ICHL roundup

I’ve just finished a very pleasant (if humid!) week at the 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, ably hosted by Ritsuko Kikusawa and Minpaku, Osaka’s Ethnology Museum.

I mostly went to talks on computational historical linguistics, historical morphology, and historical syntax, though with plenaries and a few other topics thrown in it was a pretty eclectic week. Sorry that there wasn’t any live blogging during the conference, I also had a pretty good week with good food and good company at evening dinners. Here are a couple of thoughts about the conference.

Historical computational linguistics is maturing. I could see this in a few ways; one was the number of good talks on new and exciting topics. The second was in the number of talks which were based on ideas which, shall we say, were a little sketchy. The former were concentrating on general processes of change providing an insight into it – I’d put Fiona Jordan’s and Michael Dunn’s talks in that category, for example (sorry for lack of links, I’m writing this offline). The sketchy talks were essentially reworkings of old problems less well, and in the interests of policy I won’t link to them. But even some of those talks had some promise. For example, there was a talk on using automatic cognate judgments to draw phylograms. It was a neat way to work out similarity, and could probably be tweaked to weight regularity in correspondences, which is far more important than whether two words in two languages have the same sound. At this stage, though, the talk had a tree that was clearly much worse than existing published trees of the family.

Another thing that was good to see was that there was much less of the attitude “I’ll use a lot of fancy mathematics and because you don’t come from that field you won’t be able to criticise it.” I’ve been to several conferences which had a lot of papers like that and they were very counterproductive, in that the authors needlessly alienated sections of their audience, and the results usually didn’t tell us very much about language. There was also less of the “I’ve got a single counter-example so your statistical tendency must be wrong” type of comment, though it wasn’t totally absent.

I also went to a workshop on exaptation/refunctionalization, which included a keynote talk by J C Smith. Brian Joseph gave a talk in that workshop which stirred the possum a bit, by arguing that refunctionalization is just a fancy name for a type of analogy, and we lose sight of the commonalities in different types of analogy when we chose certain parts of the field to give special names to. That may be so, though I wasn’t totally convinced. If we don’t try to anatomize analogical changes, for example, we can lose site of where the gaps in change are, and they can be as revealing as the changes that do happen.

Elly van Gelderen gave a very nice talk with Mary Anne Willie on syntactic change in Athabascan, and the different syntax of object agreement in languages like Navajo vs Northern languages like Slave.

Ted Supala gave a really good plenary talk on change in ASL (with 4 languages and a good test of skype – Ted gave the talk in ASL, and an interpreter in Rochester interpreted it into spoken English; she was then translated into spoken Japanese, which was then translated into JSL. I would have loved to know what the JSL interpreter was actually saying. The talk identified a number of processes of change in ASL, including economy, reanalysis, and loss of iconicity.

So all in all it was an interesting week and historical linguistics is alive and kicking!


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