Archive for Linguistics in the news

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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Hurricane naming policy change

I think it's becoming clear that alternating male and female personal names to individuate Atlantic tropical cyclones is not a good idea. These storms are becoming far too nasty. Calling a storm "Harvey" makes it sound like your friendly uncle who always comes over on the Fourth of July and flirts with your mom. And "Irma" sounds like a dancer that he once knew when he was in Berlin. Science tells us that these devastating meteorological events are probably going to get worse in coming years. (Ann Coulter says that as a potential cause of increased violence in hurricanes, climate change is less plausible than God's anger at Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor; but let's face it, Ann Coulter is a few bricks short of a full intellectual hod.) Hurricanes need uglier names. You can't get Miami to evacuate by telling people that "Irma" is coming.

Accordingly, next year the National Hurricane Center is planning to name tropical cyclonic storms and hurricanes after unpleasant diseases and medical conditions. Think about it. The state governor tells you a hurricane named Dracunculiasis is coming down on you, you're gonna start packing the station wagon. So as the season progresses, the following will be the named storms in 2018.

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It's the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.


Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

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Patton Oswalt on Trump, Obama, David Lee Roth, and Rutgers linguistics

At the Writers Guild of America Awards on Sunday night, host Patton Oswalt predictably made some Trump jokes in his opening monologue. What wasn't so predictable was an extended analogy involving '80s hard rocker David Lee Roth and the linguistics department at Rutgers University. The key line: "Donald Trump taking Obama's job would be like if the head of linguistics at Rutgers made fun of David Lee Roth, and David Lee Roth was like, 'I'm gonna take his job.'" A shout-out to Bruce Tesar, chair of the Rutgers linguistics department?

Oswalt's bit starts around 5 minutes into the monologue, after some banter with James Woods, who was in the audience.

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"Arrival" arrives

"Arrival" hits the theaters this weekend, and I'd heartily recommend it to all Language Log readers. The film, despite its science-fiction trappings, does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work. I've posted about the movie a few times before even seeing it, based on the trailers:

Now, having seen "Arrival" (and having had the chance to interview Amy Adams, who portrays Dr. Louise Banks, as well as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer), I've devoted my latest Wall Street Journal column to it: "In 'Arrival,' a Linguist is a Movie Hero." (If you hit the paywall, you can get to the column by Googling the headline or following a social media link.)

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Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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Tom Wolfe discovers language

"In Tom Wolfe's 'Kingdom,' Speech Is The One Weird Trick", NPR Weekend Edition Saturday 8/27/2016:

One of America's most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, imaginative, deliberate, destructive, and complicated beings who invented the slingshot and the moon shot, and wrote the words of the Bible, Don Quixote, Good Night Moon, the backs of cereal boxes, and Fifty and Shades of Grey [sic].  

The Kingdom of Speech is Tom Wolfe's first non-fiction book in 16 years. Wolfe tells NPR's Scott Simon that speech is "the attribute of attributes," because it's so unrelated to most other things about animals. "We've all been taught that we evolved from animals, and here is something that is totally absent from animal life," he says.

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"Love in Translation" (with footnotes)

In the Aug. 8 & 15 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Lauren Collins has a "personal history" piece entitled "Love in Translation" (subtitled, "Learning about culture, communication, and intimacy in my husband's native French"). It's very nicely written and will surely be of interest to Language Log readers. But Collins relies on some linguistic research without giving proper credit, an oversight I've tried to rectify below.

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Stylometric analysis of the Sony Hacking

The question of who was behind the hacking of Sony peaked a couple of weeks ago, but it is still a live issue.  The United States government insists that it was the North Koreans who did it:

"Chief Says FBI Has No Doubt That North Korea Attacked Sony" (New York Times — January 8, 2015)

James B. Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said on Wednesday that no one should doubt that the North Korean government was behind the destructive attack on Sony’s computer network last fall.

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Homophonia

Paul Rolly, "Blogger fired from language school over 'homophonia'", The Salt Lake Tribune, 7:29/2014:

Homophones, as any English grammarian can tell you, are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings — such as be and bee, through and threw, which and witch, their and there.  

This concept is taught early on to foreign students learning English because it can be confusing to someone whose native language does not have that feature.

But when the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda.

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Breakfast experiments in THE

Matthew Reisz, "Big data serves up linguistics insights", Times Higher Education 5/29/2014:

Meaningful research into linguistics can now be conducted in the time it takes to have breakfast, thanks to the “transformative” impact of “big data” on the field.  

That is the view of Mark Liberman, Christopher H. Browne distinguished professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, who told a panel discussion that “datasets are no longer the exclusive preserve of the scientific hierarchy” and that “any bright undergraduate with an internet connection can access and interpret the primary data”.

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Agreement

Today's SMBC:

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