LINGUIST List 11.191

Sun Jan 30 2000

Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <aristarlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Thomas Egan, Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function
  2. Marc Hamannn, Re: 11.169, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Message 1: Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2000 14:26:32 +0100
From: Thomas Egan <Thomas.Eganluh.hihm.no>
Subject: Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

I'd like to add my tuppence-worth to the discussion of the
grammaticality of Patrick Ryan's example

"The rat that the cat that the dog bit chased ran"

Patrick stated that
> As the sentence was written above, I doubt that any speaker of English
> would acknowledge it as "English", let alone "grammatical"

This contention, with which I am in wholehearted agreement, was then
disputed by Phil Gaines, who proposes the following contextualisation
(in LINGUIST 11.145)

"Welcome home, honey; we had quite a day here: First, the dog bit the
cat, then the cat chased the rat, and then, of course, the rat that
the cat that the dog bit chased ran."

Phil goes on to write:

"Of course, the "rat" sentence takes some scrutiny to parse in written
form. Spoken with appropriate stress, pause, and intonation, it's a
bit easier. The beauty of such sentences, though, IS exactly their
grammaticality. One can easily (although it's not necessary) create a
context in which the sentence, although sounding funny, works just
fine--as opposed, for example, to Cat the on mat sat the. I would
invite anyone to make that one work.

Yet when I ask my intro to linguistics students if they understand
what it means, they invariably say yes and explain it."

As far as I am concerned the important question is not whether it is
theoretically possible to contextualise the sentence but whether in
fact it, and sentences like it, ever are encountered in spontaneous
speech. Nor would one single reported occurrence be enough to warrant
our labelling it as "English" or "grammatical". The fact that
linguistics students can understand it is neither here nor there.
This merely shows that it bears sufficient resemblance to grammatical
English constructions to be susceptible to analogous interpretation.
"to Cat the on mat sat the" is too far removed from grammatical
constructions to afford us a starting point for analogy. A better
example would be a sentence like "some people would have went mad"
(from the BNC). Regardless of whether or not this sentence is
grammatical in the dialect of the speaker in question, there is no
doubt that it could be understood and explained by linguistics
students whose idiolects do not contain "went" as past participle. But
would that be sufficient to warrant our labelling it as grammatical in
Standard English? In my view "some people would have went" is closer
to grammatical English than "The rat that the cat that the dog bit
chased ran". Indeed I suspect it would require the authority of a
lecturer in lingusitics to convince students that the latter is
grammatical (as opposed to understandable)!

Tom Egan
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Message 2: Re: 11.169, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2000 10:13:06 -0500
From: Marc Hamannn <gmhberlove.com>
Subject: Re: 11.169, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Kevin R. Gregg wrote (LINGUIST 11.169):

>Grammaticality is a
>technical term within a theory of grammar, hence it's the theory that tells
>us what's grammatical or not. What a native speaker, including the
>theoretical linguist, can tell us, with absolute authority, is whether the
>sentence is acceptable, to that speaker; but the whole community of
>English-speakers could with one voice reject 'The rat that etc.' as
>unacceptable, without--simply in virtue of that unanimity-- impugning in
>the least the veridicality of the theory that marks it grammatical. 

Essentially you have just said that a theory of grammar:

a) cannot be tested by empirical means
b) is completely arbitrary to the whims of the grammar theorist
c) or else, only exists as a Platonic Ideal

Though this may be an interesting philosophical position, it has serious
problems as a basis for a science. Though I'm sure many of us would enjoy
constructing logical Ideals of what we think language should be, (and some
professional linguists do), this doesn't hold much interest to those of us
interested in language as an empirical phenomenon in the real world.
Empirical grammatical theories MUST account for the data actual usage of
language by real speakers; there is no other empirical basis upon which to
construct or evaluate them. (If you can think of another, I'd be glad to
hear about it.)

Marc Hamann
Toronto, ON
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