Friday, January 07, 2005

LSA Blogging

I spent this afternoon at the LSA Annual Meeting. The talks have so far been better than usual. The LSA conference is always a great place to talk to linguists you haven't seen for a year or two, but the talks are often somewhat dissapointing. This year has been a pleasant surprise. Here are some highlights from talks I attended:

Jason Riggle presented an interesting computational study modelling the simultaneous learning of multiple phonological grammars. The idea was to build a computational learner that, when presented evidence from multiple different grammars, could sort everything out into the right grammars. My main question about the study was raised,
both by Jason and by my friend Marc during the question period: Jason's learner is fed input-output pairs; could a similar method work if the learner was only given inputs? Interesting work.

Johanna Brugman, Bonny Sands, and Amanda Miller-Ockhuizen presented a fascinating paper on the phonetics and phonology of clicks in N|u, a Khoisan language (obviously, since it has clicks!). It turns out, I learned today, that the term "velaric" which we use to describe the airstream mechanism for clicks is acutally quite misleading, since the posterior closure in clicks is often uvular or pharyngeal. The authors
presented a very nice phonetic study of several aspects of N|u clicks. I was most impressed by the idea that you have to characterize the tongue position for both the anterior and posterior closures separately and in a rather nuanced way. I find it remarkable that a set of sounds found, for the most part, in only one language family*, could display such a huge degree of elaboration. It's one of those beautiful mysteries that make one glad to be a linguist.

I'm very sorry that I missed Laura Dilley's talk "No tone is an island," which I heard was excellent. Instead, I started talking to Peter Norquest about his recent fieldwork in China (on the Hlai langauges of Hainan) and other topics Southeast Asian. It was time well spent, but like all good decisions, it entailed some level of sacrifice.

*Yeah, yeah... I know about the exceptions, but they're just that.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Noun compounds

Sally Greene and Languagehat are now kvetching about noun compounds and their increasing use in English prose. I, for one, welcome our new word formation overlords. Many languages of which I'm fond don't have adjectives at all, or have only a very small closed class of adjectives. However, being free and easy with compounds, they never want for expressive power. I'm happy to see that English is coming around!

Friday, December 03, 2004

My absence

In the event that you've wondered why I haven't been posting much for the past few months, the answer is quite simple: prospectus. Since my dissertation prospectus is now done, my grading is almost caught up, and my job applications are in, I can start doing things I enjoy again, like pointing out that this is interesting.

Use of Strunk and White considered harmful

If you haven't already read it, you should definitely read today's Language Log post on how listening to prescritive grammarians and “language mavens” can increase your chances of suffering from alzheimer's disease. I say this only partially in jest, wondering all the while what the information-density of my writing actually is. Alzheimer's disease runs in my family (and many other Scandinavian American families, for that matter) so the thought that I can stave off dementia through the use of adjectives is comforting.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


Only a huge nerd could fall in love with a bibliography, but since discovering it (through a helpful post to LinguistList) I have gone head over heels for the Morphology at Bologna bibliography (BIBLIO), by Sergio Scalise. I am amazed and impressed that such a hugely useful resource is available on the web with no subscription fee.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Sound-Change Non-Compositional

It turns out that my students do not really believe that sound-change is regular. I didn't figure out why until today. Why didn't they believe in the regularity hypothesis? Because we talked a great deal about analogy, which clearly changes the sounds in words without phonological conditioning. This was indisputable evidence, in the minds of several of my brightest students, that sound change could not be purely regular. The problem is that we typically use the word sound-change to refer to something more confined than “changes in sounds,” rather, it refers to a specific phenomenon (one of many kinds of formal changes that can occur in language). We of a neogrammarian bent actually tend to define this phenomenon as a kind of regular, phonologically conditioned change. This is, as one especially bright student pointed out, completely circular--it renders the statment “all sound-change is regular” vacuous or purely terminological.

It is amazing how long a discussion can continue, each side disagreeing with the other, before both sides realize that they have been using the same term in different ways. I assumed a technical (and non-compositional) interpretation of the compound "sound-change" while my students read this compound compositionally. I thought they were nuts and I can only imagine what they thought of me.

Those Old IE Sound Laws

I've spent the better part of the last two days (or so it seems) either explaining to students how Grassman's Law can possible explain exceptions to Grimm's law when it didn't even occur in Germanic or trying to convince them that there is some reason that they should learn what Grimm's Law, Verner's Law, Grassman's Law, and the Great English Vowel Shift are. It isn't as easy as you might think. Undergraduate students can be stubborn debaters, particularly when testable material is at stake.

What I have told them, more listlessly than would be ideal, is that a knowledge of these sound changes is part of the shared intellectual tradition of historical linguistics and that they're also good examples of particular kinds of sound changes. They didn't seem convinced.

I hope that has less to do with my rhetorical skills that their desire to avoid memorizing Greek and Sanskrit examples.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Introducing Xtone

I haven't been blogging much lately, partly because I've been spending most of my time trying to teach undergraduates historical linguistics and partly because I've been spending the remaining time either working on my dissertation prospectus or helping assemble Xtone: a Cross-Linguistic Tonal Database, a collaboration between David Allison, Larry Hyman, and myself (that felt like a Condition A violation, although my inner syntactician tells me otherwise).

We hope that this database will turn into a useful research and bibliographic tool for phonologists of various kinds working on tone. The initial response has been positive, with great entries contributed by Jeff Good and Jie Zhang. While the amount of data currently available is small, we hope to add much more (and to receive much more) in the coming months.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Passers-by be damned

The other day, a friend and I were discussing a relatively amusing construction in English, namely the agentive nominalization of verb-particle combinations like pick up and think through. Instead of *picker up or *pick upper, one must say picker upper (with the agentive nominalizer showing up on both the verb and the particle). This is all well known. But then my friend noticed something more interesting: the agentive nominalizations of figure out and think over are not *figurer outer and *thinker overer, as we might expect, but rather figure outer and thinker over (other individuals I've asked since the first conversation have concurred with these judgements). We might think, from this, that this construction does not require that -er be appended to both the verb and the particle, but only that [r] be realized as the final segment of both verb and particle. But this can't be right either, for consider the agentive nominalization of the hypothetical verb-particle combination figure over...