a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

What do we mean by language? (Madalena Cruz-Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham)

Posted on the September 6th, 2011


If someone asked you, “Do you know what the pro in pronoun stands for?” would you know the answer?

Or, perhaps, “What is the most irregular verb in English?”

Or maybe, “Do you know why (with exceptions, of course) we can add er or est to some adjectives for purposes of comparison but we must use more or most with others. As in:

largest country
most populous country

The answers are nestled in “The Language of Language” (2011), a compact work by two linguistics scholars, Madalena Cruz Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham. The origin of the book, according to the preface, was a series of lectures by Cruz-Ferreira to university undergrads.

But as the book assumes no familiarity with linguistics, it’s also an illuminating read for language enthusiasts or the randomly curious. Some samplings: What are the nuts and bolts of how language itself – any language, not just English – is built and developed by its expert caretakers, the professional linguists, and by users themselves? Why do some languages live and others die? What distinguishes one language from another?

The three questions I posed in the opening above offer more examples of the many explored in the book. What is especially fun — works great as a word game — are the dozens of boxed questions running through the chapters. Some are riddles:

The owner of a restaurant, fed up with regular customers asking for meals on credit, one day put up this sign:

Free meals tomorrow only

Can you explain why his customers first became all excited and then very disappointed?

Here’s another:

Can you explain the language play in this dialogue?

Speaker A: Time flies!

Speaker B: I can’t, they fly too fast!

Hint: the play has to do with nouns and verbs.

For those tired of the usual car travel games with restless children, these boxed riddles offer a wonderful and painlessly-instructive alternative.

The most enjoyable features of the book, though, for me are the “Food for thought” sections at the end of each chapter. Here the authors include famous, scholarly and funny quotes about language, and poems on wordplay and pronunciation quandaries.


“We sometimes take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn’t the preacher praught?”

But lest I mislead by highlighting  the book’s entertaining content, it’s important to emphasize that “The Language of Language” is a substantive scholarly work. In the authors’ own words from the Preface:

Our main purpose in this book is to explore the nature of language, both as a social phenomenon and a human cognitive ability. Our goal is to encourage informed thinking about issues relating to language structure and use, by discussing as broad a sample as possible, in a book of this size, of the kinds of activities that linguists busy themselves with.

Finally, for those who are still stumped by the questions at the top of this post, I offer the answers to the first two, as provided by Cruz-Ferreira and Abraham: The pro in pronoun stands for proxy (as in substitute). And the most irregular verb in English is to be – it can appear in eight different forms: “am, are, is, was, were, being, been and be itself!”

But for question three, I opt to refer you to the book. The first reason being that the answer is rather complex and lengthy (hint – see page 58). And the second reason being that I highly recommend that language lovers and parents of young children buy this book (linguists have to eat too, you know).

Cybershoppers can find the book here.

Reader Comments (3) - Comments are closed
  1. Lesley said, on September 7th, 2011 at 11:03 am


  2. sam said, on September 7th, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    sounds like a book writers and speakers, not to mention teachers, should have on their must read list

  3. Jennifer said, on September 28th, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Excellent review on what sounds like an excellent book! I\’m quite fascinated with the the origins of words, so I\’m excited to know there\’s a resource for those of us who are lay-people in the field of linguistics. And thanks for the excerpt – I enjoyed a good giggle. Who ever said linguistics was dry??