Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • We should begin by saying what this course is about. What well be looking at is syntactic

  • theory. That is to say, well be looking at the kinds of rules that determine how words

  • and language are put together to form larger units that have meaning and how speakers of

  • a language are able to determine what are possible and what are impossible orders of

  • words in their language.

  • So the first thing we might want to ask ourselves then is what is it that people know when they

  • know the syntax of their language. One possible answer, the kind of answer that a prescriptive

  • grammarian would give, is that what speakers know when they know the syntax of their language

  • is that they know what rules they should follow in order to produce good sentences. That is

  • to say, they know the rules ofgood grammar”. There are various different examples that

  • one could give in English for what are considered rules of this kind. A famous one is the rule

  • that says that you shouldn’t split infinitives. That is to say, you shouldn’t sayHe

  • decided to quickly leave the room”; you should rather sayHe decided quickly to

  • leave the room.” So that rule that says you shouldn’t split infinitives would be

  • one kind of prescriptive rule, and a prescriptive grammarian would say that that’s what you

  • know when you know the syntax of English. That’s one of the rules that you know.

  • There are other rules of that type. Uhm, one example would be that you shouldn’t end

  • a sentence with a preposition. Or there are complex rules surrounding when you should

  • use “I” ormein coordinations. So, uhm, “My sister and I went to the shops.

  • She gave it to my sister and I. Or she gave it to me and my sister. Or she gave it to

  • my sister and me.”

  • There are various prescriptive rules about which of those is correct and which of them

  • is incorrect. Rules like this, which are often called prescriptive rules because they prescribe

  • what you should do (they tell you what you should do) are often learned consciously and

  • taught consciously, even to native speakers of the language. And that’s very different

  • from the way language is generally acquired. The vast bulk of what native speakers know

  • about their language they don’t know explicitly and it wasn’t taught to them explicitly.

  • So this would make these rules an exception rather than the general case of the kind of

  • knowledge that speakers have of their language.

  • But there is a very different understanding of what rules of the language are, what syntactic

  • rules are. And to understand this, we could think, perhaps, of a more common contrast,

  • and that is the two different ways that we understand the concept of law. Law and rule

  • are intrinsically related concepts. And we can talk about laws of the country, laws of

  • a region, but on the other hand we also talk about laws of nature. And it’s pretty clear

  • that those two things are rather different concepts.

  • In every country there are thousands of laws proscribing certain types of behaviour. In

  • the UK, as in many other countries, there is clearly a law that says you are not allowed

  • to kill a human being. There are many other laws covering all sorts of kinds of behaviour.

  • On the other hand, we know that such laws are regularly disobeyed. As a result of that,

  • we also have to include punishments for people who violate these laws. So this is the way

  • that the normal… a normal understanding of laws of society. And we can think of linguistic

  • prescriptive rules as being of the same type.

  • Unlike with other laws, there is often no particular body that has authority to decide

  • what is or is notgoodin the language. But we may nevertheless recognise informal

  • authorities. And in fact in some countries there are specific formal authorities who

  • get to codify what is considered correct or incorrect in linguistic behaviour.

  • It’s worth noticing that one way in which these kinds of prescriptive rules of language

  • are similar to laws of society is that indeed theyre disobeyed all of the time. That

  • is to say, people don’t respect these prescriptive rules and indeed they have in common, these

  • prescriptive rules of the language have in common with societal laws that knowing what

  • they are is actually a very guide to what people actually do.

  • So, in a society, we don’t generally pass laws to outlaw behaviour that doesn’t exist.

  • Nobody bothers writing laws to rule out behaviours that people don’t actually indulge in. So

  • if you study another society, it’s actually quite instructive to look at the laws that

  • they have to find out what people were doing as well as what people didn’t want them

  • to be doing.

  • In the same way, when you find a prescriptive rule of language, it’s usually a very good

  • guide to the fact that speakers of that language do produce that behaviour. They use that structure,

  • which were told is notgood”. These prescriptive rules of language often in fact

  • arise when in a given language there’s more than one way to express a certain thought,

  • when there’s variation in how something can be said. And then there’s a tendency

  • for one of those ways of saying things to be viewed as morecorrectthan the other,

  • and this can become codified as a rule of the language, as a prescriptive norm.

  • Quite often, but not always, that prescriptive norm is an older form of the language, that

  • is, it’s been in the language longer, and there is a tendency to want to keep language

  • in its original form, although that’s not what ever actually happens.

  • But that’s not the only possibility, but it’s certainly one of them. So, there’s

  • the view that whenever you have variation, that one form is correct and the others are

  • incorrect. So that’s a typical pattern for a prescriptive rule of language.

  • On the other hand, there’s a very different take on law and rule, so there’s this different

  • understanding of what a law means. As we said, there are laws of society, but we also talk

  • about laws of nature, laws of physics. These laws are not rules about how nature should

  • behave, how the universe should behave. Theyre observations about regularities in the universe,

  • so in some aspect of the universe. And, when we think about language too, we can think

  • about rules of that kind. That is, rules that are not ways in which people should behave,

  • but observations about patterns of behaviour. A descriptive grammarian looks at language

  • in exactly this way. And a descriptive grammarian is interested in observing the regularities

  • in a particular aspect of the world around them, in this case the regularities in the

  • linguistic behaviour of a group of people. What such a descriptive grammarian (but for

  • now let us call them a linguist) does is to observe the behaviour of an individual or

  • a group of individuals, and to try to observe and to derive from these observations generalisations

  • about the way these people are behaving and to induce from those observations the most

  • succinct statements of these regularities.

  • One way of doing this is to look at collections of behaviour, that is to say, to look at corpora

  • of speech or of written language, and to look within these corpora for regularities. And

  • that is certainly a very valid way of doing linguistics, and a lot of useful work is being

  • done in that way and continues to be done in that way.

  • But it’s also important to realise that we need to know about language not only what

  • speakers do, but what they don’t do. And not only that, but there are other kinds of

  • linguistic behaviour apart from producing speech and producing writing.

  • So one ability that users of language have is they are able to look at or consider strings

  • of words, sequences of words, and theyll have an opinion as to whether that sequence

  • of words is possible in their language or not possible. And that kind of judgement,

  • which is also a kind of linguistic behaviour, is a very good source of data about regularities

  • in human language, about possible descriptive rules of human language.

  • So, to give one example, you can take a very simple sentence likeAnna read a book

  • and a very slightly more complicated one likeAnna read a book and a newspaper”. If

  • you want to make a question, we can make a question out ofAnna read a book”: we

  • want to know, well, what did she readperhaps you didn’t hear the question properly. The

  • corresponding question would beWhich book did Anna read?”.

  • Now you might think that you could do the same thing for the second example, which was

  • Anna read a book and a newspaper”. But now if you try it youll getWhich book

  • did Anna read and a newspaper?” That sentence is ungrammatical; speakers of English would

  • tell you that it’s not a possible sentence of English. So that’s one case of an ungrammatical

  • sentence, something that is syntactically unacceptable, but which no speaker of English

  • is ever taught explicitly is unacceptable. This isreflects somehow a rule that speakers

  • have in their syntactic knowledge of English, but one that was never taught to them explicitly.

  • So what we have here is the result of a descriptive rule.

  • We still need to work out exactly what this rule, but this is linguistic knowledge that

  • speakers have of their language which has not been taught to them explicitly, and which

  • speakers are not typically aware of either.

  • Notice when we represent this in one way of writing such ungrammatical examples, the typical

  • representation to indicate that something is syntactically ill-formed is to preface

  • it with an asterisk. So we put an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence to indicate

  • that this is an impossible sentence within the language, and impossible for syntactic

  • reasons rather than other reasons.

  • to take another example, we could say thatBarbara said that she saw Carlo yesterday

  • and we could sayBarbara said that Carlo saw her yesterday.” Both of those are possible

  • sentences. And we can question again in such a sentence, so we can sayWho did Barbara

  • say that she saw yesterday.”, and that’s fine, butWho did Barbara say that saw

  • her yesterday?” is for many speakers of English not possible, or at least it sounds

  • wrong in some way. So that’s another example of a sentence, which at least for many speakers,

  • is syntactically ill-formed. But again, this is not on the basis of any explicit rule that

  • such speakers were taught. This is again the result of a descriptive rule in English. Again,

  • what youve seen or what what youve just heard here is an example of the effect of

  • such a rule. It remains the job of the linguist to work out what iswhat is the rule itself.

  • What is the generalisation that underlies this kind of behaviour? And to give just one

  • other example, which is a very well-known one in the history of syntaxYou can take

  • a sentence likeJeff is eager to pleaseorJeff is easy to please.”

  • As you’d expect, you could sayWhat is Jeff eager to do?” but you can’t sayWhat

  • is Jeff easy to do?” SoWhat is Jeff easy to do?” is simply ungrammatical. It

  • is ill-formed according to some descriptive rule of English, and again, it’s one of

  • the jobs of a syntactician to work out what is the rule behind that? What is the generalisation?

  • What is the rule that is violated to make that sentence ungrammatical?

  • Now, it’s very unlikely that children learn to distinguish all the possible from impossible

  • sentences in their language by explicit instruction. If you just think of those examples, and those

  • are typical, it’s extremely unlikely that children were ever taught these explicitly.

  • Apart from anything else, most adults who’d be in contact with children are not explicitly

  • aware of these rules themselves. And, on the second hand, it’s also been observed that

  • children follow a similar developmental path when theyre learning a language, and this

  • again seems unlikely to be the result of them having been taught rules in a particular sequence

  • by the people that theyre interacting with. And finally, it’s worth noting that it has

  • been observed that children frequently ignore any explicit instruction about their own language

  • that they do in fact receive in the course of acquisition.

  • It’s also impossible to give children a list of all the possible sentences of their

  • language because, as we will see later, there is no finite list of possible sentences. The

  • number of possible grammatical sentences of any language is in fact infinite. So, no such

  • list could possibly be supplied.

  • What happens instead is that children exposed to an actual finite amount of language (it’s

  • large, but finite), all children themselves appear to be able to deduce from that evidence,

  • from the sentences that they hear, they themselves deduce what the underlying rules are that

  • are responsible for those data. It’s also impossible for anyone to give a child a list

  • of all the possible sentences in their language, because such a list would be infinite. In

  • any language, there is an infinite number of sentences that are grammatical in that

  • language.

  • It seems instead that what children do is, on the basis of the language that they hear

  • about them, they themselves devise rules that they will follow as they speak. They work

  • out, from the data that they get, what the rules of their language are. The question

  • of how it is that children arrive at the set of rules they arrive at is a very interesting