The Tensor has a very interesting post illustrating one of the occupational hazards of linguistics: the limited pool of standard examples used to demonstrate linguistic phenomena. If you’ve had any exposure to this sort of thing, think of a language with a very small repertoire of phonemes. Yup, that’s the one. Take his quiz for more:

For each question, your answer should be the first example that pops into your head. I predict that, although our answers won’t agree every time, with much greater than chance frequency, you’ll pick the same language I did. My answer follows each question on the same line in the background color—select the line to see it.

I got 15 of the 23 languages; in this case, that’s not a sign of how knowledgeable I am but of how unimaginative linguistic education is (and how unchanging—my grad classes were 30 years ago). His conclusion:

I can think of a solution, but it’s hard: learn more “exotic” languages, specialize in language families beyond the familiar (I think we’ve got Indo-European covered at this point), and fer chrissake stop using English as a source of examples. Did I say “hard”? Maybe I should have said “unrealistic”—I have to admit that I’m not ready to abandon the use of examples from my native language—but a real effort to stay away from the standard example languages can only lead us to a broader perspective and a better basis for cross-linguistic generalizations.


  1. “Name a language that contains grammtical structures that are beyond the power of context free grammars”.
    What a goddamn tease that guy is.
    I’ll take Nivkh, Yukagir, or Burushaski for win, place, and show.

  2. I only got two. This says something about my education, I guess…

  3. Renee! Great to see you again!

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