Science Cafe will talk about linguistics - we’ll be sure to boldly split infinitives

Granite Geek
Published: 10/21/2019 4:26:21 PM

For those of us who have worked as copy editors – a profession where grammatical absolutism is the norm – Rachel Burdin has some bad news.

“There isn’t a quote-unquote right way or a wrong way to speak,” said Burdin, a professor of linguistics at UNH. She will be one of three pan elists at tomorrow’s Science Cafe in Concord, where we will answer everybody’s questions about how and why language develops and is changing, including what the Internet is doing to it.

“One of the first things we learn in Linguistics 101 is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar,” Burdin said. “Prescriptive is ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition,’ also called academic style. Descriptive is describing how people are actually talking. What counts as right or wrong is what speakers say.”

Speaking as somebody who has spent more than a few hours in his lifetime trying to decide whether to put “that” or “which” into a sentence, this is pretty liberating. But also scary: If there aren’t any rules, won’t we descend into linguistic chaos?

Wrong, said Burdin. It’s not that we don’t have rules, it’s that the rules are internal.

The field, she said, “is used to figuring out those unconscious rules that you don’t learn in a classroom but you learn growing up,” Burdin said. “If you say, ‘That’s the store I went to’ and ask a speaker of English, they’ll understand it. It’s understandable in a way that ‘store went to I there’ isn’t.”

Why is the first example understandable even if grammar police frown while the second example, composed of the exact same words, is gibberish? And how is it that we know which is which? Come to Science Cafe and ask!

Your questions don’t have to be limited to words and sentences, either. Burdin said she is “particularly interested in the sounds of language” and has done “a lot of work on intonation, which is the melody of speech.”

Her research projects including Jewish English (“Mel Brooks is mentioned in my dissertation, from ‘Spaceballs’ ” she noted proudly) as well as “general work on the New England accent and how that varies from place to place.” That last item should give us plenty to talk about.

Burdin will be joined by two linguistics professors from Dartmouth – Laura McPherson and Timothy Pulji. I hope at least one can answer my question: Why the heck is “enough” spelled like that?

As regular readers know, I’ve been moderating Science Cafes for nine years, first here and then in Nashua and then here again. (Science Cafe NH in Nashua is in other hands and still going strong.) We’ve held close to 100 Science Cafe New Hampshire events over the years, yet this is the first time we’ve tackled the topic of human language.

Our timing is good, I think. Linguistics is having a moment via outlets like the podcast Lexicon Valley, or the new book (which is great, by the way) called “Because Internet” that looks at how the online world is changing language.

As always, the event is free but priority for seating goes to folks who buy the buffet dinner, for $18. Reservations are required; call Makris Restaurant at 225-7665. And don’t worry if you split an infinitive or two.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


If you go:

Science Cafe NH in Concord, a monthly get-together where we’ll be discussing The Science of Linguistics. Ask all your questions about how language works and why it’s changing.

Where: Makris Steak and Lobster House, 354 Sheep Davis Rd. (Rt. 106)

When: Wednesday, Oct. 23, 6 to 8 p.m. Reservations are required. Call 603-225-7665.

For more information:

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


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