Yesterday, as part of the Wayne State Humanities Center brownbag series, I gave a talk entitled, “What’s so improper about fractions? Mathematical prescriptivism at Math Corps”, based on my long-term ethnographic research in Detroit. For those of you who might be interested, you can watch the video below (or on Youtube itself), and the powerpoint is available for download here.
Posted by schrisomalis on January 15, 2014
Posted by schrisomalis on November 19, 2013
For the next several days I will be at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately I am once again ridiculously over-committed with committee work and departmental service and other such fun things, but if any of my readers are going to be there, feel free to track me down. On Friday afternoon, you could check out my panel, Thinking and Talking about Metalanguage and Metacognition (Conference Room 4C). Friday evening at the Society for Linguistic Anthropology business meeting, my student Sarah Carson will be receiving the SLA’s undergraduate essay prize (announced here). Saturday from 10am-2pm, you could come to the exhibit hall where I’ll once again be hosting the Wayne State table at the Graduate School Fair (now with more swag for eager passers-by).
There are so many panels of interest (and so many opinions on what counts as interesting) that I can hardly list all the ones I wish I could go to (see above re: horribly over-committed). But I do want to draw your attention to one really great panel of interest to the subject matter of this blog, unfortunately tucked away on Sunday morning: More than an Utterance: Indecipherable Scripts and the Materiality of Communication (Conference Room 5G) featuring a thoughtful slate of cross-cultural work on undeciphered and indecipherable writing systems.
I’ve promised myself this year to use my Twitter account to good effect, and so if you’re not already following me @schrisomalis, you could follow me and give me a little extra incentive to actually follow through.
Posted by schrisomalis on November 17, 2013
A really exciting new digital initiative in linguistics journalism is on the horizon: Schwa Fire. It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a superlative science writer. Erard is seeking to fill the gap between the language blogs (of which you’re currently reading one), where content is relatively short and the authors unpaid, and the literary and intellectual magazines like the New Yorker, where there are occasionally linguistic essays of some importance, but not nearly often enough or in enough detail. Schwa Fire will be a low-cost ($1.99) ad-free digital magazine available on the web and for mobile devices featuring important ideas from people from across the linguistic sciences.
Erard is currently running a major Kickstarter initiative to get his project off the ground, and is over halfway to his $25,000 goal. I supported it today and I would encourage others with an interest in seeing high-quality, long-form, language-related on-line non-fiction (perhaps with not so many hyphens) to do so as well.
Posted by schrisomalis on October 6, 2013
I got a note last week from a correspondent asking me about the word hithertofore, and whether or not it was a ‘proper word’. I have to admit that at first glance I was very surprised, because of course it was a perfectly good word, and one whose meaning I knew well. But when the correspondent said that she’d looked around and hadn’t found it, I looked at it again and realized that of course it wasn’t a word. Or was it?
English has two words with a distinctly archaic flavour that mean ‘up to the present time’, hitherto and heretofore. These synonyms also start with the same letter, are compounds containing to, and to top it all off, hither and here are also synonyms, so it’s not even semantically odd. Neither word is especially common, and as you can see from this Ngram, hitherto and heretofore are really quite rare and becoming rarer. It’s hardly surprising, then, that some speakers and readers might blend these two. Whether we think of it as adding -fore to hitherto, or substituting hither for here in heretofore, doesn’t much matter, as the result is the same, hithertofore.
What should perhaps be more surprising is that hithertofore hasn’t hithertofore been included in any dictionary, not even with a usage note. It’s not hard to find in use in printed books; Google Books claims 67,500 works containing it (although that number is probably inaccurate) in lots of different genres. There are plenty of words in big unabridged dictionaries that are far less common than that. I’ve found it going back at least as far as 1708, and I didn’t have to look very hard. While it seems at a glance that a higher than average proportion of these works are authored by non-native English speakers, I also would argue that one has to be relatively fluent to even make such an error, conflating two already-unusual words.
Note, though, that its Ngram, rather than slowly declining from the 19th century until today like those of its two constituents, shows it to be largely a product of the mid-20th century, peaking around 1970. This suggests, firstly, that perhaps it was at its most popular when its two constituents had declined enough in frequency that they had fallen out of regular use (and were thus prone to confusion), but were still common enough to be intermixed. It hit its sweet spot half a century ago, but now the two well-accepted words themselves are falling out of use in favour of previously or other terms, so hithertofore may actually have lost its chance to become another widely used variant (even at its most popular, it was less than 1% as frequent as heretofore). I still think it’s a neat example of the way that memory, meaning, and phonology can lead to the appearance of nearly-invisible blends, and given that it is a relatively common error, it could probably use some lexicographical attention.
Posted by schrisomalis on September 26, 2013
Once again, this year, I am continuing my longitudinal tracking of job postings at the American Anthropological Association website, which I note on September 26 each year. As a proxy for the health of the job market in anthropology, though, the AAA listings are ideal, since, at least historically, most tenure-stream positions in the discipline get listed there. So here’s the figure … (drumroll) …
So that’s pretty good, a clear sign of health, but nowhere near the peak of 2006 – 2007 (I got my tenure-track job in the 2007 cycle). However, having seen where things are at, I think this is the last year that I’ll track jobs as of September 26. It’s always been a bit ridiculous to measure using only one yearly data point, and I think that over time, the 09/26 date has become increasingly irrelevant. Really what is needed is a set of data points (perhaps every week in the three-month period from 08/15 to 11/15) which could then show the timing of job postings and better reflect the overall market during the main (tenure-track and senior) job cycle. Of course, I don’t have nearly enough time to do anything of the sort … but someone should.
Posted by schrisomalis on September 23, 2013
Last week in my class, we were discussing loanwords as well as semantic change. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect (although bothersome) news story incorporating these two aspects of linguistic change than this story about a bilingual promotional campaign in Canada for Vitaminwater, in which random English and French words were paired on the bottom of drink caps. But it all went horribly wrong when under one cap, the English word ‘you’ was combined with the French word ‘retard’ for ‘late’, as detailed in this article in the Province , and was then found by an Alberta family. Another cap had the perfectly ordinary French word douche ‘shower’. Coca-Cola (the parent company) has apologized profusely and cancelled the promotion (to its credit), and has said it was all a coincidence gone awry, although I still wonder whether it could be a rogue employee’s doing.
Learners of second languages are often warned to beware of ‘false friends’ – words that look like English words but in fact, in the other language, have a radically different meaning. Obviously ‘retard’ has a very specific and highly offensive meaning for most English speakers. But I’m a little surprised that, in the coverage of this story, there hasn’t been really any mention of the fact that ‘retard’ (with second-syllable stress) is not just a French word meaning ‘late’, but an English verb that, until recently at least, was in common use as a synonym for ‘delay’. Of course, these days the offensive connotation means that the verb ‘to retard’ is becoming increasingly rare, although it’s not hard to find plenty of examples from recent news articles. There is not a massive protest every time someone uses this verb in the customary way. This leads me to conclude that in fact, the real troublemaking word on the bottlecap is not ‘retard’ at all, but rather, ‘you’, which immediately turns the following word from … whatever it was, in English or French … into an insult. If the English word had been ‘kumquat’, I do not know whether we’d even have heard about this.
Posted by schrisomalis on September 18, 2013
The students in my undergraduate course are moving into questions related to changes in language including semantic shifting, so it seems appropriate to mention this fascinating article over at io9, The Bizarre Evolution of the Word ‘Cyber’. It’s a compelling story of a single lexical item’s path from technical term to productive and trendy morpheme to unfashionability and … maybe back again from the brink? Anyway, it’s interesting and has lots of detail.
The Google Ngram for ‘cyber’ shows a brief peak from the mid 1970s to about 1982, followed by a dramatic drop, followed by a slow and steady increase up to 2000 – as I have detailed previously, anything after 2000 isn’t to be trusted at the Ngram viewer, but given the discussion in the article, we might suspect a dropoff. Looking at the actual Google Books results, we see that the first period is almost entirely results for Cyber model computers (technical manuals, etc.) and then the later stuff is where you start see the more general references to computing and computer-related sexual connotations. Bear in mind that that chart is just for the word cyber alone, not for compounds like cyberpunk or cybersex , both of which shoot up starting in the late 80s.
I found it curious, on first reading, that the article didn’t mention the term Cylon, referring to the robots from the 70s TV show Battlestar Galactica, later reconceptualized as androids in the 2000s reimagining. I had always assumed, that the name originated (in 1978, at the show’s initial inception) as some sort of abbreviation or formation involving ‘cyber’. Upon reflection, in 1978, that wouldn’t have been a likely derivation, and indeed it seems not to have been. However, for the reimagined (2003) series, the name ‘Cylon’ was reinterpreted and given a new etymology, as an abbreviation for Cybernetic Lifeform Node.
Posted by schrisomalis on September 8, 2013
There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired). The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants. This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago). In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins. Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct. So we will see.
Posted by schrisomalis on September 8, 2013
Call for Papers
Society for Anthropological Sciences Annual Meeting
March 18 – 22, 2014
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS / SASci) will be holding its 10th annual meeting from March 18 – 22, 2014, at the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We invite scholars from any subdiscipline of anthropology, or from allied social sciences, to submit abstracts for papers, posters, or full sessions on any topic in anthropological science, broadly conceived.
The Society for Anthropological Sciences, as both an independent organization (SaSci) and a section of the American Anthropological Association (SAS), promotes the scientific understanding of humanity through comparative, cognitive, quantitative, and evolutionary approaches. The Society seeks to fulfill the historic mission of anthropology to describe and explain the range of variation in human biology, society, and culture across time and space. You may join SAS through the AAA website as a section along with your membership, or if you are not a member of the AAA, visit http://anthrosciences.org/csac/signup.xsp to join SaSci for $10 / year.
This year the Society will be a co-sponsoring organization in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA). SAS/SaSci allots 30 minutes including discussion for each oral presentation. Registration for the conference must be done through the SfAA site at https://www.sfaa.net/sfaa2014/2014instruct.html , and includes access to all activities at the conference. Abstracts should be 100 words maximum and should similarly be submitted through the SfAA online system. The deadline for online registration and submission of abstracts through the SfAA site is October 15, 2013. When registering for the conference and submitting an abstract or session proposal, it is critical that you select SAS as the co-sponsoring organization to ensure that your proposal is reviewed by our program committee.
(Note: I am an executive of SaSci and a member of the program committee – please feel free to comment, or email me, if you have any questions. We especially want to welcome submissions from new members and from students.)
Posted by schrisomalis on September 3, 2013
Well, with regard to the study of California language diversity I talked about a few days ago, my students rightly think that using contemporary satellite images of California vegetation overlaid with potentially-unreliable colonial-era ethnolinguistic data is probably not a good way to figure out why people 12,000 or 8,000 or 1,000 years ago moved where they did. And I haven’t even taught them anything about the perils of glottochronology yet. Also worth noting: no linguists were involved in the writing or evaluation of that paper at any stage, as far as I can tell.
So for those of you following along at home, on Thursday in class we’re going to be tackling yet another rather dubious piece of scholarship (and scholarly reporting) from last month: Patricia Greenfield’s research using the Google Ngram Viewer to study trends in personality in British and American societies as expressed through word frequencies; the study is ‘The Changing Psychology of Culture from 1800 to 2000‘ from Psychological Science and the news article is “Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish” from the Telegraph. Advance feedback in comments is welcome.