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1.8  Problems

[With answers]

1.8 Problems


Describing and explaining, Prescribing and evaluating

Note: This problem set assumes some basic knowledge of English dialects, so if you are not a native speaker of English, you will probably want to collaborate with somehow who is.

Each of the following includes two ways to say (at least roughly) the same thing. For at least some people, the first way (A) could be seen as "wrong" in some sense. We saw in these two sections of the book that there are various ways in which a particular linguistic form can be thought of as "wrong" (though not necessarily by linguists).

  1. The use is not grammatical or otherwise acceptable (in the case of the pronunciation of a word) in any dialect of the language.
  2. The use is grammatical or acceptable in some non-standard dialects, but not grammatical in the standard dialect.
  3. The use is grammatical or otherwise acceptable for most speakers of the standard dialect, but some speakers may find it "wrong" for one reason or another.
  4. The use is grammatical or acceptable but not appropriate in the context.
  5. The use is grammatical and appropriate but not effective.

For each of the following, decide which type of "mistake" is involved in A (as compared to B), and explain your answer in a sentence or two. There may not be a single right answer for some of the problems.

  1. A: nuclear pronounced noo-kyuh-lur
    B: nuclear pronounced noo-klee-ur
    This pronunciation is used by many speakers of standard American English (including President George W. Bush, though it could be argued that his accent is not standard), but some speakers feel that it is not standard, probably because it does not reflect the relationship between the word and the noun nucleus.
  2. A: yellow pronounced yell-uh
    B: yellow pronounced yell-oh
    This pronunciation is acceptable in some non-standard accents but not in standard American English.
  3. A: Mr. President, what you're saying sucks.
    B: Mr. President, I can't accept what you're saying.
    This use of sucks is acceptable in informal American English, but, like slang more generally, it is inappropriate in a formal context like this.
  4. A: I come back last night.
    B: I came back last night.
    This use of come as the past tense of come is grammatical in some non-standard English dialects but not in standard English.
  5. A: Next shake the test tube that you dissolved the salt in.
    B: Next shake the test tube in which you dissolved the salt.
    This use of a preposition like in at the end of a clause is perfectly grammatical in standard English, but there are a small number of diehards that prefer the use in B. B probably sounds very formal to most speakers of standard English.
  6. A: Whoever it belongs to should claim it.
    B: Whomever it belongs to should claim it.
    Both A and B are used by speakers of standard English, though A is probably more common, and it follows the "rule" that is taught in schools for the use of who and whom because whoever is the subject of should claim. You sometimes see uses like in B in standard English, though.
  7. A: He left glass water on table.
    B: He left a glass of water on the table.
    A is not grammatical in any dialect of English. It could have been produced only by a learner of English, either a child learning English as a first language or someone learning English as a second language.
  8. A: When I exited the bed this morning, my hair looked like rabbit ears. (an eight-year-old speaking to his mother; this is a real example)
    B: When I got out of bed this morning, my hair looked like rabbit ears.
    This use of exit is grammatical but not appropriate in this relatively informal context.
  9. A: John ordered his meal from the waiter, and he brought it to him right away.
    B: John ordered his meal from the waiter, and the waiter brought it to him right away.
    In A the word he could refer to either John or the waiter, though in the context most people would realize that it refers to the waiter. Some people might argue that he here is not as effective as the waiter, as in B.
  10. A: How did y'all like the party?
    B: How did you like the party?
    In some non-standard dialects of American English, y'all means 'you plural'. It is perfectly grammatical in those dialects but not in the standard dialect.
  11. A: I would be thankful if it could be let known to me whether taking a student under your fold and tutelage for a long and hopefully eventful partnership would be acceptable to you. (a real example from an e-mail to me)
    B: Please let me know if you can take on a new student.
    The writer of A is using grammatical English, but the elaborate and indirect language is neither appropriate (in any context?) nor an effective way to convey what they want.

You are a linguist studying the grammar of a particular dialect of English. You have recorded a stretch of speech between two men who are speakers of the dialect, and now you are taking examples from the recording to use as data. Included in the recording is the following statement by one of the speakers.

  • You don't even realizing it.

You are trying to decide whether your account of the grammar of this dialect should include this sentence. Unfortunately you no longer have access to the two speakers, so you can't ask them questions. For each of the following, say whether it would be a relevant thing for you to do in order to help make your decision. Explain each answer.

  1. You consult a book written by another linguist about the grammar of a closely related dialect.
    Since you can expect the grammatical conventions of the two dialects to be similar and the description by the linguist of the grammar of the other dialect to be concerned with what people really say (as opposed to what somebody says they should say), the book is relevant to your decision. In particular if you discover that a form like this is grammatical in the other dialect, then there's a good chance it is in this dialect too.
  2. You listen for similar sentences in the rest of your recording.
    This is relevant to your decision because if you find similar sentences, for example, I don't believing it, then the original sentence was probably not a speech error.
  3. You ask more educated speakers from the same region as the two men whether they could say something like this.
    This is not relevant to your decision. Dialects often vary with education, so if the form is ungrammatical for more educated speakers (likely since it's ungrammatical in the standard dialects of English that you're familiar with), this doesn't tell you whether it's grammatical for your speakers.
  4. You listen to what immediately follows the example on the recording to see if the speaker corrected himself.
    This is relevant to your decision because a correction would be clear evidence that the sentence was a speech error and hence not an example of a grammatical convention that you need to account for in your grammar.


How we study language

In this section, we saw that ambiguity is an example of a phenomenon in language that can best be appreciated from the perspective of comprehension. Consider the English words that are written bank, meaning roughly 'side of a river,' 'kind of financial institution,' and 'tilt while making a turn' (there are other meanings as well). Because all of these are written (and pronounced) the same, a reader (or listener) has to disambiguate the form when it appears. But this can be done in different ways, using different kinds of information. For each of the following sentences, say what kind of information a reader could use to disambiguate the word bank, and rank the three for how difficult they would probably be for a computer program. Imagine that the person or program knows only the three meanings of bank given above.

  1. I don't have much my money in my account at the bank.
    If our reader or program had a list of other words associated with each meaning of bank, the list for the 'financial institution' would probably include money and account. So if we just look for the meaning that is most likely given then other words in the sentence, we'd select the right one in this case. This sentence wouldn't require a very deep understanding to disambiguate bank.
  2. Before landing, the plane will have to bank to the right.
    You may have noticed that two of the meanings are noun meanings and one (this one) a verb meaning. The phrase will have to must be followed by a verb, so only that meaning is compatible with the context. Since this appears to be an absolute constraint (neither of the other two meanings could conceivably fit here), the disambiguation in this case could be seen as easier than in the first sentence.
  3. When I climbed out of the boat, all of my money fell onto the bank.
    Like the first sentence, this one uses of the noun meanings. If we try to disambiguate on the basis of co-occurrences, boat might lead to one of the meanings (apparently the correct one), while money might lead to the other. So it seems that in this case, something more sophisticated is required, some deeper "understanding" about how money (that is, actual physical money: coins and bills) can only fall onto a physical surface like a river bank and not, for example, onto an institution. That is, this is the most difficult of the three sentences to disambiguate.

1.8.3 Two themes

For each of the following facts about human language, say whether it derives from Speaker (or Learner) orientation or Hearer orientation, that is, whether it makes things easier for the Speaker, the Hearer, or the Learner. Explain your answer in a sentence. There may be more than one possible answer.

  1. Fos is a more likely word in a human language than zkt is.
    This is a Speaker-oriented fact. It is simply easier to pronounce the sequence fos than the sequence zkt because of the vocal organs (especially the tongue) work.
  2. Languages tend not to have many homophones, that is, words that sound the same but have completely different meanings such as bear meaning the animal and bear meaning 'tolerate'.
    Homophones are difficult to understand so the rarity is a Hearer-oriented fact.
  3. Languages do not have specific names for every object; instead they have names for categories of objects.
    Specific names for every possible object would be far too many to remember; this is Learner-oriented. (It could also be Speaker- or Hearer-oriented because even if all of the words could be learned, it could be hard to retrieve them from memory during language production or understanding.)
  4. In sign languages, signs are normally not made with unrelated movements of the two hands, for example, with one hand moving up and down while the other moves sideways.
    It's very difficult to coordinate unrelated movements of the hands; this is Speaker-oriented.
  5. Apparently all human languages have a way of distinguishing statements from questions.
    Hearers need to be able to distinguish between statements and questions to understand what Speakers intend; this is a Hearer-oriented property of language.
  6. Some languages have only three vowels. If so, these vowels tend to be pronounced quite differently from one another, usually similar to the vowels in hot, heat, and hoot.
    Hearers have to be able to distinguish the vowels in the language in order to distinguish the words, so the more different they are from each other, the easier it will be for the Hearer. This is a Hearer-oriented property of language.

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