Sometimes you go to a party and tell people you’re a linguist and, after asking how many languages you speak, someone asks you to explain linguistics. Sometimes I use a biology analogy, but other times, if the person looks particularly interested, I give them a real example of a language pattern that most people don’t notice.
There are a few characteristics of good examples for non-linguists: they involve English or another language the person speaks, and the pattern is very straightforward once you explain it, but it’s something that they wouldn’t have noticed on their own. One of my favourite examples is voicing distinctions in the English plural system. Here’s how I explain it. Try it yourself while reading to get the full effect (make sure you don’t whisper though).
How do you make something plural in English?
(Respondent will presumably say “you add an s”)
Okay, so the plural of “cat” is “cats”, right? (Emphasizing the sss part). But the plural of “dog” is “dogs”, which sounds like “dogzzzz”, not “dogssss”. And you can’t say “catzzzz”. (Getting respondent to say the words with you).
What about some other words? On the one hand we have “cats” and “tops” and “bikes” which all have an s sound, but “dogz” and “birdz” and “cabz” and “dayz” which all have a z sound, even though they’re written with an s. (I’m using this spelling for emphasis).
So is this just a random thing, or is there some sort of pattern?
What if I told you a new word, that you’d never heard before, so you didn’t know what the plural was? Let’s say you see a new animal and I tell you it’s called a “wug”. What would two of them be called?
(Respondent says “wugz”)
What if you had another new animal called a “blick”? So now you have two…
(Respondent says “blicks”)
So why did you say “wugzzz” instead of “wugssss”, but “blicksss” instead of “blickzzz”?
You can’t have learned the plurals of these words from someone because you’ve never heard these words before! So there must be something that’s subconsciously telling you whether to use the s-plural or the z-plural, even for words you don’t know.
Linguistics is about describing and explaining explicitly the subconscious processes that go on when people use language. And it turns out, linguistics can answer the question of how you know whether to use the s-plural or the z-plural.
Let’s start with the difference between s and z.
Put your hand on your throat and say “sssss” and then “zzzzz” in a normal voice (not whispering). Try it a couple of times, going back and forth: ssssss zzzzzz ssssss zzzzz ssssss zzzzzz.
What do you notice?
You should notice that your throat is vibrating or buzzing when you say zzzzz but not when you say sssss.
Linguists call this buzzing “voicing” - /s/ is voiceless (no buzzing), /z/ is voiced (buzzing). One way to remember is that that the word “buzz” has zz in it.
Now let’s look at the sounds in the words that have different types of plurals.
We have “cat”, “top”, “bike” and “blick” in the s group, and “dog”, “bird”, “cab” and “wug” in the z group.
Put your hand on your throat and say the last sounds in each of these words. So tttttt for cat versus ggggg for dog, and so on. It’ll be a little bit harder because it’s hard to make a “t” sound without a vowel, but do as best you can.
You should notice that the t in cat, the p in top, and the k in bike/blick are all pronounced without buzzing (voiceless, like s), while the g in dog/wug, the d in bird, and the b in cab are all pronounced with buzzing (voiced, like z).
So all the words where the last sound is voiceless have s, the voiceless version of the plural, and all the words where the last sound is voiced have z, the voiced version of the plural. It’s almost like they match!
In fact, it’s exactly like they match.
There are really good reasons why it’s more likely to have two voiced or two voiceless sounds together, rather than one of each: it takes a little bit more time and effort to switch your vocal cords from vibrating to not vibrating, whereas it’s easier to just keep having them do whatever they were doing before.
Even without having any conscious awareness of what voicing is, you’re constantly paying attention to it because you don’t say “catzzz” or “dogsss”, and you’ll produce the matching plural even for new words like “wug”. In fact, the original wug test showed that even fairly young children produce the matching plural for words they’ve never heard before. Which is pretty cool.
Patterns like this, where sounds that are close to each other become more similar to each other (the technical term is “assimilation”), show up in most (all?) of the world’s languages, because we’re all speaking with basically the same mouth and throat anatomy.
Bonus: What about words that end in s or z, like glass or fuzz? Adding s or z respectively gets us “glassssss” and “fuzzzzz”, which just sound like drawn-out versions of the same word. So we add a vowel in between the word and the plural marker to separate these sounds which are too similar. Very similar or identical sounds are also hard to pronounce close together.
Bonus question 1: There are other forms of “s” that get added to words in English: the third person plural marker as in “she runs” or “he walks”, and the possessive as in Al’s or Pat’s. Does this rule also work here?
Bonus question 2: The English past tense is formed in spelling by adding “ed” onto a verb. But it’s actually pronounced three ways. Think of some words ending in different sounds and how they combine with “ed”. Is there a pattern?
How else could you explain linguistics to non-linguists?