Asking how languages work


If you hear scientists say something like “We don’t understand much about the climate on Jupiter” or “We don’t know why electrons behave in a particular way”, then that kind of ignorance seems reasonable. Jupiter is a huge planet, it’s far away, and it’s an inanimate object that can’t answer questions about itself. Same for electrons, except they are really small, presenting different problems.

But what about language sciences? Suppose a linguist says “we don’t really understand how determiners work in Salish” or “we don’t understand quantification in Hmong”. What does that mean? It doesn’t sound like a difficult problem to solve. It’s not like studying Jupiter or electrons. Dealing with languages means dealing with people. Can’t you just ask them how their language works? The short answer:


Let’s consider the simplest case: asking someone what the name of something is. It usually works well enough to get someone…

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The Difference between Communcation and Language

Cogpunk Steamscribe

When your dog wags her tail, she is communicating with you. She is happy. When a baby cries because she is hungry, she is also communicating without words. When your husband tells you he loved dinner, but leaves most of it on his plate, again, this is another form of communication. And speaking and writing are communication, but of a different order.

On this little planet, language is unique to the human race. Other animals can communicate, but only domestic animals (and some primates studied by scientists) understand actual words. And an English-speaking dog won’t understand commands in other languages, unless she is taught commands in other languages. That is because speech – and writing – are symbolic communication and not instinctive (like crying or smiling). Basically, all English speakers have agreed that the word ‘dog’ represents a member of the canine family. There is no reason why we’ve chosen the word ‘dog’ that actually links itself…

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Civility v. Freedom? Or something else?

Feminist Philosophers

Daily Nous reported that Marquette University is seeking to fire McAdams, and discusses academic freedom in a separate post here. Further discussion of these events is taking place at the Academe Blog (the blog of the AAUP, though its bloggers note the posts may not represent the official position of the organization):

Competence and integrity “in the current case,” as Holz puts it, demand that McAdams refrain from “sham[ing] and intimidat[ing] [a graduate student teacher] with an Internet story that was incompetent, inaccurate, and lacking in integrity, respect for other’s opinions, and appropriate restraint.” In Holz’s telling, McAdams need not exercise appropriate restraint because doing so would foster a more civil discourse—that would be the deeply problematic civility narrative. Rather, he needs to do so because this is how you help graduate students develop as teachers, a key part of faculty members’ jobs at a university: “it is vital…

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the art of practice

Yoga practice

Calm Strength

So, I haven’t been blogging much in 2015. Ok, I haven’t blogged at all. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but just not made the time to sit down and write any of them out. In part, it’s because I have been doing a lot of writing on my new project and so I haven’t wanted to do any additional writing that I saw as “non-required.” But I’m trying to be better at exercising my writing muscle and that includes blogging. So, I’ll share how I’ve come to think of writing and yoga as parallel practices.


Pattabhi Jois is often credited with saying “Practice and all is coming.” Consequently, Ashtanga practitioners are expected to practice six days a week, with exceptions only for moon days and menstruation. I know of no other exceptions. And the practice should be done first thing in the morning, partially for biological reasons, but also…

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Finding Inspiration for Your Blog Name

The Daily Post

Bloggers on Choosing Their Names:

Q&As with users on how they selected their blog names.

Where’s My Toothbrush? and Raising My Rainbow

Talking Covers

Museum in a Bottle

The Goat That Wrote

Bring Me the Head of David Dixon

She’s a Maineiac

The Importance of Being Serbian

Paper and Salt

Sass & Balderdash

Your blog name is one of the first things that readers notice about your site. Your name tells visitors what your blog is about, but also reveals a bit about you and your personality. If you’re a new blogger, fresh out of Blogging U., you might still be pondering the perfect blog name. But even bloggers who’ve had their sites for several years may consider a name change, for different reasons (a shift in subject, a sharper focus, or something else).

I offered tips on selecting a name a few years ago, and I think many of…

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On What Athletes Can Teach Writers

The Daily Post

You might say that sports and writing are like chalk and cheese — polar opposites — though today I bring you two quotes from two very different star athletes that I feel apply directly to writing.

The first, from Michael Jordan, the “greatest basketball player of all time.”

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

–Michael Jordan

You don’t get to be a six-time NBA champion without a few mistakes, a few false starts, and a few failed attempts along the way. The same can be said for writing. Consider the posts that sit in your trash — those few “failed attempts” that started with a spark that went dark. Consider…

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