Category Archives: conferences

Conference talk on grammar boot camps

I run a grammar boot camp every year, where a small group of students write a grammar of a language in a month. Last year it was Ngalia, and this year (starting in a few weeks) it’ll be Cundalee Wangka and Kuwarra. I also ran a year-long grammar group to pilot the idea in 2013, using materials from Tjupan. All four languages are varieties of the Wati subgroup of Pama-Nyungan and all the books are based on fieldwork conducted by Sue Hanson.

At the recent Wanala Conference run by the Goldfields Language Centre, Anaí Navarro, Matthew Tyler and I did a video presentation about the boot camp, its aims, methods, and results. Here’s a link to the video: Warning that it’s 190mb and 22 minutes long.

Phylogenetics of kinship

[Update: materials are now available at]

I am presenting work at the upcoming LSA meeting with a former undergraduate student and a postdoc (Amalia Skilton and Hannah Haynie). We have been working on kinship structures in Australian languages, using a combination of the comparative method and phylogenetic trait analysis.

The basic idea is that we can use our hypotheses of family tree relationships among Australian languages to reconstruct aspects of linguistic and cultural systems. In this case, we’re using the structure of sibling systems; that is, how many distinctions speakers of different languages make when referring to siblings. English just has two basic terms: ‘brother’ and ‘sister’; Bardi, however, has three terms: oombarn for older brother, bola or babili for ‘younger brother’, and marrir for ‘sister’ (Note that the Bardi system is asymmetrical, with two terms for brothers but only one for sisters.) Yan-nhangu also has a three-term system, but their system has a distinction for ‘older brother’ (waawa) vs older sister (yapa), but one term for ‘younger sibling’ (yapayapa). There are four fairly common systems in Australian languages (two, a four-way system and the Yan-nhangu-type three-term system, are the most common).

We reconstructed the sibling terms probabilitistically and then compared them to reconstructions of kinship lexical items, using the comparative method. We found that where the terms could be reconstructed, there was a great deal of congruity between the probabilistic state reconstruction and the comparative method reconstruction. However,

This sort of work isn’t well motivated for all systems. For example, it would not make a lot of sense to work on phoneme inventories in this way, because the inventories do not change independently of the lexical items in which they appear. That is, just because two languages both have a phoneme /p/, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those /p/s are “cognate” (because /p/ in one language could be cognate with /w/ in another, for example).

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!

Historical Linguistics at the LSA

The LSA is winding up now in Pittsburgh, with the final sessions this morning.

This is the first LSA in my memory (which goes back only 10 years) where it was possible to spend pretty much all the time in sessions on historical linguistics. It was also a year where there were lots of sessions on language documentation, and more papers on interesting languages scattered throughout the rest of the program than I remember from previous years. I think this is a really good sign of the breadth of the discipline.

Within historical linguistics specifically, Joe Salmons (from the University of Wisconsin) and I organised a plenary symposium on historical linguistics. Our aim in choosing speakers was to showcase the state of the art in the field – its application to a diverse range of languages and using diverse methodologies. I think we succeeded in that, if I do say so myself. We had papers on Hittite (Ancient Anatolia) and Ju-|Hoansi (Namibia), on Chamic (spoken in Vietnam) and South America, and on English and Germanic. We had sociolinguistcs, morphologists, syntacticians, phoneticians, and others, and we talked about brains, society, and prehistory.

Furthermore, I cannot resist pointing out that the average age of speakers was 42 and the gender balance was, if anything, skewed towards females. I point this out for one reason only; I have lost count of the number of people who have intimated that historical linguistics is, in the words of a certain senior male figure on the LSA, the providence of the “aged gentlemen at the end of the corridor.” Not true. The centre of gravity of the field is well and truly the offices of the junior people by the photocopiers.

LSA 2010 Bloggers

Neal’s suggested Friday (Jan 8th) at 9pm in the hotel bar for the linguabloggers and those-friendly-to-linguabloggers for our … must be getting on for 5th! Annual Linguistics Bloggers “meeting”. Hope to see you all there.

Endangered languages conference: call for papers

the next foundation for endangered languages conference is going to be held in Tajikistan. Here is the call for papers. I must admit I was a little more enthusiastic about this conference before it found that exactly where in the country it is; I can’t help feeling that being that close to the border with Afghanistan is not the sort of thing I would do on my own…

[ Sorry for the bad formatting, it is cut and pasted from my e-mail program and I’m one-handed at the moment so formatting is a little more trouble than it usually is.]
Foundation for Endangered Languages

in association with the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan and

The Institute of Humanities, Khorog

Conference: Endangered Languages and History

Place: Institute of Humanities,

Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan,



Dates: 24-26, September, 2009

Call for Abstracts: FEL XIII

Endangered languages are often the remnants of old nations and

civilizations. Many of these languages have been widely used in vast

territories for centuries before giving way to more powerful and

influential languages over a period of time for various social,

economic, literary, political, and natural reasons. It is often

precisely in the endangered languages of minorities and indigenous

peoples that scholars seek answers to the historical developments of

nations, their values and ethics, agricultural activities, habitat, way

of life, migration patterns, arts and crafts,  religious traditions,

archaeological findings, etc. Endangered languages can serve to

legitimise the sovereignty of the dominant nations, or to reaffirm their

identity and authority over the territory, often at the expense of other

languages.. In the process, the endangered languages themselves may be

strengthened or weakened as the past of the nation becomes a bone of

contention. History also has value in the life of a community and can

foster and promote a sense of identity among its members, thus perhaps

playing a crucial role in the preservation or revitalisation of the

endangered languages.

The conference will discuss the complex interaction of Endangered

Languages and History and how the study of history can encourage the

preservation and promote the revitalisation of endangered languages. The

following are some of the aspects of this interface which could be

discussed at the conference, certainly not an exclusive list:

–    The role of endangered languages in the writing of history. Endangered

languages as a medium for history writing, a source of historical data,

and a basis for the buttressing of the historiography of a nation,

region, empire, etc.

–    Methods and tools used to relate history to endangered languages,

including the effects of imperialism and nationalism on their perceived

status. The impact of conquest, political annexation, economic

ascendency or cultural dominance on languages and their resulting

endangerment; conversely, the contributions of endangered languages to

the evolution of the language of empire.

–    Use of endangered languages in the study of literary sources and

archaeological findings. Oral history, myth and oral literature as

instruments of decipherment of sources.

–    The use of endangered languages in strengthening historic community

identities, at any level from family to nation.   Endangered languages

as a symbol of homogeneity, an instrument of unity and a vehicle of


–    What history tells us about the causes and trends of language

attrition, including the role of language contact as a result of trade,

war, conquest and missionary religion.

–    How historical studies can contribute to the revitalisation of

endangered languages.

–    A historical perspective on the developing study of language

endangerment and endangered languages. Historiography and epistemology

of language endangerment.

The languages of the conference: English, Russian and Tajik. Abstract

and papers will be accepted in any of these languages.

Abstract Submission

An abstract of no more than 500 words should be submitted before 1st of

March, 2009. After this deadline, abstracts will not be accepted.

It is possible to submit an abstract in English for a Russian or Tajik papaer.

In addition to the abstract, on a separate page, please include the

following information:

NAME : Names of the author(s)

TITLE:  Title of the paper

INSTITUTION: Institutional affiliation, if any

E-MAIL: E-mail address of the first author, if any

ADDRESS: Postal address of the first author

TEL: Telephone number of the first author, if any

FAX: Fax number of the first author, if any

For submission of abstracts three methods are possible, as below.

1. EasyChair (English abstracts only):

Authors will have to take the following steps:

– go to

– if you already have an EasyChair account you can just enter your user

name and password and log in.

– if you don’t have an account click on the link ‘then click here’ and

follow the instructions and then log in.

– click on ‘new submission’ and follow the instructions.

You will be taking the “Abstract Only” option, which requires Latin-1 characters. Consequently, submission in Russian or Tajik is not possible via EasyChair.

We shall publish more guidelines for the submission process on

2. E-Mail:

In case you are not able to submit your abstract via EasyChair, please

send it (with details) via e-mail to and  with the subject of the e-mail stating:

“FEL Abstract: <last name of the author(s)>: <title of paper>”..

If the abstract is in Russian or Tajik it should also be copied to

3. Post:

Finally, in case you are not able to submit your abstract via EasyChair

or e-mail, please send your abstract and details on papaer to the following address (to arrive by 1 March, 2009):

FEL XIII Conference Administration

Foundation for Endangered Languages

172 Bailbrook Lane

Bath        BA1 7AA

United Kingdom

The name of the first author will be used in all correspondence. Writers

will be informed once their abstracts have been accepted and they will

be required to submit their full papers for publication in the

proceedings before June 15, 2009 together with their registration fee

(amount still to be determined). Each presentation at the Conference

will last twenty minutes, with a further ten minutes for discussion and

questions and answers. Keynote lectures (by invitation only) will last

forty-five minutes each.

Important Dates

•    Abstract arrival deadline : March 1, 2009

•    Notification of acceptance of paper: March 30, 2007

•    In case of acceptance, the full paper is due by June 15, 2009.

(Further details on the format of text will be specified to the authors)

•    Conference dates: September 24-26, 2009

A day’s excursion is planned for September 27, and transit to or from

the conference site (via Dushanbe in Tajikistan) will take two days from

most parts of the world. Transit within Takijistan will be provided.

The Institute of Humanities in Khorog is an affiliate of the Academy of

Sciences of Tajikistan. The institute is engaged in the study of

culture, history, languages, folklore and literary tradition of the

people of Badakhshan region of Tajikistan. The institute holds an

extensive archive of oral traditions of the Pamir and adjacent areas.

Khorog is capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan.

The Foundation for Endangered Languages is a non-profit membership

organization, registered as Charity 1070616 in England and Wales,

founded in 1996. Its objective is to support, enable and assist

documentation, protection and promotion of endangered languages all over

the world.. The Foundation awards small grants for projects. It also

publishes a newsletter, OGMIOS: Newsletter of Foundation for Endangered

Languages.. FEL has hosted an annual conference since 1996, most recently

in Barcelona, Spain (2004), Stellenbosch, South Africa (2005), Mysore,

India (2006), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, (2007) and Ljouwert/Leeuwarden,

Netherlands (2008). The FEL conferences bring together experts, scholars

and enthusiasts from all over the world to discuss issues pertinent to

the endangerment of languages. The Proceedings of FEL conferences are

available as published volumes. For further information visit:

LSA Bloggers report

LanguageLog unfortunately seem to have been too busy basking in the glory of their award to hang out with the rest of the linguabloggers, but we had a fun lunch as usual despite their absence. Featured topics included the Word of the Year (and the fact that a fair number of the nominations were phrasal, and what that means for the lexical integrity hypothesis), science fiction, and linguistic blogging. It was great catching up with everyone!