Friday, October 24, 2014

Looking for a very interesting book...

Familiar chain of events for many researchers, especially those dealing in fields where one needs to cite a lot of previous literature (like linguistics).
  • Finds book in the local university library that looks extremely useful and interesting
  • Gets very excited! Books! New knowledge!
  • Tries to borrow it
  • Cannot
  • Sees the return date and notices that it's overdue
  • Gets a vague feeling that the date looks familiar
  • Tries to track down who has the book
  • Realises that it's oneself
  • Remembers that this is not the first time this has happened

There's a last stage too that at least applies to me
  • Realises that while it's necessary and good to read previous literature, there is such a thing as too much and when you just borrow books that looks useful but actually don't read 'em then it's better to spend that time with your own data and ideas..

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why and why not?

As you probably noticed, several of the research projects I listed yesterday deal with the fundamental question of the driving forces of linguistic diversity and disparity. This all reminded me of one of my favourite Hjelmslev-quotes that we've posted before, but that always can do with some repetition.

[the aim of linguistic typology/theory] must be to show which structures are possible, in general, and why it is just those structures, and not others, that are possible

A famous quote that tells us a lot about the field of linguistics, or at least the aims of certain parts of the field.

Form Hjelmslev, Louis (1970[1963]) Language. An introduction. Madison: The University of wisconsin press [translation by Francis. J Whitfield of Hjelmslev (1963) Sproget. En introduktion. Copenhagen: Berlingske Forlag,(page 96)

Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965)
Louis Hjelmslev

Monday, October 20, 2014

Soon-to-come research in linguistics

It's very hard for an outsider to get a grasp on what's currently going on in linguistics, so I assembled here a few quotes for you from different research proposals and descriptions that have come during this year. This is not by any means a complete overview, just a few personal favorites. This should give you a better view of what research proposals look like, and a few of the current topics in linguistics. Do follow the links to learn more.

The spans of these projects are between 4-7 years and most often have just started or will very soon start. As you can probably tell there is considerable overlap in several cases. This might be a very good glimpse into studies that we should see published in a few years.

If you are considering studying in linguistics or pursuing a career in any other science of the humanities, having a look at calls, proposals and research aims of institutes, departments and centers are a very good idea. You might also want to consider signing up for the large mailing list in linguistics, here.

Alright, here we go!

University of Zurich (Switzerland)
Project: Special Interest Group (SIG) Areal Morphology within the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Language and Space at the University of Zurich
The URPP focuses on communication as linked to physical, social and perceptual space, through research on dialect/language contact as well as on interactional situations. Particular emphasis is placed on crossing traditional subdisciplinary boundaries and the URPP combines research in computational linguistics, geographic information science, comparative linguistics, Romance studies, German studies, Slavic studies, English studies, and Sinology.

Read more here

Dutch research consortium 'Language in Interaction' (Netherlands)
Language In Interaction
Project: PhD position 6:  The Babel Problem: The genesis and maintenance of diversity in human language
Diversity is one of the most extraordinary properties of human communication. An intriguing question is how this diversity - variation between languages and within languages - emerges and is maintained: the Babel Problem. (...) How much internal variation do these show? Given wide-spread multilingualism and contacts with others, how are boundaries maintained? This concerns both sharp (with unrelated languages) and soft boundaries (with related varieties). Do we find variation across all components of language? How is variation perceived?

Read more here

School of Oriental and Asian Studies (England)
Project: Crossroads - Investigating the unexplored side of multilingualism
Dr Lüpke’s project, due to start in January 2014, will research multilingualism in and language contact between three languages spoken at the "crossroads”, which is a group of neighbouring villages in the Casamance area of Senegal (West Africa). (...) The five-year project will look at social networks and the differences in language use in them.
Read more here 

Australian National University (Australia)
Project:  The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity
The project seeks to address fundamental questions of linguistic diversity and disparity through an analysis of linguistic variation and change. The project will address a crucial missing step in existing linguistic research by addressing the question of what drives linguistic diversification so much faster in some societies than in others. It will do this by undertaking intensive, matched case studies of speech communities across Australia and the Pacific

Read more here

Leiden University (Netherlands)
Project: Reconstructing the past through languages of the present: The Lesser Sunda Islands  
In areas without written historical records, where archaeological and ethnographic data are absent or sparse, language forms the backbone of our understanding of socio-cultural history. This project investigates one such region, in eastern Indonesia. What can languages spoken in the Lesser Sunda Islands today tell us about the histories of its various population groups?

Answering this question requires a novel, productive conjunction of contact linguistics, historical linguistics, and language typology studies. Our methodology includes quantitative cross-validation of qualitative research, and careful control of the variables that is uniquely possible in the Lesser Sundas.
Read more here

University of Zurich (Switzerland)
Project:  The Greater Burma zone - a transitional zone of languages and peoples
This project is a cross-disciplinary study of what I call the ‘Greater Burma Zone’, combining linguistics with anthropological and historical studies.(..) This project takes a fundamentally diachronic approach to the investigation of the language convergence, determining the social and political processes over the centuries that have brought speakers of languages into and across the region, and at other times have forced them out, leading to the present distribution of languages and linguistic features.

Read more here

ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (Australia)
(Not project, from description of entire centre)
The interdisciplinary team assembled by our Centre aims to transform the understanding of language, drawing on the unparalleled linguistic diversity of the Asia-Pacific region to build models of language structure, learning, use and evolution that treat language and languages as perpetually dynamic systems pervaded by variation at all levels. 

Read more here

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture."

Mark Dingemanse recently brought this quote to our attention at his blog, the Ideophone

 There is an urgent need for the comparative study, over as much of the world as possible, of the full range of paralinguistic phenomena — the kind of thing for which the linguistic field-worker is best fitted. Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture. 

Abercrombie, David. 1968. “Paralanguage.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 3 (1): 55–59. doi:10.3109/13682826809011441

Excellent, couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

tumblr linguistics at the Linguistic Society of America-meeting!

Hurray! Gretchen McCulloch, of McGill University and All Things Linguistics, is gonna be talking about linguistics on tumblr in a panel at the meeting of the Linguistic Society of America!

Read more about it in her post here and in the official abstracts of the panel!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Workshop on linguistic databases

This week in Nijmegen there was a workshop on cross-linguistic databases, organized by Harald Hammarström and Guillaume Ségerer.  Here are some random highlights and thoughts.

 One important application is in testing hypotheses about language history.  There were talks on RefLex for reconstructing lexicons of languages in Africa; SAILS for inferring linguistic areas in South America; and the history of Austronesian languages using the World Phonotactics Database.

PHOIBLE, a database of 2160 phonemes/segments and which languages they are found in, has new materials available for download at the PHOIBLE Github such as the decomposition of each phoneme into phonological features.  You can search not just for languages with a certain phoneme, but for languages with phonemes defined by a certain set of features (e.g. all types of 't', or all fricatives).

Some semantic databases were shown, including a beautiful visualization tool for showing common cross-linguistic polysemies at CLiCS.  Here is an example of the semantic network of the verb 'give', which shares the same form in five languages as the word for 'surrender'.  All five of the languages are Uralic.  This shows how a semantic pattern has been inherited or shared between these languages.  Interestingly, the words for 'give' in these languages are all different, as shown in the top left corner, showing how a semantic pattern can be transmitted independently of the forms themselves.

 Paul Heggarty presented his database of pronunciations of different words in English dialects and Germanic languages.  The question of how to standardize dialect names (e.g. English spoken in northeastern Scotland) arose.  I would like to see data points tied to specific speakers and geographical coordinates, as one possible solution.  The time that the data was elicited, and other information about the speaker could be provided (where they were born, gender, age, etc.).  Each datapoint could then be referred to as 'Speaker 1, (51.25, 0.04), 09:00 10/10/2014'.

There would then not necessarily be any need to standardize language or dialect names, which just leads to a proliferation of names. A search for British English could just be a search within a set of coordinates or a hand-drawn region on a map; as could a search for English spoken in North London, or English spoken on one side of Wimbledon.  This would allow arbitrarily fine-grained analysis of languages - e.g. Wa spoken in the centre of Ximeng (Yunnan, China) uses one form for 'eat', and half an hour's walk down the hill another form is used.  There is no need to specify different varieties of Wa just because of this difference; all that is needed is to tie a datapoint for the form 'eat' to a particular location, speaker and time.  This would also give you very fine-grained geographic and socio-linguistic data.  

Data from different databases can be compared, such as comparing phonological data with semantic, or genetic data with lexicons, and so on.  Much of the work in comparing data from different databases is in reconciling different formats.  There was therefore a consensus that there should be a standardized format for databases, which is probably a good idea (although Sean Roberts had a vague concern that this would speed up people's ability to fish through databases for spurious correlations).  The format in CLLD is a good standard to use.  There is also a plan for a website with an overview of all linguistic databases; in the mean time, the database page on this blog provides some of the more accessible ones.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Human beings in our planetary society, our pale blue dot

I enjoy scientific literature that talks about "humans" and our "planet". Here are some examples of this from linguistics.

Human beings on our planet have, past and present, used a number of languages. 

From the description of the BCP 47 codes.

The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech communities is the first classified inventory of the
linguasphere, the communicational environment which humankind has progressively extended around the globe since the invention of speech. 
The intended audience comprises not only specialists in linguistics and specific languages, but above all a general readership concerned with the future of humankind, and with the need to reflect on a collective global environment and a shared cultural heritage.
Every person is intimately involved with one or more languages as a central factor of their life on this "planet of speech", and everyone is already – or soon will be - directly affected by the greatest revolution and extension of the power of speech since the threshold of its original creation. 
 The chapters below are therefore devoted to complementary frameworks for the consideration of the languages of the world, and of speech as a global phenomenon. These are: Chapter 1, which presents a conceptual framework, based on the activity, the structure and the content of speech, viewed as a planetary phenomenon 
Volume Two comprises an annotated classification of over 30,000 languages and dialects spoken during the 20th century, providing a complete transnational system of linguistic reference for the documentation, study and continued exploration of humankind as a planetary society. 

From the description of the Linguasphere-project

As Cosmos is being remade with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am reminded by the words of the original series and the late Carl Sagan

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 

Earth. Planetary society. Humans. Taste those words, doesn't it feel wonderful?

.. If you ever wondered why physicists/mathematicians and linguists get on so well.. perhaps it's because we represent the epicness of the natural sciences and human sciences respectively. Epicness or hybris, I'm still not sure at times.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Scandal: linguistics used horribly wrong in evaluation of immigrant/fugitive's stories

Ethnologue is a catalog of the worlds languages with information on their genealogical relationship, number of speakers and some more demographic information. It's by SIL, the holders of the ISO-codes for language names. Ethnologue is usually the first go-to source for anyone wanting to know number of speakers and family relations and ISO-codes, both linguists and non-linguists use it frequently. (You can also use Glottolog, which often has better genealogical trees, division of languages and A LOT of bibliographical data, but no info on number of speakers or all countries the language is spoken in.)

Basically, governments have been misusing Ethnologue by using it as the ultimate source on who speaks what where. 

In one case, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service used the fact that the Ethnologue had no listing for a language by the name a defendant was using for it, as evidence that the language didn't exist and therefore drew the conclusion that the defendant's case was entirely fabricated. In the more recent case, a person's request for asylum in another country was opposed on the grounds that there was no Ethnologue listing for the language he speaks in the country that he was fleeing from. Though in neither case was the language of the speaker the central issue, the discrepancies between a person's claims and the data reported by the Ethnologue were used as evidence to undermine the defendant's credibility. 
it would be a misuse of the Ethnologue to base a legal decision solely on something the Ethnologue says or especially, on what the Ethnologue doesn't say. We have a high degree of confidence that the Ethnologue has the best word on the state of the world's languages, but we are equally certain that we'll never have the last word.

Speakers move around, the immigrate to new places and they have a hundred names for their languages and a different division of varieties into languages than linguists sometimes might have. Using Ethnologue like this is extremely stupid and dangerous. I am really glad Lewis made this post, hopefully it will spread and immigration services all over the world will think twice before making any lazy, stupid, ignorant and dangerous errors like this again. 

I am in general very sceptical to linguistics being used in evaluation of stories of fugitives and immigrants, I know the arguments for and I understand that it might work at times but there are just so many stories of it going horribly wrong that I can't imagine why it would be worth it.