Mental models of languages

So as we know, children acquire their native language by being exposed to lots and lots of input in that language, internalising it, and not only memorising vocabulary but also developing mental rules (the grammar) of how that language is spoken. As such, when we come to be adults, we have a very sophisticated mental model for what’s grammatical and what’s not in our native language. As far as linguists are concerned, it is this, and not the rules handed down by style guides or generations of English teachers, that determines what is an acceptable English utterance and what is not (and the same in any other language).

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Dabbling in language-learning

In recent times, I’ve been tossing up whether I should try to learn some basic German. The thing that’s prompting my temptation is that I keep encountering German-language posts on social media, and with my current (completely non-existent) knowledge of the language these are impenetrable walls of text. I’m kind of wondering how much German I would have to learn for these to start to make sense to me. In contrast, you see, I can read short posts in most of the Romance languages fairly easily.

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A linguistic pet peeve of mine: people saying “all X are not Y” when what they mean is “not all X are Y”. I’m usually easygoing about language differences, but this one completely changes the meaning of what you’re saying in a way where it isn’t always obvious what you meant. It’s clearly a mistake semantically, and one that’s been getting more and more frequent in recent years, at least online. You can’t (honestly) say things like “all kids don’t like sports” or “all Americans don’t live in urban areas with good service”… (the likes of which I see on Reddit all the time)

Three quick links

I found these through Mastodon and Twitter, and while each could have sustained a linkpost on its own, the fact that I wanted to post all of them at once has made me roll them into one.

Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed is a great little article about how the standard 40-hour work week is designed to leave us crushed and exhausted, and how this influences our choices in recreation (i.e. spending money for fast gratification, instead of doing something that might be free but takes more time and maybe some hard work to reach the rewarding part, like creative pursuits).

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Thoughts on gender and (my) pronouns

Recently I’ve been spending a little more time browsing Mastodon, and one of the things that’s caused me to think about is why I don’t feel comfortable nominating some preferred pronouns on my profile (which is a popular thing to do over there). Part of me just feels like my display name – “Jessica” – is already pretty obviously gendered, so the “elegant” thing would be for the viewer to infer my pronouns from that.

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Double object pronouns in English

When I was studying linguistics at uni, one constant refrain was that native speakers (not grammarians) are the arbiters of what is and is not grammatical in a given language. None of this “you can’t put prepositions at the end of a sentence!” or “no split infinitives!” nonsense; those sound totally fine to English native speakers, so they’re grammatical.

This became a test that we ourselves would have to do; we’d be given sentences and we’d have to judge whether they sounded fine or whether they were wrong. One thing that I found hard was judging sentences that really did “sound wrong”, but were nonetheless things that me or my friends would absolutely say. The biggest example of this that sticks in my mind is double object pronouns.

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I feel like this is an underappreciated fact: the American South is not the only place where people say y’all. My partner’s Indian South African relatives use it just as extensively (although they usually spell it your’ll!). Apparently it evolved separately in the two dialects.

On Australia's devaluing of foreign language learning

Suffering from the pandemic and decades of government policy, many Australian universities are axing programs in community languages like Hindi, Indonesian and Greek to try to make up significant budget shortfalls. That article poses the question of what it means for Australia’s “turn to Asia” to be axing these courses, but honestly I feel like this is the end, not the beginning, of the problem. Certainly, it’s a bad thing that there’ll be only one university left in the country offering a course in Hindi, and that aspiring learners of Indonesian and Greek will be left with fewer and fewer options.

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photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society. See her homepage here.