Eric Baković


I'm a Professor in the Linguistics Department at UC San Diego. My interests are in pretty much all things having to do with phonology, phonological analysis, and phonological theory.

Posts by Eric Baković:

    The trouble with making linguistic claims

    There is a lot for reasonable people to agree with and disagree with in Philip Kitcher's recent essay in The New Republic, "The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". This being Language Log, however, I can only urge readers of Kitcher's essay to take the following linguistic claim with a healthy dose of skepticism:

    In English we speak about science in the singular, but both French and German wisely retain the plural.

    Kitcher's point in making this claim — and the actual, reasonable argument that follows it — is that "science" is hardly a singular thing:

    The enterprises that we [English speakers–EB] lump together [with the singular word "science"–EB] are remarkably various in their methods, and also in the extent of their successes. The achievements of molecular engineering or of measurements derived from quantum theory do not hold across all of biology, or chemistry, or even physics.

    This argument is a key part of the larger (and again, reasonable) argument laid bare in the essay's subtitle: that "history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". Anyone interested in this kind of topic (as I am) is encouraged to read this essay, followed by the other links further above, and perhaps counterbalanced by this NYT Opinionator blog post. (And don't forget to squeeze the comments.)

    So what about the linguistic claim? Unfortunately for Kitcher, it's complete hogwash.

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    Open Access petition

    Every once in a while, an article is discussed or mentioned here on Language Log that many of our readers can't access without paying a hefty fee, whether to pay to view the article or to subscribe to the journal in which it appears. Many of these same readers are American taxpayers, and much of the research in those same articles is funded by governmental organizations (such as the NSF and the NIH) that are of course underwritten by American taxpayers. Why — the argument goes — should taxpayers pay again to access the results of the research that they are already paying for? What prevents those results from being disseminated (relatively) freely, so that all may benefit?

    This is the gist of this petition that has been posted at the Obama Administration "We The People" petition site by the good folks at access2research. 25,000 total signatures are needed by June 19; as of this writing, they're almost halfway there. Please take a look at the petition and sign if you're for it.

    And please also tell others about this petition! Stuart Shieber (computational linguist, open access advocate, and Director of Harvard University's Office of Scholarly Communication) has written and shared a message suitable for passing on to colleagues, friends, and family. Or, you can point them to the video found below the fold.

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    Create a language, go to jail

    I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson, founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)

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    Quotes and context

    HuffPo has a post today entitled "Michele Bachmann: 'I Haven't Had a Gaffe'", in which they take Bachmann to task for what she said to Greta van Susteren in a recent Fox News interview. This is easy bait for those of us who are appalled at the prospect of Candidate Bachmann and who have delighted at the many gaffes that she has managed to have in the course of her presidential campaign. But note the context from which the 'I haven't had a gaffe' quote was pulled:

    As people are looking at the candidate that is the most conservative and the most consistent candidate, I've been that candidate. I haven't had a gaffe or something that I've done that has caused me to fall in the polls. People see in me someone who's genuinely a social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a national security conservative and a Tea Partier. I'm the whole package.

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    Watching the deceptive

    After almost a month, I'm finally following up on the results of the single-question surveys that I asked Language Log readers to participate in. Each survey received an overwhelming 1500+ responses, and I didn't realize that I needed a "pro" (= "paid") account on SurveyMonkey in order to view more than the first 100. I owe special thanks to Mohammad Mehdi Etedali, to whom I transfered the surveys and who kindly sent me the overall percentages.

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    Pick a survey, either survey…

    Ever wish you could participate in a little linguistics experiment? Neither have I. But anyway, now you can! I have set up two very easy surveys, one question each. (Well, it's not technically a question, but that's a word-sense issue for another day.) Pick one survey (either one, but please not both), read the question, and select one of the three possible answers. I'll wait about a week month, and then post a discussion of the results.

    [Update, Sept. 5: there has been an overwhelming response to both surveys, but a slight preference for #2 (1500+ responses thus far vs. 1100+ for #1). So I've closed #2 but kept #1 open to encourage another 400 or so responses to that one. — EB]

    [Update, Sept. 7: both surveys are now closed, as they've both reached about the same overwhelming number of responses (1500+). Now I have to analyze the results, which may take longer than I originally thought so it may take another week or so. Speaking of which: anyone have access to a paid SurveyMonkey account? If so, please let me know…]

    LLog Survey 1 LLog Survey 2

    When you're done, you are allowed to do either of the following (again, not both): (a) take a peek at the other survey (but don't answer the question!), or (b) let us know that you've completed the survey and you'll be entered into a drawing for a free one-year subscription to Language Log! Don't say we don't take care of our readers.

    And, for those observing it: have a great Labor Day weekend.

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    Longetivity is the name of the game

    Listening to this recent Freakonomics podcast episode, I heard a word variant that I'd never heard before: longetivity, being used to mean longevity. You can hear it at about the 8:35 mark of the podcast — I was listening on Stitcher, in case that matters. Coincidentally, the relevant portion of the podcast (from an interview with Dick Yuengling, beer lovers!) is transcribed on the episode's webpage, with the word "corrected" to longevity.

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    Acting, speech, and authenticity

    In advance of the fifth and last season of The Wire, HBO released a documentary-like special called "The Last Word". The very first line is from an interview with series protagonist Dominic West, who says: "What makes The Wire so amazing is its level of authenticity." (Watch the first part of the special here.)

    Even now, after having re-watched the entire series several times, I'm floored by the irony of that line, spoken in West's native British dialect (born in Sheffield, but of Irish descent). West plays Detective James "Jimmy" McNulty of the Baltimore Police Department, and McNulty is a very American character: breaking all the rules in a very selfish (but also self-destructive) way, all in the name of some greater good (doing "real police" work and catching the bad guys). So how authentic can the show be, if this very American character is played by a Brit?

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    The word protesters has for obvious reasons jumped into abnormally high-rotation on the news radio dial, and to my surprise, many of the members of the media (on NPR and the BBC) that I've heard use the word are pronouncing it protésters [pʰɹəˈtʰɛstɚz] rather than the way I would pronounce it, prótesters [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛstɚz]. (Please ignore the r-coloring I've indicated on the last vowel, which reflects my r-ful pronunciation; it's the difference in stress that I'm interested in.) I think I've pinpointed both the justification for pronouncing what I'll arbitrarily call "the media's way" and why I pronounce it my way; read on below the fold if you're interested, and let us know what you think in the comments.

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    William F. Shipley, 1921-2011

    [Update: a memorial page for Bill, to which people can contribute thoughts, pictures, etc., can be found here.]

    It saddens me greatly to report that William F. Shipley passed away on January 20, 2011. He was 89 years old. Bill was my first linguistics professor, my first advisor and mentor, my first academic collaborator, and my dear, dear friend. I already miss him more than I am able to put into words.

    Bill completed his dissertation under the direction of Mary Haas at UC Berkeley in 1959, a grammar of the Native California language Maidu (published in the University of California Publications in Linguistics series in 1964, with a dictionary and texts published in 1963). In 1966, he left an appointment at Berkeley to be among the very first faculty to participate in the big experiment that UC Santa Cruz was at the time, and he retired from UCSC in 1991.

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    Bilingualism is good for you — but not for me, thank you.

    While travelling in Spain last week, I found myself waiting in the car for a long enough period of time that I decided to see what might be on the radio. By some cosmic coincidence, the first station I tuned to happened to feature a discussion of language.

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    Enduring Voices channel on YouTube

    I'm a bit tardy in reporting this, but better late than never: the endangered language research team of K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson, in collaboration with National Geographic, have started a YouTube channel for their Enduring Voices mission. (Read more about it here and here.)

    Enduring Voices on YouTube

    The last time I'd mentioned Harrison and Anderson on Language Log, back in July, their documentary The Linguists had just received an Emmy® nomination for "Outstanding Science and Technology Programming". Since then, Harrison's book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages has been published (in September), and there was an associated splash in the media (in October) concerning Harrison and Anderson's discovery of the 'hidden' Tibeto-Burman language Koro. Sorry, I've been away from my desk. I'll try to do better.

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    What does nth least X mean?

    I've thus far avoided hearing or seeing many political ads (not having cable television or listening to commercial radio has its advantages), but yesterday I happened to hear an ad for Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial campaign. For those not in the know: Meg Whitman is the Republican candidate for governor, running against Democrat (and former California governor and current state attorney general) Jerry Brown; she's also the founder a former CEO of eBay. [Thanks for the correction, Atario.] As a successful businesswoman, much of her platform is about making California more "business-friendly", and so she talks a lot about the apparent fact that California is currently very "unfriendly" to business.

    Anyway, in the ad Meg Whitman says the following. Please note that I don't recall the exact wording of anything other than the part in boldface.

    California is the 48th least business-friendly state.

    I know what she means, of course: of all 50 states, California is extremely unfriendly to business — near the bottom of the list, just two up from the absolute least business-friendly state (whatever that one is). But is that what "48th least business-friendly state" really means? For me it means there's a list arranged from #1 least friendly to #50 least friendly, with #50 being the #1 most friendly. Under that conception, #48 is pretty damned good for business, isn't it?

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