English varieties (was: Word Order)

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Wed Apr 6 17:29:40 EDT 2005


In <42542DAF.3040206 at kindness.demon.co.uk>, Colin Fine wrote:
>Well, I said I was being provocative, didn't I!

T'chah, Colin!  when did that ever get you out of the squabble?  :-)

>I think I've been inadvertently rumbled: I am a committed Pinkerite. I'm 
>aware that he's not popular in many academic circles (as indeed is true 
>of his hero Chomsky), but I find The Language Instinct a very clear and 
>readable account of what I believe to be a very useful - and 
>distressingly unfamiliar - approach to how language works, and so I lend 
>recommend it and lend my copy round abundantly.

If I find a book that is popular with all academics, I'll remember to
avoid it -- anything that is universally acknowledged nearly always
turns out later to be just another phlogiston.

>Like several other posters, I also was brought up to speak a standard 
>(read 'middle-class') variety, and have 'It is I' and 'whom' in my 
>idiolect. But I nevertheless hold that they are part of a 'learned' 
>language that is acquired naturally by nobody.

So where do you (and maybe Pinker) stand on such gloriosities as "the
car careened down the road" or "I'm really disinterested in that
subject"?  No, forget it, those are just getting the meaning wrong plain
and simple, rather than rules of grammar.  I'm wondering how you and
Pinker think language is acquired if not by being taught, to be honest:
the teaching may taking the form of talking to the infant, and it seems
to be the case that infants never spoken to don't learn speech, but why
is talking to an infant not "teaching" it?

>I think I'll leave it there ....

I know you get all Cross about *Eats, Shoots and Leaves*, but I think
it's in that book that the old suggestion about "if it doesn't work or
you aren't sure how it should go, re-cast the sentence" is repeated, and
that has been coming to my mind with increasing frequency as I've been
reading this thread. If we can't agree about "It was Jim to whom it
happened/who it happened to", maybe it would be simpler to say "It
happened to Jim" and not be convoluted about it anyway? And everyone
laying off the passive voice most of the time would probably be a great
straightener of knotted grammar too.

(I'm fairly sure it was Naomi Mitchison who once gave one of her hobbies
for *Who's Who* as "untying knots in string".)

BTW, obDWJ and getting this back where I think it started, word order in
English and in particular the order in which adjectives ought to happen,
DWJ points out that it can be very effective as an attention-grabber if
one deliberately uses adjectives in an unfamiliar order and makes the
reader go "eh?" occasionally.  She says she does it on purpose
sometimes, but I haven't found any examples on a quick skim.

Minnow

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