Job: Research Assistant at Georgetown Brain and Language Lab

The Brain and Language Lab at Georgetown University, directed by Michael Ullman, investigates the biological and psychological bases of first and second language in normal and disordered children and adults, and the relations between language and other cognitive domains (primarily memory, music and motor function). The lab’s members test their
hypotheses using a set of complementary behavioral, neurological, neuroimaging (ERP, fMRI) and biological (genetic, endocrine, pharmacological) approaches. They are interested, first of all, in the normal acquisition and processing of language and non-language functions, and their neurocognitive variability as a function of factors such as genotype, hormone levels, sex, handedness, age, and learning context. Second, they investigate the breakdown and recovery of language and non-language functions in a variety of disorders, including Specific Language Impairment, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome,
schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and aphasia. For more details on the Brain and Language Lab, please see <>.

We are seeking a full-time Research Assistant/Lab Manager. The successful candidate will have the opportunity to be involved in a variety of projects, using a range of methodological approaches (see above). S/he will have primary or shared responsibility for various aspects of research and laboratory management, including a number of the following (depending on aptitude and experience): creating experimental stimuli; designing experiments; running experiments on different subject
groups; performing statistical analyses; writing papers; helping manage the lab’s computers; managing undergraduate assistants; and working withthe laboratory director and other lab members in preparing and managing grants and IRB protocols. In general, s/he will work closely not only with Dr. Ullman, and with other RAs, PhD students, and postdocs in the
lab, but also with our collaborators at Georgetown and other institutions.

Minimum requirements for the position include a Bachelor’s degree (a Master’s degree is a plus), with a significant amount of course-work or research experience in at least two and ideally three of the following: cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, and statistics. The following are *highly desirable*: experience with Windows, Linux, programming, and statistics. A strong math aptitude is a plus. The candidate must be extremely responsible, reliable, energetic,
hard-working, organized, and efficient, and be able to work with a diverse group of people.

To allow for sufficient time to learn new skills and to be productive, candidates must be available to work for at least two years, and ideally for three. The successful candidate will be trained in a variety of the methods and approaches used in the lab, including (depending on the focus of his/her work, and ongoing lab projects) statistics, experimental design, and neuroimaging methods. The ideal start date is late spring or early summer 2011. Interested candidates should email Kaitlyn Litcofsky (at their CV and one or two publications or other writing samples, and have 3 recommenders email her their recommendations directly. Salary will be commensurate with experience and qualifications. The position, which includes health benefits, is contingent upon funding. Georgetown University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer.

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Please Explain: Accents on WNYC

Check out this segment on the Leonard Lopate show on NPR about accents. Greg Guy was on my dissertation committee, and both he and Walt Wolfram are prominent sociolinguists. They discuss the difference between accents and dialects, use a diagnostic sentence (Mary caught a bad cold as she sat outside) to discuss callers’ accents, and other tidbits about dialectology.

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American English Dialect Map

    This chart (which for issues of the technological variety, I can’t put here), created by linguist Richard
Aschmann, shows many distinct linguistic regions throughout English-speaking
North America, based on data gathered from analysis of amateur audio samples
and YouTube videos.  As dense and
complicated as the chart is, however, it is unfinished, and there’s a link on
the info page, if anyone wants to contribute exemplary dialectical audio
samples to his project. As a result, the data for many parts of the map are
incomplete, unfortunately.

The data, a fusion of the Atlas of
North American English (ANAE), internet-sourced audio/video samples, and
Aschmann’s own research, does a good job of presenting enough data to include
different types of dialectical features, such as minimal pair comparisons, as
well as phonological differences.  This
also contributes, however, to the map being fairly hard to understand,
especially in the Mid-West and East Coast areas.  Additionally, due to the inclusion of
contributed data, for example, the dialectical region of Kentucky and Tennessee
is quite precise, whereas the data for Oregon (and much of the West) is rather

It should be noted that this data is
(ideally) all of the linguistic change (dialectical) type.  Due to the scope of the project (compared to
the effort actively expended on it) as well as the incompleteness of the data,
however, occasionally some variation data appear, although these are noted
throughout the site.  Furthermore,
underneath the primary data table is the table of rejected samples, featuring
Christopher Lloyd and George H. W. Bush, among others.

Clearly this map could be made better
by actively gathering data via surveying native users of various regional
dialects, although as Aschmann says, it’s just his hobby (he is a professional
linguist who focuses on indigenous American languages), and most of the data
seems to be gleaned from the Atlas of North American English (ANAE) and YouTube
samples of people speaking.  Overall,
this mapping seems like a good source of regional dialectical data, considering
it’s not his primary project, and considering there have been no formal studies
undertaken for the sake of this project.

Continue reading

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Emotive Exclamations and the Evolution of Written Language




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Fnarr fnarr at Oxford Dictionaries Online

One of the classic problems with
written communication, especially in the modern era where messages are composed
and processed quickly, is the difficulty of conveying tone. Without cues like
intonation or body language, the potential for misinterpretation or even
communication failure is much greater. With the increasing use of written media
to stand in for casual speech, new lexical subcategories arise in order to
compensate. . In particular, we see a new class of words that serves to
communicate proper inflection or emotion, both of which are hard to express
through formal writing.

such word, the inspiration for this post, is “fnarr fnarr.” A recent addition
to the Oxford Dictionary of English, its origins reach back to the 1980’s.  Although it precedes the texting era by a
bit, it basically operates the same way, by clarifying the tone of the
preceding sentence–in this case, representing
“sniggering, typically at a
sexual innuendo.” The dictionary entry gives this charming example:

            That’s some package!
(Said the bishop to the actress, fnarr fnarr)


Like its
cousins meh and nom nom, fnarr fnarr is meant to be
onomatopoeic. This is one feature that distinguishes it from other common
text-emotives, like “LOL,” which is still distantly related to the verb laugh.
On the other hand, it doesn’t really fit in with classic onomatopoeic words,
since it does not fall into the major lexical categories. One cannot “fnarr
fnarr well”; something is not “very fnarr fnarr.” No, fnarr fnarr is stuck
outside of the main clause of a sentence. At the same time, it carries more
semantic meaning than basic exclamations / expletives (e.g., Pah! Damnit!),
since it specifically describes the action (not just tone) of the writer.

evolution of words with new functions brings up several interesting points. For
the first time in history we perceive text as analogous to speech. However,
instead of becoming identical to spoken language (whatever that would mean),
written vernacular continues to develop into a unique system–and even
influences its progenitor, spoken language.  Although many new terms and abbreviations are
originally medium-specific, they cross over into everyday speech (albeit, in an
affected way). Thus, “Oh my God” becomes OMG becomes “oh-em-gee” or “omguh,”
depending on personal variation. Significantly, terms change connotation when
they are translated into a different medium: while “Oh my God” can be a
perfectly serious expression of surprise, “omguh” is almost always ironic. (And
when “omguh” is re-transcribed, it perhaps becomes even more ironic.)

I think fnarr
fnarr is so interesting because it represents language trying to take on
extra-linguistics properties. We talked about facework in class–what are
exclamations but a way to try to approximate the range of clues that we use to
maintain face? If we follow Goffman’s argument, there is a huge risk in any
interaction that the individual might not maintain face–and this holds true for
online / virtual situations. Exclamations offer a way to keep face by conveying
intention more accurately. If I report a joke as my Facebook status, I
typically want to add something to indicate that I want it to be taken as such–perhaps
fnarr fnarr, but probably something more common in my speech community–otherwise
the joke might fall flat and I would lose face.

necessity, I think, casual written language will always lack the full range and
complexity of factors of spoken discourse. Text is bounded in a way that speech
is not. Onomatopoeia, for example, is limited in the range of emotions it can
express, partly because it is not as fully arbitrary as the most words.
However, new words and expression–and ways of using them, show that written
language is as dynamic as its spoken counterpart. 

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“On Language” Column on thin ice

Did you know the new editor of the NYTimes has axed Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” Column in the NYTimes Magazine? The column is perhaps the most popular public forum for topics related to linguistics. And linguists (and others) are fighting to keep it alive – stay tuned to see what happens. 

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Rebecca Cover: TALK

A reminder that Rebecca Cover is giving her talk tomorrow, Monday, February 28th, at 4:30. The talk will be in ETC-205. Hope to see you there!

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Fellowship and Awards Deadlines

Thinking of applying for a Fulbright, Watson, Rhodes, or other scholarship? The fellowships and awards committee has announced the application deadlines for next year’s awards. You can find them here, or by looking at the flier posted on the Linguistics Department bulletin board.

For more information on student fellowships, grants, and other funding sources, look here.

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Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium (April 15-16)

The Cornell Undergraduates in Linguistics (UnderLings) is hosting its Fifth Annual Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium (CULC), April 15-16, 2011, in Ithaca, New York. They would love to have undergraduate students at Reed participate. Below is a call for papers for the conference.

The 5th Annual Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
April 15-16, 2011

UnderLings, the Cornell University undergraduate linguistics association, requests abstract submissions for the fifth annual Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium. Student submissions at all levels are encouraged in a variety of subfields of linguistics, including but not limited to phonetics, phonology, syntax, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and language acquisition. Applicants pursuing a B.A., B.S., or equivalent degree are invited to submit a one-page abstract for a talk of no more than twenty minutes in length or for a poster presentation at our poster session. Abstracts should be submitted to by Friday, March 18th, 2011. Please indicate whether you would like to be considered for a talk or for the poster session or both.

More information about the colloquium and online pre-registration will be available soon online. Information about prior colloquiums is available here.

Please direct any questions to

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Linguistics Lunch and Talk Next Monday

A second reminder that Rebecca Cover, who has applied for a half-time teaching position in the department, will be on campus next Monday, February 28th, to meet with students and faculty.

Rebecca will be having lunch with students at noon in Commons. A limited number of lunch tickets are available. If you’d like to attend the lunch, please RSVP to me ( by Friday so that I know how many tickets to get.

Rebecca’s talk is at 4:30 (room still TBD). A title and abstract for the talk is given in my earlier post.

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Regional Dialects of Twitter

Last March, a group of  graduate students from Carnegie Mellon studied 380,000 tweets for linguistic variations. They collected only from people who tweeted at least 20 times that week and only from tweets that were geotagged (usually from a smartphone).  With this, they analyzed the linguistic variation depending on the location of the geotag. They then created dialect maps for Twitter in the United States.

You can read the entire paper at:

Or a couple summaries at:,0,3877129.story?track=rss

Although I applaud the use of new technology to yield quantitative data, the qualitative aspects of speech– intonation, body language–are not explicit in written language and therefore, lost on the data. The researchers tried to remedy this by monitoring ongoing conversations and/or topics, but I still feel these aspects would lend greatly to the data.

I also have qualms about the data constraints. It can be said that a person who tweets at least 20 times per week is heavily immersed in “Twitter” culture and engages in language mostly in the Twitter venue. Thus his/her language is more than likely going to reflect Twitter culture rather than the non-Twitter culture. Thus, the dialects distinguished by the study are those of “Twitter language” rather than spoken/written regional dialects of “American English”. The twitter dialects may be a reflection of the regional spoken dialects, but the contexts in which they are received is very different (among a global audience versus among fellow dialect speakers). This changes the language being studied, the known lexicon of the language being studied, and the context in which they are received/projected.

The study of “Twitter English” over “American Spoken English” is not necessarily a large fault of the study. I think the greatest fault is the lack of information known about the tweeter/speaker; unless the person has disclosed the information (and even then it is the subject’s projection of who s/he is), we do not know the speaker’s ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education level, age, whether he/she is a native American English speaker, whether he/she is native to the region from which the sample was geotagged, etc.  All of these greatly affect language in general, and not knowing them eliminates any study on these variables in the dialects they define.

Thus, the findings of the study are interesting if you consider the development of Twitter language and dialects alone, but the method of investigation prevents the study from being a comprehensive evaluation of American regional dialects and/or the variables contributing to dialectical differences in the Twitter language.  Gathering elicited data, especially that concerning speaker identity, would greatly expand the data set and allow for examination of social variables in each dialect.

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