The problem with undoification

A student in my “grammar class”: came to me yesterday evening with a clever question about our morpheme test case, undoification: a) since many derivational morphemes are limited in terms of the parts of speech they can modify, and b) since -ify can only be attached to nouns and adjectives, and c) since undo doesn’t look like either a noun or an adjective, how does the example work?


She is right that undo doesn’t feel like a noun or an adjective. For example, a test for whether something is a noun is whether you can precede it with a determiner (we’ll be learning about this next week, but basically that means an article like the or a, a demosntrative like this or that, or a genitive words or phrase like Bob’s); another is whether you can modify it with an adjective. A test for adjectives, on the other hand, is whether you can put them in the comparative or superlative (e.g. big, bigger, biggest) or qualify them with an intensifing adverb (e.g. reall Read the rest of this entry »


Morphology and destiny: On words for snow and Sapir-Whorf

We had a lot of fun in my grammar class yesterday.

We were beginning a unit on morphology. The night before class, I had carefully prepared lecture notes on my tablet (I’m using a new textbook this year and taking the opportunity to revise all my lesson plans).

For reasons known only to my tablet, however, the notes I prepared were gone when I showed up in class yesterday morning , meaning that I had to wing it after all. Since my goal for the lecture was to derive a typology of English morphology from my students innate grammatical knowledge, I decided simply to write a bunch of different types of words on the board and see where things took us: dog, books, do, does, revert, convert, I’ll, we’d, and… undoifications.

Turned out this last was an inspired choice. One student clapped every time we managed to put one of the sub-forms into a meaningful sentence and the student blogs are full ideas stoked by the example: one student went home and impressed his Read the rest of this entry »


On translating sense and syntax in Old English

A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. Read the rest of this entry »


Dolphin Language

The textbook I am using in my grammar class, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, suggests that humans are unique in that they are the only species known to show abstract language use in the wild (they do mention the example of chimpanzees that have been trained to use sign language).


Very recent research, however, provides a potential counter example: Dolphin names. It has long been known that dolphins communicate with each other verbally. And since the 1960s, researchers have believed that individual dolphins use a “signature whistle” to identify themselves that is recognised by others in their population. What is new, however, is the evidence that dolphins use the signature whistles of other dolphins to refer to them—that is to say, recognise a particular whistle sequence as being symbolic of a particular individual dolphin, distinct from themselves.


This use of arbitrary signals to refer to a specific object, if true, would invalidate the claims in Brinton Read the rest of this entry »


Grammar Essentials 3: Grammatical Function

This tutorial looks at grammatical functions or grammatical relations—that is to say the major parts of the sentence.

The approach I will be taking in this tutorial is largely traditional, which is to say based on the traditional grammatical terminology used in many Latin, Greek, and Old English textbooks, rather than the more modern terminology used in many linguistics textbooks. This is because these tutorials are largely aimed at students studying dead languages or who need to acquire some grammatical definitions in a hurry. If you understand the discussion here and in the previous two tutorials, you should have no problem following more advanced contemporary linguistic explanations.

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