Sunday, June 26, 2011

Maple, Oak, Ash, Cottonwood, and… Grammar?

This Papua New Guinean boy has it right! (Image courtesy of David Ringer)
I have always liked trees. Whenever I need to get away or think through decisions, I find myself seeking out solitude among trees—or better yet, in their branches. In college, I would scramble skyward, my homework in a backpack, and settle down without distractions (except for the angry squirrel or two). My decision to say yes to an assignment in Papua New Guinea was even made in a tree.

Yes, I like trees.

But I also like another kind—one that gets far more attention at SIL-UND.

This kind:
 Now, don’t get too literal. It doesn’t actually look like a tree. It more looks like an upside-down bush. But you can’t be too picky.

It's called a syntax tree. It’s used to diagram all the parts of a sentence and organize them in a logical fashion. Each time the lines split, it shows subsequent levels that are categorized within the level above. (Where the lines split is called the node. The top one is the mother node, and then the one below it is a daughter node or, if you travel horizontally, a sister node.  Sorry guys, I have never seen a masculine tree.)

If you are more of a math person, then let me explain the concept like this: remember those diagrams of factors? You know, the cheerful math book gives you a problem like, “factor 342” and then you have to break it down and break it down and break it down until you reach numbers that can’t be divided anymore (like 2 or 17).

We do the exact same thing with a sentence—starting with the biggest categories, such as subject or predicate, and breaking it down further until we specify what kind of adjective the word is, or whether or not it is plural.

Why do we do this crazy and wonderful thing, you ask? Because it helps us understand the structure of a sentence. Think of Hebrew which reads from right to left—we can still map it out and figure out how all the pieces work. There is even software that lets us do this on the computer! I have made upwards of 1500 trees over the years (that’s what happens when you TA for a college class dedicated to making trees).

Just think, you can even make trees about trees!

What could be better?