Re: Phonetic alphabet[wasRe: Bill Gates]

Wesley Schwein (
Wed, 8 Oct 1997 16:20:47 -0400 (EDT)

On Mon, 6 Oct 1997, Lee Daniel Crocker wrote:

> I am more likely to believe that /grammar/ plays a much more important
> role in constraining thought itself, because complex relationships
> are part of the nature of thought. One can diagnose certain mental
> problems, for example, by examining the grammar of the patient.

Current thinking in linguistics is that grammar plays a fairly small role
in ways of thinking; the Sapir-Whorf hyp. doesn't have much credibility
anymore, except in a very weak version. All languages can express any
thought which can be produced in another language, give the technical or
cultural understanding and vocabulary required. Certain languages just
code certain concepts more efficiently than others.

> > Complete sentences in English have a subject, a verb, and (generally)
> > a predicate -- implied if not spoken. Perhaps a language in which this
> > was not true would be difficult for us (I, strangely enough, can't think
> > of one off the top of my head).
> Several Asian languages use a "topic-comment" structure rather than
> subject-verb. In Chinese, for example, "Fish: eat" is a perfectly
> valid sentence, but must be disambiguated by context (one does not
> know whether the fish is the eater or the eaten without more info).

We have topic-prominent sentences in English, too. "Now, _fish_ I like!"
"Fish you're feeding us?"

> > Or a language with no distinction between declarative, interrogative,
> > imperative, and subjunctive (or some subset thereof)?
> Don't know of any there either. Even in Lojban, one /must/ decide
> ahead of time whether you're asking a question or making an assertion
> or issuing a command.

Some languages (especially creoles such as the various Caribbean
languages, Swahili, und so weiter) rely entirely on intonation to indicate
a question (ie, a question that doesn't require a wh- word); there is no
change of word order. All intonation languages allow this feature,
including English. "You have a new car." "You have a new car?"
I couldn't say how tone languages or pitch accent languages (like ancient
Greek or Sanskrit or modern Swedish or Japanese) handle this. Anders?

> > That said, I think that English speakers are among the least constrained
> > on the planet, since we steal words from so many different languages.

Loan word use is a cultural trait, not a linguistic one in itself;
some use of loan words is inevitable when one language is in contact
with a number of other languages, but loans as extensive as we find in
English may represent a lack of linguistic chauvinism. It is equally
possible to get by entirely without loan words, using only neologisms from
morphemes already found in the language in question. I don't know offhand
if total neologism-ism has ever happened; I think it would require a
completely isolated, unified speech community.

> And fine vowel distinctions. That's one reason the French laugh at us:
> no Amercian can say "En peu" with anything close to the right vowels.

English has more vowel distinctions than most languages. Some languages,
such as the Caucasian languages (to which Georgian belongs) have only two
vowels, schwa and /a/; most of the world's languages have 5 or 6, like
Spanish. English speakers who don't know French can't easily say "En peu"
because we don't make phonemic use of nasalized vowels like French does,
and we don't have any high rounded front vowels like in "peu."

> And finally, there is the obvious thought-constraint of gender, and
> the parts of speech themselves: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Classical
> Chinese had no gender, but regrettably one of the "modernizations" it
> suffered this century was to make it more European by using the male
> words as generic pronouns, the female ones as female-specific, and the
> neutral ones fell out of use. I don't know of any other natural language
> that is gender-neutral. Most artificial languages are.

As in my other post, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Turkish... but sexist
language use reflects sexist meme-complexes; it is not encoded in minds by
the structure of language. If a culture is not sexist, it won't use one
sex as the standard.

As for parts of speech, _all_ languages have nouns, verbs, and anaphor.
Other parts of speech are handled differently.

> One can learn more about the Lojban language, and order the recently
> printed textbook, at <>.

I'll have to take a look at this...

BTW, does anyone else on this list have much in the way of a linguistics
background? General semantics seems fairly well known here (which I'll
bring up again in a few weeks as I have some serious reservations about
it), but as for academic linguistics...?