Monday, December 6, 2010

A Couple Study for Forensic Students

A student sent me a link to an interesting story shared on Fox News a couple months ago about how couples, when they are happy together, use similar language. The researchers involved in the study claim that even famous poets have a writing style that is similar to their significant other's when they are in a happy period of the relationship. People are taking this one step further to say that it might be possible to make predictions about the success rate of a couple's relationship based on a comparison of their writing styles and language usage. Here is a link to the original story.

What do you think? Is it possible to tell if a couple is happy together based on linguistic analysis? Is your language usage similar to that of your significant other?

I'm off to find a writing sample of my husband's to compare to mine...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Syllabus of Linguistics of Invented Languages

You can find the syllabus for ENG 442-090: Topics in Linguistics (Linguistics of Invented Languages) at this link. We are still a few students shy of making the minimum required for the course to run as scheduled. If you know of anyone interested, please pass along this information so that they can see what will be covered in the course to decide if they would like to join in on the creative linguistic fun next semester. There are no prerequisites for the course (even though two are listed with the registrar's office)--you'll simply need to e-mail me ( with your name and student ID# if you are interested in registering so that any holds can be lifted, which will enable you to register for the course.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Save the Words!

In an attempt to keep English words from going extinct, Oxford Dictionaries is sponsoring a website where you can adopt an endangered English word; by adopting a word, you are promising to use the word in your speech and writing.

Screenshot from Save the Words website
I am having fun exploring the website--not just because it is really well made and fun to look at, but also because it is full of fabulous words. On the website, you can find words as diverse as starrify, radicarian, and antipelargy, none of which are recognized by spellcheck.

I hope you have fun exploring the website--let me know in the comments if you adopt a word (and which one you chose to adopt). I am now the proud adoptive parent of nepheliad, which is a cloud-nymph. So when I start lecturing about nepheliads next week in class, you'll know why.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Spring 2011 Courses

Following are descriptions of the courses that will be offered Spring 2011:

ENG 344-001 Structures of English (MWF 9:00-9:50)

Linguistic study of English, including phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.  Includes an examination of several applied topics, focusing on topics such as English stylistics, language acquisition as it pertains to structures English, English dialects, and history of English.

ENG 341 Introduction to Linguistics

  • 341-001 MWF 10:00-10:50
  • 341-090 TR 9:30-10:45 (writing enhanced)

*Used to be ENG 441.

Introduction to the core concepts of linguistic study, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics, and to the application of those concepts, such as language acquisition, language disorders, sociolinguistics, and language change.  Analyses of linguistic concepts and applications focus on data from languages spoken around the world (i.e., will not focus on or be limited to English).
Prerequisites: None

ENG 442-090: Topics in Linguistics: Linguistics of Invented Languages (TR 11:00-12:15)
(writing enhanced)
Examination of how language works and typical features of world languages in order to construct an invented language; also, examination of famous constructed languages (including Elvish, Na'vi, and Esperanto) in order to compare features of invented languages to those of natural languages. The final project of the course will involve students constructing their own languages to better understand the challenges of constructing a language and linguistic principles at work in natural languages.

ENG 442-002: Topics in Linguistics: Comparative Romance Linguistics (TR 9:30-10:45)
In this course we will begin with a look at the Latin language (no prior knowledge of Latin assumed) and its transformation into the Romance languages from a socio-historical perspective. We will then concentrate on selected linguistic phenomena of some of the Romance languages (mainly French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish) from a comparative standpoint. For example, how do French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish pluralize nouns? How does determiner, noun, and adjective agreement work? What options are available for past tense formation (e.g., simple (preterite), compound, or both)? How is negation accomplished? What are the sound correspondences between languages (e.g., the Latin ct in NOCTEM ‘night’ became tt  in Italian notte, ch in Spanish noche, and it in French ‘nuit < nueit’ and Portuguese noite)? How did the T/V (politeness) pronouns come about? One of the course assignments will deal with independently researching a less commonly researched Romance language (e.g., Romanian, Catalan, Occitan, Gascon, Corsican, or one of the so called “dialects” of Italian). Course materials will be provided by the instructor. There is no prerequisite; however, intermediate to advanced reading knowledge of a modern Romance language would be advantageous. The class will be taught in English. 
If you have any questions, let me or Chris know!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Language Fail via YouTube

Thanks to a student, I am sharing a video with you that I've now watched several times and laughed every one of them. The humor is based on misparsing words in a song--when you hear a string of sounds, you may hear something different than what was originally said. For instance, many kids grow up thinking the "Star Spangled Banner" starts out with "Jose, can you see?", and I was convinced that a donzerly was a type of light because of that song. Another famous mistaken lyric is in Creedence Clearwater Revival's song "Bad Moon on the Rise"; many people think the chorus is saying "there's a bathroom on the right." While misparsings often lead to humorous results, I don't think I've ever seen one as humorous as this.

Challenge yourself to see if you can--without looking at the lyrics to the song--figure out what English words the singer is trying to sing. Can you tell where she is misparsing the words to create nonsense words?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

New Languages Still Being Found

Students often ask how many languages there are in the world, which is a trickier question to answer than you might guess at first. Several problems with identifying the number of languages revolve around varying definitions of language (as opposed to dialect) and language death; however, a more exciting issue with counting the number of languages is that linguists still haven't identified them all. A recent discovery of Koro, a language spoken in rural India, made the news last week, with stories about it in The New York Times and on CNN. Finding a new language is rather exciting and reminds us linguists that we still have more to discover about language.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Possible Awkward Construction

I was reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh the other day, and I came across a sentence that stopped me in the middle of my reading because it felt wrong as I read it:

Ole Golly, Harriet could tell, was deliberately making her face bright and cheery because she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was. (p. 108)
 (Ole Golly is the name of a character.) Everything in the sentence was fine for me until I hit the ending: "she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was." On the surface, the sentence follows all the grammatical sequence of words in English nominal clauses that begin with an interrogative pronoun:

She didn't want Harriet to ask her...
what the movie was.
where the cat was.
how the book ended. 
who the intruder kidnapped. 
The typical word order for these is INTERROGATIVE PRONOUN - NOUN PHRASE (subject) - VERB. The original sentence followed that word order:

what (IntPro) the matter (NP) was (V)
So why does the sentence sound awkward to me?

It sounds awkward because of the noun phrase in the construction: the matter. It is part of an idiomized question we often use in English: What is the matter? And yet, I think it's awkward (if not ungrammatical) to use the matter in that idiom reading in a sentence: *The matter was that she left early

So while it is entirely grammatical to say she didn't want Harriet to ask her what the matter was, it takes longer for my brain to process the sentence because it apparently doesn't like having the idiomatic the matter appearing before the verb. In a language that relies so heavily on word order, something so small as having what the matter was instead of what was the matter can make a sentence sound downright awkward.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Modern Family and Marian Keyes: Pioneers in Verbing Names?

We recently bought the first season of Modern Family on DVD, and as we're watching (and in some cases re-watching) the episodes, I am once again reminded why I labeled it a "treasure trove of linguistic anomalies."

In the episode "Moon Landing," Phil (one of the primary characters, who is a real estate agent) is driving by a bench that has a billboard for his realtor services; the billboard, quite naturally, has a large picture of his face. Someone had defaced his picture by giving him a mustache with a black marker, which prompted Phil to say:

I take it seriously when someone Tom Sellecks my bus bench.
I've written posts about our ability to use people's names in English to signify so much more than that person ("my Ludlums", "to pull a X"); this usage is different because it not only signifies a physical quality of Tom Selleck (his mustache) but also is coerced into being a verb meaning, in this case, "to draw a fake mustache on a picture."

The usage of a person's name as a verb reminded me of one of my favorite examples of a quoting verb, which I found in Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes:

"Siddown," she Don Corleoned. (page 321)
In this case, the name Don Corleone represents characteristics associated with Don Corleone (specifically how he speaks and takes command of a situation) and is coerced into a verbal meaning of "to say in a manner worthy of Don Corleone."

Off the top of my head, these are the only examples I could come up with of a person's name being used as a verb. Can you think of any others?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ling Websites: Phonetics and IPA

This week, my Structures class will be moving into phonetics and learning the International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA). Every semester, I tend to share the same websites, so I'm putting them all into one post for my students--and others--to peruse.

1. Ladefoged's IPA Chart

Screenshot of Ladefoged's IPA Chart

UCLA offers a website that has an interactive IPA chart; you can click on sections of the chart to bring them into focus and then click on individual sounds to hear recordings. This is especially helpful for learning sounds not found in English.

2. University of Iowa's 'The Sounds of Spoken Language'

Screenshot of the University of Iowa's articulatory phonetics website

The University of Iowa offers an interactive phonetics experience, in which you can choose whether you want to focus on the sounds of English, German, or Spanish. Once you've selected a language, it shows you animated sagittal sections to demonstrate what is physiologically happening when you make a selected sound. This website is incredibly helpful for anyone trying to learn and remember all the columns/rows of both the consonantal and vocalic IPA charts.

3. Cambridge's Phonetics Focus

Screenshot of Cambridge's phonetics focus website

Cambridge English Online offers a website full of phonetics fun--it has games to help you learn the IPA and the connection between phones and phonemes. It also has games to help you learn to hear the differences between the sounds of English. The only drawback for American students is that it uses British pronunciation; some of the vowels for example words are pronounced differently from what most Americans would use. However, the games are fun, and it is a good website to explore.

4. English Phonetic Transcription

Screenshot of the English Phonetic Transcription website

I don't normally recommend sites like these, but students find them all on their own... You can type any English text into the white box, and this website will turn it into IPA for you (or upside down if you want to see your text from a different angle). Are the IPA transcriptions always accurate? No. Will using it help you learn the concepts behind the IPA, which will in turn allow you to better learn phonology? No. But can it help you check the work you've already done on your transcriptions? Yes. I'd recommend anyone to use this site (or sites like this) sparingly and only as a check-my-work tool.

If you know of any other websites that are helpful for students learning phonetics and IPA, please send them along.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Spotlight on Linguistic Tools: TreeForm

Last week I looked at an online program for drawing syntactic trees; this week I’m pointing the spotlight on a free downloadable software program called TreeForm. If you click on the link provided, you’ll see a short demo video, and you will see a link to its site on SourceForge for your free download of the program.

The best aspects about this program are that it is user-friendly and more intuitive for many students than the bracket notations. The only drawback is that you have to be able to download it onto your computer to use it (i.e., students using school computers may not be able to work with this program).

When you download it, be sure to install the entire TreeForm folder onto your computer. If you don’t install all the components in the folder, the program will be missing some of its images, which makes it a bit difficult to work with at times. Once you have the folder downloaded and installed on your computer, you are ready to use the program. It has three different icons for you to click on, depending on your operating system: .app for Mac, .bat for Windows, and .jar for Linux. If you try to open the wrong one for your computer, it simply won’t open. If that happens to you, try another.

After you open TreeForm, you will see a screen that looks like this:

TreeForm screenshot

The large white area is your drawing board, and down the left-hand side of the screen you will find your “tray” of options:

TreeForm tray of options

Each button on the tray presents an option for you to choose. For example, click on the ‘Node down’ button on the tray and hold down your mouse as you drag the cursor into the white area. You can’t see the cursor in the following screenshot, but here is a picture of the ‘Node down’ being dragged into the drawing area:

Dragging 'node down' to the drawing board in TreeForm

When you let go, an ‘X’ will appear on the screen. Double-click on that X to change it to any label you’d like. To build onto that node, you can either build up by selection ‘Node up’ from the tray and dragging it into the white area until the node you want to build on is highlighted. When you let go, a node will appear above the one you already had. Or you can build down by selecting ‘Node down’ and dragging that over to the screen. For instance, if you labeled the first node you put onto the screen ‘S’ (for the sentence level), then you could drag ‘Node down’ over until the S was highlighted and then release the mouse button. You would end up with a node below the S. To change the X that appears in the node, you simply need to double-click it and change the label. Let’s say you’ve labeled the first node ‘S’ and the node below it ‘NP’, and you want to add a sister node for the NP. To do that, you need to once again drag ‘Node down’ from the tray until the S is highlighted; this time when you release it, though, you will have two options for where you want to put the node:

Two options for node placement in TreeForm

If you want the second node to the right, you need to move your mouse over until the right-hand dot is illuminated green (as it is in the picture above) and click on it. If you wanted to add a third node at that same level, you do the same process you just did; only this time, you’ll have three options for placement (to the left of, in between, or to the right of the other two nodes).

Three options for node placement in TreeForm

Using that same process, you can easily build entire trees, putting in any labels you’d like by double-clicking the Xs. When you’ve reached what will be the terminal node (generally, the terminal node is the one where a word is inserted instead of a label), you can use the ‘Text’ button in the tray.

Syntactic tree using TreeForm

When your tree looks like what you want, you can go to ‘Edit’ and then ‘Copy tree’. Doing that puts the tree into your computer’s clipboard, which allows you to go to any document you’re working on and hit ‘Paste’ where you want the tree to go. Your tree will then appear in a typed document.

If you need to erase something, you can either hit ‘undo’ (or control-Z) if it is something you just did that needs to be undone or use the ‘Eraser’ button in the tray. To use the eraser button, click and hold down on it, dragging it over to the drawing board area. Move it over the tree until the highest node you want erased is highlighted.

Dragging the eraser and highlighting the VP node in TreeForm

When you release the eraser, that node and everything below it will be erased.

Tree from above with its VP erased in TreeForm

Using those four buttons (node down, node up, text, and eraser), you can create basic tree structures. The other buttons in the tray are for more advanced tree structures. If you play around with the features, you’ll find that you have a lot of leeway with the program and the look of your trees. You can change the font, the colors of individual nodes, the colors of branches, and more. On top of all that, you can easily use TreeForm to create any type of hierarchical tree you need: Instead of putting syntactic labels in the nodes, put anything you’d like:

Non-syntax hierarchical structure created using TreeForm

Just like with phpSyntaxTree, the best way to figure out what the program is capable of is to play with it. Go have some fun with TreeForm!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Potential Topics Course for the Spring

Chris sent out this announcement via mySFA today. If you are (or anyone you know is) interested in seeing this course offered in the spring, please e-mail him at

I hope that your semesters are going well. Next semester (Spring 2011) I am tentatively offering a course that may interest you: Comparative Romance Linguistics. It will be listed under ENG 442: Topics in Linguistics. If you are interested in taking the course, please e-mail me by Friday, September 17th at Offering this course is contingent upon the interest of students, and we need at least 10 students for the class to make. Here is the course description:
In this course we will begin with a look at the Latin language (no prior knowledge of Latin assumed) and its transformation into the Romance languages from a socio-historical perspective. We will then concentrate on selected linguistic phenomena of some of the Romance languages (mainly French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish) from a comparative standpoint. For example, how do French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish pluralize nouns? How does determiner, noun, and adjective agreement work? What options are available for past tense formation (e.g., simple (preterite), compound, or both)? How is negation accomplished? What are the sound correspondences between languages (e.g., the Latin ct in NOCTEM ‘night’ became tt  in Italian notte, ch in Spanish noche, and it in French ‘nuit < nueit’ and Portuguese noite)? How did the T/V (politeness) pronouns come about? One of the course assignments will deal with independently researching a less commonly researched Romance language (e.g., Romanian, Catalan, Occitan, Gascon, Corsican, or one of the so called “dialects” of Italian). Course materials will be provided by the instructor. There is no official prerequisite; however, intermediate to advanced reading knowledge of Latin or a modern Romance language is necessary. Please contact me if you are interested but have lower-level proficiency. The class will be taught in English.
For many of you, this course would count as an upper-division elective, and for English majors, this could count as your linguistics course. Please contact me if you would like more information about the course.
We hope to announce our Spring 2011 schedule in the near future, so keep checking in for more information!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Spotlight on Linguistic Tools: phpSyntaxTree

If you ever find yourself in need of diagramming a sentence in a typed document, you may have noticed that not too many word processing programs have user-friendly ways of drawing and inserting trees. One way to work around that issue is to use the free online phpSyntaxTree program, which draws trees based on bracket notations. A few advantages to phpSyntaxTree are that the program is free, online (i.e., you don't have to download anything to use it), and provides an easy-to-work with picture file as its end product.

When you go to the web page, you will see something like this:

The text box on the website comes pre-programmed with this sentence already in bracket notation: [S [NP phpSyntaxTree][VP [V creates][NP nice syntax trees]]]. If you hit the "draw" button directly below the text box, you will go to a new screen that looks like this:

Once the tree is drawn, you can play with the settings across the top (e.g., take out the color, take out subscripts). When the tree looks like what you want, you can simply put your mouse over the diagram and click on it; it will download a copy of that diagram as a picture file (.PNG) to your computer, and you can then insert it into whatever document you're working on.

Once you've got the process down, it flows pretty nicely, and you can create diagrams of any kind (i.e., with any labels) to put into the text box on the website. The problem is that not all students are familiar or comfortable with using bracket notations.

For this program, the basic concept is what appears on the left inside the brackets is inserted in the mother node and what appears on the right is the daughter node. A space between the entries is interpreted as a branch or triangle. For instance, if you put [N dog] into the text box and hit the draw button, you will see a tree like this:

If you put [NP the dog] into the program, you will get a tree like this:

The first space after whatever entry you put at the left will be interpreted by the program as the separation between what is put on top (the mother node) and what is put on bottom (the daughter node). If more than one word appears in the daughter node, a triangle is used instead of a single branch (unless you turn off the triangle notation, in which case a single branch is inserted with several words below it).

Putting this concept to work in layers, you can put notations like [S [NP [Det the] [N dog]] [VP [V sleeps] [PP [Prep on] [NP [Det the] [N porch]]]]] and get results like this:

The program keeps track of your open and closed brackets; if the numbers are not equal, the program will not allow a tree to be drawn. If you break down the sentence in its bracket notation and compare it to its tree, you will see that the basic concept of "left side = mother node" is followed throughout: [NP [Det the] [N dog]] tells the program that NP should appear in the mother node, the mother node has two daughters (Det and N), and that those daughter nodes in turn have daughter nodes (the and dog).

Let's look at that sentence a little more closely. If you type [S the dog sleeps on the porch], you'll get a tree like this:

If you want to break that single node into two, you need to put words that go together in brackets: [S [the dog] [sleeps on the porch]]. Now you're telling the program to have two branches under S (branch 1: the dog; branch 2: sleeps on the porch). But if you hit "draw" right now, you'll be left with this:

Why did that happen? Because the program doesn't distinguish between words and labels unless you put them in their appropriate places. So the program read [the dog] as the is the mother node and its daughter is dog. The same applies to the other set of brackets. You can fix this by inserting labels for both of these: [S [NP the dog] [VP sleeps on the porch]].

From there, you can continue breaking it down until you get the tree with a complete break down. Just remember that what is on the left is inserted into the mother node, a space after that entry indicates a branch/triangle, and more than one branch from a single mother node is indicated by sets of brackets. For instance, [NP [Det] [Adj] [N]] will look like this:

Separating the entries into brackets told the program "don't interpret this as a single unit but rather as three separate daughter nodes."

Once you get the hang of using bracket notation, getting the tree structure you want becomes easier. I encourage you to play with the program to see what different structures look like in their bracket form and compare that form to its tree form. Playing with the program is the best way to learn it.

Next week I will showcase another way to get tree diagrams in typed form to insert into documents. In the meantime, I hope you will have some diagramming fun with phpSyntaxTree.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"To Pull a X"

I am fascinated by the construction "to pull a [insert name here]." As an example, Friends introduced the phrase "to pull a Monica" based on the character (named Monica) who was known in her family for regularly messing up in big situations. "Pulling a Monica" is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "any and all screwups by an individual."

Recently, Steven Slater made the news as the JetBlue flight attendant who, in no uncertain terms, went ballistic on a passenger, chewed said passenger out on the plane's intercom, grabbed a beer from the plane, and exited via the emergency slide. Inspired by this incident, reports:
Most of us will probably never pull a Steven Slater: curse out a customer, grab a drink and leave our place of employment in a blaze of glory. (article by Allison Linn)
I immediately found this interesting for two reasons: (1) less than a day after a singular incident, Steven Slater already has an "event" named after him; and (2) the event is well-known enough to be named a "Steven Slater" yet not well-known enough to be able to use the construction "pull a Steven Slater" without further identifying what that means.

Addressing (1) first, I would most likely not--in everyday usage--coin a phrase such as "to pull a Monica" after a single incident of Monica making a mistake. Oftentimes, this phrase requires a repeated behavior rather than a single incident. If Steven Slater had merely quit his job in a more typical fashion (e.g., a resignation letter), then no one would think of calling quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." However, if Steven went on to quit his next five jobs in a row, I might be tempted to call quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." I had never stopped to consider how "to pull a X" was applied until I read the article and realized that it takes an extraordinary situation to apply "to pull a X" after only one incident.

Furthermore, I wouldn't typically think of saying "You just pulled a Monica" to someone who has no idea who Monica is or what "pulling a Monica" might mean. Because of that, it seems a little unnatural to think of adding the addendum in natural speech: "You just pulled a Monica: screwing up." In fact, I would think that most typical uses wouldn't merit a clarification clause. Yet, "pulling a Steven Slater", while national news, is new enough that clarification is necessary.

To take consideration of the construction one step further, I find it interesting how we decide to apply the construction. Saturday Night Live dedicated a sketch to "pulling a Peyton Manning" (when you show lots of promise but don't deliver), but I don't often hear phrases with celebrities' names inserted into the construction. For instance, when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah's couch, instead of saying, "You just pulled a Tom Cruise," we adopted the phrase "You jumped the couch." As another example, when Fonzie jumped over the shark near the end of the Happy Days run, the phrase "to pull a Fonzie" never made it into the language; instead, "jump the shark" became a useful phrase for when something good goes terribly wrong. (The episode in which Fonzie jumps the shark roughly marked the end of the popularity for Happy Days.) Perhaps "pulling a Steven Slater" is only possible because he is not a celebrity but is rather an everyday guy who is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame for his antics.

So now the big question is whether the phrase will stick or not. Do you think you'll remember what "pulling a Steven Slater" is next year? Do you think you'll ever have reason to use the phrase in your own speech?

If any of you have a "to pull a X" example of your own, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mistaken Origins of "Ghoti-y" Proportions

Have you ever seen the movie Akeelah and the Bee? In the movie, a moving quotation is used to inspire Akeelah that includes these sentences:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
The movie attributes this quotation to Nelson Mandela; however, Mandela never (as far as I know) spoke or wrote these words. The quotation above should instead have been attributed to Marianne Williamson.

Misattributing quotations is by no means a problem unique to Akeelah and the Bee; a similar situation occurred in 1999 when Baz Luhrman released the song "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" that began with these words:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '99: If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now. Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind: You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded.
The song's lyrics had been attributed to Baz Luhrman and Kurt Vonnegut (among others) before someone set people straight, pointing out that Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune had originally penned the words.

What does all this have to do with linguistics?

In linguistics, we like to tell the story of how English spelling is so discombobulated that the string of letters "ghoti" could be pronounced as 'fish': take the gh from enough, the o from women, and the ti from nation, and you've got the sounds f-i-sh from ghoti. I had first heard that this particular sentiment was taken from George Bernard Shaw, which makes sense in the grand scheme of things. He was so upset with the English spelling system that he actually created his own alphabet--the Shavian alphabet--to make our spelling more phonetic. The alphabet never caught on, but his life's work was dedicated to saving the English language from sure doom. In every class that I gave the ghoti example to, I attributed it to Shaw.

In an article tweeted by @mightyredpen, I found out I--and at least some of the linguistic community--am wrong. I have been misattributing the ghoti statement: Its real source is a letter written by Charles Ollier in 1855.

This just goes to show that no area is immune to misattribution: Hollywood, media, academia... And it also shows the importance of researching for yourself the origins of quotations before you use them from a secondhand source, causing a "ghoti-y" mess.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Oops... I've Been a Bad Google User

As I scrolled through the Twitter updates this evening, I ran across an interesting tweet from @mightyredpen, who posted a link to an article about how to use the word Google: Google Permissions.

Before I begin, let me first say that I love the Google company and all that it has done for search engines and internet fun (including my beloved Gmail and Chrome and Blogger). Now that I've professed my love, though, I must say that if you read the entire page, you might be left scratching your head--just as I am.

Allow me to quote some of my favorite specifications for how to properly use the word Google:
Use the trademark only as an adjective, never as a noun or verb, and never in the plural or possessive form.
Oops. I google things daily and talk about Google as an entity. Apparently I need to say 'I used the Google search engine today', but that just sounds way too wordy for my taste.
One of the conditions for all uses is that you can't mess around with our marks. Only we get to do that. Don’t remove, distort or alter any element of a Google Brand Feature. That includes modifying a Google trademark, for example, through hyphenation, combination or abbreviation, such as: Googliscious, Googlyoogly, GaGooglemania. Do not shorten, abbreviate, or create acronyms out of Google trademarks.
After reading this, I'm begging Google inventors to come up with something Googliscious or a new feature called Googlyoogly. I mean, really, how can they resist?
Don’t use Google trademarks in a way that suggests a common, descriptive, or generic meaning.
That includes not using Google to refer to using a search engine in general, which I am also guilty of (e.g., telling someone to google something, when what I really mean is to perform an online search).

Because I love the Google company (not only because they use cute graphics around holidays on their websites but also because they are such a rockin' company), I formally apologize for misusing the Google name. However, along with that apology, I ask that the big wigs of the company reconsider the ban on using Google as parts of speech other than an adjective. It's just more convenient to tell someone, 'Go Google it!' Do you think they'll mind as long as I capitalize the verb to show it's a proper search engine I'm referring to?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fall Schedule Finally Fixed!

With the flair of alliteration, I'm happy to announce that the fall schedule is finally fixed! Hooray! If you go to the fall schedule, you will now see that ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics (MWF 10:00-10:50) and ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics (TR 9:30-10:45) are finally on the schedule. And that means you may now register for those courses.

Please get the word out because the only way the courses can run is if they get students registered. So please spread the good word that all linguistics courses are open for registration.

Also, if you're signed up for 344 (Structures of English) for the fall but do not necessarily need to take that course to fulfill your linguistics requirement (I'm specifically thinking of English majors out there), you might want to take a look at the other linguistics offerings for the fall.

The new courses should not have any prerequisites attached to them; that is, you should be able to register for them even if you haven't had 9 or more hours of English. If you have a problem registering because of prerequisites, please let us know immediately so we can get that fixed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

lolcats: A new type of English?

I'm fascinated by the turns English takes, especially as the internet plays a bigger role in developments of language change. One change I've never quite understood, though, is the use of 'shortcuts' when texting or instant messaging someone. I don't understand how typing 'l8r' saves energy when it takes me longer to find and reach the appropriate number key than it would for me to type the 'ate' in the middle of the word. It also takes more energy for me to find the '^' key than it does for me to simply type 'up.' Since I don't see how shortcuts are actually shortcuts, I tend to think people use them to be "cool". I have obviously never been cool in the texting world, as I happily correctly punctuate and capitalize my sentences with words that are correctly spelled when I text.

My students introduced me to an online site that takes English computer lingo to the next level: lolcats. On the site, you can find examples of English like this:
We r adding favorite buttons 2 sum classic lolz, so u can favorite dem!
I find it hilarious that in the middle of these sentences, you see words like 'sum' and 'awt' interspersed with correctly spelled 'adding' and 'favorite' and 'classic.' Why do 'sum' and 'awt' and 'dem' but not 'klasik' and 'favrit' (or some other shortened/changed spelling)?

Banner on 'lolcats' homepage, which is
Even the website's name, 'i can has cheez burger', has such a discrepancy: Why not use 'haz' instead of 'has'?

During the summer session, I have a student who wants to work with the language used with lolcats, so I'm looking forward to seeing what she uncovers in her investigation. In the meantime, I'll be staring at the words on the website, wondering why anyone would take the time to develop such crazy spellings for English words when English spelling is crazy enough as it is.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modern Family: A Treasure Trove of Linguistic Anomalies

The ABC show Modern Family is not only fun to watch but is also fun to think about ways we can use English words. This past Wednesday (5/5/10), the episode that aired (titled "Airport") had two such instances of word play that left me literally laughing out loud (or should I say "ROFL"?).

Phil, one of the characters in the show, is a real estate agent and is helping his brother-in-law break into his own home after leaving his house keys with his partner at the airport. Phil faces the camera and says:

The average burglar breaks in and leaves all these clues behind. Not me. I'm completely clueless.

Obviously, most of us turn to the interpretation of clue to mean 'idea' so that clueless means 'lost' or 'confused.' However, Phil's play on words turns clueless into a new meaning of 'without physical clues (or without leaving physical clues behind)'.

That one line is enough to make me love that episode. Later on in the episode, Jay (Phil's father-in-law) is telling his grandson to sit down. His grandson falls into a chair and lands on Jay's Kindle, which prompted this reaction from Jay:

Ooh, ooh, my Ludlums!

Prior to this incident, we learned that Jay had loaded 8 books by Ludlum onto his "reading device", and he was looking forward to spending some quality time reading those books on his vacation. So when his grandson broke his Kindle, he voiced his concern over losing the ability to read the books by Ludlum; instead of using a longer phrase to describe that, though, he substitutes the author's name for the books (i.e., he uses metonymy).

What are some of your favorite instances of word play in a movie, TV show, or book?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lexical Gap: Noun for 'Ridiculous'

When we make up new words, our motivation is typically that we have an idea to express but do not have a word for it; thus, we have a lexical gap--a gap where the precise word we are looking for should be. Sometimes lexical gaps are legitimate ones (i.e., our language truly does not have a word to express what we would like to express). Oftentimes, though, lexical gaps are speaker-dependent. There is a word in our language that would work--we just don't know about it, or it doesn't quite sound right for the situation.

For example, the other day I was driving down the road and got stuck behind someone going a good 15 mph below the speed limit. I couldn't go around the car because I needed to stay in the right lane so that I could make a right turn into a parking lot. The car in front of me was already going slow--in and of itself a frustrating experience--but as we got closer to where I needed to turn, the car in front of me kept going slower and slower and slower... until I shouted, "Enough of this ridiculosity!" Yes, road rage gets the best of us. Not only did I shout in my car at the driver in front of me, but I also experienced a momentary lexical gap in my vocabulary.

After my outburst, I started a conversation with myself (I was alone in the car) that went something like this:

Hmm... Ridiculosity doesn't sound like a real word. But what is the noun form of ridiculous? I'm fairly sure we have one because we'd need a noun to describe a ridiculous situation without using complex phrases full of modifiers when one word could sum it all up. The go-to suffix for making nouns tends to be -ness, so is ridiculousness the word I'm looking for? Well, that just sounds ridiculous. There's far too many s sounds in a row for that to be a good word. Ridiculousness... ridiculosity. I like ridiculosity better, but something is telling me ridiculousness is actually the word.
When I got home, I went to my handy Mac dictionary, and--sure enough--ridiculousness is, in fact, the noun form of the adjective ridiculous. However, I think we should start a campaign that any adjective ending in -ous should form its noun counterpart by using the -ity suffix (thus changing the -ous to simply -os when spelling out the whole word). Words like ridiculousness, incredulousness, and marvelousness just sound wrong. Don't ridiculosity, incredulosity, and marvelosity just sound better?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Robert Ornstein's THE RIGHT MIND

When people think of language and the brain, they often refer solely to the left hemisphere of the brain because that is where the identified language centers reside (e.g., Wernicke's Area, Broca's Area). However, it would be a mistake for anyone to think that you need only the left hemisphere to communicate and use language. Robert Ornstein's book The Right Mind reminds us why we need the right hemisphere just as much--if not, perhaps, more--than we need the left hemisphere for things like using language and making logical decisions (both aspects associated primarily with the left hemisphere).

Ornstein's style of writing is not terminology-laden, so even people who have never studied cognitive science or anatomy or neuroscience or [fill in the blank with another relevant field here] will be able to pick up the book and read about the wonders of the right hemisphere. The chapters have fun names to go with the interesting topics like "The Run of Dichotomania," "Wit or Half-Wit?" and "An Avalanche in the Human Brain."

Throughout the book, Ornstein uses examples from psychological and linguistic experiments, patients with brain damage, and general observations to demonstrate that while the left hemisphere may be responsible for language at its core, the right hemisphere is necessary for being able to understand context, which allows us to form the "big picture" of our world. In other words, the left hemisphere helps us see the individual trees, but the right hemisphere allows us to see the entire forest. Through Ornstein's examples, you begin to see that a world without context is one without true understanding.

If you're interested in understand more about how our brains process language, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Right Mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Live on Twitter!

After more than one request, I have turned the fictional "SFALingProf" Twitter account from the posters I've put up around campus into a real one. You can join in on the fun by following me on Twitter, either by clicking on the Follow Me button in the right-hand sidebar or by going to Twitter and searching for my username (SFALingProf).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why aren't 341 and 438 showing up on the Fall 2010 schedule?

In Fall 2009, I was ecstatic that my colleagues of the Department of English approved all the new linguistics courses I had proposed. Little did I know that the departmental approval would only be the first step in a long journey...

After the department approved the courses, the courses were passed up to the College Council; once they approved the courses, the courses were passed up to the College of Liberal and Applied Arts for approval. After getting approved three times, they got passed again, this time to the Provost and then again to the Board of Regents.

The courses have passed all those stages of approval, and yet they are not showing up on the fall schedule. Why? Because they still have to get a stamp of approval at the state level (and three different state levels, at that).

What does all this mean to you? It means that those linguistics courses with new course numbers (ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics and ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics) are not showing up on the official Fall 2010 course schedule. But are they going to be offered in the fall? YES!

While 341 and 438 will be offered in the fall, it will most likely be around summer before those courses get all the appropriate stamps and get put onto the schedule. That means you won't be able to register for those courses until then--you can't register for a course not showing up on the schedule.

The poster you'll see around the department to advertise the "missing" courses.

If you are interested in taking 341 and/or 438, please reserve a spot in your fall schedule for the course and register as soon as it appears on the schedule. I will post again (here on this blog) when the courses are officially up, so you can check back here for updated information.

ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics MWF 10:00-10:50
ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics TR 9:30-10:45

I realize this delay is a bit of a pain (okay, more than just a "bit" of a pain), but please don't disregard these courses because of the hiccup in getting them on the official registrar's schedule. We are really excited to be offering so many linguistics courses in the fall and appreciate all the student support we are getting. Please help spread the word about these "invisible" courses so that they will fill when they make their way to the schedule.

Forensic Linguistics and the Facebook Killer

For anyone asking what forensic linguistics is or what forensic linguists do, you should watch Dr. John Olsson's YouTube video. His video documents the types of comparisons and critical analysis necessary to work with forensic linguistic investigations of language use.

Watching the video will give you a sense of what types of information you can get from language, the types of conclusions you can draw about language use, and how critical analyses of language can help in investigations.

You may have noticed that Dr. Olsson's conclusion was that Chapman "could not be excluded from the authorship of the later texts sent from the teenager's phone." On the surface, that may sound like a vague conclusion, yet it was important to the case. Why do you think such a conclusion was important? Furthermore, why do you think it would not be possible for Dr. Olsson's conclusion to be that Chapman was definitely the author of the text message?

If this video sparks interest for you, you might want to think about taking ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics in the fall.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Good for a Laugh

As everyone at SFA is getting ready for a five-day weekend, I want to send you home with a linguistic jewel straight from the headlines:

I can't take credit for this Leno-worthy headline. Thank you to SPOGG for finding and posting such a headline.

English is a great language for humorous headlines because of its ability to flout ambiguity. The ambiguity in the headline above is one caused by the word package, which as you all undoubtedly know has more than one meaning (and the intended meaning is not the first one we English speakers tend to think of). That type of ambiguity is semantic (or lexical) ambiguity--it is ambiguous because a word/phrase has more than one meaning.

Sometimes, though, sentences (or headlines) are ambiguous because the structure is ambiguous: "Children Cook & Serve Grandparents" (this was a headline featured on Jay Leno). The ambiguity starts with the verb cook, which could take a direct object (I cooked the turkey) or could appear as an intransitive verb (I cooked). The ambiguity then continues with the verb serve, which could take an object that is being served (I served the turkey to my guests) or could take an object indicating the servees (I served the guests). When you put the two together, it's literally a recipe for disaster for a headline.

Another famous ambiguous headline is from WWII: "The Fifth Army Push Bottles Up Germans." What kind of ambiguity do you think that is?

As you're on a break, peruse newspapers and send me any fun headlines you find--I'll feature them in a blog posting.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Note on Course Schedules

First, I'd like to thank everyone who participated in the poll on the choices for courses in Fall 2010. Every choice got at least one vote, so it's nice to know we're thinking of course options that students are actually interested in. I'm not all that optimistic in the poll counter's ability to compile statistics, though; if anyone else bothered to add up the percentages, you noticed that 170% of the votes were accounted for. Hmmm... I may not be a mathematician, but that sounds a little suspect.

The two more advanced linguistic courses being offered in the fall are Forensic Linguistics and Psycholinguistics (which is being run as a Topics in Linguistics course). You may have seen the posters floating around LAN and Ferguson to that effect (I'm including the poster images in this blog post--some people seem to like my posters and have been stealing them off walls... Please leave them up until after registration has ended!).

Second, some of you may have looked at the online version of the fall schedule and noticed that two linguistics courses are missing for the fall: ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics and ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics. Those courses are being offered under brand new numbers, so the numbers for those courses don't exist in the school's system quite yet. Our department chair is hard at work to fix the situation, so please don't worry if you don't see those two courses on the schedule. They are indeed on the departmental schedule of courses to offer in the fall--there are just extra steps the department has to take to get them recognized by the school's scheduling system since the course numbers are new ones.

Third, I am quite pleased with the amount of response I've been getting from students about the fall courses; however, I'd like to remind you all that the fall courses can only be offered if students actually register for them. As registration draws nearer, please remember that only courses that fill can run. If you're excited about a course offering, tell other students about the course; if you know a student who might be interested in a linguistics course, tell them what's being offered. In other words, please help spread the word around campus.

While I am only advertising Introduction to Linguistics, Forensic Linguistics, and Psycholinguistics through posters, there will also be three sections of ENG 344: Structures of English offered for those students who need that course.

And, finally, I don't want to forget to mention the summer courses being offered.

There will be a section of Structures offered for each Summer Session, and during Summer Session I, we will be offering our first ever (as far as I know) graduate-level linguistics course.

In the next few weeks, I'll be doing as much as possible to promote these courses to make sure they fill, and I'll also be promoting the new Linguistics Minor to make students aware of that option. I've even considered wearing one of those sandwich board signs with linguistics posters on them around campus... but I think that might be a tad too conspicuous (even for me).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spotlight on Linguistic Tools: SIL's IPA Unicode Keyboard

A month ago, I started a new (hopefully regular) feature where I would post on linguistic tools that can help students.  The first linguistic tools post focused on the online IPA TypeIt keyboard.  This time I'm going to focus on another way you can type in IPA on your own computer: downloading an SIL IPA Unicode keyboard.  That may look like a hefty title to get through, so I'll break down the title for you before I even begin to go into the keyboards.

"SIL" stands for Summer Institute of Linguistics and is an organization that works with language development (i.e., they help communities keep their languages alive through such endeavors as helping speakers develop a writing system for their language or a curriculum in school for their language).  As such an organization, they also work on promoting linguistic tools that make it easier for linguists to work with data and analysis; they develop programs, but they also include links and research on other programs that might be helpful.  One development of theirs is a set of IPA unicode keyboards.

The unicode in that title is important because it means that whatever you type into your document using the unicode keyboard will be translatable to any document that accepts unicode fonts, which is pretty much every computer application.  As some students may have noticed, sometimes when you type in IPA, not all fonts or applications will recognize the symbols and will produce empty boxes or off-looking characters that you didn't intend to have in your document.  If you're using a unicode font and enable unicode encoding on whatever you're working on (e.g., a webpage, a paper), the symbols will show up beautifully.  If you're interested in learning more about unicode, you can visit the Unicode Consortium webpage.

To use one of the SIL IPA Unicode keyboards, you first need to download one onto your computer.  The site offers keyboards that are compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux, so make sure you click on the right keyboard that will work with your computer's operating system.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention one of the most student-friendly aspects about the SIL keyboards: they're free.  The keyboards are pretty amazing because they not only offer you the ability to type all the IPA symbols of world languages (not just English), but they also offer you the ability to add in suprasegmentals and diacritics.  When you click on the link above, you'll be taken to a site that looks like this:

Again, make sure you click on the keyboard that will work with your computer's operating system.  For every keyboard, the site also offers downloadable PDF guides that will help you through the downloading and installing processes and will show you how to use the the keyboard once it's installed on your computer.  An important note on the website is that you have to restart your computer after installing the keyboard to be able to use it; otherwise, you'll get frustrated when your new cool keyboard doesn't do what it's supposed to do (that piece of advice is from personal experience).  Use those PDF guides--they'll do a much better job than I could hope to do of explaining everything you'll need to do to get your keyboard in place.

Before you start using your newly installed keyboard, you'll also need to make sure you have a font that will work with all the new IPA capabilities your keyboard offers you.  While most fonts will work with the IPA symbols themselves, not all fonts are capable of working with the diacritics and suprasegmentals that SIL's IPA keyboards offer.  To get the most out of your new keyboard, SIL offers a free font download of Duolos SIL, a font that looks similar to Times New Roman and has the compatibility with all the IPA goodies.

When the keyboard is installed on your computer, it allows your regular keyboard to function as an IPA keyboard (you can easily switch between the two in your computer's keyboard language options).  The keyboard works for the most part like your typical keyboard (e.g., if you press the t-key, a t will appear on the screen), but it has "deadkeys" that allow you to do combinations to produce the IPA symbols.  For example, if you hit the = button, a yellow box will appear on your screen.  The letter you press next on the keyboard will determine what IPA symbol will appear; here is an image from the guide that comes with the keyboard:

There are several more of these deadkeys that make it possible to get all the IPA symbols and notations onto one keyboard.  About now, you may be asking yourself, "But what if I want to actually put the = sign into my document?  If it's a deadkey, how does that work?"  If you simply hit the spacebar after typing in =, the = will stay in your document.  Here is another image to show you what I mean by "deadkey":

The top line is what happened when I hit = and then the spacebar; the middle line is what happened when I hit = followed by i; the bottom line is what it looks like when I hit a deadkey--the yellow box around the symbol lets me know I've hit a deadkey and that pressing another key in the combination will change the symbol (i.e., the = sign will disappear and be replaced by another symbol).  It's a pretty cool system.

To show you just some of the capabilities of the keyboard, here is an image of the IPA consonants and how you produce them using the IPA keyboard:

The keyboard is an amazing tool, and it's even customizable--you can download programs that will allow you to change keystrokes or even add more.  For anyone who wants to be able to type in IPA without needing to use an online tool, without needing to interrupt their typing by clicking on a box above a text box, and without needing to leave the document being worked on to type into a text box and then copying and pasting it.

ɑɪ ʤʌst swɪʧt tu mɑɪ ɑɪ pi eɪ kibɔrd ænd æm tɑɪpɪŋ wɪθ mɑɪ kəmpjutər lɑɪk rɛgjulər

How cool is that?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New Look for SFALingBlog!

I've done a bit of an overhaul on the site to make it a bit more SFA-y.  As my students in 344 this semester will tell you, I just created a new adjective by added the adjectival -y suffix.  Ah, word creation early in the morning always puts a smile on my face.  Look carefully at the picture in the new heading, and you will see that the picture is an aerial view of our beautiful campus.  Thanks to my husband, who is a pilot in his spare time, I was able to snap some pretty nice shots of the campus from the air.

I've also added pages to the blog so that certain information is always easy to access: my homepage on the SFA server, the linguistics minor page on the departmental website, the rundown on the linguistics courses for Summer 2010, and the rundown on the linguistics courses for Fall 2010.  I'm trying to make it so the external links (my homepage and the departmental page) will open as soon as you click on the page title, but I haven't yet figured out how to do that.  If you know how, please tell me.  :)  In the meantime, you are taken to a page in Blogger that provides the link you have to click on to get the page.

You may have noticed that I've posted posters around the department and Ferguson advertising the linguistics courses for the fall and summer.  While I am excited that we have the opportunity to offer six sections of linguistics courses in the fall AND three sections in the summer, I am terrified that we won't be able to fill them.  If you'd like to see more linguistics offerings now and in the future, please help us out by using good old-fashioned word-of-mouth for advertising.  Over the next couple weeks, I will be sending out announcements about the courses via mySFA and putting up another wave of posters.  I am also working on designing bookmarks for the linguistics program as a promotional item.  If you can think of anything else that you and your fellow students might appreciate in the way of advertising/promoting the linguistics program, please let me know.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tentative Summer 2010 Ling Courses

Our mailboxes have been busy this morning: We also received the proposed summer schedules (see the post below for the proposed fall schedule).  The linguistics offerings (again, contingent on enrollment numbers) for the summer are the following:

Summer I
ENG 540: Linguistic Analysis (MTWR 12:30-2:55)
ENG 344: Structures of English (MTWR 12:30-2:55)

Summer II
ENG 344: Structures of English (MTWR 10:15-12:10)

As far as I know, this will be the first time a graduate-level linguistics course has been offered through our department.  If you need--or know anyone who needs--graduate-level credit, pass the news along!

As always, please let me know if you have any questions about the courses or schedule or linguistics in general.

Tentative Fall 2010 Ling Courses

We received our tentative schedules for the fall today; please keep in mind that these are TENTATIVE schedules.  These courses cannot run without students, so the ability for these to be offered is dependent upon student enrollment.

ENG 344: Structures of English
Linguistic study of English, including phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.  May include an examination of several applied topics, focusing on topics such as English stylistics, language acquisition as it pertains to structures of English, English dialects, and history of English.

  • MWF  9:00-9:50
  • MWF 11:00-11:50
  • online section

ENG 341: Introduction to Linguistics
Introduction to the core concepts of linguistic study, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics, and to the application of those concepts, such as language acquisition, language disorders, sociolinguistics, and language change.  Analyses of linguistic concepts and applications focus on data from languages spoken around the world (i.e., will not focus on or be limited to English).

  • MWF 10:00-10:50

ENG 438: Forensic Linguistics
Linguistic study of texts and recordings to determine authorship, evasion strategies, possible coercion in writings/recordings, stylistic changes, deception, and so on.  Linguistic tools include phonetic analysis, structural analysis, and word choice.  Texts analyzed include hate mail, suicide letters,  ransom notes, and confessions; recordings include interviews, interrogations, and confessions.
  • TR 9:30-10:45

ENG 442: Topics in Linguistics
Advanced study of a topic within linguistics; topics will rotate.  Example topics include sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, language and literature, corpus linguistics, historical linguistics, typology and universals, and history of linguistic study.  Students may repeat the course under different topics.

  • TR 11:00-12:15
The proposed study for Topics in Linguistics for the fall is psycholinguistics:
Examination of the facilities in the brain necessary for language comprehension and production, the process of first language acquisition, the mental processing of language, and the specific language disorders that result when language facilities (or the connections to them) are damaged.

The proposed schedule includes more linguistics courses in a single semester than have ever been offered at SFA.  Please help us get these courses solidified in the books by spreading the good word about linguistics and generating interest among your fellow students.

If you have any questions about the courses being offered or about the minor in Linguistics, please don't hesitate to ask.  You can ask questions through posting a comment on the blog (which I check regularly), visiting my homepage on SFA, e-mailing me (my contact info is on my homepage), or stopping by my office in the English Department.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Linguists Do

One of the most prototypical questions linguists get asked is, "How many languages do you speak?"

Linguists get asked this question so often because the number one misconception about linguists is that we sit around all day and learn new languages.  While linguists study language, we don't necessarily study languages.  How does that make sense?  Studying language means you're studying the system that allows humans to communicate--for spoken languages, this means you're studying how sounds are made, transmitted, and perceived; how sounds are put together and which sounds are meaningful; how words are built to create meaning; how words come together to form sentences; and so on.  For signed languages, you're studying how gestures are made and perceived; how the differing aspects of those gestures work together to create meaning; and so on.  For all types of language, you can study how societies create meaning, how our brains can handle language input and output, how language changes over time, how our language use reflects our identity, how we can acquire language, and more.  The important thing to remember is that you could feasibly study linguistics without ever once studying another language.  You could be a morphologist, studying how individual morphemes are put together to form meaningful words, without speaking any language but your native language because you can study the patterns found in the world's languages without speaking them.

Even though speaking another language is not necessary for being able to perform linguistic analyses, many linguistics programs require that their students take at least two years of a foreign language at the collegiate level (as does our minor here at SFA).  Learning another language opens your mind and helps you, as a student, get past thinking that all languages work like your native language.  Even if you never become fluent in that language you are studying, learning the new vocabulary and new grammatical structures of another language can open up doors for making connections in your linguistics courses that you would otherwise not be able to make.  A simple example is the History of the English Language course.  Students in that course who had studied other languages constantly found connections between that other language and the concepts being learned to study the history of our own language.  Students who studied Latin noticed that Old English had a rich case system like Latin; students of German noticed that the Old English vocabulary sounded more German-ish than English-ish; students of French noticed that Middle English gained familiar-sounding words after the Norman Conquest.

Another misconception about linguists that I have been facing lately is that linguists study grammar.  It is true that one area of linguistics is grammatical analysis; however, grammar in linguistics is not the grammar of middle school textbooks or college style guides.  In linguistics, we do not study things like punctuation placement, subject-verb agreement errors, or faulty parallelism unless we are looking at them in a wider context.  For instance, we might study punctuation placement in the terms of societal conventions used to standardize written language.  Or we might study so-called errors in language to better understand the different patterns available within a language for expressing the same idea and society's judgments on those patterns.  Linguistics, though, is so much more than grammar.  Some of us (like myself) rather enjoy grammar, but that doesn't mean that is all we do.  So if you take Structures of English at SFA, you will not once be tested on where commas should be placed within a sentence.

If you are interested in learning more about studying linguistics, the Linguistic Society of America has an online publication titled "Why Major in Linguistics?" that covers the basics of linguistic study and the possibilities for jobs as a linguistics student.  The link to this article is also in the LingLinks section in the sidebar of this blog, along with other valuable links to linguistic resources.  And, of course, linguists are happy to field questions about linguistics--if you're at SFA, feel free to stop by my office if you'd like to chat about just how fascinating studying linguistics is.

What misconceptions about linguistics have you heard?  Or, what questions do you have about what linguists actually study?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Advantages of Multilingualism

The advantages of being able to speak more than one language have long been touted, but recently, with advances of scientific technology, the benefits of multilingualism are being studied in new ways with more specific findings of just how speaking more than one language can help us.

About a year-and-a-half ago, a study was released from Tel Aviv University that stated being multilingual helped fight off aging of the brain.  While their report doesn't list specifics, it hints that even taking the time to learn new languages in adulthood (even if you don't reach fluency) can still provide those same benefits.  Speaking more than one language basically provides exercise for your mental muscles.  If you're interested in the full article, you can find it here.

More recently, a study published in Psychological Science in January states that being multilingual helps reading skills in your native language.  The following sentence sums up the results of the study quite profoundly:

The findings suggest that after learning a second language, people never look at words the same way again.

Through eye-tracking studies, researchers found that bilingual (or multilingual) speakers took less time to process words that were cognates in their native and second languages.  This study is remarkable because it turns the metaphorical table to provide insights to how speaking more languages can lead you to being more fluent in your own, native tongue.  If you're interested in reading the full write-up published in Scientific American, you can find it here.

As I am writing this, my son is watching a bilingual show:

Both Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! provide dialogue primarily in English but have Spanish-speaking characters and include Spanish lyrics in memorable songs.  While I am glad children in America can get at least a little exposure to another language at a young age (though watching the show will, by no means, turn those children into bilingual speakers), I find myself wishing for an adult equivalent--a TV show that features a character who speaks another language so that I can get input without being completely lost in the plot.

I hope that if you have never considered learning a new language, these studies might inspire you to try to pick up a new language, whether it's through sitting in on a class or picking up a language textbook or listening to radio shows in another language online or watching movies in a foreign language.  If you are learning another language or have already learned another language, go ahead and thank yourself for taking care of your brain and allowing it to expand its neural connectivity.