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17 January 2011

Linguists Find a New Voice

During the five-ish years since my graduation, I've tried to keep my love of linguistics alive via Language Log, my favourite spoof linguistics journal SpecGram and via the occasional vaguely related article published in the journal for which I work. Oh, and the odd British Library exhibition. Although I sometimes miss it, it's not like being a quantum physics student who has to go cold turkey because, hey, language is all around us (quantum physicists would try to convince me that you can't run away from physics either).

In a sense, all linguistics is popular--of the people--because almost all of us read, write and speak at least one language and so it is a universally relevant subject. Nonetheless anyone who has had to explain, on countless occasions, that studying linguistics doesn't mean learning languages can appreciate the need for something like the new online magazine, Popular Linguistics, which seeks to do for linguistics what ScciAm* did for, er, quantum entanglement. Perhaps eventually, they will bring to the masses the parts of linguistics I found really dull--syntax, mainly--as well as those that captured my interest (that said, I did perk up when I misread the intro to one of the articles in the Ling101 section as, "We hear from Cormac McCarthy, who explains morphology in Understanding Linguistic Theory").

You only need to search the BBC News website to see which kinds of language-related stories interest people:

  1. Weird words: quirky etymologies, Words of the Yearslang, regional variations, jargon
  2. Language change: language death, the rise of txt spk, accents
  3. Discoveries of new languages or dialects (especially those with crazy-ass features like no words for numbers)
  4. Animal communication (preferably cute animals)
  5. Why are English people so crap at learning languages?

Back when I was a linguistics student, I found my friends tended to like hearing about the same kinds of story: weird words, weird languages, weird psycholinguistics shit. Berlin and Kay's work on colour terms and how they vary cross-linguistically always went down well; my synecdoche banter, not so much. I did used to annoy my friends by crying out with glee every time they made a nice speech error that I could use as an example in my psycholinguistics exam.

With sections like "language and cognition" and "language and history" I'll definitely be checking out Popular Linguistics. Of course, if there were a Popular Linguists section, my vote would go to Steven Pinker...

* misspelling intentional.

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