Human language in its endless kaleidoscope of aspects

From our guest editor Prof. W. Z. Shetter

Some years ago I found I had gotten rather tired of ‘grammarians’ talking about nothing but the history and usage of words, as if that was all that language consisted of. I resolved to set up a site (the word ‘blog’ didn’t even exist yet then) that would explore in brief non-technical essays some of the many deeper sides of the phenomenon we call human language.

So in October 1998 I started the website Language Miniatures, which promised on the home page “Mini-essays about human language in its endless kaleidoscope of aspects, such as the social, the mental, the historical, the structural”. Since that time I have posted 200 succinct Miniatures about a wide variety of morphological, syntactic, semantic and other phenomena in English and many other languages.

Let me give you a short example of a miniature (No. 72):
‘Suppose someone says to you “Ralph stole it from me”. That’s a pretty strong accusation, so it wouldn’t hurt to know how reliable it is. There’s a whole range of things it could be based on, from the unquestionable to the very shaky:
• “I know because I saw him steal it from me”
• “He was in my room and it was missing later”
• “Sally told me he did”
• “Brian mentioned to me that he thought Ralph did”
• “Sally hinted to me that Brian told her he guessed Ralph could have”
and so on. When we make a definite-sounding statement like the one in the first line, wouldn’t it be nice if the grammar of the language somehow required us to specify the nature of the evidence it’s based on? You might like to hear that there are many languages around the world that do just that. In other words, in these languages you can’t say something like “he stole” grammatically without adding some element that specifies the information’s source and reliability.’ In the essay you will find examples of this from many Native American languages.

Each essay is provided with a two-line summary of the content. No. 86 for example explains how the ‘clicks’ in Bantu languages are articulated, and No. 197 explores those curious words like ‘budge’ that are normally used only in the negative. All of them are available, arranged both chronologically and by topic, on the site:

Willam Z. Shetter
Professor Emeritus, Indiana University (USA)

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