Mr. Potato Head

The other day I posted about the use of patterns in learning forms, and Rali correctly jumped on me.  I made the claim that iota is the marker of the dative. What about, asked Rali, all those forms that end in iota but are not datives?
It reminds me of something the female members of my family like to do, something I find disturbing. They will look at me and say, “He has his father’s chin,” or “He has his mother’s nose.” It makes me feel like Mr. Potato Head.
Now it just so happens that all of the male descendants of my father have the same chin. However, not all people with that chin are descended from my father. The chin may be a marker, but not a definitive one. To determine if someone is descended from my father, you have to take into account the totality of the circumstances. If you see a guy walking down the street with that chin, it’s unlikely he is related. If you see him in the same room as my father, it’s likely he is.
The iota is not the definitive marker of the dative, but it is a marker of the dative. It simply is one clue you have to consider. If you see an iota-ending word after a preposition, for example, that ratchets up the likelihood of a dative. If it comes at the end of a long sentence that is lacking a finite verb, well, maybe a third person singular verb is more likely.
Where pattern matching like this really helps is when you are memorizing paradigms. If you think that the ending of the dative is just omega, as it appears to be in the second declension, you will reach the third declension and think you have a whole new ending to learn. But if you learned that iota was actually the second declension dative ending, the third declension forms make more sense.
Two years ago I took a brutal certification exam called the CCIE. It’s an eight hour hands-on lab exam, and it took me three tries to pass. On my first attempt, I failed miserably.
The problem was that I had to memorize detailed configurations that consisted of a series of steps, often ten or twenty of them, and I just couldn’t remember them. The way I finally managed to memorize these configs was to employ patterns. Instead of memorizing the procedures sequentially, I drew a flowchart for each procedure, grouping together similar configuration items into a box and then drawing arrows between them. For example, when configuring a VPN, steps 3 and 14 both might deal with user authentication. So, they went in one box. Then there was a command that linked user authentication to the rest of the config, so I would put that command on an arrow between the boxes. My score jumped dramatically when I started using this technique.
Your brain is like a filing system. If you put information in randomly, you are going to have a hard time retrieving it. But if you file it correctly, it will be there when you need it. If you are struggling pulling the myriad of forms, in whatever language, out of your head, maybe you’re not putting them in right!


5 thoughts on “Mr. Potato Head

        1. I am now going to prove that English is perfectly suited to hendecasyllabics. The h-word stands for a nifty rhythm in ancient poetry that students often fail to get from straight descriptions. So I’ll show you how it goes in plain English. For the purpose, I choose a current news item:

          Is obesity killing our nation?
          Are Americans prone to overeating?
          People tend to indulge in food and drinking
          just as much as they do in Greek and Latin.
          Experts say that it’s not so much the burgers:
          those Americans have distorted notions
          re their weight and a host of other issues.
          Such ideas contribute to the problem, etc.

          See how seamlessly it flows? That’s the rhythm in many of Catullus’ poems, like Cui dono lepidum novum libellum, which most of you remember, I hope.

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