"I can read English and French, but if I cannot read in Arabic, for instance, people working on Arabic can give me a definition by using the mathematical tools and I can understand the definition of that sentence in Arabic even though I don't speak the language."
Assistant professor of Spanish
Despite all the rules we learn in grammar school, language constantly evolves -- look how quickly google became a verb. While many of us are content to roll with the changes, linguists want to understand what brings them about. Assistant Professor of Spanish Melvin Gonzalez-Rivera is a syntactician, semanticist and mathematical linguist. By applying the tools of mathematics, especially set theory, he analyzes and describes ordinary natural language in the universal language of mathematics.
"I can read English and French, but if I cannot read in Arabic, for instance, people working on Arabic can give me a definition by using the mathematical tools and I can understand the definition of that sentence in Arabic even though I don't speak the language," he says.
Gonzalez-Rivera is especially interested in the Spanish spoken in his native Puerto Rico. Some linguists argue that contact with English has caused Puerto Ricans to translate English speech patterns into Spanish. Gonzalez-Rivera disagrees.
For instance, the English expression "make sense" is usually expressed as "have sense" in Spanish. However, in Puerto Rican Spanish "make sense" is becoming more common. Gonzalez-Rivera found that the Spanish versions of "have sense" and "make sense" are used in different contexts. "Make sense" conveys a commitment on the part of the speaker that the statement in question rings true to him or her. "Have sense," on the other hand, says the statement has some general degree of logic, but not necessarily directly to the speaker.
This difference in meaning, which is not reflected in English, says to Gonzalez-Rivera that the appearance of "make sense" in Puerto Rican Spanish is not merely an adoption of English patterns. "Just because Spanish has some new properties, that new property doesn't necessarily have to do with the contact situation between English and Spanish," he says. "You must analyze the new characteristic in Spanish and see if it has the same meaning as in English."
With such a deep immersion in the differences between dialects, Gonzalez-Rivera realizes that his students at Bucknell need to learn the formal rules of the Spanish language, but they also need to learn about the diverse people who speak it.
"At the university level, you cannot teach only the book because the students are going to travel to Latin America or Spain, and the Spanish spoken in different places is quite different," he says. "You need to teach the use of language and the vocabulary and also when to use this word in that context, or that the same word in a different country can have another meaning."
Posted Sept. 27, 2011