Janis’ post this month had me thinking about language. I learned a lot more about English in Spanish class than I did in English class. Multiple kinds of past tenses? Two distinct “to be” verbs? I saw for the first time things that English had or didn’t have in comparison to another language. This rocked my thirteen-year-old brain.
I read Tolkien not long thereafter. It seemed only natural to start learning Quenya — one of the languages of the Elves. Tolkien laid out the language like a linguist, and because of that, I learned about how we examine languages. Come my first semester in college, I was pleasantly surprised that my introductory linguistics class was a breeze, thanks to Professor Tolkien. Here’s a few things I learned.
Phonetics: This is the study of the various sounds that make up language. Sounds can be categorized by where and how we make them — Quenya organizes its alphabet based on this.
For example, P and B are both bilabial stops (produced with two lips, with a stop of air). There’s one important distinction between the two — the first is voiced; the second unvoiced. If you put you hand on your throat and say “p-p-pan” and “b-b-ban”, you should feel your vocal chords vibrate on “b”, but not “p”. That’s what makes these sounds unique.
Phonology: This is the study of meaningful sound difference in a language. For example, in Russian, aspiration can change the meaning of a word, just like voicing changes the meaning in the pan/ban example. But aspiration isn’t a meaningful different in English. Aspirating a sound that isn’t usually aspirated will only make you sound a bit emphatic.
To feel the difference between an aspirated P and an unaspirated P, put your hand in front of your mouth. Say “pan” again. Feel the puff of air? Now say “spam.” No puff of air, no aspiration.
Morphology: This is the study of the smallest, meaningful units language. “Pan” is a morpheme (something to cook in), but so is “-s” (plural). Put them together, and you get “pans” — multiple somethings to cook in.
Syntax: This is essentially word order. English has a very rigid syntax, because we use word-order to determine subject/object. “The boy made pancakes” is a very different sentence than “Pancakes made the boy.” Even when the subject/object is made clear by what cases English still has (“I raced him”), English has strict rules (no “Him I raced,” unless you’re Yoda). English used to have a lot more cases and, consequently, a lot more syntax flexibility.
There is, of course, a lot more that linguists study, but phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax all help linguists delve into other topics — like first language acquisition.