Friday, June 09, 2006

Blah and Blog Readers (paca)

Even though I created that nice little meme yesterday, the truth is that I've just had a hard time getting up for blogging in a while. Been two to three weeks now (hasn't it?) since I really did all that much. There are things going on, but in the end, I just feel kind of blah. Blah makes me not want to write creative or intelligent things. So instead, I will take this moment to thank all the regular blog readers. I've met several online friends through this medium, and it is truly an honor - I mean this seriously - that there are a handful of people in the world who find my writings worth reading every couple days. So I just want to thank you all for stopping by here. It is a privilege to speak with you. I hope you will keep sticking by until the blahs pass.

Now that I've said all that I am in a good enough mood that I do have a little tidbit. First look at this picture.

Notice anything? There's a typo right on the front cover of one of the most famous contemporary novels. See the typo yet? It's in the quote. Yes, it's the use of 's to form the plural. They have novel's, not novels. Apostrophe s should only be used to mark possession, never to form a plural. This is a pet peeve of lots of writers and editors, so it's considered highly amusing to have the typo right on the front cover of a pulitzer prize winning book. This "typo" however is fairly common. People do it over and over. The linguist in me wonders why, and the answer shows us a little about how we actually know more about our own language than we realize we do.

So unless you've taken a linguistics course, you've probably never heard of a morpheme. A morpheme is a chunk of a word that is supposed to have some meaning. Cat only has one morpheme. Carpool has two - car and pool. Establishment has two as well. Establish and ment. Ment's meaning is sort of weird but it turns verbs into nouns. Antidisestablismentarianism's morphemes are not completely clear. Probably, they are: anti, dis, establish, ment, ary, ian, ism, and 's.

"Cat's" has just two morphemes. One is "cat" and the other is "apostrophe s". The second morpheme means simply "possession" and it says that the next noun will be possessed by the cat. Now, when you form the plural in English, what you usually do is take another morpheme "s" or "plural" and attach it to nouns. The meaning is completely different, but the grammatical move is the same. You want to attach a morpheme "s" to a word in English? Add an apostrophe. English plural formation takes an "s" and sticks it on to the noun, so why not add an apostrophe too? So people making this error aren't just dumb. They unconsciously know how these things work, so they are extending the process from one morpheme to the next.

It's pretty rare, however, to see people do this with verbs. "Runs" has two morphemes: "run" and "s" where "s" here denotes simple present tense. People very rarely write "run's" as in "he run's to the store". Even though they've never heard of morphemes, don't consciously get the difference between possession and plurality, and don't know the difference between a noun and a verb, they actually do know all this stuff, and you can see that by the way they make errors, like on the cover of the Pulitzer Prize winner.

Here's something else you know that's really quite astounding. Which word do you think is more common: cat or orangutan? Cat, of course. We all know that. But how? Do you keep a little tally in your backpocket and put a check mark each time you hear the word cat? Well, somehow, your brain, without you asking it to, seems to. It knows that cat is heard a lot more than orangutan is. And it's not just some logic like "well, orangutans don't live in my vicinity so cats is probably more common." It can't be just this. Which word is more common: Walk or stroll? Walk. But people both walk and stroll all the time around you. We just don't use the latter word as much. It's pretty cool. Infants just a few days old can track and respond to statistical patterns like this. They can't control their bladder or support their own head, but they can build at least 2nd order probability models. Before they learn to tie a shoe, they will be largely fluent in a language. How many years did you study a language in college and then how long did it take to forget it all? Pretty cool, huh? Kids rock.

6 comments:

-E said...

i had a debate with my linguistic anthropology teacher on whether "y'all's" or "y'alls" is more correct. i assert that since possessive pronouns simply have an s added, i.e. his, hers, its, theirs, ours... that it should be "y'alls" not "y'all's" which just looks stupid.
but i don't understand the rule for plural possesives... i just put an apostrope on the end , like
"the kids' bicycles were laying on the ground" but i have heard people allege that is should be "kids's".

katze said...

GAH! Oh, I saw it, alright! Were I Philip Roth, I swear to GOD, I would be jumping up and down on someone's head. But then, as you might have guessed from my blog name, this is the kind of thing that makes me a little bit batty.

pacatrue said...

Katze, I was wondering if this was exactly the sort of errant apostrophe you had in mind.

-e, I was in a debate recently with a writer on the plural possessive rule. I believe as you do: If it already has an s at the end, you just add the apostrophe. She did the whole "kids's" thing. Unfortunately, I don't remember what the answer is supposed to be. I am sure Strunk and White has some answer.

Anonymous said...

Beth
It would be kids'. I remember it from English class. If it is plural and already has an s on the end you only add a ' to make the word possessive.
Beth

kristybox said...

Ander is three months old (a month and a half corrected age). He definitely knows that Ander is a familiar word. You talk and talk, but when you say "Ander," he kicks and laughs. Also, he calms done when crying if you say diaper, bottle, or milk. Almost without fail. And for bouncy seat, you get almost a real yes or no response from his face. And if he says no, and you dare but him there anyway, he screams. But if he says yes, and you put him there, he'll kick and play contently for a long time.

He cannot possibly understand language. And his development in other areas is clearly behind even his developmental age. (Dare him to swat at a toy. Dare him. He'll look at it, he'll laugh at you, he'll consider it, but, um, no mommy, I don't think I'll use my hand to swat it today. Thanks anyway.) Yet, he communicates very clearly. And not just with Alan and I. His Aunt Sunny babysat the other day and was shocked at how much he "said" and understood.

pacatrue said...

The language ability of infants is amazing. There is a famous experiment in which a bilingual mother spoke in French and Russian. The infant could tell when she switched languages. There's also evidence that newborns remember a lot of stuff they hear when they are still in the womb. I believe they had a mother repeatedly read a story in the last few months of her pregnancy. They then did a test of the infant, and the child reacted differently to bits of the story they knew compared to other stories. How much of all of this is unique to humans is a hotly, hotly debated issue. There's some evidence that certain linguistic patterns can also be detected by some birds and small mammals. Basically, people who think that language is one piece of general animal communication love these experiments. People who think that, yeah, it's a form of animal communication, but human language is really, really, different don't like them. Either way babies are astounding little creatures.