Hockett on open-mindedness in the language sciences

Hockett's design features (1960 version)Charles F. Hockett (1916-2000) is well-known for his work on the design features of language. Many linguists will know his 1960 article in Scientific American in which thirteen design features are nicely illustrated (though Hockett himself preferred the more developed 1968 version co-authored with Altmann).

Hockett worked in many areas of linguistics, from phonology to morphology and from linguistic anthropology to semantics. One of his later books — which I came across while doing research for our new book series Conceptual Foundations of Language Science — has the intriguing, slightly cumbersome title  “Refurbishing our Foundations: Elementary Linguistics from an Advanced Point of View”.

In this book, written towards the end of a long career, Hockett takes a birds’ eye view of the field of linguistics and presents his own perspective, which is often sensible, sometimes a bit idiosyncratic, and always interesting. The introduction is pleasantly constructive, in contrast to some other approaches (Hornstein, “Against open-mindedness” comes to mind). Hockett’s observations on the “eclipsing stance” are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. So here is Hockett on open-mindedness:

No one in any culture known to us denies the importance of language. Partly because it is important, partly just because, like Mount Everest, it is there, we should like to know how it works. To that end, people from time immemorial have examined it or speculated about it, trying to come up with cogent commentary.

What one sees of language, as of anything, depends on the angle of view, and different explorers approach from different directions. Unfortunately, sometimes they become so enamored of their particular approach that they incline to scoff at any other, so that instead of everybody being the richer for the variety, everybody loses. That attitude has been called the “eclipsing stance.”

The early followers of Noam Chomsky adopted this stance, but they were by no means the first: some of us post-Bloomfieldians came close to it in the 1940s (though Leonard Bloomfield himself never did), and so, apparently, did the Junggrammatiker in the late 1870s. But it is a wrong position to take, even toward those who have themselves assumed it. It is obviously impossible to see all of anything from a single vantage point. So it is never inappropriate to seek new perspectives, and always unseemly to derogate those favored by others. Or, to use a different figure: the blind man touching the tail has reason to say an elephant is like a rope, but no right to claim an elephant is not also like a wall or a tree-trunk or a snake.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t be critical. I do mean we should try to be most wary just of those propositions that we ourselves hold, or have held, closest to our hearts — above all, those we come to realize we have been taking for granted. Scientific hypotheses are formulated not to be protected but to be attacked. The good hypothesis defends itself, needing no help from enthusiastic partisans.

References

  • Hockett, Charles F. “The Origin of Speech.” Scientific American 203, no. 3 (1960): 89–96.
  • Hockett, Charles F., and Stuart A. Altmann. “A Note on Design Features.” In Animal Communication: Techniques of Study and Results of Research, edited by Thomas Sebeok, 61–72. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
  • Hockett, 1987, Refurbishing our Foundations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes its first book

Two months ago we started a new book series with the innovative open access publisher Language Science Press: Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. We’re proud to announce that the series published its first book this week. The book, Natural causes of language is introduced here by Nick Enfield:

You can download your own copy of the book directly from Language Science Press: http://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/48. If you prefer a print copy, you can order one through Amazon.

About the series

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes short and accessible books that explore well-defined topics in the conceptual foundations of language science. The series provides a venue for conceptual arguments and explorations that do not require the traditional book-length treatment, yet that demand more space than a typical journal article allows. Books in the series are peer-reviewed, ensuring high scholarly quality; and they are open access, ensuring universal availability.

The editorial board of the series spans the full diversity of the language sciences, from phonology to syntax and semantics, from grammar to discourse, and from generative to functional and typological approaches to language: Balthasar Bickel (University of Zürich), Claire Bowern (Yale University), Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen (University of Helsinki), William Croft (University of New Mexico), Rose-Marie Déchaine (University of British Columbia), William A. Foley (University of Sydney), William F. Hanks (University of California at Berkeley), Paul Kockelman (Yale University), Keren Rice (University of Toronto), Sharon Rose (University of California at San Diego), Frederick J. Newmeyer (University of Washington), Wendy Sandler (University of Haifa), and Dan Sperber (Central European University, Budapest).

Two basic ideas underlie the series. The first is that in times of empirical advances and methodological innovations, it is especially important to be clear and explicit about conceptual foundations. As we write in the series blurb, “In language science, our concepts about language underlie our thinking and organize our work. They determine our assumptions, direct our attention, and guide our hypotheses and our reasoning. Only with clarity about conceptual foundations can we pose coherent research questions, design critical experiments, and collect crucial data.”

The second idea is to take advantage of the affordances of open access publishing and step in a market gap left by commercial publishers. As we explain: “Traditional publishers tend not to publish very short books. The reasons are economic. With open-access, the problem does not arise. One benefit of the short format is that the book is accessible and quickly readable. Another is that authors will find writing such a book attractive because it is manageable, given the usual time constraints, especially for more senior authors.”

Do you have an idea for a book, or do you have a manuscript which would fit the goals of the series? Consider submitting it to Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. You’ll find further information on the website. Also check out Language Science Press, the visionary open access publishing house that hosts our series as well as a dozen others.

Editorial Manager and password security for academics

Today, Nature published a news feature by Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky (Retraction Watch) in which I am quoted about some problems with Editorial Manager (EM). This post provides the background to what I say there. Disclaimer: I am not a security expert, though the basic problems should be obvious to anyone caring about security and privacy on the web.

Editorial Manager (EM), the submission and reviewing software used by thousands of academic journals, routinely throws around passwords in plaintext. If you publish with any of the journals using EM, you’ll get emails with your password in plain text, even if you didn’t ask for it. Some configurations of EM even display the password in plain view on the user account page. This means that Editorial Manager does not safely encrypt passwords, which presents a massive security risk. Aries Systems, the firm behind Editorial Manager, defends itself by saying that (1) journal editors want these options and (2) they don’t collect financial information anyway. Those replies skirt the real issue: Editorial Manager, trusted by millions of academic authors and reviewers, fails to implement some of the most basic rules for the secure and responsible handling of passwords and user accounts.

Editorial manager

Every academic will run into Editorial Manager and its kin sooner or later. This is a piece of web-based software that helps the editors of academic journals to manage the submission and review procedure. Literally thousands of journals across all disciplines use it, from well-known interdisciplinary ones like PLOS ONE to niche journals like Policy and Society and Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Elsevier has its own branded version (EES) of what is essentially the same software.

EM requires authors, reviewers and editors to register an account. With such an account, users can submit and review manuscripts. The registration procedure asks for the usual username / email / password combination — nothing very special so far. Until you start using the system a bit more and you discover that it handles your password in, shall we say, a very casual way.

Take PLOS ONE (though note that any other journal using EM is vulnerable in the same ways). Say you submit a paper, or get a request to review one. You’ll get an email notification — with your password. You didn’t ask for this. In fact, even if you did, it shouldn’t be able to give it to you; at most it should offer you to set or reset it. Many of us haven’t seen plaintext password since the early 2000s; in the last decade, better and safer methods have been introduced everywhere, except at Editorial Manager.

Editorial Manager for PLoS ONE sends password in plain text

Editorial Manager for PLoS ONE sends you your password in plain text, even if you don’t ask for it

Packet sniffing and password reuse

I shouldn’t really have to explain why this is seriously problematic in multiple ways. Indeed why this is so is written all over the internet (1 2 3 4 5). The fact that some system sends you your password by email means that your password could be intercepted by any old packet sniffer on a network that you’re using (think free wifi). It also means, obviously, that your password can be retrieved by anyone who manages to get access to your email — either by looking over your shoulder, by rummaging in your inbox while you’re away from your computer, or by more sophisticated means.

Worse, the fact that the system can send out passwords means that passwords are stored in plaintext form, or using easily reversible encryption (which, experts say, comes down to the same). As plaintextoffenders puts it, the password is there on the server, waiting for someone to come and take it. And not only your password is there. It’s the passwords of the millions of users of the thousands of academic journals using this centrally hosted service. That, coupled with the knowledge that about 60% of users reuse passwords across different web services, means a security risk of massive proportions. Check out this XKCD comic for the basics on password reuse.

So EM freely shares passwords in emails. It also displays passwords on profile pages, offering further proof of the lack of encryption (or the use of reversible encryption). Thousands of academic journals crucially depend on this same system, making their hundreds of thousands of peer reviewers and authors sign up for it. You would think that with “periodic third party security and infrastructure audits” (according to Aries’ hosting checklist), Aries Systems would at least have ensured that the most basic lessons in user account security are taken care of. Apparently not.

Aries Systems: ‘It’s optional, so don’t worry’

While preparing a report on this matter in May 2013, I communicated my findings to the Editorial Manager team, because I thought it would be reasonable to give them the chance to respond to the issue. After a first email went unanswered, a reminder email led to an email exchange with Jennifer Fleet, Director of Client Services at Aries Systems, the company behind EM. Here are the most crucial excerpts from what she wrote to me (she gracefully gave me permission to cite this):

Our software (Editorial Manager) has a variety of configuration options that are made available to our publishing customers. The inclusion of credentials in emails is an optional configuration choice. The configuration option to include log-in credentials in emails is desired by some publishers because of the high convenience factor it provides to end users who infrequently access the system. However, inclusion of credentials in emails can also be entirely suppressed and many publishers in fact do not include credentials in emails. We have a wide variety of publishing customers and each is empowered by the administrative capabilities in the system to make their own choices concerning this type of policy.

While honest, this reply suggests that Aries Systems doesn’t realise how important it is to handle user information in a responsible way. The defense is basically: our clients want it, so we do it. But clients should never dictate security design. As a common principle in web development states, your responsibility goes beyond your application.

Modern, safe, and user-friendly ways of handling user account security (involving hashed+salted storage of passwords with tokenised ways of resetting (but never retrieving!) them) have been available for at least five years now. People have thought long and hard about this problem. Repeated breaches have shown how dangerous it is to use anything less than secure encryption and robust ways of resetting passwords. It is remarkable to see such a blatant disregard of industry-standard security measures.

Aries Systems continues by saying, “We do encrypt all passwords.” Here is a simple technical fact: any system that offers the possibility to switch on bizarre options like sending out or displaying plaintext passwords has to store its passwords in such a way that they can be easily fetched and decrypted. No matter how creatively you define “encryption”, you can’t get around that as long as you offer this ‘service’ to your customers.

Aries Systems: ‘We don’t collect financial information’

Aries Systems: “Also, Editorial Manager does not collect or store any financial information.

I would be happy to discuss this with you further by telephone or email, and I hope you will understand the dynamics and trade-offs under consideration.”

The final defense is that Editorial Manager doesn’t store financial information. This sounds like, “You haven’t given us your creditcard, so we’ll just handle your user accounts in an irresponsible way.” This disregards the fundamental principle, mentioned above, that your responsibility goes beyond your application. Additionally, it is of course only apparently a mitigating circumstance. It is widely known that about 60% of users reuse passwords across websites.

If malicious hackers were to get access to an EM server, how many of the emails and passwords would match with accounts on other services that do allow financial transactions? The userbase of EM consists of highly educated people in academia. They have creditcards, Amazon accounts, Paypal wallets, iTunes IDs, et cetera. A significant chunk of them may use the same password for some of those services. Put these things together and suddenly Editorial Manager becomes a very interesting hacking target. (I would not say this out loud here if I had not communicated all this to Aries Systems well over a year ago.)

It’s not just about financial information

The problem is not just about credit cards and such, but about the security of the very process of scholarly publishing. Editorial Manager is easily one of the weakest links in the chain of peer review. What if you could easily get access to someone’s account — pass yourself off as a peer reviewer, say, or get access to an editor’s account to invite your own friends (or yourself) to peer review your own papers?

This is not mere conjecture. It’s happened already, as documented by RetractionWatch: Elsevier’s editorial system (a branded version of EM) was hacked, leading to a peer review scandal and ultimately to a couple of retractions. The details of the case aren’t known, but with a link in the chain that is as weak as EM’s lighthearted handling of password security, I wouldn’t be surprised if some form of password hacking played a role; with the lax security of Editorial Manager, getting access to passwords is child’s play.

Let me end on a positive note. The journal Language recently transitioned to the open source Open Journal Systems, which, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, handles passwords and account information in a much more secure and modern way. Such is the power of open source. Of course, this doesn’t really help us end users: we are unlikely to choose a publication venue on the basis of the manuscript management software they force us to use. But it does show that there are good models out there. Let’s hope that the dust kicked up by the Nature news story will bring some change for the better. Meanwhile, if you’re forced to use Editorial Manager, use disposable passwords and write to the editor to tell them of the risks of the system.

 

Mark Dingemanse
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

Hockett on arbitrariness and iconicity

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Charles F. HockettCharles Hockett had interesting views on the relation between iconicity and arbitrariness. Here is a key quote:

The difference of dimensionality means that signages can be iconic to an extent to which languages cannot; and they are, even though, as Frishberg (1975) tells us, the trend in Ameslan for over a century has been towards more and more conventionalization.

Now, while arbitrariness has its points (see, e.g., Hockett 1960a, p. 212), it also has drawbacks (Hewes, ANYAS, p. 495), so that it is perhaps more revealing to put the difference the other way around, as a limitation of spoken languages.

Indeed, the dimensionality of signing is that of life itself, and it would be stupid not to resort to picturing, pantomiming, or pointing whenever convenient. (Even when speaking we do this: for example, we utter a demonstrative such as there, which indicates relative distance but not direction, and supplement it by a pointing gesture that indicates direction but not distance.)

But when a representation of some fourdimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out. In one-dimensional projection, an elephant is indistinguishable from a woodshed. Speech perforce is largely arbitrary; if we speakers take pride in that, it is because in 50,000 years or so of talking we have learned to make a virtue of necessity (cf. Hill 1972, pp. 313-15).

Linearity means that single devices must serve multiple functions, whereupon structural ambiguity becomes par for the course (see C. R. Peters, Origins, pp. 83-102). We hear Carbon fourteen, Strontium ninety; out of context, we do not know whether this is mention of two radioactive isotopes, or a roadside marker giving the distance to two towns on the road ahead, or the final score in the game between Carbon Free Academy and Strontium Senior High. 

It is such ambiguities, forced by limited dimensionality if by nothing else, that have given rise to the- notion of “surface versus deep structure,” which Stokoe evokes for the remark of which the present paragraph is an expanded paraphrase-his trenchant observation (ANYAS, p. 510) that in sign, as over against speech, “surface and depth more nearly coincide.” (pp. 264-5)

Hockett, C. F. 1978. “In Search of Jove’s Brow.” American Speech 53 (4): 243–313. doi:10.2307/455140.

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics — workshop at WOCAL8 in Kyoto, Aug 2015

Organisers

Dr. Mark Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen)
Prof. Sharon Rose (University of California, San Diego)

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics

wocal8 logo

WOCAL8, August 21-24 2015, Kyoto

Africa’s linguistic diversity has impacted the study of language in many ways. The articulatory phonetics of the Khoi and San languages prompted methodological innovations in phonetics, the tonal systems of West-African languages spurred the development of autosegmental phonology, and the ornate morphology of Bantu prompted syntacticians to reconsider the balance between transformational rules and lexical elaboration. In this workshop we consider how the study of ideophones can contribute to theory and methods in linguistics.

Ideophones (also known as mimetics or expressives) are marked words that depict sensory imagery. A major word class in many African languages, they are somewhat of an inconvenient truth for the dogma that spoken languages rarely feature iconicity in the lexicon. Their phonology is marked in a way that bears a clear relation to the broader phonological system of the language, providing for a unique window into phonological structure. Their prosody and morphosyntax set them apart as special words, yet they are more deeply integrated in linguistic subsystems than is often assumed, raising interesting questions about what is in and outside grammar. Their meanings are rich and imagistic, providing unparalleled ways to talk about sensory perceptions. All of these properties represent areas where ideophones can shed light on the design features of language, the iconic affordances of speech, and the nature of human communicative competence.

This workshop gathers international experts to present recent research on ideophones and to put recent developments into theoretical context. Submissions are expected to focus on the connection between ideophone research and foundational issues in linguistics, from phonology to prosody and from syntax to meaning. We encourage papers that show how new approaches can shed light on old questions, and how the systematic study of ideophones can contribute new insights to our understanding of the structure of language and languages. One and a half centuries after the earliest descriptions of ideophones in African languages, the 8th World Congress of African Linguistics in Kyoto offers a unique chance to take stock of what we have learned so far from ideophones, and to explore ways to integrate this knowledge into the broader language sciences.

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: October 31, 2014

Notification of acceptance: December 1, 21014

Conference: August 21-24, Kyoto

Abstracts should follow the general guidelines established for the submission of abstracts for WOCAL 8, which can be found here: is.gd/wocal8abstracts

Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages

Illustration by James Yang

© James Yang

The September/October issue of Scientific American MIND features an article written by me and N.J. Enfield entitled “Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages”. We review recent research on conversation across cultures, including work on turn-taking, timing, and other-initiated repair.

Scientific American MIND is a psychology/brain-themed offshoot of the well-known Scientific American magazine. We’re proud to publish in the pages of this journal!

If you are a SciAm subscriber, you can find our article online here. If you’re at a university or a research institution, you can probably also access it via the DOI. And if you’re neither of those, check out our author’s offprint (PDF).

Abercrombie on ‘paralanguage’

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David_T._AbercrombieThere is an urgent need for the comparative study, over as much of the world as possible, of the full range of paralinguistic phenomena — the kind of thing for which the linguistic field-worker is best fitted. Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture.

Abercrombie, David. 1968. “Paralanguage.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 3 (1): 55–59. doi:10.3109/13682826809011441.

That was almost half a century ago. Yet apart from some striking exceptions like Adam Kendon and David Wilkins, it is only since the last decade that fieldworkers have begun to collect multi-modal data in earnest.

Media als middel

Veel wetenschappers onderhouden een haat-liefde verhouding met de media. Media-aandacht is moeilijk te krijgen en als je het eenmaal hebt nog moeilijker te controleren. Wanneer zet je door en wanneer zeg je nee? Hoe vind je de balans tussen bijsturen en meebewegen? Deze en andere vragen bespreek ik aan de hand van een concreet voorbeeld: de wereldwijde mediastorm rond ons onderzoek naar misverstanden en hoe ze opgelost worden. Aan bod komen onderwerpen als slim gebruik maken van sociale media, samenwerken met WTC-experts en inzien wanneer je geen controle hebt.

De rode draad is media als middel, niet als doel. Anders dan professionele wetenschapscommunicatoren is het wetenschappers niet te doen om media-aandacht per se. We willen overtuigd worden van het nut voordat we erin springen. We zijn bovendien heel realistisch over de nieuwswaarde van ons onderzoek: het meeste dat we doen gaat in kleine stapjes en is irrelevant voor de zevenmijlslaarzen van de media. Maar als er dan iets is dat meer aandacht verdient moet je weten wat je doet. Daarover gaat mijn presentatie. In de voorbereiding moet je een confucianist zijn: gedreven, conscientieus en met aandacht voor alle details. Als de mediastorm (of bries) eenmaal begonnen is word je een taoist: beweeg mee, laat los, en gebruik het momentum voor nieuwe dingen.

Hier zijn mijn slides:

De sessie

Andere sprekers in de sessie waren Chris Jacobs, promovendus in de biologie aan de Universiteit Leiden, en Fred Balvert, wetenschapscommunicator van het Erasmus MC. Chris heeft een hele leuke website, science-explained.com, waarop hij uitlegt hoe zijn vakgebied werkt; en Fred heeft net een boekje uitgebracht met daarin tips voor wetenschappers die in contact treden met de media.

Dat deed me overigens denken aan de NWO mediagids, die ik alweer een paar jaar geleden kreeg op een voorlichtingsdag van NWO: kort en goed, vol met praktische tips, en hier gratis als PDF te downloaden.

Zbikowski on music and social interaction

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Instead of probing the cultural or historical context for musical utterances, or the complex networks of social interaction that give rise to musical behavior, music theory continues to focus on details of musical discourse with an obsessiveness that is both maddening and quixotic to cultural and social theorists.

Zbikowski, Lawrence Michael. 2002. Conceptualizing music : cognitive structure, theory, and analysis. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Von Humboldt on depiction in speech

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Wilhelm-von-HumboldtWhere moderation is not utterly overstepped, the wealth of sound in languages can be compared to coloration in painting. The impression of both evokes a similar feeling; and even thought reacts differently if, like a mere outline, it emerges in greater nakedness, or appears, if we may so put it, more coloured by language.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On language, page 80. Originally published in 1836.

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. 2000. On language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species. Trans by. Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.