REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
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.
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
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
[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
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
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
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
Say "bugs" out loud, holding the final sound for a couple of
Now say "bucks" out loud, holding the final sound for a couple
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 OCLS@madisoncounty.net.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin