Archive for The academic scene

The Base, Al Qaeda, and gays in China

Through a curious concatenation of sociolinguistic forces, the word jīdì 基地 ("base") has brought such disparate entities as militant Islamic fundamentalism, homosexuality, and Sinology together.

Brendan O'Kane sent in the following photograph from Beijing, "snapped on the smaller, slightly more raucous bar street that runs parallel to the main Sanlitun drag. (I've always called it 'Skid Row,' but I assume it has a proper name.)"

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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Linguistics dissertations and academic jobs 2009-2012

Back in 2009, Heidi Harley and I wrote a few inter-related posts looking at the linguistics job market and how it compares with the distribution of new PhD theses. Since then, people have occasionally written to me (and probably Heidi too) about updating the posts with new numbers. I've been reluctant to do that because I've always been worried that my data-gathering methods (scraping Linguist List and ProQuest) were problematic. (It would be great if Linguist List released analyses based on its internal database of jobs ads!)

I'm pleased to report that Stephanie Shih and Rebecca Starr have done the work for me, and they did a careful job indeed. Here's the summary picture; below the fold, I've included their notes on where the data came from. Comments are open so that people can add their own analyses.

Linguistics dissertations and academic jobs 2009-2012

Thanks Stephanie and Rebecca!

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But not as early as we were: Chicago strikes back

Continuing with the historical priority battle among the older and grander linguistics departments of the USA: naturally, the University of Chicago was bound to respond sooner of later to Berkeley's suggestion of a 1901 founding date. Jason Merchant has written to tell me Michael Silverstein wrote up a history of the department, which Jason has stashed in PDF form here. It provides grounds for pushing back as far as 1892, which would kick the shibboleth out of Berkeley's date; it isn't even in the same century. Some highlights follow (and I'm just repeating what Jason put in his email to me).

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Born too early: prehistory of Berkeley linguistics

Andrew Garrett is Professor of Linguistics and Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith Professor of Cross-Cultural Social Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and also Director of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages there. He wrote to me after he saw my post about who has the oldest linguistics department in the USA to give some interesting comments about his department's early history, the relations between linguistics and anthropology, and the vexed question of which is the oldest department of linguistics in the USA. Here's the gist of his email, as a guest post.


Guest post by Andrew Garrett

The first Berkeley Linguistics department was set up in 1901, in fact a few months before even the Anthropology department here. An introduction to linguistics course that is still taught was first taught in Fall 1901, by Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the president of the university and an Indo-Europeanist who had received his Heidelberg PhD as a student of the neogrammarians. "Wheeler's Law" of Greek accentuation is named after him. (Joseph Aoun is another linguist university president, at Northeastern University, but I don't know how many others there have been.)

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Oldest linguistics department: research needed

Uh-oh! A friend of mine who recently looked at the websites of the Departments of Linguistics at both the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania just pointed out to me that each of them claims to be the oldest department of linguistics in the USA. This is bad. Language Log is headquartered on a server at Penn. Now we don't know whether our home is the oldest department of linguistics in the USA or not.

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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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50 years of linguistics at MIT

The videos are now out — from the 50th-anniversary celebrations ("a scientific reunion") of the linguistics program at MIT, December 9-11, 2011. The schedule of the talks (with links to slides for them) is available here, with links to other material: a list of attendees, a list of the many poster presentations, videos of the main presentations, personal essays by MIT alumni, photographs from the event, a list of MIT dissertations from 1965 to the present, and a 1974 history of linguistics at MIT (particularly interesting for the years before the first officially registered graduate students entered the program, in 1961).

The eleven YouTube videos (of the introduction and the main presentations) can be accessed directly here.

(Thanks to Sabine Iatridou for the links.)

MIT linguists on Language Log (with dissertation dates): Barbara Partee (6/65), Arnold Zwicky (9/65), Mark Liberman (1975), Bill Poser (1984), Heidi Harley (1995). [David Pesetsky reminds me that although Kai von Fintel's degree is from UMass, he's now on the MIT faculty.]

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The words still came out of his mouth

Professor Cameron Johnston was giving the introductory lecture in a social science course at York University, Toronto, and talking about the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable opinions. You can't say something like "All Jews should be sterilized" and represent that as acceptable just because it's your opinion, he explained. And at that, a 22-year-old senior named Sarah Grunfeld got up and walked straight out of the class to report him to Hasbara, a pro-Israel advocacy group on campus, which rapidly put out a statement calling for the professor to be fired for anti-Semitism. It's a dangerous path one treads when one tries to give examples of obnoxious propositions in a classroom where not all the students have a firm grasp of the fundamental distinction between the use and the mention of a linguistic expression.

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Gub doo gia bee?

The reason I've been in Bulgaria this week is to present three tutorial lectures on linguistics at (of all things) a conference on computability. It has been an excellent experience, thanks to the tireless efforts of Alexandra, the chief organizer. Academic conference organizing is a horrible job. Unpaid work that involves being responsible for hundreds of people's lives and dozens of unforeseen circumstances and uncontrollable variables. In the case of this conference, a central problem turned out to be that the spectacular high-ceilinged oval room that is the main conference hall has acoustics ideal for an unamplified concert of vocal music (what I wouldn't give to hear Renée Fleming in this room), but is totally unsuited to delivering amplified human speech on technical topics.

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Popular Linguistics, Issue 2

The second issue of Popular Linguistics Magazine, a new online venture edited by DS Bigham, has hit the intertubes. The first thing readers may notice in the February issue is that complaints about the site's inverted color scheme (many voiced in the comments here) have been taken to heart: the magazine is now displayed with the familiar design of black text on a white background. As for content, Black History Month brings an interesting trio of articles: "The Diversity of English in America" by Simanique Moody, "The Mysteries of the N-Word" by Janet M. Fuller, and "Word on the Street: Blogging on African American English" by Renee Blake & Cara Shousterman (the last one reporting on the student-run blog, Word: The Online Journal on African American English). And there are various other lagniappes, including the editor's suggestions for enriching English snow-cabulary. Table of contents is here.

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Collegiate Learning

The latest xkcd:

Mouseover title: "I hear Steven Levitt is writing a book analyzing A.J. Jacobs' quest to spend a year reading everything Malcolm Gladwell ever wrote. The audiobook will be narrated by Robert Krulwich of Radiolab."

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

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Introducing: Popular Linguistics Magazine

A new online venture has just been launched: Popular Linguistics Magazine. From editor DS Bigham's welcome message to Volume 1, Issue 1:

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So you want to be a college professor

Passed on to me via Nancy Whittier, this disturbing and bitterly funny animation, here, "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities", which has elicited some Facebook discussion about advising undergrads about going to grad school and about advising grad students.

I was born at the right time, knew that I wanted to be a college professor when I was in high school, and achieved it all as easily as these things can be done (though that involved periods of deep self-doubt and anxiety). Now it gets harder and harder to advise students. Wonderful to teach people, but is it moral to attract them into an academic career? Could any young person find a life doing what I do?

(Allowing comments, with considerable trepidation.)

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Dear [Epithet] spamference organizer [Name]

The most unsuccessful piece of pseudo-personal spam I received this week must surely be the falsely flattering invitation that began as follows:

Dear Professor [Name][Name1],

We would like to invite you as Invited Speaker on the area of Social Sciences, Law, Finances and Humanities in the Conferences

Vouliagmeni Beach, Athens, Greece, December 29-31, 2010

Organized by the European Society for Environmental Research and Sustainable Development / EUROPMENT, www.europment.org in collaboration with the WSEAS...

Dear Professor [Name][Name1]? Come on, spamsters! Can't you even do a standard mail merge? Isn't that the core of your goddamn lousy trade?

Would it be OK with you if I gave an invited talk entitled "[Title][Subtitle]"?

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