Linguistics Potluck
Saturday, October 16th at 7:30pm in Hogan 6D
This should be a really cool potluck- the idea is that you bring a dish reflective of the culture whose language you study (let’s interpret that loosely and not get into a Whorfian/language-identity-culture/colonialism debate). Desserts, main courses, salads, whatever you like. Homemade or store-bought (if anyone without access to a kitchen wants to cook, contact me and we can talk, maybe you can use my kitchen).

Daniel Kaufman, Director of the Endangered Language Alliance
Friday, October 22nd at 4pm in Hamilton 703 (room number is tentative)
Daniel Kaufman is an adjunct professor in the CUNY Graduate Center who works on projects documenting, maintaining and revitalizing some of the estimated 400 endangered languages spoken in New York City. Check out this recent NYT article about endangered languages in the city and the ELA:

Workshop on Meaning: Language and Sociocultural Processes
“Mapping Mechanisms of Cultural and Political Power in the Debates over Workfare in New York City, 1993-1999”
Wednesday, October 27th from 2-4pm at SIPA (room TBA)
Prof. JOHN KRINSKY, (Columbia PhD in Sociology and Chair, Political Science at CCNY) on his use of, and further plans for, an innovative form of linguistic analysis of media coverage applied in studying the social dynamics of urban political issues (welfare reform), and Prof. JOHN MCWHORTER, (Socio-linguist, currently teaching “Intro to Linguistics”  at Columbia) as commenter on the method and its potential. This session advances the Workshop on Meaning Series’ mission to promote inter-disciplinarity between social scientists and sociolinguists.

This week: Julia Hirschberg and Trace Foundation lectures

This week is just packed with linguistics goodness: Julia Hirschberg will be speaking this Friday, 3/26, and there is a series of lectures at the Trace Foundation downtown, starting on Friday and continuing on Saturday.

First, Professor Hirschberg’s lecture:

Friday, 3/26
Hamilton 709

Knowing When to Speak: Turn Management in Spoken Dialogue Systems

Julia Hirschberg
Department of Computer Science
Columbia University

Listeners have many options in dialogue: They may interrupt the current speaker, take the turn after the speaker has finished, remain silent and wait for the speaker to continue, or backchannel, to indicate that they are still listening, while not taking the turn. Previous studies have proposed a number of possible cues that may signal to listeners that a speaker is ready to relinquish the turn or, conversely, that a speaker intends to continue to hold the floor. I will describe results of empirical studies testing some of these proposals and investigating other correlates of turn-taking behaviors, in the context of a larger study of human-human turn-taking behavior in the Columbia Games Corpus. Our goal is to discover what types of human turn-taking behavior can most usefully be modeled in Spoken Dialogue Systems, both from the perspective of recognizing the import of users’ behavior and of generating appropriate system behavior. This is joint work with Agustín Gravano (University of Buenos Aires). We also thank our collaborators, Stefan Benus, Gregory Ward, Elisa Sneed, Hector Chavez, and Michael Mulley for their help in collecting and annotating the CGC and for useful discussions.

The Trace Foundation lectures will also start that Friday (in the evening – you can make it to both!) and continue all day Saturday:

Friday, 3/26 and Saturday 3/27
2 Perry Street, Suite 2B, New York, 10014 (map)

Minority Language in Today’s Global Society: Perspectives on Language Standardization

Language standardization is often looked to by language communities as a means for language maintenance and strengthening cultural integrity, yet it may also contribute to varying degrees of linguistic discrimination and social conflict. In the case of Tibetan language, which has a diversity of spoken dialects as well as a standard written language, new challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization, economic development, resettlement, and other factors present strong incentives to switch to other dominant languages in everyday usage. Thus many Tibetans support the idea of promoting a standardized Tibetan, but disagree as to what should be the basis for the standard.

In this lecture event, we will bring together scholars who have worked extensively on language standardization issues for Kurdish, Hungarian, Tibeto-Burman languages, and the three major dialects of Tibetan to examine questions such as: What should be the role of a standard language? What are its pros and cons? What are the experiences of other language communities in implementing standardization? We hope to understand these topics for minority languages in the world in general, the Tibetan language in China in particular, and what practical steps can be taken.

IMPORTANT: Please register for this event by downloading and completing the registration form and email to or print the completed form and fax to +1 212-367-7380.



5:30 – 6:00 pm: Check in & Registration
6:00 – 7:00 pm: Opening Keynote Lecture, Q&A
7:00 – 8:00 pm: Reception


9:30 pm – 10:00 am: Check-in & Breakfast Reception
10:00 am – 12:00 pm: Morning Session
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Lunch Break
1:00 pm – 5:00 pm: Afternoon Session & Closing Keynote Lecture

For more information, including speaker biographies, visit the Trace Foundation website’s event page here.

The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

An article by Columbia professor John McWhorter appears in the Fall 2009 edition of the World Affairs Journal. “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” takes a broad view of the process of language death and the rise of English as a dominant global tongue.

From the article:

“…the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word ‘ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.”

Assuming that we can keep 6,000 language alive, McWhorter writes, “is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots”: globalization will inevitably lead to the fading of distinct cultural and linguistic boundaries, and languages will be lost. But language loss does not amount to cultural death:

“…the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language.”

This projection of our linguistic future is complex and a little bit forboding. Are we facing a future in which society becomes completely homogeneous, where Hollywood produces culture, McDonalds provides sustenance, and English speakers, Borg-like, assimilate every language community they come across? How long will the last little enclaves hold out, and what happens  when the Borg finally arrives? Resistance is, after all, futile.

But, as McWhorter points out, the connection between culture and language is a slippery thing, and not necessarily subject to accurate prediction.  The interaction between the two as the whole thing unfolds will shape our linguistic future as a species. As English boldly goes where no language has gone before, where will we end up?

A strange new world, for sure.

TOMORROW: Daniel Everett

Daniel Everett, chair of the Languages, Literatures and Cultures department at Illinois State University, will be speaking tomorrow in Lerner 555 at 3 pm.

Professor Everett will discuss the culture and language of the Pirahã people of the Amazon, and how the unique features of Pirahã may contradict prevailing notions of the fundamental nature of language.

Where do languages come from? A case study in the interaction of culture and grammar

The development of languages is a process of coevolution shaped by constraints on the nature of communication resulting from hominid biology and social evolution on the one hand and the cultural values of local societies and circumstances on the other hand. This is no more nor less true for Piraha than for any other language. Because each language emerges partially from unique scales and constellations of values, there is a sense in which each language is exceptional. This means that universals of grammar should be proposed with great caution and that the idea that grammars ‘grow’ from innately specified principles and parameters should be evaluated carefully on a case-by-case basis.

In my discussion, I will make the case that Pirahã lacks recursion in its syntax and that its syntax and lexicon are partially formed by its culture in ways that are likely incompatible with the notion of a ‘universal grammar’ – unless, of course, the latter notion is so attenuated as to lose all interest. In my conclusion I make the case for a return to a (partially) Boasian concept of language, one echoed in the work of other writers, such as Nicholas Evans. I conclude that if my reasoning is correct, neither functionalist nor formalist approaches alone are going to provide the most useful understanding of languages and their development, but that a very new approach, which we can label, as others have done, Ethnogrammar, is called for.

The building in which the talk will take place is ID access only: if you are not affiliated with Columbia University, please RSVP as soon as possible. You can RSVP on Facebook, or send an email to this address indicating your interest.

Workshop on Meaning: Language and Socio-cultural Processes

This month’s Workshop on Meaning will take place on Tuesday, September 22nd, from 4-6pm.

John Mohr, Ph.D.
Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Formal Methods, Structural Models & the Sociology of Culture”

The new formalism in the sociology of culture builds on structural linguistics and semiotic theory; it uses relational methodologies to identify patterns in cultural systems, institutional logics and discourse systems as a measure of culture, and links back to measures of social structure.

Sponsored by:
Institute for Social and Economic Research & Policy (ISERP)

Columbia University, ISERP – Room 801
East side of Amsterdam Ave – 420 W. 118th St.

All are welcome. Light refreshments will be served.

RSVP appreciated, to Iva Petkova, Program Coordinator:

For more information, check the ISERP website.