Month: February 2014

LINGUIST List: Training Our Future Linguists

Dear Fellow Linguists,

My name is Justin Petro, and I am a Master’s student at Eastern Michigan University who has been working at LINGUIST List for the past three years. During this time I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of our users through my work on the Publications and Web Development teams, as well as through the development of grant projects such as LEGO and RELISH. Even if we haven’t had the chance to become acquainted yet, I am certain that my work has most assuredly had an impact on you as a LINGUIST List user, and I’m very proud to be able to contribute to such a vital and important community of scholars.

In order to make sure that I and the rest of the crew here are able to continue providing the services that linguists like you depend on, we need your support. Donate today:

LINGUIST List is not only an important resource for scholars and students of all levels in the discipline, it is also a crucial training ground for students like myself. LINGUIST List has been directly responsible for my professional development in areas such as editing, correspondence, technology, and programming, in addition to providing tuition and financial assistance towards my Master’s degree in linguistics. This dedication to training the future experts in the field is perhaps the greatest contribution LINGUIST List has made to the discipline. I highly urge you to donate today and ensure that we can continue to work for you and for the linguistics community as a whole:

Gratefully yours,

Justin Petro
Publications Manager

Spring(er) into Action and Win Over $700 Worth of Books!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

We have one final prize this week that we would love to give to one of you, kindly donated to us by Springer. If you donate before 11:59 p.m. today, you’ll be automatically entered to win the following four titles:

  •  Locality Domains in the Spanish Determiner Phrase by M. Emma Ticio
  • Topics in Kwa Syntax Edited by Enoch O. Aboh & James Essegbey
  • Dynamic Antisymmetry and the Syntax of Noun Incorporation by Michael Barrie
  • Inner Aspect by Lisa deMena Travis

All of these titles put together are valued at over $700, and they can all be yours for as little as a $5 donation to LINGUIST List! So what are you waiting for? Donate today!

And even though only one person can win today’s big prize, you can always walk away with one of our great premiums if you donate $35 or more!

Good luck, and have a great weekend!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

Featured Linguist: Nicholas Evans

Today’s Featured Linguist of the Pacific region is Nicholas Evans from Australian National University. Find out below about his life adventures as a linguist.


How I Became a Linguist

Nicholas Evans

It took me a long time to realise I wanted to become a linguist. I had a resolutely monoglot childhood in 1960s Canberra, Australia’s ‘bush capital’, and can’t even remember hearing any language spoken but English. Nor was school any better when it came to languages: the teachers were dogmatic types who obviously couldn’t speak the languages well and were irritated by why-questions. So like my fellow nerds at Campbell High School I took science  subjects and when it came to uni studied biology and psychology.

During my third year at the Australian National University (ANU) I had a spare slot in my degree and decided to take first year Russian – mainly so I could read Russian literature in the original. For the first time I experienced what it could be like to learn a foreign language from a teacher  (Prof. de Bray) who could lay out its individual logic. He placed great stock on students getting a good pronunciation, and in week two we had to hand in an account of all the phonetic realisations of Russian vowel letters under different stress conditions. This wasn’t the last time I benefited from a teacher with what many would think were unrealistic expectations – I don’t think any of us had studied phonology before, but somehow that planted a seed in me.

In my fourth year, as I was finishing off my honours in psychology and feeling less and less that I wanted to continue with that, two things made me change course.

One was a fourth-year course I took on the psychology of language. Another demanding lecturer (Dr Trotter) set us one whole linguistic classic book per week – I lapped up John Lyons’ Theoretical Linguistics, and Whorf’s Language, Thought and Reality crystallised my feeling that studying languages could offer a much more direct route into other thought-worlds than the methodologically overwrought and conceptually oversimplified approaches of psychology.  (That was what I thought then – now psychology has become much more interesting.) But the most decisive reading was Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. I’d had far too much behaviorism during my psychology courses and hated its corny reductionism. Reading Chomsky’s deft disembowelling of Skinner’s position made me want to get seriously into linguistics.

Around the same time was that a friend of mine, Cliff Goddard, suggested I come along to one of the classes  on Aboriginal languages taught  by Prof. Bob Dixon. The students had a page of Yidiñ text to translate and analyse before the class with the help of a glossary and the grammar taught so far. Bob stood up the front, playing little snatches of Yidiñ on a reel-to-reel recorder, while a story of two brothers and the origins of death, order and chaos gradually took shape in the process of analysis.

Hearing the Yidiñ-speaking voice come out of that recorder was a decisive moment in my life. I had never heard an Aboriginal language before and was completely hypnotised by its sound. I think most Australians grow up with an aching sense of unconnectedness to their land, stemming from the invisibility and inaudibility of Aboriginal culture and the brutal way it was swept aside by the British colonisation process. So there was something deeply and indefinably fascinating about the conjunction of the storyteller, his language, Yidiñ culture, and the whole process of making sense of what he was saying. That one-hour class decided me on the spot that I wanted to study linguistics, and focus on Aboriginal languages.

I went on to take a coursework Master’s in linguistics with some brilliant teachers – Bob Dixon, Anna Wierzbicka, Bill Foley, Tim Shopen. Lecturers often came to each other’s courses, and most classes had a broad mixture of participants ranging from first years to distinguished visitors. This lack of status-consciousness was an educational blessing: it’s very hard to write linguistics until you know how to argue in a more oral setting. Learning from the cut-and-thrust between the more seasoned members of the class was about the best way imaginable of getting into the subject.

We got a lot of Australian and Papuan problem material – often composed straight from the lecturer’s field-notes. A key part of the training was the range of language-focussed courses on offer – especially for Aboriginal languages, which had three semesters’ worth of offerings, and which really trained us to put together what we had learned and apply it to a real but exotic language.  But the part of the departmental ethos which I most appreciate, in retrospect, was the confidence to find our own solutions to crack new codes in our own way, without being bound too much about the latest theoretical fads and how they said languages should work.

For some perverse reason, after finishing my thoroughly enjoyable Master’s training, I decided I wouldn’t keep studying.  I think I was just sick of being a poor student. Meanwhile  I had been offered a job teaching English in Beijing, accepted it, and bought a suit in readiness.

But that’s not what life intended for me. I was two days off flying to China, when Bob Dixon rang and called me in for a chat. He’d received a letter from Mornington Island in northern Australia, asking him to find a PhD student to work on the Kayardild language. Ken Hale had recently been on Mornington to present a draft Lardil dictionary, the fruit of fieldwork he’d done there. Kayardild speakers, concerned at the fate of their own language, had wanted him to work with them on their language. He’d told them he wouldn’t have time himself, but that through Bob Dixon he’d find a PhD student to do it. I thought it over: Mandarin was hardly in danger of disappearing, while Kayardild was on the ropes. Pretty much on the spur of the moment I told Bob I’d take up the offer, pulled out of the Beijing job at the last minute, and applied for a PhD scholarship.

In the Australian system then you just dived straight into your thesis without coursework. So a couple of months later I took a series of flights from Canberra to Mornington Island, flying in on a vintage DC3. It was a strange place. Somehow I had expected a lush tropical island. But it was more like a bit of savannah plonked into the sea, not far offshore from the unpromising saltpans running back from the Gulf of Carpentaria. There was a strong odour of inadequate sanitation, mixed with mangrove-wood smoke from cooking fires and what I later came to recognise as the smell of turtle and dugong fat. A winter wind blew off the sea, but it smelt of the desert not far to the south, rather than like a sea wind.

Late that afternoon on the beach I finally got to meet the Kayardild men, who had been out spearing fish until then. Traditionally monolingual, they were lousy language teachers. (Five years later when I began work in the polyglot universe of Arnhem Land I realised how unusual that was in Aboriginal Australia.)  They fired words and sentences at me at machine-gun speed, all talking at once, working their way through my body-parts which they grabbed one by one. It was hard to write any sort of transcription in the circumstances. So much sand and ash was blowing around in the wind that I didn’t want to take my Uher reel-to-reel recorder out of its case.

Despite their lack of pedagogical technique I warmed to them immediately. Their tribal leader Darwin Moodoonuthi and his wife May had missed out on having children of their own. Like many in their generation  the trauma of their forced relocation from Bentinck to Mornington Islands had taken its toll on their fertility and they welcomed me into their lives as a son. They became my second father and mother.

In this way I was immediately welcomed into the Kaiadilt world, without emotional reserve. That open-hearted reception was crucial in getting me hooked as a field linguist. I think it’s important for linguists to learn the languages they study on as many fronts as possible – simultaneously trying to figure out the structure through elicitation, building up a corpus to replay and trawl through endlessly while it slowly sinks in, but also trying to speak and hear it as much as possible. Usually the speaking part lags far behind – especially when the language is on the retreat and there are few people to speak it to – but if you don’t work at that, your teachers don’t get the pride and encouragement that always brings out the best in a teacher. And you won’t get inside the language, or notice all the unofficial things which show you how it really works. Yet  if I don’t feel close to people emotionally, I find it very hard to learn their language: it starts to feel coldly technical, or even like satirical acting, rather than like the natural and loving emulation that makes learning a language from our family so easy.

Kayardild is probably the most unusual and interesting language I have ever worked on, from a grammatical point of view. But my Kayardild teachers weren’t very good at explaining what things meant. Mostly this was because there were very few bilinguals. The whole population had gone over very quickly from speaking Kayardild to speaking English, so there were only a few people who could speak both. But it was also because they just weren’t traditionally interested in language difference. Later, when I’ve worked in Arnhem Land and in New Guinea I’ve encountered a very different situation: people who were very used to learning many languages, and fascinated by fine differences of meaning that made their explanations a delight.

Nor did Kayardild people like doing very structured work – they were just too anarchical. So in some ways I developed bad habits for a while, of not pushing for every combinatoric possibility or asking for acceptability judgments. It just never worked with them, or else they just assented to everything I said, so that I didn’t trust the results. This made me something of an extremeinductivist during my Kayardild research, an approach that only worked because the social setting was so conducive to language learning. Perhaps because it was my first field experience and had the open identity you have in your twenties, I developed a very strong secondary ethnicity as a sort of Kayardild person. But you have to beware of taking that too seriously and tread a tightrope there, accepting people’s invitations into their lives and doing what you can to help from your outside perspective, but accepting that indigenous people have enough outsiders trying to usurp their rights.  So even while trying to fit in linguistically and culturally as much as possible, you should never kid yourself that you’re more than a privileged outsider who doesn’t have your family hurt by alcoholism or early deaths and who hasn’t had to deal with generations of disenfranchisement.

This photo was taken two years ago with Sally Gabori, one of the last Kayardild speakers

This photo was taken two years ago with Sally Gabori, one of the last Kayardild speakers

Since my PhD I’ve often gone back to Mornington, working up a dictionary and revising my grammar for publication, following up on other more subtle questions. But the number of speakers has just gone on dwindling to the point where most are now in the graveyard by the sea. When I first went there in 1982 there were about forty speakers, aged forty and up.  The language was exuberantly bellowed out every day, especially in the women’s camp on the beach.  Hearing it spoken has increasingly required special orchestration, and now even the old ladies who spoke it well in 1982 use a pretty attenuated version, by habit of having to communicate with younger people who don’t understand the full form of the language. It’s still possible to get the odd new word, but impossible to get at complex grammatical patterns.

I’ve just given one part of my fieldwork experiences and one part of my career – working on Kayardild has led out in all sorts of other interesting directions (typology, historical linguistics, semantics…). My other fieldwork experiences in Arnhem Land and Papua New Guinea have each had their own stories. And working on little-known languages is only one part of the total challenge of our field.

Linguistics has a unique but unfulfilled destiny, as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Our quest for meaning within and across languages is intimately tied in with our quest for meaning in life more generally. Linguistics is also a field with a thoroughly democratic appreciation of human creativity – as well as an ability to give voice to every one of the world’s cultures. With the right balance of humanistic insight and scientific rigor, it has the potential to reach what Ortega y Gasset referred to as the revelation of the secrets that peoples and epochs keep from each other and which contribute so much to their dispersion and hostility – in sum, an audacious integration of humanity[1].

When I started into my PhD, or even when I finished it, I don’t think I was conscious of where it would lead me, or how much my encounters with my teachers of Kayardild and later of other languages would change my ways of looking at language and at life.  Nor was I even thinking about where it would lead, professionally or intellectually. I was just pulling a thread which I found intriguing, and the more I listened the more interesting things were there to be discovered.

______________________________________________________________    [1] Ortega y Gasset (1937), Miseria y esplendor de la traducción. La Nación (Buenos Aires) May-June 1937; translation mine.

Congrats to Our Winners; The Next One Could Be You!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

We’ve announced a lot of great prizes over the past two weeks, and today we’re happy to announce some of the winners!

The winner of our Top Donor Contest for the first day of Fund Drive was Dr. Sonia Lanehart, who walked away with a free subscription from Elsevier. Also, The winner of last Thursday’s raffle for a free subscription from John Benjamins was Dr. Bernard Comrie. Congratulations to you both!

And speaking of John Benjamins, we’re happy to give out yet another free subscription to any of their linguistic journals! All you have to do to be entered to win is make a donation today by 11:59 p.m.

And as always, if you donate $35 or more, you’re guaranteed to receive some great swag from us!

Good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

LINGUIST List: An Invaluable Service and Resource

Dear Subscribers,

The LINGUIST List relies on the generous support of donors to stay up and running. Do your part now:

Why you should donate.

The LINGUIST List gives you awesome tools. For free. The LINGUIST List lets you know what’s going on in the discipline through its announcement service, including job & internship listings, book reviews, conference announcements, and paper publications. The LINGUIST List also helps you get your work done by offering services like Easy Registration for conference organization, and creating research tools like MultiTree, an interactive visualization of language relationships and subgroupings.

These free tools and resources help researchers, teachers, students, and the general public learn more about the nature and function of language.

The LINGUIST List funds students.

Donations go directly to the funding the linguistic students that keep the LINGUIST List up and running. These students maintain the database and website, organize and post thousands of announcements annually, and help create research tools in addition to their coursework to complete advanced degrees in linguistics (and anything else life throws them).

Why I’m asking you to donate.

I’m a former crew member and Managing Editor of The LINGUIST List. I’m currently a technical writer at Google, and I wouldn’t be doing it without what I learned at (and from) The LINGUIST List. My education and experience informs what I do everyday (notably fighting the good fight against the surprising number of prescriptivists I meet!).

Donate to support what the LINGUIST List does for all of us and to support the students that make it happen.

-Catherine Adams

Win a Subscription to Anthropological Linguistics! Donate Today!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Do you love Anthropological Linguistics? Well then do we have a deal for you! Today we’ll be giving away one subscription, as well as a 20% discount for 25 donors, to the University of Nebraska Press journal Anthropological Linguistics!

While we know we can’t tell you the absolute cultural value of such a prize, we can tell you that a subscription normally carries a monetary value of $58 USD (US residents) or even $82 USD (non-US residents). However, a year’s subscription could be yours for as little as a $5 USD donation. Make your donation by 11:59 p.m. EST, and you could be today’s winner!

And don’t forget, $35 USD or more guarantees you’ll get the premium of your choice:

Thanks, and good luck!

-The LINGUIST List Crew

LINGUIST List: A Service for Linguists, Brought to You by Linguists

Dear Colleagues,

My name is Malgosia Cavar. I am a linguist. I am one of you. I started reading grammar books for fun and pleasure at the age of 11, and – after shortly considering a career as a psychologist – I became a linguist, and since then I have been happy to convey the linguistic good news to the innocent out there. The LINGUIST List has been with me since my student years more than 10 years ago. The jobs I have applied for were announced over the LINGUIST List, and when I plan my conference schedule, I check the LINGUIST List database first. I can hardly function professionally without the LINGUIST List.

For the last two years I have another reason why I cannot imagine my professional life without the LINGUIST List. I have the honor to be a part of the Institute for Language Information and Technology (ILIT) at EMU, the home of the LINGUIST List, where since Fall 2012 I have run MultiTree, a sister project of the LINGUIST List, and participated in the operations of the LINGUIST List itself.

We work hard to provide the service you are used to, so that no linguist is left without the information about the conferences they want to attend, or the deadlines for abstracts they want to submit, the jobs they want to apply for, the books they might have overlooked, if not announced over the LINGUIST List. But we can offer more than that. This year we plan to bring to you a number of new services and innovative features that we in the LINGUIST’s office are all excited about – but we need your support.

We know you are there. We know that we have on average 200,000 unique visitors per month on our web pages. Many of you live outside of the United States, and especially for you, I want to stress again – the LINGUIST List is not state-funded, nor does it have official institutional sponsors apart from the Eastern Michigan University. Please make a donation. Even small donations will help significantly.

Malgosia Cavar

Featured Linguist: Nick Thieberger

As the Fund Drive moves on and we are now traveling to the Pacific region of the World, we are proud to introduce the Featured Linguists from this region. Please welcome Nick Thieberger, our Featured Linguist from the University of Melbourne. Read below why he chose linguistics and where it led him in his life way.


Biography by Nick Thieberger

I was brought up in a multilingual setting, with parents who between them spoke Italian (Standard and Veneto and Triestin), German, Friulian, Polish, Russian, and Uzbek, so I developed an ability and interest in languages that I just followed when I began my studies. My first linguistics degree in the late 1970s was based entirely on Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and at first I enjoyed the calculus of phrase structure grammar and transformations. However, I was also interested in Australian languages and could see a mismatch between theoretical constructs based on ideal examples and the use of language by speakers.

My first experience of working with Aboriginal people came when I was a volunteer at Friends of the Earth and we organised a demonstration against a uranium mine site near Broken Hill in South Australia. I got to know some Paakanji Aboriginal people from Wilcannia who were the traditional custodians of the country there and then in the early 1980s went up there to see what use a new linguist could be. I ended up writing some introductory materials in the language based on Luise Hercus’s grammar and recorded speakers to use in an audio guide to the language.

I tutored in linguistics at La Trobe University and after my honours year I got a short contract to teach at the University of Western Australia. My next job was at the School of Australian Linguistics, an institute set up (partly by Ken Hale) to train indigenous Australians in language work. Having that experience encouraged me to apply for a job to prepare a survey of Aboriginal languages of Western Australia that led to writing a handbook of those languages, and, in 1988, to setting up a language center in Port Hedland (Wangka Maya). This involved a long process of consultation with local Aboriginal people who formed the management committee of the Centre. A trained teacher and Banjima/Yinhawangka woman, Lorraine Injie, started work with me as we recorded local speakers, prepared new material, and set up a resource center for the 25 or so local languages. I made friends with a family of Warnman speakers and spent some time with them, recording the language from the Great Sandy Desert.

The task of preparing new materials based on older materials taught me the value of regular expressions and text conversion in those early days of personal computers. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies advertised for someone with these kinds of skills to build an archive of texts related to Aboriginal languages and I moved to Canberra to set up this collection. I had two children in the early 1990s and we wanted to go somewhere where they would be immersed in another language and culture, so we went to live in Vanuatu as Australian Volunteers Abroad (like Peace Corps) where I worked at the National Museum. I got to know the local language (South Efate) which then became the topic of my PhD dissertation. It was of concern to me that, in the course of doing a PhD at a university linguistics department, I got no training in the methods for recording, transcribing, or using new tools for analysing the materials in the language, and that there were no tools available for accessing recordings via text, nor for citation of primary recordings in the analysis. In those (pre-Elan) days I wrote some software (Audiamus) to allow me to create a text/media corpus and then to link examples and texts in my grammar of South Efate to the media so that they could be verified by readers. The corpus continues to be extremely useful in my ongoing work with South Efate.

This all drove home to me the value of making good records, and coincided with the development of language documentation as a stream within linguistics. With Linda Barwick I established the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), in order to look after field recordings, and we located a number of collections of tape recordings that we digitised, created a catalog for, and made accessible for ongoing research. PARADISEC has been going for ten years and we have digitised nearly 4,000 hours of recordings that would otherwise have been lost. In order to support sharing expertise on new methods I (with Margaret Florey) set up the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity ( as a mailing list and website.

I was an assistant professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa from 2008-2010 and taught in the language documentation stream there. That program attracts great students and, under the leadership of Ken Rehg, we started the journal Language Documentation & Conservation (LD&C) and hold the first international conference on LD&C. I now have an Australian Research Council grant to work at the University of Melbourne and this lets me continue to develop PARADISEC, and to work on South Efate and Warnman.

Language documentation allows us to be scholarly researchers and, at the same time, to create records for the people we record. I have been lucky that my interest in this work has coincided with the realisation within linguistics that field-based research and resulting corpus-creation are valuable activities that are necessary for the scientific foundation of linguistics.


Update: Language Guessing Contest Extended!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Last week we announced our Language Guessing Contest, in which anyone can guess the languages used in our Fund Drive song in order to win a free year’s subscription to a journal from Elsevier. We’d like to announce that we’re extending the deadline to submit your entry to win until 11:59 on Sunday, March 2nd, and that we’ll be giving free subscriptions to four of the users who have the most correct guesses. In addition, here are a few more hints:

1. There are six languages other than English used in the Fund Drive Song.

2. Four of the languages are included in The Great Language Game (, so you can get some help by playing that game.*

3. However, two of these languages are NOT in the Great Language Game, but one of them is list on the Endangered Languages Project website ( and both of them are on Multitree (, two great projects that LINGUIST List contributes to.

Listen to the Fund Drive Song, make your guesses, and submit them to [email protected] by March 2nd at 11:59 pm!

And remember, even though you don’t have to donate to win this contest, we’ll be working hard during and after Fund Drive to serve you, and we appreciate your support!

-The LINGUIST List Crew


*LINGUIST List is not affiliated with the Great Language Game in any way. We just want to give a shout out to them for making one of the coolest things on the internet for language nerds like ourselves. Also, the current high score in the office is 1200, just for the record.

LINGUIST List: A Vehicle Towards A Life-Long Passion

Dear LINGUIST List Subscribers:

My name is Sara Couture, and I started as a Master’s student at Eastern Michigan University in the fall of 2013. I graduated with my B.A. in Linguistics from Wayne State University in August 2012. I worked as an intern for the LINGUIST List in the Summer of 2013 because I was interested in gaining practical experience in the field of Linguistics. When I was offered the chance to continue working at the LINGUIST List as a graduate assistant, I jumped at the opportunity, because the LINGUIST List is renowned for preparing linguists-in-training in exactly that–a career in Linguistics.

I chose Linguistics as my career because, for as long as I can remember, language and all its intricacies have been a passion of mine. I’ve wanted to unlock its mysteries, and the more I’ve delved into searching for answers to these mysteries, the more questions and puzzles I uncover. More than anything, I enjoy solving puzzles of all kinds, and language offers a very challenging puzzle to understand and solve. When I discovered Linguistics as a discipline while pursuing my undergraduate degree, I saw an opportunity to take my passion for language and make it my life’s work.

The main LINGUIST List project that I work on is MultiTree. I’ve been busy reading resources and adding language trees to our database, primarily Papuan and Austronesian languages, as well as searching for more resources to add to MultiTree. I was surprised by all the work that is required behind the scenes on MultiTree. I never expected how much painstaking and detailed work goes into making these trees for MultiTree until I started on the project at the LINGUIST List. It has made me appreciate the resource all the more, and also has given me a deeper insight into the world of scholarship. In addition to working on MultiTree, I also work on the LL-Map Project, as well as help with maintaining the LINGUIST List Blog and posting as the editor of Table of Contents (TOCs) on the Publications team.

The LINGUIST List is an important resource and service to the linguistic community. To keep us running, we need your support. Your donations will make it possible for us to continue to serve you, as well as help to promote studies in Linguistics.

Please donate today:

Sara Couture