Course available: English Grammar: The Missing Course

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Linguistic Diversity and Uniformity

Are languages fundamentally similar or different? This question lies at the foundation of some of the biggest controversies in the field of linguistics. In this module, you'll be exposed to some attempts to answer this question. Along the way, you'll be exposed to the big-picture questions of how linguists see language and what the field hopes to accomplish. Since linguists love arguing with each other, this is a very useful topic to examine to get at the big divisions and controversies in the field.

I have placed this module at the beginning of the syntax curriculum so that you will be able to understand the foundational assumptions of the kind of syntax you'll be studying,1 as well as some of the reasons why alternative frameworks exist.

Reading

The first three chapters of The Atoms of Language (Baker 2001: 1–84).

Questions

  1. In some ways, all languages appear fundamentally similar to each other. In other ways, they appear fundamentally different. Linguists tend to fall into one of two camps based on which of these facts they consider more important. Which camp does Baker seem to fall into? Does he seem like an extreme partisan or more of a moderate?
  2. What is a “parameter”? Why is the idea of a parameter appealing for a theory of language? (Some vocabulary that might help here is the distinction between “description" and “explanation”.) Why might someone dislike the approach that Baker takes?
  3. Contrast “I-Language” and “E-Language”. Which does Baker find more interesting? What do we gain by adopting his notion of language and what do we lose by not adopting the other one?

References

  • Baker, Mark C. (2001). The Atoms of Language. New York: Basic Books.

  1. The self-study curriculum I have created teaches syntax within a generative framework. Some people also refer to this framework as "Chomskyan", because it originates in the work of Noam Chomsky. Linguists who work within the framework, however, tend to prefer the term "generative".

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