Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English," part 3

So, what does a language need to have in order to count as a human language, and do those varieties of English sometimes regarded as "broken," "ungrammatical," or even just "slang" have what it takes?

There are several directions one might take in answering this question. The answers will not differ, but different audiences will require somewhat different approaches or different mixtures of the approaches.
  • The "Universal Grammar" approach. This assumes that the audience knows enough about linguistics to handle concepts such Principles and Parameters, Merge, Move, Projection, and so on.
  • The "Design Features" approach.  This approach will work for both folks who have had linguistics and the unwashed, as the relevant design features (Hockett 1960) are relatively non-technical.
  • The "Language Arts" approach.  This approach should work for almost anyone who has at least weathered the twelve years or so of "language arts" and related material usually offered in the public schools.
For this post, I will take maybe two examples from each of these approaches, in reverse order (i.e. from least to most technical).

Language Arts
(1)  All (spoken) human languages have consonants and vowels. Vowels are sounds made by allowing air to pass freely through the vocal tract, with no obstruction. The classic Spanish vowels [a e i o u] are good examples, but of course English has a few more than that.  My own (Appalachian) variety has about twelve; consider the middle sounds in the following:  beat, bit, bait, bet, bat, cot, caught, coat, full, fool, but, bird.  Consonants, on the other hand, are the sounds we make when we obstruct the air flow in some way by bringing different parts of the vocal apparatus together. Consider the first sounds in the words tip, chip, sip, nip, lip, rip, whip.

So, does English Creole have vowels and consonants?  Of course, just consider the following words, spelled using a system I developed for reading materials; I have included a rendering using the International Phonetic Alphabet for those interested, as well as a gloss:
maniku   [maniku]   'opposum'
rachet   [ratʃɛt]   'prickly-pear cactus'
tong    [tɔŋ]   'town' (in Carriacou, refers to Hillsborough)
(2) All human languages have personal reference. Personal reference is the slightly fancy expression for personal pronouns and associated forms.  All languages have at least first person (I, we) and second person (you). Many languages have third person (she, he, they) as well, but some don't (Latin didn't).  Does English Creole have such things? You bet. Here are the forms usually used for subjects of sentences:
First Person:          a, mi (sing)           wi (plural)
Second Person:      yu  (sing)              alyu (plural)
Third Person:         i, shi  (sing)          dē  (plural)
Design Features
Charles Hockett proposed a set of "design features" intended to shed light on the evolution of human language from other animal communication systems. By "design" he did not mean the "intelligent design" pushed by present-day creationists; he meant that these features were shaped by natural selection. Some features are shared by other animals, and some appear to be unique to human language (for a full listing, go here).  Here I will focus on two or three design features that are necessary for human language, and show that English Creole has them.

(1) Displacement.  All human languages allow their speakers to communicate about things that are not present in space and/or time.  I can write about bonobos, even though there are none within sight. Or, I can mention Charles Hockett, even though he died in 2000.  I can also talk about what I plan to teach in Monday's classes, which have not happened yet.  In adition to talking about the present, English Creole speakers on Carriacou, especially the older ones, talk readily about Hurricane Janet, which devastated the island and nearby Grenada in 1955.  They also make plans for the upcoming planting season, approaching holidays, and so on. They have displacement.

(2) Productivity/creativity.  Humans can use language to speak and write things that have never been spoken or written before. Most of the sentences in this post are newly minted examples of English. English Creole speakers are highly creative, and in fact there is a musical genre, soca/calypso, that especially capitalizes on this feature as singers compete in creating and performing new, never before heard material. In 1979, folks on Carriacou speculated on the impending return to Earth of Skylab.

(3) Duality of patterning.  This may be the most difficult design feature to explain easily, but it will be worth the effort.  Languages are composed first of all of a finite number of perceptually discrete vowels and consonants; how many depends on the language. These are called phonemes.  Phonemes do not carry meaning themselves, but instead combine and recombine to form meaningful units (words, prefixes, suffixes, etc.).  In English, the consonant phonemes /p  t  k/ can combine with the vowel phoneme /æ/ (the vowel in US English cat) to form at least the following words: /æt/ 'at'; /kæt/ 'cat'; /tæk/ 'tack'; /ækt/ 'act'; /pækt/ 'pact'; /tækt/ 'tact';  and so on.  English Creole speakers do not normally have the /æ/ vowel, but they do have /a/, the vowel in US English cot.  With this vowel and the same three consonants, some of the words they can form are:  /ka/  'car';  /at/ 'at';  /tak/ 'talk';  /papa/ 'dad';  /tap/ 'top'; /pat/ 'part'; and so on. So English Creole does have duality of patterning.

And by the way, the duality of patterning feature is what makes phonologically-based ("alphabetic") writing systems the easiest to learn: they map onto our naturally evolved mental organization of language.

Universal Grammar
Universal Grammar is "the system of categories, operations, and principles shared by all human languages and considered to be innate" (O'Grady et al 2005: 657).  Two operations that are considered to be universal are Merge and Move.

(1) Merge.  The Merge operation allows for elements of language to be combined at various levels: sounds are combined into words, words into phrases, and phrases into sentences. For sounds into words, see the description of the Duality of Patterning feature above. For the rest, note:

Words into phrases:  [a], [the], [cat], [mouse]   →  [the cat],  [a mouse]
Phrases into a bigger phrase:  [a mouse], [ate]  →  [ate a mouse]
Phrases into sentence:  [the cat ate a mouse]

Does Creole have Merge?  Here is the above English example, repeated word-for-word:

Words into phrases:  [a], [di], [kyat], [mows]   →  [di kyat],  [a mows]
Phrases into a bigger phrase:  [a mows], [it]  →  [it a mows]
Phrases into sentence:  [di kyat it a mows]

(2) Move. The Move operation allows for constituents (words, phrases) to be moved out of their usual position and into another position. For example, in English yes-no type questions can be formed by moving the Auxiliary Verb to the front (the underlined space represents the original position of the Auxiliary):

The cat is in the kitchen.   →   Is the cat __ in the kitchen?

In so-called Wh- questions, which are marked by Interrogative Pronouns, English moves both the Auxiliary and the Interrogative to the front:

The cat is in the kitchen.   →   Where is the cat __  __?

Creole also has the Move operation. The difference, however, is that Creole does not have a Move Auxiliary rule; it does have the Move Interrogative rule. So the yes-no question in Creole is marked by intonation Again, word-for-word:

Di kyat dē in di kichin.   →   Di kyat dē in di kichin?

But not (the asterisk means the sentence is ungrammatical):  *Dē di kyat __ in di kichin?

For Wh- questions, Creole moves the Interrogative, like English, but not the Auxiliary:

Di kyat dē in di kichin.   →  We di kyat dē __?

Wrapping up, then:  Whichever approach you take, Creole (and other "broken" Englishes) can be shown to have what any language needs to be considered a human language. A Martian linguist would not see Creole as standing apart from the other dialects of the Human Language.

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we consider things present in "broken" English that might be missing from the standard language...

Hockett, Charles. 1960. "The Origin of Speech". in Scientific American, 203, pp. 89–97.
O'Grady, William, et al. 2005. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

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