Sunday, October 29, 2006

Being and Becoming

Here's a quick question before I say more about Buffy's speech, and I arbitrate between her and Daniel as they contend some points of my previous post.

Setup: On the Sycamore Review blog Anna alerts us to Jenny Diski's post over at Guardian Unlimited. Diski's post is all about "writing" as a career choice. I perused it. I'll peruse it later. One sentence caught my attention:

If you are literate (though it's getting to be a much less than universal ability) then, the thought goes, you can write a book.

Forget around the universe -- here on earth, was literacy a more generally assumed quality years ago than it is now? Is it actually "getting to be" less common than it was?

I honestly don't know the statistics. And I know that the definition of literacy has changed. But even if the interest in reading books is waning I'm guessing that it has not as much to do with literacy as it does with the easy pap of celebrity magazines.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Speaking Trippingly

Buffy has a funny habit of pronouncing words both carefully and "efficiently" at the same time (I'll give examples in my next post). I say efficiently because I'm trying to remain neutral on dialectal judgment. One of my professors likes to use the phrase "lazy pronunciation" to describe phonological alternations, but I don't like the implications of "lazy."

Steven Pinker makes an excellent case against the view that speech markers are the result of lazy articulation. In The Language Instinct he first points out that the same people "who are derided for dropping g's in Nothin' Doin' are likely to enunciate the vowels in pó-lice and acci-dént that pointy-headed intellectuals reduce to a neutral "uh" sound" (180).

Add to that the diphthongization of the vowels in "tin can" -- leading the words to become disyllabic instead of monosyllabic -- and how can we call it lazy when some words are pronounced with units that are more marked and others with a greater number of units. Northern [kæn] is more simple than [kæ:jǝn]. So the Southern American accent is doing more work -- quantitatively.

Pinker also makes the argument that assimilative articulation is completely natural. He draws on the analogy that when you reach for a saucer and a coffee cup you grab the edge closest to you and you put your hand in the grasping position before you touch the cup.

Let's look at another example. I'll make the analogy from walking through a door to the post-stress intervocalic voicing in American English [t] > [d,ɾ]. Imagine walking towards a glass door that you know opens by pushing. Imagine further that you are familiar with this door and know that it opens easily without a strong push. When you approach the door you see there is no one on the other side and you put your hand forwards to contact the door and push it aside while your stride continues. In my observation I have seen that even when the door opens towards the "walker" and even when a knob has to turn to unlatch the door there is still often one foot in motion so that the stride of the walker is barely interrupted -- at most it slows just a bit.

Is this continuous movement of the feet evidence of slovenly or slurred motion? Would we say that these people are slaughtering the beauty of graceful and careful walking? On the contrary. By anticipation and adaptation this shows balance and agility. How odd it would look if before every door the walker stopped -- put out a hand -- placed palm against handle -- closed fingers around handle -- pulled door -- stepped through door...etc.

And yet we argue this as the very virtue of a good speaker. When I say "water" with a strict [t] between the vowels I find myself feeling stilted and guilty. That interruption of voice is just as unnecessary as the flat-footed stop in front of a door. In my dialect there is a wonderful allophone corresponding the voiceless and voiced alveolar stop: the alveolar 'tap' or 'flap.' This is not a simple and easy phone. It's a very quick and light lingual articulation. It requires great precision to avoid sounding like the lateral [l] or the voiced fricative usually represented orthographically as 'z' or 'zh'. To argue that this allophone is a product of laziness is like arguing that a running-back is lazy because he runs around a linebacker instead of walking right up to him and trying to push him over.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

I Don't Think He'll Keep It Down

Here's an odd strategy for keeping teenagers quiet.

According to the Associated Press a woman who thought a 14 year old boy was too loud when playing basketball decided to encourage discourage his noise by standing on her sundeck and dropping her clothes. He ran into the house to tell his parents.

The linguistic concern here is that the law regarding indecent exposure refers to the perpetrator as one who "exposes his person." So the judge threw out the case. The prosecution argues that elsewhere in California state law is the claim "words used in the masculine gender include the feminine and neuter" so this indecency law is not gender specific and the woman should be prosecuted.

Is it possible that the masculine includes the "feminine" and "neuter?" Would it be more accurate to say that grammatically masculine words may also refer to people or objects that are not male?

But I lean towards the prosecution. There is some ambiguity in the wording of the law. It certainly would be gender exclusive if instead of "his person" it refered to "his manhood." And without regard to gender isn't "his person" kind of vague anyway? If I have a coat on my "person" I can still be wearing it as I should -- on my back and shoulders right?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

There's no Lyon in Baseball!

I know, I know -- It's "Lyons."

So if translating perceived attitudes into unattested linguistic patterns is to "linguify" then what do we call translating a linguistic behaviour into a claim about attitude? I'm not talking about translating a word into its classical semantic components - denotative and connotative. I'm talking about reading a decision about grammar as a comment on culture. Let's get past the obvious argument that language is a cultural phenomenon and it reveals much about the user. Let's look specifically at the recent firing of Steve Lyons for on air comments that have been called "racially insensitive" (Janie McCauley - AP) and "ethnically inappropriate" (Paul J. Gough - Hollywood Reporter).

According to McCauley Lyons was commenting on Lou Piniella's heritage. Gough doesn't identify any agenda in Lyons' speech. Here are some slices of the mini-corpus being autopsied.

Piniella compared the likelihood of an average player repeating a quality performance to "finding a wallet on a Friday night and looking for one on Sunday and Monday, too." He then described exceptional play as "en fuego" and poor play "frio." The stories I found disagreed about which players Piniella was describing.

Lyons, who apparently doesn't speak much Spanish, said that Piniella was "habla-ing Español" and added "I still can't find my wallet." He further said "I don't understand him, and I don't want to sit too close to him now."

Of his ungrammatical Spanish McCauley says Lyons was "butchering the conjugation for the word 'to speak'." Is it even more disrespectful if Lyons pronounced the "h"? G-d forbid that he go so far as to add a disrespectful English pronunciation to his insensitive English morphology. What's next? Racist syntax?

Well sort of.

Lyons put a joke in the wrong spot. Piniella made a common but weak analogy from athletic performance to material serendipity and then started speaking a language other than English for some vague effect -- a practice canonized by those linguistic-prophet sportscasters at ESPN.

I'm guessing that the controversy stems from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a linguistic observation and jocular utterance. Or the merging of them with "habla-ing." The anger - or remedial action - directed at his comment must come from some belief that a comment about language (in the form of his Spanglish word) right next to a comment about a stolen wallet equals his equation of an ethnicity with a proclivity to steal.

The plot has its antecedent action as well. Lyons has a history of saying silly things that might show disrespect. That history includes questioning one player's commitment to Jewish traditions, commenting on an unfamiliar sight-aid he noticed in the crowd, and claiming that English was another player's second language.

How dare he mention L2 in a beisbol game?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

If You Think A You Must Say B.

Geoffrey Pullum has an ongoing campaign over at Language Log to defend his claims regarding what he calls "linguification." He provides this example of the rhetorical device, then he comments on it.

It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'.

Instead of talking about mainstream media attitudes, [Alexis Long] linguified the claim, constructing a new statement about obligatory word adjacency in running text.

Apparently a lot of journalists are deciding to make observations about language that they believe imply something about cultural values. Mr Pullum has heard all the defences of this technique. Too many people have written to him trying to explain that this is just a figure of speech and it's a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it shouldn't be taken literally and it's often intended to be humorous. And Pullum is fed up.

What I wanted to draw attention to was simply the strange practice of publishing linguified claims: for example, saying the name X is invariably followed by the phrase Y when it isn't, or saying X is always accompanied by the qualifier Y when it isn't, and so on and so on. Why linguify? I have no idea. It just doesn't look like a good writing idea to me.

I agree. One of my old pet peeves is the snowclone "I never thought I'd hear _X_ and _Y_ uttered in the same sentence." This one makes no sense considering how easy it is to construct a sentence that reasonably uses two terms that no one thought would ever be related. But what's worse is that the cookie cutter phrase often fills the blanks with two things that are very closely related through controversy. It is common to hear this form generate a sentence like the following:

I never thought I'd hear "Pope" and "Ozzy" in the same sentence.

Really? Is it so hard to imagine that a religious leader might have an opinion about the prince of darkness? Or that there might be some completely legitimate reason to mention the Pope and heavy metal music in the same sentence?

A simple Google search for the exact phrases "thought I'd hear" and "same sentence" calls up 205 results. That's quite a few considering the phrases have to be exact. Change the first exact phrase to "thought I would hear" and you get another 104 sentences. Change it again to "thought I'd read" and you get another 206 results. Let's get rid of the whole first phrase. I searched for just the exact phrase "used in the same sentence" and I got 105,000 results. Not all of them were examples of the linguifi-clone, but seven out of the first ten results were using the formula in question. The rest were about other linguistic issues.

I thought Mr Pullum's concerns would be easy to relay. I told Buffy about it. And when I borrowed one of Pullums examples, quoting a writer who says that the phrase "spiraling costs...has virtually become a prefix for the words 'health care'" she balked. "But it's a figure of speech" she said. "Writers can do what they want" she said. "It's not like they're actually thinking that this is happening in the language..." and I nod remembering that she really doesn't like to make sweeping dismissals of anything. But she does come through for me when she offers, unprompted, that anything that's overused becomes weak. "If the phrase 'virtually a prefix' becomes too common" she says, "then it becomes a lame cliche."

Seeing my chance I risk the question "And if linguification in general becomes too common you're saying its a bad writing device?" She realizes what I'm doing. She shrugs her shoulders and says "yeah sure."

Mr Pullum is a close observer of language formulae. He notices usages that don't stray far from the stencil. And some of those stencils don't show much promise for encouraging creativity or generating fertile ideas.

I believe the following is his best example. After quoting Daniel Gilbert:

"Movies, theater, parties, travel — those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce."

he says

How's that again? Kids actually damage the record of phonological information in your mental lexicon? Sounds even worse than the worst that parents had previously suspected...

He takes specific issue with the habit of turning a valid observation "into a claim about language that is wildly and demonstrably false." Can we at least agree just because something is a figure of speech it isn't automatically good writing?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Webster Slaughters Me.

More information on my too quick typing. Mr. Kensuke Nanjo Associate Professor of Phonetics, St. Andrew's University kindly forwarded to me his message to John Wells, in which message he writes

I've read your October 9 blog and found Michael says "What surprises me is the unanimity with which descriptive dictionaries fail to report this common American form."But the pronunciation /eSu:/ (the stress is put on the second syllable) of "eschew" is recorded as the first variant in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003). /ISu:/ is the second. Since I checked this dictionary when I transcribed "eschew", both /eSu:/ and /ISu:/ have also been recorded as the first and second American variants respectively in my forthcoming Taishukan's Genius English-Japanese Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Mr Wells' responds, after finding the forms in question plus the possible pronunciation /eˈskjuː/:

I wonder what the evidence for this is. To be honest, it looks to me like an uncertain lexicographer covering every possible spelling pronunciation.

I've said before that I don't like Merriam-Webster. And it's unfair because they don't necessarily get things wrong -- I probably just haven't liked the implications of some of their categorisations and organization. (Had I used the plural to keep a true parallel construction the meaning of that sentence would change inappropriately.) But now I can't remember any solid complaints other than the thin etymology and thinner word history I used to find in the collegiate editions. They are often the odd dictionary, reporting forms and pronunciations that are not found in other sources. And I must see that as a virtue. Having moved away from seeing a good dictionary as proof of correctness, and towards it as a source of keen observation, this avant status wins my admiration -- as long as it's not abused.

With a remarkable turnaround time the M-W pronunciation editor, Joshua Guenter, writes to Mr Wells:

While I don't claim to be any more certain than any other lexicographer, I can tell you that the pronunciation of "eschew" as /ɛ'skju:/ in our Collegiate Dictionary is based purely on citations. All of these citations are from the United States. We also have some citations for the pronunciation /ɛ'sju:/, but not enough to warrant its inclusion in any of our dictionaries.

He adds after some exchanges

We have an enormous collection of data on 3x5 slips of paper. I don't know how many of these we have, but it must be in the millions. They date back to the 19th century, though the ones dealing with pronunciation mostly started with Edward Artin in the 1940s. Most of the editors spend time "reading and marking" magazines, newspapers, etc., for data. The pronunciation editors write down examples of speech from TV, radio, speeches, conversation, etc. This is what we base everything in our dictionaries on.

Mr Wells offers a starkly positive endorsement to the people working at M-W:

It confirms the opinion I had already formed: that in the absence of any more recent dedicated pronunciation dictionary for AmE than Kenyon & Knott (1953, now hopelessly outdated) the best source of information on word pronunciation in American English is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. And it's the only free on-line dictionary that offers you sound clips.

[btw update: Merriam-Webster is not the only free online dictionary that offers sound clips., which provides an online American Heritage 4th edition also offers a .wav file for pronunciation.]

I'm embarrassed that I did not take the time to look up M-W's entry for the word. It's going on my resources panel in the sidebar. For a few day's I will highlight it. I'm offering my hand with head bowed. In fact I'm going back to one of my early posts and crossing out one sentence. (If you read my old post please note that I'm not trying to say that the one plural form is incorrect -- rather that the probable reasoning for the form is based on incorrect historical information. And a shining instance of snobbery ends up backfiring on the shaky brandisher.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Eschew, Fly, Eschew.

A few days ago on his phonetic blog John Wells of University College London wrote about eschew:

Sometimes in reading we come across an unfamiliar word, a word that we have never heard pronounced. Native speakers and foreign learners alike, we may be tempted — rather than looking it up in a dictionary — not only to infer its meaning from the context but also to infer its pronunciation. But English spelling, as we all know, is not necessarily a sufficient guide to pronunciation, and we risk making a fool of ourselves.

A few days ago I heard a BBC announcer say that someone /ɪˈʃuːd/ violence. This was not a mishearing or mis-stressing of issued, but meant to be the rather rare word eschewed. Those familiar with the word eschew pronounce it /ɪsˈtʃuː/ (or /es-/). All published dictionaries agree that that’s the way it’s said. The announcer ought to have sought advice. But perhaps she didn’t have the script in advance, and had to make an instantaneous guess. Unfortunately she got it wrong.

I sent an e-mail his way observing that the pronunciation he heard on the air is common in American English -- at least in the midwest.

He did me the scary favour of posting my missive on his web log. He provides a gentle redress to a few of my mistakes. My use of "became/become" is a bad habit that I'm trying to break. My glib suggestion that eschew might have been influenced by association with shoo is cute at best and most likely naive.

My coltish ideas continue to reveal my abecedarianism.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There's No-tre in English. Is there?

I remember my grandmother calling me "My-cole." It wasn't the diphthongised 'o' of American broadcasting pronunciation. It was more like the Minnesotan/North Dakotan 'o' that I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The 'o' in forever. The 'o' in more not mower. The 'o' in torrid but not token.

What I always found strange was that she needed that vowel in there. I recognized that she spoke with a Mexican accent (actually she spoke only Spanish) but I didn't realize that she lacked the schwa in her inventory. I thought she should have been saying "my cull." Now I realized that even in English that wasn't an accurate pronunciation. I had no idea then that in English an 'l' could be the nucleus of its own syllable. My first phonology professor spoke with a slight accent that didn't syllabify 'r' -- she would say 'occur' with a stressed middle vowel after the [k]. It sounded like "a color" without [l]. I would transcribe it [əkˈʌɹ] -- cf my own pronunciation [əkˈɹ̩]. (So does this mean that curdle girdle further learner and perhaps even curtain are pronounced with no vowel sounds?)

So my grandmother didn't have any sound like a syllabic [l] to use. So she revealed a default vowel for epenthesis -- at least before an [l]. But I have to do a little research to see if the default vowel before an 'r' is the same. My prediction is that it would be mid front [ɛ] - or [e].1

The issue of phonetic translation between languages with different inventories fascinates me. As a child I was so confused when I saw the name shroeder and heard it pronounced ['ʃɹeɾəɹ] rhyming with raider (yes: i realize the schwa might not be necessary if we syllabify the 'r'). Then I heard someone else pronounce the name as if it rhymed with loader. What was going on? So when I learned about the œ sound -- like an [ɛ] with rounded lips -- I figured that some English ears learned to value the rounded articulation and chose the similar available English rounded vowel; and others simply gave weight to the place features and discarded the lip rounding to use the available unrounded English vowel. Why the difference in choice by the English speakers? I don't know. I'll look it up or await any insight offered.

After I had learned about the mid front rounded vowel I learned about the Goethe. But of course all the high schoolers around me were saying "gertuh" while trying hard to still sound smart. So I had one hell of a time finding his name listed anywhere. I looked for Gerta Gurta Gurte Ghertah and probably even ventured as far as Garta. When I decided to look under "Faust" (I was a slow problem solver) I saw the strange and frustrating reason. Then I developed a vague sense of what happened when I finally heard someone pronounce the name correctly.2

For some time I thought it might be the effect of mishearing and assuming an accent. Maybe it was common to hear this name in a lofty conversation -- and since we Americans all know that intelligence comes across as a British accent we heard the word as a dropped [ɹ].

Or maybe it was mere phonetic assumption. The rounding of the mid front vowel might have been interpreted as the commonly rounded 'r'. If heard as a syllabic 'r' we get "gerda" or "gert".

Considering the pronunciation [gøːtə] I'm thinking it was a combination of these factors. The lengthened quality of the vowel (indicated by the 'ː') makes me think a dropped 'r' was assumed. And this was only supported by the sound of a mid front rounded vowel [ø, œ]that was very close to a rounded alveolar approximate [ɹ].

Last week I was listening to the local sportcaster covering the Notre Dame college football game. He called the school "Norter Dame." This reminds me of the controversial pronunciation of "Favre." I've heard people blame Brett Favre for not correcting the pronunciation and I've read opinions that it's all because Americans are uneducated and don't know how to speak any language other than their own. The word final French 'r' after a consonant is more like a hard English 'h' than 'r'. I believe after a voiceless consonant like [t] it's pronounced without voicing. This of course will confuse an English ear. I have no idea if this might lead to metathesis (ab -> ba).

My guess is that this is another instance of effect of a lengthened vowel. Pronunciations of Favre differ here in the states. Some spell it with an accent over the 'e' and say it "fa vray" - some say it exactly like "favour." Some say only Fahv or Fob (rhyme - glob). Brett's father Irv might be an important factor here. It could be assimilation from the '-rv' of his first name to his last name. A pure guess. I'm willing to trade.

I have heard it demanded angrily that the pronunciation "Noter" is ridiculous. There's no reason to think however that "Notra" is any better. They're both understandable English approximations of the French. In fact if we transcribe the second syllable of "Noter" as a syllabic 'r' it follows the DEP-IO constraint that "Notra" violates by adding a vowel. In that limited sense it's preferable to "Notra". But both are fine. What do the critics suggest? English has no [tʀ]. Let's remember that languages are allowed to be different. And borrowing doesn't require absolute replication. When we try to sound too much like the other language we end up stumbling in the articulation and producing an innaccurate and often laughable result -- like wearing berets and using cigarette holders in futile attempt to be more authentically French.

1. To my ear the Spanish mid front vowel is closer to the lax [ɛ] than the tense [e]. This is only important when describing the sound to speakers of English. There is evidence in Spanish that [e] is distinct from [ei] though it's very limited. the spellings "veinte" and "treinta" support a phonemic difference but not by immediate example. Veinte might be minimally paired with vente -- a 2nd person reflexive form of "come." For the sake of simplicity the English [e] is illustrated with examples like 'bake' 'pale' and 'tame' -- but it would be more accurate to use words like 'pair' or perhaps 'chaos'.

2. How did I figure it was correct? Did I just hear a new pronunciation and recognise that since it was a foreign sound it must be correct because no one would use an incorrect foreign sound when speaking English? That's faulty thinking.