Hildegarde left home this morning without her keys.
But it is not all right to say
Left morning home this her without keys Hildegarde.
The words are all there, but they are in the wrong order. As you have internalized the rule for the pronunciation of the plural of nouns, so you have also internalized the rules for ordering the words of English into sentences that feel right—that are, in other words, grammatical.
We are also able to understand utterances even when parts are left out. "Stop it!" is an example. Complete sentences always have a subject, a person or thing or idea that the sentence is about. "You stop it!" expresses this subject: It is you. But we routinely leave this part out of commands, knowing somehow that the subject of a command is always you.
There are still other rather amazing abilities that we possess with regard to language. We are able to recognize—and create—sentences that have more than one meaning: We call these ambiguous sentences. It is clear that we know there are two meanings to a sentence such as the following:
Andrew saw the girl with binoculars.
What is not clear is who has the binoculars—Andrew or the girl. Has Andrew seen her through them, or has Andrew seen her and perceived that she has them? Or take a sentence such as
The zoo contained young llamas and anteaters.
Are both the llamas and the anteaters young, or just the llamas?
As we are able to recognize and create ambiguous sentences, so are we able to recognize and generate sentences that paraphrase each other. These are sentences that take a different form but have the same meaning. You will recognize the common meaning within each pair of the following sentences:
Ernest ate a sandwich.
A sandwich was eaten by Ernest
Sally is climbing the tallest tree in the yard.
The tallest tree in the yard is being climbed by Sally.
You know the pairs constitute paraphrases; in the first, the one who is eating and that which is eaten remain the same. In the second pair, it is always Sally doing the climbing and the tree that is being climbed. That is, the grammatical relations remain constant—and somehow we are equipped to know this, though we are taught in school that the subject of these sentences changes as we change their form from active to passive.
Nor is this all our linguistic competence allows us. At its most fundamental level, language is constructed of sounds strung together, one after another, in a linear order. Some of our basic abilities concern the sounds and sound combinations that make up the words of our language. When a native speaker of a language other than yours speaks to you in your language, you notice immediately that he or she produces sounds that do not strike your ear as you expect. When an adult native speaker of Hungarian says the English word bad, it may be pronounced bed, because Hungarian lacks the vowel sound in bad. When an adult native speaker of French says the English word something, it may sound like somesing, because French does not have the th sound English has.
I'm sure you have also observed that utterances in an unfamiliar language seem less like sequences of words than like a steady, undifferentiated stream of sound. Where does one word end and the next begin? Without instruction, how can you figure it out? Yet this is precisely what you did do as a baby, when you began to learn your own language. Quite efficiently, and in a remarkably short time, you figured out which sounds, among all those assailing your ears, were the ones to pay attention to; where to assume boundaries between individual words; how to manipulate the words so that when you yourself began to utter them they came out in the right order and got you what you needed more than anything else: to be understood. And you did virtually all of this on your own, because a lot of what was said to you was incomplete and simplified, if not downright babytalk (Tommy want his blankee? Bye bye doggie.).
If all of this is not impressive, I don't know what is. What linguists seek to do is to account for, to explain these wonderful abilities that characterize our species.
Crystal D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia
of Language. – New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1987. – p. 401.
The communicative use or touching behaviour, proxemics, has in recent years attracted a great deal of research by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. A very wide range of activities is involved, as is suggested by this small selection of terms expressing bodily contact:
embrace lay on (hands) punch
guide link (arms) shake (hands)
bold nudge slap
kick pat spank
kiss pinch tickle
The communicative value of tactile activities is usually fairly clear within a culture, as they comprise some of the most primitive kinds of social interaction (several of the activities are found between animals). They express such 'meanings' as affection, aggression (both real and pretend), sexual attraction, greeting and leave taking, congratulation, gratitude, and the signalling of attention. They operate within a complex system social constraints: some of the acts tend to be found only in private (notably, sexual touching); some are specialized in function (e.g. the tactile activities carried on by doctors, dentists, hairdressers, or tailors); and some are restricted to certain ceremonies (e.g. weddings, graduation, healing). Everyone has a subjective impression about how these activities take place, and what they mean. But there are many differences in behaviour between individuals and groups, and it is not easy to make accurate generalizations about society as a whole.
It is difficult to study tactile activity in an objective way: a basic problem is how to obtain clear recordings in which the participants are unaware of the observer (especially if the behaviour is being filmed). There are thus few detailed accounts of the range of communicative tactile acts in a society, and of the factors governing their use. It is evident, however, that some societies are much more tolerant of touching than others, so much so that a distinction has been proposed between 'contact' and 'non-contact' societies – those that favour touching (such as Arabs and Latin Americans), and those that avoid it (such as North Europeans and Indians). In one study of couples sitting together in cafes, it was found that in Puerto Rico the people touched each other on average 180 times an hour; in Paris it was 110 times an hour; whereas in London there was no touching at all (S. M. Jourard, 1963).
The distance people stand from each other, and the way they hold their bodies when interacting, are other important facets of proxemic behaviour. There are norms of proximity and orientation within a culture that communicate information about the social relationship between the participants. A common research procedure is to observe the point at which people are made to feel uncomfortable when others invade their 'body space', by moving too close to them (e.g. in a queue, outside a cinema, on a beach). Any cultural variations can easily lead to conflict and misinterpretations. Latin Americans, for example, prefer to stand much closer to each other than North Europeans, so that when the former and the latter converse, there may be a problem. The present author recalls one such conflict during a conversation with a student from Brazil, who came and stood before him at some 45cm distance - a normal interaction distance for her, but much too close for him. He instinctively moved back to the distance he found most comfortable - nearer 1 metre. However, as he did so, the student moved forward, unconsciously maintaining her own norm. He retreated further, not wishing to be so close to the student. After both had circled the desk several times, he capitulated, and asked her to sit down!