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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

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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.

 

 


7/16 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

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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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