Monday, October 25, 2010

Grace the (prescriptive!) sociolinguist

Last night, I had the following excahnge with Grace:
Grace: One two three four five six seven, eight nine tell and then eleven. Twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty.
Me: (singing along)... eighteen nineteen twenty...
Grace: No, daddy. You say twen-ty.
Me: Yes, twenty (twenny)
Grace: No. Boys say twen-ty. Girls say twenny.
Me: Grace, everyone says "twenny" most of the time, and "twenty" when they're speaking slowly, or something when you're singing.
Grace: No. Mommy and I say "twenny." You say "twenty." Boys say "twenty"
Me: But Grace, I say "twenny."
Grace: No, daddy. You say "twen-ty". Mommy and I say "twenny."
K (to me): Do we say these words differently?
Grace (insistent): Boys say twen-ty. Girl say twenny.

Where the raw material for this observation came from, I'm not sure. I have sung in many-a-chorus, which training does make me tend to overpronounce my "T"s when singing (I had to unlearn this behavior when singing folky/poppy music where it sounds rather silly to be so hyper-articulated). It's possible that's the root of Grace's observation, though I'm not at all confident that if I could play back recordings of us singing this would be the case.

One of the interesting moments for me in this conversation was when I realized Grace was not being descriptive but prescriptive here. Her initial comment, I'm pretty sure, was motivated by the fact that I had said it like she does (i.e. wrong for a boy), not by the fact that I said it differently from her.

This seems like an interesting window into language change for me. There are a great many variations in language and the human mind is a pattern-hungry and meaning-hungry thing. Obviously the great majority of patterns new speakers pick up (be they sociolinguistic or purely linguistic) are "real" (i.e. observed or obeyed by the vast majority of speakers). But a pattern like this new gender distinction from Grace is the equivalent of a ghost-sighting: she sees cultural significance where there is none. Language change happens the same way mass-ghost-sightings do -- we all have similar minds, see similar patterns, etc. Except that in language there is no "real" outside the minds of the beholders, so if we get enough Graces together, we could produce a generation of women who refuse to pronounce "t"s after "n" for fear they'll sound too masculine (or of women who will start enunciating "t"s to project male power in given scenarios etc etc etc).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Runner times influenced by language?

Ever since I went to cheer K on running the Tufts 10K, I've wanted to graph the results. Something about knowing they post the times of some 6000 runners made me curious. I was initially curious to see if the results simply formed a straight bell curve or if there were a couple of different "humps" corresponding to different sorts of runners (I could imagine a "competitive runner" hump and a "I want to prove I can make it" hump, for example).

Those results didn't turn out to be that interesting, but one thing did strike me as interesting. The top of the curve, quite incredibly and by a rather dramatic margin, is precisely at one hour. This begs some questions:

1. If there were 55 minutes in an hour, would all of these women have trained just that much harder?
2. Are there other athletic events where even numbers affect performance? Numbers of homeruns? Minutes in a mile?
3. (this one I could check if I felt like it -- maybe I will soon): is this result reproduced in other 10ks? Is there a similar peak at even numbers for other distances?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

me gusta a...

Today I was working with a native speaking student (not literate in Spanish, but basically fluent) who had always thought that you said:

"me gusta + a + NP"

It seemed very strange to me that she would have internalized this grammar, but there's no reason it should seem that strange. The "a" is un-hear-able, so it's just as logical for her to think that we say "*me gusta a hablar" (incorrect) as it is for her to think we say "va a hablar" (correct).

I asked her if she would say "me gustan a los perros" or "me gustan los perros" and this was a no-brainer for her -- obviously just "me gustan los perros", so she really does speak the language correctly.

I'm sure this is no more strange than the fact that native-speaking English speakers mix up "they're" and "their", but I don't usually get to see these kinds of errors in Spanish so it struck me as interesting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Adjective complements and hypercorrection

Just read the following in a student essay (embedded in a longer sentence):
She feels badly
To my ear, this is a clear error, most likely brought on by poor grammar instruction. "Feel" should take an adjective complement, not an adverbial complement. This is perhaps exacerbated by the prescriptive advice to use "well" (adj) rather than "good" (adj) to describe your health, as in the following imaginary exchange:

Mom, I don't feel good.
Ehhem, you mean you don't feel well?
I don't feel well, mom.

It is easy to see how the child would come to think they were being told that "feel" is supposed to take an adverbial complement (well, adv) rather than an adjectival one, though this breaks down quickly with other adjectives (no one would look in the mirror and say "I feel beautifully"). This is made worse by the fact that there are some other non-standard sentences where a speaker would be corrected for using good (adj) in place of well (adv):
Kid: Wow, that guy throws good.
Dad: You mean throws well.
Kid: Yeah, he throws well.

If I inspect my own internal grammar, this gets a little complicated quickly. Here are some of my own quick judgments:

He throws greatHe throws greatly
He throws beautifullyHe throws beautiful
He throws phenomenallyHe throws phenomenal
He throws awfullyHe throws awful
I don't really know how to analyze this, or if other adult speakers would agree with all of my judgments. Perhaps "great" is already an adverb in my brain? Perhaps "good" is too for many people but not in official Standard English? All quite messy, leaving me rather unsure what to write on this student's paper, if anything.

It seems that nearly any topic, investigated with a bit of thoroughness, quickly exposes the limits of my own grammatical knowledge and, even moreso, of traditional prescriptivist grammar as I learned it in middle school.

-- update --

Joon points out that dictionaries list "great" as an informal adverb, so that makes sense of the "throw" case relatively well. I have to say that to my ear, "great" is not particularly informal and is in fact more correct than "greatly" anywhere but before an adjective. This is surely an area where the famously vague "adverb" category of traditional grammar is failing us -- there are different rules for modifying verbs and adjectives and so on.

I also note that "badly" is listed as an adjective in the dictionary with meanings including "in poor health" and "sorrowful, regretful." So the dictionary rules my student correct, and it's just my intuition/ideolect that has her making an error.

It does seem a bit too tidy, though, to list "badly" and "well" as having special adjectival meanings that just so happen to work with feel. I wonder, was there at some point a misconception about feel and adjective complements that brought this into the language? Or some other structure?

"I feel well" seems to belong on a list that includes "I feel poorly", "I feel terribly" and "I feel badly," all of which sound pretentious and wrong to me. Only "badly" and "well" are listed as adjectives on that list. "Sickly" is a word that seems to have a an obvious place on this list, though in this case, "sickly" really is a full-blooded adjective.

Part-of-speech algorithms...

Just finished grading a student's essay that repeatedly confused "este" (that, demonstrative) with "que" (that, complementizer). Whenever I see a repeated part-of-speech error like this, I try to put together a simple algorithm to help the student. In this case, it goes like this:

If replacing "that" with "this" yields a valid English sentence, then you mean "este/esto/esta." Otherwise, you mean "que"

Example: "That man is stupid." --> "this man is stupid" --> use "este"
"He said that I should." --> "*He said this I should" --> use "que"

This one is actually quite straightforward. Other times, it's trickier, like when I try to teach the difference between the past tense and the past participle by making use of the fact that English makes this distinction for irregular verbs only:

Replace the verb in question with a form of "write." If you say "wrote", you need to conjugate a past tense verb. If you say "written", you need the past participle.
"I played baseball" --> "I wrote baseball" --> past tense
"Baseball is played all over Cuba" --> "Baseball is written all over Cuba" --> past participle
Here, the trouble is that semantically, "write" (or whatever irregular you choose to use) may or may not make any sense in the sentence in question, thus confusing the student.

Nonetheless, it is my belief and experience that transformations of these kinds of easy for students, whereas recognizing and labeling parts of speech is difficult (probably because the parts of speech are usually taught using incorrect and confusing generalizations). That said, the question remains: how useful is it to have labels for the categories? Is it better to teach "if you can replace that with this, it's a demonstrative" or to teach "if you can replace that with this, use 'este'"?

More provokingly, is there a way to teach such that students will never make the este/que error in the first place. The parts of speech are so far apart that it seems very difficult to imagine they should ever be linked in a student's mind, except through English... it is intriguing to imagine an immersion approach that might eliminate the step through English on the way to learning these structures and thus eliminate the error altogether. Nonetheless, it seems quite possible to me that even if the teacher never said to students that "que" means "that", they would still figure this out and thus be vulnerable to this sort of error...