Blog

40 Fascinating Lectures for Linguistics Geeks

by Staff Writers

Linguistics is kind of like The Force — it surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. Or at least the planet, anyway. Both this universality and frequent intersections with a diverse array of subjects — including, but not limited to, cognitive science, literature, politics, psychology, communication, anthropology and more — make linguistics a compelling, dynamic, nuanced study. The following lectures, by no means the only ones available online, represent a lovely little slice of how language permeates all things, for better and for worse.

  1. Grey Matters: Understanding Language: Presented by University of California at San Diego’s Dr. Jeffrey Elman, this hour-long talk delves deeply into the cognitive components behind language and language acquisition. Specifically, why humans are the only animals capable of speech.

  2. Jesse Sheidlower: The F-Word: The editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary itself offers up a humorous and thoroughly provocative look at one of the most inflammatory words the language possesses. His amazing insight and expertise shed light on the alchemy of offense and how one mere syllable can still pack a megaton punch.

  3. Murray Gell-Mann on the ancestor of language: Although this Nobel Prize winner is better known for his physics and discovery of quarks, he still enjoys exploring other topics, and used some TED time to share his linguistics research. Right now, Murray Gell-Mann devotes his time to discovering any common ancestral roots between today’s staggeringly diverse selection of languages.

  4. Speaking Up: The Origins of Language: Dr. Lowell Gustafson of Villanova University’s political and social sciences departments pulls from his anthropological experience to deliver a stimulating lecture about linguistics. Here, he attempts to bridge gaps and focus on what different speakers have in common rather than what keeps them apart.

  5. Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms: For linguistics buffs interested in education — or working in the industry — this lecture by Rebecca Wheeler might prove riveting. She hopes to formulate more effective strategies for giving writerly voices and opportunities to oft-marginalized urban students.

  6. Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies: Science and linguistics converge in Patricia Kuhl’s revealing lecture about the startling way little kids acquire their dominant languages. Using "the modern tools of neuroscience," she charts the bizarre and beautiful process during one of the most explosive cognitive periods in a person’s life.

  7. TEDxDartmouth — Timothy Pulju: The Uncanny Science of Linguistic Reconstruction — March 6, 2011: As both a classicist and linguist, Timothy Pulju "resurrects" Latin and showcases how languages evolve over time. Despite having no native speakers, in many ways it continues to live on in the current Romance languages — most notably Italian, French and Spanish.

  8. Roy Blount Jr: Alphabet Juice: All languages possess a certain frenetic energy that few stop to fully contemplate, but Roy Blount Jr’s Alphabet Soup pushes this phenomenon to the forefront and challenges readers (and listeners!) to completely rethink words. In his talk with Valerie Jackson of "Between the Lines," the literary Renaissance man humorously covers the wonder of everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to obscure slang.

  9. Patricia Ryan: Don’t Insist on English!: International communication and commerce places so much emphasis on English, Patricia Ryan believes it might overshadow amazing ideas and insights hailing from other linguistic backgrounds. Her TEDxDubai lecture makes an amazingly compelling case about how such narrowness actively impedes human progress and asks viewers to open themselves up to what non-native speakers have to say.

  10. George Lakoff: Moral Politics: Considering politics as it exists today is little more than an obnoxious game of rhetorical one-upsmanship, it makes sense that many language geeks would find it an interesting topic. George Lakoff with University of California Berkeley explores how the two interact with one another, along with the strategies election winners use to hook in audiences — regardless of whether or not they actually say anything substantial.

  11. Propaganda and War: Iraq and Beyond: Another lecture merging linguistics, perception and politics into one impressively stimulating listen, this time courtesy of the distinguished Noam Chomsky. While he uses the Iraq War as his primary examples here, what he has to say about the way governments wield language and images as a means of manipulating public favor can still be applied across geography and time.

  12. Alan Siegel: Let’s simplify legal jargon!: Excessively technical language used in law, medicine, finance and plenty of other fields oftentimes isolates outsiders, preventing them from completely comprehending many necessities. Alan Siegel is an expert in business and branding matters, and he uses his background to beg for a bit of linguistic streamlining to make government forms accessible to all.

  13. Barbara Johnstone Lecture: Pittsburghese: Even those with little to no interest in languages still understand how variances occur between regions; just because individuals hail from the same nation or linguistic background doesn’t mean they speak the exact same words and phrases. Carnegie Mellon hosted a lecture by Rhetoric and Linguistics Professor Barbara Johnstone showcasing one such example from Pittsburgh, emphasizing how the city’s own unique dialect became integral to its personal identity.

  14. Deborah Fallows on Dreaming in Chinese: The Dreaming in Chinese author builds upon many of the themes found in her book, not the least of which revolves around how learning Mandarin opened up an entirely new cultural world to explore. Despite its notorious difficulty, Deborah Fallows believes that taking the time to absorb it proved one of the most educational, rewarding experiences of her life.

  15. Wade Davis on endangered cultures: Language may open up individuals to new ideas and insights, but many wield it as a weapon of cultural devastation. During his stint with National Geographic, photographer Wade Davis witnessed firsthand how the encroach of languages such as English and Spanish are wiping out the traditions of indigenous peoples at a depressingly rapid clip.

  16. "If That Language May Be Dying, Why Are You Studying It?" By Thomas T. Field: This University of Maryland, Baltimore County presentation tackles pretty much exactly what its title promises — Thomas T. Field ruminating on the importance of studying dead and dying languages. He mainly features his work on Glascon and uses it to illustrate many preservation points non-professionals might not even consider.

  17. Stephen Burt: Art of the Sonnet: Stephen Burt, an English professor at Harvard University, presents a lovely little talk for linguistics and literature aficionados alike. Some of the greatest sonnets in the world make for an amazing example of how to elevate language to an artistic, creative level.

  18. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on apes: Marvel at how this renowned primatologist plunged into the unique sociology, psychology and biology of bonobos and chimpanzees — which ultimately peeled back some startling truths about their linguistic aptitude. With sufficient training, some of these incredible creatures were able to comprehend human speech and cultural cues almost as well as any Homo sapien child.

  19. Viewpoint and Perspective in Language and Gesture: Distinguished professor Eve Sweetser spoke at Case Western Reserve University about her groundbreaking forays into linguistics at a time when such studies were discouraged. She also enthusiastically expands upon how metaphors, gesture and cognition all play an integral role in communication and language.

  20. A Lesson in Lying/A Deal Is A Deal: Immanuel Kant’s philosophies discouraged all untruths — including white lies — as fundamentally unnatural. Rhetoric, language and linguistics fans will greatly enjoy watching Michael Sandel painstakingly dissect this belief with hypothetical situations.

  21. Erin McKean redefines the dictionary: This passionate lexicographer founded the digital Wordnik and believes the traditional bound dictionary as "an eight-track tape" — a blurry technological memory only barely registering in succeeding generations. Erin McKean hails computers as the greatest tool for comprehensively listing words and their myriad definitions.

  22. David Laitin — Multilingualism and Country Wealth: At his Universitat Oberta de Catalunya lecture, Stanford’s David Laitin adroitly welds linguistics to sociology and political science. He draws parallels between societies boasting multilingual populaces and their economic prosperity or failure.

  23. Spoken Word Showcase: When language and music come together, both hold the potential to become even more powerful, strong than they are alone. Nobody knows this better than poet Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, who hosts a wonderful showing of Bostonian students presenting both original works as well as those by previously established writers.

  24. James Geary, metaphorically speaking: Many don’t realize the subtle ways in which figurative language can actually mold perspectives and actions, but it does happen. James Geary pulls examples from both history and pop culture alike to perfectly illustrate how metaphor shapes humanity for good or for ill.

  25. Items and Generalizations at Work: Case Western Reserve’s Ninth Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language hosted this talk by Princeton professor Dr. Adele Goldberg in 2008. Here, she opines on the creativity, generalizations and structures behind linguistics — and the myriad ways in which they subvert and contradict themselves.

  26. Breakthrough: Foreign Language Films in the US: General American audiences unfortunately tend to dismiss foreign language movies and marginalize them to niche status, as a result missing out on some incredible works of artistic merit. Sebastian Silva directs a discussion with cinema professionals Steven Raphael and Marcus Hu about the possible positive future of these films in the United States.

  27. Ethan Zuckerman: Listening to global voices: Interacting with Brazilian Twitter users opened up multimedia enthusiast Ethan Zuckerman to the internet communities beyond the English speaking world. From one simple question about the Galvao bird came an entire epiphany regarding how getting past language barriers is an integral part of valuable educational and cultural exchange.

  28. Monica Heller — Competencia entre ideologies linguistiques: Language buffs looking for a few shots of sociology and politics in with their daily intake will get quite a bit of stimulation from Monica Heller’s talk at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. Where once linguists spoke of how minority speakers relate to majority ones, now they’ve started focusing more in differences between socioeconomic statuses.

  29. Jean-Loup Chiflet: Eccentricities of the French Language: As both a writer and a reporter, Jean-Loup Chiflet intimately interacts with French on a daily basis — and considers himself possessing 40 years of experience. Such a laudable position has granted him a keen insight into all things Francophone, and he shares his humorous observations here.

  30. Steven Pinker on language and thought: Paying close attention to word choice makes all the difference in the world when communicating clearly and effectively, and renowned linguist Steven Pinker explored this phenomenon intensively in his The Stuff of Thought. He also delves into linguistic evolution, be it as lofty as an academy or slang "of the people" proudly springing into existence with no formality.

  31. Statistical Spoken Language Generation of Stylistic Variation for Dialogue Applications: Dr. Marilyn Walker of the University of Sheffield blurs the lines between the organic and the mechanical in her illuminating North Carolina State University talk. This forum discusses the possibilities for greatly improved AI and video game design based on natural human conversation patterns and behaviors.

  32. Beyond Decoding: Word Knowledge and Reading Skill: Lovers of all things linguistic must also understand the complex science behind how communication and language acquisition works. Charles Perfetti breaks it all down for viewers and listeners hungry for more information about the amazing human brain and how it impacts reading comprehension.

  33. Jay Walker on the World’s English Mania: People worldwide clamor to pick up English as a second language, owing to its myriad professional applications. Jay Walker wanted to know why, and spent a considerable amount of time globetrotting, photographing, video recording and — of course — talking to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

  34. SFU Public Lecture: How to Read World Literature: Simon Fraser University hosted Dr. David Damrosch for a provocative glimpse at how the literary canon is shifting away from exclusively touting European and North American authors and embracing global diversity. No matter their era or chosen medium, peoples around the world still have something valuable to say.

  35. The Man Who Made Lists: Roget and His Thesaurus: Learn the fascinating history behind one of the English language’s most influential reference books – Roget’s Thesaurus – courtesy of Joshua Kendall. Plagued with mental illness and consorting with some of the world’s keenest minds, Peter Mark Roget began compiling word lists as a means of discovering order amongst daily disorder.

  36. Dan Dennett on dangerous memes: Memes are essentially word viruses, spreading concepts from person to person at an incredibly frenetic pace. Considering his expertise and passion for science, philosophy and human consciousness, Dan Dennett is the perfect lecturer to bring this phenomenon to vivid light.

  37. UO Today #322: Although an interview as opposed to a lecture, what University of Oregon’s Northwest Indian Language Institute Director Janne Underriner has to say. Talking with Steve Shankman of the Humanities Center reveals the organization’s efforts to preserve Native American languages and the sort of sociological, political and cultural challenges they encounter along the way.

  38. Language as Sacrament in the New Testament: Franz Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, explores how the New Testament uses language to convey sacred concepts and directives, making an argument about how communication in and of itself could be considered a sacrament. Jesus’ teachings, he believes, contain some oft-ignored poetic components well worth researching.

  39. Laura Trice suggests we all say thank you: No matter the language, the sentiment "thank you" can prove one of the most powerful of all — and Laura Trice hopes to promote this mindset. Her talk only lasts about 3 minutes, but what she shares resonates well past time and geography alike.

  40. Babel is Not a Curse: Embracing Second Languages: Jean Harzic once served as the CEO of Alliance Francaise, a position which granted him plenty of insight into French society, culture and linguistics. This talk draws from his experience in order and urges listeners and viewers to slough off monolinguism and strive to learn another language; doing so will help them break away from sporting only one particular mindset.