Does this mean anything to you?

In the past, I have discussed strange sentences like garden path sentences and Moses illusions. These sentences, while strange or inaccurate in some way, are ultimately grammatical. I find sentences like these particularly fascinating because they push the limits of what our brains will tolerate while reading. There is another type of sentence I encountered recently that seems innocuous at first, but as I researched more I was blown away by how widely studied this particular sentence construction is. For an example, take a look at this tweet from Dan Rather from back in 2019 and see if you can notice what is going on.

This sentence makes zero sense. If you read it quickly though and don’t overthink it, you might just convince yourself that it does! Look at the replies for instance. The overwhelming majority of the replies have completely missed the fact that this sentence is poorly formed and have assumed that the main point of this sentence is that the presidents English is not very good. This tweet is attempting to form a comparative between two groups of people in different dimensions of comparison, making it ungrammatical.

To visualize this, let’s break it down into two halves. “I think there are more candidates on stage who speak Spanish more fluently…” – Okay, so here he is setting up a comparison where we are looking at a quantity of people. “…than our president speaks English.” – but he finishes the statement off with a statement regarding how well the president at the time could speak English. He is trying to compare a number of Spanish speaking people to the fluency of another’s English. Even as I write this, I am having a hard time describing exactly what the sentence is “trying” to say, but I think we can all agree that it makes no sense whatsoever.

What exactly are sentences like this called? These sentences are called comparative illusions (the sciency name) or Escher sentences (the more fun name). The name Escher sentence comes from the famous artist M.C. Escher, who’s famous Penrose stairs illusion involves a staircase that looks normal on the surface, but ultimately go no where and cannot function like a normal set of stairs. Honestly, if there were an award for naming things, this would absolutely win because I cannot think of a better fitting description than that. These sentences seem completely fine, until they’re not and then you are just left to stand back and wonder what the heck is going on. The stereotypical example used widely for this phenomenon is a little easier to spot:

  • More people have been to France than I have.

Again, we see a sentence that is trying to compare two separate ideas in a single sentence. In a sentence like this one, we are presented with a set of individuals in the first clause (more people), but when we get to the second clause (I have), we discover that there is no such set of individuals with which to draw a comparison.

To be clear, this is not an issue of plurality in the second clause. The sentence “More people have been to France than we have” is equally awful.

The most striking thing about these sentences is that people will not report any sort of weirdness on first glance. It’s not until you take a longer look and try to determine exactly what is being said that you start to notice what is going on.

So, what exactly is going on then? Well, as is the case with a lot of linguistic weirdness, there is no way for us to be able to know for sure. Some researchers have tried to argue that, like I mentioned above, the sentence is trying to use two templates for comparison which are fine in isolation. It is only when you combine them in the same sentence that things start to go awry.

Think of it like this. Here I will present you with two true and grammatical sentences:

  • John is too tired to drive his car safely.
  • John has driven for as many hours as Tim has.

These sentences both being true does not allow you to blend them together into a third sentence like so:

  • John is too tired as Tim has.

Now this is just a bad sentence and not an Escher sentence in the slightest. Let’s try to apply this same sort of logic to an Escher sentence though:

  • More people have gone to France than I could believe.
  • John and Mary have gone to France more than I have.
  • More people have gone to France than I have.

It could also be the case that our brains are noticing that there is deleted material at the end of this construction that we expect to be there because we see sentences like that all the time. Take this sentence for example:

  • Sally ate some pizza and Amanda did too.

This sentence is completely fine and our brains don’t struggle with it at all because we can infer that the “did too” in this case means that Amanda also ate some pizza. So with an Escher sentence, when we encounter the end of it “… than I have.” our brain might just be saying “oh I can fill in the blanks here” and because we have some working examples to reference, we think it all makes sense and we call it close enough.

All of these theories have been hard to prove in the past and there hasn’t really been a concrete solution as to why we are seemingly unperturbed by these horrible sentences. I’m curious to know what other people think of these so if you have any theories about them, or if you want to try to convince me that they are ultimately fine, let me know down below.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


Gendered nouns

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I received a comment a few weeks ago asking me why languages like French and Italian have gendered nouns. This is an issue that has been debated a lot in the literature, and there isn’t really a good answer at this point. But putting the why issue aside for now, let’s go on a quick tour of grammatical gender.

Before we get to gender though, we first need to talk about noun classes. Noun classes are additional ways of categorizing nouns based on factors like gender, animacy, and even shape. Grammatical gender is a subset of noun classes that focuses on, well, gender. Languages will typically denote different noun classes of words by adding prefixes and suffixes to them, which are also shared with other words in a sentence like verbs and adjectives. Noun classes are not universal to all languages though which is why a language like English does not do anything like this.

Since we can’t use English examples to talk about noun classes, we will instead use Shona. Shona is a language in the Bantu family that is spoken in Zimbabwe. This is a go-to language for the purposes of talking about noun classes because it has a total of 21 different noun classes. That is not a typo, there are really that many distinctions that they make. It is not as complicated as it might sound though once you look at their paradigm and start to notice a pattern.

Table from Wikipedia

According to the table above, noun class 1 is for human nouns while noun class 2 is for human nouns that are also plural. Noun class 20 has been excluded from this table because it is considered vulgar. You can see this pattern repeat on all the noun classes where they will have one class for singular nouns and a second class for plural nouns. You will also see here that some of the prefixes are reused multiple times (I guess they didn’t want to make it TOO complicated). Ultimately, we can see that “boy”, “tree”, “house”, “scorpion”, and “river” all get different prefixes or changes to the beginning of the word because of the noun class they belong to.

While this is all really complicated and interesting, you may be asking yourself at this point “why did a system like this develop?” For a language like Shona, these noun class markers not only show up on the nouns, but they will also show up on the verbs and other words in the sentence as a way of either marking the importance of a concept or showing important links between concepts. Let’s take a look at an example.

In Shona, if you have the phrase “Pachikoro panotamba vana” it translates to “at school the children play”. Looking at these words individually, the root word “chikoro” (school) is paired with the “pa-“ prefix (noun class 16) and the word “vana” (children) is composed of the root word “ana” with a “va-“ prefix (noun class 2). The word in the middle “notamba” (play) takes same prefix as school. Basically, what this sentence is trying to say is that the children are playing at the school and not at the playground because we are emphasizing this link between the playing and the school.

Using the same word order and changing the prefix on the playing verb to become “Pachikoro vanotamba vana” we are instead drawing the link between the playing event and the children. Essentially this would be like saying that the children are playing at the school, not the adults.

This is just a quick example, but you can imagine how this would scale up if you had a long sentence with multiple nouns and embedded clauses. Having the ability to draw direct links from one word to the next without changing the ordering of the words can be pretty efficient. This is the trade-off that you get in languages with complex noun class systems. You can be very flexible with the word order.

To make this same meaning difference in English we need to do things like change the word order, put verbal emphasis on certain parts, or add extra context to clarify what we mean. In Shona, all they need to do is change a prefix on one word.

Grammatical gender is a much simpler version of this and is typically just limited to two or three classes. Everyone knows the common examples of French, Italian and Spanish that have two genders in their grammar (masculine and feminine), but some often forgotten members of this discussion are languages like German and Romanian which make a three-way gender distinction on nouns (masculine, feminine and neuter). 

In addition to the masculine/feminine divide, some languages simply make an animate/inanimate distinction, such as Ojibwe (an indigenous language spoken in parts of Canada and the United States), as well as a common/neuter distinction like we see in Swedish and Danish.

Swedish and Danish used to have a three-way distinction on their nouns like German does, but the masculine and feminine distinction melded together into this common category and only the neuter distinction is still observed.

But I think the real point of the question being asked (if I am interpreting it correctly at least) is why do the French have masculine sofas and feminine tables? We have seen the pattern evolve in multiple languages from all different families so it’s not like we can even just trace it back to some weird thing they decided to do in Latin.

I mean I was able to tell you all of these amazing things that some languages do with gender and noun classes still. From the simple two-way distinctions to the incredibly detailed 21-way distinction, there is clearly a lot to explore and so much that I glossed over still. All of these different systems evolved independently too! Shona and the Romance languages are about as related as chickens and dogs in terms of language lineage, yet they each independently arrived on a system like this. Contrast this with English, which is quite closely related to German, yet English has relatively little gender marking (we have pronouns and pairs of nouns like “king” and “queen” that are inherently gendered), but German makes the three-way contrast I talked about earlier.

There have been theories proposed in the past that this gender marking in some languages may be linked to an evolution of the animate/inanimate distinction. But this raises a few questions. If this were the answer, why do we still see animate/inanimate distinction? Would they not have all evolved to gender distinctions? And better yet, why does Shona take things to the max and include so many classes rather than simplifying it down?

Other explanations have tried to draw a link between humans’ perception of gender and sex and how we view the world. This theory does make a bit of sense when you observe the fact that languages which make gender distinctions will never have things like “man” or “male dog” with feminine morphology. These are items that we would call naturally gendered. It really starts to fall off when you look at tables and sofas though. What feature of a table “exudes” feminine energy?

When it comes to new words entering French specifically, we can look to Académie française for guidance! Académie française are the official council in charge of maintaining the “purity” of the French language, which essentially means they oversee the addition of new words to the French dictionary while also dictating the pronunciation of words for “formal French” usage. Even their rules are not definitive though since there have been cases over the years of the gender of some nouns changing over the years based on usage popularity.

So why does gender matter in some languages? The answer to that one is mostly just a big shrug at this point. It is probably the least satisfying conclusion I will ever write here, but it is very true. Ultimately, there is no satisfying answer as to “WHY” this happens. What we have instead is a ton of variation and things to talk about when researching languages, which is the kind of stuff that (ideally) keeps people like me busy forever.

I suppose the moral of the story is that language is a complicated thing which can often act like a living organism. Language change is complicated, but absolutely worth talking about in a future post. For now, I am sorry that I couldn’t give a satisfying answer to the original question. I just hope that showing the various systems that different languages use was still interesting enough to read about.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive: Not your English teacher’s English

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In my last post, I talked about how it isn’t my job to dictate what happens with a language, or to tell you how language should be used. You may be asking yourself “wait, if linguists don’t make the language rules, then what do they even do?” It’s a valid question, and frankly one that I am still figuring out every day. The best analogue that I can come up with is Dr. Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees.

Dr. Goodall began her career of working with primates in the early 1960’s by observing them from a distance and simply observing their behavior and taking notes. Over time she did interact with them, but it was passive interactions, and it was always led by the primates, never forced upon them. She never tried to walk in and change the way that the chimps lived their lives.

Photo by Nirav Shah on

In this metaphor, while I am implying that linguists act like Dr. Goodall, I am not implying that you the reader are the wild primate. Language is the natural, everchanging thing that we linguists are observing and documenting every day. Some of that may involve studying human behavior and how humans utilize the tools that they have when using language such as their vocal tract, but often, it’s the language itself we are most interested in.

So why do we have grammar classes in school? Well, the ability to communicate in a professional manner is certainly a valuable skill in our society still. After all, without grammar rules and at least some form of writing training, there would be no way for this post to be universally comprehensible.

The approach that your high school English teacher took when teaching you how to write a paper or a poem is what we call a prescriptive approach. A prescriptive approach to grammar is one that seeks to prescribe one system in preference to another. On the other hand, a descriptive approach is one that tries to simply describe human linguistic ability and knowledge.

So why don’t linguists just take a prescriptive approach and tell people how to use language? Well think about that high school English class for a second. Sure, you probably learned how to write in an active voice as opposed to a passive voice. Maybe you even learned how to read into metaphors and how to interpret poetry. The things you learned in that class likely don’t make their way into your everyday life in all those ways though. When you are out casually talking with your friends, you probably aren’t sitting there telling them that they should stop ending their sentences with prepositions (at least I hope not).

When it comes to trying to dictate language change, it’s a bit like trying to paddle against a strong current. You probably aren’t going to get very far, and its likely way more fun to just sit back and see where the current takes you. This is the approach that linguists take to language. Rather than trying to force a system to behave a certain way, we choose to observe, document, and unravel the natural changes as they happen. Even small changes to a language can lead to massive amounts of research and a new understanding of how languages around the world adapt.

So the next time you want to yell at your friends about whether it’s “to who” or “to whom” they are speaking with, just sit back and think about why they are saying it that way rather than telling them right versus wrong.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.