Monday, April 26, 2010

First Language Acquisition

Children around the world acquire their first language in a predictable sequence. Their ability to acquire sound and learn words is remarkable. It is possible to identify the general progression of children as they move from one stage to another in their language learning.

The first stage is the prelinguistic stage. Evidence suggests that babies can recognize the intonation patterns of their language at a very young age. They are also capable of distinguishing between the sounds of their language and another very early. This is probably not surprising if one considers that babies can hear in the womb after approximately 7 months and are exposed to the sounds of language immediately after birth.

Following the prelinguistic stage of the early months is the babbling stage. This is from 4 to 8 months. All hearing babies babble, an indication that this is a universal process. All babies tend to produce the same consonants at this stage regardless of the language they are exposed to. Plosives are produced more frequently than fricatives.

The next stage is the one-word stage. This lasts from 9 to 18 months. Babies now recognize the word as the link between sound and meaning. They begin to produce their own words, particularly nouns and verbs.

From 18 to 24 months babies are in the two-word stage. Children begin to combine words into two-word utterances. Though they are limited in the number of words they can combine, they can communicate quite effectively.

Following the two-word stage comes the early multiword stage which is from 24 to 30 months. Children acquire more grammatical rules and more complex syntactic structures. They also tend to overgeneralize the rules of their language.

The final stage is the multiword stage which begins from around the age of 30 months. At this stage development is very rapid. Now children can produce long and complex sentences. They also gain command of function words.

First language acquisition is similar in all languages. Children progress at similar rates and progress through similar stages. The more children are exposed to language, the more they are able to learn and produce it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Residents of American States

The words used to describe the residents of the fifty American states have a wide range of suffixes. The names for the residents of states such as California and New York are well-known. A few states, however, have less known names for their residents.

Residents of Californian are known as Californians. The name "California" ends with an "a". The rule in this case is simply to add an -n for the singular "Californian" and -ns for the plural "Californians". This pattern is the same for seventeen other states. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia. Residents of New Mexico are New Mexicans. Here the final "o" becomes an "a".

Thirteen states that do not end with an "a" add -ans. For example, residents of Colorado are Coloradoans. Other states which add this suffix include Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming. The adjective formed from Kentucky has an "i" instead of a "y"-Kentuckian.

Residents of New York are known as New Yorkers. The suffix in this case is -er for the singular "New Yorker" and -ers for the plural "New Yorkers". This pattern is not so common. It only occurs with four other states. They are Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont. In the case of Maine, the final letter is an "e" so just an -r is needed to derive "Mainer". Michigan is a special case. Here a "d" is inserted before the suffix. Residents of Michigan are called Michiganders.

The states of Arkansas, Kansas and Texas all end with the letter "s". The rule is to replace the final "s" with an "n" to form the singular. Residents of these states are known as Arkansans, Kansans and Texans.

The states of Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington follow a different pattern. Here an "i" must be inserted before the "a" and then an "n" is added. Residents of these states are Floridians, North Carolinians, Oregonians, South Carolinians and Washingtonians.

The other suffix used is -ite. This occurs with New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wisconsin. In the case of New Hampshire, the final "e" is deleted before the addition of the suffix. Residents of these states are known as New Hampshirites, New Jerseyites and Wisconsinites.

The most common suffix in the names for the residents of American states is -n. This suffix is always added to states which end with the letter "a". The state of New Mexico is an exception because the final "o" changes to an "a". The name for the residents of Michigan is unusual. It has the suffix -er used with six other states but also inserts a "d" before the suffix to derive Michigander. A variety of suffixes are used to derive the names of the residents of the fifty American states.

Monday, April 19, 2010

English of Northern Ireland

The English of Northern Ireland is different from the English of Ireland. Many of the English speakers who settled in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century were from Scotland. Thus the English of Northern Ireland is quite similar to that of Scotland, especially in the northern areas. In the south, the English bears many similarities to the English of the midlands of England, an area settled by many speakers from this area.

The accent of Northern Ireland is rhotic. In this respect it is similar to Scottish English, but the rhotic of Northern Ireland is never trilled.

The distinction between "which" and "witch" is maintained. This is also the case in the English of Scotland, but not in the case of most varieties of English spoken in England.

In most of Northern Ireland the alveolar lateral is never velarized. This is often called a clear "l" unlike the dark "l" heard in many other varieties of English. This pronunciation of the lateral is also common in Ireland.

The voiceless alveolar plosive is often voiced or flapped as in Canada and the United States. The result is that words such as "medal" and "metal" as well as "ladder" and "latter" sound the same.

The words "hay", "may" and "say" are pronounced with a monophthong, similar to the monophthong of "let". The diphthong of many other varieties of English is not produced in these words.

In the English of Belfast, however, a phonemic contrast between the monophthong in the word "let" and the diphthong in the word "phase" exists. The diphthong is not the one heard in other varieties of English. It is rather a mid front unrounded lax vowel which is followed by a central unrounded vowel commonly referred to as a schwa.

The words "day", "stay" and "bay" are pronounced with a monophthong. When the plural marker -s or the third person singular -s is added, the vowel remains a monophthong. Thus the vowel is the same in "days", "stays" and "bays". However, in words which have no inflectional -s added to the base, the vowel is a diphthong. The word pairs "days" and "daze", "rays" and "raise" and prays" and "praise" are distinctive. In other varieties of English, they are pronounced identically.

The English of Northern Ireland has many features of Scottish English but also features from other varieties of English. In contrast to the English of most of England, the English of Northern Ireland is rhotic. A phenomenon of the English of Belfast is the phonemic contrast between the monophthong of "let" and the diphthong of "make". This contrast allows the distinction between words such as "days" and "daze", a distinction which other varieties of English do not make.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Queen and Bishop Mate

I recently played a game at letsplaychess.com in which I mated my opponent with my queen and bishop. My opponent was Stanway of the United Kingdom who played white. Here are the moves of the game with my commentary.

1. e4 c5
2. Bc4 e6

I play e6 so that white cannot target f7 with his queen and bishop.

3. Nf3 Nc6
4. d4 cxd
5. Nxd4 Qb6

I put my queen on b6 because I want white to capture my knight. My idea is then to recapture with my queen and force him to defend his e-pawn.

6. c3 Bc5

White's move protects his knight but takes away an ideal square for his knight on b1. I put my bishop on c5 to put even more pressure on the knight on d4.

7. Be3 Nf6

I can now capture the pawn on b7 with my queen but I completely miss this during the game. I decide to attack e4 and white defends d4.

8. b3 Nxe4

White decides to protect his b-pawn. I take his king pawn.

9. Bd3 Nxd4

I capture the knight, an impatient move. Better moves include d5 and castling. My move gives white more space for his pieces.

10. Bxe4 Nc6
11. Qd2 0-0
12. Bc2 Bxe3

White retreats his bishop, possibly in anticipation of d5. I decide to capture while the white king is still in the centre.

13. fxe d5

White decides to capture with his f-pawn to avoid an exchange of queens but the pawn shield around his king has been weakened. I establish greater control of the centre.

14. Qd3 g6

White makes an aggressive move which threatens mate with the queen on h7. I must defend against the threat.

15. h4 Ne5

White plays aggressively but his king is very exposed. I attack the white queen.

16. Qe2 Bd7

I finally move my light-squared bishop.

17. h5 Bb5
18. c4 dxc

The game is now very open. This favours me because the white king is so exposed.

19. b4 c3

The white queen is under attack again.

20. Qd1 Qxe3+

I expect white to play Qf2. His move is a blunder.

21. Qe2 Qxe2#

White's move is forced but is unable to prevent mate.

In this game white plays aggressively but loses because he fails to develop one of his knights, does not establish a strong presence in the centre and neglects to adequately protect his king. With my own failure to develop my light-squared bishop early and failure to develop my rooks, this game is clearly not one of my masterpieces. Nevertheless, I take control of my advantages to turn the game in my favour.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

False Cognates in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish

Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are closely-related languages. They are so similar that many of the words they use are identical. For example, the words "ord," "tid," "bord," "sol" and "himmel" mean "word," "time," "table," "sun" and "sky" in all three languages. However, they also have a number of false cognates, words that appear to share the same meaning but do not.

One cognate is the word "rolig." In Danish and Norwegian it means "calm" but in Swedish it means "funny." The Swedish meaning is very different from that of the other two languages.

The word "by" is another example. In Danish and Norwegian it means "city" but in Swedish it means "village." The difference in meaning is not as great as with "rolig" but is nevertheless significant.

The word "rask" shares the same meaning in Swedish and Norwegian but is different in Danish. In Swedish and Norwegian it means "fast." In Danish, however, it means "healthy."

The word "rar" shares the same meaning in Swedish and Danish but is different in Norwegian. This word means "nice" in Swedish and Danish but means "strange" in Norwegian.

A few false cognates have slightly different spellings. One example is "frukost" in Swedish which is spelt "frokost" in Danish and Norwegian. The Swedish word "frukost" and Norwegian word "frokost" both mean "breakfast." In Danish, however, this word means "lunch."

The Danish and Norwegian word "kunstig" is spelt "konstig" in Swedish. In Danish and Norwegian "kunstig" means "artificial" but in Swedish it means "strange." Though "kunstig" and "konstig" share the same origin, they have developed different meanings.

Though Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are similar, they have a number of false cognates. These words must have once shared the same meaning but clearly changed in meaning over time. If speakers of these three languages are not aware of the false cognates in their languages, this can lead to miscommunication.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Optimality Theory

A relatively new linguistic theory is Optimality Theory. Though it can be applied to many branches of linguistics, it is most common in phonology. Optimality Theory claims that the forms of a particular language are the result of an interaction among competing constraints.

The three basic components of the theory are Gen, Con and Eval. The first component, Gen, generates the list of possible outputs that the language can have. The second component, Con, provides the constraints which are used to pick the optimal candidate. The third component, Eval, picks the optimal candidate.

Constraints can be divided into two types. They are faithfulness and markedness. Faithfulness ensures that the input does not deviate too much from the output. Markedness ensures that the output does not violate the phonotactics of the language. For example, a markedness constraint against complex codas ensures that the language does not have a form with more than one consonant in the syllable coda.

Optimality Theory claims that the constraints are universal. This means that they must apply to every language. Another claim is that all infants possess every possible speech sound of every language but later filter out the speech sounds that their language does not need. Though the click sounds of the Bantu languages of southern Africa are rare in the languages of the world, Optimality Theory claims that people who never use these particular sounds could produce them in their infancy. That no evidence can be provided to support this claim is of little concern to the proponents of this theory.

The word "constraint" strikes me as a negative term. Optimality Theory dislikes the word "rule" because it wishes to portray itself as superior to rule-based phonology. Instead of rules, it uses tableaux with a series of constraints used to pick the optimal candidate.

Other words which could be used instead of "constraint" are "value", "preference", "condition", "obligation" and "requirement". Not every constraint is really a constraint. For example, the constraint which states that the input must equal the output is not truly a constraint but rather a necessity or obligation. Of course it can be reformulated as a constraint by stating that that output cannot differ from the input, but it is simpler to state that the input and output must be identical.

A big problem with Optimality Theory is that it provides little insight into how languages work. The constraints used to choose an optimal candidate and the ranking of the constraints are solely for the purpose of obtaining the correct result. It is in essence manipulation. As a Finnish professor once told me, it is similar to a chess game. In chess one manipulates the pieces on the board to mate one's opponents. In Optimality Theory one manipulates the constraints to choose the correct candidate. To me this seems unsatisfactory.

Optimality Theory is a modern linguistic theory which was proposed by American linguists in the 1990s. It became rather popular in Canada and the United States but never became very popular in Europe. This is probably because it reveals nothing new about language but is more like a game. It merely manipulates constraints to achieve a desired result. This theory is not likely to remain popular for long.

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