I’m interested in language, one of humanity’s greatest inventions.
I’m a native speaker of English, so it’s sure convenient for me that it’s the international language — more than 1 billion (thousand million, for those of you who don’t speak an American dialect) people are believed to speak some form of English.
English has about 650000 words (French has about 450000, Danish 300000). Perhaps this is why people consider it a difficult language to learn. In fact, it’s not — all languages are of approximately equal complexity. English has a much simpler grammatical structure than many languages. (Well, it would be easier to learn for a German or French speaker than a Xosa speaker. But then German or French would be easier for a native speaker of English to learn than Xosa.) The problem is probably our spelling, which unfortunately was frozen by the invention of the printing press and the dictionary. As a living language, English changed, but spelling had already been standardized. You can sometimes get an idea of how the language once sounded by looking at oddly-spelled words like "knife" — it was written that way because there were no silent letters.
The way young children speak is fascinating, especially because it makes a lot more sense. Children make all verbs and nouns regular ("runned" and "mouses"), then later learn irregular forms ("ran" and "mice"). I think the kids are right.
Here’s a few samples of child idioms:
"Peeling" Christmas presents (instead of unwrapping them) — Benjamin, age 2
"Cooling" birthday candles (instead of blowing them out) — Benjamin, age 2 1/2
"My legs are tired. They can barely keep their eyes open." — Amanda, age 5 1/2
(After suddenly driving down a steep hill) "That scared my tummy." — Amanda, age 6
"Baby eggs" (because they would hatch baby spiders) — Paige, age 5
Both butter and peanut butter are "peanut butter" (later, both are "butter"); ice cream, even in a dish, is "ice cream cone" — Nichole, age 3
"A lot and a lot" (instead of "a whole lot") — Nichole, age 3
"Scraping" leaves (instead of raking them) — Nichole, age 5
Bees are called that "because they go beeeeeeee!" — Nichole, age 5
I should like Biting the Wax Tadpole by Elizabeth Little a lot more than I did. It’s a tour through linguistics, pointing out unusual (or at least different from English) features of languages. But I was turned off by her style of humor. Still, it was interesting and informative.
I once thought I’d get a PhD by designing a computer program to recognize puns. It would be the reverse of most artificial intelligence, which tries to resolve the ambiguity of natural language. My program would instead revel in it.
I never did get around to my PhD, but I’ll include good puns here if you send them to me.