Saturday, May 29, 2010

Linguistics 101

I'll be embarking on my first official foray into linguistics teaching on Tuesday, with a summer section of LING 101 here at Rutgers. As opposed to 201, which is more focused on analysis, 101 is essentially an introduction to the kinds of things people talk about in linguistics; students are expected to come out of it knowing what assimilation is, but not necessarily how to write a rule describing it. I plan on focusing in part on why I think linguistics is interesting, and what kinds of things linguists do.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of language (with a lowercase ) is the variety we see in human languages. For many linguists this variety is a minor annoyance in their Universal Grammar exploits, something to be explained away and something that is ultimately superficial. My opinions about some contemporary formulations of UG aside, I think the variation among languages is something to revel in, and to explore. Most people are shocked to find out that there are almost 7000 languages spoken around the world (give or take a few), or that they've only been grouped into about 80 families, as opposed to the 2 or 3 I thought existed before I became a linguist. While some comparative linguists insist that there is evidence of a very small number of language families, people that actually work on those languages very rarely accept such a small number. While Greenberg posited only 3 families for the Americas, you'll be hard pressed to find an Americanist who accepts fewer than at least a couple dozen families, though work is being done to properly demonstrate genetic relationships between some of those families.

People are also sometimes intrigued by how different languages can be. As speakers of Indo-European languages we often assume that our way of doing things is the right way, or even the only way. But then you come across the Algonquian languages, where the ordering of person-marking affixes on the verb indicates not grammatical role, but simply the presence of that person in the action. The order of the affixes is fixed, and their person hierarchy combined with a large set of thematic verbal prefixes indicates which person is acting on whom. Many linguists still think every languages has nasals, because they haven't heard of Chemakum, Makah, Nitinaht, Lushootseed, or Twana (don't let the spelling fool you; pronounce all those as if you had a bad cold).

In short, I'm looking forward to six weeks of showing a group of students that not everything is like English, and that there are more languages in the world than are dreamt of in most naive conceptions of it.