The heart of language is verbs, nouns, and modifiers. I gave a simple verb exercise last time, in which students wrote a three-element sentence, Subject/Verb/Object; for example, John plays basketball.
If you are teaching a formal linguistics class, there are many terms and concepts that would be introduced at this point, but for purposes of a writing class, the objective is to raise awareness of the structure of language, so there is no need to discuss “Verb Raising,” and “Tag Question Formation,” “AGENT,” and “PATIENT,” etc. For a writer, words and grammar are a jungle gym, not an operating table, and that is as it should be.
Exercise: Ask your students to form groups and write ten examples of other three-element sentences, only this time with no direct object. Examples: Mary yawned loudly, The cat sat quietly, John ran away.
Here is a listing of verbs they might use: appear, arrive, begin, break, come, cough, decrease, die, disappear, drown, fall, go, happen, increase, laugh, lie (tell an untruth), matter, rain, rise, sneeze, snow, stop, swim, wait, work
Once they have their ten sentences, ask them to replace the adverbs (loudly, quietly, and away) with something that most students have barely ever heard of, prepositional phrases. Mary yawned during the movie, The cat sat in a corner, John ran up the hill.
This can lead to a discussion of prepositional phrases if you like, but on another day. The exercises suggested in this blog are supposed to take only ten minutes or so.
The vast majority of language is made up of nouns, verbs, and modifiers. The use of each has its peculiarities, and every language handles them differently. Nouns are or are not accompanied by articles, there is no universal set of verb tenses, and modifiers are usually placed flexibly. I write “usually” because I don’t know all the languages in the world.
Exercises in basic sentence structure should be like playing scales in music, or doing a bit of weight or aerobic training in athletics. They are repetitive, but can be quite challenging.
Exercise: English is a Subject-Verb-Object language Have students form groups to write ten sentences which contain a simple subject, verb, and object. And example: John sees the book. They cannot use the same verb twice.
Easy? Not as easy as you think.
In writing and speaking, “voice” means your instantly identifiable style. It is a combination of word choice, philosophy, level of formality, and other factors, such as local or age-appropriate slang. The following exercise challenges students to use someone else’s voice, which will illuminate their own voice for them, I hope.
Exercise: Each student must write a personal statement. The facts in it will vary according to what kind of community the class exists in. Here is the way I will fashion it this fall for a class of multi-lingual international university students.
Para 1: Write where you live or come from, including two specific details: for example, “I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, can see the boat traffic on the Hudson River from my window, and cannot put plants on my balcony because the winds are so strong.”
Para 2: Where do you see yourself twenty years from now?
Para 3: Write down two things that nobody else in the class knows about you; this might be an accomplishment, a hobby, a dramatic episode in your life, your relation to another person, your moment of fame or heroism, or maybe something that you like or do which would not seem cool, like playing badminton or enjoying the singing of Tiny Tim.
Now have each student pass this to his or her neighbor, who, after reviewing it carefully, will recite it as if he or she were the person involved.
The blog “The Cranky Linguist” has a longer article giving Ron Kephart’s take on the word “objective” as applied to anthopology, a very interesting read. According to your own understanding and experience, which definition do you think is the best one?
1. From the Postmodern Dictionary (http://www.postmodernpsychology.com/
Postmodernism_Dictionary.html): Being objective means to have no bias or distortions; to see things [as] they actually are. It assumes the individual is able to bracket their subjective perspective, biases, and prejudices.
2. From Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (Oxford 2012): Objective knowledge: Knowledge about reality that is absolute and true.
3. From Science, Reason, and Anthropology: The Principles of Rational Inquiry (1997): [A proposition] is objective in the scientific sense of the term if it is both publicly verifiable and testable.
See here for Ron’s conclusion. What is yours?
Exercise: A discussion of these three definitions would be exercise enough, but you might have your students look up other words with amorphous definitions, like family, or truth or, for that matter, beauty, and see what they come up with.
When I was young, my ability to speak French, Italian, and Spanish was pretty useless professionally, unless I wanted to teach. Businesses made the assumption that “Everybody speaks English.”
In Europe at that time, I was routinely expected to speak at least two languages, and most people spoke more than that, so speaking another language was socially valuable, which was gratifying personally.
I will leave the “socially valuable” assessment to you, but mastery of a foreign language is increasingly valuable professionally today. Below is a recent listing (taken from here: www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/contracts-to-watch/2011/07/13/gIQAS7UFKI_story.html) of contracts for foreign language services.
Northrop Grumman Technical Services of Herndon won a $9.7 million contract from the Army to provide for the procurement of foreign language services.
L-3 Services of Reston and Mission Essential Personnel of Columbus, Ohio, won a $9.7 million contract from the Army for the procurement of foreign language services.
Global Linguist Solutions of Falls Church won a $9.7 million contract from the Army for the procurement of foreign language services.
CACI Premier Technology of Chantilly won a $9.7 million contract from the Army for the procurement of foreign language services in support of the Defense Department Language Interpretation and Transition Enterprise program.
We spend most of our time promoting literacy, but rarely think about its downsides.
One is that our memories are weakened. When I lived in Greece in the 1960′s, a waiter could take orders from a dozen people without a pad to write on. At that time, Greece was more of an oral society, especially in the villages. Ancient storytellers, griots, and historians memorized sagas and tales which might take over a day to relate. Could anyone you know do that? (Beowulf not written down until it had been told and retold for centuries.)
My cousin is one dissertation short of a Ph.D. in Philosophy, yet when I was walking with him the other day he told me he was functionally illiterate. ”Haven’t you every heard that?” he asked — we have known each other for 60 years so I might very well have, but had not. Illiteracy, functional or because of a lack of education, is usually hidden. “How did you learn if you couldn’t read books?” I asked him. ”By talking to people. That’s how I got through college and three years of graduate school, not to mention the rest of my life.” I told him about The Gutenberg Project, which could provide him with audio versions of great literature, but he seemed satisfied with his methods, and I don’t think he will investigate that. His life has been very rich without much reading.
Today, computers and cellphones do much of our remembering for us, weakening our memories still further.
Exercise: Ask your students to take out a paper and pencil. Recite 10 randomly chosen numbers between 1 and 10, being sure that they do not fall into a comfortable pattern, such as being multiples of each other. Wait a long breath between announcing each number. Then ask your students to write down the ten numbers. They should be able to capture most of them.
Ask them what their cellphone numbers are; their parents’ phone number; one other phone number of their choosing. They must be able to write them down instantly.
How good are their memories? Has literacy robbed them of some of their mental capacity?
Teacher Suzi Loosen taught linguistics in her high school last year, and has provided a full, detailed report to the Linguistlist. She gives not only exercises and activities, but also reports on their success, and the student reaction. The top rated activity was a “pidgin dinner” during which it was forbidden to speak English. There were speakers of many other languages in her class, and they all somehow muddled through, and loved it. It is an invaluable posting for teachers hoping to introduce an elective course on linguistics in their school. Here is the link:
And by the way, are there any other teachers who would like to introduce linguistics into their high school? If so, let’s be in touch and see what we can do.
In proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit, and Latin, nouns were divided into declensions, each having a distinctive set of endings indicating whether the noun was the subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessive, and also had a case that was used only when speaking to someone. Poetically, one could also address the sun, or Love, a “little mousie” or anything else.
When I lived in Greece, I frequently used the vocative case. If a man’s name was Yorgos, and you wanted to call to him, you would say Yorgay, the vocative form of one set of declensions.
Modern languages using the vocative are Greek, Albanian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Ukranian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Scottish Gaelic and Irish. Only Romanian preserves it among the Romance languages. Among non- Romance languages, it exists in Fala and Georgian.
In English, we use other ways of indicating that we are addressing someone. The form “sir” or “madam” is usually used only as a form of address, and we sometimes say, “Hey George!” to indicate that we are calling to him. Otherwise, we just say, “George!”
Exercise: How do your students indicate they are addressing someone? Do any of them speak a language which has the vocative case? Have them give examples of how it is used.
In many languages, nouns have endings to indicate whether the noun is the subject, object, indirect object, or possessive — these categories are called “cases.” In Latin, there are three separate sets of declensions to which a noun can belong, each with different endings. In German, nouns are declined differently according to their gender, and so on.
One advantage of using case endings is that since the function of each noun is clear, it can be placed more flexibly in a sentence. English is a linear language, with the function of a noun generally indicated by its place in the sentence, not by a case ending — subject first, verb, then direct or indirect objects. (Our linear rules are not sacrosanct: “I gave John the book,” and “I gave the book to John,” are both correct.) The crystal clear rules of classical Latin and Sanskrit were broken when these languages hit the street.
The linear rules of English are not absolute: for example, “I gave John Mary’s book,” and “I gave Mary’s book to John” are both correct.( “Mary’s I book John gave” is not.) In case-oriented languages, on the other hand, one cannot place the nouns willy-nilly, but that would be the subject of another posting.
Exercise: Have your class make up arbitrary noun endings and see how well your students use them in constructing sentences. For example, -um (subject), -et (object), -is (indirect object), and -on (possessive.) A sentence might end up: Johnum gave the booket Frankon the girlis. (John gave Frank’s book to the girl.) This will be a brain teaser and should serve to wake up any student who happens to be sleeping.
U. of Illinois professor Dennis Baron publishes an occasional blog called The Web of Language (http://www.illinois.edu/goto/weboflanguage) which is well worth following.
His latest posting (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/clpp/images/cartoons/cartoons.html)
contains cartoons about various language policy issues, including one in Hungarian, and one which points out that the first publication of the Declaration of Independence was in German. He does not claim that the cartoons reflect anything more than the opinion of the cartoonist, but if you are in agreement with the cartoonist, you might want to use one of the cartoons to illustrate a point, or to add some humor to a point.