Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Language Learning' Category

The Names of Things

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Randy Bynder appealed to Dr. Goodword for help with a common problem facing parents: answering a child’s innocent question. Children are learning machines, sponges that absorb thousands of facts every day. Here is a questiona that stumped Randy:

“Lately my 8 year old daughter keeps asking where partcular words come from. For instance ‘Daddy why do they call it a couch? Why are we called people?’ etc.

“Question: can you help me to formulate an intelligent but easy to understand response to such questions? Thank you.”

The answer, according to Plato, is that there is no answer; the relation between sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. We call a horse a “horse” while Russians call the same animal a loshad’, Germans call it a Pferd, Spaniards a caballo, and Serbs a kon. It is the same animal referred to by different sounds depending on which part of the world you are in, more specifically, the language you are speaking.

Historically speaking, is another question. The similarities between English sister, German Swester, Russian sestra are not coincidental. These languages belong to a known language family, called “Indo-European”. A language family is exactly what it sounds like, a group of related languages that descended (developed over time) from the same “proto” language. They have descended from one language that existed earlier.

So the best response is to take advantage of the question to make your daughter aware that people around the world speak 6,912 languages and dialects. People speaking a different language are not to be feared; they are just saying more or less the same things we say in a different way.


Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Randy Crawford sent this question in today:

“Chimps can talk like humans only with difficulty, owing to their lack of human vocal cords. Has anybody tried letting them use an electrolarynx or voice synthesizer such as humans are lent after throat surgery? If such equipment is good enough for Homo sapiens, chimpanzees could only be more worthy. Random examples off the internet: classic type.”

The problem isn’t muscular control, but the absence of mental acquisition device in the brain. Chimps can perform as well as children up to the age of two—some even better. But that is when the “explosion” of language acquisition occurs in children. It doesn’t occur in any subspecies of chimpanzees, not even Bonobos.

We can only conclude that Noam Chomsky is right and that humans are qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different from chimpanzees, and that humans are qualitatively different from all other species. That 1.8% difference in DNA may seem quantitatively small, but it makes a big qualitative difference.

Language and Cowboy Movies

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

I recently had an interesting (to me) e-mail conversation with Lew Jury, a frequent contributor to the Good Word series. I’ll categorized it as “language and culture”; that seems to be a large enough category.

TO: Dr. Beard
FROM: Lew Jury
Subject: A smile created

Dear Dr. Beard,

Today’s is dedicated to one of my childhood heroes, actor George ‘Gabby’ Hayes [1885-1969]. who often found himself “plumb tuckered out” from supporting the leading man in the 190 mostly western movies he played in.

I smiled broadly when I read the last line in today’s Good Word for I, too, spent many hours watching Gabby in the little Budd movie theater in Lykens, PA.

TO: Lew Jury
FROM: Dr. Beard
Subject: Re: A smile created


He always played a fetching character—at least in the later movies that I watched. I watched him at the Broadway theater in Fayetteville, NC. You are not alone. This is the second email I’ve received so far today from Gabby Hayes fans and I’m just beginning to open my e-mail.


TO: Dr. Beard
FROM: Lew Jury
Subject: Re: A smile created

My early cultural education occurred in movie theaters where for 10 cents I could be in Africa with Tarzan or Arizona with Randolph Scott or sail the Pacific in the Bounty. I’d go to the movies whenever I had an extra dime.

My history with Gabby goes back to the late 40’s and I do believe I saw every movie he ever made. I remember him mostly with Roy Rogers. I also remember when Hopalong Cassidy movies hit TV in the early 50’s and Gabby was his sidekick.

Another great old guy from the past was Walter Brennan, although he always played character parts, unlike Gabby who essentially only played Gabby.

TO: Lew Jury
FROM: Dr. Beard
Subject: Re: A smile created


It only cost 9 cents in Fayetteville. Only one western was shown at the Broadway, but they also showed a comedy, a cartoon, and an adventure serial (to keep you coming back).

My daddy would give me 25 cents every Friday and, if I made 100 in spelling, I didn’t have to bring home any change. If I didn’t bring home a spelling paper with 100 on it, I had to bring him 15 cents in change. That’s what spurred my interest in words: cowboy movies.

I only had to bring him change once: I misspelled “Fayetteville”, pronounced at that time down there, Fedville.


Conversation with a Granddaughter

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

My wife and I skyped our grandchildren in Colorado Sunday and I had a stunning conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Laurel.

I started with a joke I hoped would not go over her head. I told her that we had a squirrel in our attic. She asked what it was doing there. I said that it was looking for me because I’m nuts and squirrels love nuts. I was right—she didn’t laugh. Her comment was, “They’re just homophones.”

Amazingly, she was right: the adjective nuts and the plural of nut are just that, homophones, two different words that sound alike much like piece and peace or sow and sew.  I was impressed first by the fact that this concept, which I taught to  college students for 35 years, is being taught in a Boulder, Colorado elementary school. But I was more impressed that an seven-year-old girl could not only remember the concept, but could use it to identify homophonic pairs from the speech zipping past her ears.

Deeply impressed by this mental feat and her willingness to sit still and converse with me, I boldly asked what else she was doing in school. She told me that her class was writing poems. Again, not bad for second grade. She even agreed to recite one that she remembered: “I’m not happy today because I did not play.”

I told her how much her verse impressed me, how much I loved poetry, and offered her what I considered a grandfatherly suggestive one of my own: “My thinking is muddy because I did not study.” I’m sure now its suggestiveness was so obvious as to offend her. She told me that it sounded like a haiku! She wasn’t sure, though, because she did not have time to count the syllables. (Haiku generally contain 17 syllables in Japanese, though English haiku is usually shorter.)

Was I accidentally telling the truth all those times I claimed that my grandchildren are smarter than average? I think it is true that children are growing up in a culturally richer environment than my generation grew up in. The public school she attends is obviously an excellent one. But now I’m thinking: could there be a linguistic gene? How else could I hold a conversation with a seven-year-old in MY highly specialized language?