Saturday, March 8, 2008

Meeting gossip #2: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachforschung

The German Linguistic Society met in Bamberg, Germany last week. About 500 people attended, and many of them (including us) spent much time in the restaurants eating serious amounts of meat (Fränkischer Sauerbraten, Schäuferla, Würstchen, and more meat meat meat). Bamberg is nice, your basic 1000-year-old small German city, two very impressive churches, a nice chill vibe. Great espresso, who would have thunk it?!

Together with Dietmar Zaefferer from the Ludwig-Maximialiansuniversität München, I chaired a session that was -- we thought -- about universals. And -- we also thought -- that one speaker that has stimulated provocative discussion is Dan Everett. But, at the last minute, he cancelled. Go figure ... Dietmar and I had never met, but he persuaded me to do this on the basis of the fact that we went to the same Gymnasium in München, Das Max. And I learned that the German film director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, etc) went to our little school.

The challege for this workshop was to see whether it is possible to have fruitful discussions that bridge anthropology, linguistics, and neuroscience. Given the vigorous recent interest in biolinguistics, could we insert some bio? I think that the topic was not really engaged or addressed. However, there were a bunch of interesting lectures on various topics, so it was not too onerous.

While this might be shameless advocacy, I think many attendees would agree that TB_East faculty Jeff Lidz gave a stellar lecture on acquisition. Read his stuff! He discussed some of his Kannada data as well as recent experiments on artificial language learning. Very good stuff. The most fun and snarky attendee was, I think, Tom Bever. He asked many amusing and insightful questions -- and also made some harsh comments, which were (mostly) deserved. Andrew Nevins gave, in my view, the funniest and liveliest talk -- Andrew needs to switch to decaf if he wants to adjust his clockspeed to those around him. Michael Ullman presented his new data on sex differences and the English past tense. There were some linguistics talks that were interesting qua linguistics but failed to connect to anyone outside of the immediate minimalist audience. And there were some nice talks about anthropology, but, again, they did not connect to anything in language research. I had a nice time, I enjoyed meeting new colleagues, and I learned a few factoids. But, in my view, the bridging discussions were not had. And the question is whether they can be had at all, or if that is even desirable. As some readers know, although I work at the interfaces between areas, I am pretty nihilist about these things and like to use the phrase interdisciplinary cross-sterilization. But let's be optimistic ... Maybe there is a chance for genuine linking hypotheses.

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