Wednesday 29 June 2016

Flatpack-assembly descriptions of language. Do they explain everything?

When you get a flatpack, you get bits of, say, a kitchen cupboard: screws,  sides and doors of the unit, hinges, etc.
They all have names: 'screws', 'door', 'hinges', 'sides' 
They will have a job to do - e.g. 'screws' to help hold bits together,;'door' to close the front of the cupboard so that stuff inside is 'put away'; 'sides' also to close the cupboard but also to hold support the top etc etc.

We could call the names, categorisations, or 'classes'.
We could call the purposes, 'functions'. 

Let's look a bit more closely at the functions.

The way I've described them so far, doesn't actually tell us very much at all about any of the following:
why have I bought a flatpack of anything
why have I bought a kitchen unit
why I have chosen this particular unit
why it is made of, let's say, MDF
why it is coloured, let's say, white
whether it'll last
whether I like it
whether, if I had known there were other types, if I would have chosen those
whether I have chosen this unit as part of my ongoing relationships with another person or people in which case who?

In other words, it's very easy to separate off one set of seemingly technical, self-enclosed functions from considerations of social purpose and social reasons for anything. And yet these social reasons are responsible for why I am handling this particular flatpack unit and not any other. What's more, if as an experienced flatpack handler, I decide to supplement the screws with some superglue, this will be an important part of this units durability and usefulness.

What I've described here applies to many aspects of how we approach objects and behaviours. We can, if we choose to, reduce the objects and processes down to some supposed core structure, or if we choose to put his core in wider social context involving participants, history, choices, alternatives and the like. If we take the latter route, we will almost certainly find that some of the decisions taken in regard of the first account of how the structure got put together, depend on situations in the social context. 

Described in this way, though, there is a sense that these two aspects are separate and only brought together 'at the end' but perhaps that 'duality' is false too.

Try this:

for a while I did some of the study necessary to be a doctor and so studied anatomy and physiology. You know the sort of thing: this is the heart (anatomy); it pumps blood (physiology). I went to anatomy classes and physiology classes. They were separate. But now ask the question, how did anyone decide that there should be a separate thing called a heart, without noticing that it does something special that is particular to this particular thing? In that sense, the heart is the pumping thing. Or, the anatomy is the physiology. Even more so, when it comes to cutting open the heart and describing what's in there: valves, chambers and the like. I would only know that little flap is a 'valve' if I know what valves do. 

OK, you know what's coming: language.

And by analogy, I've been trying to make two cases:
1. Simply describing a feature of language (let's say, a sentence) by naming its parts and how these parts are seemingly put together, is not a sufficient means to describe what is going on and why. Social functions are needed to describe what's going on too. 

2. These two sides - the 'classes' of words and their 'function' may not be quite as separate as they appear. I can only give separate category names for the classes on the basis that I know that they have what I think are separate functions. 

If you look at the various grammars (ie ways of describing how language is put together) you find that there is at least one grammar that makes a case for including these social functions: the grammar of M.A.K.Halliday.  However, in the field of analysing conversations: 'pragmatics', there are others. You will also notice that this social view of language is completely marginalised by those responsible for what kind of language children must study and mostly ignored by people paid to research grammar and education. The dominant model for studying language is what I'll call the flatpack assembly kind. We might wonder why that would be. 

Then, within the flatpack assembly kind, there are several varying kinds of 'instruction booklet', offering different names for the different parts, different accounts of the order in which the bits are put together, even different accounts for what is actually a part e.g. in one pack the door comes with hinges, in another the hinges are attached to the side. In other words, the way the kitchen unit itself is segmented varies. So, far from there being one model for how to name the parts and one model for how one part is marked off as being different from another varies. And different companies have different ways of doing function. One company might decide that what counts for, say, support is not sufficient and a 'brace' or a 'wedge' is needed to support the unit. 

This applies to structural descriptions of language too. There is quite simply, not one bible that says, 'This is how it is.' Though, peculiarly - very peculiarly - one of the features of books which present grammar the dominant word is 'is'! Whether it's word classes or functions or processes, the dominant verbs of description state clearly that this 'is' the way it is.

So, where are we with all this?

I regularly do my best to point out these things out with particular reference to: the books of study that the children have to do, the sample papers that are published by the government, the actual papers that are set by or approved by the government, and some of the online grammars which children, parents or teachers are directed to. 

I also try to suggest alternative ways of treating language, nearly always involving observation and investigation of actual language in use. In that I'm replicating ideas and books circulating back in the 1970s which had Halliday's hand on them. (I'm not talking about another branch of Halliday's work - 'genre theory' - which was crudely and reductively used by the National Literacy Strategy in the 1990s until it was suddenly and inexplicably junked.)

If you are someone who already works with language in ways which start with observation and investigation, which look as closely at social function as it does to 'structure', then it would be great to hear from you. 

In the meantime, one or two provocations on the 'classes' and their 'functions'.
'Noun' - one of the word classes.
'Verb' - one of the word classes.

'Subject' one of the functions of nouns (or of noun phrases more 'correctly' speaking).
'Object' one of the functions of nouns (or of noun phrases) though beware some of the structural linguists think that sentences do not segment like this. Whoever designed the National Curriculum and the GPS think it does. Therefore it does. 
'Verb' - one of the functions of verbs.

There's something wrong here. The functions of nouns have their own words ('subject', 'object') but the functions of verbs do not. 

Why not? 

Well, some linguists noticed this - of course - and call the function of verbs something else e.g. 'predicators'. Someone at the National Curriculum must have decided that it would be a good idea not to call the function of verbs, 'predicators'. 

Or, how about this?

How many functions are there in English?
Are linguists agreed about how many there are?
I learned this week - am happy to confess that I had not an inkling of this, and you will be hard pushed to find it explained simply and easily - that the famous 'fronted adverbial' includes a function word - 'adverbial'. What do adverbs do? They are being 'adverbial'. So a fronted adverbial is a word or a group of words, in front of the main clause being adverbial. 

So far so good?

But what if the phrase or clause concerned seems to be talking entirely or mostly about the subject of the sentence? What if it appears to be qualifying a noun? This is the job of an adjective as in, 'Sheesh - lousy weather!' ('lousy' = adjective).

A few days ago, I gave what I thought might be an example of a fronted phrase that seems to me (I may well be wrong) is 'adjectival'. Here it is:

"At ten o'clock she stood up to retire. Everyone rose with her, and to Roger's sudden consternation, she held out her hand for him to kiss.

White as a sheet he bowed over it and touched it with his lips.' 

(It comes from a novel by Dennis Wheatley.)

The phrase in question is 'White as a sheet...'

Do you think that this phrase is entirely or largely 'adverbial' in function? 
Does it govern the whole sentence as a word like 'However' or 'Meanwhile' does? Does it modify 'bowed over'? 
Or does it qualify entirely or mostly 'he'?
Is he bowing over in a 'white as a sheet' fashion? 
Or is 'he' simply 'white as a sheet'? 

Now, I don't ask this question simply because I want to know the answer. I want to know how useful all this is for 10/11 year olds? The way they will receive this information is not as an investigation but as a description to learn and then 'use' as a means to get a mark on the GPS paper and 'use' again as part of writing at the 'expected level'. 

Not sure about Dennis Wheatley though. An eager-eyed teacher might spot that 'white as a sheet' thing and might agree with me that it's not 'adverbial' enough; in which case, the child in question would not meet the expected level.