James McElvenny talk, December 17

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Nick Riemer

Dec 5, 2018, 5:59:18 PM12/5/18
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Dear all,

It’s been years since this list was last used, but I’m sending this in the hope that James’ talk on the 17th will be of interest.

Best and cheers



Dr James McElvenny (University of Edinburgh)


Alternating sounds and the formal franchise in phonology


Monday December 17, 3-4.30pm

Social Sciences Building, Science Rd, Seminar Room 105 (the new building opposite Woolley, behind RD Watt)


A matter of some controversy in the intersecting worlds of late nineteenth-century linguistics and anthropology was the nature of “alternating sounds”. This phenomenon is the apparent tendency, long assumed to be characteristic of “primitive” languages, to freely vary the pronunciation of words, without any discernible system. Franz Boas (1858–1942), rebutting received opinion in the American anthropological establishment, denied the existence of this phenomenon, arguing that it was an artefact of observation. Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893), on the other hand, embraced the phenomenon and fashioned it into a critique of the comparative method as it was practised in Germany.

Both Boas and Gabelentz – and indeed also their opponents – were well versed in the Humboldtian tradition of language scholarship, in particular as developed and transmitted by H. Steinthal (1823–1899). Although the late nineteenth-century debates surrounding alternating sounds were informed by a number of sources, this talk argues that Steinthal's writings served as a key point of reference and offered several motifs that were taken up by his scholarly successors. In addition, and most crucially, this talk demonstrates that the positions at which the participants in these debates arrived were determined not so much by any simple technical disagreements but by underlying philosophical differences and sociological factors. This episode in the joint history of linguistics and anthropology is telling for what it reveals about the dominant mindset and temperament of these disciplines in relation to the formal analysis the world's languages.



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Peter Wylie

Dec 6, 2018, 1:48:41 PM12/6/18
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Why do these things always clash?

It looks like I might be able to make it for the questions.  Is
anybody doing anything afterwards?

Thanks for the early notice.


Date: Monday, 17 December 2018, 2.00pm - 3.00pm
Venue: The Australian Hearing Hub, Level 3, Room 3.610, Macquarie University
Speaker: Emeritus Professor Tom Wasow, Department of Linguistics,
Stanford University
Host: Professor Mark Johnson
Topic: Why are natural languages so ambiguous?

When computational linguists in the 1970s started building systems big
enough to test on corpora of actual usage, they found that the systems
were getting far more parses than they had expected for all but the
simplest sentences.  Most of these turned out to be linguistically
justifiable parses, although the meanings assigned were often bizarre.
Linguists and philosophers of language have generally assumed that
ambiguity hinders efficient communication, as expressed most
explicitly and succinctly in philosopher Paul Grice's maxim, "Avoid
ambiguity".  Since languages are constantly changing, why haven't
languages become unambiguous or at least much less ambiguous? One
reason may be that language has some uses that favor ambiguity.
Another is that eliminating ambiguity would slow down communication.
This talk examines various types of ambiguity in English and considers
their possible functions.

Tom Wasow is Clarence Irving Lewis Professor in Philosophy and
Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus and Academic Secretary to Stanford
University. After completing undergraduate work in mathematics at Reed
College and spending a year in Germany on a Fulbright, he began
graduate study in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT), where he wrote his dissertation under Noam Chomsky.
At Stanford University, he was involved in founding the Center for the
Study of Language and Information, an interdisciplinary  research
institute, and the Symbolic Systems Program, an undergraduate major
combining computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology.
He has also been heavily involved in administration, serving as a
dean, department chair, program director, and director of a research
institute, and is currently Academic Secretary to the University,  in
which he oversees the operations of the Stanford Faculty Senate and
the major university committees.

Emeritus Professor Wasow's early research was devoted largely to
elaborating and supporting ideas put forward by Chomsky through the
detailed investigation of various phenomena in English syntax.  Later,
he was involved in the development of a theory of grammar called
Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar, and co-authored the first
textbook on that theory.  In the last twenty-five years, he has
focused more on studying how language is used, collaborating with
psycholinguists and sociolinguists to answer the question of why
people say things one way, rather than using a different construction
that seems to convey the same meaning. Emeritus Professor Wasow is a
Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America and of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
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Peter Wylie

Peter Farleigh

Dec 16, 2018, 2:29:51 AM12/16/18
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Indeed an unfortunate clash.  Will you be recording the talk at Macq?

And I too, hope we all have a chance to do something afterwards.


Peter Wylie

Dec 16, 2018, 3:59:48 AM12/16/18
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Hi Farleigh,

I can probably get a copy of the talk here, if anyone wants it.   Though I don't know that I'll be able get out there afterwards now.  I'm afraid I'm being overrun by events here.  It's a long story.  Anyway.  Whatever happens, we should get together sometime.

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