July 2018


The library has slim pickings on linguistics, but it happened to have a couple of books on opposite sides of the innatism debate: Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind, and Daniel Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool.

conan-jungle

File photo of Everett in the Amazon researching Pirahã

Overall judgment: both books are full of interesting things; both are extremely convinced of their position; both reduce their opponents (i.e. each other) to straw men.

It’s a lesson, I suppose, in letting one’s speculations get ahead of the evidence. Many a Chomskyan book has a long annoying section on how children could not possibly learn language; the arguments are always the same and they’re always weak. The Chomskyans’ problem is that they don’t spend five minutes trying to think of, or combat, any alternative position. They present the “poverty of the stimulus” as if it’s an obvious fact, but don’t do any actual research into child language acquisition to show that it’s really a problem.

Yet Everett doesn’t do much better on the other side. He’s all about language as a cultural invention, and he mocks the Chomskyans’ syntax-centrism and their inability to explain how or why Minimalism is embedded in the brain and the genome, but he doesn’t really know how children learn languages either.

My sympathies are far more with Everett, but an honest account has to admit: we just don’t know. Well, the third book I picked up is a massive tome called Language acquisition and conceptual development, so I’ll report back if it turns out we do know.

Sometimes the two authors cover the same facts– e.g. what’s going on with Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain. Their account is different enough that it seems that both are cherrypicking the data. Jackendoff doesn’t mention the non-linguistic functions of these areas, while Everett pooh-poohs that they’re language-related at all.

What ends up being most valuable about both books is when they’re talking about other things. Everett is full of stories about Amazonian peoples and languages; Jackendoff has a very good section on ASL.  (They both also have quite a bit of introductory linguistics, which I could have used less of. Sometimes it’s a pity that academics only have two modes, “write for the educated high schooler” and “write for each other”. I suspect their editors overestimated just how many people entirely ignorant of linguistics would read each book. I guess I’m lucky that readers of my more advanced books can be assumed to have read the LCK.)

I don’t mean to sound entirely dismissive. In fact Jackendoff makes the Chomskyan case about as well as it can be made (far better than Chomsky ever does); but if you find him convincing, make sure you read Everett to get a fuller perspective.

(I may also be unfair to Jackendoff calling him a Chomskyan; apparently he’s broken with Minimalism. He also makes a point, when pointing the reader to books on syntax, to include a wide range of theories, something Chomsky himself and his acolytes don’t bother to do.)

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For those smart enough to check here for status updates…

  • The new board is kind of installed, but doesn’t work.
  • Bluehost guy didn’t know why.

Edit: The board is working again. The secret code is 676 for now. The whole sordid story is over on the board.

Which is progress, in a way, since yesterday when it totally didn’t work.

All this is after trying to import the old database from the old board.  Although I was following instructions on moving boards, the result was a disaster. The software and database are not independent; I expect it failed because the phpBB versions are different. Finally I gave up and tried reinstalling phpBB, but that didn’t work.

Sigh. Bottom line, still working on what should be the simplest part: getting a frigging blank board working.

I don’t always get a chance to combine linguistics and gaming, so STRAP ON.

Overwatch-Hammond-Wrecking-Ball

So, Overwatch is getting a new hero who’s a hamster. An adorable hamster piloting a deathball.  It’s pretty neat, check it out.

PCGamer has an article today on the hero’s official name, Wrecking Ball, and why many people prefer the hamster’s name, Hammond. Which I kind of do too. Though the French name is even better: Bouledozer.

But the article has a density of linguistic errors that made me simmer.  Kids these days, not learning basic phoneme and allophone theory.  Listen:

The three syllables in Wrecking Ball use three main sounds: the ‘r’ sound, the ‘i’, and the ‘ɔ:’. …you position your tongue and lips very differently when you pronounce these sounds, and you can feel this when you say it. To make the ‘r’ sound in ‘wre’, you curl your tongue up to the roof of your mouth. To make the ‘i’ sound in ‘king’, you keep your tongue up high but bring it forward to the front of your mouth while stretching out your lips. Finally, to make the ‘ɔ:’ sound in ‘ball’, you put your tongue low and bring it to the back of your mouth while also bringing your lips together.

OK, everything sounds complicated when people don’t have the terms to discuss it. There’s only one big error– they’ve confused [i] as in machine with [ɪ] as in bin. You stretch your lips for [i] but not [ɪ]. Anyway, the word isn’t that complex: /rɛkɪŋbɔl/. You pronounce much harder words many times a day. (Try strength, or Martian, or literature.) In rapid speech it will probably simplify to [rɛkɪmbɔl] or [rɛkĩbɔl].

In other words, saying Wrecking Ball puts your tongue and lips all over the place with no clean pattern or loop to connect the sounds.

Huh?  Words do not need any “clean pattern or loop”.  There are some patterns to English words (phonotactics), but “wrecking ball” is absolutely typical English.

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b’ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

The wr isn’t a blend, it’s one sound [r]. Rural is mildly awkward because it has two r sounds, which wrecking ball does not.

Edit: Alert reader John Cowan points out that some speakers do have [i] in final –ing; also that initial /r/ may be always labialized. For me, there’s some lip rounding in /r/ in all positions.

There is no hard g in wrecking. There is no such thing as a hard b.  Stops are not unnatural; heck, let me highlight all the ones the author just used:

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b‘ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

I highlighted nasal stops mostly because the dude is terribly concerned with what the tongue does, and tongue movement for nasal stops is exactly the same as for non-nasal stops.

Compare that to Hammond, paying close attention to the way your mouth moves when you say it. Not only is Hammond two syllables instead of three, it also barely uses your tongue. Your lips and vocal chords do most of the work, which, ironically, is why it seems to roll off the tongue. Plus we get the added alliteration of Hammond the hamster.

Hammond is [hæmnd], with syllabic n. I’ll grant that it’s two syllables long, but I don’t know why the author is so focused on tongue movements– presumably he’s not aware that he’s moving his tongue for æ and the final [nd]?

It’s true that Wrecking Ball contains two liquids, which is hard for some children, but shouldn’t be a problem for adults. (And English’s syllabic n, not to mention the vowel æ, are hard for many foreigners.)

As for alliteration, Hammond Hamster is maybe too cutesy. They didn’t call Winston Gary Gorilla.

(In the French version, Roadhog and Junkrat are Chopper et Chacal, which is actually a pretty nice alliteration, calling out their partnership.)

Of [the longer] names, five end on long vowels: Orisa, Zarya, Symmetra, Zenyatta and Lucio. Interestingly enough, four of these five end on a long ‘a’ because it’s an easy and pretty sound for punctuating names (which, if you’re wondering, is also why so many elves in high fantasy settings have names like Aria).

Argh: these are not long a; that’s the vowel in mate. These end in shwas, [ə].

And while we’re at it, Tolkien is largely to blame for elven names, and in this long list of his elven names, just one has a final -a. He liked final [ɛ] far more. If other writers use more, they are probably thinking vaguely of Latin.

If the dude really doesn’t like the name, all he has to say is:

  • It’s longer
  • It’s final-stressed.

Names are a tiny bit awkward if they have two stressed syllables, especially if they end in one. The only other Overwatch hero with this stress pattern is Soldier 76, and he’s usually just called Soldier. But it’s not that awkward; it’s also found in such common expressions as Jesus Christ, Eastern Bloc, Lara Croft or U.S.A.

 

 

 

 

After 20 years, I’ve rewritten the Verdurian reference grammar.

fl-verd.jpg

The main motivation was my syntax book.  I want to be able to tell conlangers how modern syntax can deepen your conlang, and I figured I should make sure I have a really good example.

Now, you’ll see that I did it without drawing a single syntactic tree. That never seemed to be necessary, though I do have some discussion of transformations, and I mark subclauses and talk about underlying forms. The main influence of modern syntax is in adding more syntactic stuff, and thinking more about how things interrelate.

To put it another way, if you don’t know much modern syntax, you’ll write one relative clause and call it a day.  But once you’re familiar with syntax, you start to think about what you can relativize, and how nonrestrictive relative clauses work, and headless clauses, and what’s the underlying form for headless time clauses, and such things.

I also took the opportunity to add glosses to all the examples, provide a new long sample text, redraw the dialect map, add new mathematical terminology, add pragmatic particles, and in general update the presentation to how I write grammars these days. I also html-ized the Verdurian short story I translated long ago. And subcategorize all the verbs in the dictionary. And provide margins.

FWIW, though much of the content is similar, it’s all been rewritten– I very rarely simply copied-and-pasted. Plenty of little things have been added, and some old bits removed. (E.g. the descriptions of the dialects, which I hope to expand on in more detail.)

An example of a little change: the morphology section no longer goes case by case, a method that makes it hard to look up forms.  And I changed the expository order to nom – acc – dat – gen, which makes it easier to see when the nom/acc forms are the same. (If it’s good enough for Panini, it’s good enough for me.)

Verdurian is still not my favorite language (that would be “whatever language I created last”), but the problems are mostly lexical.  And it’s a little too late to redo the vocabulary yet again.  At least I can say I’m pretty happy with the syntax now…