Saturday, January 21, 2006

To the Language Log phone!

The LA Times has an article (registration required) on an immigrant from Thailand who has compiled a dictionary of English idioms that deal with body parts. Things like pay through the nose or use a little elbow grease. It is intended for people learning English as a second language. But I can see it being a really great book to have even for native speakers.

The author’s story is pretty fascinating too. She compiled the phrases over 30 years while waiting tables at a coffee shop.

Yet, toward the end of the article there is a quote from Anthony Aristar a linguist at Wayne State University and manager of the Linguist List website:

Linguist Anthony Aristar said it doesn't surprise him that Pare has come up with so many idioms that deal only with body parts.

"English has a huge vocabulary, much more than most languages," said Aristar, who manages the Linguist List website, which has more than 21,000 subscribers. "One thing it loves to do is borrow. English grammar is so simple you can insert all sorts of things into it."
I can’t imagine any linguist saying that English has a bigger vocabulary than most languages or that the grammar is simple without qualifying either statement greatly. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Aristar means that English is essentially an isolating language. So it relies on individual words and phrases more than affixes and doesn’t allow a large amount of compounding. And since it uses a lot of individual words, there are many places in the sentence to put new words.

That said, I would think a normal English speaker’s vocabulary is not statistically, significantly larger than that of a comparable speaker of any other isolating type language. So if you control for education or technical field, I would guess that the numbers are roughly equal. And besides, the size of any language’s vocabulary is effectively infinite since you can always add new words.

Whatever he meant, he was probably misquoted by the reported. This looks like a job for Mark Liberman!


Maryann said...

re: misquoting, I can tell you from experience, you can never know what bit of info the journalist will misunderstand, etc. I've been taken to task many times for not ensuring that a reporter understood x, y, or z, but think of the number of pieces of info the reporter is processing. You just can't predict which bit will come out wrong. And, of course there are exceptions, but it's very rare that a staffer from the media will call to fact-check.


Eric said...

Wow, that quote from Aristar is almost as bad as Lederer (as I discussed here. Now I wonder what Aristar actually meant/said ...

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