Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Few Links

Posted by Neal on May 11, 2013

Stan Carey has introduced me to the new blog Caxton. I’ve been browsing through some of the more recent entries, on topics such as reflexives and whether relative that is a relative pronoun, and I’ll be putting it on the blogroll.

Various news outlets have been picking up a story about how some linguists have pushed back the earliest family of languages to 15,000 years ago, back to the last ice age, in fact. I paid little attention to these reports at first, because it’s common knowledge among most historical linguists that beyond a few thousand years, the well-studied and proven techniques of is standardly called the comparative method don’t work. That’s not to say that language families such as Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan, or Nilo-Saharan didn’t descend from earlier common languages, but it’s hard to show systematic sound correspondences. Without systematic correspondences, you’re left with various pairs (or triples, quadruples…) of reconstructed words that have phonetic and semantic similarities, and it’s difficult to rule out chance. Even so, attempts have been made over the years to do long-range reconstruction without following the rules of the comparative method, and the attempt you’ve been hearing about recently is just one more. But with so many news outlets reporting one “Ice Age language” that aren’t aware of the standard comparative method, it’s time for a harder look at this study. At Language Log, Sally Thomason does so, explaining the above points and others in much better detail.

Another article that made the rounds, at least on the Twitter feeds I follow, was a piece in Lingua Franca by Anne Curzan on the use of slash — i.e. the word, not the punctuation mark, fully written out or spoken — as a conjunction. That is, it’s gone beyond singer/songwriter, beyond even singer slash songwriter, to conjoining entire phrases and clauses. It’s an interesting piece, but I was surprised that Curzan didn’t link to a 2010 Language Log post by her fellow LF columnist Geoff Pullum, on precisely this same phenomenon. But it’s all right now, because Grammar Girl has synthesized it for you in her latest episode: Curzan’s column, Pullum’s post, a TED talk from John McWhorter that mentions slash, and some of her own research to see how prevalent (or not) this and a few other interesting items of texting language are.

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