by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
(linguistics; UCSD)



In Lessons One through Three we've been looking at two basic items of linguistics: what languages are; and what language rules are like. In this lesson, before moving on to anything new, I want to stop and discuss some of the questions and comments that you've sent since we started this course. That will let us review the material and clarify a few things.

Your Input

Many people wrote to say that they're finding the lessons helpful and enjoyable; I appreciate those comments and thank you for them. Many wrote with comments about the graphic design of the course, and I've made some changes based on those comments. And then there were comments about content; they're listed (and discussed) below in alphabetical order.

1. Elizabeth Barrette asked me to add a list of suggestions for further reading. It's a good idea, and I'd be happy to add such a list. However, materials that I'd be willing to recommend are few and far between; I almost never come across linguistics materials that are both interesting and written in Real World English. When I do find something suitable, the chances that you'd be able to find it are slim. I'll give this some thought, and I welcome your suggestions. (I'm assuming that there's no need for recommendations from me for books by popular superstar linguists like Pinker and Tannen; if that's a mistake, please let me know.)

2. Douglas Dee (along with Jesse Kaysen and Richard Kennaway) was dissatisfied with my discussion of the rule for handling GN sequences in English words. Dee writes, "I am still unconvinced that this actually represents any rule of English phonology that we carry in our linguistic competence, as opposed to being merely a rule about English orthography (possibly carrying information about English phonology of former times)." And similarly, "You haven't presented any evidence that the 'g' in 'gnaw' is anything but a spelling convention. Unless you do present some such evidence, I think the reference to 'gnaw' unfortunately blurs the distinction you've just made between rules about sounds and rules about letters." He suggests the "s" in "island" as an example of a letter that isn't really there in the sound system, saying, "Someone mistakenly thought 'island' was related to 'insula' and imposed that 's' on the spelling system."

I'm going to try to straighten this out; however, I don't expect the result to satisfy everyone; that is the nature of linguistics.

It has been proposed that — unlike the silent "s" in "island" — the silent G in "sign" is genuinely a part of the word. That is, that the G is "really there" in the internal grammar. Evidence presented for that claim includes the fact that the G in "signature" and many other related words does get pronounced, and the fact that the G is silent only when pronouncing it would violate a broader rule that applies to other English sound sequences as well. It has also been proposed that this idea is nonsense and that the G is only a historical artifact that has become part of the spelling system or the reading "decoding" rules.

My personal opinion is that the G in words like "sign" and "signature" is really there as part of the internal grammar (which is what Dee means by "our linguistic competence"). I may be wrong. There's no readily available way to check for the presence of that G, the way you could check for the actual presence of a chemical or a star or a gene. If it exists, it exists in an unknown form somewhere in inner space, where we can't get at it. I'm not at all sure that the G in words like "gnaw" has the same sort of reality, since it's never pronounced under any circumstances in the English of today. We could argue about this endlessly, and a time would come when we'd all be sufficiently worn out to agree to disagree. I don't see any point in doing that.

My concern here is not to prove or disprove the phonological reality (much less the neurophysiological reality!) of that G. My concern is that it should be clear to you what linguists are talking about when they talk about rules of languages, using this particular rule as my example. Linguists have been known to get into shouting matches, even fist fights, over such matters as whether the Gs in "sign" or "gnaw" are part of the internal grammar. With any luck, it may now be a little more clear to you how such arguments get started, what they're based on, and why linguists take part in them. If so, I'm satisfied.

3. Esperanto scholar and writer Donald Harlow says I can safely get rid of the idea that Esperanto is a "possible exception" to the claim that no native speakers of constructed languages exist. There are, he tells me, many such "denaska" (from-birth) Esperantists. He sent me a list of examples, plus the information that "for the last two years the Esperanto courses at Berkeley have been taught by two native speakers." He says, "I have no idea how many such people there actually are in the world, but the figure is certainly in the hundreds and perhaps in the low thousands. They generally arise out of two different situations: (a) at least one parent is an Esperanto enthusiast... (b) the language is the primary tool of communication between the parents. There is a magazine, and a mailing list (DENASK-L) devoted to families in which Esperanto is the primary means of communication, and to children who speak it as their first language. (Obviously, of course, there are no monolingual speakers of Esperanto beyond the age of, I would guess, about three or four years.)"

4. Aya Katz wrote to point out that the language of bees is just as capable of generating infinitely many messages as human languages are. We discussed that back and forth a bit, and agreed that the distinction between BeeSpeak and human languages is not infinite capacity but creativity. The individual messages the bees construct can be infinite in number, but they are rigidly restricted in content, containing only information about the direction and distance and quality of food sources. [I can of course easily imagine constructing a science fiction story in which the bees are cleverly disguising their linguistic creativity, using a code that only appears to be restricted to information about food sources, laughing all the while at how easily human beings can be fooled. But we won't go there. It might be that a serious investigation of the mathematics involved would stop me.] Katz also says, "After all, computers can generate those indeterminately long sentences with multiple embeddings much better than we can. But they can't be said to have language (at least, not yet) because they are incapable of using them in context. I think human creativity has a lot to do with how much mileage we get out of our limited processing capacity."

[Note: "Indeterminately long sentences with multiple embeddings" needs explanation. We can say that sentences of human languages are "indeterminately long" because it would always be possible, theoretically, to take any sentence of any length, add "and," and make it longer still. Embedded sentences are sentences inside larger sentences, as in "The fact that Mary writes science fiction surprised the judges" and "We all knew that Mary wrote science fiction as a teenager." "Multiple embeddings" will give you things like the text of "The House That Jack Built." Katz is correct that computers can be programmed to construct examples of such things and can keep that up far more tirelessly than human beings ever could.]

5. Sharon L. Krossa wrote to suggest that I clarify what I mean by "traditional language arts class." She's correct that I used the term vaguely. By "traditional language arts class," I meant the sort of class you see on such television shows as "The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie," extrapolated to classrooms of today. Such classes — in which linguistic science is excluded other than by chance — still exist, even on the Internet; students in such classes are taught things like "Prepositions are the very short words on this list." This is not the fault of the teachers, who must teach from the textbooks they're provided with and teach to the tests their students will have to take. It's an unfortunate state of affairs; I try hard to be polite about it, and that makes me vague.

6. Ken Rolph and Andreas Schramm wrote with very helpful suggestions for making this course more interactive. They tell me that the course would be improved by online brief tests (with answers provided on a handy link), a message board or forum, exercises and activities, hypertexting, and so on. I don't know whether they're right or not; certainly they could be. In my experience, the people who are willing to participate in those things are always the people who don't need them; the people who would really be helped by participating aren't interested. You might let me know how you feel about this. (And of course you're free to go to one of the e-group sites and set up a discussion among yourselves; you don't need me for that.)

7. Sheri Wells-Jensen wrote to say that her students don't always believe the claim that speakers of English use /z/ for the plural after a word like "bug." You may feel the same way; if so, please try the following experiment.

Put your fingertips over the front of your throat, at your "Adam's apple" (or where your Adam's apple would be if you had one).
Say "bugs" out loud, holding the final sound for a couple of seconds.
Now say "bucks" out loud, holding the final sound for a couple of seconds.

The vibration you feel with your fingertips when you say "bugs" is called VOICING; it's your vocal cords vibrating as air passes through and over them. Some sounds of English are voiced; others are voiceless. Voicing turns the voiceless plural-marker S into the voiced sound /z/ after the final /g/ in "bug." "Buck," on the other hand, ends in the voiceless sound /k/, and the plural marker stays voiceless; therefore, you feel no vibration with your fingertips when you say "bucks."

It's possible that someone in Wells-Jensen's classes speaks a dialect that doesn't always voice the plural marker after final voiced sounds; if you don't feel any vibration when you say "bugs" or "bids" or "Bob's," that may be true for you as well.

8. Several people wrote to ask why we sometimes pronounce the English plural marker as /s/ and sometimes as /z/. This is a two-level "why" question. At one level, the answer is that English has a rule requiring the plural marker to agree in voicing with the sound it follows in the word. After a voiceless sound it has to be voicless; after a voiced sound (all the English vowels, for example), it has to be voiced, which means that it has to be pronounced as /z/. At the other level, however, the why is part of something like this: Why do speakers of English insist on their plural marker matching the voicing of the sound it follows? We can't answer that question. Agreement in voicing is one of the options that human languages offer; for some reason, at some stage of prehistory about which we know almost nothing, native speakers of English selected that option. Why? We haven't a clue.

Sometimes we see a lot of different rules going on in a language that all seem to lead to a single result, as if they were working together; we call that a linguistic conspiracy. It may be that the rule about voicing agreement and the plural marker is part of such a conspiracy — but if I said that, I would just be guessing.

There... that's enough for now. I'd welcome your comments, suggestions, criticisms, questions, and other input; let me know if you prefer to stay anonymous. If anything up to this point still isn't clear, don't hesitate to tell me so, so that I can try to fix the problem. Please e-mail me directly at

— Suzette Haden Elgin

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