A high-school student from Lincoln creates a significant linguistic theory.

Once upon a time you were probably learning Spanish, French, Italian, or Latin. (If you weren’t, keep reading anyway.)

You probably had to learn hundreds of verb forms in your chosen language, if it was one of those. Not so if your chosen language was German: if you learned German instead of a Romance language, you had an easy time with verbs, even if not much else. But not very many Americans take German.

And if you were learning Russian or another language — well, we won’t get into that.

So, back to Romance languages… we linguists look for patterns. If we can find more general patterns, so much the better. Back in 1974, when I was teaching linguistics at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School (as well as math and Latin, but that’s a story for another day), I was trying to devise a problem set about Latin verbs, which show a lot of partial regularities but also too many slight inconsistencies from one conjugation to the next. I devised a challenge problem for my top linguistics student — Steve Lang, from Lincoln — to discover some lurking patterns that I couldn’t quite suss out, and thus I couldn’t eliminate those slight inconsistencies.

Lang did so, and thereby set the stage for me and a colleague to expand his discovery into a unified theory of all Latin verbs. We literally couldn’t have done it without his discovery.

Examine the chart in the figure: officially there are four different conjugations (but really five), with lots of subtle variation, primarily in vowel choice and vowel length. How do we make sense of all this? What’s the Big Idea here?

The astonishing conclusion, to quote ourselves in the paper we subsequently wrote, was this:

It turns out that it is possible to dispense with the entire notion of assigning a Latin verb to a particular conjugation. By understanding a few easily learned and nearly exceptionless rules, one can see that all four conjugations share precisely the same set of endings. All the apparently unpatterned differences among the conjugations are accounted for by these rules and a set of suffixes, not one of which makes any reference to conjugation!

To get a sense of the scope of what I’m talking about, let’s consider the appendix to Charles Jenney’s First Year Latin, an oh-so-traditional Latin textbook. This appendix formed the data that Lang worked with (he knew no Latin prior to this challenge): it contained 381 verb forms! Ouch, that’s more than twice as much as the chart has in the figure I’ve pasted above, which already looks intimidating enough. Our Unified Verb Theory correctly predicts all but eight of these 381 forms. And of those eight anomalies six are describable by a single statement; there are thus only three exceptions to the Unified Verb Theory, as we called our approach.

Unless you’re a Latin scholar, this isn’t the place for all the gory details. (If you are a Latin scholar, let me know and I’ll send you some details.) The real question is why teachers apparently don’t want to use something like the Unified Verb Theory, even when they find out about it. They would rather have students memorize hundred of tiny details, with dozens of exceptions, including such finicky points as when vowels are long and when they’re short. Builds character, I suppose. But I think the difficulty is a matter of abstraction. Jenney’s approach is very concrete; the Unified Verb Theory is highly abstract, in that it posits entities that you can’t see on the page. That’s normal in linguistics — and in math, which is perhaps the primary reason that so many concrete thinkers have trouble with math, but that’s a topic for another day. But abstraction doesn’t fit the way most people like to learn languages.

That’s my thinking, anyway.


Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning