Re: [xmca] Presidential Syntax a Shock

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Thu Nov 20 2008 - 19:36:52 PST

The following utterly incompatible hypotheses are all held by prominent linguists of one kind or another. Not only that, there exists an extensive body of data which supports each one.
a) "Wild grammars" of the sort we see when we try to diagramme Palin's sentences are humanly impossible. They are performance errors caused by lapses in attention, and therefore rare (Chomsky). For an unsuccessful attempt to diagramme the prose of Sarah Palin, see:
b) The vast majority of sentences spoken in everyday life are actually not sentences at all, but sentence fragments. Completing a sentence is actually quite rare. (Sacks)
c) Spoken language is by nature more complex than written language, if we look at it syntactically and ignore complex vocabulary. Yet no matter how complex spoken sentences appear, they usually do work out grammatically. This is notoriously untrue of written language, as any proofreader knows (Halliday)
d) Written language is by nature more complex than spoken language, if we look at it syntactically. It is also more accurate, and these two circumstances account for its greater prestige and lesser learnability. (Johnson)
It seems to me possible that at various points of development I think ALL of these things are true, and therein lies a developmental theory. Education might be reconceptualized as a double reconstrual: first the child reconstrues complex discourse, the sort we seen when preschoolers nag their parents for hours on end, as complex grammar, to complex grammar, the sort we observe in older children and at school. Second, the child has to learn to reconstrue complex grammar as complex vocabulary in order to master literacy, and particularly scientific literacy. This is the school learning that Vygotsky talks about.
What is true of education might even be true of historical development. Medieval poetry is characterized by complex text, and renaissance prose by complex syntax. This is reconstrued as modern scientific English (the syntax of which is actually quite simple) in the late renaissance, by Newton and Galileo.
So development is not an illusion. Morphologically complex vocabulary and complex discourse cannot be said to "mutually constitute each other". Complex grammar is not a game everybody can play, and neither is esoteric lexis. There are certain stages of language development which imply and require earlier stages, and this dependency is not reciprocal. 
THAT'S why there is a general sense that Obama is more educated than Palin, although in fact I've found lots of grammar mistakes in his speeches, and even in the final exams he set as a professor at University of Chicago back in 1996. 
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Thu, 11/20/08, <> wrote:

From: <>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Presidential Syntax a Shock
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
Date: Thursday, November 20, 2008, 8:26 AM

Actually, I think the article on Obama's use of syntax was written tounge-in
cheek, as a spoof of Palin's garble. If one rereads it a second time, the
message is a little clearer.
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