I've been holding onto the gold,
When letting go would free my hand,
And I've been tying your tongue in a knot,
Oh! I've been tying your tongue in a knot.
—"The Rifle," Alela Diane
I try to write things on this blog that are (1) things I know more about than the average person and (2) interesting. It occurred to me today that there's a pretty big and interesting body of knowledge that I have access to, but haven't written much about, and that is the world of linguistics.
Linguistics is the study of how languages work: why and how they differ, the ways they change over time, and even how (or whether) they affect the way we think. It's a fascinating area of study, and it was my major in college. In this post, I want to give an example of the kind of question a linguist might ask about a language, and how to go about answering such a question.
For my purposes today, I'm going to ask a phonology question. Phonology basically wants to know two big things about a language: (1) What sounds occur in the language? and (2) What are the rules for how the sounds interact?
The answers to both questions are different for each language. In English, for example, there are around 40 different sounds, depending on what dialect you speak; in Hawaiian, on the other hand, there are only 13.
The more interesting question is the second one: what rules govern how sounds interact? In English, our p sounds get a little puff of air ("aspiration") after them at the beginning of words, but not when they come after certain sounds, like s. (To test this, hold up a piece of paper and say the words "pin" and "spin;" notice how the p in "pin" makes the paper move, and the p in "spin" doesn't!) So we have a "rule" in English that makes the p get pronounced one way or another based on what sounds come around it. Other languages lack this rule: in languages like Spanish, p doesn't ever get this puff of air after it, and in some languages, like Mandarin Chinese, those p with the air and p without it are considered completely different sounds, and not part of the same p sound at all!
A phonologist tries to answer both of these big questions about a language in as much detail as possible. Sometimes, the rules governing how a sound interacts with the sounds around it are really clear; usually, though, they're complicated and intertwined with other rules, and all mixed up with the data—how people actually speak the language. To figure out a rule, you usually have to work backward from several sets of data.
When first encountering English, a phonologist would notice pretty early on that there are two versions of the basic plural ending. Both are spelled with an "s," but there are two ways of pronouncing that "s:" in a word like "cats," it has an s sound, but in a word like "dogs," it has a z sound. The difference between the two sounds is what's called "voicing," which is to say, when you make the z sound, you're vibrating your vocal cords, and with the s sound, you're not.
"So," the phonologist would say, "what's the rule here?" To find out, we have to examine some data. Let's take a look; below, there's a chart that has examples of the s and z sounds and where they show up; note that the slashes (//) indicate how something is pronounced, rather than how it's spelled (the spellings are in quotes).
The phonologist is ready to make a rule, it would seem. But what's the rule? Is the plural ending an /s/ that becomes a /z/ sound when it's placed next to voiced consonants, or is it a /z/ sound that becomes voiceless next to voiceless consonants? How on earth can we tell? We have to look for more data. Is there another set of data that we can look at, any third way that the plural ending shows up in English?
Sure. There's a special ending for when you have words that end in an "s," "x," "sh," or other s-like sounds; it's spelled "es." Let's look at some data:
As we can see, in this context, the plural ending is a /z/, not an /s/, even though the closest consonant sounds are all voiceless. Our best guess, then, is that the rule is something like: "the plural ending /z/ becomes an /s/ when it comes immediately after a voiceless consonant."
That, roughly speaking, is the kind of thing you look at in phonology.
If you're interested in what a more thorough phonological analysis looks like, you could take a look at my BA thesis from college, which I wrote on a phonological problem in Zulu. It's by no means a particularly stellar work of scholarship, but you'll get an idea of the complexity of a real-life linguistics problem and the tools needed to examine it.
Before I end, I want to try to answer the question, "So what?" (an old habit of mine). Who really cares about phonology, or linguistics? Is it actually important, rather than simply interesting?
Language is a vital element of human culture. Individual languages encode the ideas, feelings, and worldview of the cultures they come from in a unique way, and when people cease to speak them, part of the richness and diversity of human life goes out of the world. Imagine everyone stopped speaking English; there would be no one left to explain to others the exact meaning and full beauty of English poetry, music, literature. No one would ever again be able to articulate things in quite the way we speakers of English have come to do. And that, I think, is an undeniably sad. Studying different languages helps us to understand the breadth of human cultural knowledge, creativity, and uniqueness.
Unfortunately, languages are dying all the time. There are only a few thousand languages in the world, around 6,000 or 7,000, of which more than 2,000 have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Around half of all languages are expected to die in the next century. Linguists are just about the only people out there trying to keep that from happening, and trying to preserve what we know about the ones that are on their way out.
(Additionally, even if all you are is a stone-hearted capitalist with dollar signs for eyes, uninterested in all this artsy-fartsy cultural flim-flam, you should care about the study of languages, because it has important practical and technological applications, like computer speech synthesis and voice recognition.)
For more info on this subject, plus a cool (if somewhat sobering) interactive map, check out the Enduring Voices Project.
Photo credits: the photo at the top of the page is a map I created for my BA thesis back in 2009. The second photo is in the public domain, and I found it on the Wikimedia Commons, here.