Tuesday, June 9, 2015


"If structuralism divided the sign from the referent, [...] [post-structuralism] goes a step further: it divides the signifier from the signified" (Eagleton, Literary Theory, p. 111).

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Branches of Linguistics

So how do you categorize the multitudinous subcategories of linguistics? I am going to go with the following five divisions (a.k.a., categories, domains, fields, specializations):

1. Foundational Linguistics
2. Theoretical Linguistics
3. Descriptive Linguistics
4. Applied Linguistics
5. Mathematical Linguistics

Please feel free to quibble with this organizational schema. Feel free to entirely overthrow it, for that matter. It is just what makes the most sense to me for now.

These are all generally accepted categories except for the term "Foundational Linguistics." I could call that category "General Linguistics" but the other gets more at what I mean. Plus, I am already using the tag/label "general linguistics" on this blog to refer to general (non-technical, non-domain-specific, I-don't-want-to-worry-about-classifying) discussions of linguistics and language.

So "Foundational Linguistics" refers to what a linguist cannot not know (and must know in the following alphabetical order, or else it simply won't work): discourse analysis, grammar, lexis (a term I prefer to lexicology, and under which I'm going to go ahead and include etymology), morphology, orthography (let's include graphemics here for the time being), phonetics, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, stylistics, and syntax (I will cover semiotics somewhere along the way too, probably in relation to pragmatics, semantics, and syntax). I would wonder about a linguist who didn't have at least passing familiarity with all of these fields--thus foundational. But I would not expect a linguist to be well-versed in both, say, psycholinguistics and systemic functional linguistics (though one could be).

"Theoretical Linguistics" refers to specific linguistic theories or systems (including schools of thought and movements): cognitive linguistics, structuralist linguistics, generative linguistics, relevance theory, speech-act theory, systemic functional linguistics. Two unrelated comments: 1) I may eventually also post about the Danish School, the Geneva School, the Prague School, etc., and 2) I am parting from the standard schema that would include morphology, phonology, etc., under Theoretical Linguistics.

"Descriptive Linguistics" is fairly self-descriptive as a label. It comprises anthropological, comparative, evolutionary, and historical (diachronic) linguistics, as well as sociolinguistics. I think evolutionary linguistics fits better here than under Applied Linguistics.

"Applied Linguistics" is all kinds of fun. It includes forensic linguistics, internet linguistics, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics. It also includes all of the linguistic subcategories that contain the word "language" or the suffix "ism": bilingualism, language acquisition (including second language acquisition), language development, language pedagogy, and multilingualism. I could include Translation Studies here but will not (nor under any other linguistic category), for some very important reasons that I will develop later. There will be a parallel universe of blog posts on Translation Studies, separate from this series on linguistics.

"Mathematical Linguistics" is not making me entirely happy as its own category, but I think it makes sense because under it I can include computational, corpus, and quantitative linguistics. I am also interested in stylometrics (which I prefer to "stylometry" for the sole reason that it strikes my ears as more linguistic-sounding). Perhaps all four of these fields could be put under Descriptive or Applied Linguistics, but I think their mathematical rigors warrant a separate category. For me, Descriptive Linguistics focuses more on historical and social factors and Applied Linguistics is concerned with studying the brain, development, and teaching/learning, while Mathematical Linguistics is inherently concerned with intensive mathematical models.

Are biolinguistics, ecolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, linguistic geography, and linguistic typology other categories that I should have included somewhere?

Descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics

Let me reiterate that I will not be covering Translation Studies in this series on linguistics. I think TS deserves its own series, as linguistics relies on TS and TS relies on linguistics. To be continued . . .

Friday, March 13, 2015

Today in Language: Pluto Planet Day

Today is the fifth anniversary of Pluto Planet Day. The New Mexico House of Representatives declared this holiday on March 13, 2007.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Underdevelopment vs. Development

Underdevelopment is not a stage of development. It is its consequence.
- Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"One River, One Boat"

The poet laureate of South Carolina, the state I live in, is Marjory Wentworth. She has written and read a poem for every gubernatorial inauguration since she became poet laureate in 2003. Yesterday, January 14, 2015, Governor Nikki Haley had her second inauguration, but this time the governor's office informed Wentworth that she would not be reading a poem this time. She had already written a (fairly political) poem that speaks forcefully to the state's contemporary life and identity. The stated reason for which she was not included was time. Two minutes to read a poem simply would not fit into the governor's inaugural schedule. The reader may be the judge of the sincerity of that reason, but in any case, I wanted to share the poem. It manages both to express local identity and a state's social imaginary and to balance that with the need for constant revision of such imaginaries and for introspection and self-examination in regard to identity. Note especially the first and penultimate stanzas.

One River, One Boat
by Marjory Wentworth

I know there’s something better down the road.
-- Elizabeth Alexander

Because our history is a knot
we try to unravel, while others
try to tighten it, we tire easily
and fray the cords that bind us.

The cord is a slow moving river,
spiraling across the land
in a succession of S’s,
splintering near the sea.

Picture us all, crowded onto a boat
at the last bend in the river:
watch children stepping off the school bus,
parents late for work, grandparents

fishing for favorite memories,
teachers tapping their desks
with red pens, firemen suiting up
to save us, nurses making rounds,

baristas grinding coffee beans,
dockworkers unloading apartment size
containers of computers and toys
from factories across the sea.

Every morning a different veteran
stands at the base of the bridge
holding a cardboard sign
with misspelled words and an empty cup.

In fields at daybreak, rows of migrant
farm workers standing on ladders, break open
iced peach blossoms; their breath rising
and resting above the frozen fields like clouds.

A jonboat drifts down the river.
Inside, a small boy lies on his back;
hand laced behind his head, he watches
stars fade from the sky and dreams.

Consider the prophet John, calling us
from the edge of the wilderness to name
the harm that has been done, to make it
plain, and enter the river and rise.

It is not about asking for forgiveness.
It is not about bowing our heads in shame;
because it all begins and ends here:
while workers unearth trenches

at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
awaiting auction, death, or worse.
Where the dead were thrown into the water,

and the river clogged with corpses
has kept centuries of silence.
It is time to gather at the water’s edge,
and toss wreaths into this watery grave.

And it is time to praise the judge
who cleared George Stinney’s name,
seventy years after the fact,
we honor him; we pray.

Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
conflicted about the future; at the heart
of it, we are at war with ourselves

huddled together on this boat
handed down to us – stuck
at the last bend of a wide river
splintering near the sea.

Friday, September 12, 2014

So Why Study French?

In the last post here a topic was taken back up from the spring in regard to the importance or need or usefulness of teaching and learning French. My posts from the spring focused on a couple of John McWhorter's articles that essentially argue that French is no longer an important language and, therefore, should not be emphasized as much as it is in American schools. So can I, as a French professor, argue for the importance of French and, more specifically, its place in language departments?

For me the essential first step is to pose the right question. I would not want to ask why anyone should study French -- or assert that anyone should either. Thus the title of this post. If someone is interested in learning a new language, and is perhaps considering French, what are potential reasons in French's favor? That is how I want to approach the matter. Thus, this post is not about its title, or not about answering the question in its title -- but rather calling attention to that question as opposed to other similar but, I think, misleading questions (Why should I study French? or, Why should my child study French?).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Background to John McWhorter's Recent Article Against French

Eons ago, I started to analyze a couple of articles that had riled about (French) language teachers, one from this year saying that French is not really an important language. The author's main point, writing in the context of New York City, was that French is disproportionately taught, particularly in NYC immersion schools. The best of intentions proved insufficient in finishing my thought process in relation to those articles. So now that I am even busier than I was last academic year, I have decided to revisit and, I hope, close out, the topic.

Just as a refresher, it might be interesting to read the New York Times' article that prompted McWhorter's somewhat unconsidered (and largely discredited) response. In addition, it would probably be helpful to read an attempt at providing not so much a response to McWhorter as positive reasons for learning French. A piece came out on Business Insider that, for me, gives not entirely persuasive reasons to teach/learn French. I would be interested in knowing what you think of the reasons given in that article, if you have any more extra time in your life than I do.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Raymond Chandler on realist fiction

In the classic essay on the genre of the detective novel, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler is keen on distinguishing realist detective fiction from escapist detective fiction. The latter, in its most celebrated manifestations of Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, follows basic formulas of studied improbability and non-realism.

Chandler, on the other hand, wants to write detective fiction that does have something profound to say about reality, and thus, he says, "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket." The entire paragraph is worth citing or reading, but I want to get to the description of the "world" that grabs my attention in this particular historical moment. This world is one
where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
I would not take sides in the debate over what is art or "serious" literature, as I think Chandler mistakenly does (or as does W.H. Auden, in an even more elitist, unfair manner, in his similarly celebrated essay on the detective story), but I would make the observation that escapist detective fiction (or any escapist fiction) does not move me by, say, its accounts of death or injustice. I read it for very different reasons, and a character's death means no more to me, usually, than that of a character in a video game. Realist fiction, by contrast, exists to say something about the reality I live in, not to help me escape it. Thus, a detective story like Crimen en el barrio del once moves, saddens, and angers me as it makes me ponder the themes that Chandler alludes to of state violence and systemic injustice.