Tag Archives: linguistics

89. Grammar

I teach English someday. In other country. Like yours, maybe. We will learned to write good. Have fun, grammar always, yes. Good grammar makes good student happy grade. I teach English at classroom for the making of great. Students ears fill over from learning so much things.

Okay, enough of that. It’s more difficult to write a grammatically incorrect sentence than I imagined, with some knee-jerk reaction always reaching for that DELETE key when I mix tenses or forget an apostrophe. Grammar affects every little part of a sentence. You can’t write without grammar. It astonishes me, then, when people say we ought to avoid teaching it.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want absolute chaos.

The best part about English being the lingua franca is that people from all countries can use it as a tool for communication across borders. I can go to Turkey and have a conversation with a simit vendor about the weather, if I wanted, because we share a common language. A business woman from India can vacation in South Africa and have a long conversation about digital cameras with a French photo-blogger. If they want.

So when a teacher or researcher advocates steering clear of explicit grammar instruction, it’s not because they want to dismantle the English language. They’re simply leaning more toward the function of English as a tool, as a means of communication. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to make enough sense to convey meaning. You can mispronounce things. You can forget your plural markers. You can mix verb tenses. It’s all gravy so long as you’ve expressed what you meant to express and, perhaps with a bit of negotiation, your listener has understood.

But I like grammar.

I think we let grammar frighten ourselves at an early age, like some kind of monster under the bed. We get through present, past, and future tense and then someone mentions the perfect tense and we freak out. Don’t get me started on the panic sweat that erupts on most of our foreheads when we’re asked if we should use “who” or “whom.”

And who the F came up with gerunds?

I think we need to make grammar explicit. I think we need students to know, early, that grammar is like the earth. The mountains are like nouns. People are like verbs. Animals are prepositions. Oceans are conjunctions. Trees can be demonstrative pronouns. Teach them that without grammar, there would be no language. Without the ingredients of the earth, we’d have no life.

Now, I’m still new at this ESL teaching thing, but I’m pretty sure if you start the kids at a young age without a fear of grammar, then laying out the foundation for them will be the most beneficial.

Arguments can be made, by the innatists like Chomsky, that all you need to do is use English around language learners and they’ll acquire the rules deductively. Imagine a student like a sponge, only instead of soaking up water they’re soaking up articles and relative clauses.

And maybe that really works. Who knows? The point is, you probably know less about your language than a ten-year-old kid in South Korea.

I find it amazing that we develop our language ability at such a young age that we don’t even remember acquiring it. This magical, wonderful tool, given to us, free of charge, with hardly any effort at all. So when we grow up and some of us decide to teach English as a career, we realize that we know jack-squat about the development process we undertook, as if Dumbledore came to our crib and uttered, “Englishium Speakiorus!” and so it was.

Next time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “How do I know this?”

You’d be surprised how many things you know, but hardly understand.

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84. Nothing

What is nothing?

It is difficult to picture nothing.

I’d argue that it’s our language that prohibits nothingness, for even having the language to shape our thoughts has birthed a tangible imagination. As wild as our thoughts are, they are contained by our language. Even the most abstract concepts like infinity, love, and motivation are wrapped tightly in vocabulary. Without langauge, what would ideas be? Feelings? I don’t know for sure.

Without language, it’s almost as if our existence ceases to be.

Well, okay, pain and hunger and the biological elements of our existence would continue. We wouldn’t be able to express how or why we eat or suffer or sleep, but we would do them anyway. Like robots, programmed.

With words, though, and the symbols we use for written language, we have removed the mystery. No longer do things simply happen, for there are words to explain all phenomena. There are even words to express the fact that one doesn’t know something. Even the lack of knowledge can be known. There are ways to express things we’ll never understand, which, in a way, is another way of understanding things.

An ability to say, “This is something I will never know,” is far more advanced than our ancestors, who viewed the unknown without knowing it was unknown, as an ant who comes across a leaf in its path and simply bounces off in another direction, not questioning the leaf, narrowly seeing the leaf, more observant of the fact that its forward motion was stalled, but not why or how or where the leaf came from.

We can no longer just be.

If only because we have the verb be.

Therefore, to imagine nothing is to imagine something. A dark space. A bottomless pit. Some other adjective, some other noun. We fill nothing with words, defeating the purpose of nothing, betraying one construct with another. We’re incapable of doing nothing.

Thanks to language, our thoughts have shapes and those shapes become words, sentences, theories. I’ve heard of people meditating to clear their minds to clear all thoughts, like someone dusting their entire house. I don’t buy it, though I’ve never tried it. Our brain’s are wired to acquire language. We’re designed to communicate. Even in total silence, our brain speaks.

I picture the meditating monk with a cleared mind like someone on a vast ocean, floating on a piece of driftwood, completely isolated from the outside world. Or perhaps floating in an endless vacuum. This, I imagine, is the quiet and tranquility they seek for whatever spiritual purpose they desire. Except they are still a noun, performing a verb.

I’m not trying to say that meditation is futile. I think it helps to quiet the vocabulary machines inside our brains that constantly, unconsciously  create language to explain the world around us. Closing our eyes, we see dark and we think quiet and we feel calm and we hear our heartbeat. But there is always something. There is never nothing.

So don’t feel bad about those lazy days when you do nothing. Don’t ever feel like you’re worth nothing.

It’s impossible.

65. Language shifts

I think one of my favorite words is “hafta.”

As in, “I hafta see this movie” or “I’ll hafta ask for the day off work.”

It used to be, “I have to.”

We used to say, “Going to.”

Now we say, “Gonna.”

As in, “I’m gonna make it big someday.”

Or the dreamers, they used to “want to.”

Now they “wanna.”

As in, “I wanna travel.”

“I wanna see the world.”

Some people “should have.”

Most likely, they “shoulda.”

“Coulda.”

“Woulda.”

The more formal of us “oughtta.”

“Did you” has turned to “Didya.”

“Doing” lost the G.

We’ve lost many Gs.

We’ve traded velar nasals for apostrophes.

“Goin’, goin’, gone.”

We’re trimming back.

Dropping morphemes.

“Until” is “Til.”

“Around the corner” is “Round the corner.”

We’re condensing.

Saving time.

“Do not know” is just, “Dunno.”

“Helluva.”

“Lotsa.”

As in, “With lotsa shifts in the language, I’m gonna have a helluva time teaching English in the future.”

Adaptation is key.

You hafta keep up.

If you wanna know what we’re sayin’.

48. Magic of Mad Libs ®

You’re a kid again. Let’s say you’re _____________ (age) and it’s your first day of school. After scarfing down a/an __________ (food) for breakfast, you hop on the __________ (vehicle) and hurry along to first period English class.

The __________ (adjective) teacher has a game for the students to play. “Games in school?” you question such a thing. “Please. I’ll believe it when I __________ (present-tense verb) it.” The teacher proceeds to introduce you to Mad Libs.

Mad Libs is not exactly a game, nor is it a puzzle. It’s a mix between a __________ (noun) and a __________ (noun).

You’re given a series of fill-in-the-blank requests with no explanation of their purpose. Is this a test, you wonder, or some other _________ (adjective) form of torture? As you __________ (present-tense verb) in the blanks, you think of __________ (adjective) examples. In the space for ‘body part,’ you __________ (present-tense verb) and write: __________ (body part).

Eventually the truth is revealed. Your examples are parts of a story. Suddenly you’ve got this __________ (adjective) creation in your hands. You’re __________ (gerund verb) hysterically at your desk. What madness! You’ve never felt so ____________ (emotion).

What makes the result of the Mad Libs so appealing? The unknown, perhaps. The absurdity. The __________ (present-tense verb). You’ve taken a/an __________ (adjective) story and made it __________ (adjective). You did. With your words.

It shows children they are creators. It shows children they can __________ (present-tense verb) anything. Words are powerful. A/an __________ (adjective) word can make you ____________ (present-tense verb) while the image of a/an __________ (noun) can change your opinion of __________ (historical event) forever.

Mad Libs lets children know they can be __________ (adjective). It encourages them to experiment with __________ (plural noun) and is meant to inspire creativity whenever they __________ (present-tense verb). It teaches them the power of words. It inspires them to try new __________ (things). They’ll look back and think: Wow, I really could have __________ (past-tense verb) anything.

This isn’t an activity only for children or teachers. If you’re a __________ (job title), then think of other ways to incorporate Mad Libs into your life. This is less about the __________ (activity) and more about the philosophy.

Leave blanks in your plans. Improvise. __________ (present-tense verb). Experiment. Don’t live a life prewritten. There is magic in the not knowing. Try new nouns, seek new adjectives, experiment with new verbs, like __________ (gerund verb). Before you know it, your life will become a whole lot more __________ (adjective).

Trust me when I say __________ (poignant closing statement).

21. Silent letters

I’ve got an H in my first name that must feel like the lousiest letter in the world. Sometimes, in spelling out my name, I forget that it was ever there. Oh hello, H. You’re the runt of the family, stuck there between the heavy-lifter, C (doing its best impersonation of a K), and it’s palatal liquid neighbor, the R, who seems to have all the fun. There’s nothing I can do for you, H. Linguistics is linguistics is linguistics. You’re a place-holder that makes my name look less feminine.

Though I tend to just go by Chris, there are another six letters that reveal themselves in official documents and lectures from my mother, the –topher. Here we have another identity crisis brewing since the day I was born. The P and H (poor H!) here are like the Brad and Angelina of my given name, losing their individuality and morphing into Brangelina, or, in my case, the labiodental fricative, F. While the bilabial pop of the letter P and the glottal sigh of the H are, on their own, pleasant sounds, they’ve been banished from the pronunciation of Christopher until the end of time. At least they can party together with the litmus test strips.

There are other letters I think deserve recognition, and an apology, knowing they’ll never share the phonetic spotlight with their neighboring phonemes. The first D in Wednesday. The first R in February. The H in spaghetti. The O and second E (who gets side-swiped by a rogue back vowel, U) in people. The X in xylophone (a real slap in the face, honestly, since it’s one of X’s best words). The B in comb. The N in solemn. The T in potpourri. All these wonderful letters, completely and utterly ignored.

Which leads me to my next point…

These letters deserve recognition, yes, but if we pronounce them then the words will be rendered ridiculous. Don’t say ex-eye-lo-phone. Don’t say pee-oh-pull. And never pronounce the B at the end of comb, tomb, or lamb. So what can we do for them? Honestly? We should put them out of their misery. Cut them out like tonsils. Remove them like wisdom teeth. Why tease them at all? If the word needs a re-write (toom, anyone?), then so be it.

I’d feel a little strange if my name was spelled Kristofer, but I’d get over it. And actually, just as I typed that out and saw Word’s little red squiggle tell me it was spelled incorrectly, I laughed. Wrong? Word, please. It’s more correct than you know.