Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Attitudes about Language: Banning the Dictionary

In Structures of English, we've been talking about attitudes people have toward language, especially toward particular words or accents in English.  Quite often, those attitudes are, unfortunately, on the negative side.  We tend to have feelings about words or constructions that should or should not be used in the English language and judge other people according to those feelings.  Yet, who has the right to dictate what words should or should not be used (or even belong) in the English language?

The English dictionary is a book set apart from other books in its long tradition of supplying definitions based on usage for words found in our language.  It is possibly the most useful reference book students, writers, readers, and language lovers can consult.  And yet... It was recently banned from a school for its inclusion of "colorful" language (read about it here).  Banning dictionaries takes the idea of banning books to a whole new level and makes me question just how attached American English speakers are to the idea of being able to monitor--and control--language use.

I would like to hear what other people think about this.  Should dictionaries be banned?  Further, should they be better censored for content if being published for use in elementary schools?  Or should dictionaries be allowed to grace bookshelves everywhere in their full glory?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Debate: Language or Communication?

I first heard about the whistled language of Gomera from a student in my Introduction to Linguistics course; as soon as class ended, I YouTubed "whistle language" and found this video.

It's a fascinating display.  My question for you is whether the "whistle language" is truly a language or is actually a communication system.  For anyone unfamiliar with the differences between the terms language and communication system, one primary distinction between the two is that humans are said to have language while animals have communication systems.  Animals can communicate specific needs (such as danger, food sources, or mating rituals) but do not have full-fledged languages that allow them to produce new and creative utterances, abstract notions (they can only address the 'here and now'), and pragmatic features like sarcasm or humor.  Language, on the other hand, allows humans to talk about any chosen time period, focus on any person--real or fictional, discuss theory, produce unique utterances that have never been used before but still have meaning, and use intonation and pitch to show emotion in speech.

What do you think?  Is the "whistled language" a communication system?  Or a language?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Songs and Poetry

Linguistically speaking, the differences between spoken and written language are well documented; however, my focus for this post is differences between performing lyrics as a song and performing them as poetry.  Obviously, there are differences in how the words are produced (singing versus speaking), but how do those differences affect the overall effect of the song and the potential message being delivered?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a YouTube video that I can't believe I had never seen before: William Shatner performing "Rocket Man."

Shatner's take on the classic song is memorable, with his presentation coming across as both dramatic and humorous.  I love that he uses prosodic features to change the flow of the lyrics each time the chorus reoccurs and takes advantage of editing features by having two Shatners on the screen at once.  I'm not a poetry expert, but I think the reading is enhanced by that fact that Elton John's lyrics are poetic and lend themselves more freely to spoken performances.

Thirty years after that performance, another actor took on a popular song to perform as, um, a type of spoken art.  Through Twitter, I was introduced tonight to the video performance of Christopher Walken reading Lady Gaga's "Poker Face."

Walken's performance is also memorable, but I would not exactly apply the term "classic" to it.  Comparing the two made me start thinking about song lyrics and how they're written in general to achieve different goals.  One aspect of linguistic study is to ask why a speaker (or singer) put particular words/sounds together and what purpose or function the speaker (or singer) is achieving through those words/sounds.  Songs are a form of linguistic performance.  As such, I think some songs are meant only for singing (i.e., "Poker Face") while others are more readily available for other modes of performance (i.e., "Rocket Man").

What songs do you think are only meant for singing?  What songs do you think could be more readily performed as poetry?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Poll for Fall 2010 Courses

The poll featured in the sidebar is geared toward identifying student interest in more advanced topics (not toward guaranteeing the offering of said topics); the majority of the options would be run under ENG 442: Topics in Linguistics.  Since none of these courses have been run before, I'm including course descriptions of the listed options in this post.  Please note that not all options for Fall 2010 courses are included in the poll (e.g., Structures of English, History of the English Language, Introduction to Linguistics); again, the poll is dedicated to the more advanced courses to identify areas of interest.

While none of the courses would have linguistic prerequisites, prior linguistic knowledge would be beneficial (if not necessary) for the following three topics: Corpus Linguistics, Historical Linguistics, and Comparative Linguistics.

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.

Advanced Grammar
Advanced investigation of the concepts of grammatical form and function, including the application of labels such as noun, adjective, verb, subject, object, phrase, clause.  Study will also include discussion of the use of grammar in written and spoken language, the teaching of grammar in classrooms, the debates about grammatical change in current language, and the notion of standard language.

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.

Corpus Linguistics
Study of the tools available for collecting and analyzing data, and examination of current corpora available for research.  Students will learn to collect and create their own corpora, utilize existing corpora, and analyze data through corpus research.

Historical Linguistics (Diachronics)
Study of the types of regular language changes, the practice of internal and external language reconstructions, and socio-historical influences on language change.  Students will learn to identify types of language change through data from languages around the world and conduct research on socio-historical background of language change on a language other than English.

Language and Literature
Examination of linguistic tools and techniques and application of those linguistic devices to the study of literature, focusing on structural and semantic aspects.  Some examples include the representation of dialects in literature, stylistics, use of metaphor, verb selection, and genre differentiation.

Comparative Linguistics
Linguistic analysis of a set of languages or a language family, focusing on the differences and similarities in sounds and structures among the languages.  Examination of possible comparative methods and their application to data sets; analyses of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics within language change, including sociohistorical variables.  No prior knowledge of the languages in question is required.

Welcome Back! Spring 2010

Since we were on a break from school, I also took a break from the computer (including blogging).  As you well know, though, a new semester is just around the corner, metaphorically speaking.  I will celebrate the first day of classes (Wednesday, January 20) with a new post.  Today I am starting a new poll in the sidebar: Which linguistics class would you most like to see in the fall?  The poll will be open for a couple months--until it's time to begin planning out Fall 2010 course schedules.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy ending to your winter break and look forward to seeing you this spring.