Sunday, January 10, 2016

Thinking like a linguist

Classes started last week, and in my first Linguistic Anthropology class I did an exercise that I often do to begin making students aware of the difference between linguistics and the "language arts" they have mostly been exposed to.  I ask them to write down, quickly, without overthinking, their immediate answer to the question: "How may vowels are there in English?"

Without exception, the reported answers are either "five" as in a e i o u or "six" as in a e i o u and sometimes y.

I then answer them to think a moment, and tell me what question they actually answered.  Somebody usually figures out that the presumed question was "How many vowel letters does English have?"

Then I suggest to them that an important first step in learning to think like a linguist is to stop assuming that any question about language defaults to the writing system, rather than to the language itself.   The question that a linguist  would have assumed is "How many vowel sounds does English have?"

As a wrap-up, I offer to "show them my vowels."  I don't use phonetic symbols in this lesson, I just write words that illustrate the vowel sounds in my English repertoire.  However, for this post I'll include the phonetic symbol:

[i]  beat
[ɪ]  bit
[e]  bait
[ɛ]  bet
[æ]  bat
[ɑ]  cot*
[ɔ]  caught*
[o]  coat
[ʊ]  look
[u]  Luke
[ʌ]  but

I added that because I come from the southern Appalachians, I have probably the rarest vowel in the world:

[ɚ]  Bert

This gives me a total of 12 vowels (not including diphthongs), quite a lot more than the "language arts" answer of "five."  The awareness of this difference, and the awareness of what language questions mean to linguists, provides a first step in learning to think like a linguist.

* I am careful to point out that my difference between caught and cot is not universal among English speakers.  Some students volunteered that these words are homophones for them, as they are for many North American English speakers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Columbus Day Ja Vu

Here it is again, late as usual but still worth a look if you haven't seen it:  My essay intended for the Florida Times-Union but never published.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

One more thing making me cranky

It occurs to me that if you wanted to design a course on sociocultural dysfunctions, you could almost use nothing but Republican speeches for the readings.  The topics would include sexism, classism, ethnocentrism...

Something else making me cranky

New rule*: If you're a politician, you don't get to talk prescriptively about "marriage" or "the family" unless you have taken a course in anthropology. And yeah, we want to see the transcripts.

What I mean is that unless your concept of "marriage" is comfortable with the tradition among Kenya's Nandi, which allows for a woman whose husband has died to marry another woman who will take on the status and role of "wife" so that the widow can slide into the status and role of "husband," you should keep your mouth shut.

*HT to Bill Maher.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering 9/11

Yesterday was the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, surely worth remembering.  But as fellow anthropologist Mark Moberg (University of South Alabama) reminds us, there was another 9/11 back in 1973:
Long before 9/11/2001, September 11 was a day of mourning for South Americans. The region's longest-lasting democracy ended with the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende, replacing him with the junta of Augusto Pinochet that ruled that country for nearly 20 years. After Allende was killed in the coup, Pinochet suspended Congress, banned the opposition press, outlawed all political parties, directed the murder of an estimated 10,000 Chileans, oversaw the torture of many thousands more, and exiled more than a hundred thousand. Allende's crime? He had nationalized US copper corporations that had held Chile's economy in thrall -- the coup was directed, funded, and supported by the Nixon administration under "Operation Make the Economy Scream." In the words of Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, "We will not allow Chile to go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people."

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A linguist in Wonderland...

So a couple days ago I had a brief chat with a reporter from the Jacksonville Time-Onion ("it stinks!"). It was about a thing going on here, wherein the parents of a young child are suing the school board because they don't want to provide speech therapy for their child. They think that because their child doesn't pronounce certain consonants at the ends of words, they need speech therapy. Someone at the school board has suggested that it might just be a dialectal thing; this angered the parents, who are African American. 
Plot twists to the story: The child is only about 3 years old; and the parents insist they don't talk like that.
I tried to provide a little perspective by pointing out:
  • It could be dialectal, since AAE often patterns to minimize word-final consonants, and also that it would be worthwhile to hear if the child pronounces the alleged missing consonants in other positions in words.
  • The pathologization of African American speech (and other) behaviors has a long, sorry, and racist history. 
  • Contrary to our folk model, peers and those a little older are more important to children's language development than are parents.
  • At only 3 years old, the child has barely had time to complete the process of language acquisition; chill out.
Here's what made it into the article:
However, Robert Kephart, a linguistic expert at University of North Florida, said the case raises a decades-old debate about dialect versus defect within the black community.
“There is a tendency that we have with labeling some of the things that African-American children deal with as pathology,” he said, pointing to the 1950s and 1960s when it was common practice for psychologists to label African-Americans as “cognitively deficient” for such things as speech.
Oh, and one more thing:  I don't know them, but I'm betting dollars to donuts these parents are over-achievers who are panic-stricken at the idea that their child just might grow up knowing some Ebonics.  We'll see how it plays out; I'll keep you posted.
Link to the Times-Union story here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

August 6, 2015

It's that time of year again, but this time it's special: This is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed a couple of days later by a similar bombing of Nagasaki.  As I'm sure I've mentioned before, this event resonates with me; perhaps a little more so this year, since I also turned 70 a month back.

And as before, I will state that I think these bombings represent the most egregious war crimes ever carried out by humans against other humans.  Of course whenever I do this, I get blowback from (usually) well-meaning friends who have learned over the years that these bombings saved many lives by bringing Japan more quickly to the point of surrender.

Most of what I have read about this suggests that this was not the case, and that in fact the main reason the bombings were carried out was to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, that we had these weapons and we were crazy enough to use them.   Howard Zinn, the People's Historian, agrees with this, so I'll let him have the brief last word: