November 08, 2006

Linguists at work

Reading Anatoly Liberman's Word Origins ...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005) has brought me back to some unfinished Language Log business from long ago, a 2004 query about books that "could give a potential linguist some sense of what it's like to be a linguist, to do linguistics".

Back then I said:

I found this a surprisingly difficult question. Not-bad introductions to linguistics aren't hard to come by, and there are some pretty good surveys of what has (or, actually, had) been done in the field: some of the chapters in Shopen's set Language Typology and Syntactic Description and in Newmeyer's Cambridge Survey of Linguistics, for example. But such works present the product of doing linguistics, not the activity.

For a feel for what it's like to do syntax, maybe Green & Morgan's Practical Guide to Syntactic Analysis.

For a sense of what it's like to do fieldwork and to discover something about the structure of a language, the two Shopen volumes Languages and Their Speakers and Languages and Their Status.

And for thought-provoking reasonably brief essays, the two books that I most often give to non-linguist friends who are interested in language: Bauer & Trudgill's Language Myths and, especially, Pullum's Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

Then some weeks ago a correspondent who was working his way through the Language Log archives from the very beginning wrote to ask if I had ever answered the question (alas, no), and right after that my copy of Liberman's etymology book arrived.

So let's start with the Liberman book, which I think is wonderful at showing, in detail, how word histories are uncovered (or, as is often the case, not).  Along the way you get a lot of fascinating etymologies, plus accounts of sound symbolism, borrowing, sound change, semantic change, comparative reconstruction, and much more.  You should carry away an appreciation of just how HARD etymology is, what an immense store of background knowlege is required to do it well, how provisional many of the histories are, and how much of history is probably not recoverable at all.

The whole book might be a bit much for some readers, but chapter 13 ("A Retrospect: The Methods of Etymology") gives a nice summary, and the two chapters that follow, on sound change and semantic change, illustrate well the etymologist in action.  The enormously entertaining chapter 16 ("The Origin of the Earliest Words and Ancient Roots") could, I think, be read on its own.

Now back to the 2004 question and replies to it.  Several people seconded my nomination of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.  But two suggestions dominated the responses I got: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (which won Pinker the first Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award from the LSA in 1997) -- I can't imagine how I could have left this book off my list -- and Language Log itself.   (Remember: unlike Steve, we offer a full money-back policy to anyone who's dissatisfied with the services we provide.)  And now some of our stuff has been published in Far from the Madding Gerund (see ad on front page, and buy the book!).

Adam Parrish nominated Thomas Payne's Describing Morphosyntax, saying: "It provides an outline for a morphosyntactic description of a language and instructions on how to fill in the details.  It's billed as a guide for fieldworkers, but I just like to read it and marvel at how languages are simultaneously diverse and similar."

And Matt Post suggested, for computational approaches to language, the first few chapters of Daniel Jurafsky & James Martin, Speech and Language Processing: An Introduction to Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics, and Speech Recognition.

Some further suggestions that have occurred to me: Pinker's 1999 book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which shows an experimental psycholinguist grappling with a lot of messy details about language, in particular about inflectional morphology; George Miller's 1977 Spontaneous Apprentices: Children and Language, in which you get to watch Miller and Phil Johnson-Laird struggle to do research on child language acquisition; and Miller's 1991 The Science of Words, about all things having to do with words, with much discussion of experimental work.  Miller is an especially engaging writer, by the way.

Finally, Mark Liberman recommended a very different sort of writing, fiction with linguist characters:

None of these are by linguists. All of them involve sympathetic central characters who turn out to be better at analyzing the structure and content of exotic languages than the structure and content of their own lives.

Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, discussed here.

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, discussed here.

Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange, discussed here.

(There's quite a lot of fiction with linguists in it, but these are works in which you get to see some actual linguistic analysis being done.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 8, 2006 01:26 PM