Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Language, Semantics and Pragmatics   1 comment

Posted at 8:19 pm in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thomas, L & Wareing, S (1999): Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

In my last blog post I outlined some of the basic principles of linguistics. This week I will be going into more detail regarding this discipline and attempting to highlight areas of relevance to my topic, Organisation. As I mentioned in both last weeks blog and my initial statement of my intent to study linguistics, I am interested in finding out how language shapes social organisation and forms bonds, both within and between different communities and cultures. This blog post will look at the how language exists and is structured, and then how it can be used on basic levels to encourage and enforce social interaction.

Understanding Language.

Noam Chomsky argued that anyone who has learnt a language must have, at some point in their development, internalised a set of rules regarding the proper use of that language. In some ways, language can be thought of as a game, with rules and players, as well as being turn based. Linguists see language as having a functional role in human life; some examples of these functions are;

  • Obtaining information. Eg: “What colour is the sky?” “The sky is blue.”
  • Creating action. Eg: “Come with me!”
  • Enforcing social bonds. Eg: “Well done!”

Of course language is extremely flexible, and these functions often interact when we are communicating. For example, the conversation:

“Can you go outside and tell me what colour the sky is?”

“Yes…the sky is blue”

“Thank you”

shows language being used to first create action, then to supply information and finally to supply social kudos to the actor. Similarly, the sentence;

“Come with me if you want to live!”

is an example of information being supplied to influence an action. Such common multiplicity in language shows how useful it is in quickly dealing with many different situations which we find ourselves in daily. While many animals have ways of communicating information and action through sound (in fact, the sentence “come with me if you want to live” is one of the most commonly communicated messages in the animal kingdom, next to “we should have sex”), only humans have the capacity to construct complex meaning and abstraction in language. To elaborate, animals communicate what is immediately relevant, such as immediate observations and feelings;

“I am hungry, where is the food?”

“The food is in this tree”

whereas humans can communicate past and future experiences with a descriptive element;

“The banana I ate this morning was delicious!”

“I want a banana too!”

“Well you’ll have to go to the banana tree, climb it, and get one for yourself”

Imagining a solution to a problem is only useful to a society if it can be quickly and effectively communicated to members, and in this respect humans are extremely advantaged thanks to language.

Language construction and semantics.

Language, in its most basic format, is made up of phonemes, which are the smallest sounds which distinguish two words. For example p and b in the English language are phonemes, as they distinguish words such as pit and bit. Phonemes expand to create groups of consonants and vowels, which make up words. Words are then characterised with semantics. Semantics is extremely important in understanding language, as words are far from universally recognisable. Identical words can have far from identical meanings, and humans have evolved to carry out internal logical inference to assess the semantics of a word or sentence. For example, someone who heard the word “duck” while standing on a golf course may logically infer that they need to carry out an immediate action, and someone who heard the same word spoken by a child standing next to a lake might logically infer that the child is referring to the species of bird. Semantics, then, allows us to understand the language we hear and make decisions regarding its usefulness.

Of course, sometimes these decisions are wrong, no matter how logical the thought processes are, and language semantics can become very complicated very quickly. Many words in languages share common semantic components, for example “bull” and “man” both refer to adult male mammals, but we cannot use the terms interchangeably, except as similes. Humans get around this problem of this component overlap in language by working from established prototypes. When one thinks of a bird, one does not tend to think of a penguin, but of a robin, which is closer to the prototypical bird. However, because language is constantly evolving, prototypes can be endemic to certain social groups and certain social settings. If you overhear the word “bird” used by a group of men of a certain age in the local pub, you would be forgiven for assuming that these men are referring to a particular woman, and are not members of your local RSPB branch. This kind of word fuzziness makes logical inference so important when communicating, but shows that it can, on occasion, be incorrect. When humans are unfamiliar with words they hear in a language that they recognise, they can usually solve this problem by asking for clarification; “Excuse me, when you say bird, what do you mean?” and then storing this information as a new internal subset rule of language, something like:

IF SPEAKER= Simon, ENVIRONMENT= Pub, WORD=’Bird’ THEN INFER word= ‘woman’.

And in this way language semantics can constantly evolve and adapt as an individual moves through various social groups and environments.


Continuing this discussion of the unpredictable nature of language, we can discuss pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of unpredictable language use, and its creation is commonly attributed to philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988), who identified efficient communication between humans in four maxims of conversation;

  • Quantity: giving the right amount of information when talking.
  • Quality: Being truthful when talking if the truth is known.
  • Relevance: Relevant answers to questions or relevant statements to contexts.
  • Manner: Clear and ordered structuring of communication.

Grice observed that these principles for cooperative communication exist in all languages and are so a core part of communicating,  for example when talking to a baby or animal which cannot respond, people will still communicate as if they were expecting a response, and follow one or more of the maxims. However, Grice also observed that the above maxims are often broken, and more commonly by certain social groups within a society. A politician, if we are being pessimistic, may be more inclined to mislead or respond irrelevantly to a question than a scientist. Pragmatic linguists note that when faced with random, useless or simply untrue information in language, humans will often try and draw reasonable conclusions and seek to understand the meaning of what was said, rather than simply rejecting the statement as a failed response. Our minds reason that only matters of extreme importance could cause someone to break the maxims of conversation, for example;

“Did you enjoy your day at school dear? Your maths teacher says that you have been LOOK OUT FOR THAT TIGER!”

And so often people, even when they are aware that laws of conversation have been broken, will allow the speaker to continue, accepting that there must have been a reason for the interruption in normal proceedings, even if the reason is not immediately known.

Pragmatic language therefore has much to say about the power of language, and this explanation of acceptance to broken norms can show us in part why skilled orators, such as lawyers, politicians and journalists, can coerce or influence certain social groups who may or may not be aware of the misuse of language directed at them. We have all seen interviews with politicians who evade certain questions, providing irrelevant answers or random information, and while this may enrage some members of a society, other listeners will assume that there must be a socially beneficial reason for the evasion. These listeners are often of a lower social status than the speaker and have less experience with language on a lexical level (they may not understand the words or the meanings that the speaker is using). I will discuss social classes and language further in two weeks.

What I hope this blog post has shown is that language has laws at a basic level. Language is a construction of sounds, created by humans to achieve certain results. As we evolve, so does the language we use and we are constantly updating our internal rulebook through logical inference to deal with new semantics, situations and social groupings that we find ourselves in. When it comes to use, as long as the basic construction rules are obeyed, language is found to be very flexible, and can be used by those skilled in communication to achieve a variety of ends. However, the basic principles of language and communication are still within us, and it is somewhat comforting to know that, even in a modern world where it new words are constantly created and old ones reinvented, that we still have core uses and needs for language that have remained more or less unchanged since our first words. Although I have not mentioned explicitly my topic of organisation, it is implied through much of the above analysis that language and communication is at the heart of our need to be close to one another, to express emotion, share ideas and survive as a community.

Next week, I will be returning to sociology to discuss sociological theorists and the idea of organisation.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 9th, 2010

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What is Sociology? What is Linguistics?   no comments

Posted at 1:07 am in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Giddens, A (2006): Sociology: 5th Edition.Cambridge: Polity.

Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

My reading this week has focused on an introduction to the disciplines that I am studying, Linguistics and Sociology.


Sociology is a scientific study of human social life, our communities and the things we do as individuals within a community or as a whole society. In order to study sociology, one must possess what is described as a ‘sociological imagination’, in order to perceive the meanings behind actions. Individual actions, no matter how trivial, all have behind them a process of social development and decision making which has brought the actor to make the decision. For example;  A soldier might find himself in a foreign land, fighting a war for his country, as a result of a number of social factors and influences which have been impressed upon him since childhood, perhaps even before his birth. Sociology aims to identify these processes and record them, in order to discover and document what causes and sustains the societies we find ourselves in, and in many cases propose ways in which we might change or manipulate these causes, for the betterment of our individual lives and of our societies.

While it is hard to establish a birthday for sociology, it is commonly agreed that this science emerged and developed alongside the French and Industrial Revolutions of the late 18th Century, and was initially an observational science, documenting the social changes that were occurring in these turbulent times of mass population migration and class stratification.

Sociology has several key theorists at its base. In brief, they are:

  • Auguste Comte (1798-1857): Developed sociology as a positive (observational) science.
  • Emile Durkheim (1858-1917): Developed empirical sociology. Durkheim was especially interested in community and solidarity, and was the first scientist to link the social environment to individual actions in a famous study detailing the causes of suicide.
  • Karl Marx (1818-83): His ideas of capitalism and worker-capitalist relationships were a driving force in politicising sociology and identifying classes.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920): Disagreed with Marx that sociology should focus on economics and social class. Sociology should focus on the ideas and beliefs that drive social change, whatever they may be. For example capitalism has its roots in advances in science, engineering and bureaucracy.

I will talk in more detail about these theorists and their contributions to sociology (as well as ways in which their theories relate to my topic of organisation) in later blog postings.

In more recent times, sociology has developed further theoretical approaches, such as functionalism (studying the underlying norms of society), symbolic interactionism (the role of language and symbols, such as smiling, in society), microsociology (individual actions) and macrosociology (large scale social systems). All of these approaches are identified by their own theorists and methodologies, but can be seen to adhere to an overarching rule of sociology, that societies possess external and internal norms which influence, if not dictate, their development. Sociology does not pretend to identify all these norms, but all fields of sociology are concerned with discovering these core rules.


Linguistics is, first and foremost, not the learning of languages. It is the observational study of language as a tool for human communication. Linguists are very much concerned with observing the evolution, usage and semantics of language, and are not to be thought of as enforcers of a ‘best’ language. Indeed, linguists make it clear that all forms of language are equal in their importance; there is no one language better than the other.

Language is the pre-requisite for information collection; humans are born with the ability to learn language but, unlike animals, must be taught its use. Language varies widely over geographical distances, with different language structures existing over large distances, and over shorter distances, various dialects(grammatical differences) and accents (pronunciation differences), subsets of a common language. Differences in language can be used to show different perceptions of the world around us in various cultures and societies, a famous example of this being the many different types of word for “snow” in the Inuit tribes of North America, who live in an environment that necessitates a precise description for different types of snow.

Linguistics has a wide scope of study, concerned with understanding:

  • Phonetics: the study of human speech sounds.
  • Phonology: the study of sound patterns.
  • Syntax: the study of word formation
  • Semantics: the study of meaning.

And has many schools of thought within, such as:

  • Psycholinguistics: language and the mind.
  • Sociolinguistics: language and society
  • Applied linguistics: application of linguistics to society.
  • Stylistics: language and literature
  • Anthropological linguistics: language in cross-cultural settings.
  • Philosophical linguistics: language and logical thought.
  • Historical linguistics: Language change.

Linguistics is, therefore, very much concerned with uncovering what its foremost contemporary academic, Noam Chomsky, calls the ‘Universal Core’ of language. The set of universal rules and norms which exist in all societies and form the structure of all language, distinguishing humans from animals.

In this preparatory reading, I have discovered that both sociology and linguistics share a common ground in terms of their quest to observe and record the changes in the social activities of humans. Sociology appears to ask “Why are humans social?”, observes the actions and consequences of social organisation, and attempts to identify the processes behind them. Linguistics asks “Why can humans be social?” and observes language as the information sharing glue that binds our society together and ultimately leads to the social actions and consequences which sociology observes. In sociology, language may be seen as one of many processes influencing an action, but linguistics sees language as the core building block of all that is social, and it is important to acknowledge this in order to separate the disciplines.

It is clear that both these subjects have much to tell us about the concept of organisation, and in later blog posts I’ll be linking their relevance to the World Wide Web.

For my next blog post, I’ll be discussing linguistics in more detail, in particular the structure and purpose of language, and how important it is in defining social groups.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 2nd, 2010

Organisation   no comments

Posted at 8:18 pm in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology

As this module encourages a basic and comprehensive approach to a topic, I’ve tried to go as far back to basics as possible. My topic of interest regarding the research is simply ‘Organisation’. Organisation, in my opinion, is the backbone of everything (life and the universe included!), so it makes sense to me to try and understand some basic, but I suspect difficult, questions regarding organisation, such as how it occurs and why it seems neccessary for development. Of course I am limiting my research to the role of organisation in human society, as I don’t possess the required physics or philosophy degrees to tackle the broader implications of organisation!

I think this topic is important given the context of this MSc, and also given the buzzwords of our generation:  “Network” “Interconnected” and “Global” all have their roots in the term ‘organisation’. It’s important, therefore, to look at organisation in its basic form, and I’ll be looking at organisation through the lenses of two disciplines; Linguistics and Sociology.

Linguistics was chosen because it seems likely that the roots of human social organisation lie in the construction of language and communication. I know very little about linguistics, so it will be interesting to develop this hunch through an understanding of the core principles of the topic. The development of language and speech has surely played a key role in our development to the highly connected society we see today, and perhaps this approach will let me go far back in time and evolution to find the roots of organisation.

Sociology was chosen because a brief look at sociology shows it to be full of interesting ideas and theories regarding the dynamics, structures and meanings behind organisation. Humans have organised for various reasons over the centuries, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes deliberately, sometimes against their will. It will be interesting to see what sociology has to say about the motivations behind these cultural, political and economic forces that lead to organisation. Again, this is all uncharted territory for me, but the foundation texts seem promising. In sociology I may also find some philosophy, which again I have little experience with, but which may evolve into a sub category of my research. It seems you can never get away from the connections!

I know that there will be a fair amount of crossover between these two disciplines, but I hope that they will remain distinct enough to allow for a conclusion that shows what each discipline has to say about the topic ‘Organisation’.

My current reading list:

Wardhaugh, R (2006): An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: 5th Edition. Oxford: Blackwell

Giddens, A (2006): Sociology: 5th Edition.Cambridge: Polity.

Thomas, L & Wareing, S (1999): Language, Society and Power; An Introduction. London: Routledge

Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

Written by Phil Waddell on October 26th, 2010

Tagged with , , ,

Monolingualism Shaping the World (beginning)   no comments

Posted at 3:08 pm in Linguistics

An important point to make is that my source text, Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts, deliberately breaks established practises in intertextuality studies with the aim of achieving a better critical viewpoint. Given the prominence of the author, historical influences upon the discipline and the age of previous works, I consider this to be an acceptable course to take.
A strong influence in the development of the world is language. This is investigated as a matter of course. Of particular concern, is the impact of lack of translations of communities, the exclusion this can create and how this shapes the world. I hope to explore this theme further.
The activities/studies of intertextuality and interdisciplinarity are understood to both attempt to build a framework to analyse connections between activities or disciplines and the resulting yield of power. Approaching from intertextuality, one cannot find association with any particular group under assessment. However, from interdisciplinarity, little more can be achieved; a ‘base camp’ always exists and, despite best efforts to introduce novel thinking, one finds that the base camp controls investment in such studies.

Written by Russell Newman on March 10th, 2010

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Intertextuality in Hypertext – Part One   1 comment

Posted at 3:00 pm in Linguistics

In my last post, I identified that the term ‘intertextuality’ has several different meanings throughout linguistics; it has been a term coined for many different purposes, similar to the way “Web 3.0” has been used and abused in recent years. It seems that the benchmark of a ‘serious’ intertextuality study is the identification and isolation of this problem.

Pre-structuralists identified intertextuality as the conveyance of varying meanings from author to reader. This largely depended on the reader’s subjective norms and expectations. For instance, one text may represent itself in different ways to different readers, with or without the intent of the author. Modern theories identify intertextuality as links between texts, perhaps intentionally, but fundamentally produced by texts, not authors. (Source: Wikipedia; Beckett’s Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism).

In Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts, Orr identifies electronic media as catalysts to the challenging of traditional intertextuality theories, where terms such as “hypertextuality” and “interdisciplinarity” take precedence over intertextuality, effectively confining intertextuality to printed media of the past.

It yet remains to be seen (through reading) what relations exist between intertextuality and modern electronic media, although several hypotheses have been discovered. If parallels can be drawn, then the development and future of hypertext, and those who use it, may be related to that of previous media models such as printed text.

I will be looking into adjusting my second research topic so it concurs with the themes of this exercise.

Written by Russell Newman on February 26th, 2010

Study Outline: Hypertext in History and the Web in Developing Countries   no comments

Posted at 3:46 pm in Linguistics,Sociology

Broad Topic Area

The Web is pervading the world’s population. Global fluctuations in demographics result in varying levels of access and use of the Web, often dependant upon the development level and GDP of a country and/or its internal demographic groups. The division of information-“rich” and -“poor” can have profound effects upon segregation, especially given the economic and social benefits that may be gained through the Web – the largest information resource in the world.

Topic One: Historical Literature and Modern Hypertext

However, this phenomenon has occurred before, and continues to be observed. The development of woodblock printing and, later, moveable type brought information and knowledge to the masses, resulting in a process where information-rich and -poor demographics become closer together. Through intertextuality, texts have created references between works for millennia.

In this discipline, I propose to identify parallels or discrepancies between the pervasion of historical means of information dissemination (e.g. printed type) and the modern Web.

The term ‘intertextuality’ has been used by various linguists to represent different concepts. The first portion of my work will be to define intertextuality in the context of the study I wish to undertake. This is likely to be through those who have have drawn parallels between intertextuality and the Web.

Work this Week

  • Review sources (including new sources).
  • Arrange meeting with Mary Orr.

New Sources Found

Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism (MUP 2005)

Preliminary Sources

Mary Orr. Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts.
Leu Jr et al. Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other information (2004).

Meeting with Prof. Mary Orr.

Topic Two: Sociology

With the above issues in mind, the Internet is likely to be tangibly altering communities. The second part of this study aims to identify modern-day implications of the Web worldwide, and how it may affect poorer countries. The exact definition of this section will become clearer following consultation with sources and researchers. Furthermore, findings from section one will inform the development of this section.

Mike Santer has experience of the transformations that are taking place, and is actively researching in the area. Meeting with him will yield additional sources and viewpoints that will inform this section.

Work this Week

  • Arrange meeting with Mike Santer.
  • Extend sources list, read literature.

Preliminary Sources

Mohamed Ally. Mobile Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training. (Regional Impact of Information Society Technologies in Africa)
Collaboration with researchers active in the field (Mike Santer).
Quintin Gee.

NB: This post delayed due to illness at the close of the previous week.

Written by Russell Newman on February 22nd, 2010