the language of protest

October 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

The excerpt below from the Dominion Post, 23 October, 2009 contains a new blend.

Wellington police and council officials are bracing for the arrival of a national motorcycle protest, in response to ACC Minister Nick Smith’s refusal to speak to bikers.

Up to 3000 motorcyclists are expected to roll into the capital on November 17 for a “bikoi” over proposed rises in ACC levies.

The protest’s Wellington co-ordinator, Brent Hutchison, said the levy rise – up to $500 per bike – was a “manifest injustice”. Bikers were easy targets because they had a false reputation. “We pay ACC levies through the nose. It’s time for them to back off and realise we are contributing, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society.”

Bikoi is  a blend of bike and hiikoi – so a nice mix of Maaori and English. Hikoi  was originally a Maaori verb about movement on foot, ranging over English meanings, ‘walk, step, hike’. Dame Whina Cooper’s protest march down the country has seen its dominant meaning shift to ‘march in protest’. Since   pre-“Dame” Whina led the 1975 hikoi from the Far North to Parliament to highlight ongoing Maaori land grievances, New Zealand has witnessed a number of hikoi ( I still feel uncomfortable pluralising the borrowing). In 1998 a ‘hikoi of hope’ converged on parliament to highlight growing concerns regarding social equality and justice in New Zealand.  By this time the concept of a hikoi  had become embedded in the culture – so much so that it had entered the New Zealand English lexicon, allowing it to be used  here in a protest beyond issues of Maaori autonomy. The foreshore and seabed issue in 2004 inspired another march upon Wellington. This year a hikoi protested the proposed reorganisation of Auckland into a super city. What is interesting about this blend is its bilingual fusion. It is not clear to me how <i> is to be pronounced. Is it the <i> of hikoi or  it is the diphthong in bike? My first instinct  is to analyse the blend as b+ikoi, still with short front vowel of  hikoi,  rather than the diphthong.

Spreading its fame, far and wide, hikoi, has made it into the urban dictionary, with this extremely dubious definition and example:

To protest democracy and endorse racial favouratism by driving slowly down the centre of the motorway waving flags and shouting for your rights as a minority to be heard and enforced to the detriment of all other peoples sharing your country.

“I’m going to that Hikoi downtown to piss off some Pakehas”

sleeping with snakes, a linguist’s life in the Amazon

October 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

dontsleepDaniel Everett has made a name for himself in linguistics circles – actually that means that others have given him names, sometimes not very complimentary ones. He has lived with and described the Pirahã language of the Amazon basin, and rather famously contradicted some widely held universals in language. The Pirahã, he has claimed, do not have a number system, and do not have true quantifiers.  Many linguists dismissed his argument, rather ad hominemly (to coin an adverb) because he was an SIL missionary, claiming that one could not be a real linguist and a proselytizer. However, in a recent book, Don’t sleep, there are snakes, London: Profile Books, we get a bit of linguistics, a bit of culture, and a very personal account of living with his family in the Pirahã culture for a couple of decades.

This is a very human story about the desire to achieve great things, profound faith in things – universal grammar and God – and what happens when faith is shaken. It is also a very interesting portrait of the Pirahã people, who seem to have little interest in the outside world, material possession and Everett’s god.

Everett presents scenes from fieldwork, its highs and lows, its frustrations and its eureka moments of insight, making him appear a very human linguist. He also presents a very interesting case for a particularly cultural view of the grammar of Pirahã derived by what he calls the principle of immediacy of experience. 

Declarative Pirahã utterances contain only assertions related directly to the moment of speech, either experienced or witnessed by someone alive during the lifetime of the speaker (Everett, 2009, p.132).

Pirahã do not talk about things they have not experienced, consequently they have no oral record of history, and he says little curiosity in the origins of things. He also suggests the language does not allow recursion, i.e. the embedding of ideas into other ideas, ruling out relative clause structures, and even conjunction of phrases and clauses with the equivalent of  ‘and’. This is a very profound claim as much has been made of recursion as a hallmark of human language. His analysis of this claim is that Pirahã sentences must contain assertions, and a relative clause does not contain a full assertion. He compares, by way of illustration the sequence of  Pirahã clauses, Bring back some nails, Dan bought those nails. They are the same,  equivalent to the English Bring the nails that Dan bought.  Everett claims that the nails that Dan bought does not contain an assertion (cf, Everett 2009, p.237)

Everett tries to link the grammatical and cultural constraints limiting Pirahã to immediacy with other  elements of their worldview – they don’t store food, even though they know how, they don’t plan for the future or talk about times remote in either direction. They weave baskets on the spot for carrying things rather than more durable containers. They utilise a simple kinship system that does not identify 3 generations preceding ego.

Whatever we think of Everett’s claims, this is an absorbing book. I read it in a day. Whether we focus on his work documenting the Pirahã language, his reflections on Chomksyan linguistics, or simply the day  to day life of a field linguist, Everett’s account of his years on the Maici river offers a chance to reflect on how all these issues meet in the field.

extramurals go places – prestigious places!

October 25, 2009 § 1 Comment

Congratulations to Jodi Wade, extramural graduate in linguistics! Jodi has been offered a place in a master’s programme for language documentation at the extremely prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Jodi did much of her study in Budapest, where she got a taste for field methods, exploring Serbian syntax and interacting with Hungarian-speaking rats!

Well done, Jodi.

ndoggies, naprons and apkins

October 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Here’s a story from a student …

I heard something really interesting before: overheard my little sister say to Dad “I was just going out to see what your [n]doggie was burying”. I stopped them and demanded to know why she had said ‘[n]doggie’ (they looked at me weirdly and warned each other that I was being all linguisticky again) – turns out it was just cause Dad calls him “mine doggie” and she had shortened it, but how cool would that have been if it was just random!! I made them listen to my explanation of prenasalised stops.
Great story, and a nice bit of reanalysis, and it is easy to see why little sister made the division. She has probably not heard many instances of mine + Noun, other than with doggie. Rather, she is much more familiar with my + Noun.  So being a systematic hypothesiser of language she has deduced that the noun begins with n.
This process of making new divisions in the sound stream of course interests historical linguists, and English is full of  interesting examples particularly with respect to the indefinite article, an. This allomorph appears when the next word is vowel initial. Like our student’s sister though, some speakers rethink this division so that a+ #Nnoun  a quick ad hoc ish way of saying an followed by a  noun that begins with n, becomes an Vnoun, i.e. the an determiner followed by a vowel-initial noun.
 An example that spring to mind involves the forms apron and napkin. Looking closely at these do seem so share the ap sequence, and some semantic similarities – clothes we use to protect things from food spills … or in my case attempt to. It turns out they are related forms. Apron popped up in Middle English, from Old French naperon,  ‘table cloth + diminutive; the same base plus a Dutch diminutive -kin gives us something to wipe our mouths with. It seems when Middle English speakers began protecting their clothes they began to look about for an apron, shifting the nasal consonant back onto the determiner,  a process which did not follow through with napkin.
For some dialects the same process has worked on idiots. I mean idiots. The form nidget is a reanalysis of an idiot.  Here are some examples from the OED online.
1579 T. NORTH tr. Plutarch Liues 191 This made men iudge..that he would prove a very foole and nigeot [1595 idiote]. 1603 C. HEYDON Def. Iudiciall Astrol. xi. 244 Cleared from the imputation of [being] such a Nigit. a1627 T. MIDDLETON & W. ROWLEY Changeling (1653) III. sig. E, ‘Tis a gentle nigget, you may play with him. 1638 T. HEYWOOD Wise Woman II. i, I think he saith we are a company of fooles and Nigits. 1675 Ballad in Luttrell Coll. III. 107 Ridiculous Niget, to scoff at St. Bridget. 1699 B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew, Nigit, a Fool.

Extramural students are all over the place!

October 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

You can find Massey students everywhere, doing all sorts of interested things.

Here’s the blog of a Massey linguistics student in South East Asia.

Ann has been in Thailand for quite some time, but she is on the move. Struck by the plight of child sex workers in Cambodia, she is planning to open a school for them.

Follow her story and you will see that linguistics is a form of social action!

You thought American spelling was different!

October 18, 2009 § 2 Comments


an elegant text and illustration from Mormon scripture

While Noah Webster fiddled with the spelling of English, re-ordering, re as re for example, other Americans have also been inspired to tinker with writing systems. The most celebrated of these of course is Sequoyah, the designer of the Cherokee syllabary, but perhaps less known and equally intriguing is the Mormon contribution, the deseret alphabet.

The Mormon territory, most of which became Utah, was once called Deseret. And in the times of Brigham Young, the famous second present of the Later Day Saints, it seems new converts to the religions were not English speakers. The deseret alphabet was designed to assist the acqusition of English literacy so that they could read the scripture of their new church.

For a period in the mid 19th century, the deseret alaphabet was used  but after the death of Brigham Young it fell into disuse. It is quite an attractive alphabet though, correcting the digraph issues that plague the traditional English alphabet.  A single symbol corresponds to a single sound, making it a far more phonemic alphabet than the one it attempted to replace.



October 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Our own senior lecturer, Dr Peter Petrucci, was one of the finalists in Massey University Students’ Association’s Manawatu lecturer of the year!

Nominated and voted for by students, Peter is often addressed as /pi:tər:/ by the internal students. (hmmm hoping that schwa turns up)

As he teaches phonology, perhaps we can use distinctive features to describe Peter’s teaching style

[+ fun]

[+ informative]

[- obscure]

[+ committed]

(Perhaps, [+informative] is an example of overspecification?)

Well done,  Peter.

Dr Petrucci was unavailable for comment.

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