Why evolutionary linguists shouldn’t study languages

How many languages do you speak?  This is actually a difficult question, because there’s no such thing as a language, as I argue in this video.

This is a video of a talk I gave as part of the Edinburgh University Linguistics & English Language Society’s Soap Vox lecture series.  I argue that ‘languages’ are not discrete, monolithic, static entities – they are fuzzy, emergent, complex, dynamic, context-sensitive categories.  I don’t think anyone would actually disagree with this, yet some models of language change and evolution still include representations of a ‘language’ where the learner must ‘pick’ a language to speak, rather than picking variants and allowing higher-level categories like languages to emerge.

In this lecture I argue that languages shouldn’t be modelled as discrete, unchanging things by demonstrating that there’s no consistent, valid way of measuring the number of languages that a person speaks.

The slides aren’t always in view (it improves as the lecture goes on), but I’ll try and write this up as a series of posts soon.

The USA: Most linguistically diverse country on the planet?

When asked to name a linguistically diverse place, I would have said Papua New Guinea, and if asked to name a stereotypically monolingual country, I would have named the USA.  However, this recent report from the New York Times suggests that, due to its large immigrant population, New York harbours more endangered languages than anywhere else on Earth (tipped off from Edinburgh University’s Lang Soc Blog).  From a field linguists’ point of view this may make discovery of and access to minority languages much easier (although may mean the end of exotic holidays).  From a cultural evolution point of view, a more global community may mean a radically different kind of competition between languages.  Nice video below:

The Bog

If you like wading through deposits of dead animal material, then you should go over and visit Richard Littauer’s new blog, The Bog. Having been exposed to his writings on both this blog, and through the Edinburgh language society website, I’m sure it will be worth a visit — for good writing, if not for your dire need to distinguish between forest swamps and shrub swamps. His first post is on Mung, the colloquial name for Pylaiella littoris, which is apparently a common seaweed. Here is his quick overview of the blog:

So, The Bog is going to be the resting place for various studies and explorations. Richard Littauer is the writer; he is working on his MA in Linguistics at Edinburgh University. He writes about evolutionary linguistics and culture at Replicated Typo, about general linguistic musings at a non-academic standard at Lang. Soc., about constructed languages on Llama, and about various philosophical things at Pitch Black Press. Since none of these blogs were a perfect fit for the scientific equivalent of a swamp-romp through subjects he doesn’t study, he set up this blog. Expect posts about ecology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, or anything in between.

The fact that it’s called the Bog has nothing to do with the British slang for ‘bathroom’. Rather, Richard (well, I) have an affinity with swamps for some unexplained reasons. Expect posts on swamps.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then Richard is also well-known for being the world’s number one Na’vi fan.

Some links #1

Having now returned, I feel a long list of links is needed to kick start things:

Right, that’s all I’ve got time for at the moment. Laptop battery is dying and my bladder is urging me towards the toilet.