Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I talk gibe

The recent auto-industry goings-on have put my friend David Shepardson (auto-industry reporter for The Detroit News) in the spotlight in all sorts of fun and impressive venues.1 He's a regular on the Diane Rehm show. He's almost got his own folding chair in Jim Lehrer's NewsHour studio. And until The Detroit News recently updated their photo file, his high school yearbook picture was a regular feature on Washington Journal during phone interviews with Peter Slen.

In the meantime... my Facebook page is booming!

This is one of those wonderful opportunities to tease Dave about something that I really don't think is embarrassing.

I recently received a copy of the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage. It's a hefty text. Each entry striving to provide both informative observation, and helpful advice. A snippet of Dave's writing is included as an example of benign but better-avoided alternate usage. He used jibes when he should have used gibes.

The argument is reasonable that, for the sake of simplicity, language should adopt only one form per sense. There's no reason to strive for two spellings if nothing but variety is accomplished by the alternation. But the argument that language should only accept one form is unrealistic. Language will always have some sort of redundancy. When studying language, and defending this fact from my descriptivist stance, I'm not saying that it should be this way or that language is better this way. I'm just saying that it is this way and it seems to work fine. And in language, acceptance is determined by what happens in that language. Language is as language does2

True -- Garner's advice is more concerned with the general confusion surrounding jibe/gibe/jive. I have no problem with that concern. But I don't really see how the example from Dave's writing could be confusing.

It's hard to say how representative the OED citations are on details like spelling. In citations for the verb "gibe/jibe" 15 of 16 examples are spelled with initial <g>; for the noun 6 of 9 in <g>, 2 in <j> and 1 in <i>. Of course we can't just take those numbers as representative of current spelling conventions because the earliest is from 1567 and the most recent is from 1893. So at least historically <gibe> looks to be the clear dominant form. But now?

A Google™ search runs into problems because we want to compare relevant forms only. We have to make sure that we're not counting instances of <jibe> meaning agree: read jive.

Garners Third Edition has introduced a Language-Change Index with such issues in mind. It's a wonderful contribution to the purposes of the text. In a coming post I'll take a look at the feature as well the work's other treatments of the prescriptivist/descriptivist dialogue.

1. Previously I've mentioned Dave's appearance in the America Heritage® Dictionary. Tho access to the AHD is no longer offered through Bartleby.com it looks like you can get to it through Yahoo Education. The entry for Mace is there intact with the citation of Dave's use of the word as a verb.

2. The terms of this claim deserve to be revisited and clarified.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Safire remembered

The posts I've done out of frustration with William Safire were a lot of fun to write. And tho my first reaction to hearing of his death was to lament the loss of the occasional kindling for my own tiny little flame war, I'm now glad to have read some kind words about him from the linguistic community.

I'm especially happy to contrast their words with the thoughts of a friend who has sought to diminish Safire as "merely a wordsmith" who "wowed the hick hoards and the Right's craven captains of capitalism." Merely, Alex? C'mon.

On the ADS LISTSERV Gerald Cohen comments: "Safire was a very valuable link between academia and the general public on matters of lexicography, and (bless him) etymology."

Grant Barrett, who has never been afraid to point out the gaps in Safire's scholarship, has posted in memory of Safire's generosity:

He supported the Historical Dictionary of American Slang when it applied for funding during my editorship, by writing letters of support that shone with erudition and respect. He gave my book, the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, a much kinder review than it deserved.

Perhaps most importantly, he gave me credit as often as possible in his column for helping him with his research, which allowed my own star to rise in the "language dodge," which is what he called this maven-rich, grammarizing, languagey niche we both inhabited. He did this for lots of people and he did it unbegrudgingly.

Steven Dodson at languagehat posts a very fine memory of Safire's graciousness in response to Dodson's demanding editing of Safire's Political Dictionary:

He fully appreciated my pickiness about details and had no hesitation making changes I recommended, even occasionally adding chunks of text I provided; what's more, he credited me by name in those entries and added this heartwarming text to the acknowledgments: "For this fifth edition, Stephen Dodson provided the kind of creative copy-editing and a lust for historical accuracy and semantic precision that a political slanguist expects in dealing with the Oxford University Press, world’s greatest lexicographic organization."

It's nice to see that linguists know how to hold on to their standards and share a kind thought as well.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A stillborn neologism

Here's a new and not very promising vocabulary word:

The 28-minute program -- quite possibly the first ever birthermercial -- features community access production values, heavy use of foreboding strings soundtrack, and standard-issue Birther ideology.

Birthermercial fits into the X-mercial form alongside infomercial and other less successful runts of the litter, like webmercial and edumercial.

Sure it's clear. The semantics are manageable: if you know what a birther is, you can probably figure out what a birthermercial is. It'll fit into conversations that can occur with people of all regions, professions, classes, political views, and most ages. It's relatively easy to say. It doesn't sound too similar to other words. But it's not likely to catch on.

It's not applicable to something that comes up a lot. Or has ever come up. There aren't that many commercials that even mention the issue of Obama's birth certificate. And even if there were, the issue won't be relevant beyond the length of Obama's presidency. Even if the word does remain relevant to future presidents —which isn't likely— how necessary is such specificity? If the semantics of birthermercial were to widen and be applied more generally, it would have to push out the words or phrases already in use. We can use negative ad or conspiracy theory or paranoia to point to such enterprises. I'm not sure how long the verb swiftboat will last, but it's already handy as a more general term for engaging in this type of smear campaign.

A search for the term brings up about 150 results on Google™.* All of them in stories about one commercial. The article linked to above uses the word once in the headline, once in body of the story, and twice in subsequent updates. A follow-up posting uses the word three times all in the body of the story. That smacks of hope that the word will last. It won't.

*About 1180 hits are reported as found, but as usual, those results overstate the actual number.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Exactly like nothing we've ever seen

Undiscovered animal, alien, or a hoax? How about none of the above?

allowscriptaccess="always" allownetworking="all" allowfullscreen="true"

Again with the suspension of ignorance. We don't know what any aliens look like. So to say that this looks like an alien requires that alien be shorthand for what we have imagined or previously suggested that some aliens look like. And undiscovered of course means previously undiscovered. Both of those abbreviations are reasonable and common in conversation.

But it's quite a stretch to say that a hairless sloth is the most bizarre discovery.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This is why I have such a hard time keeping up with politics

On the September 6 broadcast of Meet the Press, David Gregory pronounced distrust as if the syllabification was di-strust rather than dis-trust. How can I tell? Because he didn't aspirate the /t/. Listen:

Let's do a little lab.
Put your hand in front of your mouth. Say spit.

Leave your hand there and say pit.

Notice the difference between the two? You should have felt a stronger puff of air after the /p/ of pit. The difference is represented in IPA with a small superscript 'h' on the stop when aspirated.
spit: [spɪt]
pit: [phɪt]

The rule simplified: when a voiceless stop occurs initially on a stressed syllable, it's aspirated. Aspiration is that little puff of air. Do the above test to hear the difference in all the following voiceless stops.

The [s] before each stop changes the conditioning environment. When the [p] [k] or [t] aren't the first segment in the syllable, they aren't aspirated.

So, some possible explanations of Gregory's unaspirated pronunciation of distrust:
  • He just messed it up, and normally he would have pronounced it [dɪsthɹʌst] with the standard syllable initial aspirated /t/. This would make sense because the morphology of a dis- prefix and trust root is probably still intact in his competence.

  • If that morphology is not intact, Gregory might be syllabifying either on an analysis of a di prefix strust root (very unlikely), or a single morpheme syllabified with maximal onset* -str- on the second syllable. The latter is possible, but not likely because of the strong semantic preservation of a still relevant -trust root.

  • The standard morphology is intact, but the onset maximization is a stronger influence on aspiration than is syllabification. This is problematic in many ways, but I think it's part of a likely explanation.

  • The morphology and syllabification are not factors as the st string is simply not an environment that conditions or allows aspiration in Gregory's speech, regardless of onsets and codas.**

    Why don't I think this was just a mistake? Because I remember a broadcast from about a year ago, (October 22 2008) when he was talking with Senator Sherrod Brown, (D-OH) that makes it seem this is a feature of Gregory's speech? (about 25 seconds in.)

    Le…let me show you a— a piece of reporting from the Boston Globe where they were talking to Youngstown voters and getting their thought [sic] about this election in such a tight race in your state.

    Because of his pronunciation of Youngstown it looks like Gregory occasionally leaves off aspiration of the dental stop in the string st, even when morphology would typically split the segments into different syllables. He does not however, block aspiration of /k/ in the word disconnect around 45 seconds in.

    Mr Gregory, you've got some 'splaining to do.

    *A simplified theory of onset maximization might be stated as a rule that any segment in a string that can be well-formed on either the end of one syllable or the beginning of another, will be syllabified as an onset segment. The segment in question for this post is the /s/.

    **For the sake of relative brevity I'll leave out of this post the discussion of bleeding, counterbleeding, feeding or counterfeeding.

  • Monday, September 21, 2009

    They must be so honored

    It's bragging, yes. But you can't blame me. There's obviously no way I believe I deserve the association.

    A few months ago I wrote about the silliness of Paul Payack's word-counting scheme. I had forgotten all about the post. Then a couple days ago I tracked some incoming links and found that Stan Carey* had made mention of my thoughts. That's always nice. I went to check out what he said. Here's what I found:

    I’ll limit the links to a handful, each of which I heartily recommend: Ben Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, Grant Barrett, Michael Covarrubias, and David Crystal.

    One of these is not like the others. I left a comment saying that being in such company reminded me of George Gobel's famous line:

    It's not often I can so proudly proclaim that I'm in over my head.

    *Note that Carey's blog Sentence First has been on the sidebar for some time now.

    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Statistics don't lie. People who use them do.

    Mark Liberman makes his latest run at the zombie that won't die: the significance of the changes in the difference between male and female happiness. Douthat, Dowd, Leavitt, Leonhardt and Huffington are not to be trusted on these numbers.

    A general word of advice: if a newspaper article or opinion piece tries to use a study and its statistics to make an interesting point, don't believe it; investigate it.

    Liberman does a nice job of accurately presenting the statistics in a manageable form.

    I'll do my best to capture his point. This idea:

    Is mostly BS.

    But the best part of Liberman's post: the mouse-over text on the first graph.

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    So that was a male chicken?

    Thanks to The Daily Show I now have another example of a verbal stumble from our favorite filthy newsman. This one's not as bad as yesterday's (it all goes down in the first 30 seconds):

    This helps to make my point from yesterday when I suggested that the error was perhaps not just an articulatory error. That is, perhaps the change from [pl] to [f] in the pronunciation of 'plucking' was not just a mix-up of meaningless sounds. There might also have been, for some odd reason, a looming influence of the word fuck complete with it's connotations.

    The point is easier to make with today's clip.

    If you want to log on to My Fox N-Y dot cock, you c— dong— dot com, click the Seen-on-TV tab for the link to the auction site.

    His first stumble, saying cock instead of com is a pretty clear phonetic slip. Maybe the influence of a couple preceding velars in log and Fox and the pronunciation of dot is a little muddy. It almost sounds like he says don instead of dot. And if he has in fact said don there's some flipping around of segments, or even just features, possibly going on. The voiceless alveolar stop [t] is replaced by a nasal [n] (voiced), so the nasal at the end of com might be part of the switch, and it comes out as a voiceless velar stop. This is a little convoluted, and the pattern of flipping and flying segments isn't clear.

    But what happens next is a pretty reasonable guess: when he catches it, and he tries to correct cock he goes way out of his way and says dong instead of com. Why dong? Influenced perhaps, not just by the mess of velars, alveolars, nasals and stops he's been spewing, but also by the semantics of the surprising naughty word that has suddenly gotten all of his attention.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Her reaction: priceless.

    Turn down the sound if there are innocents within earshot.

    What does he say to start off?

    Takes a tough man to make a tender forecast.

    Is that right?

    But after that, he must have meant "keep plucking" right? 'Plucking' starts off with a voiceless bilabial stop [p] which must have been influenced by the voiceless labiodental fricative [f] both at the end of tough and the beginning of forecast, contributing to phonetic assimilation.

    But that lovely taboo gravity has to have been at work there too. He's just got [fʌkɪn] on the mind.

    If you missed his coanchor's reaction, watch again.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is

    Over at the Spectrum blog Ryan Bell recalls a list of spiritual "one-liners" he heard from Jurgen Moltmann. One of the lines confused me:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his presence.

    Why did it confuse me? Because I thought the second half of the coordination was leaving out more than it actually was. What?

    Most of what we leave out of sentences, we don't think about. The following sentences are examples of ellipsis in coordinated structures—specifically, elliptical forms that are more common than the corresponding spelled-out alternatives:

    1a. Are you more likely to eat a peach or an orange?
    1b. Are you more likely to eat a peach or are you more likely to eat an orange?

    2a. I don't want mushrooms on my pizza, but sausage.
    2b. I don't want mushrooms on my pizza, but I want sausage on my pizza.

    3a. Don't run across the road; walk.
    3b. Don't run across the road; walk across the road.

    4a. I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't.
    4b. I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't hit him.

    Tho punctuation and prosody can help disambiguate some structures, there are some structures that just don't lend themselves to a clear understanding. Sentence 3a for instance, would most likely be understood as an imperative telling you to walk across the road. But it could also be understood as two sentences. One telling you to walk. Take a walk. Walk for fun. Just walk. And another sentence telling you not to run across the road.

    Consider 2a. Stressing mushrooms and sausage makes the contrast of two toppings most likely. Stress pizza and sausage and it might seem that I want mushrooms on sausage. Odd. A little awkward syntactically. Another possibility: if mushrooms and pizza get similar stress, and sausage gets the primary stress of the entire utterance, it's possible that sausage isn't a topping, but an independent choice.

    Imagine a slightly different form. Tho this one makes sausage's independence easier to see, it's still ambiguous:

    I don't want mushrooms on my pizza; I want sausage.

    Is there there a silent prepositional phrase — on my pizza — following that banger?

    Example 4a remains ambiguous. Most likely understood with hit him as the omitted verb phrase, but just as reasonable with want to hit him understood.

    I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't want to hit him.

    The one-liner at the top of this post is confusing if we assume the coordinated phrase has omitted more than just the verb phrase we celebrate. As I first understood the sentence it was structured thus:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but we celebrate our theories about his presence.

    That makes no sense. It contrasts the complement of the preposition with itself. We would expect one complement of a preposition his presence to be replaced with a different complement of the same preposition: say, his kindness. Instead of celebrating theories about his presence they would be celebrating theories about his kindness.

    But what Moltmann almost certainly meant is represented by the following structure:
    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but we celebrate his presence.

    The important difference here is that no longer is the complement of any preposition contrasted. The prepositional phrase isn't even a part of the omitted phrase. There is ellipsis in this form, but not the ellipsis that my first reading used in interpretation. Instead, a direct object of the verb is coordinated as a contrast to the noun phrase that happens to include it as a prepositional phrase complement. This could be made clear (and very likely was, as this was a spoken line) by stressing the two items being set in opposition: theories and presence.
    • We do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his presence.

    That's hard to capture in writing. One strategy would be to specify presence with something that identifies its suggested actuality:
    • We do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his actual presence.

    The ambiguity could also be avoided by completely avoiding ellipsis, and writing out a conspicuously—but not awkwardly—overt verb phrase. Actually, I would suggest leaving out the conjunction and using a lovely semicolon:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence; we celebrate his presence.

    But I repeat, if spoken, this would probably be clear with the right emphasis on the contrasted segments.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009

    Yes, you can use the word that way.

    I kinda hate it when this happens. But I also kinda like it when this happens. Neal Whitman beats me to the punch.

    I had been composing (mentally) a similar post on the somewhat anomalous tense and aspect of Joe Wilson's ejaculation: "You lie!"1 With most other verbs you'd expect the progressive aspect marker auxiliary are and a progressive participle verb with -ing suffix in this context, where the intention is probably something like You are doing this right now.

    Wilson could have been implying that this is something Obama does all the time. Much like You drive so slowly! This of course is usually said when the behaviour is currently … being … done. And the utterer is fed up.

    But for some reason lie lends itself to this form with the notionally simpler sense of just you are doing this right now or even you have just done this. Other accusatory phrases of disbelief seem to work this way: you kid, you jest and perhaps you don't say (as mentioned by a commenter over at Neal's place.) Stop by over there and share your thoughts.

    1. But had I been left to myself I likely would have come up with a bloated and meandering post. Nothing like Neal's sharp work.

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    A little phthalo schwa & some alizarin fricative

    One of my favorite tools on my Mac is the IPA Palette (found here) that allows me to click on each symbol to choose it when typing. Download the package. Put the component in the /Library/Components folder. Then it's available from the menu bar.

    Choosing from here ↓

    brings up this ↓

    I've recently upgraded to Snow Leopard. The menu option is still there, but clicking on it now brings up nothing. "Show Character Viewer" works. "Show Keyboard Viewer" works. "Show IPA Palette" doesn't work.

    There's some sort of workaround that I don't fully understand, and so it isn't reliable. Nor is it practical even if it were to become reliable. I select the palette from the menu then I click on some application in the dock, (seems that only 3rd party applications do the trick) and the palette shows up. And even tho it shows up, it doesn't function. Click click click. No output.

    I know most of you don't care. But if two of you do, and one of you knows something about this and has a little advice... Yeaaaah, that'd be greaaat.

    Saturday, September 05, 2009

    Speak American!

    Joe posted this video over at the Mr. Verb plaza. It's. Amazing.

    The English Only movement is fascinating. So often driven at the same time by such pride and such insecurity. Such assuredness and such fear. Combine that confused stance with the dynamics of the current health insurance volley, and you've got a roiling mass of 'We have a right to tell you how to speak.' I have to imagine that the same boos that are elicited by a reasoned dismissal of death panel rumors or the calm denial of nefarious motivation, are also elicited by the sound of a question asked in an unknown language: I.e. They simply boo when you say something they have no way of processing.

    Thursday, September 03, 2009

    Chupacabra = not very coyote-like coyote

    We have another chupacabra candidate.

    Jerry Ayer pretty much admits that not knowing what to call it is good enough for him. So he might as well call it a chupacabra. And why not? It'll help bring some attention to his taxidermy business.

    But the issue of what we expect a chupacabra to be is harder to resolve. From an investigative position I have to say that longer front legs doesn't convince me this isn't a coyote. Some will argue that just looking at it should be enough evidence that it's not a coyote. It doesn't look like one and that's how we decide most animal classifications. This is an OK argument as far as we trust that seeing something provides us with enough information about it to include or exclude it in a class. If we take the time to identify what exactly doesn't look like a coyote, we come up with the same argument. Just more detailed. No fur = we trust it's not a coyote. But long legs? This is why just lookin' can be so easily countered. Because impressions need to survive investigation.

    The old saying about looking sounding and... tasting like a duck is really based on an interplay of feature analysis and prototypes. Prototype theory suggests that we have an idea of an ideal duck in mind when we call something a duck. And we know when we see a good example of what we were thinking.1 Feature analysis works by proposing a checklist of those features common to a set. Proper features might be something like physical characteristics. Size. Shape. Skin/coat type. When distinguishing species, it's safe to say that something [+scales] is not the same species as something [-scales][+fur]. So for any category, feature analysis will suggest that there is a set of features that are necessary and sufficient for classification. So every member of a group is and must be [+F1] [+F2] [+F3]...

    But features are tough to lock down. Features like quadriped or biped can be used when categorizing members of some classes. So among other things, a human is [+biped] and a dog is [+quadriped]. But a husky with two legs is still a dog. Even if it was born with two legs. So we can add a set of transitive features. A little mammal born of a dog is also a dog.2 Even if it doesn't have some of the features we use to identify dogs. But this is just passing the buck. Such transitive features rely on the premise that the class of one dog is already known. In some cases this is valid. Like the difference between a Ford and a Chrysler.3 But we haven't moved too far with the analysis. We find ourselves stuck with the ultimate feature being tautological. A dog is [+dog].

    This question of the chupacabra works by subtraction. The argument is almost explicit that since it's "unlike anything native to Texas" it must be that mysterious chupacabra that we have never before seen. That's not a very strong argument. But we use some of the assumed features of the chupacabra in our analysis. I wrote about this exact topic a couple of years ago.

    So now we see that Texas has produced two of what look like the same weird little sucker. And only 130 miles apart. I'll go out on a limb and say that if we find a few more of these creatures that look like bald coyotes with long front legs, a new category will be created. Some name will be suggested. But no one will accept that this is the little monster. The chupacabra will still be an elusive little wingless bat that must remain [+mysterious].

    1. That's too simple to be very helpful. But we'll move on for the sake of space.
    2. One big question here: are we sure it's a dog because when born of a dog it must be a dog, or because we trust that it simply will be a dog?
    3. Let's avoid the arguments about quality usually heard in the vicinity of a set of truck nuts and bumper sticker of Calvin taking a leak.

    Tuesday, September 01, 2009

    To put it simply

    These good people feel that there is an almost indecent nakedness, a reversion to barbarism, in saying No news is good news instead of The absence of intelligence is an indication of satisfactory developments. Nevertheless, The year's penultimate month is not in truth a good way of saying November.

    -H.W. Fowler

    So... I'm back to posting again. 'Nuff said.