Frank Mitchell

English 441 notes

Dust jacket for "Language: Its Structure and Use" (via)

My notes from Steve Chandler’s English 441 class, “Intro to the Study of Language”. Now that grades are in, it’s official: I got an A in this class. Yay for me! Amazing what taking good notes, showing up to class, paying attention, and genuinely enjoying the material will do.

30 August 2004

Separating a dialect from a language is a tricky business. Mutual intelligibility is a good guess. Urdu and Hindi are essentially the same language, but the people who speak them don’t want them mixed up (Pakistan, India). Some songbirds show minor dialects.

Human language is symbolic; different from animal communication.

This is why there are dialect differences. People get upset about dialects.

You are born with the ability to learn a language, not with the knowledge of the language itself. Animals are born with their common knowledge. Everything we know about language has some mixture of arbitrariness and biology.

What things about language are learned? What are innate? Some sounds (the ones that are duplicated between languages) are learned.

Word order is also arbitrary. As is meaning.

No word in any language (except technical ones) has an exact match in any other language.

Context helps convey meaning.

Languages are arbitrary, but within a speech community (group of people who speak the same language) there is convention about what words mean.

1 September 2004

Patterns are symbols too.

John saw Mary. John Mary saw. Saw John Mary.

Different patterns -> different symbols -> different meanings.

Animals are born with their arbitrary connections between sound and meaning hard wired; it’s not something they have to learn.

Infants learn the dialect of a language very closely i.e. their first words will be spoken with an accent.

3 September 2004

Meaning and expression are stored in two separate areas of the brain. One area can be hurt and leave the other unaffected. The part of the brain about the left ear controls meaning.

There’s a clear distinction between chair and stool, bush and tree. Language cannot give a name to each thing. There are too many ambiguities, shades of grey. Language lumps things into a concept (chair) so we can talk about it.

Continuum of experience broken into discrete pieces.

Some languages have only one word for blue and green, but there are shades of color in between them.

Take a continuum of experience -> break into categories -> get words -> create new categories.

Language + thought = language is there to help you organize your thoughts.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Language shapes your experience of the world.

How do linguistic categories affect meaning, perception? Language gives you categories, but you can redefine them.

Book recommendation: Conceptual Metaphor by George Lakoff

As you learn another language / culture, you begin to see other ways of viewing the world.

p.16 in course packet

The pattern for putting words together is important. When we talk about a system, we’re identifying the basic units for that system. In language, this is grammar.

8 September 2004

Prescriptive vs. descriptive

Slang makes you a part of a group, but your way of speaking will identify you. “This is he.” “This is she.” Is that correct according to your speech community?

Standardization occured with the printing press. The printers hung out with the rich and powerful, so that was the speech community they adopted.

What’s standard changes all the time.

10 September 2004


grammar -> prescriptive | descriptive

“Don’t nobody” - Old English

“There’s a new house abuilding over there.” - Old English

People who use double negatives, modal verbs, etc. use them just as systematically as people who don’t. Non-standard dialects are not the result of ignorance, laziness, etc. They originate in exactly the same way as standard dialects do. Some dialects get social approval, most are neutral (accents), and some get stigmatized. To the linguist, all dialects are equal; however, social consequences exist for other people.

Language shapes the way you view the world. - Sopir-Whorf Hypothesis: “linguistic relativity”

Book recommendation: Metamagical Themes Douglas R. Hofstadter

Productivity / Creativity

Animals don’t create new words, and they have no systematic way to put signals together to create new concepts. We borrow words from other cultures / languages (taco!), borrow a lot of place names from Native Americans, as well as food stuffs.

13 September 2004

Morphemes vs. words

Same word, multiple meanings (senses). All of our common words have multiple senses. Have the same past tense, we think of them as the same word.

You typically know about 100,000 words, but you only use 6,000 - 8,000.

The Wug study - A child learns the system and simply adds an ’s' to it. There is one wug. There are two wugs.

Morphemes are the smallest parts of words that contribute to a meaning. A morpheme is the minimal sequence of letters (sound) that contributes to the meaning (it is not meaning in and of itself).

14 September 2004

Words and morphemes

Use plural, not ’s', but ’s' is a morpheme when it’s attached to a noun (means plural).

Recreate was back formed from recreation.

Morphemes change over time as languages change. company - [com pan y] pan -> bread “Someone you take bread with”. History gets lost for lots of words. “Breads” used to have to do with prayer.

“Spelling is very superficial, and not very accurate.” - Steve Chandler

17 September 2004

Classification of morphemes

Mass nouns like “furniture”, “water”, “sugar”, refer to multiples without being plural (how much). Count nouns can be counted, “chairs”, “tables”; uses the plural (how many) to count.

Verbs refer to actions or states of being; can be past tense or present tense.

You can derive words (derivational morphemes). Adding “-tion” to “operate” changes it from a verb to a noun, “operation”; cause a change in meaning or grammatical category.

22 September 2004

24 September 2004

  1. cats, mops, books - s
  2. pages, races - es
  3. plays, dogs, mobs - z

“the” is a determiner, and so is any word you can put substitute in its place

1 October 2004

articulatory phonetics

IPA - International Phonetic Alphabet

Can describe sounds in terms of the place you make the sound and the manner in which it is produced. We use square brackets to denote phonetic spellings. [p] pill caper tap

6 October 2004

j, r, l, w: semi-vowels (approximates)

If you put “say yes” in a recored and play it backwards, it comes out about the same. When an ‘r’ follows a vowel, the sound blends.

11 October 2004

Sounds move depending on which sounds are next to them.

voice, location, manner -> voiceless, bilabial, stop (p)

20 October 2004

Psychological sounds (phonemes) are written between slashes /t/. All the variations of a phoneme are called allophones. Edward Sapir wrote a paper on sound blindness in the late 19th century. Newborns can distinguish between every sound in all languages. It’s very different to develop a natural pronunciation after twelve or thirteen.

24 October 2004

We add and drop sounds based on the sounds around them. Style changes based on your setting and who you’re with too.

Phonological process rules are easier to recognize, since we can actually hear the difference between the sounds.

3 November 2004

for the French girls young

the four young French girls

When you learned English, you learned a pattern for putting these together.

  1. linear order (partly arbitrary) (phrasal order) (connections)
  2. functional word order (use word order to signal part of the meaning)
  3. hierarchical structure (smaller lists go together to make larger lists)


John loves Mary. Mary loves John. Has referential meaning.

The meaning of a sentence is not the sum of the meaning of the words.

Mary can see John. - statement

Can Mary see John? - question

Puella poetae magnam rosam dat. (Latin)

Girl poet large rose gives.

Endings determine subject and order, so words can be moved and emphasis changes while meaning remains. Flexible word order. In German, the word for “the” tells you which is the subject and which is the object.

The king killed the bishop. (active)

The bishop was killed by the king. (passive)


I watched the prisoner from the tower. -> ambiguous

Syntactically, the prepositional phrase “from the tower” can go with “prisoner” or “watched”.

When we encode things into language, we have multi-dimensional concepts we want to convey. Part of that information is lost in the encoding.

The woman told the man that she loves the truth.

5 November 2004


The iggly trazed wombly in the harlish goop.

Practice is more important in the long run.

12 November 2004

What’s required after a verb is determined by each individual verb.

Phrase structure grammar

S -> NP + VP (verb phrase) + (Adv.)

NP -> {Prop. N | Pron. | Nmass | Det. (adj.)* + Ncount}

VP -> verb + …

17 November 2004

Homework on types of sentences

What the exercise was about was what the clauses were.

The tall stately woman collected the eggs. - S

When we say that a sentence is complex, it means that one part is a grammatical part of the other.

The farmer knew that the woman had collected all of the eggs. - Cp

Next example is one of those adverbial things.

S -> NP + VP + (ADV)

The farmer staked the old goat here.

The ‘here’ is the adverbial. What it’s doing in the sentence is a little different. It’s functioning as an adverbial, telling when, and where, and how, and why. Could add ‘in the yard’. It’s a prepositional phrase, but it’s also an adverbial. You can even have another clause; another simple sentence.

The farmer staked the old goat after he milked the cow.

It tells time. One clause is a grammatical part of the other. These adverbial clauses can often move to the front of the sentence. You could rewrite this as,

After he milked the cow, the farmer staked the old goat.

When the subjects of the two clauses are the same, ‘he’ refers to ‘farmer’, you can do the following,

After milking the cow, the farmer staked the old goat.

How much ambiguity will a learner tolerate? We’re given the impression that grammar is like mathematics. But it doesn’t work that way. Language works with patterns. It turns out that concepts are fuzzy around the edges. As a project, the students have to find literary passage and do a grammatical description of it. It turns out this is very hard to do. Real language is not as neat as grammar. Depends on whose grammar book you read.

In the third stall from the end, the woman set up a display of fresh brown eggs.

There’s only one subject predicate pair, so it’s a simple sentence even though there are a lot of descriptors in it.

Coordinates put together two things, what comes before and what comes after. Adverbials can be at the beginning or the end. Coordinates have to appear in the middle.

She had sold eggs, that she had collected, and the sun was getting pretty hot.

Has a complex part and a coordinate part. The middle subject predicate is an adjective clause or a relative clause.

They both felt satisfied as they drove off into the sunset.

What is ‘as’? The fact that it can change position is s good clue that it’s an adverbial. The real trick to all of this is to recognize the subject and predicate. THe second is to distinguish some of these adverbial things.

English verb patterns

(Modal) (Perfect) (Progressive) Main Verb

Modal verbs:

If you have one helping verb, it comes before the main verb. If you have two or three, it will be in the sequence listed above. You don’t have to have any helping verbs at all if you don’t want to. All three of these are auxiliary verbs.

Tense just tells you about time, past, present, future. Related to a Latin word for time. How languages express this varies from language to language. Some languages put things in the middle of a word. Some languages use verb endings. In English we use a combination. For past and present we use a verb ending. For future, we use a modal verb, ‘will do something’.

The other auxiliaries have to do with duration. Simple past is used for things that have been completed. The perfect is used to talk about something that starts in the past and continues into the present. The progressive emphasizes something continuous at the moment.

If you have just a simple verb, the tense will be on that main verb. But if you have an auxiliary, the tense will get moved over to the auxiliary. We use past perfect when you have two things in the past, and the past perfect happened first.

I had finished eating, when the bell rang.

Modal verbs do not normally show tense, with one or two exceptions (‘can’, ‘could’). If tense is going to be there, it shows up on the first auxiliary verb that can take it.

Negatives are expressed via an auxiliary verb + ‘not’ or the contracted form. The ‘not’ will go after the first auxiliary verb.

Yes, no questions begin with an auxiliary verb.

SHould the woman have collected the eggs?

Hence the auxiliary pattern is very important in English, since it’s used to signal a lot of things, negatives, yes / no, tense, etc.

19 November 2004

Page 55 of the course packet shows rules for the sentence corpora of this course. Covers some of the ideas presented in class. Don’t try to memorize any of these rules! “If I want to ask you about them on the test, I’ll give you the rules.”

  1. S -> NP + VP + (ADV)
  2. VP -> AUX + Vb + ({NP, Adj, ADV})
  3. AUX -> {(Modeal), (Perfect), (Continuous), Focused Polarity}
  4. ADV -> {Adverb, PrepP}
  5. PrepP -> PrepP + NP
  6. NP -> {Prop N, Pron, Det + (Adj.) + Ncount + (pl.), Nmass, ‘that’ + S}

These are simplified things, but they are the beginning of developing a more complex phrase structure grammar. We’re leaving out some detail here that a real grammar would have to include.

You want to identify something, use a noun phrase to talk about it. Pronouns can actually replace an entire noun phrase. There are proverbs that can replace an entire verb phrase too: ‘do’, ‘did’.

Real English has sentences that are both compound and complex. However, the bulk of English grammar is learning the patterns of what makes simple sentences and clauses.

Scd -> S + ‘and’ + S

A little child will string simple sentences together when telling a story. “They did this and this and then this and that and the other thing and…”

Word classes:

The result of all this is that you can end up with sentences like Faulkner wrote that run over a page. But they’re all just simple sentences strung together. You have knowledge in your head of what the patterns are and how to reuse those patterns.

These rules don’t describe commands, questions, negatives, complex sentences, etc. We’d have to add all that to make this more like real English.

Active vs. passive sentences

Active - When the doer of the action is the grammatical subject of the sentence.

The woman collected the eggs yesterday.

She collected them.

Passive - When the grammatical subject is not the doer of the action.

The eggs were collected by the woman yesterday.

They were collected by her.

Our phrase structure rules from page 57 don’t include passives. We could add a rule to the predicate, or we can say that you’re rearranging the sentence stylistically. The second option is called a transformation.

29 November 2004

50% to 60% of the theoretical linguists think Chompskie’s on the right track. Difference between passive and active.

The psychology picture with the dog made up of black and white dots. What are the dots? Once seen, you can’t erase it. Degraded picture loses information. Where does the picture reside? On the screen? In your head?

Language works the same as that picture. Understanding is a result of what’s in your head and what’s in the words. Have a general idea of form -> know “chair”. We start putting together a list of what makes a chair a chair. People who grew up in different speech communities will form different patterns.

Page 67 in the course packet has a paragraph by James Madison that’s the key to this whole unit.

8 December 2004

Tests get returned today. Let’s see how I do. Woot! Once again I wreck the curve. 33 out of 33 points gives me a 100% and an A in the class.

Final is in this room at 7:30 on Monday morning. There’s a copy of the old final in the course packet. The format of the final will be very similar to it.

Talking today about what we would have covered if we’d had a few more weeks.

Language does not convey literal meaning. There’s always an element of interpretation. Think of the dog picture last week. There’s some information there, but your brain has to fill in the gaps. Element of interpretation there, but it can very from person to person and culture to culture.

The symbol of the expression vs. the meaning. The concepts are not absolute. They are fuzzy boundaries, even for mathematical concepts that we think of as being very precise. If you get into psycholinguists, we get more into the language of concepts. If you use words to talk about things, they don’t convey the total image. We use words to refer. The words only pick out little pieces of information about what you’re talking about.

If I tell you about a person in my class who’s a pilot, you fill in all the gaps about what their hair color is, wether they’re male or female, and so on and so forth.

Facts don’t exist out here in the world. They’re linguistic statements. The relationship has all the problems Madison was talking about: vagueness of concepts, can’t contain all necessary information, etc.

If this is the way human language is inherently, what can we do about it?

For everyday purposes, we need ways to compensate for that. Two chapters (8 and 9) in the book cover this and deal with discourse. Terms that are commonly used but don’t appear in the book are cohesion and coherence.

Both are related to how we compensate for language’s ambiguity. We can identify linguistic signals that help you draw more connections. Pronouns are a good example. What’s the meaning of the word “she”? It sends you back in context and you look for a noun phrase that fits. Words like “the”, definite and indefinite articles, work in a similar fashion too. Active and passive sentences and other grammatical patterns can be used to rearrange ideas so that the writing or speech flows better. These are all physical examples, cohesion.

George hit Bill and then he kicked him.

Who does he refer to? Probably George, since he’s the doer of the action. We assume the grammatical relation is parallel. Phonetically, kicked is louder than he or him. We accentuate new pieces of information. However, if you change the emphasis from kicked to he, than Bill becomes the one who does the kicking.

George hit Bill and then he kicked the idiot.

If you say it with he, him, and idiot soft, then he refers to George. If you accent idiot, it becomes new information and now there’s a third party involved. Accents and stresses signal how to put pieces of information together. These are examples of cohesion.

With pronouns (another example of cohesion), we prefer to go backwards in the text and figure out who it refers to.

The waiter went over to John’s table and he opened the wine.

He refers to the waiter.

The waiter went over to John’s table and he ordered a hamburger.

He refers to John.

Our background knowledge lets us know who he refers to. We make the assumption that waiters don’t order food, and John won’t open a bottle of wine himself if there’s someone there to do it for him. This is an example of coherence. Your background knowledge guides your interpretation of what things refer to.

Most people assume male (at least in our culture) unless told otherwise. Profession and the other metadata that you’re provided with has and influence there too. Nurses are assumed to be female. Physicians are assumed to be male. That sort of thing.

There are conventions for discourse, communication, how we use the language to communicate. How do you signal to people what kind of background knowledge they should use to interpret what you’re saying? Different languages have different methods, orders, inflections, etc. by which they communicate that sort of thing.

One question on the final about the nature of language and meaning. Just the ideas that Madison talks about.