Appreciating Our Languages as Writers


World Language Day is an event held by some universities in the U.S. to popularize knowledge of world cultures and languages among general public, particularly high school students (e.g. MSU, UNCO, etc). Being linguistics student myself, I couldn not help but join this endeavour. So this post is, in a sense, not specifically for writers/publishers, but for language users — which is all of us!

We all speak at least one language — in fact, more than half of the world’s population speak two or more languages (Tucker, 1999). Language is so ubiquitous that we can easily take it for granted, but it is also said to be one of the most central characteristics that set us off from other species on this planet. What is so special about human language? Why does it differ greatly from animal “languages”? Three properties make our language distinct from any other animal communication system: productivity, displacement, and arbitrariness.

If you have ever seen a parrot talk, you may have an intuitive objection toward what I have said: parrots can speak our language, and they can pick up new words like children always do; you can even find videos of parrots who have mastered cursing words on YouTube. However, as human beings, we are able to use language in a productive way that animals can not. Take the famous and well-trained parrot Einstein as an example; Einstein was able articulate some English words, but only the ones that he had been taught, and they would always be in the exact same order. Despite the fact that he could say “I love you”, he would never be able to produce “you love me” spontaneously — not even “you love I” which ignores the rule of accusative case in English. What three-year-old children can do with human language is far beyond a parrot’s capacity. Not only can they learn new words, but they can also order words into sentences that they have never articulated before, unveiling the infinite linguistic creativity of human language.

In addition to being productive, human language has another distinctive feature termed “displacement” — the ability to “time-travel” using our language. As a matter of fact, we can even talk about “back to future” scenarios and create new tenses accordingly, as has been done in a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, which demonstrates both productivity and displacement features of human language. We can also talk about the likelihood of an event: the probability of winning that type of lottery is one in six thousand; John may be able to catch the train if he runs faster. In contrast, animal communication is always about “here” and “now”, about the concrete and immediate environment that animals find themselves in. Even the most well-trained apes are not capable of having a conversation about the life of an emperor from ancient China, or discussing the imaginary human colonization on Mars in the future.

Last but not least, the relationship between word and meaning in human language is fundamentally arbitrary, whereas the nature of animal communication is mostly iconic. For example, in the bird community, many calls are highly suited for their own purposes: danger calls that warn of predators express aggression but are difficult to locate so as not to reveal the birds’ location; a flight call, on the other hand, is crisp and easy to locate by other group members, enabling the bird flock to stay together (Dobrovolsky, 2009). In this sense, animal communication is not arbitrary. However, human language is almost never directly related to its meaning, with only a few exceptions of onomatopoeic words. In no way does the sound or form of the word “cat” resemble the furry and adorable mammal with a short snout and retractile claws. If our language lacks arbitrariness, we would probably have referred to that animal as “meow” instead of “cat”. Similarly, the English suffix “-ed” carries no intrinsic meaning of past tense, but it has come to be used in such a way that all competent English speakers can identify its meaning in spite of the arbitrary nature.

Human language differs from other animal communication systems in terms of productivity, displacement, arbitrariness, and it consequently surpasses animal communication in terms of communicative versatility. Our language is what enables us to develop the complex and sophisticated social structure that we have today, and it is what eventually created literature, civilization, and humanity.


Tucker, G. Richard. (1999). A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Carnegie Mellon University

Dobrovolsky, M. (2009). Chapter 16: Animal Communication. In Archibald, J., & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: An Introduction (sixth edition). Pearson Education Canada.

Image Credit: Tom Design & Communications

Amazon, Ebooks, and Advertising


There has been a lot of mixed reactions toward Amazon putting advertisements on Kindle, especially when it was first launched in 2011. Today I wish to bring this issue back into the spotlight and invite you to re-examine it together.

In the article Why Advertising Could Become Amazon’s Knockout Punch attributes Kindle’s popularity partially to Amazon’s Special Offer, as it “lowered the price of the device” and presumably would not interfere your reading experience (which the advertisers find very reasonable and worthy of their money, of course).  Wikert then predicts that Amazon’s next step might be making money on in-book ads. He explains his theory by explaining Amazon’s wholesale model of publishing, and even goes on predicting that Amazon “would love to see ebook pricing approach zero” — which can be realised with in-book advertising strategy. All of this will eventually help Amazon “eliminate competitors” and obtain to market dominance”, as it has been doing in the past four years.

Jamie Lending takes a quite strong stance and describes Amazon Kindle Special Offers as a disgrace. “Unobtrusive” and “never in your reading experience”, says an Amazon spokesman in response to Lending’s complaint, but many readers still find the ad-free version irresistible despite the fact that they have to pay extra 30USD. While Amazon frames it as a Kindle user’s choice, Lending argues that the company takes away the “ultimate control” over ad exposure.

, in his article Ads on Kindle Fire HD tablets: Bad news or just business?, presents argument from both sides and comments that the subsidy of being able to control “is financial in nature”. Tofel’s opinion differs from Lending in the sense that he believes readers still retain some choice.

Is this really a question of whether consumers are willing to pay or whether they can afford it? And what exactly does it mean to publishers and authors?

Image Credit: Yahoo

Why I Heart the Bookternet

“At your average book publisher, 10 years ago was a time before the internet.” Rachel Fershleiser, who now works on Tumblr’s outreach team, helps authors and publishers reach new audiences. Rachel takes us through an evolution from reading and writing as entirely “solitary pursuits” to the development of online tools that enable collaboration and community. She shares great stories and innovations that connect readers and writers like never before, in a publishing industry that is becoming more democratized and accessible.

What has actually happened in the past ten years of publishing, with the emergence of digital community? Are books and the Internet really in opposition to each other? And what will the next ten years of publishing be like, with the technologies that are here to stay and more business models on the rise?

Video Credit: TEDxGowanus

Self-Publishing Reaches the Summit


 talks about his experience of participating in the 2014 New Generation Publishing’s annual Self-Publishing Summit in London, and in the article Self-Publishing Reaches the Summit, he features several themes of the new trends in self-publishing, which include “starting to self-regulate” and “emphasising on quality”.

Going beyond the dichotomous argument of “traditional publishing vs. self-publishing”, the 2014 conference shifted its focus to seeking possible routes to a successful writing career. Writers seemed to start reflecting on their self-publishing experiences (and each other’s sharing) with a critical eye, “acknowledging the huge potential challenges” and hopefully preparing themselves for the tough road ahead. When commenting on the quality of self-published books, Chalmers states,

It is ultimately that and nothing else that will provide self-published writers with long and successful careers.

Finally, authors at the conference generally expressed their concerns (and possibly anxiety) about marketing, to whom Chalmers suggested that they should not be too “hung up on social media” but should turn to physical copies and try to sell them through local bookshops instead. Sensing an increased degree of self-regulation and professionalism, Chalmers will not be the only one who feels positive about the future of self-publishing in the industry.

Image Credit: She Writes Press

Author Branding: Writing Partnership & Blogging


A blog named Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors is dedicated to introducing tips and advice on writing, publishing, and book promotion. I would like to briefly showcase three of their pieces on author branding: writing partnership, developing websites, and writing reviews.

Guidelines to Making a Writing Partnership Work: Some issues to note when you are co-authoring a publication, including picking the right partner, drafting a contract, assigning work, and sorting out arguments. An example contract is provided at the end of this article.

Developing Effective Websites: For author websites, it is important to define your site/blog clearly, and keep it consistent. Pay attention to not only the details of content but also the visual design, with a particular focus on readability and accessibility.

Writing Reviews: Tips on writing reviews which can work “in your favor as an author”, including commitment to honesty, structure of the review, development of a clear rating system, and frequency of review posts on your author website.

Image Credit: The Creative Penn

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose / The more things change, the more they stay the same

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