Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Free online introductory course in linguistics - sign up now

Go get your first taste of linguistics with this nice new free online course!
There's a new course on coursera (online platform for good free distance courses) in linguistics! The course is led by prof Marc van Oostendorp and is called "Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics"*. It's from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and very interesting!

It takes 5 weeks of 4-6 hours per week, it's free (no fees anywhere), all material and readings are provided online for free and in general it looks like a very well organised and interesting introductory course. The course will also feature videos from informants speaking foreign languages which you will analyse! If there was ever a good opportunity to try out a little bit of linguistics for the first time - this is the one!

As all y'all probably know there are also linguistics lectures that you can watch online. For example: the NativLang-channel, Ling Space, MIT linguistics, videos from the Linguistics podcast,  Martin Hilperts excellent vids, etc. You can also check out the Virtual Linguistics Campus by Marburg Uni and a search through the linguistics lectures of iTunes U is also useful.

As a final bit of encouragement: here's a picture of me trying to navigate the channels of Leiden using a world map of linguistic and religious diversity from the 1920's. See how inspired one gets around that town!

Univeristy of Leiden is a great place, I've been there many a times. I have not attended a class by prof Oostendorp, but from what I've seen it seems lika a really good course and I hope you'll take this opportunity to get your first taste of linguistics.

Tot ziens!

p.s. The Netherlands is an exceptional place when it comes to linguistics, they host a large number of linguistic journals, departments and institutes - especially if one considers per capita. I'm not sure why this is and I'd like to see numbers of this.

* No, I do not think the title is meant as opposition to Russel Gray's Nijmegen lectures.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Linguistic Diversity should be in Gapminder

I think that data on linguistic diversity should be in the amazing online tool Gapminder. Gapminder aims to spread a fact-based world-view on matters concerning social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels. I believe that data on linguistic diversity has a place in that discussion and can be included relatively easily. I'd like to ask for your assistance in spreading the word so that this might happen, please do so by sharing this post or this link.

There is a brilliant project called Gapminder that aims to make statistics about the development of our world more accessible. They are fighting against ignorance and trying to bring hard facts into world political discussions on economy, health, birth rates, gender biases in education and much more. They've made tons of educational and fun videos, see them here and you yourself can also play around with tons of interesting stats here. It's easy and extremely interesting. Warning: might occupy your entire day - it's that great.

So, now that we've introduced Gapminder I'd like to present the idea that it should also include information about linguistic diversity. The good people at Gapminder often get suggestions for new variables that the should include, which is why they've set up a handy form for this purpose. I submitted this idea there.

I think that besides including stats on birth rates, life expectancy, GDP, etc., Gapminder should also include stats on:
  • number of languages per country (spoken by native speakers, both what is classified as "indigenous" and "immigrant") 
  • number of second language speakers of English, Spanish and other major languages number of different 
  • language families per country 
  • number of endangered languages per country and their different levels
  • language of the educational system

Well, for one it is always a good idea to share with people the diversity of the world's languages and the threat they're under - this is a reason in and of itself.

However, in the case of Gapminder we'd also like to be able to compare the development of these variables over time with other variables in the data set (such as population and GDP). I believe that these variables are interesting because they interact with colonialism, climate, poverty, economic growth and globalisation. As an example, see this publication on the correlation between economic growth and language endangerment (Amano et al 2014).

As a diversity linguist, I am of course interested in the historical/evolutionary reasons for diversity to occur and what is happening in the world now. Needless to say, the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity is a loss to all of us on this planet. Two of the most harmful myths that contribute to this are that a) some languages are better than others and b) multilingualism is bad. I stress this because two of the drivers of language extinction are economic growth and colonialism and this, in addition to the two myths just mentioned, leads to misunderstandings that language endangerment is not a problem. But, we need not get into this in detail right now.

Is the data suitable? How would we get it?
This information can be relatively easily retrieved* from online public databases such as the Ethnologue, Glottolog and UNESCOs Atlas of the Worlds Languages in Danger. I am a linguist and I can help out with this. I like Gapminder a lot and I'd be more than happy to contribute and I know others who would be too. The data has documented sources, for most variables there are good enough time series for most/all countries and territories of the world and the time series extend at least over 5 years.

Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing what you think about this.

p.s. Gapminder är ett Sverige-baserat projekt och jag råkar vara svensk, så om någon vill prata om det här på svenska istället så går det också bra.

Tatsuya Amano, Brody Sandel, Heidi Eager, Edouard Bulteau, Jens-Christian Svenning, Bo Dalsgaard, Carsten Rahbek, Richard G. Davies, and William J. Sutherland. Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk. Proc R Soc B, 2014 281:20141574 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1574
(free online PDF here)

* In the case of second language speakers and language of the educational systems there is definitly less data and lower quality than the other measures, but it is still possible to get information, albeit harder than for the other variables.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Free online lectures on language evolution by Russell Gray

Every year the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Radboud University of Nijmegen invite one or several prominent scholars to give a series of talks on a current topic of their research. This is a great way to learn about important contemporary research in linguistics and the cognitive sciences. I just realised that I had not informed you about the fact that one can now find free online videos of these lectures online. In particular, I'd like to recommend last year's talk, which was on language evolution, a hot topic that I think will interest many readers of this blog.

In 2014, they invited Russell Gray and he gave three talks on the topic of

No Miracles! A Darwinian view of the evolution of cognition, language and culture
Photo of Russell Gray at the Nijmegen lectures, taken from Seán Roberts post on the excellent blog Replicated Typo.
In this lecture series Professor Gray argues that the research fields of animal cognition, language evolution and cultural evolution have all been blighted by special pleading and a tendency to invoke miraculous leaps. He further argues that a rigorous application of modern Darwinian evolutionary thinking and methods is required to explain the evolution of language, culture and cognition.

You can find full videos of the talks here, totally free.

If you want to read the abstracts for each talk, they're here.

Russell Gray is an evolutionary biologist from New Zealand He is a professor at the University of Auckland and now the director of a new department of linguistics in the Max Planck Society - the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the MPI for Science of Human History in Jena. He has published over 100 journal articles and book chapters including eight papers in Nature and Science.

p.s. If one is curious to read a publication from someone who is not in agreement with Russell Gray, may I recommend this free online publication on the origins of language by Johan J. Bolhuis , Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky and Robert C. Berwick.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

National rounds of linguistic olympiads


If you're in secondary school you can participate in linguistic olympiads. It's a great way to get a first taste of what linguistics is like. Secondary school can also be called "high school", "gymnasie" "college" etc depending on where you live.

This years international contest takes place in Bulgaria - land of roses. I've been to the international olympiads as the team leader for Sweden since 2008, when it was actually also in Bulgaria. I highly recommend participating, you'll learn lots and meet great people!

Down below are some useful links, follow them to learn more about the arrangements of each country. These are the countries that I know are hosting contests this year, there's even more here.

Some of the countries have already had their first national rounds, but some have not yet. If you got any questions, contact the IOL here. If you're not a student of secondary school, spread this onwards so that it might reach students who have not yet heard about it. We in the IOL often get complaints from too old students wishing they had known about this earlier, so please help us spread the word.

Remember, participants do not all compete in English - they compete in the language of the national contest  - whichever that might be!

Team Australia is chosen through OzCLO, the Australian Computational and Linguistics Olympiad. The first rounds have already happened.
Team Bulgaria is chosen through the Национална олимпиада по математическа лингвистика.
Team Canada is chosen through the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad.
Team China is chosen through the 全国语言学奧林匹克竞赛.
Czech Republic
Czech Republic
The team of the Czech Republic is chosen through the Česká lingvistická olympiáda.
Team Hungary is chosen through the Magyar Nyelvészeti Diákolimpia.
Team India is chosen through the Panini Linguistic Olympiad.
The Irish team is chosen through the All Ireland Linguistics Olympiad.
Isle of Man
Information about the Isle of Man team can be found here.
Team Latvia is chosen through Latvijas Lingvistikas Olimpiāde.
Team Netherlands is chosen through the Taalkunde Olympiade.
Team Poland is chosen through the Olimpiada Lingwistyki Matematycznej.
Team Romania is chosen through Olimpiada Naţională de Lingvistică.
Team Russia is chosen through the Традиционная олимпиада по лингвистике.
Team Slovenia is selected based on the results of results of the Državno tekmovanje iz znanja logike.
Team Spain is chosen through the Olimpiada Lingüística de España (OLE).
The Swedish team is selected based on Lingolympiaden.
Team UK is chosen through the UK Linguistics Olympiad.
Team Ukraine is chosen through the Київська відкрита олімпіада з лінгвістики.
Team USA is chosen through the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad.

Friday, March 20, 2015

#lingwiki in Canberra and the world

This is an announcement specific to Canberra-based linguists, but as #lingwiki is an online event you too can participate independent of where in this world of ours you live. You can participate online by editing linguistics stubs and articles on wikipedia during the weekend 28-29 of March, use the tag #lingwiki on social media and tell us what you did here. Read more here!

Over 320 million people access Wikipedia every month, there are 69,189 active editors and 287 language versions of the encyclopaedia. It is one of the first places people go to for knowledge. There are over 1,400 linguistics articles needing editing (stubs), many of those articles on non-WEIRD languages. Let's try and make wikipedia better, and spread linguistics to more people.

Interested in improving articles on linguistics on wikipedia and hang out with other linguists? Living in Canberra? Come join in a collaborative editing session.

What: collaborative editing session of linguistics on wikipedia
Why: contribute to spreading knowledge in an easy and effective way (plus fun)
Date: Saturday the 28th of March
Time: 15.00-18.00
Location: CoEDL, Coombs, ANU
Who: linguists in Canberra (from undergrads to silverbacks) and online users from all over the planet
Requirements: interest and a computer
How register: Facebooks, online form or email hedvig.public (at) gmail.com

Join in a collaborative editing session at the Centre of Excellence for Dynamics of Language at ANU on the 28th of March at 15.00-18.00. Don’t know how to edit Wikipedia? Don’t know what to write? No worries, there is help. Just bring your pretty face, interest, a laptop and the rest will be fine! If you can, try and create a user profile before hand - it will make things easier.

Wikipedia is often the first go-to place for an overview of a topic, an as such it is what represents our field to the public, other researchers, other students and also potential future students. Wikipedia is a collaborative enterprise, it is what we make it.

There are many (perhaps surprisingly) good articles on topics on linguistics on wikipedia, but many are also lacking severely. Either they don’t exist or they are labeled as “stubs”. Stubs are non-complete articles and they can be lacking in different ways. In these sessions we're mainly targeting linguistics stubs (underdeveloped articles), under-documented languages and biographies of important linguists (in particular women and people of minority background). But you’re welcome to work on any part of wikipedia that interests you. Go have a browse on the wikiprojectpage for linguistics for more info.

Don’t worry about writing “the one and only comprehensive article on one topic that you are an expert in”, this is not what is expected from you. This is mainly about improving faults and contributing basic knowledge to the public. By adding information from glottolog, omniglot, glottopedia, ethnologue, WALS and other resources available to us we can already improve many articles on languages. And don’t forget the articles on linguists and linguistic terms. Basically, you have skills as a linguist or linguistics student that is very useful, even if you don’t know everything about everything. If you want to share you’re more expert knowledge - that is of course highly encouraged.

Needless to say, you need not write on English speaking Wikipedia. There are 287 language versions, feel free to improve others too.

This is event has been created by Gretchen McCulloch of the blog Allthingslinguistic, Lexicon Valley and McGill University (Canada). You can read Gretchen's report on the last lingwiki here and some info about on the Humans Who Read Grammars-blog here. The local event is being organised by Hedvig Skirgård.

This event is open to linguists, and researchers/students of associated fields, in Canberra of any level. This is also an opportunity to meet your fellow students and researchers on campus, which is always fun and good. Lemme know you’re coming by either emailing hedvig.public (snabel-a) gmail.com, typing your name and details here or attend the Facebook event. Drop ins are also ok, however it is not possible to get into the building over the week-end if you’re not a student/staff of Coombs so you’ll have to email when you’re outside.

In order to connect with others around the world who are participating we’ll be using the #lingwiki hashtag on twitter and elsewhere. If you want to comment about what you’re doing or just spread the news use that tag. 

Regardless of whether you'll be active on the hashtag, check out the how-to slides here and make sure to fill out the survey afterwards at some point over the weekend so that your edits can get added to the summary list. 

Afterwards those who would like could go out for some food and/or drinks. Hedvig votes for “Cantina” because tacos, but is also up for other suggestions.

Alright, welcome!

Ask A Linguist is back!

Linguist Lists service "Ask A Linguist" is back! Go there an ask any question you want, it's like Stack Overflow but for linguistics.

Linguist List is an US based International organisations of linguists. They have lots of important mailing lists that we use to keep track of what's a-happening, the great GOLD project of linguistic terminologyMultiTree (database of lots of hypothesis of language families)a directory where you can find linguists from all over the world and much more. They've just moved offices and lots of their services are getting make-overs

You can also ask questions to the researchers of the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics and see things that they've explained here, also, you can always write to us here too.

5 exciting linguistics conferences/workshops to keep an eye on this year

Hello everyone, time for some tips on exciting things going on right now in linguistics. I made a tag, currentlinguisticresearch for posts on this blog on all matters new linguistic research (that we find exciting). I think it's interesting for language enthusiasts, future students and current students just starting out to get information about current trends and themes in linguistic research instead of only the well-known basics and general overviews. Judging from readership and sharing, these kinds of posts also seem to be most popular, which makes me very happy.

If you're looking for other blogs by active researchers writing about current research, I highly recommend subscribing to Diversity Linguistics Comment and Replicated Typo.

It is good to know what the field is actually up to right now - both so that you know what is going on if you want to pursue a career in it, but also because it is inspirational and motivating for those times when you might be feeling bit down - in other words, these are a few of my favourite things.

Caveat: of course, this tag currentlinguisticresearch will be biased to things we here think are interesting,  i.e. things to do with linguistic diversity/variation, historical/evolutionary linguistics, language description and documentation, free online publications, databases and psycholinguistics. It is not an exhaustive overview of all current research in all of linguistics, we cannot cope with all of that. For that we recommend you subscribe to LINGLITE.

So, let's kick this tag off with a new post on particularly cool conferences and workshops going on this year that illustrate interesting trends in contemporary linguistic research! The events will be listed chronologically.

TL;DR: there are interesting and much needed collaborations and advances happening in quantitative methods in linguistics, sociolinguists are focusing on looking outside of the WEIRD-sphere, contact linguists are collaborating with sign language typologists to expand our knowledge about language to hitherto unknown heights and a very important department of linguistics in Leipzig is closing down and throwing a huge very exciting conference with everyone that have been there - which will result in an epic event outlining what has been going on and what the future of diversity linguistics is.

(Also; as a special treat to some friends involved in these events (and tumblr in general), this posts will feature gifs of the show Adventure Time. For non-Adventurers: "mathematical" means  "awesome".)

Tenth Creolistics Workshop: “Innovations” - with special attention to parallels between creole and sign language creation

Dates: 8-10 April, 2015
Location: Aarhus University

Except from description: Creole studies have traditionally focused on continuation and universals, discussing for instance the contributions of the lexifiers and substrates. In past decades, an important body of literature in creolistics has been produced with the goal of weighing the influences from the various contributing languages to creole formation. However, much less attention has been given to innovations, in particular lexical, semantic, syntactic and typological aspects that cannot easily be attributed to the known input languages.
Therefore, the aim of this workshop will be to shift the focus from a historical approach to creoles to a more cognitively-oriented framework whose primary goal will be to explain why certain strategies and structures are innovated and selected in the creation of new language varieties, while others are not.
As sign languages have been argued to show social and structural commonalities with creoles, special attention is given to Deaf Sign Languages.
One goal of Creolistics X is to bring together the field of creole studies together with that of sign linguistics so as to establish possible connections between the two types of languages, centering around the theme of innovations. Specifically, the development from pidgin to creole as compared to that from home-signs to full-fledged sign language offers an interesting and potentially fruitful research venue, with possible implications for, among others, general theoretical linguistics and evolutionary linguistics.

Comment: This is exciting beyond words. So, quick wrap-up: creoles are contact languages, contact languages are language varieties that arise when populations who do not share a common language have to communicate. Signers (at least back in the day) often started with what is known as "home sign" - a local sign language in the area/family (if they were not lucky enough to be a part of a signing population already). These signers might later come to a deaf school where there are others signers with other home signs, and perhaps also another sign language that has bene brought from somewhere else. The changes that their language goes through when they get exposed to each other and starting forming a new more homogeneous language is interesting to compare to what happens to a spoken pidgin (minus native speakers) that becomes a creole (plus native speakers). What happens when a language is spoken by more people natively at a rapid pace? What are the different communicative needs that the language adapts to? What happens to identity marking? It doesn't matter if you think creoles are  descended from pidgins without native speakers or not - this is still super interesting!

If you're into this kind of thing you should check out this post about research into cross-signing, adult signers with fully-fledged sign languages talking to other signers with whom they do not share a language.

And, in case you wondered: yes sign languages and creoles are proper languages. The historical baggage of being "primitive" and "bad" is bs. If you need more info on this, ask us.

Causality in the Language Sciences

Dates: April 13 - 15, 2015
Location: Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences, Leipzig

Excerpt of description: Although the tenet of "correlation does not imply causation" is still an important guiding principle in language research, a number of techniques developed in the last few decades opened new scenarios where testing causal relations becomes possible. Recent advances in information theory, time series analysis, phylogenetics, stochastic processes, dynamical systems, graphical models and Bayesian inference (among many others) set the stage for a new and exciting chapter in the field. (...) How do we properly test causal relations in (eventually noisy, sparse or incomplete) data, and how can we infer or test the mechanisms underlying them?

Comment: This is an interdisciplinary quantitative workshop bringing together people from computer science, mathematics, linguistics and other related fields to discuss how to work with large sets of data in linguistics and the conclusions we can and cannot draw from it. Linguistics is a research field that is becoming more and more interdisciplinary (aren't all research fields?) and workshops like this are good examples of fruitful collaborations, in this case in a much needed area of linguistics.

There is not a book of abstracts out yet for this workshop, but judging by the list of participants it should be an interesting event to say the least.

Dates: 1-3 May, 2015
Location: Department of Linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Excerpt of description: The conference (...) reflects current activities within the broad area of “diversity linguistics”: research on little-studied languages, language typology and universals, comparative/historical linguistics, and evolutionary linguistics. It will provide a representative overview of past achievements and future prospects of research within the various subfields of diversity linguistics.

Comment: This is the closing conference of the very influential department of linguistics at the MPI-EVA in Leipzig. The department has been a very important especially for research into linguistic diversity and descriptive linguistics, I cannot give enough of a description here - go here. The conference will feature many important scholars that have had a huge influence on the field today. I've had a look-through of the book of abstracts and I recommend y'all do too, it's a great way of knowing what's happening in the field right now. There's talks on typology through parallel texts, there's talks on pidgins and sign languages, there's talks on why linguistic diversity, there's an exhaustive study of word order typology [sic]. Basically, this conference has almost all the interesting things you can imagine.

(While it is great that such a conference is happening, it is also sad that the department is closing. Therefore this piece of news will get a conflicted gif.)

Globalising sociolinguistics

Dates: 18-20 June, 2015
Location: Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, Leiden

Excerpt from description: This conferences addresses mismatches between mainstream sociolinguistic models and non-Anglo-Western sociolinguistic settings. Papers are invited on sociolinguistic issues, from various areas in the world, which challenge or expand mainstream theories. Both theoretical and empirical contributions are welcome. Papers will explore sociolinguistic settings in various areas, focusing on difficulties in applying common theory in the area in question, or the need to expand theory. In so doing, the conference hopes to lay bare the nature and the mechanisms related to the named bias and arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of sociolinguistic issues around the world.

A combined European, American and British dominance is known to exist in sociolinguistic theory-making. This results in difficulties in using several dominant sociolinguistic models outside their ‘western’ geographical domain. Most researchers working outside this domain are keenly aware of this, and hence objections to this dominance are regularly vented by them. However, despite the fact that non-Anglo-Western language settings are described extensively in a multitude of publications, these settings somehow seem to contribute less to mainstream theory, and are implicitly regarded as deviant.

Comment: This ties into what we've been discussing here earlier about on-going research into the diversity of non-WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) communities and also in general a growing interest in linguistics and other cognitive sciences to explore non-WEIRD people and what WEIRD people have done to our research. Conferences like this one that put a focus on this crucial issue and how it relates to our theory-building are much needed. This conference is also tied to the publication of an edited volume by the same name. Those of us who cannot attend this conference can in other words share in the content soon by getting a hold of that book. (Extra-info: a mixed language, Ma'a/Mbugu, will be making an appearance in the form of a talk of Maarten Mous.)

New Developments in the Quantitative Study of Languages

Dates: 28-29 August, 2015
Location: Linguistic Association of Finland, Helsinki

Excerpt of description: In recent decades a number of linguistic sub-disciplines have witnessed a paradigm shift towards more empirical research. In phonetics, socio- and psycholinguistics statistical methods have already been employed for a long time. More recently, the application of quantitative research methods has become a major trend in many other research areas, such as language typology, first and second language acquisition, historical linguistics and language contact, to name but a few. The analysis of increasingly large datasets has also called for the adoption of statistical techniques..

The goal of this symposium is to bring together researchers from different frameworks within quantitative linguistics to discuss new methods in language studies and new applications of existing ones. In particular, we invite papers exploring methodological issues of quantitative research (such as sampling, hypothesis testing, model construction, etc.) as well as studies focusing on quantitative cross-linguistic comparison or analyzing particular language and text phenomena using quantitative methods.

Comment: The observant reader will notice that this symposium is similar to the workshop on causality earlier in the year, this is true and good. More conferences of this kind are needed. This one has a broader span than the previous workshop and also looks very interesting. The deadline for submission of abstracts was yesterday, so I can't say much about the content at this time other than I'm excited, of course!

Wait! There's more!

Of course there is more going on this year than these five events, there is for example the Annual Meeting of Societas Linguistic Europaea,  The 11th Biennial Conference of the Association for Linguistic Typology, the International Conference on Historical Linguistics,  the meeting of the Australian Linguistics Societyall these others that LSA lists or all of these that Linguist List lists.

What I wanted to do there by listing these five is focus on events with a specialised theme that I think is illustrative of trends in linguistics right now. I hope you liked it. If you've got any tips for things we should be posting about, tell us.

If you want to keep updated on more linguistics conference, publications etc; subscribe to LINGLITE.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the previous post on language endangerment - comment and response

The previous post that was on language endangerment got a lot of spread on tumblr (and elsewhere it would seem). Please note that I made some edits to the text early on, the latest version of any post can always be found on the blog on blogspot.

There was one comment by Language village that I thought I'd respond to.

Why? Why must we think of ourselves (our “linguist selves”) as scientists and not something else? Why not humanists? or philosophers? or— especially in the case of language endangerment— advocates?

Why must we be scientists and not advocates? A language in itself— the thing that is endangered, that is devalued, that is crucial to cultural identity— cannot speak for itself. While the native speakers of a language certainly have “first access” to defending their language, is it right to give them sole access? Do regular— non-linguist— speakers have the training, the background, the experience necessary to advocate for their own language? Often they do not. Is it responsible to benefit from a position (English speaking, in the case of this post) that has created the discourses and policies that lead to language endangerment, to purposely rob a people of their language by browbeating them with an ideology of [English] superiority, and then to simply accept this brainwashed whitewashing when it is parroted back to us? No, it is not. Sometimes we are scientists, but as scientists with specialized knowledge and expert understandings, we must also be advocates. Who better to advocate for the endangered species than an environmental science scholar? Therefore, when a community says “this is our language and we don’t want your help preserving it” it actually IS our place to argue otherwise. We can’t (and shouldn’t!) force language preservation or revitalization on a people, but we can argue for it— loudly and vehemently— even with native speakers of said language. Because we are not always ONLY scientists, sometimes we are educators, and very often we must be advocates. We must speak up in the defense of language if no one else will or our positions mean nothing.

I agree, at least to a certain extent and I apologise if that didn't come across. This is exactly why I wrote that we as privileged people have so much to give back, that we must insist on spreading the knowledge of linguistic equality in these communities, to try to install pride and knowledge and that we mustn't shy away from having these discussions just because the oppressive structures have been internalised by the language users. I think these are very crucial points and essentially the same as what is being stressed in the comment here, I apologise if they didn't come across clearly enough.

However, and here we also agree -  we mustn't let this become guilting and shaming - it won't do any good and most likely actually be counter-productive. I think we can argue these points without being paternalistic and, in fact, I think most linguists do, but it is always something to be aware of and something that needs to be made explicit when we talk of language endangerment to the broader public. There are, seriously, people who ask if users only revitalise their language because linguists have told them to.

It is also extremely important not separate language endangerment out as an independent phenomena, it is not and this is an issue that usually isn't discussed. Species are different from languages, languages have users and these users live in societies, they need access to education, a living wage etc. It is naive to isolate language endangerment from the other oppressions faced by the communities. Linguists can be advocates for linguistic diversity and against language extinction, but to focus on language only when it is only one of many challenges faced by the community doesn't make sense to me. This is why I wrote that we can participate in the struggles against all kinds of oppression faced by the communities, including but not restricted to language endangerment.

Linguists have a special role to play in the fight against the oppression of these communities considering our special skill set, no doubt, but to treat language endangerment as an independent phenomena is missing the larger picture - even if you cannot address the larger picture directly you can at least acknowledge its existence.

Also, it is important to remember that we need not remain the only ones with this skill set - we can try and pass on those skills to others who do not have access to this kind of schooling so that they can actively participate in the research of communities - their own or others in the country. We need more non-WEIRD people doing linguistics. Granted, this is probably often more effective strategy among already well-educated urban people of the same country.

I believe that we have much to learn from anthropologists here. My understanding is that they have been having discussions on participatory/activism & research versus objective outsider research much longer than linguistic fieldworkers - I want to read more on this from them.

I hope this was useful and I thank you for an interesting discussion.

Friday, March 6, 2015

On Language Endangerment, once more

A certain James Harbeck, author, designer, editor and blogger, has recently written a text on The Week Magazine on language endangerment and preservation where he really stresses the agency of the communities - which is highly appreciated. Go read it, it's very good.

We've talked about this issue earlier on this blog, I'll attempt at making a brief summary of points expressed here and elsewhere that I believe to be true and relevant to the issue. I am not entirely happy with the previous point, I hope I'll improve with this one.

At least 2,447 out of 7,102 languages of the world are endangered.  There are more statistics counting in different ways, for the purposes of this matter here just know that most languages are under threat and we are facing one of the largest extinctions of languages ever. This is a loss of human diversity and cultural identity. This is bad. In many cases it is a continuation of colonial ideas that the western majority culture is "better", sometimes even so internalised that users themselves no longer value their language.

Linguists hold that all languages and dialects are equal, none is better or worse than any other and they are all worthy of study. Trying to communicate this concept is sometimes valuable to the language community, installing a sense of pride and worth that might have been missing. If we can contribute nothing but that, that can still be productive and useful even though it seems a very obvious concept to most linguists.

It is not so easy, though, that we as linguist have an obligation to save all languages. I'll try to discuss why this is.

Language users in many cases may have access to a better standard of life if they also become proficient in a larger language - they can get education, travel, interact with authorities etc. (Here's a study on economic growth being a driver of language extinction for example.) Often they feel shame for the language and it might also be downgraded by the surrounding society. These are external factors, in the ideal world no-one would have to abandon their own cultural identity to obtain a higher standard of living. Multilingualism is not impossible, in fact it is probably the more common state of the human condition than monolingualism and better for the health of our brains.

However, if language users do not want to continue using their language it is not the place of the linguists to argue otherwise, we are scientists and this is their language - to lose or to hold. We can communicate this concept of linguistic equality and offer aid in revitalisation and preservation. There might be cases where work of this kind can change the attitudes in the language community. It is not enough reason to not work on a language because there are negative attitudes. These attitudes might be based on assumptions that the simple concept of linguistic equality can budge. We can insist - asking, recording, creating pedagogical material and so on - but we cannot at any point remove the agency of the community and say that we know better what they should do. We can document, preserve and analyse the language for the benefit of research and future generations. We might even be able to assist if later on the community wants to revitalise the language.

We want to explore the human condition and the human mind by investigating what we are capable of when it comes to one of the few traits that make us stand out in the animal kingdom - language. We as researchers of linguistics and anthropology don't have enough data today. We want to study as many languages as possible before they go extinct. Many times when people want to answer the question "why should we care that languages are dying?" they end up instead addressing "why should we care that they are dying before we can document them?". This is a fallacy and does not help the cause.

The reasons we should care that they are dying is because it is a continuation of downgrading non-majority culture and a continuation of colonialism, often coupled with racism. It is a loss of diversity to the world and a loss of identity to the community. It is coupled with the history and current reality of oppression on basis of class, ethnicity and race.

We shouldn't participate in this fight by appropriating the agency of the communities. We cannot ignore the economic reality of these communities, even if we don't agree with that reality and wish we could change it. This paternalistic way of acting on the behalf of others is not an opinion often expressed by linguists, but it is sometimes present as an underlying assumption and/or indirectly communicated outwards. We shouldn't simplify the issue like that, it is not useful or productive to science or to the struggle of the communities. It creates misconceptions among the public and detaches the loss of language and culture to all the different kinds of oppression faced by these communities.

At times messages of this kind by intelligent and well-meaning linguists are taken as "we just need to document all languages once, and then we can all melt into global English" - and that's not the point.

We can communicate the worth and interestingness of all languages and provide support. We can participate in the non-scientific and important fight against oppression and discrimination of all kind. Speaking as a white middle-class person with degrees of higher education:  as privileged people we have so much to give, so very much. This is a non-scientific issue, as is language activism. It makes it no less important for the life of a diversity linguist.

Involving language users actively in our research, promoting their education and their study of their own culture is very important and hopefully makes for better science as well. Devoting time to working with these communities on their language and on their own terms, recording and preserving their language for future generation and current research is necessary and good.

Linguists need to communicate these ideas
  • all languages and dialects are equal in worth
  • multilingualism is not harmful, in fact it is good
  • studying human diversity is important
I'm not going to pretend that this is easy. It is not. This is hard. I personally feel a sadness at the loss of languages and culture despite users not feeling the same way. However, I cannot approach people like tokens in a zoo. They're people and any study of people will always be linked to everything that makes up the human experience, we cannot isolate parts. To isolate parts is to reduce reality.

So, the points I want to get across are these:
  • acting on behalf of someone else is not kind 
  • we can make a difference by being present and working with the communities
  • we can participate in the larger struggle against all kinds of oppression
  • one cannot deal with language alone when addressing matters of loss of cultural identity, to pretend that we can isolate parts in that way is not good
  • the point is not "the information these languages can give us", that is just a reason to record them all once - not to keep using them
  • failing at communicating these points will be counter-productive as it will not explain the issues to the public or the communities in question in a true and pragmatic way
I hope I phrased myself well this time, last time I believe I wasn't very well put. Thank you for your time and I hope I have made no mistakes or misunderstandings. I understand that this is not a linguistic post per se, these opinions expressed here are my own. As a scientist I wish I could keep discussions on language and language endangerment isolated from the rest of the political discourse, but this is not true and would be oversimplifying the matter in an disrespectful and inappropriate way.

"Le Petit Prince" as a paralleltext has just become even more interesting

We've talked here before about researching the diversity of the worlds languages through parallel corpora, and I provided a little list of some interesting items in this respect (also found below). Basically the idea is that by comparing text that are very similar to each other in meaning we can find differences and similarities of lexicon an structure without having to consult descriptions of the languages (which for example involve a lot of interpretation). This is not a perfect method, but it can serve as a complement and answer some interesting questions that cannot be solved by descriptions only.

In that list one can find "Le Petit Prince" by Antoine von de Saint-Exupéry which has been translated into at least 216 languages. We are much pleased to inform you that the latest addition to that list of translations of "Le Petit Prince" is into Casamance Creole [pov, upper1455]. Casamance Creole is a contact language spoken in southern Senegal and has gotten the majority of its lexicon from Portuguese. In contact linguistics we call this the lexifier, i.e. Casamance Creole is a Portuguese-lexified creole language of West Africa. It is the native language of at least 10,000 people in and around Ziguinchor. You can read more about the language here. It is Nicolas Quint, Noël Bernard Biagui and Joseph Jean François Nunez that have created the translation and you can get it here or at amazon. They are all linguists who have worked on this and other languages of the area. 

Speaking of creoles and parallel texts, among the many languages that "Le Petit Prince" has been translated into we actually find quite a few creoles: Moriysen, Kabuverdianu, Kréyòl Gwadloup*, Kréyol Matinik*, Haitian, Seselwa , Reunion and Guianese. You can see (nearly) all languages that have a translation here. 

Now, it needs to be said that all these languages are either French- or Portuguese-lexified, which means that a comparison might not be exactly as exiting as if the sample was more diverse (perhaps even containing non-indo-european lexified contact languages). On the other hand, having a smaller set of closely related languages for comparison means we can make better predictions about what is correlating with the differences since we can control for more variables. We can compare these different languages in terms of the features of APiCS, but we could also complement this with some comparisons of the parallel corpora. In many of the features of APiCs these languages are similar, but perhaps we would find something we didn't think to look for if used the parallel texts.

The French-lexified langauges that have a translation of "Le Petit Prince" are: Moriysen, Kréyòl Gwadloup/Kréyol Matinik, Haitian, Reunion, Seselwa, Reunion and Guianese. The Portuguese-lexified are: Kabuverdianu and the new-comer Casamance Creole. 

There are 9 languages in APiCS that are French-lexified, here is a screen dump of an interactive map from APiCs showing where they are:

There are 14 Portuguese-lexifed, they are here:

If you want to know more about these languages and how they are alike and differ, have a look at them at the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language structures online (APiCS). They're all there and they have been filled in for lots of features, go check it out.

List of interesting items that are possible to utilise as parallel corpora
1700+ New Testament
500+ Bible (entire)
419 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
240 Le avventure di Pinocchio
220 The Watchtower, Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom
216 Le Petit Prince
184 the phrase “My hoovercraft is full of eels”
153 Eventyr (H.C. Andersen)
112 Astérix le Gaulois
97 Alice in Wonderland
67 Harry Potter
64 Pippi Långstrump
61 Kalevala
56 O Alquimista
45 L’Etranger
43 Mumintrollen
40 The Hobbit
39 Through the Looking Glass
30 Millenniumtriologin
21 EuroParl - Proceedings of the European Parliament
3 The Battle of Little Big Horn in English, American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language

* Glottolog and ISO 639-3/Ethnologue lump Kréyòl Gwadloup and Kréyol Matinik into one language, gcf/guad1242. However, the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures (APiCS) gives two entries, one for Kréyòl Gwadloup and one for Kréyol Matinik. We cannot know exactly why this is, classifying languages into different dialects or different languages is as we've talked about before here on the blog not an easy task. To the right is a map of some languages that can be found in APiCS in the Caribbean, to illustrate how close geographically Kréyol Matinik (Mauritian Creole) and Kréyòl Gwadloup (Gaudelopean Creole) are to each other.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A new book on temperature in the languages of the world is firing up cross-linguistic research into semantics

There has just come out a new edited volume on words of temperature in the languages of the world. It is edited by Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm of Stockholm University and features many prominent scholars of current research into linguistic diversity. The volume deals with at least 35 languages (most likely more but I cannot count carefully right now).

Did you know that Ojibwe [ojg] (Algonquian language of Canada) differentiates between temperature as perceived by tactile touch, ambient and inner personal experience? Or that in Bardi [bcj] (Nyulnyulan language of Northern Australia) temperature terms are not used metaphorically, as opposed to European languages where for example a warm person is a friendly and generous person etc.

Abstract of the entire edited volume
The volume is the first comprehensive typological study of the conceptualisation of temperature in languages as reflected in their systems of central temperature terms (hot, cold, to freeze, etc.). The key issues addressed here include questions such as how languages categorize the temperature domain and what other uses the temperature expressions may have, e.g., when metaphorically referring to emotions (‘warm words’). The volume contains studies of more than 50 genetically, areally and typologically diverse languages and is unique in considering cross-linguistic patterns defined both by lexical and grammatical information. The detailed descriptions of the linguistic and extra-linguistic facts will serve as an important step in teasing apart the role of the different factors in how we speak about temperature – neurophysiology, cognition, environment, social-cultural practices, genetic relations among languages, and linguistic contact. The book is a significant contribution to semantic typology, and will be of interest for linguists, psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers.

As if that doesn't sound exciting enough it's received some rather fantastic reviews by some very prominent scholars of linguistic typology:

A groundbreaking collaborative work in lexical typology, which will quite possibly be seen as the beginning of a new era in the study of world-wide word meanings.
— Martin Haspelmath, University of Leipzig

A cool collection guaranteed to heat up the discussion on sensory language. Koptjevskaja-Tamm provides an inspiring volume on the linguistics of temperature.
— Asifa Majid, Radboud University Nijmegen

By the way, did you think prof Majid's comment was hilarious? Well, this book has (to my knowledge) not yet hit the popular science pages of the internet - but when it does remember who made these puns in public first ;)!

For full disclosure: prof Koptjevskaja-Tamm is my old professor and many of the authors are also people I know.

Centre for Dynamics of Language in Australia launches full website!

Judging from the statistics of which posts gets most read and spread, it would seem that y'all are really interested in updates on current exciting research (the most read post is this list of some new exciting research projects that have just started).

Well, then I guess you'd be excited to learn that one of the research projects of that post, the newly started ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, has got a a flashy nice new website with lots of information. 

The centre is a collaboration between Univeristy of Queensland, University of Western Sydney, University of Melbourne and the Australian National Univeristy (ANU) in Canberra. There are other associated bodies of research too.

In november last year ANU made a very nice video about the centre, featuring the two directors Nicholas Evans and Jane Simpsons. It's very inspirational, watch it!

This all ties in very well with the recent discussions on the grand challenges of linguistics. I'd once again like to encourage all active in the field to take a moment and formulate problems in current research that they think are the most interesting and rewarding issues to work on. It need not be universal to the field, it can be very subjective - what do you see as critical topics right now? Once you've done that, make a blog post or send it to us, we'd be keen on knowing what you are viewing as important issues right now.

The new centre is centred around four topic areas/puzzles/challenges:

Click on them to read more about the different questions posed and the ways the centre are approaching them.

For full disclose: I am a part of this centre as an associated PhD student from the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity-project. I do however want to stress that this blog is not of the centre, ANU or any other research institute that authors are affiliated with - this blog is our own personal enterprise.

p.s. The centre also has a twitter feed, that for example announced just the other day that the new website is "so dynamic it hurts" ;).