Here are some interesting/funny/horrible items I stumbled upon.

The first is a blogpost on the blog mathbabe; it’s a rant about the human brain project. The list items are called e.g. “We have no fucking clue how to simulate a brain”, “We have no fucking clue how to wire up a brain” etc… I think you get the point. Under the first heading you find this:

We can’t simulate the brain of C. Elegans, a very well studied roundworm (first animal to have its genome sequenced) in which every animal has exactly the same 302-neuron brain (out of 959 total cells) and we know the wiring diagram and we have tons of data on how the animal behaves, including how it behaves if you kill this neuron or that neuron. Pretty much whatever data you want, we can generate it. And yet we don’t know how this brain works. Simply put, data does not equal understanding. You might see a talk in which someone argues for some theory for a subnetwork of 6 or 8 neurons in this animal. Our state of understanding is that bad.

Then, we have probably the most horrible article of all time about matters linguistic in the popular press, claiming among others that Australians’ use of alcohol is the reason for their accent. The stupidity, ignorance and not-even-wrongness of this article just cannot be overstated, and I’m not even sure whether the quote from Peter Medawar’s review of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ applies, viz. “its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself”. The article is full of claims that not even a second semester undergraduate student of linguistics would ever make and no empirical evidence whatsoever is provided to support the claims. This speaks volumes about the public perception of linguistics, i.e. that anybody can make claims about language, while for any other science you at least have to talk to experts before you distort their views.

Last, we have the statement for Ivan Sag’s lifetime service award by the LSA. I stumbled upon this guy so often in the last few weeks, so I found it interesting to see how he is recognized in the wider field:

Ivan A. Sag, the 2005 recipient of the Victoria A. Fromkin Prize for service to the field of linguistics, is a force of nature. Luckily for his colleagues in linguistics, that amazing force has been directed towards many projects for the general good of the discipline. The LSA is especially grateful for the extraordinary talents and energy he has invested in summertime linguistic institutes. To many, Ivan is “Mr. Institute”: Not only did he direct early in his career the enormously successful 1987 Stanford institute, but he has served as associate director for three other institutes, including the MIT-Harvard institute, and, while still a graduate student, as “special consultant” for the 1974 U MA-Amherst institute. A student at three institutes during his graduate career, he has been on the faculty of at least eight more, organizing conferences or workshops at several including one where he did not teach. Through his own direct organizing skills as well as serving on committees and helping draft various documents, he has helped the LSA keep institutes successful. Ivan upped both the intellectual and the economic payoff, not only introducing corporate sponsorship for institute courses but even turning them into ongoing revenue streams by marketing tapes. Beyond these administrative achievements, Ivan has been central to creating the special atmosphere that makes institutes so attractive to linguists at all stages of their careers: Playing with the “Dead Tongues”, organizing accommodations in empty sorority houses replete with French chefs, engaging colleagues and students in lively linguistic discussions, and more. […]


Here is an article that discusses other public appearances of the author of the above-mentioned horrible piece. There, in a falsification of Popper’s falsificationism he proves by evidence that he is as incompetent regarding linguistics as you can be. In this article, he is rightly critized, i.a. for making (not even) wrong claims about the linguistic abilities of Neanderthals to speak and phonetics while having absolutely no linguistic credentials whatsoever – furthermore, he doesn’t even have any academic credentials, he is a singer and voice coach.

In a response he claims that this gives him an ‘unconventional perspective to the subject’ and dismisses the previous author’s criticism as follows: “Despite his apparent linguistic training he is a chronic under-achiever with a nasty chip on his shoulder and some old fashioned jealousy. He is an amateur who achieves modest heights only by digging low, scraping the gutter and criticising the work of others without producing work of his own. What books has he written? Has he been published beyond Crikey?”

Everything further in this article demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of and contempt for linguistics, its goals, science, the scientific method, and even rational thinking in general. I will not reproduce this here.

It is simply saddening to see that everybody is allowed to pontificate about language. Imagine a TV/radio show or a magazine would invite a baseball player to talk about General Relativity onto their program because they’ve seen thousands of things fall in their lifetime. This sounds ridiculous. However, with linguistics this is exactly the case. It could never occur to anyone that language can be the object of scientific study, that there is something to learn about it and that it takes years of training to understand fundamental issues, let alone communicate these findings to the public.

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Ibbotson & Tomasello in the Salon

I just encountered a longer article by Ibbotson and Tomasello in the Salon. It represents quite a non – mainstream generative grammar view on language and talks about how the Chomskyan paradigm (UG etc…) is slowly rebutted. I’m not sure if they represent MGG correctly at all points in the text, and I’m pretty sure that generative grammarians would disagree with a lot of things that are said there.

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Gems from the South Hanoi Institute of Technology

The article with the innocent title “English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subjects” really is a gem of linguistic research. It is a serious discussion of the grammatical properties of sentences like “Fuck you”, thereby kickstarting the fields of porno- and scatolinguistics. The author is Quang Phuc Dong from the South Hanoi Institute of Technology which strangely is nowhere to be found on any map (although if you form its acronym you might understand why).

Quang Phuc Dong is a pseudonym but not for Haj Ross, as some might think  (because of things like this video). It’s the nom de plume of Jim McCawley who, according to Wikipedia, also wrote under the name of Yuck Foo (same institute).

In case you’re interested in knowing more about this guy, here is a webpage where people remember this awesome linguist, with plenty quotes, stories and other things.

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Building 20

Here is a link to a webpage about the (in)famous Building 20 at MIT in which the linguistics department was located for a long time. I’ve heard lots of mentions about this building by now, and it seems to have been a South Hanoi Institute of Technology kind of hole (if you allow the inside baseball joke). The semi-optimal quality of this building that at the same time was a breeding ground for amazing discoveries is the source of many stories.

Jerome Lettvin had this unconventional way of putting it:

Let’s put it this way, you might regard building 20 as the womb of ideas. It is sort of what you might call the vagina of the institute. It doesn’t smell very good, it is kind of messy, but by god it is procreative, and it doesn’t make only replicas of itself, as other buildings do. It is sort of all-purpose.


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Semantics is popular (?)

I just found a pop-sci (-ish) article on Medium about “Philosophy of Language”; but basically it is about the weird, on acid way of thinking that is semantics. It starts with quantifiers, truth-functional semantics and the unavoidable “king of XY”, but it also covers possible worlds, deixis and implicatures.

If for some reason you feel like this is something you want to know more about, go and read it!


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Amazing phonology intro textbook

I just stumbled upon Bale & Reiss (2018)’s “Phonology: A Formal Introduction”. Although I’m not a phonologist, I took a quick look, only to find myself amazed by the title of the first chapter already: “Phonology and Theoretical Neuroscience”. Now that’s an opening! After a short few lines about how plural -s can sound different in different environments, it hits you right on the head with:

This distinction is an example of a phonological fact about your language. In this book we take the position that the study of such facts, the study of phonology, is a branch of cognitive science that ultimately can serve as a form of theoretical neuroscience.

I love it! I wish all my intro textbooks would have started like this: the Big Picture, the ultimate goal of what you actually study, to place linguistics unapologetically right at the center of cognitive science, making it clear that by studying such facts you actually study the human brain and thus linking phonology with neuroscience.

This suggestion, that phonology is relevant to theoretical neuroscience, might strike you as outrageous. However, once we consider that you had to use your mind to come up with the plural form for those previously unknown words, and that the mind is somehow closely related to the brain, our apparently controversial characterization of phonology becomes a platitude: our linguistic behavior, like all our behavior, is highly dependent on our mind/brain and thus ultimately has to be compatible with the correct theory of our brains.

However, they continue with complete honesty (and with a word of warning so to speak):

This is not to say we will be talking about neurotransmitters or networks of cells in this book. We wish we could; we wish phonology were at a stage where we could link our phonological knowledge to neurological states. Unfortunately it is not. No one has identified correspondences between linguistic “sounds” and neurological patterns. No one yet understands the correlations between a specific set of neurons firing and the representation of syllables, stress patterns, or tone, and it is not even clear that this is the right kind of correlation to look for. The study of the relationship between the activity in the brain and language, or in fact any other kind of cognition, is in its infancy. However, our.

They go on with this ballsy statement and mention the goddamn ever-present Gallistel & King book which I finally have to read:

However, our ambitious goal in this book is to introduce you to phonology as a useful step toward a future unification of cognitive science and neuroscience. As Gallistel and King (2009, p. vii) put it, “The truths the cognitive scientists know about information processing, when integrated into neuroscience, will transform our understanding of how the brain works.”

They offer this as a way forward:

As phonologists interested in unifying our field with other branches of cognitive science, our job is to formulate theories using terms and concepts that are accessible to specialists in fields like psychology and neuroscience. With this in mind, we have attempted to build phonological theories out of a general logical and mathematical toolbox containing functions, sets, set operations, and variables. Theories built with these tools can be easily translated to precise algorithms. Precise algorithms, in turn, should ultimately make it easier to associate neurological states and activity with phonological cognition.

This is not a textbook, this is a manifesto. As I said, they immediately offer the big picture, outline the mountains that are still to climb for future students, offer possible paths, and, perhaps most importantly, see responsibility to make interdisciplinary cross-talk possible in themselves, not others.

In a nutshell: I’ve only read the first few pages but I already love it, and I wish we would have started phonology like this.


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The HPSG Man

Yesterday, I discovered this gem:

It’s a performance by the Dead Tongues at Ivanfest, in honour of Ivan Sag. It’s really cute, go watch it. I found it especially endearing how much Ivan Sag enjoys himself at the keyboard.

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