Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Linguistic appropriate gifts

Thanksgiving is in a couple of days and if you are like me (unlikely, I know) you are starting to think of what presents to get friends and relatives for the holidays. You are also probably starting to wonder how best to answer the question “what’s a linguist do?” when your parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. introduce you to their circle of friends who do understandable things like podiatry and necromancy. You need a spiel and a plan. Here are mine. After mumbling a few things about fish swimming, birds flying and people speaking and saying that I study humans the way Dylanologists study Dylan and archeologists study Sumer (by wading through their respective garbages) I generally do what most academics do: I thrust a book in their hands in the expectation (and hope) that they won’t read it but because they won’t guilt will pre-empt a similar question next time we meet. To work effectively, this book must be carefully selected. Not just anything will do. It must be such that were it read it would serve to enlighten (here I worry less about the immediate recipient and more about some possible collateral damage, e.g. a young impressionable mind picking it up precisely because her/his parental units have disdained it). And just as important, it doesn’t immediately bore you to tears.

Such books do exist, happily. For example, there’s the modern classic by Steve Pinker The Language Instinct (here). It’s a pretty good intro to what linguists do and why. It’s not tech heavy and its full of pretty good jokes and though I would have preferred a little more pop-sci of the Scientific American variety (the old Sci-Am where some actual science was popularized, rather than the science light modern mag), I have friends who read Steve’s book and walked away educated and interested.

A second excellent volume, but for the more ambitious, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of what we do albeit in a very accessible way is Ray Jackendoff’s Patterns in the Mind (here). One of the best things about the book is the observation that Ray makes a big deal of right at the start between a pattern matcher and a pattern generator. As he points out, there are an unbounded number of linguistic patterns. A finite set of templates will not serve. In other words, as far as language is concerned minds are not pattern matchers at all (suggesting that the book was mistitled?). This distinction between generative systems and pattern matching systems is very important (see here for some discussion) and Ray does an excellent job of elaborating it. He also gets his hands dirty explaining some of the technology linguists use, how they use it and why they do. It’s not a beach read, but with a little effort, it is user friendly and an excellent example of how to write pop-ling for the interested.

A third good read is Mark Baker’s The Atoms of Language (here). Everyone (almost everyone, me not so much) is fascinated by linguistic diversity and typology. Mark effectively explains how beneath this linguistic efflorescence there are many common themes. None of this will be news to linguists, but it will be eye opening to anyone else. Family/friends who read this and mistake what you do as related to what Mark describes will regard you in a new more respectful light. I would recommend reading this book before you give it as a gift (indeed, read some of the technical papers too) for those who read it will sometimes follow up with hard questions about typology thinking that you, another linguist, will have some answers. It pays to have some patter at your disposal to either further enlighten (or thoroughly confuse and hence disarm) your interlocutor and if you are as badly educated as I am about these matters a little defensive study is advised. The problem with Mark’s book (and this is a small one for the recipient but not for the giver) is that it is a little too erudite and interesting. Many linguists just don’t know even a tenth of what Mark does but this will likely not be clear to the neophyte giftee. The latter’s misapprehension can become your embarrassment so be warned! Luckily, most who you would give this book to can be deterred from asking too many questions by mention of topics like the Cinque Hierarchy, macro vs micro variation, cartography or the Universal Base Hypothesis (if pressed, throw in some antisymmetry stuff!).  My advice: read a couple of papers by Mark on Mohawk or get cartographic before next meeting the giftee that might actually read your present.

There are other nice volumes to gift (or re-gift as the case may be). There’s Charles Yang’s The Infinite Gift (here) if your giftees tastes run to language acquisition, there is David Lightfoot’s The Language Lottery (here) if a little language change might be of interest and, somewhat less linguistiky but nonetheless a great read (haha), Stan Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain (here). And there are no doubt others that I have missed (sorry).

Before ending, let me add one more to the list, one that I confess to only having recently read. As you know, Stan Dehaene recently was at UMD to give the Baggett lectures. In the third one, he discussed some fMRI work aimed at isolating brain regions that syntax lights up (see here for some discussion). He mentioned that this work benefitted from some earlier papers by Andrea Moro (and many colleagues) using Jabberwocky to look for syntax sensitive parts of the brain. This work is reprised in a very accessible popular book The Boundaries of Babel (here). The first and third parts of the book go over pretty standard syntactic material in a very accessible way (the third part is more speculative and hence maybe more remote from a neophyte’s interests). The sandwiched middle goes over the fMRI work in slow detail. I recommend it for several reasons.

First, it lightly explains the basic physics behind PET and fMRI and discusses what sorts of problems these techniques care useful for and what limitations they have.

Second, it explains just how a brain experiment works. The “subtractive method” is well discussed and its limitations and hazards well plumbed. In contrast to many rah-rah for neuroscience books, Andrea both appreciates the value of this kind of investigation without announcing that this is the magic bullet for understanding cog-neuro. In other words, he discusses how hard it is to get anything worthwhile (i.e. understandable) with these techniques.

Third, the experiments he reprises are really very interesting. They aim neurological guns at hard questions, viz. the autonomy of syntax and Universal Grammar. And, there are results. It seems that brains do distinguish syntactic from other structure “syntax can be isolated in hemodynamic terms” (144) and that brains are sensitive to processes that are UG compatible from those that are not. In particular, the brain can sort out UG compatible rules in an artificial language from those that are not UG kosher. The former progressively activate Broca’s area while the latter deactivate it (see, e.g. p. 175). Andrea reports these findings with the proper degree of diffidence considering how complex the reasoning is. However, it’s both fun and fascinating to consider that syntactic principles are finding neurological resonances. If you (or someone you know) would be interested in an accessible entre into how neuro methods might combine with some serious syntax, Andrea’s book is a nice launching point.

So, the holidays are once more upon us. Once again family and friends threaten to pry into your academic life. Be prepared!

1 comment:

  1. Pinker's books are one of the biggest reasons I'm sitting in LeFrak Hall right now. When I read his books in high school, I had a wonderful "you can get paid to do that???" moment when he said he was a "developmental psycholinguist". And here I am today!