Syntax is a lot like putting the puzzle pieces together in the right order. Image from

Syntax Games : Working Out Your Own Rules

I’ve been happily gambolling through the Enchanted Forests of Syntax this university semester. It was the turn of that particular branch of linguistics in my taught masters programme, and probably one of my favourite courses so far. Probing how parts of sentences fit together, like chains of molecules governed by the binding rules of organic chemistry, has felt like uncovering deep secrets of the human mind.

It was a chatty and relaxed final tutorial, and the conversation turned to our tutor’s own experiences as a student of syntax. To our fascination, she explained that her introduction wasn’t through course books, but rather a kind of simulated fieldwork.

Here’s how it worked: a guest speaker of a small, undisclosed language, with very few speakers, would attend their tutorials. The students’ task was to interrogate the speaker’s native language knowledge (in English), in order to build up some generalisations about the grammar of the mystery language.

How do you say I eat an apple? What about the apple is eaten?

Gradually, the students built a picture of how syntax and morphology worked for that speaker by initial random stabs in the dark, deduction and hypothesis testing.

Solving a Syntax Mystery

Besides just sounding flipping exciting – like a linguistic detective story, or practical prep to send linguists off to decode alien languages à la Arrival –  it seems like a brilliant way to get to know really well how a new language works. As far as learning by doing goes, this kind of stuff is at the top of the tree.

And beyond the syntax classroom, there are numerous ways the technique could be used in a language learning setting. It lends itself nicely to language quest tasks, where students could be tasked with interviewing a native speaker to make a series of observations about the target language. Conversely, the teacher could mindfully choose and provide a set of sample sentences, and then challenge students to deduce the rules of Language X from them.

For instance, what can you tell about Scottish Gaelic from this set of sentences?

  • cheannaich mi bò – I bought a cow
  • reic thu bò – you sold a cow
  • tha a’ bhò mòr – the cow is big
  • an do cheannaich thu a’ bhò? – did you buy the cow?
  • ceannaich bò! – buy a cow!

At first glance, we can work out that:

  • ceannaich / cheannaich are forms of the word buy
  • it looks like the verb comes first in Gaelic, followed by the subject (Gaelic is VSO)
  •  / bhò are forms of the word cow
  • a’ is a definite article which seems to turn into bhò
  • adjectives usually go after the noun in Gaelic
  • an do is a way of asking a question in the past

…and so on. Now, that’s a lot of grammar from five sentences! And working out and listing these in a ‘rule discovery’ task is a great way to start understanding and memorising them – not to mention a great logic puzzle for mental gymming.

Glossy Examples

You can choose to provide even more information in your deduction lists, too. Linguistis often present sentences like these alongside glosses. These are simply word-for-word translations, along with extra linguistic annotations that show how the sentence works. Glosses add some valuable extra support for teaching the morphological bits and pieces alongside the syntax.

An example from Swahili:

Niliwaona watu wanasoma vitabu. I saw the people who are reading books.

Ni-li-wa-ona wa-tu wa-na-o-soma vi-tabu.
subj I.past tense.obj noun class 2 (plural) them.see noun class 2 (plural).person subj-they.present tense.relative marker (noun class I plural).read noun class 8 (plural).book

And as an extension task, students might try and produce grammatical sentences armed with the sample sentence, plus a mini extra glossary:

  • u- – subject pronoun marker ‘you’ (singular)
  • -sikia – hear
  • -nyama – animal (noun class 1/2)
  • -kimbia – run

Now, how do you say you heard the animals running?

A Pint of Syntax

Admittedly, it’s the language geek in me that thinks you could have endless fun with this. But even if it never makes it to the secondary classroom, it makes a perfect game for a festive linguaphile get-together. Proper linguists’ pub quiz fare.

Just remember to invite me along!

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