What are the Differences Between the Personal Pronouns “You” and “You Guys”?

By Michael Gasser

There are at least two differences.
More interesting than isolated differences in the words that are available in different languages is how the concepts within a particular domain are conveyed in different languages. A complete set of personal pronouns in my dialect of English includes the following: I, me, you, she, her, he, him, it, we, us, you guys, they, them. Note that I’m writing you guys as two words, but in most important ways it behaves like one word. For our present purposes, we can ignore the following group: me, her, him, us, them; we’re not really ready to discuss how they differ from the others. Among the ones that are left, let’s consider how they differ from each other. We have already seen how they differ with respect to person: I and we are first person; you and you guys are second person; she, he, it, and they are third person. We can view person as a dimension, a kind of scale along which concepts can vary. Each concept that varies along the dimension has a value for that dimension. The person dimension has only three possible values, first, second, and third, and each personal pronoun has one of these values.

Person is not just a conceptual dimension; it is a semantic dimension because the different values are reflected in different linguistic forms. That is, like words, semantic dimensions have both form and meaning. When we speak of “person”, we may be talking about form, for example, the difference between the word forms I and you, about meaning, for example, the difference between Speaker and Hearer, or about the association between form and meaning.

But person alone is not enough to account for all of the differences among the pronouns. It does not distinguish I from we, for example. These two words differ on another semantic dimension, number. I is singular: it refers to an individual. We is plural: it refers to more than one individual. What values are possible on the number dimension? Of course languages have words for all of the different numbers, but within the personal pronouns, there seem to be only the following possibilities: singular, dual (two individuals), trial (three individuals), and plural (unspecified multiple individuals). Of these trial is very rare, and, among our set of nine languages, dual is used only in Inuktitut. Thus Inuktitut has three first person pronouns, uvanga ‘I’, uvaguk ‘we (two people)’, uvagut ‘we (more than two people)’.

Given the two dimensions of person and number, we can divide up the English personal pronouns as shown in the table below. The third person pronouns fall into the singular group of three, she, he, and it, and the single plural pronoun they. The second person is more complicated. In relatively formal speech and writing, we use you for both singular and plural, but informally, at least in my dialect, we may also use you guys for the plural. (Note that other English dialects have other second person plural pronouns, you all – y’all, yunz, etc.) Thus we need to include both you and you guys in the plural column.

Furthermore, if a language is lacking a word for a particular concept, it is a simple matter for the speakers of the language to add a new word when they become familiar with the concept. One way for this to happen is through semantic extension of an existing word; we saw this earlier with mouse in English. Another way is to create a new word out of combinations of old words or pieces of old words; we will see how this works in in Chapter 5 and Chapter 8. A third, very common, way is to simply borrow the word from another language. Thus English speakers borrowed the word algebra from Arabic; Japanese speakers borrowed their word for ‘bread’, pan, from Portuguese; Amharic speakers borrowed their word for ‘automobile’, mekina, from Italian; and Lingala speakers borrowed their word for ‘chair’, kiti, from Swahili.
Clearly we need more dimensions to distinguish the words since two of the cells in our table contain more than one word. Among the third person singular pronouns, the remaining difference has to do with gender, whether the referent is being viewed as male, female, or neither. Instead of male and female, I will use the conventional linguistic terms masculine and feminine to emphasize that we are dealing with linguistic categories rather than biological categories in the world, and for the third value I will use neuter. Thus there are three possible values on the gender dimension for English, and three seems to be all that is needed for other languages, though some languages have a dimension similar to gender that has many more values.

That leaves the distinction between you and you guys in the plural. As we have already seen, this is related to formality, another semantic dimension and a very complicated one. I will have little to say about it here, except that it is related to the larger context (not just the utterance context) and to the relationship between the Speaker and Hearer. For example, language is likely to be relatively formal in the context of a public speech or when people talk to their employers. For now, let’s assume that the formality dimension has only two values, informal and formal. The table below shows the breakdown of the English personal pronouns along the four dimensions of person, number, gender, and formality.

Some Reasons Languages Differ Lexically

By Michael Gasser

So far we have endowed our Lexis (the level of language consisting of vocabulary vs. grammar or syntax) with an amazing capacity, one that to date has only been found among human beings. Over the generations, we can now invent a very large store of labels for individuals and categories of things in the world (even categories of things not in the world). And, equally important, we can pass on this store of labels to our children.
Now let’s imagine various tribes of Lexises in different parts of the world with no contact with each other. Each tribe will experience a different environment, containing its own potentially unique set of animals and plants and its own climate and geology. Each tribe will invent words for the things in its environment that matter to it, and we will naturally expect to find words for different things in each tribe. Modern languages also differ from each other in this way. Amharic has a word for hippopotamus because hippopotamuses are found in Ethiopia, but Inuktitut does not because hippopotamuses are not found (normally) in northern Canada.
We can also expect the cultures of the different tribes of Lexises to differ. This will result in several differences in their store of words. First, certain naturally occurring things will become more important. A tribe that makes pots out of clay will want a word for clay; another tribe may not bother. Second, as culture develops, there will be more and more cultural artifacts, that is, objects produced by the members of the culture. Naturally the tribe will want words for these as well, and if they are not producing them, they will not have such words. Finally, culture results in abstractions, concepts that do not represent (physical) things in the world at all: political units, social relationships, rituals, laws, and unseen forces. These will vary a great deal in their details from tribe to tribe, and we can expect these differences to be reflected in the words that each tribe comes up with.

Culture and Nouns

Modern languages also differ from each other in these ways. Amharic has the word agelgil meaning a leather-covered basket that Ethiopians used traditionally to carry prepared food when they traveled. Other languages don’t have a word for this concept. English now has the word nerd to refer to a particular kind of person who is fascinated with technology and lacking in social skills. This is a relatively new concept, specific to certain cultures, and there is probably no word for it in most languages.

Differences Within and Among Languages

Languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese have many specialized terms for computers and their use, whereas many other languages, such as Tzeltal and Inuktitut, do not. Does this represent some kind of fundamental limitation of these languages?
Finally we can also expect the store of words to vary among the individuals within each tribe. As culture progresses, experts emerge, people who specialize in agriculture or pottery or music or religion. Each of these groups will invent words that are not known to everyone in the tribe. Modern languages also have this property. A carpenter knows what a hasp is; I have no idea. I know what a morpheme is because I’m a linguist, but I don’t expect most English speakers to know this.

This brings up an important distinction, that between the words that a language has and the words that an individual speaker of the language knows. Because some speakers of languages such as Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have traveled all over the world and studied the physical environments as well as the cultures they have found, these languages have words for concepts such as hippopotamus and polygamy, concepts that are not part of the everyday life of speakers of these languages. Thus it is almost certainly true that Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have more words than Amharic, Tzeltal, Lingala, and Inuktitut. But this fact is of little interest to linguists and other language scientists, who are more concerned with what individual people know about their language (and sometimes other languages) and how they use this knowledge. There is no evidence that individual speakers of English or Japanese know any more words than individual speakers of Amharic or Tzeltal.

Where New Words Come From

Furthermore, if a language is lacking a word for a particular concept, it is a simple matter for the speakers of the language to add a new word when they become familiar with the concept. One way for this to happen is through semantic extension of an existing word; we saw this earlier with mouse in English. Another way is to create a new word out of combinations of old words or pieces of old words. A third, very common, way is to simply borrow the word from another language. Thus English speakers borrowed the word algebra from Arabic; Japanese speakers borrowed their word for ‘bread’, pan, from Portuguese; Amharic speakers borrowed their word for ‘automobile’, mekina, from Italian; and Lingala speakers borrowed their word for ‘chair’, kiti, from Swahili.

Language is the Way it is in Part Because of Human Constraints

By Michael Gasser

A constraint is a kind of limitation on what is possible. Consider constraints that come from the nature of the human body itself. For spoken language, the physical and physiological properties of the vocal tract constrain what can be produced, and the auditory system constrains what can be perceived. For sign language, the physical and physiological properties of the hands, arms, upper body, and face constrain what can be produced, and the visual system constrains what can be perceived.

Just as important are cognitive constraints, constraints arising from the nature of the human mind. First, there are limitations on human memory. Cognitive scientists divide human memory into short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory is used to temporarily store the information that is needed as we interpret the world around us. When we are faced with a complicated visual scene, we can’t look at everything at once, and we have to scan the scene in order to come up with some kind of interpretation. But we need to temporarily store some sort of record of what we’ve already seen in the scene as we do this. That information is kept in short-term memory. Likewise, when we are listening to a sentence, we need to remember the parts that we’ve already heard as we are trying figure out the meaning of the whole. Short-term memory is used for this as well. The same applies to reading and to the visual processing of sign language. Cognitive science research has shown that our short-term memory has a very restricted capacity, and this places strong constraints on how sentences and discourses are organized.

We use our long-term memory to store information that we learn through experience. Information may remain in long-term memory for a very long time, even indefinitely, and human long-term memory is very large, larger than the memory of any current computer. But long-term memory is still limited. We obviously do not have an infinite memory capacity, and just because we have stored an item in memory doesn’t mean we can retrieve it when we need it. We will see later how the finiteness of long-term memory matters for how language works.

Since languages have to be learned, limitations on human learning are obviously also relevant. This is perhaps the most complex and controversial topic of all. Everyone at least agrees that language must be learnable because children obviously learn it. That is, it must be possible to figure out the forms, the functions, the meanings, and the associations between them on the basis of the examples of language that are available to young children. It turns out that coming up with an explanation for how this might happen has proven to be very challenging though.

“Speaker” Orientation and “Hearer” Orientation

Finally there are constraints that are specific to the two ways in which language is processed, language production, that is, speaking, writing, and signing, and language comprehension, that is, listening, reading, and interpreting linguistic signs. To simplify matters, I will be referring to a language producer as the “Speaker”, even though writers and signers as well as speakers proper are intended. And I will be referring to a language comprehender as the “Hearer”, even though readers and sign interpreters as well as hearers proper are included. (To remind ourselves of these distinctions, I will capitalize Speaker and Hearer when they are used in this way.)

For the Speaker, the main constraint is that the production of linguistic forms be easy. It is easier for the Speaker to make relatively few distinctions because the Speaker has to remember what the distinctions are and to make the extra effort to keep things distinct. For example, maintaining the agreement between subject and verb in the present tense in English (the girl sings, the girls sing) requires an effort on the part of the Speaker. What is easy for the Speaker depends in turn on constraints from the body. For example, large movements of the tongue tip are more difficult to execute than short movements, so short movements should be preferred from the Speaker’s perspective.

For the Hearer, the main constraint is that linguistic forms that need to be distinguished can be easily distinguished in comprehension. This constraint also depends on the body, specifically the parts of the nervous system that are responsible for hearing (for spoken language) and vision (for written and signed language). For example, if a language contains a large number of homophones, that is, different words which sound the same (such as two, too, and to in English), this may put a burden on the Hearer.

Speaker-oriented constraints and Hearer-oriented constraints often oppose each other; what simplifies things for the Speaker (for example, not making many distinctions) complicates things for the Hearer. The opposition of Speaker orientation and Hearer orientation is particularly clear as languages change. Languages change for a variety of reasons — contact with other languages, imperfect learning by children, random fluctuation — but it appears that all languages are always changing. Most of the changes can be seen as either Speaker-oriented or Hearer-oriented. For example, the grammar of a language may become simplified as some suffixes are dropped, a change that seems to result in less work for the Speaker. But the two kinds of trends always balance each other out in the end, and the simplification of the grammar in one way will probably be compensated for by an increase in complexity (from the perspective of the Speaker) somewhere else in the grammar of the language. Otherwise language would fail as a communicative device. These built-in pressures in favor of the Speaker and the Hearer apparently prevent the world’s languages from moving in some general overall direction. That is, at least in recent history, it does not appear that languages have generally been getting simpler or more complicated (in any sense of these words) as they evolve.

Language Sciences as Cognitive Sciences

By Michael Gasser

We can study language as a system independent of the people who use it, or we can study language behavior, focusing on use. It cannot be enough to study language as a system in its own right (though it might be useful some of the time to do this) or to study product rather than process (though again it may be useful some of the time). Also the border between language and non-language is not necessarily a clear one and not something we should spend much time worrying about. So I will try to look at it both ways, to see how the “system/product” perspective and “behavior/process” perspective both contribute to an understanding of how language works.

I didn’t invent this position of course. A number of other people have defended one or another aspect of it. On the need to consider cognitive processes outside of language in order to understand language, cognitive linguists like Ronald Langacker and George Lakoff have made this case in many of their writings, in which they invoke general psychological notions such as attention, categorization, and memory. On the need to treat language as “process”, a very convincing argument was made in 1983 by the computer scientist Terry Winograd in his important book “Language as a Cognitive Process”(1983).
Language associates meaning and function with form and that understanding how language works requires that we focus on these associations. Linguistic form concerns the way a linguistic expression sounds (for spoken language) or looks (for written or signed language) or how a linguistic expression is produced.

There are two ways of looking at “form”. The usual way within linguistics is to think of form as a “sequence of elements”. For written language this is a natural way to treat form because written sentences are sequences of elements (characters). For spoken or signed language, it is less so. Treating a stretch of spoken or signed language as a sequence of elements means in effect focusing on the written transcription of the language in terms of units of sound or primitive gestures of some sort. This approach tends to play down the role of time, to look at a stretch of language as a static object. An alternative and more radical way of looking at form (at least for spoken or signed language) is to treat a stretch of language as something inherently continuous and dynamic, something that cannot (or should not) be transcribed as a written sequence of elements. I will usually discuss linguistic form in the first way, mostly because this is the way it is usually done and because it seems to simplify the analysis. But I will also insert periodic warnings about the biases that are built into this approach. One particular bias we should be aware of is one based on literacy; that is, as skilled users of alphabets, we may tend to think of spoken and signed language in this way.

I will use meaning to refer to what language is about, the concepts that words and linguistic patterns refer to. By concept I will mean a unit of cognitive experience, a way people have of abstracting over their experiences in the world. For example, in a baby’s experience the same face keeps appearing over it, and the baby abstracts over these different occurrences of face-appearing the concept of daddy. In this book labels for concepts will often appear like this. If the nature of form in the study of language is controversial, the nature of meaning is even more so. Some people deny that there is such a thing as meaning or that talking about meaning is helpful or that there is a consistent way to define “meaning” or “concept” or “about.” I will try to take these positions seriously in this book, but the fact is that I don’t know how to even get started without looking at the pole of language that is opposed to form.

Concepts Without Words

Whatever we mean by concepts, it is clear that not all of them are associated with words. Words are linguistic; concepts need not be. We all have concepts that we have no words or grammatical patterns for. For example, one concept I have is the little depressed region bounded by two vertical ridges that is found between the nose and the middle of the upper lip. I have no idea what to call that place (though I’m pretty sure it has a name in at least some languages); that concept does not represent the meaning of a word for me.

Another point to note here is that meanings do not need to be seen as thing that are “out there” in the world. Since the stand taken is that language is basically a cognitive phenomenon, this would be a strange way to think about meaning. Instead I will be treating meanings as things that are “in here”, cognitive entities realized in our brains, depending on our interpretation of what’s out there and including imagined entities that aren’t “out there” at all (though they are inevitably based on things that are).

I will use function in two senses, first, for the uses that people put language to and second, for the uses that particular words or patterns have within stretches of language. It is the former sense that concerns us here. People use language to refer, to assert, to command, to convince, to get information, to entertain, to deceive, and much more, and these uses of language obviously have something to do with the forms that they choose. For example, if you want somebody to lend you their computer, you don’t say “you will lend me your computer”, you say something like “could I borrow your computer?”.

Many people who study language make a distinction between function in this sense (part of what they call “pragmatics”) and meaning (what they may call “semantics”). I would argue instead that the difference is a matter of degree, but that there’s not much point in worrying about where the line between pragmatics and semantics is.

Why Some Languages Resemble Each Other

By Michael Gasser

We’ve seen how as we extend the boundaries of speech communities, we get fewer and fewer shared conventions. When we reach the level of a language such as English, Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese, we have a speech community which shares a set of conventions (in some cases a standard dialect) which allows people in the community to communicate with one another despite dialect differences. But we can go beyond a language. So for English, we could extend the boundaries to include the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and some other regions in western Europe. We’d now find a much smaller set of shared conventions. All speakers in this large “community”, for example, share a word meaning ‘all’ which is similar in pronunciation to the English word “all”. But there would be no reason to call this set of conventions a “language” since the speakers obviously do not understand each other and do not belong to a single political unit with a single standard dialect. Instead we refer to this set of conventions, or set of languages, as a “language family”. In this case, the Germanic languages. The members of a language family resemble each other because they are genetically related; that is, historically they derived from a common ancestor language. (Note that this use of the word genetic differs somewhat from its use in biology; the speakers of Germanic languages are not necessarily genetically closer to one another than they are to the speakers of other languages.) The ancestor of the modern Germanic languages was not a written language, so we can only infer what it was like.

In most cases we can go even further back; the ancestor languages of two or more families themselves may have had a common ancestor language. Thus the modern Romance languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian; the modern Germanic languages; and many other languages spoken today in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, apparently descended from a much older (and also unwritten) language. This means we can group all of these languages into a single family, in this case the one we call Indo-European. Sometimes, to distinguish the lower from the higher levels within a family tree of languages, we use “language family” only for the largest grouping (for example, Indo-European) and “branch” to refer to groupings within this (for example, Germanic and Romance). Note that there may be many intermediate levels in the family tree of languages. Within Germanic, for example, there is North, including the Scandinavian languages, and West, including English, Dutch, and German.

Note also that languages may resemble each other in one way or another for reasons other than a genetic relationship. The main non-genetic source of similarity is language contact; when the speech communities for two language are in close cultural contact, their languages often influence one another. So modern Japanese vocabulary includes thousands of words borrowed from Chinese and uses the Chinese writing system (as well as writing systems specific to Japanese). But, except in the sense that all human languages may be ultimately related to one another, there is no evidence that Japanese is genetically related to Chinese. A more complicated situation occurred in Western Asia with the complicated cultural influences among people speaking Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. These three languages belong to separate language families (Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, and Altaic, respectively), which are either unrelated to one another or only very distantly related, but Turkish and Persian have borrowed many words from Arabic, Turkish has also borrowed many words from Persian, and Persian borrowed its writing system from Arabic.

Standard Dialects

By Michael Gasser

The following appears on the website of a person who spent some time in Pittsburgh: “probably relating to the rest of Pittsburgh’s terrible dialect, which I, fortunately, did not pick up”. Why would some dialects be thought of as “terrible”?
Some dialects within a language may be singled out for special status. When we’re dealing with a political unit, such as a nation, in which related dialects are spoken by most people, one dialect is often treated as the standard dialect. The standard dialect is often the only dialect that is written, and it is the one that is taught in schools and (with some exceptions) used in the media. Thus in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland, it is Standard German that is taught in the schools and used in broadcasting, even though most people in this region are not native speakers of the Standard German dialect. This means that most people in the German-speaking countries end up bidialectal. The same situation holds in Japan, where it is Standard Japanese, based on Tokyo dialect, that is taught in the schools and used in the media. Note how this makes it possible to speak of a German or Japanese speech community, even when the native dialects of people in these communities are very different from one another, because all educated speakers in these communities share the standard dialect, often as a second dialect.

So what do we mean when we say “German” or “Japanese”? There are two possibilities. “German” could mean Standard German, that is, one of the set of dialects spoken in Germany and also the basis of written German. Or it could mean the collection of related dialects, some mutually unintelligible, which are spoken in Germany and other countries where Standard German is the official language (Austria) or one of the official languages (Switzerland). When linguists refer to “German” or “Japanese”, without specifying the dialect, they normally mean the standard dialect.

Dialects of English in the US and England

In the United States, the situation is somewhat simpler than in Germany or Japan because the differences among most of the dialects are not nearly as great; native speakers of English in the United States have little trouble understanding each other. (An important exception is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), spoken mainly by many African-Americans.) As in Germany and Japan, we have an (informal) standard dialect, for vocabulary, grammar, and usage, if not for pronunciation. Thus children in Pittsburgh learn in school to write sentences like the school needs to be renovated rather than the school needs renovated, which would be grammatical in their local dialect. Americans tend to be relatively tolerant of differences in accent, however. Teachers in schools throughout the country teach the standard grammar but use their own local pronunciation. If we have a standard accent, it is the one people associate with television announcers, the accent characteristic of much of the Midwest and the West. This accent is called General American; I will have more to say about it later.

The situation in England is similar to that in the United States, and the standard vocabulary, grammar, and usage that children learn to write in English schools are very similar to the American standard. However, in England, there is a stronger idea of a standard accent than in the United States and more pressure for children to learn this accent if it differs from their home accent. This accent is referred to as Received Pronunciation (RP); it is based on the speech of educated speakers in southern England. (Note that RP is standard English English pronunciation, not British English; in Scotland, there is a quite different standard accent.)

“Just” a “Dialect” or a Full-blown “Language”

The existence of a single standard dialect among a set of non-standard dialects has important social implications. The non-standard dialects have less prestige, and their use may be discouraged in formal situations, not just situations in which writing is called for. Sometimes, as in the Ryukyu Islands in Japan or in some regions of France and Spain, this leads to the decline and possible death of the non-standard “dialects” (which would be considered languages by the mutual intelligibility criterion). In other situations, speakers of non-standard dialects retain pride in their local speech patterns, while recognizing that they are not appropriate in certain situations. Finally, this pride, along with other cultural differences separating the speakers of the non-standard dialect from the speakers of other dialects (non-standard or standard), may lead to pressure to have non-standard dialects given official status, especially if they differ significantly from the standard. At this point the words dialect and language become politically charged terms because the supporters of official status for the non-standard dialect may feel the need to argue that it is not “just” a dialect of the larger language but rather a language in its own right. This has happened in the United States with AAVE and in Europe with many languages that are normally considered “dialects” of other languages.

What is a Language?

By Michael Gasser

How would you tell someone (say, an alien with no knowledge of human culture) what English is, without using the word language?
We can of course extend the boundaries in our example even further, beyond North America to include England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, a number of Caribbean countries, and communities within many other countries. This large speech “community” is not really a community in the usual sense of the word, but it does share many conventions. For example, in all of these places, speakers make a question from a sentence like he ate potatoes by inserting the word did and changing the form of the verb ate: did he eat potatoes?, and of course speakers in all of these places share the word potato for referring to a class of tuberous vegetables. The conventions of this large “community” are what we refer to as “English”, which we consider a language. Thus in one sense a language is a set of dialects. In another sense it is (like a dialect) a set of conventions shared by a speech community.

Two Dialects of One Language or Two Separate Languages?

But how do we decide when a collection of dialects is a language and not just another, more general dialect? As we’ve already seen, a dialect can also be a set of dialects (the North American English dialect consists of Southern dialect, New England dialect, Canadian dialect, etc.). What makes English a language and not just another very general dialect? What makes Canadian English a dialect of English and not a language in its own right?

The answer to this question is complicated. In fact there is no clear answer because the words dialect and language are used in different ways for different purposes. There are two completely different kinds of criteria related to the distinction between dialect and language, linguistic criteria and social or political criteria.

Linguistic Criteria

Given two overlapping sets of linguistic conventions associated with two different speech communities, for example, Mexican Spanish and Argentine Spanish, how do we decide whether they should count as two dialects or two separate languages? One criterion is the degree of overlap: how similar are the vocabulary, the pronunciation, the grammar, and the usage? Unfortunately there’s no simple wat to measure this overlap, at least no way that researchers would agree on. One way to have a sense of the overlap, though, is mutual intelligibility, the extent to which speakers from the two or more speech communities can understand each other. Mutual intelligibility is also not easy to measure, and it is often based on the impressions of speakers and hearers, how much they understand when they encounter members of the other group or how long it takes them to get accustomed to the speech of the other group. We also need to establish some sort of intelligibility threshold; no two speakers can be expected to understand each other all of the time. So none of this is precise at all. The idea is simply that if two sets of linguistic conventions are similar enough so that their speakers can usually understand each other, then the two sets of conventions should count as dialects of the same language rather than separate languages. On these grounds, we call Mexican Spanish and Argentine Spanish dialects of the same language (Spanish) because speakers of these dialects normally have little trouble understanding each other.

To find out what should count as a separate language on grounds of mutual intelligibility, a good resource is Ethnologue – an online database of all of the world’s known languages, 6,912 according to their current listing. The Ethnologue compilers attempt to use mutual intelligibility to decide what should count as a language. While English is listed as a single language, both German and Italian are listed as multiple languages. Each of these languages, for example, the variety of Italian called Sicilian, is usually referred to as a “dialect”, but, according to the Ethnologue compilers, these are distinct enough to be considered separate languages. Again, the criterion of mutual intelligibility is a rough one, and some of Ethnologue’s claims are controversial.

Social and Political Criteria

Another sort of criterion for what counts as a dialect is the social or political unity of the group in question. In Bavaria, a state in southern Germany, and in parts of Austria most people speak a dialect called Bavarian or Austro-Bavarian, which on grounds of mutual intelligibility could be considered a language distinct from the speech of Germans and Austrians in other regions. Ethnologue calls Bavarian a language. But Bavarian is clearly closely related to those other dialects and not more closely related to dialects of some other language, and so for mainly political reasons, it is convenient to consider it a dialect of the German “language”, rather than a language in its own right. Something similar can be said about the speaking conventions of the older generation in the Ryukyu Islands in southern Japan (because these dialects are dying out, most young people do not speak them). On the basis of mutual intelligibility, we could divide the island dialects into several separate languages, each distinct from the Japanese language. But the Ryukyu Islands are politically part of Japan, and these dialects are clearly related to Japanese and not related at all to any other known language (unless we consider each of them to be a language). So for political reasons, it is convenient to consider them dialects of Japanese, just as the dialect of Osaka is considered a dialect of Japanese.
Mutually intelligible “languages”

At the other extreme are examples like the languages spoken in the northern European countries Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. These “languages” are all related to one another, and speakers from some pairs of countries within these have little difficulty understanding one another when they are speaking the standard dialects of their languages, despite the obvious differences, especially in pronunciation. Thus on grounds of mutual intelligibility, we might consider some of these “languages” to be dialects of a single language. But Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are official “languages” of separate countries, and there are separate spelling conventions for some of the sounds in the languages.

Actually the situation is even more complex than this because Norway has two official dialects, and a fourth related language, Faroese, is spoken in the Faroe Islands, which are administered by Denmark.

So for mainly political reasons, they are considered separate languages rather than dialects of a single language.

To summarize, the line between dialects of one language and separate languages is somewhat arbitrary. However, wherever we draw the line, three points should be clear:

  1. Every language has multiple dialects.
  2. Every speaker of every language is also a speaker of at least one dialect of that language.
  3. Since the pronunciation conventions of a dialect constitute an accent, every speaker of every language speaks with some accent. There is no such thing as “speaking without an accent”.

Dialects and Languages

By Michael Gasser

Two Americans are talking about a couple they have just met.
“She sounded English to me, but he doesn’t seem to have any accent at all.”
Two English people are talking about the same couple.
“He sounded American to me, but she doesn’t seem to have any accent at all.”
What’s going on here? Who has the accent?

What I know about my language and how to use it is called my “idiolect”. It almost certainly varies in minor ways from the idiolects of all other speakers. But what is an idiolect? That is, what kinds of things do I know? In one sense, this whole book is an answer to that question, but we need to have a first cut at the answer here to help us get started. I know words. I have a vocabulary, a set of words which I know how to pronounce and use appropriately. For example, I know how to say the word apple, I know that it refers to a particular type of fruit, I come up with this word when I want to refer to a particular apple, and I understand it when I hear it.
I know how to pronounce words and combinations of words more generally. That is, there are aspects of pronunciation that go beyond individual words. For example, I know to pronounce the ending that we spell -ed like /t/ in words like picked and watched but to pronounce it like /d/ in words like signed and burned.
I know how to put words together into sentences in meaningful ways. For example, I know that if I want to ask when a particular train leaves I can say when does the train leave?, but not when leaves the train?.
I know how to use language appropriately to achieve my goals. I know that if I want a friend to lend me $100, it is better to say I was wondering if you could lend me some money than to say give me $100.
I’ll be much more careful later on about how each of these types of knowledge is described, but for now I’ll say (informally) that my idiolect involves knowledge about vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage.

Of course no one is really interested in describing idiolects. Linguists and other language scientists study the speech of communities of people, not of individuals. More specifically, they study the knowledge of vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage that is shared by the members of a speech community. Because the members of the community agree on this knowledge, because it differs (at least in some ways) from the knowledge shared by other communities, and because it is mostly arbitrary, I will refer to the knowledge as linguistic conventions.

But what is a speech community? I will use this term to refer to any group of people that shares a set of linguistic conventions differing in some noticeable way from the conventions found elsewhere. You may know that in the United States people in some cities have some characteristic features in their pronunciation, although they are easily understood by people elsewhere in the United States. For example, people native to Pittsburgh are known for using you uns (or yinz) to mean ‘you plural’. Here’s an example from the (partly tongue-in-cheek) “Pittsburghese” website: if yinz wants served, raise your hands. The number of conventions that distinguish Pittsburghers from other English speakers in the northeastern United States is actually pretty small, but because there is such a set of conventions, we can consider these people to be a speech community. The speech patterns, that is, conventions of vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage, of a speech community are called a dialect, so we can speak of a “Pittsburgh dialect”.
Note that a dialect may not be defined entirely on the basis of its physical location. Cities often contain a variety of ethnic and social groups with different speech patterns. For example, the African-American population of many US cities (for example, Pittsburgh) often has a quite different dialect from the Euro-American population of the same cities.

Which dialect do you speak?

There may be a number of possible answers.
What about larger communities? Pittsburghers share some speech conventions with speakers in other cities of the northeast and north midwest, for example, their pronunciation of the a in a word like hands, as in the example above (more on this pronunciation later on). And people in that larger region share some conventions with people in an even larger region encompassing speakers in most of the northern and western United States, for example, their pronunciation of the long English vowels (bite, beat, bait, boat, etc.). And people in that even larger region share many conventions with English speakers all over North America, including most of their grammar and usage conventions, as well as a number of pronunciation conventions, for example, the tendency to pronounce the words latter and ladder in roughly the same way.

This idea of larger and larger communities, each sharing fewer and fewer conventions, is an over-simplification in one sense. The fact is that the boundaries of the communities overlap in many ways. If we look at particular vocabulary, we may find a region with one boundary, whereas if we look at other vocabulary or at some pronunciation convention, we may find another boundary. For example, Pittsburghers tend to say pop (as opposed to soda or some other word) for carbonated drinks, and they share this convention with many speakers in the northern midwestern cities who also share their pronunciation of the vowel in hands, but not with speakers to the east of them, in New York City, for example, who share the pronunciation but not the word. (New Yorkers tend to say soda rather than pop.) Thus where we draw the boundaries around a dialect depends on which convention or set of conventions we’re looking at.
Another way what I’ve said so far is an over-simplification is that there is great variation within any of these regions. Some of this variation has to do with the constant contact between dialects that is a fact of life in most communities. Some of the variation also has to do with the fact that people often know a range of ways to say things and they may sometimes avoid their local dialect in favor of a standard in certain situations.
Each of these shared sets of conventions, whether at the level of a small village, a subculture within a city, or a larger region, is a dialect. And a linguist can be interested in describing any level and any aspect of the dialect at any level (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, usage). The pronunciation associated with a dialect is called an accent.

The Content of Research on Language

By Michael Gasser

Language, even a particular individual language, is far too complex a subject to be studied in its entirety by any one researcher. There is a higher-level distinction we can make concerning what research is supposed to be about, between the study of language as system and the study of language behavior. In either of these two cases, the language scientist is normally studying only some aspect of the phenomenon, one or more of four sorts of things about a language (or dialect): its sounds, its words, its grammar, and its use in context. A researcher interested in the sounds of the language (or dialect) might try to figure out what the basic sounds of the language are, how they combine to form words, or how speakers produce the sounds. Many researchers in this area believe that it is possible to study the sounds of a language more or less independently from the other aspects of the language.

A second area of research is the words of a language, usually thought of as organized in some sort of abstract dictionary, referred to as the lexicon. A researcher interested in words might study how speakers find words when they are formulating sentences or how abstract meanings build on simpler meanings (how is over in get over a problem related to over in jump over the puddle?).

Another possible kind of research would try to characterize what counts as a possible sentence in the language, that is, what’s grammatical in the language. It is not as easy as it might seem to define this concept. We must be careful to avoid any bias on the speaker’s part based on what they have heard from teachers of their language in school because what we care about is what people actually say, not what someone tells them they should say.

But we also cannot just treat any sentence that occurs as grammatical because people make speech errors. By “errors”, we do not mean that they break rules that apply to dialects other than theirs (for example, by saying ain’t or he don’t). Instead we mean slips of the tongue, false starts, and hesitations. For example, the following example includes several speech errors.

Well, I think you … I mean, the … the … um, this isn’t coming out right at all.
People produce such “sentences” all the time, but they clearly also know that there is something wrong with them. That is, linguists probably do not want their descriptions of a language to include such sequences. So grammatical sentences are possible sentences that do not contain speech errors.

This is not to say that there is nothing interesting about speech errors. In fact, like human errors more generally, they can give us lots of insights about the underlying mechanisms. There is a whole community of researchers that take speech errors of one kind or another as the data they try to explain.

Degrees of Grammaticality

But there is another complexity; grammaticality doesn’t seem to be an all-or-none matter. That is, while some forms may be completely acceptable to all of the speakers of a given dialect all of the time and other forms may be completely unacceptable to all of the speakers all of the time, there may also be intermediate cases that are not so clear. For example, some English speakers use a chalk for a stick (or piece) of chalk; others would be less comfortable with this (though they would not find it as unacceptable as, say, a clay for a lump of clay). There may even be variation within a single speaker. For example, an English speaker may say for my wife and me on some occasions and for my wife and I on others.

Returning to the examples we see that by the definition of grammaticality that linguists work with, such sentences as this one may be perfectly grammatical for the person who said it: “He don’t mean nothin”.

A complete description of the grammar of these people (and the community of speakers that they belong to) would have to specify just what counts as a grammatical sentence and what doesn’t (for example, he don’t nothin’ mean or he don’t meant nothin’), possibly singling out areas of grammar where there is disagreement and variation among the speakers. This description would obviously have to say something about word order and about which forms can go with which other forms (“meant” can a perfectly good word in a dialect, but not following don’t).

But some linguists are not satisfied with just describing the grammatical sentences because this says nothing about what those sentences are for. Instead these linguists are concerned with describing how meanings and functions of language relate to words and grammatical sentences. So a grammatical sentence (for some English speakers) doesn’t help us understand how this sentence conveys information about some person familiar to the hearer and about the speaker’s belief about that person’s intentions. Hence, what should we be saying how language accomplishes things for speakers and hearers?

Finally, those same linguists who are interested in how sentences convey meaning may also be interested in describing a fourth sort of aspect of the language, a sort of “correctness” that is different from grammaticality. A sentence can be grammatical and meaningful — that is, the words and grammatical patterns in the sentence can sound right and correctly describe some possible situation in the world — but the sentence can still be inappropriate. Consider the following sentence:”There is no life on the moon.”

This sentence makes perfect sense and describes a true state of affairs. But if you walked up to a stranger on the street and said it, they’d think you were crazy. It would not be an appropriate way to begin (or end, for that matter) a conversation with a stranger. Just as speakers of a language have knowledge about what is grammatical in their language, they also have knowledge about what is appropriate.

Learners’ Errors

Of course not everyone who uses a language or dialect knows how to do so grammatically and appropriately in all situations. In particular, language learners have only imperfect knowledge of the language or dialect they are learning, and they can be expected to make errors. Children learning English as a first language may say “doos” for juice or me up when they want to be picked up. Teenaged speakers of English as a first language may still commit errors of appropriateness, using informal expressions such as bigtime in formal contexts. And adults learning English as a second language may say “diss” or “dees” for this or I make the homework for I am doing the homework. We consider these to be errors, but there are only errors from the perspective of the system defined by the behavior of the adult native speakers of the language or dialect that is being learned. Such examples can also be seen relative to the learner’s own linguistic system, which has its own pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and patterns of usage. Researchers studying second-language learning often find it useful to treat the learner’s knowledge of the second language as a sort of language in its own right, what they call “inter-language”.

Attitudes Toward the Speech of Others

By Michael Gasser

You overhear the following conversation.
A: Did you hear those two girls talking? “He don’t mean nothin’.” “I seen it.” “Me and him fought.” Can’t they learn to speak English?
B: I know what you mean. They’re just lazy, if you ask me.
What do you think of comments like this? Do speakers from some regions or speakers belonging to some social or ethnic groups tend to be lazier than others in their speech?

As you certainly know, people are quite conscious of how they differ from people from other regions, social groups, or ethnic groups. They notice differences in dress, in food, in patterns of social interaction, in which qualities are valued or attract attention. And it is natural to evaluate these features of other groups, to think of their dress as fashionable or weird, to think of their food as tasteless or gross, to think of their social behaviors as friendly or offensive. The same is true for language. People hear speech that differs from their own and they may find it sloppy, elegant, or monotonous. These impressions may also be associated with the languages of particular groups rather than, or in addition to the people themselves: we may find a certain language more expressive, more logical, even more masculine. What’s the source of these impressions? Are they accurate?

Differences Between Languages

Undeniably communities of people do tend to differ. To take an obvious example, food preparation is more important in some cultures than others; some cultures are famous the world over for their cuisine. For language, the differences are again obvious to anyone. It’s not just that languages sound different. Some languages make distinctions — in sounds, in words, in grammar — that others don’t. And people learning a second language often have trouble making the distinctions that aren’t part of their first language. What we naturally notice, as speakers of a particular language, is what is “missing” in other languages and what kinds of mistakes second-language learners make in trying to speak our language. This may lead us, consciously or unconsciously, to think there is something deficient about the other language or even about the speakers of the other language. It is very difficult for us to see it from the other perspective, to see that we also fail to make distinctions that matter in the other language and have trouble making them when we try to learn that language.

For example, as speakers of English, we may be surprised to find that Japanese has no words corresponding to English a and the – words that are so basic to English we may almost take them for granted. And we may be struck by the errors that Japanese learners of English make in trying to master these words. Similarly, we are struck by the confusions Japanese learners may have in pronouncing English words with the sounds that we write with l and r, a distinction not made in Japanese. But these same Japanese speakers may be surprised when they first learn that English has only one word for ‘you’ (Japanese has at least six possibilities) and struck by the tendency of English-speaking learners of Japanese to always use the same word for ‘you’. And they are similarly struck by the difficulty English-speaking learners of Japanese have with distinctions in vowel length and pitch change, distinctions that don’t exist in English.

In fact there is no evidence that people in some cultures speak in sloppier or more elegant or more monotonous ways than people in other cultures. And while languages do differ in striking ways, these different features seem to balance each other out. As far as we know, all languages are equally expressive, equally logical.

But the example in the box above doesn’t concern two different languages; it concerns a single language, English, and its speakers. The fact is that there is also considerable variation within English (or any other major language); that is, English has dialects. The main point to be made is that what linguists have learned about the essential equality of languages applies to dialects as well. Though it is often even harder for people to accept this fact for dialects than for languages, as far as anyone knows, there is nothing inherently inferior or superior about any dialect of any language.

Linguistic Chauvinism and Intolerance

So if impressions like those of the speakers in the box above have no basis in fact, where do they come from? There are three possibilities. First, these people may have been told by an authority, for example, an English teacher, that certain usages are just plain wrong. Clearly, the reasoning would go, anyone who knows this should not be using those forms. The fact is that what is “wrong” is all relative. The girls quoted in the conversation in the box would almost certainly find it wrong to say it doesn’t mean anything when speaking to each other. If they wrote it don’t mean nothin’ in a school essay, on the other hand, that would be another matter (though it would still not be reason to call them lazy; it would just be evidence that they had not learned the rules of the variety of English that is appropriate in school. Second, these people may have a stereotype concerning the group in question, and they may be transferring that stereotype to the speech of that group. Third, what they hear differs from the English they speak, and people may be quite intolerant when it comes to speech. Especially if they belong (or believe they belong) to a political, economic, or intellectual elite, their view may be something like the following: “the way I speak the language is the right way; any other way is wrong”.

Whatever the reason for the impressions of A and B in the box, a linguist would respond to them by saying that the two girls were simply speaking a different dialect of English, a dialect with its own grammar.