Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Quotation marks don't make it so

Conservative clackers are throwing around a quote and attributing it to Nancy Pelosi.

You don't need [G-d] anymore, you have us democrats.

A Google™ search for the full string of the quote brings up a few pages of results. The quote looks like it made the rounds in a list of quotations by "great orators" in politics. The joke sneers at the current democratic leaders by comparing them to the historical giants: Andrew Jackson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy. The new classics are in there. Bill Clinton's question about the definition of is. Barack Obama's 57 states. All the proof some people need that today's political party is made of fools.

The Pelosi quote is acting quite young. And perhaps apocryphal. All of the sources below attribute the quote along with the extra information said back in 2006 after Pelosi's name. Several include it in parentheses. This has cut-and-paste all over it.

The is the type of faithfulness that occurs when a line is sent around to a lot of people, probably in a forwarded email from your aunt. All your conservative cousins like the list, and nobody bothers to type it out, so the contents don't shift in transit.

A commenter here has done a little massaging of the line, writing that Pelosi said 'You don't need [G-d]; we're going to take care of you.'

Here in a February 24 2009 post.

Here in a February 10 2009 comment.

Here in a December 30 2008 post.

Here in a November 13 2008 comment.

Here in an October 29 2008 comment.

Here in an October 22 2008 post.

Here in a Sept 10 2008 forum post.

Here in an October 10 2007 forum post.

The October 2007 post looks like an early appearance but it seems an unlikely original source. It's also not an identical result. The line ends with "you have the Democrats" and no year is given.

This Free Republic post by Kimmers indeed claims an email as the source. An interesting detail: one commenter notes that the Pelosi quote is unfamiliar.

A little searching for the favored title of the piece and we find the history of these drafts:

This March 18 2004 post by David Flanagan is titled Great Orators of the Democratic Party and it starts off with the four quotes from Jackson FDR Truman and JFK. The current fool in 2004 was Kerry.

Four months later in this post Evilwhiteguy throws in a new Kerry quote.

By 2005 in this post Learning Richard has moved on to Howard Dean.

A search for <"great orators" democratic party> shows that this goes back a while. And it looks like Pelosi was thrown in sometime last year. At least in the online versions. Well that would make sense if she said it in 2006.

So I'm still looking for the source of the attribution, but I have found so little evidence of its veracity that I'll go out on a limb and guess that it's a complete fake. Even with a wider net we get very few hits. Just the first half of the quote alongside the search term 'pelosi' brings up only a handful of pages.*

It's also a good idea to check the Google™ News results. The full string search yields not a single hit. The first half of the line: nothing. the first half without quotes alongside the name Pelosi: 35 unrelated results.

This precious little nugget of mockable wisdom looks to be the product of some snide alchemy.

*Initial results promise 700+ hits, but that estimate gets whittled down quickly.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Heh, heh...they said "whore"

David Harrison and Greg Anderson spoke with Scott Simon about their work with endangered languages. Or at least I'm sure that's what they expected.

I think I can understand what Simon means when he says that with each language death "a subtle way of thinking vanishes too." It isn't ridiculous to accept a weak or soft Sapir-Whorfian view that language and thought interact. So as long as subtle means really really subtle, then we're cool. But it gets into the realm of obvious claims. Every day for all sorts of reasons, a subtle way of thinking ends. Meh.

Harrison does give a nice explanation of what that can mean:

Well all the languages we've studied are— the local people that we work with— they're experts in their environment that they live in. So whether we're in the middle of Siberia or in the— the Bolivian Andes, those people know more about their local environment—the ecosystem the plants and animals—than science typically knows about it.

And it's not just a list of things they know. But it's a hierarchy of knowledge. So they might understand how animals fit together into a hierarchy or a—a taxonomy. So the way that that knowledge is packaged in the language is also unique. And it doesn't usually survive the translation into other languages.

Note it well that he said the packaging doesn't survive translation. Where people often spin out of control is in thinking that extralinguistic knowledge can't survive translation.

Eric Baković reports that he was a bit disappointed with the interview. And yeah. It falls flat. The questions lead into gimmicky topics that insist on looking at language as a parlor trick. And Simon's way too tickled with the phrase bilabial fricative. It's not nearly as funny or dirty sounding as he seems to think it is. I expect the documentary (playing on PBS this Thursday) to benefit greatly from Simon's absence.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I think my bank account must have some impact on my linguistic judgment. So I'll blame my unfair impressions on my low funds. I have pennies envy.

Because I'm a linguist I feel guilty having a negative opinion about some lexical terms. I'm constantly telling my class that usage doesn't necessarily betray an attitude beyond those that are part of the truth conditions of an utterance. Accents don't necessarily indicate an attitude. Even hoity-toity ones. And terminology is conventional and often determined by community. Jargon isn't always a way of excluding others or bragging about being a part of an elite group.

And yet…

I recently read a short line from someone lamenting that their car was damaged. That's fine. But the writer of this little chirping complaint included the fact that it was his 7 series that was damaged. My first thought: well then I don't care.

Grice's maxim of quantity states that the speaker will give as much information as possible but no more than necessary. By telling me that it it was a 7 series I must assume that he thinks it's necessary information.

Something I own was scratched by a piece of metal.

Yeah. Not enough information. Not really newsworthy. I need more.

Something I own that will cost a lot of money to fix was scratched by a piece of metal.

OK. Worth telling me about but conspicuous in it's vagueness. Why not tell me what it was.

My car was scratched by a piece of metal. This I understand. I need no more information. If my car was scratched by a piece of metal, I'd be upset. No matter what make of car. But if you tell me that your 7 series was scratched… well you just lost my sympathy. I'm willing to invoke the Grice defense. Your violation of the maxim of quantity leads me to assume that there are other implications. Implications of you being an ass. Sorry. I'm just playing the odds.

But then I catch myself rolling my eyes when I hear someone referring to their car as a beemer — even when I don't sense a violation of Grice's maxim of quantity.

Let's imagine a conversation about an Oscar party.

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking the BMW.

Violation. I didn't need to know what kind of car. It's not relevant. You're bragging. I can tell.


-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking my car.
-What do you drive?

No violation. No problem. BMW is a relevant answer.

So obviously I'd judge the following as a violation:

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'm taking the Beemer.

But then I feel guilty judging you in the following exchange:

-What time does it start?
-The party starts around Seven. I think I'll just walk because I live so close. How are you getting there?
-I'll be taking my car.
-What do you drive?
-A beemer.

I should be able to accept that beemer is simply the word that you use to refer to your car and I have no reason to think that your term indicates anything about your attitude. I know this in my mind. But my heart tells me not to trust you. Tread softly.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Satire, and my scanted out ear

A full page ad trying to make the case for homophobia goes all out crazy. America Forever took out an ad in The Salt Lake Tribune, offering up this warning:

The Homosexual Declaration of War, read in the US House of Representatives on July 27 1987, read, "we will sodomize your children. All churches who condemn us will be closed. The family unit eliminated. Any man contaminated with heterosexual lust, wil be automatically barred from any position of influence."

(bold in original)

According to this page, where you can read Michael Swift's satirical manifesto, Gay Community News ran the original piece in February 1987. Other than the anti-gay organization's website, I haven't been able to find much evidence that this was read into the congressional record by William Dannemeyer of California (nor have I really looked). The story has been used as proof that this is a real agenda.

Point 1
Maybe the ad writer realized that Swift's threat was a satirical wail. Maybe not. The group's web page provides the opening remark
This essay is an outré, madness, a tragic, cruel fantasy, an eruption of inner rage, on how the oppressed desperately dream of being the oppressor.

But still we're left unsure of whether the choice to present it as a serious agenda is dishonest or ignorant. Either way it's paranoid.

Point 2
Gail Turpin, in a letter to the Tribune makes a point of explaining the intention of the declaration, and a commenter responds:

I'm among those who did research this hateful ad further, Gail. The website address in the ad, as you note, takes one only so far as the rightwing California congressman's 1987 submission of it into the Congressional Record, which leaves you wondering who "Michael Swift" was, and where the so-called "Declaration" had been originally published. Thank you for the edification!

Edification? Edification does of course allow the sense of moral and intellectual betterment. So why doesn't that sense fit here for me? As I'm used to thinking of it, edification refers to the improvement in character that comes from instruction and guidance. This could be from the view of instruction as moral guidance that leads to moral growth. It could also be from the view that general learning makes a person better.

It's a subtle difference. And to my ear the above use doesn't really capture either of them. This is about a specific fact. A bit of information relevant to the topic, but not really the type of information that adds anything to character or contributes to moral stature. That's one possible reason the use sounds odd to me. Granted, the issue being discussed has very obvious relevance to questions of citizenship and civility.

Another possibility is that I'm hearing is the intrusive effect of a possible blend. I would expect to hear a phrase like thanks for the clarification or …elucidation or …illumination or even …education. So maybe I'm just stuck on the thought that this could be a blend of education and clarification. That possibility might be keeping me from hearing and connecting to a perfectly fine use of edification.

So I'm not fully trusting my judgement on this one.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama's mondegreen

Buffy almost cried when she saw this.

(via LL)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Dora the Explora

A Jeopardy! category tonight asking for "Dora" rhymes was obviously assuming an r-dropping or non-rhotic dialect. The clues they came up with yielded these responses (sans question-form):

Snora the explorer
Dora the restorer
Dora the floorer
Dora the scorer
Dora the corer

There's an odd one in there. One contestant offered up "Snora the Explorer" in response to the first clue and the judges accepted it (with a little warning for the contestants from Alex). I can't be sure if she actually intended the underlying pronunciation Snora (as represented in the captions) or if she was doing her best r-less Kennedy impression of Snorer. The tube was on mute so I didn't hear her pronunciation of explorer.

There are enough types of rhyme to allow all of these to be called rhyming pairs with or without word final rhoticity on the < -er> words. Assonance, slant rhyme, vowel rhyme, pararhyme...… Not all rhyme is perfect rhyme. That's fine. And fitting with the rhyme theme established by the cartoon that inspired the category, these responses make sense.

So let's play our own little game. Let's go for perfect rhyme in an r-ful dialect. Strict Jeopardy! rules apply.

Dora the ______

$100: Near the North or South poles, this little tike is sure to brighten your night-sky.

$200: This little friend was named after plants indigenous to a region, but not after the animals.

$300: Tired of ring-around-the-rosy? Do this little dance instead.

$400: If your syllable is too light, give it some weight by adding this little darling.

$500: This little seafarer is a gentle shark. She's a killer with a broken heart.

[Update: Nicely done Adrienne -- only one to go. Anyone? Also: It occurs to me that perhaps the clues were prompting responses that rhyme with the phrase Dora the Explorer -- in which case the Jeopardy! responses did conform to perfect rhyme. Does anyone remember the exact wording of the category? Either way the r-less r-ful issue is salient.]

[Update 2: And Mxrk takes the $500 clue. From one of my favorite Kids in the Hall bits. All the responses are there in the comments now. Of course you can still play at home before you check.]

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is that a compliment?

From PBS' online page about the 2008 Mark Twain Prize given to George Carlin:

George Carlin combined a once-in-a-lifetime voice, a face that could do anything, and be anyone, an understanding of language that William Safire (or William Shakespeare) would have tipped their hats to….

Saying that William Safire understands language is like saying that Pat Buchanan understands religion. They have their definite views, but they're driven more by a desire to pontificate and impose than on a desire to understand and teach.

I would like to think that PBS was primarily going for the "William" and "William" rhythm. I suppose "William Labov" wouldn't have the same kick to it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Almost as cool as a bunsen burner

The coolest part of doing linguistics is that I live, work and socialize in a lab. Everywhere I go, no matter what else I'm doing I'm also collecting data.

Writing on my hand is fine for taking notes on syntax and semantics. But phonology is tougher. It can be awkward to pull out my digital voice recorder and ask someone to repeat an interesting pronunciation while I hold the mic up to their face. You talk funny. Here. Talk into this. I might sneakily transcribe a pronunciation, but that's not pure data collection. It's really analysis.

What are phonologists and phoneticians to do? Get to know the IPA. Develop your ear. Test it. Calibrate it. And once you trust it, transcribe with as much detail as possible. Then get you some cool free software for those opportunities to actually make a recording. Something that can take the data and give you strange graphs like these that the polyglot conspirator recently posted.

She presents these spectrograms of "Rod Bl-" and "Rob Bl-" as partial evidence of the effect of word-final [b] and [d] on the previous vowel in [rab] [rad].)

One program commonly used to generate such cool graphs is Praat. Version 5.1 was just released, so if you download it now, you'll be on the bleeding edge of the software tool.