Language and information

Lecture 4: The Nature of Language

4.4. Processes of development

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Now, as to how all these developmental stages got established, we have seen here that the fundamental processes of language can be understood as institutionalizations of customary use. This is the example I gave in the initial establishment of predication. The same can be said for specialized structures in various languages, which are, so to speak, much later in the development of languages.

I will give one example. It is the differentiation of operators into verbs, adjectives, and relational nouns like to be a father of. In the theory we have presented here, we didn't have verbs, adjectives, and relational nouns, we just had operators. Now, let's consider three operators: eat, close to (to be close to), and to be father of. In respect to the dependency relation, all of these require one thing, they require two zero-order words, let's say two concrete nouns. We can also consider, for instance, two operators, walk and ill (to be ill). Both require one concrete noun, one zero-level word. These operators in many languages are distinguished into verbs, adjectives, relational nouns. They are distinguished on secondary grounds of their relation to tense change. More exactly, the tenses can, arguably, be reduced from certain instances of before and after. Those operators which have high likelihood of changing, as between before and after within a discourse—that is, those which are more stative, and there is less chance that the tense would change inside of the discourse itself, these have the tense attached directly to them, and these became verbs, that's what we call verbs. It's those operators which have the tense attached directly to them, and one can argue that they have a special relation to tense, a greater likelihood of having tense specified, of having tense change with them. For those that did not have such a strong likelihood of tense change within the discourse, the tense was less closely involved with them. And in the case of those operators, the tense was carried by a separate word. In English—of course, there are other languages—well, in all languages, where they needed tense, it is carried by a separate word for an adjective. Yielding something like will be close to, not walked, for instance, but will be close to. Not the -ed—the future in this case—it's not attached directly, like walk, will walk, but it's attached via a be: close, will be close. Furthermore, for those words which were most stative, they took the morphology of arguments and became relational nouns: a father of, where a is the kind of attachment that is made on the zero-level words, the concrete nouns. Note that what we have here is not a likelihood, not a custom, but a demand. Because a departure from it is an error. If a person changes intermittently from being ill to being well, one cannot for that reason treat the word ill in English as a verb  in this case. One cannot say he illed just because the event was more like a verb. Ill has to be treated statively even when it is not stative. Here we have use being codified into a rule, being institutionalized.

Furthermore, the institutionalization of use can be seen in language even in historical times, as in the formation of the paraphrastic tenses. If we consider words like the perfect, for instance, which are tenses which have replaced—at least in French, they've not quite replaced in English—an earlier past tense, then we we see that something which was originally just a phrase—I have caught the fish—came originally from I have a fish; the fish is caught [or] in the state of my catching it, or something of this sort. [This] developed into I have caught the fish in a way where have caught is almost like a word; it is a fixed form, and is used even when the phrase originally would not be used—you say I have lost the fish, and you no longer have the fish when you have lost it, and so forth.