Sally Thomason

Website: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~thomason/

Posts by Sally Thomason:

    A new mixed language in the news

    Lately we've seen a number of hair-tearing Language Log posts (including a couple of mine) about bad linguistic pseudo-hemi-demi-quasi-science getting into major science journals and the popular press.  But sometimes the news media get it right, and here's one example: thanks to effective publicizing by the Linguistic Society of America, a new article by Carmel O'Shannessy, who has been observing the emergence of a new mixed language in Australia for many years, is being widely reported nationally and internationally, for instance here and here.

    Back in 2004 I gave a talk on `The birth of bilingual mixed languages' at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  A prominent linguist in the audience protested during the comment period that I had no actual evidence that such languages actually existed and were learnable, since my evidence came from historical situations.   (I still think my evidence was solid, but I'm pretty sure I didn't convince the doubter. )   Carmel's research (which wasn't yet published in 2004) would have been an effective response to that objection: she shows that young children have been participating in the creation of Light Warlpiri, and she shows conclusively that the language is being learned by younger children.

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    Xenoglossy & the psychiatrists

    I just learned that the American Psychiatric Association, at their annual meeting last month, had a Media Workshop on "A Case of Xenoglossy and the Nature of Consciousness", where the organizer, a psychiatrist named Samuel Sandweiss, claimed that he had a patient back in 1983 (!) who spontaneously uttered profound philosophical remarks in a mixture of Sanskrit and Pali.  And here I had been fondly imagining that my 1996 encyclopedia article `Xenoglossy' had succeeded in demolishing claims that some people can speak languages they have not had an opportunity to learn in their current lifetime.   But Sandweiss's proposal — unlike those of the late Ian Stevenson, also a psychiatrist and the best-known promoter of purported cases of xenoglossy — apparently doesn't involve reincarnation; it sounds more like channeling, as if a bodiless entity took over the patient's brain to utter profundities in an ancient(ish) Indic mishmash (as verified…supposedly…by experts in Sanskrit and Pali).  Sheesh.   Surely not all psychiatrists are so credulous, but what's with the APA's highlighting this event as a Media Workshop?

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    Ultraconserved words? Really??

    On the web site of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the "Early Edition" section, is an article by Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade: "Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia". The authors claim that a set of 23 especially frequent words can be used to establish genetic relationships of languages that go way, way back — too far back for successful application of the standard historical linguistics methodology for establishing language families, the Comparative Method.  The idea is that, once you've determined that these 23 words are super-stable (because they're used so often), you don't need systematic sound/meaning correspondences at all; finding resemblances among these words across several language families is enough to prove that the languages are related, descended with modification from a single parent language (a.k.a. proto-language).

    This is the latest of many attempts to get around the unfortunate fact that systematic sound/meaning correspondences in related languages decay so much over time that even if the words survive, they are unrecognizable as cognates (sets of words descended from the same word in the parent language).   This means that word sets that have similar meanings and also sound similar after 15,000 years are unlikely to share those similar sounds as the result of inheritance from a common ancestor; if they were really such ancient cognates, they would almost surely not look much alike at all. (See "Scrabble tips for time travelers", 2/26/2009, for a discussion of some earlier work.)

    I'm not qualified to judge Pagel et al.'s statistics, although I remain skeptical of their basic claim that words that haven't been replaced often in a handful of language families with vastly different time depths can be predicted to be super-stable in all language families. But there are problems with their premises in this article, in which their goal is to compare words from seven different language families and to show that, according to their statistics, all seven should be grouped together into a single super-family. I think they have a serious garbage in, garbage out problem.

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    Mutilated currency examiners

    I love reading Montana newspapers.   Today's Missoulian has an article entitled "Helena man reassembles five $100 bills eaten by dog".  (The article notes that the dog ignored a $1 bill; apparently it didn't taste so good.) The man reassembled the bills after picking the pieces out of subsequent piles of dog poop.   Local banks refused to accept the washed, reassembled, and taped-together bills, and eventually he was told to submit them to the government, where, according to (for instance) the website of the Bureau of Engraving, US Department of the Treasury, each case of damaged currency "is carefully examined by an experienced mutilated currency examiner".   I infer that non-mutilated people don't get any experience as currency examiners.

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    English or Engelsk?

    A recent article in Science Daily has the headline `Linguist makes sensational claim: English is a Scandinavian language'. The claim in question is Jan Terje Faarlund's conclusion that `English is in reality a Scandinavian language' — that `Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.' The core of Faarlund's argument is that, in addition to many words that originally belonged to Norwegian and/or Danish, English has syntactic structures that are Scandinavian rather than West Germanic in origin. Specifically, Faarlund argues that `wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages — German, Dutch, Frisian — it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages.' Faarlund then gives a few examples of syntactic parallelism between English and Scandinavian [that is, the Germanic languages of Scandinavia] and concludes that `the only reasonable explanation' for this parallelism `is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.'

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes. The evidence cited in the article is nowhere near extraordinary. Assuming that he is quoted accurately, there are some serious problems with Faarlund's claims.

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    Holy s***! J-school punchy prose?

    Yesterday's Missoulian, reporting on a non-shy mountain lion that was hanging around a campground in western Montana, had the following memorable sentence: `The kids were playing and Gerhard was stashing something in the minivan when her cousin hollered, "Holy (appropriate word under the circumstances), that's a mountain lion!"'  So the newspaper's editors don't want to print a classic four-letter cuss word, but surely there's a way to keep the sentence from sounding quite so silly?  Even "s***" wouldn't look as ridiculous as "(appropriate word under the circumstances)".  Better yet, they could just give up their aversion to including vulgarities in direct quotations.

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    Myaamia revitalization and Meskwaki insults

    Two conferences I really want to attend are currently in progress. The one I'm at is in Milwaukee, on Language Death, Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization; there have been some wonderful talks here, highlighted by "Searching for our talk" by Daryl Baldwin, head of the Myaamia Project at Miami University (that's Miami in Ohio, not Florida): an inspiring and moving description of his and his tribe's efforts to revive and revitalize the Miami language, an Algonquian language that had not been spoken (until Baldwin began his personal journey) for over a hundred years but that is richly documented from past times, from Jesuit missionaries onward.

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    A Rejection of the Power Semantic

    It has been over fifty years since Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published their classic article "The pronouns of power and solidarity" (American Anthropologist 4/6:24-39, 1960), analyzing what they called the T/V distinction. The letters refer not to a device on which one views reality shows, NOVA, soap operas, etc., but to the familiar (T for Latin or French tu) vs. formal (V for Latin vos/French vous) pronouns used to address someone. To oversimplify somewhat, reciprocal T expresses solidarity, and reciprocal V may also do so; non-reciprocal usage — using V to someone with superior status and receiving T from that person, or vice versa to someone of inferior status — expresses what Brown & Gilman called the power semantic. English, of course, can't express this difference with pronouns, because our only second person pronoun in general usage is you. But English does have address forms that capture the basic social distinction: reciprocal first-name (or sometimes last-name) usage for the solidarity semantic, non-reciprocal first-name vs. title plus last name for the power semantic. So, for instance, my formidable sixth-grade music teacher called me Sally, and I called her Miss Boe. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

    All this is very old news. But I just ran across an interesting example in a terrific book I've been reading — David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

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    Goddard and Frohlich Respond to Atkinson

    The following is a letter written by Ives Goddard and Bruno Frohlich of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in response to the paper by Q. D. Atkinson claiming that the distribution of speech sounds in the world's languages demonstrates a single point of origin for human languages in Africa. Mark discussed this paper here. The letter was submitted to Science, which declined to publish it.

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    "Chinese — Traditional"

    The other day, just before going through security at the international terminal at the airport in Melbourne, Australia, I noticed a second sign beside the sign of instructions on what you couldn't take onto the airplane.  The second sign was (I assume) the same set of instructions in Chinese, and it was headed "Chinese – Traditional".

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    Tassie rhymes with snazzy

    English spelling has a lot to answer for.  I'm currently in Sydney, Australia, leaving tomorrow to fly to Hobart, Tasmania, for my first-ever visit to that part of this excellent country.  And I've just noticed, also for the first time ever, that the Australian nickname for Tasmania, which is Tassie, is pronounced with a [z], not an [s].  It figures, since the s in Tasmania is also pronounced [z]; but it doesn't fit the spelling Tassie, which, with its doubled -ss, ought to represent [s] (at least according to my intuitions about English spelling/pronunciation rules).

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    Ilse Lehiste again

    Arnold's news yesterday about Ilse Lehiste's passing was a sad coda to Christmas.  What a tremendous loss to the field of linguistics — Ilse's exuberant reactions to all things linguistic made her a joy to be around

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    Dog Departure

    Kwala is no more. Kwala, the dog Mark taught to sing, the dog who ate exams, died this morning, aged fifteen. In addition to Mark's musical collaboration with her, Kwala has a claim to Language Log mention for another reason: in her young and vigorous days, she accompanied me to my Intro to Language class when the topic was animal language (or animal "language"). I ordered, ROLL OVER! And she rolled over. I ordered, BOWL SNOVER! And she rolled over. I ordered, SNIG BLIVVER! And she rolled over. Finally a clever student pointed out that the intonation was the same on all three utterances, and she could've been going by that (since she obviously wasn't responding to the actual words in the utterance). He may well have been right; or maybe it was just that she refused to learn any other tricks. She was smart: she was the only dog I've ever had, for instance, who would consistently backtrack around a pole when she was on the leash and we found ourselves on opposite sides of the pole; but she always considered it beneath her dignity to do tricks, no matter how many treats she got for doing them.

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