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Changes in Language

news_jimUCSC’s linguistics department answers old questions with new methods

What is a question? How do you ask one? How do you answer?

These are some of the many queries UC Santa Cruz’s linguistics department is trying to solve and they are using some innovative techniques to get at the answers.

“This is an exciting time in the field [of linguistics],” says Jim McCloskey, chair of the department. “The field is changing fast. The basic questions remain the same … but the methods are changing.”

Until recently, the focus in linguistics research was on informal methods, generally one-on-one talks with a native speaker, asking them questions about the language. Now the focus is shifting toward more large-scale, quantitative, and laboratory-based studies—methodologies more akin to those of the “hard” sciences. UCSC is unique in that it integrates both techniques.

“I don’t know of another linguistics department that does that—combines cutting edge theoretical work while maintaining its commitment to marginalized languages,” say McCloskey, adding that there is a growing concern with said marginalized languages. “Languages are dying at a rate never before seen in history.”

UCSC’s linguistics department is known for its work preserving endangered and marginalized languages. However, McCloskey says that it is challenging to find ways to implement the growing number of new technologies and methods for these more marginalized languages. He points to the “prosperity gap” as one of the challenges: many endangered or marginalized languages are spoken in poor or third world countries. Gathering the quantity of native speakers required to make the results significant may not be possible.

“You may not be able to bring 25 speakers of Dakota into a lab,” says McCloskey. “You need to be aware of the difficulties and have contact with these communities. You need to bridge the first and third world gap.”

One way to achieve this is to bring technology to the communities, instead of the other way around. For example, linguists use a type of ultrasound machine to examine what happens in the speech areas when a person produces sound. Unlike other devices, this one is portable. Instead of bringing people into the lab, linguists can bring this device to them.

Another key to bridging the gap is giving back, says McCloskey. “There’s a set of skills involved in making contact with these communities,” he explains. “How do you explain your goals to them, and that you’re not there to exploit them? You must give back.” To show their appreciation, research teams give back by training teachers, providing dictionaries, or giving whatever the community needs to help preserve their language.

To help address the puzzle of reconciling endangered languages with new experimental techniques, the linguistics department recently hired faculty with experience in the newer quantitative and experimental techniques to complement the current faculty’s knowledge of traditional fieldwork techniques. “What we have is a group of senior, very experienced faculty and a group of young, very able faculty,” says McCloskey, excited by the new additions. “The combination of established expertise and young energy and smarts. And we all get along very well!”

The department also plans to apply for interdisciplinary grants to establish links with the computer science and psychology departments. McCloskey points out that there are already many connections between these disciplines: many psychology theories are used in linguistics, and computer engineering is considered one of the practical sides of linguistics (computer engineering requires a sophisticated grasp of language for developing search engines).

So what does a linguistics department get when it combines quantitative and experimental techniques, traditional fieldwork methods, new and established faculty, and other disciplines? Perhaps—at least they hope—a way to move linguistics forward without leaving any languages behind.

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Heart Me Up

In defense of Valentine’s Day

 

“be(ing) of love (a little) more careful”—e.e. cummings

Wednesday (Feb. 10) is Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Friday (Feb. 12) is Lincoln’s 207th birthday. Sunday is Valentine’s Day. On Ash Wednesday, with foreheads marked with a cross of ashes, we hear the words, “From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” Reminding us that our bodies, made of matter, will remain here on Earth when we are called back. It is our Soul that will take us home again. Lent offers us 40 days and nights of purification in preparation for the Resurrection (Easter) festival (an initiation) and for the Three Spring Festivals (at the time of the full moon)—Aries, Taurus, Gemini. The New Group of World Servers have been preparing since Winter Solstice. The number 40 is significant. The Christ (Pisces World Teacher) was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights prior to His three-year ministry. The purpose of this desert exile was to prepare his Archangel (light) body to withstand the pressures of the Earth plane (form and matter). We, too, in our intentional purifications and prayers during the 40 days of Lent, prepare ourselves (physical body, emotions, lower mind) to receive and be able to withstand the irradiation of will, love/wisdom and light streaming into the Earth at spring equinox, Easter, and the Three Spiritual Festivals. What is Lent? The Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, comes from an ancient spring festival, agricultural rites marking the transition between winter and summer. The seasons reflect changes in nature (physical world) and humanity responds with social festivals of gratitude and of renewal. There is a purification process, prayerfulness in nature and in humanity in preparation for a great flow of spiritual energies during springtime. Valentine’s Day: Aquarius Sun, Taurus moon. Let us offer gifts of comfort, ease, harmony, beauty and satisfaction. Things chocolate and golden. Venus and Taurus things.

 

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