Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It Ain't Necessarily Wrong

"Philip Gove and Dwight MacDonald Brawl" (1961) or
"Boxers" (1881) by Theodore Gericault
In the October 24th edition of the New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews David Skinner's new book, The Story of Ain't, in which Skinner "tells how and why Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was so controversial, focusing on its most famous entry."  Click here to read the review and find out about the animosity between Philip Gove, the dictionary's editor, and Dwight MacDonald, its biggest critic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tannen on Presidentidal Debate Interruptions

"Interrupted Sleep" (1750) by Francois Boucher 
Our old friend Deborah Tannen published an article in The New York Times on October 17th, titled "Would You Please Let Me Finish," that offers some insight into the meaning of all of the interruptions that took place in Tuesday's Presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Here's how the article begins:
“I’m used to being interrupted,” President Obama said Tuesday night in his second debate with Mitt Romney, an event in which each man repeatedly cut in while the other was speaking.

"The debates this year might be most remembered for the frequency (and ferocity) with which the candidates have interrupted each other. Nearly all commenters on the phenomenon seem to assume that it is self-evident when an interruption has occurred and who’s at fault, and that interrupting violates the rules of conversation. But just as conversational styles vary widely by gender, ethnicity, geography, class and age, so do ideas about what constitutes interruptions, and whether and when they are good or bad."

Click here to read the full article.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Official English Debate Continues

So you've done some research, and you've heard some experts. Now, in the comment box at the bottom of this post, identify what is, in your view, the best reason to support Official English legislation and the best reason to oppose it.  (You don't have to hold both reasons to be valid.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Making it Official: A Collective Research Project

Below you will find some of the answers you and your classmates have found to the research questions I posed to you in an earlier e-mail about speakers of other languages in the United States, current laws that govern their rights, and the effect proposals to make English the official language of the country would have on those rights and on the federal budget.  Because several of you submitted similar materials (much of it provided by, a website that promotes efforts to make English the official language of the United States), I have edited and consolidated your work.  (My apologies to those researchers who don't get a name check!)

The Numbers 
We have read that there are 322 languages spoken in the United States. How do those languages break down in terms of number of speakers? How many people in the United States have limited proficiency in English?

Paula (source: reports that in 2000, 8.1 percent of the U.S. population met the definition of limited English proficient set by the U.S. Census, meaning that they spoke English "less than very well." Of these, 4.2 percent spoke English "not well" or "not at all" (Source: Census 2000).


Political Science professor Dr. Christine Pappas has generously agreed to visit our class on Monday, March 12th to talk to us about legal and political issues relevant to legislation that would make English the official language of the nation.  Please leave any questions you have for her in the comment box at the bottom of this post.

Friday, March 2, 2012

An Online Gallery of Sign Language Delights

Click here to learn how to sign the American Pledge of Allegiance (contributed by Noelle).
Click here to learn how to sign Greetings and Introductions (contributed by Jaime)

Mysteries and Misconceptions (contributed by Melissa)

ASL Humor (contributed by Nathan)

ABC song in ASL (contributed by Amber)

Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" (also contributed by Amber)

Click here for another ASL campaign for more signed songs contributed by Amber.

ASL lessons:  Common Signs (contributed by Paula)

Paula also recommends this free, iphone app: isignlite.

Prayer and Hymns in ASL (contributed by Kaitlyn)

Young Children Signing (contributed by Caitlin)

Japanese sign language alphabet (contributed by Ashley)

ASL Babbling
This one shows how ASL babbling is different from the simple wiggling of toes and fingers that all children do when they're young.  The video's author describes the video in this way:  "Our 3 year-old son, home with us for 4 months, having well over 300 words in his vocabulary, but here, signing nonsense 'babbling.' An important step in language development. We love it!"  Click here to check out the blog where the author writes about this:

Sign Profanity (contributed by Jaime)
This one is what it says it is, so if you don't want to be exposed to these curse words, don't push the play button.

Tweetin' Crawdads, anyone?

Click here to learn more from the New York Times about a graduate student who argues that Twitter may be a rich source of information about regional language differences (e.g. Where do people say "Coke"? Where do they say "pop"? Where do they say "soda"?)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Questions for Lisa Sheffield

Lisa Sheffield, the Director of ECU's Interpreter Services Program for Deaf or Hard of Hearing Students, will be visiting our class on Wednesday, March 7th to talk to us about ASL.  In the comment box below this post, please any questions you have for her.

Here are some questions I have for her:
1. What got you interested in ASL?
2. What is the biggest misperception people have of ASL?
3. In the article by Emmorey, we read that ASL has regional dialects.  For example, the sign for "funny" and "butter" may or may not be made with the thumb extended, depending on the region you are from.  Do you know of any other examples of this kind?  How do you sign these two words?  In what other ways might someone who signs have an "accent"?
4. We watched an online video of the Pledge of Allegiance translated into ASL, and I noted that the word "republic" is translated as "country," and "allegiance" is translated as "support."  "Republic" is a more specific term than "country," and I wonder if this kind of substitution is common?


Monday, February 27, 2012

Talk Gender Linguistics to Me

Thank you, Dr. Murphy, for talking with us today about gender and language.
The phonetics website Dr. Murphy mentioned may be found by clicking on "phonetics" in the right hand column of this website.
And for those who want to revisit the clip we watched in class . . . voilà:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Sarcasm (Literal statement is positive; intended meaning is negative)


Grice's Maxims

Say no less than the conversation requires (Click here for a negative example).
Say no more than the conversation requires

Don't say what you believe to be false
Don't say things for which you lack evidence

Don't be obscure
Don't be ambiguous
Be brief
Be orderly

Stick to the topic.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Twenty-five percent of your grade in this class . . .

As stipulated in the syllabus, "25% of your grade in this class will be based on an academic paper plus an in-class presentation (5-6 pages on an assigned text plus a 10-15 minute in-class presentation to be given on an assigned day some time after Spring Break)."  Both of these assignments should use your assigned essay as a launching pad or springboard.

Each presenter is responsible for setting up a meeting with the instructor at least one week before his or her presentation date.  At that meeting the presenter will do a "dress rehearsal" of the in-class presentation.

Academic Paper Assignment Description
Value:  15% of Final Grade

1. Your primary objective is to inform your readers about your assigned essay.  Your account of the essay should, of course, by full and fair.
2.  Your second objective (equally important) is to give your readers something more than is what is provided by the essay.  You may either provide more information, provoke thought, argue that one controversial view or another (relevant to the essay) is wrong (or incomplete or simplistic).  If you have other ideas, let me know in advance.

Due date:
Your paper is due by the beginning of class exactly one week after your assigned presentation date.

Miami's Comeback Plans

Click here to see the video about the Miami language revitalization project that we watched in class on Wednesday, February 8th.

Monday, February 6, 2012


In the chapter titled "Mentalese" in his textbook The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker criticizes the notion (attributed to George Orwell) that governments can manipulate our minds through the use of euphemisms ("Newspeak" in Orwell's novel, 1984). In his effort to discredit this notion, Pinker mentions the following Monty Python sketch, which is full of euphemisms for "dead"--that fool no one (though that's not really the point of using them here ...)

The Official English Debate

Most linguists agree that English should not be designated as the official language of the United States.
Explore these links and look for the best arguments made both for and against such a designation:

Pidgin becomes Creole

Hawaiian Pidgin English is actually a creole language that developed from a simplified version of English that combines elements of various languages spoken by traders in the Hawaiian islands.  Click here to learn more.

Hawaiian pidgin English.

The Bible translated into Pidgin English.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Discussion Starter: Harvey Daniels

In his essay "Nine Ideas about Language," Harvey Daniels writes:  "Given our affection for [classic masterpieces of literature], we quite naturally admire not only their content but their form.  We find ourselves feelings that only in the nineteenth or sixteenth century could writers 'really use the language' correctly and beautifully.  Frequently, we teach this notion in our schools, encouraging students to see the language of written literature as the only true and correct style of English. . . .The study, occasionally the official worship, of language forms that are both old and formal may retard linguistic changes currently in progress, as well as reinforce our mistaken belief that one style of language is always and truly the best" (17). 

Do you have any experiences that support Harvey's claim that literature classes in school that focus on "literary masterpieces" sometimes encourage "worship of language forms that are old and formal" at the expense of other artful or effective styles of language that are more casual?  Do you agree with his suggestion that this kind of activity is misguided and possibly harmful?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Piraha!

According to,
The language with the fewest sounds (phonemes) is Rotokas (11 phonemes)

The language with the most sounds (phonemes): !Xóõ (112 phonemes). Approx. 4200 speak !Xóõ, the vast majority of whom live in the African country of Botswana.

John Simon on the Decline of the English Language

Click here for a rant on the decline of the English language.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Spring 2012 Syllabus: Introduction to Linguistics (Benton)

Instructor: Dr. Steve Benton Office: 316A, ext. 448
E-mail: Office Hours: M-R 3:20-4:20 and by appointment
Course website:

Required Materials:Language: Introductory Readings. 7th edition. Eds. Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth Lee Simon. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008)
One plain-colored two-pocket folder with brads.

Evaluation:75% Daily assignments (reading summaries/responses, etc.)
25% Academic Paper plus in-class presentation (5-6 pages on an assigned text plus a 10-15 minute in-class presentation to be given on an assigned day some time after Spring Break)

Midterm and Final Exams:To pass the class, you must take both the Midterm and Final exams. The score on each exam will have the same weight as other daily assignments.

Attendance:To get an “A” or a “B” in this class, you must have an attendance score of 80% or better; to get a “C” in this class, you must have an attendance score of 70% or better; to pass this class, you must have an attendance score of 60% or better.

Absences:I always appreciate it when students let me know in advance if they will not be able to attend class or turn in an assignment on time. But do not ask me for permission to miss a class or turn an assignment in late. It’s not that I don’t think some absences or delays are unavoidable; I just don’t want to have to make isolated, on-the-spot judgments throughout the semester about which absences and extensions are justifiable. I would rather make that judgment at the end of the term with the big picture in view.

So at the end of the course, if your absences or the number of assignments you turned in late will negatively your grade and you feel that some of those delays were unavoidable, send me an e-mail explaining your case and I will consider granting you whatever retroactive “extensions” and “excuses” I judge to be fair.