19 August 2011

Use of liguistic terminology

(I've been busy this week and didn't have time to finish the promised article on phonology, so here's something that's been sitting in my drafts folder for a while.  It's quite relevant now as I've been using a fair bit of jargon of late.)
I've taken a bit of flak on a number of forums for my use of linguistics jargon (particularly when I get it wrong!), so I want to clarify something here: I use jargon to describe what concepts are to be taught (and sometimes how to teach them), but I do not advocate use of jargon itself with beginners, unless they are students of linguistics anyway.

The international standardisation on Latin terminology is quite useful in that I'm now able to discuss linguistics in several different languages.  It really impresses people that I can teach them grammar in their own language, but it's little more than a parlour trick.  A few regular sound changes and the appropriate suffix and your subjunctive is subjonctif or subjuntivo.  It doesn't generally get any harder than the Italians and Germans who call in a congiuntivo and Konjunktiv respectively.

Having studied a lot of grammar, I'm not only comfortable with plain conjunctions, but also with coordinating vs subordinating conjunctions so the terminology is useful to me.  (Subordinating conjunctions, see?)

The labels we give language aren't always meaning to the new learner, so don't really help.  But in the original Greek and Latin, they were designed specifically to help.  Take, for example, Latin's dative case.  "Dative" is a Latin adjective (oh look, adjective, another meaningless term!) derived from the word for "giving", and describes one of the fundamental uses of the case: indirect object as recipient or beneficiary.

"Accusative", on the other hand, comes from Greek, where it originally could mean either "for something caused" or "for the accused" (at least according to wikipedia).  The Romans picked one translation, and really chose the less useful one, "for the accused", which misleads people even to this day.  The accusitive is most commonly used for the direct object, and most "speaking" words use an indirect object for the person you're speaking to, yet the word "accusative" seems to suggest it's to do with speaking.

But not all languages use the Latin system.  Basque is a highly inflected language, and their cases are simply named by inflecting the word "who?"  Basque can do this very neatly due to it's nature, and while it isn't as neat in English, you could still name cases similarly.  Have a look at these and tell me that they are descriptive mnemonic labels:

who-did | who-done-to | where-to | where-from | who-to | who-from

True, such a description could become quite long or complex for certain languages, but it's still better than trying to remember things by such meaningless terms as alative and ablative (two words which are very easily confused -- they fit all three of my categories of confusion: similar form, similar usage, and frequent co-occurrence.

The same goes for sounds.  If you want to talk about a "bilabial unvoiced aspirated plosive", just say P.  If you trying to get a student to pronounce a "bilabial unvoiced unaspirated plosive", you just need to get the student to pronounce an "unaspirated P".  However, you don't need the word "unaspirated", but you do need the concept of aspiration.  Call it the "puffiness" of a sound, call it the "breathiness"... what you call it isn't important as long as you teach the difference.  If you want, you can even call it "aspiration", but there's no point introducing the term until after the student is relatively comfortable with the concept.  In fact, it is probably counter-productive to introduce the term "aspiration" too early, because it means something completely unrelated in colloquial English (related to goals and ambition).  Hearing a word automatically evokes its meaning, so the old meaning will interfere with learning the new concept.

So if I use terminology in this blog, it isn't my personal seal of approval on its use -- it's a concession to its current use in expert circles.  I don't think it's of practical use for beginners.

A concession to reality

On the other hand, if your students are going to be going out into the big wide world without you and are going to be relying on reference books to continue, then yes, they're going to need the terminology.  So teach it.  But look again at what I wrote about "aspiration", because again you really need to teach the concept before the word.  A word is a label for a meaningful "thing", whether a physical item, a phenomenon or just an abstract concept.  How are we supposed to learn words if we don't yet know what that "thing" is?  A word learned without meaning goes against the whole idea of language.  It's a disordered state, and once the student is in a disordered state, the teacher has lost control.

A massive change of opinion

Isn't it interesting how quickly you can change your own opinion by reasoning something through?  In the course of writing this post my own view of linguistic terminology has gone from "vehemently against" to "neutral-to-slightly-for".  I was always against it as I felt it was meaningless to the learner, but in talking about teaching the term after the concept, I realised that taught that way, it isn't meaningless at all.  I'd still prefer a more intuitive terminology, but maybe the old stuff isn't as big a problem as I thought....

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