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2016 November

November 28, 2016

Linguistics in Pop Culture: Arrival (film)

So the film Arrival has come. Finally! A movie about linguistics! And the hero is a linguist!

Now I won’t go into detail about the film itself – see links at the bottom if you’re interested in it. But to mark the release of the film, one of our instructors Charlotte Vaughn invited Scott DeLancey, one of our resident fieldworker linguists, to her LING101 freshman interest group (FIG) “Speak Your Mind” to give them a taste of how linguistic fieldworkers might go about describing or deciphering a language they don’t speak. The FIG students could then see how realistic / unrealistic Amy Adams’ character’s work with the heptapods was.

Assisting them with the task was Michael from the FIG, who knows Tagalog. A standardized form of Tagalog, called Filipino, is one of the official languages of the Philippines. According to the 2011 census, Tagalog is also the 4th most commonly spoken home language in the US.

To show them how fieldwork might be down when the linguist and the language consultant don’t speak the same language, Scott decided to use some props while asking Michael questions in Thai (which Michael does not speak). Here are some pictures and videos from the session. Scott’s also using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols on the board to transcribe what Michael’s saying.

In reality though, it is rare for linguists to do fieldwork with speakers of a language who are monolingual in their own language. Most of the time, some members of these language communities will know one or more major or national languages, e.g. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Nepali in Nepal, Spanish in Boliva, which the linguistic fieldworker can use to help them in the initial stages of the work.

On the other hand, one of the problems with deciphering an alien language -as Scott pointed out to the FIG- is that in English, we often use spatial terms like side, back and front that are based on human body parts (English got front from French, where it still means ‘forehead’). We also extend these notions to other non-human entities, e.g. the side of a busthe back of a chair, the front of a building. And these sometimes end up in prepositions, e.g. beside. This phenomenon is by no means restricted to English: we see the same semantic extension in all kinds of human languages from Chinese to Basque.

But what happens when you are dealing with a species whose bodies (if they even have what we might think of as a “body”) do not have the same geometrical orientation as humans, such as the heptapods? If spatial concepts we take for granted have such a strong basis in our physical bodies, how might we communicate with a species with a different physical structure to us about where things are in the world?

Scott DeLancey, #linguistics professor and #wizard.

A photo posted by UO Linguistics (@uolinguistics) on

Michael was a great language consultant, and the students loved having Scott in the class. They also got treated to his presence the following week when Charlotte and the other FIG instructors took them to see the movie.

It was definitely a movie we would recommend, even if many of the linguistic elements were glossed over. But hopefully it’ll help people see that doing linguistics requires a high level of analytic skills – that is, it’s like doing math, but with sounds / words / sentences.

For people who want to know more about the film,

And if you’re interested in more general pop linguistics references,

November 14, 2016

Faculty Spotlight: Melissa Baese-Berk

For our first faculty spotlight, we speak with Dr Melissa Baese-Berk. Some of you might recognize her name from her recent work revisiting Neil Armstrong’s famous moon-landing quote, but she also does tons of other cool research.


Could you tell us more about your position at the University of Oregon?

I’m an assistant professor at the UO. I began my position in the fall of 2013. I have a number of other positions in the department and university. I’m also the director of the Speech Perception and Production Lab, and I’m currently the director of our Second Language Acquisition and Teaching Certificate Program and an undergraduate advisor in the department.

Why do you think the study of speech is so valuable?

I tell students in my intro classes that I really love language because it’s one of the really fundamental things that makes us human. I find speech specifically fascinating because it’s a thing that people do all the time without really thinking about it. When you start to examine the complexities of producing and understanding speech and the cognitive processing that underlie these activities, you start to appreciate how rich an area of study this is. I’m particularly interested in speech sounds because phonetics allows me to investigate interactions between biology, physics and linguistics. My work, in particular, allows me to investigate interactions between phonetic processing and other areas of representation. This study is so valuable because  perception and production are not generally well understood, so there is a lot of room for important contributions in this area.

Could you tell us more about some of the research projects you are currently working on? 

In my lab we’re working on a lot of projects. Most of my work looks at acquisition of sounds in non-native languages. One of the larger projects examines the relationship between speech perception and production in non-native speech. Specifically, we ask how learning in one modality influences learning in the other modality during training. The second project examines variability in non-native speech production and how this variability impacts a native listener’s ability to understand non-native speech.

In general, I get interested in most questions relating to perception, production and acquisition of speech sounds. Potential graduate students would do well to have a basic idea of what they are interested in working on that brings together some of the themes I discuss on my website. Potential undergraduate research assistants who are interested in gaining some experience in a lab can contact me for more information about how to get involved in the work of the lab.


Outside of research, what do you like to do for fun?

I have a small obsession with sports. I’m a huge hockey and baseball fan and am particularly in love with the Red Wings, the Red Sox, and the Cubs, but will watch any sport. I also really love music. Before I found linguistics, I was training to be a violinist, and I also play piano and sing. I love classical music, but also really enjoy going to see bands in a variety of genres in Eugene and Portland. My other favorite activities include: cooking, hiking, reading, knitting, crocheting, musical theater, sketch comedy, and biking.


Click here to see Melissa’s faculty profile.

Click here to find out more about her work.

November 7, 2016

Linguistics in the News – Election season

Whatever happens after November 8, it’s safe to say that it’s been a pretty interesting election campaign season, one full of linguistic debates and analyses. We’ve seen articles that cover topics ranging from Hilary Clinton’s voice to Donald Trump’s use of the + [name of minority groups], and of course the whole bigly vs. big league question (answer: he said big league).

To give you an idea of how useful linguistics can be, here’s a list of articles that show how various kinds of linguistic analysis have been applicable to this election season:

In the realm of sociophonetics, which includes the perception of speech as produced by certain groups in society, much noise was made about the nature Hilary Clinton’s voice. In fact, The Atlantic ran a video article on The science behind hating Hilary’s voice, which mentioned that in terms of pitch, Clinton’s voice is not unusual for her age and gender, although it might be perceived as being louder than average when she speaks in a microphone. Personally, I’d take what the vocal coaches had to say with a large grain of salt. But by the end of the video the journalist does raise the point that people may pick on her voice simply because she is female, something that sociolinguists like Penny Eckert are all too aware of, especially from the negative social judgments of women, but not men, who do ‘vocal fry’ or ‘uptalk’.

In the realm of acoustic phonetics, Susin Lin at UC Berkeley was quick to show acoustic phonetic evidence that Trump did indeed say big league, and not bigly, as many people had heard. NPR did a piece that cites Lin, but also examines Trump’s history of using the phrase big league: So, which is it: Bigly or Big-League? Linguists take on a common Trumpism

In the realms of syntax and semantics, Trump’s use of the definite article the when talking about ethnic groups came under scrutiny. Lynne Murphy explains that the use of the + [ethnic group] makes the members of the group sound like some undifferentiated uniform mass, which is key to ‘othering’ them: Linguistics explains why Trump sounds racist when he says “the” African Americans.

In the field of corpus linguistics, David Robinson, a data scientist did a text analysis of Trump’s tweets and was able to confirm that the less ‘angry’ half of tweets coming from Trump’s Twitter account were written by someone else: Text analysis of Trump’s tweets confirms he writes only the (angrier) Android half (you can check out his R code too)

Finally, when it came to a linguistic analysis of the presidential debates, Jean K. Gordon examined the transcripts from the 1st and 2nd debates to study speaker-specific differences in language use, such as Clinton producing far fewer sentence fragments than Trump; or Trump using first person singular pronouns (I, me, myself) and second person pronouns (you, your) twice as often as Hilary,  who was more likely to use first person plural pronouns (we, us).

While Gordon’s blog post also looked at which candidate was more likely to be interrupted by the other or by the moderator(s), other articles like this one in Time looked at which person in each debate was likely to be source of such interruptions. No guesses who wins there.

So in the spirit of debate (and if you’re not feeling too depressed), feel free to chime in if you think I missed out on a cool / interesting election-related linguistics article!

November 2, 2016

DuckLing(uist)s on the Wing: Workshop on the Typology of Amerindian Languages in Peru

For our inaugural post, we hear from our Head of Department Spike Gildea, who’s just back from Peru, where he and some of our other past Duck graduates attended the 2nd Workshop on the Typology of Amerindian Languages: The grammar of the expression of body parts:


I had a delightful time in Lima, Peru, where I saw Tom Payne and several former Duck graduate students, including Sidney Facundes (MA 1995), Alejandra Vidal (PhD 2001), and Pilar Valenzuela (PhD 2003), who co-organized a conference with Roberto Zariquiey (visited March of 2014) on The Grammar of the Expression of Body Parts.

Sadly, we did not get a “Duck photo”, although this one got three fifths of us:


L-R: Pilar Valenzuela, Marianne Mithun (UC Santa Barbara), Spike Gildea & Sidney Facundes (Photo credit: Sidney Facundes)


And in this photo, you can see who was still there right at the end of the conference, including three Ducks in the back row (me, Alejandra half-hidden, and Sidney) plus one in the middle of the second row (Pilar).


(Photo credit: Pilar Valenzuela)

On a less local level, the linguists reading this could play “spot the plenary speakers”: Damian Blasi, Christian Lehmann, and Marianne Mithun, and most of us ought to be able to identify Harald Hammerström, as well.

We ate a lot of body parts from various types of seafood (ah, cebiche), drank unreasonable amounts of liquids distilled from liquids extracted from the bodies of grapes (ah, Pisco), and learned about the semantics (especially metaphorical extensions), syntax (especially inalienable possession, incorporation, and “external possession”), discourse properties, and (of course) diachrony of body part expressions. The is the best job ever!

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