We Wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You

the_magi_henry_siddons_mowbray_1915A funny thing happened to me the other day. I had asked learners to read a text about how Christmas is typically celebrated in the UK. Afterwards, I sought to draw their attention to some of the features of the text. In particular, I took advantage of the fact that the text contained a number of examples of verbs followed by both direct and indirect objects. This is an area of language that I often call to learners’ attention at this time of year and so my remarks were well rehearsed. The verb always involves a transfer of something from someone (or something) to someone (or something) else. ‘Give’ is the clearest example but ‘offer’, ‘promise’, ‘send’ and, especially at this time of year, ‘wish’ can also exhibit the same pattern (‘people give each other presents’ and ‘people wish each other Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’ were two of the examples in the text). The verb is followed first by the recipient of the thing being given, then by the thing being given. The thing of course doesn’t have to be a physical object; it can be a look, for example, or a phone call. And while in the examples in the text the recipients are all people, they don’t necessarily have to be people; the recipient can be an animal (‘give the dog a bone’), a plant (‘give the flowers some water’) or even an inanimate object (‘give the table a wipe’). I then went on to say why I think learners typically do not produce this form. It’s because the alternative form, in which the object being given comes first, followed by the preposition ‘to’ and then the recipient of the object (e.g. ‘Bushra gave a present to her sister’ as opposed to ‘Bushra gave her sister a present’) more closely corresponds to the pattern found in many, perhaps most, other languages. As is usual, most learners nodded in agreement at this.

As I said, so far, so routine. Then, as I was searching for further examples, I noticed something I’d never noticed before. Whilst ‘Bushra gave a present to her sister’ is certainly a perfectly acceptable, if less colloquial, alternative to ‘Bushra gave her sister a present’, ‘Give a bone to the dog’ as an alternative to ‘give the dog a bone’ doesn’t sound quite right. This must be simply because ‘give the dog a bone’ is such a formulaic phrase, I thought. Imagine my alarm, however, as I considered the further examples. ‘Give some water to the flowers’ sounds even worse than ‘give a bone to the dog’, and ‘give a wipe to the table’ is grotesque. (‘Give a look to someone’ and ‘give a phone call to someone’ also jar, though I think we can imagine situations in which someone might say, ‘I gave a meaningful look to the treasurer’ or ‘I gave a phone call to Hassan to ask why he hadn’t been coming to class’. Intuition, whatever that is, tells me that the issue here is that ‘give’ with ‘a look’ or ‘a phone call’ is ‘metaphorical’, whatever that means.)

Has anyone come across this before? Is there a literature on it? I realised I wouldn’t even know how to find it if there were. Where would I start?

What especially interests me here is that I knew, just knew, that ‘give a wipe to the table’ is wrong, at least in any variety of English with which I am familiar. I have been, for many years, impressed by arguments that seek to demonstrate an innate grammar faculty by appealing to the insufficiency of available linguistic data to account for the ability of language users to distinguish between well-formed and ill-formed sentences. I once tried to explain this argument, in a comment on one of Scott Thornbury’s blog posts, like this:

“Speakers of any variety of English with which I am familiar will, I think, find some of the following sentences to be well-formed, others as not.

1. Who’s that?

2. Who’s that at the door?

3. Who’s that for?

4. I wonder who that’s.

5. I wonder who that’s at the door.

6.I wonder who that’s for.

Doubtless, experience suffices to explain how it is that we find 1, 2, 3 and 6 to be well-formed. The thing that requires explanation is how it comes about that we find 4 and 5 to be ill-formed. That we’ve never heard sentences that exhibit the aspect of syntax found in these sentences that is to be prohibited does not suffice to explain the phenomenon, since our ability to acquire language at all requires that we be receptive to at least some aspects of syntax that are not already familiar to us. The thing to be explained is how it is that we find some unfamiliar aspects of syntax to be (perhaps) admissible and others as not. Experience alone cannot distinguish between these two types of unfamiliar aspects of syntax, precisely because aspects of syntax of both types are unfamiliar (i.e, they both equally lie outside the bounds of our experience.) Adult language learners require negative feedback to indicate that certain constructions are ill-formed in the target language. The thing to be explained is that infant learners of their first language become able to judge certain constructions as ill-formed apparently without such negative feedback (certainly, I have no recollection of having ever produced sentences such as 4 or 5 and then being corrected, or frowned at, or slapped, or whatever.) Chomsky’s suggestion, if I’ve understood it, is that we are possessed of innate cognitive structure which constrains the forms that any language that may be acquired in the way that a language is acquired by a growing human infant may take, such that it is psycholinguistically impossible for a language learnable in the way that languages are learned by human infants both to have certain of the characteristics that English does have and at the same time for it to permit sentences such as 4 and 5.”

The force of this argument lies in the fact that language users have an intuitive knowledge of their language that exceeds what they can have gleaned from their linguistic experience. In this case what the language user knows intuitively is that ‘be’ cannot be used in its abbreviated forms except when it is immediately followed by at least part of the rest of the verb phrase that it initiates (I’m not sure if I’ve put this quite accurately; would appreciate any suggestions). Most speakers could not explain this but we know that they know it because they correctly identify as ill-formed those utterances which contravene the rule. What about ‘give a wipe to the table’ though? I feel as sure that this is ill-formed as I do sentences 4 and 5 above. Should we conclude that I must be intuitively implementing a rule in the same way that I am in those cases, even if the rule in question remains perhaps unexplicated even by linguists? The rule, though, that allows ‘give a present to Bushra’ as an alternative to ‘give Bushra a present’ but not ‘give a wipe to the table’ as an alternative to ‘give the table a wipe’ whilst leaving formulations such as ‘give some water to the flowers’ and ‘give a look to the treasurer’ in a kind of iffy area in-between cannot, it would appear, be a rule of syntax, or of, at any rate, synatx considered as a self-contained system. Whether the alternative construction is well-formed appears to depend on whether the indirect object of the verb refers to a person, an animal, a plant, or an inanimate object, on a declining scale such that it is certainly admissible in the case of a person and certainly not in the case of an inanimate object.

I have for some time been of the view that the claim that there is an innate grammar faculty is really no more than a claim for the fruitfulness of a certain line of research. When linguists working in the generative grammatical tradition posit an innate grammar faculty they are not claiming that the brain is fitted with such a thing in the way that a smartphone is fitted with a camera. The rules of secular scientific discussion prohibit appeals to a creator’s intentions. When we speak of the ‘function’ of an organ we are speaking metaphorically. In the absence of a designer organs do not have functions. Pacemakers are fitted for a purpose; hearts are not. Pacemakers really have a function; hearts do not, though they may usefully be discussed as though they do. When we speak of the heart as having a function we really only mean that it has been fruitful to think of it like that. Similarly, when we speak of an innate grammar faculty (the ‘function’ of which, unlike the heart, exhausts its definition) we are really only claiming that the grammaticality of human language is sufficiently singular as to deserve special study, as opposed to its being simply bundled in with the rest of human cognition. Viewed like this I have tended to regard the claim that there is an innate grammar faculty as being so uncontroversial as to be banal and have been puzzled by the hostility which it appears to elicit. Chomsky himself seems sometimes similarly puzzled.

“To say that language is not innate is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit. In other words, if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in a community where people are talking English, they’ll all learn English. If people believe that, then they believe that language is not innate. If they believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit, and a rock, then they believe that language is innate.” (Chomsky, 2000)

If this is all that is meant by the innateness of the language faculty then the claim that there is an innate language faculty is indeed, surely, unobjectionable to the point of banality. Why, then, all the controversy?

If people find the claim that a language faculty is innate objectionable it must be because they hold it to involve more than the truism that Chomsky’s granddaughter will acquire the language that is being spoken around her whilst the rabbit and the rock will not. The only additional substance that I can find in the claim that language is innate is the one that I’ve described; the claim that the grammaticality of human language is sufficiently distinct from other human cognition as to be worth considering in isolation from other aspects of human cognition. Ever since I was introduced to the work of Noam Chomsky, through Stephen Pinker’s book The Language Instinct, it has seemed to me that the grammaticality of language is indeed sufficiently singular and self-contained as to deserve study in isolation. Now, I find this blithe conviction shaken. If the well-formedness or otherwise of a sentence can depend on something as plainly extra-linguistic as whether the referent of the direct object of the verb is animal, vegetable or mineral then the claim that the grammaticality of human language is best studied in isolation from cognitive psychology more generally is surely greatly weakened.

References (Apologies. I have only a limited academic background and am not very good at these.)

Chomsky, N (2000) The Chomskyan Era, https://chomsky.info/architecture01/

Pinker, S (1994) The Language Instinct, London: Penguin Books

Thornbury, S (2015) The Poverty of the Stimulus, https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/p-is-for-poverty-of-the-stimulus/