Say it like it sounds

I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss Liane Hansen on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. I guess she’s been on vacation, and sitting in for her these days is Shielah Kast. Liane is well-known for saying some pretty goofy things when puzzle master Will Shortz comes on the air, but take a listen to what Shielah had to say this morning. Will asked Shiela if she has a favorite word, and Shielah responded:

[…] the word that I have actually lingered over a lot since last week is ephemera. I thought that was a beautiful word that you used, and I just like that word. […] I don’t know whether that’d be an example of onomatopoeia or not; it almost sounds like what it is … ephemeral.

Reminds me of a time when I was an undergrad TA for an undergrad class co-taught by Bill Shipley and Jim McCloskey at UCSC. The class was called Language, Society, and Culture (more affectionately known among the TAs as Language, Sex, and Death), and on the very first day of class, when students were “shopping for classes” (something that I understand no longer happens at UCSC), Bill and Jim led a discussion about language origins. The students kind of naturally gravitated toward onomatopoeia, and at one point one of the students said:

Maybe at one point the word table sounded more like what a table sounds like.

That got some chuckles, though not from Bill and Jim, who handled the situation beautifully — and I wish I remember exactly how, because I was always impressed by how some teachers like Bill and Jim can take pretty much anything a student says and make it sound like it wasn’t stupid.

And that reminds me of a few other situations involving Bill and Jim. After Bill retired, Jim taught Language, Sex, and Death again and had the following exchange with one of the students:

  • Jim: Where do grammar rules come from?

  • Student: Grammar books.

  • Jim: And where do grammar books come from?

  • Student (rather meekly): God?

Again, Jim handled this in some pedagogically profound way that I wish I could remember.

Bill Shipley was a master at this sort of thing. I was hanging out with him once in the hallway outside his office when a student approached him saying that he was interested in linguistics. The student said that he was interested in word origins; specifically, how nowhere comes from now + here and how apathy means “without a path”. I was about to lose it, but Bill very patiently and encouragingly explained how these were interesting though false etymologies and pointed the student to a couple of courses he may be interested in taking. The student left feeling not at all stupid, but rather better informed. Brilliant.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning one of my own stupid remarks in a class taught by Bill Shipley. It was my very first quarter at UCSC, and the class was Phonetics. I had no idea what linguistics was at this point; I had chosen to take this class because it was the first listed requirement for the “Applied Linguistics” major, which I discovered mainly because it was toward the front of the UCSC course catalog and it seemed kind of not so boring. Anyway, Bill was teaching us about glides and how they’re kind of like vowels. Like the brash idiot that I was (and still am at times, I’m sure), I raised my hand and asked:

So does this mean that vowels are a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y, and maybe even w?

The really sad part is that I wasn’t (just) trying to be funny; I honestly still thought that there was some value to this grade school classification of letters. But Bill didn’t miss a beat. Of course, I don’t remember exactly what he said here, either. Something about not knowing what they’ve been teaching in school since he was a young man a long, long time ago (Bill was pushing 70 at the time and still going very strong). I just remember that whatever he said made me understand what was wrong with what I said, made me think about what might be right instead, and didn’t embarrass me in the process. That’s a sign of a really good teacher.