Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Language And Your Words' Worth

When I was doing my undergraduate work at New Mexico State University, I encountered a dilemma. My major (Psychology) required two years of foreign language, and even though I chose Spanish I couldn't translate to English quickly enough to understand what was being spoken.

That meant I might not attain my Bachelor of Arts degree unless some drastic action could be taken in order to avert disaster, like not graduating -or worse, becoming a business major.

That action came in a desperate visit to the head of the Language Department. Listening to my difficulty, the woman was entirely sympathetic of my challenge. Following a quick okay from the Dean, she suggested that I look into linguistics, which is the study of language.

Now, for those who aren't familiar with the field, let me be the first to welcome you into a very bizarre world. When I (deictic reference, sorry) initially set foot in my first linguistics class, I was introduced to some wonderful words. As we listened to a tape of a conversation in England, we heard the word "battle" pronounced "ba'le". Not that I'm biased against glottal stops, but just hearing it made me feel like I was coming down with a sore throat.

Linguistics students are driven by self-discovery more than by worries of what others will think of them. That's good, because when you're making odd sounds which make someone want to tell his girlfriend, "don't make eye contact with that guy, Linda" you'll only be concerned with learning that both vee and zee are identically articulated except for one being voiced (larynx tension) and the other, voiceless. While you're doing your alveolar fricative best to practice "ffff-vvvv-ffff-vvvv" amidst worrying looks of a campus police officer, your lab partner is just around the corner. Leaning against the water fountain, he's busy with his P's and B's. Linguistics students often run the risk of sounding like electrical short-circuits and Evinrude engine malfunctions in their quest to better understand and appreciate the field of study.

Sibilant fricative oral formation aside, my favorite task in linguistics was diagramming and parsing sentences. We've all cut sentences into subjects and predicates. Linguistics can chop that same sentence all the way into morphemes and phonemes, which is like ray-gunning a Buick into mere molecules. Who knew that it can take five notebook pages (and half of the contents of an ink pen) to fully describe "I'm afraid of cats"? I drew more lines between words, word clusters, and even individual letters of words, than there are wires in the entirety of Houston Control. As I glanced around the room, I observed that my classmates were laboring to complete the assignment before the class ended in order to make more time later for preparing to discuss improper use of allomorphs. Twenty-nine pens and pencils moved furiously around sentence fragments in a word symphony as Eugene stopped at the pencil sharpener for his con spirito, cranking with gusto amidst the pursuit of language understanding.

Did I really say that? I had to stop writing long enough to look up the musical definition of "con spirito" (with enthusiasm). Interesting, since the love of language apparently led me to the language of love. Who knew?

I loved studying linguistics. The instructors had incredible patience and my classmates were absolutely wonderful. Interestingly, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation sometimes recruit students holding dual majors of linguistics and computer science. I feel very secure knowing that some of my former classmates contribute to our security daily.

Let's hope that they've mastered voiced versus voiceless sounds.


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