Making order out of chaos

BSP*: Come hear my talk on linguistics at 7:00 PM on Tuesday, February 1, at the Weston Public Library! Here’s a description:

Making order out of chaos:
A conversation about linguistics

“Linguistics? What’s that?” This is the usual response I get from students when they hear that I majored in linguistics.

“It’s the scientific study of language,” I reply. “Linguists look for patterns, solve puzzles, develop hypotheses, and test those hypotheses.”

As an example, let’s examine some data from Kurdish, a language you probably know nothing about, even though it’s spoken by over 16 million people. (Yes, you’ve heard of the Kurds in Iraq, but do you know anything at all about their language? No? I thought not. I don’t either — but I know what to look for.)


Here are six sentences in Kurdish, along with their English translations in the wrong order. Try to match them correctly.

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.

Could you figure out the puzzle? If so, 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” closely resembles a word in Spanish, French, and Latin. Is this just a coincidence? Why on earth should Kurdish resemble these far-away languages?

Maybe there’s a reason…

At Weston High School we care about global awareness. Linguistics reinforces that awareness. 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? How do linguistic connections relate to other sorts of connections?

We can also learn a lot right at home. English too is a world language. You’re probably fluent in English, but you may be surprised to hear that it isn’t true that the vowels of English are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. Why not? Doesn’t every language have the same vowels? The answer is “no.” We’ll talk about why the question itself is misleading.

Is there anything that all languages share? This time the answer is “yes.” We’ll look at some examples and their significance.

Finally, you may be wondering how and why a linguist became a math teacher. 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 at least one Big Idea about the strange connection between the two.



*Blatant self-promotion




Categories: Linguistics, Math, Weston