Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

March Links

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2010

I’m getting more links these days from some of the linguists on Twitter. Unfortunately, it’s been easy for me to forget to include the name of the person who tweeted the links and brought them to my attention. I know that several in this installment are from @Language_Today.

If you like the occasional stories about Doug and Adam here, you’ll like Thomas Hinkle’s stories about his daughter Grace’s language acquisition at Language Hack. He also writes about his experiences teaching Spanish.

A fascinating look at the grammar/etiquette of creating namesigns (sign-language proper nouns).

The LA Times interviews Franz Josef Ochs, in charge of machine translation for Google Translate.

From the Schott’s Vocab feature in The New York Times, an interview with Arika Okrent (author of In the Land of Invented Languages) and Paul Frommer (creator of the Na’vi language for Avatar) on how to create a language.

From Reuters, an article on China’s minority languages.

Erin McKean takes on guys as a gender-neutral term in her latest Boston Globe column. Here’s an argument for it that I hadn’t heard before: “we’re already used to words in English that have different meanings for the singular and plural: look and looks, arm and arms, manner and manners, and custom and customs all give a wider meaning to the plural without anyone raising a stink — and it’s easy to imagine guy and guys joining the list.”

And lastly, here’s Ben Zimmer’s first column as the new regular “On Language” columnist at The New York Times Magazine, where he explores the nounification of yes and no a bit further.

3 Responses to “March Links”

  1. I don’t attribute people who bring links to my attention unless there’s a specific reason to do so. In general I don’t see that it matters.

    On inventing languages, I trust you’ve ordered a copy of the LCK book? I haven’t yet, but it’s just a matter of time. Dabbling in conlanging was pretty much my entry route into linguistics.

    On Zimmer and the New York Times, I’d be interested to learn how he is received by Safire-accustomed NYT readers. A pertinent excerpt or two from the letters’ page (I assume there is one) may be enlightening.

    • Neal said

      I try to give credit to the person who went to the trouble of tweeting a link, or mentioning it to me in particular, if it’s something I might not have come across by myself.

      I don’t have the LCK book, though it looks interesting. I did read Arika Okrent’s book, and plan on posting a review here one of these days. I tried inventing a language myself back in high school, before I knew anyone else had tried it. I aimed to eliminate ambiguity! I was proud of my 9-way verb tense system: For each main tense (past, present, future), there would be a perfect form, a simple form, and a future form. That is, forms for had done, did, would do, have done, do, am going to do, will have done, will do, and (most awesome of all) will be going to do. I also planned to have a negative conjugation, such that “not to do” and “to not do” would be automatically distinguished in my language. I envisioned a two-way adjective comparison system, such that there would be two superlative forms for (say) “fast”: one for “fastest” and one for “least fast” (i.e. slowest).

      Those were the high points of my creativity. Beyond that, my language stuck to what I knew. I had been taking Latin for a year by then, so I naturally had any case that Latin had, and none that existed in languages other than Latin, since I wasn’t imaginative enough to conceive of them. It would have singular and plural, because that was what I knew, and I wasn’t imaginative enough to come up with anything like dual or paucal. Furthermore, my language would express these cases with inflections, not syntax, and all the inflections would be affixes (not infixes, circumfixes, reduplications, ablaut, etc.). A guy at my lunch table even told me, “This is just Latin with different words!” That stung, but he was right. I never gave any thought as to what the syntax would be like. How would I form questions, put adjectives in order? I didn’t know. As for phonology, the language had all and only the sounds of English, since this was before I knew anything about phonetics. The effort fizzled when it came to actually populate the language with words, which was so boring that I don’t think I ever actually created more than five. Having a better idea of linguistic possibilities now, I don’t think I’d ever try to create a language again.

      Yes, it’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Zimmer. His guest columns must have been well received, or they wouldn’t have given him the permanent position, I’d think.

      • A few highlights from my conlang (for which I never developed much vocabulary):

        * All noun phrases begin with a word class that acts as an article/determiner if followed by a noun and as a pronoun otherwise. (This is actually attested in some German dialects and probably elsewhere.)
        * Most TAM information (tense/aspect/mood) is marked on the article of the nominative noun phrase instead of on the verb as in most languages. (Nominal TAM does exist in some real languages, but only to a small extent.)
        * A special form of adjective, the viaverbial, indicates that the adjective applies to the associated noun as a result of the interaction indicated by the main verb.
        * A unique way of forming passive sentences, using the viaverbial. For example, “I was eaten by you” would basically be “Me (eaten[viaverbial]) [dummyverb] you”.

        The main inspiration for these ideas was probably the online LCK.

        On crediting link sources, well, it’s extra information to keep track of, and I don’t think it’s worth the effort. I credit sources if there’s a particular reason to draw attention to it.

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