5 Oddities Of Everyday Language That Leave Experts Baffled
Say the word "butter" out loud. You can whisper it if you're in public, but I don't know if whispering "butter" is really that much better than just saying it loud and proud. If you're an American, there is an extremely high chance that you didn't say the hard "t" sound in the middle, but something like a quick tap, making it sound more like "budder." OK, so tell me why you did that.
You might say something like "It feels weird to do it the other way," but the point is that it's hard to explain the rules of your own language ... unless you've studied linguistics, in which case you know that this is because of a rule called intervocalic alveolar flapping. Yes, experts explain language using mainly a series of nonsense words. But even among linguists, it's not totally clear ...
Why Clocks Go "Tick-Tock" And Not "Tock-Tick"
To quote 2009-era poet Ke$ha, "Tick-tock on the clock but the party don't stop." Now what happens if we remix that a bit and say "Tock-tick on the clock but the party don't stop?" It just sounds stupid.
It's the same if someone insists that horses go clop-clip, doorbells go dong-ding, Parrotheads wear flop-flips, '90s-era child rappers called themselves Kross Kriss, or that the hirsute beast felled by beauty (or Jack Black) went by Kong King. To make those sound singularly unpleasant, all we had to do was switch the normal order of high vowel / low vowel so that the low vowel came first (named because of where you put your tongue in your mouth to make those sounds -- try it). That switch drives most English speakers up the wall, but here's the thing: No one knows why.
There is no rule for why high vowels generally sound better coming first in the case of ablaut reduplication, which is the official name for things like hip-hop and flip-flop. Sure, you can say it simply sounds weird the other way, but why? It's a bad linguist who's satisfied with "Well, that's just how it do."
A popular explanation is the Optimality Theory, which is sort of a catchall for inexplicable linguistic phenomena. To paraphrase, it says that speakers do the shit they do because it's the laziest ("most optimal" means "least amount of effort") way to do it. You have to work fractionally less to say tick-tock or clip-clop than you do to say tock-tick or clop-clip. So we just evolved an affinity for the sound of the laziest way to do things.
But then there's another theory which says that words that represent things that are spatially nearer to the speaker usually have higher vowels (me versus you, here versus there, this versus that). This sounds pretty dumb until you learn that it actually holds water across different languages. For example, in French, "me" is je, "you" is tu, "this" is ce, and "that" is ca. In German ich/du, hier/da, dies/das. You get the idea, which is good, because we've exhausted my remedial knowledge of non-English languages. Now if you combine that fun party trick with the fact that English is read left to right, it sort of tracks that we would prefer to read a "near-sounding" word before a "far-sounding" word.
If that sounds like an extremely slipshod attempt at an explanation, welcome to the wacky world of social sciences, baby.
Why Some People Say "Expresso"
People going apeshit when other people mispronounce a word has been a part of the human condition since time immemorial. There is a large subsection of the American population that will go absolutely fucking BANANAS if they hear someone mispronounce the word espresso as expresso. But what if I told you there is (kind of) a reason for that? Or why some people say drawring instead of drawing? And what if I told you it isn't because they're uneducated morons, no matter how much you want to have the high ground?
When people add extra letters into words seemingly at random, it's not (generally) because they're idiots. Instead it's due to something that linguists refer to as epenthesis. This is when someone's internal language radar for what sounds right -- known as phonotactics -- decides a word feels a little off, so it adds something to make the offending word fit the their schema better.
"Expresso" is a great example of this. "Espresso" feels weird in English because there's no hard consonant sound in there, and the rules of English generally dictate that words have at least one of those. So some people throw in that hard X because it fits their own internal rules for what they think English should sound like (as in "express"). Same reason some people say "somepthing" instead of "something," or why a native English speaker might pronounce the city of Hamtramck, Michigan as "Hamtramick." But this is where things get weird.
There's no regional variation to explain why expresso sounds right to some people and not to others. At least with something like drawring, we know that's indicative of a British accent, as those Brits love to add and remove r's more or less arbitrarily. (R-bitrarily, if you will.) People of similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, who were raised in the exact same city, may differ in when and where they decide to insert vowels or consonants.
This is what stumps scientists about certain elements of epenthesis. While we understand the situations in which they occur (take Hamtramck up there; English isn't keen on three-consonant clusters, so throwing a vowel in there feels more normal), there's no rhyme or reason as to who will decide to do it. So the next time you want to throw things at someone for ordering a latte with three shots of SOMETHING THAT DOESN'T EVEN EXIST GODDAMMIT LITERALLY HOW HARD IS IT TO ORDER COFFEE I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL END YOU, maybe give them a break.
Why We Say "Keep In Touch" Versus "Maintain Touch"
Pop quiz, which of these sounds right:
A) Strong drink
B) Powerful drink
A) Strong computer
B) Powerful computer
Provided you have a decent grasp of English, you're going to say that the first and last options are right, even though you couldn't begin to explain why. Saying "This computer isn't even powerful enough for Fortnite" sounds fine, but if the NSA boasted that they had built "the strongest supercomputer in the world" you'd immediately start worrying about what would happen if it escapes.
The phenomenon by which certain words just sound better together is called collocation, and boy is it tricky to pin down. It sounds normal to native English speakers to say they're going to "do their hair" but not "make their hair." (Make your hair do what, exactly?) There's nothing technically wrong with saying that you're going to make your hair, or do a difference, or that you gave someone CPR and retained their life. If someone said those things to you, you would understand what they were saying, but you'd be in the language version of the uncanny valley. It's so close to right, but some integral part is off enough to be jarring.
The theories behind why some words just sound better than others are about as vague as you'd expect them to be, considering the science of "sometimes shit just sounds good" is extremely subjective. The prevailing theory boils down to the fact that there are no true synonyms in any language, and that two words which may seem identical will have such small, subtle differences that even native speakers can't describe them explicitly. So English speakers innately get that "keep in touch" and "maintain contact" mean two different things, but they may not be able to explain exactly why. Or why everyone gets upset when you treat "holy trinity" and "divine threesome" as interchangeable.
Related: No, We Didn't Just Find Dino DNA
Why We Use Pronouns That Don't To Refer To Anything
If you say "I made a sandwich and ate it," the "it" refers to the sandwich. That's how it works -- pronouns refer back to a noun. That's it. They literally have one job. Except for when they don't even do that.
Consider the phrase, "It's been one week since you looked at me." Now, before you cock your head to the side and say you're angry, I want you to tell me what "it's" referring to in that sentence. The time? Technically yeah, but saying "the time has been one week since you looked at me" isn't really accurate. Another example: "There were a lot of people outside the cafe." In that sentence, "there" is what's known as a dummy pronoun.
English is one of a handful of languages that require dummy pronouns, which means it sometimes needs pronouns that fill a role as per the grammar, but don't actually refer back to anything. A dummy pronoun is the verbal equivalent of the son of the boss who gets employee of the week but hasn't sent an email in two years. It's there, it's showing up, and people who are paid more than you are telling you it's necessary, but you know it's not.
And here's the thing: Just like the boss's son, if dummy pronouns went away tomorrow, it wouldn't affect productivity at all. That's what makes dummy pronouns so, well, dumb. They're completely unnecessary. Plenty of other language have figured this out and dropped them entirely. Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Turkish speakers all learned eons ago that saying "raining" is just as effective as saying "it's raining," or that you can just say "lot of people outside the cafe" without anything being lost. In fact, if you verbally say "lot of people outside the cafe" in English, it also sounds fine.
There's no reason English has arbitrarily decided to keep hanging on to dummy pronouns. They serve absolutely no purpose, we'd get by equally fine without them, and they keep spending company funds on cocaine.
How We Even Learn Language At All
This sounds nuts, but one of the least-understood elements of any language is how we acquire it. The human faculty for language is untouched by any other species, yet, as in the case of the intervocalic alveolar flapping in the introduction up there, humans are absolute dogshit at explicitly knowing the rules of their own language. So how do we teach our kids how to speak? Do we even teach kids to speak, or is this a Maybelline situation, where they're just born with it? Short answer: We don't know. Long answer: We have some theories.
Noam Chomsky argues that language is innate and comes pre-loaded into the brain, so when your kid arrives, you can just switch 'em on and they'll have the framework to learn whatever it is you're speaking. On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that we are born blank slates, and that every single thing we know about language is imparted to us by our parents and teachers -- otherwise known as linguistic empiricism. But there are some major flaws with both of those.
If humans were born with absolutely no preexisting framework for language, there's no way we would learn language as quickly as we do. The going rate for human fluency is that by three years, all healthy children are saying sentences that are grammatically correct 90 percent of time. There's no way we get these just by what our parents have taught us. Have you met most parents? Absolute shitshows. On the other hand, the idea that babies are born pre-loaded with software like an iPhone seems equally weird, although there are more supporting arguments to that than you'd think.
For example, all children, regardless of the language they're speaking, learn it in similar stages. Meaning that at one year, a child has a vocabulary of about 50 words, regardless of whether those words are Chinese, Greek, Tagalog, or English. At a year and a half, those same kids can differentiate between nouns and verbs. A rate of acquisition that quick can't simply be explained by good parenting, and this universal process is even more granular than that.
When it comes to pairs of opposites (long versus short, deep versus shallow, big versus little), studies show that children universally learn what's called the "positive member" before they learn the "negative member." Therefore, children know the concept of "long" before "short," "deep" before "shallow," and "big" before "little." For something that specific to be applicable in all languages across the globe, you know there has to be some degree of underlying framework at play. But obviously, that framework isn't complete, because if taken to the extreme, that would mean a Chinese baby adopted by Spanish-speaking parents would end up speaking Mandarin, since it's what they gestated with.
So yeah, if you want a new subject to bitterly argue with strangers about, study languages.
English too hard? Want to learn a new language? Try picking up one with Rosetta Stone.
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For more, check out 6 Language Tricks Your Brain Falls For Every Time and 6 Insane Prejudices People Have Based On How You Talk.
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