A Linguistic Blind Spot

There is an interesting article on The Language Log about a particular type of misnegation that, until it was presented to me in a context that said, “this is wrong,” I was unable to see the problem with.  It has to do with phrases of the type No NOUN is too ADJECTIVE to VERB.  For example, “No detail is too small to escape notice.”  My brain naturally parses this to mean that everything will be noticed, but it actually says that nothing will be noticed.  Reading this article makes me want to scrape the rust off my knowledge of regular expressions and see if I’ve written any stories that have this mistake.

A more general note about linguistics: I like reading The Language Log and linguistic analyses in general, but every time I’ve tried to actually study linguistics I’ve bounced off the surface of the subject.  Something about the foundational knowledge of the study bores me to tears, for no reason I can satisfactorily explain.  This is useful to me, though, when people tell me that they don’t like physics because it has too much math.  I can think to myself, “crazy as that sounds, it is probably analogous to how I feel about linguistics.”  (I still try periodically.  I secretly hold out hope that some day I will stumble upon a book that makes the foundational ideas of linguistics accessible to me.  And then I will be able to tell people who don’t like physics that they are objectively wrong. Huzzah!)

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  1. The problem I have with linguistics textbooks is the jargon; it’s so dense you could build a house with it. If you can get a layman-English explanation of the basics, and then learn the rest solely through doing problems, it’ll probably be a lot more interesting.

  2. I’d recommend starting with phonology. There’s lots of data, but it’s not very theory-deep. Phonology problems are very much like word puzzles in some respects. And they’re a good way to get used to the sort of combinatorial rules that all of linguistics is really about. I’m thinking of place-assimilation of nasal consonants is a decent place to start.

    Or for a bit more of a challenge, look up the predicate-internal subject hypothesis. It takes a bit of background in trees and phrases, but it’s a sufficiently counterintuitive claim to be really really interesting, and the evidence for it is fairly cogent.

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