Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Linguistics Forum

I just discovered this forum called Linguistics Forum. I only looked at a few of the posts and I was underwhelmed, but I've never been a forum-kind-of-guy, so my opinion should be of minimal interest to those of you who utilize these resources. Just thought I'd pass it along.

Monday, January 28, 2008

You Say 'poverty of stimulus', I say 'innateness hypothesis'...

I’ve posted on the Innateness Hypothesis several times before and I just ran across an article by Geoffrey Pullum and Barbara Scholz reviewing that very topic: Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments (pdf). Thought y'all might enjoy the read.

Abstract
This article examines a type of argument for linguistic nativism that takes the following form: (i) a fact about some natural language is exhibited that allegedly could not be learned from experience without access to a certain kind of (positive) data; (ii) it is claimed that data of the type in question are not found in normal linguistic experience; hence (iii) it is concluded that people cannot be learning the language from mere exposure to language use. We analyze the components of this sort of argument carefully, and examine four exemplars, none of which hold up. We conclude that linguists have some additional work to do if they wish to sustain their claims about having provided support for linguistic nativism, and we offer some reasons for thinking that the relevant kind of future work on this issue is likely to further undermine the linguistic nativist position.

Enjoy!

(HT: Language Evolution blog)

Friday, January 25, 2008

"The Stuff I Just Thought Up"

In a post titled “The Perils of Popularising Science, Jason Zevin, a cognitive neuroscientist, gets in a little Pinker bashing. The whole post is worth reading, but here's a little nugget:

This is why it is always so disorienting to talk to people who have just read or are reading anything by Steven Pinker (such as his recent piece "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times Magazine). Often, these people know all kinds of amazing things--including things I'm pretty sure aren't true. This is not to say that Pinker is a charlatan (although some researchers might actually go this far; a colleague just vandalised my copy of "The Stuff of Thought", changing it to "The Stuff I Just Thought Up"). The problem is that our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

I have mixed feelings about Pinker. I admire his contribution to psycholinguistics, even while disagreeing with some of his major conclusions. He was a brilliant empirical researcher who moved the science of linguistics forward. His early work on the acquisition of argument structure continues to be influential and relevant. His popular works are well written and entertaining and have inspired new linguists. But of late, he seems to have jumped off the deep end of rationality and come to the conclusion that his opinions and intuition are more than that; they are now fact. I think we would all be better off if Pinker got off the lecture circuit and back into the lab and started studying verbs again.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Prepositions Don't Count

From the often hilarious blog Totally Not Crazy we find another example of PGSLTSS (which I first blogged about here):

In any case I really hope Paris sells her next house to someone I'm tangentially connected__, so I can see what bold new choices she's forging in her design palette. (emphasis added)

The totally-not-crazy author might be sane (doubt it) but he’s clearly suffering from post grade school linguistics traumatic stress syndrome (PGSLTSS). Having properly completed the ditransitive construction sell X to Y, he was faced with both the terror of a possibly redundant “to” AND ending a sentence with a preposition (gasp!) because he decided to fill the dative argument of sell with the dislocated argument of connected, leaving the preposition stranded. Fearing retribution from The Nuns (perhaps) he chose to take the conservative route, and delete the last preposition, just in case. No biggie, right? Prepositions don’t really count anyway, hehe.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Language Evolution Blog

Thanks to Psycholinguistics Arena's blog posts aggregator, I just discovered the blog Language Evolution. The blog "aims to act as an informal resource, meeting place and forum for the academic field of language evolution."

Looks like an interesting blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Does Language Work?

I only just now stumbled on to Liberman's post here about Stanly Fish's dark view of the future of The Humanities written about in "Will the Humanities Save Us?" and "The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two".

In 1996 I made the decision to quit graduate school in English Literature, near the beginning of a career in a field I was well suited to, to start fresh in a field I was woefully undertrained for: linguistics. I did this partly because I had lost the faith, so to speak. I shared Fish's "moments of aesthetic wonderment" but I just couldn't see what I would spend the next 30 years of my life doing. What do English professors do? I never found a satisfying answer to that question.

Linguistics, on the other hand, drew me in precisely because there were (and still are) so many unanswered questions. But the king daddy of them all, the fundamental question of linguistics, is this: How does language work? In the same way that you may look at a river and ask how does this work (Where does the water come from? Where does it go?), linguistics look at human languages and ask how they work.

Linguists are essentially reverse engineers. It is as if we have found a mystery box that does something: produces language. It appears to behave systematically and at least somewhat predictably. We'd like to know how it does that.

And the most tantalizing thing about linguistics is this: we have no answer to the fundamental question. We still don't know how language works.

I'm looking forward to reading Fish's article's more closely, but I fear we agree.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Destruction of Turkey by Chomsky

It appears something strange and vaguely troubling has been going on in Turkey these last few days. After reviewing my Sitemeter data, it seems I have had no fewer than eight hits in two days from Turks Googling "innateness hypothesis". Is there a conference going on, or are Turks just wild about dated linguistic assumptions? My thoughts on the topic can be found here.

I'm not exactly sure how accurate Sitemeter's location information is, but I see 5 different Turkish locations, some with multiple hits.

Mustafa, Hatay
Trk, Burdur
Izmir
Bilgi, Van
Mersin, Icel

BTW: You REALLY gotta be a linguist to get my post title, don't you? For the interested observer, one could do worse than read this (PDF).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

“donkeys” and “fish”

I’m a degenerate poker player and make no apologies. I should be ashamed of the fact that I’ve spent more time this week playing poker than writing my dissertation, but I’m not, hehe. I play mostly here. Poker players constitute their own speech community of sorts and there has developed a set of lexical items unique to poker (there are a variety 0f poker terms lists online and they’re all about the same).

Recently, I was curious about the origins of the term donkey in poker, so I Googled it and found this claim at About.com here and there are a couple things I find off about it:

Definition: If a poker player is called a 'donkey,' he's a bad player who makes blatantly bad poker plays. A weak player.

Donkey is also shortened to "donk" by many players to announce that they're playing badly or planning to, as in "I'm going to donk it up tonight."

Also Known As: fish, pigeons
(my italics)

First, I think they are wrong to claim donkey and fish are synonyms. A donkey is a bad player who wins (or sucks-out); a fish is a bad player who loses. A donkey is bad. A fish is good. Donkeys are bad because they take my money. Fish are good because they give me money.

Second, I’ve never heard the term pidgeon in the poker games I play in or in the excessive TV coverage, but it does occur in some of the poker glossaries as a synonym for fish. It may be a British English usage, I dunno.

There are a variety of animal terms in poker, but their metaphorical associations are not always transparent.

Shark: The most obvious is shark, a very strong player. Clearly, sharks are notoriously vicious, top-of-the-food-chain predators.

Fish: The term fish may have been derived from shark, since fish are largely helpless, bottom-of-the-food-chain prey. It’s a nice bit of structuralist lexicon building, if that is the case.

Donkey: I can’t find a discussion of the origins of this term in poker, so I have to take a guess at its metaphorical associations (classic back-formation hypothesizing … I’ll almost certainly be wrong, hehe). In poker, donkeys are stupid and lucky. It’s easy to see associating stupid with donkeys (no offense to donkey lovers), but the lucky part takes some work. I’ll hypothesize that the salient feature is the fact that, while stupid, real donkeys pack a potent kick that can hurt you. In poker, donkeys can play stupidly, but make a lucky hand and hurt you by taking lots of chips. Both kinds of donkeys are stupid but dangerous.

The Nuts: This terms refers to the best possible hand. I found the following story about its origin here (I have no way of verifying its veracity):

This cool poker term dates way back to the Wild West where cowboys would gather round a table, preferably in a saloon but alternatively around a campfire, and play cards. Back then poker players would not always bet with cash or chips. It was a more rustic time, and men would often bet their horse and wagon on a poker hand. Legend has it that when a cowboy bet his wagon he would unscrew the nuts from his wagon wheels and place them in the pot. The reason behind this gesture was that in the event that he lost the pot he could not leap up, hop into his wagon and ride away with his wager. The fact that he was willing to put those nuts in the pot as surety for the strength of his hand resonated through the prairie, and came to be synonymous with the best hand. A cowboy would only bet "the nuts" when he was convinced that his hand was the best out there. (emphasis added)

In an interesting extension of the term, ESPN has taken to using the term The Nuts to refer to a series of videos highlighting the little oddball or quirky aspects of poker. Though I couldn’t find an official site for the videos, I found this unofficial site here. What ESPN has done is take a term that is familiar to a speech community with one meaning and extend its usage by playing on an unrelated usage (craziness).

NLPers: How would you characterize your linguistics background?

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