Making order out of chaos

My principal has selected me to give the first presentation in a proposed series of talks to be delivered by faculty and staff; the audience will consist of colleagues, students, parents, and community members. I’ve written a very rough description of what I’m intending to talk about (quoted below), but at a minimum the description needs polishing, and it may need significant revisions. For instance, I already know that I need to include something more about universals of language, I have to show that the presentation will be interactive, I want the focus to be about 90% on linguistics and only 10% on math (which may or may not be evident from the draft), and I have to make it clear that the questions asked in this description are merely examples of the kinds of questions that will be addressed and answered during the talk. So…let me know what suggestions you have!

Here’s the draft description:

Making order out of chaos:
How a linguist ended up teaching math

Linguistics is the scientific study of languages. It involves seeing patterns, putting puzzles together, developing hypotheses. Here’s an example from Kurdish, a language you know nothing about. (Yes, you’ve heard of the Kurds in Iraq, but do you know anything about their language? No??? I thought not.)

Here are six sentences in Kurdish, matched with English translations in random order:

1. Ez h’irç’ê dibînim.

2. Tu dir’evî.

3. Tu min dibînî.

4. H’irç’ di’eve.

5. Ez dir’evim.

6. Tu h’ireç’ê dibînî.

A. You see the bear.

B. You see me.

C. The bear runs.

D. You run.

E. I see the bear.

F. I run.

Can you figure out this puzzle? If so, can you translate the sentence “H’irç’ mîn dibîne” into English? What did you learn from trying to solve this puzzle? Some of my students noticed that the word “tu” resembles a word in Spanish, French, and Latin. Is this just a coincidence? Why should Kurdish resemble these languages? Maybe there’s a reason…

At Weston High School we care about global connections. Linguistics reinforces those connections. How does it happen that the Irish and the Pakistanis speak related languages, even though their countries are so far apart? Why do the Austrians and the Hungarians speak unrelated languages, even though their countries are next to each other?

Of course English is a world language as well. Surprisingly, linguists will tell you that it isn’t true that the vowels of English are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. Why not? Do all language have the same vowels? Is there anything that all languages share?

Finally, does linguistics really have anything to do with math? Come to this talk, and you’ll learn a lot about linguistics, a little about math, and something about the strange connection between the two.

Categories: Linguistics, Math, Weston