Reading books so you don't have to • 29 August 2007 • The SnowBlog

Reading books so you don't have to

Reading linguistics books is fun. Fun, I tell you. They're sort of the opposite of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. They assume that speakers of a language know what they're doing and they study them to learn the rules they're using. Lynne Truss and others (even the otherwise marvellous John Humphreys) assume that the rules come first and anyone not following them is 'speaking badly'. Now, naturally, I like the idea of a standard version of English for use in books and the like, but anyone who views changes to spoken language as a bad thing should really have the courage of their convictions and speak only Old English or maybe Sanskrit. As well as quietly undermining the Dialect Police, linguistic books also contain bizarre/fascinating language facts. For instance, nouns and verbs are 'open classes' of words. 'blog' is a new noun and 'to fax' is a new verb, relatively speaking. With open classes you expect additions. Prepositions are a 'closed class'. We don't add new ones just because we've invented a new activity or contraption. In most languages, adjectives are an open class. I am lead to believe, by the book I'm reading at the moment, that in Igbo (a Nigerian language) adjectives are a closed class. Here's the list, in pairs:
  • large - small
  • new - old
  • good - bad
  • light/white - dark/black
And supposedly that's your lot. No other adjectives. Apparently, Igbo speakers also had to borrow the English word for 'blue' not having one of their own. Honestly, if it wasn't an official-looking book (see above), written by someone whose first name is 'Professor', I'd think I was being fibbed to. BTW, to anyone interested in learning the basics of syntax (or, you know, language) it's a book I'd really recommend. It's called Understanding Syntax by Prof. Maggie Tallerman. For a technical book it's very readable (though admittedly not quite as readable as a non-technical one). Amazon link.


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