Monday, December 7, 2009

Source of Humor: Implicature

In my Structures course, we just finished a section on spoken discourse; one of the features of spoken discourse is that you can say one thing but mean another (implicature).  Today I found a link that took me to a repository of hilarious videos that were performed on the Sketch Show; one such video is titled "Can you take a picture for us?"

The humor of the video revolves around the misinterpretation of the title question: When the first guy asks the question, "Can you take a picture for us?" he is implying that he would like the second guy to take a picture of him and his (girl)friend.  However, the second guy takes the question literally and simply takes a picture of the scenery before walking on.

This humor is similar to the frustration you might get if you ask someone, "Do you know what time it is?" and they simply respond, "Yes."

Two more videos from the same group that you, too, might find funny are the following:

There are many more of those videos, but I think three in one posting is quite enough.

Fun Stress Relief

Ah, 'tis the season to be stressed--that lamentable finals season just around the corner, and you may be looking for a fun way to relieve some of that stress while still learning some cool new information at the same time.  The Goethe Institute has something you might be interested in: a trivia game called the City of Languages.  It asks trivia questions about languages and language families, has you match examples of written language to their language, and has you match spoken examples to their correct language.  It doesn't take very long to play, but it's informative and fun to test your knowledge, knowing that the score on the test will not affect your grade in any course.  Let me know what you think of the game after you check it out.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Inspiration for the Crazy Cool English Post

I just realized that in posting my spiel on language change in action, I forgot to mention the two sources of inspiration for the post.  The first is an online article titled "Twitter Abracadabras Weasley Whereabouts Clock into Reality."  I think the title speaks for itself as to why it would inspire my last post on how words can be used in different grammatical categories than expected; this was the first time I had ever seen abracadabra used as a verb, and the compound Weasley Whereabouts Clock is just icing on the cake for making that title linguistically interesting.

The second is is a short online article called "Verbification at Work" that talks about the new trend to "-ify" any noun (or even adjective) you so please: healthify, friendify, and greenify are some of the examples they share.  It goes one step further to then turn those words back into nouns: healthification, friendification...  Our language is amazing.

English: A Crazy Cool Language

English can do some pretty crazy/amazing/frustrating things with words, which is a distinguishing factor about English among the world's languages.  In History of the English Language this week, we discussed how words from one grammatical category can easily be "persuaded" into another grammatical category; for example, Pluto is a noun, yet it can be used as a verb ("to pluto" something means to demote it).  The comic strip above plays with the ability of gerund, a noun, to be used as a verb and even as an adjective: you can gerund any word; a gerunded word.

One area of our language that is taking off with this ability is computer-based language, especially the language used with social networks.  I've seen plays on Twitter in words like "twitterverse" and "twitizens."  Furthermore, twitter was originally a verb that, over time, became used as a noun, and now the trend is once again reversing.  When most people hear twitter, they think of a noun because of that social-networking website, yet we can now say someone twittered, meaning they sent a message via Twitter (so the noun has become denominalized to mean something completely different from the original verb).  Twitter is further changing the landscape of the English language through the limitation of only having 140 characters to express your thoughts, which encourages abbreviations, shortened terms, and sentences lacking verbs or nouns that would otherwise be warranted.  Take the "tweet" (another word that has been denominalized for Twitterers around the world) shown at the beginning of this paragraph for example (from one of my favorite "tweeple"): Poverty not been an entirely horrid experience.Challenging tho. No resentment of people with money but even more respect for those without.  The tweet consists of three sentences, none of which are complete; typically speaking, you'd expect something like Poverty's not been... It's been challenging... I don't have resentment...  Also, the word though now occurs in its shortened form, tho, in many of its appearances.

Another social engine that is associated with language play is Facebook:

You can facebook someone, you can friend someone, and you can even de-friend/un-friend someone (which one of those is preferred differs among speakers).

In English, we take things one step further and distinguish between different forms of the same word; for example, my students noticed that they use crept as the simple past tense of the verb creep when they are using it to mean they snuck (sneaked?) somewhere (I crept into the room), but they have to use creeped as the simple past when saying something like He really creeped me out.  Another example is that what used to be the normal plural of brother is now restricted in its use (brethren) while the new, regularized form that took over is used in all other instances (brothers).  Once you start thinking of the irregularities of our language and word usage, you can't help but find incongruities everywhere.  For native speakers, it can be liberating to know that you can easily morph existing words into new ones by simply using it in a new way; for anyone trying to learn to speak English, it can be quite a headache to figure out why you can pepper a wall with paper or paper a wall with pepper.  Okay, so maybe I reached a bit for those last two examples, but they make my point: English is a crazy cool language.  Or if you're in Boston, perhaps you think it is a wicked cool language?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Connection between Words and Gestures

What does language include?  When most people think of 'language,' they think immediately of the words and utterances that are spoken or written, but studying language as an entire system includes more than words and utterances because 'language' also includes the gestures we use to communicate.  I'm not talking about gestures in terms of recognized signs in the world's signed languages--I'm talking about the gestures we use as we speak to show what we mean beyond the words we select.

For example, when you're speaking with someone, and they tell you some surprising news, you might respond with, "Wow."  But more than that, you probably had some changes in your facial expression: wide eyes, open mouth, hands to cheeks--it depends on how surprising the news really was.  In a different scenario, suppose someone says something that angers you; maybe your eyes narrow, your fists clench, your body moves a step forward...  In written language, we like for the gestures to be included as part of texts: Imagine a novel being written with absolutely no descriptions given of how a character's body reacts in different situations.

A recent study on words and gestures (as reported by the NIDCD) shows that both these aspects of language are processed in the same area of the brain, further showing the connection between the two.

An interesting feature of gestures is that some are culturally conditioned (e.g., thumbs up, middle finger, "A-OK" sign where your thumb and first finger come together to form a circle) while others are more universally applied (e.g., taking a step backward when afraid, leaning toward someone you're interested in, bringing your eyebrows together when confused).  Perhaps these more universal gestures are at the basest level of communication for humans--if we all share them, it would be counterintuitive to say that we have to learn them.

What gestures do you know of from other cultures?  Or what gestures do you know of that are specific to Americans?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Adaptation of the Brain

A recent study showed that being blind causes changes in the structure of the brain; the brain then responds by reorganizing itself, shifting what functions as what in the brain to adapt to the blindness.  This would suggest that any change in the brain could result in this reorganization.

It fascinates me how quickly our bodies can adapt to changes.  Now if only our view of language and how it "should" be used were so quick to adapt...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Special Gene for Language?

Scientists believe they have isolated the gene that makes it possible for humans to speak language; through experiments, they have found that the gene itself does not do anything.  Rather, the gene controls 116 other genes that work together to make language possible.  The human gene differs by only 2 of over 700 parts from the same gene in chimpanzees.

If you're interested, you can read about it on the NYTimes website: "Speech Gene Shows Its Bossy Nature".

Monday, November 9, 2009

Linguistics Minor Approval

Can you feel the rush of energy as you read the title?  That energy is from me shouting, "Woo-hoo!" as loudly as I can while I metaphorically turn cartwheels in my office.

The Linguistics Minor has been approved along with three new courses: Introduction to Linguistics (ENG 341), Forensic Linguistics (ENG 438), and Advanced Grammar (ENG 439).  Those courses should start appearing on the books either for or sometime shortly after Fall 2010.

For all you saying, "That's great.  But what does the minor look like?" I am including a brief sketch of the minor here:

Linguistics Minor (18 hours)

Core curriculum (9 hours)
ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics
ENG 441: Advanced Linguistic Theory
ENG 442: Topics in Linguistics

Electives (9 hours)
There are three groups under electives:
  • Group I: Language Studies (includes other linguistics courses offered in the department and courses from Modern Languages, among others)
  • Group II: Critical Thinking and Communicative Practices (includes courses in English, Communications, and Philosophy)
  • Group III: Cognitive Study of Language (includes courses in English, Psychology, and Speech and Hearing Sciences)
Six of your elective hours would come from Group I while the remaining three hours would come from either Group II or Group III.

This is just a brief, informal sketch of the minor; if you would like to know more specific details, please speak with someone in the department (please feel free to contact me via this blog, my e-mail, or my office hours).

Time to celebrate!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

John Olsson's WORD CRIME

If you are interested at all in Forensic Linguistics (or if you want to find out what it is), you should check out the Forensic Linguistics Institute website.  John Olsson is the founder of the institute and author of the three leading books on forensic linguistics (both are on the website).  I am focusing this blog on his latest book on forensic linguistics, Word Crime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics.

The inside book flap provides the following information about the book:

"Tell kids not to worry. sorting my life out. be in touch to get some things"
Instead of being a text message from one partner to another, this text message turns out to be crucial and chilling evidence in convicting the deceptive killer of a mother of two.  Sent from her phone, after her death, a few tell tale signs give him away to a forensic linguist... Rarely is a crime committed without there being some evidence in the form of language.

John Olsson is a world-leading expert in forensic linguistics, a science where linguistic techniques are applied to legal processes to solve cases and provide new angles on evidence.  Beginning with a description of exactly what forensic linguistics is, Olsson includes a survey of some of the high profile criminal and civil cases he has worked on where it has been used.  Including the much-discussed dispute between the publishers of The Da Vinci Code and the author of Daughter of God, there are a series of chapters where gripping cases are described--involving murder, sexual assault, hate mail, plagiarism, suspicious death, code deciphering, arson and even genocide.

This is fascinating reading for anyone interested in true crime, in modern, cutting-edge criminology and also about where the study of language meets the law.

Since 1996, John Olsson has operated a world-renowned forensic linguistics consultancy and training service at  He is an Adjunct Professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University, USA, where he teaches forensic linguistics online.  He is also Visiting Professor of Forensic Linguistics at the International University of Novi Pazar in Serbia where he runs an annual summer school in Forensic Linguistics, and is a board member of the Language and Law Centre at the University of Zagreb, Croatia where he is also a Visiting Professor.

I am recommending this book instead of his others (which are texts focusing on how to do forensic analysis of language) because this one is split into cases so that one chapter equals one case.  It is a book you can pick and choose from--you don't have to read the chapters in order to understand the whole.  His other books are also interesting and great sources but are not as easily combed through--they work best being read beginning to end while practicing the skills he writes about in each chapter.  They focus on completing analysis instead of on cases.  Reading about the cases will allow you to see the many different applications of forensic linguistics, some of which may surprise you.

I think I need to propose a new TV show: CSI: Linguistics Division.  Any supporters?

Friday, November 6, 2009

New word?

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar posted what just might become a new word:  spamouflage.  Read about it here.

I don't know about you, but I feel a nomination to the American Dialect Society Word of the Year coming on.

Have you heard any new words lately worth sharing?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Update on Ling Minor Progress

I think I am having a noun and interjection day myself...

To all who are on the edges of their seats, waiting to find out about the proposed Linguistics Minor, you shouldn't have to wait much longer. I have been informed that the minor should be going in front of the College Council on Monday (as in 5 days away), so I should know one way or the other by the end of Monday afternoon.  I am hoping the course proposals will also be considered, at which point I would know whether all the new classes we're hoping for will be able to be offered starting in the fall.

Here's to hoping!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rapping Chaucer?

I shared these videos with my History of the English Language class today, and I think they are classic enough to gather cult followings...

The first video is Chaucer's Prologue rapped in the vein of a Beastie Boys song:

The second video is academia's attempt at rapping:

I hope you enjoy the videos as much as I (and my HEL students) did!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Linguistics Braniacs

I've had several students ask about news on the proposed Linguistics Minor (and newly proposed linguistics courses); unfortunately, I don't have an update for you just yet.  If all goes well, the linguistics proposals will go up in front of the College Council this month.  I will post on the blog (and probably on the hallway walls outside my office) as soon as I know anything.  Keep your fingers crossed!

The spring course schedule is now online, so if you're interested in taking any of the linguistics courses that will be offered in the spring, check out that schedule.  Again, we have more linguistics courses than normal being offered all at once, so please register early if you are interested in the courses; otherwise, courses with no students (or few students) will be shut down.

Outside of the SFA Ling world, there are a couple studies that might interest you if you, like me, are fascinated by language and the brain.

The first deals with Broca's area, which is a vital part of your brain that deals with language production and perception.

The above image was taken from an article that focuses on how advertisers should work to target the different parts of their viewers' brains so that the ads will have maximum impact.  That, in and of itself, is interesting.  But the real article I wanted to draw attention to is "Study Sheds New Light on the Nature of Broca's Area in the Brain":

According to Sahin, the results help dispel a commonly taught notion that Broca's area handles expressive language (speaking) while another part of the cortex called Wernicke's area handles receptive language (reading and hearing).  This notion is still taught in many text books.

"Our task involved both reading and speaking, and we found that aspects of word identity, grammar and pronunciation are all computed within Broca's area.  Crucially, information about the identity of a printed word arrives in Broca's area very quickly after it is seen, in parallel with its arrival in Wernicke's ..." said Sahin.

If you have ever heard of or been around a person who has suffered a stroke or brain injury and was left with Broca's (or Wernicke's) aphasia, you may have heard these terms before.  One of the primary reasons Broca's area was associated with speaking (language production) is that the patients who suffered from Broca's aphasia are unable to express their thoughts with words.  They can draw pictures to show what they are thinking, but they cannot use words to coherently express their thoughts.

Another interesting article about language and the brain focuses on multilingualism.

The study under question in this article shows that your brain benefits from multilingualism; appropriately, the title of the article is "Brains benefit from multilingualism."  What that means is that now scientific findings are showing that there are measurable physiological advantages to being able to speak more than one language.  Studying other languages just got more interesting.

Speaking of multilingualism reminds me of a very funny video that proves linguists do have humor... when Ali G interviews Noam Chomsky.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Advice: Keeping It Simple

Foxtrot by Bill Amend

Students often don't believe me when I say that if your linguistic analysis is getting really messy and complicated, it's highly likely that you overlooked something that would make it simpler.  But it's true.  For example, if you are trying to describe when a phoneme is pronounced as one of its allophones and need five different descriptions for one set of environments, you're most likely overlooking what the environments have in common.  The other day, my History of the English language class had a data set to analyze in order to determine when the letter f was pronounced like a v.  Some of the words were fifta, fif, fiFel, and oFnas (the two fs that are bolded and capitalized are the only two that are pronounced like a v).  As a student of linguistics, you should expect that a generalization can be drawn and that you will not have to answer "between these specific letters."  Look for what the environments have in common: i, e, o, and n are all voiced phonemes.  In fact, the only time f is pronounced like a v is when it occurs between two voiced phonemes.

One of the things I love about linguistics is how methodical it is--there is a method to the madness of language if you look for it.  The voicing in the above example changed to match the voicing of the surrounding segments--it makes sense to do that.  It wouldn't make much sense to say that the voiced v occurs only in the environments i_e and o_n.  That wouldn't tell us what is special about those particular letters to change the pronunciation of another.  Generalizing gives us the opportunity to say, "Ah, being surrounded by voiced sounds causes the voiceless phoneme to become voiced."  Again, it makes sense.  There is a method to the madness.  If you're doing a linguistic analysis, go with the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bespoke Blogging

I was having a conversation the other day--conversation is the best word I can think of to apply to twittering (tweeting?) back and forth with someone--when my twitter partner used a word I knew the meaning of from studying older versions of English but had never heard used in modern English: bespoke.

bespoke [past of BESPEAK]
adjective [attributive] chiefly British
(of goods, especially clothing) made to order: a bespoke suit.
(of a trader) making such goods: bespoke tailors.
My first thought when I saw it used in my twitter conversation was, "What a great word!"  My second thought was, "Why don't we use it more often?"  After looking in my handy Mac Dictionary, I saw the small, yet important, usage note: chiefly British.  That told me I live on the wrong side of the pond to have heard bespoke used in everyday conversation.  Once that mystery was solved, my next thought was, "How did that word come to mean 'made to order'?"

Originally, the word comes from the Old English bisprecan, which meant 'speak up' or 'speak out.'  The prefix in the word, be-, is still seen in modern forms like bejeweled, bewitched, unbeknownst (notice all forms are past participles).  It is a great little prefix that doesn't receive half the credit it's due; in fact, I never really paid much attention to it until my graduate adviser, Laura Michaelis-Cummings, lectured on its applications and situations where it can or cannot be used.  If you're interested in learning more about the be- prefix, check out the entry for it on the Affixes website; for a more technical discussion of the prefix, check out PetrĂ© and Cuyckens (2008).  Going back to the word as a whole, the word bisprecan underwent some semantic changes, later resulting in the meaning 'discuss' or 'decide on.'  It is the latter of those ('decide on') that led to the extension of the meaning to 'arrange' or 'order' (and, thus, to the modern usage).  Semantic change in action--how could that not make your Monday morning more exciting?

So, who is with me in saying that this needs to become an American term, too?  Anyone?

Friday, October 16, 2009


Let's say you're new to linguistics and would like to learn more about the subject but are turned off by all the texts out there that sling the "ling lingo" without backtracking and first explaining where all the terminology came from.  If this scenario sounds familiar, one author you might be interested in reading is Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker's books offer insights into linguistics without immersing the reader in technicalities of linguistic study; in other words, his books are able to get people thinking about linguistics--even if they don't have a background in linguistics.  His latest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, focuses on investigating a proposed link between our word choices and our brains.

Pinker explores our brains and the way we think through examining the words we choose:

... our words connect to our thoughts, our communities, our emotions, our relationships, and to reality itself.  It isn't surprising that language supplies so many of the hot potatoes of our public and private life.  We are verbivores, a species that lives on words, and the meaning and use of language are bound to be among the major things we ponder, share, and dispute. (24)
The premise of the book is fascinating, making readers ask whether our mental reality shapes our words or our words shape our mental reality.

Whether or not you agree with Pinker's conclusions, his book provides great fodder for insightful discussion.  Other books of his you might want to check out are Words and Rules and The Language Instinct.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spring 2010 Linguistics Courses

I needed a bit of humor today.  I am having problems uploading updated blog entries to my faculty site, so I am moving our blog over to Blogger territory, which is more familiar for me.

While the final, official spring schedule has not yet been released, we do have a tentative schedule of linguistics courses for the spring:

ENG 344: Structures of English
  MWF  9:00-9:50        Sams, J
  MWF  11:00-11:50    Sams, J
  R         4:00-6:30 (?)  Sams, C

ENG 441: Linguistic Theory
  TR  11:00-12:15         Sams, J

Even though we will not be able to offer ALL the classes we had hoped for (notice Forensic Linguistics is missing...), we will be offering more sections of linguistics courses than have been offered in the past, which is very exciting.  But only if students sign up for the courses.  The R-night section of Structures will be a hybrid course, meaning that up to 50% of the course will take place online.

As a side note, both these courses would work for anyone interested in the proposed Linguistics Minor.  The minor could go up for approval with the College Council as soon as next month; I will update you as soon as I hear anything on that front.

In other news (yes, there is a world outside of SFA Linguistics), I came across a couple linguistic studies I thought you all might find interesting:

The Handwriting of Liars: a study finds that handwriting may be a better tool to find lies than gestures, vocal cues, and word choice.

Rethinking the Bee's Waggle Dance: a study shows that we may have been overestimating the importance of the bee's dance to indicate the location of food.