speech acts and hocus pocus

In J. L. Austin’s theory a “speech act” is an utterance that achieves some action by virtue of its being spoken, “I thee wed,” “I hereby open the 23rd International …”, etc. but not “The king of France is bald,” “Did you go to the party yesterday?”, etc.

I have recently witnessed an inclination at workshops in religious studies to refer to magic as speech acts. The motivation is to not dismiss magic as hocus pocus, but instead take an emic perspective; the effort fails. To claim that hoc est corpus … constitutes a speech act is to admit that nothing essential happens to the bread and thereby rejects the emic. The more respectful participant observer would admit the magic is magic and admit it works.

Linguists have stretched “speech acts” yet further; to them it is simply a synonym for ”utterance”. Speaker and hearer are dubbed “speech act participants”, which, in the perennial quest to make prose opaque, become SAPs. This choice of terminology is particularly unfortunate because in Austin’s formulation a third person, such as the witness at a wedding, is often a participant in a speech act. If somehow Linguists cannot bear the tired old words “speaker” and “hearer” they could try ”interlocutors”, but please let Austin have speech acts, without attempting to bathe in his reflected glory.

The evolution (or diachrony) of “language evolution”

Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?

One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Continue reading

Trapezity: a modest proposal for a new typological category

“that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method” (V. Nabokov, Pnin, p. 3)

A success of the functionalist approach to linguistics is to increasingly uncover grammatical categories. To ‘tense’ and ‘mood’ of the ancients accrued ‘aspect’ (Comrie 1976), ‘evidentiality’ (Aikhenvald 2004), ‘mirativity’ (DeLancey 1997), ‘impulsative’ (Cathcart 2011), ‘state’ (Mettouchi and Frajzyngier 2013), ‘speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge’ (Hyslop 2014), ‘allocutivity’ (Antonov 2015), and ‘egophoricity’ (Floyed et al. In press) among many others. The observation that history moves ever quicker holds true with regard to the proliferation of typological categories. It is perplexing that so many of these categories went unrecognized for so long and one may eagerly await the further discovery of categories as vast in number as the grains of sand that would fill all space. Continue reading

Dictionaries as open-access databases: A vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading

A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

How typology has changed since the 1970s

Based on my experiences in the Stanford Universals Project in 1969-76, it seems to me that the substance and goals of language-typological research were the same then as they are today: the study of the distribution of structural characteristics across languages and in particular, the search for crosslinguistic similarities that are not due to genetic relatedness and areal effects.

The differences that I see are of two kinds: Continue reading

Sound inventories and population size

When I had lunch with two phoneticians the other day, the question came up whether there is a correlation between the size of the phoneme inventory of a language and its population size. Neither of us knew, and we started to speculate in which direction it should go. My guess was that larger languages should have smaller inventories and vice versa, while the two expert expected the opposite. One of the reasons for my conjecture was the observation by Lupyan and Dale (2010) in Plos ONE (Lupyan G, Dale R (2010) Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559) that larger languages tend to have less morphological complexity (and vice versa). Continue reading

On double accusative marking

Recently on LINGTYP, a question was raised, which can be paraphrased as such: are there languages in which the P of a transitive clause is marked by two co-occurring flags (‘case-markers’), e.g., ACC1-N-ACC2 (or, presumably, N-ACC1-ACC2 or ACC1-ACC2-N)? After quite a bit of back-and-forth, it turns out that such situations seem to be extremely rare, while the co-occurrence of indexing and flagging seems to be much more common. Based on the discussion, and a closer look at some other sources, it turns out that only three scenarios are known to lead to double flagging. Interestingly (if not surprisingly), they all involve Differential Object Marking (DOM). Continue reading