Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Favorite Isogloss

I love languages. Linguistics, the study of how language works (not some particular language but all language) is one of my favorite topics.

I don't know when it started. In high school I took Latin and German (my father was stationed in Germany in the Army and we lived in Stuttgart). In college I dabbled in New Testament-era Greek. In grad school I took a year of Malay and did linguistic work with native speakers of Lugandan (an African langauge) and Finnish. And in my travels I've learned a few words of Thai, Chamorro, Chinese, Korean, French, Japanese, Tamil, Italian, Hawaiian, Tagalog, Ponepean, Russian, Arabic, and... You get the idea.

An isogloss is a geographic area that is characterized by some linguistic feature. The feature could be phonetic - like the area of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard where local people pronounce the name on one of the states as "nu joy-zee." But my favorite isoglosses have to do with vocabulary - with the words we use.

There's a line my wife and I drive across pretty regularly and when we drive across that line we leave one isogloss and cross into another. It's in West Virginia on US Rt 19. Going north, after you leave Fayetteville, you pass Smales Branch. It's the last "branch" you see. Then shortly after you leave Summersville you come to Spruce Run, and then Bear Run.

As a boy growing up I knew what a "branch" was in reference to a flowing body of water. Springs come out of the ground and, flowing away from their source turn into branches, which then grow to be creeks and eventually are promoted to rivers. We didn't have runs where I grew up. One effect of that was that I always wondered about the name of that great Civil War battle, Bull Run. I could picture the Confederates in gray and the Union boys in blue - and the bulls, running. I figured they probably interfered a lot with the battle. It's hard to concentrate on shooting when you know a bull might step on you at any time.

We've made the drive from the Bluefield, Va. area to the panhandle of Maryland many times. When I first commented on that line we crossed, my sweet wife thought that it was funny (as in puzzling or peculiar) that I thought the line was interesting. She grew up where there were runs and knew that at Bull Run all the soldiers had to cope with was a trickle of water, not bulls.

Oh well, for now at least: my favorite isogloss is that line that seems to divide people's vocabulary regarding flowing water into runs or branches...

No comments: