or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Wonderful Thing

One of my oldest friends and his wife (whom I've known for almost as long) were visiting last night from Toronto and as usual the conversation ranged all over the place. (Travel, smoking, mosquitoes, the uselessness of language for transmitting messages into the far future, politics, tea, King Leopold, economics, and food were just a few of the topics.) Talking about my unsuccessful attempt to finally learn some decent conversational French, I complained that unlike English, spoken French has almost no stress patterns, and I just can't figure out where the words begin and end.

And then it hit me; how on Earth do I know where the words begin and end in spoken English?

It isn't just the stresses. In ordinary everyday English, even though words have a natural ebb and flow, we run them together; I expect this is true of every language. We don't pause between words; they flow from our mouths in a smooth stream. And yet somehow we, listening, know where to divide them, and this strikes me as a great mystery. How is that in day-to-day life we can tell the difference between, say, "abominable" and "a bomb in a bull", to use a fanciful example? How can we divide up the words in any ordinary sentence? Try reading aloud the first sentence in this piece: there are no punctuation marks (except for a pair of parentheses you can elide) and therefore no pauses, and so the thing is a jet of sound; you don't even need to pause for breath, let alone the demarcations between words, but any English speaker can understand you easily, supplying the internal divisions effortlessly.

I don't know how I do this, or how anyone else does. It's built into our brains, and yet it's practically a miracle.


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