It’s a Thursday morning in Being Human: An Introduction to Language, and linguistics professor Christina Esposito is at the whiteboard, writing some words in Indonesian.

While one “rumah” translates to “house” in English, she explains, to make the plural “houses,” the word repeats: “rumahrumah.” “This is called reduplication. Does anyone know another language that does this?”

She lets the students think a minute before offering a suggestion: “If you have a friend who says they like someone,” she proposes, “is that different than if they like-like someone?”

Everyone’s faces light up, and the professor prompts discussion about other examples of the phenomenon in English, what parts of speech are affected, and whether the inflection of speech alters its meaning. The students then break into small groups to generate more examples, and to perform some of the work of a linguist: categorizing language and writing rules about how it’s used. They come up with “cute” words (“itty bitty,” “silly billy”), “intensifiers” (“very very,” “so so so”), and a few that defy category:

“What about ‘chicky chicky parm parm?’” asks one.

“What is that?”

“It’s what Tom calls chicken parmesan on Parks and Rec!

When they gather again as a full group, Esposito leads them through more examples, and asks again if anyone can think of examples from other languages they know. Soon, students are bringing up phrases in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Bosnian.

That international quality is one of the things that Helen Radovic ’22 (Minneapolis) likes best about the course. “We learned the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has been such a useful skill,” she says, in part because it allows them to transcribe and pronounce words from all the different languages spoken by students. “It makes use of everyone’s background, which has been really cool.”

And in fact, the experience had been such a positive one so far that she was already thinking about declaring a linguistics major. “I didn’t even know what linguistics was when I signed up,” Radovic says. “But I wanted to do something outside my comfort zone—that’s what going to a liberal arts college is all about.”

November 14 2018

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