Archive for Linguistics as a discipline

Joos jokes

While looking for something else, I recently stumbled on the November 1950 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, which published the "Proceedings of the Speech Communication Conference at M.I.T.":

The following twenty-four papers constitute a report of the Speech Communication Conference held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 31-June 3, 1950, under the joint auspices of the Acoustical Society of America, the Carnegie Project on Scientific Aids to Learning at M.I.T., and the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory at Harvard University.

Among those twenty-four papers was one by Martin Joos, "Description of Language Design", that included this passage:

We can allow other people — telephone engineers or sociologists, for example — to speak artistically, imprecisely, about language. But as linguists we lay upon ourselves the condition that we must speak precisely about language or not at all.

It's hard to tell whether this is deadpan humor or arid crankiness. But given that the author was Martin Joos, I'm voting for humor.

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Science Wars

The dark side of Paul Feyerabend's anarchistic philosophy of science — the observation that researchers often try to resolve scientific questions by political means, in the most negative possible sense of "political" — is confirmed all too often by experience. Linguists can point to the excesses of the The Linguistics Wars of the 1970s, and to plenty of other doctrinal disputes, including the Great Recursion Squabble of recent memory. So it's paradoxically a comfort to read Bianca Bosker's article "The nastiest feud in science", The Atlantic 9/2018, about Gerta Keller's struggle to argue that the Fifth Extinction was caused by volcanos rather than by a meteor:

The impact theory provided an elegant solution to a prehistoric puzzle, and its steady march from hypothesis to fact offered a heartwarming story about the integrity of the scientific method. “This is nearly as close to a certainty as one can get in science,” a planetary-science professor told Time magazine in an article on the crater’s discovery. […]

While the majority of her peers embraced the Chicxulub asteroid as the cause of the extinction, Keller remained a maligned and, until recently, lonely voice contesting it. She argues that the mass extinction was caused not by a wrong-place-wrong-time asteroid collision but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in a part of western India known as the Deccan Traps—a theory that was first proposed in 1978 and then abandoned by all but a small number of scientists. Her research, undertaken with specialists around the world and featured in leading scientific journals, has forced other scientists to take a second look at their data.[…]

Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.” Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”

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Subdisciplinary alignments

In our "unfair but funny" series —  Nathan Sanders has  provided an Alignment Chart for subdisciplines of linguistics:

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"Bombs of explosive facts"

From E.W. Scripture's 1925 obituary in Nature for L'abbé P.-J. Rousselot:

In 1897, G. Paris and Breal succeeded in founding a laboratory of experimental phonetics at the College de France ; it was annexed to the chair of comparative grammar (Breal) and Rousselot was made its director. In opening the laboratory, Prof. Breal did not hesitate to declare that " the moment has arrived when one could no longer think of phonetics as anything else than experimental " ; he proclaimed that from now onward" it would be necessary to collect facts instead of announcing a priori principles."

In this heroic age, the Abbe and his pupils worked with insatiable ardour at inventing apparatus, developing methods, and collecting facts. They had to face the opposition of the whole world of linguists, grammarians, and philologists, but with ready pens they fired their bombs of explosive facts at the army of opinion and guesswork.

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Toward a recursive meta-pragmatics of Twitterspheric intertextuality

A few days ago, I posted a post consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a Language Log post (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet by Lynne Murphy, a linguistics professor, quote-tweeting* an earlier tweet by Benjamin Dreyer, who is (although I didn’t know it at the time) a vice president, Executive Managing Editor, and Copy Chief at Random House.
* retweeting and adding a comment

A screenshot of the post is provided below the fold—but I hasten to add that I am providing the screenshot solely as a convenience to the reader, to save them the trouble of having to leave this post in order to look at that one, should they be so inclined.

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Confronting abuses of power

[This post was written with input from Emily M. Bender, Claire Bowern, Andrew Garrett, Monica Macaulay, David Pesetsky, Leslie Saxon, Karen Shelby, Kristen Syrett, and Natasha Warner.]

Many linguists, and probably also many regular Language Log readers, will have by now heard about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint recently filed by a set of faculty members currently or formerly associated with the University of Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The complaint alleges a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and other abuses of power by another member of the BCS faculty, the mishandling of investigations into this pattern of abuse by the BCS and UR administrations, and evidence of retaliation against the complainants. Some key links, for those who haven’t yet seen them:

[Update, 9/18/2017: here are some more reports.

… plus lots of reporting from the University of Rochester Campus Times, just two links to which Mark Liberman provided in a comment below. (end update)]

While we process the horror and come to terms with the publicity of this particular case, linguists everywhere are also mobilizing both to discuss and to do more to address the widespread problem of academic abuses of power, and sexual harassment in particular. We do not pretend to think that academia is somehow unique in any particular regard, but a key point that is emerging in these discussions is the recognition that its promotion procedures and incentives, its models of supervisory relationships, and its institutional structures may unfortunately serve to play mutually-reinforcing roles in attracting, fostering, and protecting abusers of power. We need to recognize that the whole field suffers when such abuse goes unchecked. Actions taken by those who would protect abusers distort the learning and research environment for victims, their allies, and our entire community.

Among the very first and most productive public discussions was this one initiated by Lauren Hall-Lew on her blog (9/9/2017). We know many department chairs have already addressed all members of their departments to express their strong commitment to working against sexual harassment and other abuses of power, and we think that this is an important discussion to begin in every department. A group of Linguistic Society of America members has been brought together by Claire Bowern to help draft an open letter to the LSA calling for attention and action from the Society, given the failures of our institutions (9/12/2017, with over 700 signatures as of this writing). The LSA, in turn, has responded to calls from both the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics and the Executive Committee and has announced a special workshop on “Sexism, Harassment, and Title IX Rights” for the 2018 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City in January (9/12/2017).

[Update, 9/22/2017: The LSA Executive Committee has now officially responded to the open letter, now signed by over 1000 members of the LSA and broader linguistics community.]

And, of course, there are countless other discussions, some private, some more open, happening everywhere. Personal stories are being shared, from heartbreaking to horrific, and expressions of support for victims of abuse are everywhere. There is now a grassroots movement to foster an environment where linguists can have open discussions of this sort, sharing anonymously (or not) these kinds of stories so that the message gets out to our colleagues and junior members of the field that the problem affects more than just young women, and that there are options for responding.

All of this in just a few days. Linguists are good people. We can and will do better.

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Xdisciplinary

An anonymous correspondent reaches out (cf. "May I ask you a question?" [6/12/17]):

So, from one jargonista to another: here’s a frustrating set of related neologisms, again from my increasingly confused and pathetic campus administration:

We’ve gone from “interdisiplinary” and “crossdisciplinary” to “multidisciplinary”, but the new buzzword on our campus is “transdisciplinary” (not sure if hyphens are used in some cases). Our entire campus is trying to recluster itself around 5 key “Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence”, of all things.

Perhaps not worth analyzing, but a deplorable sign of the times, when academic institutions are focused on “branding”.

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Will "Arrival" bring linguistics into the popular consciousness? A guest post by Luke Lindemann

The movie "Arrival" has been in theaters for three weeks now, and it has already grossed $100 million worldwide. That's an impressive box-office draw, and it can't all be due to linguists and their friends attending. Clearly this contemplative film, with a field linguist as the heroic protagonist, is resonating with audiences. But what does that mean for linguistics as a discipline and its perception by the public at large? Below is a guest post by Luke Lindemann, a PhD student in linguistics at Yale University who is working on the semantics of ergativity in Indo-Aryan. He is also a member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, and I had the pleasure of attending a press screening of "Arrival" with Luke and a few of his colleagues from the YGDP team. The film led to some intense discussions afterwards, as I'm sure it has for linguists everywhere. (In a separate post, I'll round up reactions from linguists since my last "Arrival" post.)

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Open Access Handbooks in Linguistics!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrung my hands on Facebook over the proliferation of commercial publishers' Handbooks of Linguistics. These are usually priced out of individuals' budgets, being sold mostly to university libraries, and the thousands of hours of work poured into them by dedicated linguists are often lost behind a paywall, inaccessible to many of the people who would most like to read them.

That post prompted a flood of urgent discussion; it seemed like this was a thought that was being simultaneously had around the world. (Indeed, Kai von Fintel had posted the identical thought about six months prior; probably that butterfly was the ultimate cause of the veritable hurricane  that erupted on my feed.)

Long story short, a few weeks later we now have a proto-editorial board and are on to the next steps of identifying a venue and a business model for the series. Please check out our announcement below the fold, and follow along on our blog for updates as the series develops!

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Rhotic fricatives on the hoof

For a linguist, at least if the linguist is me, it is a thrill to cross for the first time the northern border that separates Austria from Czechia. Immediately after crossing the border last Sunday, my train stopped at Břeclav, and I was able to hear over the beautifully clear announcement PA system my first real-context occurrence of one of the rarest sounds in the languages of the world.

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Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.

I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s:  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities).  What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity.  What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.

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Endowed chairs at the 2017 Linguistic Institute

Anyone familiar with academia will have noticed how often the high-prestige invited participants at conferences or summer schools and the holders of endowed professorships tend to be men. Well, not so much in linguistics, it would seem. Look at the list of the faculty members selected to hold the four prestigious endowed professorships at the 2017 Linguistic Institute, a large summer school sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America and hosted next year by the University of Kentucky:

  • Collitz Professor: Joan Bybee (University of New Mexico)
  • Sapir Professor: Penelope Eckert (Stanford University)
  • Hale Professor: Lenore Grenoble (University of Chicago)
  • Fillmore Professor: Julia Hirschberg (Columbia University)

One hundred percent women for the top invited professorships! And make no mistake, they are all very distinguished senior professors, known worldwide for their research. This isn't tokenism. It's the way our discipline has been developing over the past thirty years or so. Makes a feller proud to be a linguist.

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Zombie Lingua Recruitment

My sources say that Elsevier is now actively trying to recruit scholars for the editorial team of Zombie Lingua (see these Language Log posts for the background: "Lingua is dead. Long live Glossa!", Lingua Disinformation"). Here's a redacted sample of what they are sending to people:

Subject: Editorial Position Opportunity

Dear Professor […]

First please let me introduce myself as the […] at Elsevier responsible for the Social Science Journals, including our Linguistics portfolio.

I hope you do not mind me contacting you out of the blue like this, but as you may be aware we are currently looking for a new editorial team to head up the journal, Lingua. In discussions regarding this your name was suggested as a potential candidate to be part of this team. If this is something you would be interested in considering and would like to discuss this further, with no obligations, then please let me know. I would be more than happy to provide more details of the role and responsibilities.

Thank you for your time in considering this proposal. I look forward to your reply and hope to discuss this further with you in the near future.

Best regards […]

Needless to say, I'm hoping that the community is sufficiently immunized by now and that Elsevier will fail to attract linguists to stand up a zombie version of Lingua, which would not have any legitimacy as a successor to the journal's proud tradition. The true successor to Lingua is Glossa.

By the way: Glossa is now open for business. The first few submissions have already been made.

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