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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: April ::
Re: Some Thoughts
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0902  Tuesday, 25 April 2000.

[1]     From:   Tanya Gough <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Apr 2000 10:40:19 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts

[2]     From:   Dale Lyles <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Apr 2000 12:47:09 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts

[3]     From:   David Kathman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 Apr 2000 00:40:40 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tanya Gough <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Apr 2000 10:40:19 -0400
Subject: 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts

>HOW we gain the deep-rooted grammar
>of our native tongues is the subject of much study, but the core grammar
>(I wish I could remember my Chomsky and generative-transform grammar
>from undergrad school in the early 60's!) of each language varies so
>much that we cannot be "born" knowing the one we speak.

If I recall correctly, Chomsky hypothesized that we are each born with
the fundamentals of "universal grammar" which then develops into
individual languages.  Universal grammar (if memory serves) allows only
for a finite number of possibilities in terms of the arrangement of
subject-verb-adjective, what-have-you, and language emerges from this
grammar as the set of specific rules which can be applied, partially
through exposure and partially through intuition.

Mind you, my knowledge in this field comes from Chomsky and Pinsky,
neither of whom I have read for 6 or 7 years at least, and much of my
brain has been since taken over with memorizing the names of top 40
bands and programming code since then.

Can someone please set me straight on this matter?

Tanya Gough

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dale Lyles <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Apr 2000 12:47:09 EDT
Subject: 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts

Of course I did not mean that we are born knowing our language's
grammar.  Marilyn Bonomi comes close to what I meant when she said we're
born with the ABILITY for grammar.  The research with which I am
familiar says that we are hardwired to sense and assimilate structure
for language per se, which is why youngsters in bilingual households can
do both.

That the same kind of process might be at work for ethical constructs is
suggested by Stoppard's comment that while no one can define good and
evil in universal terms, any sane adult can readily tell the difference
between the two.

Dale Lyles
Newnan Community Theatre Company

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 Apr 2000 00:40:40 -0600
Subject: 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0889 Re: Some Thoughts

Having spent a good decade in days of yore studying linguistics and
picking up various degrees in the subject, I feel an urge to speak up
when somebody, however well-intentioned, doesn't quite get things
right.  I hope what follows is taken in the spirit in which it was
intended.

Marilyn Bonomi wrote:

>Personally, I cannot see how individuals are hard-wired either for
>grammar or ethics.  We are born, I believe, with the hard-coded ABILITY
>to form both grammars and ethics.

Well, yes, that's what Chomsky and his followers believe, at least about
language.  More accurately, Chomsky has argued that the structure of
human language is so complex, and children learn it so quickly on the
basis of so little data, that there must be a predisposition in the
human brain to learn language.  Chomsky has also argued that human
languages do not vary unpredictably and without limit, but rather that
there are limitations on the possible structures of languages which are
also hard-wired into the brain as part of that predisposition to learn
language.  In the most recent version of Chomsky's theory, known as
"principles and parameters", the structural complexity of any given
human language results from the interaction of relatively simple
principles, some of which vary in finite ways among languages.  For
example, in English and most European languages, question words such as
"who", "what", "which", etc. appear at the beginning of a sentence,
regardless of their syntactic role; in other languages, such words
appear in the position where they would normally go (e.g.  "John saw
who" vs. the English "Who did John see?").

Of course, a child must be exposed to any language in order to learn it,
but any child younger than roughly 10 will learn any language he or she
is exposed to for any significant length of time.  The idea is that
children's brains are hard-wired to learn language, and once they're
exposed to a language being used, the mechanisms kick in.  Of course
they have to learn all the vocabulary word by word, but the theory is
that much of the structure is hard-wired, which allows the child is able
to come up with a surprisingly complex grammar on the basis of limited
data.

>HOW we gain the deep-rooted grammar
>of our native tongues is the subject of much study, but the core grammar
>(I wish I could remember my Chomsky and generative-transform grammar
>from undergrad school in the early 60's!) of each language varies so
>much that we cannot be "born" knowing the one we speak.

Well, no, of course we're not born knowing the language we end up
speaking; I know of no one who believes such a thing.  What Chomsky and
many other linguists believe is that much of the structure of language
is already programmed into the brain, and exposure to language data
allows the child to construct a mental grammar for the language with
relatively little effort. As I noted above, human languages do *not*
vary unpredictably and without limit; there are strong tendencies and
patterns among the world's languages, which is part of the evidence for
the innateness hypothesis that I've been talking about.

>Additional
>proof of this statement is that children raised in truly bilingual homes
>speak both languages with "native" intuitive knowledge of grammar.

I'm not sure what this has to do with the rest of what you're talking
about.  Of course many people are fluently bilingual, as all linguists
are aware, and data from bilingual people has been used as interesting
evidence *for* the theories I've been discussing.  As I said above, the
idea that children are born actually knowing any specific language is a
straw man which bears little resemblance to the ideas of any linguist
I'm aware of.

>HOW
>we gain the deep-rooted grammar, if you will, of our ethical and moral
>constructs also is a process, not a pre-destined Grace (to tie in
>another thread <ducking from the rotten tomatoes suddenly being thrown
>at her>).

This is a whole nother issue that I won't get into.

Laura Blankenship wrote:

>> << I suppose that new borns begin constructing meaning (at, perhaps, an
>> elementary level).  Are they born with a "prior ethical commitment"? >>
>>
>> A good question.  They're born with grammar, which develops into many
>> different languages around the globe.
>
>Hmm. Are we sure about that?  I think there's much debate about what
>humans are born with and what develops later.  I think many linguists
>would argue that humans are not born with any kind of grammar, but learn
>it from their environments-and often have to relearn it in school (or
>learn a different version).

Well, there is much debate, in the sense that Chomsky's ideas about the
innateness of linguistic structure are not universally held among
linguists.  Chomsky has always had his critics, but I think that often
they misunderstand his ideas.

Stephen Pinker's book *The Language Instinct* is a pretty good overview
of Chomsky's ideas on innateness, though most linguists I know take
issue with at least some of what Pinker says.

Dave Kathman

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