Thursday, June 16, 2005

Parts of Speech

In a response to a comment on my Kilpatrick blog, I found myself waxing on about parts of speech. That is a sort of boring subject, I know, but I think I can make it at least somewhat interesting by saying something you have never heard before and contribute to people's understanding of the issues involved in determining parts of speech -- something James Kilpatrick is totally clueless about.

Typically people comment on the parts of speech of the words in sentences without in any way making clear what the foundations of their claims are. There was a time when Latin grammatical classifications guided those analyzing English. This was a monumentally bad idea because Latin has properties English does not have and conversely.

So, English must be described independently of assumptions about other specific languages except in one respect. Linguists often use the term "universal grammar" meaning by that that there should be certain principles of language that are shared (but not necessarily in identical ways or to the same degree) by all languages. What is a "verb" in one language will have to be consistent with what we say a "verb" is in every other language. This is where it gets interesting.

Consider, for instance, the adjective-verb distinction. Let might begin by citing an especially mindless definition of "adjective":
Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles — a, an, and the — are adjectives.
So, we are to understand that adjectives modify human beings per se. They may attribute properties to human beings but they don't modify them. Plastic surgery modifies human beings. An adjective might modify a noun that refers to a human being but that is something different. This one is a bit better:
Words which are used to modify nouns or pronouns are usually referred to as adjectives
What remains is to say what we mean by "modify." That, boys and girls, is a toughie.

In English, as these definitions suggest, we seem to have a clear distinction between adjectives and verbs, at least on the surface. But Chinese and some other languages do not make a sharp distinction. "He bigs," for instance, could mean "He is big" or "He is growing" depending on the context. The utterances of Asian languages generally, speaking, depend on context much more than English seems to and have less morphology even than English.

Words which are used to modify nouns or pronouns are usually referred to as adjectives
What remains is to say what we mean by "modify." That, boys and girls, is a toughie.

In English, as these definitions suggest, we seem to have a clear distinction between adjectives and verbs, at least on the surface. But Chinese and some other languages do not make a sharp distinction. "He bigs," for instance, could mean "He is big" or "He is growing" depending on the context. The utterances of Asian languages generally, speaking, depend on context much more than English seems to and have less morphology even than English.

So, if we make a sharp adjective-verb distinction for English, what are we to do with Chinese? Once one starts thinking about that and gives English a closer look, we find that perhaps the adjective-verb distinction is not as great in English as we thought. There are two prongs to our approach to resolving this conundrum.

It is widely agreed in linguistics that the major categories, of which the most important are noun phrase and verb phrase, have heads that share similarities with the phrase as a whole. Nouns are, of course, the heads of noun phrases. In some cases nouns exhibit number, as in the distinction between "boy" and "boys." This grammatical marker might seem to determine agreement in the verb for verbs that show it, as in
(1) The boy is happy.

(2) The boys are happy.

But what are we to do with:
(3) The boy and the girl are happy.

Here it is the noun phrase as a whole, not the constituent nouns, that is plural. It gets more complicated as language always does with a case like this:
(4) The boys or the girl is happy.

Nevertheless, both nouns and noun phrases are involved in number. So, determining parts of speech is a downward (from phrase to head) and an upward (from head to phrase) looking enterprise.

What are we to do with the following:
(5) John likes Mary.

(6) John is happy.
Arguably, both "likes Mary" and "is happy" are verb phrases. Suppose we adopt as our criterion for what is the head of a verb phrase that it bear number. Given that criterion, "likes" and "is" are our verbs. Now, in other contexts, "is" (i. e., "be" in one form or another) is a "helping verb." Examples are
(7) John is being arrested.

(8) John was arrested.
Here we would seem to want to say that the "main" verb or "true" head is "arrest" and "is" and "being" and "was" are helping verbs. But wait a minute. "Happy" in (6) sits right where "arrested" sits in (8), immediately after the verb "be." Moreover, the important content of the verb phrase in (6) is contributed by "happy" not "is." What is more, in many languages, and in some versions of African-American English Vernacular to boot, the verb "be" would not appear in a case like (6) unless it is negative or plural (but different languages handle these cases differently).

Now consider the fact that there are compound sentences in which we create ellipses in verb phrases. Consider

(9) John is going to the store and Joe is too.

(10) John was being arrested and Joe was too.

(11) John is happy today and Joe is too.
If we are to have a simple characterization of what is elided in these cases, we might want to consider the possibility that not only "is going to the store" is a verb phrase with "is" as its head but that "going to the store" is a verb phrase with "going" as its head. Similarly, "was being arrested" is a verb phrase with "was" as head; "being arrested" is a verb phrase with "being" as head; and "arrested is a verb phrase (note it could be extended with "by a policeman") with "arrested" as the head. This creates a hierarchy of verb phrases, one included within another, going down to the smallest verb phrase. This allows us to say that what is elided in every case is a verb phrase. I would argue, similarly, that "is happy today" is a verb phrase with "is" as head and "happy today" is a verb phrase with "happy" as the head -- as the head what? As the head verb.

I don't really expect all of you to believe this. I'm not sure I am 100% down with it myself, but the discussion should convince you not to take seriously or, at least, not to uncritically buy into the sorts of superficial grammatical analyses given by nitwits like James Kilpatrick or of grammarians that resort to silly or obtuse definitions of the sort we looked at above for adjectives.

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Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Interestingly enough, the linguistics theory in which I was “brought up” has a view of verbs and adjective that makes them quite similar. In this theory, parts of speech are defined, amongst other things, by their incidence, that is, what they need to stand (or, etymogically speaking, what they fall into). For example, nouns have a 0 incidence, meaning that they stand on their on, they don't need to fall into anything. They are fully meaningful by themselves.
Adjectives, on the other hand, have 1st degree incidence, they need something to be fulfilled, and this something (its "support") needs to have 0 incidence. The same is true of verbs, they need to hook to a noun (the subject). (Adverbs have 2nd degree incidence, they relate to something of a 1st degree, that is why they are used with either verbs or adjectives). Of course, one can always weird language and verb nouns. The main difference between verbs and adjectives lies in their "plane": the verbs lies the temporal plane: it is a word which is, grammatically speaking, concerned with time (in the words of Aristotle, it "consignifies" time).
Of course, the support need not be direct, and, in the case of the English infinitive, the form makes the verb into something closer to a noun than a verb.
(I'm not too sure I'm being clear, it's been a while and the theory in question can sometimes seem confusing).

4:24 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for the comment. I am unfamilar with the approach you describe. I am not sure what it means to say that noun phrases "can stand alone," "being fully meaningful on their own." There is a respect in which noun phrases are most straight forward -- they are less affected, for instance, by politeness considerations than are verb prases, where have "Could you do X?" and "Do X" and Can I get you to do X," etc all indicating, with different levels of politeness, the desire that the addressee do X.

However, linguistis of my theoretical ilk tend to think of verb phrases as the cores of sentences, which are treated as themselves a species of higher level verb phrase -- note that just as regular verb phrases might consist of a verb and a noun phrase -- "find Bill" -- a sentence consists of a verb phrase and a noun phrase -- "You (find Bill)." Moreover, superfically speaking, verb phrases can stand alone "Find Bill" to communicate something whereas a noun phrase like "John" or "The boy" couldn't communicate much of anything except, perhaps, as answer to a question such as "Whe found Bill?"

Does this theory have a name and could you provide a reference to a text?

7:44 AM

Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

As I said, it's king of hard to explain. But I'll try and have a go at it. Well, first of all, the theory is generally refered to as Psychomechanics. It's not that well known and has been plagued with a few misinterpretations. It has mostly been concerned with meaning (either at the semantic or syntactic level) but through it has been able to analyze grammatical phenomena.
As for the idea of incidence, here what I wrote a few years back:

"As for the construction of phrases, a particular concept needs to be discussed, that of incidence. The basic division, within ‘notional’ parts of speech, is between what has internal incidence (the noun) and what has external incidence and within this group, words with first degree incidence (the adjective, as well as the verb) and second degree (the adverb). That is to say that the adjective differs from the noun in that whereas the former refers to something outside itself (a noun) — external incidence (of the first degree) — the latter is, so to speak, self-contained — internal incidence. Adverbs refer to something which is not self-contained (adjectives, other adverbs or even verbs, which require the support of person) — external incidence of the second degree. Prepositions bridge two parts of a phrase. The relation thus established is from an import of meaning (e.g. an adjective) and the support (e.g. a noun).

When we say that one part of the utterance, the import (be it morpheme, word, phrase or even sentence), is made incident to another, the support, we mean that its meaning — the notional import — is brought to bear on the support which lies at the heart of the specific structure involved (NP, VP, sentence, etc.).

Syntax, in Psychomechanics, stems from the interplay of incidences. Like words, clauses can have internal incidence, as well as first and second degree external incidence (respectively, in noun clauses, relatives (adjectival clauses) and adverbial clauses). Within the sentence, the VP is supported by the subject NP, and in turn supports the direct object — and through the mediation of a preposition, any complement.

The relations between the various elements of the structure are, in Psychomechanics, pretty well defined within the viewpoint of iteration. There are in Psychomechanics no transformations, hence no D- or S-Structure, just the structure of the utterance and the underlying meaning."

Hope this helps clear up things.

As for finding Bill. First of all, I'd have to say that nouns can be used as sentences in other cases than the answer to a question, like when a director on the set that says "Lights!". In "Find Bill", the support of the verb is not overt, but is pragmatically present. This is what Psychomechanics refers to as "expressivity". Part of the sentence is elided to give it more force, make it more imperative.

8:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your Chinese example is actually quite strange. If the Chinese sentence reads "he big", it can only mean "it's he who is big (not someone else)". In standard Mandarin verbs and adjectives are quite different. If a bare adjective is used as a predicate it usually has an "intensifier" hen which means very, but in this case it has a purely formal role. Adjectives and verbs also have different reduplication patterns. They do however take the same aspectual/Aktionsart markers.

9:51 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

There are sources on the web that seem to support my position, such as one
that claims that "Chinese is an uninflected language" and "Chinese verbs include what in other languages would be recognized as adjectives" which, combined with your statement that "They do however take the same aspectual/Aktionsart markers" pretty much makes my point that there isn't a sharp adjective-verb distinction such as occurs in English. I think I oversimplified the chinese case with the example you discuss, which given, my lack of expertise in that language could very easily happen.

12:06 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morphologically the difference isn't sharp but then again no one has ever argued that parts of speech in Chinese should be established on morphological criteria. There is one grammatical marker in Mandarin that is used both postverbally and in sentence-final position. It would be clearly preposterous to argue that there is no difference between verbs and sentences just because of that :)

1:36 PM

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4:10 PM

Blogger Ahmed said...

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Parts of Speech in English Grammar

8:23 AM


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