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The Science of Language: 3-Week Snapshots

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During the 3-Week semester at Hiram College, students focus on one class for three weeks, after taking a full course load for the first part of the semester. Hiram College News will profile some of the unique opportunities students have to stretch their brains and imaginations during the Fall 2013 3-Week session.

There’s more to the English language than our 26-letter alphabet.

Students in Paul Gaffney’s “Introduction to Linguistics (from an English language perspective)” have quickly found that out during the first week of their 3-Week course.

“Linguistics is a bridge between the sciences, the arts and humanities,” said Gaffney, associate professor of English. “It gives us a chance to stretch in both directions and see how everything fits together.”

During the first few days of the class, students learned the International Phonetic Alphabet, a resource used to represent every sound used in every spoken language. In using this tool, they learned that letters – especially vowels – can have more than one, two or even three different sounds. By the end of the week, students were knee-deep in sounding out and spelling words phonetically.

Paul Gaffney, associate professor of English, teaches linguistics during the 3-Week semester. Students learned the phonetic alphabet, and how phonetic spellings can change depending on the way a person pronounces a word.

Paul Gaffney, associate professor of English, teaches linguistics during the 3-Week semester. He demonstrated the many different phonetic spellings of words like fountain, seven and downtown, all words that vary in pronunciation from region to region.

Though to an outsider, some of the phonetic symbols on the classroom chalkboards might look like a foreign language, Gaffney said students generally pick up on them pretty quickly. As the class sounded out words like “fountain,” it became evident that how one pronounces certain words or sounds depends on upbringing, region, habit and more.

As the class progresses over the next two weeks, students will apply what they’ve learned to cultural questions and study dialect. This is Gaffney’s fourth time teaching this class, and said students often find these discussions interesting because of the topic’s relevance in pop culture.

“There’s all kinds of misinformation about language floating around out of there,” Gaffney said. “It’s something so intimately tied to our everyday lives that everyone has a real connection to it.”

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After a few days of study, students were familiar enough with the International Phonetic Alphabet to apply it during a translation exercise. A student practices the phonetic spelling of “ten o’clock,” “Pittsburgh,” “fountain,” “butter,” “Germany,” “downtown” and “night.”

Lydia Boling ‘17 said her own way of speaking and using language has a Dutch influence because she grew up around a high Amish population in North Bloomfield. She said she enjoys the topic because she is able to relate what she is learning to things she has experienced. Even though she plans on studying a science-related major, she enjoys examining language from this more scientific perspective.

“I really enjoy this because it relates to nearly everything,” she said. “It’s a science trying to figure out what’s going on with our language.”

Brie McGirr ’17, a communication major, said she is learning skills she expects she will use in her future career.

“We’ve talked about how different words have a different meaning to different people,” she said, “and I think that can be used in the communication realm.”

Brie McGirr (left) and Lydia Boling (right), both freshmen, work together to answer questions about themselves, as they write using the phonetic translation of their answers.

This is the first 3-Week course McGirr and Boling have taken, and they already see the advantages of this intense, focused study unique to Hiram College.

“It’s wonderful, and it’s very unique to have so much time to focus on just this one course,” McGirr said. “I would definitely suggest that students consider Hiram because of the 3-Week.”

Professor Gaffney said he enjoys teaching linguistics during the 3-Week because students are able to immerse in a focused study. He is able to spend time in class working one-on-one with each student as they master a new subject.

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