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THEORY: Browsing at Borders Public Library

From:Ed Heil <edheil@...>
Date:Sunday, October 10, 1999, 7:53
When I don't have any cash but have a few hours to kill, I like to go
sit down at my local Border's Bookstore and browse, and often I'll sit
down and read the better part of a book.

I found a fascinating book called _The Origins of Complex Language,_
which presents the theory that syntactic structure, as it exists in
human languages, exists as an analogue of syllable structure.

You have one "prominent" nucleus, the verb, and "marginal" material,
which is often asymmetrical.  In SOV langauges, the subject would be
analogous to the onset, and the DO or other verb complements would be
analogous to the coda.  (He comes up with modified analogies for SOV
and VSO languages, other versions being so amazingly rare he leaves
them out of consideration.)

In X-bar theory, noun phrases are already analogous to sentences
(subject=specifier, DO=complement).  So he also extends the analogy to
noun phrases.

He also discusses the problem of the difference between truth and
reference (and thus between sentences and noun phrases); as far as he
can tell, there is no absolute divide; the kinds of material that end
up in sentences are at the opposite end of a continuum from the kinds
of semantic material that end up in noun phrases, but often it can go
either way (e.g. "My dislike of him; I dislike him.")

It was all really interesting; he buys into Chomsky & Co. a bit more
than I do, but by no means did that spoil my enjoyment of the book.  I
don't think he's right either -- in order to state his position he had
to address and reject the Cognitive Semantics explanation for some of
these phenomena and distinctions, and I'm not sure I buy his rebuttals

But it was a whole bundle of fun and interesting things to think
about.  I recommend it.

Another author I was looking at was Anna Wierzbicka.  She is an
enthusiastic practicioner of an art oft disparaged or ignored in
linguistics but surely of interest to conlangers -- the art of
definition.  She dislikes mainstream linguists who tend to ignore the
problem of defining words altogether, and she dislikes my beloved
Cognitive Linguistics people like George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker
because they are too enamored of messy problems of language meaning
which are caused by the peculiarities of our cognitive apparatus.
(While writing them off, she manages to absorb into her work,
sometimes in somewhat unusual ways, just about everything important
they have had to say.)

The book of hers I browsed most heavily -- and which I highly
recommend -- I can't remember the title of.  But the gist of it was
that despite what Stephen Pinker might think (and she points out that
there is no evidence in his "Language Instinct" book that he has ever
heard or read a word of any language but English), the meanings of
words from different cultures rarely exactly correspond.  And, she
thinks, cultures tend to have certain "key words" which sum up the
values and perspectives on life that are important to them.

Her style of definition is to write very long, narrative definitions
in a very small vocabulary consisting almost entirely of a list of
"universal concept" words -- good, bad, I, you, person, some, all,
think, say, feel, see, and so on.  As simple and uncontroversial as
she can make them.

Anyway, she uses these kinds of definitions to:

1. Analyze the subtle differences in the definitions for the words
for "friend" in several different languages (including "Mate" in
Australian English),

2. Analyze the subtle differences in the words for "Homeland" in
German, Russian, and Polish,

3. Pick out the "cultural keywords" of Australian English, among
which are "Mate," "bloody," and "bastard,"

4. Pick out the "cultural keywords" of Japanese, among which are
"amae," "wa," "on," and several I forget, including ones that are
often translated as "reserve," "empathy," and "spirituality."

It's fascinating, and I can't imagine a conlanger that wouldn't love
it.  (Again, I am not sure I'd buy Wierzbecka's "primitive vocabulary"
as the be-all and end-all of semantic theory, but it sure accomplishes
the task she invented it for well.)

So here's the conlanger challenge:

What are some of your concultures' "Keywords"?



Oh, here's the book!  Found it with a Google search.

Ed doesn't know everything, but he hasn't figured that out yet.
Please break it to him gently.