Sunday, September 30, 2007

Don't breathe the water

An AP story about a brain eating amoeba is making the rounds. Why? because there's been a recent spike in the number of cases reported. Infection is around ninety-seven percent fatal--only three survivors ever reported. It crawls up your nose and follows the olfactory nerve to your brain causing headaches and hallucinations and finally death.

Sounds pretty scary. And the spike this year was enormous. In 2007 Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis was reported to have caused about two-hundred percent more deaths than the yearly average from 1995 to 2004. The amoeba-- Naegleria fowleri --thrives in warm stagnant water. So global warming is expected to make it worse.

I've borrowed some of the language and some of the statistical rhetoric from all the stories I've seen. Brain-eating is a favorite in these stories. It's up there with flesh-eating in its impact. Maybe better. It's a lot better than infection. It sounds a lot scarier and more deliberate on the part of those ravenous brain eating mini-monsters.

And the statistics: In the story I linked to above Chris Kahn writes "The spike in cases has health officials concerned." Infections are exceedingly rare. So a spike is a complicated phenomenon. From 1995 to 2004 there were 23 reported cases. That's just over 2 per year. 2007 saw 6 deaths. About four more than the average. But is that a spike? Snooping around the CDC website I found that there were 6 cases in 2002 as well. Two each in Texas Arizona and Florida.

I've not been able to find the numbers for year to year cases tho I'm quite sure that they would make 2007's "spike" look less alarming.

But then how would the story make it into all the newspapers and TV newscasts?


Saturday, September 29, 2007

The spanjo can make it anywhere

Some of my favorite memories of undergraduate silliness were the great smokeouts of basement Cooley. Emu, Nature Boy, Big John and the King would each light up a huge cigar and choke the halls with a sweet cloud of Dominican smoke. But we weren't trying to act like grownups.We also regularly checked the door of The Halfway Inn Halfass at 3:30am to see if it was latched. When it wasn't we were able to satiate all our childish Mint Chocolate Chip and Superman ice cream needs.

Barry Popik has posted to ADS-L a brief report on the travels of an excellent Ann Arbor sandwich: the spanjo. The notable nosh--native to East Quad's Halfass (yes--just off basement Cooley)--has made it to the Big Apple. (For info on the city's nickname see Popik) Of the sandwich's journey he writes

I was reading today in about a sandwich shop in NYC that offers the "spanjo" sandwich. It's spreading outside of Ann Arbor! (Too bad the Wikipedia entry was deleted last year [because] the sandwich wasn't popular enough.)

Alas. It deserves a page and more.

In his post he includes bits and pieces from Gothamist™, the menu from Papa Lima Sandwich in Brooklyn, Urban Dictionary, an RC wiki, a Friendster comment, a discussion thread regarding the deletion from Wikipedia (do a text search for "spanjo"), and an ILX bulletin board about Ann Arbor (A2~AA).

Mash all the recipes together and the sandwich is made of cream cheese, melted cheddar, Swiss Cheese, spliced apple, sauteed apples, and sprouts, on bread (possibly wheat, possibly toasted)--and some start by calling it a grilled cheese with some of the above. (Would that "spliced apple" be a typo for 'sliced-'? I remember them being sliced, not spliced--unless you consider that every ingredient is spliced into one sandwich. No--sliced.)

As I ordered the spanjo it was a grilled cheese of cheddar on wheat, with cream cheese, alfalfa sprouts and crunchy sliced apples. And that's the variety we'd expect from a weird sandwich in a strange dorm in a little cafe that says "Halfway Inn" on the wall (and all brochures and official web pages) but is known by everyone in EQ as The Halfass.

I first learned of the spanjo from my friend Susan who started at Michigan a year before I did. She told me I had to live in East Quad because that was the only dorm that promised to understand me. It was home to the Residential College where going to class in a bathrobe was common. It was the dorm that had Resident Fellows instead of Resident Assistants. Why? Just to be different.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Where I come from we have a word for this

Mr Verb recently posted a gateway to a brilliantly ignorant article at The Christian Science Monitor website. It's a grand ol' flailing attempt at linguistics by anthropology PhD student David Keyes. The CSM article is a shorter version of an earlier post on his own blog.

Mr Verb controlled his commentary--and with good reason. It's hardly worth the argument because the claims are quite ridiculous. But there's reason to think that a counter voice is necessary. Just look at the commentary on Keyes' blog. His readers love this stuff and they feel smarter having read it. Ay...(that's Spanish for Oy Vey).

His claim is simple. Soccer proves that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true.

Let's dive into this shallow end of argument:

Keyes references the "obscure theory about linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" claiming that it offers an explanation for the great chasm between "English" and "Argentinian" soccer. As an example he introduces the Spanish term enganche for a soccer position. He was confused when he first heard the word then he learned what it meant.

From his original post:

The reason that I had so much trouble understanding enganche was because it was a position that didn’t fit into my frame of reference, which only had space for defenders, midfielders, and forwards.

That's like saying that I once found it so hard to understand French pomme de terre because my frame of reference only had room for spuds and taters. It's called not knowing the translation.

And as commenter Brett points out here, David's claim--that his ability to understand the position is hindered by his not knowing enganche--is felled by the fact that he has the word playmaker and he uses it. Not knowing how one vocabulary corresponds to another does not in any way equal not having the ablility to conceive as the other does. In fact he uses 2 terms for the idea: "a number ten" and "a playmaker". This apparent reliance on the idea that language-shapes conception would surely conclude for that for Keyes this position is twice as important and easy to conceive of because he uses twice as many words for them. Right? (if this sounds like the Eskimo-words-for-snow argument you can just take my word for it right now that it's all a crock. Better yet take Geoffrey K. Pullum's words.)

Likewise regarding the libero position Keyes says in his original post that "Franz Beckenbauer was a player whose unique style of play created the need for a new word to describe a newly created position."

Wait--if they didn't have the word for it how the hell did they come up with this hard to conceive of position? You see the problem here?

Then he introduces as evidence a dirty play in which the cleats are used in a tackle. Of the term La Plancha he says
Because there is a single word that describes this type of tackle, Spanish-speakers are more likely to be aware of the offense (and thus take offense at it being employed against them).

This is not to say that non-Spanish-speaking players are not sensitive to straight-legged, cleats-up tackles (speakers of all languages like their ankles in one piece). But the fact that a word exists to describe this kind of tackle heightens Spanish-speakers' awareness of it.

Heightens their awareness? So if somebody slashes my ankle with cleats and I don't have a single word for that I'm less likely to be upset? Really? It's having the word that allows me to be more aware and offended?

"Of course, players take offense at these types of tackles around the world" he says. "But [I would argue that] they are more frowned upon in Latin America." I suppose familiarity does breed contempt. Note that the bit in brackets is only included in his original post. In the CSM piece it was cut. Boo editor. Boo.

There are so many jumps in this argument--but to be fair they are necessary. Because there are so many gaps in the logic. And yet these stories have wings. I'm not sure what it is. Real linguistics and real psychology are so much more interesting and surprising than this. Why are people so willing to believe these people: they who claim that crisis and opportunity are the same word in Chinese even when that and similar claims have been satisfactorily refuted? Why do people still believe that women say more words per day than men do? Why do people believe that we can't think without language? Why is multilingualism considered a threat to the unity of our country? Why do people still read William Safire?

Well to end with one last petty and insignificant criticism of Keyes' article: Sapir-Whorf is not by any means an obscure theory. It's old and tired. It is dragged out and flaunted by scores of inept linguists manqués. It is a very commonly cited and abused theory and just as commonly (and more effectively) disputed.

[Update: Let me just add that it's a 'hard' reading of S-W that has been tossed aside. There's little doubt that language plays a role in our categorization of concepts. An appropriately 'soft' reading of S-W might go so far as to say that language sheds a little light on concepts at work. But once phrases like can't imagine or understanding is limited start creeping it it's time to grab the reins.

But I do not claim that language and thought are unrelated. That's just silly.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Pulling Punchlines

I recently wrote about an incongruity on The Simpsons between script as performed and script as...scripted. In a Monday evening rerun of the episode "Eight Misbehavin'" (production code BABF03) I heard Apu (voiced by Hank Azaria) utter the line "Pirates are wild!" while the subtitle showed "Pilots are wild!" This is just a misheard phoneme. And a reasonable one. The l~r alternation from one approximant to another makes perfect sense. The two sounds even occur as allophones in Korean.

But later in the show Apu expresses his appreciation for "the good folks at Sony" when he receives their generous gift of a large-screen television. The subtitle for the line read "the good folks at Ampyo." I can't think of any allophones that would explain that alternation.

It's another instance of an apparent script change that didn't make it to all terminal forms. Unlike the Spungoes/Cowbogs switch -- a choice between joke1 and joke2 -- this switch is between real brand and fake brand. And neither is a true punchline. Ampyo comes closer but it doesn't go beyond throwaway joke.

One possible factor: Sampyo is the name of a Korean construction group. Was it too close? The Simpsons is quite heavily linked to Korea--all the animation is done there. Such caution seems just as likely an explanation as does cutting "Ampyo" for calling too much attention to a flat throwaway.

Dialectal equality in jeopardy on Jeopardy!

One of Friday's Jeopardy! categories comprised pieces of advice to future contestants. Every clue/question pair offered a little detail that would make the difference between a correct response and an incorrect response.

One of the Jeopardy! policies is that an incorrect spelling of a word doesn't count against you unless it changes the pronunciation. So "Sally Feeld" would be acceptable but not "Sally Fields". (The common but incorrect final S in her name was mentioned in one of the clues.)

A later clue read: "Please please please put the Y before the N when we ask for this site of the vocal chords cords." (tho "chords" would be acceptable on Jeopardy!--unless the question was asking for the correct spelling.)note below

Accepted response: What is the larynx?

Adding a short comment on the correct answer Alex Trebeck specified the 'mistaken' form: "not the 'larnyx'" he said.

Now because the clue mentions Y I might guess that they're talking about spelling and not pronunciation. But you never know with Jeopardy! questions. Every once in a while their premise or claim deserves a buzzer.

And this clue is problematic. It shows a clear intolerance for metathesis in the common pronunciation: [laɹnɪks]--vowing to accept nothing but the slightly more common [læɹɪŋks]. (Vowels may be disputed but the relevant segments here are the [n~ŋ] and the [ɪ].) By this standard would they accept a spoken [ʤuləɹi]--a common pronunciation for jewelry? Would they penalize someone who wrote 'nucular'?

The problem here as I see is that the speakers who say 'larnyx' are not unaware of the other form nor are they mistakenly pronouncing it because of an error. Many people have learned the word this way because the pronunciation is an establish variant. They have probably been told by some ninny that they're saying it incorrectly. But they keep their pronunciation which is a witting choice--even if at a low-level.

We can get into the argument of standard and non-standard forms. But that's only going to get the Jeopardy! judges as far as an elitist and ignorant view of language variation can go. Right into the tar pit of...well--elitist ignorance.

I would understand if metathesis in 'earlobe' leading to 'eelrobe' was not accepted. That's a speech error. And it's not an attested learned/established variant.

I wonder how long ago Alex started accepting 'wasp' as an acceptable variant of 'wæps'.


*[Update: So perhaps the judges would now have to accept "chords" as a variant spelling. As OUP's Ben Zimmer assures us they are in fact both common enough to be attested standard--or at least widely accepted--spellings.]

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quotidian complaints

This is what love of language has become.

I was just talking to my students today about this. Not the overuse of quotation marks in writing--but the peevologists who complain about it.

AP writer Jocelyn Noveck just gave Bethany Keeley's blog a big boost. And of course I'm a little jealous. Keeley started the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks in 2005 and started collecting submissions and posting pictures of signs posters ads documents...all illustrating the scourge of baffling quotation marks.

Due credit: the posts and the comments often work to explain or understand the rhetorical reasons for the quotes.

The article (perhaps more than the blog) persists with references to certain devices as annoying and unnecessary abuses misuses missteps and problems.

Noveck calls these "linguistic concers" and labels Keeley a "language-lover" which is too often used with the connotation of intolerance. Tho Keeley defends her generous spirit saying she doesn't feel superior to those whose usage she highlights.

'I don't consider myself a prescriptivist or a pedant,' she says (really). 'So I'm open to critiques of my own language. I make plenty of mistakes myself.'
I wouldn't call these quotation marks a mistake. They can be overused and they often lose their effect. But it really has nothing to do with grammar. I'd say this is as much a grammatical issue as emoticons italics and bold typeface are.

The story then takes a very odd jump to the overuse of quotations. Not quotation marks. Quotations.
'I have a thing against overuse of quotations, period,' says [Pat] Hoy, director of the expository writing program at New York University. 'Whether in academic or bureaucratic writing, it's giving up responsibility for what you're writing. It's a pushing aside of the responsibility to be the major thinker in the piece.'

So not only are quotation marks overused when they are not used only to mark attribution to a speaker or writer other than the person typing; now they're overused when they set off the very type of passage the peevologists are telling us they should mark: Only use them to set off quotations. But don't set off too many quotations! The salient connection is the tone of a people-do-bad-things-with-language fixation. Later in the article is fleeting mention of another blog that "tracks abuses of the word 'literally.'" I'm guessing that hopefully and singular their will soon have their own website...if they don't have one already.
I cut out a few sentences in which Hoy is quoted regarding an early essay rejection that taught him not to quote so heavily. Perhaps I learned from it too.]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

From whose bourn no babbler returns...

It's not that often that a linguistics story makes it into water-cooler conversations. But National Geographic has propelled the issue of language extinction into prime time and front pages. And here.

I saw this mentioned first at languagehat then I saw it discussed by Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon.

The discussion at Anggarrgoon is of specific interest because the post is an honest and critical reaction to some of the methodology of the study and some of its claims as well as the implications/premises of the story as it has been covered by the media. Bowern observes:

It seems peculiar to me that I should have had lunch and dinner with [David] Harrison just about every day for the two weeks preceding his trip to Broome and he never mentioned (to one of 2 linguists actively working on these languages) that he was going there.
Better yet: Harrison has taken part in the exchange.

Go keep up with the discussion.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You took the words right out of my thesaurus

My friend had a good blog going a while ago. But his dissertation became more important. So he abandoned the blog and the URL. Before he dropped his blog he had a good reader base and pretty high Google™ PageRank™.

Now the URL and the title are back. But by another author. At first I thought it was a cheap ploy by a shameless plagiarist not just to ride the coattails but to steal the identity of an established blogger.

Reading the posts a little more carefully I'm wondering not who but perhaps what is writing this stuff.

Well, I thought it was all over for this clump of hippies. The bulls usually had no compassionateness for druggies, and when the driver dove back into the avant garde and rummaged through the baseball glove box looking for non-existent papers, mumbling that we would all have got to acquire out, I knew we were finished!

We obediently drop out of the avant garde as casually as we could, attempting to look square (hard to do), and trying desperately not to interrupt up laughing. We knew that if one of us would get laughing, it would all be over. So barbed our tongues, we all just stood there, lined up by the pumps with sheepish smiles — a assortment crew if there ever was one.

The "writer" goes by "alice" and she has apparently done this with several blogs. Her profile page lists 15 blogs. Some automated piracy of URLs I suspect.

It looks like there's some text laundering going on here (in one post Mark Liberman uses the term 'sploggers' for this sort of thing). [Update: take a look at Mxrk's post on a similar phenomenon: patchwork poetry.]

Here are a few phrases followed by what I believe is the intended phrase. Some of these are just awkward translations. Some are fine synonyms for a single word but not when it's part of a phrase--eg baseball glove is a perfectly good switch for glove in the sentence 'my bat is sitting next to my glove/baseball glove'--but it doesn't work in the sentence 'the registration is in the baseball glove box.' It looks to me like "avant garde" is a bumbled translation for car. Why?

  • acquire up ~ get up

  • cod my bagged luncheon ~ ? my bag lunch

  • pickup motortruck truck ~ pickup truck

  • as many other flower people that would suit ~ as many other hippies as would fit

  • the occupation sight ~ the job site

  • "Let's blend some cement," ~ "Let's mix some cement"

  • State of Volunteer State ~ State of Tennessee

  • solar H2O warmers ~ solar water heaters

  • achromatic hosiery ~ black hoses

  • halt for gas ~ stop for gas

  • we establish ourselves faced with a dilemma ~ we found ourselves faced with a dilemma

  • the gas army tank ~ gas tank

  • inquire a few questions ~ ask a few questions

  • rummaged through the baseball glove box ~ rummaged through the glove box

  • we would all have got to acquire out ~ we would all have to get out

  • to interrupt up laughing ~ to break up laughing

  • a chronic job ~ a constant problem

  • New House Of York ~ New York

  • the mediocre folks ~ poor people

  • acquire a small protein ~ get a little protein

  • take attention of ~ take care of

  • never did happen out ~ never did figure out

  • to Capital Of Tennessee ~ to Nashville

  • The whole topographic point ~ The whole place

  • nil seemed to work ~ nothing seemed to work

  • we had no pick ~ we had no choice

  • to maintain track ~ to keep track

  • the adjacent morning ~ the next morning

Any ideas on "cod" in "cod my bagged luncheon"?

Read the post here

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Is Yahoo Serious?

I can't call it a snowclone. I'm not sure what name I would give for the pattern--other than 'tired joke.' A story on NPR about James Burrow's new sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton has been given the title "'Back to You' Crew: Sitcoms Are Serious Business." No one expects this headline to elicit a laugh of course but it is playing with the connotations of serious. Jokes are serious? How can that be? I thought jokes were only funny!

A Google™ search tells us that the following are "(a) serious business" in a search for "[X] are (a) serious business":

  • Games (5X)

  • Cybernet games

  • Legos

  • Toys (3X)

  • funnies

  • Funny Ads

  • comedies

  • comics (4X)

  • jokes (2X)

  • hoots and hollers (ie laughter)

Those were all found within 200 results (100 each for [X] is serious business and [X] is a serious business). These reversals were not the most common subjects--they make up about 10% of all results.

I would create 4 tiers of the types of results. The first is use devoid of irony. The writers who claim that hurricanes, missles, eating disorders, drugs or allergies are serious are speaking with cheek clear of all tongue. The only slight reversal in the list might be something like "allergies": an affliction some people might consider a mere nuisance but which the writer is saying is a source of real suffering for some people.

I'll put the first list above into an opposing tier: opposing the 2nd list and directly opposing expectation. It's a list of topics that would often be considered contradictory to seriousness. In fact the definition of several of these could easily include the necessary quality that they are not serious. Likewise, serious activity might easily be defined as an activity/event that does not allow games or anything funny or comical.

The third tier would be a list of topics/objects that would not normally be considered serious and which might more likely be considered contrary to seriousness. Cupcakes, birthday parties, and noodles would rarely be defined as serious, but neither would I expect anyone to sp define a cupcake as a non-serious item. But if prompted to rate the seriousness my guess is that these types of objects would fall on the non-serious side. Only an impression--but I'm pretty certain... Non-seriousness may not be a necessary connotation, but seriousness might be an incompatible connotation.

One last tier is the completely neutral. Mowers, acquisitions, reunions and minivans have no typical connotation to either seriousness or non-seriousness. Claiming that these are serious business has no strong implication of bet ya didn't think humor or burritos. Yes it does blend on the edge with the 3rd tier. Especially since inference is a slippery determiner of connotation.

There is of course no clear line between any of these tiers. And any arguement based solely on my inferrences is easily boring even to me. But there is an interesting pattern at each end--of either typical intention or reversal of intention--that favours repetition of items that are in the first two tiers. Illness and disaster are represented heavily as are humor and play.

Out of 200 results 26 said humor or play was serious business. Another 26 said disaster or disease was serious business. These 52 results were distinct results: repetitions were not counted. That left 148 results. The remaining 148 comprised a variety of results: food, legal procedures, machines (technology in general), cultural/mass-media references, hobbies, botany, biology, travel...and all the repetitions thereof.

I decided to leave out any search using "is" because I figured "are" made the point already. But the first 10 results for "* is serious business" turn up 2 results for "comedy"--so maybe using "is" would have made the point better.

Well clearly this is not quite the most scientific survey. So far from it in fact that I should just drop the litotes and say it flat out: this is not a scientific survey. But it does show a pattern with general antonymy that I mentioned in a post a while ago when I wrote

Somewhere in that encyclopedic matrix of 'what this word means' is an awareness of what the word does not mean and a sense of the word's opposites and even complements.

Sometimes that awareness is subconscious and sometimes its foremost in our intention. And that awareness leads us to rely too often on those opposed meanings--thinking too often that we are the first to come up with a clever use of a word.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Michigan vs Notre Dame: which fight song is harder to sing with a straight face?

I will always bleed blue. I just didn't know it would be from such a ripping wound.

Last week I went to Purdue's rout of the Eastern Illinois Panthers. And lightning struck. And the stadium was cleared. And few fans returned. But the faithful who returned to Ross-Ade Stadium had the thrilling opportunity to cheer and bellow in approval of Curtis Painter's record-tying 6 TD passes.

Michigan's first two home games have not been so exciting--for Wolverine fans. Lightning struck. And the Wolverines were burned. And The Big House was cleared. Only the faithful will return.

After last week's games I had to resort to phonetics for an argument that Michigan is an easier team to root for than Purdue. Most stadiums have familiar cheers that the home fans know how to perform. At Michigan it's a very simple and effective exchange of "Go!" and "Blue!" from one side of the stadium to the other.


It works well because it emphasizes two simple vowels with stable formants. They're back vowels with good energy in the low second formant making a nice resonant roar with a lot of energy at those lower frequencies.

The Purdue crowd yells "Go Boilers!" in the same cross-stadium exchange. Boilers isn't as good for the cheer. The [ɔ] in "Boilers" is hard to maintain. It's shorter because it falls into the [ɪ] of the diphthong killing that 2nd formant. Then the [lɹ̩z] syllable has no true vowel in it. And a second unstressed syllable composed mostly of approximants just doesn't create much of a boom.

But who needs sustained back vowels when you're scoring so much more than your opponent? I'll take TDs over IPA in a football game.

Last year the Michigan/Notre Dame game was a contest between two promising 2-0 teams: the winningest team in the history of I-A football (vs the 2nd winningest) and the team with the highest winning percentage (vs the 2nd highest). Tomorrow will be an unprecedented 0-2/0-2 showdown between a two teams that have never before been played each other when neither was ranked (since 1936 when ranking began).

It's a coin toss. I just hope it comes up heads.

Snow image from here.

Coin image from here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Spungoes home: Cowbogs away

For some reason I usually watch television with the subtitles playing even when the volume is turned up. This yields some interesting incongruities between the two texts: written and spoken. Sometimes it's a simple little difference like "then what?" (written) and "then what happened"(spoken). Or "do we have a case?"(spoken) and "have we got a case?"(written). Or "Not while I'm running the show!" (written) and "Not as long as I'm running the show!" (spoken) (examples taken from Seinfeld episode 122: "The Caddy").

Those are understandable. It's the type of variation that occurs in almost every report of an exchange. We tend to overlook strict phrasing and syntax and we report the semantic equivalent. What was that? becomes what did you say? and I've got becomes I have.

In episode AABF08 ("Sunday, Cruddy Sunday") of The Simpsons Homer finds out his Super Bowl tickets are fake. One of the indications that they're counterfeit (besides the fact that they're printed on some sort of cracker) is the team name on the passes.

When the line about the team name was delivered I heard the character say "There's no such team as the 'Spungoes'" but the subtitle read "There's no such team as the 'Cowbogs'."

My guess is that a subtitle script is provided separate from the sound file and the two sometimes diverge when there is a late change to the dialogue. Any idea why this line changed? I think I like "Cowbogs" better than "Spungoes"--or is it possibly complicated by the argument that "Cowbogs" could just be a typo or a misreading; so "Spungoes" makes Homer (and his travel agent "Wally Kogen" voiced by Fred Willard) more obviously foolish?

I regret that you think I was cheating

I don't really understand why players and coaches are fined for being critical of the officiating in a game. Let's say the officiating was so bad that something like an extra down was awarded to one of the teams. The players and coaches should be free to say That officiating sucked. Shouldn't they?

Officials can ruin a game by neglecting those acts that both teams expect will be repeated consistently and predictably.

Here's the lovely counterbalance: football is largely the competitive planning organizing and executing of plays and formations that are intended to both respond to and influence the plays that the opposing team might call. I love that the "might" is so important. Without it the sport becomes less interesting. Flexibility and adjustment is a big part of a successful team's strategy.

So there are some fines that make more sense to me. Fines that discourage dishonesty and flat out cheating. Something like the half-million dollar fine that was levied on Bill Belichick.

When a lackey was caught with a video recorder on the sidelines Belichick was fined $500,000 and the Patriots organization was fined $250,000. Videotaping is against the rules. There was no question that the team had broken a rule--a good rule--so a fine was reasonably imposed. Earlier Belichick issued a statement: "Earlier this week, I spoke with [NFL] Commissioner [Roger] Goodell about a videotaping procedure during last Sunday's game and my interpretation of the rules."

According to league spokesman Greg Aiello "The rule is that no video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game."

In a reaction to the fine Belichick stated: "My interpretation of a rule in the Constitution and Bylaws was incorrect."

In his first statement I notice that he calls it "a videotaping procedure." What difference would the definite article make? If he had referred to the videotaping procedure (even without the insist) the admission is that there was a specific act of which he is aware and which he knows everyone is expecting him to address. Using the indefinite article is a sly little dodge. "What camera? I don't see a camera. Is that ours? about that? What was that employee of mine doing? Really?" Then he turns to the press and says "Apparently there was some video tape stuff going on. The commissioner told me about it."

But that's not the ballsiest lingual legerdemain. How about those "interpretation" lines? So the rule says no video taping equipment of any kind is allowed. Other rules state that the equipment can only be used when there are walls all around and a roof overhead. Those are pretty clear. Where did Belichick find a loophole in the interpretation of these rules? "no video recording devices of any kind" I thought you meant some kinds of equipment are allowed.

The AP story; and the Bloomberg story.

Belichick's Reaction as posted on

It's a weak apology. He apologizes for the effect of his cheating not for the cheating. He even offers a lame it wasn't really cheating because it didn't work excuse. And he continues to insist that he didn't realize he was doing anything wrong. So where's the appeal? Where's the insistence that the rule needs to be changed and he shouldn't pay the half million? I put up a bigger fight on a sixth-grade grammar test when I knew the question was worded poorly.

I accept full responsibility for the actions that led to tonight's ruling. Once again, I apologize to the Kraft family and every person directly or indirectly associated with the New England Patriots for the embarrassment, distraction and penalty my mistake caused. I also apologize to Patriots fans and would like to thank them for their support during the past few days and throughout my career.

As the Commissioner acknowledged, our use of sideline video had no impact on the outcome of last week's game. We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress.

Part of my job as head coach is to ensure that our football operations are conducted in compliance of the league rules and all accepted interpretations of them. My interpretation of a rule in the Constitution and Bylaws was incorrect.

With tonight's resolution, I will not be offering any further comments on this matter. We are moving on with our preparations for Sunday's game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Google's grasp grows

One of Buffy's favorite comedy bits is David Letterman's Great Moments in Presidential Speeches. After a particularly funny one tonight she remarked that she wished we had recorded it.

"Wouldn't that be great to have them on tape?" she opined/asked.

Without thinking about a website mismatch I responded: "You could just go on YouTube and google all of them."

I know Google bought YouTube but I'm still quite sure I said it without a capital 'G' or the trade mark symbol (™).

[BTW Update:
Yeah yeah I know that this use of google as a verb is common. It was just because I used it expressly in connection with another website that it flicked my attention.

What Isis is is not clear

And the post title is not Isis.

Extris or Isis formation is an incompletely understood phenomenon in English speech. The history of the form and the influencing structures are not yet fully revealed. Further confusion comes from the impression that two adjacent identical copula verbs are sufficient (or necessary) to identify the type.

This latter confusion has been addressed by both Arnold Zwicky and Mark Liberman in the posts I linked to above. (If there was no line break between that last sentence would I have to say "linked to atop"?) To make the distinction quickly I'll just say that the following are examples of Isis formation:

  1. "what's funny is, is they're about the same person."

  2. "The only thing is, is that nobody has noticed it yet!!"

  3. "Now I feel that I must do something to help the cause and I feel the best way is, is to encourage everyone who reads this review to pick up the book and know the truth of the immense suffering of this peace-loving country that China is destroying."

  4. "[so] my other question would be is...": (A call-in commenter on C-SPAN's Washington Journal)

  5. "But the problem is, Charlie, is the U.S...": (Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach--interviewed by Charlie Rose) Split Isis. Nice.

The following are not Isis, but standard English forms:
  1. "They proudly call themselves egotists, when what they are is egomaniacs and megalomaniacs."

  2. "But what it is is a rousing good read."

  3. "What's weird is, is this new?": the second "is" is part of a question. Think of that question as the answer to another question 'What is weird?'

  4. "the second 'is' is part of a question.": I had to include this one right?

The first two are standard pseudocleft sentences. Imagine them without one of the copula verbs: *what they are(,)egomaniacs or *What it is(,)a rousing good read.

Also dodging the Isis label are performance errors like stutters and other disfluent repetitions.

Listen closely around 4:36 into the following video

Conchata Ferrell says "See my problem is is that I'm a giver." Some questions here: Did the writers put that into the script or did Conchata Ferrell just utter it as a natural form because the script is just loosely followed and not strictly obeyed? Did she deliberately choose the form as a characterization of Berta? If so, what does she believe the form implies about the Berta's character?

Zwicky provides an example from the show Charmed: "The difference is is that I don't want him to find you." He writes that it "was surely not a scripted bit," but I say it is hard to know. He also suggests that it "was probably not noticed by anyone involved with the episode." True. These things easily go unnoticed.

The guide to this episode of Two and a Half Men quotes Berta's line as "See, my problem is that I'm a giver." Is this an oversight or a correction? We may never know. But I just asked Buffy to quote the clip and she said "See my problem is that I'm a giver." Of course Ferrell utters the line very quickly and I can imagine that Buffy noticed the trip and discounted it as disfluency. I'll ask her.

Nope. She says she didn't notice it at all. "But she talked so weird" she says.

Monday, September 10, 2007

You two behave or I'm gonna separate you

The pronunciation of many place names is difficult to deduce because they are long which confuses the scansion; they are full of digraphs which combined with confused scansion confuses the vowels; and they are unfamiliar. It's the same thing that makes my last name so daunting for so many people. I say it [ˌkʰow.vəˈɻuː.bjəs]

But consider a place name like Hamtramck a city geographically embraced by Detroit. There's no real ambiguity there. It looks pretty clear: [hæmtræmk]. But the final consonant cluster is a problem in English so it has to be fixed. That's where the ambiguity comes in. We don't like a nasal and following adjacent consonant to have contrasting places of articulation when syllabification forces us to make them a cluster. So the labial [m] and velar [k] doesn't work for us word finally. How to fix it?

It could be any of several repairs including:

  • simple progressive place assimilation--[hæmtɹæŋk]: this has worked in tank and rank and tin cup (even tho it's not word final) and is one of the most common repairs. But that's a coronal [n] assimilating. Labial [m] is not as willing to move.

  • excrescent progressive place assimilation--[hæmtɹæmŋk]: but this is very unlikely because there's now a more complex cluster and the adjacent mŋ still needs to be fixed. One likely repair would be to delete the [m] leading to the first repair as a final form. It's not a likely extra step.

  • excrescent progressive manner assimilation--[hæmtɹæmpk]: the m takes the voiceless stop feature of the [k] which sometimes occurs with words like tense [tɛnts] and answer [æntsɻ] but isn't a fix because it leaves adjacent [pk]. If the [k] is then deleted we would come around to another possible repair.

  • regressive assimilation of place--[hæmtɹæmp]: this is more simple than the previous mentioned repair; it would require one step: k → p. But that's not a likely repair. The [k] likes to stay put. It's not like those peregrine coronal nasals that assimilate to place of articulation with relative ease.

But the local fix is none of these. Call epenthesis to the rescue. The city is pronounced as if it was spelled 'Hamtramick' with primary stress on the 2nd syllable--[hæmˈtɻæmɪk]. Think of the rhythm of ham sandwich.

This is not so surprising a repair. About a year ago Eric Baković put up a post on phonoloblog describing his wife's playful truncation of berry names. When she encountered a similar problem she avoided assimilation and turned to epenthesis as a repair. Baković writes
assimilation (*[bɔɪzəmbz]) is independently blocked by whatever is responsible for the lack of word-final noncoronal nasal-voiced stop clusters ([mb] and [ŋg]) in English, deletion (as in bomb [ba:m]) is also blocked because the point of the truncation is for the [b] of berries to be retained, and so epenthesis is employed as the last resort. At least, that's an interesting way to look at what may just be Karen’s funny way of talking.

Epenthesis is not a favoured repair for illegal clusters. It may be too 'obvious' a fix. But it apparently has its place. Stretching at least from San Diego to Detroit.


Lately there's been a tiny burst of discussion regarding place names and their pronunciation. Recently the LA Times ran an article about Jackie Johnson's website meant to help with those hard-to-pronounce Wisconsin names. Ben Zimmer and Nancy Friedman alerted Mr. Verb to the article and he covered it in a post. Then the topic showed up on the ADS-L board and subscribers are still throwing out all sorts of observations and questions about the words and attitudes involved.

Friday, September 07, 2007

All roads lead to...

About a week and a half ago Polyglot Conspiracy posted a list of the keywords that have led readers to her blog. It's a pretty good list. Then just earlier this week Mr. Verb reported finding a new eggcorn in his keyword list. One surfer used "lame mans terms" probably intending "layman's terms" (tho 'intending' is problematic because of the nature of snowclones).

Getting a good statistics counter makes for some fascinating graphs and a lot of easily wasted time. You have to wonder what some people are expecting to find. Several months ago I mentioned that one searcher stumbled on my site asking "what's a good dare for a gf?" I'm not sure he got any ideas from the blog but he might have been curious to try some of that freaky 'uvular frication' we like to talk about.

This is a cheap post. Still I'll not post all search terms because most of them make perfect sense. Quite interesting are the common search terms that bring in a steady flow of readers. Some of the most common search terms and phrases:

  • supercalifragilisticexbealidocious lyrics [and this is by far the most common spelling--of course that's the spelling I commented on so I might be missing all the searches for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious]

  • pronunciation of nabokov

  • pronunciation of favre

  • houshmandzadeh pronunciation

  • adewale ogunleye

  • -ology words [often asking for a list]

  • hoi vey [about 20 times more common than 'oy vey']

  • alphabetical principle

  • jeep, q-tip aspirin [and several other brand names that illustrate eponymy]

  • did alex trebek say the new world translation was the most accurate [this common query is apparently related to some Jehova's Witnesses propaganda claiming that the translation is so widely regarded to be superior that it even made it onto Jeopardy! as a question. I'm not sure if this is official JW propaganda or just a folk-argument]

Two of the most common searches since this blog got going:
  • howl /wail /pee /sweating /working /scream meaning /laugh like a banshee

  • ironic vs ironical [and often the question 'is ironical a word?'

Some typos searches I don't quite understand:
  • "colorless green ideals bade" [what does this mean?]

  • "3 i's lesson plan for high school english the topic is verb" [what are the 3 i's?]

Some searches are extremely clear--tho I'm surprised someone felt the need to ask so specific a question:
  • "what part of speech is "very" in the sentence: after the game tome was very tired."

And then there are those searches that I just don't know what the searcher could have been hoping to find.
  • i have to pee

Me too. but I already know what to do about it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

5th grade bullies

I have enjoyed watching a few episodes of Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader. I like the implication that a typical fifth grader can answer all the questions asked. I know I couldn't have answered them all at that age. And I can't answer all of them at this age. Sure I know that there are 13 stripes on the flag. And I can name all 5 Great Lakes. But I don't know the national dog of France. I would guess it's a Poodle. But I'm not sure.

And should I know for sure? Should I be embarrassed that I don't? Am I not smarter than a 5th grader? There's a split claim being made by the show. Everyone is familiar with the concern that Americans are stupid. We hear that 20% of the country can't find the country on a map and we think hmmm...Our schools are a mess so 1/5 sounds about right. Even though the actual number is probably closer to 1/15. Then we turn on the claim that Americans are stupid and we look to the 5th graders as a group that puts us to shame. American 5th graders. So maybe schools are getting better?

Well of course this show has made no overt claims that Americans are dumb. It might in fact be more intent on simply calling attention to a lot of kids that are representing us very well. But there's no entertainment without a patsy and what's better than an adult being made to look foolish by a kid. It's a great reversal. Have they had a 5th grade teacher compete on the show yet?

So the kids have the ɵ-role of THEME: the producers hired them. Or they are a GOAL if they receive the praise. They might be in the role of EXPERIENCER if they are personally encouraged by the praise. The kids can also be AGENT if they answer the questions or deliberately tease the contestants. They might be a SOURCE if the contestant gets an answer from the kids. The LOCATIVE role isn't as obvious. But there are opportunities for the contestant to sit next to a student.

That leaves INSTRUMENT as an unfilled role. If we consider the role of the contestant we find that the students are often used to make the EXPERIENCER grown-ups feel ashamed. If we make the producers the AGENTS we then make the kids the INSTRUMENTS.

But this can get out of hand. I read a sentence the other day that unwittingly put a brutish sense out there.

  • "I feel like seriously I could be beaten with a fifth grader!"

That puts the producers or some other AGENT in a pretty violent role. And it puts the kids into a very non-human INSTRUMENT role. It also called to my attention the way that prepositions can propel some very textured readings when they occur in an unexpected phrase. If the sentence simply changed "with" to "by" we wouldn't just assume that the kid is clobbering the writer. We would assume the pummeling was in some sort of a non-violent skills competition.

And of course a kind reading using with allows us to see the producers as nefarious agents of destruction and ridicule. And isn't that the safest bet when it comes to the suits at FOX?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The chupacabra in all possible worlds....

Phylis Canion of Cuero Texas found this ugly little beast dead on the side of the road. She's been calling it the legendary chupacabra and she's waiting for DNA testing to prove that it's...uh...not a dog?

Is this the mythical chupacabra? It depends on what your definition of is is. Or maybe just your definition of chupacabra. If you mean an odd looking creature with protruding teeth about the size of a small dog--then sure. This is a chupacabra. If you mean a small animal that hunts chickens and is rarely seen--then maybe this is a chupacabra. If you mean the very species of animal that has actually committed rampant goaticide and chickicide and has inspired many tales of demonic blood-sucking creatures from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the U.S. and several other countries--then...well...this and coyotes and wild dogs and foxes and jaguars and panthers and some snakes and birds of prey and mischievous humans are all 'el chupacabra'. Maybe even rats.

Legends are fascinating semantically because they are defined by their Prototypical Properties and yet they are extremely flexible because they often have no well-examined extension by which to create a Typical Denotatum. Necessary Conditions are almost impossible to impose because each speaker has merely chosen which of the Necessary Conditions make up the intention. And extensions are almost always ephemeral and partial. Sightings are merely instances of faith that investigation will not reduce a collection of properties to those belonging only to the extension of another already attested intention.

So Canion really can't expect that the DNA tests will prove that her creature is a chupacabra. There is no extension of that animal or its DNA that can serve as a standard for Necessary Conditions. So far she can only hope that the DNA is not limited to the same properties that are necessary and sufficient to denote the DNA of a dog or some other animal--probably canine. But even if the DNA does limit this to a canine of some sort all is not lost. It might turn out that the chupacabra was a nasty little mutt all along. That would require that some of the previously argued conditions of the chupacabra be discarded.

Because if by chupacabra you mean this

Then no. This is not the chupacabra.

(photos by Eric Gay/AP)
(drawing from here.)