Saturday, January 23, 2010

No update this week

I'm just posting this short notice this week because of new computer issues. Check back next weekend for a new post.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Driving home from the LSA conference in Baltimore last weekend, I got to thinking about xenolinguistics, i.e., the study of alien languages. Obviously this isn't something we've encountered in reality, but it's often taken up in science fiction books and movies (most recently the movie Avatar). But of course in fiction the languages are always exactly like ours, and in many cases they even are ours, just slightly modified (e.g., Star Wars, The Dark Tower series). I think it would be endlessly fascinating to write a detailed treatise on what to actually do when confronted by an alien being, though I doubt any professional journal would be interested in the results. And the steps involved would not simply be "learn the language".

First you'd have to discover if they even had a language. This might not be as simple as it sounds, because they might communicate in a way that humans could not perceive (telepathy, chemical signals, EM emission with wavelengths below 380nm or above 760nm), or their communication might not immediately be recognizable as such. We make a lot of assumptions about universality, and many of these assumptions are not necessarily founded even for human languages, much less valid for Language in the abstract. Even in the simple case of a lifeform emitting some type of sound, you'd have to figure out whether or not it was communication, and then whether or not it was language. Noise emission could be unintentional, as humans radiate heat, or it could be an response to the environment or the lifeform's internal state. And if it does have a repeating pattern of some sort, the question would still remain as to whether or not it was limited to a finite series of fixed calls, as in monkeys and dogs, or whether it was an infinitely variable system of communication, as in human language.

Once language has been established, there's still the question of perceiving and reproducing the sounds in that language. An alien lifeform would doubtless have an acoustic production tract significantly different from humans, and thus it's not a given that humans would be even physically able to distinguish the sounds it produced, much less reproduce them. Certainly there would be ways around this. If the language is spoken in the 40k-80k Hz range, you could simply pitch shift a recording down to the human hearing range. More difficult might be a case in which the language was spoken in a very narrow range, say 300-350 Hz, with 10 or 15 tonal distinctions within that range. And there's no reason to think that the facts on phonology, syntax, or semantics would be anything like human language. Even if we admit all the tenets of Universal Grammar (which I find charitable), even a diehard UGer can't expect alien languages to be the same, since they'd have evolved a different Language Acquisition Device that could have different grammar rules in it, rules that might make no sense from a human language standpoint, or even from a human cognition standpoint.

I think it would be an interesting endeavor to write out a manual for the intrepid explorer encountering an alien lifeform for the first time, instructing him (or her) how to proceed in determing the presence of a language, and if it exists, documented and learning that language. But it doesn't seem like an endeavor that would appear very impressive to hiring committees or tenure review boards. Maybe I'll take it up in another fifty years or so, when I'm old and distinguished and I don't have to care what anyone thinks of me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In Baltimore

This weekend I am in Baltimore for the Linguistic Society of America Conference, as well as the sister societies that meet concurrently. My primary reason for being here is to present a paper for the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of America session tomorrow morning. Being at a conference like this one brings to mind the primary things it means to be an academic, things that a lot of people seem not to understand. During this time of year, when fall classes have ended and spring classes haven't yet begun, I get a lot of comments from friends and family to the gist of "Well what are you going to DO with yourself?" Most of the general public seems to think that what academics do is limited to the classroom, and that when we're not taking or teaching classes we're relaxing, going for long walks on the beach, and spending time with friends and family.

I'd like to say nothing is further from the truth, but certainly there are things further from the truth. Obviously we like to try to do these things when our schedules are more flexible (i.e., we don't have many scheduled activities from day to day). However, people in academia do much, much, much more than just deal with coursework. In fact, coursework is often the easiest and least time-consuming part of being an academic. As a graduate student, I of course have my classes to worry about, but I also have outside engagements, some more social, such as department parties, potlucks, and coffee hours (which, while enjoyable, are nonetheless required), and some more professional, such as conference presentations, paper writing, and colloquia. Since I finished up with my fall classes (turning in my last assignment no earlier than December 21st, so not that long ago), my plate has still been filled with the following items: reading a lengthy paper for my phonology class that starts a week from Monday (yes, homework even over the break), finishing revisions for a paper to appear in conference proceedings, preparing my presentation for the SSILA conference this weekend (and of course attending the conference, etc.), submitting an abstract for a conference in March (which I may or may not have the money to actually attend), and writing an initial draft of a paper for another conference volume. But wait! There's more!

Those are just things that have a firm due date during the winter break. I also submitted a book review to a journal, and I'm continuing to work on two major projects: a journal article and the foundational research for a book. During the spring semester I will doubtless tackle new projects, some with deadlines, some just long-term research, mostly based on conference papers I haven't yet had time to expand into publishable material. Professors have all these same things to do, except instead of attending classes they're teaching them, which involves a lot more work. They also have to attend department meetings, review papers and grant applications for professional organizations, meet with students, serve as members or chairs of qualifying paper and dissertation defense committees, and seek to secure funding for their research. Don't get me wrong, I love academic life. I've worked 9-5 and (7-3) before, and it doesn't agree with me. Any salaried job tends to take up your entire life, so I'm glad mine is one that I'm passionate about and lets me be a little more flexible about when I do my work, even if that ends up being days, nights, and weekends. But it makes me sigh a little when people think we spend the summer tanning and the winter skiing. We don't. We spend the summer researching, and the winter researching. And the fall and spring researching.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Words for 'cat'

Frédéric Dichtel wrote me to ask about my research on words for 'cat', so I thought I would devote this week's blog entry to a summary of what I've done. I got interested specifically in words for 'cat' while researching neologisms in American languages (which I was researching in order to publicly support my private opinion that American languages more often create new words for new things rather than borrowing a word from another language). I noticed that, contra most other types of words, animal words were usually borrowed, often from English, but also other European languages. The word for 'cat' is a prime example of this, and displays probably more similarity cross-linguistically than any other word I looked at. My paperon the topic makes the claim that these similarities are due to a small set of widely diffused borrowings, rather than many separate instances of borrowing.

Similar words in different languages can be similar for four primary reasons: (i) the similarity is due to chance, (ii) the languages are genetically related, (iii) the form is borrowed, either from one language to the other or both from the same external source, or (iv) the words are similar due to some language universal. If languages are unrelated and in contact, the most likely scenario is usually (iii). Some examples are included below.
LanguageFamilyWord for 'cat'Source
MohawkIroquoiantakóósMithun (1999)
Munsee DelawareAlgonquianpóóšiišSwiggers (1985)
MahicanAlgonquianpóscheesMithun (1999)
BlackfootAlgonquianpóósFrantz & Russell (1995)
KootenaiisolatepusKCC (1999)
Chinook JargonChinookanpús(h)James Crippen (p.c.)
HanisCoosanpuusGrant (1997)
Klamathisolatep'oosBarker (1963)
Umatilla SahaptinSahaptianp'uusThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
Walla Walla SahaptinSahaptianp'uus, pišpišThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
Nez PerceSahaptianpicAoki (1994)
CayuseisolatepicpicThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
TlingitNa-DenedóoshJames Crippen (p.c.)
HaidaisolatedúusEnrico (2004)
Coast TsimshianTsimshianicdúusDunn (1979)

Most likely these forms are from a combination of diffused borrowings from Dutch poes, the vocative form for 'cat' (i.e., how Dutch people address(ed) cats), English 'puss' and the English vocative 'psspss' used to call a cat. This would explain the prevalence of three types of forms: those that approximate poos, those that approximate pus (including almost all of the Salishan language, which I haven't included above), and those that approximate pispis. One piece of evidence that these are diffused borrowings rather than individual ones is that while Tlingit lacks labials, and thus has a form beginning with /d/ instead of /p/, Tsimshian and Haida have /p/, and thus must have borrowed the form from Tlingit rather than English or Dutch. James Crippen notes that the Tlingit form in turn is a borrowing from Chinook Jargon.

It's not clear what's so special about the word 'cat', but many northern languages have almost identical forms for this word, while other animal names are quite different. For example, the word for 'chicken' in the same languages displays remarkable variation, ranging from English borrowings to French borrowings to onomatopoetic terms to descriptive neologisms. Besides the northern languages, southeastern and southwestern languages also have very similar terms for 'cat', though they are from different borrowings (often old Spanish mozo or English 'kitty').