Category Archives: Lara Croft Verb Raider

Plain English Description of Australian Comparative Database

I have circulated this plain English description of the Pama-Nyungan (now Comparative Australian*) lexical database to various language centres in Australia, but I’m posting it here too in case it’s useful to others writing such descriptions, and in case others would like to know about the database in broad terms. I am in the process of writing a more detailed paper that describes the database.

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Congratulations to the ANU!

A big congratulations to Jane Simpson, Nick Evans, Simon Greenhill, and the linguistics team at ANU on their successful ARC application for a Centre of Excellence in language change!

More on Noun Phrase structure

Another thing I think I figured out recently was the constraints on Bardi noun phrase discontinuity. It is possible to have discontinuous noun phrases, but they are quite rare. I need to test this further, but it looks like there is real ‘discontinuity’. There are four constructions where co-referential material appears separated by other phrasal material:

  1. Afterthought constructions. These aren’t real discontinuities, since they have a different intonation contour.
  2. Secondary predication. These aren’t real discontinuities either. Bardi has both depictive and resultative secondary predicates, though I don’t have much data on them.
  3. Quantifier float’: Bardi has something like quantifier float, where quantifiers such as niimana ‘many’, numerals, and a few other things, can end up separated from the noun phrase they belong to by the verb.
  4. Focus fronting: This looks like the only case of real discontinuity. It’s possible to focus parts of noun phrases by placing the focused element at the front of the clause and leaving the rest of the NP where it would have otherwise been. So, you can say things like “two my friend caught yesterday big fish” (for “my friend caught TWO big fish yesterday”) or “how many did you know that my friend fish caught yesterday” – yep, you can front stuff from embedded clauses, which is a *really* good argument that those clauses are embedded, incidentally.

This work was spurred on in part by Eva Schultze-Berndt’s work on Jaminjung discontinuities (or lack thereof) and wondering how similar (or different) Bardi might be. It seems (from my memory of Eva’s work) that Bardi and Jaminjung differ here, both in the range of secondary predication that they allow (though my examples aren’t very numerous) and in the focus fronting.

Fieldwork and the Movies: Dr Who

It’s been a while since my last “Fieldwork and the Movies” post (original two are here and here). A recent dose of the flu (combined with a need to code some data) has led to me watching a fair bit of the more recent series with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor.

The Doctor is an interesting take on a fieldworker character. He is the archetypical outsider, and one with a huge amount of power over the humans he helps. He has a vastly superior toolkit, medicine, and weapons to the earthlings he meets. (And let’s face it, every fieldworker needs a sonic screwdriver.) He’s also teased about his accent.

Most Doctor Who episodes of the current set are pretty formulaic. Group of earthlings meet alien life form that tries to kill them, couple of tense moments, brilliant display of strong female co-lead and nifty use of sonic screwdriver, a bit of screaming, and most of the parties live to fight another day.

The Waters of Mars, however, is different. It’s one of the specials from the more recent series. It’s November 21st, 2059, and the first human colony on Mars is about suffer a direct hit from an asteroid. Should the Doctor warn the people on the base so that they can evacuate, thereby changing the course of history? If the leader of the base dies, her granddaughter goes on – inspired by her grandmother – to lead earth’s missions to other planets. The loss of the first Mars base, we are led to believe, has something of the role that the Challenger disaster had. It’s a global tragedy, or, as the Doctor puts it, one of Those moments that can’t be changed. The base leader is one of those people whose death is unalterable.

After a few complications involving parasitic water-generating Martians, the Doctor does end up saving three of the crew, including their leader, and brings them back to Earth. But the doctor was right; instead of dying a hero, the leader commits suicide. Her death was indeed, it seems, one of those points that are fixed in time.

For the most part, the inventions of the Doctor lead to positive outcomes, like the salvation of the world. But there are times when they have terrible consequences for individuals, when those interventions lead to unwelcome self-knowledge or irrevocable changes. Fieldworkers seldom face such calamitous outcomes these days, but they do have some measure of power over their consultants, and they shouldn’t forget it.

Fieldwork and the movies (2): Stargate

Some time ago I published a somewhat postmodern analysis of Indiana Jones as fieldworker. Continuing in that vein, or next model for linguistic fieldwork comes from Stargate. Daniel Jackson is a fieldworker after my own heart. Not only is a detailed knowledge of historical linguistics vital to the success of his field research (“oh, it’s just a dialect related to Middle Egyptian”); he also illustrates the difficulties of monolingual field research and the possibilities of personal entanglements of a dubious ethical nature. He speaks a lot of languages, most of which are ultimately useless for the task which puts him in the most danger. He comes up with magical analyses from highly corrupted data, and he somehow doesn’t seem to notice that he’s working with a bunch of nutters. Finally, he is also keenly aware of local capacity building.

Fieldwork and the movies (1): Indiana Jones

Back in February I was part of a panel at the Rice Linguistics Society meeting on linguistic theory and fieldwork and their relations. My talk was comparative in nature and focused on the contribution to the field of certain important figures; Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and Gregory House. Over the next few weeks I will be serialising this talk and expanding it.

My point was that we can learn from comparing problem solving and theoretical approaches to shed light on how different people view theory and practice. Everyone who’s received a newsletter from LaTrobe’s Research Centre for Linguistic Typology has seen the quotation from Sherlock Holmes about how it is a capital mistake (Watson) to theorise beyond one’s facts. But there is more to Holmes’ view than this.

Today, though, I’ll start with a great figure in linguistic fieldwork (if not in linguistic theory): Indiana Jones. Indy knows a bunch of stuff, not just his field narrowly, but random other information that often comes in handy. We learn in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for example, that he picked up Quechua while being held for ransome. His problem-solving methods are highly focused and he is not detered by set-backs. However, it’s worth noting that his problem-solving strategies are only appropriate to a very narrow set of problems. How does Indy approach problems other than “getting the girl” and stopping the bad guys from getting the treasure first?

Indy’s theoretical orientation is not particularly nuanced, it must be admitted. His data are what they are; he never finds out that the object of his quest is something other than it appears, the bad guys are always bad (and so are half the good guys), and the girl is usually an irritatingly naive dipstick. Even more theoretically disturbing is the lack of uniformitarianism in the theoretical outlook; can’t solve the problem with the tools of this world? Never mind, there are always aliens.

Word of the year

I was pretty uninspired by this year’s word of the year candidates, so I’m going to be proactive about next year’s word.I have a candidate for a new word of the year, one that I made up a while ago. It will be of use for anyone in the NE US at the moment. It’s

snow dags

and it refers to the cruddy bits of snow that accumulate on the mud flaps and hang down behind the tyres on cars when you drive in snow. Use it, spread it, and nominate it next year.