Elemental Linguistics

The Essential Elements of Linguistics

Introducing the Elements
A: Why should we not trust atoms? B: I don’t know… because we can’t see them. A: No, because they make up everything.  Atoms form the basis of everything. They are the basic building blocks of the universe. In that sense, they make up everything becuase everything is made... Read more
Element 1 – Design Features
“The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.” Are human beings unique? Is there something special about us that makes us different from animals? Of course, every species of animal has special or unique features. Humans make music, and birds sing. Humans create... Read more
Element 2 – Animal Communication
A Frenchman walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Hey that’s cool. Where did you get that?” The parrot says, “I got him in France. There are millions of them there.” Animals may not be as smart as the bird in this joke,... Read more
Element 3 – Language and Sound
A man takes his first bite of chicken at a Chinese restaurant. He tries to chew, but he can’t. The meat feels like rubber in his mouth. He raises his hand and speaks to the waitress, “Excuse me, but this chicken is rubbery.” And the waitress says, “Thank you,... Read more
Element 4 – Grammar for Words
A man walks into a bar with a dog. The bartender says “No dogs!” The man says, “This is my seeing-eye dog.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” the bartender says. “Your first drink is free.” Another man walks in the bar with a Chihuahua (a small dog). The first man sees... Read more
Element 5 – The Wonder of Syntax
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” – Groucho Marx In this joke, the first sentence has two meanings. It is “structurally ambiguous.” The ambiguity comes in the phrase “in my pajamas.” Does “in my pajamas” refer to... Read more
Element 6 – Meaning and Semantics
Question: Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Answer: Because they taste funny.  Jokes often use semantic ambiguity where one word has two meanings. Cannibals eat people. Clowns are supposed to be funny. But Cannibals don’t eat clowns because they “taste funny.” Here we see wordplay in the different meanings of... Read more
Element 7 – Speaker Meaning and Pragmatics
In front of a movie theater, a guy named Joe is looking for the right place to get in line. He walks up to a man who happens to be a linguist. Joe says to the linguist, “Is this the end of the line?” And the linguist answers, “Well,... Read more
Element 8 – Community and Sociolinguistics
A Canadian couple wants a baby, but they cannot have children. So they decide to adopt a Chinese baby. After the baby arrives, the couple signs up for a Chinese class. Then a friend asks, “Why are you taking Chinese?” And the husband answers, “When the baby starts talking,... Read more
Element 9 – Language and Mind
A young woman was walking down the street late at night.  She heard footsteps. When she looked back, she saw four big men carrying sticks. Without warning, the men attacked her. They beat her and took all her money. Then the men ran away. The woman just lay there... Read more