John McWhorter

Language Morphs

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Language Morph

As the echoes of ‘Gladly the Cross I’d Bear’ reverberate around the church, there sits a little girl with a questionable face thinking who is ‘Gladly’ and why sing about the unfortunate bear being cross-eyed.
gladly-the-cross-eyed-bear
So, here lies misassignments and language change. For example, ‘nickname’ started off as ekename; eke being ‘also’. Through time and the use of ‘an ekename’ people began to interpret the n in an as the first letter; hence a nickname. Even Santa Claus began life differently as a Dutch word Sant Heer Niclaes. St Nicholas was shortened to Santerclaes and reinterpreted. English is full of words that are not descended in ‘pure’ state from older equivalents.  So, be careful when you tell people to ‘Shaddap’ or ‘Caditout’.
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A linguistics class reflection

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Six days of attending linguistic lectures spread over three weeks can not be a major amount of time to achieve a solid and complete knowledge of linguistics, but all the same, this essay will try to establish how I accomplished a relative level of understanding through my studies. I tried hard to combine items raised in these lectures, my classmates’ comments, further reading away from the class, and clarity added by my focus group. I will try to highlight some of the points that stuck in my mind regarding linguistics while giving a little insight into the further ideas into the subject.

To begin with, would be to give my general view of linguistics. So, as I researched I found that linguistics is the study of human languages, where within this the science examines not only the structure of language but also its use and the structure in the mind. A layman may think that a linguist, the person who is skilled in linguistics, only looks at rules and grammar, but it is so much more than this. The subject takes in such fields as humanity, science, society, philosophy and literary criticism. Language is not as routine as some may think, and it is astonishing to think that language came from one source which spread across the world to create 6000 more. A learner of linguistics then would be amazed how many branches of linguistics have been created. So, without language where would we be?

My first recognizable factor about the classes was the highlighting of daily use of language which has to be the main dynamic in anyone’s scaffolding of knowledge. The more any speaker uses it, the more they will be able to use their fresh available knowledge of language. The lecturer actually mentioned that reading and writing inspire to make you more creative with your writing and speaking. This, I found to be a sensible choice to further one’s linguistic knowledge. The path that I followed on this course was not the one that I thought and as such I would like to draw attention to some of the further points.

I feel my reading has taken in many factors and has shown me that linguistics is a broad church. I was asked yesterday where the word ‘Santa Claus’ came from, and then I remember I read about it in a book called the Tower of Babel by John McWhorter who is famous for studying creoles. In it, he spoke about how it was a Dutch word that by immigrant coming to America and following their tradition they have spoken about it and Americans have misheard the word to be Santa Claus. This field of study in linguistics is actually called ‘Etymology’ where it recognizes the origins of words and sees how they have changed over time. I actually picked up the Tower of Babel book because I had read one of my group’s summaries from the book ‘Introduction to Linguistics’.

Moreover, the chapter in the Introduction to Linguistics book spoke about how words have changed through time. They called it variation; this means that languages take on their own route. English people especially in the northern region took the word ‘butter’ and pronounced it with the ‘er’. For me, this course has highlighted that linguistics is not just about grammar. Language takes on its own form and even one language like English below the surface lies a myriad of factors that are distinguished by linguists. For example, I read that language which was described by Ronald Langacker who is a founder of the field of cognitive linguistics, makes three fundamental assumptions: ‘that language is symbolic in nature that a linguistic community creates linguistic conventions, and that grammar is a speaker’s knowledge of linguistic conventions’. So, this gave me a better insight into the linguistic community creating the language and grammar. The speaker uses sentences that are built by selecting appropriate words from their vast lexicon that are learnt from his local language community.

Furthermore, if we are to talk about language communities, I can think back to watching the movie Sense and Sensibility in one class. The students were faced with sociolinguistics and the use of language around 1800 in England. A pioneering sociolinguist was William Labov who recognized the value of society, cultural norms and expectation on language. As for the film, it has a language of propriety of upper-class England. What people say and what they mean can be of different meanings. People had to behave properly and women were kept in place. There is a great scene where the daughter of the deceased father has to move to another residence where the owner speaks his mind to the disgust of the quiet and proper sisters. The movie certainly purports this as the characters are higher social standing and speak rather eloquently.

In addition, for this class to I had to look up the meaning of some of the branches of linguistics and as such, I read up about sociolinguistics. I recognised that language is seen as being used in a social context and isn’t this thing that is external to human beings but something that makes who we are. We could also add the branch of linguistics called Historical Linguistics which actually started the around the same time as Jane Austin wrote her book. This field of study grew of philology which is the study of ancient texts and documents. Not all field of linguistics started that long ago. While studying this class, the name Noam Chomsky was mentioned a few times. He is an American linguist among other positions. In the 1950s, his branch of linguistics was generative grammar which is a particular approach to syntax. He came up with ‘universal grammar’ which highlights innate properties in the brain. This means that any person born to parents from one background  (i.e. China) can easily be brought up to speak another language if they were immersed into another country (i.e. America) from an early age which means that the brain is programmed to accept speech at any level. This idea went against the behavioral idea that BF Skinner proposed.

To conclude I have deepened my knowledge of linguistics and found that language works in many ways. It is interesting to see the use of English that has spread over the world and the variety of new words added. I think the main factor when studying linguistics is to take it on how it is used, not how it should be used, because maybe there is no clear right or wrong way. What matters is meaning.

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