Discussion 5

In the reading for this week — week 9 — we departed from speech sounds to explore meaning in a new way. In this thread, please make a response sharing one of the topics from this reading that you found the most surprising or novel. (For instance, were you surprised to find that you have a mental image for very many words, but probably not for others?) In addition to creating your own response, reply to at least one other person’s response. You will each make at least two posts in this thread this week. Due by 11:59pm on Sunday, 31 March.

Discussion 4: The Sounds of Language

This week, we begin our exploration of speech sounds with three short chapters (chapters 4 and 5 in David Crystal’s book and chapter 28 in Rickerson & Hilton’s book).

In David Crystal’s chapters, he frequently refers to how children learn to acquire sounds. He mentions a few tendencies: babies usually learn to say the first part of a word (or syllable, really) before any consonants that appear on the end (so aw daw instead of all gone, with no [l] or [n] sounds), and they usually have an easier time learning consonants where your tongue is at the front of your mouth, like [d], than those where your tongue is at the back, like [g] (hence daw instead of gone). And even older children, around 6 or 7 years old, often have trouble with complex consonant clusters, like the str– in string.

For this thread, I’d like you to apply this to your own experiences. Reflect on your own life or the life of anyone you know. When you were learning your first language, were there any particular speech sounds that you had trouble acquiring?

To give an example from my own life, I had a lot of trouble with the back consonants, [k] and [g], as a young child. I pronounced “coffee” as “toffee.” Even worse, my brother’s name is Guy, which I used to pronounce as die. Pretty grim. Remember, as mentioned in the chapter, that [k] and [g] are almost exactly the same, except that [g] is voiced and [k] is voiceless. You’ll also notice that this is right in line with what David Crystal mentions.

Discussion 3: Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

In this week’s readings and in-class discussion, you learned about descriptivism and prescriptivism, two different attitudes towards language. For this week’s online discussion, I’d like you to consider the benefits of the descriptivist approach favored by linguists. In your view, what are its strengths? Why do you think it is that linguists are generally so consistent in favoring this approach as they research and attempt to understand language?

Discussion 2: What is language?

After having read chapters 1, 2, and 14 (pp.7–14 and 62–66) in 5 Minute Linguist, respond to the following prompt.

A common theme in the readings you’ve done so far is the distinction between communication and language. In brief, not all communication is language.

In chapter 1 of 5 Minute Linguist, Robert Rodman writes that “[i]t’s language that distinguishes us from all other creatures” (p.7). He makes the case that “apes and other animals communicate with each other […] but they lack the linguistic flexibility of humans—our amazing ability to express new thoughts, without limits on subject matter” (p.9). For the purposes of this discussion, let’s accept this statement at face value.

In chapter 14 of the same book, Donna Jo Napoli expands on this argument, advancing a few criteria to set apart animal communication systems from human language. She makes it clear that while, yes, bees and parrots and myriad other animals have quite advanced communication systems, meeting some of the criteria, none of them meet all the criteria, and thus none possess language.

I want you to think back, thousands of years, to the early days of modern humans, and the early days of language. What do you think the turning point might have looked like when our ancestors advanced from mere animal communication to what would be considered language by Rodman and Napoli?

Demonstrate a clear understanding of what these scholars argue makes language distinct from other forms of communication, and incorporate the criteria advanced by Donna Jo Napoli.