Should I be surprised?

I failed to note it here at the time, but phonoloblog‘s first birthday was almost two weeks ago, on July 22. There were no birthday cards from major newspapers, but we had a small celebration here, just me and my p-blog and a quart of beer, riding across the land, kicking up sand

(Coincidentally, this is post #200 on phonoloblog. If I were a numerologist, maybe I’d be more interested in that fact.)

Looking back, I’m not really sure exactly what all my plans and expectations were when I started phonoloblog last year. A large part of me was just excited about the medium, and I figured things would just develop in some interesting direction on their own (interesting to me, anyway). And to a significant extent, that has happened. But — and you knew there had to be a “but”, didn’t you? — there’s one expectation I’ve had for phonoloblog that hasn’t materialized, at least not in the way I’ve imagined it. Allow me to explain.

Sometime last year I was surfing through the handful of incoming links to phonoloblog. Most if not all of them were welcome messages from other language-related blogs, probably having heard about it via my announcement on Language Log. I was interested in one link in particular, which was coincidentally written one year ago today. It’s a comment by David of TEFL Smiler, responding to other comments on his July 29, 2004 post entitled “Are Blogs the Fast Food of Academia?” — and here’s the relevant part.

I’m very interested to see that Eric Bakovic from the Language Log has created a new group blog for linguists called phonoloblog.

It’s being aimed at a very specific audience, with re-directions suggested for a wider audience back to Language Log!

Much of the content will be beyond me, and not in my main area of interest. I can see, though, that this is an academic blog in which the contributors have already written about papers they’re currently working on, and they’ve mentioned some research data they’ve acquired.

It will be fascinating to see how this works out, walking the thin line between providing enough information to have something worthwhile writing about, and providing too much information and then having their ideas stolen.

It’s the sort of thing that might end up with the setting of some kind of legal precedent in the future (within Commonwealth Law). Having said that, I suppose there’ll be the same amount of discretion as with those listserv things.

I think that phonoloblog has the makings of a real ‘academic blog’. It will be fascinating to see how it progresses.

I’d be interested to know what David thinks of phonoloblog one year later. (A search of TEFL Smiler reveals only this additional mention of phonoloblog, in a comment on a post that simultaneously plugs and pans Language Log.) I know what I think, though: phonoloblog has decidedly not become the academic blog I wanted it to (at least sometimes) be.

Should I be surprised? Probably not. I think that my first mistake (if you can call it that) was in allowing/encouraging/actively participating in the kinds of things that make blogging less like academic writing: posting about stuff that’s just plain fun for us phono-geeks to talk about. Bob Kennedy and I have both often gone off the deep end in this sort of mode, sometimes writing about stuff with practically no connection at all to phonology. (Realizing this, I encouraged Bob to start his own blog for stuff not-quite-phonological, and to put my money where my mouth is, I also started one of my own.)

But of course, it’s probably the borderline stuff that attracts most of the few but loyal readers we have. Should I be surprised that my most recent post on orthographic conventions of Harry Potter provoked three comments from readers (and four more via e-mail, as noted in the two updates to the post), and that my previous post on the interpretation of parentheses in segmental rules has so far resulted in no comment or e-mail at all? Or how about Paul de Lacy‘s first (and only) post on publishing primary data, which got only one response (Bob’s first post) and a much later weak follow-up by me? A year ago, John Kingston wrote to ask “what is laboratory phonology?” — and nobody answered. (John has since only posted once more; I don’t blame him, since it hasn’t proven to be very worthwhile.)

Aside from queries and announcements, I’ve tried several other things to make phonoloblog more academic-like — with varying degrees of success, mostly non-, which has discouraged me from doing much more in this vein. Three examples (all from July/August 2004): (1) a brief report on some of my research, (2) a critical review of a paper by David Odden (which I explicitly invited him to respond to, but I received no reply), and (3) a quick critique of John T. Jensen‘s new phonology textbook, disguised as a plea for a textbook to replace my all-time favorite K&K 1979 (this post got some pretty good comments, I think, unlike the others).

I’m sure a lot of this has to do with who’s going to bother reading this blog. When I first started, I contacted a bunch of phonologists I know to tell them about phonoloblog and to encourage their participation. I even set them up with user accounts from the get-go so that they didn’t have to write to request one. (That proved to be too time-consuming, so now I do it by request only.) I figured that the word would eventually spread on its own — and it has, to a significant extent — but I also expected more people to be interested in contributing. You’d never know that there are more than 50 registered users of phonoloblog: for a while it was the Bob-and-Eric show — Bob currently has 42 posts to my 81 — with far more occasional contributions from just a few others (for comparison, the next biggest contributors are Lisa Davidson with 8 posts and Kie Zuraw with 6 posts). And only a handful of people have written to request user accounts (which I willingly give to any phono-type person, or to anyone honestly interested in phonology).

And who has the time? Most of the people I invited to participate are in my generation, struggling assistant professor types who aren’t going to be submitting blog posts in their tenure files. I had thought that phonoloblog might be a good place to post those half-baked ideas that may or may not see their way to publication (or the classroom), but that hasn’t really happened. Not yet, anyway.

But it’s not only hope keeping me and the p-blog going. Sifting through some more mentions of phonoloblog on the web, I found two particularly encouraging ones. This one says: “OK, this — this is Internet porn for me. Pardon me [wiping drool from chin].” (That was written just under a year ago, so I can only hope we’ve continued to deliver.) This other one is the current colloquium schedule for UWM‘s Master of Arts in Foreign Language and Literature, where on May 6 Bert Vaux talked about “Using and misusing Google for primary linguistic research” — scroll down almost to the bottom of the linked page to read the abstract, where it says:

In the past two years or so, linguists have begun to take Google seriously as a tool for primary linguistic research. This is still most common in online linguistic publications such as the Language Log ( and Phonoloblog (, but is beginning to appear in refereed printed journals […]

Yep, that’s us — an “online linguistic publication” doing “primary linguistic research” with Google and other “tools” that we take “seriously”. Sheriff’s posse’s on our tail cause we’re in demand.

9 thoughts on “Should I be surprised?

  1. Bob Kennedy

    First, I say congrats on a year of phonoloblog! Second, I admit it’s hard for me to be objective with those 41 posts, but I think the blog has been more academic than you let on here. The (counter){bl/f}eeding posts, the diphthong exchange, and the underlying-flap debates were all discussions that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Also, John did get one response to his post, but not in comment format. My bad. Third, in keeping with the academic-blog theme, I’ve been planning a post on the history of the Onset Maximization Principle which now I suppose I have to finish. I’ll make it a p-blog celebration!

    Bob K

  2. Eric Bakovic

    Thanks for pointing out that reply you had to John’s post, Bob. I had totally forgotten about it. I *think* that if I allow comments on his post, your reply will (eventually?) appear as a trackback. I’ll try it and see if it works. Looking forward to your history of the OMP — more stuff like that is clearly welcome!

  3. argotnaut

    Happy birthday! I just got back from a semester in Germany, where I didn’t have a constant IV drip of Internet as I do at home. But now I’m fully prepared to resume reading and drooling. P.S. I vote for academic AND fun. (Isn’t that redundant?)

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  5. David (TEFL Smiler)

    Happy Belated! I’m afraid I haven’t been reading phonoloblog, as much of the content was too specialised for me, and I have lots of other stuff to read if I want to strain my brain! ;-) So am I to understand that you’re still stuck between on the one hand not being like a journal that can provide academic recognition for its contributors, and on the other hand being too academic for the casual blogger? In a way that’s good, though, as it means that the contributors are doing it for the love of the subject, rather than as a means to get ahead (which cynical me considers to be the norm for academia). Excellent design, by the way!

  6. Eric Bakovic

    Thanks for the comments, argotnaut and David. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Bob is basically right: efforts have been made to have “more academic” discussions on phonoloblog, some of which has been relatively successful. (I measure success in terms of the amount of discussion generated and progress made, not in terms of whether it turns some of our more “casual” readers off.)

    I suppose I naively expected more phonologists to feel like what argotnaut describes — academic = fun — and what David describes — love of the subject, regardless of pay-off — and have so far been just a little disappointed. Maybe it’s a matter of time, or maybe blogging is not the answer. We’ll see.

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  8. Brett Baker

    Hi Eric, never knew this thing existed. Looks damn interesting though. Can I join? Bob – I found this site because I was trawling Google trying to find the original reference for the Onset Maximisation Principle. Maybe you can just tell me and save me all this hoo-hah? Best regards, Brett.
    PS. Eric, me and Mark Harvey wrote a vowel harmony paper recently you might be interested in, published in Lingua (Vol 115/10: 1457-1474.). We cited your thesis of course.

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