The sci.lang FAQ: 1 - 7

1 What is sci.lang for?

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[This question attempts to set some guidelines for posting to sci.lang. Not that anyone listens. --MR]

Discussion of the scientific or historical study of human language(s). Note the "sci." prefix. The main concern here is with facts and theories accounting for them.

For advice on English usage, see alt.usage.english or misc.writing. For casual chatter about other languages see soc.culture.<whatever>. Discussion of or in Greek or Latin is available in humanities.classics (or if you don't have access to that, sci.classics). The sci.lang.translation newsgroup focusses on translation and issues of concern to translators and interpreters. The newsgroup focusses on natural language processing by computers.

Like all "sci." newsgroups, sci.lang is not meant to substitute for a dictionary or even a college library. If the answer to your question can be looked up easily, then do so rather than using the net. If you don't have a library, then ask away, but explain your situation.

2 What is linguistics?

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The scientific study of human language, including:

Or, carving it up another way:

Some linguists also study sign languages, non-verbal communication, animal communication, and other topics besides spoken language.

3 Does linguistics tell people how to speak or write properly?

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No. Linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Linguistics can often supply facts which help people arrive at a recommendation or value judgement, but the recommendation or value judgement is not part of linguistic science itself.

4 What are some good books about linguistics?

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(These are cited by title and author only. Full ordering information can be obtained from Books in Print, available at most bookstores and at even the smallest public libraries.)

Of course, you Web geeks don't know from books. You want websites.

5 How did language originate?

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Nobody knows. Very little evidence is available.

See however Derek Bickerton, Language And Species (1990).

6 What is known about prehistoric language?

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Quite a lot, if by 'prehistoric' you'll settle for maybe 2000 years before the development of writing. (Language is many thousands of years older than that.)

Languages of the past can be recovered by comparative reconstruction from their descendants. The comparative method relies mainly on pronunciation, which changes very slowly and in highly systematic ways. If you apply it to French, Spanish, and Italian, you reconstruct late colloquial Latin with a high degree of accuracy; this and similar tests show us that the method works.

Also, if you use the comparative method on unrelated languages, you get nothing. So comparative reconstruction is a test of whether languages are related (to a discernible degree).

The ancient languages Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and several others form a group known as Indo-European. Comparative reconstruction from them gives a language called Proto-Indo-European which was spoken around 2500 B.C. Many Indo-European words can be reconstructed with considerable confidence (e.g., *ekwos 'horse'). The grammar was similar to Homeric Greek or Vedic Sanskrit. Similar reconstructions are available for some other language families, though none has been as thoroughly reconstructed as Indo-European.

More on Indo-European

More on the comparative method

7 What do those asterisks mean?

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Attached to a word, either of 2 things.

(In a generative rule, such as AP -> Adj (AP)*, it indicates that an element may be repeated zero or more times.)

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