Building Words

On Friday, I was in my linguistics discussion, and we were talking about what words are made of (and no, NOT letters).

Basically, there are some words (and structures) that are inherently meaningless. The examples we had in class were 'cat' and '-s'. These two things are meaningless on their own, until somebody lists out WHAT they are (a 'cat' is the animal we all know, and '-s' means that a word is pluralized).

HOWEVER (and this is where most of the class got lost), the word 'cats' is NOT inherently meaningless. If you define 'cat' and '-s', then you DON'T need to define what 'cats' means. You know from the definitions of the parts that 'cats' means 'more than one cat'.

People were struggling with this, because they couldn't get past the fact that 'cat' has no intrinsic meaning, while 'cats' does. And the TA couldn't figure out a way to make it clear.

Of course, all you need to do is just take a page from a math class... Take the following made-up, arbitrary word: "blap".

Now, this is clearly meaningless. BUT, if I give you the word "blap", and then ask you what the word "blaps" means, most people would be able to (correctly) say that "blaps" just means "more than one blap". So it's pretty clear that even though "blap" is inherently meaningless, "blaps" is not - you can derive the meaning from its parts.

And of course, if I just tell you that a "blap" is the same as a "cat", you can then see how the original point makes sense.

Sadly, since my TA (and my classmates) didn't understand how to make this abstraction, they will be stuck struggling. Which is why I think math should be required for all majors at UCLA (and everywhere else, actually). I'll put up a post on that in the near future.


Sarah said...

I'm trying to figure out your connection to Math here. You don't have to understand Math to understand abstract concepts. Maybe being an abstract thinker has helped you in Math, but I don't think the converse is necessarily true.

Jeremy said...

It'll be clearer once I write up the other post, but the basic idea is that math teaches you how to think abstractly. And that would allow you to come up with and understand the abstraction.

But you're right. You don't need math to understand abstract concepts. But taking math makes sure you can understand them. That's all.

Post a Comment