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Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

Featured Linguist: David Adger

A few months ago, I was asked by a TV programme to make up a language for their monsters to speak, and with that, my linguistics life completed a cycle. When I was about 11 or so, I grew fascinated with language, mainly from reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I still completely love. Le Guin envisaged a world where the words actually created the reality, and every single piece of existence had its own particular name. Fascinated by this idea, and already developing my inner language geek, I started making up languages to explore whether they could work like that. To do this, I had to learn how real languages actually worked. At school, they just taught French and German (and later some Latin), but my local library (sadly closed this year because of government cuts) was full of teach-yourself books on weird and wonderful languages, as well as some pretty impenetrable linguistics books. I think the librarians were a bit perplexed by a twelve year old taking home tomes on philology and grammar he couldn’t possibly understand. They were right, I didn’t understand them at all, but I was so hooked by that point, that I read them anyway, and I guess some stuff sunk in. I remember winning a competition for local schools at St Andrews University, when I was about 16, and buying, with my £20 prize, second hand copies of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (which I still have). Again, I wasn’t really able to understand these books in much depth, but the idea that you could use rigorous, mathematical, means to try to get under the skin of language was, and still is, just endlessly fascinating to me.

I went to Edinburgh University to do Linguistics with Artificial Intelligence, a course that, in classical UK university style, didn’t really exist (they were borrowing the final year of the course from a Master’s programme). There Mark Steedman took us, in ten short weeks, on a whirlwind tour of syntax: from Syntactic Structures, through the context-free debates, to the Dutch Infinitival Complement construction, Combinatory Categorial Grammar and Winograd’s Eliza program. It was, intellectually, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I remember a couple of cases where the security guards had to come throw us out because we were all still pestering Mark with questions an hour after the lecture was meant to have finished.

From then I was really a budding categorial grammarian, and, given that it was Edinburgh, and unification-based frameworks were de rigeur, my undergrad theses (we had to do two) were a Unification Categorial Grammar analysis of purpose clauses and an analysis of fluid-ergativity in Eastern Pomo that suggested unification graphs should be allowed to be cyclic—both of these now lost in the fire that destroyed the old Artificial Intelligence department library in Edinburgh. A natural progression, as I moved to doing a Masters in Cognitive Science, was to HPSG (I was really a bit overly dismissive of the GB research program, thinking it relied too much on filters, and not really realizing that HPSG was really a giant set of filters!) At the same time, though, the power of unification based approaches began to make me feel very unsatisfied as to how good a job they were doing of explaining why languages seemed to be cut from very similar cloths.

My undergrad thesis!

My undergrad thesis!

Just about then, Chomsky’s Minimalist work began to appear, and I thought to myself: hey, this is like categorial grammar with movement, that’s very cool. I’d already begun a PhD in Edinburgh working with Elisabet Engdahl on whether it was possible to graft a Discourse Representation Theory type semantics to a minimalist syntax in order to try to understand the semantic effects (or lack of them) of various object movement operations in Scottish Gaelic as well as other languages. Elisabet suggested I spend some time at UMass Amherst, where I got a taste of what a North American graduate programme was like (way more intensive than the British one!), and there I really learned how to think like a syntactician in Hagit Borer’s syntax course. My thesis ended up arguing that Agr nodes (all the rage then) were associated with a Heimian style semantics (constraining the elements in their specifiers to be discourse familiar). Cross linguistic variation emerged from conditions on which bit of a movement chain was fed to the semantic mechanisms, so in some languages Agr’s semantic effect was masked by other aspects of the syntax. Then Chomsky decreed Agr dead the following year!

Agr or no Agr, I was very lucky and got a job at the University of York, where I slightly neglected syntax for a short period as I panicked about teaching and found myself dangerously capable at administration. York was strong in syntax, and I had great fun working on all sorts of problems with George Tsoulas and Bernadette Plunkett; but York also had a growing sociolinguistics group, and one of Sali Tagliamonte’s students, Jen Smith, and I ended up sharing a spooky old 15th Century townhouse, with George, in York. I began to get interested in thinking about how to understand the morphosyntax of the sociolinguistic variation Jen was documenting for the Buckie dialect of Scots.

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15th Century Sociosyntax Laboratory

It was frustrating, but ultimately massively rewarding, to try, with Jen, to bring together two quite distinct parts of linguistics, and, this collaboration was crucial in leading to my next job, at Queen Mary University of London. My partner had been working in London since I moved to York, so, in classic junior academic fashion (he was a post-doc at UCL in environmental science) we were living long-distance lives. Then a job came up at QMUL for a sociolinguist. With my newly found credentials from working with Jen, I went down to QMUL and told them all about the syntax of negative concord in Buckie (I even had some chi-squared test results, in amongst the uninterpretable features and movement chains!). Although QMUL really wanted a sociolinguist, they ended up appointing a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist syntactician. QMUL also appointed Colleen Cotter at the same time, and together with Jenny Cheshire, we began to build the department at Queen Mary.

A lot of the next dozen years involved trying to cram in some syntax in between Chairing the Department, developing new degree programmes, trying to raise funding for PhDs and postdocs, and becoming Head of School (which involved trying to understand what colleagues in Film, Comparative Literature or Mediaeval French wanted). I wrote a textbook I’d never intended to, and Daniel Harbour and I began to work on Kiowa, a language he’d been investigating for his PhD, which led to a slightly impenetrable book, and to me being convinced that our theories of phrase structure were both too complex and too lax (echoes of my earlier worries about unification, I think). I also spent a quiet few months on the Isle of Skye working on Gaelic Noun Phrases (thank you, the Leverhulme Trust!), with further fieldwork trips over the Scottish Hebrides to Barra and Lewis, where I pestered the local populations with what they obviously thought were bizarre questions about their language, and discovered many a fine whiskey.

Linguist with Highland Cows

Linguist with Highland Cows

London is an amazing place to do linguistics. There are hundreds of languages to work on, fantastic colleagues, both at Queen Mary and in the larger linguistics community here, and it’s probably because I’m in London that that TV company called me to ask me to make up a language for them, completing this cycle of my linguistic life.

 

 

 

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Donate to Win More Prizes from Our Next Fund Drive Giveaway!

Dear Fellow Linguists, Colleagues and Subscribers,

We are wrapping up this week’s publisher prize lottery. In case you missed the announcement for this and you still want a chance to win one of the prizes from this first bundle(read the list of prizes here: https://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-1535.html ), donate before 5 PM EST tonight to enter your name into the drawing.

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We are also introducing our next publisher prize bundle, again generously donated by our Supporting Publishers:

Bloomsbury Publishing has donated The Bloomsbury Companion To Second Language Acquisition edited by Ernesto Macaro(http://goo.gl/750tBD), an excellent resource if your research interests are in applied linguistics or language acquisition.

Brill is donating FIVE copies of Eight Decades of General Linguistics, The History of CIPL and Its Role in the History of Linguistics edited by Ferenc Kiefer and Piet van Sterkenburg(http://goo.gl/2j6LBg), which includes influential articles by linguistic giants in the field who have contributed greatly to the discipline over the years.

Cambridge University Press is donating TWO prizes this week. Firstly, they are giving away TWO one-year online subscriptions to their journal Language and Cognition (http://goo.gl/WLLnas), which is perfect if your interests lie in the cognitive sciences, in addition to linguistics. Secondly, they are also donating The Cambridge Handbook of Learner Corpus Research (http://goo.gl/9OdA7P) edited by Sylviane Granger, Gaëtanelle Gilquin, and Fanny Meunier, for the corpus linguists among you!

We have TWO prizes from De Gruyter as well. First, De Gruyter is donating Third Person Reference in Late Latin by Bordal Hertzenberg and Mari Johanne(http://goo.gl/Qa1Gks), a great resource for the historical linguists studying the Romance languages. Second, they are also giving away ONE one-year subscription to their journal Linguistics Vanguard (http://goo.gl/hn4yZn), their new multidiscipinary journal that covers many subfields of linguistics and integrates interactive content.

From Elsevier, just as last week, we are giving away ONE personal one-year electronic subscription to an Elsevier linguistics journal of the winner’s choice (complete list of their linguistic journals here: https://goo.gl/NaswSa). That’s right, we are giving away another subscription to you, so if you missed this one last week, you have another chance to win one!

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To win any of these fantastic prizes from this coming week’s prize bundle, you can donate to win, until Friday April 15th, at 5 PM EST. For every $10 you donate, your name will be entered into the lottery to win. So if you donate $30, your name goes into the drawing three times. Donate by the link below:

http://goo.gl/e656LG

In addition to the one-time donations to our Fund Drive, you can also become a recurring donor and support LINGUIST List on a long-term basis. Find out how by following this link:

http://goo.gl/Q27jls

And as always, if you cannot donate monetarily, you can help us out in other ways, such as liking, sharing, and retweeting our Fund Drive posts on social media. If you like the LINGUIST List and have benefited from our free service, tell your friends about the LINGUIST List and our Fund Drive. Every little bit of support is appreciated!

There will be many more great prizes from our supporting publishers in the coming month, so stay tuned to our social media pages to hear about more prizes that you can win. Thanks and good luck!

Linguistically yours,
The LINGUIST List Crew

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

Featured Linguist: Daniel Everett

I suppose that there are some linguists familiar with the fact that I began my fieldwork as a missionary. When I decided to become a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators/The Summer Institute of Linguistics (legally distinct entities with the same membership and doctrinal allegiance required to be a member of the former), I had no idea what linguistics in fact was. I quickly got an idea, though, as my path took me to the University of Oklahoma SIL summer courses, where I took my first-ever linguistics course with Kenneth L. Pike.

Pike was a huge influence on me at the time. I watched him do monolingual demonstrations in front of large audiences and make the case through personal example that linguistics was a holistic enterprise, engaging the full mind, personality and body of the linguist. I learned from him at the time what I have only recently begun to think of as the most important insight of 20th century linguistics, the etic-emic distinction.

But I was not thinking about linguistics any more than I had to at the time. I realized that my courses in Koiné Greek and my experience with Spanish, growing up on the California-Mexico border had first revealed to me my love for languages and had prepared me to also enjoy linguistics. But my primary objective was to build a church among an indigenous community somewhere in the world.

I did not even have a bachelor’s degree. I had a Diploma in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute. Though I had done more than would have been necessary for a bachelor’s degree, supplementing my Moody education with general education courses at Grossmont Community College in La Mesa, California, I had never thought about graduate school, aside from seminary. But SIL required graduate-level courses in linguistics to become a Bible translator so I took them, becoming more and more interested in linguistics as a discipline, though giving no thought to linguistics as a career.

As my family and I finished our linguistics training, we went with SIL to Chiapas, Mexico, for “jungle camp” – training in survival skills, first-aid, butchering meat, canning and other forms of food preservation, and “survival hike,” the final examination. In survival hike I was required to spend a week alone in the jungle, after a fifty mile hike, called out at random from among the “jungle campers” with SIL, and allowed to carry no food, no weapons, and only what I had on my person at the time (I walked around with fifty feet of rope, matches, two canteens, and a nylon poncho) all hanging from a military surplus gun belt.

After this, my three children, my wife, and I were assigned to a Tzeltal village, where we were expected to participate in village life, help in daily tasks, learn the language as well as we could in six weeks, write up a “phonemic analysis,” a morphological analysis, and a syntactic analysis of the language, as well as compiling as much of a dictionary as we could manage. We were also given a conversation exam, to test our ability in the language. I worked with men in the fields. But my work was cut short by my first field illness – typhoid fever, gotten honestly by drinking a fermented corn drink with the men. After a night of unpleasantness in the outhouse in our village, my blood pressure had dropped to 60/40 and the local SIL nurses had me carried out by mule to catch a flight to a hospital in the small town of Alta Mira.

dan2

After a few days, when I returned to my family in the village, a letter was waiting for me from Steve Sheldon, the new director of SIL in Brazil. He said that because he was now director he could no longer continue his work among a particular tribal group, the Mura-Pirahã, confessing to me that though he spoke the language, he had not been able to “crack its grammar.” Because my grades in linguistics had been high, he wondered if my wife and I might be interested in being assigned by SIL to translate the Bible for these people, whom I had never heard of. He said that three other teams had turned him down before he got to me. I received with this letter an assessment by an SIL anthropologist of the living situation among the Pirahãs. He said it was the most psychologically difficult he had ever seen and that the people had no colorful culture, spoke no Portuguese, and were speakers of a language unrelated to any other living language. I said yes immediately.

JP-LANGUAGE-2-popup

When we arrived in Brazil, October 24, 1977, I went as soon as I could for an initial visit with the Pirahãs. While there, I received a radio message that all SIL teams had been ordered out of their villages and that Brazil was trying to label all SIL members as “persona non grata” in Brazil.

As SIL thought of responses to this, I was asked if I would be interested in applying to the graduate program at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) as a potential way of being authorized, as a graduate student at a Brazilian institution, to continue work among the Pirahãs. I said yes immediately again, even though I still did not speak a word of Portuguese. My family and I boarded a bus in Belém, Brazil and took the 60+ hour trip to Campinas, where I went straight to the home of the linguist SIL had told me to contact, Prof. Dr. Aryon Dall’Igna Rodrigues. Aryon, who was to become one of the closest friends and most admired mentors of my life, presented my GRE scores and grades from SIL-affiliated schools (UT Arlington, U of Oklahoma) to the faculty of UNICAMP’s Institute for the Study of Language, and they accepted me into their Mestrado em Linguística program.

Then a transmogrification began to occur, one that I have recounted in various places, especially in my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Because of my admiration for and friendship with Brazilian linguists and other intellectuals and because of my growing understanding and admiration of the Pirahãs, I began to question my belief in God, my commitment to converting others to Christianity, and just about every value that had led me from Southern California to the Amazon, from the time I was 17.

There was one big catch to my loss of faith, though. An unbelieving missionary is an unemployed missionary. So I began to think that perhaps I might be able to become a professional linguist.

danev1

I did my ScD at UNICAMP, the first doctorate in linguistics the university ever awarded. I began to try to publish. Although almost 100% of my first submissions were rejected, I was successful at winning an award from the American Council of Learned Societies for Recent Recipients of the PhD and a grant from the National Science Foundation. And with the backing of Professor Kenneth L. Hale, I was accepted as a Visiting Scholar in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met to discuss my ideas with Chomsky, Thomas Kuhn (just down the hall then from Chomsky), Morris Halle, Jay Keyser, Luigi Rizzi, and others, including my office mates Pino Longobardi, Adriana Belletti, and Shigeru Miyagawa. I began to get work accepted in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, IJAL, Linguistic Inquiry, and numerous conferences. But still, my educational background was weird – a diploma from a Bible school and graduate work at a then obscure, third-world university (far from that now!). I applied for jobs and made a couple of short lists, at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and UCSD.

At Berkeley I was met at the airport by Chuck Fillmore and taken to his house to stay with him and his wife Lily. It was a surreal experience to be so well treated by one of the most famous linguists in the world. I was walking on air. Interviewed by the graduate students they asked me “We specialize in Californian languages here. Why would we want to hire an Amazonianist? No one works on Amazonian languages in the US.” And as I entered the packed room to give my job talk, the professor walking me in commented “I hope you aren’t going to talk about any of that generative s*&t. We don’t do that here.” My talk was on a generative analysis of Inflectional Phrases and clitics in Pirahã. I didn’t get the job.

Then I received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh and began my ten-year working relationship with Sally Thomason and Terry Kaufman, still two of my best friends and most admired linguists. Chomsky helped me all along, by writing letters of recommendation for my job applications and my tenure application. Rich Thomason told me after I received tenure that “There probably aren’t that many people who get letters from both Chomsky and Geoff Pullum.” Perhaps not.

From this unlikely path, I have worked at UNICAMP, at Pitt, at the University of Manchester, at Illinois State University, and now at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I serve as Dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way my students have included Iris Berent, Ted Gibson, Rick Kazman, Eric Nyberg, and many others. I have seen how hard it is to get a job. And I have lamented the lack of good tenure-track positions for the brilliant new linguists, smarter than I, who have gone into this field.

My son, Caleb Everett, quit his job as a stockbroker and commodities dealer with Morgan-Stanley, just after they had assigned him to the World Trade Center, about a month before 9/11. He said he was going to become a professor of linguistics. I asked him to reconsider. “The job market sucks,” I put it eloquently. He responded “Dad, if you can get a job, I can get a job.” And so I learned that pessimism is not all that useful as career advice. One should simply say “If it doesn’t work out, you have at least followed your passion. If it does, the life of a professional thinker, the career of an academic is the best I know of.” Caleb applied to four jobs and received four offers, eclipsing me pretty handily.

So my advice to linguists today is similar to what one of my dearest friends, Peter Ladefoged, told me more than 35 years ago – “There may be 300 PhDs chasing 15 jobs and everyone will think that they are the ones who will get the jobs. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But perhaps the best linguistics of the future will come from plumbers, carpenters, and others.” I publish, teach, and spend my life in linguistics because I am passionate about knowing more about this strange species of primate to which I belong. I love people and their languages. And there are few better ways I can imagine to spend one’s life.

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Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2016 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!

Reminder: Donate by Friday to Enter Our Publisher Prize Lottery

Dear Fellow Linguists, Colleagues and Subscribers,

In case you missed it over the week, this is a friendly reminder about our current publisher prize giveaway, which we announced on Friday (https://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-1535.html). Remember: for every $10 that you donate, your name is entered to win one of these very cool prizes donated by our Supporting Publishers:

From Brill: 2 one-year journal subscriptions to the journal Cognitive Semantics (http://goo.gl/FLaZqC)

From Cambridge University Press: The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages edited by Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank (http://goo.gl/GrqenL)

From De Gruyter Mouton: an e-book of Vowel-Shifting in the English Language by Kamil Kazmierski (http://goo.gl/DvXsGh)

From Edinburgh University Press: The Semantics of Word Formation and Lexicalization, by Pius ten Hacken and Claire Thomas (http://goo.gl/DtJQqf)

From Elsevier: 1 personal one-year electronic subscription to an Elsevier linguistics journal of the winner’s choice (see the complete list of their linguistic journals here: https://goo.gl/NaswSa)

From John Benjamins: 1 journal subscription of the winner’s choice from any of their 70+ journals. (see the full listing of their journals here: http://goo.gl/lvCacl)

From the University of Nebraska Press: 2 one-year subscriptions to the online version of Anthropological Linguistics (http://goo.gl/shD9Z7)

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You still have until Friday April 8 at 5 pm to donate and get your chance to win one of the prizes listed above. You can donate by following the link below:

http://goo.gl/e656LG

In addition to the one-time donations to our Fund Drive, you can also become a recurring donor and support LINGUIST List on a long-term basis. Find out how by following this link:

http://goo.gl/Q27jls

Also, if you cannot donate monetarily, you can donate your time by helping spread the word about our Fund Drive. You can do so by liking, sharing, and retweeting on social media. You can also put your supralaryngeal vocal tract into action by telling your friends about the Fund Drive!

There will be many more great prizes from our supporting publishers in the coming month, so stay tuned to our social media pages to hear about more prizes that you can win. Thanks and good luck!

Linguistically yours,
The LINGUIST List Crew

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

Featured Linguist: Jaklin Kornfilt

The Istanbul of my childhood was so multilingual that not to become a linguist would have been impossible for anyone with an ear for language and an interest in figuring out puzzles posed by all those languages and dialects. In my own case, it was German, French, Russian and Yiddish that I was exposed to at home, in addition to the Greek of my nanny and of many neighbors. My cousins had an Armenian nanny. Many acquaintances spoke Ladino at home. It was wonderful to be taken along to my mother’s shopping expeditions, because, depending on the merchant, she would speak a different language: Turkish, Greek, Ladino—and with some, even Russian. It was fun to listen to the two rather different-sounding Yiddish dialects of my grandmothers, one of whom lived with us and the other used to come for a day-long visit once a week. They didn’t like each other very much and so they used to sit and have very polite but very poisonous conversations for hours. Once I learned to write, I devised an alphabet for transcribing those conversations, and when I ran out of topics for my letters to my father, who used to be away a lot on business, I would include some of those transcriptions; they amused him very much, or so he claimed.

That transcribing languages and dialects can actually be part of a real profession is something I discovered in Germany, where I studied German and English literature on an academic exchange scholarship. I had to take an introductory linguistics course where we were told about a new approach to study and understand languages, called Generative Grammar. We read parts of Syntactic Structures and of Aspects, and I now feel inclined to say “… and the rest is history”, only that it still took me some time to find my way to formal linguistics. In Germany, our lecturers in linguistics were sympathetic towards Generative Grammar, but they didn’t understand it very well and thus couldn’t really teach it. I was attracted to it, but there was nobody to explain it all to me in clear terms. It was about then that I visited my aunt in Israel and met, by a chain of coincidences, Bob Lees, who had founded a Department of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and invited me to stay and study formal linguistics, although it was the middle of the semester. This involved driving to the university at least twice a week through heavy morning traffic, to catch Lees’ introductory linguistics course which met at 8 a.m.—a real sacrifice, but one worth making, because the course was an absolutely wonderful introduction to linguistics and got me totally hooked. I took the exams of the course and did well on them, upon which Lees suggested that I should continue towards a PhD in linguistics, and that I should do so in the US. This is how I ended up at Harvard, as a doctoral student in theoretical linguistics. (By a funny coincidence, there, too, I had to go to class to attend an introductory course which met twice a week at 8 a.m.—Jay Jasanoff’s introduction to historical linguistics, and likewise a course well worth getting up early for. At least this time around, campus was in easy walking distance!)

The LinguistList did not exist yet while I was a student. But I envy my own students who make heavy and constant use of it. I was a relatively new Assistant Professor when the LinguistList came into existence, and it was wonderful to find all this great news about conferences, summer schools, books and jobs in one’s mailbox every day. It made me feel connected to the world outside, and I relied on it a lot for news which I used constantly, in various ways; I still do and can’t imagine doing without it.

By the way—the picture that you see was taken recently, a couple of months ago, at a conference in Beijing, on the syntax of information structure in the minority languages of China; when the picture was taken, I was speaking about post-verbal structures in Turkish. This was one of the very few conferences I had not learned about via the LinguistList!

 

 

Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2016 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

Featured Linguist: Hana Filip

My first memories are tied to the awareness that beyond our small Czech speaking world there was an exciting multiplicity of languages out there, and along with it an exciting variety of very different attitudes and life styles. My mother spoke fluently Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish due to her heritage and childhood in West Volhynia (West Ukraine today). And then there were mail deliveries of paperbacks from another exotic place called “West Germany”. They came each wrapped up in a transparent shrink wrap, a whole bunch of them stacked in a brown cardboard box, which, once opened, wafted the enticing fragrance of freshly printed books and a foreign world. They were printed by the DTV Press (German Paperback Press) in Munich, where one of my dad’s friends worked and regularly supplied him with its most recent publications. I did not know any German, but I heard it on an Austrian radio station (“Autofahrer Unterwegs”) that my dad listened to, and I must have been impressed by the pop songs in German it played. As soon as I learned how to read, one of my favorite childhood pastimes, when I was home alone, was to stand in front of the book shelves with the German DTV paperbacks, imagining being a pop singer singing songs with the lyrics like “Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Christian Morgenstern, Palmström Palma Kunkel, Siegfried Lenz, Der Mann im Strom …”, making up the tunes on the spot. I had no idea what the correct pronunciation was, but I was just mesmerized by the idea that the letters, each of which I knew individually, collectively had a meaning, which I did not understand, but there were people to whom it meant something and I wondered just what it might be. No less fascinating was the idea that these books came from “capitalist imperialism”, as I learned already in kindergarten, a world to be worried about and even afraid of, but something that seemed to me inconsistent with their pretty, inviting book covers (designed by Celestino Piatti). When I was about six years old, I decided to learn German. So I pored over a German grammar book that I found in my parents’ library, but did not get much further than learning the conjugation of the German verb ‘to be’.

Celestino.Piatti

This early experience with a foreign language and the world it evoked might have also been the reason why I was so fascinated by a psychology book, which I found in my parents’ library a bit later, and whose topics covered the connection between language, culture and human behavior. It was the first scientific book I read, and, of course, I could not have understood much, reading it and thinking about it by myself, but I was in awe at the ideas it opened up for me.

When I was about eleven years old, I began filling all my free time with learning foreign languages and reading, mostly French and English classic novels and poetry (in Czech translation). Interestingly, German literature took a distinct back seat, although I loved Christian Morgenstern and Heinrich Heine (I’ll return to them at the end). What stands out is that I loved thinking about grammar rules. That is, I thought that the grammar rules in my textbooks “could have been formulated better”. So I tried to come up with various ways of improving on them, “putting them in a better order”, according to what, to me at least, were underlying regularities and relationships among them. There was also a practical reason behind this, namely wanting to cut down the amount of memorization to an absolute minimum, reserving it to vocabulary, idioms, irregular verbs and such. When I was fifteen I taught myself Italian by going through a wonderful textbook (for native Czech speakers) from cover to cover. I learned the Italian pronunciation by following ingenious informal descriptions in this textbook, and by listening to the Italian radio station “Milano Rai Radio Due” in the dead of night, which at that time was not jammed. I had a very vague, and an intriguing, idea that there was an underlying system behind language use, which was reinforced by my discovery of structuralism in literary theory, its precursor Russian formalism in particular. This again happened by chance: while reading detailed introductions to Czech translations of foreign classics, there was a mention of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. I read and loved it, which in turn led me to finding out about Roman Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics, Viktor Shklovsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others.

What also stands out about this time (junior high in US terms) is that one of my heroes was Jean-François Champollion, who as a young boy first learned Latin, Greek, followed by Hebrew and other Semitic languages before deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. So my plan was to learn all kinds of languages in the years to come, perhaps forever, and hoping that eventually, just like Champollion, I might discover and solve some terrific puzzle along the way. My enthusiasm for studying foreign languages was not dampened by knowing that I might never be allowed to travel to the countries where they were spoken, or pursue their study at a university (children of East European dissidents often were prohibited from studying at universities).

But then in an unexpected and a breathtakingly swift turn of events, my dad “got an offer” to leave Czechoslovakia (which could hardly be refused) and three months later we were in Munich, the city from which the DTV paperbacks had been arriving. Now, I suddenly found myself in a German high school, but among the languages I had learned in Czechoslovakia, I had amazingly somehow omitted German. Yet, I managed to convince everybody that the ‘taking-no-prisoners’ immersion method would work the best for me, rather than spending a year in a German language learning camp. After graduating from high school, I enrolled at the Munich Ludwig Maximilian University to study Romance and English languages and literatures. I gravitated towards the few linguistics offerings, mainly in Chomsky’s generative syntax, which is how I finally understood that there is a full-fledged academic field of linguistics. What really caught my attention, while doing research for one of my term papers, were the proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society, which contained concise, to the point, highly informative papers full of intellectual energy and excitement. So when I happened to see a poster of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) advertizing an undergraduate study abroad program in the USA, I did not hesitate to apply, and in my application proposal I wrote that I wanted to study at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Linguistics.

My year at the University of Chicago was nothing short of life-changing. I realized that I had wanted to be a linguist all along, but had not known it. There for the first time I followed my interests in language not as an auto-didact, but guided by some of the best linguists, including the amazing Jim McCawley. My German scholarship funding ended after one year, however, and because of this and other practical reasons, I decided to return to Germany with the plan to complete my M.A. degree in linguistics there so that I could apply for another DAAD fellowship, but this time for doctoral studies in the USA.

Back at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, I switched to the Department of Theoretical Linguistics, chaired by Theo Vennemann, and took classes in formal semantics with Roland Hausser and Joachim Jacobs who gave lucid and exciting classes on Montague Grammar, and also on Categorial Grammar, the debates between Bar Hillel and Chomsky, Frege’s theory and the state of the art in artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Occasionally I attended Godehard Link’s seminars in the Department of Philosophy, and I started exchanging some ideas on aspect with Manfred Krifka, who was just finishing his Ph.D. thesis. While I was finishing my M.A. degree, I got interested in the intersection of meaning in language, psychology, computational linguistics and philosophy, and so choosing where to do my Ph.D. degree, with my DAAD fellowship, I opted for UC Berkeley, which had just established the Institute of Cognitive Studies (ICS), supported by the Sloan Foundation. At UC Berkeley I felt like a kid in a candy store: apart from the Ph.D. thesis qualifying curriculum, we were free to take classes in all the Departments affiliated with ICS, and I took full advantage of it. I especially enjoyed the ICS colloquia, which featured UC Berkeley faculty, but also great scholars from elsewhere in the USA and abroad. Thanks to my advisors Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay, we had ties to Stanford University, and to their close friend Ivan Sag in particular, who fabulously organized the 1987 LSA Summer Institute at Stanford. One of my favorite grad school memories is the LSA 1989 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, where I gave one of my first “serious” talks. Barbara Partee was in the audience and after my talk introduced herself to me and excitedly told me that she just got back from Prague where she took part in the Velvet Revolution demonstrations; back in my room, on CNN I saw Václav Havel walking across the courtyard of the Prague Castle, having just taken the presidential oath. While wondering about why he is wearing such short pants at this historically momentous event in Prague, I also wondered by what twists of fate I get to watch him on TV in a hotel room in Washington, DC.

I did not plan to be a linguist, let alone a professor. All I wanted to do was what I thought was worth doing, following my hunches. This also meant that I spent a number of years as an academic gypsy, after completing my Ph.D. degree, which I mostly viewed as continuing in the adventurous tradition of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages, because it allowed me to spend time at some of the best linguistics departments and research universities. Overall, perhaps my path has something to do with my early fascination with the German DTV paperbacks, who knows. In hindsight, it is somewhat intriguing that as a kid I singled out Heinrich Heine and Christian Morgenstern among the few German authors worth paying attention to. Christian Morgenstern was a German poet from Munich, where the DTV paperbacks were printed, and Munich became my hometown after we were exiled from Czechoslovakia. One Morgenstern’s poem that I never forgot has to do with tense and aspect, which became my main specialty:

Unter Zeiten (Among Tenses)
Das Perfekt und das Imperfekt
tranken Sekt (were drinking sparkling wine).
Sie stießen aufs Futurum an (They toasted to the Future)
(was man wohl gelten lassen kann) (which might be deemed valid).
Plusquamper und Exaktfutur (Past Perfect and Future Perfect)
blinzten nur (only kept blinking).

Translation (“An Approach”) by Max Knight (h/t Manfred Krifka)
Perfect and Past
drank to a friendship to last
They toasted the Future tense
(which makes sense).
Futureperf and Plu
nodded too.

As for Heinrich Heine, he was born in Düsseldorf, which is my current hometown; I live next to his museum, and I’m professor of semantics at the university which carries his name: Heinrich Heine University.

 

 

 

 

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Linguistics Goes Hollywood!

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – While the recent rise of popular fantasy series like Game of Thrones has Hollywood all abuzz about conlanging, linguists of all stripes have long been involved in cinema.

With the recent announcement of production on 4 *#!&’s Sake, It’s Another Look Who’s Talking, the latest installment in the noted documentary series, leading pioneer and noted linguist Professor Schmaltz is once again the darling of Tinsel Town. LINGUIST List reporters caught up with Schmaltz on set for an exclusive.

“I believe it was in the early eighties when I first noticed something strange about my then infant’s speech,” he explained, contemplating the table of cronuts craft services laid out. “I was having a particularly heated argument with my then wife. Our son, [redacted] Jr., looked up at us screaming at each other and said æbəbæbə. I was shocked.”

Schmaltz, shocked, ran to his typewriter and, in a blaze of phonology and flying frying pans, determined the now famous derivation:

The famous derivation (Schmaltz 1981).

The famous derivation (Schmaltz 1981).

Schmaltz knew at once that his discovery had profound consequences for linguistic theory.

“There it was: a bona fide counter-anti-cyclical-unbled-prereordered-feeding relation fabled to occur only in the speech of children acquiring exotic languages like those Tocharian creoles spoken in the Amazon,” he paused to take a bite of cronut. “Or French.”

Schmaltz typed feverishly through the night, submitting his magnum opus to the journal That’s Some Science! Quarterly the next morning.

“I lost half of everything in the divorce, so I could only legally publish it as a squib,” Schmaltz explained. “Squib. What an odd word. Squib…squib…squibby…”

æbəbæbə became a cultural sensation overnight. Not since Chomsky and Halle’s classic blues album The Sound Pattern of Anguish had a theoretical linguist so captured the public imagination. T-shirts were printed, the Swedish rock group Abba was forced to disband after successful copyright litigation, and Schmaltz changed his first name to Professor.

“As [redacted] Jr. – I changed his name as well – started to grow up, I noticed his phonology changing,” Schmaltz recalled, wiping powdered sugar from his puce turtleneck. “When he was an infant, Jr. was satisfied saying things like fləəə, dramatically reducing complicated underlying phrases like irreconcilable differences, but as he matured these strange epenthetic words starting creeping in…What happened to the craft services guy?”

As the theory goes, babies are born with fully formed grammars and are equipped to articulate perfectly, but they choose not to. In an infant’s eyes, adults are all-knowing superbeings who can correctly interpret even the most phonetically reduced speech.

“Some people might call this theory of mind, but what’s that? Babies don’t have theory of mind. If they did, they wouldn’t cry in movie theatres. They’re rude people, babies.”

Schmaltz’s aptly named Conservation of Rudeness model of language acquisition sees babies as inherently trusting but inherently lazy speakers. They maximize their rudeness quotient by reducing otherwise coherent speech to strings of repeated monosyllables, expecting the adult to make up for it.

Fig. 1: A baby rudely using their dinner as a hat.

Rude: A baby using dinner as a hat.

“You can tell they’re doing it on purpose, I mean, look at consonant harmony. That’s not even a real thing. Anyways, as babies get older, they watch adults make mistakes and do stupid things. And, you know, not necessarily their own parents, cause some parents are models of self-control and humani,” Schmaltz paused noticing the now empty cronut platter. “-ity. Hmm…”

As a child’s opinion of adults in general falls, the child no longer assumes their parents will correctly interpret babbling. They slowly trade the rudeness of lazy phonetic reduction with the rudeness of condescendingly using codas and enunciating. This peaks when the child reaches their teenage years and begins incorporating phonemic contrasts not present in their ambient language.

Before our reporters could ask how Schmaltz planned to incorporate his Conservation of Rudeness theory in his latest production, he excused himself from the interview to “check out the spread on the set of ET 2: Brute.”

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

Featured Linguist: Gary Holton

My interest in linguistics arose during a sea kayak trip through Eastern Indonesia. Paddling slowly along the coast I picked up bits and pieces of languages that I heard along the way and became fascinated with the ways the languages changed from village to village. This was my first real exposure to “small” languages—languages with only a few hundred or few thousand speakers. These small languages evolve to meet the needs of communities, binding speakers to their environment. At the same time these small languages are almost everywhere under threat of being replaced by languages of wider communication.

The Linguist List has had a formative influence on my career. When I entered graduate school in the mid 1990’s the field was in a state of upheaval. After a couple decades spent developing theoretical models of language competence, many in the field had only recently (re-)awoken to the problem of language endangerment. However, just as the field began to re-engage with language documentation we were faced with an unprecedented transformation in digital technologies. During this Digital Dark Age technologies evolved so quickly that I was using a different recording device with every field trip. As each of these devices became obsolete the data they recorded risked becoming more endangered than the languages on those recordings. What was the point of doing all this documentation of endangered languages if we weren’t able to preserve that documentation? When I started my first job at the University of Alaska in 1999 I arrived with boxes filled with cassette tapes, DAT tapes, MiniDiscs, CDs, DVDs and other proprietary digital recording technologies. As I continued to do field work this mess only got worse. Clearly I needed to find a better way to deal with digital data. You might say that documentary linguistics as a field needed to get its house in order.

Over the past two decades the Linguist List has been at the forefront of efforts to develop standards and best practices for dealing with linguistic data. For example, many of the field work and archiving practices that we take for granted today trace their origins to the Electronics Meta-structures for Endangered Languages Data (E-MELD) project, a five-year effort led by the Linguist List which brought together leading scholars from across the world to tackle some of the difficult problems in data preservation, curation, and access. These problems are often thought to lie outside the mainstream of linguistics. Indeed, they are by nature interdisciplinary, existing at the intersection of linguistics, computer science, and archiving. Yet solutions to these problems are critical to linguistics, providing the digital infrastructure which serves as the foundation for much of our work.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to interact with Linguist List in various capacities, but perhaps the most rewarding of these was a joint project which I undertook in collaboration with the Linguist List in 2003 to develop a community language portal for Dena’ina, a language spoken in Southcentral Alaska. The project integrated training for both linguistic graduate students and community members and in the process helped to engage students with language communities. Many of those community members have gone on to become leading activists in Alaska Native language conservation efforts. And many of the students who worked with the Dena’ina project have gone on to make significant contributions to documentary linguistics more generally, continuing to push the field forward with an enhanced awareness of and respect for technical standards and documentary best practices. This is one of the truly great contributions of the Linguist List over the years. The students who have worked with Linguist List come away with a respect for the technical underpinnings of linguistics. For these students digital best practices are the norm, not the exception. Use of non-proprietary formats and depositing data in archives are routine. This generation of scholars is slowly changing our field, helping us to better preserve and provide access to endangered language documentation, while at the same time moving us ever closer to a truly data-driven science of language.

Next time you turn off your digital recorder and save a file, or key in an ELAN transcription, or specify a digital language archive in a grant proposal—that is, next time you do just about any task having to do with language documentation—think about Linguist List. Chances are that Linguist List had some role in helping to make that technology work, helping scholars to agree on standards, making it possible for you to do linguistics. Infrastructure is not the sexiest part of science, but it is arguably the most critical. We owe a lot to Linguist List for helping to develop the technical infrastructure of our field.

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Start: Fund Drive 2016

Dear Colleagues,

It is this time of the year, the fifth season in the LINGUIST List: the Fund Drive. If you appreciate the daily portion of linguistic news on the screen of your computer, please support the LINGUIST List! Why do we need your support? Because, unlike other organizations, we do not collect membership fees, we are not state or government funded, and only a part of our budget is guaranteed by our host institution, Indiana University. Unlike other information services and in particular other mailing lists, we actually do edit your posts and make sure that you do get validated and relevant information, and not spam of any kind. Your donations support this special service and – directly – the linguistics students who provide it.

This year we have decided to keep the Fund Drive low key: while we are in the process of optimizing workflows, at the moment all our editors are busy editing. We still hope that you will have lots of fun with lotteries, prizes and premiums and with school and country challenges in the next couple of weeks. However, we welcome initiatives and appropriate contents from our supporters around the globe to make the Fund Drive a Fun Drive. This campaign is really for you to keep your favorite Linguist List afloat.

The times have changed since the beginning of the LINGUIST List; linguists have Facebook, Twitter, Google, blogs, and hundreds of other mailing list, but LINGUIST List remains probably the only truly
international platform that serves linguists from virtually all areas of the world and also all areas of linguistics. We try to keep the pace with the technological challenges and we work on the better integration of the global linguistic community via the LINGUIST List services. You probably did not even notice the changes that happened backstage in the last two years since we moved from Michigan to Indiana. We need to keep developing and adjusting the existing services and we need to revamp our
vintage website. Though the site has its charm and style, we have to keep up with new technological standards and devices. This cannot happen without your encouragement and support.

LINGUIST List has served the discipline for 25 years now. We were with you in good and bad times – when you searched for your grad program, for your first job, for your first conference. We stand by you. Stand by us. Be a part of the world-wide linguistic community. Donate now.

http://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/
Sincerely,

Malgosia and Damir – on behalf of the whole team

LINGUIST List Internships 2016

Dear linguists, colleagues, students,

LINGUIST List will host another internship program during summer 2016. See for details the announcement on LINGUIST List.

Please keep in mind that the dates of the core internship program are flexible and can be adapted to suite the summer break period of different systems, countries, and continents. Please contact us to discuss particular arrangements that you might need.

We would be happy to assist you with applications for supplemental funding and stipends. Various countries and educational or research organizations offer support opportunities to students. Please consider contacting your advisor and local University administration about funding opportunities and let us know how we could help you with the application.

Sincerely

Your LINGUIST List Team