Help me pick a paper topic!
May 2, 2006 6:37 PM   Subscribe

What should I write about for my linguistics class?

I have a paper due on Friday for my Linguistics class, and I'm having a problem deciding on a paper topic. I think I have a general idea, but I need to make it more specific. It's a research paper, open to any topic in the field of linguistics. Generally, what I think I want to write about are the factors contributing to the evolution of a language (English in particular) --- society, diversity, usage, history, immigrants, presence or lack of a governmental language purity organization, dialects, etc. I'm shooting for 8 - 10 double-spaced pages, so I obviously need to narrow it down a little bit.
So, does anyone have any ideas on what I should focus on? Any other paper topics I should do instead? I have access to a lot of article/book/online resources, so there's pretty much no limit on what I can do for a topic.

If you need a course description to give me a better answer, it might help to know that we use:
"The Study of Language" by George Yule
"The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker
"Language, Society, and Power" by Linda Thomas and Shan Waering
posted by fvox13 to Education (15 answers total) about a cross-cultural analysis of, say, spatial language description?

Stephen Levinson has written some very fasinating things on this and other closely related subjects, a large body of which can be found online in full through his website.
posted by irregardless at 6:48 PM on May 2, 2006

I recommend choosing a topic in forensic linguistics. It is fun, interesting research.
I'm not sure who put this up on the net, but the second paper is mine.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:55 PM on May 2, 2006

If you're using Pinker's book you might want to write a paper about irregular verbs. Irregularity in general is a good way to look at the roots of a language and see how it changed over time. English is especially rich in irregular verbs, but Germanic languages as a family have a high degree of irregularity (Dutch and German are particularly interesting).
posted by Alison at 7:27 PM on May 2, 2006

I'm assuming you aren't a linguistics major... what are your other interests?

If you study psychology or biology, how about language disorders like aphasia?

If you study history, how about the diminishment of a language, like Judezmo?

If you study computer science, how about natural language simulation?

If you study politics, how about framing?

Just a few ideas, but I think you take my meaning. Linguistics ties into a lot of other interesting areas, so it may be easy to build a topic around something else in which you're also interested.
posted by j-dawg at 7:36 PM on May 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I always liked Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphor We Live By. It is less about etymology, etc. and more about how we use language as related to the natural world around us--the cognitive metaphors we employ. Those metaphor are grounded in our lived experience.
posted by oflinkey at 8:00 PM on May 2, 2006

That title is "Metaphors We Live By". Sorry.
posted by oflinkey at 8:01 PM on May 2, 2006

After 1066 (the year of the Norman Conquest), Norman and Anglo-Saxon law had to merge and be made compatible. In the language of law, this had the consequence of imposing parallel constructions in which typically a Norman word or phrase would be followed in the text of a deed, contract, proclamation or decree (etc.), by its closest Saxon approximation. Of the many striking examples in the account I read some time ago, I remember only the relatively humdrum "metes and bounds" in real estate law. I have always wished to know more about this and to get a list of examples, particularly since a considerable legacy of it can be heard in the prose of modern lawyers, and seems to account for the solemn rolling periods I am alternately impressed and put off by.
posted by jamjam at 8:31 PM on May 2, 2006

jamjam - Actually that was a linguistic tendency in England, at the time, that wasn't confined to the language of law.
posted by bshort at 9:57 PM on May 2, 2006

When I took linguistics I wrote my final paper on the dual-lingual (not always bilingual) situation in Belgium. My minor was French, so studying the French-Flemish linguistic situation worked out was a topic I used for papers in a couple other French courses, a political science, and an anthropology course as well (didn't just turn in the same paper over and over again, bien sur!)
posted by saffron at 11:30 PM on May 2, 2006

Well, your subject is wide open. A good survey of the interests you mentioned is Jean Aitchison's Language Change; if you can, get hold of a copy and skim it for a smaller subject that especially catches your interest. Then chase citations, of course.

@jamjam: 'free and clear' comes to mind (though that one's Saxon-first); but so does 'each and every', which is Saxon on both halves. (I wonder if they originate in different dialects? If so, it's the same solution to the same problem!) IIRC, Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, 2nd. ed. has a list; but I've only got 1st edition to hand, and I can't find it there.
posted by eritain at 12:39 AM on May 3, 2006

It's been a while since I did this, but a really good topic to write upon is sociolinguistics, i.e. how language is influenced by social and cultural factors. This is both readily comprehenisble, pretty interesting and has several competing theories.

Aitchinson is very good on this, but key texts include Labov and Trudgill. Labov's classic case was the centralised diphthong (don't worry if you never work out exactly what one sounds like; I never did) on Martha's Vineyard, and how it spread throughout the society. (Really basically: it only used to be the hardcore fishermen who used it; then, when lots of outsiders and holiday homers and students etc starting moving there, the other inhabitants starting adopting it as a way to mark them out as authentic Vineyarders).

Anyway, googling around sociolinguistics, labov etc will throw up loads of examples.
posted by Hartster at 1:32 AM on May 3, 2006

I'll put in another vote for Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By.
posted by Pigpen at 2:17 AM on May 3, 2006

Your proposed topic is way, way too broad; you need to narrow it down to something you can address in a few pages. The "presence or lack of a governmental language purity organization" might be a good topic. But it should be something you can get into the nitty-gritty of, not just wave your hands for ten pages (which is all you could do with "the factors contributing to the evolution of a language").

In the language of law, this had the consequence of imposing parallel constructions in which typically a Norman word or phrase would be followed ... by its closest Saxon approximation.

This is more of an urban myth than a fact. Yes, it does happen, but not often enough to be the kind of telling phenomenon people think when they cite it (which they do far more often than I'd think they would—why is this particular factoid such catnip to people?). It's a confluence of two factors: the tendency of lawyers to accumulate near-synonyms to make sure all possibilities are covered, and the influx of French vocabulary. The latter is one of the most important facts about the development of English, but it is not particularly exemplified in this way; the cow/beef, pig/pork thing is more telling. Note that often, the examples of "Norman/Saxon" legal pairs cited in this context turn out to be both one or both the other.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on May 3, 2006

Or if you want to do "evolution of the language," why not pick two things that you think are causing the language to evolve, talk about each for about 3-4 pages, then compare/contrast for about 2-3? Or focus on one cause for the entire paper? With immigration to the US on my mind, have authorities talked about what influence Spanish speakers in the US are having on English? Just one idea. If you want to have two sections, you could compare that to the whole Ebonics thing (as another semi-current event), or to the effect of some immigration wave back in history.
posted by salvia at 8:12 AM on May 3, 2006

I have completely forgotten the paper/presentation I did for my undergrad linguistics class. I do however, still remember a guy in my class doing his on internet slang, which in 1994 was pretty Usenet heavy. Do you belong to a subculture with a unique linguistic component that you could look to for inspiration?
posted by Biblio at 10:13 AM on May 3, 2006

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