Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

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Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings

How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?
How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?

This week I noticed some cool facts about time in Somali, namely, how they tell time, name the days, and greet each other. I also found some parallels with other languages I know. I think the latter might help some of my readers. Since I’ve studied a lot of languages, I’m able to see some interesting parallels that may help others to skip some steps in trying to learn these facets of Somali. I find it fascinating when I find some peculiar construction in a language, and then stumble upon it unexpectedly in a totally unrelated language. “This looks familiar!” always gets me excited.
Continue reading “Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings”

Swimming with Kindness

English: Learning to swim on her back
Image via Wikipedia

Today I paused in my workout to speak some Farsi.  I swim laps several times a week.  Today, there was a young woman in the lane next to me who seemed inexperienced.  I noticed the lifeguard was talking to her–maybe telling her how she’s supposed to swim?  Between laps I noticed they were still talking.  He was a guy, she was pretty, so I understood.  But then I overheard she was Tajik–I moved in.

Tajik is very closely related to Farsi.  They are completely mutually comprehensible dialects.  So I asked in Farsi if she was Tajik.  (I made one mistake in that sentence.  I’m not going to count.  I’m just going to say now that I’m getting better at approaching my 100-mistake quota.)  Then we started chatting.  She said that she knew Russian better than Farsi–as do I.  So we spoke Russian, too.

I’m grateful for her generosity.  I asked her how to say some things, and she patiently spoke painfully slowly, breaking down words into syllables.  She was generous to do so, especially since we were there to swim, not chat.  I asked for the word for “study,” as I noticed I’ve been grasping for it.  I had to ask her again during each break since I couldn’t write it down and would forget otherwise.  She also told me about a group of Central Asians that meet locally, so I hope this information will help to find a conversation partner at some point.

This encounter reminded me of an important lesson for learning languages: Count on the kindness of strangers.  She was incredibly helpful, and I have had countless such encounters.  I have to attribute a significant part of my language-learning to kind strangers.