Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs at Language Log. Recently I asked him a few questions about blogging.
ROBERTS Why did you start Language Log?
LIBERMAN Several reasons. First, I had started reading blogs and enjoyed them. Second, I was spending quite a bit of time exchanging email with friends. They were like long-distance dinner-table conversations. Each email was a couple of paragraphs. I was spending quite a bit of time on that. It was interesting and fun, a way of keeping up with friends and former colleagues. I realized that many of these emails were close to blog entries that might be interesting to a wider audience. Some of them could have been blog entries. I thought to myself: If there was a weblog, instead of sending this to 1 or 2 people I could put it on the weblog and send a link to those people. Third, I had felt for a long time that linguistics, in our current culture, was in an historically atypical and irrational place. Almost nobody learned about linguistics, got any intellectual information about language. It was undertaught to the general public. It has been valued much more in the past. Now we’re in a situation where many English professors have never taken a course that teaches anything about the analysis of language. They don’t know how to do it. One small way to improve that situation would be to put stuff out there that people could read.
ROBERTS How has blogging affected you?
LIBERMAN Three things. First and most important, I’ve met — mostly digitally — a large number of people that I would never otherwise have met. They send me email. If I look over my email logs, there are probably 5 or 10 people that I correspond with frequently whom I’ve met that way. Most of them are not linguists; I wouldn’t have met them otherwise. Some of them are not even academics. Second, it has allowed me to influence the conversation inside linguistics and related fields in a way that I hadn’t really expected. It wasn’t my motivation. I’ve always thought of writing for people outside the field. Issues that I’ve raised within the field, including how the field ought to view itself, people respond to. I was invited to give a plenary talk at the Linguistics Society of America meeting about the status of the field in academia. I had blogged about such things. Third, I get a lot of calls from journalists asking me to comment about this or that. A lot of things they ask me to comment on I don’t know about. It made me someone that journalists call.
ROBERTS How have your views about blogging changed since you started Language Log?
LIBERMAN There is a spectrum of blogs; some are just sets of links — minimal comment and a link. When I started I thought that was what I was going to do, along with email-to-friends kind of pieces. Along the way I learned that a blog entry is a good way for me to learn things. If there’s something that I’m interested in, I may write a blog-like essay about it. I compose quite a few blog entries that I never publish. When I’m working through some ideas, I often organize my thoughts an awful lot like an blog entry. Like an annotated bibliography but with more structure. I don’t publish some of those things because I don’t think the general audience of Language Log would be interested in them. They’re too difficult. They take the form of an extended blog entry — links plus evaluation and discussion but more informal than a paper. Very helpful in organizing my thoughts. I read some things, put in some links, quotes, weave it all together into some structure. I produce an html document. It’s a way of taking notes. Something I do at the very beginning of an intellectual enterprise. A journal article is what you do at the end. For example, I’ve become interested in auditory texture. I’ve been composing a few things that are like weblog entries.
Once a month or so I try to do what I call a breakfast experiment. Some issue has come up in the world that I want to comment on. There’s an experiment that I wouldn’t want to submit to a journal. Better than an anecdote. For example, a few months ago somebody wrote that a journalist who had been living in Japan had been learning girl Japanese. Is it true that there is more gender difference in pitch in Japanese than in other languages? At the Linguistic Data Consortium we had conversations in many languages, including Japanese and English. I could select appropriate conversations, throw values into R, look at quantiles. (There were a few issues you’d want to clean up for a journal article.) I got up early, set up scripts, made coffee, had cereal, plotted quantiles. By 7:30 am I had some pictures. It was true that there was more gender polarization in pitch in Japanese than in English. The analysis involved 18 Japanese conversations and a similar number of English conversations.
I had been abstractly aware for a long time that there’s a lot of value in doing experiments on published data. One of the problems in doing empirical linguistics has been that gathering data takes a lot longer than anything else. For English we’ve now got about 10,000 extemporaneous telephone conversations, with demographic info about the speakers. I thought of experiments on that sort of data where someone had to spend a lot of time gathering the data, but once it’s gathered and published, there are a lot of ideas that you can try out very quickly.