Once again, I stole something funny..

HOW TO MAKE A LINGUISTIC THEORY*

*This manuscript was found in an empty xerox-paper box at Harvard
University. Within the history of linguistic science we believe it
dates from the early medieval period, but we do not really care much.

Assemble a judicious amount of grammar, preferably English
grammar since you’re aiming at readers of English. (If you feel
there might be a market for linguistic theories written in Cebuano,
by all means, give it your best shot.) Be sure to include passive
constructions, accusative-with-infinitive constructions, and
constructions with front-shifting. Leave everything else to future
research (don’t worry, you’ll never have to actually do it).

Set up two levels of linguistic representation; call them
Level 1 and Level 2, or even better, Level Alpha and Level Beta.
This is to divide your explicanda into two conceptual domains so
you can let one explain the other. Leave these levels and all
constructs supporting them undefined; these will be your
Theoretical Primes. Define everything else, however, not only as
rigorously as possible but using as many symbols from the predicate
calculus as you can understand.

Be sure to leave undefined the notion “mu.” Now make “mu” a
unit at both undefined levels. For each “mu” use ordinary English
spelling, but in upper case letters on one level, and in lower case
letters on the other. Use abbreviations with upper case; for
example ERG, PRO, +ITAL for “ergative,” “pronominal,” “borrowed
from Italian.”

From this point on you need a graphics expert. Draw guitar
strings (don’t call them that, of course) from units on one level
to units on the other level. Count and classify the various
arrangements of strings you need for the amount of grammar you
began with; then pronounce all other logically possible
arrangements of strings forbidden by Universal Constraints.
Give each constraint a handy name, such as “The Adjustable Bridge
Constraint,” “The Open-String Pull-Off Constraint.” Always
capitalize and use “the” with constraints.

At this point it will be proper, though not absolutely
necessary, to bung in a bit of data from other languages. Since
ultimately theories like yours can be constructed only by trained
linguists who speak natively the languages they are examining,
frankly, the Second Coming will be upon us well before you’ll
really have to think seriously about other languages. Besides, you
have this neat argument:

Premiss 1: If my theory won’t account for English,
then it won’t account for all languages.

Premiss 2: My theory won’t account for English.

Conclusion: Bingo.

With regard to marketing your theory, this is a cinch because
of the way the academic world works. Your theory won’t work, even
for English, right? That’s a foregone conclusion. But for twenty
or thirty years, other people will make such a good living patching
it up that they’ll praise you as a genius even while they’re
bashing the daylights out of you, since without you, where would
they be?

Make occasional references to Kuhn.

– Metalleus

Source: http://www.umich.edu/~archive/linguistics/texts/papers/metalleus

A commentary on linguistic racism

In honor of International Blog Against Racism Week, I wrote an entry in my personal journal about racism in language attitudes. It is primarily directed at my American friends, most of whom are white, middle-class, and well-educated, but it might also prove an interesting read for you Danes (most of whom are white, middle-class, and working on becoming well-educated). As I said in the conclusion to that entry, I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments.

(The style for this blog doesn’t seem to insert a color difference on linked text; click on “an entry in my personal journal” for the link. Hans, can we do something about this so links are a bit more obvious? Thanks!)

Hello, my name is Mickey, and I'm a linguist. (Hi, Mickey!)

So, now that I’ve actually made a post, maybe it’s time for me to introduce myself as well. And I’m going to be ornery and write in English, as it’s my mother tongue and preferred means of communication. Det er ikke, at jeg ikke kan dansk, bare at jeg ikke gider. ūüėČ

I’m a bit unusual in comparison to my fellow bloggers here on Lingoland (not least of which because I seem to be the only female thus far): I’m about a decade older than most of them, I’m American, and I have a BS and MS in chemistry from back when I went to university the first time. Suffice it to say, I figured out eventually that I would have made a pretty mediocre chemist, but I’m discovering that I’m a pretty damn good linguist. I don’t regret my training in the “hard” sciences at all; it’s given me a rigorously empiricist background that I wish were more widespread within linguistics.

Right now, I am officially on an internship with The Language Museum, a fledgling organization co-founded by one of our recent alumnae, one of our professors, and a journalist/language-consultant. My official task for this internship is developing exhibits that will comprise the core of the biological/anthropological portion of the museum. While I will be at least partially designing exhibits having to do with articulatory and auditory phonetics (aka, how we produce and understand speech), the subject I’m grappling with the most right now is the question “How did humans evolve the capacity for language?”. This will eventually lead to an exhibit as well , but right now I’ve just barely started and am getting a fix on what I need to learn to do justice to this topic.

What I’ve discovered thus far is that most linguists are woefully underqualified to address the subject. As many have heard, the Linguistic Society of France (or something similar) put out a ban on discussing the subject in the late 1800s, which persisted until about 20 years ago. Mind you, only linguists ever observed this ban; other fields went merrily forwards with the question. In the last 20 years, linguists have been trying to play catch-up, and for the most part, they’ve done a spectacularly bad job of it. Basically, it’s showing itself to be a microcosm of the generativist/nativist debate, with everybody and their brother popping up to say “my particular syntactical theory or variation thereof can account for how language evolved!” Bullshit, says I.

That which is becoming amply clear to me is that this is a highly multidisciplinary topic which requires knowledge of paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, anatomy, neurology, primatology, and probably some other fields as well as linguistics to be able to discuss it intelligently. This is one reason why, with my background in the physical and biological sciences, I feel like I’ve at least got a slight leg up over many linguists, or will, once I’ve gotten through all the reading I’ve laid out for myself.

There does seem to be one aspect of this most multifaceted question that does suit itself well to linguists, namely that the evolution of lexicon and the evolution of syntax seem to be two very different things. Perusal of any of the literature about Nim Chimpsky, Washoe, Kanzi, and other higher primates who were taught “language” makes it quite clear that, while they were able to acquire some small amount of lexicon, they acquired no syntax whatsoever. Any fully fleshed-out hypothesis of the origin of language will need to address both of these topics, not to mention the topics of how the neurological, anatomical, and genetic features necessary for human language evolved. I definitely have my work cut out for me.

If my fellow bloggers are interested, I can periodically post here with what I’ve learned on the subject. I imagine it will be a fascinating next few months.

A silly first post, but what can I say…

…those who know me in person would not be the least surprised, as I am a frequently silly person. I just had to crosspost this amusing quiz result from my personal blog, since it’s so befitting a linguist.

Your Score: Akkadian

You scored

You are Akkadian, a blend of the incomprehensible symbols of the Sumerians with the unwritable sounds of the early Semitic peoples. However, the writing just doesn’t suit the words and doesn’t represent everything needed, so you end up a schizoid mess. Invented in Babylon, you’re probably to blame for that tower story. However, crazy as you are, you’re much loved and appreciated, and remain actively in use by records keepers long after schools have switched to other languages.

Link: The Which Ancient Language Are You Test written by imipak on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

IPA input in Linux (Ubuntu Feisty Fawn)

Having finally gotten wifi working on Ubuntu on my MacBook I wanted to setup input methods for Japanese in Gnome. While doing so, I stumbled upon an IPA input method, which turned out to be quite sexy.

SCIM Setup for IPAFirst, make sure you’ve installed SCIM, additional tables for SCIM and of course, the SCIM GTK+2 module. Also, you might want a font that supports all of the Unicode IPA extension, so let’s throw Thryomanes in there too, since it does exactly that.

sudo apt-get install scim scim-tables-additional scim-gtk2-immodule ttf-thryomanes

(The packages can of course be installed with Synaptic or whatever you prefer, as long as you make sure to install ’scim’, ’scim-tables-additional’, ’scim-gtk2-immodule’ and ‘ttf-thryomanes’.)

Open “System > Preferences > SCIM Input Method Setup” and select “IMEngine > Global Setup”. Find “Other > IPA-X-SAMPA” and check it. Hit Apply or OK to save the changes and restart X (hit Ctrl-Alt-Backspace, which will log you out and restart X) for the changes to take effect.

Then (if you want easy access to the IPA input method) right-click on one of your desktop panels and select “Add to Panel…” from the menu. Find “Keyboard Indicator” and add it. Now you can switch between the input methods simply by clicking the keyboard indicator.

Using the SCIM IPA input methodNow, to actually use the super-cool input method, you just open any GTK+2 text editor (eg. “Applications > Accessories > Text Editor”, AbiWord or OpenOffice – actually, most applications that can take text input) and select the IPA method from the keyboard indicator (Other > IPA-X-SAMPA). Your keyboard layout will then change quite a bit and you’ll be able to write IPA easily. When you start typing, you might notice that sometimes a letter is highlighted and a little box is showing below it, that’s SCIM showing you the available IPA characters on that particular key – you can select them by using the up and down arrow keys and hitting space or enter. For instance, to write a schwa, type ‘@’ and hit space.

It’s worth noting, that not all IPA symbols are found exactly where you would expect, but it doesn’t take long to get used to and it’s so convenient – especially because it works in all Gnome applications, which includes your favorite web browser, you mail client etc.