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If I Can Say It, It’s Not Wrong

August 23, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Cherlon Ussery

A brief lesson in linguistics from professor Cherlon Ussery

There are rights and wrongs when it comes to language: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Say “between you and me,” not “between you and I.” But linguists aren’t interested in issuing grammar edicts; we’re interested in explaining how people actually speak and uncovering the rules that speakers of any language are constantly accessing, usually unconsciously.

Linguists study both standard and nonstandard varieties of a language. The next time you’re in the southern United States, you may hear someone say, “I might could go to the store,” which is a perfectly grammatical sentence in some varieties of English. You will not, however, hear anyone say, “I can could go to the store.” Speakers of Southern English know that might can precede could, but can cannot, just like speakers of other varieties know that “I could have gone to the store” is grammatical while “I have could gone to the store” is ungrammatical. All languages are governed by patterns.

By examining segments of various languages, my students discover that what some people would call mistakes are actually predictable variations.

Much of my research focuses on documenting the places in which multiple forms of a word are allowed in Icelandic, and trying to explain the patterns that arise within a theoretical framework. Most Icelandic words are conjugated to include information such as case, gender, person, and number. Consequently, each word has numerous forms.

Just as in English, people often use what some would say is the wrong form of a word. But Icelandic speakers use these forms in predictable environments, and they know when a particular form is completely ungrammatical, just as English speakers know which orderings of auxiliaries are not allowed. My job is to figure out why variation surfaces in these particular environments and to explore how the patterns in Icelandic compare with those in other languages.