This file is a collection of e-mail responses that I have made to students over the years.

Don't worry if you don't recognize some of the terms or names--they probably mean that I used an example or an explanation one year that I didn't use another.

They are also not in any particular order, aside from the order in which the emails came in, year to year, so don't expect (for instance) to find the topics taken up early in the course in the first part of the FAQ, or all the morphology answers in one place. If you want to volunteer to organize this file for me, though, I would be grateful.

Yesterday the difference between homophony and polysemy seemed crystal clear, but today, they seem as clear as mud! Can you please help me differentiate between these terms.

Homophony: words that sound alike but are completely different, with different meanings (bare/bear, real/reel, their/there--although spelling can't always be used to tell the difference, like bank/bank, one for where you keep your money, the other for the thing at the edge of a river).

Polysemy: 'one' word with many related meanings (like "leg", which sticks out of your hip, is a part of a journey, can be part of furniture, and so on). The relation is usually metaphorical or metonymical.

I had a quick questin that I can't seem to find the answer to, what are hyponym and hypernym shifts? I can't find it in the text, and my notes aren't helping.

When hypernym signifiers move up to accrue hyponym signified, or hyponym signifiers move down to take on hypernym signifieds. The example from class was hound/dog (the first a hyponym, the second hyper-) which (roughly) traded places so that the the relationship is now dog/hound.

Bee dances are iconic, I see the resemblance so to speak. But could the "dance orientation" also be considered an indexical component?

I'm not sure what you mean by "dance orientation", but nothing in the way the dance represents meaning is indexical. I'm not entirely sure why the textbook wants to deny that animal meanings can be iconic, but the reason it wants to say they are indexical is that the signals correspond quite directly to the stimuli, in a causal sort of way (the bee detects the nectar, the bee does the dance). That's accurate, I think, but it's partial, and the WAY the dance conveys meaning is representational; therefore, iconic.

I understand that the Neuron Packing Theory and the Throwing Madonna Theory are non-social and non-lexical... Although I'm not sure that I can come up with a concrete definition of what constitutes a social or lexical theory. The way interpret it, lexical theories describe the genesis of words/symbols which then form a language, while social theories describe the genesis of language as a means of communicating among/between groups... Am I close?

Dead on.

On a later lecture (4th?) there is a slide entitled "Iconicity: Quantity or Distance", and it lists examples of Politeness. The textbook says politeness is indicated by quanitity, but makes no reference to distance. Would you say that distance conveys politeness?

Yes. I was saying that the examples in the textbook correlate with both quantity and with distance, so it's a bit arbitrary to say one is more important than the other; both factors commonly go with politeness.

The textbook couldn't help me on this one: Acronym vs Abbreviation: Which is which? radar = Acronym, USA = Abbreviation?

Yes, that's it, but it's a distinction I'm not particularly worried about.

I'm a little confused as to the difference between morphology in the lexicon vs. in grammar. The book uses the example of "fruity" with the y as an example of a lexical building element, and says that the plural -s is a grammatical building element. I don't understand the difference here. Why are they not the same type of building element?

Because the –y makes a new word (fruit is a noun, fruity is an adjective), but –s just makes a different version of the same word (now you’ve got a plural noun, rather than a singular noun). Be careful, though, of thinking that a ‘lexical building’ morpheme will always change categories. A ‘grammatical building’ morpheme NEVER changes categories, so that application of the formula is useful (if it changes category then it is definitely lexical building, or derivational). But sometimes morphemes build new words in the same category (think of attractive and unattractive, for instance; they are different words, they mean very different things, and the un- is what makes the difference, what builds ‘unattractive’ out of ‘attractive’, but they are both adjectives.

Is "inflectional morphology" a synonym for "grammatical morphology"?


I thought that the bird's calls and songs cries are iconic, because each of the sounds represent one thing. Can you explain why they are indexical? Perhaps i'm having trouble getting around this b/c I have spots=measles and dark clouds=rain in my head. i understand the monkeys as indexical - b/c the cry is in response to a shape resembling something eg. bird.
so pls disregard that. I still don't understand the bird's though.

Same thing, except instead of “shape” think “stimulus”, for monkeys and for birds. Monkeys respond to the stimulus of a snake or a leopard and make a distinctive squawk; birds respond to the stimulus of another bird out of line in a flying formation or a competitor in the territory they want for their own and they let out a distinctive call (or series of calls). There is no resemblance at all ( so no iconicity), just a reaction caused by a stimulus (so indexicality)

Are the bow-wow and pooh pooh etc. in sequential order? The reason I'm asking is because if they are, then it would make more sense for the pooh-pooh theory to arise before the bow-wow. My reasoning is that pooh-pooh theory involves the "spontaneous" , therefore not voluntary, emotional noises. I would assume that these are inherent in humans. Therefore, it would come before the bow-wow, which purposely imitates to represent events/objects in the world

No, they were in fact proposed as alternatives, not as part of the same sequence. I think (and said in class) that they are fully compatible, but there is no strong reason to believe that one would proceed the other. In some ways, the spontaneous noises might be more difficult to get sufficient detachment from in order to imitate them.

also, what is the point of the bow-wow-pooh-pooh-yo-he-ho theories. I understand them by themself but this I don't quite get.

They were all theories of the invention of language that have been discounted (mostly because they don’t concern syntax), but which I think are sensible guesses about the invention of words (not all of language).

finally (?) what does throwing a rock and nursing a baby simultaneously have to do with language? I assume that b/c language the hand doing the throwing on the right corresponds to the same hemisphere (the left) that these two somehow evolve together?

Nursing a baby (on the left side) is an explanation for why the LEFT hemisphere motor cortext corresponds to language areas (since the right hand is linked to the left hemisphere).

Lastly, you mentioned that the bee is an iconic system whereas the book says that it is indexical. Which should we go with?


I have in my notes that Language = Speech + Brain. Is this correct to say?

In a rough sort of way, it’s correct, but there are languages without speech (like American Sign Language), so you can’t take it too comprehensively. In any case, that’s not the sort of question that would be on an exam.

In the lecture notes (lecture #1), when describing adult accomodations for language, homo erecti is mentioned. What is homo erecti? Is it just referring to adult humans? Also in the lecture #1 notes, babies' accomodations for language are compared to australopithecus. What is this?

Homo erectus and australopithecus are earlier hominids (our evolutionary ancestors).

Will we be expected to identify the different types of English shown in class?

If you mean should you be able to distinguish Modern English from Middle English from Anglo-Saxon, yes, but I wouldn’t require you to make very fine distinctions (say betweeen Northumbrian Middle English and Anglo Saxon).

I have in my notes that together, the signifier and signified make "the sign". Is this correct?

Yes, that’s correct.

1. a) Duality of patterning: language functions at a number of levels, and each level has fundamental units that combine in distinctive ways. I understand the concept, but I don't understand why it is called "duality of patterning". Can you explain?

Not really, and it's not important. But I think it has to do with each level mirroring each of the other levels. It's just a term that has stuck from the 50s, when it was coined by a linguist named Charles Hockett.

b) Duality of patterning = parity + mutability + tacitness + universality. I have this in my notes but I don't understand the connections here.

I can't explain why this is in your notes either; I might have said something that resembles this, but I can't think of why I would (it doesn't make much sense), and can't recall any context in which I might have said it. If any one else has it in their notes, I'd be interested in trying to decode it. In the meantime, just treat it as an example of miscommunication.

2. Is it correct that the semantic role of an agent is to do something, a patient has something done upon it, and a location is where something happens?

Yes, except that patients and locations can be implicated in things besides actions. We'll cover that in more detail later in the course; for now, your account is sufficient.

3. How does mutability make language inefficient for communication?

Because people in dialect A and dialect B of the same language have trouble understanding one another. Think of the English spoken in Nigeria, for instance. You and I have trouble communicating with people speaking that dialect, and they with us, and yet we all speak "English". If it hadn't changed since, say, 1623, we'd be able to communicate perfectly

1. I'm not clear about bee rotation. How does rotation show distance?

The rotation doesn't. The length of the part between rotations does.

2. What exactly is meant by a "discreet bird call"?

Wrong adjective (a homonym). What I was talking about was discrete (isolated, individual) bird calls.

3. Is it correct that bird calls are indexical signs, while bird songs are mainly iconic signs?

No, the songs have a more iconic dimension to them, but they are both primarily indexical.

4. Re. Principle of Metonymy: Why are vervet monkeys a good representation of monkeys in general? e.g. why weren't gorrillas chosen as the example?

Well, gorillas aren't monkeys. They're apes. But there is nothing privileged about the vervets. Another monkey species, or an apes species would have done just fine. Metonymy doesn't depend on "best" or even "most representative", just on set membership.

Can you define digital, discreet, analogical for me?

Digital and discrete are effectively synonyms, and both are like digital clocks: one second, it's 11:59, the next second it is 12:00, with no in between. Analogic is like an analogic clock, you can see the hand sweeping across the face from 11:59 to 12:00, and all the gradations in between. The bee dance is analogic, because there are continuous movements (like the hands of a clock); vervet calls are discrete because you either have the call or silence (or another call), no in-between.

:1. "Reconstruction is a process of building up the language" - from what?

Recreating earlier versions of a language from the evidence of current language(s).

2. What are "peripheral isolates"?

A small subset of a species which is isolated from others (usually by geological formations--melting ice bridges, floods, and the like), which mutate relatively quickly into new species. I was using an analogy from biology to describe similar linguistic 'mutations' in dialects.

1. What is Grimm's Law?

The change of sounds like /p/ into sounds like /f/ that divided the Germanic language family off from the other members of Indo-European.

2. I need definitions for the following: fricative stop, bilabial stop, dento-labial fricative.

Fricative: speech sound in which the sound is made by squeezing air through a small opening, creating friction

Stop: speech sound made by completely blocking the air flow (stopping it).

Bilabial: the use of both lips.

Labio-dental: the use of lips and teeth.

(The way you've combined them above doesn't always make sense, but, for instance, a bilabial stop is a stop made with both lips.)

In Proto-Indo-European, the word for father has an upside-down "e". Why?

It's the symbol for a sound you haven't learned yet (the vowel sound in "but")

You talked about the bilabial stop and dento-labial fricative in relation to the proto-Indo-European words for father and foot. Can you remind me how they relate

Bilabial stop: /p/ (also /b/, but not relevant to the example).

Labio-dental fricative: /f/ (also /v/, but not relevant).

Does Cheveroshkyn support the Mother Tongue hypothesis?

Shevoroshkin. He's the guy who did most of the comparative work that supports the hypothesis.

How do you spell "Picks" as in the group of people the Celts overthrew?


What exactly is the Neuron Packing Theory?

That language developed from the evolutionary 'packing' of loads of neurons into the relatively small human cranium.

How is the "throwing madonna theory" a piggy-backing theory?

Because language evolved by piggy-backing on abilities developed for other purposes (throwing rocks, basically).

You said only the yo-he-ho theory involves rhythm, sequence, and structure. In what way?

Because chanting involves rhythm (therefore, sequence, therefore structure).

Meaning gets conveyed first through index, then icon, then symbol.

Not necessarily, but in terms of the theories we discussed, yes.

The signifier stays the same, but the signified changes. Correct?

No. It remains somewhat stable, but "the same" is too strong; and once it becomes a symbol, it loses stability too.

Non-lexical theories describes the motivation of language, not the invention of individual words. Correct?

Not necessarily (first clause); yes (second clause).

The bow-wow theory is a non-social, lexical theory. Correct?

No. Social and lexical.

The throwing madonna theory is a social, lexical theory. Correct?

No. Non social, non-lexical.

Given the sentence,

The dog was given a bath by Paul

I have concluded that given is a ditransitive verb, therefore, grammatically there is a subject, a direct object and a complement. Correct?

You’re correct that there is a subject, a direct object and a complement, and also that ‘gave’ is a ditransitive verb in most contexts. However, passives make things tricky (your example is a passive sentence). Effectively, they demote the transitivity of the verb (and therefore the sentence): “Fred was fired” demotes “fire” (normally a transitive, as in “Mr. Slate fired Fred” to an intransitive, with only one argument); and your example demotes “give” from ditransitive to transitive (with two arguments and a complement).

Now I am a bit confused because I have categorized this sentence under the happening schema. If this is correct, dog would be a patient and a bath would be a patient. What do I label Paul? An agent?

You’re on the right track here, since transitivity correlates with agency/happening. Passive demotes doing sentences (agent-centred events) into happening sentences (patient-centred events). The dog would actually be classified, though, as a “goal” in our framework, because it is (in a manner of speaking) where the bath ‘ends up’. The bath is a patient, and Paul is an agent. Passive sentences don’t affect semantic roles at all. The roles in your example are exactly the same as in “Paul gave the dog a bath”

I guess I have more than a few questions.

If this sentence is in the happening schema, what is the 3rd NP suppose to be?

Answered above: Paul is still an agent, but it’s no longer a doing schema because the agent isn’t the focus of the sentence.

Is it possible to have more grammatical roles than semantic roles?

Never. In fact, it’s usually the reverse: more semantic roles than grammatical roles.

Is a bath considered to be something that is concrete - transferable?

Exactly, but it is metaphorical. Paul could also “give” the dog an order or an afternoon at the beach, a piece of his mind, etc.

When drawing a morphological tree or breaking a word into its composite morphemes, what do we do for words where the root falls into two (or more) grammatical categories. Ex: fatherly - father can be a noun or a verb. Do we put either one, or the more salient meaning, or do we choose based on some other factor? Thanks for the help

You do your best with the resources at hand, prominently including your own reasoning powers. For instance, with farmer, even though the most salient category for farm is a noun, you'd still want to treat it as a verb because of the way -er functions (which you can figure out by thinking about other -er words [writer, teacher, helper, etc.], and by thinking about the derived word conceptually (a farmer is someone 'who farms', not necessarily someone who owns or lives on 'a farm'). But it isn't always so straightforward ('enact' could equally involve a verb or a noun root, and en- usually takes adjectives).

So long as you take the time to reason it out when you see ambiguities, and don't commit any gross indecencies (rebutter, for instance, could not be analyzed properly as having a noun root, even though butter is more prototypically a noun, because it is about iterating an activity), you will do fine. We mark generously when the construals are sensible, even if not strictly 'correct' from a historical or cognitive perspective.

I was having trouble sorting out the difference between linguistical metonym / metaphor and conceptual metonym / metaphor from chapter 2. I couldn't find the question in the FAQs and can't get a clear explanation from the book. Can you point out the difference?

For instance, a red-herring is a linguistic metaphor but red-handed is a conceptual one. Redhead is linguistic, red-hot, red politics and seeing red are all conceptual.

Your difficulty, I think, is in looking at specific phrases. A linguistic metaphor is a specific, one-of phrase, like "red herring"; ditto for linguistic metonym. But a conceptual metaphor is a cluster of phrases/concepts, which an individual phrase might represent/express. So, for instance, "I spent a week in Aruba" is not a conceptual metaphor per se, but it represents the conceptual metaphor TIME IS MONEY, because it uses a word ("spend") that prototypically belongs to one domain (MONEY) to express something about another domain (TIME). On its own, it would just be an interesting linguistic metaphor, but because we generally talk about TIME in MONETARY terms ("invest a month", "bank my time", "cost me an hour", ...) we can see that it expresses the conceptual metaphor.

I noticed some discrepancies between the answer key for the text given on Verspoor's website and the answers provided on the benjamins website.

just as an example: for assignment 2, question site lists the answer for question 'c' as 'conceptual metonomy' while the other says 'linguistic metaphor.' there are a few more differences like this as well.

since these answers are contradictory, i was wondering if this was because some answers can be justified from different perspectives. so 2.6.c, "he was caught red-handed," could be considered a conceptual metonymy from one point of view, at the same time as it is completely justifiable to call it a linguistic metaphor. if this is true, and having just completed the first assignment, is there any way an 'incorrect' answer on the assignment could be considered correct as long as it is justifiable?

i realize the Verspoor site is still under construction, and it says it may contain errors, but for questions such as number 11 on assignment 1 i answered A-homophony since the word plain-'ordinary' and plain-'level ground' both have the same form but different senses. the right answer is b, polysemy, and i understand that since the single word form has multiple senses. but isn't it also a form of homophony since the word form is the same in both cases? how can i tell during an assignment which is the correct answer if more than one answer COULD be correct? or am i completely missing something about the concept of homophony?

 TA answer:

Word form itself does not determine homophony and polysemy; the key is semantic relation -- a recognizable metaphoric / metonymic motivation among words. In the case of "plain," I think that the motivation (that is, the polysemy) between "odinary" and "level terrain" is clear; this is more than a case of mere homophony. I'm forwarding this to Professor Harris for further elaboration.

Harris answer:

The TA's right about the "plain" example: level and ordinary/expected/default are related via simple comparison; that is, metaphor.

As for the Benjamins/Verspoor discrepancies, I'm not sure where they arose, and don't recall noticing them, though it looks to be a straightforward matter of error correction. The Benjamins site is right: red-handed is a metonym, arising from being caught with blood on your hands, later become metaphorical because it now refers to any kind of malfeasance in which guilt is blatantly obvious (e.g., stealing cookies, where not only is there no blood, there's murder or assault).

As to the general question of whether there can be multiple factors involved in a given sense for a word, and whether one can offer arguments for several factors being equally compelling: absolutely. It can sometimes be very tough to tease them apart. For instance, take the "blue baby" analysis. Even though the babies are only slightly bluish, not really blue, so specialization is going on, I would still argue that metonymy is more primary because of the selection of colour to represent the whole syndrome.