LINGUIST List 2.663

Tue 15 Oct 1991

Disc: Is Language Finite? Polite Forms

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  1. , Finiteness/Harrisian
  2. AVERY D ANDREWS, Is language finite?
  3. Ellen Prince, Re: 2.655 Polite Pronouns
  4. , Re: 2.655 X and I; Polite Pronouns

Message 1: Finiteness/Harrisian

Date: 11 Oct 91 23:25:17 EST
From: <>
Subject: Finiteness/Harrisian
After reading in a recent posting the following (unrelated)
items: (i) Alexis' excellent response to those who worry about
the finiteness of language and (ii) a reference to (Roy) Harris,
I was reminded of the following quote I recently read, which,
without being a Harrisian (or a Harrisite, for that matter), i
was able to appreciate.
Jon Aske
"Consequently to maintain, as generativists have done, that the
principle [sic] aim of a descriptive grammar is to specify all
and only the grammatical sentences of the language becomes quite
vacuous. It is to treat a language as if it were, on the formal
plane, a closed logistic system of the type devised for purposes
well-formedness' of a
proved'. But the fact is quite simply that the
languages used in everyday life are not enormously blown-up
logistic systems. On the contrary, logistic systems are
drastically cut-down versions of everyday languages. And an
essential purpose of the cutting-down is to provide the logician
with a limited, self-contained decontextualised system within
which the procedueres of mathematical proof can be manipulated.
grammaticality' as some psychophysical
counterpart to well-formedness in a mathematical system is to
foist a grotesquely inappropriate analogy upon linguistic
behaviour as a whole. Furthermore, it is not even an analogy
which provides a viable solution to the problem it was supposed
to deal with." (Harris, Roy. 1981. The language myth. London:
Duckworth, p. 76)
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Message 2: Is language finite?

Date: Tue, 15 Oct 1991 10:35:10 GMT
Subject: Is language finite?
I don't really like disagreeing with Alexis Manaster-Ramer, but I do.
The important issue, I think is not cardinality of NLs per se, but
what the aim of generative grammar is supposed to be. I would go with
Chomsky in saying the aim of figuring out how an actual device works and
is organized. Given this, I find finite but not finitely bounded
sentence length to be the `obviously' appropriate idealization,
since the limits on actual sentence length are (a) not well defined
(b) clearly not due to the structure of the gadgetry responsible
for the facts of grammar. I see (a) and (b) as empirical issues,
though the step from them to what the appropriate idealization is
is not an empirical issue (and probably not a very important one
Infinite sentence lengths are on the other hand not attainable by
any kind of gadgetry whatsoever, and therefore, I would claim, are
irrelevant to investigations into the function and structure of
The infinite size of languages was perhaps a more important issue
thirty years ago than it was today, since nowadays it is widely
accepted that grammars have to capture generalizations, while in those
days the idea that a grammar might be a huge, stupid and
unorganized list of sentence patterns was more of a serious
 Avery Andrews (
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Message 3: Re: 2.655 Polite Pronouns

Date: Mon, 14 Oct 91 17:28:13 -0400
From: Ellen Prince <>
Subject: Re: 2.655 Polite Pronouns
>Date: Fri, 11 Oct 91 11:37:02 GMT
>From: (Michel Eytan LILoL)
>Subject: Re: 2.615 Polite/Plural Pronouns
>let me come back somewhat to the original tu/vous debate in French, since I
> would like to air some intuitive feelings.
>When I was young, we used to adress other (young?) males by their LAST name; a
> of course 'ladies' by Madame X (or Mademoiselle X), unless you were intimate
> with them. Nowadays, when you have only slight intimacy with people, and even
> if you do not use tu with them, you often called them by their FIRST name, be
> they male or female -- or else you are a damn snob. Now to me, as a speaker o
> French this feels very much like the American (NOT British) way of expressing
> the tu/vous distinction without going too far (ie as far as tu).
michel eytan has brought up a topic that has mystified me for several
years--what young (and some not-so-young) americans mean by last-naming. i
am particularly amazed that college students and up seem to be UNCOMFORTABLE
being last-named by their instructors. i've been told that they've never in
their life been last-named and it seems 'weird' to them. obviously, there's
been a huge change in behavior in a fairly short time--when i was a kid, we
were first-named thru the 6th grade. from the 7th grade on, it was last names
only. some teachers used 'mr.' or 'miss' with the last names, some used just
the last names, and many (especially male teachers) used just last names for
male pupils and 'miss' + last name for females. and these were not stuffy prep
schools--these were large public schools in brooklyn. it did not seem weird. it
seemed appropriate in view of our newly-arrived-at adulthood. it goes without
saying that no instructor ever first-named any student when i was in college,
at least not publicly. today, when i have a little lapse and last-name an
undergraduate, they either don't respond or else giggle or do something to
indicate that i have behaved in a very strange way. for anyone with intuitions
about this, why does last-naming feel so 'weird'? also, does anyone know if
this is perhaps a class thing? are working-class urban kids still being
last-named in by their teachers? were upper middle class kids always
first-named? (time is not the only variable in my experience, i realize.)
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Message 4: Re: 2.655 X and I; Polite Pronouns

Date: Mon, 14 Oct 91 22:18:37 -0400
From: <>
Subject: Re: 2.655 X and I; Polite Pronouns
I would just like to confirm that the use of sentences like "On est alles au
cinema avec Michel" meaning "Michel and I went to the movies" is also found in
Quebec French. Like Dominique Estival, I used to transfer this construction
into English, until it was pointed out to me that it is ungrammatical in
that language.
About tu/vous in French: Pierrette Thibault and Helene Blondeau gave a paper
at the NWAVE meeting last weekend where they argue that, contrary to the
widespread feeling that "vous" is losing grounds and that "tu" is replacing it,
the proportions of use of "tu/vous" as terms of address have basically remained
stable in Montreal French between 1971 and 1984. The widespread impression of
the omnipresence of "tu" is to be attributed to the high frequency of "tu" as a
generic pronoun (examples of the type: "quand tu es pauvre, tu peux pas faire
tout ce que tu veux", meaning "when one is poor, one cannot do everything one
wants") and to the very frequent use of the discourse marker "tu sais" (you
--Julie Auger
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