Tag Archives: descriptive

The man who can talk backwards

Just a few days ago I saw an amazing video about Kurt Quinn, a man who can talk backwards. When I say backwards, I don’t mean that he reverses the order of the words in a sentence, but he actually reverses the order of the sounds. He’s got a YouTube channel where you can see this in action, and I would recommend this video by Smarter Every Day which tests the limits of Quinn’s skill.

The Smarter Every Day (SED) video not only demonstrates Quinn’s skill, but also offers up a little bit of phonetic science to explain how it works. While I deeply appreciate SED’s attempt to describe phonetics, there are a few things missing from the explanation that I want to go over here. This should not be taken as a criticism of SED at all. What Quinn can do is highly unusual, and highly interesting, and I want to explore it further. Continue reading

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500 language lessons

In addition to this blog I have a Twitter account called LinguaDiem, where the goal is to post about as many languages as possible. I generally do one per day. I’ve had this going for about a year and a half now, and I recently hit a landmark of 500 languages. They are all listed over here. For this blog post, I wanted to talk about LinguaDiem, and a few things I learned from 500 languages.

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The IPA: Non-pulmonic consonants

nonpulmonic cons

The main consonant chart of the IPA was covered in two earlier parts (you can see the whole series up here). In this post, I’ll cover the smaller box below the main one. This is the one labelled “non-pulmonic consonants”.

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Gerunds: More Interesting Than You Thought

I suppose I should start the post by describing what a gerund is, in order for us all to be on the same page. In extremely non-technical terms, a gerund is a word-type that looks like a verb with an -ing suffix, but also looks like a noun because it can be the subject of a verb. For example, the following sentences contain gerunds (bolded):

Eating is enjoyable.
Reading Chomsky makes my head spin.
I can’t believe Mark’s cheating on the test doesn’t bother you.

These are tricky words to describe, and traditional grammars are often at odds with each other about how to treat them. Some people will tell you these are definitely verbs, but others will insist they are nouns. Some grammarians take a half-way view and say something like “gerunds are verbs that act like nouns”.

It turns out that this is one occasion where I will not be picking apart the traditional view, because things really are messy. Gerunds have weird mixed behaviour that makes them look a little bit like verbs, a little bit like nouns. They also have unique properties of their own that they don’t share with either nouns or verbs.
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Musings on subjects and conjunctions

This issue comes up all the time on grammar blogs and in grammar books: which form of a pronoun should go into conjoined subjects? For example, I want to know which of these to choose:

  • Kimberly and I defended the fort.
  • Kimberly and me defended the fort.

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Grammarly has Top Linguists. Top. Linguists.

Maybe you’ve heard of Grammarly. It’s software for checking your spelling and grammar. It’s getting a lot of promotion around the internet recently, probably because it’s free and everyone is afraid of bad grammar, so I checked out their website.

The world’s leading linguists? Sounds impressive. I have complained before about grammar products created by non-linguists, so this is refreshing. Let’s have a look at the blog.
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Do you always mean what you say?

One of the most intriguing things about language is the way that meaning is tied to context. Take this sentence for example:

“Everybody was there yesterday”

Which day is ‘yesterday’? The word ‘yesterday’ has no fixed meaning and needs a context. It refers to a different day each day that you say it. Same goes for the word ‘there’. We need a context to know where ‘there’ is. How about “everybody”? Does that literally mean every individual in the entire world? Of course not. It means something like “every person within a contextually relevant group of people”. Since this sentence has no context, you probably had to invent one, maybe by imagining a room full of people you know.

The branch of linguistics that studies how context interacts with meaning is called ‘pragmatics’, and in this post I want to introduce you to one of my favourite topics in pragmatics: implicatures.

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Comparing the complexity of languages

Which language do you think is the most complex? There are a lot of different answers that people will give to this question. Some people are sure that whatever language they struggled with in high school is the most complex. Others are certain that highly influential cultures must have complex languages, so they choose Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or Chinese. Language buffs might break out a rare one like Tlingit or Lardil. Many people insist it is their own native language that’s the most complex, though oddly, I’ve found that just as many people seem willing to say their own language is terribly simple.

But ask a linguist, and you get a really wet blanket answer: no language is any more complex than any other. Or, put another way, all languages are equally complex. That answer tends to stop conversation dead in the tracks and no one is really satisfied by it, so I’m going to spend some time in this post explaining this answer and making it more interesting (maybe).

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8 Grammar Terms You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

1. Morpheme

A morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries meaning. A word consists of one or more morphemes. For example, elephant is a morpheme, the plural suffix –s is a morpheme, the word elephants is a word consisting of two morphemes.

Morphemes can be “free”, meaning they are used by themselves, (e.g. house, car, walk, eat, from, to, but, him) or they are “bound”, meaning they only appear when attached to another free morpheme (e.g. the plural suffix –s, the past tense –ed,  the prefix re-, the possessive ‘s, etc.). The concept of a morpheme is extremely useful in describing any language, and I’ll make use of it throughout this post.

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What can replace phrases?

Traditional analysis of English has a heavy focus on words. The eight parts of speech, which is a core concept in traditional grammar, is all about classifying individual words. Many prescriptive rules are concerned with which words to avoid: Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Don’t start with conjunctions. Don’t say ain’t. Don’t use singular they. Nearly every “improve-your-grammar” book has a list of commonly confused or misused words: their/they’re/there, who’s/whose, that/which, principal/principle, etc.

However, languages are not just big bags of words. Words work together, and they can be grouped into larger units called “phrases”. Phrases are an essential part of any theory of grammar. It’s impossible to properly describe a language without at some point needing to talk about groups of words, instead of just individual words. The most obvious example of such a unit is the “sentence”, which is actually just a very large phrase.

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