Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review: Through the Language Glass

Announcements: For anyone who still follows this blog, I should probably mention in a more official capacity that I don't really update anymore (in case you hadn't noticed). I am no longer in linguistics and though my 6 years in the field leaves me with significant interest, I no longer devote significant time to this blog. I still plan to post occasionally, but it will probably be mostly reviews like this one rather than more standard blog posts. If for some reason you are interested in reading more of my writing, feel free to check out my new (technology/science) blog Less Than Twelve Parsecs over on Wordpress.

Disclaimer: I was sent a free review copy of this book.

OK, the blog post:

The basic idea of this book ("Through the Language Glass: Why the world looks different in other languages" by Guy Deutscher) is to examine the premise that the language we speak influences how we interpret the world. The primary approach throughout is an analysis of how languages describe color. I've found that many people aren't really interested in color terms cross-linguistically because they assume that such analysis is merely providing translations. Of course (and as this book points out), languages in fact vary widely in how many color terms they have. Blackfoot has one word for blue/green, while Arabic has completely separate words for dark blue and light blue. I found the first half of this book to be the most compelling, providing a lot of history about how philologists and then linguists approached the question of color across cultures. These approaches began as mostly racist caricatures and progressed to the seminal Berlin & Kay work that established a (mostly) definite order of color acquisition that with very few exceptions predicts which color terms a language will have based on its number of colors terms. A language with just two colors will divide them into dark and light, and a language with three colors will always have red as the third color. (While there are exceptions to some of the predictions, the one just stated is as far as I know exceptionless. I would be very interested if anyone knows of any exceptions -- languages with only three basic color terms that do not include red as one of the color terms.) This part of the book is written clearly enough and provides enough helpful examples that I actually used it in my own teaching several times, as a content unit about colors for ESL classes.

On a more negative note, Chapter 5 of this book almost made me put it down for good. The author takes an entire chapter to essentially deconstruct the widely held linguistic notion that all languages are "equally complex". He even goes so far as to say that though he disagrees both with the popular notion that "primitive people speak primitive languages" and with the linguistics teaching that all language are equally complex, "linguists have fallen into the more serious error". Let me say that again: he disagrees that lesser-spoken languages are primitive, and he also disagrees that all language are equal, but he says that it's better to believe that lesser-spoken languages are primitive. Now, I doubt the author would agree with what I've just said if pressed, but it is literally the logically inescapable conclusion of that last sentence. While I might agree that we should strive to be utterly scientific (and saying something sweeping like "all languages are equally complex" is not very provable or scientific), I think it's even more important to think about the negative ramifications of things that we say. The saying that all language are equally complex arose because people used linguistic analysis as a racist tool to denigrate and victimize indigenous peoples. Don Frantz once related a story where when he told a local shop owner that he was studying the Blackfoot language, the owner told him that the Blackfeet did not have a language, "just a bunch of grunts". This is history; this is popular thinking, and to seek to make purely scientific statements while ignoring the destruction and victimization of indigenous peoples is careless at best and hateful at worst.  Certainly the author is correct that we need to specify complexity and offer controlled cross-linguistic studies, but even so I shy away from abandoning completely the maxim that languages are equally complex.  Languages ARE "equally complex" in the sense that they are all capable of communicating the same information.  This is the sense in which the maxim is usually meant in linguistics, not in the sense the author denigrates, that all languages are identical in the complexity of their phonology, morphology, and syntax.  Such an interpretation is nothing but a straw man argument that nobody would defend.  The author concludes by arguing that in fact "simple" societies have more complex languages, alluding to shared context enabling greater complexity without confusion.  Of course, in English, "simple" has come to be a word with negative connotations, and talking about "simple" societies or "simple" languages is an inherent judgment, whether we like it or not, just because of the meaning of the word in modern English.  

I was really disappointed in that one chapter, but once I got through it, I did enjoy the rest of the book.  That last part of the book finally delves into the science that I was perhaps most interested in from the start, comparing how languages use color terms and offering numerous summaries of experiments showing that how a language divides up colors can influence how quickly speakers perceive differences between colors.  The author's most compelling point is that while language does not dictate what we can express or what we think, the patterns of language do force us to focus on different things in different languages.  These patterns mean that speakers of Guugu Timithirr have a much better sense of direction that English speakers -- not because their language makes it impossible for them to think in egocentric directional terms, but because their language requires that they identify position based on cardinal directions.  The book also includes a section about gender in language, which, while providing some interested data, is in my view little more than a good way to introduce the idea that how we speak can influence how we think about things.  The last part of the book wraps up with a good (and at least for me, eye-opening) summary of the evolution of color vision, which is certainly relevant to the points brought up in the book.

TL;DR: I hesitate to recommend this book just because of my own violent allergy to any suggestion that languages are not equal.  Languages are of course very different, but I think any suggestion of inequality will only enforce in the minds of many the idea that "primitive people speak primitive languages".  I am not swayed by the author's assertion that because languages differ in the complexity of their phonology, morphology, and syntax, this means that it is a mortal sin to claim that languages are equally complex.  That being said, I found the other sections of this book not only readable but eminently informative and interesting.  There is much to be learned here, both about the history of research into color terms and analysis of cross-linguistic color terms themselves.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Punctuation..?

I've posted a number of book reviews on this blog, but I think this one is the first I have concrete plans to use in the near future. I was asked to review "Punctuation..?", a short 35-page saddle-stapled book published by User design press. The main definitions for correct usage are taken from the Oxford English Mini Dictionary (can you imagine -- a usage book that actually cites its sources). The book briefly covers usage and suggestions for apostrophes, parentheses, colon and semicolons, dashes, slashes, and more. Each usage description is accompanied by an (often humorous) line drawing referring to or illustrating the usage. One thing I liked about this book is its mostly descriptive attitude. This isn't a prescriptive diatribe about how texting is ruining our punctuation use; it's a light-hearted and well-informed instruction manual for actual English. The errors it discusses are real errors that everyone, native speaker and learner alike, should avoid for the sake of clear writing, not elitist shibboleths for posh hipsters to complain about. Since this is a British publication, some of the terminology might be confusing for American audiences (though I would guess that most people are familiar with the main differences across the pond: period vs. full stop, single vs. double quotation marks). The only difference that would introduce a genuine error for American writers would be the claim that we should not use a period after abbreviations like Mrs., Mr., and Dr. (where in America we obligatorily do use a period in such cases). Other than this all the advice is applicable for American as well as British audiences, modulo terminological differences. As an erstwhile teacher of English as a Second Language, I definitely plan to use ideas and usage suggestions from this text in the classroom. Not only is the advice clearly presented and playfully executed, but also great attention is paid to proper typesetting. I would guess that most anyone who has occasion to write/type in English would fine use for the section delineating the typographical and usage differences between the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. The comma usage section, also, should prove useful to anyone teaching writing. While some of the advice is too simplistic (we use commas to join any two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, not just ones with a change in subject), there's a lot of information packed into this very short and eminently readable book.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

new Collins dictionary site

I had my attention directed to the new Collins dictionary site this week. For the most part it's your standard dictionary site -- definitions, usage examples, etc. The IPA transcriptions are solid, though don't include syllable boundaries, and I have yet to find a word improperly transcribed. The search function is predictably fine, though doesn't have autosuggestions. What got me excited, though, was the information about the relative frequency of the word in each entry. In the top right of each entry is a "commonness" bar, which indicates how common a word is by shading between 1 and 5 circles. Additional mouseover text mentions the size of that category, e.g., "X is one of the 30,000 most commonly used words". Though there are obviously questions about what corpus is being used for these calculations, it's still a neat feature. Another cool graphic is featured in the bottom right of each entry, which features an adjustable chart showing how common the word has been for a specified time period (from the last 500 years to the last 10 years). Perhaps not as detailed as COCA's interface, but still a great addition to a dictionary web site. And let's not forget the "translations" section, which gives translations of the word into other languages. Okay, Blackfoot isn't included, but you can instantly see translations from all the most spoken languages. Overall, it's pretty cool; I'll probably be using it as my go-to dictionary site from now on, mostly because of the frequency statistics.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

another crash blossom

As those who are regular Language Log readers know, a crash blossom is a news headline that leads us to an incorrect parsing of its meaning. In many ways crash blossoms are similar to garden path sentences, the classic one being "The horse raced past the barn fell", which lead us down a metaphorical garden path by presenting information that can be parsed easily into a certain structure, only to ruin our structural hypothesis later on. In the case of "The horse raced past the barn fell", our hypothesis is that "raced" is the main verb of the sentence, rather than part of a relative clause describing the horse. Thus we parse "The horse raced past the barn", and then have to completely redo our structure when we get to "fell".

The crash blossom that caught my eye the other day is similar: "Stepmom charged with murder has baby". The main headline on the full story is no better: "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". Again we have a relative clause with the relative pronoun omitted, leading us to think that what is in fact part of a relative clause is the main verb of the sentence. So in the full headline, we think the story is about a stepmother in Alabama being charged with murder, when in fact the story is about the woman in question giving birth.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

language as technology

My friend and erstwhile colleague Josh Birchall posted a link on Facebook to an interesting TED talk by Mark Pagel entitled How Language Transformed Humanity, on the development of language as a communicative tool and how it presented a huge evolutionary advantage over non-linguistic species. It isn't difficult to see how language, an infinitely productive system capable of expressing ideas that are not tied to a specific time and location, confers a greater benefit than other forms of communication. Language can be used to transfer abstract ideas and share a much wider range of information and technology compared to, say, the system of pheromones that ants use to communicate. It is for that reason that many archaeologists typically assume that the rise of abstract expression (viz., art) and the exponential proliferation of tool development coincides with the rise of language.

At any rate, it's an interesting talk, even if it's not perfect, and I think well worth watching.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

allophones and marginal phonemes

One of the most basic concerns of phonology is determining what phonemes constitute the phonological inventory of a given language, i.e., which sounds are used contrastively. Sounds are used contrastively if switching one pronunciation for another could result in a change in meaning (it may not be the case that a new word thus formed actually exists, but I think the point still holds for pairs like brick~blick). I can pronounce the word "atom" with an alveolar flap or with an alveolar stop, but the choice does not produce a difference in meaning. At worst I sound British if I use an alveolar stop rather than a flap. One of the ways phonologists look at contrastive versus non-contrastive sounds is the distribution of sounds. Contrastive sounds will typically have the same distribution. In English, for instance, /t/ and /d/ are contrastive, and we can find them in the same environments. Each one can occur in the onset or coda of a syllable, including before sonorants in a complex onset or after sonorants in a complex coda. As mentioned before, alveolar flaps and stops are non-contrastive in English, and are viewed as variant pronunciations. Another example is aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops -- we perceive the /p/ in "pit" and "spit" to be somehow the same, even though one is aspirated and one is not.

Problems arise when phonemes are in complementary distribution but don't in any real sense seem to be allophones. An example from English is the case of /h/ and /ŋ/. /h/ occurs only in onset position, and /ŋ/ only in coda position. We might have to do a little bit of hand-waving, but as long as we don't insist on following our rubrics with machine-like strictness, we can say something about the fact that we don't have any external evidence that these two sounds come from the same phoneme, e.g., alternations that we do find in "atom" (with a flap) versus "atomic" (with a stop). We also have evidence from historical English sources (including modern orthography) that explains why /ŋ/ only shows up in coda position -- it arose from place assimilation when /n/ appeared before /g/, which is why we spell /ŋ/ as ng, as in "sing". Another difficulty appears when sounds only contrast in some environments. This is called neutralization. For instance, in Blackfoot, /t/ and /ts/ contrast in most environments. Both can appear in onsets and codas. However, only /ts/ appears before /i/. Thus we can't simply say that /t/ and /ts/ are or aren't contrastive; we have to specify the specific environments in which they are contrastive.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

thinking scientifically about language

I just submitted my grades for my fall LING 101 course, and I'm busy preparing for my spring LING 101 course, so the question of how to get people to think scientifically about language has been much on my mind recently. I've found that one of the most useful entry-level questions is "How is human language difference from other forms of animal communication?" The media loves animal language stories, and so the uniqueness and complexity of human language is one of the first things I cover. One of the most important things about discussing such topics is not "Is human language unique?", but "What concrete properties of human language distinguish it from animal communication?" We're doing science, and so we want to point to specific criteria to distinguish the two; we want a theory of human language that predicts specific empirical facts. This is not how the general public usually thinks about language (or about anything; critical thinking is far removed from the natural pattern of human cognition).

Another topic I've always wanted to cover in more detail is speech perception. Often when I tell non-linguists that I work on how we perceive speech sounds and assign them to various categories, I get blank stares. Certainly before I was in linguistics I gave no thought to speech perception. When I lived in Italy in elementary school it was inconceivable to me that Italian speakers couldn't understand English; my first hypothesis (admittedly quickly discarded) was that when someone spoke English they simply heard nothing. We think of language as magic: direct communication from one mind to another. It takes a bit of work to transition into the type of thinking that evaluates the creation of sound by the human vocal tract and analyses how these sounds are transmitted as vibrations through the air, and then perceived by the human auditory and perceptual apparati (yes, I know that's not the proper Latinate plural). The question of how we distinguish a bilabial nasal from an alveolar nasal is not a natural one to ask, but it's an important question for linguists.

These are some of the basic concepts I'm planning to use in my 101 class next semester. If anyone has suggestions for other concepts useful for introducing people to the scientific study of language, I'd be glad to hear about them in the comments.