Linguistics and Poetry and speaking in someone else’s voice

Roman Jakobson wrote eloquently about the insights which linguistic analysis could bring to our understanding of poetry and of the importance of poetry to a full understanding of language (Jakobson 1960, apparently his most cited article ever).

These days many working linguists stick to analyzing more prosaic utterances, but a few still keep their hand in the game.

There was a recent kerfuffle at the American progressive political periodical The Nation when they published a short poem by a poet named Anders Carlson-Wee which imagines a homeless person in the first person, and uses turns of vernacular closely associated with African Americans (such as copula drop—as in, “if you a girl” for ‘if you are a girl’). Pockets of the internet erupted in indignation that a white poet was appropriating a black voice and the The Nation’s poetry editors prostrated themselves before the mob, disavowing the poem and appending a “trigger warning” to it for “giv[ing] offense and caus[ing] harm to members of several communities.” The poet apologized for the offense and harm caused.

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, has published a thoughtful defense of the writer’s use of language in the poem in the periodical The Atlantic which seems to me to be very much in the spirit of Jakobson 1960. McWhorter trains a linguist’s eye on the poet’s use of African American Vernacular English or Black English, and comments on it in the broader social context. I think it’s a nice example of how linguistics can provide an informed perspective on matters of current public interest.

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Grammatical categories are used in animal cognition

According to Chris Golston, California State University Fresno, who will present this topic at Friday’s colloquium talk in room E-0105 starting at 14.15.

His abstract:

I show that thirty common grammatical categories are used in animal cognition and are in no way limited to humans or to communication. Based on this, I hypothesize that the semantics behind grammatical categories—including person, number, gender, tense and aspect—were fixed by the time of the human-chimpanzee split; that many go back as far as vertebrates; and that some are shared with plants.

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Syllable Structure and Sonority, May 11-12

This workshop investigates the role of sonority, the sonority hierarchy and the sonority sequencing principle in the internal organization of syllables. The current mainstream theory of syllable organization has often been challenged by language-specific instantiations of the sonority hierarchy or patterns that ignore sonority sequencing or other sonority-based principles of phonotactic organization. This workshop includes researchers working on typological aspects of syllable phonotactics, its acquisition, and its loss in attrition, as in aphasia for example.

Invited speakers:

  • Draga Zec
  • Janet Grijzenhout
  • Laura Downing
  • Anna Daugavet
 The program can be viewed here.
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Colloquium talk by Krzysztof Migdalski

This week’s colloquium talk by Krzysztof Migdalski (Wroclaw) addresses the relation between tense and second position effects, especially in Germanic and Slavic languages. It will be held in E0105 starting at 14.15.

Tense Dependency of Second Position Effects

In this talk I aim to establish a grammatical property that decides about the availability of the generalized V2 and second position cliticization. I argue that both effects are TP-dependencies. In the Germanic languages, V2 affects verbs with poor or no agreement as long as they are tensed. In Karitiana, a non-Germanic V2 language, the TP-dependency is even more prominent: V2 orders are possible only with tense-marked verbs in main clauses, whereas in subordinate clauses, which do not contain tense markers, the verb is clause-final. The cliticization patterns attested in the Slavic languages seem to be strictly related to the availability of tense morphology as well. Synchronically, Bulgarian and Macedonian are the only languages with verb-adjacent clitics, and they are also the only ones with simple tense forms, aorist and imperfect. Diachronically, in languages such as Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian we observe a shift from verb-adjacent cliticization to Wackernagel cliticization, which as I will show was contemporaneous with the loss of tense morphology. I propose to capture this correspondence by postulating that TP, the projection that enables verb-adjacent cliticization, is available only in languages with tense morphology. I will also refer to an alternative generalization proposed by Bošković (2016), which attributes the availability of second position cliticization to the lack of DP.

 

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The Price of Productivity

We just had a fun week grilling Charles Yang over his book, The Price of Linguistic Productivity. We discussed the mechanisms and principles in his framework, and how to apply to them to declension class and gender features, and to V2 and verb raising, how to formulate rules, the difference between contexts of applications and lists, and a slew of other topics. Here are some conclusions, as suggested by Charles.

1.  Everybody should read Aspects.

2.  Linguists should avoid overfitting the data: not every linguistic pattern is real, or worth theorizing over.

3.  Productivity is categorical, not gradient.

4.  There is no shame in achieving good data coverage.

5.  A theory of competence needn’t transparently yield a theory of performance — but it would be irresponsible to insist that it cannot.

6.  Third factor considerations require direct empirical motivations, not conceptual ones.

7.  Some linguistic principles cannot be regressed out of data.

8.  “Analogy” should be purged from linguistics.

9.  Indirect negative evidence is wrong; Bayesian packaging doesn’t make it better.

10. Inductive/abductive learning of language does not mean that there are no a priori UG hypotheses (i.e., “parameters”).

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Grilling Yang

This week we grill Charles Yang, focusing on his 2016 book ‘The Price of Linguistic Productivity.’ For those who haven’t experienced the Tromsø Grill, it’s basically something like an hour talk with seven hours for questions.

 

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In memory of Morris Halle

Morris Halle has passed away. He was a colossus of linguistic theory, one of the most important linguists ever, and he was also a terrific person. I (Peter Svenonius) have learned an immense amount from his articles and I learned quite a lot from him personally as well. He taught a week-long minicourse here in Tromsø many years back (together with Nigel Fabb) which was terrific, and I had many good conversations with him at MIT when I spent my sabbatical there. He was full of wit and vigor and insight. He was a great discussant especially for issues of phonology and morphophonology but also for linguistic theory in general. He once told me that he believed that functional explanations were always wrong. I understood him to mean that all functional attempts to explain anything in linguistics have failed. I thought it was hyperbole, but I worked hard to come up with convincing counterexamples that weren’t completely trivial and failed.

There is a kind of an obituary with some comments and links here:

Morris Halle R.I.P.

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Modal Concepts and Compositionality: New Directions in Experimental Semantics

Gillian Ramchand’s new Research Council of Norway-funded project on Modality will start up this year with a workshop in June. The project is an innovative approach to exploring the meaning of natural language as manifested in cognition. From the proposal: “The innovative aspect of the research is that we intend to build up a framework for the semantic composition of modal meaning that goes beyond the description of sentential truth conditions, aiming in addition to distinguish competing semantic descriptions on the basis of psychological evidence.”

The project will include two new positions, probably one post-doctoral and one PhD position.

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Most influential works in Linguistics?

What do you think are the most influential works in linguistics? Peter Svenonius has compiled a list here of the most cited works, according to Google Scholar. Near the top are general works by Saussure, Sapir, and Jespersen, Lakoff’s work on metaphor, Searle on speech acts, Grice on pragmatics, Halliday on functional linguistics, Brown and Levinson on politeness, and a whole bunch of Chomsky.

Other oldies include works by Jakobson, Greenberg, Quine, Labov, and Lenneberg.

Classics in generative linguistics include Ross’ thesis on islands, Heim’s thesis on indefinites, Abney’s thesis on DP structure, Baker’s book on incorporation, and Pollock’s paper on splitting Infl.

More recent entries (from the 90’s on) include Kayne’s antisymmetry book, Cinque’s 1999 book, Rizzi’s left periphery paper, and several of Chomsky’s Minimalist papers.

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Bidialectalists gather in UB

The conference on Structural and Developmental Aspects of Bidialectalism is nigh! Get ready for ten hours of structured talks and discussion, including international stars and proud local contributions, amply punctuated by breaks for refreshments and meals and informal discussion, preferably performed in alternating dialects.

 

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