LINGUIST List 3.895

Thu 12 Nov 1992

Disc: Probabilistic Reasoning; Language Preservation

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  1. Margaret M. Fleck, 3.886 Probabilistic Reasoning
  2. Mark Turnbull, language preservation

Message 1: 3.886 Probabilistic Reasoning

Date: Wed, 11 Nov 1992 11:53:25 3.886 Probabilistic Reasoning
From: Margaret M. Fleck <>
Subject: 3.886 Probabilistic Reasoning

Don Ringe recently posted a detailed calculation for how many ways 6
objects can be fitted into 20 positions. Having recently taught this
material myself, let me add three remarks:

(1) There are canned formulas for these sorts of problems. The
standard advice is to look in statistics texts, but these are often
threatening to even to people from the "hard" sciences. Instead, look
at textbooks for undergraduate "Discrete Math" courses in computer
science (NOT similarly titled courses in math), preferably a text that
the CS types consider "gentle." These cover this ground in a more
accessible way. (Some CS majors have less math than many linguists.)

(2) Don may have sounded unsure of his method. Let me strengthen his
statement slightly: reasoning of the sort he gave is THE STANDARD
method of explaining (e.g. to students) why the formulas work. Or of
reconstructing a formula if you have forgotten it or can't remember
which one is correct.

(3) One reason why some statistical results may seem counter-intuitive
is that non-mathematicians typically underestimate the size of "x to
the yth power" or "x factorial = (x*(x-1)*(x-2)*...*2*1)." Remember,
a couple years back, the judge who imposed a fine on some stubborn
city council which doubled every day? In the end, another judge
capped the fine, because it only took a few days to get larger than
the entire city budget. The national TV news spent a long time
explaining the math, because they were so fascinated by how it could
get so big so fast, particularly when the first several powers of two
are so small.

Margaret Fleck
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Message 2: language preservation

Date: Thu, 12 Nov 1992 11:35:54 language preservation
From: Mark Turnbull <>
Subject: language preservation

REGARDING language preservation

Ken Hale of MIT recently spoke at the 17th Annual Boston University
Conference on Language Development on the subject of "Resisting Language
Loss: The Human Value of Local Languages." His main points included:

1. The current type of language loss is unprecedented.
2. The current rate of language loss is precipitous.
3. When a local language goes, cultural wealth goes with it.
4. A necessary precondition for the successful participation of linguists
in language preservation is the appropriate institutional support.

I would be happy to email a copy of my notes to anyone interested.

Mark Turnbull
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