Archive for the 'Linguists at large' Category

What a linguist does

This past Friday I went with my fiancée to [Mrs. Dalloway’s]( bookstore in Berkeley to see [Deborah Tannen]( talk about her new book about communication between sisters. She told some great stories about the interviews she conducted while researching the book. I got the impression that the book is mostly about the relations between sisters, and how these are reflected in (and can be discerned by looking at) their conversations. But I’m still not sure how much of the analysis comes from author-sister interaction, or sister-sister interaction (I bought the book as a gift, so I haven’t looked inside).

The last several questions afterward had to do with how a linguist’s perspective on communication might differ from that of a psychologists (or a sociologist, etc; no one actually mentioned other fields, though Tannen mentioned psychology). That lead to wondering what the heck linguistics was anyway. After briefly explaining that, Tannen offered something that Robin Lakoff had once said (light paraphrasing on my part):

> I know what I do is linguistics, because I’m a linguist, and I do it.

Staying alive

In case you haven’t seen it, the LA Times has an article, [A final say? They hope not](,0,5877660,full.story?coll=la-home-center), that describes the efforts to describe and revitalize Washo, a severely endangered California Indian language. A nice story (and very cool for Alan to have his picture in the [online version of the] paper).

A side-note: check out the photo of Alan facing Ramona. On the shelf in the background there’s a crank-style pencil sharpener. Anyone else think there might have been a better place to install it?


Well, it’s past the halfway point for Linguistics Summer Camp–that seems to be what people are calling it, though for me it’s a bit different, as I’m commuting from my home four times a week. All the classes are great – but some are much funnier than others. One of the funniest moments came the other day in Gregory Ward and Betty Birner’s class on word order variation. At one point, the latter wanted the class to recall the various types of information-structural status that referents could have, according to a 1992 article by Ellen Prince. She said something like, “Now, I’m sure you all remember Ellen Prince’s ’92 breakdown.” There was a moment of silence before a wave of laughter. Following which Gregory Ward reassured us all that “she’s much happier now.”

Other fun moments in various classes:

On natural types: “Aristotle’s nice, but that was 2400 years ago” and “The water’s coming along, saying ‘I’m just a natural sort of guy’.”

On accounting for constituents in a sentence: “I guess I don’t have to account for the pad thai.” “Well, it came from a recipe!” “Yes, an old family recipe. Not MY family, though. We called it pasta.”

Far from the hills of Santa Cruz

This past Saturday, thanks to Mark Liberman’s tip, I made my way over to some sort of major California city across the bay from my humble residence, and took in my weekly extracurricular linguistics class (also in attendance was a dubious girlfriend and a few linguist colleagues). Actually, first I heard the slam poetry of D. Blaine, and got exposed to the work of action/romance novelist Liz Maverick. But for me (and seemingly for a fair number of people in the crowd), the spotlight event was none other than some grey-haired professor of…linguistics?.

Geoff Pullum read juicy selections from the Language Log companion book, Far From The Madding Gerund, including a retelling of the classic (?) panda joke, and (what seemed to get the best response), OICTIQ. If Writers With Drinks had existed in the mid 1980s, I’m sure audiences would have been treated to the essentials of GPSG, an equally thrilling book, though probably best enjoyed at a frat party, rather than a Mission-district tavern.

In the following intermission I braved my way through a sea of adoring fans to find the now-very-hip Pullum, and acquired a little something. On the way I learned that GKP’s part-of-speech tagger (which, incidentally, has helped to save the world multiple times, or at least the MC said so) uses an HMM, and also apparently uses a hybrid of Martian and parrot technology. But, curiously enough, it still classes worth as an adjective. Well, you can’t get everything right.

Unfortunately, I missed the rest of the acts; previous engagements and all. But I do feel sorry for them; who (or what), after all, can top linguistics?