Introducing: Popular Linguistics Magazine

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

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of linguistics and language research. I’ve often been frustrated at the abuse and misunderstanding of basic linguistic concepts in the popular media (for example, this summer’s debacle over President Obama’s speech-style reported on “The Global Language Monitor”, see CNN’s coverage here), or even at the lack of widespread response from linguists on public policy issues, such as the Arizona immigration law or, reaching back, the Ebonics school funding debates. Why isn’t the public better educated about linguistics? I fear that it’s because we, as linguists, haven’t done the best job of getting the word out. We haven’t yet provided the public with a single non-specialist standard for linguistics-based reporting.

Oh, there are exceptions, certainly. Blogs like Language Log and Language Hat, Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column for the New York Times, and occasional pieces here and there in this magazine or that newspaper. But a single trusted source, a regular, dedicated place where people can go and read about all aspects of our research, with articles written by true experts of the field… that’s what linguistics has been lacking.

If physics could bring quantum entanglement to the masses in Scientific American, if psychology could bring cognitive dissonance to the world outside of academia in Psychology Today, if my 90 year old grandmother could read about nanotube technology in Popular Science, why couldn’t we bring linguistics out into the wider world? That was the kernel that popped in my head way back in the late summer of 2007. Linguistics didn’t just need our own PR machine; we needed a magazine.

With that in mind, I’d like to present the first issue of Popular Linguistics Magazine, a monthly online publication where we aim to bring linguistics and language research to anyone who’s interested, regardless of whether they’re a linguist or not. Our goal here at Popular Linguistics is to present to you, dear readers, all aspects of linguistics, from breaking news in language technologies to stories from intrepid documentary fieldworkers, from research detailing how language works in the brain to stories showing how language works in society. Linguistics for everyone, finally.

You can see the table of contents for the first issue here.


  1. Chris said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    Yes, it looks promising; however, not to be catty, but isn't the heavy black and white design (more black than white) god-awful? I fear poor design could hinder its popularity.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    What I would add to Chris's criticism is the printer-unfriendliness (or should it be un-printer-friendliness?) of the content's layout. My usual way of reading online material of more than one page is to print it and read it on paper, and PLM doesn't make it easy.

  3. fs said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    This is a great idea, but WordPress really doesn't strike me as a good format for a magazine. I'd recommend producing a PDF version of each issue, which lays out the whole magazine in a traditional linear format.

  4. Barrie England said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Great initiative, but I agree, pity about the page design.

  5. theophylact said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    I think my eyes are bleeding…

  6. linda seebach said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    All my thumbs down on the design. As soon as I see white-on-black on a site, I backspace away, never to return. Too hard to read. And don't tell me "you can print it out." No, I can't (it's possible but not practical). Anyway, I won't, and they can't make me.

    Pity; it sounds like a good idea.

  7. Mike Anderson said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    Hey, they're into black and white, and I say good on 'em.

    What they don't publicize on the site–and should–is that the magazine has an RSS feed so non-linguists with short attention spans (like me) can see when new articles appear. I gotta read more that "just" Language Log if I'm gonna keep up!

  8. Kapitano said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    It looks very promising – and the design doesn't seem painful. It looks like it could turn into a very useful "bluffer's guide" for those of us who do our research from blog articles instead of books – as be a place for overviews of significant linguists and their ideas.

  9. John Roth said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    Congratulations to something that promises to be a welcome addition.

    I have to agree with the dislike of white type on a black background. I don't find it that hard to read, but then I'm a retired software developer whose background goes through the "green screen" era all the way to punched cards, so I'm quite used to strange, bizarre and hard to use user interfaces.

    Generally it's so well produced that the occurrence of an it's which badly needs to lose the apostrophe in one of the articles stands out as a rare exception. Unfortunately the site isn't cooperating at the moment, so I can't track back to where it occurs.

  10. John Roth said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    Let me make an addendum to the previous post to congratulate the editors and author on the article on bilingual education. As someone who's not intimately involved with the issues, I found a lot of food for thought in that article.

  11. David L Rattigan said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

    Very promising. I'll be keeping an eye on it, for sure.

  12. anonymoose said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    This is wonderful, and could be very helpful to our field. I have many relatives who I'll be recommending this to and I suggest y'all do likewise.

  13. anonymoose said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    And I would love to see something parallel to their field work article, A Week in the Life of a Phonetician, showing lab work.

  14. Bobbie said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    White on black – not my favorite. But not as bad as white on yellow, yellow on white, white on beige, red on bright blue etc. In other words, make it easier on the eyes for those of us with presbyopia!

  15. dl said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    On a Mac, Cmd-Option-Control-8 will reverse the color and make it black on white
    Hold down the three keys on the lower left of the keyboard and hit the 8.

    [This does work. I tried it just to have the pleasure of using a command that needed four keys to be pressed simultaneously, which reminded me of the days of Lisp machines (don't ask; you are too young to know about them). But you really don't want to see what the photographs look like after the change to inverse color scheme (the command seems to just subtract the designated HTML color from #FFFFFF and use the result). It's hardly a solution. Just a very crude workaround. But of course, so is retyping a paragraph in order to get Microsoft Word to stop indenting it in some stubborn and perverse way despite all attempts to make it stop, or treating it as French, and I know plenty of people, including me, who have sometimes had to do that. People are incredible passive in the face of technology, and amazingly willing to put up with things that in most areas of their lives they wouldn't tolerate. —GKP]

  16. Leonardo Boiko said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    I praise the initiative and welcome it a lot, but I’m forced to concur with the other comments: the design is absolutely unprofessional (grey on black with red headings? Author pictures everywhere? Justified text in HTML? Arial/Helvetica for screen text? WordPress themes?). Also, in my humble opinion, you should reconsider the complexity and noise of that banner/title/logo header (compare the headers: Scientific American, Psychology Today, Popular Science). And it’s not only the design; there are some things which are just off-putting, like this:

    > January brings an amazing discussion and critique of bilingual education in the US as a Language & Policy featured article.

    Don’t you think that’s a tad too much self-praise? It just feels amateurish.

  17. Leonardo Boiko said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    I mean, I know the person writing the praise isn’t the same one who wrote the article being praised, but it still feels strange for me for a science magazine to call its own articles “amazing” (this one notwithstanding).

  18. blahedo said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    I'm pretty sure that the usability research has shown that light-on-dark type causes less eyestrain (at least when coming from a CRT or backlit LCD); for people with sensitive eyes it's definitely easier to deal with white-on-black.

    It's just that it doesn't look "nice", or rather, it doesn't look like text printed on paper. It also gives it a whiff of the late 90s/web 1.0, although the general site layout in this case is different enough from the typical styles of fifteen years ago (!) that that part of the problem is mostly staved off.

  19. John Cowan said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    People with middle-aged eyes can go to the Readability page, where you can make a few choices and then drag the blue "Readability" button to your browser's bookmark bar. Clicking on the bookmark will "readablize" the page you are viewing. I use it a lot now.

  20. John Roth said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    @Leonardo – Carl Zimmer has got a great list of words he's prohibiting his science writing students from using. It's one of the few ways he's got of getting them to write something that's actually meaningful and worth reading.

  21. Cy said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    It's surely unfair to make an ad hominem attack, but I think his own description of his work on his website ( speaks well to the foundational problems with this endeavor.

    Quoting: "In terms of promotions and design, some have claimed that his work ranges from the quotidian to the sublime and that any project DS touches glows with the energy, nostalgia, and optimism of a mason jar filled with fresh-caught fireflies, just before their release.

    Meanwhile, of his writing some readers have reported that the saudades of our future have never been more skillfully etched, and that if digital ink on digital paper could weep, it would weep at his words and images.

    Come with us as we explore the secrets of one of trans-modernity's greatest minds… here, on The DS Bigham Experience!"

    Seriously, the "DS Bigham Experience"? Does he have ethics review board approval for this? As for substantive attacks, the website is poor, the news page is simply links to other, better sites (very much like a spam website), the writing is for children, and we already have Language Log, thankyouverymuch.

  22. Adam said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 4:45 am

    Dang, I was hoping it would be more like the one in Mark Liberman's plan for world domination (slide 34).

  23. DS Bigham said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 4:58 am

    Thanks, BZ, for the LL announcement! And thanks to the well-wishers!

    Now, to clear up some points…
    As blahedo pointed out, the white-on-black was chosen because it is *supposed* to be easier on the eyes when reading from a computer screen. But it seems that people really hate it, so it will likely change with February's issue.

    As for some of the other…suggestions… it's Verdana, not Arial/Helvetica (again, because Verdana was specifically designed for web text) and it's WordPress because we're not a multi-million dollar company with thousands of employees and WordPress is free and relatively easy. And Cy, you're right, an ad hominem attack is unfair.


  24. David J. Littleboy said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    "I think my eyes are bleeding…"

    Turn the brightness down on your monitor. Brightness at zero and contrast at 50% is where you should start for most monitors. (This is what photographers do who want their monitor to look like their prints. But it makes sense for literati as well, since we (well, you; I'm a computer nerd) should be thinking about looking at paper. (The usual recommendation is 100% contrast, but that's usually too harsh in my experience.))

  25. Nick said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

    I think this is a great idea, and I actually like the design.

  26. Ewelina Gonera said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 4:48 am

    Love the idea and enjoyed reading the first issue, however, I agree with others on design as I'm not a fan of white-on-black font. I suppose RSS sorts this problem out though and once I subscribed I don't really need to go on the website anymore. Ever considered pdf versions that would be downloadable? I'd like that! Keep up the good work.

  27. Rose said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    This venture holds promise, and it's the sort of thing that the field of linguistics sorely needs.
    Sure, this initial issue may be problematic in a few ways, but i'm sure constructive feedback will be welcomed by DS. I agree with Leonardo Boiko that the site lacks the smooth and professional presentation that other respected online magazines have. Readability aside, the colour scheme is just unwelcoming, and the banner/title/logo header manages to be intricate and disjointed at the same time, with an offputting blockiness to boot. I understand why the author pictures may have seemed like a bright idea (presumably to present some of the faces of linguistics), but author pics are more at home in fashion, lifestyle and nutrition magazines, where seeing that the writer is chic/fit/healthy reinforces the content of the magazine. And yes, the "amazing discussion" bit made me wince, too – no need to gush about the content, just present it and let it speak for itself.

    BUT, it's a noble goal, here – to bring linguistics to the people, and help them to understand that linguists are People Who Actually Know Stuff About Language. The scope of this first issue is sufficiently broad to potentially appear in searches related to bilingual education, what sort of work linguists do, Amazonian cultures, morphology, and the age-old question of how many languages a linguist speaks. Granted, the latter two articles feel a bit patronising and even puerile to those of us who have the benefit of some linguistic instruction, but those who haven't attended any linguistics classes probably don't know much about morphology, and this will be a good place to start. A popular linguistics magazine couldn't possibly be aimed only at experts, and many potential readers may only stumble across this magazine incidentally in the course of their travels through the interwebs.
    And Cy – the description DS gives on his site of his work is clearly tongue in cheek. From his website it does certainly seem like he has a big personality, but I don't think it carries over too much into Popular Linguistics. Who knows, perhaps a few big personalities could be just what linguistics needs?
    If we all give helpful feedback and support to this endeavour, hopefully the magazine will find a niche in which it is accessible and appealing to non-experts, and academic enough to keep the professionals reading. Hopefully it'll put the word out on the streets that linguistics is worth knowing about.
    (Language Log can't do it all!)

  28. Athanassios Protopapas said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    For what it's worth, count me in favor of white-on-black. I find it hard on my eyes when my monitor lights the entire room, whether that's M$ Word or LL (other than that, I'm a huge fan). I have my (screen) desktop background permanently set to solid black and the monitor brightness turned way down. This isn't paper ink. Let's not make hasty changes just because the first few responses were were disapproving. What's' the intended audience for this site? and what's *their* opinion? If they're under 24 (I'm not) they may find white-on-black not only less eye-straining but also more cool!

  29. Susan Marie Ebbers said,

    January 20, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Thank you for creating this new resource. I have worked for years in the field of education and have looked for just this type of journal. Good luck getting it going.


  30. Jon Hanna said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    If they're really in love with that colour scheme, they could at least include some print-only rules to change the colour to something that will leave some ink in readers' cartridges, and also remove the links that become pointless on printing.

  31. David Walker said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 5:19 pm


    "I'm pretty sure that the usability research has shown that light-on-dark type causes less eyestrain (at least when coming from a CRT or backlit LCD); for people with sensitive eyes it's definitely easier to deal with white-on-black."

    I would be surprised if this is true. Do you have any sources?

    What causes less eyestrain for ME is to reduce the default brightness. It seems to me from experience that new LCD monitors, and sometimes new laptops, have their screen brightness set to the maximum possible, or 100%. I turn this down to 50% or so and find that this gives me much less eyestrain. (I also removed half of the flourescent bulbs in my office, and that helps too.)

    I think that monitors (and TVs) are shown at max brightness in a store so they will "compare better" side-by-side with all of the others on display.

    I find white on black VERY hard to read, and what's worse is sites that use gray on black or some other color on black.

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