How do we get good at using language?

Or: What the hell is a figure of speech anyway?

At a certain level I have the same level of English competence as Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This may seem boastful to a delusional degree of me, but we’re all native speakers of a North American variety of English of a similar age, and this is the level of competence that linguists tend to care about. Indeed, according to our best theories of language, the four of us are practically indistinguishable.

Of course, outside of providing grammaticality judgements, I wouldn’t place myself anywhere near those three, each of whom could easily be counted among the most skilled users of English living. But what does it mean for people to have varied levels of skill in their language use? And is this even something that linguistic theory should be concerned about?

Linguists, of course, have settled on 5 broad levels of description of a given language

  1. Phonetics
  2. Phonology
  3. Morphology
  4. Syntax
  5. Semantics

It seems quite reasonable to say we can break down language skill along these lines. So, skilled speakers can achieve a desire effect by manipulating their phonetics, say by raising their voices, hitting certain sounds in a particular way, or the like. Likewise, phonological theory can provide decent analyses of rhyme, alliteration, rhythm etc. Skilled users of a language also know when to use (morphologically) simple vs complex words, and which word best conveys the meaning they intend. Maybe a phonetician, phonologist, morphologist, or semanticist, will disagree, but these seem like fairly straightforward to formalize, because they all involve choosing from among a finite set of possibilities—a language only has so many lexical entries to choose from. What does skill mean in the infinite realm of syntax? What does it mean to choose the correct figure of speech? Or even more basically, how does one express any figure of speech in the terms of syntactic theory?

It’s not immediately obvious that there is any way to answer these questions in a generative theory for the simple reason that figures of speech are global properties of expressions, while grammatical theory deals in local interactions between parts of expressions. Take an example from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

(1) Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

There are three syntactic processes employed by Lincoln here that I can point out:

(2) Right Node Raising
Fondly do we hope that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away, and fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. -> (1)

(3) Subject-Aux Inversion
Fondly we hope … -> (1)

(4) Adverb fronting
We hope fondly… -> (1)

Each of these represents a choice—conscious or otherwise—that Lincoln made in writing his speech and, while most generative theories allow for choices to be made, they are not at the same levels.

Minimalist theories, for instance, allow for choices at each stage of sentence construction—you can either move constituent, add a constituent, or stop the derivation. Each of (3) and (4) could conceivably be represented as a single choice, but it seems highly unlikely that (2) could. In fact, there is nothing approaching a consensus as to how right node raising is achievable, but it is almost certainly a complex phenomenon. It’s not as if we have a singular operation RNR(X) which changes a mundane sentence into something like (1), yet Lincoln and other writers and orators seem to have it as a tool in their rhetorical toolboxes.

Rhetorical skill of this kind suggest the possibility of a meta-grammatical knowledge, which all speakers of a language have to some extent, and which highly skilled users have in abundance. But what could this meta-grammatical knowledge consist of? Well, if the theoretical representation of a sentence is a derivation, then the theoretical representation of a figure of speech would be a class of derivations. This suggests an ability to abstract over derivations in some way and therefore, it suggests that we are able to acquire not just lexical items, but also abstractions of derivations.

This may seem to contradict the basic idea of Minimalism by suggesting two grammatical systems and indeed, it might be a good career move on my part to declare that the fact of figures of speech disproves the SMT, but I don’t see any contradiction inherent here. In fact, what I’m suggesting here and have argued for elsewhere is something that is a fairly basic observation from computer science and mathematical logic—that the distinction between operations and operands is not that distinct. I am merely suggesting that part of a mature linguistic knowledge is higher-order grammatical functions—functions that operate on other functions and/or yield other functions—and that, since any recursive system is probably able to represent higher-order functions, we should absolutely expect our grammars to allow for them.

Assuming this sort of abstraction is available and responsible for figures of speech, our task as theorists then is to figure out what form the abstraction takes, and how it is acquired, so I can stop comparing myself to Katie Crutchfield, Josh Gondelman, and AOC.

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