Math is easy, grammar is hard

I’m 135 pages into The Language Instinct and it is utterly fascinating. The general premise is that humans have an innate ability for language, an internally generated grammar that is entirely separate from words. And yet, while I find myself fascinated, I also find myself at the edge of comprehension. The chapter on syntax was interesting but extremely tough to get through. I claim that it was only my familiarity with computer language syntax that helped me out and got me over the hump. I really do think I understand the premise now, but it was a lot of work. Math is easy compared to this stuff.

But what’s been most fascinating is that this generalized grammar explains much of the “irregularity” in language (you all remember irregular verbs from Spanish, French, and of course, English).

I’m in the midst of a chapter that is now relating those irregularities in words (versus syntax) to common base-patterns. (For instance, drag-drug, dig-dug, are irregular, but based on the fact that in Proto-Indo-European, tense was changed by changing a vowel in the word; these words happen to have survived the evolution since.)

The chapter contains ton of amusing examples of word creation based on patterns, but the one that I thought was the funniest is apparently an old joke in the Boston area: It seems a woman who arrived at Logan airport hopped in a taxi and asked the taxi driver, “Can you take me someplace where I can get scrod?” The taxi driver replied, “Gee, that’s the first time I’ve heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

Now, I know some of you think that this type of obscure reading of mine is prosaic. But later, I’ll give you an example of how my random reading of the history of biology and biochemistry helped me solve a computer-related mystery today that had been plaguing me for a week.


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