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59

This is what's called a "Sprachbund" feature: it's a trait shared by a bunch of languages in an area, even ones that aren't genetically related. In particular, this one is a feature of the "Standard Average European" Sprachbund, a group of languages centered in Western Europe, and it's one of the features that was originally used to define that Sprachbund in ...


50

Grammar is a (occasionally the) set of rules for the organization of meaningful elements into sentences; their economy, in one sense of that word. There are two basic varieties of grammar; all languages have some of both kinds, but, depending on the kind of language involved, there's a lot of variation in how much of each kind they have. One part of ...


45

English syntax makes a distinction between auxiliary verbs and full verbs. (Note that this answer is only talking about English; other languages do things differently. And as people have pointed out in the comments, specifically my Midwestern American dialect: British and Irish readers will probably disagree with several of my grammaticality judgements, ...


36

Yes there are. Examples include Greenlandic and Cree. It's not exactly what you asked for, as it doesn't depend on whether it's the last antecedent, or second-to-last antecedent. But in these languages, 3rd person pronouns are in two categories; proximate and obviative (obviative is sometimes called fourth person). The proximate one is one that the ...


22

The fourth person is a (rare) synonym for the obviative. In languages with this feature, when there are two third-person referents and one of them is less salient, the less salient one may be marked as obviative and the more salient one as proximative. According to Rice (1989), the fourth-person pronoun go- is used for objects when the subject is third ...


20

As a layman in linguistics I found this explanation pretty illuminating: In English, when we have a non-SAP (speech act participants) involved in the discourse, there is the potential for ambiguity. For example, consider: “John was in a tizzy last night and got into a fight with Bill. He hit him so hard that he broke his jaw.” Here, it isn’t clear that who ...


19

Linguists make a distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and the answer to your question depends on which of the two you are talking about. Prescriptivists set forth their rules with the idea of causing a more perfect language to come into being, so prescriptive rules come before the language that, it is hoped, will conform to those rules. ...


16

Yes, this is possible, and the phenomenon is called syntactic ambiguity. A classical example sentence is He saw the man with the telescope. which has two different readings and syntactic analyses.


15

A common saying in linguistics is, languages don't vary in what they can express. They only vary in what they must express. In English, it's morphologically impossible to have a finite verb without specifying when it happened/happens/will happen (*). In Chinese, that's not an issue: the default state of a verb has no information about the timing. However, ...


14

While it is not clear to me what should be considered as "unique" to a language, since all the languages are different, so also unique in many ways, but they also share many basic features and principles. One can rather look for some typological rarities in English. A typological rarity is a feature that goes against some commonly recognised linguistic ...


14

A very short version: the use of grammar is that you could not have asked this question without using grammar! You are making one big assumption, and as a result, you miss the main point: Grammar was devised by people trying to create a language. Well, in some cases, this has actually happened. But in general his is just a huge misunderstanding. Grammar ...


13

Nice question, I think this is good to ask for linguistic theory in general, because people who are not so familiar with linguistic research often find this hard to imagine. First of all, logic in general is essential in formal semantics. Using propositional logic, predicate logic, set theory and tools like lambda calculus, functions and type theory, formal ...


13

This is a case where we have to distinguish between the ability to express something in a language and the presence or absence of a grammatical structure dedicated to expressing that something. English does not have a grammatical structure dedicated to expressing the inchoative aspect. But it is still possible to express inchoativity by using the verbs ''...


13

In some sign languages, pointing is used as a pronoun. It makes different distinctions to the ones made by English pronouns. In English, he, she, this, that and it are different. He and him are different. These distinctions are not made in the sign languages of English speaking countries. Instead, you can point directly at a person or thing instead of using ...


12

In Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, the verbs never change their form, it is the pronouns that have the tense. In Wolof there is I-which-is-now, I-that-will-be, I-that-was, and so on, each pronoun has the 5 Wolof tenses, each tense having 2 aspect variants, perfect and imperfect. In other words, you take a past tense pronoun and ...


12

Short, snappy answer: parts of speech are a lie perpetuated by Big Syntax. Longer, actually useful answer: parts of speech are an abstraction created by linguists to explain how syntax works. There's no universal definition of what it means to be a "noun": some ancient Roman grammarians didn't distinguish between nouns and adjectives, for example, but did ...


12

First of all, the sentence I have my hair cut. is an example of a Construction. That is, there is a special model for this clause, with its own unique sets of meanings, uses, restrictions and affordances. So one shouldn't expect it to be a normal short sentence. And it isn't. In a sentence with only 5 words, there are 2 verbs and two noun phrases, so the ...


11

You can't delete a vowel and also stress it. That's obvious. So deleting a vowel prevents stressing it, and stressing a vowel prevents deleting it. A principle of English stress is that the last stressed vowel in the last word of a phrase bears the main stress in that phrase -- this is the Nuclear Stress Rule, or NSR. Putting these two things together, we ...


11

Aside from obviative third person pronouns mentioned by OmarL, some languages have what are known as 'reflexive' pronouns. These pronouns refer directly back to the subject of the clause that they are part of (or the parent clause if they are the subject of their clause), and thus can either partially (if their use is optional) or completely (if they are ...


11

In the dictionaries, the Sanskrit name राम (Rāma), together with most other Sanskrit words, is given in the form of the stem. राम (Rāma) is the stem, and in a sentence it can be used only as a direct address (like in “Rāma, come here!”) since the Vocative case of this noun coincides with its stem. This stem, since it ends in -a, belongs to the so-called a-...


10

John McWhorter recently explained some. I'll add to that here. English has a number of features that, while not absolutely unique to English, just rare in the world, are unique to English as a collection: th- (interdental fricative) is rare among world languages. Icelandic, Arabic, and some Northwest Indian languages have it. Everybody has problems saying ...


10

Iwasaki's formulation is unclear. What he means is that besides the one NP in a relative clause that is made into a relative pronoun (or ortherwise marked as being relativized), you cannot relativize a second NP in the same relative clause. For instance, relativizing "the book" in "John gave the book to the girl" gives the relative clause "which John gave ...


10

I can recommend this book: Słownik odmiany rzeczowników polskich by Stanisław Mędrak. The good news is that it's exactly what you want: a dictionary that lists all the noun declension paradigms. The bad news is that there are over 500 such paradigms. Crazy, I know. But of course they have a lot in common, and they are grouped into six main classes: class ...


10

It's right if other people who speak your dialect (other people in your speech community) also say the same thing systematically. In the Japanese case, it's clear that the construction is correct in his dialect, since he's not alone in using that construction. What's wrong when it comes to spoken language is usually when you make mistakes likes slip of the ...


10

I don't personally believe that CFL are insufficient, but among linguists who care about weak generative capacity (probably most don't care about the issue), the consensus seems to be that they are. The usual reference given is an article by Peter Shieber, which is online here, and which is, in my opinion, an admirable work of scholarship. (Which doesn't ...


10

Having one or more remoteness distinctions in the past tense is reasonably common, particularly in Papua, parts of the Amazon and parts of Africa: http://wals.info/feature/66A (note that the map is quite sparse with data points). I'll give examples mostly from Papuan languages as I'm more familiar with those than the other areas. See e.g. The Papuan ...


10

Many languages have such an ambiguity built in. It's very common that you can't tell the morphosyntactic properties of a word or even its phonological interactions just from its form, even given certain generalizations. In German if you encounter the word Schlüssel on its own you don't know whether you have one key (der) or multiple (die) keys. In French if ...


10

Sign languages are true natural human languages, so the first misconception to overcome is that anyone has the power to control it like the question suggests. We can set conventional spellings in a written language, but we can't tell people what words to say (or write.) Asking why American Sign Language needs to have a different grammar to American English ...


9

I know this is an old post so you might not need an answer anymore, but I thought I'd give one since I encountered this same terminological problem when I was doing research on "non-Bakerian" patterns of noun incorporation a few years back. I believe this term is idiosyncratic to Michael Fortescue's 1984 grammar of Kalaallisut; he might have borrowed it ...


9

It is not arbitrary, but it is very theory-dependent. One popular criterion for affix-hood is that affixes tend to affix to a particular word-class, thus if you treat "an" as an affix, you would expect that it only attaches to nouns (for example); but in fact it attaches to anything that can be on the left edge of an NP ("an old apple; an enormously ...


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