Author: Nils Hjortnaes

Staff Letter: Nils Hjortnaes

Hello all,

This is my face

My name is Nils. You may recognize it from some of the fun facts or the Antarctica post, and while I enjoyed the latter in particular, my main role here at the LINGUIST List is to work on the new website. Because we are all grad students, it’s been a slower process than I’d like, but it’s coming along, and worth checking out! Go see for yourself and let us know what you think.

Besides working at the LINGUIST List, I am a PhD student at Indiana University, our host institution. My primary interest, in a very broad sense, is computational methods for under-resourced languages and language documentation. I’ve still got a lot of work and a long ways to go before I even think of defending, but it wouldn’t be possible at all without my job at the LINGUIST List.

Me pretending to be good at climbing

In terms of my life outside academia, my primary hobbies are rock climbing, fencing, and video games. They do a good job of keeping me sane while I work on projects and classes. I’ve also been playing violin for 18 years, though I don’t play as much as I’d like anymore, and I’m fluent in German thanks to attending an immersion elementary school. I took a class on Danish in college because that’s where my ancestors came from, but I admittedly don’t speak it very well.

As I mentioned, all of us here at LL are graduate students in Linguistics at Indiana University. By working here, we get our tuition paid as well as a small stipend, allowing us to contribute to the community directly while learning to contribute to the field academically. We are committed to keeping LL free, especially since a not insignificant portion of our readers are (we’re pretty sure) graduate students or recent graduates seeking jobs.

So when you support the LINGUIST List, you’re not just supporting a valuable resource for the Linguistics community, but several linguists in training. We’re still a long ways away from our funddrive goal for this year. To those of you who have already donated, we cannot thank you enough. We’ve survived for nearly 30 years thanks to the support of our large community. With your support, we can finish building a new, modern website and continue the bring you the valuable information and news of what’s new in the world of Linguistics.

Thank you again for all of your support, everyone here at LINGUIST List is forever grateful to all of you. If you would like to help us to continue providing resources to the linguistic community please visit our fund drive page and donate.

Thank you to the University of Antarctica

Hello all,

Several of the consultants assisting researchers

We here at the LINGUIST List would like to give a shout out to the University of Antarctica for their extremely generous donation of $20,000. As the #6 top university in Linguistics in the world, with the #4 best graduate Linguistics program, their work is invaluable to the community, especially their latest project documenting the indigenous languages of Antarctica.

With such a large area and the difficulty of travel across the continent, it is no surprise that there are diverse dialects throughout Antarctica. The goal of the U of A’s most recent project is to document the features of these various dialects and, eventually, to create a dialectal map of the entire continent. It is a bold undertaking, but certainly a valuable one for any future researchers interested in the indigenous Antarctic populations.

For example, on the northern side of the continent, it is common to include only one squawk between trills. In contrast, on the northern side of the continent, they tend to reduplicate the squawks between trills. These are both totally different than the northern side of the continent where they lengthen the vowel on the squawk, a very unique feature.

So thank you once again to the University of Antarctica, both for your valuable work and your generous donation to our Fund Drive.

A graduate student of Linguistics at U of A involved in the project

If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book and job announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.

Fun Facts: FAQ Page

Hello all,

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for more fun facts! One of the jobs of our editors is to answer questions regarding your posts or our policies. I’ll be honest, we aren’t fans of reading through our policies either. They’re long and pretty dry, as policies often are. We also noticed that many of the questions you, our readers and submitters, have are very similar. In the spirit of our funddrive, and the theme of revitalization, we’ve created a new FAQ to make it much easier for you to find the information you’re looking for!

It’s one of the many features we’re working on adding to our new website. Speaking of which, watch for next week for more information and fun facts on our new, revitalized website!


If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book and job announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.

The Importance of Tech in Language Revitalization

Hello all,

For our second fund drive blog post I wanted to continue talking about the impact and importance of technology in language revitalization. In our previous post, Becca talked about a specific project with Hakha Chin (Laiholh). Here, I want to generalize a little bit and talk about why I think projects like that are so important.

The most obvious place technology can help in language revitalization is teaching and data collection applications, such as Duolingo. If nothing else, apps like these open the door to multilingualism, especially in America where learning even a second language is not nearly as common as I think it should be. Common Voice is at the other side of that with data collection, and you can read about that more in Becca’s post if you’d like. But these aren’t really the kind of applications I’m talking about here, I want to go deeper and look at language technology.

One big example of what I’m thinking of, and a very important one, are speech to text and text to speech systems.

Amazon’s Alexa, a voice activated tool

This is the technology behind Siri, Google, Alexa, and Cortana. As a native English speaker, I am incredibly privileged to have some of the best language tech at my fingertips because so much work has been done on English already. And while there may still be a long ways to go before we have anything resembling a true Artificial Intelligence, it’s easy to gloss over how big a difference there still is between English and less resourced languages.

This also illustrates a theoretical situation which may contribute directly to the extinction of languages. Any time someone wants to use their phone or other voice activated device and it is not in their native language, they must switch to a language that is available. Any multilingual speaker can tell you that switching languages takes a lot of cognitive effort, as I will personally attest to. Our brains just don’t want to. How often do you use your phone? If you’re like me, or pretty much anyone else in my generation, the answer is a LOT. Too much, really. And incorporating language technology is only getting more and more prevalent. So if you’re a speaker of a language that isn’t available on your tech, at what point do you just stop speaking your native language and just switch to the more common one you’re pretty proficient at?

In the tech industry we make a big deal about “User Experience” and “Accessibility”, which are definitely a good thing, but carry a cost if any aspect is ignored. My point is this: it’s not enough to just teach a language and make language learning resources available. In order to truly revitalize a language, it needs to be available in all aspects of life, and the growing amount of technology used on a day to day basis is a critical point. The good news is that people are working on it. Under Resourced Languages are gaining popularity and even companies are recognizing this, see again Mozilla’s Common Voice. Machine learning methods are being worked on which aim to reduce the amount of data needed to make them effective, opening them up to these smaller languages.

If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book and job announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.

Fun Fact 2: Virtual Contact Cards

Hello all,

It’s Tuesday again, which means it’s time for our second fun fact! Have you ever wanted an excuse to visit somewhere but can’t justify it because academic life is hard? Conferences are the perfect excuse! Using LINGUIST List’s geoling, you can check out what conferences are nearby your dream travel destination and plan accordingly. Geoling also lists jobs and summer schools, so if you’re looking for a place to visit, or just want to see what’s out there, take a look!

A brand new feature we just added to geoling, thanks to our very own intern Julian Dietrich, is the ability to download contact cards, called vCards, from the huge selection of contacts available through us. By selecting contacts on the menu and then clicking on one of the pins, you can find the download vCard button on the bottom of the short description. This will allow you to automatically add that information to your list of contacts. And yes, it works on both Android and iPhone.

We hope you enjoy the new feature! And there are more coming soon. Talk to you next week for our next fun fact!

If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.


Fun Fact: Our Editors

Hello all,

This is Nils, the web developer at the LINGUIST List, and I’ll be doing this year’s fun facts for our fund drive. I’d like to kick it off with some fun facts about our editors, the people who make sure that everything we post is formatted consistently and the content is relevant to you, our readers. Without our editors the list would get flooded with irrelevant, annoying ads and typos that sneak past our spam filters.

We all come from a wide range of places and backgrounds. To illustrate that, we’ve (almost) all written a bit on where we’re from, which you can find here. Finally, every one of the editors is also a graduate student of Linguistics at Indiana University and we all work part time in the office located just a block away from campus. This is why your donations are so important. They not only support a major source of news in Linguistics, but also a part of the next generation of linguists in their studies.

If you appreciate services provided by the LINGUIST List like book announcements, please consider donating to our annual fund drive campaign. We rely on your donations to continue operating and supporting our editors.

If you’ve already donated or just donated, thank you, we appreciate it.

Submitting To The LINGUIST List Just Got Easier

Hello all!

After lots of hard work, we are thrilled to announce the beta release of our new submission form! For those who don’t know, we have been working on updating our entire website to make it cleaner, faster, and easier to navigate. You can see the site here: As part of that process, we’ve created a brand new submission form that’s easier to use for you to submit your posts to the LINGUIST List. The form is designed to guide you through the submission process and make sure we have all the information we need to publish your post. So far, the following posting areas have been completed and tested:

Discussions, FYIs, Internships, Jobs, Media, Notices, Obituaries, Queries, Software, Summaries, and Supports.

If you would like to post to any of those areas, please give the new form a try! Conferences and Workshops are currently being tested and should be released soon. All other areas are under development, and will be tested before they are released to ensure they are fully functional, user-friendly, and secure.

The new form features collapsible cards instead of different pages for each section, making it much more intuitive and easier to follow. Instead of having to go between tabs, you can now open and close the cards as needed, all on one screen. In addition, all posting areas are now in one place, making navigation easier and forms for different areas much more consistent with each other. These improvements aren’t all. We have much more planned once the rest of the posting area forms are finished, so keep an eye out for future improvements.

You can find the new form here:

Let us know what you think! Feedback can be sent to webdev[at]


Your LINGUIST List team

Universally Translating in Space

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The anatomy of a Babel fish

In other words, the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy translates the subconscious of the speaker into language the listener understands. It’s just one example of a universal translator in science fiction, where they’re often used by writers to get around the languages and dialect part of world building, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Unlike a mysterious box, device, or computer program, such as those used in Star Trek or Men in Black, which translates from speech to speech, the Babel fish doesn’t try to be realistic by today’s standards and thereby avoids many of the problems that make real time translators so difficult, if not impossible.

It didn’t take long after computers came into existence that researchers began trying to use them for machine translation. “This will be easy!”, they thought, conceptualizing simple word to word translation systems, and not realizing the maze of a problem they were getting themselves into. We have made a lot of progress in the decades since then, and some machine translators, such as google’s, can produce some passable translations between certain languages. (To the students reading this, they still won’t trick your language teacher, so don’t try.) Even so, there is a long way to go between where we are and universal translators, especially real time ones. Besides the typical major problems in MT such as idioms, word order, sparsity of data, and dealing with morphology in general, real time translators will have to process information they don’t have yet. Differences in sentence structure and word order between languages mean that a delay in speech to speech translation is inevitable, which makes realistic translators in movies/tv feel a bit too clunky.

This is why I’m such a fan of the Babel fish, and the Tardis’ translation matrix from Doctor Who for that matter, which also uses a type of telepathic field. They get around a lot of the issues we run into in MT simply by taking advantage of worldbuilding. Does it take some suspension of disbelief to accept a telepathic fish you stick in your ear which excretes translated speech? Sure, but it fits right in with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s universe and style, and instead of being just close enough to the truth to be irritating, it’s just crazy enough to think, hey, that just might work!

Thanks for reading! The Linguist List depends on donations from readers like you to continue providing resources and updates in the world of linguistics as well as to help fund the graduate students who run it. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive so that we can continue posting content for you.

Thanks again!

Your Linguist List team

Sociolinguistics in Space: Firefly

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s time for more Linguistics in pop culture! Today I’ll be talking a bit about the show Firefly and the language used in it. Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, when humanity has colonized another star system with hundreds of planets and moons, many terraformed for human habitation. The show follows a mixed crew from several walks of life in a small smuggling ship as they take whatever jobs they can get to keep flying. It’s a fantastic, unique blend of western and sci-fi which does a great job of focusing on the characters and world instead of just being another flashy fight scene riddled action show. If you like flashy fight scenes, don’t worry, it does have them. Firefly is a beloved cult classic for sci-fi enthusiasts and it is well worth your time (and your linguistic interest!)

Image result for firefly show

The crew of the firefly class ship Serenity

Spoiler Alert: While I won’t be talking about main plot points, there will be some spoilers


There are a couple linguistic things I want to talk about in Firefly. First up is the use of Mandarin Chinese in the show. Over the course of the series we often see the characters using Chinese to swear or insult others. While these are the most common uses, others do come up, such as pet names or terms of endearment. In the context of this airing on TV, it’s pretty obvious that Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, used this as a way to get around censorship. Other nonsense words, such as gorram, were also added for the same purpose. Within the universe, however, there is a bit more to dig into. Firefly establishes that the two superpowers which sent colony ships to the new star system from “Earth that was” were the US and China. In addition, most people are bilingual in English and Chinese as a consequence, though everyone still use English the vast majority of the time on the planets visited in the show.

Related image

Jayne with his favorite hat

What I find really interesting about this setting is how Whedon actually pays some attention to the impacts culture and history have on language. It is, of course, too much to expect that a show emulates 500 years of language change in its speech, especially considering that it would be almost unintelligible by that point anyway. But I appreciate that Firefly does more than just have a bunch of sci-fi sounding tool names and phrases. The inclusion of small Chinese phrases, whether insults, swears, or pet names, indicates thought given to the linguistic aspect of the universe beyond giving another species their own language.


The other major aspect of the language in Firefly I want to talk about is the dialectical difference between Core world speakers and border planet and Rim speakers. People from the Core world tend to speak very grammatically and formally. Dr. Simon Tam, Inara, and Shepherd Book are good examples of this, all being raised on Core worlds. Inara, being born on a primarily Chinese planet, would be a second language speaker of English, but taught by other Core world speakers. Speakers from the Rim and the border planets, however, use a stigmatized dialect similar to that of stereotypical American Frontier speech. The entire culture of the frontier worlds is based on the wild west, and this less formal dialect is where Chinese and slang terms for spaceflight invented for the show tend to be used. Some notable features of this dialect are -ly dropping, g dropping, double negatives, and ain’t. Several examples taken from the show can be found here

Image result for firefly kaylee

Kaylee, the mechanic: “Machines just got workings, and they talk to me.”

While the costuming and set design make a very clear distinction between the richer Core worlds and the poorer border planets, the differences in language add a lot of authenticity to the universe. Dialectical differences are used all the time to make judgments about people, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the addition of the elaborate dialects, phrases, and jargon to Firefly enabled us to relate to and understand the characters much better. It was, in my opinion, an absolutely crucial element of world building. Were everyone speaking the same dialect, the characters would have felt much more flat and uninteresting. Anecdotally, Firefly serves as a great example of how important linguistics is to the development of a show which cannot be left out, especially in sci-fi or fantasy worlds.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings on one of my favorite shows. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, despite it having been cut far too short by Fox.

The LINGUIST List staff is passionate about investigating the ways that linguistics interacts with human culture and media. We rely on funding from readers like you to continue hosting a wide range of academic tools and resources useful to linguists like you. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive to support not only the continuation of these resources, but also the students who maintain them, and the mission of the global linguistics community.

Thanks once again!

Nils Hjortnaes

Featured Staff: Meet Nils Hjortnaes

Dear LINGUIST List subscribers,

Nils Hjortnaes, LINGUIST List programmer

My name is Nils Hjortnaes and I’m a web developer here at LINGUIST List. I’m currently working on the new website fixing any issues that may come up, making it as user friendly as possible, and getting everything running smoothly and cleanly with all the functionality of our old website. If you’re curious how much progress we’ve made, you can check the new site out here.

I am currently an M.A. student in Computational Linguistics here at Indiana University, and I am extremely fortunate to have a job at Linguist List which can support me while I continue down this road to finish my Master’s and into a PhD. It is an honor to be able to support the community through such an important resource as the LINGUIST List.

When I first started my graduate program here, I thought the LINGUIST List was just a site to find jobs and conferences. I have since learned that it does so much more, hosting blogs, forums, various resources, and bringing the linguistic community together, among other things. All of this, including updating the website to be easier, faster, and more friendly to use, is only possible through your donations.

Through your support, we are able to continue hosting and providing so many resources to the linguistic community, as well as support students such as myself who are the backbone of maintaining, improving, and running these valuable resources. We therefore ask that you consider supporting us and the entire community by donating to our fund drive.

From all of us here at the LINGUIST List, thank you very much!

Nils Hjortnaes
Web Developer