m a r k a n d e y a

Fun with English

Posted by Brian on March 3, 2006

In my never-ending quest to be a better teacher, I've been reading a lot of books on English over the past few weeks. Here are a few fun blurbs I'd like to share:

  • How would you complete this sentence: Sam likes to spling. Yesterday he…. According to research done by a couple of linguists, 80% of the respondents in a study completed that sentence with he splang or he splung. Why the tendency towards an irregular form?
  • There are exactly seven nouns in English that get their plural form by changing the vowel sound. Six of them are common (man/men, woman/women, mouse/mice, goose/geese, tooth/teeth, and foot/feet), but the last one less so. What is it?
  • To illustrate that it is OK to end a sentence with a preposition, despite what some obnoxious people might insist, the writers of Sleeping Dogs don't Lay quote a boy who is about to receive a bedtime lesson on Australia from his mother. Asks the child, "What did you bring that book that I wanted to be read out of from about Down Under up for?"

The first two bullet points are from Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.

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9 Responses to “Fun with English”

  1. Charles said

    My guess on the first one is that “spling” is similar to a number of English words that all have irregular past tenses (and trade the “i” for a “u” to boot): sling/slung, sing/sung, spin/spun. It’s more about association with existing knowledge than any mysterious “tendency” for irregular forms, I think. If you were to come up with a word that sounded similar to a bunch of words that had regular past tenses, I bet that 80% of linguists would go with a regular form.

  2. You’re exactly right, Charles. I don’t have the book with me, but later on it did reveal more details of the study, including the way people conjugate different hypothetical verbs. Some such verbs can get a roughly 50/50 split between an irregular past form and a regular -ed ending (think of dream, where people seem to go back and forth between dreamed and dreamt). Repsondents view others as regular, and the results go in the other direction.

    Fascinating stuff!

  3. Nathan B. said

    Interesting little post.

    Regarding #2, did you mean “monosyllabic nouns”? I can’t help thinking of words like “radius,” in which the final “u” vowel changes to an i-class vowel. And of course, the fact that this word, in both singular and plurals forms, comes from Latin doesn’t change the fact that “radius” and “radii” are both attested English words.

    I’m not sure if it was Churchill, and I’m not sure if I’ve got it right, but apparently he said something like “That is nonsense up with which I shall not put!” in regards to the “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition.

  4. Nathan,

    I think he means nouns where you simply swap out one vowel sound for another. Radius/radii, then, doesn’t count.

    And that was Churchill.

  5. Lice and louse?

  6. We have a winner… louse and lice.

    Damn Alex, I had no idea you were reading my blog. Everything OK with you and your family?

    Brian

  7. yeah, yeah.
    My brother has been living in Seattle and not enjoying it so he’s thinking of moving to Portland.

  8. things are good. i’ve been at intel 8 years now. time flies. got one of those new intel macs, drive a prius, read comics; the usual.

  9. noah body said

    Die, dice?

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