Not so invisible

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The Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award, presented last night in San Francisco to Language Log, is quite a big deal. Contributions through any kind of medium between December 2003 and December 2007 were eligible to be nominated: books, documentary films, magazine articles, software, lecture series, or any other kinds of work that could reach the public at large. The group science blog you're now reading is the first winner to come from the blogosphere. And we're in good company. The previous awardees are so famous that (shy and retiring though we linguists are) you may have actually heard of some of them.

The 1997 award was to Professor Steven Pinker, now at Harvard University, for his worldwide best-selling book The Language Instinct, which we, like most linguists, still recommend to students who ask what they could read to get a general sense of what linguists do. That book changed the global visibility of linguistics. (It central theme is a defense of the view that some specifically linguistic knowledge is innate. I am actually rather skeptical of that view; but hey, read The Linguistic Instinct anyway. A book doesn't have to agree with me to be excellent, though of course that helps.)

In 1999 the award went to Eugene Searchinger for a major public television film series, The Human Language. In 2001, to Geoff Nunberg for his contributions to Fresh Air on National Public Radio. The 2003 winner was Professor John Rickford of Stanford University, for the book Spoken Soul, which John co-authored with his son Russell. In 2005, Deborah Tannen was the awardee. She had recently published I Only Say This Because I Love You, and before that other extremely well known books on how we talk to each other in relationships, including You Just Don't Understand (1990), which was on the New York Times bestseller list for four years and sold well over 1.5 million copies. And then in 2007 Earl "Rick" Rickerson received the award for his linguistics radio series Talkin' About Talk.

The physical instantiation of our award seems to be an almost invisible glass panel of some kind with almost invisible lettering across it (see the photo in post number 1000 of the new Language Log series started in April 2008 after the old server failed). It may be almost invisible (just like linguistics used to be before Steve Pinker), but we will always know that it is there, somewhere, probably on the piano in Mark's apartment at the University of Pennsylvania.

To sample Language Log as it is now, choose a random number between 1 and 999, type this into the location bar followed by your number:

Just see what comes up. Or to sample the old series (2003-2008), which demands somewhat more typing, pick a 6-digit number between 000002 and 005533, and type this followed by your number:

You simply never know (as Forrest Gump's mother used to say) what you'll get. There is almost always some clear connection to the study of language, and if it's not that clear, the reason is usually that it's a topic we had strayed into from another topic that was about language. Like when Mark got interested in why the BBC was so extraordinarily credulous with its linguistic science news stories (they had a story about a telepathic talking parrot, for chrissakes) and posted about another scientific reporting triumph concerning a three headed frog. The dish in the Monty Python sketch that "hasn't got much spam in it" actually had quite a lot. Mark's post about the alleged triple-cranial amphibian didn't have any linguistics at all, just a measure of restrained outrage. But to atone, and earn our award, we've written over six thousand posts that had at least a bit of linguistics.

Some of the posts that Mark and I did in the first few years were gathered together into a book, Far from the Madding Gerund, lest the server should fail and everything be lost. (It did fail, though no posts were lost; and then we had a book as well as a blog.) Even the posts that were somewhat short of serious academic linguistic content that the LSA would approve of were a hell of a lot of fun to write, which should count for something. It was a fun way to work toward a significant public service award from the USA's premier learned association for linguistics, given for helping to make the scientific study of language not quite so invisible. The official handing over of the award was a fine way for all of us to start 2009. Have a great New Year. May you win prizes.

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