Red Big Ball

Part of NaCreSoMo, because this is what interested me today.

Today at lunch my coworkers and I were talking about languages, a topic that will always interest me. One coworker passed along a particular example of a language quirk that I hadn’t really thought about before:

You can say “big red ball”, but you can’t say “red big ball”.

Say what? In American English, at least, the “big” really can’t go after any other adjective. All of these sound weird to me:

  • red big ball
  • fuzzy big ball
  • delicious big muffin
  • crawling big bug
  • red small ball
  • furry small dog
  • clay small bowl

What’s the rule? Maybe it’s just something like “size has to be furthest from the noun”, but that doesn’t really tell us why. My guess is that in English we consider the size of an object to not be so essential to its identity, and so we’d rather be more specific in other ways first.

Here are some other language amusements from my studies over the years.

  • In Japanese (among other languages), objects aren’t really distinguished as count nouns or mass nouns. In English you’d say “three books”, but “three cups of water”; in Japanese you still say “three cups of water” (水三杯) but you have to say something like “three volumes of book” (本三冊).

  • In Mandarin, the words for “he”, “she”, and “it” are all pronounced “tā”, but they’re written 他,她,and 它, respectively. My Mandarin-speaking friend says that it’s not really something a speaker thinks about when speaking, though, which is why some Mandarin speakers don’t really bother to distinguish them in English.

  • In my first semester of Korean, my teacher was trying to teach us the vowel . “It’s like apple.” “That’s not the vowel in ‘apple’,” I said dismissively. “It’s how I say ‘apple’.”

    Boom. She’s right. Korean accent, right there.

  • In Khmer (among other languages), the adjective comes after the noun. Some of my students were able to express themselves in English fairly well, but when they got frustrated this was one of the first things to go. “Teacher, he call me ‘dog crazy’!”

Sounds that are hard or interesting to pronounce:

  • Japanese “u” [ɯ] - like “oo”, but without rounding your lips
  • Mandarin “ue” [y͡œ] (as in “xué”) - a rounded “ee” (“ü”) going to an “eh”
  • Korean “eo” [ʌ] - between “oh” and “aw”, but unrounded
  • Khmer “d/t/th” [d] [t] [tʰ] - a three-way distinction between voiced, unvoiced/unaspirated, and aspirated consonants.
  • English “th” [θ] - only in a few languages around the world. If you have trouble, put your tongue between your teeth!

As has become custom for me when I don’t quite feel satisfied with a post, here’s a haiku.


ano ote ni!
chigatte kirei
tsutae mite?