Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The Handsome Penpal and I are taking a couple of weeks off and heading over to New Zealand. I'm declaring the adventure an internet free zone and so will have to save up all my Kiwi language anecdotes for a post-trip post.

For your amusement in my absence, I've listed a few of my favourite language-related blogs. If you have any you like to read and think I should add to my RSS list let me know in the comments section below!

Language Log - A swarm of top notch linguists, you'll be hard pressed to not find something to tickle your fancy.

Fully (Sic) - Linguistics news with an Aussie accent.

Literal-Minded - If you like taking things to their logical conclusion.

The Visual Linguist - This is new to my blog roll, but is written by a guy interested in the multi-modal linguistic communication of comics. How could it not be awesome?

Johnson - Named for Samuel himself. The Economist gets on board the linguistics train. For those that like their copy editing with lashings of reality.

lolPhonology - How all linguistics should be taught...

PhD Comics - Not about linguistics per se, but an occasionally frightfully accurate depiction of the life of a graduate researcher.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nasal dramas

I appear to be the only person among my nearest and dearest not suffering from a winter runny nose (maybe my body and I have reached a mutual understanding that I don't have time to be sick). However I am currently having my own nasal crisis, although of a slightly different, more orthographic kind.

Because most languages have sounds beyond what are easily represented by the standard English alphabet, one way to transcribe is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It has lots of handy symbols for lots of handy sounds (here's an interactive version).

I've been using a few of the symbols - eg. ʃ to represent the sound English speakers write as 'sh', or ɖ and ʈ to represent sounds that we don't have in English - they sounds much like 'd' and 't' for English speakers, but the tongue curls up and the underside is used - they're called 'retroflex' for this reason.

There is also one more nasal sound than we have in the English alphabet, called a palatal nasal. This is made by making an 'n' sound - but moving the tongue back so it's against the top of your mouth - sounds a bit like 'ny'.

The IPA has a handy symbol for this; ɲ. However, I've just noticed that I've actually been using this symbol instead; ɳ - which is a retroflex nasal instead. A subtle difference indeed, but how it has escaped my attention and the attention of 3 supervisors until now is quite a mystery to me.

All I can say is thank goodness for the find and replace functions of word processors!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A weekend rant

As a general rule, I do like to try and keep things as up-beat as possible when talking to people about linguistics. It is a topic a lot of people don't come into contact with during their education (which I think is a shame!) - although most people do have personal feelings about thinking pertaining to language. It's fun, it's fascinating, I rarely feel inclined to write a post that makes me sound like a troll.

The latest xkcd comic though has inspired me to don my grumpy linguist hat. I own a lot of hats, and I have to say this is my least favourite. The comic stars 'the count' from Sesame street using a counting system that only has the values of 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Now, this isn't as strange as it may seem to speakers of Indo-European languages (that would be you). Lots of languages don't feel the need to be as numerically precise as others. So some only have these values. Others also have the value of 'more than two but less than about eight', which is known as a paucal. This is quite common for languages spoken in Australia, and occurs in South American languages among others.

Which leaves me with two basic problems I have with this comic. The first is the use of the term 'primitive cultures.' Cultures that used these systems aren't 'primitive', they are as complex and sophisticated as any that uses a more specific counting system. Many Australian languages with simple counting systems also have very sophisticated kin-term system. I'm sure most English speakers would take offense if speakers of these languages consider us a 'primitive culture' because we don't have a single word for 'the two of us, where I am your maternal grandmother and you are my granddaughter.'

Secondly, the comic doesn't just insult the speakers of these languages, he insults the people who research them. Obviously, I'm one to take this insult rather personally. The mouse-over text from the comic reads thus:

Cue letters from anthropology majors complaining that this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth. They get to write letters like that because when you're not getting a real science degree you have a lot of free time.

Actually, it's not a myth, it's fact - and I don't have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the assumption that only Anthropologists are interesting in this phenomenon, and not linguists, or psychologists, teachers and even mathematicians. I'm not even going to bother walking into the trap of pointing out that linguistics is a real science and that I'm very busy; it is, and I am.

This is all rather disappointing Randal at xkcd is normally rather on topic with matter linguistic. I might just print it out and keep the image, which I find to be rather cute.

Friday, July 9, 2010

100th post, chapter to bed, and secret codes

It is the 100th Lozguist post, which is a rather exciting milestone for a project that I thought was mainly going to be used as a way of convincing my parents that I was alive while on fieldwork. But I've enjoyed continuing to post on my return, and I hope you've enjoyed continuing to read.

Another celebratory milestone has just been reached today; I've just finished the draft of the final chapter of the sketch grammar! Granted the whole document is full of things like 'find a better example', 'find a better reference', etc. but knowing that there is a bit over 20,000 of stuff written is comforting, and I have a rather clear idea of what I need to do to fill those holes.

In the wider world, United States Cyber Command have created a flashy new logo with a secret code in it! Cryptologists and linguists have a long history together, in fact sometimes figuring out the structure of another language feels like you're code breaking... Shame on The Age though for implying that nerdy and cool were mutually exclusive categories!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A grammatical category with attitude!

I have been trying to intersperse my frantic writing attempts with more reading to make me feel a little bit methodologically informed. I found Bybee and Fleischman's "Modality in grammar and discourse" (1995) sitting on one of my office-buddy's bookshelves (where I do my best book browsing...).

I figured it would probably be worth reading, given that my topic is supposed to be the use of grammatical modal categories as used in discourse. While reading the introduction I got the same feeling I normally get while reading about modality; a sinking that sits somewhere in the base of my skull and pit of my stomach at the same time. The final paragraph, however, filled me with such delight I will copy it verbatim:

"So, here goes, readers. We hope you enjoy the papers. And don't be put off by the realization that mood is a grammatical category with an attitude! We'll get it straightened out on of these day."


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The perverse thrills of the organised traveller

While wandering around an outdoors store yesterday waiting for the Handsome Australian Penpal, who was trying on ski jackets, I found myself purchasing mini travel soap and coveting clothing compression sacks. It's still two and a half months until I head of to Nepal again, and I'm already thinking about packing. There are three types of people in the world; those that hate packing, those that love packing, and those that stuff everything in at the last minute.

I like compartments in travel luggage, I like considering contingencies, and as evidenced by my purchasing of the miniature soap I also like doing all this much to much in advance. I'm afraid at this rate I'll be all packed a month in advance!