This is terrific news—DS Bigham, a linguist who “specializes in phonetics/phonology, sociolinguistics, language change, emergence theory in linguistics, linguistic perception, and linguistic public outreach,” has taken an important step in the last-named area and started an online magazine called Popular Linguistics Magazine. Here’s his welcome message to readers:

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the public perception of linguistics and language research. I’ve often been frustrated at the abuse and misunderstanding of basic linguistic concepts in the popular media (for example, this summer’s debacle over President Obama’s speech-style reported on “The Global Language Monitor”, see CNN’s coverage here), or even at the lack of widespread response from linguists on public policy issues, such as the Arizona immigration law or, reaching back, the Ebonics school funding debates. Why isn’t the public better educated about linguistics? I fear that it’s because we, as linguists, haven’t done the best job of getting the word out. We haven’t yet provided the public with a single non-specialist standard for linguistics-based reporting.

Oh, there are exceptions, certainly. Blogs like Language Log and Language Hat, Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column for the New York Times, and occasional pieces here and there in this magazine or that newspaper. But a single trusted source, a regular, dedicated place where people can go and read about all aspects of our research, with articles written by true experts of the field… that’s what linguistics has been lacking.

If physics could bring quantum entanglement to the masses in Scientific American, if psychology could bring cognitive dissonance to the world outside of academia in Psychology Today, if my 90 year old grandmother could read about nanotube technology in Popular Science, why couldn’t we bring linguistics out into the wider world? That was the kernel that popped in my head way back in the late summer of 2007. Linguistics didn’t just need our own PR machine; we needed a magazine.

With that in mind, I’d like to present the first issue of Popular Linguistics Magazine, a monthly online publication where we aim to bring linguistics and language research to anyone who’s interested, regardless of whether they’re a linguist or not. Our goal here at Popular Linguistics is to present to you, dear readers, all aspects of linguistics, from breaking news in language technologies to stories from intrepid documentary fieldworkers, from research detailing how language works in the brain to stories showing how language works in society. Linguistics for everyone, finally.

This is exactly what the world needs right now (aside from peace, love, and understanding, of course), and I will give it a high place in my heart and on my blogroll. Visit it frequently, folks!


  1. Vance Maverick says

    I’m pleased to see this too. There’s currently something strange about the layout, so that it’s difficult to find the content — I don’t think there’s any one place to see all the content of the current issue — but that can be fixed.

  2. A little off topic but, when I started reading this, it almost sounded like you were mocking his description of his specialization because of the huge list. It almost seems contradictory to list a broad range of interests as specialties, maybe that’s just me though.
    I’ll be checking this out though. Thanks for the tip.

  3. marie-lucie says

    “specializes in phonetics/phonology, sociolinguistics, language change, emergence theory in linguistics, linguistic perception, and linguistic public outreach,
    That is quite a long list of “specialties”, but it does not cover the whole of linguistics: he is not interested (at least not professionally) in morphology, semantics, syntax, discourse analysis, pragmatics, historical/comparative linguistics, language acquisition and learning, sign language, forensic linguistics, neurolinguistics (language and the brain), psycholinguistics, and yet other specialties.
    I too find the white-on-black letters hard to read (one effect of advancing age) and the layout confusing, but overall it is a good beginning: nothing is perfect, and most things are fixable.

  4. “aside from peace, love, and understanding”: no. That should read “aside from peace, love, and understanding, and walnut bread”.

  5. Oh dear, I’m another who can’t cope with white-on-black .

  6. Trond Engen says

    I can’t either, unless I’m unusually eager for it, and I’m younger than the two of you together.
    But I commend the initiative and will be a regular reader.

  7. What about the unpopular linguistics, isn’t he interested in that?

  8. There is a “Guestbook” link if you have comments about the layout (which I also found a bit … scattered) or the color scheme (less than ideal, and I’m relatively young, supposedly). Since it’s new, maybe he’ll be responsive to constructive comments.
    I think it’s a great idea, as a lot of people can’t get through the technical details at LL or LH. A lot of ESL teachers stand to benefit, too.The number of linguistics courses in MATESOL programs is often minimal and the content varies in quality and usefulness. At the same time, there are aspects of teaching and research in ESL that really require some awareness of linguistics. (I know there are holes in my education.)
    Anyway, I hope it does well. (And, uh, gets a slight makeover.)

  9. michael farris says

    “What about the unpopular linguistics, isn’t he interested in that?”
    Every other linguist is interested in that. That’s why it took so long to come up with something called ‘popular linguistics’.

  10. Re: specialties, “phonetics/phonology, sociolinguistics, language change…”
    Depending on what is meant by “sociolinguistics,” these can have a high degree of intersection. And “linguistic perception” (depending on whether it means “how linguistics is perceived” or “how language is perceived”) coheres quite will with either/both of socioling and phonetics/phonology.
    In any case, I’ll definitely be checking regularly with the site. As for the layout, I’m not averse to white-on-black (red-on-black is a different story), though it is not a color scheme I associate with (current) websites of this type.

  11. michael farris says

    I looked briefly at the site and plan on returning. Can you select and copy text?
    In case of hard-to-read sites with info I want I always fall back on copying text into word and formatting it so that it’s easier to deal with.

  12. People with middle-aged eyes can go to the Readability page, where you can make a few choices and then drag the blue “Readability” button to your browser’s bookmark bar. Clicking on the bookmark will “readablize” the page you are viewing. I use it a lot now.

  13. Thanks for the mention and the great comments! I’ll admit it, my list of “specialties” does seem a bit ridiculous, but they’re all intersected, so, y’know…
    And about the white-on-black… the research I did when creating the site on screen vs. print readability showed that white-on-black was easier on the eyes in screen text. But most people seem to hate it, so, it’ll change come February’s issue. I promise.

  14. “Emergence theory in linguistics” looks very interesting, although I’m not exactly sure what it is….
    I’m particularly interested in whether emergence theory covers the role of simple rules and their interaction in producing literary style.

  15. ..the research I did when creating the site on screen vs. print readability showed that white-on-black was easier on the eyes in screen text.
    WordPerfect for Dos had a white on mid-blue option that was perceived as easier on the eyes than a (possibly) glarey white screen, but was easier to read than white on black.

  16. As the comments page on Mr Bigham’s site is currently closed, may I ask him a question through LH ?
    …or even at the lack of widespread response from linguists on public policy issues, such as the Arizona immigration law…
    Given the very wide range of purely linguistic topics suggested, is this making the proposed contents too broad? And opening the door to polemics ?

  17. I presume he’s willing to take the risk of polemics in order to make sure a sensible and scientific point of view is inserted into the debate to provide some counter to the passionate but ill-informed statements that currently constitute said debate. Linguists know about language; their voices should be heard in a public debate about language policy.

  18. “I’m younger than the two of you together”: that’s awfully good.

  19. LH: Sorry, I didn’t realize the Arizona law was a language issue as well as a basic immigration issue.

  20. Paul and LH: I didn’t realize that the Arizona immigration law was a linguistic issue either, unless you take a very wide view of “linguistic.”
    My viewpoint is that it’s quite possible to inject your specialty into just about any public policy debate, but it dilutes the effectiveness in a lot of people’s eyes when it happens.
    If someone would care to enlighten me about a valid linguistic issue that’s more substantive than “some of the cops don’t speak Spanish,” or “a lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about,” I’d be delighted.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    My own observation has been that academic linguists tend not to add too much value to debates about language-related policy issues, at least those of a contentious nature that tend to elicit strong opinions from non-linguists. My working hypothesis is that a partial explanation may be that language scientists tend also to be language buffs/enthusiasts and when they venture into policy territory the latter tendency takes over (and/or they exhibit the common failings of intellectuals thinking that scientific knowledge can be smoothly translated into effective public policy without regard to historical and social context and without having to make decisions about clashing priorities or values). They might think, for example, that it would be so totally cool to live in a polyglot society they tend to overlook the fact that 99%+ of their fellow human beings don’t share their own hobbyist enthusiasms and that extant polyglot societies tend in practice to be seething with intercommunal hatred and/or be governed stably only by the use of highly illberal means (and/or be named Switzerland, but no one’s figured out how to scale that example up). Making policy about bilingual education, for example, on the assumption that everyone either is as excited about language as you are or at least should be as excited (or would be if you only properly explained the Scientific Truth to those Ignorant Rubes) is a recipe for disaster.

  22. Soon after the Arizona law was passed, there were reports that Arizona was removing public school teachers with “heavy accents.” In some commentary, the two stories went hand in hand. See Language Log coverage here.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    To sort of revise and extend the remarks in my last comment, see the lengthy block quote in this LL post from 3 years ago, critiquing as unproductive the generic political/policy attitudes of academic linguists: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005319.html. Note the tone of wonder from Prof. Bakovic (whom I certainly don’t mean to pick on – he was just being, I think, typical of his particular training and background), which suggests he has never previously been exposed to this contrary point of view during his career within the academic subculture.

  24. marie-lucie says

    WordPerfect for Dos had a white on mid-blue option
    That’s what my email at work looked like for a few years, before the place switched to another system or provider, which had a very nondescript black font on depressing dull white. The blue was beautiful, I miss it.

  25. I thought the reports were that “heavily accented” teachers would be removed from teaching English. It didn’t sound a very pleasant business. But does anyone know whether this has happened, and if so in what numbers?

  26. SnowLeopard says

    removing “heavily accented” teachers of English
    If true, such a policy will probably be very short-lived. Whatever Arizona may think is in its interests, discrimination in employment on the basis of national origin is still a violation of federal law. Just because someone is perceived by some self-appointed arbiter to have a “heavy accent” doesn’t, after all, mean the person isn’t a native speaker — even if we assume for the sake of argument that being a native speaker is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job.

  27. I’m prepared to say that to teach language X, it’s a BFOQ to be a native speaker of X (with obvious exceptions for classical languages), but since English has no standard accent, a “heavy accent” cannot be a disqualification. Would Arizona dare to remove English teachers born in England? I think not.

  28. marie-lucie says

    What about English teachers born in Scotland? in India? in Australia?
    I live in an anglophone area of Canada. The other day I received a phone call from a woman working for an international charity. I could barely get the gist of what she was saying, but to my ears she sounded vaguely Australian, so I asked if she was calling from Australia, but no, she was English and calling from England! She seemed to understand me without problems though.

  29. michael farris says

    Like a lot of linguists I tend to eavesdrop on conversations (in public in unfamiliar languages).
    Anyway a few years ago on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria there was a real mix of people and I’d play ‘how fast before you can identify the language they’re speaking’. Usually I could so so in a few seconds but a few times I was completely stumped. Inevitably when that happened the language turned out to be English, one or more dialects that don’t make it into the media and which even after identifying I could only get about 60%.
    In southern Spain in a hotel with a lot of British tourists I could generally only understand about 80 % of overheard conversations.
    Off the radar I’d say British and US norms are headed in different directions pretty rapidly.

  30. @michael farris: “In southern Spain in a hotel with a lot of British tourists I could generally only understand about 80 % of overheard conversations.”
    I’m British (from London) and a couple of times have overheard people on the Tube who I presumed were Dutch or Scandinavian – only to discover, after listening more carefully, that they were speaking English with marked Scouse (on one occasion) and Geordie (on another) accents.
    So failure to understand overheard conversations can happen to Brits within the UK too!

  31. Alas, the site went offline not long thereafter. I guess there was only the one issue.

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