The 2009 Linguistic Institute ends

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Yesterday the six-week faculty and the second-session three-week faculty ended our teaching stints at the 2009 Linguistic Institute sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America and the University of California at Berkeley. The two second-session Language Loggers, Adam Albright and I, were in complementary distribution with the two first-session Language Loggers, Geoffs Nunberg and Pullum: we did not meet in Berkeley. Not all of us have finished our work for our classes — I still have 15 of my 42 papers to grade — but our tight-knit community — living in the same dorm, sorry, residential unit (palatial by my loooong-ago student-era standards) and eating at the same university dining hall (spectacular by my ditto standards) — is history.

What a great Institute! I learned any number of cool things, partly from my own students (who hailed from places as distant as Florida, Boston, Singapore, France, Poland, and Taiwan), partly from the two classes I sat in on, Adam Albright's morphological change class and Emmon Bach & Pat Shaw's class on Wakashan Linguistics, and partly from fellow faculty members. From my students I learned, for instance, about Singapore's Speak Good English Movement (launched in 2000 and based on the earlier Speak Mandarin Campaign, vintage 1979, which was designed to encourage Chinese speakers to abandon other Chinese "dialects" and switch to Mandarin). The SGEM is supposed to promote Standard Singapore English and demote "Singlish", a.k.a. Singapore Colloquial English. I also learned about Bhindi, a mixture of Hindi and Marathi and maybe Dravidian languages as well, spoken in Bombay/Mumbai. And the students raised the question of whether the Nicaraguan Sign Language is best seen as a pidgin, or a creole, or something else. (I argued for abrupt creole status, on the grounds that the Deaf kids who created it brought their home-sign systems to the school where the NSL developed, and presumably contributed material from those sign systems to the emerging creole.)

From Mark Donohue, who was teaching Phonological Typology of Papuan Languages in the second session, I learned a whole bunch of fascinating things: about the Doutai speakers (NW New Guinea) who suppressed their language's implosive consonants for several weeks while Mark was studying their language (a phenomenon reminiscent of Dan Everett's experience of living three years among the Pirahas in the Amazon before they stopped suppressing their linguo-labial stops in talking to him); about plugging in typological features — word order, consonant types, etc., etc., etc. — to biologists' statistical models and coming up with areal rather than genetic groupings in known cases (e.g., Rumanian grouped with Slavic rather than with the rest of the Romance languages); and about a wide range of other things.

There's lots more, but you'll have to attend an LSA Linguistic Institute yourself — say, in Boulder, Colorado, in 2011 — to get your own collection of exciting linguistic facts, perspectives, new theories. No matter how old or young you are in age and/or in the field of linguistics, there's something at an Institute for you. About half the students in my language contact class at this Institute were undergraduates, for instance, and a few of them were studying at almost linguistics-free colleges. Neophytes, in other words. And they did just fine. For language-lovers, it doesn't get much better than a Linguistic Institute. And that's even aside from the occasional perks, like the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my dorm window.


  1. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    Sounds like paradise!

    I am curious as to whether a reason was given by the Doutai speakers for suppressing their implosive consonants. Was it a matter of wanting to protect the non-native speaker from having to leadn a particularly difficult pronunciation, wanting to protect a part of their culture from outsders, or something else. Was the Pirahas' reason similar?

  2. Sally Thomason said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 12:57 am


    I would guess that the motives for suppressing particular sounds vary from situation to situation. Sometimes it's almost certainly designed to keep outsiders at a distance — akin to the scattered reports from around the world of people thinking they were learning a community's language only to discover, sometimes years later, that they were learning a deliberately pidginized version: Pidgin Hamer in Ethiopia, Pidgin Motu (later Hiri Motu) in New Guinea, and another case that Mark Donohue told me about from western New Guinea, a Pidgin Ekagi. Etc. Another motive might be because people don't like getting laughed at by outsiders when they're using sounds that are weird in the outsiders' view. I don't know which was the case in Everett's experience with the Pirahas; they apparently didn't have much contact with outsiders until quite recently. And Donohue also mentioned a dialect of the Austronesian language Sika (southern Indonesia) that has a labio-dental flap, "but they don't say it to outsiders" (he didn't say why; possibly he doesn't know). It's hard to ask someone why s/he has been suppressing particular sounds — you don't want to risk offending people.

  3. Morris said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 1:26 am

    Too bad there's only one a year! As my first experience with formal linguistic instruction I was very impressed with the quality of the teachers and variety of material offered.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    Sounds fun! Any pointers/references to the Slavic Romanian story?

  5. John Lawler said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    Alas, Jarek, only every two years, in odd-numbered years. Next one's 2011 in Boulder (a nice place to spend a summer) and in 2013 it may come back to Ann Arbor for the first time in forty years.

  6. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    It fascinated me to learn native speakers are heard to suppress habitual speech sounds, not only because of the ramifications of their possible motives, but the sheer fact they're able to do so fluently and do it collectively struck me as extraordinary. After all, unlike, say, the adolescent sexual behavior that famously misled Margaret Mead, our native speech sounds aren't something we control consciously.

    Then I remembered my own experience growing up among those who said "ain't" and other verb forms we learned in school marked us as ignorant, and worse, of inferior status. Only the self-absorbed and calculated rebels among us failed to exhibit, in due course, a kind of bilingualism that allowed us to converse automatically in Standard American English, wherever it felt appropriate. Life choices would render many of us monolingual. Although I can't say "ain't" now without feeling false, it still sounds true to my ear.

  7. Joey said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I wish I had any sort of view from my dorm room. Instead I got a view of… another dorm building.

    Yay LSA, at any rate.

  8. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    Joey, though I'm decades removed from dorm life, I empathize.

    I'd not have you or others imagine my alma mater, funded as it is by taxpayers, is some kind of heaven entirely, however, so let me assure you my dorm room at UC Berserkely was properly dreary. It looked out only on a sooty brick wall above an alley, inhabited by what we then called "street people" whose open life did provide a kind of live entertainment, complete with noisy action scenes and occasional soft porn, but typically when we were trying to sleep.

    Still, it makes for fun memories. Thanks for triggering them, Ms. Thomason.

  9. Dan Everett said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    I discuss the suppression of the Piraha linguo-labial in: Everett, Daniel L. 1985. "Dialogue and the selection of data for a grammar." In Marcelo Dascal and Hubert Cuykens (eds.), Dialogue: An interdisciplinary approach, 247-63. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    The Piraha suppressed this sound because they were laughed at and accused of 'talking like chickens' by Brazilians.

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