Category Archives: mumbo-jumbo

Mumbo-Jumbo Monday: Grammar Shapes Perception

There was a fascinating story on NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday, and I’d love it if you would check it out. Both the audio recording and a written article are available; if you have to choose one, may I suggest the audio version? It will give you a better sense of the languages the article mentions. If you have a moment, though, do check them both out.

The researcher mentioned in the article claims there is a connection between the grammar of a language and the way its speakers perceive certain objects.

We cannot help some of the cultural biases we grow up with; if you grow up in place where Jesus Christ is a profanity, it can be difficult for you also to see it as the name of a benevolent, loving teacher, and perhaps impossible to understand it as the name of a savior. However, what the Morning Edition article suggests is completely different.

In some languages, nouns are given masculine or feminine designations, and the designations (if I understand correctly) have nothing to do with gender or sex and everything to do with linguistics. Feminine nouns take feminine articles, for example, ‘though there may be nothing feminine about the object itself. What we are seeing here, if the research is valid, is the suggestion that there doesn’t have to be any connection at all between an object and its grammatical gender. It is the linguistic connection itself that seems to make the difference, and this connection all by itself shapes the speaker’s perception of the object.

The implications for this are huge. Let us remove ourselves from the bridges and keys mentioned in the article and consider that language and cognition (that is, thinking) are inseparable. Thinking about stuff does not have to be limited by language; many of our best thoughts are made up only of images or senses. However, when we think through something, as when we solve problems or when we try to remember something important, we use words whether we ever utter them or not.

Watch a young child tie her shoelaces when she is still learning to do so, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Shoelace-tying is a complicated procedure, and the youngster still trying to grasp it will very often talk herself through the steps. You did the same thing yourself, probably very recently, when you couldn’t find your keys and you verbally replayed your trip from the car to your living room. This is not just noise-making here: you are witnessing a very important concept at work. There is a link between the way we think and learn and the way we use language.

This is why I so vigilantly guard against the degradation of the English language, ‘though I am sure I hypocritically contribute to that very degradation. If our language becomes less and less specific, we lose degrees of meaning in our ability to communicate, and then we lose them in our ability to think and learn. Taken to an extreme, if we only have one word to describe the color blue, not only does communicating about colors become more difficult, but THINKING about colors and LEARNING about colors becomes more difficult. It’s the old example about the Eskimos and all their names for snow.

The more diverse and robust your language is, the more diverse and robust your thinking and learning can be. This is why it matters. I poke all sorts of fun at people’s erroneous use of the language, but this is serious business here, and it’s why I keep doing this.

Mumbo-Jumbo Monday: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

A verb, as you know, is a word that provides the action (or state of being) in a sentence. In a sentence like I named my new cat, the action word is named. In this sentence, my new cat is the thing receiving the action. This is called an object.

Does the example sentence make sense without the object?

I named.

No. This is a verb that requires an object if the sentence is going to make sense. We call this verb a transitive verb. Some verbs only make sense with no object, as in I slept. You can name something, but you can’t sleep something, as in I slept the cat. Because it requires no object, sleep is called an intransitive verb.

Some verbs work transitively OR intransitively, based upon their meaning.

I smell.
I smell the coffee.

In this first sentence, smell means to have a bad odor, which requires no object. In the second sentence, smell means to sense, through the nose, certain characteristics of something, so an object is necessary. In the first case, smell is intransitive. In the second, smell is transitive.

When we looked at lay vs. lie last week, I didn’t say it this way because I’m trying to avoid grammatical mumbo-jumbo as much as possible, but take a look at those examples again. Can you tell which verb is transitive and which is intransitive?

Here are the examples again:

I will lay this mint upon your pillow.
Please lay the newspaper at my feet.
If you lay one finger on her, she will scream.

My Bonnie lies over the ocean.
Please lie down on the examining table.
All I want to do is lie upon the beach.

As you can see, none of them makes a LOT of sense when you remove the second halves of the sentences, but the first three REALLY don’t make sense. You must lay something, but you don’t lie anything. You do lie on something, over something, or beneath something, but you don’t actually lie something, so lay is the transitive verb and lie is the intransitive verb. Perhaps this will help us come up with a workable mnemonic!

Mumbo-Jumbo Monday: Mumbo Jumbo Without Compare

It’s time for Mumbo-Jumbo Monday, when I take a moment to explain some of the grammatical mumbo-jumbo that I try very hard to avoid in most of my writing on Let’s take a look at something that’s already very familiar to everyone with even the most basic grasp of the English language.

cool cooler coolest
old older oldest
good better best

This table shows three different forms of three common adjectives. The positive form of the adjectives is in the first column (cool, old, and good). The comparative form is shown in the second column. The superlative form is shown in the third column. Adverbs also come in comparative and superlative forms, as shown in this table.

quickly more quickly most quickly
reluctantly more reluctantly most reluctantly
happily more happily most happily

Obviously, it’s much more important to know how to use these forms (some words are tricky, especially for those learning English as a second language) than to know what to call the forms. However, knowing their names can make discussing them much easier. In the Friday Quiz on April 25, for example, I addressed the “different than” construction and said that different is not a comparative, and therefore doesn’t go with than. Also, if you need to ask someone for the superlative form of bad, at least now you know how to ask!