Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Loving Language

When I was at the University of California at Irvine working on a degree in German, I met my first true love: linguistics. I chose linguistics over literature as an emphasis and my life was changed forever.

I've always loved language and its structure. I was the kid in class who loved diagramming sentences. At Cal State Fullerton, while working on a masters degree in linguistics, I took a class about the deep structure of language. More diagramming of a different type. It's like solving a puzzle and it's fun (to me anyway).

As part of my masters degree, I went to the University of Oklahoma (OU) Summer Institute of Linguistics. 12 credit hours of intense classes on language acquisition, structure and phonology. Our example languages were Chinese dialects that have meaning determined by pitch and Comanche (more Comanche Indians live in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the world and OU has done most of the scholarly work on their language). The teen choir from my California church was on summer tour and I got to hear them sing at the Methodist church near campus, which led to meeting my future husband.

So what does one do with a masters degree in linguistics? I married a lawyer and moved to Oklahoma where I became a school librarian. That's a word story too. Oklahoma passed a law that all schools had to have a library, so Indiahoma School was looking for one. The principal knew I had a degree in something that sounded like library. Well, it starts with the same letter and I wanted to get a degree in library science but the counselor advised against it because there were lots of librarians in California at the time but no jobs. So I got a degree in linguistics instead. Like there are jobs in linguistics? How does that make sense? Oh well, it worked out in the end.

Living in Oklahoma provides me with all kinds of fun colloquial expressions. My absolute favorite is "I ustacould." [derived from English, meaning: I used to be able to] I use it whenever possible. It makes me smile. Another good one is "fixinta." Usage: We're fixinta go. Meaning: We are about ready to leave. One that doesn't make sense, that must be an error in pronunciation, is "What do you like?" The first time my husband asked me that, I answered him, "What? What do I like? I like chocolate and Thursdays and Siamese cats." He explained, "No, how much more do you have to do before you'll be ready to leave?" Oh, he meant, what do I lack. Why didn't he just say so?

I thought my kids would find this interesting (because I did), but no, it just annoyed them. People in Oklahoma pronounce "data" differently than I do. I didn't realize you could pronounce it with an "a" like in dash. I now know that there are people all over the country who pronounce it like that. Have you never seen Star Trek, the Next Generation? The android, Data, is pronounced with an "a" like in date. Star Trek wouldn't get it wrong. I started to notice how people on TV said data. My hypothesis was date data was the California pronunciation and most people in television are Californians. Are you starting to understand why this annoyed my children? To end this conversation, let me just say that Merriam-Webster Online lists the first pronunciation of data my way. It lists "also" the other pronunciation, an alternative to the original one.

As a librarian, I promote lifelong learning. I listen to Great Courses on CD (The Teaching Company) as one way to do this. My public library has these courses for check out, maybe yours does too. One of the courses is called "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft." Twelve hours of lectures (24 lectures at 30 minutes each) devoted exclusively to the sentence. The professor is fond of long sentences using punctuation other than periods to keep multiple parts of an idea united in a single sentence. It's a fun exercise trying to write really long sentences. But short sentences and short paragraphs keep readers attention, so use the long sentence sparingly.

Are you aware of National Punctuation Day? This American holiday will be celebrated this year on September 24. You can google it and find some interesting and funny stuff about punctuation and its holiday.

I got the idea for this post from A.Word.A.Day with Anu Garg. As the name implies, I get a new word in email Monday-Friday. They are usually related with a theme. This week's theme is words that look like one part of speech but are really another. Like "invite." It looks like a verb, doesn't it? Until someone uses it to ask, "Did you receive my invite?" There's a controversy over "invite" as a noun that you can check out at IsInviteaNoun.com. I wonder if these same people object to the use of google and facebook as verbs.

One of the wonderful things about language is how it grows and changes. We try to keep it static but it has a life of its own and will not be contained. Have you got any stories about language to share?


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