Friday, September 29, 2006

The Origin of Snowclones

[click the post title to read about "snowclone"]

Language Log has been contributing a prudent voice to the discussion of the study of the differences between the behaviour of the sexes. Much of the discussion focuses on biological reasons for the schism between male and female behaviour. One of the most heralded "findings" is the discrepancy between the number of words spoken each day by men and women. I remember hearing this first when I was in high school. It was my senior year and we were watching a video by a marriage counselor named Gary Smalley. So that puts 1990/91 as the earliest I heard it. And I believed it.

Apparently Smalley and James Dobson are some of the earlier pundits positing this belief that men use fewer words per day. You might remember Gary Smalley as the marriage guru whose half hour commercial pushed his series of books tapes and lectures that would save any marriage. He chose Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford to vouch for the quality of the tapes. They said they were in love. And I believed it.

So speaking of myths -- the statistical ratio of men's to women's words per day has little foundation. No research has been cited that sufficiently supports it. And what research there is leans towards men being the more verbose sex. Mr Liberman has done a nice job investigating this. Read some of the posts here. You'll learn something for sure.

Still speaking of myths -- there is another long running claim about the number of Eskimo words for snow. This claim is used to show how experience shapes language. Certainly any people that deals with snow so much must have a very specialised lexicon. It sounds like a simple matter of jargon to me. Geoff Pullum thought it deserved a place in his book's title. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language mentions Pullum's book and adds

Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind, with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting, and a coinage of Boston's WBZ-TV meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler, snizzling.

Here's a nice nexus of links related to the topic -- also from Language Log. I especially like those voices that remind us to consider the morphology of a language when thinking about the richness of vocabulary. Here's Pullum on the topic of derivational suffixes.

If you wanted to say "They were wandering around gathering up lots of stuff that looked like snowflakes" (or fish, or coffee), you could do that with one word, very roughly as follows. You would take the "snowflake" root qani- (or the "fish" root or whatever); add a visual similarity postbase to get a stem meaning "looking like ____"; add a quantity postbase to get a stem meaning "stuff looking like ____"; add an augmentative postbase to get a stem meaning "lots of stuff looking like ____"; add another postbase to get a stem meaning "gathering lots of stuff looking like ____"; add yet another postbase to get a stem meaning "peripatetically gathering up lots of stuff looking like ____"; and then inflect the whole thing as a verb in the 3rd-person plural subject 3rd-person singular object past tense form; and you're done. Astounding. One word to express a whole sentence. But even if you choose qani- as your root, what you get could hardly be called a word for snow. It's a verb with an understood subject pronoun.

Consider the (often colloquial) English method of hyphenating to create an absolutely constituent phrase. A fish that looks like a boot might be called a boot-fish. A boot that looks like a fish might be called a fish-boot. Imagine the observer who speaks no English and finds these in a corpus of our language. That linguist might note the three instances of the "fish" root (the two compounds plus the lone root) and use this type of production to add the three words in English to all the names of fish species and the combinations of fish words that we know (fisher fishing fishery fisherman fishfood fishwich fish-sticks blowfish dogfish catfish fishhook fishwife fishbowl fishy fishtail...) -- and so we start looking like an ichthyocracy.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oyah -- Good Fox Up Dare

Buffy speaks with a Minnesotan accent but she swears she sounds nothing like Marge Gunderson or Jerry Lundegaard. And she's right. She doesn't have the classic Fargo markers. The most commonly cited pronunciation is probably the un-diphthongized "o". Some Minnesotans pronounce words like "boat" "don't" and "lone" with an [o] similar to the first vowel in "foreign".1 Buffy does this very rarely. It's usually when she's upset excited tired or nervous.

But it's the front vowels that have gotten my attention lately. I was surprised to find that not only does Buffy pronounce "bag" [beg] (when I would say [bæg]) she still makes the distinction between /e/ and /æ/. When asked to say "wagon" she says [wegən] but when asked to syllabify it she says [wey - gən]. She claims the first vowel is identical to the vowel in ray gun. And it's a true rhyme with "Reagan" she offers.

So I asked her to group together the words that have the same stressed vowel sound. In the first group she put the following:
banger cater wager rag rake dragon drag wagon rage bagging bang blank flank range rang brag hang rank plague clang lagging crag crane dragging flagged flake gangly hanger plank lag fanged deranged plagued crank rank gauge.

She contrasted these with the following:
ladder badger branch match tragic magic tragedy gas backing hag rack plaque ran flange blacken cat

So apparently before a voiced velar stop or nasal (either [g] or [ŋ]) she raises /æ/ to /e/. Adding the [i]/[j] diphthongisation is probably just a natural effect when a coda is lost and the following onset is noticeably suspended.

Even though she hears and says these vowels differently I haven't thought of a way to test the actual phonemic quality of them. Does she see /æ/ and /e/ as a minimal pair or are they allophones?

She did offer some fun information. Her friend from Maryland heard her say "flag" and teased her, claiming she pronounced it [flIg] rhyming with "big." Her friends from Nebraska heard her ask "do you want a bag?" and thought she had asked "do you want to beg?" (the "want to" probably pronounced "wanna"). So I wonder: did the Nebraskans and Marylanders perceive the [e] differently? And how would they perceive that nasal "Michigan/Indiana" /æ/ that comes out [iæ]? (Think of saying "yeah" as the vowel in "flat.")

And what about that weird presence of "hag" in the second group? She told me that she never heard the word growing up and since she has become aware of the [æ/e] alternation she finds herself getting confused about the distribution -- sometimes she asks for a baggle with cream cheese then gets a vag (instead of "vague") sense that something wasn't right about it.

1. I know -- not all of them. But I have heard it everywhere from Minneapolis up to Detroit Lakes and over to Mille Lacs. Also in both North and South Dakota where I heard it in every city. In North Dakota I encountered the strongest examples in the northern and eastern regions and in South Dakota in the eastern part. I spoke with maybe four people who spoke with an accent as strong as that of the characters in the Coens' fine film.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Up, Up, and A...wait.

One of my favourite comedic forms is the anticlimax. Louis CK does a good job (when he can keep from deteriorating to the crude) of setting up a situation for which deflation is the only available punchline. One such scene he proposes puts him in the difficult role of trying to give a large amount of necessary information in a short amount of time to someone in danger. He sees a man riding a bicycle heading towards a car -- he sees that someone in the car is about to open the door into the cyclist's path. It's all happening very quickly and he realizes he doesn't have time to yell out "Hey you the guy in the bike...She's gonna open the door!" So he just yells "Bad Thing!"

That's not much of a punchline. In fact it works (with good delivery) by being flat meaningless and ineffectual. I find it very funny. It's typical of CK's best humor.

By the premier episode of the sixth season of Cheers, Sam Malone, the celebrated lothario, has been established as a capable and crafty Casanova. He has displayed prowess at prowling and skill at seduction. He is not to be trusted. Then he meets the very attractive Rebecca Howe and takes full advantage of his first encounter with the eloquently stated "abuwahhh...?" It was a deflated punchline 5 years in the making.

Anticlimax --the "descent from the elevated and important to the low and trivial"-- may also be known as bathos [Greek depth] --"a ludicrous anticlimax" (Oxford Companion to the English Language). The Oxford Companion provides the following examples:

'Here thou, Great Anna! whom three realms obey, /Dost sometimes counsel take--and sometimes Tea' (Pope, The Rape of the Lock).

'For God, for country, and for Acme Gasworks' (Random House Dict., 1987).

I recently found myself with enough time to read through the Google™ terms of use. I think it qualifies.

Without limiting the foregoing, under no circumstances shall Google or its licensors be held liable for any delay or failure in performance resulting directly or indirectly from acts of nature, forces, or causes beyond its reasonable control, including, without limitation, Internet failures, computer equipment failures, telecommunication equipment failures, other equipment failures, electrical power failures, strikes, labor disputes, riots, insurrections, civil disturbances, shortages of labor or materials, fires, floods, storms, explosions, acts of God, war, governmental actions, orders of domestic or foreign courts or tribunals, non-performance of third parties, or loss of or fluctuations in heat, light, or air conditioning.

Monday, September 18, 2006

What Hath Truss Wrought?

I'm not about to jump on the Truss-wagon. I've come a long way in my efforts to give up prescriptivism and focus on pure description. My analyses are moving away from "why is this wrong" and moving towards "why do people disagree about whether or not this is grammatical." The distinction between wrong and ungrammatical is key.

Language Log has recently put up a post that argues in favour of judgment when necessary. I agree with the main points. Some distinctions serve a purpose and to lose them can confuse communication. At her best Lynne Truss defends grammar and punctuation on these grounds. At her worst she equates a lack of curiosity regarding punctuation with a depraved state of intellectuality (xxiii in her panda-book's preface). I can see that someone bereft of any curiosity whatsoever is likely oafish. But let's be honest -- curiosity comes in many forms and alights on many endeavours. Punctuation is hardly a necessary bailiwick of the greatest minds.

And yet I will take issue with the punctuation in a recent AP headline. Please let me know if my point is elitist. "Autopsy: Smith's son on antidepressants" reads the headline of a story regarding the death of the celebrity's child. A colon is usually taken to mean that what follows is the claim of what precedes. So the headline "Michael: French fries are delicious" correctly predicts a story in which I Michael give my opinion that them French fried taters is tasty.

The headline regarding Smith's son goes a step further to say that an autopsy --not a person-- reveals the fact of the boy's pharmaceuticals. This is fine. Headlines are all about quick punchy facts. Instead of the complete explication "The pathologist who performed the autopsy based on his findings in said autopsy, claims that Smith's son was on antidepressants," we can throw out the easily assumed information. We assume an expert can reach valid conclusions based on an autopsy so we just say "Autopsy: X" the autopsy revealed X.

But read the story. We find that the forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht did not discover this information from the autopsy. According to the story "Wecht...said he learned about the prescription medication after the autopsy from Daniel Smith's psychiatrist in the United States."

So what business does "autopsy" have before the colon if the autopsy had nothing to do with the claim? "Pathologist: X" - fine. "Doctor after autopsy: X" - perhaps misleading but technically correct. "Autopsy: X" - misleading and indefensible. We decry it based on what we know because of grammar -- but I do not call it bad grammar.

And beyond all that --why am I reading stories about Anna Nicole Smith?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What Can It Possibly Mean?

On another web log I have been contributing mild challenges to a question about biblical interpretation. I'm not a master rhetorician (maybe not even a good one) nor am I a logical virtuoso. I get caught up in my own cord more often than I like to admit.

In order to read some of the conversations going on you can click here. I had to take issue with a distinction one contributor (Roy Gane) made in a discussion about the biblical representation of G-d's influence on world events. If we can get past the distasteful claim that a god could be moral/ethical/kind/good/... and still condone/prescribe slaughter/murder/punishment/violence/... we find ourselves stuck on Mr Gane's distinction between his view of 'genocide' and the view of his dissenting peer (Mr Scriven). Although I claim to have negotiated the confusing line he draws I'm not sure it's possible to find his defense intact.

If person 'A' claims that genocide is the extinction of a specific population necessarily without regard to guilt creed behaviour or other rationale, does person 'B' make a valid counter claim by defining genocide is simply the extinction of a specific population -- and the issues of guilt creed behavior and/or other rationale are not relevant?

This is one of those distinctions that feels too much like a stack of negations. Or a denial that there is any negation. If we claim that a definition includes no regard for one limitation does logic allow that the lack of regard thus includes the possibility of another limitation? I'm getting dizzy trying to either agree or disagree with the one/two definition/s.

I've wondered enough/too much.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

...and a bogey used to be even par.

This post is mostly celebratory of Michigan's victory over Notre Dame.

Callooh Callay.

As an avid (and awful) golfer I always flinch when I hear a weak performance described as "sub-par." Isn't that good? The word is heavily associated with golf but not so much that it's a standard we hope to fall below unless we're counting strokes. Of course the Modified Stableford system (as employed every year by The International tournament at Castle Pines in Colorado) flips that around and and tinkers with it making the higher number the better - but it's not usually called "par" it's called a score.

So above-par below-par sub-par under-par less-than-par more-than-par all focus on par as a vertical target. And we tend to see "better" as "higher" and "worse" as "lower." So would a sub-par performance in golf result in a score above par? Fine.

After Michigan's victory over Notre Dame, commentator Tom Hammond said of Brady Quinn's performance for the Irish that "he was just off par." Because par is only average it isn't enough to expect that "off par" indicates a bad performance. Off par could just as easily be better than par.

But these sportscasters are wont to shank an expression whenever they speak.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Burr - It's Cold. Tisk Tisk - You Should've Brought a Coat

Cartoons have become the vanguard of onomatopoetics. In fact they've gone beyond the charge to the point that they have replaced the original extension of the text symbol with a new extension - one that more conventionally corresponds to English orthography. I remember reading my comics as a child - happily unaware that the "ugh" balloon meant that Charlie Brown was actually grunting - not saying a word that rhymes with "bug." I'm not sure when I realized that "aargh" didn't have to rhyme first half of "target"? But what was the specific sound distinction that led Sparky to write "aargh" sometimes and "aaugh" others? In a cartoon scream are "r" and "u" an onomatopoetic minimal pair or are they allophones?

Charles Shulz used "sigh" to represent the sound of exhaled breath as is common in cartoons. The little lines next to the word -- the squiggles and swirls that indicate the word is not to be read so much as performed -- helped alert us to the sound/word distinction. But I have heard people respond to a disappointment with the word "sigh" rhyming with "my." But I will guess that it is an affected use. I think it's still widely known that the word refers to the sound of deflation. The etymology of the word is interestingly not so clearly onomatopoetic. It's not as clearly echoic as "meow" or "splat." It has been traced back to Middle English sighen perhaps a back formation of sichte past tense of Old English sīcan, to sigh. It could be echoic. But how do we know? Is spirit echoic? these voiceless alveolar fricatives do a nice job of capturing the sound of breath flowing. There is the Proto-Indo-European base (unattested) *(s)peis-: to blow.

But oh yeah...cartoons...(let me first clear my throat. ahem...)

I also remember an old Beetle Bailey strip that showed a Model T sneaking up behind Sarge and scaring him with a loud "aROOOga." I liked this one. Reading it aloud sounded like an old claxon to me.

I remember an angry Flo Capp greeting a shnockered Andy at the door (after his night of snorting and snookering) with a judgmental "tsk tsk." For years I thought she was making a sound like "tisk tisk." Then I read in another cartoon a similar exchange represented orthographically "tch tch." It helped me to realise which sound was intended. The clicking (or clucking) tongue sound -- usually made in a group of more than two.

Then I remember the old joke in Highlights: for Children about all the coldest months ending in "brrr." Problem is the "brrr" in cartoons refers to a sound somewhere between a loud exhalation with puffed cheeks and the shivering sound made by flapping the lips like that slow motion shot of Steve Spurrier on the sidelines. Is "brrr" really the best spelling for that sound? Maybe something with 'F's? I'm guessing that "phew" (spelling it that way distinguishes it from "few") doesn't imply the shivering of "brrr." How do we capture the shiver? bhrbhrbhr?

The bronx cheer or raspberry sound is a tough one to reproduce because there really aren't any letters that we associate with a lingua-labial sound. And none that help to indicate that the air is moving under the tongue. And flapping. I've seen plplpl used - also plplll. We could use a combination of bilabial stop labial fricative and lateral to suggest the roll. pflpflpfl?

My favourite examples of cartoon onomatopoetics come from the Simpsons' parody of the campy Batman TV series. In the Radioactive Man movie episode we see a fight between an evil scoutmaster resembling the fabulous Paul Lynde and a cheesy Radioactive Man. "Go get 'em scouts! Don't be afraid to use your nails boys!"


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Old English Redux

Yesterday I read a delightful post at Tenser, said the Tensor another linguistic web log. Its focus on good German words resonated nicely with the issue I've been honing for this post: Old English words that I wish had survived into Modern English. German is a wonderfully direct and literal language -- as is English. One example in the Tensor post notes the lovely flatness of the German word for an airplane: flugzeug, fly-thing. This sounds funny but makes sense as further discussion on the post calls attention to the English word for some toys: plaything.

If we look at the body of OE words that have survived we can put together the rules for language change and follow the phonological and orthographic trajectory from then to now. We can then apply those rules to the words that didn't make it to today.

We'll do one of those aging techniques tricks that America's Most Wanted and Cold Case Files like to do. What would these words look like today. Roughly. Of course there are factors that are hard to account for and predict - you can't tell by looking at a kid if he's going to go bald or if she's going to get braces or if a firecracker's going to mess up an ear lobe or leave some other scar.

Words have their own little lives full of events - and I'm only a 2nd year PhD student who is very good at making mistakes and misunderstanding formulas. So I've picked simple words many of which comprise roots and affixes that should look familiar. At the very best these words are approximations. But wouldn't it be cool if we still had...

firnamind n < OE fyrngemynd = ancient history. (We still have firn to signify the loose snow found on top of glaciers. It's also called névé)

thrackful adj < OE þræcful = strong. (Lovely onomatopoetics)

shewspeak n < OE scéawendsprǽc = theater speech, silliness.

wombhoard n < OE wambhord = stomachful. (This could as easily be an unsentimental word for an unborn child or the contents in the hull of a ship. OE doesn't always worry about the appropriateness or sanctity of an image)

landrest n < OE landrest = grave. (Very typical of the understated OE language.)

bonehouse n < OE bánhús = body, torso, chest.

brightwhat adj < OE bearhtmhwæt = quick as a flash, fleeting.

One nice morpheme to work with could be nith- - from níð meaning ill-will hostility or violence. In Old English it was used in such words as níðgæst and níþgeweorc and which we could still use as nithguest -- hostile stranger; nithwork -- hostile deed, or fight.

It's hard to get away from appreciating the mere novelty of these words. I'm sure if they had survived I would consider them as prosaic and obvious as overcome friendly or alderman

Friday, September 01, 2006

Oh Give Me a Ham...

Linguistic reconstructionists only look back. It would make little sense to try to predict the form language will take. Language change occurs slowly and too many outside factors will influence its course. Who would have known that in 1066 the Norman Invasion would rattle that island so profoundly - or should we say deeply? And once those foreign boots began to bend the weeds there was no predicting what parts of their strange language would settle in. There was no predicting how politics and geography would cradle the co-bedding with French that would soon take place.

It's a tough task. But we can't call the changes random because we can look back and account for those things that did change - those things that didn't change - and looking back then around we can see many reasonable patterns that prove relevant in more that just our little language.

But I'll not make this that list. Let's give up on predicting for now. (Although I'll say it again: nother will make a comeback from Middle English and once again enter standard usage with a meaning synonymous to different.)

We know from comparing the stages of English from Old to Middle to Present-day (and all that in between) that some vowel and consonant sounds changed predictably. Here are the standard examples of vowel change that many English majors will recognize:

stān > stone
hām > home
scīnan > shine
bed > bed
hūs > house
mūs > mouse
gōd > good
Now we can say etc

Although we can make general claims about which types of words tended to persist from OE and which types tended to be adopted from other languages specifics elude us. We note that a significant kettle-full of words associated with food came from French into Middle English: beef [OFr boef]; poultry [MFr pouleterie little hen]; pork [OFr porc]; venison [OFr veneison]. (The first 3 originally referred to the animals generically. Venison referred to hunting.) And we find that some of the determining forces conflict. For example a language will protect words that are associated with religion. But the religious language that came to the Angles' land alongside (or within) Latin forced a change. So the church that promoted a faith [Anglo Norman fed < Latin fides] in salvation [f Latin salvatus] relied on the power of the Holy [OE hāliġ] Ghost [OE gāst]. Latin introduced religious words - and (Old) English held on to words because of that same religion.

Even when we can say with confidence that it will rain - we still can't say where and when.

Next time - Old English words that I wish were used today.