Archives for June 2016

On Categorization.

I confess myself somewhat thrown for a loop by Randy J. LaPolla’s short paper “On categorization: Stick to the facts of the languages” (to appear in Linguistic Typology); he says sensible things about labeling linguistic categories based on resemblances, then continues thus:

My own view (LaPolla 1997, 2003, 2015, 2016), developed from my experiences with languages and communication over many years, departs radically from the Structuralist paradigm: I argue that there is no coding-decoding in communication, and no shared code among speakers of the same language; communication is achieved simply by ostension and abductive inference, regardless of whether linguistic forms are involved or not. The communicator does something (the ostensive act) with the purpose of the addressee inferring the intention to communicate and the reason for the ostensive act. By doing this, the addressee creates a meaning in their mind, which the communicator hopes will be similar to the meaning the communicator intended the addressee to create. That is, there is no meaning in the ostensive act (be it linguistic or not); the addressee creates a meaning based on the communicator’s use of the particular ostensive act in the particular context by creating a context of interpretation, out of the overall context of assumptions available to him or her at that moment, in which the ostensive act “makes sense”. As it is based on abductive inference, though, the outcome is non-deterministic.

Language use is one type of ostensive act.

Obviously I’d have a better idea what he’s talking about if I read his other work, but just in bare outline, it sounds reductive and hard to apply in practice; at any rate, I’ll be glad to hear other people’s thoughts on it. I certainly have no quarrel when he says in his conclusion that “combing hundreds of grammars (of varying quality) and extracting forms that one thinks might fit one’s comparative categories (regardless of what the author of the grammar might have said) is very problematic. It is much better to concentrate on languages one has a good knowledge of and contribute to typology by expanding our understanding of what is found and how we might understand it, including its historical origins.” (Thanks to John Cowan for sending me the link.)


Anne Curzan has a nice discussion of a vexed problem: when and how to correct people’s language. She opens with an anecdote:

Last month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + –al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head before I could get it right on the videotape. (I now know that those of you in medicine have a leg up on me here, because you talk about the extrapyramidal system.)

Pronunciation is not the point here, though. What has stuck with me is how silly and disconcerted I felt when I got corrected. The insecure part of me felt as if I had just been outed. What kind of academic — let alone a linguist — doesn’t know how to pronounce pyramidal?

I can completely empathize with all that; I happen to know how to say pyramidal, but even at my semi-advanced age (I’m currently in the process of trying to figure out Medicare) and with my decades of obsessing about language, I still discover pronunciations I never learned (let’s not even talk about the simple words whose spelling I still have to look up to be sure), and if I said one of them wrong in such a situation and got corrected, you can bet I’d feel disconcerted. And she has an exemplary recommendation:

Next time you’re about to blurt out a correction of someone else’s language (their pronunciation or grammar or punctuation or something else), pause for a moment and consider what your goal is. Will this person really benefit from having you call out this bit of language, as I did when the producers corrected my pronunciation? And is this a good moment? If so, then go ahead — and do it kindly. If not, if the speech act will make you feel smart but not really help the other person, then consider keeping that correction in your head. Remember how stressful, if not downright silencing, it can be for someone to realize that you are listening to how they talk as much as to what they are saying.

The Universal Gap.

Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic on an interesting finding of research on conversation:

When we talk we take turns, where the “right” to speak flips back and forth between partners. This conversational pitter-patter is so familiar and seemingly unremarkable that we rarely remark on it. But consider the timing: On average, each turn lasts for around 2 seconds, and the typical gap between them is just 200 milliseconds—barely enough time to utter a syllable. That figure is nigh-universal. It exists across cultures, with only slight variations. It’s even there in sign-language conversations.

“It’s the minimum human response time to anything,“ says Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. It’s the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol—and that’s just a simple signal. If you gave them a two-way choice—say, run on green but stay on red—they’d take longer to pick the right response. Conversations have a far greater number of possible responses, which ought to saddle us with lengthy gaps between turns. Those don’t exist because we build our responses during our partner’s turn. We listen to their words while simultaneously crafting our own, so that when our opportunity comes, we seize it as quickly as it’s physically possible to.

“When you take into account the complexity of what’s going into these short turns, you start to realize that this is an elite behavior,” says Levinson. “Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick.” […]

The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn, using everything from grammatical cues to changes in pitch. We continuously predict what the rest of a sentence will contain, while similarly building our hypothetical rejoinder, all using largely overlapping neural circuits.

“It’s amazing, like juggling with one hand,” says Levinson. “It’s been completely ignored by the cognitive sciences because traditionally, people who studied language comprehension were different to the ones who studied language production. They never stopped to think that, in conversations, these things are happening at the same time.”

Yong goes into the history of the discovery, how the turn-taking system may have evolved, and how it develops from infancy on. Visit the link and read the whole thing, after which you have 200 milliseconds to respond.

An Ottoman Calendar.

Check out the remarkable page from an Ottoman calendar for 1911/1327/1329 that’s Figure 1 on this page (click on the picture to see a larger and annotated version). “The calendar contains six languages: Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Ladino.” Thanks, Andy!


David Crystal has posted about what sounds like a remarkable museum:

Last week I finally managed to get to see the amazing Mundolingua – the language museum in Paris founded by Mark Oremland a couple of years ago. I don’t use the adjective lightly. He has managed to pack into two floors of a small building a remarkable array of pictures, books, artefacts, and interactive facilities relating to language, languages, and linguistics, all presented in a user-friendly and multingual way. […]

The museum is open every day between 10:00 and 19:00, with a modest entrance fee of just a few euros. Don’t rush the visit. There is so much material that a language buff could spend a whole day here – or even two – exploring the collections in detail. The day I was there a group of visitors was sitting around a sociolinguistic exhibit with headphones, happily listening to usages in various languages. Another couple was by the phonetics chart copying the IPA sounds represented there.

I spent some time trying the braille quiz: a chart in front of you gives you all the braille letter codes, and then you place your hands under a cover and feel the message hidden there. I thought it would be easy and found it really challenging.

I hope it sticks around, and if I ever get to Paris again I will definitely pay it a visit.

Woody Words.

I don’t know if this is “Monty Python’s best sketch ever,” but it’s certainly their most linguistically focused, and it’s hilarious throughout. Gorn! (Or is that “gone”?)

Sholem Aleichem in Russian.

This piece by Julie Masis is full of interesting stuff. It starts (after a great picture of the magnificently mustachioed author) by describing a Sholem Aleichem short story called “Homesickness,” one of his stories that were censored in the Soviet Union and have been translated into Russian for the first time.

“This story expresses Zionist sentiments. It shows us the Sholem Aleichem that we didn’t know,” said Rabbi Boruch Gorin, editor of Knizhniki, the Moscow-based publishing house which translated the story from Yiddish. The story wasn’t included in the Soviet collections because “it didn’t fit with how Soviet authorities portrayed Sholem Aleichem,” he said.

Sholem Aleichem, best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” story on which the film “Fiddler on the Roof” is based, was born in the Russian Empire in 1859 and died in 1916.

Yet while extensive collections of his work were published in the Soviet Union, some of his stories were never translated — sometimes for murky reasons. […]

In the pieces that were actually published in the USSR, chunks related to religion were cut, as were Hebrew passages that Soviet translators (who spoke Yiddish but not Hebrew) didn’t understand, Gorin said. In one story, published in the 1930s when there was hunger in the Soviet Union, even the Shabbat meal was censored.

“In the Soviet translation, half the dishes weren’t included. I think they didn’t want people to read about how well people ate in a poor shtetl,” Gorin said. […]

Despite Soviet shortcomings with Sholem Aleichem, the books of other Yiddish authors — many of whom lived and wrote about the Russian Empire — were even less likely to be translated to Russian.

For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in literature, was completely unknown in the Soviet Union. His books were not translated to Russian at all because of his anti-communist views, Gorin said.

The books of Isaac B. Singer and his older brother Israel J. Singer, who was also an acclaimed writer, were printed for the first time in Russian in recent years.

In the next six months, Knizhniki will publish Zalman Shneur’s historical novel about the arrest of the first head rabbi of the Chabad dynasty by the Russian tsar in the 18th century. The novel, entitled “The Rabbi and the Tsar” has never been printed in Russian.

“We want to introduce the public to a great European culture. It’s a forgotten culture that we need to return to the readers,” Gorin said. “Yiddish literature compares (in its sophistication) to English and Russian literature. Yet it appeared and died away within one generation. That’s a tragedy.” […]

Despite some problems with Soviet publications, more of Sholem Aleichem’s work has been translated to Russian than to English, said Itzik Gottesman, the president of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in New York.

In addition, Russian translations were usually of better quality than the English ones because they were done by professional writers rather than by academics, Gorin said. For example, renowned Russian author Isaac Babel translated and edited some of Sholem Aleichem’s work but the translations were lost after he was arrested by Stalin’s police.

Incidentally, I notice that the cover of a magazine shown in a photo features an interview with “Эфраим Зурофф” [Efraim Zuroff]. It’s always seemed odd to me that foreigners of Russian descent get their surnames rendered in Russian with -офф rather than -ов; since the two endings are pronounced exactly the same, it seems to come from a need to emphasize that the person is Not Really One of Us.

Thanks for the link, Paul!

Fragments, Ellipsis, and Sluicing.

Scott Rappaport reports for

“A lot of talk is fragments—it’s the kind of thing we understand reflexively as human beings, but it’s much harder for machines,” notes Jim McCloskey, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. “Linguistic theory teaches us what kind of structures there are in our mind, but how to make sense of these fragments is also a nuanced engineering problem.”

This problem is one that appeals to a researcher like McCloskey, who has dedicated his work to understanding language, and now Silicon Valley tech companies that are seeking to make mobile devices—phones, tablets, and more—that can understand and decode the subtleties of human language.

And in the search for solutions, UC Santa Cruz students helping with this research have found they are able to apply their knowledge and research skills after graduating as analytical linguists for tech companies big and small. […]

McCloskey notes that speakers and writers often leave out informationally redundant grammatical material—such as when the verb “call” is omitted in “Jay Z called, but Beyoncé didn’t.” This process, known as ellipsis, is widespread across the languages of the world, and is particularly common in informal language and dialogue.

Among the many varieties of ellipsis is “sluicing,” where what is omitted is not a verb, but an entire sentence. For example, a speaker may leave out the understood sentence “he called” after “why” in a sentence like: “He called, but I don’t know why [he called].”

Ellipsis creates challenging scientific and engineering problems. Although research over the past 50 years has shown that the principles permitting ellipsis involve many different types of information (grammatical structure, context, real-world knowledge), the precise mix of these principles and their interaction is still an open question.

Progress to date has been delayed by the lack of one crucial resource: databases that are large enough to validate theories and rich enough to form the basis for machine learning.

At UC Santa Cruz, McCloskey is collaborating with faculty and students in the language sciences to develop that resource—a richly annotated database of naturally occurring ellipsis, which will be freely available to researchers around the globe who are trying to understand what their implications might be for our understanding of the nature of human language.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!

Intervocalic Fortition.

The secret of language change, courtesy of xkcd (be sure to read the mouseover text). Thanks, Paul!

Unmossed Siberia.

I’m reading Pisemsky’s “Плотничья артель” [The carpenters’ cooperative], an 1855 story narrated by a landowner who has hired a mysterious fellow named Puzich to build a barn for him — he seems comically self-important, but turns out to be a moneylender who holds his fellow workers in his thrall. When the work is done and Puzich has left, the narrator gives vodka to the others, and the suddenly talkative Pyotr tells him his father was more intelligent than he is. Of course he asks why, and Pyotr says: “А потому он умней тебя был, что уж он бы, брат, Пузичу за немшоные стены не дал ста серебром — шалишь!” [He was smarter than you because he, brother, wouldn’t have given Puzich a hundred silver rubles for nemshonye walls — that’s nuts!] I hadn’t seen the adjective nemshony, but I guessed it had something to do with moss (мох [mokh]; compare the adjective мшистый [mshisty] ‘mossy’), and that turned out to be correct; Dahl has Мшить ‘to caulk the framework of a log house with moss,’ and adds: Сибирь немшеная, дразнят сибиряков [Siberians are teased/mocked with “unmossed Siberia”]. On the other hand, the insult went the other way as well; this site has: Расея немшёная, бран. – о жителях России, которые из-за бедности не строили домов на мху, как в Сибири» [“unmossed Russia,” insulting; said of inhabitants of Russia, who out of poverty did not build houses with moss as they do in Siberia]. I’ve learned a number of new words from this story (щурята are young pike — who would have guessed the offspring of a щука was a щурёнок?; красна = кросна ‘woven cloth’; мелево ‘grain to be ground’ or, figuratively, ‘windbag’), but this is my favorite so far.