plain commandments

[Excerpt from a sermon by Thomas Guthrie – colleague of Thomas Chalmers in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century.]

“Allow no difficulties about this or that doctrine to hinder you from giving instant attention, and earnest obedience, to these plain commandments, Pray without ceasing – Labour for the bread that never perisheth – Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure – Take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

“Why is it that many, that perhaps you, are not saved? ‘Will the Lord cast off for ever, and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for ever more? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?’ Is heaven full? Has the cry ceased, ‘Yet there is room?’ Has the blood of Christ lost its efficacy, or the heart of God its pity? No. Men carefully preserve gold and jewels, but throw away their souls, as of no value; – they are not saved; but why? They give themselves no trouble, take no pains to be saved. …

“I am persuaded that many more would be saved, if fewer abused the doctrines of man’s depravity, and God’s free, sovereign, saving grace. It is the gospel, that Without shedding of blood there is no remission; it is the gospel, that Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God; it is the gospel, that Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; but remember, I pray you, that according to the same gospel, those who receive are those who ask, and those who find are such as seek. The door opens to the knocking hand.”

equality and the church

One of the proposals in the government’s Equality Bill seeks to remove the right of churches to employ only staff whose lifestyle is consistent with the church’s teachings, specifically in relation to the church’s teaching on sexual behaviour.

My MP got a letter from me on the subject, pointing out that this proposal is extremely damaging for religous liberties in this country, as it will make it possible to force a church to employ people whose practice contradicts the church’s own teachings and beliefs on sexual morality.

I then got a letter back, enclosing a response from the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality. According to this gentleman’s letter, the government’s position is that “churches … can require an employee to be of a particular sexual orientation for ’employment for the purposes of organised religion’. This covers a narrow range of posts such as ministers of religion or others mainly involved in the promotion or reprepresntation of religion. … Ultimately the requirement depends upon the nature of the specific job. So a church could be permitted to require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s job mainly involved explaining Christiainty. But it could not require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s main responsibility was organising sporting activities.”

Obviously, this response entirely avoids providing any justification for the government’s assumption that it has the right to override the Christian conscience, the Church’s orthodox teaching, and the teaching of the Bible, in matters of morality and ethics. There is also plenty scope for challenging how – on what grounds – the government has either the right or the ability to judge what does and doesn’t fall within the said narrow range of posts which “involve the promotion or representation of religion” (or indeed to define things in those terms at all). It seems to involve an implicit admission that freedom of conscience will indeed be damaged by the government’s equality agenda, and that with little compunction.

But I’m interested too in how the current state of affairs in the visible church leaves us, in some respects, wide open to this kind of state intrusion. If you remember this brief and simplistic description of the Establishment Principle from a wee while ago – virtually everything that is distinctive to this historic understanding of the right relationship between church and state assumes a set-up which has by and large been abandoned in today’s situation.

This can be seen primarily, I think it’s only fair to say, in that the Reformers, Covenanters, and Disruption Fathers give no indication anywhere that they knew what a youth worker might be. So while the Church in 1842 unwaveringly stood on its right to decide whether or not to proceed with disciplinary action against a thief and a fraudster in the ministry and a licentiate accused of drunkenness and obscenity, in various cases where the civil courts contradicted (interdicted) its ecclesiastical rulings – can it be said that the Church today has as firm a grasp of the power of the keys when it comes to the manifold ministries which individuals seem to perform while attached to the church but not particularly as functions of either the eldership or the deaconate? Does the church’s right to hire and fire Sunday School teachers (if they’re not voluntary any more), cleaners (if the hoovering and polishing isn’t an automatic unpaid rostered delight of every able bodied member of the congregation these days),  “worship leaders” (if they’re not just run of the mill teaching elders), small group leaders, football organisers, and any other ministry which I may have inadvertently overlooked – does this right really fall under its powers in sacris in any case? Office-bearers in the church – teaching and ruling elders, and deacons – have a calling, a vocation, to their office, and the appointment, admission, ordination, suspension, and/or deposition of individuals to or from these divinely ordained offices is and must be civilly recognised as the ‘power of the keys’, belonging to the church and not in any sense to the civil authorities – but when the church becomes an employer, things seem to become rather more murky.

Not, of course, that this in any way excuses the state taking advantage of the church’s sloppy attitude to its officebearers (and its often unnecessary impluse to provide a sanitised churchy version of every legitimate kind of social activity within its own pale; who really needs a youth worker to organise football anyway). The Disruption fathers might have been tempted to say that when the church starts to fail in its responsibilities, the state has more and more of an obligation to rebuke and remonstrate as best it can from the sidelines, and provoke her to love and good works all over again.

No. The government’s Equality Bill is no remedy for the ailments of the church. Instead it will only contribute to an atmosphere where the message of the scriptures is more and more suppressed, the gospel trumpet increasingly muted, and most objectionable of all, where the powers of the state are misused to restrict freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. This is good neither for the church nor for society, and it’s a retrograde step for the state too. The government may not like the church’s teaching, or her insistence that those who assist her work of preaching the gospel – in more and less direct ways – should live out their lives in accordance with the scriptural pattern. But it is going well beyond its rightful jurisdiction when it attempts to force its secular, politically correct agenda on people and organisations against their scripturally-informed consciences.

when is a word not a word

Words, roughly speaking, in the psycholinguistic sense of ‘items in the mental lexicon’, consist of a phonological form coupled with semantic content. They mean something, and they have a sound structure, and these two properties can theoretically be analysed and discussed independently of each other. To give a phonological description of a particular word, for example, you would want to discuss what kind of consonants and vowels it was composed of, how many syllables, the structure of the syllables, the stress pattern, and so on; what the word actually means in the language can be treated as a separate question altogether.

You can also manipulate certain characteristics of the phonological properties of the words of a given language. You could, for example, observe that English allows the sequence “pr” at the start of words (prince, press) and “nd” at the end of words (wind, sand), and so construct the sequence “prend”. It sounds a bit like “friend”, and “pretend”, but it isn’t really related to either, and it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a pseudo-word, or a non-word – a phonological form which is legitimate according to the rules governing English sound sequences, but which has no meaning associated with it.

This would be just so much abstruse blether, except that non-words have been put to use in practical real-life contexts, with intriguing consequences. There exists a particular kind of language impairment in which, out of all a child’s cognitive abilities, only their language development seems to be impaired (in the absence of factors such as brain damage, hearing impairment, and so on). This is called Specific Language Impairment, or SLI. It runs in families. It has a genetic component. And geneticists have demonstrated that there is a linkage between particular regions of particular chromosomes, and particular language-related skills – most interestingly, the ability to accurately repeat lists of “nonsense words”, in tests known as nonword repetition tests.

What these tests consist of is, generally, a pre-recorded list of non-words, such as “doppelate” and “ballop”. The child hears these items played one at a time, with enough of a pause in between for them to attempt to repeat what they’ve just heard. Children with SLI not only show less accuracy in producing these items (dokkelate, toppelate, toppate might be the kind of errors you’d elicit), but performance on this kind of test is, as they say, a good marker of a heritable phenotype.

The idea behind using nonword tests was, at least originally, that it would allow us to see what the child had really mastered of the English sound system, or what his or her phonological skills were really like, once divorced from the messiness attached to their production of real words (all sorts of factors affect a child’s acquisition of real-language vocabulary, and it’s quite possible for a particular sound to be mis-pronounced in one word but produced accurately in another word). If we’re interested in “pure phonology”, then seeing how children handle phonological forms which have no semantic, pragmatic, or lexical baggage would seem to be the ideal method.

Unfortunately, large numbers of practical difficulties very quickly emerged as soon as researchers started using nonword repetition tests. One is that you need to control exactly how similar a non-word is to real words: it matters that the nonword “ballop” is really quite reminiscent of both “gallop” and “ballot”. You also need to control what combinations of sound-segments appear in your nonwords: the sequence /mf/ is legal in English (“triumph”), but much rarer than the sequence /st/, and so much harder to repeat accurately. Longer nonwords are of course more difficult to remember and repeat than shorter ones, so if your set of nonwords includes many three-syllable items with rare sound sequences and many four-syllable items which are highly reminiscent of real words, it becomes much more difficult to pin down whether a child’s poor performance is due to specifically phonological issues (such as the rarity of the sound-sequence), versus more general memory-related issues such as the number of syllables they have to remember.

This, I think, feeds into a further problem which needs to be addressed, especially in the context of trying to design new sets of nonwords which would steer clear of these early problems and allow hypotheses to be tested to distinguish between what is “phonological” and what is general “memory” (or whatever). That is the question of what, precisely, are the aspects of phonology which are of most interest to researchers investigating language impairments with a genetic component. Taking an overview of the lexicon of, say, a typically developing 7-year-old, what are the specifically phonological properties of the lexical items which we can use to test the phonological competence of language-impaired children and their family members? Or, from the other direction, what are the properties, or hypothesised properties, of the putatively phonological impairments in SLI which would allow nonwords to be designed so as to elicit, or elucidate, error patterns of theoretical importance?

In other words, for example, should a good set of nonwords rely on CVCV structures only to the extent that these exist in the two-syllable words in the lexicon? Is it useful to include presumably articulatorily complex sequences such as triconsonantal clusters, or rare consonant sequences across syllable boundaries? What is the relationship between the relative frequency of particular consonants (eg dh) and their being late-acquired?
And what exactly would a specifically phonological impairment look like? Should errors be predicted mainly in one natural class, such as fricatives (but how would you differentiate a phonological difficulty with a natural class from an articulatory or perceptual difficulty with fricative production or perception?), or mainly in syllable structure, or stress assignment? Would you predict that a nonword where all the consonants were voiceless stops would be easier or harder than one where all the consonants were nasals, and if so, why? would it be useful to have multisyllabic items with all front vowels, or all back vowels, rather than a mixture?

This matters because presumably, the usefulness of nonword repetition tests is the light which they are supposed to shed on phonology – but of course speech sounds can only be described as phonological to the extent that they mirror the properties of real words as really used in a real language. (You can’t use nonword minimal pairs to demonstrate a phonemic difference, for example: minimal pairs can only be drawn from the lexicon.) So nonwords have to reflect in some way the actual characteristics of the items in a person’s or a population’s actual lexicon. Phonology can’t exist without a lexicon, but while on the one hand nonwords that are too similar to real words undermine the rationale behind using non-words in the first place, on the other hand nonwords that are too dissimilar from the lexicon make the task into one of attempting to pronounce non-native sound sequences, rather than plausible-but-non-existent native word. Erring in either of these directions will no doubt leave us better off than with stimuli which are poorly controlled for phonological properties, but there are still plenty questions which need an answer.

problems continue

Actually, life without internet isn’t all that bad, assuming your workload is such that the email side of things can be taken care of within office hours. (Such, indeed, has been my luxurious situation for the past couple of weeks – a novelty!) In the meantime I’ve been getting lots of things done, where the rate-limiting step had been the ease of distraction online. So brace yourselves in case this spills into phon-related blogposts in the next wee while, although I’ll try and keep a balance… Theoretically our new wireless router should arrive soon, but there are other, related, boring, problems which may drag things out for longer.

still sporadic

I’m back, but my internet’s gone. I’m breaking all the rules by doing bloggy stuff during the day (when I should be earning a crust). Maybe I’ll use the evenings of enforced internet absence to do some proper reading. Meanwhile, go and read this here article and have a ponder.

and again

I know, I’ve just got back, and I’m away again tomorrow. This time to the far North. Some wonderful thoughts may occur to me on the tremendously long train journeys involved, but more likely, they won’t. In the meantime, you could do worse than the latest two posts on the Wanderer (here and here).

I’ve also made a start on a new academic homepage – here – which doesn’t seem to be showing up on a google search yet – and any feedback on the page in general would be appreciated.