The last words of Biloxi

For poignancy, it’s hard to beat the International Journal of American Linguistics.

No one actually knows how many languages there are in the world.  Linguists generally estimate a number in the range of 5,000 to 10,000.  What people generally do agree about is this: by the end of this century, half of them will be gone.  Extinct.  No longer spoken.

When you teach linguistics, you often find yourself saying things like this:

All human languages have the property of ambiguity.

No language has a voiced stop without having the corresponding unvoiced stop.

Well: we actually know almost nothing, relatively speaking, about most languages.  Whether there are 5,000 languages today, or 10,000, most of them are what linguists call “undescribed:” that is, we know that they exist, but not much else about them.  “We” in the sense of linguists–that is, people who study language as a system.  (Obviously, the speakers know something about them.)

Consequently, I always find myself needing to give a disclaimer: of the 1,000 or so languages about which we know something, out of the 5,000-10,000 languages in the world, all of them have the property of ambiguity… Clunky, but more plausible than all or none.  As a scientist, I don’t really like “universal quantifiers,” anyway–always, never, all, none… They just aren’t true that often.  No language has a voiced stop without having the corresponding unvoiced stop: a well-known fact, which turns out not to be true: Kukú (a language of the Eastern Nilotic family, with 30,000 or so speakers, mostly in the town of Kajo-Kaji (several other possible spellings) in South Sudan) has a voiced palatal stop, but no voiceless one.  Ambiguity, though: yep, as far as I know, every human language is ambiguous.

Franz Boas posing for a museum exhibit: “Hamats’a coming out of secret room.” 1895 or earlier. A quote from the Wikipedia article about him: “In his 1963 book, Race: The History of an Idea in America, Thomas Gossett wrote that “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” Picture source: By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For poignancy, it’s hard to beat articles like this one from IJAL, the International Journal of American Linguistics.  No, “American linguistics” does not mean linguistics done by Americans, or done in America: it means the study of the indigenous languages of the Americas.  (The Americas explained in the English notes below.)  Wikipedia tells me that it was established in 1917 by the anthropologist Franz Boas (a fascinating figure–check him out).

The article was written by Mary Haas, one of the most prolific producers of linguistics PhDs ever (including Marc Okrand, who would go on to create the Klingon language for the Star Trek movies–one of my colleagues used to use it as a source for exam questions).  Haas spent a decade researching some of the indigenous languages of the southeast United States (and an island off the coast of British Columbia), and then was recruited by the War Department to develop a methodology for teaching Thai.  She did so; my anthropological linguistics professor told me that after the war, her approach was abandoned on the theory that she had been teaching her American students to speak a tone language and that for an American to learn to speak a tone language is impossible–clearly Haas was right, and it is not impossible for an American to speak a tone language.  My professor chalked this folly up to the sexism of the time, and she was probably right.  Haas worked with the last living speakers of a number of languages; this paper describes her work on one of them.  Read it and weep.

English notes

The Americas: North, Central, and South America.  Some examples from the Sketch Engine web site:

  • From the local ports it was shipped to Liverpool and thence into larger vessels overseas, including West Africa where it became a key component in the triangular trade involving slaves to the Americas.
  • Her work explores contemporary cultural production in the Americas to analyze how artists and activists use a variety of media, the Internet, Closed Circuit TV, the street, and theatre, to challenge traditional notions of politics in relation to location, simulation, and embodiment.
  • The members represent not only the various disciplines (such as history, anthropology, archaeology, sociology and law) but also the various regions of the world (Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, the Indian Ocean, the Arab states and Asia).

How I used it in the post: No, “American linguistics” does not mean linguistics done by Americans, or done in America: it means the study of the indigenous languages of the Americas. 

poignancy: from the adjective poignant, meaning

(1) painfully affecting the feelings piercing 
(2) deeply affecting touching
  • The Schubert in particular was very affecting: in the second movement, the poignancy of an old man now 87 playing the searing music of a young man facing early death was almost too much to take.
  • The threshold between life and death imparts poignancy to the utterances of the dying.
  • If we don’t survive, we can imagine the same faint chance the Voyagers have of being detected and studied by some other intelligence, a thought that adds an almost unbearable poignancy to some of these images.
  • But a second viewing reveals that what he has witnessed is his own funeral, the final scene of the film, adding an unbearable poignancy to a very potent image of tragic inevitability.
  • It was meant to be a romantic comedy, and it definitely has those elements, but it ended up having a bittersweet poignancy as well, as Paisley deals with the death, bequests and scandals of her great-aunt.

How I used it in the post: “For poignancy, it’s hard to beat articles like this one from IJAL, the International Journal of American Linguistics.”  

to chalk (something) up to (something): “To link something that has happened to a particular reason or circumstance.”  (Source: The Free Dictionary You’ll find a number of related, but different, meanings there.)  Examples:










Itchy Feet on How Many Kisses

One for a small child, or in Brittany.

The Itchy Feet comic tells stories of language, culture, and travel from around the world.  I usually can’t say much about the accuracy of the culture and travel stuff, but the language stuff is right on—the author has clearly had some education in linguistics.

For more about la bise:

Want to participate in a survey on how many kisses one gives to faire la bise (give the French cheek-kiss) in different parts of France, or just look up the survey results for your part of that beautiful country?  Go to  Click on a region to give your data, or mouse-over to see its survey results thus far.

Incidentally: my family is originally from Brittany, but we’ve been Parisian for a long time; we do the usual Ile-de-France two.



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