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Unformatted text preview: Generative Grammar 0. P RELIMINARIES Although we use it every day, and although we all have strong opinions about its proper form and appropriate use, we rarely stop to think about the wonder of language. So-called language “experts” like William Safire tell us about the misuse of hopefully or lecture us about the origins of the word boon- doggle , but surprisingly, they never get at the true wonder of language: how it actually works. Think about it for a minute; you are reading this and un- derstanding it but you have no conscious knowledge of how you are doing it. The study of this mystery is the science of linguistics. This book is about one aspect of how language works – how sentences are structured: syntax . Language is a psychological or cognitive property of humans. That is, there is some set of neurons in my head firing madly away that allows me to sit here and produce this set of letters, and there is some other set of neurons in your head firing away that allows you to translate these squiggles into coherent ideas and thoughts. There are several subsystems at work here. If you were listening to me speak, I would be producing sound waves with my vocal cords and articulating particular speech sounds with my tongue, lips, and vocal cords. On the other end of things you’d be hearing those sound waves and translating them into speech sounds using your auditory appara- tus. The study of the acoustics and articulation of speech is called phonetics . Once you’ve translated the waves of sound into mental representations of speech sounds, you analyze them into syllables and pattern them appropri- ately. For example, speakers of English know that the made-up word bluve is 4 Preliminaries a possible word of English, but the word bnuck is not. This is part of the sci- ence called phonology . Then you take these groups of sounds and organize them into meaningful units (called morphemes) and words. For example, the word dancer is made up of two meaningful bits: dance and the suffix - er . The study of this level of Language is called morphology . Next you organize the words into phrases and sentences. Syntax is the cover term for studies of this level of Language. Finally, you take the sentences and phrases you hear and translate them into thoughts and ideas. This last step is what we refer to as the semantic level of Language. Syntax, then, studies the level of Language that lies between words and the meaning of utterances: sentences. It is the level that mediates between sounds that someone produces (organized into words) and what they in- tended to say. Perhaps one of the truly amazing aspects of the study of Language is not the origins of the word demerit, or how to properly punctuate a quote inside parentheses, or how kids have, like, destroyed the English language, eh? In- stead it’s the question of how we subconsciously get from sounds to meaning. This is the study of syntax....
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- Spring '12