Sheldon is one lab accident away from being a Super Villian
I don’t know if we can credit the rise of The Big Bang Theory for it, or maybe even Ben Wyatt in some small way, but it seems to me that words like “nerd” and “geek” are actually cool these days.
That’s a good thing seeing as how it celebrates intelligence instead of disparaging it. Since sports and Seinfeld fandoms do not really qualify as geeks or nerds, I have been wondering if I am a nerd of any stripe. If I’m not there with Harry Potter, I’m on a Usain Bolt pace to getting there.
I do know this: I am not a grammar nerd. Just writing for REO these last 19 months has reminded me how much I don’t know about the English language. Nathan had to point out to me that “resign” and “re-sign” are two different words once when I wrote about the Chicago Cubs. I don’t think you can fail to know that and be a nerd.
But I respect those that are. I celebrate them. While the grammar nazi crowd–those that insist on correcting and complaining about all English errors constantly–is a tad over the top to me (we get it, people should use there, their and they’re correctly), part of me still admires people who are dedicated to education. And no doubt my own insecurities contribute to the annoyance.
So to celebrate those people I want to write about a few things in the same family of nerd-dom where I perhaps do qualify: the area of linguistics. Between teaching English to adults and learning Spanish and Polish, I have found myself mesmerized by language: syntax, semantics, translation, pronunciation rules, idioms, and a million other aspects.
Other than Harry Potter, this is one thing that earns the nerd label that I could talk about for hours. Yet I’ll limit myself to less than 1300 words.
I’m not Samming you
Pretend the names “Sam,” Rick” and “Ned” are verbs. Pretend they are regular in past tense, with “ed” endings. This would mean these fake verbs would be “Sammed,” “Ricked” and “Nedded” in past tense, following English spelling rules.
Now, pronounce them. Say “Sammed”. Then say “Ricked”. Then say, “Nedded”.
Let me ask you: When you said, “Sammed” how did you pronounce it? Was it like “Samd?” I’m going to guess you did. Now, how did you say “Ricked”? Was it like “Rikt,” with a ‘t’ sound at the end? Again, I’ll guess so. And finally, how did you say “Nedded”? Did you say it as two syllables, as in “Ned-ed”? Yet again, that is my guess.
Why? Because your English speaking brain knows the rules for “ed” pronunciation even if you are not aware of it. There’s a reason you probably didn’t say “Ricked” as “Rick-ed” but instead as “Rikt”. Your brain knows that when a regular verb ends in the sounds of k, p, s, x, ch or sh, then the ‘-ed’ will sound like ‘t’. Every time. If the sound before ‘-ed’ is d or t then the ‘-ed’ will sound like ‘ed’ like normal1. And all other sounds give the ‘d’ sound for ‘-ed’. To see this in real verbs, say fixed, needed and cleaned. Three distinct ‘-ed’ sounds. Three different rules, depending on the sound before ‘-ed’. And your brain is so used to them that fake verbs can’t throw it off.
I didn’t know any of this until I had to teach it to adults.
If Only You Wish
Spanish and Greek both frequently use what is called the subjunctive mood. We have it in English yet I had never heard of it until I started learning Spanish. There are two ways that we use it in English in common speech that I want to mention. First, when we say “if” with a circumstance that is impossible or a fantasy, as in: “If I were you, I would be quiet.” Note that we don’t say “If I am you” and we are not talking in the past tense. No, we say were because it is subjunctive and English in one of the simplest languages in the world when it comes to verb forms. Similarly when we say “I wish”: “I wish I had $1 billion.” We don’t say, “I wish I have“.
It’s a quirky grammatical construction that we do not use as often as other languages so we are not as aware that it exists. Spanish uses it a lot and I confess I still do not know the rules of its usage and often just go on key words to know when to use it. For example, whereas English says, “I want you to come,” Spanish says, “I want that you come” (Quiero que vengas) and “come” will be subjunctive (vengas instead of vienes). Believe me, they corrected me on this the month I spent in Peru in 2007 literally every day. I was ready to be put in a padded room by the end.
It is the same suitcase, right?
Speaking of other languages, I posted something similar on Facebook a while back, but I repeat it here just for the sheer linguistic entertainment value. Look at these translations, English on the left, Polish on the right:
Suitcase = Walizka
In the suitcase = W walizce
Beside the suitcase = Obok walizki
Under the suitcase = Pod walizką
I have a suitcase = Ja mam walizkę
Five phrases, five different words for “suitcase”! If English is your first language, that is insane. Granted, they all begin the same and it is just the endings that change but that is a lot to remember. EVERY noun is like this in Polish. There are patterns but there are several. And I force it into my English brain like a square peg in a round hole.
Just don’t talk like Jar-Jar
But I confess nothing is more fun to me than just messing around with English. I’ve written before that part of what I love about the house elves in Harry Potter and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is how they mess with typical English syntax in humorous ways. Yoda is also famous for this, but seeing as how he didn’t always speak oddly and when he did it sounded more intelligent instead of less, it wasn’t quite as endearing to me.
I’ll also add that the use of vocabulary out of the common vernacular scratches me where I itch. In a Season 1 episode of Lost, John Locke tells Jack that Ethan “bested” him, instead of “defeated”. I loved that so much that when I was in South Carolina for Christmas one year I let my 4-year-old nephew beat me in a race and strongly influenced him to say, “I bested Uncle Gowdy” the rest of the day.
This is surely a small part of the appeal of British entertainment like Sherlock and Doctor Who in addition to Harry Potter. Every time I read or hear someone say “nicked” instead of “stole” or “he got the sack” instead of “he got fired,” there is a party in my brain in celebration. One time I had to call London for business and I kept the woman on the line for several needless questions just to keep hearing her talk. I may be messed up.
This hasn’t been exclusively about grammar but I thought “Ode to the Language Nerd” didn’t have the same ring to it. Nevertheless, I hope it has been entertaining and preferable to charts and lists and posts complaining about English speakers confusing homophones and saying “could of”. I would love to hear your favorite aspects of grammar or language or language learning below.
- What kind of language makes ‘ed’ sound like ‘t’ anyway? ↩