Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Languages are its subject, in exactly the same way that chemicals are the subject of chemistry. It's harder to study languages scientifically than it is to study chemicals, because so much of the evidence is shut away inside the brains/minds of human beings. Still, we can learn a lot from indirect evidence in the form of spoken and signed and written language. And the new technology used in today's neuromedicine is beginning to give us a little direct access to "language in the brain."
Let's start by specifying that we're going to restrict our discussion to human languages, of two kinds: natural human languages and constructed human languages.
We'll consider human languages that are called "natural" languages because they either are, or once were, used by human beings for ordinary communication. These languages (such as Chinese or Cherokee or English) have no known "author" or "inventor."
We'll consider human languages called "constructed" (sometimes "artificial" or "auxiliary") languages, which have been created by human beings in the way that novels and plays and symphonies are created. These languages (for example, Esperanto or Elvish) can be recognized as the work of specific individuals.
The word "language" is often used to refer to items which are really codes or pseudo-languages. We read about "the language of flowers" and "the language of bees." Roughly speaking, the important difference between such things and natural human languages is that natural human languages are infinite. You could never make a list of all the possible utterances of a natural human language; no matter how many you wrote down, it would always be possible to add more. We'll come back to this later. For now, let's just agree that -- unless I've said specifically that we're considering a constructed language or a code -- when the word "language" is used in this article it refers to natural human language.
Human Language is Rule-Governed
The first thing we need to understand about language is that it's not random. In linguistics we say that human languages are rule-governed. You're certainly free to say anything whatsoever that you want to say, including:
*"Elephant elephant up up tree tree the the looked gefloop."
That's your privilege. You're not free, however, to assume that any native speaker of English will be able to understand what you mean when you say that. Linguists mark sequences like that with an asterisk at the beginning, which stands for "What comes next is not an acceptable sequence."
You're also not free to assume that any native speaker of English would be able to fill in the blank in the following:
The question "Was that book called Dune?" is to "That book was called Dune" as ".........................................?" is to "Elephant elephant up up tree tree the the looked gefloop."
When you want to use language to communicate meaning, you have to use it according to its rules, which linguists call its grammar. I want to be absolutely clear about what that word means in this article. By "grammar," I mean the internal mental grammar -- the system of rules for a language that is stored in the brain/mind of a human being who is a native speaker of that language. I'm not using the word to refer to a system of rules printed in a book or on a computer screen. Your internal grammar is completely independent of the grades teachers may have given you in grammar classes; if you've always thought you were "really bad at grammar," please set that thought aside.
What's In Your Mental Grammar?
Suppose you're a native speaker of English with an internal English grammar. What does that mean? What kind of information is stored in your internal grammar? What kinds of things do you know just because of your internal grammar?
You know that a telephone pole forty feet high, if it has been blown over by a windstorm and is lying flat on the ground, has to be referred to as "a telephone pole forty feet long," even though it's exactly the same telephone pole and has exactly the same measurements it had before the storm hit. You know the rule for that, and you follow it with ease. (If a Martian linguist were visiting the United States on a field trip and discovered this rule, he or she would say something like this: "Can you imagine? These people, in order to choose the correct word to describe something like a pole or a pillar, have to first take into account its orientation with respect to the horizon! Isn't that exotic?")
You know that a new candy intended for sale in the United States could be named "Jarabeek" or "Oglo," but could not be named "Szbarabeek" or "Ngoglo." You know instantly when a proposed sequence of letters could be a possible word of English and when it couldn't be; you know as soon as you see it, without having to go look in any book or consult any expert.
If someone shows you a picture of a bug you've never seen before and tells you that it's called a "wheeg," you know that a picture of two such bugs would be a picture of "two wheegs" -- and you know that even though the letter at the end of "wheegs" is an S, you have to pronounce it as a Z.
If someone tells you, "I'm angry because there was so much work to do this morning and nobody lifted a finger to help me!" you know immediately that the utterance is acceptable. But suppose someone says, "There was so much work to do this morning that I was really glad everybody lifted a finger to help me!" You know that's not acceptable as ordinary English, although you might accept it as a joke or a line of poetry. You know the rules for sequences like "lift a finger" and "bat an eye" and "turn a hair."
If someone asked you to state the rule for making an English yes/no question (a question that can be answered with either "yes" or "no"), you wouldn't be able to do it. But you know that rule. I can prove that you know it just by asking you to give me an example of such a question. If you didn't know the rule, you wouldn't be able to construct the question.
This list could go on and on, but I'm sure that's not necessary. The five examples above will demonstrate (a) that English has rules and (b) that native speakers of English know those rules -- even if they can't recite them, even if they were never taught about them in school.
Note: At this point we could of course bring forward a hypothesis that these two things are true for English but not for any other human language. Common sense tells us that that's unlikely, but to prove that it's false we'd have to test it. I'm glad to be able to tell you that the testing has already been done and that you can rely on (a) and (b) as basic truths for every natural human language. (The reason we can't say that they're also true for every constructed human language is that -- with the possible exception of Esperanto -- there are no native speakers of those languages.)
In Lesson One, after defining some terms, we discussed one basic concept: that all human languages are rule-governed. Now I'd like to give you a firmer grasp of what grammar rules are like, how you follow such rules, and what that means for the way you use your language. I think the simplest way to begin is to go through a typical linguistics problem with you so that you can see a rule in operation. I'm going to use a problem from the sound system of English (its phonology), and I'll define any necessary terms as we go along.
The Problem: Why Is That G Silent?
When linguists take up the task of writing a grammar for a language -- which means writing the set of rules that determine the language behavior of its native speakers -- they take the whole language as the database for that task. They look at all the data, with, as their first goal, the identification of patterns. They describe the patterns that they perceive in the data. They construct hypotheses -- proposed grammar rules that will explain the patterns -- and then they test them. We're going to look at a very small subset of English data and work our way through this process together. Here's our data:
sign, resignation, malignant, signature, resign, benign, malignancy, malign, significant
In a traditional language arts class, you wouldn't be asked to figure out how these words work or what grammar rules apply to them. You would be taught that "sign, resign, benign, malign" all have a "silent G," and you would be expected to memorize that fact and to prove that you had memorized it by taking tests. We're going to do it differently.
We'll start by looking for patterns in the data, and we'll find that there are at least two ways we can sort it. Suppose we sort the data into words that resemble one another closely. We'll get an arrangement like this:
1. sign, signature, significant; resign, resignation; malign, malignant, malignancy; benign.
The question is, why should some of the words in each of those groups have a "silent G" while others have a G that gets pronounced? We know it's not random; it's not that some monarch got up one day and decreed that it would be that way. It can't be that G is silent in words of one syllable -- a hypothesis that might have crossed our minds -- because G is silent in the two-syllable words "resign, malign, benign." Let's sort the data again, in a different way.
2. sign, resign, malign, benign; signature, significant, resignation, malignant, malignancy
That gives us two subsets, one with all the items that have a silent G, and one with all the items that pronounce the G. We want to find out what causes a word from this class of words to end up in one of those sets instead of in the other.
Note: While we're here, I want to do one other thing. Suppose I were to give you these two hypothetical English words, which I have just made up on the spot: "sebrign" and "olignation." Notice that you know immediately how to pronounce my fictional words and that you know which subset they belong in. This proves that you do know the rule we're looking for.
Now, we have to ask ourselves what "sign/resign/malign/benign" have in common that makes them different from the rest of the words in the set. We already know that they have a silent G, but that doesn't explain anything at all; it describes them, but that's not enough. What else do all four have in common?
If we were making this up, a traditional way to proceed might be to propose the following rule:
All six-letter words with GN in them have a silent G; the word "sign" is irregular and has to be learned as an exception.
For this nine-word set of data, that's a possible rule. However, linguists hate exceptions. When we have to call something "irregular" or "an exception," we consider that a failure; sometimes it's the best we can do, but it always has to be the last resort. What are we missing?
If we were together in a classroom, I'd help you until you found the answer to my question yourself. Since I'm not with you, I can't do that. The answer is that in "sign/resign/malign/benign" -- but not in the other five items -- the GN comes at the very end of the word. Eureka! We can now propose as a hypothesis this rule:
When an English word ends with GN, the G has to be silent.
We can test that hypothesis with a big dictionary of English words. We can test it by asking native speakers of English to check our results, both with existing words and with words we construct. We'll find that it's valid. That statement is indeed a phonological rule of English -- a rule of the English sound system -- and it's a rule that was already stored in your internal grammar. It's the rule you followed when you decided how to pronounce "sebrign" and "olignation."
Note: Often, even though linguists have found a rule and it appears to them to be correct, they're unable to say why the rule exists. In this case, however, we do know a thing or two. We know why the silent G isn't dropped from the spelling of words like "sign." English keeps it in the written form of the word, very wisely, because that G tells readers that "sign" and "signature" and "significant" and "signatory" and "insignia" (and many more) are related historically and in their meanings. This is valuable information, and worth preserving; it's helpful to people who are reading written English. It's not, as you have probably been told, evidence that the English spelling system is crazy and should be "reformed."
In Lesson Two we looked at this small set of English words . . .
sign, resignation, malignant, signature, resign, benign, malignancy, malign, significant
. . . and tried to figure out why native speakers sometimes do -- and sometimes don't -- pronounce the G that appears in them. We considered every one of the nine words in the set, looking for patterns. We extrapolated from the set to other English words of the same kind, looking for evidence that the patterns we had found also applied to them. And we came up with this rule as a working hypothesis:
Rule 1: When an English word ends with GN, the G has to be silent.
In this lesson we're going to look at that rule again, and talk about it for a while. There are 4 things that we need to go over.
It's important to understand that the rule says only what it says. It says that when you pronounce English words ending with GN, you don't pronounce the G. It says nothing more. It doesn't say, for example, that when a GN sequence isn't word-final you do pronounce the G. That would be a different hypothesis, separate from the rule we've proposed, and it would have to be tested. We'd have to look at sets of words like these:
gnarl, gnash, gnat, gnaw, gnome, gnu
And like these:
designer, benignly, resignedly, signing
We'd quickly discover that there are other positions for a GN sequence in English words where the G has to be silent. Rule 1 is an accurate statement for the data we examined in Lesson Two, but it clearly isn't the last word on the matter.
It's important to understand that there are many other ways to word Rule 1. As long as all the proposed wordings accurately describe what native speakers of English do when they say English words ending in GN, they're all acceptable. Choosing among them is a matter of personal preference. You might choose a particular wording for "stylistic reasons" -- that is, because you liked the way it sounded. You might choose a wording because you felt that it was more elegant than the others. You might choose a wording because it fit better into your preferred model of linguistic theory. All of that is acceptable.
It's important to understand that in linguistics it's almost never safe to call a rule "the right answer." In math, two and two are always going to be four, and you can count on that. Any linguist who proposes a rule about a human language knows that some other linguist might propose a better one the following day. It's not unusual for a linguist to be giving a paper about a rule at a conference and have some other linguist in the audience break in and say, "Oh, that's not right! Here's what's really going on!" followed by a different proposed rule. That's a hazard of doing business, if you're a linguist. When you propose a rule, you're saying that -- based on the information you have available at that moment -- it's your best and most carefully-reasoned hypothesis about the language behavior in question.
Finally, it's important to understand that the rule we're working with isn't a rule about letters of English, but a rule about English sounds. Suppose we were talking about the words "telephone," "telegraph," and "pharmacy," and we decided that the relevant rule is something like "In those (and similar) words, PH is pronounced as F." That would be a rule about letters of English, and about the English writing system, and about English spelling. Our rule about word-final GN isn't like that; it's a phonological rule -- a rule about sounds.
Moving Right Along
With all that specified, we can move on. It's certainly possible that English would have a phonological rule applying only to word-final GN. That could happen. But it's a bit suspicious. When you come across a linguistic rule that limited, you always want to ask yourself whether it might really be part of some other, bigger rule. We already know from the brief look at words like "gnaw" and "designer" that restricting the rule to word-final GNs is an error; we can see that it applies to GNs at the beginning of words, and to GNs at the end of some English syllables. (That is, the G in "designer," at the end of its second syllable, is silent; the G in "designate," also at the end of a second syllable, is pronounced.) That's enough to make us think that something more must be going on here. And in that situation, what a linguist does first is look at other English sounds that are the same type of sound as G and N.
When linguists refer to the meaningful sounds of a language -- its phonemes -- they put them between slashes. So G and N, as English phonemes, are written as /g/ and /n/; in phonemic notation, "gnu" is written as /nu/ and "gnome" is written as /nom/. The phoneme /g/ is a consonant of the kind that's called a STOP because when you say it by itself it completely stops the flow of air through your throat and mouth; you can't say /g/ unless you put a vowel with it. The phoneme /n/ is a consonant of the kind that's called a NASAL because it involves the nose in an intimate fashion. Here are the complete sets of English stops and nasals:
Stops: /p/ /b/ /t/ /d/ /k/ /g/
Nasals: /n/ /m/ /ng/
[There's a fancier symbol for /ng/, but not all of your browsers would let me use it here, so we'll stay with /ng/; it's the sound -- two letters, but just one sound -- at the end of "swing" and "long."]
Suppose we look for some English words that have not just GN but other examples of a stop followed immediately by a nasal. Look in a dictionary, and you'll find a few. You'll find words like "knee" and "pneumonia"; you won't find any words like "bmag" or "dnak" or "tngoverly" or "lobn" or "matn" . . . and so on. If I tried to convince you that there could be English words like "bmag" or "matn" or "bnadn," you'd flatly refuse to believe it. You know better, because the specifications for pronounceable English words are in your internal grammar, and those words don't fit the specs.
You have this all figured out by now, I suspect. [Often, when my own linguistics profs said that in class, I didn't yet have a clue, and I had to live with the awful idea that I might be the only person in the class who was still clueless. If you don't have this all figured out yet, you and I have something in common.] Clearly, the rule we need isn't a rule about G and N or about /g/ and /n/; it's a rule about stops and nasals. And one way to word it would be this:
Rule 2: No English word can have a stop followed immediately by a nasal.
This is a rule about sounds, remember. Certainly English words can have sequences of letters that put a nasal right after a stop -- as in "gnaw, knot, sign," and many others we've been looking at. But when that happens, something has to give. "Something has to give" isn't elegant, but it accurately states the facts. Whenever a word of English would otherwise turn out to have a forbidden sequence of sounds, for whatever reason, something has to give.
One mechanism for that kind of giving is to do what we do with a stop followed by a nasal -- we delete one of the two sounds from our pronunciation of the word. (Whether we then go on to spell the word in a way that matches the pronunciation is a separate decision and depends on other factors.)
Another way is to do what we do with lots of English plurals. English won't allow a nasal to occur immediately after a stop; it also won't allow any two of its hissing-and-buzzing sounds to occur one right after the other. If you want to talk about more than one beach (/bich/) you have to add an S to it to mark it as a plural, which would leave you with /bichs/ to pronounce. That's not allowed. Something has to give. There could be a rule that made either the /ch/ or the /s/ silent, and if you were analyzing another language you might find that option being used; English doesn't do it that way. Instead, it inserts a vowel -- the vowel that sounds like "uh" -- between the /ch/ and the /s/ to break up the forbidden cluster. The result -- "beaches" -- is a fine English word.
That's enough; we're not through, but it's enough for now. (Notice that you knew how to do all these things, even though you didn't know that you knew and you couldn't recite the rules.)
ON MY WAY OUT THE DOOR . . .
I consider this course a work in progress, and I'd welcome your help with it. The material above includes my second try at writing Lesson One, and has been revised on the basis of feedback from readers during the past few weeks. If you'd like to comment on the new version above, criticize it, ask questions, make suggestions, propose more examples (from any language), or provide any other feedback, I'd be glad to hear from you. Please e-mail me directly at OCLS@madisoncounty.net.
Suzette Haden Elgin retired in 1980 to the Arkansas Ozarks. She has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of novels, short stories and poetry in the genre of speculative fiction, as well as the constructed language Laadan and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series of books.