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Unformatted text preview: 5 Words, Words, Words The word glamour comes from the word grammar, and since the Chomskyan revolution the etymology has been fitting. Who could not be dazzled by the creative power of the mental grammar, by its ability to convey an infinite number of thoughts with a finite set of rules? There has been a book on mind and matter called Grammatical Man, and a Nobel Prize lecture comparing the machinery of life to a generative grammar. Chomsky has been interviewed in Rolling Stone and alluded to on Saturday Night Live. In Woody Allen's story "The Whore of Mensa," the patron asks, "Suppose I wanted Noam Chom- sky explained to me by two girls?" "It'd cost you," she replies. Unlike the mental grammar, the mental dictionary has had no cachet. It seems like nothing more than a humdrum list of words, each transcribed into the head by dull-witted rote memorization. In the preface to his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote: It is the fate of those who dwell at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries. Johnson's own dictionary defines lexicographer as "a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the significa- tion of words." 126 Words, Words, Words 127 In this chapter we will see that the stereotype is unfair. The world of words is just as wondrous as the world of syntax, or even more so. For not only are people as infinitely creative with words as they are with phrases and sentences, but memorizing individual words demands its own special virtuosity. Recall the wug-test, passed by any preschooler: "Here is a wug. Now there are two of them. There are two ." Before being so challenged, the child has neither heard anyone say, nor been rewarded for saying, the word wugs. Therefore words are not simply retrieved from a mental archive. People must have a mental rule for generating new words from old ones, something like "To form the plural of a noun, add the suffix-s." The engineering trick behind human lan- guage—its being a discrete combinatorial system—is used in at least two different places: sentences and phrases are built out of words by the rules of syntax, and the words themselves are built out of smaller bits by another set of rules, the rules of "morphology." The creative powers of English morphology are pathetic compared to what we find in other languages. The English noun comes in exactly two forms (duck and ducks), the verb in four (quack, quacks, quacked, quacking). In modern Italian and Spanish every verb has about fifty forms; in classical Greek, three hundred and fifty; in Turkish, two million! Many of the languages I have brought up, such as Eskimo, Apache, Hopi, Kivunjo, and American Sign Language, are known for...
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- Spring '12
- Grammatical number, Longest word in English