The Gee Whiz approach

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.

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