Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Incomprehensible Language

The US culture has long been fond of words. We have "word for the day" calendars. And on-line dictionaries offer up words for the day. At Dictionary.com the word for today is cavil. The word for the day at Merriam-Webster is riposte. The word for the day at the New York Times is seclusion.

In addition to this fascination with words for the day, many of us also want to increasing our "word power." One web site titled "How To Increase Your Word Power" offers us the Indo-European roots for words. Clicking on the"roots" link and then on annu- , enni- yields (after some editing by me):

annu- enni-
Mr. Johnson compiles the annals of the Historical Society.
The professor has read all the annals of early American history.
Here is a picture of Tom in his high-school annual.
Beans and corn are annuals; you have to plant a new crop every year.
I’m tired of your perennial nagging!
These flowers are perennials; you don’t have to plant new seeds every year.
This is the centennial anniversary of the founding of our town.
The centennial of the end of the Civil War occurred in 1965.
How much is the annuity from this life insurance?

I suppose that learning the roots of words can help with understanding them. As the national spelling bee broadcast by ESPN each year illustrates, the kids are always asking for roots of words, which seems to help them with spelling. However, I think that it would be much easier to learn English words by learning English words rather than by learning Greek or Latin words first.

Many years ago, there was a competition within the Humanities college for "seed" grants of, I think, $1,000 or so to help people put together credible grant proposals, primarily for the National Endowment for the Humanities (I think). I got a call from the Dean who asked me whether a proposal by some Classics professor for a seed grant to develop materials to assist the teaching of Latin to inner city children as a means to increase their ability to read and write Standard English made any sense. I told the Dean that that the proposal was silly, which is what he thought as well. If you want inner city or other kids (e.g., kids speaking Appalachian English) how to read and write Standard English then teach them how to read and write Standard English directly.

The silly grant proposal is a species of the approach to increasing word power of learning Indo-European roots. It just doesn't go back as far in time for the roots.

This is a long-winded opening to what I really want to talk about and that is simply knowing the meanings of English words may not help you much in understanding what you want to read (or listen to). I recently was on an oral doctoral thesis defense in astrophysics at Ohio State (as the dissertation cop -- i.e., the outside observer). I am pleased to say that I understood almost every word in the dissertation. Here is one of the easiest examples:

In practice, almost all reverberation mapping data has been insufficient to constrain the transfer function, and reverberation analysis has instead relied on cross-correlation techniques.
I understand every single word in that sentence but I don't have a clue what the sentence means. I think I understand The reverberation of the sounds in the auditorium led to a distracting echo. So, I have "reverberation" down (I think). I also know what "transfer" and "function" mean but I can't tell you what the formula for this function is. Ergo, I don't understand what the sentence cited means. This is the crux of the matter.

Learning new words is both a linguistic and a cognitive exercise. It is linguistic in the sense that we are learning to pair sounds with meanings but it is cognitive in that we must understand the underlying theory wherein the words derive their meanings. For words like cavil or riposte or seclusion, we already know the theory presupposed by these things. We might call this "The Theory of Ordinary Things." The problem in coping with sentences such as the astrophysics example cited, is that one must actually learn the subset of astrophysical theory within which this language derives its meaning. And this means, among other things, that one must understand the mathematics employed that expresses the various relationships that exist among the various phenomena this theory is about and that would include understanding the "transfer function."

Years ago, I had a student that was struggling with a syntactic theory course I was teaching. He came in for help and I asked him to show me a passage in the text that he didn't understand. He pointed to a paragraph on a page on which there was some prose and several formulae (yes, Virgina, there is mathematics in linguistics). I pointed to the formula above that paragraph and asked if he understood that. He said he didn't and that he always depended on the prose surrounding any formula he didn't understand to provide him with whatever understanding of the text he would need. I pointed out that if we could teach what students needed to understand without using formulae we would but we can't. He asked me to interpret the formula for him and I did. His performance in the class improved.

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Blogger Phil said...

Mike, I don't mean to contradict your main point here, but I have to relate a gambit that our high school biology teacher used that Mrs. Perils and I continue to rever. He would drill us on sets of "word derivations" that were germane to scientific concoctions, that helped us unravel lots of otherwise indeciperable terminology. They involved stuff like "erythro" for "red", and so on (Mrs Perils would remember way more of them than I do - she was an excellent student).

I guess what I'm driving at is that this bit of rote memorization for high school sophomores was really valuable to us as we navigated science courses and, later, to our surprise, other curricula.

This anecdote may be tainted by the fact that both of us value language and learning to provide interdisciplinary connections (we've never been what you'd call a representative sample), but, like it or not, there seems to be some value in pockets of rote learning, like multiplacation tables, and these word derivations.

11:25 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

This is not something I should be bragging about considering that I am a linguist but my friends took great glee from saying that I "have no morphology," meaning by that that I seemed to be totally unaware of morphological similarties among words. If they were right, and I think they were, then it proves that you don't need to understand a language's history to be a fluent, even talented speaker of the langauge. I suspect that playing Scrabble and doing crosswords works as well as the method you cite in learning new words.

10:05 AM

Blogger Sketchy Self said...

Except for the fact that most excellent Scrabble players are not native English speakers but just people who have memorized the Scrabble dictionary.

4:05 PM

Blogger Isaiah Trigger said...

I'm still a young'un just applying to grad school for the first time and I have to say that the only thing that has ever helped me with my grammar is forgein language. I think that this has more to do with the fact that all of my forgein language teachers focused more on grammar than my English teachers. Every compostion class that I've ever taken focused more on the process of writing a report than the actual process of correcting grammar. Due to that I am terribly scared of sending out my applications because I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to grammar. I know that I'm not the only person my age that has this problem. Actually reading many of the exit papers for fellow english majors makes me think that all of us has this problem. Why is it that my generation is struggling so much? Or is it just the area that I come from (the upper midwest)? I know plenty of words, I just haven't got the foggiest clue how to use them.

10:32 AM

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3:35 PM

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5:24 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read anything yet but check mine.

11:51 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that years ago you "had a student *who* was struggling with..."

My mom was a person that always reminded me when I made that mistake.

9:49 PM

Blogger Jimmirocks said...

Read your blog 'Why is Legal Language Impenetrable?', and picked up on an interesting point, the definition of 'bet' that the Ohio Revised Code gave, stated it was the 'hazarding' of something... You pointed out that nobody would use this term to define 'to bet'. I'm from the UK, and here (maybe you do too) we have a phrase 'to hazard a guess', which is in quite common use.

5:24 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Indeed, I am familiar with that. It is sort of a strange way of stating what one is doing. What is the hazard, I wonder?

3:56 PM

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8:32 AM


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