My wife, who takes little interest in my linguistic pursuits, was intrigued
today when I mentioned, as part of our conversation about what to do with 2
chickens I had bought, that the circumflex accent on rotisserie shows that a
following s had been deleted. When restored, the s gives us “roast”.
That would be an entry to language change, comparing that to the way
syllable final s is often deleted in certain dialects of Spanish.
A Gee Whiz approach would give ASTOUNDING FACTS!!!, like Ripley’s Believe It
Or Not. One feature of such an approach is to focus on exotic alphabets and
have students play around with the letters. This is fun and certainly
nothing is wrong with it, but if the more difficult aspects of language of
ignored in favor of it, not much is accomplished.
A damaging Gee Whiz theme would be to emphasize how different languages are
from English. It’s one thing to intrigue students with the diversity of
means of expressing meaning, and quite another to say things like I’ve
heard, e.g. you have to be born a Russian to learn the aspect system of
Russian verbs. Language myths abound (see Word Myths by David Wilton and
Language Myths by Laurie Bauer), like the 20, or 28 or 66 or 120 Eskimo
words for ’snow’. A history teacher told me that the Apache language has so
few words that the Apaches have to eke out their meager vocabulary with
That’s one of my complaints about the ’ungrammatical English’ comments so
frequently made on the List; the offending items are labeled illogical and
described as random errors by undisciplined minds (’ignorant’, ’uneduated’,
etc.) when in reality all language is highly rule governed. I’ve found great
resistance to that idea on the part of students who have been assured by
well-meaning teachers that the reason we do not use double negatives is that
they would equal a positive; therefore our society would be paralyzed by
interpretations that “I don’t have none” meant indeed the person DID have
one. No language known to history has devolved into mutual
incomprehensibility. Stories of such are the sort of linguistic urban
legends Word Myths debunks.
Fascinating trivia certainly would have its place in a high school
linguistics class. The books They Have a Word For It and In Other Words
contain many great “untranslatable” words found in other languages. But that
should then lead into some demonstration of how delightful it is to read a
passage or hear a saying or turn of phrase in another language and being
able to absorb it with full savor of the genius of that language.
I remember a class I took, History of the Russian Language, and how
distraught some of the class members were to find out that language changes,
that the sacred rules vary, that the language cannot be pinned down and that
all grammars leak. A knowledge of linguistics would have prepared them for
that course instead of the professor having to spend so much time pointing
out that the Russians are not “illogical” b/c they use double (and triple
and quadruple) negatives.
Ya nikogda nichego ne videl.