Crowdsourcing grammars, or the death of the (grammar) book. WAS: Publishing; Mouton "discounts" for ALT members

Howard, Harry D howard at TULANE.EDU
Wed Nov 16 03:47:46 UTC 2011

Let me respond as someone who is not directly involved in the field and has a passing familiarity with current trends in technology.

What I hear from the various threads initiated by Bill Croft's message is that the cycle of innovation that started with the publication of Antonio de Nebrija's "Gramática de la lengua castellana" in 1492 is coming to an end. This should not come as a surprise. All technologies run their course. And of course, it is not just the scholarly grammar book that on its last legs; it is all printed books, as you can appreciate by googling "death of the book". And of course, people much smarter than I am have been thinking about this for a while. Here is a quote from Nicolas Negroponte, ex-director of MIT's Media Lab and the founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which is apropos of whether printed books are appropriate for developing countries:

Negroponte took time in our meeting to philosophize a bit about tablet computers. “There’s a very interesting thing happening,” he says. “Paper books are really dead—they’re gone. And they’re not being killed by tablets, they’re creating tablets.”

That’s the opposite of what many people might think—but Negroponte sees the forces at work at close hand, because of his OLPC work. “It’s the fact that physical books don’t work anymore, especially in the developing world,” he says, comparing the difficulty and cost of shipping physical books against downloading 100 books or more on a single tablet. “It’s a complete luxury,” he says of physical books, “and it makes no sense.”

So what is an aspiring grammarian to do?

I think that it is important to be clear about what is to be accomplished. What is a scholarly grammar book for? I hear you saying four things:

  1.  an accurate corpus of linguistic facts,
  2.  whose accuracy is vouchsafed by an authority,
  3.  which is made available in an easily accessible form,
  4.  which can qualify the producer of said corpus for advancement in certain institutional contexts.

This is just my reading; you know more about it than I do and so may want to add or subtract desiderata.

So is a printed book the only way to fulfill these constraints? Maybe in 1492, but not today. In fact, I think that there are technologies available today that are far superior to a printed book for #2 and #3, while preserving #1 and #4.

Let us start with #2. Given the pre-electronic absence of any alternative to face-to-face communication, it was impossible to get grammaticality judgements from more than a handful of people. Thus a single researcher consulting a select group of confidants was as much as anyone could hope to sample a population. This methodology is quite amazing, when you think about it. It is a kind of craftsmanship which would have been familiar to the guilds of medieval Europe, if not their late Roman precursers. An entire sphere of intellectual activity untouched by the Industrial Revolution. But nowadays we can just skip Industrial Revolution 1.0 and jump to Web 2.0, in which there are tools available for entire communities to collaboratively supply and corroborate linguistic facts. And what better authority on a grammar is there than the entire speech community? The current buzzword for this is 'crowd-sourcing', which Wikipedia's (crowd-sourced) definition is "Crowdsourcing is the act of sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to a group of people or community (crowd) through an open call".

Some have objected that computers and Internet connectivity are still a long way off for many speech communities. But note that the OLPC's XO3 tablet creates its own wifi mesh network. What is needed is connectivity within the community, not necessarily between the community and the outside world. And then there are cell phones. Mobile phone usage is exploding in the developing world. If you don't believe me, google "mobile phone usage developing world". Here's a link to a recent article that makes my point, Again, the community does not really need a connection to the outside world to crowd-source a grammar; it only needs connections among its members.

Let us move along to #3. Is a printed book really an easily accessible form? Maybe in 1492, but not today. "Accessible" can be understood as meaning two things here: making the work easy for many people to access, and making the information that it contains easy to access. Certainly the distributed networking that I mentioned in #2 makes it easier for people to access the work than having a printed book sitting on a shelf somewhere. But it also makes the information more easily accessible, especially is the information is entered into a database, as in the Romani Database that Yaron Matras mentioned. Such information is almost infinitely rearrangeable and thus lends itself to finding new patterns which may have never even been imagined when the database was designed. Have you tried to rearrange the lines of text on a printed page recently, to suit your needs? Or done a keyword search on it? Thus I don't even advocate the pdf/ebook solution that some have argued for as the next step in the evolution of the grammar book. The next step isn't a book; it is to record the linguistic facts in the most flexible format possible (a database) and let the user choose the display of the data that best fits her needs. In an app on her laptop or mobile phone.

So #1 is still preserved, but what about #4? What role does a grammarian play in a crowd-sourced grammar app with a database backend? Well, there's a buzzword for that, too – it's (digital) curation. From Wikipedia, "Digital curation is the selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets. Digital curation is generally referred to the process of establishing and developing long term repositories of digital assets for current and future reference by researchers, scientists, historians, and scholars." Isn't that what you are working to achieve? You will have to learn some new skills, but they are very marketable skills.

Where my clairvoyance fails me is in the second half of #4. How will resources be marshalled to supply a cadre of experts who will anoint your efforts at digital grammatical curation as being worthy of institutional recognition and advancement? I don't really know. The analogy to the situation in print is to sell access to the database. Perhaps on a sliding scale. I don't know.

What I do know is that curating a crowd-sourced grammar app with a database backend may sound like exotic science fiction to people like me in their fifties. But if you ask a twenty-something how to do create a grammar, she will respond by saying, how else would you do it? You wouldn't have a single person try to write it down on paper, would you? That's so 1492.

Un servidor,

On Nov 15, 2011, at 11:37 AM, Don Killian wrote:

Hi all,

In about 3 years time, I'll be one of those documentary linguists, so this question is very pertinent for me.  I don't necessarily have to publish my grammar in a place which is prestigious, particularly if it limits access of my work only to individuals working in wealthy institutions, but I would like to have it published in a place which is peer-reviewed and respected.  If I were to publish with Mouton, the current prices may mean that my grammar would be read by very few people, or pirated instead.  This is not to disparage Mouton; I hold Uri in the highest regard, and when I've interacted with Mouton before they've always been helpful and courteous, even when I've brought up the subject of prices directly to the company. Furthermore, there are some excellent grammars published in the MGL series... classics which have been cited or quoted thousands of times.

However, my linguistic consultants have already expressed interest in a copy of my grammar when it's finished, and they unfortunately would not have the financial means to legally purchase the book at current prices.. even with free author copies, my consultants would more than likely not be the only interested members of the community unable to afford it.  People in Sudan and Ethiopia can afford books at 10-20 USD, but not 200, and I don't want to have to make a choice between my career and the language community I worked with.

These are fairly weighty topics we're discussing, and I'd like to hear more opinions from the famous/well-respected linguists about this subject, as they will be the ones to make the most difference in terms of publishing outlets.  I realize that they also tend to be the busiest, but this discussion impacts our entire field in a rather significant way.  No matter how excited, hard-working, and organized young linguists are, we simply won't be able to break through the tradition enough to create online publishing resources without the help of established scholars.

Some have already made suggestions, but many others have remained quiet, such as Ian Maddieson and Matthew Dryer.  I hope it's not rude to ask people so directly involved, but I'd really like to hear your opinions. And Frans, since you are involved with Linguistic Typology, I'd like to hear your thoughts as well about quality publishing at more affordable costs?  Do people like Martin's ALT champions league, or are there alternate views?

Bill mentioned being pessimistic about breaking tradition, but I don't see it as necessarily breaking tradition.  If the tradition-establishers voice their opinions and become involved, change could happen more quickly, yet peacefully, than could otherwise be expected.



On 11/15/2011 06:24 PM, Bill Croft wrote:

Nigel's proposal is what will eventually have to happen. It happened in
physics, quite rapidly in fact; but that is a different field. (And<> has submitted papers, not accepted ones; so you still have to
plough through the chaff as well as the wheat to keep current.) It is
happening painfully slowly in the humanities. Print journals still
dominate - "Linguistic Discovery" and "Constructions" are pretty
moribund. Consider the documentary linguist wanting to publish a
grammar: given her/his need to have a good publication venue to get
tenure, will s/he publish with a long-established prestigious publisher
whose grammar series is edited by Bernard Comrie, Georg Bossong and
Matthew Dryer, or will s/he go to an untested online publisher whose
editors are not the very top typologists in the field? The same goes
with other linguistics subfields and publishers (it's going to be hard
to match the cachet of OUP and CUP, and the editors they are able to

Sorry to be pessimistic, but it's going to be hard to break tradition. I
fear things will get worse before they get better. I personally don't
want to see hardcopy publishing of scholarly research go away, and would
like to see it made somehow more affordable (e.g. print on demand in a
paperback format, as CUP has done for its out of print titles). I will
support or join efforts to move to a better publication model than the
current one for individual scholars. But it will take time, maybe a long

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