Tag archives for: language

Don't Make the Joke

Visiting Greece presented some interesting linguistic challenges.

I live in Montreal, which means I have at least some knowledge of the French language. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, fluent in said language. Frankly, I'm not even very good. My French, basically, is terrible.

But while my French may be terrible, it is at least there. I'm generally able to ask for directions, order a meal from a menu, read the road signs, and even to some extent carry on a conversation, if I keep my words short and avoid slang. When someone says a word in French, I'll stand a chance of being able to match it up with a series of letters on paper, even if the word is unfamiliar.

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The Plural of Book

I just finished a book called The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. It's pretty awesome if you're interested in a) how grammar evolves over time and b) how the very notion of grammar (verb tenses, prepositions, etc.) emerges in the first place.

The author describes, for example, the Latin case system, where nouns can have different endings depending on what role the noun is playing in the sentence. You say "cactus", for example, if it's used as a subject, but you use "cactum" if it's used as an object.

This was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. It means that you can pretty much place the words in your sentence in whatever order you like, without changing the meaning, because the subject and the object are identified, not by word order, as in English, but by the endings on the word. Cool. Insanely difficult, but cool. Apparently Russians still do it. They have my sympathy.

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Why I'll Never Be a Good Speller

English spelling is notoriously...arbitrary. Any and all attempts to pin down a spelling rule will be met with at least six different exceptions - and you can be sure that the exceptions will be words that you will actually want to use. A study in English spelling is basically a study in evolutionary history. It's a study of various French invasions and vowel shifts. And, most of all, it's an exercise in brute memorization.

Contrast this with mathematics. Useful mathematical results are derived from previous mathematical results, using nothing but pure logic. A mathematical result is what it is because it had to be that way. A mathematical result simply couldn't be anything else and still make sense. Note that this is, more or less, the exact opposite of what one can say about English spelling conventions.

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