Lexicon Valley

What Can Popular Presents Tell Us About Linguistics? A (Metaphorical) Gift Guide.

Putting words together is kind of like playing with Tinkertoys or Pick Up Sticks. 

Mele Kalikimaka may be the Hawaiian way to shine your linguistic star this holiday season, but how can us word nerds and language-curious types share our passion in a more tangible way? Is there anything to spin our dreidels and jingle our bells that isn’t yet another grammar guide? Of course there is! While they may not make actual languages up at the North Pole, sometimes the greatest gift is understanding, so let’s reach deep into Santa’s sack and see what the goodies in there can tell us about how language works.

First up, phonology: the study of sounds that are relevant to human language. Since phonologists deal with sound, you might be thinking of some kind of frog-shaped ocarina, but apart from the fact that frogs don’t really have language, phonology is specifically about how we organize sounds to make sense of them in different languages. For example, in English, it’s really important to pay attention to the difference between the [k] and [g]: “Kwanzaa“ and “garland” are definitely not the same thing as “Gwanzaa” and “carland.” But in Tamil, the distinction between [k] and [g] just isn’t important. So, for the Henry Higgins in all of us, try the game Set, a card game where the goal is to group items that share visual features (like color, shape, or shading) faster than your opponents. It’s kind of like what phonologists do with sounds, and it’s sure to make your “phonology” more like “fun-ology.”

The second major part of our mental grammar is morphology, which deals with morphemes, the smallest bits of language that have independent meaning. The sound [s] by itself is meaningless to an English speaker (although it may have meaning in Parseltongue), but -s as a morpheme can indicate that a word is plural (“gift-s“), or possessive (“Rudolph-’s nose”), or a third-person verb ("jingle-s”). Morphemes come in different flavors and have different jobs depending on the language, and that’s what morphologists try to figure out—which morphemes are required or optional, which are allowed to combine together, what order they combine in, etc. For the gift of morphology, then, why not grab a tin of Tinkertoys? Celebrating its 100th birthday, the Tinkertoy building system of spools, rods, and flags lets you create huge and complicated structures—a three-dimensional equivalent of complex words like antidisestablishmentarianism. Or, if you’d rather go for languages with shorter words that don’t stick together into morphemes, like Mandarin, how about a bag of Pick Up Sticks?  

Once you’ve got your words, you need to figure out how to put them together, and that’s the domain of syntax, one of the most contentious subfields in linguistics. Some syntacticians believe that the structure of phrases is based on a deeper universal structure shared by every human brain, and the difference between Yukaghir and Finnish are only on the surface. Other syntacticians believe that structure of a phrase is determined by the most important word in that phrase—“lowing” is something cattle can do, but it’d be pretty weird for “tin soldiers” to be doing it. Still other syntacticians believe that there is no “structure” but merely patterns we hear and repeat (like how I can’t stop humming that song from Gremlins). But regardless of theory, all syntacticians believe that phrases—be they questions, statements, or dative-shifted double object constructions—are built up out of certain fundamentals, certain basic ingredients. So why not go for a cookbook? Cooking for Geeks, by Jeff Potter, takes an approach to cooking that goes beyond the task list of ingredients and oven temperatures and gets into the why of food, showing your grammarian how cooking, like language, is about finding the connections and complements in working with what we’ve got.

The last major component of our mental grammars is semantics—the study of meaning. Now, meaning can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so you may be tempted to put a bow on something very philosophical, like an hourglass. But practising semanticists tend to be more concrete about meaning: Words mean things because they point to something we’ve experienced in the real world. So why not unwrap a game of Catchphrase? It’s that game where you get a word, and you have to make your teammates guess it so you can pass the disc before the buzzer goes off. Y’know, it’s like that thing that people give as a gift that’s supposed to be edible but no one ever eats it and you just regift it every year and it was a big joke in sitcoms for a while and it’s got like nuts and bits of other stuff in it …

That should cover the basics—four core areas of our mental grammars and pretty presents for each. But of course linguistics isn’t limited to these subfields, so as your stocking-stuffers, check out how computers process language (go for a Furby), how language is acquired (try a Hat-imal), how language changes (a subscription to a genealogy website), the history of English (can’t go wrong with a drinking horn), documentary linguistics and indigenous languages (donate on their behalf to the Endangered Language Alliance or the Endangered Language Fund), teaching languages (Rory’s Story Cubes are the greatest thing ever), and countless other ways to celebrate the lingua-nerd spirit, whether you’re wishing Chanukah sameach, singing Feliz Navidad, or asking Habari gani? this holiday season.

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