What is Language?

  • It distinguishes humans from animals
  • It’s a system made up of sets of knowledge & rules
  • A system that relates sounds or gestures to meanings

Linguistic Knowledge:
Knowledge of the sound system

  • the inventory of sounds (what sounds are possible within the language)
  • where those sounds may occur (position in word, position relative to each other; Could you greet President Nkrumah?)

Knowledge of words

  • Arbitrary relation between form & meaning
    • See comic on p 8
  • Sign language – association of a symbolic gesture with a meaning
    is conventionalized
  • Sound symbolism (pronunciation suggests meaning)
  • Onomatopoetic words -examples in other languages; pera-pera, zha-zha, koro-koro
  • Infinite number of possible utterances (How? See p. 10)
  • “Finite set of rules” (p 11) allow us to create infinite
    set of new sentences (the big question is, what are those rules in
    our brains?)
  • What does the comic on p 9 demonstrate?

How do you recognize the ‘funny’ sentences? (p. 11)

(Posited by Chomsky)

  • Competence, or knowledge one has (not necessarily conscious)
  • Performance: what one does with linguistic knowledge


Second, the distinction between competence and performance, first expounded by Chomsky in 1965, remains problematic to all sociolinguists. A speaker’s competence is the underlying ability to produce and interpret well-formed sentences in a given language and to distinguish well-formed from ill-formed strings. The specifics of such competence are generally established by eliciting intuitions (or using the analyst’s own intuitions) of grammaticality.  Performance, on the other hand, covers not only the manifestation of competence on actual occasions of language use, but the effects of memory, perception, and attention on language behavior. In 1986, Chomsky revised the competence/performance dichotomy, preferring a distinction between I(nternal) and (E)xternal language.

As Sidnell (2000) points out, this change in terminology involved no
significant alteration in the underlying abstraction except a slight
change of focus on what constitutes E-language. While generativists are interested exclusively in competence/ I-language and have not elaborated any coherent theory of performance/ E-language, the distinction is problematic to sociolinguists, most obviously because it treats language as intrinsically asocial…(Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation By Lesley Milroy, Matthew Gordon)

Comment: Get used to this…many do not revise their linguistic truisms even long after they have been abandoned by the original theorist. This happens a lot with Chomsky in particular.

What is Grammar?

Mental grammarRules that exist in the brain of the speaker and
permit use of the language

Descriptive: telling what people say

Grammatical: an utterance
that conforms to the mental grammar’s rules as well as the linguist’s descriptive

Ungrammatical: deviates from a speaker’s intuitions; this might mean the utterance is part of a different dialect or register. (i.e., British English: at the weekend;
AAE I be waiting; double negatives
are permitted in Ind-European language

Prescriptive: telling people what they should say;

  • 1762 Bishop Robert Lowth’s “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” was based on Latin grammatical rules
  • Edwin Newman’s “Strictly Speaking”

Dialect varieties- standard, prestige

Teaching grammar used to learn a second / foreign language

Grammar refers
to everything a speaker knows about their language:

  • Phonology: the sound system
  • Semantics:  the system of meanings
  • Morphology:  the rules of word formation
  • Syntax:  the rules of sentence formation
  • Lexicon:  the words used

Universal grammar: laws representing the universal properties of all language

Important quote: (p. 19) “To discover the nature of this universal
grammar whose principles characterize all human languages is the major aim of linguistic theory.”

How close are we?

Noam ChomskyNoam Chomsky: founder of
modern linguistics, proposed that the human brain is wired with a ‘deep
structure’ that gives children
the ability to learn any language
they are exposed to as an infant.

Wikipedia has a discussion
of alternative theories about language acquisition

Most current researchers in language acquisition question Chomsky’s proposed language acquisition device (LAD) and the existence of an underlying structure to children’s utterances.

  • Not universally intelligible
  • Show that sound is not needed for language

Nim Chimpsky

Summary -what we know about language (p.27)

Franz Boas:

Boas, in “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology,” said:

  1. Similarities in cultures can’t be accounted for by claiming that human minds have ‘unity.’
  2. The existence of like traits in different cultures is not as important as claimed by comparative anthropologists.
  3. Similar traits may have developed for different reasons (with different origins)  in different cultures.
  4. Cultural differences can’t be dismissed as minor – instead they are of great importance.

Boas wanted to replace the comparative method with one that emphasizes observation of culture traits in detail and in context with neighboring cultures. He proposed an inductive approach (we would call it ’bottom-up’ today) of exploring culture.  Ethnographic research is based on observation without preconceived notions (or hypotheses), but with an open mind.

Edward Sapir

Paper on the Sound Patterns of Language lays the ground work for Phonemics.

He wanted to show that sounds are influenced by their environment (other sounds) and that they have a ‘psychological reality” for speakers. He argues that it is not physical aspect sod the sound that are meaningful but psychological aspects of how users experience the sounds.

Note: Voiceless Dental Fricative compared to Voiced Dental Fricative


Choose one of the questions (from 1,2,3,4,6,10) on  pp. 30
– 32 to discuss. Then share your conclusions.