Monday Inspiration: How to become a linguistics professor

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Recently I came across an interview conducted by the website How to become a professor with Professor Kai von Fintel of MIT.  The interview is called “How to Become a Linguistics Professor,” but I found it to be even much more than just instructions on getting a faculty position.  Professor von Fintel offers really sound, specific, and practical advice on how to be a scientist (of language, and in general), how to be a good researcher, how to publish, and how to stay current in your particular field.   I love what he says about the kinds of questions good scientists should ask, and about the nature of inquiry and discovery.

It really is worth twenty minutes of your time!  Watch the interview, and check out the original page which has some further thoughts and helpful links.

What makes a language difficult?

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When I was researching for last week’s Pop Quiz, I came across this article from the Economist, subtitled “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.”  The author examines different ways that languages can be difficult.  For instance, English spelling is pretty irregular, but French “gives it a run for it’s money” – no one who has ever studied French would argue for a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.  Latin and Greek get a nod for being much more highly inflected than English (remember that scene from Monty Python?)  Then there are difficult sounds, such as the Scottish “ch”, the German umlaut, or the “much more exotic vowels” of Chinese.  (I would like to point out here that he’s getting “vowels” and “tones” mixed up in his discussion – tones are of course difficult for nonnative speakers, but they’re linguistically a separate issue than vowels, strictly speaking – see the discussion here if you’re interested.)  The author also lists languages with difficult consonant inventories, such as Ubykh with its purported 78 distinct consonants, and of course my favorite, the languages with a glorious array of click consonants.  There are languages with complex morphology, for instance marking for not only gender, number, and case, but also noun class; there are agglutinating languages such as Turkish, where single words can contain dozens of syllables as the morphemes pile up.

I bring this up because I am curious as to what each of you would say makes a language “difficult,” in terms of learning them as non-native speakers.  I have a strong suspicion it depends on each person’s unique skills and personality.  Some people have a musical ear and can pick up pitch and tone much easier than others.  Some people are analytical and can sense, and then use, complex grammatical patterns, while the rest of us scratch our heads.  I also imagine it has a lot to do with your native language(s) and with your previous language learning experience.  The author of the Economist article notes that “Languages tend to get ‘harder’ the farther one moves from English and its relatives,” which seems like a fairly intuitive rule of thumb for monolingual Anglophones.  But if you grew up in a bilingual English/Tamil household, that could strongly affect what you find “difficult” about learning a third language.  And if you’ve already taken some courses in, say, Arabic, the intricacies of related languages like Hebrew are probably a lot less daunting.

The author of this article selected Tuyuca as the “hardest language,” mostly as a consequence of its detailed and complex system of marking verbs for evidentiality – in Tuyuca, you have to add a bit at the end of each verb to indicate how you came to know the information you are sharing in the sentence (did you see it yourself?  did someone tell you about it?)   That’s certainly a lot to deal with every time you utter a sentence, especially if you’ve never had to do it before.  But does that make it the hardest?

What qualities do you find the most difficult about a language?  What’s the most difficult language you’ve tried studying?  What features do you find aren’t so difficult for you, that might present problems for other people?

I’d like to write more about difficulty in language learning, but first I wanted to get your thoughts!

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! Endangered language projects

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The Endangered Language Fund was founded in 1996 and has been providing grants to individual researchers, tribes, and museums, with the goal of supporting language documentation and preservation projects.  Looking through their list of “Language Legacies Project” grants awarded over the years demonstrates not only how geographically diverse (and numerically daunting) critically endangered languages are, but also how intelligently and creatively individuals can be when confronting the problem of language loss.

In honor of the fine work of the Fund and its grantees, today’s Pop Quiz focuses on the grants awarded in 2013.  (Try not to click over and cheat!)

Question – In which countries will the work of these grants be conducted?

  1. “The Hupa Language Materials Project”, which will help digitize existing documentation and produce new digital media productions in the Hupa language, which has fewer than five native speakers remaining?
  2. A project to generate a trilingual ethnobotanical database in French, English, and Ménik, the language of the Bedik people?
  3. A project to build a vocabulary corpus and audio recordings in the understudied Zihuateutla Totonac language?
  4. A project to record naturally-occurring speech patterns in conversation in the Cahuilla language, a member of the Uto-Aztecan family?
  5. A study of the current status of the severely endangered Bantu language known as Dhaiso?
  6. “An Introduction to Linguistics for Community Members of Valley Zapotec”?
  7. A project to document the Xikrin dialect of a language (sometimes called Kayapó), which will include interviewing speakers who were born before contact with Western civilization?

BONUS: The project titled “Phonetic Features of Hatkoy” will be conducted with speakers of a dialect of the East Circassian language.  Originally native to the North Caucasus region, this dialect is now only spoken in diaspora, and is under pressure from which dominant language?

 

Answers:

  1. The US.  The Hupa (or Hoopa) tribe lives in northern California.
  2. Senegal, near the Senegal-Guinea border.
  3. The Puebla State of Mexico.
  4. The US, in the mountains and valleys of southern California.
  5. This study will be conducted by visiting five villages in northeastern Tanzania.
  6. This work will be the culmination of a five week field trip to Oaxaca State, Mexico.
  7. Mato Grosso state in central Brazil.

BONUS: Turkish.  Due to the large number of diaspora Circassians in Turkey, the Turkish state broadcasting company has aired programs in a dialect of Circassian for ten years.

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Take a look at the descriptions for each of the 2013 grantees – if you’re anything like me you’ll find them pretty inspirational!  And if you do feel inspired, maybe consider supporting the fund!

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

A Polyglossic reading list

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Are you as much of a bookworm as I am?  A few years ago I joined Goodreads, and I’ve started having that infinitely-increasing to-read-list problem.  You know, the problem where for every book you read, you discover three more that you simply can’t live without?  Not that it’s a very bad problem to have…

I’m pretty obsessed with lists, and with books, and I’m also pretty obsessed with languages.  So I came up with a great idea – I started a listopia list of language books!  I called it “Books for Language Lovers,” and I started it with ten books about everything from creoles to invented languages to language endangerment, and even included a really nice little book about language and mind that I was assigned for a psycholinguistics class.

If you’re on Goodreads, you can add your favorites to this list!  You can also vote for books you’ve already read that are on the list, so over time the books will get a rank-order – we’ll be able to see which book is most loved!  And of course, my hope is that you’ll find some recommendations and new discoveries, and that your additions will cause my own to-read list to grow as well.

Enjoy!

 

Huh?

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In my last post I talked about some of the differences among the world’s languages that I find fascinating.  So now let’s mix things up and examine something that the world’s languages might have in common. An article in last month’s Smithsonian Magazine highlighted new research coming out of the Max Planck Institute for Pscyholinguistics.  The researchers’ findings?  The word “huh?”, with a bit of pronunciation variation, is common to a wide variety of languages from communities all across the world.

Here are the audio samples they gathered for the ten languages they studied in depth:

Pretty interesting, right?

The researchers have put together a website breaking down the main points of their research, as well as a very clear FAQs section (the original research report is here.)  They address questions about language contact (did speakers just pick up this sound from other languages?), language inheritance (maybe all of these languages are related and that’s why they have the same word?), sampling size, and whether or not the sound is really just a grunt, rather than a real word in a linguistics sense.  I think their answers and their research is pretty compelling, especially since the languages they investigated are so diverse, both genetically and geographically.  There must be some other explanation for the similarity.

What the researchers themselves suggest is that this is evidence of “convergent cultural evolution” – we all independently evolved this nice little word because we all needed a word to fulfill the function of a quick request for clarification, and “huh?” is a simple and convenient choice for many reasons (the Smithsonian article does a great job summarizing these reasons).

A couple of interesting things to note:

  • first of all, the researchers did NOT claim that huh? is “the universal word” as many writers have suggested.  They are careful to note that they did not, of course, gather samples of this word from all 7,000+ spoken languages in the world, and the title of their article is specifically in the form of a question (“Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?”)  Making absolute claims like “In fact, they’ve found, huh? is a “universal word,” the first studied by modern linguists“, as the author of the Smithsonian article does, is something the researchers were careful to avoid (though they do think their hypothesis is very strong.)
  • secondly, the research is talking about a specific usage of the word “huh.”  English uses this sound/word in a lot of different contexts, such as:
    -an exclamation of surprise or interest (“That word is the same in 31 different languages? Huh!”)
    -a request for confirmation or solidarity (“This research is pretty interesting, huh?”)
    What this research focuses on is the function of “initiating repair” – you misheard something your interlocutor said, or misunderstood something, and immediately respond “huh?” in an attempt to repair the communication error.  That is the function that is common across all the languages studied.

Check out the research and the article, it’s really interesting to read about the possible implications of the findings!

(Incidentally, the magazine article’s author is Arika Okrent, who wrote a delightful book called In the Land of Invented Languages.  I loved that book so much I based one of my pop quizzes on it!)

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Pop Quiz! The things languages can do

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I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a linguist I really admire.  We were in a group discussion about a theory of syntax, which involved talk not only of grammar but also of neurology, cognition, the evolution of language, and the evolution of humans as a species.  She said to me that one of the things she loves the most about language is that at the very basic level, we’re all doing the exact same thing.  Languages have surface differences but when you get right down to it, the differences are precisely superficial, not fundamental.  She loves that language is what we humans all share.

What was interesting about that conversation is that it was clear that she takes as much delight from language similarity as I do from language difference.  I don’t disagree that much of the difference is on the surface, but to me, those “superficial” differences are what create the rich texture and contour that characterizes the world as we live in it.

I was thinking of that this week because I picked up and started reading R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory (Volume 1: Methodology).  I have long admired Dixon’s extensive and trailblazing fieldwork and documentation, especially with underdescribed Australian languages.  And I know that Dixon himself staunchly insists that no society is “primitive” (he fiercely defends the sophistication of Australian Aboriginal society).  So I’m sure he would agree that at some important level, we are all similar.  But as a lifelong describer of languages, he is obviously also fascinated by the differences, and he uses a wealth of them in this book.

I think maybe you all would find the differences pretty fascinating too.  I am always amazed at the things that languages can do.  And since it’s the middle of the week, how about a POP QUIZ!

True or False – Somewhere in the world right now, there are people speaking a language that:

  1. has fifteen grammatical cases, including specific ways of saying “towards the inside of,” and “towards the outside of”
  2. has six different verb tenses
  3. has different 2nd person pronouns for singular, dual (“you two”), paucal (“you few”), and plural (as we would say in Oklahoma, “all y’all”)
  4. has only one 2nd person pronoun
  5. doesn’t have any pronouns at all
  6. has eight different forms of the imperative, including “do at a future time,” “make sure that something which should be done is being done,” and “do what a third person has ordered you to do.”
  7. has 43 different click consonants
  8. does not have any nasal consonants (sounds like ‘n’ and ‘m’)
  9. has different forms of suffixes for nouns that are downriver, upriver, uphill, downhill, across the river, or a long way off
  10. does not have any verbs

N.B. Almost all of these examples are taken directly from Dixon (2010) Chapter 1.

Answers:

  1. True.  Finnish noun cases also distinguish between “with” and “together with,” among other fine distinctions.
  2. True.  Dixon cites a report from Bani and Klokeid (1971) that says that the West Torres language actually utilizes five different past tenses, bringing the total of possible verb tenses up to eight.
  3. True.  Dixon cites Hill (1992) in his description of Longgu pronouns.
  4. True!  Unless, like me, you believe “y’all” and “all y’all” are acceptable second-person forms :)
  5. False.  One of the few accepted linguistic universals is that all languages have pronouns.  Unless you want to argue that pronouns aren’t really a distinct grammatical category…but that’s a longer discussion.
  6. True.  Dixon cites Barnes (1979, 1984).
  7. True.  Oh, how I love click consonants!
  8. True.  If you want to get really technical, you can say that they do make nasal sounds but they are not phonemically distinct, which is what counts in terms of language sounds.
  9. True.  Dixon himself has done extensive work on the fascinating Dyirbal language for decades.
  10. False.  This is a pretty uncontroversial linguistic universal – all languages have verbs.  It’s hard to conceive of communicating without verbs.  Then again, it can be hard to conceive of fifteen distinct noun cases!

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How did you do on the quiz?  Which is more interesting to you – the way that language is common to all humans, or the almost endless ways that human languages are different?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

World Arabic Language(s) Day

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Hello blog!  Long time no see!

There is a special form of writer’s block that happens when one has unintentionally neglected one’s blog for quite a while.  I want this first new post to be really special, and it starts to feel like a lot of pressure, so then nothing gets written and the days and weeks turn into months…

But enough of that.  I have just learned that today is officially World Arabic Language Day!  Today, UNESCO celebrates the 40th anniversary of Arabic becoming the sixth (and so far, final) of the official working languages of the UN.  Each of the six languages get their own special day during the year, but I just had to pause to observe this one.

I love Arabic.  I mean, I love all languages, and I love this world of thousands of languages, but somehow I managed to fall in love with this one in particular.  One day soon I really need to get back to it, because those vowels, those throaty consonants, that beautiful script always gives me goosebumps.

Of course, one of the fascinating things about Arabic is that in reality, there are quite a few different “Arabics.”  The language that the UN recognizes is known as Modern Standard Arabic, but so-called “regional dialects” like Moroccan Arabic and Levantine Arabic, are worlds apart; the farther the geographic distance between any two speakers in the Arabic world, the less and less intelligible they become to each other, until it barely seems like they’re speaking the same language at all.  And the Arabic in those calligraphy samples I linked to is the Classical Arabic of the Qur’an – close to MSA, but again very different from the regional dialects.  It’s a perfect illustration of some of the big questions sociolinguists ask – what is a language? What is a dialect? And what’s the difference between the two? The blog Arabic Literature (in English) actually refers to this as “World Arabic(s) Language Day” and has a nice brief overview of how complicated things get when you even start to talk about the Arabic language.

To celebrate the day, I suggest spending a little while poking around the wikipedia page on the language(s) while listening to some great music – I’m personally very partial to Rachid Taha’s latest:

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What language would you like to have its own special day?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

The Great Language Game

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Somebody wonderful has created the greatest thing ever.  It’s called The Great Language Game.

Great Language Game screencap

The game consists of 20-second audio clips from news programs on SBS Australia; you select from the multiple choice which language you think it is.  Having the choices narrowed down to a few languages is easier than guessing from the 7,000 in the whole world, but some choices are easier than others.  Most people might be able to tell the difference between spoken Korean and spoken Norwegian.  It starts getting trickier when the languages are rarer (have you ever heard Dinka spoken before?), or when the choices are closely related.  Slavophile that I am, I found it surprisingly difficult to decide if a clip was in Slovene or Bulgarian.  And when the choices started including both Gujarati and Punjabi, or Kannada and Malayalam, I was just guessing wildly.

One of the most interesting things to me is trying to figure out how I know what I know when I recognize a language.  With languages I’ve studied, it’s just simple recognition of a familiar friend.  With others I can be fairly scientific – I know Aramaic is a Semitic language, and there are a lot of Arabic-sounding pharyngeals and glottal stops in that clip, so that must be it.  Other times I’m not sure I can put my finger on my reasoning – I think that clip is Japanese because…the rhythm sounds Japanese-like to me.

I love phonology and phonetics – the study of the sounds of a language, how we make them, and what they do.  So I’m pretty addicted to this game.  I also love what the creators of this game have to say about the diversity of the sound clips: “These audio samples…reflect Australia’s rich migrant culture. Since people often migrate out of hardship, many of these languages should be common to international cities throughout the world. They might be spoken in a neighbourhood near you.”  It’s a celebration of the phonic diversity of the multilingual communities of the world!

So…play it!  I want to know how you do, which languages were easy and which choices were difficult, and how you figured out the ones that you did.

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.

Maps, мепс, مابس

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If you’re a visual learner like I am, you will probably appreciate this compilation of maps “that will help you make sense of the world” (they really will!) I was particularly excited to see a creative illustration of languages represented on this list. Just look at this beauty :

WritingSystemsOfTheWorld

I love, love, love writing systems.

How many of those can you read?

May the (Navajo) force be with you

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Here‘s a story I saw on NPR a few weeks ago that is just delightful – the original Star Wars movie has been dubbed entirely in the Navajo language.

We’re all probably aware that any translation can present tricky issues, even between languages and cultures that are fairly similar.  It’s just very hard to capture the precise meaning of any one word in any other language – words don’t really ‘equate.’  I can only imagine how much more so this would be true in Navajo, which has a reputation for remarkable complexity and difficulty.  For example, Navajo is what linguists call a polysynthetic language: words consist of many different morphemes all strung together.  A morpheme is a segment of a word that carries meaning and might or might not be able to stand on its own.  So in English, the word books contains two morphemes – book and -s, which means “plural” in this case. English usually only contains one or two ideas per word, whereas polysynthetic languages can contain enough morphemes to make whole sentences in the space of a single word.  Take the word Pitiwuliyondjirrurlimpirrani, from the Australian Aboriginal language Tiwi, which contains morphemes that add up to “they-her-dead-wallaby-on-shoulders-carried-habitually” or “They would carry the dead wallaby on their shoulders.” (wikipedia has even more quite diverting examples.)

The reason I bring this up is because there are quite a few terms in Star Wars that require some interesting mental gymnastics on the part of the Navajo translators.  In a language that uses an elaborate system of specific classifiers, R2-D2 ends up being translated roughly as “the short metal thing which is alive.”  I wonder how you say stormtrooper in Navajo?

Translation fun aside, this special movie edition holds great cultural importance.  As one of the translators says, “the whole project demonstrates that the Navajo language is still alive.”  Alive in a galaxy far, far away, and very much alive in this galaxy as well.

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