Making order out of chaos

Yesterday evening I delivered the first lecture in our new Beyond the Classroom series, described as follows:

Weston High School is pleased to announce a new series of talks for the whole community led by our esteemed faculty members on a broad array of topics and expertise that extend outside the classroom!

My talk was called “Making Order Out of Chaos: A Conversation about Linguistics.” We had 53 attendees, an excellent turnout for a fairly technical presentation, and I was delighted by the audience’s enthusiastic response. Everything went very well, though we ran out of time near the end and I had to skip a detailed slide that would have added ten more minutes. I also promised the audience that I would post my list of recommended resources right here. The missing slide needs some considerable commentary — it’s definitely not a standalone piece — so let’s start with the recommended resources (four books, three websites):

  • Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid (Basic Books, 1999)
  • Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the mind: Language and human nature (Basic Books, 1995)
  • Pinker, Steven. The language instinct: How the mind creates language (Harper, 2007)
  • Yang, Charles. The infinite gift: How children learn and unlearn the languages of the world (Scribner, 2006)
  • Ethnologue (
  • Language Log (
  • Popular Linguistics (

I also recommended Wikipedia as a rich source of surprisingly reliable information about linguistics (and math), even though one wouldn’t want to trust it for areas like history, politics, and biography.

The slide I had to skip was a summative list of some of the various branches of linguistics. My plan was to build it up line by line. Here is the finished result, where the black type represents notes on my intended commentary:

Here is that intended commentary:

The list goes from the smallest level of detail to the largest level to the biggest picture. For example:

  • Phonetics is the study of individual speech sounds. I already talked about Turkish vowels, where we had descriptions like “high back rounded vowel.” Through phonetics you can learn about how a French accent differs from an Italian one, or how automated speech recognition is possible.
  • Phonology is the study of speech sounds in context, such as which pairs of sounds can distinguish words in a particular language (or dialect). For example, the words merry, marry, and Mary are all clearly distinct to my New Jersey ears, but my wife hears them as identical. (She comes from far western New York state.)
  • Morphology (yes, I know, I’ve skipped one) is the study of how the components of words are put together. Examples include things like plural suffixes, tense markers, etc.
  • Morphophonology (now we can back up) is the bridge between phonology and morphology, as you might expect. For instance, although the plural in English is usually spelled with an “s,” it is sometimes pronounced like a “z.” Why? And when? Similarly, Turkish /ler/ vs. /lar/ or English past tenses in /d/ vs. /t/.
  • Syntax is the study of how words are built up into phrases and phrases are built up into words. (Gee, just like math, isn’t it? Terms are built up into expressions and expressions into equations…) Examples include my discussions of basic sentence order, such as SVO, transformations of basic order, and the ways tenses are formed in languages like Chinese that don’t use morphology (suffixes, etc.).
  • Semantics is the study of meaning. For example, Chomsky’s famous sentences, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” is syntactically impeccable but semantically anomalous.
  • Pragmatics is the study of how language is actually used in practice. For instance, when a student comes into the Math Office and asks, “Do you know where Mr. McLaughlin is?” I may decide to be an obnoxious mathematician and say “Yes.” Of course that is not truly responsive to the intended meaning, even though it is literally correct.
  • Finally, there are many subfields such as historical linguistics, comparative linguistics, etc. And there are interdisciplinary fields in which linguistics is combined with other disciplines, such as psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics, etc.

Categories: Linguistics, Weston