Archive for December, 2011

End of Year Wrap Up

As 2011 draws to a close, I thought that I would spend a bit of time going through the high and low lights of the past 12 months. It’s certainly been an up and down kind of year, but it’s always worthwhile thinking back on what went well and what didn’t. We’re sometimes so caught up on ‘what next?’ that we don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about ‘what happened?’.

So, onto the highlights!

  • Getting my first article published in Journal of Sociolinguistics
  • Putting together my first ever edited book proposal
  • Starting the blog
  • Getting a good amount of ‘media exposure’ (ugh, I hated even typing that…)
  • Climbing my first Munro
  • Getting short-listed for Fulbright interview
  • Starting British Military Fitness
  • Learning how to Moodle properly
  • Starting to get good ideas for research, particularly over the last six months
  • Hitting over a 1000 hits in one month on the blog

What about the lowlights?

  • Getting my first article rejection, not once, not twice, but thrice! So I abandoned the idea and wrote a brand new article. Huzzah!
  • Getting my first edited book proposal rejected by Edinburgh University Press (but it’s now under review by Palgrave, fingers crossed)
  • Getting rejected for my Bellagio application (notice a trend starting here?)
  • Semester 2 of last academic year. Late nights prepping, early mornings teaching, and partner on permanent night-shift don’t make for good times.
  • Getting a diary. Makes me feel old. And too responsible.
  • Trying to think of interesting topics for the blog. Seriously, to people who blog every day, how do you do it??
  • Entering the last year of my twenties…

Ok, so it looks like the pro list outweighs the con list, which can only be a good thing! It does feel like it’s been a packed year, and I’m sure there’s loads that I’ve not included in the above list. This is either a) the result of being too busy or b) direct evidence that my memory is failing. And I’m sure that 2012 will be even more packed, especially in the run up to (insert ominous sound here) REF.

Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone who has spend a few minutes reading my ramblings over the past six months, for all the positive comments I’ve received on twitter and here, and I hope that I’ll continue writing semi-interesting prose in 2012 that you’ll want to read!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Social Linguist

Categories: Random Tags: ,

Do jungles influence language evolution?

December 10, 2011 2 comments

A few days ago, I went into Tesco to pick up a few bits and pieces, and as I was browsing through the newspaper section, the front cover of New Scientist caught my eye with a headline article about language. This was particularly intriguing because linguistics research doesn’t normally make the front page of an internationally acclaimed science publication such as New Scientist, so I decided to have a quick look and see what was going on.

The gist of the article was about how languages eventually become separate from one another and how languages evolve different phonologies, grammars, lexis and so on. By examining the phonemic inventory of different languages, Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland) applies the ‘serial founder effect’. Basically, as human society spread out from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in Africa, genetic diversity declines. Applying the same idea to languages, Atkinson argues that as languages started to spread out, the phonemic inventory of languages decreases. This explains why Taa (spoken in Botswana) has about 110 phonemes, while the Papuan language Rotokas only has 11. So as languages migrate, they lose more phonemes, and that means that obviously we only need quite a small inventory of sounds to be able to make distinctive meanings. Quite cool and quite plausible, although I’m not particularly well-versed in the literature to decide if it’s a robust finding or not.

But where the article got really cool was in the discussion of how different languages develop along different lines dependent on their environmental context. Drawing on work by Robert Munroe (Pitzer College, California, which is also where Ronald Macaulay is emeritus professor), the article outlines the idea that where we live has an important impact on the kinds of sounds we use.

“[Munroe] noticed that languages in these tropical places tend to separate their consonants with vowels–they barely have any words like “linguistics”, for instance, with its bunches of consonants rubbing shoulders. Since vowels are easier to hear at a distance than most consonants, Munroe began to suspect that people in warmer countries use sounds that help them communicate outdoors. In contrast, people in chillier climates might be more likely to talk indoors, so it’s not as important to use sounds that carry.”

Ok, some interesting ideas, up to a point, but one thing that stuck with me was this:

“Nasal sounds like “n” and “m” are more common in warm regions, while “obstruents” like “t”, “g” and the Scottish “och” sound are more common in cooler ones.”

But /m/ and /n/ are used all over English (and other “colder” places), and /x/ is used in (some varieties of) German as well (similar kind of climate as the UK, but generally hotter summers), so how does that work? Moreover, how does this apply to climates which are very changeable from season to season (witness the crazy weather we’ve had in the UK over the past two years as a case in point)? Is there something inherent in why Hawaiian has ‘more’ vowels than English (an interesting comedy take on this was that on the boat over to Hawaii, they lost all their consonants overboard), simply because it’s hotter? And in terms of settlement patterns, once shelter and so on is built, doesn’t that negate the impact of other environmental factors? I mean, this is all a very attractive kind of proposition, but does it really stand up to scrutiny?

It’s really interesting that these questions are being raised, and the idea that somehow our languages have been shaped by whether or not we’re surrounded by trees or whether it’s generally quite hot most of the year is kind of cool, but I worry about this being a kind of ex post facto explanation.

Perhaps as sociolinguists, we should be thinking about whether or not people who live in high rise buildings will have shorter vowels. After all, there’s less air up there, so less articulatory effort might be appreciated. I’m telling you, we’re missing a trick here…

Categories: Random, Research Tags:

Creating a Franken-linguist

December 3, 2011 3 comments

Now, I”ve got absolutely no idea how this popped into my head this week¹, but suppose you could create the perfect linguist, what would his/her skills be? Would all major subsets of linguistic theory and application need to be covered, or could the perfect linguist just focus on one particular area of strength? Should he/she be a jack of all trades or a master of one?

Now, I don’t think I would count myself as a fully-fledged linguist (there appears to be some division between ‘sociolinguists’ and ‘linguists’ as far as I can tell), so when I read thesis titles like ‘English Stress Preservation and Stratal Optimality Theory‘ (Collie 2008), I break out into a cold sweat. Of course, I’ve heard about Optimality Theory and I know about word stress, but ‘Stratal Theory’? ‘Intrinsic serialism’? Not a clue. Of course, I could go ahead and read up on them, particularly if such work was important to my own research interests, but as a (socio)linguist, I sometimes feel like ‘should I already know what that is all about?’

My undergraduate training wasn’t especially focused on phonological theory, grammatical theory or straight-up linguistic theory. It was also more about breadth of study rather than depth, covering everything from the Great Vowel Shift to Labov’s NYC study. Of course, since my MA, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about sociolinguistic work (since that’s what I enjoyed the most as a UG), perhaps to the detriment of levelling up my other linguist-skills. If I could ‘re-roll’, I think I’d like to have spent more time on proper linguistic theory, and I’m going to make a concerted effort over the next couple of years to read up on ‘linguistic’ without the ‘socio-‘ bit.

But to go back to my opening point, what should the perfect linguist look like? Here’s my own thoughts (and not in any sort of order of importance):

  1. Strong knowledge of phonological and phonetic issues (and be able to identify them in speech).
  2. Excellent descriptive grammatical ability (including morphosyntax etc).
  3. Ability to use a range of analytical software (PRAAT, R, NVIVO etc).
  4. Can use a range of methodological approaches (e.g. corpus data, experimental data, conversations etc).
  5. Knowledge of historical development of English (or their language of focus).
  6. Knowledge of language acquisition and related issues.

Of course, I’m positive there are things I’m missing here, so if there are, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Related to this, what books/articles/chapters do you think any self-respecting linguist should have read? My own contribution would be Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change, but I’d be interested in hearing about other works that people think are important.

Oh, and lastly, feeling tons better today. Stomach was still a bit dodgy on Wednesday – Friday, and I thought I was going to pass out during my lecture on Thursday morning (was saved in my seminar teaching by my awesome colleague Dr Ursula Lutzky who let my classes sit in with her own group), but feeling about 95% today. Hopefully by Monday, I’ll be back up to 100%.

The Social Linguist

1. Ok, I’ve got one theory about why I’ve thought about this idea this week. I’ve been playing some Skyrim (as part of my recovery strategy, obviously), and in it, you can create a bespoke character with various skills and abilities. Some characters are stronger that others, and some are just not particularly effective in the game (for example, you can play a stealing, crafty pickpocket who shuns direct fighting, but you won’t make it very far through the game with this style). In my sickness-addled state this week, I’ve basically managed to meld Skyrim with work, hence the post.