Thursday, October 30, 2008

Don't Vote.

The language of Jesus

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program, Foreign Correspondent, presents a report from Matt Brown on the efforts in Malula, Syria to preserve Aramaic.

My favourite lines from the piece, from a shepherd to his sheep:

Come to the meadow, come to drink and dance. … Come here, you blonde. You are prettier than a bird.

(On my browser the only video link that works is the Flash Video link below the main text.)

Via matjjin-nehen

Monday, October 27, 2008

The road not understood

Today I ran into two sentences that caused mild confusion due to a garden-path-like effect. Each of them influenced by a different red-herring.

The first occurred sometime before noon. Here at Purdue (and certainly at other institutions) everyone logs on to the computer network via their career account. It's the same account that stores files and hosts personal web pages. Mine has been acting up and I was going through a little manual fix. My friendly officemate walks in and asks how I'm doing. Without turning around and with an apparently distraught tone I say: 'Oh…I'm just trying to work out some problems with my career account.'

It's a pretty specific and obvious garden-path effect. In the full sentence it should be clear that the noun career is a specifier on account. So it functions like an adjective. But until you've heard the entire sentence you might think that I've said I have career problems. And the look of concern on my officemate's face betrayed the temporary misdirection. She was relieved. I started to explain a model of the source of her confusion. She changed the subject.

The second mis-taking occurred when I was listening to Buffy explain her recent fatigue. I don't think I drink too much coffee yesterday. And so I thought she was tired enough to produce that ungrammatical sentence. But she didn't flinch. And in the moment just before I prepared to tease her I finished processing the effect of her Minnesota accent on the sentence. I started to explain to her and another officemate what led me astray and they told me to write a blog post instead. So…

You see, Buffy's a pre-velar raiser. She raises the cat hat back snack vowel /æ/ to a closed-mid front [e] (name bake say) when it comes before a voiced velar stop /ɡ/ or before a velar nasal /ŋ/ —the gang bang coda consonant. I don't raise much (if at all) before the stop. I do raise a little bit before the nasal. But nothing like Buffy. She raises so much that it's almost a lax high front [ɪ] (or perhaps the higher close central [ɨ]).

So her pronunciation of drank is almost identical to her pronunciation of drink. And without a disambiguating context leading into the word I couldn't tell the difference. If she had said Well, yesterday I only drank a small cup of coffee I wouldn't have been as likely to wander down the wrong path.

The first sentence, wandering down the wrong career path, is a pretty typical temporary detour and the correct meaning becomes clear quickly and easily.

The second sentence is almost a simple mishearing because her pronunciation is ambiguous. But I'm not usually confused by her pre-velar raising and I can see how the path of the sentence made it easier to hear the wrong word. So it isn't just pronunciation that can make all the difference.

† But not because she's bored by linguistics. She simply had a question about other linguisticky matters. Such officemates are a treasure.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Just special words

Sotto Voce has just published its online Issue #1. Included in this opening issue is Mark Leahy's beluga, beluga. A fine story. And Mark has been listening carefully to his linguistics teachers:

She said softly, to herself, “Kites,” which I had forgotten about, but was part of a language we invented when we were kids. Not a real language, just special words.

See he could have stuck with the claim that codes and clues and symbols are enough to make a language. But instead he stays credible. And he's stays calmly and believably tragic. Go ruin your weekend by reading it. And vote for it to be included in a print anthology.

† Full disclosure: He's also been listening to me. He's a friend. And we've known his work for a while now.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It's not a compliment

Nancy Friedman posted a 'tweet' about this somehow disconcerting page.

I skimmed through the copy and found myself constantly misreading "Twittad" as twitwad or twit wad.

Twit wad. I love it. It uses twit: a mild but nicely dismissive term. It evokes all the '___ wad' insults, especially shit wad. It hints at the very effective and very crass twat. I'm going to use it. But for what? What is a twit wad?

Google™ results:
Search term "twit wad" yields 7 hits.
Search term twitwad yields 48 hits.

So it's young. Let's give it a personality.

My first thought of course is to connect it to Twitter:

Twit Wad
That idiot in every meeting or class or audience that's constantly making little side comments that aren't nearly as funny as he thinks they are.

This is how Johnny 5 learned too

On a stupid stupid sitcom a character named Sheldon (with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that name) used two pronunciations that caught my attention.

"novice" pronounced ˈnoʊ.vɪs | NO-viss

"plebeian" pronounced pləˈbi.ən | ple-BEE-en

Sheldon's pronunciation of novice isn't attested anywhere. I've only ever heard the first vowel ɑ (as in father) except maaaybe from a highschooler reading the word aloud for the first time. Sheldon's an arrogant genius who's utterly socially inept so maybe it's a part of his character to overdo a pronunciation. Did the actor (Jim Parsons) put that in or did the writers? We may never know.

On the other hand, his pronunciation of plebeian is attested everywhere. In fact I couldn't find my pronunciation (ˈən | PLEE-bee-en) anywhere. I'm an arrogant 'smart' guy who's wondering how orthoepically inept he (I) is (am). I'm guessing I've based my pronunciation on a preservation of the stress on monosyllabic plebe.

You don't have to admit that you use the same pronunciation I do (tho that'd be kind). But have you at least heard it? Have you been snickering behind my back every time I say it?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ELBONICS has nothing to do with language.

Elizabeth has posted a few suggestions for teaching morphology and semantics. She's been putting up some nice posts on classroom instruction.

To get the kids doing some word formation she suggests a sniglets game. I wish I had thought of that. I used to read a lot of Rich Hall's stuff. I'd even laugh occasionally. I remember a couple of his terms (please forgive me if the spelling is wrong).

bevemirage: the colored plastic base of a 2-liter soda bottle that always makes you think there's still pop

accordionation: the ability to read a roadmap while driving

That second one might have been the adjective accordionated. I'm not sure. But the fact that they're both completely made up and yet one form makes the other a very likely alternative form is a good morphology lesson in itself.

Elizabeth provides a few more definitions for things that don't have a single word name, but could.

a. People who go through the express checkout with more than the maximum number of items (best neologism I've heard (from a magazine): "expressholes")

b. Americans who sew Canadian flags to their backpacks when travelling to avoid anti-American sentiment (best answers I've heard: "conardiens" (from the very rude French insult conard) and "ehmericans")

c. The feeling you get after turning in a test when you realise one of your answers was wrong (best answer I've heard: "whommmmp")

d. The dirty melted snow that builds up on roadsides (best answer I've heard: "dookie-yuki" (from the Japanese word for snow, yuki))

e. What you would call Indiana if you were an explorer and discovered it as it is today (best answers I've heard: "cornhole," "Nascarolina")

I'm done teaching this semester's morphology unit, so it's too late for me. Next time I'll be sure to give the game a try.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is it because you're stupid or because you're ignorant?

(audio only)

(h/t to casey)

Howard Stern sent Sal to do a man-on-the-street bit. It's pretty funny. But it doesn't say as much about the voters or their ignorance of policies as it does about the power of a question to trigger a presupposition.

An important point: It's unfair to point this accusation only at black voters. Ask voters of all races supporting either candidate questions like this and you'll get similar results.

When I heard the first question I didn't catch on immediately to what happened. And believe it or not I'm a reasonably smart fellow. I know the difference between pro-life and pro-choice but when someone asks if I support Obama "because he's pro-life" I might very likely hear it as pro-choice. Remember the old gag that asks Where do you bury the survivors? It doesn't work because of ignorance. It works because of cooperative principles.

In the next interview it doesn't sound to me like the person answering the question is taking a stance on stem-cell research. It sounds more like he's taking a stance alongside Obama on a phrase that he doesn't quite understand

Q: Are you for Obama or McCain?
A: Obama.
Q: OK. And why not McCain?
A: Well I just don't agree with some of his…you know…policies. No.
Q: Now Obama says that he's anti stem-cell research. How do you feel about that?
A: I…I believe that's…I wouldn't do that either. An—…I'm anti stem-cell…yeah

He's obviously not anti stem-cell. We kinda need those to become...well, everything. But it sounds like an issue that he doesn't quite get.

I'm not just trying to defend these interviewees. These are embarrassing exchanges. And it sounds like their grasp of the issues is a bit light. But I suggest that their willingness to agree to some of the statements is largely due to the pragmatic conventions in discourse. Questions that begin "is it because X" presuppose that X is true. The same way that a yes/no question can easily trap you into answering in a way that accepts an unfair presupposition. One old standard example is did you stop beating your wife? If I answer either yes or no I've simply affirmed the unstated condition: that at some point I did beat my wife.

The episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Coast to Coast Big Mouth shows Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) getting caught by just such a question. I have to go by memory here: talk-show host, Johnny Patrick asks Laura if Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) ever takes off his toupee. I can't remember if she answers yes or no, but it doesn't matter. [Update: Elizabeth's comment sounds about right. 'Oh no, he wears it all the time' sounds just like Laura Petrie.] The form of the question presupposes that Brady wears a toupee. Laura then takes this to mean that Patrick knows about Brady being bald. And she answers accordingly.

There's always the option of responding without agreeing to the premise of the question: 'neither' or 'I've never beat my wife' or 'he doesn't wear a toupee' or 'Obama isn't pro-life' are fair responses. It's just not clear that you'll need to resort to this when you're being interviewed by someone that you assume is asking a felicitous question.

Monday, October 13, 2008

First poll in a while

I'm curious. Please answer this simple question.

How do the following sentences sound to you?

  • We transferred the money to Kim.
  • We transferred Kim the money.

Good? Bad? Not sure?

Arnold Zwicky just used them in a post and gave a grammaticality judgment that I don't completely agree with. [Update: Maybe I should ask that you not read the LL post until after you cast a vote. This is serious stuff here you know.] Such differences occur often, so every careful linguist remembers to qualify grammaticality judgments appropriately. And Zwicky does just that. He makes it clear that he's talking about how most speakers would judge the sentences.

Please answer the poll question on the left sidebar and leave any comments below if you have them. My thanks.

[Update2: please ignore the poorly worded sentence in the poll! …the following sentences above… Ha! I can't edit it because people have answered the poll. *sigh*]

Sunday, October 12, 2008


The moral of the story: You can't take a bull by the horns and eat it too.

So is Palin Goose or Charlie?

A short piece at takes a look at the history and current state of maverick. Usually pieces like this are eager to provide an easy story that sounds reasonable. And they're often much too easy to be true. Those are called folk etymologies.

But this story keeps it together and gives a decent history.

In the 1860s, Samuel Maverick was an indifferent herder who refused to brand his cattle. When cowboys would see his unmarked cows wondering the countryside, they'd say, 'Oh that's a Maverick.'

Compare that to the OED entry:

< the name of Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-70), U.S. politician, and the owner of a large herd of cattle in Texas in which the calves were unbranded.

Also relevant to the story of this word: the use of an emerging derivation

It seems the family's biggest confusion is not that McCain links himself to a liberal family (We have some Republicans in the family now admits Mrs. Maverick) but that he hasn't done anything very mavericky.

Mavericky is an adjective that is formed by the derivational adjective suffix -y. It's been making the rounds. SNL used it amusingly in its VP debate sketch

Tina Fey (as Sarah Palin): With Barack Obama you're gonna be payin' higher taxes. But not with me and my fellow maverick. We are not afraid to get mavericky in there and ruffle feathers, and not got to allow that. And also too: the great Ronald Reagan.

† We could say a lot about the different types of folk etymology. Two major types: 1) Explicit: a false story about the history of a word. Explanations like the claim that posh is an acronym for Portside Out Starboard Home; or that fuck is an acronym meaning for unlawful carnal knowledge or fornication under carnal knowledge or fornication under command of the king; or that hooker (prostitute) is related in origin to Civil War general Joseph Hooker —all false. 2) Effective: a morphological analysis that mistakenly connects words just because they sound or look similar. These might not be explicitly noted but they often affect pronunciation (as Geoff Nunberg suggests that a folk etymological connection to words like molecular and particular has effected the pronunciation 'nuk-yu-ler') or meaning (as jejune has been connected to the idea of youth probably because of resemblance to juvenile while the true etymology connects it to the sense of emptiness by fasting).

Friday, October 10, 2008

It's not guessing if you're good

I came across this fun little game recently. It's simple. Just figure out from the accents where the speakers are from when they read lines from an English poem (Rudyard Kipling's If).

After the lines are read you'll get to pick from a list. I missed one country and a few of the cities. But true to the name of the game some of these were guesses. I don't know that I'd do so well with a new batch of speakers.

Which clues were you able to use to identify nationality? Any misleading pronunciations?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Perhaps he should wash more

Barack Obama: Now Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and I'm just spouting off and he's somber and responsible.
John McCain:: Thank you very much.

McCain could have responded with a bit more of a chide. Something like 'No. I never said that. I said you're wet behind the ears,' as that's the typical saying.

This is a blend. Not so much a syntactic blend, which ends up making a sentence ungrammatical, but a blended idiom. Obama took two idioms, the phrase wet behind the ears and the single word green meaning inexperienced, and combined them by replacing the adjective in the phrase with the single word -- easy to do because it's also an adjective.

Years ago in high school I wrote a story that I thought was very clever, about matador who won a bullfight then feasted on steak made from the slaughtered animal. He ate too much and got sick. He learned his lesson. Because of course the moral of the story is...

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Worth investigating. So...

Michael Quinion has made available an online version of his Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings. Take a look.

Not worth investigating. But...

Then maddening antics of Paul Payack have caught the attention of CNN. (We know Payack from his claims about the English word count. He's still making ridiculous claims about a vocabulary size that he thinks is worth giving a specific number. That's like counting the teaspoons of water in a rainstorm. How would you decide what to count and how in the world would you do it?) His latest gimmick is commentary on the debates. The CNN story reports:

An analysis carried out by a language monitoring service said Friday that Gov. Sarah Palin spoke at a more than ninth-grade level and Sen. Joseph Biden spoke at a nearly eighth-grade level in Thursday night's debate between the vice presidential candidates.

Yes numbers of that sort are possible to produce. Most word processors have some sort of calculator. But here are some red flags.

Payack says nothing about what grade level means. The story then jumps immediately from grade level discussion to passive/active voice statistics. Then it goes to a simple word count. Which is really pretty meaningless in a timed back-and-forth exchange. Payack counts words per sentence which is problematic because of the disfluencies and truncated sentences that always occur in speech. Do you count a repeated word twice? Do you count truncation and restructuring as a single sentence or as two (or more) separate sentences? Payack also offers a number for ease of reading. For speech. Have you ever tried reading a faithful transcription? Few people have much experience reading extended passages of faithfully transcribed speech. It's choppy. It's full of repetitions and ungrammatical segments. So how is ease of reading determined? Payack bases all this (with some sort of modification) on the Flesh-Kincaid formula which, according to Wikipedia, would rank a single monosyllabic word as the easiest possible reading. On Payack's scale 100 is the easiest to read or hear. The Flesch-Kincaid system puts 121 as the easiest. I don't need to investigage at the Flesh-Kincaid formula. Even if it is legitimate I trust that Payack knows how to butcher it for his own benefit. Lastly, evidence that Payack found a hammer and thought everything looked like a nail: he gives us a statistic for number of sentences per paragraph.

Now during that last paragraph I was struggling with the issue of when I should break it apart. I promised a list of red flags and because those are all red flags with a tiny bit of discussion, I decided to keep it intact. But I might have split it into smaller more manageable sections for ease of reading. I probably should have. When speaking we don't do anything like that. There are no paragraphs in oral language. Yes, there are changes in direction and occasional obvious changes in topic or approach. But the paragraph is a writing convention that has no hard correlation to a structure in discourse. At least not anything that's worth attaching a number to.

These habits of statistical assurance make me wonder: Does Payack like naming every bird that he hears flying outside his window?

† I do have some reservations about the system. Ranking any two sentences it rates every shorter sentence as easier as long as the average syllable length of the words in each sentence is the same. Just that claim is worth its own post. Further, each Wikipedia page on Rudolf Flesch, J. Peter Kincaid and their formula, is full of unsupported and biased claims. One example: the article on Flesch includes the following passage.
Flesch practiced what he preached. His writing is clear, vigorous, and plain; his style is direct and energizing. Those who read How to Write Plain English often comment that his writing motivates them to write more plainly. For example, here is Flesch on clearing up legalese:

The shill who wrote that then provides a sample (that I don't need to include) of Flesch's writing that doesn't exactly actually address clearing up legalese. It's mostly a complaint against the view that complex ideas need complex language. It's a valid complaint. But it's not really a clearly written one. I would hope it's not Flesch's best work.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Poop doesn't count

We can categorize the uses of and references to expletives and slang into several strategies and effects. The discourse situation can vary depending on...

Nevermind. Just watch.