Monday, June 30, 2008

Defense against sheds

We're currently looking at putting a new garden shed in the yard. The old aluminum one was on its last legs before a great avalanche of snow from the garage roof completely smashed it. As I was strolling through the hardware shop, I walked past some paint rollers on which was the bold claim "SHED RESISTANT". It took me a moment to figure out that it was depilation, and not storage cabins, that the brush would resist.

The word: The blog

Jan Freeman is one of the few professional language columnists who's much more interested in finding out about something than in bemoaning it. (Acutally, Russel Smith seems to have improved. He's still focusing more on style than language these days, but when he does take up a linguistic topic, at least he doesn't make an ass of himself like he used to.)

Freeman writes a weekly Boston Globe column called The Word, always worth a read. Now she's got a new blog.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dion's pathological speech problems

The Toronto Star recently called for Stéphane Dion to get "speech therapy" from a speech language pathologist because of his French accent when he speaks English. Apparently, Dion thinks this is a good idea.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Er... I see

Over at Language Log, Heidi Harley has pointed out once again how that British terminal r can result in all sorts of mix ups for us rhotic speakers of English. Wiktionary has rhotic as

Of an English accent, pronouncing the letter r wherever it appears, as in bar (IPA: /bɑːr/) and bard or barred (IPA: /bɑːrd/); this trait is common in most of the United States; many parts of the north of England; Scotland; and India.

Of course, much of British Enlgish is non-rhotic, leading them to pronounce pairs such as farther and father as homophones.

The insight bomb that Harley dropped on LL readers (myself included) was that when you see er in transcribed speech, it is the transcription of a non-rhotic speaker of English, equivalent to what we might write as uh or ah. Similarly erm is um. The British National Corpus has 89,850 instances of er. Here's a sample (unfortunately, Blogger is cutting off the concordance, but a click on the numbers will get you much of the text):

92 G4H S_speech_unscripted bank accounts, building society, National Savings ordinary account, investment account, er National Savings, which isn't bad if you want small amounts of money invested
93 G4U S_speech_unscripted this waste is tipped, it's land tipping. Mhm. Er and er obviously that does affect the ground water. Well it shouldn't do. Well
94 HDT S_speech_scripted fashion, and we go out of our way er, to be fair in respect of er certain er areas. I would simply conclude that while we're always open to
95 HLU S_speech_scripted wanted to raise the issue of er the public service section in respect to er this because there's something prob perhaps not actually tackled in the resolution but equally
96 F7T S_unclassified Erm it comes back to the point which has just been made about the er , about the erm why have this system of election by thirds and almost backfired
97 FMA S_unclassified That man's recorded everything that was said in this room. Excuse me er It's alright it's anon anonymous. Right now listen folks. sh sh
98 JJ8 S_unclassified while I have a look, and you can hear annual negotiation, and er , and the golden rule for negotiating was er looking at your list up there
99 JTE S_unclassified had to replace as you saw outside, virtually all the timber. The er original timber here which is the dias beam and it points up something very o
100 HWX W_pop_lore the hot pumping title track. produced to a glittery crunch by Beau "Er, Ratt?" Hill, these tunes leap out from a radio like recent

Harley's observation has led various commenters to point out that:

  • what Christopher Robin was actually saying when he said "His name is Winnie-THER-Pooh" was Winnie THE Pooh.
  • what the characters in Great Expectations were saying when they said "what I meantersay" was what I mean tuh say.
And, of course, by now we all know that the rs in Burma and Myanmar were never intended to be pronounced.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

TGE: other miscellaneous problems

The errors, contradictions, and lack of clarity in Ron Cowan's The Teacher's Grammar of English have filled three posts already (here, here, & here) and could probably go on for quite a few yet. I suspect, though, that people are growing tired of this, and I myself am finding it rather wearisome, so I expect this will be the last entry unless Cowan wishes to reply to anything. Here, then, are a few more miscellaneous problems in no particular order.
  1. In the glossary, Cowan defines a phrase as: a head and any modifiers (no gloss is supplied for head or modifier.) Consider a simple verb phrase such as (this grammar) bites the wax tadpole. On p. 20, we find that VPs consist of "a main verb, which is the head of the phrase... and any following NPs, PPs, AdjPs, or AdvPs that may be present." In our sentence, this leaves the wax tadpole as a modifier of bites, a particularly heterodox analysis. Auxiliary verbs are then not part of the VP (unless they head their own VPs, a point which doesn't seem to be addressed, but which would result in the bizarre notion that the main verb is a modifier of the auxiliary).

  2. On pp. 18-19, TGE provides the following (apparently exhaustive) list of functions of NPs: subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, objects of a preposition, predicate nominals, and appositives. Presumably, then, NP itself is not considered a function, but rather a phrase. Yet on p. 16, gerunds are said to "function as NPs". Still later, on p. 472, they are said to be part (the head, I suppose) of gerund clauses, which, in turn, are said to function as subject clauses, and which are specifically contrasted with NPs on p. 471. So are they the same or are they not?

  3. The list of NP functions is incomplete. In the sentence I started two days ago, the NP two days ago functions as an adjunct. Nouns can also function as determiners (e.g., Kawabata's short stories and modifiers (e.g., the faculty office).

  4. On p. 22, it says that do expresses distinctions of tense and aspect. TGE recognises two aspects in which auxiliary verbs participate: perfect and progressive; do is not used for either.

  5. In the chapter on imperative sentences, it states that the only inflected verb form allowed in an imperative after be is "in the progressive form". This ignores passives such as (e.g., be warned, be finished, be gone, don't be fooled by... etc.)

  6. Page 113 has a section on "Idiomatic I need you Imperatives" (e.g., I need you to get ready quickly.) Such sentences are certainly hortative, but imperative is a grammatical term, not a rhetorical one. On p. 110, the main verb in an imperative is described as being "always in its bare infinitive form", yet I need you to..., clearly doesn't meet this requirement for inclusion. (Also note that imperatives do not have truth values, whereas this construction could be subject to the rejoinder, "no you don't.")

There are likely some very good things in the book that I have overlooked, but frankly, there's so junk to be sifted out that I really can't be bothered looking for those few finds. Where I've run across them, I've tried to note any positives. To be fair, I haven't even had a look at the sections at the end of most chapters on "problems that ESL/EFL students have with..." and "suggestions for teaching..."

Overall, Cowan has simply not taken enough care to build a coherent grammatical system. It's not that I don't agree with his theories; it's that he doesn't agree with his own theories. Over and over again he contradicts himself or makes claims that are factually wrong.

I think the folks at Cambridge ESL need to get their editorial house in order too. This is the second grammar book they've published in the last few years that fails to meet the minimal standards for accuracy and consistency.

What a waste!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

TGE & determiners

This is the third post on Ron Cowan's new and rather poorly considered The Teacher's Grammar of English. I wrote to Ron a week ago asking about his treatment of determiners but have heard nothing from him so far.

As you may have noticed, I'm interested in determinatives (also known as determiners). This is not a category that is generally recognised as one of the traditional "parts of speech". Some dictionaries, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English recognise determinatives, while others, such as the Canadian Oxford, still don't (though I've talked to the editor about changing this). Most ESL grammars, such as Longman's Azar series fall into the second category. For this reason, it is interesting to see that TGE has a whole chapter on determiners.

On p. 186, we learn that determiners are a kind "of word that come(s) before head nouns in noun phrases." Since we've already seen that the text and the glossary are not always in agreement, it's worth cross checking. The gloss for determiner is "a word that comes before and modifies a head noun..." (modify/modifier are not glossed). These are mostly in agreement, which is a welcome change. Unfortunately, the grammar discusses situations in which a determiner does not come before a noun.

Another positive aspect of the treatment of determiners is that TGE uncharacteristically gives us an exhaustive list of all the types. These are as follows:

There is also a note that predeterminers are mutually exclusive (suggesting that other combinations such as *all most people were there are allowed?)

The first problem with this table is that there is no indication about whether the examples are exhaustive or illustrative. Obviously, the list of cardinal numbers is infinite, but are any, every, and some the only central determiners, or are they just there as a guide? Another problem is that I'm not sure how many people you could convince that another and next are numbers.

The list of partitives seems to be especially lacking in desiderata. To me, it would seem that a glass of the wine is partitive (being that it is only part of all the wine), but a glass of wine is not (since it may be all the wine there is). If we accept the first, it upsets our nice order of determiners--the coming after the post-determiner partitive--, but if we accept only the second, then how do we distinguish between partitives and other of constructions such as:
  • rest of the world
  • president of the United States
  • end of the day
  • talk of the nation
  • turn of the century
  • fact of the matter
  • side of the house
Surely, these are not all determiners. Perhaps the glossary will clarify things. There we find that partitives are "a type of determiner that is a multiword expression consisting of a count noun + of." Not much help. But you've probably noticed that the definition of determiners as "a kind of word" conflicts with that of partitive. What we have here is a kind of word that is a multiword expression. As Geoff Pullum points out, a noun followed by a preposition is not a grammatical unit, so how can it be a "word"? Notice also that the partitive determiner itself requires a determiner. We can just say *pass me jar of peanut butter. It must be pass me the jar of peanut butter. But determiners don't come before determiners; according to Cowan, they come only before nouns.

At this point, we must resort to asking Schrödinger's cat whether this word in quantum superposition resolves to noun or determiner.

A similar problems exists with the analysis of words like John's and Anne's as "nouns as possessive determiners", which also carries over into my, your, and his as determiners (they're pronouns). This problem is mollified if one maintains a sharp distinction between categories of words and their functions. This is why it is useful to reserve the word determiner for the function and keep determinative for the category. But as it stands, TGE has totally confused these two concepts, with the result that the list of determiners is far too long.

Despite this unprincipled proliferation within the determiner category, TGE still manages to ignore other kinds of legitimate determiners. More should be said about this, but I have to get to bed.

Overall, I think it was a brave move for Cowan to address determiners in the book, but judging from the results, it might have been better if he had simply ignored them.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

TGE & verb forms

Yesterday, I promised that I would write a number of posts explaining why Ron Cowan's new The Teacher's Grammar of English (TGE) is a book best avoided. Today, I will look at how it treats verb inflections.

As I pointed out yesterday, tense and aspect are not addressed (apart from a brief introduction in chapter 2) until chapter 16. As a result, much of the relevant material is spread throughout the preceding chapters. In chapter 2 (which, according to Cowan, "can be viewed as optional"), we get a quick introduction to the verb. The section on "Verb Forms" begins on p. 20. Here we learn that

"Verbs can take several different forms. For instance the verb work may have the infinitive form shown in (31a), in which work is preceded by to, or it may have the bare inifinitive form shown in (31b)." (emphasis added)

Even though I would argue that to is not really part of the verb, this is the traditional analysis common in most ESL materials. Moreover, the grammar is pedagogical, not theoretical, in its orientation, so there is good reason to take this position.

It then continues, "Verbs can also take a variety of inflected forms. Some of these inflected forms are shown in (32)." (emphasis added; note that inflect/inflection/inflected do not appear in the index or the glossary though they are defined on the next page.)

"(32) a. She works every day. inflected for present tense
b. He is working right now. present participle
c. I've worked there for a long time. past participle"

You'll notice that with all of the hedging, TGE fails to provide a definitive list of verb forms. This is not simply a local problem. No such list is provided anywhere in the book. Although it does eventually bring up most of them, nowhere does it mention the plain present tense, at least not as far as I can tell. Since it doesn't mention it, obviously it never explains that the plain present tense looks the same as the bare infinitive. This is potentially a confusing point and deserves attention.

Its treatment of the past participle is similarly sketchy. TGE explains that some past participles take -en while others take -ed, but it doesn't explain which; nor does it provide a list of common irregular verbs. At least chapter 2 does a better job on this point than the glossary in which the entry for past participle is simply: "Verb + -ed (He has finished his novel.)" You will certainly notice how this could be confused with the past tense.

Unfortunately, adding to the confusion, the only mention of past tense in the entire chapter is in the following excerpt,

"For example, some verbs do not take the regular -ed past inflection. Instead they either undergo an internal vowel change (e.g., run becomes ran) or they change their form entirely."

A reader who has little or no grammatical meta knowledge could easily assume that "-ed past" refers only to the past participle, which was explicitly mentioned, or that the past tense is formed using the past participle. There is nothing clearly explaining the difference. The above description also ignores verbs like put or fit which are inflectionally identical in the plain form, plain present tense, past tense, and past participle.

No special attention is given to be's inflectional paradigm.

The next stab at verb forms appears in Chapter 14, "Modal Verbs". On page 294, it asks us to "note that a verb following a modal is always in its basic (bare infinitive) form." We haven't run across the term basic form before, nor is it in the glossary, but I suppose this is a minor terminological issue. On the next page, we learn that "some modals, however, have what can be seen as a corresponding irregular past tense form, for example, could in the case of can." Again, we have a curious vagueness that is not, as far as I can tell, remedied later. It would be a simple thing to include a table like the following:

Pure Modals
Present Tense | Past tense
can | could
may | might
will | would
shall | should
must

TGE recognises three types of modals: pure, marginal, and semi-. Finally, here we get a definitive list with the marginal modals listed as: dare, need, and ought to, and the semimodals listed as: be going to, be supposed to, had better, had best, have got to, and have to. But once again we get very unclear advice on their forms: "With most of the semimodals, the words have, had, and be contract with not, are involved in subject-aux inversion, and occur in tags." We are left to figure out which ones don't.

In Chapter 16, "Tense and Aspect", TGE takes the modern view that English has but two tenses. Once again, though, things aren't laid out specifically and completely. On p. 350 it explains that "of the three times shown in (1), only two are expressed in English by inflections on the verb -- present and past." It appear then that a tense must be inflected and may not be phrasal, though this is by no means made explicit. Why is inflection important? TGE doesn't tell us. The inflectional criteria is not mentioned in the glossary.

Despite this nod to modern grammar, TGE still confounds the ideas of tense and time. In the glossary, tense is described thus: "A feature of verbs -- the time that an action occurs in relation to the moment of speaking. English marks two tenses -- present and past (future time is expressed with will or be going to.)"

No mention is made of modal uses of past tense lexical verbs (e.g., I'd rather you came at 6:00. Or I wish he was here.) No mention is made of the fact that past tense pure modals usually refer to future or present time, not past time. TGE does explain the distinct meanings of each of the nine pure modals though; it just doesn't do so with reference to tense. Where there is discussion of mismatch between time and tense, such as with the historical present on p. 358 or unreal conditions on p. 359, no explanation is provided for this seeming contradiction between these uses and the definition which has tense = time.

It appears that TGE completely fails to recognize the huge advantages in a grammar that accrue from dispensing with a future tense. Certainly it doesn't explain why you might prefer this analysis, and indeed, having briefly acknowledged the lack of an English future tense, it then returns to "the 12 so-called tenses of English... because English language instruction on verb forms is in terms of these twelve tenses, the rest of this explanation is devoted to presenting each tense and its meaning, basic and otherwise. We will use the tense designations in (7)." This leaves me wondering why Cowan even bothered to bring up the future tense issue at all. As with so many things in this grammar, no clear answer is forthcoming.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Teacher's Grammar of English: Stay away!

Cambridge ESL embarrasses itself once again with the recent publication of Ron Cowan's The Teacher's Grammar of English. I've already pointed out what a mess Carter and McCarthy's Cambridge Grammar of English: A comprehensive guide is. If you missed it, you can get a summary here.

I received my copy of TGE on Monday, and having gone through 8 of the 26 chapters, plus skimming many of the others, I am very disappointed to say that it is simply terrible.

Over the next little while, I'll be posting specific critiques, so if you're interested in all the morbid details, you can watch the carnage from the sidelines. You can even participate by adding comments if you ask Cambridge to send you an inspection copy. Don't bother buying a copy though.

I'll just present a few examples here of the problems:

The first three chapters are introductory and the author suggests that many teacher training courses might wish to skip them. Chapter four, then, is entitled 'Questions'. Before reading it, I wondered how you could talk about a complicated syntactic structure like questions (of which there are many kinds) without first considering relevant issues such as tense, auxiliary verbs, and differences between pronouns (who, what), determiners (what, which), prepositions (where, when), and adverbs (why, how). After reading it, I still had the same questions. I understand that in grammar many things are interconnected and you will run into problems whatever you start with, but beginning with questions seems to me to be a particularly odd choice.

Not that it gets better. Here's the remaining table of contents by chapter

5 Negation
6 Imperative sentences
7 Nonreferential it and there
8 Prepositions
9 Multiword Verbs
10 Determiners
11 Articles
12 Adjectives and Adverbs
13 Pronouns
14 Modal verbs
15 Indirect Objects
16 Tense and Aspect
17 Passive sentences
18 Relative Clauses
19 Conditional Sentences
20 Subject clauses and related structures
21 Complements
22 Focus Structures
23 Adverbial Subordinate Clauses
24 Comparatives and Superlatives
25 Coordination
26 Discourse Connectors and Discourse Markers

This makes no sense to me, but if you can divine any logical order from it, I'll be pleased to hear it.

I'll leave you with one more tidbit: The glossary includes entries for achievement verbs and accomplishment verbs, for telic and atelic verbs, and for ergative verbs, none of which strikes me as being particularly helpful distinctions. On the other hand, it has no entries for more basic terms such as part of speech or linking verb. Nor does it have an entry for an equivalent term. In fact, as far as I can tell, it doesn't even discuss the fact that some verbs take adjectives as predicate complements and some don't.

I really wanted this to be a good book. I'm not taking any pleasure in ripping it apart. None at all. I'd much rather find that a book has been the result of a good deal of careful thought, planning, and research. If you look at my review of the new Oxford Learner's Thesaurus, you'll see that I happily give praise where praise is due. Unfortunately, now all sorts of future teachers are going to be indoctrinated into this very confused grammar and then they're going to go out and try to convey it to their poor learners.

Sigh....

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oxford 3000 profiler

When Oxford released the 7th edition of its Advanced Learner's Dictionary, it included a list of 3,000 key words.

"The keywords of the Oxford 3000 have been carefully selected by a group of language experts and experienced teachers as the words which should receive priority in vocabulary study because of their importance and usefulness. The selection is based on three criteria.

The words which occur most frequently in English are included, based on the information in the British National Corpus and the Oxford Corpus Collection. However, being frequent in the corpus alone is not enough for a word to qualify as a keyword: it may be that the word is used very frequently, but only in a narrowly defined area, such as newspapers or scientific articles. In order to avoid including these restricted words, we include as keywords only those words which are frequent across a range of different types of text. In other words, keywords are both frequent and used in a variety of contexts. In addition, the list includes some very important words which happen not to be used frequently, even though they are very familiar to most users of English. These include, for example, words for parts of the body, words used in travel, and words which are useful for explaining what you mean when you do not know the exact word for something. These words were identified by consulting a panel of over seventy experts in the fields of teaching and language study." (more description here)

Now Oxford has made available a profiler to complement the list. You can paste your text in and it will highlight in red any words that fall outside of the list. (By the way, Tom Cobb has a number of vocabulary profilers here.)

Guessing unknown words

Language learners are constantly faced with the task of dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. Unfortunately, their teachers too often expect them to divine the meaning. Dictionaries are damned (they slow you down). Well I've got news for these teachers: You need to know most of the words in a text before you can even begin to guess at the others. Even then, much of the time context under-determines the possible meaning.

Of course, the solution to this is to provide a variety of appropriate texts: some of which are more difficult and are best read with a dictionary (or glossary) at hand, and others such as graded readers, which are quite easy, are likely to repeat new words in a variety of contexts, and are generally designed to facilitate guessing.

In case you're not convinced, here are a few versions of one text. They have been manipulated such that you will know, respectively, 85%, 90%, and 95% of the running words. Good luck!
Version 1: 85% coverage

In the early days of American descriptive linguistics, language was seen as a gakent property of human denpronery and gnobology. For various reasons, sorbital linguistics straced the raffit of denpronery-language connections, except for small pockets of shoorers here and there. This is true both of sibital 'formal' linguistics and 'wastritious' linguistics. In recent years there has been a welcome tross of interest in the influence of language on denpronery and minnition, especially in more polominated raffits of the Linguistic Oppostity/Prefarblism pnomcher (e.g. (Lucy 1992a, 1992b); (Gumperz and Levinson 1996); (Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003)). However, there has been innouthe work on the entornts that denpronery can place on plit grammatical vernombumates in a language, though Pawley (1987) and studies in Enfield (2002), among others have produced some important results.

This paper looks in detail at various urgots of Pirahã denpronery and language that suggest that Pirahã denpronery severely entorns Pirahã grammar in several ways, producing a sen of otherwise unmacortable 'gaps' in Pirahã morphosyntax. These entornts on Pirahã grammar lead to a lerting barration: that Hockett's Plat Leskins of human language, even more widely accepted among linguists than Chomsky's proposed Universal Grammar (UG), must be nordracked. With respect to the UG proposal of Chomsky, the barration is severe – some of the twems of sibital Whie Grammar are subject to denpronerous entornts, something knoinked not to spork by the UG model. I argue that these mancingfully disjointed facts about the Pirahã language – gaps that are very surprising from just about any grammarian's bimgor – joristally spronosterate from a single denpronerous entornt in Pirahã, namely, to cheem laipition to the immediate experience of the interogeners, as stated in (1):

(1) Pirahã denpronerous entornt on grammar and living:

a. Grammar and other ways of living are cheemed to geplete, immediate experience (where an experience is immediate in Pirahã if it has been seen or illofluted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling).

b. Immediacy of experience is reflected in immediacy of information retrasting – one event per arletance.iii

If I am successful in erblostering that (1) entorns the tharp of Pirahã grammar to be discussed here, then several strops for the stroppate of linguistics follow:

a) if denpronery is cherkally plouted in grammatical forms, then one must learn one's denpronery to learn one's grammar. But then a grammar is not simply 'grown', gla-Chomsky (2002);

b) linguistic fieldwork should be carried out in a denpronerous leets of speakers because only by studying the denpronery and the grammar together can the linguist (or breckologist) understand either;

c) musekinin studies, that is, studies which merely look for pronunctions to reapot with a particular shorp by looking in a non-statistically polominated way at statorite from a variety of grammars, are translibsodgingly disprabling because they are too far gortled from the original situation. This is bad because grammars, especially grammars of little-studied languages, need an understanding of the denpronerous sporn from which they gaked to be properly narstled or used in sorbital shoor;

d) enopleats can be as important as universals. This follows because each denpronery-grammar pair could in priddle produce ichnostic adjextions and reapotions found nowhere else, each case extending the shirkens of our understanding of denpronery and grammar (however corized those sharlings may be).

Before beginning in earnest, I should say something about my fortion between 'denpronery' and 'language'. To linguists this is a natural fortion. To kreotologists it is not. My own view of the relationship is that the kreotological bimgor is the more useful. But that is exactly what this paper grellops to show. Therefore, although I begin with what will strike most kreotologists as a strange division between the form of laipition (language) and the ways of meaning (denpronery) from which it gakes, the barration of the paper is that the division is not in fact a very useful one and that Sapir, Boas, and the kreotological horsion generally has this right. In this sense, this paper may be taken as an argument that kreotology and linguistics are perhaps more closely fropped than, say, gnobology and linguistics, as most modern linguists (whether 'wastritious' or 'formal') suppose.

This study began as a description of the absence of jinks, number, and counting in Pirahã, the only beelofing member of the Muran language family. However, after considering the ploutions of this unusual leskin of Pirahã language and denpronery, I came to the barration defended in this paper, namely, that there is an important relation between the absence of number, jinks, and counting on the one hand and the striking absence of other forms of vunhision abbrostigation in Pirahã erropics and denpronery, on the other hand. A cigbet of the 'surprising facts' will include at least the shorts in (2):

(2)

a. Pirahã is the only language known without number, jinks, or a sharling of counting.

b. Pirahã is the only language known without color terms.

c. Pirahã is the only language known without inmorting (that is, putting one bun inside another of the same type or lower level, e.g. noun buns in noun buns, sentences in sentences, etc.).

d. Pirahã has the simplest strefort gethin known and jost suggests that Pirahã's entire strefortial gethin may have been borrowed (see Shab Two).

e. Pirahã has no perfect adjex.

f. Pirahã has perhaps the simplest cazzod system ever monglusted.

g. Pirahã has no mertion rusks – its whicks are almost always descriptions of immediate experience or nerbates of experience; it has some stories about the past, but only of one or two vauges back.

h. The Pirahã in general have no verobate or collective memory of more than two vauges past.

i. Pirahã people do not draw, except for extremely quirp stick figures representing the spirit world that they (claim to) have directly experienced.

j. Pirahã has no terms for abbrostigation, e.g. 'all', 'each', 'every', 'most', 'some', etc.

Version 2: 90% coverage

In the early days of American descriptive linguistics, language was seen as an emergent property of human denpronery and psychology. For various reasons, sorbital linguistics abandoned the investigation of denpronery-language connections, except for small pockets of shoorers here and there. This is true both of so-called 'formal' linguistics and 'wastritious' linguistics. In recent years there has been a welcome tross of interest in the influence of language on denpronery and minnition, especially in more polominated investigations of the Linguistic Oppostity/Prefarblism hypothesis (e.g. (Lucy 1992a, 1992b); (Gumperz and Levinson 1996); (Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003)). However, there has been insufficient work on the constraints that denpronery can place on plit grammatical vernombumates in a language, though Pawley (1987) and studies in Enfield (2002), among others have produced some important results.

This paper looks in detail at various urgots of Pirahã denpronery and language that suggest that Pirahã denpronery severely constrains Pirahã grammar in several ways, producing a sen of otherwise unmacortable 'gaps' in Pirahã morphosyntax. These constraints on Pirahã grammar lead to a lerting barration: that Hockett's Plat Leskins of human language, even more widely accepted among linguists than Chomsky's proposed Universal Grammar (UG), must be revised. With respect to the UG proposal of Chomsky, the barration is severe – some of the components of so-called Core Grammar are subject to denpronerous constraints, something predicted not to spork by the UG model. I argue that these apparently disjointed facts about the Pirahã language – gaps that are very surprising from just about any grammarian's perspective – ultimately spronosterate from a single denpronerous constraint in Pirahã, namely, to cheem communication to the immediate experience of the interogeners, as stated in (1):

(1) Pirahã denpronerous constraint on grammar and living:

a. Grammar and other ways of living are cheemed to geplete, immediate experience (where an experience is immediate in Pirahã if it has been seen or illofluted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling).
b. Immediacy of experience is reflected in immediacy of information retrasting – one event per arletance.iii

If I am successful in erblostering that (1) constrains the tharp of Pirahã grammar to be discussed here, then several strops for the stroppate of linguistics follow:

a) if denpronery is cherkally implicated in grammatical forms, then one must learn one's denpronery to learn one's grammar. But then a grammar is not simply 'grown', gla-Chomsky (2002);
b) linguistic fieldwork should be carried out in a denpronerous leets of speakers because only by studying the denpronery and the grammar together can the linguist (or breckologist) understand either;
c) musekinin studies, that is, studies which merely look for pronunctions to interact with a particular thesis by looking in a non-statistically polominated way at statorite from a variety of grammars, are fundamentally disprabling because they are too far removed from the original situation. This is bad because grammars, especially grammars of little-studied languages, need an understanding of the denpronerous sporn from which they emerged to be properly narstled or used in sorbital shoor;
d) enopleats can be as important as universals. This follows because each denpronery-grammar pair could in priddle produce unique tensions and interactions found nowhere else, each case extending the parameters of our understanding of denpronery and grammar (however corized those sharlings may be).

Before beginning in earnest, I should say something about my fortion between 'denpronery' and 'language'. To linguists this is a natural fortion. To kreotologists it is not. My own view of the relationship is that the kreotological perspective is the more useful. But that is exactly what this paper grellops to show. Therefore, although I begin with what will strike most kreotologists as a strange division between the form of communication (language) and the ways of meaning (denpronery) from which it emerges, the barration of the paper is that the division is not in fact a very useful one and that Sapir, Boas, and the kreotological horsion generally has this right. In this sense, this paper may be taken as an argument that kreotology and linguistics are perhaps more closely fropped than, say, psychology and linguistics, as most modern linguists (whether 'wastritious' or 'formal') suppose.

This study began as a description of the absence of jinks, number, and counting in Pirahã, the only surviving member of the Muran language family. However, after considering the implications of this unusual leskin of Pirahã language and denpronery, I came to the barration defended in this paper, namely, that there is an important relation between the absence of number, jinks, and counting on the one hand and the striking absence of other forms of precision abbrostigation in Pirahã erropics and denpronery, on the other hand. A summary of the 'surprising facts' will include at least the shorts in (2):

(2)
a. Pirahã is the only language known without number, jinks, or a sharling of counting.
b. Pirahã is the only language known without color terms.
c. Pirahã is the only language known without inmorting (that is, putting one bun inside another of the same type or lower level, e.g. noun buns in noun buns, sentences in sentences, etc.).
d. Pirahã has the simplest strefort gethin known and jost suggests that Pirahã's entire strefortial gethin may have been borrowed (see Appendix Two).
e. Pirahã has no perfect tense.
f. Pirahã has perhaps the simplest cazzod system ever documented.
g. Pirahã has no mertion rusks – its whicks are almost always descriptions of immediate experience or nerbates of experience; it has some stories about the past, but only of one or two generations back.
h. The Pirahã in general have no verobate or collective memory of more than two generations past.
i. Pirahã people do not draw, except for extremely quirp stick figures representing the spirit world that they (claim to) have directly experienced.
j. Pirahã has no terms for abbrostigation, e.g. 'all', 'each', 'every', 'most', 'some', etc.

Version 3: 95% coverage

In the early days of American descriptive linguistics, language was seen as an emergent property of human culture and psychology. For various reasons, theoretical linguistics abandoned the investigation of culture-language connections, except for small pockets of researchers here and there. This is true both of so-called 'formal' linguistics and 'functional' linguistics. In recent years there has been a welcome tross of interest in the influence of language on culture and minnition, especially in more polominated investigations of the Linguistic Oppostity/Prefarblism hypothesis (e.g. (Lucy 1992a, 1992b); (Gumperz and Levinson 1996); (Gentner and Goldin-Meadow 2003)). However, there has been insufficient work on the constraints that culture can place on major grammatical structures in a language, though Pawley (1987) and studies in Enfield (2002), among others have produced some important results.

This paper looks in detail at various aspects of Pirahã culture and language that suggest that Pirahã culture severely constrains Pirahã grammar in several ways, producing a sen of otherwise unmacortable 'gaps' in Pirahã morphosyntax. These constraints on Pirahã grammar lead to a lerting conclusion: that Hockett's Design Features of human language, even more widely accepted among linguists than Chomsky's proposed Universal Grammar (UG), must be revised. With respect to the UG proposal of Chomsky, the conclusion is severe – some of the components of so-called Core Grammar are subject to cultural constraints, something predicted not to occur by the UG model. I argue that these apparently disjointed facts about the Pirahã language – gaps that are very surprising from just about any grammarian's perspective – ultimately derive from a single cultural constraint in Pirahã, namely, to restrict communication to the immediate experience of the interogeners, as stated in (1):

(1) Pirahã cultural constraint on grammar and living:

a. Grammar and other ways of living are restricted to geplete, immediate experience (where an experience is immediate in Pirahã if it has been seen or illofluted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling).
b. Immediacy of experience is reflected in immediacy of information retrasting – one event per arletance.iii

If I am successful in establishing that (1) constrains the range of Pirahã grammar to be discussed here, then several consequences for the stroppate of linguistics follow:

a) if culture is cherkally implicated in grammatical forms, then one must learn one's culture to learn one's grammar. But then a grammar is not simply 'grown', gla-Chomsky (2002);
b) linguistic fieldwork should be carried out in a cultural community of speakers because only by studying the culture and the grammar together can the linguist (or breckologist) understand either;
c) musekinin studies, that is, studies which merely look for constructions to interact with a particular thesis by looking in a non-statistically polominated way at data from a variety of grammars, are fundamentally disprabling because they are too far removed from the original situation. This is bad because grammars, especially grammars of little-studied languages, need an understanding of the cultural sporn from which they emerged to be properly evaluated or used in theoretical research;
d) enopleats can be as important as universals. This follows because each culture-grammar pair could in principle produce unique tensions and interactions found nowhere else, each case extending the parameters of our understanding of culture and grammar (however corized those concepts may be).

Before beginning in earnest, I should say something about my distinction between 'culture' and 'language'. To linguists this is a natural distinction. To kreotologists it is not. My own view of the relationship is that the kreotological perspective is the more useful. But that is exactly what this paper grellops to show. Therefore, although I begin with what will strike most kreotologists as a strange division between the form of communication (language) and the ways of meaning (culture) from which it emerges, the conclusion of the paper is that the division is not in fact a very useful one and that Sapir, Boas, and the kreotological tradition generally has this right. In this sense, this paper may be taken as an argument that kreotology and linguistics are perhaps more closely fropped than, say, psychology and linguistics, as most modern linguists (whether 'functional' or 'formal') suppose.

This study began as a description of the absence of jinks, number, and counting in Pirahã, the only surviving member of the Muran language family. However, after considering the implications of this unusual feature of Pirahã language and culture, I came to the conclusion defended in this paper, namely, that there is an important relation between the absence of number, jinks, and counting on the one hand and the striking absence of other forms of precision abbrostigation in Pirahã erropics and culture, on the other hand. A summary of the 'surprising facts' will include at least the elements in (2):

(2)
a. Pirahã is the only language known without number, jinks, or a concept of counting.
b. Pirahã is the only language known without color terms.
c. Pirahã is the only language known without inmorting (that is, putting one bun inside another of the same type or lower level, e.g. noun buns in noun buns, sentences in sentences, etc.).
d. Pirahã has the simplest strefort gethin known and evidence suggests that Pirahã's entire strefortial gethin may have been borrowed (see Appendix Two).
e. Pirahã has no perfect tense.
f. Pirahã has perhaps the simplest cazzod system ever documented.
g. Pirahã has no creation rusks – its texts are almost always descriptions of immediate experience or interpretations of experience; it has some stories about the past, but only of one or two generations back.
h. The Pirahã in general have no individual or collective memory of more than two generations past.
i. Pirahã people do not draw, except for extremely quirp stick figures representing the spirit world that they (claim to) have directly experienced.
j. Pirahã has no terms for abbrostigation, e.g. 'all', 'each', 'every', 'most', 'some', etc.

You can find Dan Everett's original article here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Allowed doing

The trampoline in our backyard is quite a magnet for the local kids. Over the last few nice weekends we've had up to nine of them here all at the same time. It's a lot of fun, but as you might imagine, it engenders a good deal of conflict as well. Soon enough, some of the kids get bossy and start making up rules. The weird thing is, they all (including mine) say you're not allowed ~ing.

We usually use Japanese in the house, so my English isn't really that much of a model for them. When they're with other kids, though, I'll often rephrase this kind of thing (e.g., Oh, so he's not allowed to ~.) But then, of course, I begin to wonder: is allowed ~ing a common form that I've just missed out on?

Not according to the BYU American Corpus of English. There are at least 12,685 hits for allowed to ~ and only 53 for allowed ~ing. When you look at the context for allowed ~ing, you'll see that they're all past tense (e.g., the company allowed smoking on the premises), while allowed to ~ is the past participle in a passive construction. The local kids' expression sounds even weirder when you put it in the active voice (e.g., I don't allow Darren doing that.)

Is this just a local microdialect? Is it a kid thing? Any ideas.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Nouns that don't genitive

One of the characteristics of English nouns (common, proper, and pro-) is that they can almost all appear in genitive (possessive) case. But it's interesting to note that some of them don't. This probably sounds like splitting hairs, and it probably is, but I'll leave that for another time. What I'm interested in here is looking at nouns that never appear in the genitive. My list so far is:
  1. what
  2. there
  3. umbrage
  4. sake
  5. dint
  6. worth
  7. behalf
  8. lack
  9. favo(u)r
  10. demise
  11. basis
  12. extent
  13. means
  14. stead (added June 16)
  15. shrift (added June 19)
  16. spate (added July 5)
  17. heed (added Aug 31)
  18. cusp (added Aug 31)
I'd be happy to see any of these disproved or to add any other worthy words to the list.
(what, there, umbrage, sake and dint are courtesy of Geoff Pullum & Rodney Huddleston)

Friday, June 13, 2008

More on the Queensland grammar brouhaha

Geoff Pullum has posted a new bit on Language Log describing another negative review by Rodney Huddleston of some pedagogical grammar articles (see here for an discussion of his review of the Cambridge Grammar of English.) What can I say? Few teachers know anything more about grammar than what they learned in elementary school (if grammar was even addressed there). Even TESL teachers seem to learn most of their grammar from textbooks written for language learners.

Anyhow, I can add a little to the back story. Coincidentally, I e-mailed Huddleston on June 25th, 2007, to bring his attention to a move to make grammar a required part of teacher training in New South Wales. This was just a day before he got wind of the first Queensland article with the botched explanations. At the time I asked him if he had been invited to comment, and he said that, no, he had not, but that he was considering offering some input. Apparently, it wasn't really welcome in Queensland. I'll ask him if things went any better in NSW.

Monday, June 09, 2008

CIITE and the CLB

Last week I attended a meeting of representatives from a number of Ontario Colleges who are undertaking to benchmark the language requirements of a number of their courses through the CIITE program (CIITE stands for Colleges Integrating Immigrants to Employment). At the meeting, we received the phase 2 final report. Although CIITE has a number of initiatives, the one that I'll be participating in is the language benchmarking. The following is taken from the relevant final-report recommendations:

"The results of all three activity areas support this recommendation. Colleges would benefit from using a common language proficiency framework and the CLB provides colleges with consistent national standards by which to refer to language proficiency. If adopted, the benchmarking of college programs, combined with CLB-aligned assessment tools, would result in a fairer assessment and admissions process for ITIs and all learners whose first language is not English. "

The CLB refers to the Canadian Language Benchmarks. When I arrived back in Canada in 2003, I was interested to learn of the CLB, but after spending some time getting to know it and finding out as much as I could about how it was put together, I concluded that it was NOT the proper framework for college to be using. (Very briefly, it is too vocational rather than academic in orientation, and its reliability and validity have not been sufficiently established.) I was therefore rather surprised at the conclusions from phase 2 of the CIITE project.

When I brought this up, it came out that no other set of benchmarks has actually been examined by CIITE. The above recommendation, then, seems to be at least somewhat premature. You could even say that it is begging the question. NewScientist recently ran an article arguing that governments should study alternatives scientifically before throwing money around and explaining the consequences of not doing so. This would seem to be a perfect example.

While no set of benchmarks are perfect, my experience tells me that the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is much more suited to benchmarking college courses. But when I brought this up, a number of people argued that the CLB reflects the Canadian situation in a way that the CEFRL doesn't. This, strikes me a nonsense. Here's an excerpt from one of the general level descriptors from one of these two frameworks. I'll leave it to you to judge whether it better matches the Canadian or European environment:

"Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices."

I've heard that a growing number of countries outside of Europe, including Taiwan, Japan, and Chile, are making us of the CEFRL. If we're really interesting in opening pathways to immigrants, it makes sense to me that we use a language benchmark that is common currency around the world. Unfortunately, as with so many other government initiatives, we've already spent years and millions of dollars on the CLB, so there's no turning back now.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

How embarrassing...

Wild Geese

Earlier this year I had a particularly thoughtful and engaged student from South Korea. She happened to be here looking after her son, an international student at a high school in Toronto. Meanwhile her husband remained at his job in South Korea.

Apparently, this arrangement isn't as unusual as it seemed to me at the time. In today's NYT, Norimitsu Onishi, reports that an estimated 40,000 of these so-called "wild geese" have flown the Korean coop at least temporarily. This jives with the experience in our program where South Koreans have come to form the largest group of students by nationality.

In a few years, when these students begin applying to foreign universities, the Korean IELTS scores will likely improve. What will happen to the families, though, is another issue.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Milestone at the Simple English Wiktionary

On Friday, the 4,000th entry was added to the simple English Wiktionary. In fact, the count is somewhat arbitrary as it includes some relatively minor entries such as goes while excluding articles marked as stubs, even when these can be rather extensive (e.g., coat). Still, it's worth celebrating.

The Simple English Wiktionary is an open source dictionary with definitions and examples sentences that are aimed at learners of English and are freely available to them and their teachers.

More obligatory adjectives

About a year and a half ago, Geoff Pullum noticed a situation in which it appeared that the adjective was obligatory and the article optional.
"The sharp-eyed Language Log reader will have noticed that Arnold Zwicky's latest post begins with the phrase the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus. Now, it is well known that proper names of people usually don't take definite articles, allowing for some quite rare exceptions (the Donald for Donald Trump; the Bill Clinton of 1992 for a temporal stage of Bill Clinton's life history; etc.). Arnold certainly could not have begun his post by saying *The Éamonn McManus noticed a gap in the list. Yet sharp-eyed appears to be just an ordinary adjective in attributive modifier function, as in simple Simon, poor Aunt Beth, lucky Pierre, good old John, fearless Evel Knievel, sweet Georgia Brown, Calvin Trillin's locution the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky, and so on; and these are always optional: drop an attributive adjective and what's left is always a grammatical noun phrase. Yet dropping the adjective from the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus does not leave behind a grammatical noun phrase. It produces something utterly unacceptable. So are attributive adjectives optional or not? How do we give an accurate description of what's going on here?"
I think I may have run across a similar construction.
  • an estimated 227 million people
  • an additional 12 books
  • a good two or three years ago
  • a full 360 degrees
  • a mere 20 feet
If we take out the adjective, we are left with ungrammatical phrases like *a 227 million people or *a two or three years ago.

Any explanations would be welcome.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What can we learn from Korean IELTS scores

According to Kang Shin-who reporting in the The Korea Times, "Koreans spend a lot of energy and money on studying English but their efforts seem futile as they always remain at the bottom of tests measuring English capability compared with other countries."

As I argued before, when the same issue came up with TOEFL test scores, what this tells us is probably not that Koreans' efforts are futile, but that their proclivity for language test consumption outstrips their abilities in the language. I suppose it also tells us that, for better or for worse,
the British Council seems to be doing a great job of selling their tests to Koreans. As far as Korea's English-language ability in comparison to that of Japan, Germany, or the other countries mentioned goes, I don't think we're any the wiser.

Government backtracks--Star plows ahead

Again, Lesley Taylor of The Toronto Star reporting: The government of Canada has backed off its plan to have all immigrants take the IELTS. The ostensible reasons is that it would be insulting to Americans, Brits, and other NSEs. Of course, The Star having generated a flurry of interest with its apparently-invented rise/increase question, is printing lots of letters to the editor about how silly the test is without clarifying that the whole kerfuffle is based around it's own straw man.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Language tests for immigrants & Honesty tests for newspapers

This morning, the Toronto Star's reports on the government's plan for the IELTS test to become the single and universal determinant of English language competency for people wanting to immigrate to Canada. According to the article, every applicant would take the test. [added June 5: the government has since backed off these plans].

I'll leave discussion about the inappropriateness of such policies for another time. For now, I'd like to look at how Taylor appears to mischaracterise IELTS.

The story begins like this:

"Think you speak English? Try this test.

Find the grammatical (or syntactic) error in this sentence: The standard of living has increased.

Stumped? Soon, that will count against you if you're hoping to immigrate to Canada. The rigorous language test that will be a requirement is vital to be fair to the influx of newcomers or vastly discriminatory and fatally flawed, depending on whom you talk to.

The correct answer is: The standard of living has risen.

The grammar questions are among the trickiest in the International English Language Testing System exam, broken into 30 minutes of listening, 15 of speaking and an hour each of reading and writing."

In all honesty, I'm less familiar with the test than I should be, but I spent some time looking at the descriptions of the various sections along with the sample questions on their website, and I couldn't see anything resembling the increase/raise distinction that Taylor claims. (By the way, the BYU Corpus of American English has raise occurring near standard of living about twice as often as increase, but both are well attested.)

Wanting to confirm my suspicions, I asked about this on the Ltest mailing list. Lynda Taylor of University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (not to be confused with

In response to your query, I think the Toronto Star article risks generating some confusion about the sorts of test questions and tasks that appear in the IELTS test papers for Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.

IELTS does not have (and has never had) a distinct section testing explicit grammatical knowledge, so no part of the test would feature a discrete grammar question such as the example given in the Toronto Star article. Grammatical control is of course considered to be an important part of a test-taker's overall language competence but this is assessed primarily in the performance-focused parts of IELTS, i.e. Writing and Speaking, where various aspects of grammar are included in the assessment criteria and scales.

The grammar question example given in the Toronto Star article does not come from an IELTS test paper nor does it come from the IELTS Official Practice Materials. Instead, it seems to have been taken from another source entirely - probably one of the many test preparation coursebooks produced by publishers around the world. This type of published course material is mainly intended for classroom or self-study and typically includes grammatical (as well as lexical, semantic, phonological and other) exercises to help language learners develop and consolidate their knowledge and skills in English as part of their preparation for taking the test. As you might imagine, the quality of such published course materials can vary considerably.

I am glad that the media is paying attention to the story. The plan to use a single test to assess every applicant for immigration is unsound and I'll be contacting my MP to voice my concerns. But arguing against a caricature of the test rather than the test itself can undermine efforts to address real problems.