Friday, 16 November 2012

Getting overexcited and swearing

We all know that linguists love to swear and lecturers love to shock their new students, so yesterday in my introductory lecture on morphology, I had the students try to work out the rules of expletive infixation. That's when you do this:
Now obviously the students found this completely hilarious and had a whale of a time swearing at the tops of their voices in the lecture. At one point I though the neighbours might come round to complain.

Importantly, though, as well as swearing a lot, they actually got on and did the exercise, and did it well. It stands to reason that the best way to get them excited about and interested in a language data exercise is to make it be about something they find interesting in the first place. Earlier in the week, they'd had to do the same type of exercise, working out how noun pluralisation works in Armenian and Spanish, and they did not like that so much. They did it, and made a decent job of it, but they clearly didn't find it exciting in the same way.

Partly this is natural, but a true linguist also gets excited about noun pluralisation rules. We find it REALLY COOL that there are rules about how this stuff works, that native speakers of a language don't know about consciously, but do perfectly subconsciously. We love to find out what the rules are and try to understand this magical language ability that allows us to communicate with each other so effectively. The rules for doing language could be anything in the world, but they aren't! They're consistently of particular types, and some other types of rule are just never ever found anywhere.

I notice the same issue when I give talks to non-syntacticians. What I'm presenting is obviously fantastically exciting stuff - there's this real issue that is there, and needs explaining - and yet it doesn't seem to excite everyone in the same way. How can we get across that this is really fascinating? Why doesn't everyone appreciate just how amazingly brilliant language is?


  1. Great stuff. This week I had Chinese students in a cross-cultural communications / politeness theory seminar consider how effing and blinding in English can be used to signal group identity, inclusion and friendliness: I invite you, ladies and gentlemen, to compare and contrast 'you look tired, Dave' with 'Christ, you look fucking knackered, Dave'. I'm not sure they found this as fascinating as I did.

  2. Oh, that's a great example! Such a clear difference between the two, but I hadn't really thought about the effect before.

  3. The rule for the English plural allomorphs is fun to teach and quite enlightening for students. When they get it, you can teach the third person singular rule, which is essentially the same. The regular past tense is quite similar. By then some students will appreciate what you mean when you say that language is rule governed (not a bunch of rules that your have to follow, but a system that operates on principles).
    Good work with the infixing example. Did you follow it up with a Bontoc problem?