Some Useful Linguistic Concepts for the General Edification, part 2

This post is the second in a series on ideas from linguistics that the general public should be familiar with. See part 1 here.

Active and passive vocabulary: Your passive vocabulary consists of all the words you can recognize and understand, while your active vocabulary consists of all the words you actually use. Naturally, the former is larger than the latter: there are words we understand but don’t use, but hopefully not words we use but don’t understand. Giving a number for either kind of vocabulary is very difficult, because it is surprisingly non-trivial to figure out what counts as a word and what words we know. Some standard examples: are “is” and “are” different words, or different forms of the same word? What about names—what does it really mean to know a name? What does it really mean to know a word? What if I just have a vague sense of its meaning? And so on.

Collocation: A collocation is a group of words appearing together. The phrase comes from corpus linguistics, the study of large bodies of text. For example, you might want to know how common the collocation “for example” is compared to the collocation “for instance.” Someone who wanted to express this idea and didn’t know the word “collocation” would probably use the word “phrase,” which is really pretty similar. The difference is that “phrase” is a technical term implying that the words in question form a certain kind of grammatical unit; for example, “leaving that subject behind” and “exiting the building” are both phrases, but “that subject behind” and “exiting the” are not. A collocation can be any group of words in proximity, regardless of any grammatical relationship between them. In practice there is generally some kind of grammatical relationship between them, but it’s often not the kind of relationship that would make them a phrase; an adjective-noun pair, for example, would not count as a phrase.

Fixed forms: These are always fun to discover, and our speech is littered with them. A fixed form is a collocation (q.v.) that has sort of hardened and solidified in our minds, so that we’re not actually forming each constituent word one at a time but treating the whole thing as one syntactic unit. These are easiest to detect when they include a word or form that has passed out of common usage. For example, “so be it” is a fixed form; that subjunctive use of “be” is not found in modern English, except in fixed forms. “Beyond my ken” is another, where “my” could be any possessive pronoun or noun. “Ken” isn’t found in any other context in English, or at least not of my dialect of English; you can’t say that things are within your ken, or use ken as the subject of a sentence (“My ken doesn’t encompass that”). Fixed forms often include forms that aren’t productive in the modern language. There are analogues to fixed forms in culture; for example, I’ve been told that in French high society it’s considered polite for a man to enter a public place (such as a restaurant) before any women he’s accompanying, sort of the opposite of our custom of men holding doors for women. This, I’ve been told, dates from centuries ago when cafés (a new institution at the time) were often dangerous and full of unsavory characters, and men would gallantly enter first to make sure it was safe. Assuming this etiology is true (which I doubt it is), when modern high-society Frenchmen enter a restaurant before their Frenchwomen, this is something like a fixed form.

Register & style: These terms relate, as so much of linguistics does, to the fact that there are multiple ways of saying the same thing, only they’re not actually the same thing. I could say, for example, “Boy, am I tired. Can I have a drink, please?” and “Holy shit, I’m beat. Give me a beer!” and mean, in a certain sense, the same thing. I learned the term “register” to refer primarily to this sort of formal-informal alternation, but Wikipedia says that “style” is now the preferred term in linguistics for level of formality and “register” is reserved for specialized jargon like legalese. The important point here is that in one sense the difference between styles or forms does not affect the content of the utterance and in another sense it does. If I excused myself from a formal dinner party to “go to the bathroom,” no one would bat an eye, but if I excused myself “to take a shit” some would be shocked and monocles would go flying. In either case I am providing my audience with almost the same information as to my activities; the information which differs between the two styles is something about my relationship towards my audience.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Perhaps the most famous hypothesis in linguistics is named after influential American linguist Edward Sapir and his student, Hartford fire inspector Benjamin Whorf. This theory, also known as linguistic relativity, states in essence that the language affects what we can think. The strong version says that our language actually determines what we can think, while the weak version says that our language merely influences what we can think. The consensus today is that the strong version is almost certainly wrong and the weak version almost certainly right. Many non-linguists I’ve talked to, however, cannot see how the strong version could fail to be true; after all, don’t we think in words? How can we think something we don’t have words for? In literature there are often words that are claimed to be untranslatable: the Portuguese saudade, the German Sehnsucht, and the Czech litost, for example. A quick visit to those words’ Wikipedia pages, however, will give you a good understanding of what they mean, even though English has no exact equivalents.

“Fine,” a Strong Sapir-Whorf-ist might say, “but what happened there was that we learned a new word and then were able to think that concept.” This is true (leaving aside the puzzling question of how we were able to learn a word for a concept we weren’t able to think) but a look at the effects of language on color perception should settle this once and for all. Many languages categorize colors differently from English. Russian, for example, has no word that means “blue”: it has the word “синий,” which designates a range we might call deep blue, and “голубой,” which designates a range we might call light or greenish-blue(1). Other than that most of the color-words are the same in Russian and English, but for a lot of languages it’s much more different. There might be a language out there, for example, that has one word for “pink-red-orange-yellow”(2) and one word for “blue-green,” but that manages to divide our “brown” up into five different colors. Here’s the important part: studies have shown that a speaker of that hypothetical language might actually be able to distinguish different types of brown better than us, and be worse at distinguishing orange from yellow. That seems like pretty unequivocal evidence in favor of at least the weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. But on the other hand, we only have one word for brown and we can still tell different shades of brown apart, just not as well as the hypothetical person. We may not have words for the different shades, but we can distinguish between them, thus more or less proving the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

(1) For examples of what shades fall into each of these colors, click here: синий and голубой.

(2) Just as many languages (like Russian) consider our blue to be two separate colors, many languages make only one color out of the spectrum in which we find both pink and red. As a color-blind American, I have often maintained that pink and red are really just the same color anyway; in some languages, I would be right.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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One Response to “Some Useful Linguistic Concepts for the General Edification, part 2”

  1. “Naturally, the former is larger than the latter: there are words we understand but don’t use, but hopefully not words we use but don’t understand.”

    pentultimate entry, man!!!

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