As we were making our way carefully down a very steep trail above Battle Creek Falls on Saturday morning, what attention I wasn’t spending on preventing a fall off the side of the mountain or a painful slither among the loose rocks I spent instead considering how we know what we know about word order in our native language.
It started this way–knowing that it was Saturday blog-writing time, I began working on how I might describe our surroundings. The canyon was cool and shaded at that hour of the morning, the cliffs looked just as you want rocky outcroppings to look, and the sound of the water was always with us. It changed from burble to roar depending on how close to the trail the creek was, and whether the water was flowing through an underground pipe, rushing down a slope or crashing over a waterfall.
At certain places along the trail there was enough white water for both the creek and the trail alongside it, so instead of dust and scattered scree in the trail we had a bit of mud and scattered scree in the trail. What we had, in fact, was dark wet stone fragments. If I were to describe them as “stone wet dark fragments,” you would understand each of those words, but, if you’re a native English speaker, you would look at me strangely, because that’s just not how it goes.
It turns out that there are rules for how it goes, and as native speakers we have a sense for this, though we might never have heard of the rule, and we’d probably begin to trip all over our feet if we thought too hard about it, in the same way that a common, three-letter word like “was” can begin to look entirely misspelled if we just stare at it long enough.
The English rule that tells us the phrase “dark wet stone fragments” works, while “stone wet dark fragments” doesn’t, has to do with something called the Royal Order of Adjectives. I’ve got more to say about it, but I’ll save that for my next post. I don’t think this can really be called a cliff hanger (despite the scenery), but I hope I’ve whetted your appetite. For now, a few more canyon pictures, and the promise of more linguistic thoughts to come.
El Guapo went back today to do some rappelling, bringing us a view from a different, vertiginous angle. Watch for a future post on that topic, too.
[Images: El Guapo and yours truly]