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.