Thursday, December 1, 2011


The New York Times recently published a list of "Pinkerisms"--selections from Steven Pinker’s writings on language, evolution and the mind.

Here's one:

Words and Rules,” 1999

Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xvxn xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x” (t gts lttl hrdr f y dn’t vn kn whr th vwls r).

Click here to read more.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Language Tells Us

This interview with Harvard linguist and pscyhologist Steven Pinker was published on the website of the New York Times.

Click here to read more of the Times's take on Pinker.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Using Linguistics to Reveal the Flaws in Psychological Experiments

When Implicature Fails
In a recent New York Times review of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), by 2002 Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, science writer Jim Holt observes that "Our everyday conversation takes place against a rich background of unstated expectations — what linguists call 'implicatures.' Such implicatures can seep into psychological experiments."  To see how Holt deploys this key concept in linguistics to dismantle some of Kahneman's claims, click here to read the full article (which is interesting in itself:  Kahneman argues that human rationality is over-rated).  Click here and here and to learn more about implicature.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vonnegut: Kate Bosworth's Eyes Are Like Hillbilly English

Bosworth has Heterochromia Iridum
Today is the birthday of writer Kurt Vonnegut born in Indianapolis (1922).  In an 1999 essay titled, "How To Write With Style," he summed up seven important points. One of these concerned the value of English dialects.  It reads:

"I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand. All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Semiotics and Linguistics

The following essay by Steven Johnson (that's Johnson in the photo at right) was published on October 14th, 2011 in the New York Times. It makes an argument for the residual value of semiotics, a science of signs with roots in linguistics.

"It is an occupational hazard of being a writer to be appalled by the prose style you deployed in your youth. Most of the time the flaws reflect unchecked enthusiasm, or literary clich├ęs that have not yet worn away, or a certain inability to settle on a defined voice. But reading my own college juvenilia, I have a strange and almost total sense of disconnection. This is from a paper I wrote at the age of 19:

“The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative always lies in its own effaced and circuitous recourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the rigidity and insistence of its taxonomies and the facility with which it relegates each vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciative formations testifies to a constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or comply with the linguistic form it examines.”

"I was a sophomore in college, and my voice on the page sounded like that of a 60-year-old Sorbonne professor, badly translated from the French.

"But writing those sentences — and there are thousands like them still tracing their vagabond utterances on my hard drive — turned out to be a critical part of my education. I was, you see, a semiotics major at Brown University, during a remarkable spell in the 1980s when semiotics was allegedly the third-most-popular major in the humanities there, despite being a field (and a word) that drew nothing but blank stares at family cocktail parties and job interviews. “Ah, semiotics,” a distant relative once said to me during winter break. “The study of how plants grow in light. Very important field.”

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Real words?

Don't expect a dictionary to tell you if a word is "real" or not. Dictionary writers--a.k.a. "lexicographers"--"themselves disavow any such role — their inclusion of “w00t” or “staycation” means little more than that the words have been popping up a lot lately, writes Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley (that's Nunberg on the left).

Click here to read  "When a Dictionary Could Outrage," Nunberg's brief account of why Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961 by Merriam-Webster, signaled a turning point in Ameri­can attitudes about language.