David Mortensen, a Berkeley grad student in linguistics (who works on STEDT, the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus Project, which must be fascinating) has started a blog with the clever title It’s Ablaut Time. While I’m glad to see linguistics blogs of all sorts, I’m particularly partial to those that specialize in my old stomping ground of historical linguistics, and there are precious few of those, so a warm welcome and tip of the Language Hat, David!

One of his less technical entries:

Language is bluffing

It strikes me that a huge number of insights into linguistic phenomena can be dervied from a few relatively simple propositions. One of these is the observation that language is a code employed only by code-breakers: that none of us knows the language we speak as a fully explicit system. Instead, we bluff our way through, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the code with an inference here and a leap of logic there. This capacity to extrapolate from the known to the unknown is, in essense, grammar. If these inferences follow naturally enough from the parts of the code everyone around us agrees upon, they are incorporated into it. If they don’t follow at all from shared knowledge of the code, we come off looking inarticulate. The interesting thing is that the parts of the code we all agree upon were, at some point in the past, somebody’s bluff.

Update (Jan. 2021). Mortensen is now a linguist at Carnegie Mellon.


  1. Thanks for the welcome, languagehat. Historical linguists have got to stick together. Not to long ago, at a syntax conference, I was asked what kind of linguistics I do. I responded, “Historical phonology and morphology.” My interlocuter paused before asking, with no small dose of bewilderment, “People still study that?”

  2. That’s rather disturbing as I actually plan to do philology if I ever go to university.
    Its nice to see a historical linguistics themed blog though. I’m looking forward to your future posts.

Speak Your Mind