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Mathematics - linguistics in Russia - a query - Barbara H Partee

Barbara H Partee
Date: 2011-03-01 11:59
Subject: Mathematics - linguistics in Russia - a query
Security: Public
Location:Moscow
Mood:curiouscurious
Music:Kol Nidrei
Tags:linguistics, mathematics
I was recently corresponding with Richard Hudson in England, and we were talking about OTiPL and the Olympiads and other things (I found out for him that the founders of the Linguistic Olympiad were Zhurinovsky, Uspensky, and Zalizniak), and he then asked me the following interesting questions -- I told him I would consult with my friends on Live Journal and then let him know what my Russian friends think.

from Richard Hudson:
What is this connection between maths and linguistics that's so strong in Eastern Europe? Is it completely separate from the strong descriptive strand with people like Kibrik, or do they interact in some way? And is it related to Polish logic? (Feel free to ignore these questions if the only way to answer them is to write twenty pages!)

Incidentally, I've always found Eastern Europe fascinating because of what I hear about their language education, which sounds so much better than ours. I've recently had an exchange with a Russian who has a chair of maths in Manchester (so pretty hot stuff) asking for support from me and my mates in a submission to a UK government consultation on education that he's coordinating for maths and logic people, in which they're arguing for, of all things, more English grammar (as a basis for logical thinking). I think he's absolutely right, but I wonder if that view of grammar is widespread in Russia.
 
I should add that I have been very impressed indeed about how much more math and logic the average linguistics student in Russia knows than the average linguistics student in the U.S. (though in the U.S. it's more varied, and some know a great deal indeed.) I already know and will tell him about the decision made at the beginning of the creation of OTiPL that all linguistics students should learn a good bit of mathematics, and the strong training that was initiated by Uspensky, Wentzell, and Shixanovich.

What do you think? What would you say?
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Boris Smilga
User: smilga
Date: 2011-03-04 12:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I was a schoolboy twenty years ago, we had two most prominent kinds of grammatical exercises: morphemic analysis (разбор слов по составу, literally, ‘dissection of the make-up of words’) and syntactic analysis not above the level of clauses (разбор предложений по членам, literally, ‘dissection of sentences into members’). I haven't heard of any reforms in this department, so, presumably, current-generation kids are still taught that way.

Both kinds of analysis used a graphical formalism of sorts. In morphemic analysis, one used a repertoire of shapes to mark different types of morphemes within a word: a box for the flexion, a tie for the root, wedges for derivational suffixes, corner brackets for prefixes.

In syntactic analysis, there were several styles of lines with which to underline single words and PPs (and sometimes shorter coordinate phrases) within a sentence: single line for the clause subject, double line for the predicate, dashed for both direct and indirect objects, dashed-dotted for adverbial modifiers, and wavy for adnominal modifiers. This method deals nicely with most common clausal constructions (direct actives, impersonals and copulae) and simple NPs, but it has a major drawback in that it is essentially flat and so fails to capture the nesting in linguistic structures. I vaguely remember drawing some arrows (was it for subordinate clauses? not sure here); but when I once asked my teacher whether participial phrases should be marked as adnominal modifiers, or as clauses with internal structure, or, perhaps, both, she was all but dumbfounded. So this is not regular dependency grammar. (If I am not mistaken, the method goes back to early twentieth-century linguists like Fortunatov or Peškovskij, and it has not significantly changed since that pre-Tesnièrian epoch.)

P. S.: I have found some samples on the Web, e. g. here for the morphemic analysis, and here for the syntactic analysis.
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Barbara H Partee
User: bhp1
Date: 2011-03-04 19:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's cool! We had a bit of syntactic diagramming when I was in school (late 1940's, early 50's), but never any morphology! Maybe English just doesn't have enough. (You notice how long it took the Chomskians to begin to talk about morphology.)
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Boris Smilga
User: smilga
Date: 2011-03-05 21:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, I always had the impression that Generative grammar had ‘Made by Speakers of English’ written all over it. Lack of interest in morphology is a relatively minor issue compared, e. g., to the fundamental design choice that it makes of coalescing structure nesting and linear order in the same representation.
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Barbara H Partee
User: bhp1
Date: 2011-03-06 07:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sure, and very soon there were proposals for alternatives that distinguished between the dominance rules and the ordering rules in various ways (that was clear in GPSG, but there were proposals for "mobiles" instead of rigid trees much earlier). And even now I'm not sure how many languages give evidence of a "VP" category as a constituent -- English clearly does, but I don't know if that's unusual. But this is off-topic - my fault, sorry!
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Медведь: ber
User: iad
Date: 2011-03-10 07:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:ber
I don't think so. English has essentially the same morphological makeup as Russian or Bulgarian: there are prefixes and roots and suffixes and endings, and no reason not to learn about them.

English may have to do with students' absence of awareness of some phonological concepts though. First, because there is less morphophonology. Second, because of its spelling. In a Bulgarian or Russian school, when they teach you how to spell, which schools everywhere must do whatever else they do, they tell you about vowel reduction and gradation, consonant (de)voicing, palatalisation, etc., and classes of sounds that these processes affect, because knowledge of these things is both necessary and almost sufficient for being a good speller. In English it is neither: you have to learn how each word is spelt, and that's that.

Add to this a strange terminology that they use in anglophone schools when they do choose to say something about classes of sounds. Bulgarian doesn't have phonemic vowel length, but when I say ‘long a’ to a Bulgarian student, I know that will be intuitively understood as /a:/. But how can you refer to /a:/ when talking to someone who's been led to think that ‘long a’ is /eɪ/?

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Barbara H Partee
User: bhp1
Date: 2011-03-10 08:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's a very good point -- I think you're right. Morphophonemics is such fun -- it's too bad English has so little! (Enough for linguists to play with, but not enough to make it into traditional grammar.)
Our long a - short a terminology does have some point: it helps kids learn spelling/pronunciation regularities concerning silent e: hat/hate etc. And those diphthongized vowels are indeed longer. But still, it does indeed just create problems when it comes to applications to any other languages or to phonetics. All the little Berlitz language books and other textbooks end up inventing their own variants of 'phonetic spelling' - quite a confusing mess.
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Медведь: ved
User: iad
Date: 2011-03-10 11:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:ved
Our primer in the first form (that was in 1974) was a marvel. It introduced the letters in an order dictated by their phonetic values: first all the vowels in [−hi]-[+hi] pairs, then the sonorants, then the obstruents (stops and fricatives) in [−voi]-[+voi] pairs. Several months later, when one found out that О sounds like У, and Ж like Ш, in some circumstances, one might not remember that one learned them in close sequence, but one would have got the latent feeling that Language is Order.

An anglophone student grows up learning that Language is Chaos: there may be some spelling/pronunciation regularities, but in principle any sequence of sounds can correspond to any sequence of letters.

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User: richardhudson1
Date: 2011-03-10 22:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think examples like this of sophisticated work on language structure in primary school supports my argument that Eastern European schools lay the foundations for much more sophisticated linguists in university than we have in the West. Someone said that the USA olympiad was worried about the use of technical terms like 'consonant'. Well, this year one of the questions relayed to the committee from an olympiad site in the USA was 'What is a consonant?'. And in the UK one of our candidates called them 'constants'. I rest my case.
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Медведь: jam
User: iad
Date: 2011-03-11 15:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:jam
And mind you, this was in a country where linguistics wasn't, and still isn't, a university subject. So when you went through 11 or 12 years of school (during which Bulgarian Language would be taught by the same teacher as Literature) and found you were interested in linguistics, you'd face a choice: become a mathematician (or computer scientist) or a philologist. Depending on this choice, you'd approach linguistics as either an exact or a social science, and focus on the intrinsic laws and logic of language as a system or on its functioning in communication and as a vehicle of literature. I chose the former: I'd always had a mathematical mindset.
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Barbara H Partee
User: bhp1
Date: 2011-03-11 15:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That reminds me of the choice that faced me in college. In a small undergraduate college like Swarthmore (excellent, but small) in the 1950's, there was no linguistics -- I didn't even hear of linguistics until just before I had to start thinking about graduate schools. The choice that faced me from the beginning was whether to major in Russian or major in math; and there was no such thing as majoring in Russian grammar; all the language majors were literature majors. At least we could have "minors". So I majored in math and minored in Russian and philosophy (logic and philosophy of science). And then discovered linguistics -- I was VERY lucky in my timing - generative grammar was just getting started. I didn't know what it was, but it somehow involved mathematics and language, and that was enough for me to think I'd like it. Yes!
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Медведь: med
User: iad
Date: 2011-03-11 16:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:med
A naughty joke that used to be told when we were in the fourth form or thereabouts:
Teacher: Jack, name three consonants.
Jack: D, T and B. ‹pun alert: sounds like a sexual proposal›
Teacher: Good. Three more consonants.
Jack: V, G, Z. ‹pun alert: sounds like a narrow specification of said proposal›
Teacher: Now name one more consonant.
Jack: Jill.
Teacher: But Jill isn't (a) consonant! ‹pun alert: ‘consonant’ also means ‘willing’›
Jill: Oh, I am, miss, I am!
Surely a technical term doesn't become raw material for dense sexual jokes told by ten-year-olds (not the brightest among them either) unless it's universally known.
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