Popular linguistics

From FireSpeakerWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

"Popular Linguistics" is an idea for a magazine presented in a plenary address to the 2007 LSA meeting by Mark Liberman (PDF of talk slides, see page 34), originally as "Linguistics Today". The name isn't terribly important at this point.

This page is set up to organise thoughts about how to go about maintaining such a magazine. I'd really like to see something like this happen, so I'm soliciting ideas. Feel free to do anything you want to this page, as long as it's constructive :)

Ideas for headlines


These are ideas for what sorts of criteria content should meet. What's the goal of this magazine?

  • So articles, ads, etc in this thing will have to be things that
    • appeal to the general public
    • are accessible to the general public
    • will also, in principle, be interesting to linguists (who can go find the academic papers that certain articles might be based on for more information)
    • stand alone
    • are based on interviews, an academic paper or two, or other primary sources, but which are not academic papers themselves; see #Sources
    • are colourful :)
  • Nassira's thought: "it reminds me of some magazine I used to read as a kid that focused entirely on parodying and debunking advertising campaigns. Media literacy for tots; I guess this could be linguistic literacy for non-linguists"
  • Articles that address "sensational" and "Breaking!" stuff
  • Jonathan's further thoughts: it should be fun for everyone—linguists, amateur linguists, and non-linguists alike. And it should be educational to all too. But if it's pitched at the level of "you like language too? great! let's educate you." but also "hey linguists, check this out", people won't feel like they're being treated like they're stupid. No one should feel that nothing in it is over their head at some level. Right?


There are some basic things that each edition should probably have.

  • A relatively short introduction to linguistics and sources for more information in the beginning of each issue
    • (individual articles will still have to provide necessary background information to make it interesting for and accessible to the general reader, but hopefully not in a way that bores people who know the background; even if it is a little boring, as an academic reader I'd probably still be curious how the general public was being presented with the background—I've felt this way before at least)
  • Advertisements
  • Parody/Humor

Examples of articles to include

  • feature stories on cool linguists doing cool research? (For example, if someone were to actually write an accurate and iteresting mass-market article on Nicaraguan Sign Language or Piraha, that would be nothing short of revolutionary.)
  • an etymology column to showcase the work of our hist.ling. friends?
    • maybe just a "surprising etymologies of English words" column (maybe intentionally put together to show diversity of origins of English words?)
  • some stuff on aphasias, complete with brightly-colored illustrations of brains? (brightly-colored pictures of brains, you will note from "Popular Psychology," sell.)
  • a section on "debunking" all the stupid stuff about language that various forms of the media have been perpetuating; see #Linguistics flubs in popular culture
    • challenge: in a non-elitist manner.
      • Michael K: "language Log accoplishes this by using a lot of hard data, but since part of the magazine's core idea is to decrease the amount of technical information, it might be hard to convey the "wrongness" of certain language claims without sounding like a knowitall"
      • Jonathan: then again, a few paragraphs about "why this is wrong" for each point could include data and stuff. I think the general public likes being shown by experts (in other forms of media, mind you) that the media is lying to them and is stupid ;) Nice solid evidence in the favour of the person who's arguing it is always gobbled up.
      • abraver: I think if you have a generalization, and then one or two very simple data points, that solves the problem. "While media outlet X said Y, it is in fact the case that opposite-of-Y is true. For example, in language Z, [data point here]"
  • A running series of articles which each explain one linguistic concept or principle—a sort of "linguistics for idiots" bit, but in small chunks.
  • An article, or perhaps even a column, on conlanging.
  • Forensic linguistics happenings


  • An overview of summer language and linguistics programmes, with information on:
    • what's taught at each programme
    • total cost of attending each programme
    • where to go / who to contact for more information
  • Information on graduate and undergraduate linguistics and linguistics-related programmes which are accepting applications


(05:10:16) Jade Solitude:  I heard that linguists can read minds
(21:56:47) Kesuari: linguists can read minds now! i wannabealinguist! (→ needs an article in Popular Linguistics)

  • Cartoon strips?
  • Parody column
  • Linguistics-of-profanity (what's the name of that field??) column
  • A per-issue "Guess the language" contest, with a short text (one sentence or phrase?) in IPA
  • A "Guess the spectrogram" contest, with a spectogram of a phrase—closest transcription wins
  • Combination of the former two, only for the bravest souls. Look at spectrogram, guess the language. Maybe not interesting for not phoneticians, but maybe if phoneto-syntax got really advanced as a field, people could ignore the phonetics and be all like "okay, looks like it's verb-final, and I think I see a trace in there." (Free brownies (/brownie credit) for anyone who can tell me a language like this.)


  • There are countless articles in newspapers, bigger popular scientific magazines (such as Discover, and Popular Science), and all over the internet in people's blogs... We can steal ideas from them, and rewrite stuff in the "appeal to general public and also linguists who don't know about something and might want to look further after reading this article" format

Some examples of things that already exist, by topic, follow:

New and Interesting Research

Linguistics flubs in popular culture

So many examples are out there. Here are a few of them:


  • Advertisements (see #Advertisements)
  • Apply for NSF grant to fund?
  • Subscriptions:
    • ling depts
    • linguists
    • undergrads ☺
    • doctors offices?
    • dentists offices?
    • psychologists offices