Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Topics, in Linguistics and Otherwise

I'm back to my fourth year topics class, the one in English about focus projection, not the Mandarin one. We're talking about focus still. I think focus is the entire focus of this course and I'm increasingly certain that a fourth year topics course, and probably most third and fourth year courses outside the rigid core curriculum in this discipline are nothing more than the professor taking advantage of a captive audience for his or her theories, rough drafts of papers, and favourite past publications. I don't think this professor has cited any paper yet that he didn't coauthor.

He says things like "Cleft clauses bring two implicatures: exostential and exhaustive," and I mentally scurry around like I'm doing a crossword puzzle, trying to fill in the meanings of the words such that they match up and make sense with the other things he is saying. Judging by context, cleft clauses are those in which the normal English word order is twisted around in order to change the focus. The exostential implicature means that you have to have established some external background knowledge before you can plunge into a sentence like, "It's John that Mary likes." And the exhaustive implicature is that John is the only one. To me, you could follow up on "It's John that Mary likes" with "And she also likes Randy, and Andrew, and Zach, and that guy who was flying the Beaver on Saturday, and I heard that guy from Weasel River was at her place on Friday," but perhaps that just means I've spent too much time in small northern communities. The professor did note that this implicature is not true in all languages.

He then tells us that "Into the room walked Bill," presumably also a cleft clause, can answer the question, "Who walked into the room?" but not "What did Bill do?" For me, "Into the room walked Bill would be a very marked answer to either question and would only be valid as a somewhat showy description of a game show, or as an answer to "What happened next?" This is a post-verbal subject and gives the subject a presentational focus which is a good name for it, as you can imagine Vanna White gesturing towards Bill as he arrives. A sign that this is a special focus for presenting someone, it is almost impossible to get a pronoun into that position. You could say, "Standing over the body was HIM!" but only if the last word was accompanied by vigourous pointing and probably a dramatic camera angle and music cue.

We're working towards establishing two different types of focus which in English are made by the same constructions, but in other languages may not be. So now we go to some examples in Hungarian. Ninety-nine percent of you will probably be really glad that I didn't copy them down, nor pay rapt enough attention to rave on about them. For those of you who were hoping to learn about its focus strategies, I'm truly sorry.

I did rediscover that the middle of an afternoon class is an excellent opportunity to focus on what you'd rather be doing. And seeing as right now in my life that's actually more important than Hungarian having deaccenting and stress, I might as well ignore the fact that Hungarian stress falls on the leftmost element of the stress clause, and ponder what it is that I really want to be doing.

  • I like the morning exercise of getting on my bicycle and coming to school. I should make that a regular thing, even if I don't go to school.
  • I like learning things, and human contact.
  • I'd rather learn most of them at a faster pace, skip to the next thing as soon as I grasp a concept, and have the opportunity to immediately find out more in depth if I like it.
  • I'd rather be improving some of the languages that I sort of know (Hungarian not among them).
  • It would be amusing to write a novel at the university, alternating between a quiet corner of one of the libraries and the back of dull classes.
  • I'd rather be improving my knowledge of aviation, both useful and trivial.
  • I like attention

As far as linguistics is concerned, I am interested in:

  • writing systems
  • deliberate language change or retention such as politically motivated dialectical divergence, or legislated prescriptivism
  • factors contributing to language survival in the face of non-recognition/persecution
  • anthropological linguistics especially with respect to population movement from Asia to and through the Americas

While I'm not completely uninterested in the different ways Hungarian establishes discourse new versus contrastive focus, it's not my first choice.

Adjuncts, according to the professor--I think we're back to English now--can attach to anything, but are sensitive to what they attach to. Suck it up, adjuncts. You can't always get what you want. And we finish the class with a recursive infinite tree. I swear these things are following me.

10 comments:

arcady said...

I'm increasingly certain that a fourth year topics course, and probably most third and fourth year courses outside the rigid core curriculum in this discipline are nothing more than the professor taking advantage of a captive audience for his or her theories, rough drafts of papers, and favourite past publications

I took a "topics" class once that actually wasn't like this. Instead, it was a topic that the professor wanted to learn himself, and had the students do all the hard work of digging up the interesting papers and telling him about them.

Q. Pheevr said...

And the exhaustive implicature is that John is the only one. To me, you could follow up on "It's John that Mary likes" with "And she also likes Randy, and Andrew, and Zach, and that guy who was flying the Beaver on Saturday, and I heard that guy from Weasel River was at her place on Friday," but perhaps that just means I've spent too much time in small northern communities.

The thing about implicatures is that (unlike entailments or presuppositions) they can be cancelled. So there's nothing actually contradictory about following up "It's John that Mary likes" with "And she also likes a bunch of other people"; it's just that if you say "It's John that Mary likes" without saying anything else, then that suggests that John is the only one she likes in a way that "Mary likes John" doesn't.

Anonymous said...

What did we learn here? Bottom line is it appears Mary is not such a virtuous girl...

Aviatrix said...

Generosity is a virtue, and she keeps lending out her convertibles.

GPS_Direct said...

@'Trix - Two things have struck me about your recent departure from things aviation...

1) You are a gifted writer. Your posts on linguistics are filled with the same thoughtfulness, humour, and detail as your aviation-related posts. Keep up the good work.

2) The depth of your subscribers is telling. Much as with Captain (big C) Dave's blog, there are many here that follow you because of your writing ability (see #1 above). But, more importantly, they have an enormous wealth of knowlege! They are not your typical "web surfer." And you (readily?) keep us all engaged!

I follow your aviation posts with (relative) ease, but I can imagine how those outside of the field can get lost in the jargon. Likewise, with linguistics I am lost, but many other readers are not just posting "attaboys" but instead are actively engaged in discussing the details of your posts...

All in all, very interesting. To shamelessly borrow a line from James Bond, "You are quite the cunning linguist!" Maybe there's something to this 'book thing' after all...

Cirrocumulus said...

"It's John..." is exclusive because "it's" is singular, not just because she clearly likes him in a certain way.

DataPilot said...

I would like to second everything that GPS_Direct said.

I started reading this blog because of my interest in aviation. But then, you took a sudden left turn into Cambodia. Awesome! I always wanted to visit Cambodia.

You've also written about movies, plumbing fixtures, and so many other topics that I never anticipated encountering in an aviation blog. Then there was Whippet School -- which I was extremely sorry to see end, by the way -- and now, "stealing" schooling in Linguistics.

Where is this roller coaster ride going next?

Seriously, only someone with an extraordinary talent for writing could pull off such a feat. You have that talent.

Aviatrix said...

You guys are sooo awesome. I honestly feared as I wrote those entries that I would be getting comments complaining that this was supposed to be an aviation blog. I feel exceptionally privileged to have you as readers.

Anoynmous said...

We readers enjoy Cockpit Conversation as a conversation, not a straightjacket. A hypothetical Bleriot Blueprints or Dash-8 Dissertations would be a different matter.

Captain Dave said...

Even when you are not flying, your wordsmithing ability is formidable. I wish I could write half as well as you. Very impressive...