Friday, August 29, 2008

Is it pronounced Vuhpilf or Veepilf?

Subscribe to the ADS-L email forum.* Today there's this offering from one contributor who thinks he might have come across the Acronym (or Initialism) of the Year:


or maybe it's VPilf

(which unpacks just as you'd expect, even if you don't know how to pronounce it).

There's even a corresponding web site:

Remember, you read it here first, unless you didn't. And given where we've been the last eight years, I'm pretty sure this one didn't exist before today.

Of course he must be forgetting that hotty John C. Calhoun, who had to resign for being too damn sexy.

* You really should if you have an extra email account that can stand to receive about 50 emails a day and you like to read ongoing and often meandering exchanges about the American language. Right now there is a thread going on (and on and on) about the pronunciation of Chinglish and the alphabetical principle.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What do you think...NOW?

Hugo: I'm with Jin. It's the monster
Sawyer: Yeah cause that makes the most sense.
Hugo: It does.

Sawyer's sarcasm comes from a rejection of evidence. Hugo's belief comes from acceptance of the same. They are both using logic. But take them out of Televisionia and Hugo is being irrational and is refusing to listen to reason.

But regular viewers of Lost accept that there are monsters on the island (at least black smoke) and Hugo's view seems well-founded and perhaps even more rational given the evidence we think he should be valuing. Ultimately that's science fiction. It's sometimes hard to hold science fiction to a standard. If anything can happen then the challenge of understanding is gone.

But I don't really believe that. Any story can give you a reference for understanding. Once you figure out the rules of the game you see how well the story plays by those rules. So we know that Superman can fly. That would ruin a lot of stories. But once we see that he has his weaknesses and we see that there are challenges that he can't meet so easily -- even with his x-ray vision and bulletproof chest -- we trust the story to give us surprising solutions.

And the available surprise is important. We suspend a lot when we appreciate a story that we know never happened. Even more when we know a story could never happen. My left brain might tell me that I can appreciate structure and technique and thematic behaviour even if I read the story from the last page to the front. But my right brain might want something more unknowable. Then again I should remember that while I have a left and right hemisphere in my brain, my mind is singular.

We love finding solutions. We also love working for solutions even if we never find them. (And by we I mean one of two things: either every single human being, or just those of us about whom these statements are true.)

But do we have to believe that a solution exists? And do we have to care how we find it and rationalize it? Is is important that I'll never prove that the writers of Lost were knowingly writing about an issue that matters to me and only to me? Do I care that some coincidences look too good to be true but they just keep showing up? This is meaningful! They have to know something about me to say these things! This is perhaps part of what Casey is getting at in his comment when he talks about knowledge. What proof do we need?

If Casey's lament is that no one appreciates or rewards right-brained thinking then I'm pretty sure he'll back down once we start looking at music and poetry and art and all the people who love it but have no idea how to produce it.

He might not back down from the statement that research and medicine and science in general value a predictable method and a conclusion that has been reached by a certain process. Actually we don't know what Science values. But we know what scientists value. Do they just value results? Well even if a result is reproducible it isn't worth much unless the method of reproducing it has been sanctioned.

A friend sent an email responding to the question of measured vs intuited knowledge. Jeff (another choral comrade) is a biologist teaching at what he calls "a smallish liberal Arts school in New York where research is viewed as an important teaching tool, but not to the exclusion of education." He focuses on ecology and entomology. He offered the following thoughts:

You need "logic" thought or "rational" thought, or however you want to label it for complex processing of multivariable information. For example, knowing that one must start storing food because last night it was light until 8:15 and tonight it was only light until 8:00.

On the other hand, instinctual or innate response is incredibly important, as without it you would be dead. In certain situations processing time is so exceedingly limited that logical thought would take too long and the consequences of inaction would be fatal.

Selection therefore favors an interplay between the two processes and how specific species, or even populations of a single species at different time points balance the two types of thought is environmentally controlled based on the predictability of the habitat and the overall contribution of long-term planning vs. quick response on survival rate.

All organisms do this. In fact, we can gain interesting insight on the matter from insects, which have a decentralized nervous system. In each body segment, there is a central processing unit of sorts which takes sensory information in and immediately responds to threats. That's why it's so hard to catch a fly in mid-air. On the other hand, the timing of reproduction and metamorphosis are exceedingly complicated and involve the integration of photo cues as well as temperature cues. These "upper level" processes are sent to the brain (yes, insects have brains, and they are even in their heads) for analysis.

The amusing uptake is that were one to decapitate a cockroach, until it starved it would remain alive and respond to threats just as quickly as when it was whole. It wouldn't be able to molt or mate, but almost everything else (well, anything it could handle with mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors) still functions normally.

Jeff nicely establishes an important difference. Not so much between types of knowledge, but between responses to information. We see images and feel forces and develop an understanding of a situation through all of our senses. But the knowledge that comes not from our senses but from our memory and a slower analysis of data is usually considered the more rational. Not always because our senses are faulted for being incorrect but because they are considered to be incomplete.

But as Jeff reminds us we don't always have the luxury of verifying every one of our impressions. And his examples repeat the point that I have made previously: Our culture doesn't really privilege 'logic' and marginalize 'intuition'. It simply uses the analyses differently.

If we accuse Hugo of believing in a monster too quickly it is because of a skepticism that tells us not to change our assumptions too quickly. But again this skepticism is not categorical. Sometimes we change our minds very quickly on huge issues. Sometimes we change our minds based on very little evidence. Isn't this what you want Casey?

But beyond data and conclusion we have to look at analysis and explanation. If anyone thinks that linguists don't have enough faith in the unseen they haven't studied phonology. This post is long enough to end. I'll pick up the point on phonology later.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Does it rhyme with favor?

**Interlude before I release the follow-up to my logic/intuition post**

Brett Favre has left quite an impression. Not just on football. On orthographic patterns too. You might recall that Middle English det came to be spelled debt in Modern English; the <b> added because of a purposeful connection to Latin dēbitum. It's odd that spelling would move in a direction away from the most likely representation of pronunciation. But it happens. Even today.

Brett's impact is evident from a typo in an AP Yahoo! headline.

His name is Robert Marve. Evidently the Norman influence is still at work.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I just know I'm right.

A few posts ago Casey was just being Casey when he wrote in a comment

I think it's really most interesting that you're willing to accept so easily [Mark Halpern's] argumentative premise: that physical reactions are not rational, and that that makes them irrelevant.

By now, haven't we all learned the follies of "rationalism," and the ways in which the claim to rationalism often occurs on both sides of a dialectical argument or strictly in self-interest or whatever?
And because he's being Casey I don't dismiss his claims. Plus he was kind enough to take his ideas a little farther in a post of his own. He draws a line between "heady" and "hearty" approaches to experience. He aligns these with left-brained thinking and right-brained thinking respectively.

I'm going to ignore the issue that he raises regarding right/left-handedness. I'll focus on the topic of reason and logic being valued over... faith? Beauty? Intuition? Feeling? Physiology? Irrationality? Which is it Casey?

In my post I actually go into a defense of the relevance of physical reaction. My concession to Mr Halpern was that my reaction is not the reason you should agree with me. Nor do I argue that you should agree with me. The point of my correspondence with Halpern was that I should not change my mind based on his claims. Because I value the weaknesses I see in them. And Halpern was making a reciprocal point.

So let's look at Casey's larger issue here. He claims in his thesis
that the rational and non-rational thinking are co-equal (if very different) ways of encountering the world.

And I get the impression that he thinks I would disagree.

My thesis: We are not more "heady" than "hearty."

Through a comment thread at another blog I have been contributing to an extended debate on a topic that combines politics religion and science. I don't need to be specific about it here because this is neither a political nor religious forum and I'm not very interested in making it one. But in the more than 4000 words that I've written over there I have asked for evidence of scientific claims and I have rejected claims that are based on logical fallacies and loaded definitions and circular logic. But I have also rejected claims simply because I don't value what those claims privilege. I have told other contributors that their fears are not my fears and that their values split from mine because I simply believe certain things are self-evident. Based on what you might ask? Well it can only be my values right? And how can I argue the self-evidence of a view with someone who says it's not so. Clearly they are making the more logical claim. If we are disagreeing about obviousness then how come they don't see what I see? Because ultimately my argument is based on a principle -- not on criteria met. If I may paraphrase my ultimate rationale in that argument: fear is not a reason to protect yourself from an unknown outcome.

Perhaps politics and religion make this point too easily. Such arguments are not often the in the demesne of rationality.

I could of course turn to the arts and start another rational argument providing evidence that intuition and appreciation of the irrational is in healthy competition with logic. But I think I'll take a more interesting approach. In my next post I'll argue that linguistics doesn't always rely on the rational. And I won't ignore the arts. I'll try to connect my point to my new time killer: Lost.

Wouldn't a little be enough?

More and more I think the BBC knows that it's doing this sort of thing.The reporting starts of with nods to a reasonably skeptical tone. But the story about the allegedly existent hirsute megalopodous quasihomonid ends on a cheeky note.

Stories of a giant ape roaming the forests of North America date back to before European settlement. But despite occasional footprints and photographs, there has never been much proof of Bigfoot's existence.
But there may be some charitable reading of this use of proof. It may be related to the term from Scottish law for a civil case. Or it may be some sort of cancelable predicate. If it's worth specifying proof beyond a reasonable doubt then it can also be proved within an enormous amount of reasonable doubt. Right?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Phonology isn't as fun at Subway

One test of the structure of a phoneme is the behavior. And one place we can observe the behaviour is in language games and errors.

I've mentioned my friends' Horse Latin speech disguise. The rules are simple you follow the first consonant of every syllable with -ibe (rhyming with bribe). So hot is hibe-ot; cold is kibe-old. banana is bribe-a-nibe-a-nibe-a.*

Let me back up. It's not fair to say that the -ibe follows the first consonant. It actually follows any onset cluster. So TRee becomes TRibe-ee instead of Tibe-Ree.

This hasn't told us anything about phonemic structure. But imagine a similar game that doesn't take the onset cluster but just the first consonant sound. In that language game tree would be tibe-ree and fly would by fibe-ly. And if we were analyzing the data when this game is applied to an unknown language we might find an clue to phonemic structure if we heard the disguised form of a made-up word like choom. Our question would be about that ch onset. Assuming that the pronunciation is appropriate to an Anglicised spelling convention we would know that the word is pronounced ʧum (rhyming with room).

But what of that affricate onset? Is it a single phoneme or two? Well if we know the rules of the language game we simply ask a speaker to disguise the word. And we know that the speaker will break apart any onset clusters. So if the disguise is chibe-oom [ʧaɪbum] we have some evidence that the ʧ is a single consonant sound because it's being treated that way. If the disguise is tibe-shoom [taɪb.ʃum] we see that the t and ʃ are being split which is evidence that they are seen as separate sounds and not a single phonemic affricate. Evidence. Not proof. More testing is required.

Now speech errors:

We look for similar effects. When someone offers up a spoonerism we see some evidence of how segments are organized. Sometimes whole clusters get switched so FLank STeak becomes STank FLake (I dated one once). But sometimes the speech error effects a change of only the first segment of a cluster. So Brew Clubber becomes Crew Blubber. One thing you might expect to notice in English is that an affricate isn't split because it's a single consonant sound. It should behave like one and not split into the two segments: t and ʃ.

But don't count on such clean data. Language is performed by people. And people hate to be contained.

My nieces love to eat at Schlotzsky's. But they have trouble pronouncing it. One of the slogans: "Funny Name. Serious Sandwich." How funny is the name? [ʃlatskiz]: That onset cluster ʃl is rare in English. It's usually found in words borrowed from Yiddish (or a few from German). One of my friends simply solved the phonotactic dilemma by epenthesis. "Sha-lote-skees" he said.

My nieces are much more impressive. They replace the ʃl cluster with a more comfortable cluster: sl. So what happens to the ʃ? They just move it over to the place formerly occupied by the s. Between the t and the k.

That complicates things. Because this makes for an odd repair. They've replaced a somewhat awkward (in English) cluster ʃl with an easier one sl. But they've completely mucked up the other cluster. The next cluster would normally be an easy onset sk on the 2nd syllable following a coda t closing off the first syllable.** But their repair makes it an almost unheard of onset ʃk. Ah but wait: there's no problem if the ʃ attaches to the preceding coda instead. So now you have a coda ʧ and a simplified onset k. And there's no constraint violation and you didn't have to resort to such an inelegant repair as epenthesis. These kids have thought about this carefully.***

[ʃlat.skiz][slaʧ.kiz] when you let kids work their magic.

* A word about stress and vowels: typically the stress of the original form changes and the new form gets penultimate stress: i.e. on the the last '-ibe'. Vowels tend to get neutralized to ə. Some high vowels like i or u might retain their quality. But others like æ and o are neutralized unless it's the final vowel. So you get bibe-oat for boat but bibe-a-tiber for boater.

** I propose this is a coda t and onset sk because I like onset maximization.

*** Not really. That's what makes phonology so interesting.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!

My brother In Tradition, Camaraderie, & Musical Excellence: Paul Mow.

When I was in the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club it was led by Jerry Blackstone. He's now a Grammy winner. He was probably the best musical diagnostician I've ever worked with. If something didn't sound right it wasn't enough to identify what the mistake was and who made it. He would also identify which progressions and notes were causing the confusion. Sometimes a singer misses an interval because of an odd chord progression or because of a melody line that moves from 2nd tenors to baritones without warning. If you listen for the wrong harmony you might hear a discordant or unresolved chord and compensate with the wrong line. It was a lot of fun watching Blackstone solve problems by correcting an understanding of the score rather than just giving the right note.

He didn't like to organize the ensemble by section. All parts should be blended, so singers from each section were scattered evenly around the risers. If you had a strong voice you were told to stand back row center. It was a musical backbone. Paul Mow always stood in the center of the back row. His voice was a beacon.

In one clinic presentation Blackstone was describing to a roomful of choral directors this method by which the best singers were placed there to influence the rest of the singers. He turned around and addressed the poor singers who must have felt they were being relegated to the shameful wings.

'You guys on the end of the first row must think I hate you.' Everyone in the room laughed. 'Well you're partly right' he said, with hardly a smile. He turned back to the audience and continued to instruct. The man was a master. But he was brutal.

Once during a rehearsal Blackstone heard something wrong. He asked just the basses to sing their part. We sang it. He looked at me. My spine twisted. My heart shook. 'Aw crap' I thought.

'Michael,' he said, 'go stand next to Paul.'

It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

It's not bragging when you're #73

I've been noticing a few visits from a page at Lexiophiles listing the Top 100 Language Blogs. The list is basically the top half of their full list of 250 blogs.

Such a long list can be suspicious. It can look like a link mine. But here I think they've done more careful consideration than a simple wholesale pulling of sidebar html links. Here's a page explaining the list and criteria.

Contributing blogger Christopher writes: We identified three main categories: content, consistency and interactivity. We know that no ranking is 100% accurate and always somewhat subjective. Still, we feel that these three categories give a good overall view of how good a blog really is. Sounds reasonable. And you can also vote if you wish.

I haven't done a very thorough reading of the other posts on the site. It looks like there have been regular posts over the last few weeks and the content is in several languages from several writers. A multilingual contributor language blog. I kinda like that already.

It's a young blog and the list is likely a lure to get some attention, to get mentions by the listed blogs and to earn several incoming links. Well they've been getting all that. And even if the list has a somewhat solicitous intention I won't fault them for enterprise. It works. And it's not shoddy work. Though I don't agree with all the ordering (I'm especially distraught to be listed above certain blogs) and there are several bad gaps -- missing blogs -- it's a good list to visit for the purpose of populating a feed reader or a list of your own.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I feel much better, thanks. But I still disagree.

My citations of Halpern's recent article are taken from a draft he was kind enough to share with me through personal correspondence. They will not reflect any further changes that occurred before publication.

Several months ago I wrote of my reaction to Mark Halpern's admission that he regards "the patois of the Black ghetto as inferior...because it demonstrably lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses." I chose to let my readers know that I was struck by this view. I included mention of my physical reaction. I'm not the first to do so when expressing an opinion. And Mr Halpern finds this troubling. In the most recent Vocabula Review (July 2008) he proclaims this as a foreshadowing of the demise of rationality. He writes in his column "You Make Me Sick: Symptoms as Arguments":

If this becomes at all widely accepted, we will have entered a post-logical period in which much of the thought characteristic of Western civilization, from the pre-Socratics to Gödel, is discarded, and rationality openly abandoned.

Mr Halpern's response to my reaction offers insight and humor. And it's evasive: he only promises a response to the issue that first caught my attention. The issue that first impelled me to write. Of course I'll have to wait for the second edition of his book. And while I might say that my anticipation has me tapping my fingers eagerly, I should probably reconsider how relevant that is.

Halpern says that my post consists "largely or even solely of a recital of . . . physical symptoms" and he includes me in the "numbers of people [who] seem to have accepted the idea that one’s physical reactions on hearing an argument are weighty and relevant considerations in deciding whether that argument is valid."

But nowhere in my piece do I say that this reaction is part of the rationale for my views. I never argue that the reader should agree with me because of my physical reaction. And I would never say that the reason I disagree with Mr Halpern's views is because I gasped on reading them. That's evidence of disagreement. It's evidence of my surprise that he considers his view rational. It's not evidence that his view is invalid.

Some of us have seen fit to mention heartbeats and viscera because a relationship exists between writer and audience. And trusting that my perspective is relevant, before I present the progression towards my conclusion through logic, I occasionally introduce the reader to my relationship with the ideas. But I know that relevance is not validity. And if I let the reader know my reaction, it is an appeal to the pathos of the issue. Certainly not the logos. Discussions have parts. Not all parts are evidence.

Mine was a short post. A post written with a small and mostly sympathetic audience in mind. And the post promises a beginning. A discussion follows including a comment by a good friend asking me to provide more evidence of the type I promise. That friend challenges me and even expresses frustration with some of my devices. And when he writes "Something in my brain goes 'pop'" I understand that this metaphorical physical reaction is offered because he knows I care about his relationship to his ideas. I was happy to respond in writing and later in face-to-face interaction. This is typical of the forum.

But I believe Mr Halpern already knows of this quality of argument. He has written before that his response to being labelled a "prescriptivist" is to "groan inwardly."1 This may not be nausea. Then again it might be. Either way he is not using it as evidence or support for his eventual argument. Unless we isolate 'I disagree' as his argument.

In my post I identify one of Mr Halpern's claims and I provide the form of evidence and rationale for disagreement. His view that one dialect is inferior to another because they don't share all abilities to express ideas is an arbitrary determination. It seems to function on the premise that different language systems must be stacked vertically. Altho I reveal that my physical reaction to this is an audible gasp, I add -- and this is in an attempt to validate my disagreement -- that his view ignores the ability that non-standard English dialects have to express some things in a way that standard English cannot. Because his claim doesn't offer a specific example of these differing abilities there is no further data or analysis to disagree with. Nor did I feel driven to provide examples of my point. But I make a lofty proclamation: that I will dedicate my career to providing an alternate voice.

This is no revolutionary agenda. It's the foundation of linguistics to treat all natural languages and dialects as having equal worth. Most linguistics textbooks provide an explanation of the linguist's task of describing rather than prescribing. And it's not even based on a view that prescription is wrong or evil or ignorant. It's simply not of interest.

Linguists might however jump on claims that are not supported by facts or reasonable analysis. And occasionally when doing so I step away from my task of impartial inquiry and I offer an expression based on political, social and wholly personal values. My reaction to Mr Halpern's comments betrays some of these. But I withhold all judgement of him and his values outside the field of language. There are obvious correlations between views on language and views on culture. And there are correlations between views on culture and other values. But no correlations that I'm willing to argue give me any insight into an individual. Especially when Mr Halpern says, provocatively, that he is preparing a more "penetrating" presentation of his claim regarding dialects. This has me most curious. And I can make no comment about it because I'm not sure exactly what he plans to pierce: the heart of his claim or the corps of its opponents.

1 A Few Catty Remarks on 'Dangerous Creatures

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I only know 48 of the most common words

The problem with this game is that you can play it only once.* That's also part of its beauty. Anyway it's worth the 5 minutes just to see how you do. (The post title is my score.)

The challenge: list the 100 most common words in English. The game will automatically enter the words as you type them. If you are entering a longer word and the first letter or two is also a word it will take the shorter word first. Then you can just retype the longer word and it will take it automatically.

Come back for a panel discussion on the point of a game like this. What do you think of exercises like this? What did you learn? Were you uncomfortable with any of the tasks? What might this tell us about the language? Did you feel respected?

via: languagehat


*you could of course play it again but that'd be kinda lame.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

PLA T-shirt

Here is this year's design.

On the back:

I've never cared to hide my nerdiness. I'm perfectly happy being the one symbol in the list that isn't part of a natural class. (If you know what that means you're probably one of those symbols too.)

So now I get to proudly wear a shirt proclaiming my tripartite nerdiness: linguist, environmentalist, pollyanna.

Well done Sunny.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Malwebolence -- evil in the tubes

I hadn't heard the word malwebolence before today. But it gets 144,00 Google™ hits. Many of them are recent. It's malevolence on the web.

Rich Hannon in a recent Spectrum blog post uses it in the title of a NYTimes article he read about trolls and the online havoc they wreak.

It's an interesting word. Mal- is of course the prefix indicating general … uh … badness -- be it through evil or neglect. Malevolent malnourished maladroit malign &c The sense of willful evil isn't still there in all these words tho malus was evil in Latin.

Web is the locative infix. No it's not. But I've not used the phrase locative infix yet on this blog and when it comes to a bad joke I believe better wrong than never.

And -olence?

We can't get too technical with coined terms such as these. They don't often follow an etymological orthodoxy. So the -ol- would normally be connected to a -volen- base (a form based on the present participle of Latin velle; desire, will) that we find as the center piece in male-/ bene-/ [volen] \-t \-ce and other related frankenwords.

Hannon suggests another etymology:

Malwebolence is a newly coined word that hacks together mal (bad), web and violence.

I'm not sure where Hannon gets this analysis. The web story doesn't offer the etymology. Tho he says the title is "Malwebolence – The Trolls Among Us" the online page itself only uses "The Trolls Among us" as the title. There is a link to the story under the heading Malwebolence - The World of Web Trolling. But the body of the story doesn't even have the word. Is it in the print version? Any readers out there?

Well -- whoever did it -- throwing violence in there is an unnecessary stretch. It's etymologically gratuitous violence. I'll stick with web malevolence as the influence.

But what I like most about the word is the solid phonological link to the original. If all we're doing to malevolence is using -web- instead of -ev- we have a nice w / l__ɛ which makes some sense. It's almost vocalization. In a while we'll test the pronunciation to see if the l can sustain an adjacent w without being swallowed up into pure vocalization. And then of course going from v to b requires only a tiny little change from +continuant to -continuant. The sound is still consonantal. It's still voiced. And since English doesn't have a labiodental stop the loss of continuance naturally nudges it over into the bilabial column. And phonologically they're both just [labial] anyway. Gorgeous.

Friday, August 01, 2008

They're coming to take me away.

Blogger thinks I'm suspicious. Head over to the ridger's post to read the latest accusations aimed at us.

Some might believe that this is just the result of a blogger search-bot/sentinel covering a blog-block and thinking that all the mutual links are suspicious. But I suspect some more nefarious force.

I think someone's been naming names. The grammar police are pounding on our door and they're getting set to bust in with their gramrod.

Are you now or have you ever been a descriptivist or descriptivist sympathizer?