Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Explaining the complexity of the English language
Why is a spork called a
spork rather than a foon? Why do we pluralise avocados without an ‘e’ yet add
‘es’ to tomatoes?
These and other
complexities of the English language are the subject of a new book, The Oxford research guide to English morphology, by Victoria University of Wellington Professor of
Linguistics Laurie Bauer and two other world-leading linguists—Rochelle Lieber
from the University of New Hampshire and Ingo Plag from the University of
Morphology is the branch of linguistics
that studies patterns of word formation, and attempts to formulate rules around
“For instance, with a
word like ‘friendliness’ you can chop it up into ‘friend’, ‘li’ and ‘ness’ and
everything means something,” says Professor Bauer.
“Likewise ‘brunch’ is
made up of ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’. For some words though, such as ‘elephant’,
there’s no structure in English that makes it mean what it means.”
In the English language,
exceptions to the rules abound. “Imagine you are at Disneyland looking at
stuffed toys—Donald Ducks and Mickey… Mouses, right? Yet a foreigner would have
learned that the plural of mouse is mice in all circumstances. There are so
many complications in the English language that have never really been explored
before. That’s what our book attempts to do.”
The book offers the
first comprehensive description and analysis on English morphology. As well as
analysing dictionaries, the researchers drew on the Corpus of Contemporary
American English and the British National Corpus, which contain vast samples of
written and spoken English from a wide range of sources.
material there which doesn’t make its way into dictionaries and it’s an
excellent resource for extracting patterns in language,” says Professor Bauer.
example, it’s possible to search for all the words ending in ‘ity’. Or we can
find all words starting with un- and in- or a- and non- to see whether there’s
a difference in meaning.”
Marsden-funded book was written over three years in three different countries,
with the researchers liaising over email and talking regularly via Skype, as
well as meeting up once a year, each time in a different country.
of us have been working in English morphology most of our academic lives, so
between us we are drawing on 100 plus years of experience—and with each of us
working on the book for three years you could say that the book actually took
nine years to write,” says Professor Bauer.
“We haven’t solved all the problems by
any means but we’ve certainly got much further than ever before.”
For more information
contact Professor Laurie Bauer on 04-463 5619 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Footnote: PublisherOxford University
Press. £90 in the
UK or US$170