New Books In Language

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Sinopsis

Interviews with Scholars of Language about their New Books

Episodios

  • Willem J. M. Levelt, “A History of Psycholinguistics: The Pre-Chomskyan Era” (Oxford UP, 2012)

    19/02/2013 Duración: 57min

    The only disappointment with A History of Psycholinguistics: The Pre-Chomskyan Era (Oxford UP, 2012) is that, as the subtitle says, the story it tells stops at the cognitive revolution, before Pim Levelt is himself a major player in psycholinguistics. He says that telling the story of the last few decades is a task for someone else. The task he’s taken on here is to describe the progress made in the psychology of language between its actual foundation – around 1800 – and the point at which it’s widely and erroneously believed to have been founded – around 1951. The story that the book tells is remarkable in many ways: not only for its vast breadth and depth of scholarship, but also for the number of misconceptions that it corrects. Levelt uncovers how many modern theories in psycholinguistics are in fact independent rediscoveries of proposals made in the 19th century, and charts the significant positive contributions made to the science by figures who are often overlooked or even derided now (we discuss a co

  • Nick J. Enfield, “The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances” (Cambridge UP, 2012)

    16/01/2013 Duración: 01h42s

    Linguists are apt to get excited when a language is identified that exhibits exotic properties, and gladly travel halfway round the world to document it, particularly if they think it’s going to support a pet theory of theirs. Nick Enfield‘s fieldwork in Laos differs from this paradigm in at least three respects. First, his choice of location reflects a prior interest in the culture of the region; second, the object of his study is gesture rather than just speech; and third, it’s quite possible that the forms of gesture he documents are actually very typical – we just don’t know yet. However, as well as the fieldwork, which is attractively summarised and depicted in The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances (Cambridge University Press, 2009/2012), there is a theory at stake, or at least a theoretical outlook. For Enfield, the use of gestures alongside speech illustrates something profound about the nature of meaning, specifically that it is a composite notion to which justice is not d

  • James R. Hurford, “The Origins of Grammar (Language in the Light of Evolution, Vol. 2)” (Oxford UP, 2012)

    21/12/2012 Duración: 51min

    Building upon The Origins of Meaning (see previous interview), James R. Hurford‘s The Origins of Grammar (Language in the Light of Evolution, Vol. 2) (Oxford University Press, 2012) second volume sets out to explain how the unique complexity of human syntax might have evolved. In doing so, it addresses the long-running argument between (to generalise) linguists and non-linguists as to how big a deal this is: linguists tend to claim that the relevant capacities are unique to humans, while researchers in other disciplines argue for parallels with other animal behaviours. James Hurford sides with the linguists here, but not without giving careful consideration to the status of birdsong, whalesong, and similar systems. Meanwhile, at the other end of the evolutionary process (so far), interest is growing in accounts of human syntax that are incidentally much more gradualist in nature and which invite potential explanation in evolutionary terms. Moreover, the idea of quantitative limits on human processing are bei

  • James R. Hurford, “The Origins of Meaning (Language in Light of Evolution, Vol. 1)” (Oxford UP, 2007)

    16/12/2012 Duración: 49min

    Evolutionary approaches to linguistics have notoriously had a rather chequered history, being associated with vague and unfalsifiable claims about the motivations for the origins of language. It seems as though the subject has only recently come in from the cold, and yet there are already rich traditions of research in several distinct fields that offer relevant insights: insights that are crucial if we consider Dobzhansky’s maxim, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, also to apply to human language. In his two-volume (so far) work, James Hurford brings together many of these disparate strands of research and endeavours to answer the question of how humans, uniquely among extant species, came to have such elaborative, productive, referential language. His work is at once vast and authoritative, stimulating and original, and highly accessible. It serves both to introduce new ideas and to draw out potential connections between familiar ones. It’s critical without being dismissive,

  • Tony Veale, “Exploding the Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012)

    03/12/2012 Duración: 53min

    In these days of increasing automation, the prospect of obsolescence is an alarming one for those of us who make a living by stringing words together instead of doing something demonstrably useful. From this perspective, it’s tempting to think of “computers”, “language” and “creativity” as the constituents of a literary behemoth that writes that brilliant novel, and a million others besides, only in seconds and for no money, while human authors starve in their garrets. The future as envisaged by Tony Veale in Exploding the Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012) is rather more benign. He sees the technology as assistive to human creativity, but able to inject a level of complexity and originality that cannot be achieved in static works of reference. In particular, by extracting patterns from large corpora – most obviously the World Wide Web – software can already, for instance, suggest expressions to achieve a certain effect, leaving it up to the hu

  • Peter Trudgill, “Sociolinguistic Typology: Social Determinants of Linguistic Complexity” (Oxford UP, 2011)

    18/11/2012 Duración: 01h45s

    If you had to bet your life on learning a language in three months, which language would you choose? Peter Trudgill’s first choice wouldn’t be Faroese or Polish; and in his book, Sociolinguistic Typology: Social Determinants of Linguistic Complexity (Oxford University Press, 2011), he suggests that there are good historical reasons for that. In the book, Peter Trudgill argues that human societies at different times and places may produce different kinds of language, and considers the influence of different language contact scenarios on linguistic structure. The book’s main thesis is that, while isolation and long-term co-territorial contact can lead to increased complexity, contact situations involving large numbers of adult L2 learners are likely to lead to increased simplicity – and that as a result the typological spread of the world’s languages today is probably strikingly unrepresentative of the situation throughout nearly all of human history. In this interview we discuss the implications of these ide

  • Avner Baz, “When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy” (Harvard University Press, 2012)

    31/10/2012 Duración: 51min

    In When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 2012), Avner Baz sets out to make a case for the reconsideration of Ordinary Language Philosophy, or OLP, in mainstream academic philosophy. I personally found Baz’s work in it interesting due to the fact that my familiarity with OLP comes solely from a literary perspective and both Baz, as a trained philosopher, and his argumentation present an interesting glimpse into the deep resistance towards OLP that can be found in mainstream philosophy. In fact, after reading When Words Are Called For, and even more so, after speaking with Dr. Baz, it became apparent just how differently philosophers and literary academics view, value, and understand OLP and what it has to offer the critics and the curious. For those readers who have either a deep affinity for OLP or who come at it from a literary, non-analytical philosophical perspective much of When Words Are Called For will seem spot on but ultimately unnecessary in

  • Joshua Miller, “Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism” (Oxford UP, 2011)

    10/10/2012 Duración: 58min

    Recent political debates around language have often been controversial, sometimes poorly informed, and usually unedifying. It’s striking to consider that such debates have, at least in the USA, been current for more than 100 years; and perhaps surprising to learn that they can be seen to have a striking effect on the development of modernist literature. In Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2011), Joshua Miller begins by evoking a time when the existence and substance of a distinctly American national language is first being argued, and when Presidents, language mavens and the new breed of linguistics scholars are exchanging opinions in major public fora. Against this background, he reads the work of some of the major American writers of the interwar years as exploring and negotiating the relation between language and cultural identity. In this interview, we talk first about Mencken’s rehabilitation as a public figure through his work on language, and

  • Sherry Simon, “Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory” (Routledge, 2012)

    22/08/2012 Duración: 01h16s

    The idea that bilingualism can be enriching and beneficial for an individual is a popular one. But what about for a city? Here the associations are less positive, particularly if we automatically think of cities whose linguistic divisions echo the political or religious divisions between two communities unable to communicate. In Cities in Translation: Intersections of Language and Memory (Routledge, 2012), however, Sherry Simon develops an account of how civic plurilingualism can be a powerful creative driver. Her work explores how the linguistically-divided city is not only a location for ‘distancing’ – where communities develop their distinct independent identities – but, more interestingly, one for ‘furthering’ – the cultural encounters that are a pervasive force in modernity. With particular reference to the writers and translators of Calcutta, Trieste, Barcelona and Montreal, Simon demonstrates some of the ways in which translational practice has shaped the literatures of divided cities, and evokes thei

  • Bart Geurts, “Quantity Implicatures” (Cambridge UP, 2011)

    24/07/2012 Duración: 53min

    It’s now well over 100 years since John Stuart Mill noted that, if I say “I saw some of your children today”, you get the impression that I didn’t see all of them. This idea – that what we don’t say can also carry meaning – was fleshed out 50 years ago by Paul Grice. Given the timeframe involved, you might be tempted to ask why we’re still working on this today. (I work in this area myself, and I’m often tempted to ask…) Bart Geurts‘s engaging book Quantity Implicatures (Cambridge University Press, 2011) answers this question in several ways. For one thing, as the author observes, inferences of this type are very widespread in day-to-day interaction. For another, as this book also makes clear, some of these inferences are difficult to explain systematically, and this difficulty has begotten a wide range of contrasting and conflicting theories that make competing claims about the nature of pragmatics (and semantics) in general. In this interview, Geurts discusses the evidence that leads him to favour a Grice

  • Sam Leith, “Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama” (Basic Books, 2012)

    03/07/2012 Duración: 54min

    What’s the connection between Sarah Palin and Plato? The response that leaps to mind is that they’ve both never heard of one another. But another similarity is their scepticism about high-flown rhetoric as a tool used to pull the wool over the eyes of the common man. One possible difference is whether they respond to this with sound logical reasoning or with an ‘anti-rhetorical’ rhetorical attack of their own. Sam Leith’s book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Basic Books, 2012) is a work that encourages the reader to think about rhetoric in this way. For Leith, rhetoric is all around us, as it has been for many centuries, and yet the terminology used to talk about it is close to falling into disuse. Through a series of enlightening and diverting examples, he makes the case for the traditional style of analysis, while showing that it is capable of handling contemporary examples. In this interview, we discuss rhetorical styles in politics, and we see where the interests of the scho

  • Alexander Maxwell, “Choosing Slovakia: Slavic Hungary, the Czechoslovak Language, and Accidental Nationalism” (Tauris Academic Studies, 2009)

    15/06/2012 Duración: 01h02min

    On 1 January 1993 Slovakia became an independent nation. According to conventional Slovak nationalist history that event was the culmination of a roughly thousand year struggle. Alexander Maxwell argues quite differently in his book Choosing Slovakia: Slavic Hungary, the Czechoslovak Language, and Accidental Nationalism (Tauris Academic Studies, 2009). Although focused primarily on the long nineteenth century and concluding with the interwar period, he shows just how much Slovak nationalism owes to unlikely contingencies, especially the dismantling of greater Hungary at the end of World War I. In so doing, he pays special attention to debates that shaped the standardization of Slovak, showing them to be far more complicated and more amorphous than has previously understood. Further, far from aspiring to independence, many of the steps that have since been portrayed as demonstrative of Slovak nationalist will in fact reflected Slovak intellectuals efforts to create a culturally pluralist Hungary. I enjoyed tal

  • Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, “Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

    08/06/2012 Duración: 01h04min

    In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to whatever X does and (ii) X will completely ignore it. Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) is described, on its dust-jacket, as a “must read for generative linguists”. Apparently generative linguists have so far taken the hint. This is a great pity, as this book is not only very pertinent, but also succeeds in eschewing most of the polemical excess that tends to engulf us all in this field. It’s not an easy book. This interview reflects that – we range from fairly general historical and philosophical observations to some rather technical results in learnability. But I think it gives some sense of what the enterprise is about. Alex Clark describes it, at one point, as an exercise in clearing the ground – and it succeeds in sweeping away certain comfortable assumptions that are often made in this area, concerning (

  • Margaret Thomas, “Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics” (Routledge, 2011)

    21/05/2012 Duración: 45min

    In the preface to Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics (Routledge, 2011), devoted to short but attentively researched biographical sketches of major figures in the language sciences, Margaret Thomas compares the task of compiling it with that of organising a party. Here, the enterprise has been successful – the guests are interesting (as you might expect), but they are also presented to their best advantage, and the host succeeds in establishing connections between them, so that no-one is left out. Also, it proceeds at an agreeably fast pace and ends promptly before anyone can make a scene. We develop this analogy a little further over the course of the interview, but we do also talk about the book in its own right. We discuss the question of whether or not Chomskyan linguistics is, or should be, related to the earlier history of the discipline, and consider the effect of 20th century American linguistics on the historiography of the subject. And we touch upon some of the figures outside the mainst

  • Tore Janson, “The History of Languages: An Introduction” (Oxford UP, 2012)

    16/04/2012 Duración: 53min

    It’s a sobering thought that, but for the spread of English, I wouldn’t be able to do these interviews. In particular, I don’t speak Swedish, and I’m not going to try to speak Latin to a world expert on the subject. Fortunately for my purposes, English has reached a level of saturation, and thus Tore Janson is able to explain to us why that is. The History of Languages: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012) gives a brief synopsis of some of the major trends in language change over the course of recorded history. Indo-European is discussed, but the scope of the book is much wider, turning to the Bantu and Australian language families, and also to the written traditions of China and Ancient Egypt. Rather than being concerned with the linguistic regularities of change, Prof. Janson’s focus is much more on the circumstantial historical causes of change, and his work is a useful complement to work in historical linguistics – in addition to being a very enjoyable read in its own right. In this intervi

  • Jeanne Fahnestock, “Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion” (Oxford UP, 2011)

    15/03/2012 Duración: 56min

    A thing I enjoy about this job is being encouraged to read books that unexpectedly turn out to be profoundly relevant to my own interests. Jeanne Fahnestock‘s new book, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion (Oxford University Press, 2011), turns out to be just such a volume. I read it with a constant sense of surprise that this long and distinguished tradition provides insights on many objects of current linguistic enquiry (and indeed a sense of embarrassment that I didn’t already know that). But there is plenty in this book for readers who don’t share my eccentric obsessions. On the one hand, there’s a careful and very readable account of the numerous techniques identified by rhetoricians, from amphiboly to antimetabole. On the other, there’s vivid exemplification of the rhetorical effects that can be achieved, with examples from influential literary, political and scientific texts. The reader is left in no doubt that rhetoric is alive, well, and perhaps more powerful than ever. In this interv

  • Robert F. Barsky and Noam Chomsky, “Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism” (MIT Press, 2011)

    07/03/2012 Duración: 58min

    Zellig Harris’s name is famous in linguistics primarily for his early work on transformational grammar and his influence on his most famous student, Noam Chomsky. However, much of his linguistic work has since fallen into comparative obscurity. Moreover, his political research and activism – about which he was especially guarded throughout his lifetime – has received scant attention. In this meticulously-researched biography, Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism (MIT Press, 2011), Robert Barsky casts a great deal more light upon Harris’s story. Exploring his involvement in the Avukah student group in the 1930s and 40s, Barsky shows how Harris not only strove to advance the cause of socialist Zionism, but also shaped the destinies of several influential thinkers. He also traces the course of the revolutionary programme of linguistic enquiry that Harris laid out, inspired by the example of theoretical physics, and how this ongoing work came to be regarded as eccentric by practitioners

  • Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson, “Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You” (Wiley, 2011)

    24/02/2012 Duración: 45min

    We’ve never been in a more crowded marketplace, with more corporations shouting for our attention and custom. Yet this choice is an illusion, as detailed in Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You (Wiley, 2011). Using a battery of techniques, advertisers push us into recognising and ultimately choosing their brand. But forget crude commands to buy buy buy; advertisers are using sophisticated approaches which work with, not against, our cognitive abilities of memory, attention and language. Here is a book where the corporate and academic worlds meet head on. Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson, both serious researchers in the cognitive and language sciences, exemplify and analyse the ways in which advertisers and political candidates target their market. Familiar techniques of branding and personalisation exploit linguistic features such as presupposition, implicature, metaphor, audience design, speech acts, sociolinguistic variation, and syntactic framing. But can an awareness o

  • Theo van Leeuwen, “The Language of Colour: An Introduction” (Routledge, 2011)

    10/02/2012 Duración: 55min

    Theo van Leeuwen comes to the academic discipline of social semiotics – the study of how meanings are conveyed – from his previous career as a film and TV producer. His interest in the makings of visual communication is hardly surprising. More surprising was his realisation that, after 10 years teaching and research in the field, he had little to say about the role of colour; a realisation that spurred the research presented in this book, The Language of Colour: An Introduction (Routledge, 2011). The use and meaning of colour has been debated by philosophers, artists and scientists for millennia, with distinct aspects being considered focal at different times: its symbolism, its role in yielding naturalism of representation, and its emotional force. Now, as van Leeuwen puts it, “colour has made a comeback”. Not only are all these different aspects of colour being exploited in communication, but they are being exploited over a wide range of contexts: fashion, web design, interior decoration, and so on. This

  • Jonathan Green, “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” (Hodder Education, 2010)

    26/01/2012 Duración: 56min

    Over the last thirty years, Jonathon Green has established himself as a major figure in lexicography, specialising in English slang. During this time he has accumulated a database of over half a million citations for more than 100,000 words and phrases, and these are the basis for the vast, authoritative and widely acclaimed Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Hodder Education, 2010), winner of the Dartmouth Medal as the American Library Association’s ‘outstanding reference work of the year’. Slang’s definition is itself perhaps elusive, but to Green it is ‘counter-language’, by analogy with ‘counter-culture’, and possesses the same vivid qualities: it is irreverent, subversive and fun. It is, however, also important for what it tells us about how people live, interact and think, and is worthy of serious study. In this interview we do not attempt to summarise the A-Z of slang (nor even the C-F), but we do talk about slang’s relation to culture, the history of its lexicography, and the day-to-day work of its resear

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