Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fuzzy Borders (Or, "for every rule...")

How often did our grammar teachers moan, "It's the exception that proves the rule."  And how often have people said to me, "English is the most irregular language in the world."  Well, it isn't.  Linguists have intensely studied thousands of languages in the world and find that all of them have irregularities.  That is, you figure out a grammar rule that allows people to say certain things, and then find that one word, which should be able to use that grammar rule, can't.

 I mentioned one such rule in an earlier posting. In English, to make a verb in the past tense, add an -ed ending.  It works most of the time, but it doesn't work for a handful of verbs like eat, come, go, break, think, bring, know, set, sit, lend, send, drink....  The reason for these apparent exceptions have to do with the history of English. Rather than give you a history lesson, however, I want to discuss why such exceptions exist.  Actually, over time, most of the verbs which never took an -ed ending have been converted to regular verbs.  Old help, holp, (have) holpen has long since become help, helped, (have) helped, for one example.

What I will discuss today is that language needs irregular forms and that all languages have fuzzy borders between categories.  This is not a weakness in language. It is a strength.  It is because we can deal with exceptions in our languages that we can create sentences that nobody has ever told us before.  That means, if we have a genius idea that has never been expressed, we can express that idea in our languages.  There is always a way to say something new in any language.  No language,  unless it is dead, has used all of its potential sentences or created all possible new words.  As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the essence of human language is that an infinite number of sentences is possible in any language.  To that I add, you can never predict what someone is going to say, or what grammar and vocabulary they are going to use to say it.
Thus, we are not creatures of mere conditioning.

How about those fuzzy borders? For now, let's consider nouns.  There is definitely a category of nouns in English.  In fact, all languages have nouns, just as they all have verbs.  We know what a noun is in English because all nouns can be put before verbs, as in "Susie runs" and "The guys are going."  Verbs in English can't come first.  You can't say "Runs Susie" or "Are going the guys." Nouns also appear after verbs, as in "Alex saw Susie" or "The girls were watching the guys." This is basic English word order. 

Other languages have different word orders and there is nothing special about any of them, just so long as hearers and speakers know where the nouns are put in relation to the verbs.  That is, Japanese says the equivalent of "The girls the boys watched."  Their verbs are normally at the end of their sentences. That doesn't mean they think any differently.  Languages have to have some word order rules and what that order is is immaterial.  It's the fact of having order that's important.

Then, too, in English, nouns fill a position after the or a.  If someone said to you, "I saw the...," you'd find yourself anticipating a noun.  If they said "I saw the sweaty...", you'd  still find yourself waiting for a noun. (If you don't believe me, say these unfulfiilled sentences to somebody and notice their reaction. You'll get one.) People are expecting a noun after a the.  That is what linguists call a structural cue that a noun is coming.

So, to be brief, a noun  in English is either a proper name, like Susie or Texas, or is a word that can have a the in front of it.  It's more complex than that, but, it would digress too far to go into specifics.  If you want to know all the ways we determine what a noun is when we are listening or talking, let me know and I'll do a whole post on nouns.

Nouns can also have prepositional phrases after them, like, "The committee for standards...." or 'The house on the corner..." However, they don't have to have a prepositional phrase after them.  They can, but don't always.  So, what's this got to do with fuzzy borders?

There is at least one noun  in English that does have to have a prepositional phrase after it.  Moreover, that noun + prepositional phrase acts semantically like an adjective, but it is still a noun by virtue of the positions it takes in a sentence and also because it takes the in front of it.  Consider the sort.  You can't say "The sort is nice."  Well, maybe if you are implying a set of items that were sorted in an intelligent manner, but that is still farfetched. 

I am thinking of the sort as in "The sort of person you are is amazing"  "The sort of candy I like has to be chocolate."  You can't say "*The sort is chocolate"  If someone asks, "What sort of candy is that?,"you'd answer, "It's chocolate." If you say, "The sort is chocolate," which makes perfectly good sense, again you'll ger a puzzled reaction, like, "Are you trying to be funny."  Sort is a noun that has to have a  prepositional phrase usually followed by a clause after it.  "The sort of person (that) you are..."  "The sort of candy (that) I like..."  If you put that instead of the in front of it, you can say, "I like that sort of candy."  In other words, you can just us the prepositional phrase after it.  Two other nouns that act similarly are type and kind. They are both usually followed by of + Noun.

My point is that sort, the noun meaning type or kind, fulfills the requirements for being a noun, but it acts differently from other nouns.  Moreover, its function is not to designate an object or condition, but to describe, which is an adjectival function. When you say "The sort of...." you are describing the noun after the preposition of.

Which brings me to my final point today.  Man is clearly a noun in "my man.." or "the man." However, in "Man the boats," it is a verb.  It can take verb endings and be used in the same position as verb: "They manned the boats, "  "They are manning the boats."  Furthermore, a noun can be used before another noun, as in "man talk" or, one I just heard, "He (a baby) has little man hands."  When this happens, the first noun acts as an adjective describing the next one. So, a noun isn't inherently a noun.  It will be recognized as a noun only if it is in a noun position.  In sum, there are fuzzy borders between parts of speech.  Notice, you can say, "That's a go."  Here, the quintessential verb go is used as a noun, following a.

Does this mean there are no parts of speech? Of course not.  We can easily describe each part of speech by its behavior in a given sentence.  A noun may be used as an adjective, but it isn't an adjective. A true adjective can take very, more or less before it.  A verb may be used as a noun, but it isn't a noun.  You can't use the possessive on go, nor can you make it plural, two other characteristics of nouns.

Having fuzzy borders allows language to be more colorful or even to be more exact, and certainly, to be creative.

Next, I'll do the fuzzier borders of what is or isn't a preposition.  Ta Da.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Elaine for your comment about Chomsky & Language :

What do you think of the "Mega Instinct" idea ?