Wednesday, August 15, 2012

concise handbook of linguistics

A daughter browsing a garage sale found a book entitled Concise Handbook of Linguistics.  She couldn't think of a better person to own the book than me so now it's mine.  Probably says something about the kind of people she doesn't pal around with.

The book was published in 1967 and doesn't look as if it's had a lot of use - understandably.  But it brought back some memories of the semester I was taking a class in linguistics at State College of Iowa, particularly when I flipped open the book to the page describing "morpheme."

I never really knew what that meant but it got kicked around a lot by the instructor in that course.  He was a different type of fellow but LOVED the English language, morphemes, and the schwa.  More on the schwa later.

He was all about teaching us how we make different sounds in different parts of our mouths, and how we've learned the sounds based on our home geography - where we grew up.  Like Worth County, as an example.  We all have this symbiotic relationship where language is concerned.

The book accommodates the learning process with diagrams of the "physical organs of speech" (tongue, nasal cavity, etc.) and a "front view of the oral cavity."  Your mouth.

Further, it has a tic-tac-toe matrix to show which sounds are made at the front, middle, or rear of the mouth, in a grid showing the high, mid, and low portion of the mouth where specific vowels are formed.  Yep.

If you have never labored in the love of your language you now have an idea what this course was all about.  The weirdest days were the ones where he was trying to "map" language sounds directly to the speaker's hometown/section of the state.  (This was far more technical than knowing that the Iowans who came from south of Highway 30 would pick up an arn bar, or poosh a wheelbarrow, an observation frequently made by a friend from Oskaloosa.)

After explaining, among other things, where exactly a sound was made in the mouth, we would practice.  Out loud.  With the room door open.  Thirty classmates saying "eeeeeee" or "oooooooohh" in unison.  Repeatedly.  Then he would hear someone saying it a little bit differently, ask where they came from, mark it in his little diary, and move on to the next sound.

The schwa, mentioned above, was the tricky one.  Schwa is the name of the sound represented in phonetic writing as an upside-down "e."  According to my new book, it is the unstressed central vowel in English, often heard in the first syllable of words such as await, agog, arrive, in the medial position, as in enemy, or in the final syllable, as in sofa.

Having fun now, aren't we?  When we tied into schwa we tied into a horrible aural presentation.  Thirty people filling the air with a moan that just must have been amazing for anyone walking by.  Kind of like goats bleating softly.  The reason that, whenever we put on these displays, I always turned away from the door, just in case somebody who knew me might walk by.  God forbid they would see me twisting my mouth to make sounds, and twist we did.

We never got so far as to addressing accents (southern, nasal midwest) but I suppose the application would be practical.  For a couple years after we moved here to the Twin Cities area I would occasionally have people stop in conversation, tilt their heads, and ask, "You're from down south, aren't you?"

Well, for me, "down south" was the Quad Cities area, and apparently I had picked up the habit of talking about arn bars and pooshing wheelbarrows.  I was probably in denial, because there is clearly an accent in the language of my friends from that area.  Having a "musical" ear I am inclined to hear and replicate that accent, and being the faithful linguist that I am, I can understand the confusion on the part of those who inquired.

They probably didn't know about morphemes.  But that's OK, since according to my new old book, a definition of this term (morpheme) has been the subject of debate by linguists for more than twenty-five years.  Now plus fifty.  Can you imagine?  My old college prof would have been right in the middle of that debate.

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