Back to listing

Director weekly highlights 8 Oct

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 8 October 2021

With a bit over a year left for CoEDL, it’s getting more important to ask: did we achieve the goals we promised?  And that always raises the issue of yardsticks — how can we measure how far we’ve advanced towards each? 

One of our goals — underlain by the belief that language is too important to be left just to the linguists — has been to promote a truly interdisciplinary approach to the language sciences. In conceiving what CoEDL could do, we deliberately assembled a team that went beyond the usual suspects of linguists to include psycholinguistics, philosophers, anthropologists, speech therapists, computer scientists, roboticists, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists. (And the great value of having a linguistic anthropologist can be gleaned from the two beautiful articles by Alan Rumsey that have just appeared in the International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology). At the beginning nobody knew everybody, since another vital design principle was that we wanted fresh sparks to fly — and to be forced to spell out our disciplinary assumptions that immediately become painfully non-obvious as soon as a roboticist PhD student asks a field linguist to slow down and explain what an ergative is. Our belief was that, as the neurons of our collective brain gradually grow together over seven years (fortuitously extended to eight and a quarter), new thoughts would form. Great plan, but how do we know if it’s happening? Well, when we have our final event in Canberra in late September next year (28-30 Sep 2022) there’ll be lots of examples, and I won’t spoil the suspense by listing them all. But here’s one line of approach. 

In the innocent days, right after the good news of finding out we’d been funded, the ARC asked us for a long list of KPIs so we could report back on how we’re going. I hope that many of you, dear readers, are as innocent as I was then and didn’t know what a KPI was (a Key Performance Indicator, as I soon learned). The only way I’ve ever been able to reconcile myself with using KPIs is to see them as a quick-and-dirty proxy for reality — like an e. coli count off Bondi Beach when you’re wondering whether there are too many Bondi cigars to go in for a swim — but still, we had to have some. We busily got to work building a spread sheet with which to hang ourselves and scratched our heads about how to measure the growth of interdisciplinarity. Unimaginatively, we decided to count the number of publications with more than one ARC FoR code (Field of Research, for my fellow acronymophobes). But meanwhile, not long after this, UQ (then) PhD student Lydia Byrne came up with a cool sociogram showing the ‘startup’ connections — who had published with who (see p. 12 of the 2015 annual report here). We can use that to show all the emerging connections that are taking place. 

Today suggested another type of evidence. We can be collectively proud of the fact that a team made up of Lindell Bromham, Felicity Meakins, Xia Hua and Cassandra Algy (Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation) have just won the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research for their work bringing together innovative methods in linguistics, evolutionary biology, mathematics and community-led research to understand processes of language contact and change, and the strengthening of Indigenous languages through the validation of emergent varieties. Watch the YouTube clip here

But as linguists we shouldn’t be satisfied with bureaucratic codes, prestigious prizes or even cool visualisations — we should look for a linguistic metric, and I’d like to propose one. One of the great papers in our field is the one written by my illustrious ANU predecessor Andy Pawley and Frances Hodgetts Syder (who happened to be his mum as well as an English teacher) called ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. In an era when generativist approaches focussed on the unbounded generative capacity of language, they argued that what allows us to produce fluent speech under real-time pressure was our ability to access vast numbers of prefabricated chunks. Few clauses in fluent speech, they argued, would plug in more than one new element at a time — generate by all means, but only as variations on well-honed themes. What does this have to do with measuring interdisciplinarity, you might ask? Well, listen to the Gurindji sentence ngantipa ngurnalu waruk manana – jaruwaji, langkujkaji, nampakaji an biologist (in the YouTube link above) that is subtitled as, ‘This is the first time an Indigenous community member, linguist, mathematician and biologist have worked together’. I’ll wager this goes well beyond the ‘one new element at a time’ principle — a very high level of Shannon entropy there — though I’ll leave it to our Gurindji corpus linguists to put a more precise figure on it. What is clear is the new research connections need new linguistic assemblages to describe them. In any case, a big, big congratulations to the whole team, and CoEDL’s first Eureka Prize.    

I ran out of space last week to flag the great new LADAL YouTube channel — loads of interesting talks there, so take a look while you’re still locked down, because it’s a safe bet that in a few weeks we’ll all be making up for lost time by NOT just being language nerds as we finally get unlocked. 

Have a good week everybody. 

Nick Evans

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University