The science of language

I’ve written a few times about lan­guage acqui­si­tion, but I’m pretty sure this will be the first time I write about linguistics.

My research ques­tions are based on syntax which is word struc­ture and ordering and how we put words together to create sen­tences,” said assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist Heather Lit­tle­field of the Col­lege of Sci­ence. “So what I do is use what we know about acqui­si­tion to test syn­tactic hypotheses or frameworks.”

For her PhD work, Lit­tle­field devel­oped and tested one of these frame­works, which essen­tially rede­fined the way we think about words. And when I say “we think about,” I really mean a subset of the pop­u­la­tion that really does not include me. I mean the linguists.

These people are of a dif­ferent breed. They under­stand the minutest aspects of the words that spill from our mouths. They map sen­tences in a way that makes sen­tences look com­pletely for­eign to me. We average Joes use lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate; lin­guists use it to under­stand how the brain works, how soci­eties func­tion and how humans develop, to name just a few research areas.

So, what did Heather Lit­tle­field do that was so impres­sive? Okay, hold onto your hats and I’ll try to tell you.

A new framework

The story starts like this: when we’re kids, we acquire dif­ferent parts of a lan­guage at dif­ferent time points. Things that have con­crete meaning are easier to grasp — things like mom, ball, bottle, etc., you know, the impor­tant stuff. After that we start to under­stand the syn­tac­tical glue that holds those mean­ingful words together. “The,” for example. Or… “or.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, these two cat­e­gories were it. Words like ball, mom and bottle are called “lex­ical” and the rest are called “func­tional.” Every word we speak was thought to fit into one cat­e­gory or the other.

But then, in the early 2000s, lin­guists started to realize that some things fell into both cat­e­gories. They have con­tent, Lit­tle­field said, but they also do some­thing func­tional at the same time. So people started called these bizaro words “semi-​​lexical.” These are words like “on,” “up,” and “under.”

But this bugged Lit­tle­field. It wasn’t that simple. “If func­tional is defining syntax and lex­ical is defining seman­tics, then to say that lex­ical is the oppo­site of func­tional doesn’t really work, because they’re really two dif­ferent things,” she explained. Semi-​​lexical wasn’t a suf­fi­cient term. So she set out to orga­nize the whole system more accu­rately, in hopes of better under­standing the bizaro words.

She said that instead of being rel­e­gated to cat­e­gories, words should be qual­i­fied by their fea­tures. Func­tional should be one fea­ture and lex­ical another. Then words could have some or none of either fea­ture. Tra­di­tion­ally func­tional words would have all the func­tional qual­i­ties and none of the lex­ical qual­i­ties. Tra­di­tion­ally lex­ical words would have all the lex­ical qual­i­ties and none of the func­tional ones. It started to take shape in her mind (See the box over there? That was what the shape in her mind looked like).

This struc­ture allows for two new “cat­e­gories,” if you really want to call ‘em that: Words that have both func­tional and lex­ical qual­i­ties (semi-​​functional) and words that have neither.

Whoa…wait a second. Words that have nei­ther quality? How does that work? These are idiomatic words, Lit­tle­field said. And yes, they show up in idiomatic expres­sions. The example Lit­tle­field gave me were the words in the sen­tence “He kicked the bucket.” There’s no bucket. There’s no kicking (the guy is dead after all). And you can’t change any of the other words (“He kicked a bucket” doesn’t mean the same thing). “You have to take the phrase out of the ‘word stock’ and then plant it into the syntax and treat it as a unit. In that sense, The indi­vidual mem­bers of the phrase are not lex­ical and they’re not functional.”

Acqui­si­tion as analysis

So, this is the frame­work or model that Lit­tle­field set up as a grad stu­dent and then set out to test. First she got down and dirty with prepo­si­tions. In order to deter­mine if the model is valid, she looked at the time­line in which kids acquire words from each of the quad­rants. Turns out she was exactly right.

First, we start to learn the –F/+L words, tra­di­tion­ally called “lex­ical.” In the case of prepo­si­tions, these are words like down and up: throw down the cup, pull up your socks, throw up (meaning to toss in the air).

Next we learn the idiomatic words, which have nei­ther func­tional nor lex­ical qual­i­ties. In the fol­lowing sen­tences, “up” doesn’t really mean up: look up the number, blow up (meaning to explode), throw up (meaning to vomit).

After that we pick up the semi-​​lexical words, which have both func­tional and lex­ical qual­i­ties. (Run to the store, wait in line, the dog near/​under/​on/​in the bed).

Finally we learn the func­tional words, which can’t pur­port to have any kind of tan­gible meaning at all. Some func­tional prepo­si­tions? Trans­la­tion of the book; piece of paper. This pat­tern makes sense, if you think about it, Lit­tle­field said. Words that have even a hint of spa­cial con­text (like up or under) are a lot easier to define and thus under­stand than words that are purely “glue.”

The next steps

Okay.…so, all of this work was done just with prepo­si­tions. Going for­ward, Lit­tle­field is putting her under­grad­uate stu­dents to work looking at other types of words (verbs are par­tic­u­larly exciting to one of her stu­dents, and he actu­ally found that there’s a couple more fea­tures in that scenario).

Another of her stu­dents is looking at how these words are all acquired by second-​​language learners. When we’re learning a for­eign lan­guage, do we acquire words in the same cat­e­gor­ical pat­tern as when we’re kids learning our first language?

I hope to write about these projects another time, but this post is get­ting long(I think that’s a semi-​​functional word) so I’m calling it quits.

Photo: Kheel Center, Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, “Her­bert Lehman giving a speech” October 1, 2010 via Flickr. Cre­ative Com­mons attribution.