Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On the Midwest: Looks like the I's have it.

Here are the numbers with the states listed in descending order. Most votes to fewest. The first number listed is the total number of votes. The second number is the percentage of total respondents who voted for each state.

To the question "Which of the following do you consider Midwestern American states" the respondents voted the following.


Iowa---------84 (93%)
Illinois-----79 (87%)
Indiana------77 (85%)
Ohio---------68 (75%)
Wisconsin----67 (74%)
Minnesota----65 (72%)
Michigan-----63 (70%)
Missouri-----58 (64%)
Kansas-------57 (63%)
Nebraska-----54 (60%)
S Dakota-----37 (41%)
N Dakota-----34 (37%)
Pennsylvania--2 (2%)

Here's how I chose to represent those numbers.

I altered the hue value by one click for each percentage point. But instead of graphing each vote as the percentage of total possible votes (90) I represented the highest actual vote count (84) as 100% and the other totals as a percentage of that. It yielded a nice yes/no range from green to red with just a bit more contrast.

I chose all those states that I thought likely to receive votes. In the minute that it took me to choose the states for this poll it seemed to me very unlikely that anyone would choose Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, West Virginia etc. My bias is now clear. My mind is now changed.

But there is an obvious core to the Midwest elected here. The three state swath of Indiana Illinois and Iowa has the support of 85 to 93 percent of total voters. The rest of the Big Ten states look to complete the penumbra (Except of course that latecomer Pennsylvania).

I'm not surprised that PA only go two votes. Some people argued that because it has a coast it cannot possibly be considered a part of the Midwest. Well sure. If you think the Delaware River bank is a coast. But I get the point. It's too far east. Still I am surprised that the drop-off from a Ohio to Pennsylvania is so steep.

The same goes for the Dakotas. They're the only states (other than PA) that got a pass from fewer than 50 percent of the voters. Possible reasons? Maybe "North" and "South" detract from the Midwestern association. Obviously their place in the corner defines them as the farthest edges. But it can't be pure northernness because Minnesota did well. Perhaps the lack of a familiar mid-sized typical city pulls out any 'central states' connotation that the Midwest seems to have. Fargo is the biggest city in ND. Perhaps it has too much "odd" character for the rest of the voters. It feels like another world to me at least. And I lived only 2.5 hours away.

Strange: Iowa the most commonly tagged state (in this poll) but it's not central to the core: it sits on the hard edge. It received the most votes while the abutting Dakotas were shunned.

I'm mostly surprised that no state was considered Midwestern by every voter. I have long thought of Chicago as the center of the Midwest and I expected that Illinois would have gotten every vote. My brother in law volunteered the same view. 13% of the voters don't think of Illinois as Midwestern.

What I would do differently given the opportunity and means:

  • I would ask all respondents to give their home state
    • I would ask all respondents to label their location

  • I would ask for a prose identification of "Midwestern"

  • I would ask each respondent to identify 'major' regions in the country

  • I would list every state to see how far the region spreads

  • I would ask some to identify by looking at a map and some to identify from one of two written lists
    1. I would organize one list alphabetically

    2. I would organize another list geographically

If I had the data I would like to see what the most common groupings are. How much does the size of the region vary? Do people in the Midwest choose fewer states than people outside the Midwest choose? I would guess they (/we) do.

Based on the 'slope' of the votes I make the following guesses regarding other states' numbers. Oklahoma would have gotten close to the Dakotas' level of votes. Kentucky might have gotten a few and Tennessee would have dropped quickly. West Virginia would be about like PA. Maybe 1 vote. Arkansas would be just a tiny bit higher than that. Maybe half a dozen votes. Maybe six. States as far west as Colorado and Arizona would have gotten votes because "Midwestern" is after all "western."

I'm always interested in the emotional direction this discussion often takes. People who see themselves as Midwesterners are often insulted when their state isn't included in a list. And there are some people who take offense if certain states are included. As if some states have no right to be on the list.

There are two basic approaches to the definition. The first is a descriptive approach. From this view the Midwest ranges between 'middle/ just-flirting-with-the-west' -- including the more central states assumed in this poll; and 'middle of the west' -- including such states as Colorado Wyoming and Idaho. Some rely on time zones and exclude any state outside the Central time zone.

The second approach is a purely lexical one. The Midwest is a construct and different groups define it without regard for actual relative geography. Some rely on historical categorization -- noting that the region used to be a middle western region. Some just piggyback their categorization on something like the Big Ten conference or an otherwise unattributed boundary. Often based on perceived culture.

Different regions sometimes conflict and sometimes overlap with each other. Several people have told me they refuse to allow a state to be both a Midwestern and Great Plains state. Some split the Great Plains into Northern and Dustbowl states. The Rocky Mountain states are easy to define. Some are willing to label several states in all these regions as Midwestern states. Here in the Michigan/Indiana region I get a lot of argument against the Dakotas as Midwestern. "Those are the plains" I keep hearing. In North Dakota almost everyone felt they were in a Midwestern state. And many of them thought of Michigan as an eastern state. Many of my students in North Dakota distinguished and contrasted the Midwest from the Great Lakes while here in Michigan the Great Lakes are often used to define the Midwest.

The order of items in the questionnaire was as follows. It follows a rough path from the east to northwest then south.

North Dakota
South Dakota

Long headline sends daft linguist into parsing fit

AP headline:

Embarrassing record spurs Redskins hope to improve takeaways

Is "Redskins" the object of "spurs"? It can't be because the verb "hope" right after a noun puts "Redskins" two incompatible roles.

Unless "hope" isn't a verb. So if "hope" is a noun we reanalyze "Redskins" as a modifying possessive because it is their hope. But then where's the apostrophe? So it's not possessive. It's just a hope that is characterized as pertaining to the team. Maybe a neutralized form that with other nouns could take an -an or -ian ending. American hope. Canadian hope. Newtonian hope.

The -an/-ian ending isn't necessary with the names of sports teams. Yankee fever. Celtic pride. Red Wing championship.

But we commonly see the plural form made singular in such cases. Is there something wrong with "Redskin hope"?

And why is "hope" necessary? Maybe Embarrassing record spurs Redskins to improve takeaways implies that they succeeded. And at this point we have no reason to think they will succeed. They only hope to.

Obviously keeping the headline short was not the primary constraint. They violated that one right off the bat. I would have though fatally but...no. It almost looks like they wanted a long headline. So how about

Embarrassed by record Redskins look to improve takeaways
Embarrassed Redskins hope to improve takeaways next season

Monday, July 30, 2007

Poll closes

Aaaaand scene!

I have all the numbers for the post and I'm playing around with visual representations on a map.

I was tempted to leave the poll open a little longer to gather more votes but the slope looked to be stable.

I'll comment on the results presently/directly/soon in a post. There were obvious weaknesses in the format/medium of the question and they're worth discussing. Thanks for your input.

If you have any more commentary on the issue of the Midwest region and its boundaries the comment board is always open.

A special thank you to the fine bloggers at polyglot conspiracy and Mr. Verb and mike's web log for the links to the poll. We bloggers are constantly waving our arms and saying "Look at me! Hey! Look at me!" It's nice when occasionally someone else points at me and says "Look at him."

Schtupp in the name of love

I was visiting with a former professor this weekend. She's not a linguist but she is very well acquainted with IPA transcription. She frequently teaches communications and speech and she often incorporates units on transcribing speech.

We were speaking of aural "blind spots" and common mistakes of novice scribes. Some vowels are very difficult to differentiate such as the [a]/[ɔ] distinction (especially for the cot/caught mergers that have overrun her campus) and some spelling conventions are difficult to put aside (such as the 'g' that some students try to put after every [ŋ]).

She also noted an emerging allophone in the speech of some students. She has noticed a trend towards a post-alveolar voiceless fricative [ʃ] before [t]. Right after mentioning this the conversation was interrupted and I was left to sit in the corner muttering [ʃt ʃt ʃt...] to myself. Such moments are common.

Buffy will say to me "you never listen to what I'm saying" and I fade into a trance. My mantra [vɻlɪsn̩ vɻlɨsɨn vɻləsən...]

Several minutes later (perhaps about an hour) I approached my former professor (now friend) and asked her if there was any specific environment in which she noticed this post-alveolar. My guess was that it would not occur in the words steep stick or stop but it would show up in strength string and strange because of the following retroflex.

An interesting co-occurrence of features is the labialization (lip rounding) of the initial approximant [ɹ] even before front vowels and the similar labialisation of initial [ʃ]. Is it possible that the concurrent labial feature as could influence a non-labialized phoneme [s] to resemble a very similar phoneme [ʃ] that does take lip-rounding.

She wasn't sure of a more specific environment but she did promise to listen for it. I don't remember seeing this alternation mentioned but I'll be listening for it very intently now. I really doubt that it's at all related to the pre-consonantal palatalization that we sometimes see in strudel and which is increasingly present in smorgasboard.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

* What's the difference between an astronaut and a lawyer?

Best headline I've seen in a while:

Houston, We Have a Drinking Problem

This changes everything for me. Years ago I got a book for Christmas entitled How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space? Apparently the answer is 'every 8 minutes.'

*A lawyer is required to pass the bar.

Sock it to me

I'm notoriously loath to match my socks. Almost everyone that knows me knows this about me. And I love fancy socks. So my socks are always calling attention to their mismatched role. Before I was married everyone told me I needed a wife to match them for me. First of all that's sexist. Why should I expect my wife to do it if I wouldn't do it myself? Secondly it's just not worth the effort because I own so many socks and most of my favourite socks have lost their partner. So it saves me money too. If I lose one sock with ducks on it it doesn't matter because those go perfectly with my purple and green argyle sock.

Fade out...

...fade in

"Sagehen" posted several days ago on ADS-L a suggestion regarding some problematic axioms.

If "proof" is thought of as a process, a test, and not just as the completed demonstration, through testing, of the truth of something, odd-seeming expressions like..."the exception that proves the rule" become sensible. ..."the exception that tests the rule."

It might work. That phrase has puzzled me for a long time. Why would any exception prove that a rule is being applied? If the rule is that a train passes every hour on the hour why would the one hour when the train fails to go through prove the rule?

Or perhaps (and this feels like a stretch the rule is that the train passes by only on the hour and since the exception is every other part of the hour that's what creates the rule. Follow? The train flies by on the hour. So at 12:10 there's no train. At 12:23--no train. At 12:49...got the point? And at 1:00 there's a train and we now have our rule.

Well it's inelegant so I won't try to sell it.

Laurence Horn is familiar with the question and offers some insight on a follow-up post to the list. He provides an explanation by Michael Quinion who writes

It's not a false sense of 'proof' that causes the problem, but 'exception'. We think of it as meaning some case that doesn't follow the rule, whereas the original sense was of someone or something that is being granted permission not to follow a rule that otherwise applies. The true origin of the phrase lies in a medieval Latin legal principle: 'exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis', which may be translated as 'the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted'.

Let us say that you drive down a street somewhere and find a notice which says 'Parking prohibited on Sundays'. You may reasonably infer from this that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week. A sign on a museum door which says 'Entry free today' leads logically to the implication that entry is not free on other days (unless it's a marketing ploy like the never-ending sales that some stores have, but let's not get sidetracked). H W Fowler gave an example from his wartime experience: 'Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight until 11pm', which implies a rule that in other cases men must be in barracks before that time. So, in its strict sense, the principle is arguing that the existence of an allowed exception to a rule reaffirms the existence of the rule.

As I read it that's a more elegant explanation of my little train story. An easier sell.

How else might this phrase work?

Fade out...

...fade in

People have trouble believing me when I tell them that I don't purposefully mis-match my socks. I just don't match them once they're out of the wash and when I grab them from the drawer (or the basket that they're almost always still sitting in) I put on the first two that I pick up. It's completely random.

"Yeah but if it was a matching pair wouldn't you put one of them down?" they ask.

"No" I say. "If they match that's the exception that proves the rule."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why I otter!

Let's stick with regional issues. A friend recently sent a note saying

I want to know if you've heard of any other names for the ice treat I'm eating in my profile picture.

What kind of ice treat is she eating you ask? Well...Freeze Pops or Freezie Pops or Freezer Pops or Flav-Or-Ice or Mr Freezie or Mr Freeze or Otter Pops. (There is an unfortunate polysemy with one of those.)

I had never heard Otter Pops. It was provided by one of our West Coast representatives. I assume the playfulness of otters has something to do with the name. You know--how they play around in the water like little kids do in the summer. Running up and down the Slip 'n Slide. Taking breaks to enjoy their regionally named flavored ice treat.

Any other suggestions for why they're named so? Any other names you've heard of?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Senate applies new interrogation techniques

Today in a very short report for NPR about Alberto Gonzales' latest stand before a Senate Panel, contributor Dina Temple-Raston said that the senators "battered him literally for hours."

First: Literally does not have to mean absolutely literally. It can be a fuzzy and jagged line between metaphorical and literal usage of any word. It's probably more like a dotted line.

Next: Literally in this quote is surely referring to the hours he had to endure. It is not modifying the method of attack. And that's a grammatical and absolutely literal reading.

Penultimate: It's still pretty funny.

Last: Perhaps it would have been better to say that they "battered him for literally hours." But it would not be necessary and certainly not "more" correct.

The Midwest poll

(See the results are here.)

I'm putting this post up to invite commentary on the poll about midwestern states. I ask that you first submit your votes then put any commentary here.

I won't comment for now as I'm trying to be mere observer. But please share all opinions openly.

GalloPinto has offered the first bit of frustration because of Kansas' apparent marginalization. "Why doesn't anyone think that Kansas is in the Midwest?????????" she demands.

The owl vowels

Some days I step into the cyber office and the flurry of activity is obvious. Footprints from all over the world are leading up to my doorstep.

One of the nice things about putting up a blog is the freedom to be responsive to readers. One of the nice thing about good statistics software is the insight it gives us into what readers/visitors are wanting to know. Several months ago I put up a list of the ADS Word of the Year finalists. Web searches for "plutoed" and "Cambodian accessory" had all sorts of strangers standing in my foyer.

Another spike was in response to the mousetrap stunt that still baffles me.

The latest spike has to do with the IPA transcription of the owl diphthong.

Here's an answer: I transcribe owl as either [aʊl] or [awl].

Here's a question: Why is this such a popular search term right now? Are students around the world all cheating on the same final exam? Did the Democratic debate pose this as one of its questions? Did Alex Trebek ask this during Teen Week?

Here's some more information: the one we should ask about diphthongs is John Wells. He has written about them before and even in response to some of my questions. A while back I asked him why he prefers the two vowel transcription rather than /ow/ or /oʷ/. He wrote on his blog

I use the two-vowel-symbol notation for English diphthongs because the diphthongs behave as single indivisible units. A vowel-plus-glide notation would imply the identification of the first part of the diphthong with one of the simple (non-diphthong) vowels. If the nucleus of English goat is taken as /Vw/, what is the /V/? It could be (BrE) /ɜː/, the vowel of bird, or /ɔː/ the vowel of thought, or /ɒ/ the vowel of lot, or /ʌ/ the vowel of strut, or /ə/ a schwa. In this context there is no phonemic contrast between these vowels, and no strong reason to choose one solution over the other. By treating the diphthong as indivisible we avoid facing this false choice. (This concerns its phonological analysis. We still have to choose a notation for it in transcription.)

He further explains that the superscript W is not a possible notation of the /o/ because it indicates labialization and the vowel is already labialized.

Although I saw the superscript notation used by my phonology II professor, I like Mr Wells' correction enough to discard the convention.

It's also worth noting that the symbol is a tool. Symbols are not facts and in phonology sometimes they don't even represent facts. They represent analyses of the facts. It's a fine line but an important one.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Where the women are strong

Mr Verb has posted on the representation of Minnesota Dialect in the Cohen brothers' film Fargo. He does a very nice job describing the features as heard in the film comparing them to the features as they occur in the actual dialect. Go read it.

It reminded me of my post from last September about Buffy's pre-velar raising. Dialectal phonological variation is one of my favorite linguistic areas. To learn a little more about the various AmE dialects take a look also at a couple of sites that I've added to my Resources link list.

Linguists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing a lot of research on the "Skonnie" dialect and they've put up a website providing a lot of information.

More generally--the Harvard Dialect Survey has produced some fascinating dot maps from its huge lot of data.

Now go watch Fargo. It's my favourite film by the Cohen brothers. It's disturbing. It's hilarious. It's ridiculous. It's heartwarming.

Or just go listen to some Garrison Keillor. He paints a picture of Minnesota true to all of those qualities without subjecting us to a wood-chipper scene.

I see that the Harvard survey site isn't loading up. The link is correct and it was working fine just a couple of days ago. We'll wait a while and see what's up.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let him that is without syntax...

I'm not sure how this works with blog etiquette. I've been following what Mr. Verb has been saying lately about peevologists and I've been thinking about prescriptivism more broadly lately. I left a comment on one of his posts and I realized that this is becoming my cherished issue lately. I believe deeply in what I said (notice how important that "in" is to the statement") so I'm going to include it in this post with some minor changes. I ask you to pardon me for recycling.

According to Mr. Verb peevologist was coined by The Word's Jan Freeman. It is now an emerging term for those to whom we've long given other labels. Grammar Nazis, Grammar Police, Language Mavens (who are little more than picky pundits)...These are the people who try to make you believe that your natural and comfortable and best-known spoken language is false language--broken language--lazy and stubborn and destructive. The heaviest billy-clubs are swung by army of elitists who believe they can judge you into submission.

Vee haf vays of making you talk correctly.

What label works best for these people? There are some who work to teach and convince. We'll call them English teachers. They don't often complain about usage but they point out their students' mistakes. They usually work to indoctrinate their students into a new pattern of writing. The ambitious ones look to change their students' speech.

But there are others who simply like to complain. I would argue that they like being part of an remnant that uses 'correct' language and they rarely suggest methods by which a uniform change in speech can be accomplished. They call attention to those forms that annoy them and they simply call them bad and tell us what they prefer. Sometimes they try to support their views by logic or efficiency. But they don't value instruction. They believe a word to the wise is sufficient--which of course makes all who persist 'unwise.' How convenient. They don't care how language--real language--works.

I like that peevologist captures the intention of 'these people' to dwell on their peeves and constantly talk about them.

Now I start feeling like a nag when I call attention to claims about usage that disagree with me. And when any fact is asserted that I haven't accepted I feel an odd duty to my belief to speak up. Human nature. And don't their arguments deserve as as much attention as mine?

The distinction as I see it is in the object of intended influence. I hope to share (defend?) the view of language as a system that always has been and always will be dynamic. The view. I'm not defending language because it doesn't need my puny fists. It'll take care of itself.

I know plenty of copy editors that are fully aware of their role as menders of one text at a time and who don't claim to be guardians of language. They are not peevologists. They don't feel attacked by mistakes and they don't hope to change all language into one register. They respect decorum and they trust that most users do so as well as they do.

The peevologists are looking to change something that will not change. They seek a power that is not theirs and they express frustration based on a sense of entitlement that is not only arrogant but irrational. They hope to change the rotation of the earth and live with that constant frustration, throwing stones at every sunrise and sunset.

I'm now planning the syllabus for the history of the English language course that I will be teaching this fall. My objective: convince my students to put down the rocks and enjoy the colours.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

But officer I wasn't not going that fast

I was looking for good scenery but traffic and the Iowan landscape made pictures difficult. When Buffy started impatiently tailgating an enormous truck I shook loose from my fear and noticed some writing. She got more than close enough for me to make out the message so I got the camera out and snapped this picture.

It's a little hazy. I didn't have time to get a really good shot. By the time I was able to get the focus and framing right Buffy was flooring it and passing semi.

As I understand the message it means that driving 55 mph is too slow to ensure that the produce will be fresh when it finally arrives. So the driver has to go faster than 55.

It's more evidence of negative concord in PdE. That slash-circle is the visual equivalent of a negative morpheme. In some English dialects it would have to be silent in order to avoid further semantic content: It isn't fresh at 55. But in other dialects we can imagine the negative working for emphasis.

FOREMAN: Them potatoes better be fresh. And you better not get no speeding ticket on the way here!
DRIVER: It ain't gonna be fresh at no 55 miles an hour!

I've seen instances of this visual negative concord before. Remember the Red Rocker? His shirts are still out there on eBay.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Not your coal. Charcoal.

Earlier today Buffy finished reading The Scarlett Letter. She loved it. And she's not a bit embarrassed by her late introduction to the classic. Honestly. How many of you have read every book that's listed on the back cover of Cliff's Notes? I've never read Walden.

Halfway through she mentioned something about Hester "Prine" and I corrected her without teasing. "Prynne...like thin" I said. Then I had to add "at least that's how I've always heard it." Because names really are all about lexical pronunciation. Read this amusing post about a dissertation defense and Pepys the diarist.

There's no English spelling rule that should make the "peeps" pronunciation obvious. It's only from hearing it said by someone (whom I believed) that I learned not to say peppis peepis pep-eyes peppees peppeez or anything else that would get a laugh. So why should Buffy have known that Prynne doesn't rhyme with line? Some might argue that Prynne looks enough like Lynne/Lynn to make the pronunciation clear. But we all know that analogy is a fallible rule.

So late this evening Buffy interjected a non sequitur into a conversation about politics...or religion...or ice cream...(I can't remember)

"Chester Prynne right?" she asked.

"What?" I collapsed laughing. "Who's that? Hester's twin brother? Did Hawthorne write a sequel called The Azure Letter about Chester and his daughter Gem?"

Buffy insisted that she had said "Hester."

"I said It's Hester Prynne! I said Hester!"

She wasn't sure how I could have misheard so when I started to explain she told me to put it in a post.

When it's begins a phrase the vowel is often elided. Especially when the phrase opens an utterance. This same [ɪ] has been elided from it for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare saved time by ignoring the poor high front lax vowel. Tis true; tis true tis pity, And pity tis tis true.

So instead of saying "it's Hester" Buffy said "ts Hester." More like one word: tsester. That [h] is chronically truant. And following a fricative it's easily hidden even if present.

This is one of those not so common cases in English pronunciation when the [ʦ] affricate can't be broken by syllabification. As an initial sound there was no coda available to claim the [t]. And in a coda position the /t/ would more likely be a glottal stop [ʔ]. So I was obviously unprepared for an onset affricate with alveolar release [ʦ] and I interpreted it as a postalveolar release [ʧ].

But I do think Chester could be a fascinating character.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Where have all the good glides gone?

I was watching the end of a House MD rerun and I got lost regarding the plot. So I looked online for the script and found it pretty easily. Reading through it I came across the following lines. A young girl (Kama) is asking the doctor (Foreman) about her brother's prognosis:

KAMA: Is he gonna die?

[Foreman looks at her.]

FOREMAN: No. No one's gonna die.

KAMA: [smart-ass] In the whole world ever? That's so great.

FOREMAN: [chuckles] I meant...

KAMA: I know what you meant. But I also know bad things do happen. My dad always had a few drinks whenever he went out. Always said it'd be okay to drive. [shrugs sadly] Until it wasn't. I would just like some mourning this time.

[Foreman looks at Kama, sympathetically.]

FOREMAN: We're nowhere near anything like that happening right now.

It's an odd wish that Kama has for "some mourning." I though maybe the story was about having to rush through a loss and the poor girl never had a chance to mourn her father's death. So she wanted to know ahead of time if her brother was going to die so that she'd...

Oh. Yeah. That makes more sense. Some warning.

The two phrases are often identical. After some consonants it's common for a [w] to be deleted. As evidenced by the some warning/some mourning confusion the deletion can even occur across a word boundary. Between the labial [m] and rounded [ɔ] is an especially suitable environment for w-deletion. It can be hard to distinguish between some more and some wore (except that the former is usually an iamb and the latter is often a trochee). And we sometimes find this deletion after other consonants in words like towards [tɔrdz] and quarter [kɔɻɾɻ]. These words can still be pronounced either with or without the [w], while sword lost it permanently long ago (except in the not-so-common spelling pronunciation).

Of course there are several words in which the deletion does not occur. Before a front unrounded vowel the [w] stays put in tweed switch square and quack. If a speaker pronounces quartz with a distinctly low and unrounded [a] my guess is that the [w] is regularly preserved. I've never heard the mineral pronounced identically to carts.

I'm not prepared to give an answer to the question that I now pose: why did sword lose the [w] while swore has kept it? Usually we look to the original language or the time of adoption to help with an explanation. Because both words have been with the language since it was Old English that doesn't give us much help. It may have something to do with the preservation of a front vowel in swear. By analogy with a related form the [w] could have been preserved by kinship.

But that's only a primary suggestion and I'm happy to hear a more informed explanation.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Murphy's law in action

Sunday on Meet the Press (15 July 2007) Tim Russert asked about "The Bill factor"--How Hillary's chances are affected by her husband's growing visibility on her campaign.

Mike Murphy, pundit for the right, chose to illustrate via analogy.

MURPHY: Here’s, I think, the Bill Clinton problem. I’ll use a Hollywood example. If you’re Robert Redford’s agent and the producers want him to star in a new movie, and they come to you and say 'We’ve got a great co-star, Brad Pitt.' They’re going to, 'No, no, no, we want Ernest Borgnine.' He takes the energy and the...

BOB SHRUM: Are you calling Hillary Ernest Borgnine?

MURPHY: No, no, no, I’m using a Hollywood—I figured Democrats, Hollywood—a dated Hollywood reference here. No, but it’s a problem. He takes up all the energy, and he makes a change election about going backwards, which is death for her, I think.

Watch the video (he starts his bit at around 33:52) and you'll hear Murphy's pronunciation of "co-star" as "co-stair" without correction. Because he says it so clearly and he runs right over without noticing I don't think it was just a mangled vowel--his oversight is more indicative of a phonemic error (such as a spoonerism or other switched segment) that is more likely to go unnoticed. I think back on those times when I accidentally said the wrong name when telling a story (X did that? I thought it was Y. to which I respond Did I say X? I meant Y!). This is a higher order speech error: evidence of a broader awareness of several items though we utter just one at a time. Not just a stumble of the tongue that has more to do with tripping than choosing. So I wonder what contaminated his pronunciation. Is it the [e] in "great"? Is it anticipation of the identical [er] in "They're going to..."? We've all committed such tips of the slung.

Another little note:
The transcript represents his truncated phrase as "They're going to, 'No no no'" even though he actually says something more like "they're gah, 'aaaa.'" A very nasal mid vowel--perhaps [ɘ̃::]. I'm not sure about the syllabification. It's rather like a bleat.

Notice that Murphy first puts the audience (Russert?) into the story as Redford's agent ("If you’re Robert Redford’s agent...and they come to you and say") then he reports the reaction in third person ("they're gonna..."). It's a common switch when the player isn't the point of the story--the reaction is.

And further:
Murphy's line that is interrupted by Shrum, "he takes the energy and the..." actually includes one more syllable. It sounds like he's about to say either "honesty" or "all" but I have no idea where he was headed. Since it's not clear there is no reason for the transcript to provide sounds. The point of a transcript is to reproduce words not phonemes. Ideas not sounds. That's why they commonly ignore stuttering and repeated articles like the and a.

But finally:
Here's why I first noticed Murphy's little speech. It has nothing to do with linguistics. He uses the analogy that Redford's agent would never make the mistake of pairing him with Brad Pitt as a co-star. Ever heard of Spy Game Mr Murphy?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

It's, like, a breath of fresh air

This is just to balance my grumbling from last week. William Safire is still on vacation from his column so this week Patricia T. O'Conner takes the helm. She nicely avoids the icebergs that Safire usually broadsides.

  1. She defends a new usage instead of calling language change a degeneration. She writes
    O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?

    Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a "content word" (one that means something) has become a "function word" (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process "grammaticalization." It’s one of the ways language changes.

    and she doesn't pull a muscle arguing against the point. Brava.

  2. She makes an important distinction between different registers and grammar.

  3. She talks to several linguists (Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain Geoffrey Pullum Arnold Zwicky) and gives their observations plenty of attention treating us to extended quotes. Most of the quotations sound characteristic of their rational reasoning.

  4. She sagely suggests that most people who complain about usage probably rely on many of the forms they deride.

Towards the end of her piece she identifies parents as the most grumpy prescriptivists. I'll leave you with some of her best thoughts.
Another unfounded assumption about like is that it’s used by the less educated among us. ... I’ve always believed that young people are capable of knowing when to use formal versus informal, written versus spoken English. ... A word to parents: Loosen up.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bragging about a sub-parsec performance

Recent posts over at Q-Majin? have me thinking about astronomy. So...

I'm not a fan of the Star Wars movies. I've only seen episodes 4 5 and 6 and I was thoroughly bored.

But I will call off one judgment that I've held against the writing for about 15 years. Knowing how fans of sci-fi run along the bleeding edge of detailed criticism I never assumed to be the only person to notice the line.

Here's the line that bothered me.

It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

A lot has been written about this line. And there are several claims. Some of the more common observations:

  1. A parsec is a unit of distance not space--so the Lucas made a mistake.

  2. Distance is the correct measurement
    • Han Solo is bragging about doing a treacherous run in the shortest distance (distance vs linear displacement)--so Han Solo is a skilled pilot maneuvering an agile ship most efficiently (and speed isn't so relevant).

    • The speed is relevant because the run requires "catching" other ships and delivering cargo over the shortest distance.

  3. The line shows that Han Solo is a bigmouth--not an astronomer.

  4. Space and time are the same thing. Einstein said so.

Even those who defend the line commonly admit that the explanations in later books are retcons: retroactive continuities. Those are explanations that are provided after the fact because a storyline is otherwise illogical.

I haven't heard the commentary track on Episode IV So I'm relying on Wikipedia for the the citation. According to the article George Lucas explains on the DVD that hyperspace cannot be traveled in a straight line but the pilot that can maneuver his ship closest to black holes and obstacles is fastest. The question remains: did he have that in mind when he wrote the line?

I say it doesn't matter. We don't need to rely on an author's argument (outside the work proper) to accept the cohesion and coherence of a plot.

My favorite defense of the line is #3. It's the most elegant. Most online scripts make a point of providing stage directions for Obi Wan Kenobi to give Han Solo a knowing look (in fact almost all the scripts I found are obviously based on a common source--the stage directions are repeated verbatim). Perhaps Alec Guinness just saved the scene. If Lucas had written that "look" into the stage directions he would not have needed the retcon explanation. In this case (if the report regarding Lucas' commentary is accurate) the readers and critics have succeeded in proving that an author often does well to keep quiet for the sake of the work.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Lincoln and back and bust.

We're back home with only mileage on the car to show for it. No pharmoney for us this summer. But we had a grand time with friends. I took a lot of pictures but not enough of them turned out. Something is wrong with my camera. High contrast edges are distorted and the exposure is off on some faces. Normally (ie with most cameras) I'd say it's because I'm a bad photographer. But my camera is usually good about these things on the automatic setting.

I'll have to analyse these pictures more carefully before I identify the conditioning environment.

I've posted a poll on the sidebar. Please answer honestly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A whole new level of nerdiness

Over at Speculative GrammarianTM I found this simple little game that they chose to call LingDoku ("Like SuDoku, But for Linguists"). I know it's a satirical journal so I'm embarrassed to say how much I could enjoy puzzles like this. The one they provided is very simple but imagine how useful a game like this would be to get practice with distinctive features in a phonology class. It's going in my lesson plans.

They provide nine IPA symbols--ɤ n β g b m z ŋ--representing a matrix of 3 places of articulation--bilabial alveolar and velar--and 3 manners of articulation--plosive fricative and nasal. No row or column can contain any symbols of common manner or place. They start with


The completed grid of course would be


That's almost as basic as a grid can be. So how about a larger puzzle. Or a grid in which the symbols are filled in and the job is to identify what features are being used to organize the rows and columns. coronal dorsal labial bilabial lateral voicing +/-ATR retroflex stridency sonorance...

We could add the variable of binary and absolute features or even throw some feature geometry in there.

It'd be as fun as doing compass proofs in geometry.

Approximating season

In a comment a while back Nancy Friedman mentioned some voting options she found on the Overheard in New York site. She wrote

Also note that you can vote for the Overheard quotes. Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, and WTF? need no explanation. But I had to Google "Alsome," which turns out to be the way the REALLY cool folks say and spell "awesome." (Well, spell it anyway. I'm not sure the two words are pronounced very differently. Hey, Linguist Guy, whaddya think?)

I think some people might pronounce it with an [l] or more likely one of the darker L's--either a velarized alveolar lateral approximant [ɫ] or the velar lateral approximant [ʟ].

English commonly uses the dark-l in a coda position and the light-l in an onset. The usual transcription of the dark-l indicates that velarization is a secondary articulation. [l] is an alveolar consonant and is articulated with the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge. Velarization means that in a secondary articulation the back of the tongue is also raised giving it a 'dark' sound. Compare the first and second L in little. Or the L in light with the L in call. The difference is indicated by the tilde that runs through the symbol [ɫ]. [liɾɫ̩] [lait] [kaɫ]

The velar lateral approximant is primarily velar and so the raised back of the tongue (the dorsum, think the dorsal fin on the back of a fish) is the primary articulation. The tip of the tongue isn't the main indicator of place. Although this is not a standard phone in English it does occur in some accents and some pronunciations as when a coda L is left markedly open. In fast speech the L in a phrase like 'all of them' might remain completely dorsal without any alveolar articulation.

Consider how close to 'awvem' that can sound. Now consider that some dialects will pronounce L's like W's. Ever heard someone say 'widow' instead of 'little'? It's a common early pronunciation among children because the sounds are similar acoustically. I know one child who pronounced 'flower' like 'wallow'--a complete reversal of the [l] and [w] approximants. Tho this might have been metathesis instead of an articulation issue.

Just earlier today I heard 'saw' pronounced before a vowel like 'sawl'. It was overheard only once so I'm not sure if it was a velar lateral or a velarized alveolar lateral, but it was definitely an approximant. I've heard it before. I asked a friend if she hears this a lot around here in Nebraska. She rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated "Ugh. Yes."

Before a vowel it's very much like I sawr 'im leaving which we would expect to hear in some northeastern American dialects. The approximant makes a nice onset for the following syllable.

I imagine also that to those who are used to hearing [ɑ] in 'awesome' the northeastern closing and rounding and raising to [ɔ] could be interpreted the same as a velar approximation.

Whatever the process there are plenty of likely explanations for the awesome/alsome alternation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

8 random facts (now with tags!)

Mr Verb has tagged me for a round of blog tag. This isn't the usual "What's your least favorite cereal?" questionnaire. In fact there are no questions. Only a request for eight facts about myself that I care to share. So it's completely my fault if it's a boring list. Let's see how I do. But first I have to post the rules.


This is another meme experiment:

  1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.

  2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

  3. People who are tagged need to write in their own blog about their eight things and include these rules in the post.

  4. At the end of your post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.

  5. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.


My random facts:

  1. I was a vocal soloist in the 2nd oldest college Glee Club in the United States.* It was a short bit in a West Side Story medley.

  2. I never did an X-bar graph until I started my doctorate

  3. My first teaching job was at a parochial boarding school in North Dakota. I was the English Department. 5 years.

  4. The highest paying job I've had was a union job working nights at the Kellogg's factory in Battle Creek.

  5. I once laid down my motorcycle taking a corner too fast.

  6. I drink at least two pots of tea or coffee a day (except for the last 10 days during which I've had no caffeine at all--I'm doing well).

  7. I once shook hands with Christopher Parkening and felt guilty because I used such a firm grip and he used none. The man is a champion fly-fisherman and I'm sure he could have broken my wrist if he wanted.

  8. I'm a television junkie. One summer when I was a child I regularly watched 14 hours a day. Thank you Nick@Nite. I don't do that regularly anymore but on any given day I can easily get that many hours in. It's the only multitasking I can do.

I'll tag the eight others soon. I have a few people in mind but I don't really feel like sending out all those comments right now. I'll list them as an update on this post.

*That's what they always told us back in the 90s. But the website now only claims the club is "one of the oldest" in the US. Ah antedating...

I'm interested to see what facts/habits these eight people think are interesting about themselves. And their blogs have been open to this kind of light fare. So...

Tag Buffy
Tag Daniel
Tag Casey
Tag Brian
Tag Marc
Tag Jon (who needs a break from fiction)
Tag Jeff
Tag Carissa

No pressure. It's only a suggestion for a post. Ignore it if you will.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A yes no question.

My latest observation about Buffy's language quirks.

When indicating no or a negative without a word it's very common for most speakers to use the phonetic head-shake: "uh-uh" ['ʔʌʔʌ].

I'm not sure I've ever heard Buffy use that exact sequence. It's close tho. The metric foot she uses is identical: a trochee. But Buffy eases into the sound with a nice soft glottal fricative [h]. I guess it would be ['hʌʔʌ]. This reminds me of the kid in my high school choir who I mentioned a long time ago because he sang his solo line "ever more and ever more" as "ever more hand ever more." He always cut the note short after the first "more." In normal speech after such a pause the following vowel would likely have a glottal stop onset. But that can sound awful when singing. So he tried to ease into the vowel.

I've been assuming that Buffy must have a similar aversion to the abrupt onset of a glottal stop. But if you've ever heard her speak you know that abrupt starts and forceful interruptions are not a problem for her. Her reactions seldom hold back or ease into their intensity.

So why the "huh-uh" instead of "uh-uh"? I have a new theory.

Before she took her lofty perch amongst the renaissance scholars Buffy was a mathematician. She believes in inverses and reciprocals as types of opposites and complements and so has a chiastic view of opposed expressions. What is the affirmative phonetic head nod? It's "uh-huh" [ʔʌ'hʌ]. Note that the affirmative is an iamb. The negative is a trochee. Most speakers invert the tonal contour and change the onset of the second syllable but Buffy did enough algebra to know that you can't just split up an expression haphazardly. So she brought the entire syllable along with the tonal shift. Buffy's negative is a more complete inverse of the affirmative.

Yes: [ʔʌ 'hʌ]
No: ['hʌ ʔʌ]

This could be the new productive thesis/antithesis construction.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Language sensitivity

Today Jaimie Epstein fills in for William Safire who has allowed us a vacation from his On Language column. Her offering, entitled "Sentence Sensibility," laments the loneliness she has to endure because she's so picky about language.

I've been there (I promised Casey I would tell the story soon). But now I'm in a good place. A calm place. And it feels like an enlightened place when I come across the following from Ms Epstein:

But just imagine what it’s like to be afflicted with an excess language-sensitivity gene.

There is a big difference between being very picky about usage and being very sensitive to language. All speakers/hearers are sensitive to language. It's called competence. Knowing that in the phrase "the black shoes" both the and black help determine shoes and that the order of the and black is fixed is natural "language-sensitivity." It is standard English because that's the way the language works and we don't need to be explicitly told that the article goes first. We learn the language from learning...the language.

Epstein's column focuses on factual and typographical errors that are not natural language features. It is not genetic language-sensitivity that allows her to notice when someone claims the author of Atonement is "Ian McGregor". That's just an information error. It's not a "language-sensitivity gene" that sets her against the description "slurshing sound of the waves" because it made her think "drink sloppily and quickly" and drove her to seasickness. That's just a preference. Someone who really likes the word "slurshing" isn't less sensitive than Epstein.

Epstein laments that there is no "12-step program for usage addicts." So she's addicted to usage? Well who isn't. I find I can't get through a single conversation without using a usage. My speech is full of usages.

Yes yes I know what she means. She's addicted to complaining about usage. She herself admits that her language isn't "perfect." I agree with her that a lot of writing such as the copy on a résumé deserves extra attention. But she lumps in spelling errors with the difference between who and whom and the importance of using media as a plural noun. These are all very different issues whose uses depend on varying norms and registers.

Spelling and prescriptivism are bodies of information that must be taught. Nobody asks about what are you talking? because of a language-sensitivity gene or because of an ear that is fine tuned to correct usage (Epstein refers to herself as "someone whose ear is as tuned to the pitch of language as a cellist’s is to music"). That construction comes from attention to the schoolmarm. It comes from attention to some claims about language. Investigating the music metaphor I'd say it's more like a cellist who insists on playing everything in one key.

Here's one sour note that Epstein's trusted editors missed. Take a look at the byline.

I would have willingly chuckled at it thinking it's a clever little joke but on the ADS-L Laurence Horn confirmed that in the print version the spelling is correct.

The editors caught the error and changed it. It's not a horrible mistake. Just look at any of my posts and you'll find typos of that sort all over.

Bad genes I suppose.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Got change for that?

I love language change. Several years ago when I was a young and rabid prescriptivist I had some idea in my head that language could not achieve beauty if it didn't sit still long enough to be crafted by the lingual artisans. I really believed that.

Now I get all flustered and excited when I notice a new trend or a construction that doesn't work "logically" but starts taking over speech. I start hoping for quicker change. For new developments. For the same reason that geneticists rely on the mayfly for its short lifespan I yearn to see new generations of language spreading on the petri dish of.../abandoned metaphor/

Explaining change is one of the lovely theoretical areas I hope I can eventually contribute to. There is a wonderful paradox that both Labov and J Milroy examine: If language is a tool developed solely for the sake of communication it would logically follow that stability would be one of the fundamental characteristics. But language constantly changes. What's the free radical? Speakers.

So explaining language change must turn to the people who unwittingly allow such change. And what do such changes reveal about the system?

A late chapter in Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics text offers up some of the early theories for language change. The ideas are hilarious. And yet I can imagine some language prudes even today offering up suggestions like these.

Climatic or geographical determinism

In 1900 Harry Sweet wrote that the change from [a:] to [o] in northern European languages (such as Old English) was "doubtless the result of unwillingness to open the mouth widely in the chilly and foggy air of the North."

Nevermind that in England it was the Northumbrian dialect that resisted the rounding of [a:].

'Racial' and anatomical determination

There were unsubstantiated claims that Grimm's Law (*p>f *t>θ *k>h *b>p *d>t *g>k etc) was a result of wax plugging the ears of the Germanic tribes.

"Hey I told you each to pillage and prepare the garrottes"
"Oh we thought you said eat our fill of the free fare and carrots"

Barbarians indeed

Etiquette, social conventions and cultural traits

Wilhelm Wundt claimed that in Iroquoian etiquette is was rude to close ones mouth while speaking. He then used that fact to explain why Iroquoian languages have no labial consonants. What was his evidence that it was rude? Well the absence of labials in the languages of course.


Young people don't care enough and are ruining our beautiful language! They're lazy lazy speakers.

Thank goodness such silly ideas are no longer thrown around so glibly.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I can name that drug with three connotations

Daniel's suggestion of Ameliozene is good (comments of last post). These drug brands can be just that transparent in their implications.

Some notable drug brand names (assume a little ® after each):

Abilify: This antipsychotic drug has a nice 'verbing' name. To make able or to give ability is to abilify right?

Acarbose: Of course diabetics want to neutralize or decarbify all those sugars. They're not carbs. They're Acarbs.

Actron: Not only will you ease your suffering from osteoarthritis, you'll be strong like a robot!

Alavert: Avert is not only appropriate for someone hoping to avoid allergies--vert is also a popular syllable with that upright connotation.

Bactroban: This medication for bacterial skin disease has a negative sense. The name introduces itself as half bacteria for goodness sake.

Celexa: Half of the Citalopram molecule was useless and caused side effects. So they refined it and used only the good half to make Lexapro (Escitalopram). It's like Celexa finally made it to "the show."

Eulexin: These brands love that 'X'.

Flomax: Your enlarged prostate is keeping the flow to a minimum. Well take it to the max. (See this SNL ad for Urigrow. A disgusting parody that's very funny.)

Januvia: For some reason J is not a popular initial letter.

Miltown: Feeling anxious. Come on down to Miltown. More Chillin' when you're illin'

Provigil: Pro is a popular drug brand name morpheme. What sufferer from narcolepsy doesn't wish to be capable of a vigil?

Proscar: Either a racing circuit or a lobby in favor of the cicatrix or a bad name for a medication for an enlarged prostate.

Wigraine: Suffering from migraine? Wigraine? Because you deserve relief.

Wytensin: Why so tense? Wytensin. (You know they thought of that.)

Zanamivir: It's intended to curtail the flu virus. It sounds like the master of the pan flute. Wait. Zanamivir... respiration... flu... playing the flute... pan flute master Zamfir...

Zyban: We don't want any more Zys Dammit!

So I suggest we call this new drug Extasty (PRO) and make it in the shape of a little candy heart stamped with the message "Say Yes to Me!"

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ask your doctor about

We call on Thursday to beg them to let us take the not-yet-approved-for-use-by-humans drug. It's name so far is APD791. "This is the first study in which APD791 will be given to humans." Here's the word on the street about it:

APD791 is a selective inverse agonist of the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor. By selectively inhibiting the activation of 5-HT2A serotonin receptors found on platelets and vascular smooth muscle, Arena believes that APD791 may reduce the risk of arterial thrombosis and conditions such as acute coronary syndrome, heart attack and stroke.


If we are among the chosen few we will be the first humans to take this. Fortunately that means that our dosage will be low: 1mg one time. The plan is to increase the dosage (in later studies) as high as 160mg.

But the fun has already begun. Today we showed up and signed on all the dotted lines agreeing to risk the following:

nausea, abdominal pain, rash, headache, dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness, common cold symptoms, and nausea.

Other side effects also include nausea and sometimes feelings of nausea. And those are just the "common" side effects of similar drugs. Of course the list continues:

hepatitis, kidney stones, heart attack, low blood pressure, abnormal heart beat, bleeding from the stomach, nose bleed etc.

Okay--they list heart attack third. As if they had to ease up to it then taper back down. Why bother listing anything else?

"What might go wrong?"
"Oh there are several possibilities. Your heart might stop beating."
"Hmmm...tell me more before I decide."
"Well you might have trouble sleeping."
"Wow that sounds serious. Anything else?"
"Dry mouth..."
"Whoah! Get me outta here!"

Among the "side effects" listed are "abnormal laboratory test results." This is the type of warning that could be nothing or it could be horrific.

Scenario 1:

"Your results are back and I'm a little concerned about some abnormalities."
"Oh No! What is it?"
"Well your cholesterol is surprisingly good for someone with your diet and you seem to have antibodies making you immune to to every disease known to man."
"Hmmm...That's odd."

Scenario 2:

"Your results are back and I'm a little concerned about some abnormalities."
"Oh No! What is it?"
"Well we can't find your blood and it says your soul is dead."
"I have crossed oceans of time to find you."

But the name needs work. APD791 just doesn't have the right connotations of health vigor and longevity that it needs in order to sell. How about a little game of fill in the blank hinted at by the title post:

Ask your doctor about ___________.

I'm going to think about this for a few hours before posting again tonight.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

That John Denver was full of...

That felt like an eternity to me. But mostly because it was spent in central Minnesota. Far away from the pretty stuff. And now I'm in Nebraska. *sigh*

My hands are covered with pen marks and chicken scratches reminding me of the usages I've heard the last few days that might makes interesting topics. Listening to several hours of radio and Buffy I'm sure to come across some language oddities. Then throw a trip to the northwestern Midwest and a father in law that grew up in Texas but has lived in Minnesota since his twenties and there's all sorts of interesting stuff scrawled on my hand wrist arm...and receipts.

We'll start slow today with no real discussion (Tuesday is an early day--I have an appointment at 6:30am. Under most circumstances I'd just stay awake till then--but good blood pressure could make the difference between 1500 dollars and none so I need my sleep).

Rebecca Ford of Oxford University Press writes announcing a new column to be written by Ben Zimmer: From A to Zimmer. That's my kind of title.

Ben Zimmer contributes regularly to Language Log and I'm sure his column will be excellent. Here's his first contribution. Go read it.