Saturday, December 8, 2012

WCCFL 29 Poster Proceedings

The WCCFL 29 Poster Proceedings have been released online.  Access is completely free.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Follow me on twitter

I've set up a Twitter account mostly for random thoughts about linguistics, academics and the like. Follow me, if you are into that sorta thing:

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What I wish I had

It is an absolutely gorgeous day in Norman and I'm working on revisions for a journal article.  I'm finding myself really longing for this...

(image from:

Friday, November 9, 2012

More seats added (UPDATED)

More seats have been added to LING 4053 Morphology and LING 4330 Syntax II.  If you were hoping to get into either and were unable earlier, now is your chance.  Please spread the word.

UPDATE: Syntax II is getting closer and closer to the cap.  We CANNOT up this class again.  If it fills up again and you aren't in the class you'll have to hope someone drops.  If you want to take it, please don't wait to register!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Scott's blog

My friend and collaborator, Scott Jackson, just opened up his own language science blog.  You should check it out. It focused largely on psycholinguistics and stats, so if that piques your interest...

Scott and I have a formal project that we hope to have complete by early next year.  So I'm sure there'll be some overlapping posts as both sites soon...

Monday, October 29, 2012


I want to take a moment to express some gratitude to some really amazing people.  

First, it was with some sadness that I had to say goodbye to Megan Stone today as she heads back to Austin.  Her talk on Friday was fantastic.  She had a very interesting study with very interesting results.  It was energetic and fun and perfectly pitched.  What made it all the more amazing was that she came up here at her own expense.

It was great to have her up here.  We got a start on a survey/discussion article on the place of idioms in grammatical theory we hope to have out in a couple of months as well.  So be on the look out for that.

I also want to thank the students who showed up to her talk.  You all were fantastic.  Dr. Haag and I were blown away by the number of students there and the level of engagement.  Fantastic questions and comments.  You all really should levels of understanding well beyond your academic level.  I was very proud to be associated with you.

For those of you outside Norman, the attendance was all the more impressive because we were butting up against one of the biggest football games in OU's history (and if you know anything about OU football).  ESPN had a stage right outside our building.  Campus was a zoo.  It was a pain in the rear to get into the building.  

Overall, just very blessed to have the friends/colleagues and students that I do.  Y'all rock!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lingua Article available

My Lingua article "Three forms of English verb particle constructions" is now available online.

If you do not have institutional access, please email me ( and I will be happy to share.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Old Friends

I'm currently sitting in my office handling some clerical stuff for my classes while Megan Stone reviews her talk for this afternoon.

Life is good!

If you are in Norman, be sure to come to Megans' talk!

Monday, October 8, 2012


I want to give a special nod to all the organizers and presenters at ALC 6 at the University of Arizona.  I was not there this year but everything I've heard about it suggests that it was a great success.  That conference has a very special place in my heart since Yosuke Sato and I organized the first meeting.  I am so proud to see it continue and develop.  Fantastic work!  I wish I had been there to enjoy it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Phonology and undergraduate education

AKA:  Why Phonology should be a required course for all undergraduates

Most undergraduate linguistics majors will not become professional linguists.  That's a good thing.  The job market is tough enough as it is :-)  But I want to write about what skills these undergraduates get that can apply to the other domains of their life in a way that is relevant.  Hopefully, this can be part of a series.  But I want to make sure I cover what I think is the most important piece of an linguistics undergrad's education-- phonology.

Linguistic undergraduates struggle the most with phonology.  I know that there are certainly individual exceptions or perhaps larger groups that excel, but overall I suspect that your average undergraduate struggles the most in phonology.  Why?

I think it is a complicated question, but the hypothesis I've come up with doesn't necessarily paint a pretty picture for the state of undergraduate education globally.  I think phonology requires a level of comfort with dealing with the unfamiliar that students simply aren't receiving elsewhere.  Students struggle with phonology because there are typically multiple paths to the correct answer; they must create, analyze and evaluate each of these paths.  Individually, these are skills that students develop elsewhere-- it is tying them all together that seems so problematic.

Also, because there are often multiple paths, there are can be multiple "correct" answers.  Or, at the very least, fundamentally different answers on a scale of "correct".  This is a huge challenge for students used to a call and response style of education.

Overall, I think linguistics does a good job globally of developing these skills.  But I believe it is particularly pronounced in phonology.  I've taught or am teaching an undergraduate course on every major subarea except phonetics. All of them have something unique and important to offer, no class in a linguistics program is unnecessary or not useful.  But I will take syntax (though semantics could work as well) as a comparison.

Syntax and phonology pedagogy share a lot in common.  Typically, students deal with an increasingly challenging set of problems over the course of a term and with each set and accompanying discussion they develop the (toy) framework developed in the course.  So, we could ask what makes them different?

To my mind, because Syntax has so much accompanying formalism and theoretic grounding homework problems and other exercises tend to be more like high schools math problems.  There is a straightforward mechanism for solving the problem.  There is a limited set of correct answers.  Sure, syntax instructors normally throw an open-ended challenge problem or two at students, but a student can easily pass syntax by just learning how to properly apply the principles learned in class.  (Not that this is necessarily EASY.  Nor is it unimportant by any stretch.)

But how does this compare to phonology?  When I teach phonology and when I have seen it taught the formalism tends to be much more minimal than what is required in Syntax.  Many instructors (myself included) stick with formalism out of SPE.  Others cover OT as well-- but even then, there is considerably less formal "baggage" (for lack of a better word).  Students more or less get all the formalism they will need within the first few weeks  (obviously, the formalism advances throughout the course as well but at a much slower pace).  Students are essentially asked to do a lot more with a lot less.  The burden of advancing their understanding comes not so much from lecture, but from solving problems themselves.

So while there is typically only one correct way to draw a syntactic tree (barring ambiguity), there may be multiple paths to deriving a allophonic distribution.  Typically there is one "best" path (though not always).The challenge to the student is to develop these paths and evaluate them.  This is not easy.  And students often come in complacent in the idea that just applying some principles should be sufficient.  It isn't.

For every proposed solution we have (in phonology, in life).  We must always compare the alternatives and evaluate them appropriately.  This idea seems to terrify students when they first walk into a phonology class. Though, I'm very glad that they walk in.  I wish more would.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Settling in at OU

Hi All,

It has been far too long since I've posted here.  I've been in Norman for a bit under two weeks now and am starting to feel settled in.  Classes start next week and I am raring to go on those! I'm teaching some courses outside of my usual area and I think it is going to be a challenging but very rewarding term.  I'll be teaching Psycholinguistics, Phonology and Intro (all undergraduate).  It's going to be a really fun term.

I get back to the comforts of morpho-syntax in the Spring with Syntax II and Morphology (along with another Intro).  All in all, I think it will be a great year.

The campus is absolutely gorgeous-- though, I'm still trying to get my bearings.  My attempts at exploration have been a bit stymied by the heat.  You'd think that a Tucson boy would no how to handle it....

Now that I'm getting settled, I'll be updating the site and posting a bit more often.  I've got some new research to post and a few teaching posts that have been bouncing around my head.

Check back soon, there's definitely some new exciting stuff coming!


Sunday, April 29, 2012

New Job

I've been holding off on announcing this very publicly; though, I'm sure anyone that reads this is likely to already know....

I have accepted a temporary position at the University of Oklahoma for the coming academic year.  I am very excited about this opportunity.  I think it is going to be an excellent place for me to be.  So if you are coming through Norman next year... give me a ring.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thanks to the organizers

The Joint Meeting was great fun yesterday!  The talks were very interesting and the setting was pitch perfect.  And it is always a treat when you get to hear about Elly's research.  Andy's talk on phoneme merger was also a fantastic talk that confirmed some gut feelings but left a lot of huh-moments as well.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience!  Thanks to everyone who participated!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A humorous response to my talk today

‎"English loves -ing; heck, it loves it so much, you might as well call it -inglish."
                              --Ethan Dickinson???

Monday, April 16, 2012

UA/ASU Joint Meeting Program

Remember the ASU/UA Joint Linguistics Meeting this Saturday. I will be the last speaker. This is generally a really fun, informal but informative event. If you are linguist or a linguistics oriented person in Arizona, you should try to be here.

1:00 Alvaro Cerrón-Palomino: "Resumption in Spanish Relative Clauses:
Why Subjects are Different"
1:45 Elly van Gelderen: "Psych-verbs in the history of English"
2:10 Patsy Hansel: "Code Choice in the Spanish as a Foreign Language
2:35 Claire Renaud: "A processing investigation of the gender feature
in second language acquisition: Evidence from Spanish and French"
3:05 Jing Xia: “Rhetorical Invention in the Understanding of Research
Topic Selection: Prospects and Problems”
3:30 Coffee Break
3:50 Robert LaBarge: “vP-Shell, θ-Structure, and UG Implications in
4:15 James Berry: “Cyclical Renewal of Adverbs and Adpositions”
4:40 Dave Medeiros: TBA
5:05 Jeff Punske: "What nominalization can tell us about regularity"

Immediately following: Potluck/Department party at Andy and Adam’s house

Friday, April 13, 2012

Officially Filed!

I filed the dissertation today. Formatting revisions appear to be done too. There are a few forms that need to be tracked down, but other than that, it is done.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I just sent Simin Karimi what I hope will be the final draft of my dissertation. I will probably read over it one last time for typographic errors this week. Hopefully, it will be filed some time within the next week or so.

Since it has been so close to done for so very long (if you haven't kept up with me that closely, I defended back in June), I thought it would feel less strange-- especially since the bulk of at least the last month has been proof reading, formatting and the ilk. Turns out, it doesn't :-)

I've got plenty to keep me busy coming up though. I have revisions for a paper that are near complete. Another new(ish) paper nearing submission quality and a talk to give next week! I won't be wont for linguistics now....

I've posted this version of the dissertation. It has not been filed yet. If you've just been dying to get your hands on it and notice any errors, please let me know!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ASU/UA Joint Linguistics Meeting

On April 21, we will have our annual meet-up with the linguists for Arizona State. Details will be forthcoming, but be sure to clear your calendars.

I will be donning my morphologist hat for the first time in way too long and speaking about some new(ish) work I have. My talk is titled "What nominalization tells us about regularity". It is largely a response to some claims in Embick's newest book.

Hope to see you there.

And big props to Andy Wedel for putting this together on our end. I'm sure there are folks at ASU working just as hard as him as well! Thanks to all involved!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Andrew Carnie eliminates the 1 page rule

If you saw my previous post, I was lamenting the fact that I only had one page of acknowledgements. Thanks to Andrew, that rule has been eliminated.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Dissertation acknowledgements

As you know, I am wrapping up the final elements before I file my dissertation. I recently wrote my acknowledgments without much care to the fact that I would be limited to a single page. Of course, if I were truly to acknowledge everyone it would roughly equal the dissertation in length. But still, even in my attempt at modesty, I wrote 3x the accepted amount.

Eventually, I will have to cut this down. But this is who I want to thank and how I want to thank them, so I want to share that. And frankly, I will probably cheat in the final document and refer people to more complete version.

UPDATE: I, of course, neglected people in the original. I have updated this to include more folks. I'm sure some still are left off. This is so much harder than it looks.



A dissertation is not a work of individual effort. Though, only my name is listed as an author, there are so many other people who have contributed to this work directly or indirectly and supported me in the ways that made it possible. These pages are an attempt to acknowledge and thank those people, though understand it is impossible to list everyone or to thank those listed enough.

I would like to begin by thanking the graduate students (present and past), staff and professors in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. All of you have been my family for the last several years. In particular I would like to thank, in no particular order, Simin Karimi, Heidi Harley, Andrew Carnie, Andy Barss, Adam Ussishkin, Amy Fountain, Mike Hammond, Diana Archangeli, Cecil McKee, Diane Ohala, Mary Willie, Ofelia Zepeda, Janet Nicol, Natasha Warner, Andy Wedel, Tom Bever, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Amy LaCross, Lindsay Butler, Jessamyn Schertz, Dan Siddiqi, Scott Jackson, Maggie Camp, Dave Mederios, Jeff Witzel, Leila Lomashvili, Bob Kennedy, Michael Anderson, Mans Hulden, Carly Tex, Jordan Brewer, Erin Good, Polly O’Rourke, Sumayya Racy, Peter Richtsmeier, Yosuke Sato, Angelina Serratos, Shannon Bischoff, Cathy Hicks-Kennard, Alina Twist, Jason Haugen, Erin O’Bryan, Colleen Fitzgerald, Gregory Anderson, Dane Bell, Rolando Soto, Andréa Davis, Jeff Berry, Dan Brenner, Ethan Dickinson, Emma Ehrhart, Julia Fischer, Kara Hawthorne, Colin Gorrie, Alan Hogue, Alex Trueman, Elly Zimmer, Samantha Wray, Miriam Diaz, Mercedes Tubino, Brecht Welch, Maureen Hoffman, Keisha Josephs, Hyung Kyoung Jung, Greg Key, Emily Kidder, Kenne Likkel, Lio, Mathieu, Jorge Muriel, Jaime Parchment, Jaehoon Choi, Kevin Schluter, Megan Stone, Jae-Hyun Sung, Deniz Tat and Sylvia Reed. I discuss many of these individuals in more detail. But I wanted to provide such a long list here to illustrate my point of how this is not an individual effort. And this is but a mere subset of the total people involved.

I would be extremely remiss to forget to mention Marian Wisely, Jennifer Columbus and Kimberly Young. Marian is a source of light and joy in the department. She can almost always be counted on to cheer you up when you are down or to knock you down a peg when you are getting too high on yourself. She’s great. She’s always ready to go to bat for you and she’s an endless source of knowledge and spirit. Kimberly is a rock star. She’s helpful and joyful in what she does.

Through this all, I owe most of this work to Simin Karimi, my far too gracious advisor. Simin has stood by me as I struggled to precisify a dissertation topic. She helped me manage to process of going from the dissertation that I thought I wanted to write into the dissertation that I actually wanted to write. She is funny. She is kind. She is prompt. One would be hard pressed to find a better advisor.

In many ways, Heidi Harley was advisor B. In many ways this work most closely reflects my vision of Heidi’s work. This was quite the transition for me. I entered into Heidi’s morphology and lexical semantics classes highly resistant to idea that Distributed Morphology had much going for it. Now, I have written a dissertation in that framework. I view that as a testament to Heidi as a teacher and as a scholar. But Heidi is so much more than that, she is truly a person to be admired. Despite all of her brilliance and all of the amazing work she does, she finds time for all of her students and she finds time to have fun. Occasionally, she even finds time to truck across the galaxy with me. Go get’em, Big Rig!

Andrew Carnie might be the single most important person in my education as a linguist. Andrew was my mentor through my undergraduate years and he was the person who pushed me the most during my graduate years. Andrew is exacting and honest. He is the perfect mentor. Besides being a great professor, mentor and colleague, I like to consider Andrew a friend. Andrew certainly helped feed my board gaming addiction which was absolutely necessary for my survival in grad school.

Andy Barss is a legend. Working with Andy is an amazing experience. The wealth of knowledge that he holds is probably unparalleled in the field. I truly believe this. His ability to recall critical arguments from obscure sources and blend them into a coherent theoretic picture is a sight that must be seen to be believed. Whenever I was stuck on a particular jarring issue, I’d always go to Andy. Without exception, Andy would set me on the course that find the answer.

Richard Larson was my most challenging committee member (and I mean this in a very good way). Never would he let me get away with a theoretic assumption for the sake of the analysis, he pressed me very hard. He made me a better-rounded linguist. It was truly a privilege and an honor to get the opportunity to work with him.

All together, my committee formed an amazing team. Whenever I am asked, “who was your advisor?” I, of course, say Simin but often I feel the need to say that I really had a whole committee working for me. Every single member of my committee went well above the call of duty for me. Everyone one of them deserves every ounce to gratitude I can offer. When I’m asked next who my advisor was, I might offer this as a response: “Larson-Barss-Carnie-Harley with Simin Karimi leading the charge.”

Outside of my committee members there are several faculty members I need to thank for their individual efforts. First, there is Adam Ussishkin who led me through the undergraduate-to-graduate transition and taught me a lot about how to be a professional linguist. Amy Fountain who taught me how to blend teaching and research and gave me a sounding board and a cookie whenever times were tough. Mike Hammond who taught me how to find balance. Diana Archangeli who taught me how to be a professional. Diane Ohala whose unrelenting kindness was always a joy and who gave me the space I needed to get this work done. And finally, Natasha Warner who taught me how to balance my teaching and service needs with my research. There are many others who did many things along the way. I wish I could list them all but this acknowledgment section is already pushing the bounds of tastefulness.

The students who have inspired or helped me are simply too numerous to fully list. As with above, I will list many, but understand that this list is incomplete. It would be egregious for me not to list Amy LaCross here. I know that many of the linguists have gotten immense joy from hearing Amy and I bicker as if we were 8 year-old siblings, or 75 year-old spouses. Essentially, we are both. More than anyone else, Amy feels like family. She’s seen me at my worst and still stood by me. Yosuke Sato has always been an inspiration to me. I wish I had his drive. He is a friend who kept me focused on what I needed to do next. Scott Jackson has been my guide through much of my graduate career. Whenever I was stuck I knew I could turn to Scott. Sylvia Reed has been my office-mate, frenemy, friend, and many other roles. She drove me through my last year. Lindsay Butler has been a complicated but inspiring figure to me. We have struggled together almost always at the same time. She has always been there to pull me out. Jessamyn Schertz’s no nonsense attitude was critical for me when I got stuck in a rut. I knew that if Iwasn’t working, she’d say whatever I need to make the “justifications” go away. And, that if I really just couldn’t get stuff done that day, she’d be over to play Dominion.

I would be remiss to not thank everyone who has listened to me speak at various venues and given me critical feedback that informs much of the work in this dissertation. There are simply too many conferences and individuals to thank here. But I would like to give a special acknowledgment to the audience of the 2009 Mid-American Linguistics Conference where the kernel that forms the bulk of this dissertation was first conceived. I also need a place to thank Mike Putnam, who I met there.

There are many other people who I need to thank outside whose roles were largely outside of my academic development but no doubt were a major part of it. First, my parents-- for obvious reasons that I do not have the space to enumerate. Heather Jackson who took in whatever crazy I was spewing that day and turned it into something understandable. There were times when Heather felt like my life jacket is a vast sea of linguistic theory. John Ivens and all of the hikers for getting me outdoors and reminding me that one cannot have a healthy mind while one is trapped indoors all the time. Maggie Camp and James Garza who provided much needed silliness in a world that is all together too serious. The gamers (who somewhat sadly, but all together too predictably are too numerous to name individually) who gave my mind some other puzzles to solve—which opened it to solving the ones in here. And to the people at The Ultima who by training my body allowed my mind to open up and finish this thing.

I also owe an incredible debt to "the writers/crocheters" who not only taught me the art of Keith-Fu (thank you, Mr. Martin) but kept me in touch with perspectives outside of linguistics and kept the world a fun place. Also, they usually kept me well fed and well boozed.

I know that I have forgotten someone or something. For that I apologize.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

new paper

I'll be seeking feedback on the complete draft of my nominal events paper in the next week or so. It has taken a very interesting turn of late. I have really refocused on the regularity aspects of the analysis and developed that a lot further. Now, the paper is as much on a theory of regularity as it is on complex events in nominalization.

Personally, I think the analysis is not quite neat (both in the 1950s lingo sense and in the fact that it is fairly self-contained with not a terrible amount of loose ends.)

I hope to have a near-final draft by Wednesday. Shoot me a line if you'd like to take a look.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The public relations of linguistics

This is a post that I've been bouncing around for a while. I still don't think I'll be able to get everything down that I want to say, but I need to give it a go or it'll never happen.

Basically, the field of linguistics needs seriously help in the public relations front. And I am certainly no angel when it comes to this....

But, the sad truth is that linguistics are sitting on topics that absolutely fascinate people. When I take the time to REALLY start talking to people about language, I find versions of the same questions that perplex linguistics today. People are generally fascinated by language in all of its aspects.

Yet, in the public eye, most of the discussion is not about language as linguists see it. Rather, the public view is that language is mere communication. That language is nothing that special (i.e., dogs have it too). Or that language is just that hodgepodge of rules and exceptions taught in sixth grade and preached by the mavens slowly slipping to hell in a hand-basket.

This is obviously a problem.

The bigger problem is that it seeps well beyond the public but into institutions of higher learning and scholarly research. Even among the highly educated, basic knowledge of linguistics is uncommon. This hurts the field in too many ways to count (funding, general institutional support, etc.).

But it doesn't need to be this way. Linguists are sitting on a gold mine, we just need to start mining.

To me, the key is a refocus on undergraduate education (perhaps with some of the wiser, more press-enabled folks working that angle). Linguistics departments need to find ways to make survey courses the types of courses that students want to take and the types of courses that will stick with students. There's obviously a lot there: there is a wealth of potential materials in popular culture that is just waiting to be mined.

Obviously, sci-fi and fantasy languages are an easy place to start. But even there, there little in terms of useful course materials. Heidi Harley's collection of the Simpson's linguistics humor is another underutilized resource ( many other options. The key is that we need to be creative.

Such attempts would of course increase the majors. But that's not the ultimate goal necessarily. We don't need to triple the size of the field. Rather, we need the public and the future university administrators looking at linguistics from anywhere but a place of ignorance.

Friday, March 2, 2012

my conference horror story

I think that we all can agree that this blog is missing some good stories of yours truly making a fool of himself. So, it is probably time that this gets corrected.

This post is inspired by the all of the first and second year graduate students who are heading out into the wild world to present at their first linguistics conferences. I've had numerous discussions over lunch or what-have-you and it has made me reminisce over some of my past experiences at conferences.

In many ways, I've been blessed. Sure, I've been to some conferences that weren't quite what I expected, but I've gained something from everyone that I've been to.

Still, there's one that I like to think back on. It's a funny story. In the end, it was probably one of the best conferences I ever attended, but it so easily could've been a total disaster.

It all started about a week and a half before I set to go out. I had finished a draft of my handout and sent it out for comments. A phonetician who I was quite close with was the first to give me comments. She asked about a data paradigm I hadn't considered. It didn't fit. At all. The analysis just couldn't handle it.


So, there I was, with very little time and I needed to solve this problem. The insight I had had before was still interesting and relevant, but, boy, it needed to be modified. For the next week I spent virtually every moment trying to solve the problem. Eventually, I came to something-- I was now leaving in less than two days. (It wasn't perfect. Certainly clunky. But parts of it do survive in my dissertation.)

I still had to prep my class for the time I was going to be gone, not to mention catch up to a certain extent on the work I had neglected otherwise. I had no time to do a formal practice talk. I barely had time to read over my handout...

I had a long plane flight, followed by a long shuttle ride (the host institution was not in a city with an airport). Perfect. I can go over it while traveling in detail, then do a few time talks before bed. Not ideal, but beats nothing.

The morning comes. My stomach is in knots. Nerves and the lack of sleep coupled with my already existing slight issues with air travel are not treating me well. On my way out the door, I grab some Imodium.

Little did I know at the time, but I wasn't taking Imodium. I was taking a sleep aid that looks nearly identical.

I'm on the plane. I pull out my handout. I can't concentrate at all. I'm feeling really cloudy mentally. And my stomach STILL hurts. I know that you can take Imodium fairly frequently so I take another dose.

Really, at this point, I'm just lucky I didn't seriously harm myself.

We land. I need to change planes. Delayed. I wander around the airport. I feel ill and incredibly exhausted; I worry I'm coming down with something terrible.

I arrive at the final airport just in time to see my shuttle speed away. Next one comes in 2.5 hours. Great. I won't make it to the hotel until well after 11pm now. I try once more to read over my handout but my mind is just not there.

We roll into the hotel. I get into my room and immediately set the alarm, my phone alarm and get a wake-up call. I'm out.

I wake up the next morning with a pounding headache. I still feel bleary but not as bad as before. I pound down more coffee than I thought was humanly possible. I am nowhere near 100%, but I am more like Jeff. That's good, it is almost show-time.

I remember very little from my talk. I was the second speaker. The room was fairly crowded. And the attendees were bigger names than I ever could've expected. It went by in a flash.

At first, I was just relieved it was over.

But as the conference went on, something funny happened. People kept asking me questions from my talk. I apparently had piqued some interest. I had started discussions. That's what a conference talk is all about.

Somehow, out of what should've been a disaster, I made numerous professional contacts with people I would now consider friends. Out of the discussions I got the basis of what would be the earliest parts of my dissertation. This should've been much worse. Instead, I look back on that conference as one of the best I've ever attended-- probably one of the best I ever will attend.

So that's the message I'd want to get out. It'll all be alright. Sometimes things go wrong. But at the end of the day, you never know where the real blessings are going to come.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Seeking some advice

Debating about submitting a paper to that new Open Journal of Modern Linguistics.

Advantages: If accepted, very quick publication time. It is open-access which fits with my general beliefs about academia and education.

Disadvantages: There is a publication fee for authors (I could likely negotiate my fee down being a student). Nothing published yet, overall quality of the journal undetermined.

Overall, I'm still very torn. The paper is very near complete and so I have to come to a decision very soon. Thought?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putting Chomsky's thoughts on education into practice

So the other day I posted some of my thoughts on Chomsky's talk on education. That post can be found here:

I was inspired both by Chomsky's lecture and by the process of writing that post to try to mix up my teaching a little bit. I am currently teaching undergraduate syntax and we have gotten to Binding Theory. Normally, I would present the conditions and the relevant data and then once I felt we got that we would do some practice. Now, that seems a lot like the type of teaching that Chomsky was arguing against. It sounds a lot like the type of teaching that I try to avoid (though, obviously, sometimes do).

So I thought, what if I gave them the practice first... they wouldn't know what they were practicing but still would be able to derive the answers I'm sure.

But, would that still be too boring? All the necessary data would be there. Sure, it would be more a challenge. But would it be enough of one? Would it really constitute discovery?

Then, I thought, maybe I'll just give them some random sentences. We'll form some hypotheses and then I ask them to give me the data necessary to test it....

So that's what we did. There was some discomfort at times. Students didn't want to offer up their hypotheses out of fear of being wrong. (That's a trait I need to break them off. Hell, that's a trait I still need to break myself of.) But we trucked along... and it worked marvelously. By mid-point of class they had already come up with the textbook definition of Principle A. Principle B took a bit more work, but with only a little guidance from me, we got there.

But that's not really exciting part. I knew we'd get there. The really exciting stuff came in the other questions they asked. While looking for their own data and their own examples they started to really see some flaws in our phrase structure rules. The discussion was lively. It was a fun place to be (granted, I generally thinking Binding Theory is pretty fun).

So, this Chomsky guy, he seems to be pretty smart after all... :-)

Now, I need to think of a way to try to get them to independently construct X'-Theory. Any ideas?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chomsky on Education


Before I start this post, I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at Dave's comment on my Third Factor post from a couple of days ago. Dave has definitely given a lot of these issues considerable more thought than I have. As I mentioned in my (brief) response, I'm still concerned about a reconciliation between very rich UGs (like strong Cartography) and economy considerations. That said, Cartography seems to get a lot right.... in a lot of ways, that troubles me. :-)

But, on to the main event.

Chomsky's public lecture was a very interesting one. It certainly contained hints of all of the usual politics that one would associate with a lecture by Chomsky of this sort. There's a lot there that I shouldn't comment on in this forum. Obviously, I believe that the issue of state-funding for education (both K-12 and higher ed) is a very important topic and one that frankly too ignored in this country. But, I do not want to turn this into a discussion of political philosophy (though the idea that any political philosophy feels it is appropriate to ignore education... wait, now Jeff, you said you wouldn't do this....)

Instead, I will focus on Chomsky's remarks directly on education. Chomsky's main point was that education which focuses on memorization, predictability and rote tasks is not a real education. Yet, largely, that is what our classrooms focus on. I believe this holds at many levels.

Obviously, there are reasons behind this: At the K-12 level there are exams that students and schools are required to hit certain marks on; average students are trained just to hit those marks. None of those exams have places for creative, free thought. Even in higher education, funding considerations and other constraints have put an undue burden on qualified instructors or put classrooms in the hands of novice instructors early in their training-- in both of these scenarios it is often easier for the instructor(s) to assign work that can be easily assessed. Easily assessed, almost inevitably means predictable. That is the opposite of creative discovery.

Chomsky relayed a story of a colleague of his in physics who said the following at the start of his class whenever he got a question about what was "covered" in the class (paraphrase): "It's not what I cover in this class, it is what you discover." He then would go on to say that if the student could show everything he taught was wrong, he had done his job.

Obviously, this is a very high and hard standard. I'm sure Chomsky's colleague failed to always meet it. I know that I often fall short. But in the end it is not our ability to achieve perfection that our teaching should be judged on, it is our willingness to attempt it.

It is far too easy to fall in the easiness trap, where students are expected to offer rote answers to predetermined problems. It is tempting. Students that challenge our teaching are, well, challenging. But rather than buckling in the face of that challenge, we should rather embrace it. It is in vigorous and lively teaching that research agendas are clarified and that students truly learn.

Rote skills and memorization utterly fail a linguistics undergraduate. Only a select minority will pursue a career in the field. Memorizing the Binding Conditions does most no good as they pursue their true careers. Learning how to analyze the data and develop Binding Theory serves them better. And there are even deeper ways to develop that desire and ability of creative discovery.

In my own teaching, I do attempt to follow the spirit of Chomsky's message her. I consider it a failing if I ever stand before my class while explaining an assignment and not say "I accepted multiple answers here-- let's discuss why each one works and try to see if we prefer one over the other." I come up short. That's okay. The best part about this climb is that there isn't even a summit.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What is Semantics such that it can exist?

I know the title of this post is a little strange, but bear with me here.

I'm wrapping up with a lot of my thoughts on Chomsky's visit here and there was one thing that he briefly mentioned in both his talk and the private Q&A that really struck me; largely because this is something that I have long been considering.

Chomsky noted that all other animal communication systems are purely referential. Human language is at most minimally referential....

Yet, our standard theories of Semantics (and the ones that I believe have made the most progress) are based on an assumption of reference. Model-theoretic/set-theoretic (and most version of truth-theoretic) semantics is built out of the idea that predicates at their core refer back to sets. This seems completely unlike the way that humans actually compose meaning.

A lot of this stems from the fact that as a field, semantics really predates generative syntax. Semantics is born out of studies of logic is philosophy largely in work from the 19th and early 20th century. The marriage of logic and natural language is a messy one. For instance, even simple connectives in logical systems behave massively different in natural language. To take a very simple example:
  1. p q q p
  2. John came in and (John) sat down ≠ John sat down and (John) came in
English and has a temporal ordering that logical and does not have. This is not a fatal blow for such systems, but it something that should at least give us pause. Logic was not built for natural language, we should never forget that.

Similarly, the problem of reference is a real one for philosophers. Yet, it is largely one that does not trouble humans who have not taken Philosophy 101. Sure transporter accidents and other worlds where Hitler gets accepted to art school are interesting thought problems, but they are problems (in my mind) largely divorced from natural language.

Even proper names seem largely divorced from reference (though there are some fairly obvious seeming referential uses: introductions for instance). Rather, most instances of proper name usage instead seems to be referring to a collection of mental attributes about said individual. If this weren't the case then the sentence "I am going to be Heidi Harley in class today" would be exceptional strange barring a world where body-snatching/shape-shifting is possible. When I utter a sentence like that I obviously mean that I well behave as if I were Heidi Harley (teach about DM, be too nice, eat durian, or whatever). Provided a shared set of attributes between the speakers such sentences are easily interpreted...

So how do humans actually compose meaning? I really don't know. Obviously, if reference can't work something mental would be more on track. But that leads us down a path of Fodorian and anti-Fodorian thoughts on concepts-- there is no simple solution. But I believe that somewhere in this thorny, thorny path the answer will be found.

I wish I had a more positive note to end on. Though, I actually do think there is a good deal to be excited about there. I do believe that the next great frontier in linguistics in word-meaning (or in my humble opinion--root meaning) and its contribution to compositionality. And I mean word-meaning in a very mind-internal way, not a dictionary way.


I have two more posts in the work to wrap up my main thoughts on Chomsky's visit (plus hopefully a description on Chomsky's Q&A). I'd like to share my thoughts on Chomsky's public talk on education. There was a lot there. Mostly I will focus on his discussion of the way instruction should be built, which I absolutely loved and have tried to do (with success and failures) my whole career. But as you may now, teaching is one of my great joys in life and there was a lot of great points Chomsky made.

I'd also like to get another post about the rarely discussed 2nd factor out. Obviously, it will be somewhat tied to this one....

Simon sez that "Simon sez" is not an idiom...

As the Arizona linguists are wont to do whenever we get together, lunch today featured a very heated conversation over whether or not two classes of expressions counted as idioms. In my mind, neither are, but I would like to open the discussion to a wider audience.

The first, is the phrase "Simon sez" or "Simon says"... if this were an idiom, it would cause major problems for many theories of idiomaticity because it appears to be an agent-verb idiom (contra Marantz and others). I question this phrase's status as an idiom for a number of reasons. First, it's use seemingly requires a call-back to the childhood game. Unlike other unambiguous idioms, it is impossible to describe its "meaning"without referring to the game; whereas an idiom like "kick the bucket" is easy to describe without referencing the real world. Second, it lacks a real effect on the semantics "Simon sez get out of the car" and "Get out of the car" are roughly identical statement. Whatever its effect is, it is pragmatic. Now, neither of these arguments are knock-outs, but it does seem to me that "Simon sez" belongs in a different class.

The second controversial phrase was "Does the pope shit in the woods?". This phrase is apparently used as an obvious affirmative to a yes/no question. It was featured in the Big Lebowski. It is a play on the phrases "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?". I am less certain about this one, but I am still disinclined to describe it as an idiom. For one, it is obviously used to be funny. It is well known that we can play with expression and grammaticality in language for humorous effect. This phrase seems no different. To me, idioms require a certainly level of casualness in use that is not found with this phrase. To use an idiom, a speaker must almost be unaware that one is using an idiom barring reflection. [There's got to be a better way to put this.] Further, I believe that this phrase is a play on two common, but non-idiomatic phrases. There is a real sense in which the phrases "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?" are used compositionally when used as answers to yes/no questions. Their answers are trivially yes, and are meant to express just that.

Obviously, there is a lot of grey areas in idiom studies. Expressions like these do illustrate the need for a formal definition of idiomaticity. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

New talk up

I posted my slides from a talk that I gave at Concordia University a couple of weeks ago. I am currently completing a draft of the paper version, comments would be greatly appreciated.

The slides can be found in the papers tab of the main page.

My favorite quote from Chomsky's lecture (paraphase)

Science starts when we begin to puzzle over ordinary things.

Semantics Reading Group

The Semantics Reading Group will be meeting again on Monday 2/20. We will discuss chapters 3&4 of Heim and Kratzer.

Repost-- Third Factor

I promised nearly a week ago that I would return to a discussion of the so-called Third Factor at some point. That is the goal of this post. I am afraid I will not have time to fully articulate my position or the general positional held in current minimalist thinking. But, I hope to at least prompt some discussion.

Before I get into that, I want to quickly review what the different factors are and what they can tell us about language and theory.

First Factor: The genetic endowment (i.e., UG). This is where most of the work has been done for most of the life of generative linguistics. In a P&P model this is what gave most of the Principles and also the unset Parameters. Some modern approaches to syntax (especially those argued for directly by Chomsky) attempt to remove as much as possible from this factor.

Second Factor: The second factor is the individual contribution of the particular language being learned/used. In the old P&P model the 2nd factor would essentially be parameter setting. Chomsky rarely discusses this factor directly, but it can be cast in modern terms as the lexical properties of language-specific items (or some other view based on a lexicon (for lack of a better term) ala Borer and not via global parameter settings). Ultimately, I believe that this will the source of most linguistic phenomena with consideration from the other factors.

Third Factor: This factor is language independent. It is essentially natural law-- the requirement that computation is done efficiently (barring interference from either of the first two factors).

On the surface this makes a very simple story, but of course we haven't arrived on conclusions about any of the factors. Today, I will focus on the mostly on the third factor, but it is impossible to discuss the third without discussing the first.


In many ways I believe that the Third Factor is one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding and/or contention with modern syntactic approaches. At its heart, there should be nothing controversial about it; it is essentially a principle of science: a simpler operation should be preferred over a complex one all else being equal.

However, in practice, this claim is used inappropriately. I do not want to attack specific arguments here, but I often attend conference talks (or less commonly see this in published sources) where unexplained items are shunted off to some near mystical economy constraint.

There is the added confound that there is no single, standard definition of complexity (nor do I think there can be at this point). But without a solid understanding of complexity, more simple becomes something more like a best guess.

This is not inappropriate.

This is science.

It is hypothesis testing. But we need to never lose sight of what it actually is.

Economy/arguments to simplicity are also misused in another way that also undermines it acceptance generally.

To me, a model which takes seriously economy constraints must take the other aspects of the model presented--namely, a minimal UG. However, a lot of work takes virtually the opposite approach. For instance, Cartography (with its 400+ universally ordered functional heads) cannot possible be the genetic component of language. It is simply too specified to be innate. There are certainly much useful work that is coming out of that approach, but as a theory of UG it is simply not viable. Yet there are a theories of global economy based off of robust Cartographic approaches.... attempting to build a model based on how natural law interacts with an object that cannot exist in nature is a fool's errand, at best.