Friday, December 31, 2010

Ring out the old...

It's New Year's Eve.  Here in northern Florida, we finally had a northern Florida type day, sunny with temps at or near 70.  This provided the excuse for a five-mile walk through the Julington-Durbin Preserve with our little terrier, Tinker Belle.  The only hitch was that about ten minutes into the walk, I started having those nagging doubts about whether I locked the car up or not, so we walked to where I could check with the remote. It was reassuring to hear the beep of the alarm.

Even on the last day of 2010, some Fall colors linger here, and the subdued reds and browns of the deciduous trees make a nice contrast with the always-green evergreens, as you can see in these photos. The trails itself mostly winds over and around a prehistoric sand dune, at times skirting cypress swamp.  There are relatively open areas, and there is also pretty thick forest.

We see, from time to time, deer, raccoons, possums, armadillos, squirrels of course, and various birds including hawks, crows, pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and smaller modern dinosaurs that I can't identify.  Reptiles are my strength, and we've seen, in warmer weather, gopher tortoises, terrapins, box turtles, yellow and red rat snakes, black racers, and even a water moccassin down in the swamp.  The ranger says there are lots of pygmy rattlers, but in all my miles of walking this place I have yet to see one.  I haven't seen the family of bobcats that are said to reside here, either.

There's one place in the woods where people have left a couple of strange items.  One is what looks like an old trap, large enough for a bear but with the trap door rusted open.

Another is what appears to be a bath tub, accumulating leaves and whatnot which has gradually provided sufficient organic material so that now a small tree is growing in it.

Anyways, this walk was a nice way to end the year.  It also provided me with time to think about how the year went, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  First, the Good:
  • We had several opportunities (including now at the end of the year) to visit with our son and his new family, which includes our grandson Gabriel, who turned two yesterday. Sometimes, he's a Terrible Two, but mostly he's a Terrific Two.
  • Our daughter, the offspring that inherited my passion for critters, successfully completed her first semester of veterinary school, and she too is home for the holidays.  She's studying in the Caribbean, and her semester began with a hurricane, but things went ok after that.
  • In August Willy and I got to revisit the place where we were married, Barbados, 36 and counting years ago.  We had an excellent time, enhanced by our attendance at the conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, a group that includes so many positively marvelous people who are both fun and intellectually stimulating to interact with.
The Bad?
  • By returning control of the House to Rethuglicans and reducing the Democrats' majority in the Senate, Americans once again proved to the world that they are the stupidest, most gullible, most easily manipulated voters on the Planet, perhaps in the Galaxy, if not the Universe.
  • Our President, questing ever for "bipartisanship" and "consensus," did not win for us national health care, a living minimum wage, or free education through university. Instead, he allowed viciously mean-spirited Republicans to dictate the terms of engagement at every turn, and in the end what we got was an ever-widening gap between the wealthiest 1 or 2 percent of the country and all the rest. I'm not saying he didn't get us anything at all, but it has been disappointing to say the least.
  • Our President upped the ante on the GW Bush administration by expanding a hopeless and idiotic "war on terror" in Afghanistan, so that now Afghanistan is really Obama's War.  And it's stupid.  And every US military person who is injured or dies in this Kafkaesque nightmare is a sacrificial lamb on the altar of our addiction to "war."
  • The increasing stranglehold of the corporatist/capitalist "business" model on higher education is most upsetting. Professors at universities are treated, now, like stock persons at Barnes & Noble, or Books-a-Million.  We are "evaluated" by our students, who are notoriously unqualified for this task.  And the students themselves have devolved. I started out teaching high school and middle school in 1969. When I came to UNF in 1989, the students were mature, eager to learn, happy to be in a classroom. Now, 22 years later, I feel like I'm back in middle school. It may take an entire semester to convince some of them that yes, the notes they take in class are important, and no, I am not going to provide them with a "study guide" for the test. [Disclaimer: Not all our students are like this, obviously; we have many great students, especially in our Anthropology Program.  But the general feeling, that the quality of intellectual life is going down, remains. Added 1/1/11 at 6:15 pm.]
The Ugly? 
  • The following people, listed in no particular order, are walking around, free to go pretty much where they want, with little likelihood that they will ever pay for the crimes they have committed on ourselves and many, many others who share the world with us: Henry Kissinger; George W. Bush; Dick Cheney; Richard Pearle; William Kristol; Donald Rumsfeld;  Condoleeza Rice; Karl Rove; The Koch Brothers; John McCain; Etc.
  • The following people are dead, but they should be exhumed, placed on trial, and postemptively hanged at The Hague for what they did to us and others in the world:  Richard Nixon;  Ronald Reagan; Augusto Pinochet; Etc.
So, I have mixed feelings about 2010.  Most of the non-good feelings go away when I'm with my grandson, though.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why anthropologists are special

Yeah, I know, I've posted a lot of cartoons and such lately but hey...  And by the way, it's called participant observation.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Science is not that hard

There's a lot of discussion, some reasonable, other not so much, about the AAA Executive Board's decision to drop "science" from its mission statement.  There's a lot of history behind, especially the conflict between the (sometimes legitimate) postmodernist critique of science.  But that's not what this post is about.  This is about the nature of science.

Science reflects, I think, an attitude, a skeptical attitude, toward the world.  The goal of science, as expressed by Jim Lett* and with which I wholeheartedly agree is that:
Science is an objective, logical, and systematic technique for acquiring synthetic propositional knowledge.

The best way to illustrate this is probably with an example.  Every semester in linguistics I start out by presenting students with a little piece of data from Aymara:
[utama]    'your house'
I then ask them what they can tell me about Aymara from this data. They try heroically, but in the end we have to agree that it's not much. I ask them what do we need, and they say "more data." So I give them:
[yapusa]      'our field'
Does this help? No. Why not? Because while it is more data, but it's not evidence; there's no contrast, and therefore no information.  We need evidence that produces a contrast. Eventually someone gets the idea to ask how Aymara says 'our house':
[utasa]     'our house'
Now we have contrast, because while both items contain 'house', one has 'your' and the other has 'our'.  We're on our way. We can create some hypotheses:
[uta]     'house'
[yapu'   'field'
[-ma]    'your'
[-sa]     'our]
As we collect more data/evidence, they discover that [utaxa] can also mean 'our house'. We revise our hypotheses to show that [-sa] is first person plural inclusive (yours and mine) while [-xa] is exclusive (mine or ours, but not yours). At some point, they usually ask for 'his house':
[utapa]     'his house'
And we then have the hypothesis that [-pa] means 'his'.  This is quickly demolished, however, as they continue to discover that [utapa] also may mean 'her house' or 'their house'.  So, we have to revise our hypothesis about [-pa], which turns out to be 'her/his/their', i.e. 'third person', with no number or sex-based gender specified (Human gender is, however).

Eventually, we can take these hypotheses and construct a theory (grammar) of Aymara possession, which could look something like this:

Aymara personal possession can be explained using the categories + Human, + First Person, +Second Person:
[-xa]     +Human, +First Person, -Second Person 'my or our, not your'
[-ma]    +Human, -First Person, +Second Person  'your, not my'
[-sa]     +Human, +First Person, +Second Person  'your and my'
[-pa]    +Human, -First Person, -Second Person  'not your or my (her/his their)'
This set of interconnected hypotheses constitutes what scientists would call a theory (linguists would call it a grammar) of Aymara personal possession, which can be united with a slightly larger theory (grammar) of Aymara personal reference.  This is what "science" does.

I suspect that for some people this doesn't look much like science, because we didn't need a lab, white coats, Bunsen burners and flasks, or intricate technology of any kind other than ourselves, and we didn't apply any quantitative measures. But it is science, because it proceeds from empirical data through evidence and hypotheses to theory. And it's objective (I didn't just dream it up, someone else can collect the same data) as well as self-correcting. There's even room for experimentation (can I say [yapuma], and if so what does it mean?).

In other words, science is more of attitude toward the world than anything else.  And it's not that mysterious or difficult, anyone can "do science."

Lett, James.  Science, Reason, and Anthropology: A Guide to Critical Thinking.  Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Word meanings and other relations

Most people who survive the US educational system know a little bit about what linguists call nyms. Nyms are sets of meaning relations that words have with each other.

For example, everybody's heard of synonyms and antonyms (we'll come back to antonyms a bit later).  Synonyms are words that supposedly have the same meaning, like couch and sofa, or big and large.  I say supposedly, though, because true synonyms are pretty rare.  I suppose couch and sofa work ok, but check out these phrases:
my big brother
my large brother
Still think big and large are synonyms?  Try the same experiment with little and small.

There are some nyms, though, that most people haven't heard about, for example:
Hyponyms.  These are kinds of something, as in terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd, which are kinds of dogs, which makes terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd hyponyms of dog.
Metonyms.  We use these when we refer to a whole something by naming one of its parts.  My favorite is suits, as in look like you're busy, the suits are coming.  Here suits is a metonym for the people who wear business suits and are in charge, the bosses.
And again:
Partonyms (aka meronyms).  These are parts of something:  head, ear, leg, and tail are parts of a dog, so they are partonyms.
And one more:
Retronyms.  These show up when we have to specify something's older form because the newer one has become the default.  Acoustic guitar is a retronym; before there were electric guitars, all guitars were acoustic and if you spelled it out you were being redundant.  Straight razor is probably another.
Before we get to antonyms, I might mention two other relations between words, one of which most people know, and the other maybe a bit less known:

Homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings: led and leadsweet and suitefeet and feat.
Homographs. These are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently and with different meanings.  For example, dove (the bird) and dove (past tense of dive).
And now, at last, antonyms. Antonyms are supposed to be opposites, but it turns out it's a little more complicated than that; there are several flavors of antonyms:
Gradable antonyms. These are opposites that have intermediate forms or grades in between. For example, something doesn't have to be either hot or cold, it can be warm, lukewarm, tepid, cool, chilly, etc.
Nongradable (or complementary) antonyms.  Unlike gradable antonyms, these have to be one or the other: single or marrieddead or alive. There's nothing in between.
Converse antonyms.  These antonyms entail each other; you can't be a member of the pair unless the other member also exists:  wife and husbandparent and childteacher and student.  Can't have one without the other.
It's this last set of antonyms that's illustrated in the photo.  Grampa Ron and Grandson Gabriel: converse antonyms.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hurricane Anti-Science hits New Orleans

The American Anthropological Association, to which I belong, held its annual convention last week in New Orleans. I was unable to attend, and I may just not bother any more, if what was proposed at those meetings comes to pass.

Anthropologist Peter Wood, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports that the AAA Executive Board is proposing a new mission statement that deletes the term "science" and replaces it with "public understanding,"  as in this marked up paragraph:
Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research; The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. and its use to solve human problems.
Note that they have also deleted the term "ethnological," which has always referred to the comparative study of human cultures with the goal of developing broad general theories about Human Culture.

This is a disturbing development for a discipline that has, since the days of Franz Boas, the founder of American academic anthropology, seen itself as linking the sciences and humanities to gain the broadest and deepest knowledge of what humans are, where they came from, and so on.  But it's not entirely unexpected, as for the last several decades people who call themselves "postmodernists" and "interpretivists" have gradually taken over the field, bringing with them a rejection of the empirically based, objective, systematic, logical, and rational methodologies developed by Boas and those who followed him.

One of the most dangerously bogus claims that these folks have made is that science cannot help sort out immoral from moral aspects of cultures.  This is wrong, because we need good, empirically based, objective knowledge if we want to make valid assertions about who is doing what to whom, to what ends, and at what cost.  Fuzzy-minded "interpretations" of, say, female genital mutilation may be useful and even necessary, but if all knowledge is contingent then any claims we make about the harm this does can always be contested and anthropologists become, essentially, over-educated journalists.

I have a feeling I may be writing more about this...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is at it again!

On November 4, 2010, the faculty and staff at UL/Lafayette received an email that included this (my emphasis in bold):

Program Review and Budget Reduction Planning
Drs. Steve Landry and Carolyn Bruder are currently holding a second round of meetings with the academic deans to provide additional feedback regarding the deans’ original budget reduction plans and to elicit their responses to program review data.  Following these meetings, the President will receive from Academic Affairs the initial recommendations for budget reductions and program elimination, prioritization, and reorganization.  Should the President determine that some program closures must be initiated in response to the mid-year state budget reductions, campus leaders will meet with academic administrators, faculty, and students in the affected programs to explain the criteria that were considered in formulating a program elimination recommendation and to discuss the proposal with program constituents.  Mid-year budget reductions from the state should be announced before the semester break that begins in December.
Really?  You're going to tell people that they will no longer have a job in January just before Christmas break?

And the most important reason that they may get away with it: faculty at ULL, and indeed throughout the Louisiana system, have no faculty union.  Here in Florida, when Florida State University fired some 21 faculty, including well-known anthropologist Dean Falk, the union, United Faculty of Florida, was able to force them to hire all these faculty back. The reason: FSU administrators did not follow the procedures for termination specified in the collective bargaining agreement, which is the contract between faculty and the school's managerial elite.

Not only do ULL faculty not have a collective bargaining agreement; they also, as of today, continue to work the fall semester without having signed any contract at all! [Added Nov 13: One has to wonder whether being late with contracts is a deliberate strategy; that would be even more evil than I expected.]

Here's a suggestion for any ULL administrators that might read this: If you want to cut your budget, end the football program.  You've already canned Philosophy; "football" is not spelled with "ph."  Wait, wait: maybe you should consider closing the school of Business Administration; after all, it's graduates from those schools who have put us in this mess we're in now.

(For my thoughts on other mischief perpetrated by ULL, go here and here.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English," part 3

So, what does a language need to have in order to count as a human language, and do those varieties of English sometimes regarded as "broken," "ungrammatical," or even just "slang" have what it takes?

There are several directions one might take in answering this question. The answers will not differ, but different audiences will require somewhat different approaches or different mixtures of the approaches.
  • The "Universal Grammar" approach. This assumes that the audience knows enough about linguistics to handle concepts such Principles and Parameters, Merge, Move, Projection, and so on.
  • The "Design Features" approach.  This approach will work for both folks who have had linguistics and the unwashed, as the relevant design features (Hockett 1960) are relatively non-technical.
  • The "Language Arts" approach.  This approach should work for almost anyone who has at least weathered the twelve years or so of "language arts" and related material usually offered in the public schools.
For this post, I will take maybe two examples from each of these approaches, in reverse order (i.e. from least to most technical).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Chimp vs. human vocal tracts

I may write more about this later, but for now just examine the differences.

Later... (added on Oct 9, 2010):

Essentially, in apes the larynx is higher and the epiglottis can lock with the velum; in humans the larynx is too low for this to happen. Also, ape tongue movement is mostly in-out, while humans can move the muscle up and down as well as in-out. Furthermore, the tube through which air passes from the glottis out to the lips is gently curved in apes, but in humans it forms a right angle. Anyone who plays any kind of wind instrument knows that different shapes produce different sounds.

What all this means is that apes (and human newborns, who are similar) cannot produce sounds with the acoustic properties of adult human speech. And it's why it was such a stroke of genius to try out manually-produced sign languages on them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English," part 2

Before I move on to what a language needs in order to be a human language, let me take care of one other thing that people sometimes see as "missing" from African American English, the English-lexicon creoles, etc. I am speaking of the copula.

The copula is a "linking verb" (Crystal 1991: 84). The most frequently used one in English is probably be and its conjugated forms: am, is, are; was, were; being; been.  The function of the copula is to link phrasal constituents of sentences, especially a subject and its predicate. Predicates in English that can be linked to a subject by the copula include:

(1) Noun Phrase:   This is a book.
      Prepositional Phrase:   They are at school.
      Verb Phrase:   I am walking home.
      Adjective Phrase:   She is tall.

In the English Creole that I am using for this exercise, only the first two would have a copula, and only one of those uses something that sounds like English is- but more about that in a later installment.  The other two would look like this:

(2)  Verb Phrase:  A wakin hom.
       Adjective phrase:  Shi tal.

In some varieties of African-American, the first two would also usually not have a linking verb. Note the following from AAVE:

(3)  Noun Phrase:     This a book.
       Prepositional Phrase:     They at school.

At some times and places in the past (and sometimes even now) children, especially African American children, who produced sentences like those in (2) and (3) were labeled as cognitively deficient or language-impaired, because the sentences don't contain an identifiable "verb," a thing we deem necessary for complete sentences in English, as in (1) above. Such children have even been placed in Special Education classes, and in fact the Head Start Program was in its earliest years designed to get African American children out of their supposedly language-deficient homes.

But there's a problem, and it's not a minor one. The languages of the world are not all in agreement about what needs or doesn't need to appear in the predicate of a sentence. All languages have predicates, but they can be interestingly and even surprisingly different in terms of what they demand. To give an extreme example, Aymara, a language found mainly in the Andes in the region where Perú, Bolivia, and Chile intersect, demands an accounting of the source of the information presented in the predicate. The source might be personal knowledge (I was a witness), knowledge through language (a witness told me), evidence of some kind that I or someone else saw, a legend or myth about which nobody alive has personal knowledge, or even an admission that no source is forthcoming (I'm just talking for the sake of talking). In English we can say, with impunity, she ate the cheese, without any source of evidence or validity whatsoever. Aymara requires more:

(4)  Jupax kis manq'iwa  (she ate the cheese, and I saw her do it).
       Jupax kis manq'iwa siwa  (someone who saw her says that she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'pachawa  (I saw evidence-maybe cheese crumbs- that she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'itayna   (the old stories say she ate the cheese).
       Jupax kis manq'chïxa   (maybe she ate the cheese, maybe she didn't, whatever...)

The point is that you have to do something, otherwise the sentence is not grammatical, but this is not required for English except in very special contexts (scientific papers, for example, but certainly not in political discourse!). The further point is that there are plenty of languages around that don't require "verbs" in places where Accepted English requires them. Take the Russian translations of the sentences in (2) and (3):

(5)  Eto knyiga   (this is a book).
       Oni v shkole  (they are at school).
       Ona vysokaya  (she is tall).

There are other, unrelated languages I could ppoint to. For example, here are a couple in Malay-Indonesian:

(6)  Ini kuda   (this is a horse).
       Kuda ini bagus   (this horse is good).

And so on. The point, which I may or may not have taken too long to make, is that languages, including African American ones, differ in what they demand of the predicates of their sentences, and yet they all work as human languages.

No child is "cognitively deficient" just because they might say something like she my teacher. To insist otherwise is simply to be racist.

Monday, September 6, 2010

May Day in September

Today is "Labor Day" in the United States, a day that is supposed to commemorate the Workers of our fair land. Most countries do this on May 1. The May 1 holiday was declared in 1891 by international labor organizations in remembrance, ironically, of the Chicago Haymarket Riots of 1886, in which workers demonstrated for among other things the eight-hour day. President Cleveland thought that having Labor Day on that day might promote further worker unrest, so he set it for the first Monday in September.

Anyway, history aside, it is deeply ironic that we even have a "Labor Day," since we are, arguably, the country of the world that least values or respects labor. A couple of points that should make you cranky:
  • In the US, the average CEO of a major corporation "earns" in one day what the average worker earns in a year.
  • Last year, the CEO of my health insurance klepto- corporation "earned" my annual salary every hour.
  • Exact figures vary, but it's safe to say that roughly 10% of the US population controls at least 80% of the nation's wealth, while the other 90% of the population shares about 20% of the total wealth.
  • Many workers who have a full-time (40 hours a week) job, and many who work at more than one job, are still around or below the poverty line and cannot afford to live in a house or apartment.
  • Increasingly, even workers who have a full-time job do not have health care and cannot afford to help their children attend colleges and universities.
  • Workers who attempt to unionize in the US are frequently prevented from doing so, a violation of Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Until we have at least a federally mandated living minimum wage and unhindered access to unions, I do not think that we can say that we "value" or "respect" labor.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Walter Goldschmidt (1913-2010)

We have lost a remarkable anthropologist who, among many other things, was president of the American Anthropological Association in 1976. His way of looking at humanity comes up every time I discuss ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. I don't have a link to an official obituary yet, but when one appears I'll post it here. Meanwhile, explore his blog and be impressed by his command of the anthropological enterprise.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I have the ears of a teenager!

This afternoon on NPR's Talk of the Nation, host Neil Conan interviewed Howard Stapleton, the inventor of a thing called the Mosquito:
The device emits a high-pitched sound that drives teens crazy but can't be heard by most adults over 25. Inventor Howard Stapleton explains how it works.
The idea is that those pesky teenagers, who are usually up to no good anyway, are mentally jangled by the high buzzing sound and move on. But here's the thing: when they played the sound on the radio, I heard it perfectly, but Neal said he couldn't hear it at all!

And I'm 65!  But I feel 19...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Ebonics interview

On Tuesday morning I was interviewed by News 4 Jacksonville (WJXT), our local television station. The interview, which you can see here, was prompted by a recent call from the Drug Enforcement Agency for "linguists" who could assists their agents in understanding the language on surreptitiously recorded telephone calls between drug dealers and customers.

In the interview, I pointed out that Ebonics (African American Vernacular English) is a valid form of human language, with all the linguistic properties of French, Spanish, or any other language. I suggested that a combination of phonological, grammatical, and lexical features of AAVE could easily combine to render it not understandable to people unfamiliar with this language variety,  and I gave a couple of examples (not included in the video):
She be working at Publix.
It's a book on the floor.*
I also offered the opinion that there might be ethical issues involved when professional linguists take on the task of helping the DEA carry out its policies, and I drew the analogy with the American Anthropological Association's resolution condemning the use of anthropologists by the military in the "Human Terrains System" in Iraq and elsewhere. This sort of made it into the video, though they didn't show me saying it.

However, what's really interesting are the comments posted by people who saw the report. Here's a sample:
Some people are so lazy they can't even muster enough energy to talk right. Pathetic.
Ebonics is now a dialect because white people are scared to tell them they are stupid, let's just call the elephant in the room out, the 60's are over, it's time for blacks to come on over and sit at the American table, obviously having a culture within a culture isn't working for them.
How the he!! is Ebonics considered a dialect? It sounds like your talking with a mouth full of sh!t 
And here's my favorite:
I get the need for the "translators" but for some academic walking brain to classify ebonics as a dialect is further proof of just how far society will go to coddle those too lazy to speak properly!
There was at least one relatively positive comment:
Back in the late 80's while in college, I took a linguistics class. The teacher was black, of an island nation not Africa (This is relevant due to the topic). I don't recall the details, but he did make a convincing stand regarding Ebonics as a dialect. I know Ebonics just sounds like a bunch of uneducated talk, but before you jump educate yourself a bit.
It's interesting. As of this writing, there are about 150 comments posted, nearly all deriding, in one way or another, the idea that Ebonics could be a language. This suggests a catastrophic failure of the public school "language arts" curriculum. If the topic were physics, most people would defer to the physicists; if the topic were digestion, even though most people can digest food, they would still defer to the gastroenterologists. But if the topic is language, everyone thinks they're a linguist.

*She works at Publix (it's her job, she may not be there right now).
There is a book on the floor.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English"

My presentation at the meetings of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics last week centered on sharing a teaching strategy for reducing the prejudice I encounter, in my classes and elsewhere, toward "non-standard" varieties of language. These include African American Vernacular English (AAVE), any of a number of creole languages (Jamaican, Haitian, etc.), and even my own Upper South variety of Appalachian English.

This is clearly a problem that isn't going to go away soon. Every semester for the last 20+ years I have faced a new group of students in my introductions to linguistics, and every semester these students bring with them the very same nonsense about the nature of language, and the nature of English. Some of that nonsense: English has five vowels (because there are five or six, depending on how you count, vowel letters); the articles (the, a/an) are adjectives that modify their nouns; sentences containing "double negatives" actually are affirmative; dialects that deviate from "standard English" are inferior, stupid, illogical, etc.; and so on, and on.

Because I work on "non-standard" languages, I may have heard all this more than most. In 1979, while gathering data for a description of the English Creole spoken in Carriacou, Grenada, I had one person, a visitor from Canada, tell me that Carriacou people had no right to their own words for things (mug for pitcher, for example), and that their children should be taken away and placed in standard-speaking homes because if they spoke Creole all their lives, their brain cells would deteriorate. During the same fieldwork, a Grenadian physician told me that if I were successful in showing that Creole speakers followed grammar rules, that would show that they were human beings worthy of better treatment than that usually dealt out to them. And that same year, in the National Geographic Magazine, Ethel Starbird wrote that people of St. Vincent, Grenada, and the Grenadines speak English "with a certain free-form style."

So, over the years I have developed a way of approaching the problem. It involves some linguistic sophistication, so I usually do it toward the end of an introductory linguistics course. Now and then, though, I do it as a Lone Ranger exercise (ride in, fire a few silver bullets, ride out). This might be, for example, a literature course in which students are reading a lot of AAVE. The target language is most often AAVE or Appalachian, but sometimes I'm asked to do the exercise for Gullah in a course on the peoples and cultures of the Sea Island, and every couple of years I do it for Caribbean Creole in my own course on the West Indies. The language can change, but the method and many of the details remain much the same. For this iteration, I am using the English Creole spoken in Carriacou.

The strategy is to begin with examples of things people notice that make Creole seem unlike English. Usually, this involves features that are "missing," features that may be attributed to a lack of education although in fact they are simply features of the language in question. Here are a couple of things that might be perceived as "missing" in Creole:
The plural suffix (-s)
The possessive suffix (-'s)
Dental fricatives (the "th" sounds)

The trick is to show that these features are not necessary for something to be a human language. For example, many languages do not overtly mark number on nouns. Two that come quickly to mind are Bambara, a West African language, and....  wait for it.....  French!  Here's how this looks (note that in Bambara, the number follows the noun):
English:     one cow...      three cows
Creole:       wan kow...     tri kow
Bambara:   mishi kele...   mishi saba
French:       une vache...   trois vaches
Okay, I know what you're thinking: the French plural vaches has an -s on the end, so it's not an example. But here's the thing: both vache and vaches are pronounced [vaʃ], roughly the first syllable in the name "Vashti."

Let's take the possessive suffix. Note the following.
English:     Anansi's shoulder
Creole:      Anansi shōlda
It's pretty easy to find languages that do not require marking on nouns for possessive.
Bhasa Indonesian:     kuda Ali   (Ali's horse)
Urhobo Isoko:           emete ose  (daughter [of] father; father's daughter)
So, neither a plural affix nor a possessive is required for something to be a human language. But what about those dental fricatives?
English:     thin,  then
Creole:       tin,  den
It turns out that the sounds [θ], as in thin, and [ð] as in then, are quite rare among the world's languages.  And furthermore, we can say that Creole speakers use [t] and [d] as substitutes for them, much as English speakers substitute an aspirated alveolar [tʰ] for unaspirated dental [t̪] in Spanish words like taco.  This process of sound substitution happens whenever languages collide, so it's ton be expected in creole languages.

So, something doesn't need possessive or plural affixes, or "th" sounds, to be considered an example of human language. But what does it need? We'll tackle that issue in the next installment.

Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156 (September 1979), pages 399-425.

Conference blogging 3

We're back home now, but I have to share this. In one of the panels I met a Cuban musicologist who had been part of a team recording folk music on Carriacou back in the 1980s, just before the Grenada Revolution imploded and the US did their "intervasion," as some Grenadians called it.

So, here Rolando Pérez Fernández presents me with a copy of the record he produced from that fieldwork. I promised to reciprocate by transcribing what I could of the French and English Creole that might be heard on the record. But first, I have to find someone to convert the analog LP to digital. Wow!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Conference blogging 2

Well, it's surprisingly hard to keep up with blogging when you're at a conference of linguists and what you mostly want to do is talk. This is probably more true of me than most, since I'm the only linguist at my university.  It's rare that I'm surrounded by people who totally understand concepts like allophone and absence of copula.  Too much fun.

Also, it's hard to be cranky when the view from your hotel balcony is of the Caribbean Sea. The waves are rolling gently over a line of reefs a few yards off the beach, and a humongous hummingbird flits around in the tree just outside. I am playing hooky from a session going on now to write a bit here before we meet downstairs for lunch.

Today is the third day of the conference, and my two duties are scheduled for tomorrow. I chair a session on varieties of French Creole in the morning, then in the afternoon I do a presentation on a tentative method I've worked out for reducing linguistic prejudice among my students against African-American and other "non-standard" forms of English.

One of the really cool and satisfying things about these conferences is that I get to meet and interact with people whose names were in my dissertation bibliography these many years ago: in particular this time folks like Mervyn Alleyne, John Rickford, and Bernadette Farquhar. It was Farquhar's 1974 dissertation on Antiguan Creole, discovered by me at the University of Florida Library's Latin American Collection in 1978, that as I told her yesterday "ruined my life, but in a good way."  Her description of Antiguan Creole led me to conceive of doing similar work in Carriacou, where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1971-74.

The conference, incidentally, is celebrating the late Richard Allsopp, a scholar of Caribbean languages who has very unfortunately passed away but who I had met some years back. His magnum opus I suppose is the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, published by Oxford in 1996, with a 2003 paperback edition from the University of the West Indies Press.  However, it was earlier article* on Africanisms in Caribbean creoles that contributed most to my own research by documenting how idioms in African languages had been carried to the New World by slaves and relexified to produce expressions such as "cut-eye" and "hard-ears." 

More later...

*Allsopp, R.  1977.  Africanisms  in the Idiom of Caribbean English.  In Language and Linguistic Problems in Africa, ed by P. Kotey and H. Der-Houssikian.  Columbia SC: Hornbeam Press.  Pages 429-41.

Monday, August 9, 2010


From a friend:
Did you know that the words "race car" spelled backwards still spells
"race car"?

That "eat" is the only word that, if you take the 1st letter and move
it to the last, spells its past tense, "ate"?

And if you rearrange the letters in "so-called tea party Republicans,"
and add just a few more letters, it spells: "Shut the hell up you
free-loading, progress-blocking, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking,
violent, hypocritical assholes, and face the fact that you nearly
wrecked the country under Bush."

Conference blogging

This week we're at the meetings of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, in Barbados. Life is pretty good!  We arrived yesterday late afternoon, after being delayed for two hours in Miami. The two hours were spent sitting on the plane, first waiting for the arrival of a replacement copilot, and then waiting for a pretty vigorous thunderstorm to calm down.

Amazingly, although we're deep in the Tropics, it's cooler and more comfortable here than Jacksonville has been this summer.  We've been consistently in the high 90s or at 100, with heat indexes in 105-110 range. Here, today, it's in the mid-80s and there's a wonderful breeze coming in off the water, which is maybe at most 100 yards from our hotel room.

While waiting to board in Miami several conference attendees joined us, including the Society President John Rickford and his wife Angela, who have researched extensively on African-American English and its uses. More attendees appeared at breakfast this morning. It's always fun to meet someone you've known, and who has known you, from publications, but whom you've never encountered in person until a conference.

It should be a good time...

Friday, August 6, 2010

The most destructive use ever of weapons of mass destruction

This is the 65th anniversary of the US's bombing of Hiroshima, followed shortly after by a repeat on Nagasaki. As I wrote last year:
I was just under a month old on August 6, 1945. On that day, a US bomber dropped the bizarrely named nuclear bomb "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan, killing up to 140,000 people, 80,000 of them instantly. Three days later, US forces dropped a second bomb, "Fat Man," on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000. Besides those who died, many survivors lived with terrible injuries, and for many years babies were born deformed by the lingering effects of the radiation.

So, in less than a week 64 [now 65] years ago, the United States of America committed the two most destructive uses of weapons of mass destruction in the history of humankind. The usual defense is that it was necessary to end the war, but this is subject to debate. There is also evidence that the real purpose was to show the Soviet Union that we had the Bomb and we were crazy enough to use it, needed or not. I don't know which is true, perhaps both are. What I do know is that possession of nuclear weapons by the US makes me just as nervous as their possession by any other nation. And why shouldn't it, given that we are the only ones who, so far, who have actually used them?
This year, has posted a gallery of unpublished images.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

New Blog Link

There's a new link over on the left to the blog Anthro Jack, written by a friend from the Anthro-L list. Anthro Jack is now participating and observing in the predominantly Cree speaking community of Chisasibi, a town near the  eastern shore of James Bay in northern Québec. AJ is investigating the role of alcohol in the culture and society of Chisasibi.  Fascinating stuff, check it out!

For me, one interesting thing going on in Chisasibi is that they use the Cree syllabary to write the language.  The word Chisasibi looks like this:


Too cool!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Primate Diaries is now in exile

Eric Michael Johnson has taken his excellent blog, The Primate Diaries, off of Scienceblogs, but he's still writing. He calls his new blog The Primate Diaries in Exile. Check it out.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Marvin Harris on holistic anthropology

From Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, page 139 (Altamira Press 1999):
Anthropologists who are committed to holism must come to terms with the risks of making mistakes. In this connection, warning students that the findings of science are provisional and subject to various distortions and biases may help to relieve some of the angst associated with holistic perspectives. Another point to be kept in mind is that the misinformation transmitted through a holistic text or introductory class is not likely to be as remote from current expert opinion as the usual non-academic sources of knowledge about biocultural evolution, such as creationism and New Age necromancy. Bear in mind that only a very small percentage of students take introductory courses in anthropology in order to prepare for graduate school; the great majority are only passing through, and one anthropology course is all they will ever take. Indeed, that one anthropology course may be the only course in the social sciences they will ever take. Given the facts that anthropology has so much to say, that its knowledge is vital for our ability to live as informed and responsible citizens of the world, and that there is so little time and space in which to say it, our students deserve to have us try to give them the most holistic view possible.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Culture" comes to the Naval Academy

Last month, the Naval Academy department then known as Department of Language Studies quietly changed its name to Department of Language and Cultures.
It hardly registers as big news. But to Clementine Fujimura, the lone anthropology professor at the Annapolis campus, the change is "huge."
Why? "Because it's acknowledging that the Navy is accepting that we need to be teaching about culture," she said.
 Yeah, well, I'm not so sure that this is the "huge news" Dr. Fujimura thinks it is. But first, I have a question:
The Naval Academy only has one anthropologist on faculty???  WTF?!?
 Moving on. Here's why I think that this may not be something to celebrate. When academic departments outside of anthropology teach "culture," they generally have in mind a sort of dumbed-down, laundry-list approach to culture:  Look at the exotic foods these folks eat, or their clothing, or the gestures they use for "come here" and "good-bye."  They rarely, if ever, apply the insights that anthropology has developed into the nature and structure of culture as a human adaptation.

Perhaps Dr. Fujimura is happy with this, but she shouldn't be, unless she happens to count herself among the "postmodern" "interpretivist" cultural types who have participated in the trivialization of the culture concept over the last couple of decades.

Here at UNF, our World Languages department (a fine name, I think) has proposed a name change to the "Department of Language, Literature, and Culture." As a group, we in the anthropology program saw this as outlandishly over-reaching (wouldn't the English Department have to be absorbed?), as well as a usurpation of what is, traditionally, the academic domain of anthropology. Since we are now in the middle of summer, we don't know whether World Languages' quest for this name change will be picked up in the fall or not, but there will certainly be some opposition.
And by the way, toward the end of the full WaPo article there is this:
...anthropologists have ever been wary of the use to which their profession might be put by the military, whose purpose, of course, goes far beyond the passive study of other cultures.
Excuse me. Anthropologist have never really been "passive" in their study of cultures.  The central research method of cultural anthropology is not called participant observation for nothing. And E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) referred to anthropology as "essentially a reformer's science... active at once in aiding progress and in removing hindrance" (quoted in Marvin Harris, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (p. 62), Altamira Press 1999).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Are jobs more important than health?

Louisiana governor Booby Bobby Jindal published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post today.  Commenting on President Obama's moratorium on deep-water offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote:
This ill-advised and ill-considered moratorium, which a federal judge called "arbitrary" and "capricious," creates a second disaster for our economy, throwing thousands of hardworking folks out of their jobs and causing real damage to many families.
Uh, yeah: "arbitrary."  A decision to do something relatively timid, compared to what really ought to be done, to help ensure that the environmental and social disaster that just actually happened in the Gulf doesn't repeat itself is "arbitrary."

What Jindal's complaint reminds me of is the argument about tobacco and jobs. We know tobacco products kill people, and not just those who actually use them, by the way. But, we can't just stop growing them, because all those tobacco farmers would lose their "traditional way of making a living." Well, you know what: If your "traditional way of making a living" is bad for people and the planet, you should be told to find another way to make a living.

That applies to tobacco farmers, whose "traditional way of making a living" feeds an addiction that makes people sick and dead, and it also applies to people who "make a living" by drilling into deep water to extract oil to feed our other major addiction.

Of course, I'm not saying that either tobacco farmers or oil workers should simply be thrown on the landfill of history. Surely we, the richest country in the world, could simply pay all these folks to not grow tobacco or drill for oil.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A short dose of irony

This post will be vague, as I don't want to bother looking up the details and I'm relying on an increasingly faulty memory.  Anyways, a couple of says ago I listened to some Republicanoid apologist argue that we should amend the Constitution to make our conditions for citizenship more stringent, like in some European countries. In some of those countries, a child born in the country is not automatically a citizen unless at least one of the parents can establish that they are in the country legally. In the US, a child born in the country is a citizen, regardless of the status of the parents.

So, European policy is good, US policy is bad. And therein lies the irony. It wasn't long ago that these same people were screaming that government involvement in health care, like, you know, they have in Europe, would be evil. The US system, in which capitalist kleptocrats control our access to health care, about as un-European as you can get, was just great.

So, is Europe good or bad?  Obviously, Republicans can't make up their minds.

Fifty years at Gombe

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the research, begun by Jane Goodall, on the chimpanzees that inhabit the Gombe Stream area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. This groundbreaking, dare I say it, ethnographic study of this community of chimps has contributed enormously to our knowledge about these cousins of ours.

One of the stars of the research was Flo (ca. 1929–1972), the matriarch of the "F Family," pictured here. She is the only chimpanzee to have an obituary published in the Times of London. She's shown here fishing for termites, one of the cultural activities possessed by this community that anthropologists were not aware of prior to this research.

As reported on the Smithsonian Magazine web site, the Gombe chimps have taught us lots of interesting things about chimps, including the following (the bolded lead is from the web site; the comments that follow are mine):
  • Chimpanzees eat meat.  Not all chimp communities do this, but at Gombe and in other places both males and females hunt monkeys, small antelopes, and other game, and then share the meat afterwards.
  • Chimpanzees use tools.  These include chewed up leaves for sponges, plant stems for termite fishing, and even stones for breaking open certain hard-shelled fruits. Again, the exact repertoire varies from group to group and reflects social learning passed on mostly from mothers to their offspring.
  • Chimpanzees engage in warfare.  I'm not sure I'd call it warfare, but yes, the group at Gombe sends out its males from time to patrol the borders of their territory, and they have been known to systematically attack and kill members of neighboring communities.
  • Chimpanzees can be cannibals.  As can humans.  This is apparently extremely rare, though, and involved a mother and daughter stealing infants and killing and eating them.
  • Chimpanzees have complex social relationships.  Chimps live in ranked societies. There is a hierarchy for females as well as males, and the highest ranking males are usually the sons of high-ranking females. The core of the group is a mother and her children. Chimps are promiscuous, and while chimps normally know very well who their mothers are, they do not know their fathers. They also know their siblings, and sex between siblings, as well as between mothers and sons, is very rare. Females frequently seek a male from a neighboring group to mate with.
All in all, the Gombe chimps have shown us that these fellow primates have individual personalities, socially transmitted culture*, and complex lives.  Let's hope we don't send them into oblivion with our homocentric arrogance and short-sightedness.

*Really, proto-culture, that is, culture without language.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The bureaukleptocrats are still at it!

Imagine a university where the following things happen:
  • A "short" summer course is offered, to be taught in July, and students begin registering and paying for it.
  • By early June, only eight students have registered, so some klepto administrator decides to cancel the class. The instructor slated to the teach the class is notified, not in writing, but verbally.
  • The day before the class is scheduled to begin, the class is still listed on the university's web site, and nobody, other than the instructor, has been told that it was canceled.
  • On the first day of class, the course is still online and the eight students are still registered. The instructor goes to the classroom at the appropriate time. Seven students are present. None have been told that the class was canceled. Some are upset to learn this, since the course is required for their major.  When asked whether they had paid for the class, most students answer affirmatively.
  • Finally, the day after the first class, the course is removed from the web site.
  • At least one student was able to get a Late Schedule Adjustment in order to register for a different class.
  • As of this writing, the instructor still has not received official, written word that the course was canceled.
If there seems to be no clear, established routine for canceling classes and informing those affected in a timely manner, this is because the klepto administrators of this university prefer to keep it that way. As one of them was reported to have stated in a faculty senate meeting, they prefer to keep things vague, so that they can be "flexible."  One wonders what this means. We have already learned that one thing it means is that they can decide, after the fact, whether and what to pay a faculty member for teaching a course. Perhaps it also means that they can keep the money students have paid for registration as long as they want to, all the while pocketing the interest.

Apparently, also, this klepto administration prefers to offer students fewer choices in courses, and herd everyone into one large class. In the case described above, they "saved" $1200 (the medieval salary this instructor would have received) by canceling a class that would have brought in at least $3840 in tuition and fees. Based on this evidence, they aren't really very smart.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The 4th of July

Today is our "Independence Day." It seems as though this might be a day to pause and reflect on what we are, and what we could be. If we actually did this on any other day, I would be willing to cut us some slack on this day, but we don't. We seem to be in a perpetual state of self-delusion.
 One of our major delusions is that what we experienced in the aftermath of our declaration on July 4, 1776, was a revolution. But was it, really? In the end the people who were in control on the ground were still in control. The slaves were still slaves, the poor were still poor. Native Americans were on the verge of experiencing, if they had not already experienced it, one of the more egregious cases of genocide and ethnocide* in world history.
The Jamaican historian of the Caribbean Franklin Knight points out, in his The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, that the Haitian revolution, which culminated in 1804, was the first successful revolution in the Americas. In the end, the former slaves were on top, and the former landowners had been killed or fled to places like Louisiana. At the end of the American "revolution," the former elites were still the elites.
Some other delusions we have about ourselves are listed and explained on this web site. Among them:
  • When politicians and regular folk talk about “Protecting our American Way of Life” ™ they are referring to our “freedoms,” our ability to worship the way that we wish to do so, dress the way we wish to do so, and so on.
  • The USA is the best, most desirable place in the world, and everyone in the world, if they had a choice, would want to live here.
  • America and Americans are the most giving people in the world – we help out other countries more so than any other country does.
  • America has the best health care system in the world. Anyone who needs care can go and get it at an emergency room, whether they have money or not.
  • “The Government” (and/or Government employees/employment, and/or “bigger government”) is bad/useless, and private sector employees are always more useful/valuable/productive.
  • The American people have the most civil (and other) rights, freedom and privacy on the planet.
  • Liberals/Progressives and their leaders just want the government to take care of all of their needs, from the “cradle to the grave,” they don’t believe in personal responsibility, they expect the government to somehow magically make everything fair, and they want the population to be controlled by the government. That’s how it is in Europe, and that’s what the Liberals want here too.
Think about it.

*Ethnocide is the anthropological term for destruction of a culture that leaves the people in place. This was the official US policy toward Native Americans, especially late in the 19th century.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Manatee interlude

This morning, I took our dog for a walk out on a pier that juts into the St. Johns River near our home. There is a little docking platform about halfway out, and when we got there we discovered a pod of half a dozen or more manatees (Trichechus manatus) churning up the water around the dock, nibbling algae off the pilings and otherwise feeding on the underwater plant life. Luckily, I had walked with my camera, and the critters practically dared me to take their pictures.

In these photos, you can see one of the things that make me want to opt out of being "American": the wounds on the manatees' backs caused by their being run over by morons in speedboats. People here like to put large boats with huge, overpowered engines in the rivers and creeks, and then blast through the water, caring nothing for what might be in the way. Manatees are especially vulnerable because they have to come to the surface for air now and again, and so, if they're lucky, they collect these scars; if not, they die.

Anthropology can explain this by evoking the American mode of enculturation called Independence Training (IT). IT begins at birth and produces a tendency for Americans, or at least "good" Americans, to see themselves as the center of the Universe, rejecting ties of reciprocal interdependence, decrying the value of social responsibility. How else to explain our lack of national health care, the difficulty we have with trade unions, our preference as a nation to "go it alone" (Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada, Vietnam...), our fear of the very word "socialism," even our antipathy toward the United Nations and our refusal to obey the World Court.

But back to the manatees. I think that the reason their plight bothers me so much is that, as a Peace Corps Volunteer and later as an anthropologist in training, I lived in a small fishing and farming community in the Caribbean. There, people went to sea, you know, like the actual ocean, in tiny boats with lawn-mower size engines, to, like, fish. They did it to survive.

People here run around here in their megaboats for nothing, because they're assholes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Debating strategy

Here's what to expect when debating anyone living outside evidence-based reality (e.g. creationists, post-modernists...):

Pearls Before Swine

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Francisco Ayala: Evolution is "not just a theory"

Francisco Ayala, biologist at the University of California at Irvine, recipient of the National Medal of Science, and recent winner of the Templeton Prize, has an article in Standpoint Magazine in which he confuses the relationship between science and religion (not too surprising, since the Templeton Prize is awarded for "Outstanding contributions in affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works").  PZ Myers at Pharyngula has done a nice job of dealing with this aspect of the article: I want to focus on something else for a moment. In the article, Ayala writes:
That evolution has occurred is, in ordinary language, a fact, not just a theory.
 He's right about the fact part, of course; evolution is a fact in the same sense that the Earth revolves around the Sun is a fact. But it's sad to see him contrast fact with theory, as is regularly done in popular usage where theory means an idea for which there is no good evidence, an unsupported guess.  As I wrote on this blog some time back:
For scientists, a theory is a set of interconnected hypotheses that describe and/or explain some aspect of the world. The hypotheses must be logical, falsifiable, and above all constructed from the analysis of data collected by way of systematic, objective investigation of the empirical world
It does the scientific literacy of the public no good to place theory and fact in opposition to one another in this way, and it's especially disappointing to see this done by someone with Ayala's prestige. People are confused enough as it is.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Another change!

OK, I think I like this template better. It's the same as the last one, except that the sidebar is on the left side of the page, and posts are on the right. The template is called "Minima Lefty Stretch"; I wonder why I like it...  As before I may play with the fonts and colors.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


So, I have changed the blog template. I like this one because it stretches out, letting you see embedded videos that were partly hidden in the old template. I might still fiddle a bit with the fonts and colors, but basically I think I like it. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Catching up...

So many weird things have been happening lately, it's hard to keep up and sometimes the AAADD (Age Affected Attention Deficit Disorder) just halts you in your tracks. But here's an attempt:

Last Tuesday, Kentucky voters, a perpetually clueless lot apparently, chose eye surgeon Randal "Rand" Paul, son of Ron Paul, as the Republican candidate for the US Senatorial elections to be held later this year.  The next day, in a painfully witless performance on The Rachel Maddow Show, Rand stuck to his position that owners of private businesses, like, say, restaurants, should be able to refuse service to African Americans or anyone else, all the while insisting that he, himself, would not frequent such establishments and that the "free market" would take care of them. I wonder...  He also suggested that the Americans with Disabilities Act should be repealed. And, just to put the ass in dumbass, he claimed that President Obama is being too harsh in blaming British Petroleum for the Gulf of Mexico clustershag that, as I write, is destroying the wetlands around the Mississippi River delta and moving east toward Florida. After all, he said, accidents do happen. As someone else (I've lost track) responded, that's just what you want to hear from the person who's performing surgery on your eyes.

And for good measure, John Stossel, one-time champion for consumers' rights but now a pathetic media whore for FAUX News, backed up Paul, saying that he thought that part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be repealed.

The Paul's, and Stossel, claim to be "libertarians," but they're the wrong kind of libertarian. They belong to the selfish, hyper-individualistic, anti-social Ayn Rand-inspired right-libertarians. There are other libertarians, the left-libertarians or libertarian socialists, who combine a desire for reasonable individual freedom with the realization that humans are social animals and that there are many social functions and problems that can only be handled at the scale of government.

Moving on...  Also this week, the Texas State School Board voted to doom Texas schoolchildren to a right-wing revisionist fantasy view of history that, among other things, ignores Thomas Jefferson while making a hero of Joe McCarthy, claims that the Founders intended the US to be a christian nation, and suggests that the United Nations challenges US sovereignty. They also tried to replace "Atlantic Slave Trade" with "Atlantic Triangular Trade," I suppose because that sounds so much more, you know, bloodless, but that, at least, failed to make it into the new history standards.

I wonder what'll happen next week...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Does Palin know what she's talking about? You betcha... Not!

Here is Alaska half-governor Sarah Palin in a recent interview with Bill O'Really O'Reilly of FAUX News:
I have said all along that America is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs and, you know, nobody has to believe me though. You can just go to our Founding Fathers' early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our lives. And our Constitution, of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don't come from man; they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our rights to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.
And she is clearly and indisputably wrong. Here is the Preamble to the US Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And if you keep reading, there is no mention, not one word, of God or religion. The only place religion is mentioned is in Amendment I of the Bill of Rights, to wit:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And, for good measure, here is a portion of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
But, to give her credit, maybe Palin's just reading the wrong documents. Here is the Preamble to the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, March, 1861 (my emphasis):
We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.
Could it be that she and the other Teabaggers who insist that the US is a "Christian nation" are reading the wrong documents? It seems implausible. More likely, they just make up whatever fits their agenda, and happily proclaim it to be The Truth.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

End of semester blues

In the semester just ended, I taught a section of Linguistic Anthropology. An ever-present theme in this course is the concept of linguist relativism: the idea that all human languages are equally good at being human languages, even those we often devalue or disparage, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics). Complementing this is the idea that languages may have quite different ways of expressing some concept, but that this says nothing about the cognitive capacity of speakers.

So, when I put the following question on the last test, I fully expected it to be a throwaway, a sure couple of percentage points for everyone:
TRUE or FALSE:  When Ebonics (AAVE) speakers say Mary pen for Standard English Mary's pen, they are demonstrating their lack of the concept of possession.
Imagine my surprise when I found that only 67% of the students answered (correctly) "false," while 33% answered (incorrectly) "true."

This is after spending 15 weeks with a professor whose entire research life has been spent investigating, analyzing, writing about, and teaching about "non-standard" languages. A professor whose interest in these languages was jump-started back in the late 1970s by Bill Labov's classic article "The Logic of Non-Standard English," which should have killed these ideas, but obviously didn't.

Another question, this one also a presumed freebie:
According to your professor, the decision to call vernacular forms of language, such as Ebonics or creoles, a "language" or a "dialect" is based primarily on:  (a) science  (b) linguistics  (c) logic  (d) politics.
The correct answer is (d). In this same class, only 39% answered correctly; 61% were incorrect. All those who answered incorrectly chose (b). Again, this after repeated iterations of Max Weinreich's classic aphorism: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." Plus a discussion of the brouhaha surrounding the Oakland (California) School Board's attempt to designate Ebonics a "language" for educational purposes (the African American community of Oakland does not have its own army and navy).

This same question, with slightly different answer choices, was on the final test in my other class, an introduction to linguistics for English and English Education majors. In this class, 83% gave the correct answer (politics); only 17% were incorrect.

What does all this mean? Are English majors "smarter" than Anthropology majors (and by "smarter" I mean only better at living up to the expectations of professors, nothing more)? I don't think so, generally, but the performance of the Anthropology majors in my class this semester, with a few exceptions, was certainly disappointing. For example, despite my constant needling, threats at testing (some carried out), talking about their importance, etc., they refused to commit to memory the required symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Of course, this was true of some in the English linguistics class as well.

Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating semester.
Labov, W. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pages 201-240.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

1775 wasn't what Sarah Palin thinks it was

Here, Keith Olbermann brings Sarah Palin into direct competition with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams over the role of religion in government.  Guess who wins...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Liberty University does it again

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has alerted us to the fact that Liberty University's commencement speaker this spring will be Glenn Beck. I'm not certain whether this constitutes educational malpractice, as I wrote about last month, but it can't be a good thing for LU's students.