All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

by

What Language Learning Cannot Be

jevonsI noticed that W. Stanley Jevons’s remarkably successful little book Elementary Lessons in Logic (reprinted annually for decades after its appearance in 1870) uses language learning to illustrate two ways of acquiring or transmitting knowledge (see Lesson XXIV, “On Method, Analysis and Synthesis”). One is the method of instruction:

A student, for example, in learning Latin, Greek, French, German, or any well-known language, receives a complete Grammar and Syntax setting forth the whole of the pr…

by

The Fringe Is Coming to Town

castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

No, what I …

by

What ‘One’ Means to a Linguist

1019312234_43860b93be_bIt’s unsettling for a linguist to find serious doubt being expressed in a quality newspaper not just about whether one kilogram means “one kilogram” (it seems the standard kilogram, a cylinder of platinum and iridium kept under lock and key in France, may have been losing a tiny fraction of its weight), but also about whether one means “one.” Yet according to The Independent (July 15), a recent court judgment casts doubt on the latter.

ConvaTec, a medical products company, patented a wound dress…

by

Human Resources and Thought Control

2-13953-george-orwell-small

George Orwell

Several correspondents sent me links to James Gingell’s recent Guardian article about what George Orwell would have thought about today’s human-resources professionals. Gingell sees HR professionals as evil slimeballs. He thinks Orwell would have deplored their “bureaucratic repression” and hated “their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.” (I note in passing, without dwelling on the poi…

by

Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

Chestnut-crowned_Babbler_bowra_apr07

Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…

by

Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries

MIT Photo

It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. It was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebra…

by

36 Words

no_crying

You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when young…

by

Scrabbling for Words

My Lingua Franca colleage Anne Curzan recently published a post about recent additions to the official Scrabble dictionary, of which there have been a surprisingly large number. (I guess that’s the way they’ve found to keep on selling Scrabble dictionaries.)

Naturally Anne didn’t object to this horde of new arrivals. We linguists always seem to be on the side of change, diversity, exoticness, and immigration, don’t we? But some people don’t like to see new additions. A few not only recoil at the…

by

Take My Metadata

RANDPAUL-2We are all going to have to get used to the word metadata. Explaining what it means in simple terms is quite tricky, for it is a genuinely abstract concept. (And let me warn the purists up front that in this post I am going to be treating data not as the plural of the Latin word datum, but as an English singular noncount noun like air, fun, furniture, information, or water: I will say the data is stored, not the data are stored.)

As a preliminary shot, one could say that in any domain where data…

by

An Honor and a Horror

beckham

Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…