Category: words
2nd day of ‘pidgin & creole languages’ class
chris. | 3 April 2013 | 4:03 pm | (words) & their mechanics, favorite things, glosses | 6 Comments

Instructor:  “And i hope you find the class interesting.  I’m never quite sure of everyone’s reasons for taking the class, and i just hope they find something that interests them.”

Me:  “I’m really interested in the tensions of how societies and cultures contact and conflict, and i think looking at how language responds to that is very interesting.”

Instructor:  “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what draws me to studying pidgins and creoles, too!”

Me:  [bursts into a million sunshine sparkles]

gendered email sign-offs? {link/ranting}
chris. | 3 December 2012 | 4:37 pm | (words) & their mechanics, collected rants, link / ranting | 9 Comments

Kisses and Hugs in the Office – Jessica Bennett and Rachel Simmons – The Atlantic.

This essay looks at the use of “xo” as an email sign-off in professional settings.  It starts by asking if it’s professional at all, and then slides into discussing the gender of who’s using it — because it’s mostly women, and of course that leads to a rant asking “Why, after all the strides we’ve made to be taken seriously at work, must we end our e?mails with the digital equivalent of a pink Gelly Roll pen?”

DAMN, the gender essentializing in this piece is irritating.  Apparently women have “tonal antennae, which pick up on even the smallest shifts” in office relationships.  Uh huh.

But what truly baffles me is this:  Who uses a sign-off in a work-related email?  Who needs one — that’s why i have a signature line!  I’ve only ever used a sign-off (“Sincerely”, for example) when i’m doing the email equivalent of cold calling.  Otherwise, once a relationship has been established, i strictly rely on my signature line as the closure to my email.

I’ve only ever used “xo” or some similar sign-off in personal emails.


my sexy saturday night
chris. | 27 October 2012 | 11:19 pm | (words) & their mechanics, diary | 2 Comments
studying for linguistics midterm

mise en place of ‘studying for linguistics midterm’

To the sounds of incessant barking from the apartment below (poor dog).  Yay.  Just hope the midterm itself goes better than the preparation.

linguistics class: design features of languages
chris. | 1 October 2012 | 7:28 pm | (words) & their mechanics | Comments closed

The reading for thursday was interestingly designed: half of the reading was from the 1st chapter of the book, where we read about the design features of language; the 2nd half of the reading was from the back of the book, where we read about animal language as a useful example of what sorts of communication have which design features — thus, whether animals are capable of learning human languages.

I’m not going to go into detail about the section on animal languages, both because i don’t find the question of whether animals can learn human language to be especially interesting and because, frankly, the experiments described were a little upsetting since i’m not especially keen on animal testing1.  I found animal languages as a pedagogical tool far more useful when used as an in-class exercise: the instructor explained how a few animal languages functioned, then we identified the design features each language had or didn’t have.  A useful way to exercise familiarity with the design features.

The design features of language are necessary to understand because, as the book says, there is no perfect, complete definition of what a “language” is, and so one way we can recognize whether something is fully a language (or some other system of communication) is by determining whether it has all of the 9 “design features” as developed by Charles Hockett (circa 1960).  The book says:

[O]nly communication systems that display these nine design features can be called a “language.”  The order in which the design features are presented is also significant: the features proceed from most universal to most particular.  All communication systems have the first three design features, while human language alone has the final two.

9 design features of language

  1. mode of communication:  How messages in a system of communication are transmitted and received.  E.g.: for humans, speaking or signing; for bees, dancing.
  2. semanticity:  The fact that a communication system’s symbols have a meaning or function.  Altho’ many humans communicate thru’ speaking, a word-like sound produced with a human mouth has no semanticity if it doesn’t have a meaning.
  3. pragmatic function:  The fact that a communication system serves a useful purpose.  Hungry humans can use their language to request food.  On the other hand, my cat’s shrieking does not seem to serve any useful purpose (unless we postulate that the cat intends to annoy me for their own amusement, which is entirely possible).
  4. interchangeability:  The fact that a participant in a communication system can both transmit and receive a message.  For example, Andy has exhibited interchangeability on a regular basis even if sometimes he seems to ignore the communicative messages i send him if he thinks i’m being obnoxious.
  5. cultural transmission:  Acquiring aspects of a communication system thru’ interaction with other users of a system.  In short — learning.  An interesting example from the animal language reading was the cow bird: even tho’ cow birds leave their eggs in the nests of other birds, thus leaving their offspring to be raised as changeling babies by a different bird species, the cow bird babies will still use the songs and calls of the cow birds and not of the foster parents.  Cow bird communication is innate/genetic, not learned.  On the other hand, a Chinese baby raised by people who speak English only will grown up speaking English and not Chinese — human languages are learned, not genetic.
  6. arbitrariness:  The meaning of a symbol/word does not define its shape.  Onomotapoeia come close, but while some onomotapoeia around the world are similar in sound, they still aren’t 100% universal and so (in my opinion) aren’t exactly evidence of non-arbitrariness.
  7. discreteness:  Language is made up of small, meaningful bits that can be combined to make larger, complex utterances — sounds combine to make words, words combine to make sentences.
  8. displacement:  Talking about stuff that isn’t there.  This includes everything from talking about a friend who isn’t with you to talking about the past or future to lying.
  9. productivity:  The smaller units of a language can be recombined in infinite ways to create completely novel utterances.  Related to discreteness but, hmm, more expensive — allows for creativity.

The discussion of the design features ended with a brief foray into con(structed)lang(uage)s and — yay! — J.R.R. Tolkien.  And thus was my geeky heart satisfied.

  1. No lectures — just keep it to yourself over there. []
what linguistics studies (& what it doesn’t)
chris. | 1 October 2012 | 6:21 pm | (words) & their mechanics | 2 Comments

When i was an English major, i perpetually got questions about (a) whether i was going to teach, and (b) what language usage would be “correct” in X situation.  I worried when i started studying linguistics that i’d get a lot of (b) all over again.  Fortunately, no one really seems to know exactly what linguistics actually is, so i mostly get a lot of vague “oh, that must be interesting”s.

So what is linguistics interested in studying?  As i said in my earlier post, “linguists are interested in describing linguistic competence by observing linguistic performance”.  “Linguistic competence” basically means “what you’re doing mentally when you use language”.  “Linguistic performance” is the outward expression of your linguistic competence — speaking or signing.

Note:  Writing isn’t on the list above.  One of the things the linguistics does not study is writing.  Why?  The 2 best reasons are that (1) writing must be taught, and (2) writing can be edited and is thus a less immediate, natural expression.

What do linguists look at to “see” a person’s linguistics performance?  Speech and signing (e.g., American Sign Language).  By observing these, a linguist can develop what’s called a descriptive grammar.  So-called because it describes the rules of the language.  Everyone who speaks a language uses these unconscious rules to put together utterances.

By contrast, the type of grammar everyone bugged me about in my English major example (b) above is called a prescriptive grammar — because it prescribes the rules one “should” use.  Linguistics isn’t interested in prescriptive grammar, because the rules of prescriptive grammar have to be taught (hence, “grammar school”) and because they’re not natural features of language.

That’s another thing that draws me to linguistics: the idea that if you’re a native speaker of a language, you already know how to use your language perfectly well to convey your meaning.  I get tired of people who get hung up on being nitpicky about “what language usage would be ‘correct’ in X situation.”  Blech.

our brave narrator returns to college coursework
chris. | 26 September 2012 | 9:15 pm | (words) & their mechanics | 2 Comments

I’m taking an intro to linguistics class right now, and i’m not gonna lie: i am OVER THE MOON excited about this.  I’ve been hoping to take more college classes for about 10 years and it’s almost a dream that it’s actually happening.

Maybe, to help my brain digest each class’s reading, i’ll write a bit about the readings here?  The text is Language Files (11th Edition).  The 1st reading was 1.1 – 1.3.

The 1st thing that was interesting to me is that this text actually uses the phrases “grammatical”/”ungrammatical”.  The text i had for the intro to linguistics class i took when i was an undergraduate for real used “standard”/”non-standard”.  I might dig out that old text and see if i’m remembering correctly, and if there’s an explanation for why the text chose that.  The other thing that jumped out at me, having done the readings after the class (on account of being a late add and thus not having received the syllabus beforehand) is that the instructor left off pragmatics in the list of what linguistics, as a discipline, is interested in (phonetics/phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics — no pragmatics).  I’m going to assume this is because this particular course won’t be covering it and not that the instructor made some gross oversight.

What excited me about this 1st reading was how it explained what linguists do:  linguists are interested in describing linguistic competence by observing linguistic performance.  Or, to put it the way my brain read that phrase, linguists are basically attempting to describe an unseen phenomena by observing the visible manifestations of that phenomena.  For one thing, it reminds me of how exo-planets are (currently) being discovered by observing the regular, periodic fluctuations in the light of distant starts.  But, for another thing, there’s a poetic inexactness about what linguistics is doing — since linguists are not truly able to directly observe, and thus describe, an individual’s linguistic competence — that attracts me.

I realized, as i wrapped up this reading, that the other thing that attracts me to linguistics is that it attempts to look at language free of the social biases and class issues inherent in prescriptive grammars (e.g., grammar such as we’re taught in schools).  Naturally, i’m interested in seeing just how successfully linguistics maintains this distance from issues of social class — because, in the end, i always expect there to be some failure.

Onward to tonight’s readings!