I’ve always been struck by how odd language is — how meaningless combinations of speech sounds can be strung together in meaningful ways to somehow create an infinite possibility of phrases. How even with the billions of people who have ever lived, most of the sentences we say have not ever been uttered by another person before. Throughout my college career, I’ve dabbled in language in many forms — taking literature classes, tutoring in reading and writing, majoring in linguistics and eventually copy editing for The Daily Californian.
These are some of the lesser-known facts about language that have won me over:
Phonesthemes: Although the sounds of words typically have nothing to do with word meanings, there are some interesting exceptions. My personal favorite is phonesthemes, small consonant clusters that contain meaning. For example, have you ever noticed that words beginning with “sn” frequently have to do with noses? Snore, snorkel, sniffle, snot, sneeze, snobby, etc.
The strangeness of babies learning language: As a child, I assumed that when I became a parent, I would have to undergo the painstaking process of teaching my child every single word that exists. Which word do I start with? How would I explain a word like “the?” I believed that without rigorous instruction, my child would be doomed to speechlessness. The even freakier reality is that babies figure out language entirely on their own, without formal instruction. They have to piece together advanced syntactic concepts that we aren’t even consciously aware of, and without any fully formed language to think with.
The things we think we understand about our own language but actually don’t: For example, the “t” sound in the word “Batman” sounds nothing like a true “t” sound as in task, tiger or toddler. It’s a sound called a glottal stop, which you make with the back of your throat— the same consonant sound in the middle of “uh-oh.”
The wide variety of words people speaking different dialects use to describe the same thing: My favorite is the many American English varieties for the word dragonfly. Some snazzier terms people use include darning needles, mosquito hawks, spindles and snake doctors.
These facts convinced me that linguistics was too exciting to not continue pursuing in as many ways as possible. Copy editing as a linguist is fun because it gives me a chance to work hands-on with grammar, looking for patterns in the errors different writers make. We normally don’t think too deeply about the way that we use language while we’re using it. Editing another person’s work gives me a chance to witness the strangeness, beauty and trippiness of language in action.