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6/27 Janet Pierrehumbert (Sapir Professor): “Lexical Variability”


Janet Pierrehumbert, Northwestern University
2013 Linguistic Institute’s Edward Sapir Professor
Thursday, June 27, 2013 7:00 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall
Reception to follow


Read Abstract

Words are the nexus of the relation between form and meaning in language, and a rich lexicon is a hallmark of the intelligence of the human species. Words support cooperation amongst people by enabling them to share complex information about other times and places, abstract ideas, and emotions and social judgments. These facts motivate a large and fruitful body of research on how  shared vocabularies arise in linguistic communities, and how children acquire the vocabulary of the language spoken around them.  This emphasis on lexical convergence, however,  abstracts away from significant differences across speakers  in the total inventory of words, their abstract representations, their detailed phonetics,  and their patterns of use in context.  Equally,  it abstracts away from variation across words in who knows them, when and where they are used, and how they are pronounced. It  begs the question of  how the vocabularies of languages keep changing even after  a shared norm is in place.

This talk will document an assortment of cases of lexical variability, which touch on levels of linguistic representation from phonetics to pragmatics.  All  involve the interaction of cognitive and social factors in learning, remembering, and producing words. I will discuss these cases in the context of computational models of language acquisition and change.  I conclude by  developing a connection between synchronic variation and the robustness and  adaptability of language over time.

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7/02 Keren Rice (Hale Professor): “Fieldwork and community: Aspects of variation and change”


Keren Rice, University of Toronto
2013 Linguistic Institute Ken Hale Professor
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:00 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall
Reception to follow

Read Abstract

During my career, I have been interested in addressing and trying to understand the tension that exists between universality and variability in language; I have also been interested in examining ways of working with people in fieldwork where the role that the people that linguists work with are taken into account, with a focus on people as well as on language. In this talk, I would like to examine variation from two quite different perspectives, a general approach to research and specific research that I have been doing.

I begin from the perspective of approaches to research. In recent years in research on endangered languages in Indigenous communities, there has been a trend towards empowerment, collaborative, and community-based models. These models grow out of social science methodology, the development of Indigenous research paradigms, and societal values such as the notion of giving back. I am an advocate of such models, but I have been experiencing a concern with the unidimensionality that sometimes accompanies the discussion of these models, with value judgment placed, perhaps without even realizing it, which privileges ways of research that involve communities directly in the research, with leadership coming from the community. While there are concerns with hearing community needs, does this mean operating under a model in which everyone works together, or can collaboration be more broadly construed?

I then outline a very different type of variation, the absence, or presence thereof, of variation at a time in the history of the Dene (Slavey) language that has important ramifications for the history of how communities were settled, a topic of interest in the communities. The ethnographic record speaks to the emergence of two varieties of the language in the late 19th or early 20th century, with them being largely undifferentiated prior to this time. This does not fit well with people’s sense of their history. I worked with a dictionary compiled in the late 19th century, and this work reveals that the linguistic varieties were in fact distinct at that time, suggesting that the linguistic record supports the community interpretation of its history.

How do these two topics relate? Both speak to the importance of recognizing variation. The linguistic work provides an interesting counterpoint to a comment by Sapir, speaking of the value of linguistic work to understanding culture, that linguistic research requires a “closeness of knowledge that is often out of proportion to what little can be obtained from it for tangible cultural inference” (Sapir 1936: 224). Yet much is to be learned if we can do this work. In restrictive research models, would such work be done?

In rethinking responsibilities, we may have defined collaboration so narrowly as to devalue valuable work, putting burdens on communities that may, perhaps, not be welcome, while the work itself might be perceived to be of value. A broader construal of collaboration may best serve both community and academic needs so long as that broader collaboration is grounded in relationships, respect, and recognition, allowing a range of types of work to thrive.



7/05 Monolingual Demonstration by Daniel Everett

Daniel Everett, Bentley University
Friday, July 5 7:00 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall
Reception to follow

7/09 Anne Charity Hudley: “Linguistics and Community Engagement: Keeping it Real”

Anne Charity Hudley, College of William and Mary
Tuesday, July 9, 2013 7 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall

Read Abstract

Linguists have contributed greatly to understanding the role of language in the social stratification of people in marginalized communities. Nevertheless, there remains a significant need for linguists to disseminate the findings of their research and to develop realistic, practical, and easy-to-implement materials that are both linguistically and socially informed. In doing so, the relevance and intellectual contributions of linguistics as a discipline expand, the walls of the academy become more porous, and the work becomes more real.

            In order to build an integrated model of linguistic and social justice, Charity Hudley shares findings from her work with Christine Mallinson that combines sociolinguistic praxis with education policy. Their research focuses on making information about linguistics more accessible to educators and working with them to critically develop their own linguistic ideologies in order to better inform their educational praxis. She draws from their collaborations with the Virginia Senior English Academy and College to Career Initiative, The Middle Grades Partnership, and her National Science Foundation sponsored research: “Collaborative Research: Assessing the Results of Sociolinguistic Engagement with K-12 STEM Education in Maryland and Virginia Public and Independent Schools.”

The Virginia Capstone English/College and Career Readiness Initiative has been in existence for three years and provides for secondary English seminars to be piloted in five schools and each year for 50 teachers to participate in workshops with a language variation focus with follow up professional development on how to use linguistic insights in their classrooms. Teachers from seven regions in Virginia (34 school divisions) are selected to participate each year.

The Middle Grades Partnership brings together educators from 18 independent and public schools to provide learning opportunities for Baltimore City public middle school students. The last three years of professional development for the educators have focused on the theme of language variation in the classroom and educators created materials for use with students in summer enrichment programs on the theme.

The National Science Foundation grant “Collaborative Research: Assessing the Results of Sociolinguistic Engagement with K-12 STEM Education in Maryland and Virginia Public and Independent Schools” is an investigation of 60 K-12 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) educators’ understandings of social, cultural, and linguistic standards in schools. Charity Hudley and Mallinson are working toward a fuller understanding of how language variation and change affects K-12 STEM teachers’ judgments about language differences, pedagogical practices, and student assessments with a particular focus on the language of African-American students.

Such work provides explicit information about some of linguistics’ most critical questions – from the nature of language acquisition and patterning to the exploration of language ideology – in contexts that are of wide interest to researchers in linguistics and related fields as well as in areas that have not traditionally been as aligned with linguistics.

Charity Hudley will also share the vision for using the new sections of Language: Teaching Linguistics and Language and Public Policy as venues for such work. These initiatives reveal how researchers, educators, students, and policy makers can dedicate themselves to creating a framework for the state-by-state, city-by-city, and block-by-block sharing of linguistic information so that it is created by and reaches those who need it most.

7/11 Noam Chomsky: “What is Language, and Why does it Matter”

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Thursday, July 11, 2013 7 pm
Rackham Auditorium

Read Abstract

There are many questions one can ask about human language, among them, about its distinctive properties, neural representation, characteristic uses, variation, growth in the individual, origins.  Every such inquiry is guided by some concept of what language is, just as in the case of every other biological system – and I will assume that we can take language to be one of these.  In the long history of the study of language, the core question has been dealt with rather casually, but even vague formulations lead to different modes of inquiry.  Thus a traditional view holds that language is primarily a means of constructing thought, contrasting with a modern consensus that it is a primarily a means of communication.  Such contrasting general viewpoints shape inquiry about the whole range of questions in particular ways, and the same is true of other formulations.  Sharpening the core question, and close attention to core properties of the language faculty, can cast a great deal of light on specific topics of linguistic inquiry, as well as concerns over a broader range.

7/16 Lyle Campbell (Collitz Professor): “Contributions from Endangered Language Documentation to Outstanding Issues in Historical Linguistics”


Lyle Campbell, University of Hawai’i, Manoa
2013 Linguistic Institute Hermann and Klara H. Collitz Professor
Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 7:00 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall
Reception to follow

Read Abstract

The goal of this talk is to explore the relationship between Endangered Languages and Language Change (historical linguistics).

(1) I survey the number of known extinct languages and what that implies for historical linguistic research in general — 22% of all known extinct languages become extinct in the last 50 years. Of the c.420 independent language families and isolates, exactly 100 are extinct – nearly 25% of the linguistic diversity of the world has been lost forever. (2) I review the relationship between fieldwork documentation and the working out of aspects of the history of language families, including instances in the history of Indo-European. (3) I investigate the kinds of changes encountered in endangered languages and attempt to evaluate claims about what this means for language change in general and for language typology – for example, I address the claim that sound change in endangered language contexts need not be regular. (4) I look at a specific language documentation project involving several languages of the Chaco region of South America, noting discoveries there that go against general thinking about what is possible in contact induced change, and presenting other cases that provide insights into other aspects of language change.

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