Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘LSA’ Category

Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media

Posted by Neal on January 17, 2015

Sometime last spring, I got an email from Doug Bigham, a linguist at San Diego State University who I’d met at LSA 2011. He wanted to put together a special session for the LSA 2015 conference that took place last weekend in Portland, Oregon. The theme would be “Popularizing Linguistics Through Online Media,” and he figured that I could talk about blogging; Gretchen McCulloch, about her All Things Linguistic Tumblr page; Arika Okrent, about her listicle pieces on Mental Floss and TheWeek; Michael Maune [maUni], about his #lingchat hashtag on Twitter; Ben Zimmer, about writing for the in-print but also online Wall Street Journal and other news outlets; and Michael Erard, about the new Schwa Fire online linguistics magazine. Doug himself would talk about his linguistics YouTube channel, and tying it all together would be the discussant, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, who did this million-view TED talk on what makes a word real. Furthermore, he wanted to do it in a format that I’d never heard of: something called pecha kucha. Or to be more accurate, I had heard of it once or twice, but never been interested enough to find out what it was. But this sounded interesting, especially when some of the other invitees started signing on.

So I went to find out exactly what this pecha kucha thing was, and the first thing I found out was that it was pronounced not as [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] (“PETCH-uh KOOTCH-uh”), as I would have thought, but as [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ] (“peh-CHAH kuh-CHAH,” or “peh-CHOCK-chah”). Good thing I learned that. I didn’t want to sound like an ignoramus when I talked about it. The second thing I learned was that it was an exactly six-minute-and-forty-second talk, consisting of 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. Finally, I learned that because of the severely limited time format, the slides had to be mostly or entirely pictures. Standard PowerPoint outlines and bulleted lists, not a good format in the first place, were especially ill-advised in pecha kucha. With all that in mind, I emailed back and said I was in, but that I thought a better topic for me would be about writing guest scripts for the Grammar Girl podcast, since Gretchen seemed to have the blog component covered well, and I haven’t had as much time to blog as I used to.

The session was accepted, so last Friday we got together in an unused conference room in the Portland Hilton for some of us to meet each other for the first time, and try to get everyone’s slides integrated into one big slide show. “Have you ever done a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]?” Ben asked, as he and Doug bent over Doug’s laptop computer, trying to make the slides advance. Doug admitted he’d been having nightmares about doing this session.

Later that night, I rehearsed my talk again, and it was still coming in at 6:45 instead of 6:40. My roommate for the conference, Jason Zentz, even volunteered to be my audience for a run-through after he’d finished preparing the handouts for his talk (winner of the best student abstract). I told him about the [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə] pronunciation. Heck, I said, I’d like to pronounce it [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə], too; it sounded much better than the ear-grating [pəˈtʃɑ kəˈtʃɑ]. But just because I liked that pronunciation better didn’t mean I was just going to start using it when I know the more faithful pronunciation was something else. Jason said some stuff about Anglicizing borrowed words to match English phonotactics. Yeah, whatever.

The next morning at 8:15, we met in the ballroom for last-minute details. One that we hadn’t thought about was where to have everyone sit. There were seven of us, not including Anne Curzan, and only three seats on either side of the lectern. We decided that when one speaker finished, they would take the seat of the next speaker–an elegant solution, except for having to remember that when you sat back down, the glass of water in front of you was not the one you’d poured for yourself.

I was fourth up, after Doug, Michael M., and Gretchen. I had finally managed to get the time down to 6:40 more or less consistently, so imagine my surprise when I found that I had finished talking about one slide with 5 seconds left before it advanced. “Wow,” I said, “I seem to be running ahead. That doesn’t usually happen.” Then the slide advanced, and I realized that I was more like 5 seconds behind. “Wait, I’m behind!” I think I simply forgot to say what I had intended to say on the slide where I mentioned Grammar Girl episodes written by Stan Carey and Gretchen. (The slides are here.)

When Arika, Ben, and Michael E. finished their talks, it was time for Anne to come up and give her comments, which meant that all the seats and the lectern were occupied, so Doug took a seat out in the audience. Then came the questions from the audience, which took the entire half hour allotted to doing that, plus a few minutes after. The last person asked if this was the first time a presentation like this had been done at LSA, and Doug said he believed it was. “Yes!” he exclaimed. We did a [ˈpɛtʃə ˈkutʃə]!”

Posted in LSA, Self-promotion | 3 Comments »

More on Academic Skills: Conflict Resolution, Time Management, Work/Life Balance

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2011

And now for the last of the LSA2011 panel on skills for academic success. In addition to the presentations on networking and collaborating, there were talks on advisor/advisee relationships, conflict resolution, and time management. I’m combining these because I didn’t have as many notes on these talks. Also, I’m not going to post a summary on advisor/advisee relationships, because unlike the rest of the topics, that’s one that really is specific to graduate students, and won’t be as interesting or useful to a wider audience. Besides, I got there late for that talk, and missed a lot of what was said.

Robin Queen

So with that, let’s move on to the fourth presentation from the panel, Robin Queen of the University of Michigan on conflict resolution with a gripping tale of submitting a chapter of her dissertation to her committee members. Her advisor had given her positive comments on it, so when one of the other committee members flagged her down in the hall a few days later, she was eager to hear what had to say about it. She followed him into his office, and for the next half hour he berated her for just about every aspect of that chapter. His face was inches from hers, she kept backing away, he kept advancing, until literally she was backed up against a file cabinet waiting for him to run out of steam.

She later talked with her advisor about this incident, and they both decided that it was so out of character for the other professor that they should just pretend it hadn’t happened, and from then on, that one committee member was helpful, friendly, and kind, as if the confrontation had never happened. The moral? Actually, I didn’t get the moral, but luckily, Maryam Bakht (one of the organizers of the panel), did get it, and clued me in. As Maryam wrote to me, Queen was saying that “you needed to assess to see what was the right course of action for each situation. However, you need to think hard before either inaction (or hiding) or aggressive fighting for every point. In other words, choose your battles wisely.”

After that introduction, Queen said that a lot of conflict resolution in academia was like conflict resolution anywhere else, and it was hard to focus on issues specific to that setting. She noted, however, that academic discourse is founded on conflict, so a lot of conflict is not personal.

Maryam Bakht adds:

One of the takeaway points that Robin had is that linguistics/academia is a workplace. It isn’t the whole of your life. Thus, one should be mindful of the ramifications and consequences that come with the different choices that one makes. While people are and should be their own agents, it’s also the case that people should also be mindful that they will have to deal with the consequences to come.

Judith Tonhauser

Following Robin Queen was Judith Tonhauser of Ohio State University, but I was on my way to an American Dialect Society talk on what phonetic factors made someone sound gay. (The answer: It’s better to ask what makes someone sound straight; significant differences from that in any direction can increase perceptions of gayness.) The talks had been interesting enough, though, that I had already decided I was going to blog about them, and after the conference, fellow audience member Hui-wen Cheng of Boston University was kind enough to provide me the following notes:

[Tonhauser] said time management is actually career management. You should have a plan about how long it takes to get your PhD degree, to do a post doc, and to get a tenure.

After becoming a faculty member, you won’t have a big block of time to write papers, so you have to learn how to make use of any small amount of time that you have. She suggested to pick a certain period of time of the day to do writing, and to organize a support group with your peers to push your progress. She recommended a book, How to Write a Lot. Actually the two suggestions come from the book. She and other faculty members organize a support group which meets regularly and works very well for them.

One audience member asked about her dilemma: She and her boyfriend/husband live in two countries in different time zones. The time that her boyfriend/husband is able to talk to her happens to be the time that she feels most productive of the day. She doesn’t want to ruin her relationship or delay her academic progress. The speakers ended up telling her both she and her boyfriend/husband have to comprise to some point.

The final speaker was Monica Macaulay of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (who blogs at Mr. Verb). Maryam Bakht reports that this presentation was basically a synthesis of the earlier ones, but that there was special focus on the issue of having children. From Hui-wen Cheng’s notes:

This talk ended up a discussion about when is a best time for female researchers to have babies. She told a story about a young faculty member who is warned by other senior faculty members not to have more babies when she was pregnant with her first baby, otherwise she won’t get her tenure. This is because when an institution hires a new faculty member, they expect him/her to contribute a certain amount of time and energy to the institution. Having a baby is a distraction for a female faculty member. It is sad that whether and when to have a baby sometimes is not only your personal decision. You also have to put other faculty members’ opinions into consideration, because this is about what image you want to have for yourself.

So that’s all for the panel on skills for academic success. The last summary I’ll post will be from the previous night’s panel discussion on the academic job search.

Posted in LSA | 12 Comments »

Cathy O’Connor on Collaborating

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2011

Here’s the next of my summaries from the “Skills for Academic Success” panel from LSA 2011.

After Gregory Ward and Lauren Hall-Lew finished their presentation on networking, next up was Boston University’s Cathy O’Connor on collaborating. She began with the “what” and “who”: Collaboration is working together to achieve goals, and they need not be the same goals for each participant. Goals will differ depending on whether it’s two professors collaborating, a professor and a grad student, a new grad student and one further along, etc. She did make one exception, though: If all you’re getting is a paycheck (for example, if you’re just doing lab work for a professor who will write it up a single-author work), that’s not a collaboration. That’s just a job. For purposes of her talk, O’Connor narrowed the definition of collaboration to working together to help you produce something that will help you in your academic career.

Moving on to the “why”, O’Connor noted two common attitudes: “Gee, I wanna collaborate. How do I do it?” and “Ugh, do I have to collaborate?” She found that there were two main causes for the second attitude. First is encapsulated in the thought, “I’m unworthy, and will be revealed!” Variants: “They’ll find out how little I know!” “This is my only good idea, and they’ll get the credit for it!” The other one might be summed up as, “They’re unworthy, and I shouldn’t have to put up with their nonsense, only to have to dilute the credit I get for a paper.” Variants: “He’ll make me do all the grunt work”, “I’ll have to clean up his mess”; “He’s always flaky and late.”

In fact, these are reasonable fears, and depending on whom you work with, you may find yourself having either flavor of the “Do I have to do this?” attitude. So why do it? In short, when you work with someone else, there’s a chance that their strengths can balance out your weaknesses during the long process of doing research and publishing it.

There are many places to hit psychological blocks along the way. First of all, there’s the border between the land of “half-baked ideas, good questions, requests for papers, five neat examples” (where you could stay for years, O’Connor warned), and actual writing. Once you’ve started writing, there’s the psychological barrier you have to cross before asking people for feedback. Then there’s the rewriting. Then there’s actually submitting the paper somewhere (the biggest psychological barrier to clear, she said). And you can also get stuck between all the other steps (well, pairs of steps, I suppose) in the process of publishing a scholarly paper (see the writeup of last year’s panel discussion).

Collaborators can help one another get through these stages. If you’re a perfectionist, a collaborator can push you to get that draft out the door. If you’re a procrastinator, they can be the external nag that forces you to follow through on your plans. If you’re narrow-minded, they can open you up a bit. Or suppose you get some reviews back from an editor, and you can’t bring yourself to read them. For some people, that feeling doesn’t die down after a few minutes, or even a few weeks or months, and the reviews sit unopened. Now imagine your collaborator saying, “Ah, hand ’em to me! I’ll read ’em.” Five minutes later: “Ah, shoot, these aren’t so bad.”

“One year saved!” O’Connor concluded.

One question that didn’t come up was what if you tend to gravitate toward collaborators whose faults are like yours? But I guess in that case you’re no worse off than you would have been, and realistically, there are probably at least some of your weaknesses that a collaborator can compensate for.

So how should you go about doing a collaboration? First and foremost, ask yourself what you expect to get out of it. O’Connor shared several stories of resentment and hurt feelings because of misunderstandings in this area; for example:

  • Two collaborators worked on a project that they never published. Several years later, one of them picked up the project again, added to it, and published it alone. The other scholar was angry, but hey, the first one asked, “Are we collaborator-married for life?”
  • Researcher A asks Researcher B about something; Researcher B spends an hour or so helping. Researcher A includes B in the acknowledgments, but B was expecting coauthor credit! This is especially prone to happen when collaborations happen across fields of study, or even across subfields of one field of study. Norms can differ.

The moral: Assume nothing about the other’s expectations. Discuss them instead. O’Connor admitted that this can be an awkward conversation to have, but there you are.

A few other, standalone thoughts worth noting:

  • Next, follow the “30/70 rule”: Expect to do at least 30% of the work yourself, but be willing to do as much as 70%. Over the course of a long-term collaboration, this number will vary.
  • Never, ever confront a collaborator when you’re angry. Always talk to a neutral party, and not just any neutral party: a more-experienced neutral party who knows what’s right and what’s not.
  • Be careful: Notwithstanding the benefits of collaboration, you do still want to do some single-author work. Woe to the author whose papers are all collaborations and whose last name starts with a Z!

One audience member asked how you get someone to collaborate with you. O’Connor’s response: “How do you get someone to go out with you?” That wasn’t a flippant dismissal of the question, but an admission that it’s one without answers that are likely to generalize.

Posted in LSA | 2 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

Gregory Ward and Lauren Hall-Lew on Networking

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2011

After coming back from last year’s LSA conference, I wrote a post about a panel discussion that I found particularly useful on how to publish a scholarly paper. This year, there were two
more panels about aspects of an academic career, and again, I found myself taking more notes in these talks than in most of the other ones I attended, combined. Though they were aimed at graduate students, I would think a lot of the information these panels provided is useful for undergraduates, postdocs, and even fully employed professors, so once again, I’m turning my notes into a blog post. Or more accurately this time, blog posts. One of the panels was on “Skills for Academic Success,” and covered several topics, so unlike the whole discussion on academic publishing, the discussions in this panel can be separated into shorter posts.

Gregory Ward

Lauren Hall-Lew

Gregory Ward of Northwestern University, and Lauren Hall-Lew of the University of Edinburgh, teamed up to talk about networking.

Why network? At a conference like this one, everyone you meet is a potential future colleague, or future collaborator (in research, teaching and advising, or maybe event planning). In fact, even outside academic settings, you never know who you’ll meet. And networking isn’t just for getting a job. There are a lot of things that get done by turning first to the people you know: getting advice for teaching an unfamiliar course, helping students who have interests outside your own, finding reviewers and inviting speakers for a mini-conference, finding subjects for an online experiment or survey (there was laughter in the audience at this one, for a reason I’ll explain later), finding external examiners for your student’s work.

How to network? Ward began with a caution: If a person is not interested in talking or corresponding with you (a good indication is if you find yourself having to “pin them down” to talk with them), don’t bother trying to put them into your network. No good will come of that. Having discussed how notto network, Ward continued on to how to network. He recast the topic as getting yourself known, and broke that topic down into getting seen, getting heard, and getting read.

Regarding getting seen: attend conferences, institutes, talks… even if you’re not presenting anything! Even if you’re not interested in the subject! People can at least see you there and associate a face with your name, and that’s what you want. Of the jobs that he’s had to hire people for, the short list has always ended up filled with resumes with names that he or other search committee members can put a face to: “Oh, I’ve met this guy…”

Getting heard: Make presentations at conferences. Ask questions at other people’s conference talks—but make sure they’re intelligent questions, not stuff like, “What’s this word on page 2?” He had some other advice concerning conferences, but I’ll merge that a little later with what his co-presenter said. [UPDATE, Jan. 24, 2011: Fellow attendee Hui-wen Cheng caught a detail I’d missed: “[H]e emphasized the importance of attending talks held in your own institution. You will get more chances to talk to the invited speakers, because they are in a less familiar environment, and they want to talk to people.” Thanks, Hui-wen!]

Getting read: Well, of course there is getting papers published, whether they’re in journals, conference proceedings, or working papers. List them on your website, and keep your website updated! (In fact, this same advice came from the consultants in a students’ coffee lounge who were giving advice on academic
websites. First advice: Get one! Soon after: Keep that CV updated, and put the date you did so on it. That way, shame will force you to update it every few months.)

Next, send your stuff to people who would be interested. Sure, it’s self-promotion, but if you’re targeting the people who are researching the same kinds of topics as you are, they’ll be interested in hearing from a fellow researcher. More on this in the paragraph about conference follow-ups.

“Now that they know you…” Ward’s next slide began, and he recommended having the famous “elevator pitch”. For those who somehow haven’t come across this jargon yet, it’s a speech that you could conceivably deliver in the interval of an elevator ride if you happened to find yourself riding with someone who would be interested in your work). Fellow panelist Cathy O’Connor seconded this, and recommended actually practicing it. Ward agreed, and added having the 30-second version, the
5-minute version for those who are interested after hearing your 30-second version, and a ten-minute one for those still interested at that point.

Ward then yielded the floor to Lauren Hall-Lew, who called her segment Networking 2.0, and launched into the benefits of online social media for networking, including blogging, the site, Twitter and Facebook. She singled out Twitter for special attention, and said, without equivocation, that if you’re not on Twitter, get on there now! You can have lots of conversations with other linguists, she said, and pointed out that if you were on Twitter and searched for “#LSA2011,” you’d find a steady stream of messages from other linguists, some of them in this room right now (they waved). (It was true: At least half the people I met at this conference I met (directly or indirectly) because of my own Twitter account. I have Erin McKean to thank for prompting me to set up an @LiteralMinded account.) The laughter at Hall-Lew’s earlier comment about online experiments was
due to the fact that a few weeks earlier, she had tweeted a request for people to come take her online listening test involving /l/ vocalization. Hall-Lew was so sincere and emphatic about Twitter that several audience members took her advice and started Twitter accounts that very afternoon.

[UPDATE, Jan. 18, 2011: In an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Hall-Lew’s “Twitter feed also got her a visiting professor position, followed by the permanent position she has now”. That was an oversimplification, which may have given the impression that she just got a tweet one day, asking, “Hey, want to work for us?” That’s certainly not the case; Hall-Lew went through the usual reviews, interviews, presentations, and other parts in the process of landing a job in academia. (More on that when I summarize the panel discussion from the previous night, on academic job searches.) What did happen was that she received an invitation via Twitter to give a talk; that talk led to meeting other linguists; it was one more thing to put on her CV; etc. In her own words (via direct message on Twitter!), “Twitter is the new way to network. It can lead to things that build your CV, and building a CV is one of the things that helps in getting a job.”]

Ward and Hall-Lew each had some particular thoughts about networking as it pertained to academic conferences. First of all, don’t spend all your time
hanging out with people from your own institution, whom you’re just going to see again back home come Monday. Make a point of introducing yourself (or getting yourself introduced, if you’re shy) to people whose work you admire, or at least whose work relates to yours. And don’t stop there. Meet people you wouldn’t
ordinarily be talking to on other days. You never know who they might know. After a talk, go up and talk to a speaker if you are interested in what they said. “Great talk!” is not so impressive, but if you can offer something useful or interesting that shows you actually listened to the talk, or read the speaker’s work, that can leave a favorable impression, provided you do it without being a suck-up. (They didn’t elaborate on how to identify this threshold, unfortunately.)

Afterward the conference, talk to or email speakers that you have something else to say to. In particular, email them it if you’ve said you would. But use the interval between conference and email to check out the person’s website if you haven’t already. Respect their time by not sending long rambling emails, and not expecting an immediate reply back. Reintroduce yourself in the email, and always provide your contact information.

Posted in LSA | Leave a Comment »

Fossil Phoneme Discovered in Living Language

Posted by Neal on January 14, 2011

If you (a) are not a linguist, and (b) have heard of “click” languages at all, it’s probably been in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. That was certainly my first awareness of this kind of sound. When I heard people in the movie talking, I found it hard to believe that the clicks were actually part of the speech, instead of a sound effect that had been added. A few years later, when I took a phonetics course in college, I was further surprised to learn that there was more than one kind of click; more like four or five actually. One of them, the dental click written as [|] in the IPA, even exists in English, but since we don’t have letters to represent clicks, we write it as “tsk”. (If you actually pronounce tsk, tsk as “tisk, tisk”, well, that’s not a click. You probably also pronounce ahem as “a-hem”, don’t you?)

Amanda Miller

In recent years, though, I’ve gone beyond surprised and into overwhelmed when I learned that five clicks is just scratching the surface. Thanks to the field research of Amanda Miller, one of my former fellow grad students, I’ve learned that there are on the order of 40 or 50 click consonants. It’s fascinating research, and she does it with technology that just didn’t exist a few years ago (because it was Amanda who developed it). This slideshow presents it well.

Cool though that all is, there’s more. I attended Amanda’s talk at the Linguistic Society of America conference last week, and as I listened to her, I was reminded of a famous story in the history of linguistics. In 1879, Ferdinand de Saussure published a paper about Proto-Indo-European, and hypothesized that it had had three sounds in its phonetic inventory that had morphed into other sounds in every known daughter language. Sally Thomason retells the story in this 2007 post on Language Log, and writes, “the idea of reconstructing unknown, unattested consonants did not appeal to traditionalists.” But several decades later, Saussure was vindicated with the decipherment of Hittite in the early 20th century, when two out of those three consonants were discovered in the Hittite texts. (That is, some words for which Saussure had proposed these sounds in PIE showed up in Hittite writing, with a mysterious character appearing where these consonants would have been.)

In her talk, Amanda talked about the African languages !Xung and Ju|’hoansi. In Ju|’hoansi, there is a pair of homophones, pronounced [gǃűű], which mean “water” and “belly”. ([!] is an alveolar click, a bit like [|], but sharper and louder.) Meanwhile, in the closely related !Xung, specifically the dialect spoken in an area known as the Mangetti Dune, the words aren’t homophones. “Belly” is still pronounced [gǃűű], but “water” is [gǁűű]. ([ǁ] is a lateral click, in which the tongue tip stays in contact with the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth, while the sides of the tongue move downward. According to the Wikipedia article, this sound is used by English speakers to call horses.)

The conclusion, then, is that in Proto-Ju, the ancestor language to M.D. !Xung and Jo|’hoansi, these words weren’t homophones. Suppose they had been. If the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǃűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be homophones in M.D. !Xung, pronounced as [gǃűű]. Likewise, if the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǁűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be pronounced as [gǁűű]. It would be highly irregular for the same sound in the similar phonetic environment (you can’t get environments more similar than in a pair of homophones!) to undergo a sound change for one word and not another.

So if “belly” and “water” in Proto-Ju weren’t homophones, how were they pronounced? “Belly” is easy: Since it appears as [g!űű] in both M.D. !Xung and in Ju|’hoansi, the most reasonable guess is that’s how it was in Proto-Ju, too. But what about “water”? We’ve already established that it most likely was not [g!űű] in Proto-Ju, since that would have made it a homophone with “belly”. So maybe it was *[gǁűű]. That’s where we’ll leave it for now.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Bonny Sands published a paper arguing that in Proto-Ju, there had been yet another click consonant, a retroflex click (in which the tongue tip curls backwards), which she wrote as [!!], which disappeared, gradually coming to be pronounced as [!] in Ju|’hoansi, and as [ǁ] in M.D. !Xung. Like Saussure’s reconstructed sounds for Proto-Indo-European, the sound [!!] was unattested in any known language.

However, Amanda has now found this sound, like a Coelacanth in the Indian Ocean, still present in a living (albeit endangered) language! With high-speed ultrasound technology, she has recorded this sound in the speech of a different variety of !Xung, spoken in the area known as Grootfontein. As in M.D. !Xung, “water” and “belly” are not homophones in this language. As we would expect, “belly” is once again pronounced [g!űű], but the word for “water” is [g!!űű], containing the heretofore unattested retroflex click! [UPDATE, Jan. 14, 2010: I should add that this kind of “minimal pair” data, in which a single difference in sound is all it takes to convey a different meaning, is the gold standard of evidence that two sounds are separate phonemes in a given language.]

So to sum up the parallel developments of the words for “belly” from Proto-Ju to Ju|’hoansi, M.D. !Xung, and Gfn !Xung:

  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into Ju|’hoansi [g!űű], where the merger of [!!] and [!] creates the homophones for “water” and “belly” that exist today.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into [gǁűű] in M.D. !Xung. It doesn’t create any homophones there.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] remains [g!!űű] in Gfn. !Xung.

To support this clasim, Amanda presented both acoustic evidence (waveforms, etc.) and articulatory evidence (the ultrasound data, plus palatograms and linguograms — results of a test involving painting the tongue or palate with a mixture of olive oil and charcoal dust, having the speaker make the sound, and then seeing where the oil/charcoal mixture has been rubbed off). Her diagnosis is that the merger of *[!!] and [ǁ] along the way to M.D. !Xung was motivated acoustically (i.e., the two sounded alike), while the merger of *[!!] and [!] along the way to Ju|’hoansi was motivated articulatorily (i.e., the two sounds are made in much the same way).

What I’ve summed up in this one post covers an incredible amount of travel, technical development, fieldwork, and lab analysis. An amazing piece of work!

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, LSA | 8 Comments »

All Work and No Play

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2011

In my last post, I wrote, “…there was one piece of data that I kept trying to cover, but could only do so at the cost of letting this quant/SOA ambiguity occur with all NPs, not just indefinites (i.e., those that could fit into the sentence frame There+be). Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief?” I promised the answer in the next post, so here it is:

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Taken compositionally, this sentence would mean the following:

Every kind of work makes Jack a dull boy, and no kind of play makes Jack a dull boy.

The intended meaning, of course, is something like, “When everything is work, and nothing is play, that state of affairs makes Jack a dull boy.” This is a somewhat different paraphrase than I was giving the SOA interpretations in the last post. There, I was using there-existential sentences. If I had been writing about a simpler sentence like No play makes Jack a dull boy, I would have rephrased it as “When there is no play, that makes Jack a dull boy.” But now I’ve switched to “When nothing is play….” I did that so it could be syntactically parallel to when everything is work. I had to rephrase All work that way, because rephrasing it as “There is all work” is no good. All isn’t one of those existential determiners that fit into the there+be frame.

And the problem is not just that There is all work sounds funny. If I used the same formal semantics on all work as I used on the existential noun phrases like no play, too much beer, or more money, it would mean “the state of affairs in which all the work exists.” Well, that SOA is trivially true. All the work that exists exists. For that matter, all the anything that exists exists, and that’s not what the sentence means.

So the SOA meaning that worked for no play doesn’t work for all work. On the other hand, the SOA meaning that does work for all work is also fine for no play. So why not just go with an analysis that uses the SOA meaning semantics for all work?

Well, now that I’m letting one non-existential NP have the SOA meaning, I’ve essentially opened the gates for any NP at all to have it. I could theoretically say something like Neal makes Jack a dull boy and mean “The state of affairs in which Neal exists makes Jack a dull boy.” Furthermore, I don’t even think that all itself participates in SOA meanings outside this expression and its derivatives. I did a quick search in COCA for all plus a noun and didn’t find anything. I limited the search to all plus a noun followed by the verb mean, since that verb is especially fond of SOA NPs for subjects and direct objects. When I did that, I turned up All options means all options, but even there, I think something else is going on. It’s really not so much an actual use of the NP all options as it is a mention of it, a quotation of a snippet of a sentence: “When I say ‘all options’, I mean ‘all options’.” So for that reason, I’m sticking with SOA semantics for existential NPs only, and excluding All work and no play as an individually learned idiom.

My poster session is from 10:30 to noon tomorrow, so if you’re at LSA, come by and tell me why I’m all wrong about this!

Posted in LSA, Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 9 Comments »

No One Would Be Better

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2011

Of course you’ve read, at some point, lists of sentences taken (supposedly) from letters of recommendation whose authors were unable to gracefully refuse to write them. Instead, the letter-writers damn with faint praise, with sentences like, “John always came to class on time.” Or they offer carefully ambiguous phrasings like, “I can’t recommend him highly enough.” The ambiguity there is easily enough pinned down: Is it impossible to recommend him highly enough because he is so good that no recommendation can do him full justice, or because of ethical considerations (you cannot do it because you know he’s not suited for the job).”

How about this one? “No one would be better for this position than Jen Smith.” Yeah, I get it: The hidden meaning is that Jen Smith is so incompetent that having no one at all take the job would be preferable to hiring Ms. Smith. But where does that ambiguity come from? It’s not one of the kinds I’ve written about enough to have created a category of posts for it: attachment ambiguity, scope ambiguity, de dicto/de re. There is something to say about it pragmatically: If the author had wanted to unambiguously convey that Jane Smith was the best candidate, they could have done so by writing, “Jane Smith is without question the best candidate for this job.” The fact that they wrote something that could be interpreted two ways indicates that they didn’t wish to send that message. Still, we’re left with the question of how this sentence is able to encode both these messages.

The same kind of ambiguity comes up in proverbs such as No news is good news and Half a loaf is better than no loaf, and unremarkable sentences like Well, a peanut butter sandwich ‘s better than nothing, or I suggest no liquids after 11:00 PM. Under ordinary quantifier semantics, these sentences would mean that there is no such thing as good news; that there exists no loaf that half a loaf is better than; that a peanut butter sandwich is the worst thing that exists; and that there are no liquids that I suggest after 11:00 PM.

I’ve wondered for years how this ambiguity is represented in formal semantics, and have figured that it’s so pervasive that someone must have covered it somewhere. It doesn’t happen just with no. It also happens with quantifiers such as too many, as in Too many cooks spoil the broth. That sentence doesn’t mean that there are too many broth-spoiling cooks in town (though it could); it means that when you have too many cooks, you end up with spoiled broth. But after studying semantics for years and still never coming across anything on this kind of ambiguity, I figure it’s time to offer my own analysis, and that’s what I’ll be doing in Pittsburgh this Saturday, at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference. My poster is titled “‘No news is good news’: The quantifier/SOA ambiguity in English”.

SOA stands for “state of affairs”, which is what I take the meanings of the above examples to involve: the state of affairs in which there is no one hired, there is no news, there is half a loaf or a peanut butter sandwich, there are no liquids after 11:00 PM, or there are too many cooks. All these SOAs are SOAs in which something or other exists (instead of, say, SOAs in which something happens or someone does something), and in fact, this kind of ambiguity only occurs with noun phrases that fit comfortably in sentences fitting the template There+be — in other words, with indefinite or existential NPs. For example, you can’t say, “There are most women in this class.” And when you replace no or too many with most

Most news is good news.
Most cooks spoil the broth.

— you don’t have an SOA reading anymore. These sentences mean that most of the news in the world is good, and that more than half of all the cooks out there spoil broth.

If you’re attending the conference, stop by and check out the poster. If you’re not, or if you’re just impatient, you can click on the poster below to see it now.

Click to access full poster

It took me a long time to buckle down and do the poster, though, because there was one piece of data that I kept trying to cover, but could only do so at the cost of letting this quant/SOA ambiguity occur with all NPs, not just indefinites. Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief? No fair if you’ve already examined the poster! Stay tuned for the answer in the next post.

Posted in LSA, Pragmatics, Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 9 Comments »

Special Needs

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2010

Around these parts, there’s an unusual kind of syntactic construction used to express necessity. I first heard about it in a class on historical linguistics, but didn’t hear it “in the wild” (as we linguists say) until I was married and heard my brother-in-law say at a cookout,

The burgers need flipped.

That is, where I would say “The burgers need to be flipped”, this construction has the passive participle (flipped in this example) right after need. This needs done construction is one of the features of Appalachian English, although it also shows up in varieties of English north of the Appalachians. Since I heard that first example, I’ve heard many others from many people. It’s part of my wife’s dialect, so Doug and Adam have acquired it, too.

In light of my personal experience with needs done, I was interested to hear a talk at LSA 2010 by Dan Brassil called “A Middle Voice in Appalachian English”. He was making an interesting claim: That needs done is not a case of passive voice; in other words, it’s not just the same kind of structure as needs to be done with the to be omitted, as has been argued in the past. Instead, he claims that it’s an example of middle voice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in LSA, Passive voice, Variation | 26 Comments »

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

Posted in Adam, Cats, Doug, LSA, Pragmatics, The wife | 7 Comments »