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[xmca] The Genetic Belly Button and the Functional Belly

We have a problem here in Korea. In order to teach children polite language, which is what they need to communicate with adult strangers, teachers tend to use the polite register in class. That is, instead of saying:
T: What is this?
They tend to say things like:
T: Can you tell me what this is?
Now this is quite puzzling from a learner's point of view. First of all, it seems otious, almost fatuous, in its complexity (which is, of course, a form of discourse complexity because it suggests a complex discourse sequence, where the questioner first ascertains whether the hearer can answer and then attempts to find the answer). 
Secondly, the intonation, which is often the learner's best clue as to the speaker's intention, is not the normal way in which we ask for information using a wh-question in English. Wh-questions normally come DOWN, unless we are asking for old informatoin ("What did you say this was?"). 
Thirdly, the word order seems wrong and if the learner attempts to dissect the sentence into usable bits, it will produce wrong question forms ("What this is?"). As we say in Korean, the belly button of genetic origins is overpowering the belly of functional use.
Carol remarked that chimps seem to be unable to deal with hypotaxis, and of course we can easily imagine that chimps might be puzzled in exactly this way without drawing any conclusions about the language learning ability of the chimp as opposed to that of the (equally puzzled) Korean child.
But her remark raises the interesting question of WHY, in English, wh-questions are bi-functional in precisely this way: they serve on the one hand to mark intra-mental relations by showing how discourse sequences collapse into grammatical ones:
T: Is this hat red?
S: Yes, it is. 
T: Is it yours?
S: Yes.
T: So the had that is red is yours?
S: Yes, the hat that is red is mine.
(This is the very sentence that Chomsky used as evidence that structural dependency could not be learned!)
T: Can you tell me about this?
S: Yes.
T: What is it?
S: It's an apple.
T: So you can tell me what this is?
I think the answer to this question is easily found in Tomasello, who found it in Vygotsky. Every human function, including complex grammar, appears in the course of human development twice, the first time as the tragedy of complex discouse, and the second time as the comedy of complex grammar. 
So, to let the cat out of the bag: hypotaxis is indeed more "scientific" than parataxis as a speech form, in much the same way that "hextillion" is more scientific than "six". But this is merely because as a thinking form it is reconstrues an IDENTICAL intellectual content in a more intra-mental, internally complex, and system-related form.  
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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