REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
In Lesson One, after defining some terms, we discussed one basic concept:
that all human languages are rule-governed. Now I'd like to give you a
firmer grasp of what grammar rules are like, how you follow such rules, and
what that means for the way you use your language. I think the simplest way
to begin is to go through a typical linguistics problem with you so that
you can see a rule in operation. I'm going to use a problem from the sound
system of English (its phonology), and I'll define any necessary terms as
we go along.
The Problem: Why Is That G Silent?
When linguists take up the task of writing a grammar for a language
which means writing the set of rules that determine the language behavior
of its native speakers they take the whole language as the database for
that task. They look at all the data, with, as their first goal, the
identification of patterns. They describe the patterns that they
perceive in the data. They construct hypotheses proposed grammar rules
that will explain the patterns and then they test them. We're going to
look at a very small subset of English data and work our way through this
process together. Here's our data:
sign, resignation, malignant, signature, resign, benign,
malignancy, malign, significant
In a traditional language arts class, you wouldn't be asked to figure out
how these words work or what grammar rules apply to them. You would be
taught that "sign, resign, benign, malign" all have a "silent G," and you
would be expected to memorize that fact and to prove that you had
memorized it by taking tests. We're going to do it differently.
We'll start by looking for patterns in the data, and we'll find that there
are at least two ways we can sort it. Suppose we sort the data into words
that resemble one another closely. We'll get an arrangement like this:
1. sign, signature significant; resign, resignation; malign, malignant,
The question is, why should some of the words in each of those groups have
a "silent G" while others have a G that gets pronounced? We know it's not
random; it's not that some monarch got up one day and decreed that it would
be that way. It can't be that G is silent in words of one syllable a
hypothesis that might have crossed our minds because G is silent in the
two-syllable words "resign, malign, benign." Let's sort the data again, in
a different way.
2. sign, resign, malign, benign; signature, significant, resignation,
That gives us two subsets, one with all the items that have a silent G, and
one with all the items that pronounce the G. We want to find out what
causes a word from this class of words to end up in one of those sets
instead of in the other.
Note: While we're here, I want to do one other thing. Suppose I were to
give you these two hypothetical English words, which I have just made up on
the spot: "sebrign" and "olignation." Notice that you know immediately how
to pronounce my fictional words and that you know which subset they belong
in. This proves that you do know the rule we're looking for.
Now, we have to ask ourselves what "sign/resign/malign/benign" have in
common that makes them different from the rest of the words in the set. We
already know that they have a silent G, but that doesn't explain anything
at all; it describes them, but that's not enough. What else do all four
have in common?
If we were making this up, a traditional way to proceed might be to propose
the following rule:
All six-letter words with GN in them have a silent G; the word
"sign" is irregular and has to be learned as an exception.
For this nine-word set of data, that's a possible rule. However, linguists
hate exceptions. When we have to call something "irregular" or "an
exception," we consider that a failure; sometimes it's the best we can do,
but it always has to be the last resort. What are we missing?
If we were together in a classroom, I'd help you until you found the answer
to my question yourself. Since I'm not with you, I can't do that. The
answer is that in "sign/resign/malign/benign" but not in the other five
items the GN comes at the very end of the word. Eureka! We can now
propose as a hypothesis this rule:
When an English word ends with GN, the G has to be
We can test that hypothesis with a big dictionary of English words. We can
test it by asking native speakers of English to check our results, both
with existing words and with words we construct. We'll find that it's
valid. That statement is indeed a phonological rule of English a rule of
the English sound system and it's a rule that was already stored in your
internal grammar. It's the rule you followed when you decided how to
pronounce "sebrign" and "olignation."
Note: Often, even though linguists have found a rule and it appears to
them to be correct, they're unable to say why the rule exists. In this
case, however, we do know a thing or two. We know why the silent G isn't
dropped from the spelling of words like "sign." English keeps it in the
written form of the word, very wisely, because that G tells readers that
"sign" and "signature" and "significant" and "signatory" and "insignia"
(and many more) are related historically and in their meanings. This is
valuable information, and worth preserving; it's helpful to people who are
reading written English. It's not, as you have probably been told, evidence
that the English spelling system is crazy and should be "reformed."
I'd be pleased to have your comments, criticisms, questions, and any other
feedback for this lesson or any previous one. I'd be glad to hear from you. Please
e-mail me directly at OCLS@madisoncounty.net.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin