Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Unfolding of Language

I highly recommend The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, which was supplementary reading for the IS Group meeting held on Nov. 17, 2007. Quoting from the epilogue:

"... complex linguistic structures can arise through the natural forces that are changing language, even today. The elaborate conventions of language needed no gifted inventor to conceive them, no prehistoric assembly of elders to decree their shape, nor even an overseer to guide their construction. ... Behind the forces of change there are always people -- the speakers of a language. ... language change joins a long list of phenomena ... which are brought about through people's actions, but are not willfully intended by them. The transformations in language ... emerge from ... spontaneous and immediate concerns, such as saving effort in pronunciation (economy) or the desire to heighten the effect of an utterance (expressiveness). ... The accumulated pressure of such spontaneous actions nonetheless creates powerful and untiring forces of change: the flow towards abstraction, and erosion in meaning and sounds. The combination of these forces operates on language like a relentless bleaching and compressing machine. ... Language is a tool that has been worn into shape by continual use."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Linguists" Premiers at Sundance

This message arrived in my inbox today, from where I couldn't determine, but it's wonderful news for the those of us interested in supporting endangered languages. David Harrison was featured in earlier IS blog posts here and here.

Dear Colleagues, Friends, Family, and Supporters of Ironbound Films,

We are nothing short of elated to announce that our documentary feature THE LINGUISTS was selected to world premiere in the newly minted "Spectrum: Documentary Spotlight" category at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

THE LINGUISTS is the first documentary supported by the National Science Foundation to ever make it to Sundance.

The trailer is at
Here's a brief synopsis:

It is estimated that of 7,000 languages in the world, half will be gone by the end of this century.

THE LINGUISTS follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India, and Bolivia, the linguists' resolve is tested by the very forces silencing languages: institutionalized racism and violent economic unrest.

David and Greg's journey takes them deep into the heart of the cultures, knowledge, and communities at risk when a language dies.

We hope you can join us in Utah for one (or maybe all) of the following screenings:

Friday, January 18, 12 Noon - Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Saturday, January 19, 12:45 PM - Broadway Centre Cinemas V, Salt Lake City
Saturday, January 19, 11:30 PM - Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, January 23, 9:00 AM, Holiday Village Cinema I, Park City - PRESS AND INDUSTRY ONLY
Wednesday, January 23, 8:30 PM - Holiday Village Cinema II, Park City

Tickets are available at

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us or our publicist Winston Emano at

We look forward to hearing you there, in all languages!

Happy Holidays,
Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger

Ironbound Films, Inc.
PO Box 441
Garrison, NY 10524
T: 845.424.3700
F: 845.424.3753

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Life's Complexity Began with Poop

Just in time for our biosystems theme, this article from suggests that the complexity of life originated in... feces! Now I can finally make sense of this piece of Japanese pop-cultural wisdom (via the wonderful, as well as this frightening phenomenon.

Biolinguistics Journal Online

From its web page: BIOLINGUISTICS is a peer-reviewed journal exploring theoretical linguistics that takes the biological foundations of human language seriously". The lead paper, "Of Minds and Languages" is by Chomsky. The journal looks to me like mainstream generative grammar dressed up in the jargon of theoretical biology, but it's close enough to the topic of our two recent IS meetings that I thought it might interest some of us.