Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Learning Linguistics

I've always been interested in languages and how the way your language is constructed affects how you think. One of my favorite things about grad school is having linguistics conversations with non-native speakers, especially about idioms and grammatical constructions. Explaining how passive voice works in English is a particularly fun challenge. Why and where do you use proper nouns? And how do you respond to "What's up?"

My first language is English, and I sort of know Spanish (when I can remember enough vocabulary). Once upon a time, I started learning German, and then my school dropped the program. Structurally, there are some major differences between the languages. The use of gendered nouns is one big difference between English and other European languages. Spanish also conveys the degree of formality in both the pronoun and verb conjugation. English also deals with tenses more simply. [Disclaimer: going from memory here]. There's past, present, and future. Spanish is more specific, with immediate past, general past, present, specific future, general future, and past future (would have been, basically). 100 Years of Solitude makes much more sense in Spanish, where non-linear time is much more easily accommodated linguistically.

I realized recently that the amount of time I spend in conversation with non-native speakers has changed some of my habits. I'm more precise in my word choice than I used to be, and my diction is no longer quite as Midwestern-neutral as it was in high school. I occasionally get asked if I ever lived in England (which I haven't, I just watch too much BBC).

English is a complex, messy language with few consistent rules. It steals from everyone. It's incredibly colorful and nuanced, and very subject to cultural interpretation. There's a huge volume of assumed connotation with word choice, and this is part of what makes it so incredibly difficult to learn. I have to remind myself of this occasionally, and remember that scientific papers should be read for content.

The failure to use proper nouns correctly does not affect the quality of the science, but it is certainly distracting.

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