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Re: Changing worldviews with language (LONG)

From:Mat McVeagh <matmcv@...>
Date:Monday, November 4, 2002, 8:45
>From: Harald Stoiber <hstoiber@...> > >Hello everybody, > >How do we actually express ourselves? Making up conlangs also triggers this >so very >simple but indeed momentous question. Sometimes devising grammar seems to >me like >a big puzzle game - putting things together, always excited whether they >will or will not >fit neatly. The idea of universal grammar has something appealingly >metaphysical indeed. >:-) > >And this is what I ultimately strive for. I want to create a language which >- when I >form sentences in it - makes me say things that render myself astonied. I >wish to get >bewildered by meaning that unfolds from the previously unthought which, in >turn, emerges >from the formerly unspoken. Lateral thinking... promising clue worth to >ponder for more >than just a little space! Thank you, Mat! :-))
You're welcome :) Glad I can inspire people!
>The question is: Can this conceptual achievment be taken in one step? Can >we simply >create an entirely novel tool of expression which will open up our minds >when used? >But if we experience what George Orwell so brilliantly described in 1984 >when he >introduced the term "oldthinker", if we remain oldthinkers in our freshly >created >personal "newspeak" this would require us to design several other >"approximant" >languages in order to approach the conceptual barrier a bit more carefully. >If nouns >should all vanish then we would then have to do away with them gradually >and not at >once - just as an example.
Consider what it would be like if nouns vanishde not just from the *language* but from the *world* :)
>Watching the conlang list for a while now I have noticed that far to few >considerations >have been articulated about previously unseen ways of structuring the scope >of grammar. >People tend to stick with the well-known word classes and principles (like >transivity >etc.) because they might see language as new sounds. Thus, they converse >about >phonology. They love the visual implications of new languages. Hence, they >debate >about writing systems and scripts. But what about the grammatical >implications of >semantics?
Exactly, semantics is where the really juicy stuff is at, and it's harder; it does seem as tho ppl are more interested in constructing *form* - phonoogical, orthographic and grammatical, as you say.
>One trivial example that just came to my mind: >"I eat pizza at the restaurant." > >Here I am not talking about peculiar details of the English language. What >I will point >out are two philosophical distinctions which are quite interesting from a >language >designer's point of view: > >The prepositional phrase "at the restaurant" obviously specifies a >location. But which >location does it specify? We are used to assume that the pizza and the >eating person are >in the same location. Consequently, we lazily specifiy one location for >three (!) >parts of the utterance: the subject "I", the object "pizza" and the >present-tense activity >"eat". Wouldn't it sound odd to our conceptual conditioning if we heard >something like >"I at the hotel eat at the airport pizza at the restaurant"? So, what we >have here is a >typical out-law situation. Language as we know it (and as it is duplicated >by many >conlangers) is strictly and neatly adapted to this physical (so-called) >reality as we >experience it all day during our lives. When it comes to metaphysics or >unusual >disposition of whatever kind, then conventional language has to become >fuzzy because >its scope of ideas and concepts has been exceeded.
Consider this paraphrase of your sentence: "There is a restaurant. I am at that restaurant. I have a pizza there. I am eating that pizza." This is what I'd call a "Context Top-Down" elucidation of the situation to be described. How about "context bottom-up"? "Eating, of a pizza, by me, at a restaurant."
>Another consideration that took me some weeks to realize can be found in >the way a >preposition works. To clarify my thoughts I will formally define a >predicate named >"eat" using the following argument structure: "eat(x,y)". "x" is the active >participant >who performs the process of eating and "y" is the passive participant who >experiences >the process of being eaten. With the location description "at the >restaurant" we have >two distinct ways to represent this information. First we could of course >expand our >freshly defined predicate "eat", thus: eat(x,y,z) - whereas "z" is the >location where the >eating takes place. Viewing it this way, a preposition adds to the valency >of the verb. >It provides extra details about the state or activity - as do agents, >patients, indirect >objects and so on. > >A second way to formally express my example sentence can be derived from >quite >a different mental perspective. If we are to describe location details of >the verb, then >why not modify the verb using a verb. Or in a purpose-oriented predicate >notation: >at(eat,restaurant)(I,pizza) > >I know that this is rather an unorthodox notation but here I wish to apply >a predicate to >a predicate's core: I want to predicate the verb itself which excludes any >arguments. >Implicitly, I assume that the "result" of "at" will be a modified "eat" >predicate, then >containing location information as well. Modifying verbs is the essence of >adverbs. >Of course, we all know that "at the restaurant" is a locative adverbial >phrase. > >Can you see the difference? Any kind of adverb can be represented either as >another >qualifying argument of the predicate (which certainly means that the verb's >valency >must provide for it) _or_ we can explain that adverbs in fact modify the >verb and, >thus, effectively replace a more general verb with a more definite one. The >difference >is in the lexicon! For non-core arguments we need adverbial constructions. >Of course, >you already knew this.
I think I understand all this - I am hampered a little by not being familiar with certain linguistic terms I have noticed on these conlang groups, namely: "argument", "core", "valency", possibly others. Are these terms that have come in since I did linguistics at the turn of the 90s? Or are they older but just not current in my dept.?
>But let's take everything one step further: > >If we wanted a most universal and generic language with a lexicon full of >concepts, >then why restrict those concepts by any pre-defined valency? What about >agentive, >patientive and focus adverbs, for example? Clearly, it will take one major >sacrifice from us, namely convenience of speech. But if we can dispense >with that >we could represent _all_ arguments as adverbs. Check this: No core >arguments for >any verb! And if we'd like to get in fact perverse, then whatever verb >occurs in a >sentence... isn't it just a modification of universal existence? Isn't it >just another >adverb of "to be"? And if we got rid of a verb's core arguments because we >even >got rid of traditional nouns and verbs themselves, then we have silently >resolved >the conventional idea of transivity... > >Thus, concluding my wild philosophical speculations: *g* >One way to build a universal grammar could be a corybantic system of nested >verb modifiers (actually partially exceeding the scope of common adverbs).
It's a great idea, I *can* see it! As I understand it, you are going to put the verb as central, re-understand noun phrases in prepositional phrases that are modifying the verb as adverbial phrases, generalise that analysis to "core arguments" (so-called Subject, Object etc.?) such that there are only verbs and adverbial prepositional/noun phrases, then take the lexical content out of the verb and relate it to the verb (which now becomes "be") by means of yet another adverbial phrase... and all you have is "being" and a whole load of qualities related to it as modifiers :) There are some areas of traditional grammar to clear up - how adjectives relate to nouns, pronouns, numbers, subordinate/co-ordinate clauses etc. but I can see how it would work. There *are* some languages that de-lexicalise the finite verb - I believe Welsh is one. It puts the finite "be" first, e.g. "mae" or "rydych", then subject, then predicate in whatever form (I don't know), containing the lexical verb as some kind of participle, plus any other 'arguments'. It is said that English's continuous tense form comes from this construction. There are also languages that (almost) always relate noun phrases to the rest of the clause with some kind of marker like an adposition. Japanese marks all noun phrases with some postposition, including supposed 'subjects'; the only example where it does not is I believe the complement of a copula.
>I hope that my thoughts made at least some sense to you. ;-) > >Cheers, >Harald > >-- >A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. >(Rabindranath Tagore)
Yep. Keep it coming Harald! Mat _________________________________________________________________ Internet access plans that fit your lifestyle -- join MSN.


Nik Taylor <yonjuuni@...>
John Cowan <jcowan@...>