Office hours Thursday

On Thursday, I’m planning on essentially “canceling” my office hours, in the sense that I’m planning to spend them in the classroom of my other class (Syntax), answering questions people might have there. If you were planning to come to my office hours on Thursday, let me know, and perhaps we can set up a different time. I’ll head back to my office after this happens, probably around 6pm, so you could try to intercept me there, but it’s probably better to let me know ahead of time.

Final project notes

We talked a little bit about the final project on Tuesday. The idea I had originally had was to assign a couple of already stated universals that you could explore using the online database tools, or maybe even try to discover new correlations. My own experimentation with this wound up making it clear to me that it was not going to work particularly well in that form.

So, what I proposed is basically three options. The first two options are a bit more creative and will probably be more interesting.

Option one is to pick a topic and read up on it a little bit, providing me with something like a short literature review on what you read and discovered. I had in mind here something like 2-3 papers, and you might start the process by looking at the readings page at readings that are related to the topics we discussed. In any event, the writeup you give me should be a reasonable length. Probably 5 pages or more, not as many as 10 pages.

Option two is to look in depth at a language with some of the universals and typological parameters we’ve talked about in mind, and do a writeup of that instead. For this, you would probably need access to a native speaker or a detailed grammar. Does the language conform to the universals we’ve talked about, how would it be classified? You can look at things like adverb positions, adpositions, other word order facts, phoneme inventories, words for colors, anything we’ve covered. This writeup too should be somewhere in the 5-10 pages area.

Option three is more like what I originally had had in mind. I handed out Greenberg (1963), which has a list of his universals at the end, and you can pick any five that you can test with the WALS database and discuss what you find. What kinds of exceptions are there, where are they geographically? Are the exceptions numerous enough to put the universal itself into question? This, like the other options, should result in a 5-10 page writeup.

Feel free to let me know what you’re thinking about working on. This is the homework for the rest of the semester, the project should be turned in on the last day of classes.

Online resources from today

Here’s a quick list of the resources we looked at in class.

First was the World Atlas of Language Structures Online (WALS), which we’d also looked at a bit before. This time our look included playing a bit with the Mac application (there are also version for Windows) that can be found here.

We also looked around a bit in The Universals Archive, and Das grammatische Raritätenkabinett.

We explored a little bit in of the Typological Database System (Firefox or IE only, though, not Safari).

There was a glancing look at StressTyp, a database of information about stress systems across languages.

And lastly we looked at the Ethnologue.

We also talked a bit about the “final project,” which I’ll write about separately.

Next semester’s LX500 (“Topics in syntax”) course

I have mentioned a couple of times next semester’s course on “current issues in syntax,” and by now there is a preliminary course blog in place, which has some information about the format, the schedule, and some ideas about what papers we might be looking at. The web address is:

http://ling.bu.edu/blogs/lx500b1s11/

Although the pre-registration for Spring has already happened, take a look anyway just in case it is something you’d like to substitute in, in place of something else you registered for. I think it will be a pretty interesting class, and nearly everyone in this Universals course has had or will have had the prerequisite CASLX522 (“Syntax I”) course. Yet there aren’t many people signed up, and the course will be even better for everyone with more people enrolled. Note too that next semester’s course isn’t redundant with CASLX523 (“Syntax II”). And did I mention that I think it will be a pretty interesting class? I’m rather looking forward to it myself.

It does connect a bit with topics we touched more superficially in this course as well. The first topic planned next semester is on islands and “phases,” and one of the later topics will be on questions of evolution and language in the context of syntax. Though I’ve kind of summarized a couple of points in this semester’s universals class, the idea for next semester is that we’d actually read some of the papers together and go into the topics in more depth and over more class periods.

And, I think it’ll be a pretty interesting class.

Noam Chomsky answering questions at a Google event

We watched the first bit of a video from a Google event in which Noam Chomsky answered some questions, the link to the video is here:

YouTube: Authors@Google: Noam Chomsky

After the first couple of introductory minutes, the response to the question about changes in the conception of UG follows, which is what we watched. It’s about 17 minutes long.

After that there are various questions about political topics, but at around minute 50, there is a return to language in the form of a question about whether texting, etc., is ruining English, and Chomsky’s answer.

ALSO: The closed captions do work, but it turns out that I was not connected to the network properly in the classroom. Now that I’m back in my office and plugged in, they’re there. Sorry for not sorting that out in the class itself.

This homework (“midterm”) is pretty poor

After having fielded quite a number of questions about this homework that I’ve labeled “midterm”, I have come to the conclusion that it really wasn’t very well constructed.

I did have some things in mind, but I also was not expecting in principle that everyone would have the same thoughts I did about it. However, let me just say a couple of quick words about the pieces of it.

Questions #1 and #4 were intended primarily to get at the fact that the proposed universals are statistical universals, they’re tendencies. No single example can ever by itself disprove them. Perhaps I kind of just handed you the answer I had in mind to #1, but so it goes.

Question #2 talks about syllables, but what I really had in mind was this: Parker talks about things in terms of “initial” and “non-initial” and I wanted to explore a slightly more abstract interpretation. On the handout about artificial languages, I provided the terminology for syllable components: onset, nucleus, coda. Though we know little else, we know that an initial consonant is going to be the onset of a syllable, so I was asking you to think about the propensity of /h/ to be initial in terms of what part of a syllable it would have to be, and then from there to think about whether /h/ and /?/ might each preferentially like to be a particular part of a syllable. Here too, I feel that I haven’t completely given away the answer that I had in mind, but pretty nearly. You can just kind of fill in the blanks, and you’ll have the idea that I had. Which is not to say that it is necessarily the right idea, there are further things one could check to see if it is.

Questions #3 and #4 ask you to suspend beliefs about the world and assume that the world is actually such that the universals that Parker reports are not in fact true if you took all possible languages into consideration. Then #4 asks: in that situation, what could have happened that would lead Parker to the findings he had? And #5 asks: in that same situation, if you had information about all the languages in the world, what would you find? It’s almost a silly question. The premise is that Parker’s generalizations weren’t actually true, and so you’d expect to find here that, well, Parker’s generalizations weren’t true—but more specifically, what patterns (or, I suppose lack of patterns) would you find in the whole data set, if they aren’t the ones that Parker reports?

Questions #5, #6, and #7 go together; question #5 is addressed in the paper itself, basically. Question #6 asks you to take a contrary view, and think of a possible alternative reason that you might find that words for ‘yes’ tend to have laryngeal consonants. What I had in mind here was that this correlation would exist, but it would not be because laryngeals are particularly appropriate for affirmative meanings, but that they correlate more by accident. But here too, I think there are probably a number of different things you could suggest. Whatever you suggest, #7 asks how you could tell if your alternative explanation is the right one. What would you have to look at, what would you expect to find?

Question #8 is just a lousy question, unclearly formulated. But all I really wanted you to think about is what bearing the universals Parker proposes have on languages that have only /h/ and not /?/ in their inventory. I don’t really have a single answer in mind here, I think that there are things you can say in favor of any of a number of views. I just wanted you to think about the applicability of these universals to a language that doesn’t have both mentioned phonemes in its inventory.

So: Don’t stress too much about these questions—more than anything else, I just wanted to lead you to think about a few of the aspects of Parker’s project about words for ‘yes’ in a little bit more detail. You don’t have to have read my mind to get the available credit for the homework, mainly I’m just looking to have you write things that show you’ve thought about the questions.

World Atlas of Language Structures online

Gearing up for the final project, I’ll just point out the existence of the World Atlas of Language Structures online, which gives you access to a lot of cross-linguistic information and allows you to look at how the various features are distributed on a map. We’ll look more at how this can be used, but if you have some free time, feel free to explore.

Blackboard site up

The Blackboard site for this course is now functional. I couldn’t see a way to make a direct link, but if you go to http://blackboard.bu.edu/ and sign in, I believe the course should show up. As a reminder, the only thing I intend to use the Blackboard site for is a place to keep grades (but let me know if you’d like to use other features of the Blackboard pages).

Office hours today at 3pm instead, moving to 2pm permanently

I discovered that I have a faculty meeting today when my office hours are supposed to be, so I will need to hold my office hours from 3-4pm instead of the usual time.

Since the time I chose for Wednesday office hours is going to be subject to this kind of pre-emption frequently, I’m going to change my office hours on Wednesday (starting next week) to 2-3pm instead. I’ll update the web pages to reflect that, but you might want to change that on your hard copy of the syllabus if you think you’re likely to consult it in the future.

PSA: Globally Speaking starts Monday

In case you hadn’t gotten this announcement another way: On Monday, this semester’s Globally Speaking program begins. This is a series of low-pressure, free (and no-credit) language courses in Arabic, Chinese, Dari/Tajiki, Russian, Hausa, IsiXhosa, Turkish, and Wolof. Reviews from previous semesters have been good, check it out if you are interested. There is even a flyer you can download, if you wish.