November 22, 2007


Mark Liberman is unlikely to announce this, so let me do it for him: he has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The citation:

Dr. Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics; cited for contributions to phonological theory, the computational analysis of language, and the practical applications and popular understanding of linguistics.

Note "popular understanding of linguistics".  That's Language Log, folks.

(Hat tip to John Lawler.)  Over the years, as Language Log has become such a prominent part of the public face of linguistics (along with Steve Pinker and Geoff Nunberg in his life as a public intellectual outside of Language Log), some of the bloggers have become concerned about the responsibility involved.  I certainly have.  Mark and Geoff started the blog as a way of having fun with serious linguistics for "a general non-linguist readership" (as they put in the introduction to Far From the Madding Gerund).  Well, we have that readership, in very large numbers, and they send us e-mail, in very large amounts -- in my case, unmanageably large amounts.  I kid that I have trouble coping with my new life as a semi-public intellectual, but the mail is daunting, especially since so much of it is leads to things the writers hope (and, in some cases, expect) we will blog about.  I do my best to try to mix up geeky stuff about technical linguistics with cartoons that have some point of linguistic interest, commentary on language in the media and public life, formulaic language, errors of various types, reactions to things I've been reading, and so on, but I get around to responding to only a small part of my mail.  So I feel I'm letting the field of linguistics down.

We do get some good press.  Most recently, a nice little piece in the 17 November New Scientist that quotes both Mark and me.  I'm quoting the whole thing here, because if you go the the NS site, unless you're a subscriber, you can view only the very beginning of the piece:

DO YOU long for the not-so-distant days when people used "hopefully" correctly - as in "to travel hopefully" - rather than to modify a whole sentence, as in "Hopefully, today I will win the lottery"? Were you amazed and appalled when the expression "Not!" was invented in the late 1980s? Do you feel like stabbing yourself with a fork when a brand-new word like Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" becomes popular?

"Were you appalled when the expression 'Not!' was invented in the late 1980s?"

If so, you might be surprised that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, all these questions are based on a false premise. "Hopefully" has been used to mean "let us hope" since at least 1932. "Not!" has been used in the Wayne's World sense as far back as 1860. And "truthiness" was used in 1824.  [AZ note: but not in the Colbert sense.]

Being convinced of the newness of a word, meaning, construction or phrase that is in fact long established places you among the victims of the "recency illusion", one of the hazards that plague people who take an interest in language.

Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky coined the term, and he defined it on the Language Log linguistics blog as: "the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent". A typical example discussed on the blog involved a blogger who believed that the sports expression "pulled within two points" was a recent invention, probably by US sportscaster Marv Albert. In reality, variations date back to the 19th century.

Zwicky's recency illusion has alerted Language Log bloggers to other word-watching pitfalls, including the infrequency illusion: the belief that a feature you have just noticed is rarer and more notable than it is. Then there is the antiquity illusion: that something familiar to you has been common for a long time. Or the out-group illusion: the tendency to blame undesirable language trends on some other group of people. And finally, there is the adolescent illusion: a "kids these days" version of the out-group illusion.

A gender-specific case of the adolescent illusion came to light when Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and co-founder of Language Log, received an email expressing surprise that George W. Bush had used the words "like totally". As many people do, the emailer associated "like totally" with young people, especially young women and girls. Liberman consulted various collections of phone-conversation transcripts, and found that "like totally" was widely used by men and women of all ages - and middle-aged men actually use it more.

Why are there so many ways of guessing wrong? Much of it is to do with a tendency to overestimate the importance of our own experience: if something is new to us, we assume it is new to everyone. And perhaps the universality of language exaggerates the effect. We might not put so much trust in our gut feelings about archaeology or nuclear medicine.

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.) 

Back to Mark and the AAAS.  As far as I can figure, Mark and I are the only Language Loggers to have been elected as Fellows.  Over at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, there are four of us: Lila Gleitman, Barbara Partee, Geoff Pullum, and me.  And at the Linguistic Society of America, four again: Lila, Barbara, Sally Thomason, and me.  So we're doing pretty well on Fellowships.  (These are all elections for life; they are honors.  A number of us have held one-year fellowships to do research at institutions like the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Stanford Humanities Center.  I know, it's confusing that the word fellow gets used for two different kinds of academic awards.)

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 22, 2007 01:09 PM