Tag: language

The Language Instinct

I finished Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct this afternoon and I thought it was terrific. I never thought I would find grammar and language so fascinating, but Pinker hooked me and I am eager to start the next book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language.

The Language Instinct convinced me to ease up on some of my pet peeves with English grammar. The main thrust of the book is that our brains are wired for a universal grammar and much of the books goes into detail with examples and experiments that demonstrate this. Still, I was particularly impressed with the chapter called “The Language Mavens” where Pinker drew a distinction between “prescribed” grammar and something being grammatically correct outside prescription. He made a logical, reasonable argument and convinced me. By no means was he arguing that language should be a free-for-all; in fact, he argued the opposite: that it can’t be a free-for-all, even if we wanted it to be. But things like split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions are all grammatically correct from a syntactical perspective. It is the evolution of English to conform more with Latin that makes them, to grammar school teachers, seem incorrect.

The book was published in 1994 and the edition I have has a P.S. section at the end where the author briefly brings it up to date based on research and discoveries that have taken place over the last 14 years. I found that section to be very useful and interesting.

I plan on starting Words and Rules this evening, but no before getting a little bit of writing done.

Contranyms are cool!

From my almanac, while waiting for a meeting to start, I discovered contranyms, which are words that have opposite meanings depending on their context. Some examples:

cleave: “to split apart” or “to stick together”.

clip: “to cut” or “to fasten”.

sanction: “approval” or “punishment”.

screen: “to shield” or “to present”.

trim: “to cut away” or “to ornament”.

I’m sure there are others. What more could you ask for from a language than a single word that can take on two opposite meanings. Boy, am I glad I don’t have to learn English from scratch!

Speak English, willya! (Ugh!)

I was annoyed the other night while waiting at my local sandwich shop for the club sandwich I’d ordered. There were some regulars there and a couple of people came in and ordered in Spanish. The cook at the sandwich shop spoke Spanish and so he translated for the cashier. Meanwhile, the “regulars” sitting at one of the tables were muttering, not quite under their breath:

“Learn English, willya. This ain’t Mexico. This here’s America!”

This pushed one of my buttons almost to the point where I spoke up. First of all, take your own advice, lady! I’m not sure how well “This ain’t Mexico” would stand up in a basic English grammar class.

Secondly, it seems to me that the people who complain most about people who don’t speak English (in their presence) are among the laziest people out there. They are the same people you’ll find entangled in all sorts of “get rich quick” schemes; the same people who’d use the slightest crack in the sidewalk to sue a neighbor; the same people who complain they don’t get paid enough for essentially sitting on their fat, lazy asses.

Take some personal responsibility and learn another freakin’ language, why don’tchya!.

The response to this is always, “Why should I, this is America? Everyone should speak English.” Well, maybe if you live in a version of America that I’m unaware of. We Americans are a lazy bunch. We’re some of the only people in the world who, generally, speak only one language. Foreign language training should be mandatory (the language itself doesn’t really matter). It makes us more worldly, it helps us to communicate better (and therefore seem more welcoming) and for crying out loud, it give you a better understanding of different cultures.

But maybe I shouldn’t expect much more when I feel increasingly more surrounded by lazy, under-educated, backwater rednecks.

Proper pronunciation; or how my teachers got it all wrong

Working my way through Greek history, I am rapidly coming to discover that I’ve gotten just about all of the pronunciations of Greek names and places wrong, and am now experiencing retroactive humiliation. I blame this in part on me, of course, but I also blame it on my teachers.

It seems to me that while I was taught to use the pronunciation guide in dictionaries, the use of it was never encouraged. I don’t ever recall mispronouncing a word and then having one of my teachers say “Why don’t you look that up in the dictionary?” Not once. Ever. And the thought never occurred to me on my own. Of course, after I had a bachelor’s degree and was done with formal schooling, I began to read pronunciations carefully from the dictionary every time I looked up a word. But the pattern for a whole brace of words was already set.

For instance, it wasn’t until well after I graduated college, and was reading The Three Musketeers that it suddenly occurred to me, through what I can only describe as divine insight, that D’Artagnan was not pronounced “Deh-art’-ag-non”. (Admittedly, I never took French and never put two and two together.)

But in reading the book of Greek history that I am now going through, Isaac Asimov, as was his practice, put pronunciations next to all of the Greek names and places and I am beginning to discover that just about everything I thought I was pronouncing correctly, I was pronouncing wrong. In this case, I blame my teachers for I distinctly recall them pronouncing the names this way and I was merely repeating what they were saying. Oh, you want a for instance?

I always pronounced Phoenicians as “fo-nee’-shuns”. Turns out, that’s wrong; it’s proper pronunciation is “fee-nish’-ee-unz”. I never in my life heard a teacher say it that way, but there it is in the dictionary. I suspect that teachers, unfamiliar with Greek pronunciations made it up as best they could. How should they know that in Greek, “ae” is pronounced -ee? So that I have been mispronouncing Achaeans all my life. And how about “argives”, which I have always heard teachers say as “ar’-guyves” and yet is actually pronounced “ahr’-jivez”. I could go and and on with examples.

The problem is that I have these terms burned in my brain this way. Hearing myself saying “Phoenicians” properly sounds absolutely ridiculous to me. It just doesn’t sound right and so I tend to stick with my incorrect way of pronouncing the syllables. I wonder if this is how dramatic changes are introduced into languages.

Or if it is just another way that we Americans look silly to the rest of the world. I don’t know. It’s all Greek to me.

Brotherly love

For this to be an honest and complete journal, I need to occasionally list some of the more embarrassing things that I do, as well as the things of which I am proud. So here’s one for the books. I’ve thought about how ridiculous it is from time to time, but it wasn’t until the last time I talked to Doug on the phone (and Rachel via speaker phone) that I realized just how silly it is. Let me explain:

When signing off from a phone call with either of my parents, the usual concluding phrase I utter is, “Love you,” or perhaps, “Love you, too.”

When completing a phone-call with my beloved sister, jen_ashlock, I usually mimic her phrase, “Love ya!”

With Doug, it’s different. It has been for ages and I don’t know when it started but I do know that Doug was the one to start it. Perhaps it is something innate in brothers that we can’t easily say, “Love you” or “Love ya” when hanging up the phone. Or perhaps it’s just a guy thing. But when concluding a phone call with Doug, neither of us say, “Love you” or “Love ya”. Instead, we currently say something that vaguely resembles a quick, “Luhhhhh!” followed by “Bye”. I don’t know why this is, but I must have started doing it because Doug started doing it. In fact, the phrase has deteriorated over time. Years ago, he would say, “Okay, talk to you later. Luhya. Bye.” This has devolved into “Luhhhh!”

I have a feeling that we both realize this and that we both look with discomfort on the awkward moment we know that will come at the end of our calls. Of course, maybe this is just me. But I don’t think so. You see, the last time Doug and I talked on the phone, I was on speaker phone and was talking with Rachel as well. As we wrapped up our phone call, we went through the usual ritual:

DOUG: Well, we should get going.

ME: Yeah, me too. I’ve got to get to bed. Good talking to you though.

DOUG: Yeah, you too.

ME: Okay, talk to you later.

DOUG: Later. Luhhh! Bye.

ME: Luhhh! Bye.

But before Doug could hang up the phone, I heard Rachel laugh in the background. And the timing of the laugh, the pitch and timbre of the laugh all implied that she was laughing at the ridiculous way that we expressed our feelings for one another.

Well, there you have it. I can’t say we will quit this nonsense. It’s become our thing. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, you all know how I feel about you. I don’t have to say it. Or do I? Okay, well, them:

Talk to you later. Luhhhh! Bye!