For those who like and use language

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Larry Trask on descriptivism



Non-linguists often accuse linguists of maintaining that “any sort of language is equally good”, particularly when we decline to join them in their passionate campaigns against whatever it is that has irked them. But this is misguided. Individual linguists have their own ideas about what constitutes good or appropriate usage in English, just like anybody else — except that the linguists’ views are usually far better informed than other people’s. But there is a big difference between expressing opinions and finding out what the facts are, and it is finding the facts that is the primary task of a linguist. Nobody would attack a botanist merely because that botanist was interested in finding out what plants are like, instead of creating beautiful gardens.

R.L. Trask, Introducing Linguistics (2000)

A nice botany analogy to add to the cat show analogy, the geology and biology analogies, the car analogy, and the brain surgeon analogy. 

This post reminded me of the analogy I often use when trying to explain what a linguist does, and how it’s different to the role of language learning. I often use a sports broadcaster analogy.

Using my knowledge of linguistics and observation I can describe phenomena that I can’t necessarily perform myself. Just like Eddie McGuire talking about a spectacular mark (for Aussie rules football fans), or a basketball commentator describing what went wrong on the way to a layup, I can tell you about complex grammatical phenomena that I might not be able to produce in Kagate and Yolmo. I know the rules, and the type of linguistic analysis I’m interested in is how each player in the game uses these rule (which is why I like this analogy over others).

Georgia and I were talking about this, and she said that there’s a problem with this, in that there’s a belief in some areas of broadcasting that you need to have played competitive sport to be able to talk about it - it’s the argument most often brought forth when women are denigrated when commentating men’s sport. There is analogy between this and theories of language description. Some linguists argue that in order to best describe the phenomena you are talking about you should be able to speak the language - you should know what it feels like to have skin in the game. Dan Everett advocates for fieldwork to be done entirely monolingually - check out this video demonstrate from last year’s LSA Lingstitute.

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Of froffies and fricatives

As the weather warms up here in the southern hemisphere, moving us towards the summery days Australia is known for, we have noticed an aligned increase in the use of the word “froffies”.

Urban dictionary confirms that the definition of froffies is beer, or any other alcoholic beverage:

Tom: Derek you hitting the froffies this weekend?
Derek: Sure am buddy.
We reckon this word is pretty endearing. It is a very typical Australian English slang word involving some of our favourite features like shortening (just like grundies).
It also plays with the tricky pronunciation of the word “froth”, which challenges us with two fricative sounds in close succession. It’s a difficult word to say.
The ‘f’ requires the lips and teeth to come together and push air through a narrow channel as a ‘voicless labiodental fricative’ sound, then we have to quickly move to make the ‘r’ sound straight after. And we quickly finish the word by pushing our tongue forward against the alveolar ridge behind the teeth, to make the ‘th’ sound (a voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative).
It’s a kind of linguistic calisthenics (which BTW is a word with its own phonetic traps, with that ‘s’ and ‘th’ in quick succession). It’s understandable that the final sound in ‘froth’ would assimilate to the word-initial ‘f’. 
Hence, froffies. 

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Minus 18 is an Australian youth-led organisation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* young people. They do a huge amount of work to support and raise the voices of young people, and they recently launched a resource that educates us about the importance of pronoun choice for trans and gender diverse people.

As well as this ace video, Minus 18 have developed the Pronoun App so we can learn more about pronoun preferences and how to best navigate the related conversations.

As the pronoun resource says, “There are lots of reasons it’s important to use the correct pronouns a person prefers, but the simple answer is it can make a person feel pretty shit when you use the wrong ones.”

Find more here at Minus 18’s website.

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AUSTRALEX 2013 Proceedings now available!

I had a great time at the Australex conference last year, and it’s exciting that  proceedings are now available as open access download from the conference website (via link above).

There are lots of great papers here, and the nice thing about lexicography is that the ideas and stories behind peoples’ work are often quite accessible even if you don’t work in this area (which is probably why I enjoyed the conference so much).

Particularly interesting is the work by Rob Amery & Mary-Anne Gale tracing the work of the missionary linguists who came over from Germany over 175 years ago and provided documentation of the Indigenous languages of the South Australia area. I also partcularly like David Nash’s paper, which suggests that the modern scientific naming conventions are a great way to incorporate endangered words into a new domain of knowledge.

As a dictionary dabbler, I feel very lucky to have a paper in this collection as well. In it I discuss the workflow and social experience of the lexicography work I’ve done with the Yolmo and Kagate communities to date. It is rather chatty as far as my academic writing is concerned, so if you’re at all interested in the type of work a field linguist occasionally finds herself doing you can read all about it.

Thanks to Jasmin Morley. Julia Miller and Ghil‘ad Zuckermann for their work on the volume, and the conference, and thanks to the University of Adelaide for hosting the proceedings online and making them open and easily accessible!

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Fall over vs Have a fall

None of us are getting any younger, but sometimes the semantics of getting older creep up on you without noticing. I was chatting to my mum (hi mum!) the other night about a friend’s mother who had tripped over and fell the other day, leaving a spectacular bruise. “Just don’t tell anyone she had a fall” my mum said, “she’s not even 60, she’s too young to have a fall.”

So, falling over is something that younger active people, do - they just didn’t notice some environmental hazard, were distracted, and normally are adequately mobile. On the other hand, having a fall is something that happens to older people, a politeness that implies that their body somehow failed to keep itself upright. ‘A fall’ being an event, also signifies that it is some kind of milestone, and indeed it can sometimes be the start of ongoing issues for some older people. I feel like this may be a UK phrasing - perhaps because the first two links when I googled the phrase are to UK health sites. Looking at an N-gram for the two phrases in the UK (well, GB) and US corpora, GB does have more tokens of “have a fall” but not by a whole lot more.

The conversation with my mother reminded me of a couple of years ago, when my grandmother fell. She didn’t really have a fallbecause she fell off a ladder while cleaning gutters - quite what an 80 year old women was doing mucking out leaves we’ll never know, but even spinal fractures haven’t stopped her since. It was far to active an accident to warrant it being a fall. Looking at my personal corpus (ie my gmail account), I did consistently refer to it as “fell over”, so I’m glad my current intuitions are supported by the data.

My nan is fine now - but I’ve become more sensitive to the language used about the action of those older and younger than me. I’m sure there are lots of other examples, younger people are focused or driven while older people are stubborn, younger people know what they like, while older people are stuck in their ways. I’m sure my mum will start pointing out others when I inadvertently start using them to refer to her!

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Optimality Theory 101: Constraints > Rules



Okay, so here’s a crash course in Optimality Theory (or OT) for any confused linguistics or curious parties out there.

At it’s base, OT is essentially just an alternative way to view phonology. Instead of rules to figure out what is and is not ‘allowed’ in a language OT uses constraints and structures grammars as systems that map from the input to the output. The input is referred to the as underlying form whereas the output is the surface realization.  

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Another entry in Crowdsourced Linguistics! Yay! 

Sometimes people also use non-linguistics decision-making analogies to explain Optimality Theory: here’s a coffee-buying analogy via linguisticky, for example. I just realized that this analogy doesn’t link into the more formal layout of OT, with the tableaux and such, so I’m going to do that below. 

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This is a wonderful example of the collaboration of great minds!

All Things Linguistics brings together Quotations of Passion's description of OT theory and Linguisticky's practical example. Between the three posts this is one of the best ways of explaining OT I've seen.

Hurrah for the Crowdsourced Linguistics project. I hope we can keep doing things like this  - here’s our post on ergativity et al. if you missed it!

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lifeofanerdyteacher asked: What are your favourite books (or books you would recommend) conserning linguistics, neuro- and psycholinguistics?

Thanks for your question!

There are plenty of good reads to be had across psycho and cognitive linguistics, and I could write a post that went on for ever and a day about some of my favourite linguistics books.

If you’re a recreational dabbler in linguistics there are lots of great gentle introductions. I took to buying David Crystal’s How Language Works for anyone who expressed an interest but didn’t know where to start (it’s also affordable Penguin Classic). For more narrative digression I enjoyed RL Greene’s You Are What You Speak, and loaned it out so willingly to people that it never came back (I hope it’s being happily read somewhere now). Mark Abley’s Spoken Here is a book I read in the first year of my linguistics degree - I’m not sure now how it stacks up on academic rigour, but it made me so excited about what I was studying. I also can’t go past Kate Burridge’s pop linguistics books for examples that kindled my early enthusiasm. She may write about English, but it’s well grounded and you’ll learn about general linguistics principles and analysis while acquiring the kinds of factlets about English you’ll want to remember and harass your friends with. If you already have some linguistic knowledge then Nicholas Evan’s Dying Words is utterly beautiful (it’s possible to read was a novice, but Nick throws a lot at you). (As Nelpas kindly pointed out, I forgot to include any Steven Pinker - The Language Instinct can be found as an affordable paperback, and the first half of the book covers many of the ideas and anecdotes about language you’ll get in a good first year subject. The second half often loses my interest as it gets a bit theory-bound).

In terms of specifically pscyh or cognitive stuff, it’s not a genre I actively seek out, but there’s lots of great stuff out there to be read. If you find something that looks interesting it doesn’t hurt to google the book or the author - blogs like Language Log will likely point out if a book is complete rubbish. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff is a book that immediately comes to mind as a good read - it looks at how metaphors shape our cognitive perception. For a more practical application of some of Lakoff’s theories, try Don’t Think of an Elephant! looks at language and politics - this one came particularly recommended by Georgia, who’s a professional politics wonk when she’s not being a word nerd. I also mentioned How Language Began in a post the other day, it’s an interesting way to get into discussions of the role of gesture in language, and language origins.

Although we may not have as much time as we would like for linguistic book reading these days, there is lots of great reading on the internet! We often link to posts we like on Twitter, and there’s the sidebar on our main page (if you’re not reading this through the Tumblr console). I’m sure there are many other good reads recommended by other authors, and readers are always welcome to leave links and suggestions on this post! There is also a growing genre of professional linguistic journalism - Schwa Fire is a standout, but Babel and Tongues show promise also (and all pay their writers, which is important for fostering this kind of work).

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Before we get to ergativity, unaccusitivity and other kinds of morphosyntactic funtimes…

Thanks so much to All Things Linguistic for setting up the Crowdsourced Linguistics project. We tend to prattle on about things we know, or find interesting, so it’s great to get an idea of what some people find bamboozling or tricky about language!

I offered to help explain the collected jargon of ergative, accusative, unaccusative and unergative. I still remember sitting in undergraduate classes and trying to get my head around ergativity, so for anyone trying to puzzle it out, I feel your pain.

Each Wikipedia page (linked above) explains the relevant phenomenon with as much detail as you’d find in an undergrad linguistics text book, but to make sense of it you have to start thinking about sentences like a linguist. For example, this is really a very elegant summary:


But only if you understand what the A, S and O stand for, and what that actually means for real language. I’ve given a short intro before (in this post), but I thought I’d write a post that goes right, right back to basics. Hopefully by time you’ve read this, the information on the various Wikipedia pages will be more accessible. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a long post by Superlinguo standards!

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COLING 2014 is the 25th International Conference on Computational Linguistics kicking off in Dublintomorrow. I will be there in spirit, as a co-author on a paper that looks at the use of the Aikuma mobile app for language documentation. I’ve talked about this work on the blog briefly before, but we now have a poster and a full article about the app and our fieldtests in PNG (which is where the photos above come from), the Amazon and Nepal (that last bit is mine).

If you’re at COLING stop by the poster at the session, otherwise you can visit the conference proceeding page and download a PDF of the article.