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.


  1. Rael,
    What an interesting explanation of what you are studying!

  2. Rael, check out Yahwehs Retreat for an account of a Spiderman party. Her blog is new on my link list of blogs I like to read.