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!