Friday, April 22, 2011

I Still Don't Know What That Means

Back to my course in linguistic theory and analysis. Different verbs require different sorts of objects, i.e. a verb like smile doesn't have any, a verb like take needs one, and a verb like give usually needs two, except in special cases like "gave blood," or when it means "give way." Chomsky eventually decided that grammar did not have to account for these things, and that they were lexically determined, part of the definitions of the words. This was groundbreaking stuff in the 1950s. (I'm allowed to make cheap quips about other people's areas of expertise even after I've mocked someone else for doing just that, because this is a blog not an academic textbook. It's a case where hypocrisy is allowed). A verb can have up to three complements (sorry, I don't seem to have kept an example of one that needs three) but a noun can have an infinite number of adjuncts.

The professor showed us a sentence similar to "You saw a green-eyed, fire-breathing, egg-laying, bandy-legged, scaly-skinned monster and I saw one too," where "one" replaces all the adjectives and the noun. But what about "You saw a green-eyed, fire-breathing, egg-laying, bandy-legged, scaly-skinned monster and I saw a feathered one," or "... I saw one with no eyes." One then substitutes for the noun and all the attributes that weren't revisited in the second part of the sentence. He asked us to break into groups and discuss whether this was true, but not using his example, coming up with examples of our own. So my little group is the people next to me and behind me. Seeing as I'm not actually in the class, I'm trying to fade into the background, but there are things you learn out of university that most university students haven't learned yet, and one seems to be leadership. No one else steps up in what seems a reasonable amount of time to start such a simple exercise. Lack of caffeine? It is a 9:30 class, and I hear that's considered early if you're in the arts faculty. I suggest a coffee house order example. Between the group of us we found enough adjectives to fill the bill.

I ordered a soy milk, super-sized, double-shot, extra-hot, latte with whipped cream on top. You ordered one too.

And we can manipulate this so that "you ordered one without the whipped cream," or "one with homo milk," or "a regular-sized one" or "an iced one." It didn't seem quite right that you needed to have so much semantic knowledge about the descriptors to know what "one" could or could not stand for, given the added descriptors, but the professor walked around the classroom to each group and approved our analysis. We then discussed infinite trees and recursion and drew trees showing the various descriptors.

The next class consisted of a class discussion of a paper I hadn't read but was interesting because students were bringing their own experience to it. The paper, I gather, was on a similar theme to that first class where experiments showed that what people heard depended on who they thought was speaking. Asked to report on how 'properly' people spoke, subjects had quite different opinions depending on whether they were told the recorded voice belonged to a university scholarship winner or a high-school dropout. Accents and other regional speech variations are processed differently depending on circumstances. There was a student who considered herself to have an Asian accent but reported that in Minnesota everyone commented on her Canadian accent. The idea that it could be stronger than the accent that to her was more closely linked to her identity was disorienting to her.

Another topic was forensic linguistics identifying a speaker based on phonetics and other discourse markers for investigative purposes. There was a kidnapper who had specified that the ransom money be left on a box on the "double strip" and the linguist involved reported that that term was used only in one county, which was enough to identify the kidnapper from among other suspects. A double strip is the grass between the sidewalk and the curb, also called "devil's row," or "boulevard," and according to a survey of the class, "the lawn." There are five aspects of the sound of someone's speech, says the professor: voice, dynamics, pronunciation, vocabulary and style.

At one point the professor asked, "Why do humans have language?" and I was trying really hard to be a good, unobtrusive observer of these classes, so I repressed the desire to say, "to get laid." I was really quite astonished that nobody gave that answer. There were only insipid non-committal answers produced. Isn't that why we do pretty much anything? Language is not all that useful for fleeing or fighting. Except if you're going to include internet flamewars in fighting behaviour.

The last class of the day is called something like "Topics in Grammar" and is held over in another faculty's building. Even though I've never been here, it feels comfortable. It's a science building for an area I have a degree in, from another university and some combination of the decor, sounds and smells make me feel at home. I find my classroom and sit down near the back. The overhead projector is turned on and displays a slide which is the cover of a book, titled in what I think is Chinese. I guess today's topic in grammar is Chinese grammar. I don't know anything about Chinese grammar, so this should be interesting. Looking around, I notice that almost all the students are Asian, and so is the professor. Hmm. What if the class is conducted in a language I don't speak? There's a student near me looking at a handout or a homework assignment that is in English, and I can hear students chatting in English. But there's a map of China at the front of the classroom, also in Chinese. I'm holding my breath to find out what language the class will be in.

The professor starts to speak. Shoot. I don't know that language. It's probably Mandarin. I slip out, noticing as I go that the girls I had tagged as Caucasian have Chinese features. Ther naturally black hair has been bleached and dyed. I've learned one thing though. No one cares what classes I attend. No one even stared at me for being so obviously in the wrong class.

There's a meme I can share on this topic. A UCLA student posted a rant about Asian students who talk on their cellphones in the library, and rather than being shocked and outraged, Jimmy has written her a tribute song, using many of her own phrases to great effect. If everyone who found themselves maligned by haters could rise to such a height of creativity and hilarity, what a world we would have.


majroj said...

I heard the 24MAY NPR story. Yeah, he did good, and he sounds good too! The ranter's original quasi Asian singsong chant set my teeth on edge.
However, the original ranter says she was run off campus by death threats. No idea if she was telling the truth, or, if threats were issued, by whom, but given today's environment it is not incredible.

Anonymous said...

"to get laid." That is too funny!

Anonymous said...

No sex tag?

Aviatrix said...

Anonymous: Blogger tagged your comment as spam. It's a possibility, but I think if I tagged every allusion that way, the cloud for this blog would show sex larger than airplanes.