The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Episode 72: What If Linguistics, in which Randall Munroe of xkcd asked us his very good absurd hypothetical questions about linguistics. Here’s a completely real and normal photograph of what that looked like:
This month, we rethought the structure of the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Okay, let me explain.
The IPA is typically presented in a chart that shows the sounds of languages of the world arranged in two dimensions: from top to bottom as the mouth is more and more open and from left to right as the sound is produced from the front of the mouth to the back. It’s elegant, it’s informative, it’s a highly familiar reference diagram for linguists. So my cohost Lauren Gawne and I thought it would be nifty to create a more aesthetically attractive version of this already really neat technical diagram which is typically presented in rather boring technical greyscale, as practical-yet-elegant merch for our podcast, Lingthusiasm. Almost a year ago, we sent off an email to our resident artist, Lucy Maddox….and now, finally, here we are.
In the process, we’ve learned a whole lot about the history of the International Phonetic Alphabet (longer version in the thread below!)
We’ve also realized that we have some questions about parts of the IPA chart layout that we’d been taking for granted. For example: why is there a third chart for the non-pulmonic consonants like clicks and implosives, when they have the same places of articulation as the main, pulmonic consonant chart and could surely just be rows there? And, wouldn’t it be sort of nifty to put the vowels back in the same chart as the consonants again, when they used to hang out there for decades? This started as an art project, but any good art also provokes…questions. Longer version and speculations in this blog post.
At any rate, here’s what it looks like when we put all of the symbols on the same chart!
We also thought, wouldn’t it be ideal if this eclectic nerd art IPA design came in a convenient format for carrying around with you? One that might even be useful for other purposes? So we’re getting it imprinted onto microfibre lens cloths (useful for cleaning glasses, sunglasses, camera lenses, and phone/computer screens). The thing is, lens cloth printing companies only take orders in the hundreds or preferably thousands, so we’ve decided to place one massive order for everyone who’s a patron at the Lingthusiast tier as of October 5th, 2022. This is our most popular tier, which also gets you our whole archive of monthly bonus episodes and access to the Lingthusiasm patron Discord server — if you’ve been on the fence about becoming a patron, now would be a really good time for it. (Higher tiers can get several lens cloths, if you want spares or to share with friends.)
Technically speaking, next month’s bonus episode is an interview with Lucy Maddox about the IPA chart redesign and being a linguist/artist but we’ve made that bonus episode free for a limited time until the IPA lens cloth special offer is closed on October 5th, so you should go listen to that now if you’re interested!
I also finished the #103papers project this month, reading 1 paper each for the 103 languages identified by Kidd&Garcia in the top 4 journals about child language acquisition. More on the big picture from what I learned later, but in the meantime, here’s a neat thing I learned:
This month I attended a local literary speculative fiction con, Scintillation, where I was on panels about swearing in science fiction and fantasy and the delightful Steerswoman books, as well as doing a dramatic reading from Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet book.
Some linguists got very excited about a very cool linguistics paper by the late Anne Cutler, which I won’t spoil (because it really does have spoilers, but trust me you don’t need any particular linguistics background to get why it’s cool) and as a result we also managed to track down Anne Cutler’s Christmas Letter, which is mentioned in the paper. (The full twitter thread, linked to from below, is also worth reading afterwards.)
I did a thread about how we approach a topic like modals which traditionally has a lot of associated terminology for a Lingthusiasm episode:
I also spent the entire month in the Indo-European section of the #103papers reading project. (And then some – 39 Indo-European languages in this sample.) Here’s a paper about Italian with very charming examples:
This month’s picture is Because Internet hanging out at the staff picks section with some book friends at my local independent bookstore, Argo Bookshop! Argo’s owners were linguists in a previous life and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in Montreal.
It’s delightfully surreal when an author whose books you’re enjoying also likes your book!
The #103papers project continued, in which I read one paper per language for the 103 languages identified as having papers published about them in the four major child language acquisition journals, based on a survey paper by Kidd&Garcia. Here’s a bit from a paper about Greenlandic showing that kids love morphology!
This month, I started a new reading project! It’s inspired by a paper by Evan Kidd and Rowena Garcia that came out last year, and which surveys the languages represented by all of the papers published in the four main child language acquistion research journals. Kidd & Garcia find that these journals contain papers about 103 languages; while this number is small compared to the total number of languages in the world (over 7000) and even the number of languages typically found in other cross-linguistic studies (the language maps at WALS often report data from 400-1200 languages), it does make for a relatively manageable reading list.
So that’s what I’m doing: reading one paper per language from this list, and posting a screenshot of the abstract and a my own tweet-length summary in this thread on twitter. At the rate of one paper per day, not quite every day, it’ll probably take me about four months. I’ve been missing going to conferences and finding out what people are working on in an informal fashion, which is different from diving in the literature to try and find out something specific for a lingcomm project, so this is an attempt to “refill the well” a bit.
We also announced the winners of the LingComm Grants, giving out a total of 5 Project Grants (including the Kirby Conrod Project Grant for projects related to gender and lingcomm) and 12 Startup Grants. You can see the full list of grantees here, and stay tuned for more about their exciting linguistics communication projects as they get to work on them in the coming months.
I started the year at a rather surreal LSA 2022, the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, which I’d hoped to attend in person in Washington DC but moved online at the last minute, along with what seemed to be most of the other attendees. It was nonetheless nice to see people virtually as well as help judge the Five Minute Linguist competition again.
This month we also announced the return of the LingComm Grants, small grants to help fledgling linguistics communication projects get off the ground, sponsored by Lingthusiasm and several other generous contributors. We first ran these grants in 2020, and it’s been great to see that people are still enthusiastic about them.
I did an interview on the Notion podcast with Devon Zuegel. Here’s a quote from that:
“If you see it as, okay, language is always a moving target, it’s a living thing that exists in the minds of living beings, and nothing about human life or human society, or human culture is exactly the same from one generation to the next, and language just comes along as part of that.”
In celebration, we redid the Lingthusiasm website to make it work better on mobile and so it would be easier for both new and recurring listeners to find things like where to start, transcripts, bonus episodes, and more. It looks so good now thanks to the tremendous behind-the-scenes efforts of Liz McCullough (different spelling, no relation!) and the new icon art by Lucy Maddox!
I also wrote an incredibly long meta post about the website design process for Lingthusiasm, which…you probably already know if you’re the type of person who likes long meta posts about the implicit social functions of things in everyday life.
Podcasts have what’s often called a discoverability problem: it’s hard for prospective listeners who might like a particular podcast to know what’s out there.
I propose, however, that this problem is not unique to podcasts, and that we could understand the nature of this problem better by calling it opacity: the degree to which you’re able to try before you buy without committing a substantial chunk of time, money, or effort.
For example, books have a higher opacity than newspapers, despite both being text, because it’s easier to read through some news articles before buying a physical paper or online subscription. Books, even when you can leaf through the first few pages, are often designed to be a unified rather than a modular experience, so you don’t know before committing to it if the premise that seems intriguing on page 1 is going to pay off well a few chapters later. Even if you’re getting access to the book itself as a gift or a loan, the time that it takes to figure out whether you’re enjoying it is still rather daunting.