Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Linguistics letter

A Linguistic Language-Learning Letter

from a Little House in the Country

Greetings, my dear family and friends afar! This semester at the little house out in Abilene with the Istre family has been flying by, and will soon be done! The four kids are as lively, creative, and hilarious as always. Rosie has yet to have her calf, and keeps increasing in rotundity. My head has felt a bit overloaded and stressed as well. Linguistics, for example, is intensely interesting, but there are so many new terms and concepts it sometimes seems like learning another language! As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been challenged to tackle hard things with vigor lately; it turns out writing papers this semester seems more taxing than usual. So, since I must write a paper for my linguistics class, I thought it would be exciting to write it as a blog post for your education and enjoyment! I want you to have a taste of what I’ve been learning, and telling it back is an excellent way to see if I understand it myself.

Lately we’ve studied first language acquisition, which comes about in different stages. My textbook notes five stages, ranging from 1 to 4½ years old. This is where the bulk of language acquisition takes place. Yet according to an article titled “Linguistic Development” by Andrew Matthews, “The period from 5 to 12 is evidently one of linguistic refinement. The language that a child employs is perfectly capable of enabling communication with others. It lacks the subtlety, ambiguity and expressive power of adult speech.” Ambiguity? Yes, sometimes, but one delightful thing about young children is their shocking habit of speaking their mind. But that’s another matter. The point I noticed was that, as young as the Istre kids are, Steele (age 5) is the only one who’s still close to those stages of language acquisition. So I set out for the last few weeks to make note of all the odd things he said and how he said them. Helped by Chelsa, his mom and my secret informant, I recorded quite a few. I shall present them now with explanations and conjectures on the linguistic terms and principles they exemplify, and on how they show Steele’s progress in language acquisition.

Before I get into it, I’d like to explain that my notes mainly have to do with phonology (the study of language sounds) and morphology (the study of word formation). There are actually two other areas linguists usually study in conjunction with these, namely syntax (the study sentence formation) and pragmatics (the use of language in specific contexts). But the first two have been the most interesting to me in class, and for the sake of space I’m only analyzing these areas. But I do hope that bit is at least halfway as interesting to you as it’s been to me!

Phonology - study of the sound of language

One of the first things I noticed when I began to listen carefully was that Steele still leaves out his "r"s. This is terribly cute, for starters. For example, he says not “free” but “fuwee,” not “lobster” but “lobstew.” I don’t know if he’s eaten green eggs or ham before, but he likes most food, so I think he would eat them “hewe” (here) or thewe (there). I know for a fact he likes “gwapes” (grapes). He’s so fun to be “awound.” These words exemplify two things I’ve been learning. They confirm my textbook’s statement that liquid consonants (r and l) are usually acquired rather late, and glide consonants (w and y) are generally used to replace them (Parker 181). Steele has mastered the “l” liquid, but since he hasn’t quite got “r” down he’s putting in “w,” the next-closest consonant sound.

There’s something else about “fuwee” (free). Steel puts in an extra vowel sound in there. This is a kind of assimilation, the changing of a sound to make it more like another sound (which is outlined on a class handout from Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. This particular instance of assimilation is called epenthesis, when a vowel is inserted to break up consonant clusters, which can be difficult to say at first. Sometimes children used epenthesis until they’re 7-9 years old (Parker 183).

Another instance of assimilation I noticed was when Steel says “upposed to” instead of “supposed to.” This is deletion (taking out a segment of sound), which may spring from the fact that the preceding word is usually a contraction ending in “s” (“he’s,” “she’s,” “it’s,” rather than “I’m” or “you’re”) and if that’s mostly the context he hears it in, he might not have distinguished yet that the word is “upposed” to start with s. Or perhaps it’s because the emphasis comes so late in the word that only the later part of the word is distinguished. This is all my own guesswork: I haven’t found an explanation of it yet.

There’s one last example of assimilation Steele used that was brought to my attention. I didn’t hear this one in casual conversation, but his dad prompted him to say it in that slyly casual way dads have. Steele has been in love with trucks, tractors, and any of their distant relations for a while. One of these was a machine is an excavator. Now, apparently he’d known about the moving stairs that to him sounded like the name of the machine, so he called both stairs and machine “ecsalator,” switching the “s” and “c” sound from “escalator” in what is called metathesis. (For the record, he doesn’t say “pasketti” for “spaghetti” anymore, but that was the same principle at work, just as his older sister used to say “pecuter” for “computer,” and some in my own family said “mazagine” for “magazine.”

Those are the examples I found where Steele exemplifies some aspects of phonology I’ve been studying. Now on to wonderful morphology!

Morphology - study of word formation

One of Steele’s most-used words in his everyday play relates to his favorite fearsome toys- his “cavemans”. Everyone knows adding s makes words plural, right? Steele does, anyways. But he still has to learn this irregular plural. One class handout shows the progression to using the proper plural on irregulars, and though it doesn’t chart cavemans-to-cavemen, it does show mans-to-men. Unfortunately, the other Istre kids have taken to calling Steele’s little guys “cavemans” also, even though they know the correct form, so it may take lots of gentle correcting from their mom to make the poor “mans” into “men.”

That was a noun. Steele’s also still in the process of learning irregular verb forms. We heard him say, “They hanged onto it.” Oddly enough, if the “hanging” was the executionary sort, this would have been proper, but in the sense Steele was using it (and the sense used more often), the past tense form is not achieved by adding the suffix “-ed.” The same handout just mentioned also shows she progression of proper past tense verbs, some irregular, and the form of “hang” Steele uses correlates with the same stage as “cavemans.” He’s actually quite consistent!

One day recently I was provided with yet another excellent example of Steele-talk, this time because of colored pieces of chocolates. The kids were sorting their allotted M&Ms and making color-coded charts and graphs comparing the amount of each color. Ah, the joyous spontaneity and deliciousness of homeschooling! Then of course they had to choose which to devour first. Steele, being the logical fellow he is, decided, “I’m going to do yellow because that’s the lessest one.” This is an example of using the most common inflectional suffix, this time for a superlative adjective. Yet it stands out because “less” is irregular in its suffixes, unlike fast/fastest, or hard/hardest.

“If he be’s the boss…” Alas, those tricky being verbs! Steele knows one often adds an “s” to make verbs third person singular present tense. But from my class notes I found that learning the auxiliary verbs, the proper forms of “be,” is the final of seven typical segments of morphemes children learn. So Steele’s right on track.

I suppose I have one example of something he said that fits more in syntax. But it’s too good not to share. One day at lunch, he proudly held up an empty grapevine stem saying, “Look, Mommy! There’s none gwapes.” Later while organizing toys, he used two interesting negatives: “The monsters don’t have no noses,” then “Look Mommy, the monsters have none noses.” What a complicated language we have, where even after two variations of negatives he still doesn’t get the form correct! But here I noticed him in the process of acquiring the right form despite its complexities, and what a thrill it gave me to hear him announce, “Mommy, I didn’t want none — any sauce!”

And that wraps up my foray into how Steele is helping me learn and remember concepts and terms from linguistics! This study of language is intensely interesting, but there are so many new terms and concepts I’m still not entirely sure I know what I’m talking about even here. But writing out the terms and examples of them in real life helps. It has amazed me at how logical and systematic the Lord has made our little minds from birth, so that we grow and progress to be able to (hopefully) better communicate as older children and adults. I’ve enjoyed watching this take place this semester with all the Istre kids in their various levels of language development. It may turn out to be more fun than watching Rosie’s calf come out into the green sunlight. Could even that elicit the mirth and amusement provided by “gwapes” and “none noses”?

Works Cited

Matthews, Andrew. "Linguistic Development." 05 June 1996. 24 Apr 2007 .

O’Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky, and Mark Aronoff. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

Parker, Frank, and Kathryn Riley. Linguistics for Non-linguists. 4th. Boston: Pearson, 2005.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Not quite Paul Bunyun...

How odd, and beautiful to have snow the day before Easter! The only thing is, I wish I was better at splitting wood.

I did a bit of practice this morning, trying to get some for the woodburning stove, but I mainly learned that the effort
  1. warms one up wonderfully,
  2. produces blisters on unpracticed hands,
  3. is much trickier than it looks, and
  4. takes muscles I seem to have neglected.
I felt a bit like Eustace attacking the Sea Serpent, and breaking Caspian's second best sword in the process. Silly, but at least I was doing- er, attempting something hard I generally don't do. ;-) I am glad for strong men! But to be a good helpmeet some day, and a good servant wherever I am, I must practice "girding my arms with strength" like the Proverbs 31 woman. I'll bet most pioneer women knew how to split wood. One never knows what life skills will come in handy some day!

Partial inspiration for this post comes from the challenging "Do Hard Things" articles on the Harris twins' blog, such as this one.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Procrastination Paraphernalia

One way I play around in the middle of writing an important paper is to discover my various titles.

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Her Grace Lady Rael the Lackadaisical of Bumswick by the Hole
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Hehe. Has a rather hobbity sound to it, no? It's almost but not quite so grand is "
Duchess Rael the Incontrovertible of Leg over Wallop."

My homework-avoidance surfing has also led to discovering the newest trailer for Spiderman 3. Here it is, if you care to look. NOTE: I shan't be doing this posting-of-video much, so take comfort! I think it's too easy to get carried away, not to mention that few video clips are so important to me life that they must take the place of quality postings. But oh my, how shall I be able to focus on finals, knowing this is coming out?

(BEWARE- 'Tis quite unsettling, a bit violent, and if you like Spiderman it may produce dreadful impatience.)

Each trailer has been creepier and creepier! Unless this goes the dreaded way of the last X-men and is drowned in too many subplots, it looks to be just as good as the last two. Maybe I should try being more like Puddleglum, though. That way, if it's totally ruined, with no moral depth and a horrid ending, I shan't be let down. Hm...

Thinking such gloomy thoughts shouldn't be this hard!

I must now go back to paper-writing, accompanied by Constant Comment. I shall try to keep visions of the evil Spiderman from swooping through my head. He ought to obey, since I am such, erherm, a peculiarly-titled aristocrat.

Lackidaisical indeed... Do you ever get the feeling these "randomly-generating" programs know a bit too much and are too deliberately accurate in their so-called-randomness?