Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

March Links

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2009

I’ll start with a couple of links on linguistic research that you can participate in. First, there is the page of online experiments at Cognition and Language Laboratory. One that is still going on is the “Gorp Test”, which takes about five minutes. I participated in this one, and was so interested in the debriefing that I made Doug and Adam take the test, too. There are several other ongoing experiments in addition to the Gorp Test, which I haven’t taken yet, and also a page of experiments they’re not running anymore but which you can put yourself through anyway.

Probably any of my readers could participate in the above research. This next research is only for “hyperpolyglots” — people, like the late linguist Ken Hale or the fictional scoundrel Harry Flashman, who can speak six or more languages. This considerably narrows down the field, but I’m putting the link in anyway because I’d like to see this research get some informative results. Michael Erard, the guy who brought you Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, is working on his next book Babel No More. Part of his research consists of this survey for any hyperpolyglots out there, so if you are or know one, respectively follow or forward the link.

Last month I noted Jan Freeman’s absence from her column at The Boston Globe, and pointed to a guest column written by Erin McKean. McKean has continued to fill in for Freeman, and wrote this fun piece about how she accidentally invented a word. She observes that there was “no cheerleading” or “PR campaign” for her word; “I just used it myself, in context, and other people picked it up naturally.” I had the distinct feeling that she was refraining from saying, “Santorum, I’m looking at you.”

In my last post, one of the attestations of sanc as the past tense of sync comes from “the Buck Family Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language”. This would be the family of Jamis and Tarasine Buck (Jamis is the husband, Tarasine the wife), whose blog Catching Glimpses is almost entirely devoted to funny things their kids say. I don’t like to give away entire blog posts, but these posts are so short that I’m going to break my rule and give a couple of highlights from it. There’s the instant classic “Mom! Nathaniel just called me a tattle-tale!” And this one:

Kaitrin: I picked these dandelions to give to Dad and Nathaniel when they come home on Saturday!
Tarasine: Oh, that’s so nice! It’s just that Saturday is in three days — they’ll be dead by then.
Kaitrin: (wide-eyed) Dad and Nathaniel will be DEAD on Saturday?!?

Furthermore, this is no ordinary blog with parents telling about funny things their kids say. The mother is a linguist, who is attuned to and suitably appreciative of moments like this one:

When recently asking how to spell the word “tree”, Kaitrin said, “When you put an ‘r’ after a ‘t’, it makes it sound like a ‘ch’!” Not many adults notice that, I’ve found.

If you like the posts in the “Darndest things” category here, you’ll want to browse through the Buck family’s archived posts.

Lastly, here’s another funny story from Greg Larson, this one on how he got into trouble in second grade. But what’s the linguistic angle, you ask? Well, let’s see, it’s … taboo language. Or at least, what a second grader thinks is taboo language.

10 Responses to “March Links”

  1. Jonathon said

    I noticed the “tr” ≈ “chr” thing when I was about four or five. Obviously I was destined to be a linguist from an early age.

  2. The “tr”/”chr” thing comes up in Charles Read’s studies on children who devised their own spellings, using the names of the letters of the alphabet as the basis for their spellings. So “tree” got spelled HRE.

  3. Neal said

    I remember noticing the /tr/-[ʧr] (and /dr/-[ʤr]) alternation when I was a kid, too, and have seen children just learning to read spell tr as chr. So it sounds like it’s not uncommon for kids to notice it. But as Tarasine Buck points out (and as I can corroborate from when I’ve taught linguistics), a lot of adults don’t notice it, so maybe what’s unusual is for kids to remember this phonetic fact when they get older. But even growing up to be a linguist does not necessarily mean someone has remembered this alternation. I’ve been surprised to find English-speaking linguists who don’t notice the /tr/-[ʧr] alternation, and I have yet to see [ʧ] and [ʤ] listed as allophones for /t/ and /d/ in textbooks.

  4. Uly said

    Maybe part of learning to read and write is learning to forget how you say words and to think of them more as their spellings.

    My older niece regularly come up with spellings that surprise me because of how accurately they describe (well… accurately considering the fact that she can’t read well yet) how we *actually* say those words (at least, how she and I say them, I can’t speak for the rest of the English speaking world), and yet… I would never have thought that I did say them that way until I saw them written out the way she does! (I have a similar bit of shock when my younger niece whines. She speaks very carefully, and when she whines you can really hear how she pronounces words.)

    So “tired” becomes “tiyrd” – and I heard her sound it out. She carefully went “yuh- y!” before writing that y in there. And so I do say tie-yurd (and chie-yuld and fie-yur), but I don’t think of myself as saying that.

    But when it comes to sight words, which she’s diligently memorized, the process is different. She uses sounding out not to *find* the spelling, but to *remember* it. So she’ll sound out “have to” as follows: “Huh – h. Aaa – a. Vuh – v. Tuh – t. T-O. TO! Haff tu!” When she’s sounding it out she clearly sounds it out as though it’s hav, like to have and to hold, but when she’s done she says it in the normal way – haf. But I don’t think she even realizes she’s doing it.

    If this comment even makes sense, it’s a miracle.

  5. AJD said

    I’m an English-speaking linguist who never noticed the /tr/-[ʧr] alternation until I was in grad school; and now that it’s been pointed out to me… I’m still pretty sure I don’t do it. My /t/ before /r/ is somewhat more posterior than in other environments, I suppose; but I’m pretty sure there’s no serious affrication in it, and when I try to say [ʧr] deliberately it doesn’t sound the same as my /tr/.

  6. Ran said

    @Uly: That makes sense to me, and I think you’re right. But, I suspect that one part of learning to read and write is learning to pay attention to exactly how you say words, and then a slightly later part is learning not to. (Does anyone here know whether illiterate people — especially those in illiterate societies — are more phonetically aware? Somehow that seems unlikely to me, but I don’t have evidence one way or the other.)

  7. viola said

    The tre/chre thing I didn’t connect until I thought of the 1st graders in Gregg’s class. As I volunteer, occasionally one or two of the students will pronounce “three” like “chree.” Incidently, when in Basic Training, we were taught (for distinguishing radio communications)to pronounce the number 3 as “tree”, probably because it has a hint of the ch sound compared to other numbers. I asked Holt and Gregg if they ever thought of tree sounding kind of like chree. Neither of them thought it sounded that way or had remembered hearing it pronounced that way.

    @Uly: Both of my boys at one time or another have slipped a “y” sound in their words, almost forcing the word to sound like it has two syllables. Holt did this especially when he was 2 and we had just moved from Georgia to Ohio. The word “plant” became “playant” at one point. Gregg pronounces tired with a “y” sound. He was born in Ohio and is almost 7 years old.

  8. viola said

    @Neal:
    I enjoyed all the niblets of information included in this post. Thanks for the great links and fun kiddie stories.

  9. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Uly and Viola: Your remarks about that creeping /y/ sound remind me of a misunderstanding that happened to me once in college:

    DANA [a fellow student with a Deep South accent]: What you reading there?

    ME: We have an algebra test tomorrow; it’s all about sets.

    DANA [shocked]: They teach about sex in an algebra class?!?

    ME: Umm, no, Dana… I said S-E-T-S.

    DANA: Oh, you mean say-uts!

  10. Uly said

    Ingeborg, that’s pretty nifty🙂

    Although I’m in NYC. I think the y is being interjected there because, unlike in the deep south, we say words like tired and child with two syllables, and down south they’re more likely to fix it with one. My mother, when she taught school in Louisiana, had the hardest time one day because a story she was reading aloud mentioned a “fireplace” and the children didn’t understand her pronunciation (fi-yur-place) until they saw it written. “Oh! FARPLACE!”

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