end of the semester. I have just one more commitment to tend to for ethnography for the remainder of the semester, and I have two weeks to complete it. I'm well on my way to a relatively relaxing holiday break up at home in Syracuse!
    Posted Nov 22 2006, 07:00 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Discovering the wonders of prosody

    We started talking about a new topic today in phonology class that is really very interesting. We have spent several months talking about rules and their exceptions, as well as other phenomena that we can determine from the written forms (either phonemic or phonetic) of a given word. I think that it was a welcome change of pace for most people in the class when Dr D explained that we would begin talking about the prosodic features of phonology, and in particular syllabic stress. Prosody is a very important idea in linguistics, particularly in phonology, because it allows us to address many features that we are not able to see. The study of prosody delves into the information that is contained in stress, intonation, focus, pitch, tone, and length of a syllable, word, or sentence. I'm sure that you'll concur with my statement that these are things that are not readily observable from any orthographic representation of a word in a language. It is true that some languages do, at times, make us of particular diacritical markings in order to facilitate our interpretation of some of these prosodic features. We began talking about syllabic stress as our first introduction to prosodic features. We discussed some specific parameters that allow us to determine the stress patterns present in a given language, as well as some quick and easy diagnostics to assist us in deciding upon some of these parameters. We then learned how to use the parameter features to construct stress grids that allow us to confirm the observed stress patterns in a language. We can use features of the metrical word, the syllabic feet, and the syllables themselves in order to support the hows and whys of prosodic stress patterns (primary, secondary, and beyond) in any language. These grids don't exactly help us prove anything, but rather than help to support the arguments that we have already made about metrical stress.
    Posted Nov 21 2006, 06:47 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Phonology in Generative Grammar by Kenstowicz

    My phonology book and I have a love/hate relationship to be perfectly honest with you. Every time that I have to pick the book up, I hesitate before opening it, because I know that I will eventually find the information that I'm looking for, but it will be a task to look it up and understand it. My fellow colleagues in phonology class and I were warned about this very thing when we were first introduced to "Phonology in Generative Grammar" by Michael Kenstowicz. We were told that this was, by far, the best generative phonology text available, but that it was dense and difficult to read. I remember diving into the introduction and first two chapters when I first got the book before the fall semester started, and thinking that it wasn't going to be so bad. Well, the reason that it wasn't so bad at that point was because the concepts that are contained in those chapters were things that I had already learned about in other classes, so I was just re-reading old material that wasn't that complicated. My tune definitely changed when I moved into the realm of things that I had never heard of before. I think that as soon as we ventured out of allophonic phenomena, that I began to curse the book, although if I actually happened to make it through whatever chapter I happened to be reading, it ended up making a lot of sense. Kenstowicz has this masterful way of combining ridiculously difficult explainations for various phonological phenomena with remarkably clear examples, tables, and charts. It usually ends up that nothing is quite clear until you reference the prose with the pictures. I never really thought of myself as an exceptionally visual learner, but in the case of generative phonology, I guess it helps to see actual examples from real languages. One of the other difficult things about using the Kenstowicz text is the fact that you always need to go digging for what you're trying to find. The book has about three indices, none of which really help all that much when you're trying to look something up. I've found that a little luck and a lot of page flipping usually produce the best results. I recall that a Polish problem that we were assigned for class required that we consult three separate chapters in order to find explainations for the phenomena that we were supposed to already know to complete the problem. As luck would have it, additional information that we needed was found in still other chapters that we not even referenced. Alas, that's the way the cookie crumbles. The Kenstowicz is one of those books that I'm sure I'll have around on my bookshelf forever, and I'll probably reference it often, but it's not the kind of book that I would sit down and read cover to cover, or even chapter to chapter. This book reminds me a lot of a quote that I read in Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" that describes Chomsky's work. I think he says something like "Chomsky's books are something that everyone claims to have read, but in truth, they just sit untouched on the top shelf of some bookcase collecting dust." I guess that'll be my experience with the Kenstowicz...it's brilliant, but it's going to sit and collect dust until I really need to use it.
    Posted Nov 20 2006, 06:26 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Hyperbaton?! What's that?

    When I was looking up some information yesterday for my post about the use of ellipsis in linguistics, I came across something pretty interesting that I had never heard about before. It's another one of those things that we tend to hear someone do, or perhaps we do it ourselves, but who knew that there was a word for it. The phenomenon that I'm referring to is called hyperbaton. A hyperbaton is a deliberate misuse of syntax that ends up producing an utterance that is still readily understandable by native speakers of a language. One of the most popular types of hyperbaton referred to that I have been able to find is when people deliberately alter the argument structure of English so that it ends up sounding like Yoda from Star Wars is talking. Typically, English word order is SVO, that's subject/verb/object. In cases of hyperbaton, speakers might alter this word order to be something like OSV. So we would alter a sentence like "I eat cookies" to "Cookies I eat." The second sentence does not conform to standard English syntax, but it is still easily interpretable. We can still recognize the predicate of the sentence and its arguments, but they are just in a different order. People may use hyperbaton for a bunch of different reasons, perhaps to be funny or even for emphasis. I would venture a guess that the common practice of argument fronting in English is a pretty good example of hyperbaton. This is an example of using hyperbaton for emphasis. Rather than saying "Bring me those keys", we might emphasize what keys that we're talking about by saying "Those keys, bring them to me." Oh wow, that sentence could totally get us into another whole discussion about anaphoric references...substituting "them" for "keys" because we moved the object out of its normal space. Isn't linguistics fun?!
    Posted Nov 19 2006, 06:07 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • The ellipsis...

    It seems that it should be common knowledge about what an ellipsis is, but I think that there are some misconceptions about it. When most of us think about an ellipsis, if we even know what it means, we think of the popular '...'. This actually points us towards what an ellipsis, in linguistic terms, really is. When we use an ellipsis in a sentence, we are leaving out some information that we expect that the reader will either already know or will be able to draw a conclusion from what we've already written. So, if I wrote, 'the stranger came to the door, and so the dog...', you would be able to assume that the ellipsis that I've included requires that you draw some conclusion about what the dog did. Because of the context of the sentence, you can assume that I wanted you to conclude that the dog barked at the stranger coming to the door. So, in linguistic terms, this is really basically what an ellipsis does...it removes some information from the sentence or phrase that we can reinsert mentally from our knowledge or intuition about the context that the sentence is in. By reinserting information from an ellipsis, we can come to a full interpretation about what the sentence intended. Many times, an ellipsis isn't as obvious as a '...'. We use ellipsis in a lot of different ways. One type of ellipsis is a noun-phrase ellipsis. For example, "I bought a soda at the store, and Sam bought one too." In this sentence, we have stated what "I" bought at the store, but we have neglected to say what exactly Sam bought. However, from the context of the sentence, we can assume that Sam bought a soda, just as "I" did. The full interpretation should be "I bought a soda at the store, and Sam bought a soda too." Therefore, we have deleted the noun phrase "a soda", but the ellipsis allows us to understand the full meaning of the sentence. A second type of ellipsis is a verb-phrase ellipsis. This works much in the same way as the noun-phrase ellipsis except for...you guessed it. An example would be, "I bought a soda at the store, and so did Sam." In this case, we have deleted the verb 'buy', but we still understand that the sentence fully interpreted is "I bought a soda at the store, and Same bought a soda at the store too." A final type of ellipsis, and probably one that takes a little more thought to understand, is called sluicing. This kind of ellipsis forces the reader to reconstruct a full deleted clause in order to interpret the sentence. For example, "I bought a soda at the store, but I don't remember what kind." This ellipsis allows us to reinterpret the sentence as "I bought a soda at the store, but I don't remember what kind of soda that I bought from the store." An entire clause has been deleted by the ellipsis.
    Posted Nov 18 2006, 05:52 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Expletives...not deleted

    I'll bet that if I polled a group of people about what they think that an expletive is, I would be willing to wager that nearly 99 percent of the group would tell me that it was something related to a vulgar term or four-letter-word. While it may be true that we often refer to such terms as expletives as a type of euphemism seen in print, e.g. "expletive deleted", linguistically, expletives are actually a very different thing. As you probably don't even realize, every single one of us, no matter what language that we speak, uses expletives constantly throughout the day...every day. You don't believe me? OK, well how would you express your thoughts about the weather to someone? Would you say "It's raining." or "There are clouds in the sky."? If so, then you've used an expletive in each of those sentences. Those two little words 'it' and 'there' are what generative syntacticians refer to as expletives. If you want to be really fancy, they are also called pleonastics. So yeah...what exactly is the 'it' that we are referring to in 'it's raining' ? Is 'it' just some all-encompassing idea to express the world as we see it? Maybe that crap works for philosophers, but not linguists. As it turns out, there is a perfectly logical reason to explain why we have to use 'it' or 'there' to express this idea of 'it's raining'. Of course 'it's raining' is really 'it is raining', right? Well, we don't say, 'the sky is raining' or 'the world is raining'. So we need something to put there, because the Extended Projection Principle says that every grammatical sentence must have a subject. We satisfy this important feature of our grammar by inserting an expletive like 'it'. The same type of thing works for 'there', although there are specific rules and reasons why we use one grammatical expletive or the other. It's not just in English that we use these expletives. It's a feature of Universal Grammar that every sentence needs a subject, so we find expletives used in a lot of other languages. In French, for example, the same kind of thing applies to express the weather...we would say 'il pleut'. It may seem that in some languages, there is no expletive, but usually the case is that the expeltive is expressed morphologically in a verb. In Spanish for example, 'it's hot' is 'hace calor'. We don't see a separate expletive in this sentence, because literally the sentence means 'it is doing hot'. The 'it' is expressed in agreement by the 3rd person singular of the active verb.
    Posted Nov 17 2006, 03:46 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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  • Are you positive about appositives?

    As a linguist-in-training, as a lot of us graduate students tend to consider ourselves, it ends up being pretty embarassing when there is something "linguistic" out there that we don't really know or understand, when it is generally assumed that we do. A lot of times, it happens to be particular linguistic features or devices in the English language that many of of us take for granted that we don't really know about. These are the types of things that professors or other higher-ups mention, and we can usually determine what they are from the context of the sentence, along with our elementary understanding of what they really are. I thought that it would be a good idea to talk about some of these things over my next few posts, both for my benefit and for yours. Some of these things I don't really know much about, and some I'm pretty comfortable with, but they all seem to be things that some linguists talk about that might be a little bit confusing. I've decided to start with something that I've heard used over and over again when I was studying studying structure with Dr Josserand and Sidiky over the last year, but I never really 'got it'. Have you heard of appositives? Well, of course I've heard of them, but I never really knew what they were until today. (ouch...that hurts to admit!) So, it turns out that we use appositives all the time...well at least in our writing, but not so much in our speech. An appositive, a noun phrase that renames another noun phrase, is a pretty simple thing to see. Oh wait...I just used one! Did you see it? That last sentence had an appositive in it. a noun phrase that renames another noun phrase was an appositive. Basically, it's an grammatical incomplete phrase that describes the noun phrase that it follows, with no words intervening between them. Appositives should be set off by commas, and that's usually a good way to recognize them, but I've seen some writers that don't always do this. So there you have it, something that you probably use almost every day when you write, but you didn't know that it had it's own name or that anyone cared enough about it to explain it. Now you can be positive about where and when to use appositives.
    Posted Nov 16 2006, 03:21 PM by christophergreen with no comments
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