Monday, September 29, 2014

South America in Linguistic Typology

Ergativity on tumblr just made a post with this quote:

[South America] has been underrepresented in typological surveys and in the typological literature generally, and knowledge of the different kinds of typological features and their distribution in the world is significantly limited by this absence.
— Campbell Lyle & Grondona Verónica (Eds.). 2012. The Indigenous Languages of South America: A Comprehensive Guide,vol. 2. p.259 (via ergativity)

This is true and not ideal. In light of that, I'd just like to again bring up the free online linguistics database SAILS (South American Indigenous Language Structures). You can find out a lot of information about many languages of SA there. You find a helpful post about it here.

You can also have a look at SAPhon, South Ameircan Phonological Inventory Database.

There are over 380 million people living in South America and 458 living languages. There are grammars or grammar sketches of at least 350 of those. Let's do better.

What linguistic terminology bothers you?

So, we've talked before on this blog about linguistic terminology. It's well-known that linguistics has a lot of terms, many of them used differently in different contexts or restarted un unexpected ways. Right now I'd like you suggestions for linguistic terminology that stands out.

I'd like to know terminology that you find to be
  • restricted in an unusual way to a certain group of linguists or language family
  • unusually polysemic
  • restricted in time in som way (archaic or very new for example)
If you have any suggestions, feel free to submit them here! All you need to do is follow that link and edit the spreadsheet (anyone can edit, you don't even need a Google-ID), or leave a comment here on this blog post or tell us here. Don't worry about really clever or super new suggestions, all suggestions are good suggestions just lay them on me :)!

I also recommend reading this text I wrote here about linguistic terminology and the dangers of standardisation/eurocentricism.

Oh, and a shoutout to All Things Linguistics and their Crowdsources linguistic project for explaining linguistic terms.  Hurray for intelligent and helpful ideas!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Get the best colors for your map!

If you are making maps, you need this new thing I've just been introduced to: Color brewer! Hurray!
It's a simply site that helps you select colors for your maps that are maximally contrastive and informative, but also safe for color blind people, printing etc. It might not solve problems with projectors (you know what I'm talking about), not sure about that yet.

Anyway, it's a great thing and I am very happy about it!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Linguists are humans too

Humans like to form groups, and linguists, and academics in general, are human too (despite popular beliefs that we're all lizards and/or AI). Within these groups there are certain shared conventions and expected shared knowledge and assumptions. Groups are established both by shared conventions, culture etc, but they are also a product of the exclusion (intentional or not, explicit or implicit) of others.

The rules that govern whether or not a statement is a viable member of a language is called grammar, it can vary with each group you are a part of and even over time and specific context within that group.

Sometimes the term "grammar" is used more broadly also outside of the study of language and is also applied to any set of rules that govern whether something is a member of a system or not, such as the grammar of Chinese ice-ray latices (see Stouffs & Wieringa 2006). FYI, this is a an ice-ray latice (image taken from here) --->

(This perspective leads us to believe that grammar is about discrete borders, member or not-member, and this is of course not true. Even if we imagine such a discrete system to be true in a specific instance (a combination of which interlocutors, your respective social roles, time and date, etc) we'd still have to cope with a gazillion of those systems as every variable change. But.. anyway.*)

So, we can, if we so choose, speak of grammar of sociological group membership and grammar of linguists.

Sometimes these sociological groups in linguistics correlate with the practice of certain theoretical models, schools or frameworks, other times country of origin or the genealogical groups that the linguists study (Austronesianists, Algonquianists). One of the benefits of forming groups for humans is that communication becomes more efficient if one needs to provide less background information and less information to disambiguate meaning, one of the drawbacks it that it might make the research less accessible to others that might improve upon it and further our understanding of the world.

I was reminded of this because I saw that in one of the latest podcasts from the Speculative Grammarian we will be provided with, among other topics: an explanatory model of the success of the most successful frameworks, of tribalism in linguistics

This also reminds me of a recent paper by Haspelmath where he writes the following (my hyperlinks):

It is not hard to see that linguists who work on linguistic diversity tend tofall into two very rough sociological groups: Those who are more likely to attend
conferences like the Association for Linguistic Typology and publish in journals like
Linguistic Discovery, and those who are more likely to attend West Coast Conference on
Formal Linguistics and publish in NLLT. But what kind of intellectual difference, if any,
corresponds to this grouping?

My feeling is that the intellectual difference between the two sociological groups is
not well understood in our field, and that many linguists who tend to hang out in one
of the groups more than in the other are perhaps not committed to a particular
intellectual orientation. (free PDF of entire paper here)

So yes, linguists are humans too and form groups, let's hope that we're sensible enough to not let that stop us from communicating outside of those groups in an enough intelligible way so that our field might move further and prosper.


Haspelmath, Martin (to appear) Descriptive hypothesis-testing is distinct from comparative hypothesis-testingTo appear in "Language" (Perspectives), reply to position paper by Davis, Gillon and Matthewson (free PDF here)

Stouffs, Rudi and Mark Wieringa (2006)The generation of Chinese ice-ray lattice designs on 3D surfaces. Communicating Space(s), 24th eCAADe Conference Proceedings, Volos, September 6-9 (Free PDF here)

* This paragraph constitutes what Swedes would call a "brasklapp", a reservation to answer to criticism the author knows will come. The term has historical origins as the Bishop Hans Brask added a little note to an important document with his signature. This note said that he did not agree with the decision and the term "brasklapp" came to mean a hidden reservation, and then just.. a reservation. This story might not be true, but the word does exist. This has been your Swedish lesson of the day, you are welcome. Hurra!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Free Online Linguistics Databases!

So, linguistic typology (the method/field of systematic cross-linguistic comparison) is sorta a combination of this

and this 

Do tell us if we're missing something or if there's a term you don't understand :)! 

Happy typologizing! 

And always remember: read their definitions carefully before questioning the coding of a feature in a specific language, if problem still remains or definition is non-existent: then email the editors.

Monday, September 15, 2014

WALS Sunburst Explorer!

There's a new kind of tool that lets you explore the data from the World Atlas of Language Structures (massive typological database): WALS Sunburst Explorer!

This new tool let's you investigate the WALS data and correlations between typological features and geographical areas and/or genealogical groupings in an easy way. It's very user-friendly, just go there and click around and you'll understand. You can manipulate the map and the "wheel" (the "sunburst") by clicking on segments.

It's based on the classical genealogical classification of WALS (i.e. not identical to Ethnologue or Glottolog, mind you) and more or less classical divisions of the world into countries and macro areas (Africa, South America, North America, Oceania, Eurasia and South East Asia). You can also define your own areas by selecting an area on the map.

The center of the wheel when you start is "all", the first level outside is macro areas, the second is top-level-family, the third is genus and the fourth and last is the languoid-level. Genus is a genealogical group of languages with a depth of 3500-4000 years, you can read more about the this and the WALS genealogy here. There are more genealogical levels than just top-level family, genus and languoid (what's languoid?), but since they're so varied in different groupings they've decided to only display three levels here. I've also noticed that the top-level-families get placed in one macroarea even if member languages occur outside, Afro-Asiatic is for example in Africa even if Hebrew is in Western Asia. Not that weird, but just handy to know as you play with the tool.

You get back to "all" languages genealogically and geographically by clicking the center of the wheel, you get back to all language geographically as opposed to your selection by clicking outside of the area you've selected on the map.

I've been playing around with it for a few seconds and learned that in Africa the genus with least tone are Berber and Semitic (not surprising, but I wanted something easy to check). Languages that have not been coded for having tone by Maddieson are the blue pie pieces up above.

So,  this is an exciting time to be a linguist on the internet:
I've learned from being on tumblr, and the internet in general, that there's usually a Beyonce-gif for every occasion, and I was not disappointed today. This is how I feel:

Back to seriousness, here's an excerpt from the release statement by the creators of WALS sunburst:

The WALS Sunburst Explorer shows the values for all WALS features by combining the geolocation of the respective languages with their genealogy in a sunburst visualization (Stasko and Zhang 2000). The map and the sunburst are enhanced with interactive functionality and linked views. The user can select a region of the world map to get only those languages spoken in that area displayed in the sunburst. The sunburst itself is zoomable. If you click on a segment, only the languages of the respective subfamily are displayed.  

 The main aim of the WALS Sunburst Explorer is to help its users to distinguish between cases of language contact and genealogical inheritance (Mayer et al. 2014; Rohrdantz et al. 2012). The combination of both types of information can be approached from two different angles. The first approach focuses on a given geographical distribution to explore whether the languages in that area all belong to the same family and thus lead to a clustering of the inherited feature at a certain region of the world or whether there is a real contact situation with unrelated or distantly related languages sharing the feature through borrowing. The second approach concentrates on a given language family to check whether the feature values are the same or similar for all members of the family or whether a divergent feature value can be attributed to the fact that the language is spoken in a different region and might have borrowed the divergent feature from a neighboring language. The WALS Explorer provides the necessary functionalities to tackle both approaches. 

Thomas Mayer, Bernhard Wälchli, Christian Rohrdantz, Michael Hund

Alright, go play now and have a good monday!

Dryer, Matthew S. and Martin Haspelmath (eds.). 2013. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2014-08-13.)

Mayer, Thomas, Bernhard Wälchli, Christian Rohrdantz and Michael Hund. 2014. From the extraction of continuous features in parallel texts to visual analytics of heterogeneous areal-typological datasets. In Nolan, Brian and Carlos Pascual-Periñán (eds.), Language processing and grammars: The role of functionally oriented computational models (SLCS) (Serie: Studies in Language). Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 13-38.

Rohrdantz, Christian, Hund, Michael, Mayer, Thomas, Wälchli, Bernhard & Keim, Daniel A. 2012. The World’s Languages Explorer: Visual analysis of language features in genealogical and areal contexts. Computer Graphics Forum 31(3): 935–944.

 Stasko, John & Zhang, Eugene. 2000. Focus+context display and navigation techniques for enhancing radial, space-filling hierarchy visualizations. In Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Information Visualization. Los Alamitos CA: IEEE Computer Society, 57–65.

Inventories of the speech sounds of 1, 627 languages now online!

It now features 1, 627 languages! And it's freely available online with a user-friendly interface!
A phonetic inventory is a description of the speech sounds in a language that are meaningful, i.e. if one changes on into the other it makes a change in meaning. [l] (<low>) and [ɻ] (<row>) are for example  both phonemes of English, but not in Korean or Mandarin.

We're gonna tell you lots more about it under the tag FreeOnlineLinguisticsDatabases,
but for now just enjoy that there's a new version up with lots more languages and other handy changes to the site! 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Linguistic relativism short

Today I'd like to share with you a short excerpt from an abstract of a talk by Asifa Majid that I just found very well put.

Some believe that language is a direct window onto concepts: Having a word ‘‘bird’’, ‘‘table’’ or ‘‘sour’’ presupposes the corresponding underlying concept, BIRD, TABLE, SOUR. Others disagree. Words are thought to be uninformative, or worse, misleading about our underlying conceptual representations; after all, our mental worlds are full of ideas that we struggle to express in language. How could this be so, argue sceptics, if language were a direct window on our inner life?

 from Majid, A. (2012). Taste in twenty cultures [Abstract]. Abstracts from the XXIth Congress of European Chemoreception Research Organization, ECRO-2011. Publ. in Chemical Senses, 37(3), A10. (free PDF here) 

Also, I'd like to share an old sketch of mine where I tried to illustrate langue and parole in conversation. Please don't take it as underlying concepts = langue, that's not it at all. There should be at least arrows pointing at underlying concepts, langue and shared knowledge/expectations in this illustration. I will make new ones, they will get messier the more I try to cram our ideas about the mind and language into them, but I think that would be rather pleasing and illustrative.
If you're curious about this topic, I' also like to recommend these articles:

Levinson, S. C., & Majid, A. (2009). The role of language in mind. In S. Nolen-Hoeksema, B. Fredrickson, G. Loftus, & W. Wagenaar (Eds.), Atkinson and Hilgard's introduction to psychology (15th ed., pp. 352). London: Cengage learning. (free PDF here) 

Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2011). The senses in language and culture. The Senses & Society, 6(1), 5-18 (free PDF here)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More Open Access Publishing of Linguistic Descriptions!!

There's a new Open Access Publishing initiative in town: Endangered Languages Publishing!

There are now three (Platinum) Open Access publishing houses in linguistics: Language Science Press, Language Documentation & Conservation and Endangered Languages Publishing. There are others, the old houses are trying to keep up, but these three adopt a very radical version of Open Access: publications are free for both authors and readers ("Platinum OA").

Endangered languages publishing (EL publishing for short) was just recently founded by Peter Austin, David Nathan and Julia Sallabank​​. Their website has already had over 1900 visitors and among other things contains the latest volume of Language Documentation and Description (LDD 12 -- a special issue on documentation and archiving), an app dealing with Khoi-san languages, and the complete back catalog of LDD volumes 1 to 11.​

David Nathan wrote a very good post on the PARADISEC blog about the first month of EL publishing, what Open Access is and what it means to linguistic research. If you are interested in linguistic description and the reality of the publishing world, you should read that blog post.

OA sceptics sometimes worry that the quality will not be high enough without the old big publishing houses machinery, but keep in mind that most scholars who edit, write or review for those houses already work for free. So why not gather those same people, apply for money from big grant agencies and/or crowdsources money to hire copywriters etc and keep it all OA? These initiatives listed above are for example keeping a very high quality by recruiting top names in the different fields, there is no need to assume that OA equals lower quality.

The funding agencies often prefer OA, DFG (German taxpayers) has for example funded Language Science Press and more and more grant bodies are demanding that the research their funding will be OA. If you want to read more about money flow in academic publishing and OA, I recommend reading this info from Language Science Press.

OA, and in particular in linguistic of anthropological fieldwork, is not unproblematic. There are issues that need to be discussed and addressed properly. As said before, I really recommend you reading Nathan's post but do also read Ruth Singers on OA and intimate fieldwork.

All of this really reminds me of the discussions we were having on tumblr a while back on the problem of "making fun" of natural utterances in linguistic descriptions and who should have access to linguistic data. If you are interested in these types of ethical issues in linguistic description and publishing I recommend following those links and the links onwards from there.

I write on this blog mainly for that the audience of curious and thoughtful tumblrers and young people interested in linguistics, like those who participate in the Linguistic Olympiads or young language nerds in general. I am a nerd and I know what it means to be able to share my interest with others on the internet and learn from each other. I am very happy that we are able to have these important discussions and that you are interested in these topics. Thank you for that.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

If political borders were redrawn to match "protection of speakers of major languages"

Apparently Putin has been arguing that one of the motives of going into Crimea is that Russia owes protection of Russian speakers everywhere. As you probably can tell this is a very strange argument and if it was true the world would look very different. The Economist decided to follow up on this and based on the CIA Factbook and the Ethnologue they produced the map you see below. They also added some fun commentary, go read!
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2014
 Besides being a fun joke on Putin's silly argument, this map is a very educational illustration of colonialism and in particular the so called "Scramble for Africa". If you missed that part of world history in school, do take a long good look at this map up above by going to the original article and zooming in.

The blog of the Ethnologue also joined in and added some much needed reflections on the state of diversity in the world today, it's a definite must-read for all interested in linguistic diversity and the Ethnologue.

There's approximately 7 000 languages in the world today and 193 member states of the UN. The idea of one country = one people = one language = one religion = one culture is not universal, not in space or in time. It has it's modern origins in nation state building era in Europe in the 1800's when we started cutting of linguistic continua, standardizing languages even more and just in general building a unified national identity. Monolingualism, individual and in a community, is not a as common in history and over the world as you might think.

Many empires and nations have existed with a plurality of ethnicities, religions, languages etc. If you're interested I really, really recommend reading more about the history of nation states here and/or watch this short, humorous and educational video about the Persian Empire here. If you want to learn even more about multilingualism in the highly successful Persian Empire, there's this good academic but still easily readable publication.

In fact.. this all got me thinking. How far does this argument of Putin's stretch in time and space? How different can the language varieties be? And also, if there are lots of speakers of different major languages somewhere - who wins? I guess the one with the largest population in the geographical area, or more economic power.. or firepower.

I'm a Swede and I'm asking as a citizen of what would become "Vikingland" (the green parts). Nevermind the lumping together of our languages & cultures, I actually don't mind that and believe that Swedes in general should make more efforts in understanding Danish buut... I feel we've potentially been given too little land, depending on the rules we're using. In this brave new world I'd like to try and claim at least Estonia and this little village in Ukraine called 'Gammelsvenskby' (Eng: 'Village of the Old Swedes'), which, just to add to the humor of it all, is not that far from Crimea. You see, there's a variety of Swedish spoken there. They got separated from the motherland around 14th century by the (du-du-duuuh) Russians. You can read more about the Swedish diaspora here.

Depending on the size of the territories that are up for discussion (why only "countries"?), the disparity of the languages varieties, population sizes etc we could attempt claiming this plot of land and many others. Scotland is btw apparently already interested in joining us Vikings, and I for one bid them a warm welcome!

Last year, a Russian news anchor Дми́трий Киселёв* accused Sweden of organizing anti-Russian protests in Kiev, together with Poland and Lithuania, in order to seek revenge on Russia for the Battle of Poltava in 1709. (Yes, apparently we're holding a 300-year-old grudge.)

This is of course ludicrous, we're a tiny nation with no intentions of retaking territories or picking a fight with any of the super powers of today. For crying out loud, we stayed "neutral" in WW2 - we didn't even formally side with the allies or officially send armed forces to help our Finnish brethren against Soviet in the Winter War (we did send volunteers though). I feel very strange having to spell all of this out, but I don't know our readers knowledge on this subject. This news piece is however very authentic and sincere and it's actually by the same man who hated on Swedish children's TV a while ago.

What the Mr Дми́трий Киселёв has against Swedes I will never really know, but these rhetorics from Putin and the map by the Economist has got be thinking about that old battle of Poltava again and Swedish claims to Ukraine - perhaps Киселёв is right about us, we should never have given up our territories in the Eastern Baltic and let them found St Petersburg..

(Again, I feel strange having to spell this out but in the light of statements by Mr Киселёв I feel that I need to say: I'm being humorous. Naturally, we need to take Finland first.)

I like Russia, I'm very interested in and have a great respect for Russian history and culture. I am very happy to have many Russian friends and I know that current politics of leaders does not reflect the attitudes of all citizens. I also know that many Russians are increasingly tired of constantly having to discuss highly problematic, complicated and controversial issues in a simplified and agitated manner with foreigners. I also know and am very worried by the growing hate/fear of Russians in Sweden and elsewhere. (Svenskar bör läsa detta.) I hope you all understand that these are complicated issues that should not be taken lightly. I also hope that you understand the humor that can arise from a particular situation like this, but that you refrain from generalizing and oversimplifying these matters.

Btw speaking of not all Russian citizens agreeing with the politics of their leaders, I would also highly recommend that you watch the second episode of 'Out There' with Stephen Fry  where he visits St Petersburg and speakers to politicians and ordinary people. The series is about showing that LGBT-people exists everywhere, and so does hatred/fear and love/acceptance. The most heartwarming example of the latter is this Russian lady from the Daily Show who quotes the excellent show Angel:

That's it for now, Viking Supremacy ftw!


* Come on, learn Cyrillic! It's fun! Here's a handy site with some help with Russian names. 

EDIT**** Before you say, yes it must be a mistake that Iceland is not colored green as the rest of Vikingland. They're our proud brothers & sisters and we wouldn't want to conquer any ex-viking territory without them!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What if there was a place where we didn't review results when approving publications?

I'm day dreaming about there existing a journal/book series of academic publications that encouraged improvements and innovation in methodology and data collection by letting reviewers review everything but the results when approving articles. This has actually already been done once (thanks Lilla for the tip):
These proposals will be reviewed for their importance and soundness. Once provisionally accepted, if authors complete the study as proposed, the results will be published without regard to the outcome.

Academic scholars publish their results as articles in journals, as chapters in edited volumes, as monographs, as conference oral presentations and sometimes also as in conference proceedings etc. Practically all of the time the work get reviewed before hand by anonymous reviewers, often working for free, and they approve or reject  - most often with the condition that certain revisions are made.

Many academic publications have the structure of: 
  1. introduction 
  2. background 
  3. hypothesis to be tested
  4. methodology & data 
  5. results 
  6. discussion
  7. conclusion 
(especially in the more empirical sciences). So, needless to say this kind of not-reviewing-outcome-daydreaming would only work for studies that have this kind of structure. Qualitative essays of, say, philosophy would often not really fit here. But that's ok, not everything can fit in everywhere.

You'd have 3 anonymous reviewers who review everything but the last 3 sections, and then 1 who just makes sure that the last 3 sections together with the other sections makes sense as a whole so that the editors are reassured that the judgement of the other 3 reviewers will be a good indicator of the quality of the study. Once the 3 have said that it's approved and the 1 says that it hangs together, you'd give the entire work to the reviewers and work through revisions etc. But the actual... initial approval part would be over.

Granted, this is not perfect nor is it suitable for all kinds of research. When I talk about this with people they often misunderstand and think that the results won't ever be published or in anyway reviewed, it still would. The entire study would exists at time of submission, you'd just be approved based on your hypothesis and methods. It would be reviewed as a whole and there would be revisions etc.

This would probably encourage:
a) reproduction of other peoples results 
b) publication of negative evidence in general 
c) thorough testing of predictions of theoretical models in areas where this is not so often done. 

Remember, trivial hypothesis' - no matter how sound the methodology - could still be rejected. So, any kind of studies wouldn't be approved just because the methods are good. We all know that water is wet and that Fulfulde has noun classes, just because you've got a foolproof method of proving that doesn't make it interesting to publish.

You could say that this is just a collection of grant proposals and that no reviewer would be interested in working on this.. but I think not. In a sense it's less work for the reviewers because they'll read less text and can focus on if the hypothesis and the methods makes sense. It also would be a good contribution to the advancement of science by encouraging the 3 points above.

If you could design a study and publish on it, but only be reviewed on the methods and data, not the result, what would you write about? Let us know in the comments of the blog post!

EDIT: As Simon Greenhill pointed out this is indeed very similar to the goals of journals like PLOS ONE. I really recommend reading their guidelines for reviewing and submission if you are interested in this.

Comedy skit in language description! Talking body parts!

Sorry we've haven't been posting for a while. Apologies offered, sent of into the blackness that is broadcasting into the internets - with hopes of acceptance and forgiveness.

Also, hello to new followers on twitter, tumblr, blog and the book of faces!! If you would like to ask us something, comment or just share whatever, don't hesitate to contact us.

This time I've got at goodie from grammar reading for ya! It's an excerpt from a corpus of Samoan, a language spoken on the pacific islands of Samoa. The excerpt is from this PhD dissertation: Mayer, John. F. (2001) Code-switching in Samoan: T-style and K-style. University of Hawai'i.

This is only the beginning, in this text the different actors play different body parts and they all complain at a government of the body meeting about 'stomach' (he smells, he makes noises, because of him the gums have to chew and she doesn't like that etc etc). Many motion for the removal of the stomach, but they later decide to not remove him, but just not feed him. And then, because the body doesn't get any energy the all become weak and they have to call a meeting again and decide to start feeding stomach again. 

At the end of the play the actors encourage the audience to contribute to the church and school, to like the body work together. Isn't that nice? 

I want more comedy in language description!

To illustrate this skit I'm going to give you some screenshots from the Swedish children's show "Biss och Kajs" where, well... the hosts "poo-poo" and "wee-wee" teaches little children about the body by interviewing anthropomorphized body parts. (Can we say anthropomorphised when we're making body parts into humanoids? ... well well. either way, you get my point.)

(In case you're interested in some trivia information about the show, it's been used in Russian state television as an argument in the discussions on EU and/versus Russian influence in Ukraine (BBC report here). The news anchor Dmitriy Kiselev has said that "it exemplifies the kind of Western decadence that awaits Ukraine if it decides to join the EU and turn its back on Russia." He's also said, in relation to the children's program that there is a "sharp rise in child abortions, early sex is the norm - from the age of nine, and it is not surprising that child impotence starts at 12 [presumably all in Sweden]. There you have European values in all their glory." In case you wondered, these are not truths.

Also, joking about bodily function is not something exclusive to Europe. I feel like we could make that into a tag.. #examplesfromlinguisticliteraturethatprovesthatjokesaboutbodilyfunctionsarewidespread.)