A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Inanimate Pronoun Confusion (Or, Why I Thought Jesus Was A Girl)

Joy to the world, the lord has come!
Let Earth receive her king!

That line from Joy To The World caused me so much confusion when I was younger. See, I thought about words in an odd way. When I heard this line, I didn't understand the concept that you could use gendered pronouns to refer to inanimate or genderless objects like the Earth. When I heard "Let Earth receive her king", I didn't know that the "her" was referring to Earth being the one possessing the king, who was the Lord previously referred to. So, I looked at the sentence before it. I concluded that, since the only other major noun in the sentence was "lord", then the "her" must somehow be connected to the "lord". Okay, so, I thought Jesus was female then. (I should mention I didn't grow up in a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim household.)

But what about "king"? Well, then I concluded that "king" must also have another meaning I didn't know about, equivalent to "the essence of kingliness". So, I thought the line was "Let the Earth receive the kingliness of the lord (who was female)".


Later I understood the whole Earth = She thing. I actually think it's interesting to look at how gendered pronouns are applied to genderless or inanimate things. My grades 6-8 Language Arts teacher once had a discussion which I thought was pretty accurate: In general, objects are female, especially when they're being used for some purpose (a boat, a gun, a car, etc.) And in general, animals are male, unless they're specifically shown as having something to do with birth or children. (I must admit that I fall into the trap of calling female dogs "boy", though that might just be because I grew up with all male dogs.)

That certainly tells you a bit about how we think of things - objects, which we tend to refer to as female, can't talk back. They do whatever we make them do. Animals, on the other hand, have a will of their own.

I'd like to think I assign my dear objects gender randomly. My piano, Astarte, and my keyboard, Claire, I've given female names. My recorder, Lare, is genderqueer. And my favorite notebook has a male name, Alfred.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Game Time Wednesday: KPT Changes In Finnish

Oh, blog. How I've ignored you lately. I'm sorry, but life has once again gotten in the way of the internet. I have one little post planned for a holiday special, but other than that, you probably won't see me much until the new year.

But in the meantime, have a nice game of consonant gradation in Finnish. Match the strong infinitive form of the verb to its weak first-person conjugation!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Game Time Wednesday: French To Slovak Colors

I must admit that it stroked the ego a little bit when you can translate from one non-native language to another. Even if it's just simple vocabulary words. Here's 16 flashcards of colors in both French and Slovak - study them, then click on the multiple game forms at the bottom to practice them! I'm partial to the matching one, myself.

What struck me, looking at the Slovak colors, is how similar they are to Czech. I knew the two languages were close, but these are really close. /oh look who fails at being articulate. I plan to look more into Slavic languages in the future - the relationships they have seem very similar to the Romance family.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Word Dynamo at dictionary.com

It should be no secret by now that I love language games, especially when it comes to vocabulary. So, recently I decided to check out dictionary.com's new(ish) addition, Word Dynamo.

How to describe it? The best way would be for you to go and see it for yourself, but basically, it's a catalogue of games for learning English vocabulary. What makes it different from, for example, the Language section at Quia is that once you sign up, you have a "word score" - a tracker of different words you've learned.

It's not completely accurate. I know I know way more words than what my current word score is, having only joined yesterday. But it gives you a real sense of accomplishment to see the "150 words added to your word score!" button.

There are different formats for the games you can choose from. I'm partial to the crosswords, myself. You can change and experiment with those to see which is best for you.

Also, it's not just for fun. If you need to study for school or work, you can create your own word lists and input them into the games so you can study with more than just flashcards.

So yes, I would definitely recommend this site for anyone who likes words.

(Also, I hope this makes up for missing Wednesday? *Puppy eyes*)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Game Time Wednesday: Basic Hungarian

Today, I'll actually be recommending two games, because of how similar and easy they are. Two "basic Hungarian vocabulary and survival phrases" games that can be played a variety of ways.

Game 1

Game 2

The beauty of these games is that they can be played in multiple styles - personally, I like the Matching cards the best. If you're new to Hungarian, click the "list of terms" button (or just play the flashcards first). Also, the words/phrases change each time you play, so there's no reason to play only once!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Changing How We Frame Grammar

Take a look at any prescriptivist piece about grammar. Go on, try it. I'll wait.

What I want to ask is: Is it positive? Do people talk about how much of a miracle it is that the human mind can separate all these individual words into their own categories and ascribe meanings to their combinations, with barely any effort at all? I'll wager it's a no - instead, it's probably talking about the "ruin of the English language", moaning about how today's generation is "borderline illiterate", raging against text lingo, all the stuff we've heard a thousand times before.

Here's the thing that frustrates me: This is how most American schools teach grammar, too.

I'm not saying 1st grade teachers take class time to rant about society "lax attitude toward syntax" (oh lookie, I made an unintentionally terrible rhyme). But throughout school - whether it's elementary, high school, or college - teachers are constantly putting grammar and English in general in a negative light.

Parts of speech, literary devices, and spelling are taught as rigid rules to be obeyed. Through countless exercises of "correcting improper usage", students come to see grammar and spelling as iron rules that will get points taken off their essays.

I've gone to several schools and had many different English teachers. I can't recall a single one of them framing grammar/spelling as anything except "follow these iron rules or you will fail". (Even my favorite teacher, unfortunately, did this quite a bit.)

We need to let students see language for the wonder that it is. I understand that it's hard for a lot of people to be passionate about learning, but think. Maybe take a minute out of your gerund vs. participle drills to talk about how cool it is that verbs can be used this way. In a more advanced class, maybe mention some interesting similar constructions that other languages have. Instead of ruthlessly correcting your students' pronunciation, have a lesson about regional dialects.

(Brief digression: I plan to write more about the place of dialects and education, especially AAVE.)

Instead of spelling test #503, have a lesson about how English spellings have changed over time.

Language is a vast, fluid, and fascinating thing. Don't teach children that's it's a narrow, restrictive clamp on their speech and writing.

Game Time Wednesday: Greek or Latin?

It should come as no surprise that I love Latin roots, though I've grown just a little tired of teachers constantly trying to explain them to the class as though we didn't learn where lots of our words come from already.

I must admit, though, sometimes I tend to blur my Greek and Latin. Sure, sometimes they're rather obvious - I'm never going to confuse mono- and un-. But I can often forget which one a root belongs to, and along comes this game to help remind you (and me) of some!