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 people look 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 favorite 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.