August 07, 2004

It's ablaut time

David Mortensen has started a new linguistics weblog It's Ablaut Time ("A Weblog of Popular Philology").

The inaugural post sez:

"It now seems to be a requirement of the field that linguists--like law professors, philosophers, and people with too much spare time--have to have a blog. The title I've chosen is one that a couple of friends of mine once kicked around for a (humorous) magazine. It expresses at least three themes that will come up on this blog: historical linguistics, non-concatenative morphological processes, and stupid puns."

David adds later:

"You may notice that there is nothing popular about this blog, and that it has featured little if any philology (at least in the modern sense of the term). Too bad: we had already settled on the subtitle before I even knew what a blog was. ;) "

As for what this new blog does feature, the content so far includes an interesting post about how to say "deaf" in Hmong and Kachai -- though you'll need to know a bit of terminology and theory to see the direction of David's thoughts -- and another post entitled "Language is Bluffing", which is accessible but deep:

It strikes me that a huge number of insights into linguistic phenomena can be dervied from a few relatively simple propositions. One of these is the observation that language is a code employed only by code-breakers: that none of us knows the language we speak as a fully explicit system. Instead, we bluff our way through, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the code with an inference here and a leap of logic there. This capacity to extrapolate from the known to the unknown is, in essense, grammar. If these inferences follow naturally enough from the parts of the code everyone around us agrees upon, they are incorporated into it. If they don't follow at all from shared knowledge of the code, we come off looking inarticulate. The interesting thing is that the parts of the code we all agree upon were, at some point in the past, somebody's bluff.

Language dynamics can be modeled as a kind of multi-player game of imperfect information. That's true for developments at several time scales: individual lives, cultural histories and species evolution. This idea is about at the stage of formal language theory in 1950 or so, but some interesting exploration can be found e.g. in a book draft by Partha Niyogi, "The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution". I'll have some more to say about this book later on, time permitting, but for now I'll just slip a link in here.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 7, 2004 07:30 PM