yoda is mayan

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

well not literally and not in 2012 way. Having reviewed the little green guy’s lines in a later star wars movie …. er earlier one … you know what I mean, I noted that Yoda uses far more Yoda English than in the first series. This is likley because the screen writers figured out that he wasn’t that hard to understand. It also means that we have to rethink Yoda’s syntax. Using a lot less Terrestrial English syntax and a whole lot more of the VOS word order means that we should reconsider the idea that underlyingly Yoda’s English is similar to Standard Terrestrial English varieties except for his predeliction for fronting material. Rather we might have to say that as the series progresses a fundamental difference emerges between Yoda English and our own. The structure of Yoda English with its VOS word ordering is not unknown in human languages. Mayan languages such as Chol (see  J Coon, 2010 for example) often exhibit this word order, as does Niuean of the Polynesian language group. Because of the ability of human languages to use this structure, syntactic theories which propose underlying universal properties and structures need to be able to account for this.  I propose that at a structural level then YE requires the raising of a predicate to the [Spec,IP] of the matrix clause.

Now for those who are not familiar with Chomskyian syntactic theory 1980s style, IP is a fancy term for clause. And [Spec,IP] is a subject position projected off that branch of a tree diagram depicting sentence structure. The construction of sentences starts with the VP, the verb phrase with its head, the verb responsible for selecting the right number and type of noun phrases to make the verb makes sense and any other additional material that is optionally added. Once the VP is complete, In English, a Noun Phrase, NP moves to this subject position to make it grammatical.

I ‘borrowed’ this image for UCLA to demonstrate the basic structure of a sentence diagrammed as a tree. Now see the node, IP and on the left of it is an NP eventually labelled subject? This is the site of English subject NPs. I like many others would suggest that this NP though was originally lower down in the first left branch of VP and had to move to that higher branch.

Ok let’s get to Yoda English

The pattern VOS is now often conceptualised as predicate fronting. That is the V+O part of  the structure detaches from its home position and moves to a place higher in a tree structure.

This means we can schematise the structure as in the picture below. Note that I have labelled two elements in the tree FP for functional projections. In the stolen picture above these might be equivalent to CP and IP. These FPs are parts of syntactic structure that are assembled after the VP and are involved in the making of grammar, VP is really just about verbal semantics.

We can use this to understand such structures as the ever-famous help you I will.

Syntax begins with the building of the verb phrase.

  • [I help you]

Let us then build a functional projection above the VP which houses the AUX, in this case the modal will.

  • [FP will [VP I help you]]

The subject moves out of the VP and into this FP

  • [FP I will [I help you]]

The next FP is projected which must be filled by the VP (remember the subject has already moved, so we don’t hear words that have the strikethrough

  • [FP [VP I help you] [ I will] [I help you]]

Having these two phases of movement (and here I use the term phase non-technically) derives the appropriate word order for Yoda English and follows some proposals for VOS and VSO order in human languages. So Yoda English is not so extraterrestrial as we might first have thought. Rather rare, though it is, there are human speec h communities who show these kinds of operations to produce their preferred word order.


what do aliens wear to the opera?

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Ok so popular music goes highbrow in a whole new way. One of my classes watched an episode of the Jerry Springer Show to investigate some elements of symbolic violence.  That show became an opera not long ago. But to raise even higher the wrinkled brows of the Klingons among us, we can now put on our finery and head to the boxes to watch ‘u’ an opera in Klingon!


Quiet in the cheap seats or I’ll Klingon death grip you.

You can read about the opera here


Of particular interest is the message sent in Klingon to the star Arcterus, the home solar system of the Klingons according to Star Trek. The message was voiced by Marc Okrand, the creator of the language himself.  I wonder if he felt weird doing it.

language death and documentation

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

linguists gather to discuss language endangerment issues … the world cares less? The BBC covers the conference with a nice video (link may not persist).
We have heard a lot of this before but my interest is always with the comments of the non-linguists and quite frankly the (presumably) monolingual. Here for example is Troy …

Troy in Oz, Noosa, Australia

I rejoice when I hear of another language dying out. I’m sad for the person, but when you consider that the purpose of language is communication, then it is blindingly obvious that a universal language is the only viable option. People claim that some concepts cannot be expressed in other than the original language. Have they not come across the concept of stealing words from others. Ever heard of “le weekend” or that well known english word “schadenfreude”.

Troy must be a very happy man. So interesting that he chose to include schadenfreude in his comment.

Troy is communicating in English. A language he implies serves well for universal communication. What messages might we need that are universal? I am not sure they way I want to speak to my sisters or my partner is necessarily the way I want to speak to someone I have never met at the other end of the world. I might feel that the closeness I share with my family is different to a random stranger on the other side of the world why would a mesage encoded for my sister need to be interpretable to them.

The way we use language encodes intimacy and equally importantly power. What these arguments for languages gently into that good night are missing is a realisation of the power relations implicit in these arguments. The majority of languages that face extinction are not like Welsh or Irish. They are spoken in the worlds’s developing nations, mostly in multilingual settings where many tongues currently coexist. The shift to more dominant and usually more international languages is often conceived by speakers as a move to participate in more global economies. Even then participation is not on equal footing.  If all languages are capable of sending these universal languages, Troy, surely won’t mind foregoing English and taking up one of the few remaining languages of South East Queensland as a global tongue.

I pick winners

September 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

though it had nothing to do with me

Niko Besnier has won the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) prize for best book with his Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics which I just finished reading not so long ago. His book reflects on and theorises on the production of Gossip on Nukalaelae an atoll in Tuvalu. Who doesn’t like gossip? And perhaps a more telling question, who doesn’t gossip. Guys put your hands down. You are lying. Gossip here is framed in some very intriguing ways and is richly illustrated with bilingual data. It is nice to see so much of Tuvualan here, a language that Besnier knows very well, having already published a grammar of the language.

He has been a bit of linguistic anthropology hero of mine, after I saw him lecture one at Victoria University of London. Those of you who have done Pacific Languages may also recall his name from the excerpted account of the Miss Galaxy Beauty Pageant for the Fakaleiti of Tonga. Here analyses language choice and its meaning in creating a transnational identity for the so-called ‘third gender’ (not a particularly good description for these male-bodied beauty queens.

what’s up with my bad?

September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

The internet seems to be a place for people to vent, and vent they will. World hunger makes you mad? The ever deepening divide between rich and poor gets your thought juices flowing? It seems that many people would rate these as lesser evils than the coining of new expressions.

Recently, I happened to peruse the site of the Vocabula Review …. sounds like something linguists would like, no?
Well, no. At least, not this linguist. I thought I was going to read about some interesting new items of vocabulary or the like. In a roundabout way I did. But I had to wade though a mire of beardpulling, handwringing and nasal-flaring indignation to read about the emergence of ‘back in the day’ and ‘chode’ or the ghastliness of the non-standard ‘alright’. But being a good little interacter … this being web 2.0 I went and did the one of the site’s polls below:

Vocabula Poll
“My bad.” My what a clever and concise way of expressing regret or sorrow or acknowledging having made a mistake.

  • Right on, bro. I don’t mind making mistakes now — maybe I even seek to make them — so much do I like saying “My bad.”
  • The beauty of “my bad” is that I no longer have to say “I’m sorry.” I hate saying “I’m sorry.” And now I don’t need to. “My bad” says it all.
  • “My bad,” though uttered only by morons, is embraced, celebrated, and applauded by linguists and other troglodytes.

Can you guess the results?

  • “My bad.” My what a clever and concise way of expressing regret or sorrow or acknowledging having made a mistake.
  • Right on, bro. I don’t mind making mistakes now — maybe I even seek to make them — so much do I like saying “My bad.”:             6%
  • The beauty of “my bad” is that I no longer have to say “I’m sorry.” I hate saying “I’m sorry.” And now I don’t need to. “My bad” says it all.:       14%
  • “My bad,” though uttered only by morons, is embraced, celebrated, and applauded by linguists and other troglodytes.:    80%  (empahisis mine)

I don’t think I am a my bad-sayer which makes me either a linguist or a troglodyte. My question however is this;  how is intelligence-graded vocabulary  acquired? Social dialects and geography-based varieties are easily accounted for by theories of acquisition and variationist sociolinguistics. I wonder if we need a new theory for IQ based dialects? Social networks or communities of practice, perhaps?

Wait, perhaps there is another answer.

Perhaps we should come up with a theory that explains why people who use particular forms of language  are subject to attitudes from those that consider themselves linguistically or socially superior. Pierre Bourdieu is probably the man for the job. Language, or one’s ability to control particular styles, codes or registers of language is a form of wealth to be displayed in the marketplace, according to the famed French sociologist.

Language performance, for Bourdieu, is not so much indexical of linguistic competence but indicative of wealth, class background, and social status. Speakers bring to the linguistic market different linguistic capital that, through the habitus, predisposes them to certain expressive modes and competencies.
Differences in linguistic performance are differences in linguistic capital which correlate to difference in social standing – in the parlance of Bourdieu, this is a matter of taste. Some tastes are vulgar, alright, and some have distinction, all right. These displays, dismissive of new ways of speaking – new pronunciations, neologisms and restructuring of old expressions, are a display of this form of capital by those who clearly have invested in a particular form of language ‘purism’.  Denigrating others’ linguistic capital is a form of symbolic violence wielded in the unshaking belief of their rightness over others. The  styles of course that are deemed right are cast as rules and secure the language of the powerful as prestigious, encoded in grammars disseminated by them. But really we need to remind ourselves of Bourdieu’s choice of words here – taste.  Taste is about predilection, personal choice, shaped of course by the social world of one’s milieu. But in the end, despite what we might think about ‘my bad’ or crushed velvet tracksuits, taste is not about right or wrong. If this be error, and upon me proved, to quote Shakespeare, my bad.

bloomin’ blimmin’ linguists

September 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Australian linguist and popular language commentator, Kate Burridge is currently the Ian Gordon Fellow which means she is giving talks here in NZ.

Of her many research interests, perhaps she is becoming most well-known for her publications on language taboos.

Listen to her here!

tautoko for te reo?

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Support for the introduction of compulsory learning of te reo Maaori, the Maaori language is growing according to new research conducted by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo/The Maaori Language Commission.

A growing number of New Zealanders see value in supporting te reo as one of the official languages of the country. An overall figure of 38% has been publicised as supporting the idea of compulsory reo teaching as part of the curriculum. Glenis Philip-Barbara, the head of the commission acknowledges that this is not a majority figure but suggests this is a new height for official support from all of the community. Interestingly women and young people showed the highest support for the introduction of Maaori language, with 50% of the 15-34 age group giving their support to the idea. Perhaps, all things being equal, as this age-grade matures, te reo in the school will be compulsory.

With this in mind, the country faces challenges to supporting te reo specifically with regard to funding Maaori language education – earlier this year announcements of budgets for Kura Kaupapa/immersion primary schools were revealed to be significantly lower than uiquivalently sized mainstream schools. Finding teachers of te reo also remains a critical problem in revitalisation and transmission efforts. The current strategy for the Maaori language is under review. Pita Sharples, the Minister for Maori Affairs suggests that the current funding issues spreads the money too thinly.

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