Help me learn new things! – Linguistics

This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about twelve new things this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month eleven. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)

So my book was due today. I still managed to get this month’s topic done. In exchange, I think I’m going to bail on December. I may fold knitting into a new focus for next year. Onward!

I committed to five books on linguistics, and they ranged in interest and quality, as well as in format. I read textbooks, I read primers, and I read more mass-market appeal books. I want to tell you some of the things I learned first, that I will carry with me, and then give brief reviews of the books.

I will say, though, that linguistics, especially looking at English, was more rewarding than I expected. There’s a lot to talk about, and there’s a lot to learn. Much of it was something I’ll remember beyond this month. Here are some of the highlights:

  • In more ways than I’d like to admit, the rules of grammar are sometimes there to make others feel bad about themselves. There are like 3500 rules in English.
  • All of them came about because someone thought what people were doing was wrong, and convinced everyone else that was the case.
  • The con – as one author put it – is that people believe that following the rules will make your language clearer. That’s sometimes crap. It is often MUCH clearer to put the preposition at the end of the sentence, but the rules say that’s bad. This isn’t a one-off case. Split infinitives (one of my pet peeves) can also make things clearer, and we (I) put up our noses at them.
  • The same things hold true with punctuation. I use commas sometimes to force pauses in the way I think people “hear” what I’m writing, but the rules of punctuation would say I’m “wrong”. I disagree. So do some experts.
  • I’ve often wondered why some words are spelled so oddly. Why have a “b” in “debt”? It turns out that it’s because the Latin was “debitum”, where – of course – the “b” wasn’t silent. Middle English used “det” “dett”, and “dette”. Much smarter. Why is there an “o” in people? Because of the Latin “populum”, where – again – the “o” isn’t silent.
  • Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary Project in the mid-1700’s set out to dictate how everyone should do words. He substantiated definitions with quotations, more than 200,000 in fact. More than half of them came from seven sources: Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Addison, Bacon, Pope, and the Bible. We’re all standing on their shoulders.
  • Languages change. You can’t stop it. No one ever has, and no one ever will.
  • One of the biggest ways languages change is through shortening. “God be with you” had, by the seventeenth century, became “God b’wy”, which eventually became “Goodbye”. William Congreve wrote it as “B’w’y” in 1687, and that eventually became “Bye”.
  • Chaucer of all people, used both “ask” and “aks” interchangeably. In the United States, Northerners settled on “ask” and Southerners on “aks”. As African Americans migrated from the south, some brought “aks” with them. “Ask” actually comes from the Old English “acsian”. So “ask” yourself why one is superior to the other. See my first point.
  • In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin wrote to Noah Webster, angrily asking why new verbs like “notice”, “advocate”, and “progress” were being made official in the dictionary. He thought it demeaned the language or something. Think about that the next time you sneer because some new word is made “acceptable”.
  • Both “in-” and “im-” mean “not”. The reason we get words like insufficient, intolerant, and inevitable – and others like impractical, immature, and imbalance has to do with the way our mouths make the sounds of the word roots that follow. Technically, “in” becomes “im” when it’s in front of a “bilabial” sound. We never learn things like that when we’re learning spelling.
  • Idioms can almost always be traced to an influential text. Lots come from the Bible.
  • Eskimos do not have more words for snow than other languages. That’s a myth. You can’t believe how much that irked me.
  • This took me a lot of time to wrap my head around, but people do not think in languages like English or French. They think in a language of thought. That language likely looks a bit like other languages, but it’s not the same.
  • When children learn languages, they get the pronouns wrong for a while. That’s because when a kid hears “you”, it’s referring to the kid. So the kid thinks “you” is himself. That’s why he gets it backward.
  • There are specific ways in which English differs from the other 4000-6000 languages in the world. (1) English is an “isolating” language which builds sentences by rearranging word-size units (ie phrases). (2) English is a “fixed-word-order” language in that each phrase has a fixed position. (3) English is an “accusative” language where the subject of an intransitive verb is treated exactly the same as the subject of a transitive verb. (4) English is a “subject prominent” language, in that all sentences must have a subject. (5) English is an “SVO”, or subject-verb-object ordered language. (6) English is a language where a noun can name a thing in any construction, and isn’t dependent on gender, dimensions, or other classifications.

I could go on like this for days, but I’ve got work to do. On to the books.

The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker was a book about how people, and the mind, created language. It was more “neurological” than some of the other books. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit unfocused on the history of languages, which is what I was interested in.

The Fight for English” by David Crystal was really good. Lots of good tidbits. Lots of humility as to what grammar and punctuation really are about. Very interesting. Worth a read.

The Power of Babel” by John McWhorter is a book about the natural history of language. Also a good read. Not as good at Crystal’s, but better than Pinkers.

How English Works” by Anne Curzan and Michael Adams is a great textbook. I really enjoyed it. I also found that you could order it in a format that’s basically papers that have been three-hole-punched so you can just stick them in a binder instead of buying the book. What a bargain!

The other textbook I read, “Course in General Linguistics” by Ferdinand De Saussure was not nearly as compelling. I had a hard time getting through it.

Next month, I’m going to spend some time summarizing my thoughts on this project for the year. I’ll also make a list of all the books I read for it so that I can be amazed at myself. I hope you’ll join me.

tl;dr: If you want to read a good textbook, make it How English Works. Buy the cheap, three-hole-punched version. For a good book that will teach you a lot about grammar, punctuation, and linguistics I recommend The Fight for English.


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