Most people have a feeling for the answer of this question regardless of their background with linguistics, something of an intuition that linguistics doesn’t really help you learn languages any more than being a doctor helps you defend against illness. One of the usuals to the LING 20 study group said something that really entertained me: “nobody told me that linguistics has nothing to do with languages”. And this was right after the whole unit on syntax, which is one of the more abstract extensions of linguistics that an undergraduate would encounter. His remark seems totally reasonable to me, we usually deal with languages that we’ve never heard of, let alone will encounter, so sometimes it feels we’re dealing with alien languages or maybe, not language at all, but the kind of logic that underlies spoken language.
In any case, I have a personal anecdote to contribute to the answering of this question. It all started with a food coma after Thanksgiving dinner…I got this book from the library ages ago, called “The Arabic Writing: in five lessons“, which isn’t really a book, it’s a tiny pamphlet 20 pages long. But what attracted me to this book was exactly this: its brevity. In 20 pages you could learn how to write Arabic? Intriguing.
I had this book for months now, having done nothing with it. It just sat on my desk, waiting to be returned. I got the reminder email from the library on Monday, asking me to return or renew it, and I figured I could either return it… or renew it. Being the language book hoarder I am, I decided to keep it.
Anyways, after all that I decided, hey, I’ve had it so long and haven’t yet done anything with it. Why not take a stab at it? I opened the book and started learning the Arabic abjad. Prior to this my knowledge of Arabic had been next to nothing. I knew only that it had the trilateral root system, for the most part, and that the writing system was an abjad. That’s all. I didn’t even know it has only three phonemic vowels (which is quite interesting!). I still don’t know any grammar or really any words. But this exercise of course stimulated my interest in the language and now I’m all up in the readings and texts about Arabic.
By Wednesday I had gone through the whole alphabet, and I packed it along with my other clothes and stuff to take home to my parents’ place for the Thanksgiving weekend, so I could review.
Naturally I didn’t touch it until Thursday night. After Thanksgiving dinner I was so stuffed I didn’t even really want to use the computer, it required too much effort. The house was warm, it smelt of pumpkin pie, and I was ready to curl up near the fireplace with a good book. The Kindle being too far to reach, I grabbed the Arabic book and started reading it. On this second go-over, I noticed I missed a section. Near the end of the book, it introduces the concept of “solar and lunar letters“. Now up till now the introduction to the language had been systematic, and I was just waiting for something like this to trip me up. Take a look at the chart:
The order of the alphabet goes from left to right, top to bottom. The solar and lunar letters are most significant when actually trying to pronounce something that is written. Solar letters indicate ability to assimilate with the definite article, and lunar letters lack this ability. Although that second row seems attractive, for the most part the distribution of the “solar” and “lunar” letters seemed arbitrary. I didn’t think that I would bother with memorizing these since my goal was really to just learn the writing system, not deal with pronunciation or anything. But that disturbed me and of course I wouldn’t just leave such an interesting problem alone.
Instead of this beautiful chart, the pamphlet I was reading from had the solar consonants laid out in a line, like this:
t, th, d, dh, r, z, s, sh, ṣ, ḍ, ṭ, ẓ, l, n
where the ‘th’ and ‘dh’ digraphs represent the unvoiced and voiced dental fricatives, resp., and the dotted letters are pharyngealized.
Those skilled in analyzing phonologies would notice immediately the criterion for “solar” consonants, but I’ll give a little space just so those of us less inclined could have a moment to try and figure it out. I’m not a very phonology-minded person, so it took me a moment, but seeing the letters laid out like this told me that there was definitely some rhyme or reason for the solar consonants being what they are.
My suspicion was that they were all articulated the same. The word I used in my head was “apical” but upon consultation I confirmed that my suspicion was, albeit inaccurate, correct. The solar consonants are those that are coronal consonants. (Get it? Coronal consonants? Solar? the Sun?), and the lunar are everything else. (Coronal consonants are articulated with the front part of the tongue.)
Interestingly enough I came to this conclusion without a clear understanding of what these letters represented. The book has somewhat vague explanations for the sounds (voiceless pharyngeal fricative is described as “strongly aspirated from the breast”….). And in fact the fifth letter is described somewhat as a “j in jam” sound, the p.alveolar affricate, which initially led me to believe it was an exception. Later in the book it qualifies this statement, saying that Egyptian Arabic and possibly some other varieties—those familiar with Arabic at all will know that there is a massive continuum of “Arabic languages”, including the formal language of the Qur’an, street talk, Egyptian Arabic, “Modern Standard Arabic”… and on and on, the relationships between each ranging from mutually intelligible to completely separate languages—pronounce this letter as a “g in girl”, which naturally excludes it from the coronal consonant classification. Wikipedia confirms this, saying that the phonology of Classical Arabic dictated which were solar and which were lunar, which makes total sense.
Suffice it to say, this realization made understanding—and memorizing!—solar and lunar letters much easier. I didn’t spend more than the little time it took me to nail down that classification on memorizing them, whereas someone without a linguistics background may not have made that distinction and might have spent a few unnecessary minutes on learning them one by one.
All in all, I don’t make any grand claims on whether linguistics helps one learn languages better, or faster, or whatever. Honestly I don’t care either way, and I’m part of the small camp that doesn’t care for books titled “Learn Basque in 10 minutes or less” or “Japanese the Easy way”. I’m not interested in the easy way, nor do I care about time (only of course, that there isn’t enough time to learn all the languages!). But what I am interested in is an efficient, streamlined system that can codify seemingly arbitrary facts about language into a nice set of rules, constraints…
…in other words, linguistics.
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