starshipcat (starshipcat) wrote,

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I Didn't Know I Knew That

In linguistics there's a concept called "native speaker intuitions" -- that sense of "rightness" we have about how sentences should be constructed in our native tongue. It's something that comes only during that initial period of brain plasticity in which we learn our first language, a plasticity which is no longer available for adult learners of second languages. Although neurologists and linguists are uncertain when exactly the brain loses that plasticity -- some say the end of early childhood, others say the hormonal changes of puberty, while a few suggest that it may last all the way into the early twenties, when the brain stops maturing -- it's clear that there is a point where it goes away, and rules must be consciously learned instead of absorbed by osmosis.

For instance, there's a rule in English that dictates the order in which adjectives must be arranged in modifying a single noun. Break it, and while the sentence is still comprehensible, it feels wrong, as if the words were dancing around in a mad boogie. Or the sentence were composed by a non-native speaker trying to appear fluent by speaking rapidly without having the mastery to back it up.

Interestingly, this is not just a rule of formal speech and writing. It's also followed in the most casual and colloquial speech -- yet some types of violations can be turned into non-violations by treating the out of place word as part of a compound word. For instance, in the article there is the example of "green great dragon" as a violation of the adjective-order rule. However, for someone familiar with fantasy literature can imagine a world in which there were a specific type of dragon known as a "great dragon," which comes in various colors. In that specific Secondary World, "green great dragon" would become a legitimate construction, although the author might well decide to use capitalization to show that "Great Dragon" is a specific type or tribe or nationality of the draconic kind (especially in a situation where dragons are sapient and have personhood on the same level as humans).
Tags: language, linguistics, psychology, science

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