Friday, 10 May 2013

Noam's spark

It all started with a little stick, or in Latin regula.  (The Greek for 'little stick' was βακτηριον, but that's another story – this post is going to be about rules, not bacteria.) Regula is another of those diminutives that we've seen before. It's the root of our 'regulation'; and when things conform to a norm they are 'regular'; they may match up to a yardstick.

When I was a student of Linguistics, in the early seventies, Chomsky was the Big Cheese.  We were presented with recorded highlights of what had gone before The Man (the BC of linguistics, we thought: Before Chomsky) – von Humboldt, the brothers Grimm, de Saussure, Jakobsen, The Structuralists (chief Fall Guy B.F. Skinner) – and then Saint Noam. We learnt to laugh off B.F Skinner in a sentence (or at most two).

I 'did' Linguistics again at the Open University about 5 years ago. The Man now was Halliday. And – annoyingly for someone who has actually read both Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and thinks their author is the bee's knees – we were expected to dismiss the new Fall Guy just as glibly and superficially as we in our time had been taught to dismiss B.F. Skinner. Academic karma. (I suspect that I could usefully spend some time finding out what he really did say, rather than the caricature I was fed over forty years ago.)

The thing about Chomsky is that he used the word 'grammar' with what he called (conveniently, and not without humour, I think) 'a systematic ambiguity' and in the two sorts of grammar the word 'rule' has a different meaning. Broadly – not to say trivially – in Transformational-Generative Grammar (TG) a 'rule' is not something you ought to do in order to speak grammatically, it's a step in the TG process that just happens (although it can be described rigorously – indeed, describing these rules is the job of the linguist [in the modern sense of someone who 'does' linguistics], not of the language learner).

So the rule, or regula wielded by Dave Barry's Mrs Thistlebottom (mentioned before, in the last paragraph of this post) mixes the metaphor painfully. If you get your grammar wrong you get a rap across the knuckles. Hers were prescriptive rules ('rulesp') Chomsky's grammar does not have rules that an everyday user can 'get wrong' (once the mother tongue has been successfully acquired – by a marvellous reiterative process that involves surface errors as the learner refines those descriptive rules – 'rulesd').

I'm not sure that Chomsky's views can affect the way we teach English. I had for a time a student who had read Chomsky and thought he could learn without 'rulesp'. What he didn't allow for was the fact that he was no longer a baby and didn't behave like one – playing with and practising new sounds and exercising new rulesd , just for the fun of it.

So I read with interest Mike Griffin's blogpost entitled* Making Grammar Relevant to Teaching with Chomsky and Halliday. With interest but disappointment.

Mike: Are you saying that we don’t need to teach grammar rules?
Chomsky: Exactly. There is no point...
I was initially confused. Chomsky wouldn't have said this, I thought. He would have pointed out that the rules that he thought there was ' no point' in teaching just couldn't be taught. But this doesn't mean that a teacher can't teach useful rules of thumb†, bypassing the sort of natural language acquisition of a mother-tongue that is simply unavailable to a non-native speaker. So I agreed with the rest of the imagined exchange:
Chomsky: ... Students need to use and hear the language in order to
figure out on their own how the language they are studying works.
Mike: I like the sound of that.

But I just don't see how an English teacher can make use of an understanding of TG.

And 'Spare us, O Lord' , from the gruesome 'titled'. There are three things in the culture that has nurtured British English.:

  1. (of a document) – bearing a title
  2. (of a person) – having a justifiable right
  3. (of a person) – bearing a title
And there are only two words, 'titled' and 'entitled'. Obviously the only possible solution (if your culture requires you to deal with all three meanings) is to pair one of them off. British English, with its cultural baggage of a class-system and honorific titles, pairs 1 off with 2: either a person or a document can be 'entitled', and only a person can be 'titled'. There is no question of ambiguity; if a person is entitled  it's a question of entitlement, but if a document is entitled it's a question of nomenclature. American English., with its egalitarian background, just doesn't feel it necessary to recognize 3. Two words/two meanings => one word for each is the AE rule. Fine: just don't force it (and thus your cultural background) on me.

News from the word face

IA is done. I am about to embark (interesting image – the 'bark' in question feels a bit like a coracle, hard to steer and making almost indiscernible progress) on IE. As I said in an earlier post, work on this may involve a period of purdah, but when it's done I'll be more than half-way there (as IA + IE > II + IO + IU).

Update 2013.05.10:22.05 
Couldn't help thinking about this phrase. The Phrase Finder, after dismissing an unconvincing story involving a ruling on domestic violence, says:
It is likely that it refers to one of the numerous ways that thumbs have been used to estimate things - judging the alignment or distance of an object by holding the thumb in one's eye-line, the temperature of brews of beer, measurement of an inch from the joint to the nail to the tip, or across the thumb, etc. 

I favour the last of these, not least because the French pouce can mean either 'inch' or 'thumb'. Like the English 'foot',  pouce is a metaphor that uses a part of the body to measure things. And Noah's Ark, coincidentally, measured '300 cubits by 50 by 30' (a cubit being an ancient measure of length based on the length of the forearm according  to the Collins English Dictionary.)

Update 2013.05.11:11.40 : A few tweaks.

Update 2013.05.12:19.00:  Added this:

In view of the pun in the title, I'm tempted to end with the reference to Noah's Ark. But another Biblical quotation adds to the store of measurements based on body parts  – Goliath's 'six cubits and a span'. The reality behind this is still up in the air, and presumably always will be. RECONSIDERING THE HEIGHT OF GOLIATH  makes him just quite tall (no taller than many modern day basketball players). But the later   RECONSIDERING THE HEIGHT OF GOLIATH (you'd think feuding academics would at least agree not to wear the same frock) says 'no, Goliath was Really Pretty Big, but we can't be sure because David (who must have measured him before cutting off his head) was only a squirt with a tiny cubit, but we don't know how tall David was'. But a span, again according  to the Collins English Dictionary was a unit of length based on the width of an expanded hand, usually taken as nine inches (though the author of the later Goliath  article would beg to differ on the nine inches thing).

Update 2013.05.13:10.35: A few tweaks.

Update 2019.08.28.12:30: Deleted old footer

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