Friday, December 28, 2007

The times they aren't a-changin'

From a story about the recently discovered pyramid in the centre of the Federal District of Mexico.

The Aztecs, a warlike and religious people who built monumental works and are credited with inventing chocolate, ruled an empire stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and encompassing much of modern-day central Mexico.

Warlike and religious? Man that sounds ancient. Thank goodness there aren't any empires like that anymore.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

WotY watch: tase/taze

Recent polls show 'tase' as a front-runner in the ADS WotY race. And by 'polls' I mean 'the blog posts and forum posts out there that I've been reading but which I haven't counted or quantified in any reliable manner but which have left me with an impression that one word is getting a lot of attention.'

And Ben Zimmer mentions on the OUP Blog that tase/taze "always seems to draw comment" in his many WotY interviews. So I'll trust my impression.

A recent boost to the word's chances:
Facebook's SuperPoke application allows users to "do" all sorts of "actions" to other users -- you can "rent a limo with" or "tickle" or "hadouken" (I haven't seen 'tatsu-maki-sen-pyuuuu-kaku' yet) or "grope" or even "spoon" a friend on Facebook. And you saw this coming: you can now "Tase" a friend. The capitalized form is used with a nod to the trademark. (See the comment on capitalization in the AHD4 entry for Mace -- note: David Shepardson was my roommate in college and he's still a good friend. I'm so jealous of his citation in the dictionary).

Syntactically puzzled

Elizabeth asks a question over on the Purdue Linguistics Association blog:

I saw this in a Christmas letter I got:

This year will be our hopefully last Christmas in #Exico.

#(place-name changed to protect the innocent)

So, what I want to know is, what is going on with "hopefully" in this sentence? Traditionally it's an adverb, but here it's hopped over into the noun phrase. The sentence sounds grammatical to me if I imagine somebody inserting the "hopefully" at the last minute as if they didn't think of it in time. But then how did an adverb get in that position? There are other adverbs that don't sound like they could do that:

It looks to me like it's still functioning as an adverb on last -- and it sounds fine to me in any adverbial position.

  • will hopefully be our last Christmas in X.

  • will be hopefully our last Christmas in X.

  • will be our hopefully last Christmas in X.

  • *will be our last hopefully Christmas in X. -- (unless said parenthetically)

  • So it can't modify an noun as we see also in another sentence type that Elizabeth suggests:

  • This box will hopefully be the one I need.

  • This box hopefully will be the one I need.

  • Hopefully this box will be the one I need. (that old bane of the prescriptivist)

  • ?This box will be hopefully the one I need.

  • *This box will be the hopefully one I need.

  • ?This box will be the one hopefully I need. (It might only be okay here if it's changed scope to revert again to the prescriptivist's nemesis)

  • This box will be the one I hopefully need.

  • Elizabeth importantly points out that surely won't work like hopefully:

  • This year will surely be our last Christmas in Exico.

  • ?This year will be our surely last Christmas in Exico.

  • There's almost some hypallage going on here altho that's typically an adjective moving to another noun. In this case 'hopefully' as an adverb wouldn't be starting on any noun but I think it might be. Let's look at it as a special case of transferred epithet moving from "I am hopeful" to the special semantically widened scope that "hopefully" has taken starting off a CP. Because yes -- it's odd that hopefully seems to have some license that other adverbs don't. Perhaps it's because a word like "surely" hasn't earned the legs that "hopefully" has. But has importantly? How do you feel about my sentence above where I displaced important from its place modifying the point that Elizabeth makes and I put it on her method of making the point? Does it look to you like it's freer than 'surely' but not as free as 'hopefully'? That's how I hear it.

    Monday, December 24, 2007

    You say potato I say dadada

    Ah the joys of family and little kids -- and obvious input/output phonological data provided by a 19 month old niece. Some basic early phonological processes.

    wipes → peeps: /wəɪps/ → [pips]
    chip → pip/peep: /ʧɪp/ → [pʰIp]/[pʰip]
    grape → peep: /gɹeɪp/ → [pip]
    Blake → Pete: /bleɪk/ → [pit]
    cookie → teetee: /kʊki/ → [titi]
    TV → beebee: /tivi/ → [bibi]
    crayons → crots: /kɹeanz/ → [kɹats]
    santa → tahta: /sæntə/ → [tʰãta]
    michael → cocku: /məɪkl̩ /→ [kʰaku]
    buffy → fuffy: /bʌfi/ → [ɸʌfi]/[fʌfi]
    sock → cock:/sak/ → [kak]
    Mark → cock: /maɹk/ → [kak]

    (And she would probably not say [dadada] for 'potato'. Maybe [tito] because she's stuck on 1 and 2 syllable words. And 'tomato' comes out [mimo].)

    Of course these pronunciations are changing. She's getting closer and closer to some of the expected phones in her pronunciation. And there's of course a lot of room for variation since her articulation isn't precise.

    The aspiration on some of the voiceless stops isn't always clear but I transcribe it where I see it most regularly. I like that altho the /t/ stop of the affricate in 'chip' becomes [p] the release in the affricate is performed as an aspirated release.

    There's clear favouring of reduplication in the output and it's almost always regressive. There are a few words that don't pattern like the rest. I would expect her to say [kik] as the output for "Blake" but she introduces two sounds that aren't in the input. Perhaps everyone around here produces a glottal stop in [bleIʔ] and she has learned it as an allophone of /t/.

    She says "Santa" with a nasalized [a] but no alveolar nasal as the coda. She is able to articulate the nasal in a coda -- as in corn which she pronounces [kɔn] -- but it might be tougher before a C (given how much more natural the CVCV syllable structure is in early language development).

    There are some vowels that show something about the way these adults around here speak. Nobody says kɹænz here altho that's a common pronunciation of crayons. The [a] gets drawn out and thats the sound that she holds onto.

    And of course everyone's favourite is when she points at Mark and starts calling him names. He's a nice guy but she apparently thinks he's a bit of a jerk.

    Sunday, December 23, 2007

    Swearing like an Eskimo

    So I'm not going to make any claim about how many words they have for snow. But on the drive through Wisconsin last night I came up with about two-dozen words for the %#!@*$# white stuff.

    I'm really doubting that whole no-two-snowflakes-are-alike claim.

    But we're back online now.

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    It is the cost. It is the cost.

    It's unfortunate that some women are given the brunt of the blame for the failings of a man. Desdemona certainly was not the cause. Lady MacBeth might have been. So what about Jessica Simpson? Her on screen appearances during the Dallas/Philadelphia game have elicited a lot of vitriol. Some people are arguing that Tony Romo was distracted and that's why he played so badly.

    I love Bettyboo's comment on this OMG!/Yahoo! piece: "From the start I knew that Jessica (the air head) was going to cause the Cowboys the game."

    That looks like an eggcorn in there. To cause the game is an obvious mishearing of to cost the game. Is there a reasonable semantic reanalysis? Well first let's see if there's enough of this going on. First I'm going to go with 'caused us the game' in my initial search.

    [...sound of tapping on computer keyboard...]

    Wow. Yeah it's out there. A Google™ search for "Caused us the game" brings up 6720 hits. And the first five are all what I was hoping to find.

    "Any fool can see that is what caused us the game" source

    "h3po4 did an really nice \kill on map16, almost caused us the game" source

    "Ultimately, this is what caused us the game." source

    "but we were unable to capitalize on their mistakes and it caused us the game." source

    "'It was not the untimely timeout that caused us the game ' explained Cuban" source

    Bettyboo uses a form that makes it look like she has heard 'cost the game' and interpreted it as 'caused the game' so she changes the verb according to a standard grammar when she chooses the phrase "going to cause" instead of 'caused the game' in her comment.

    This morphology is out there too. A search for "cause them the game" gets 12,300 hits. How many of them relevant? Enough.

    "which will cause them the game in the end." source

    "one little mistake done by a teammate can cause them the game" source

    "He threw two late interceptions which cause them the game." source
    (this one doesn't follow the standard rules of verb tense. It could be an 'eary' spelling. You know--one of those errors that makes me type throw when I meant to type throat just because they sound so similar.)

    "This decision may cause them the game which is unfortunate" source

    One result looks like a gapped construction.
    "however lack of focus could cause them the game and loose ground to Inter Milan." source

    The coordination with that second phrase that doesn't have a subject makes me think the writer might have intended to say 'could cause them to lose the game and lose ground to Inter Milan.' In that case it would have nothing to do with the cost→caused eggcorn.

    But it could still be a relevant example if the writer meant to produce something like 'lack of focus could cause them the game and to lose ground' -- which would be sweet. Zeugma and an eggcorn relying on each other.

    That might be too much to ask.

    The cost→caused construction has been mentioned and discussed already on The Eggcorn Database. I didn't mention it here but one the EcDb forum I noted that one necessary condition of an eggcorn (the semantic reanalysis) was unclear to me. What exactly would 'caused the game' mean? The last example above looks like a possible effect of a blend and that might be just what's going on in these examples. But it's not a clear failure. If a clear meaning and semantic motivation can be found for 'caused the X' this would work as an eggcorn.]


    Monday, December 17, 2007

    BBC's myth-take on dialects

    Tenser, said the Tensor posted a couple weeks back on the BBC presentation of How the Edwardians Spoke. His post does a fine job of going over some of the laughable claims made by program host Joan Washington.

    It's an hour long so if you have the time you should watch it. And just for the record: it is an enjoyable hour even tho Ms Washington peppers it with ridiculous conjecture and baffling superstitions. The recordings are fascinating. And occasionally touching.

    Watch the Google™ video or the GUBA video (better quality). Both are downloadable.

    A few parts that stuck with me:

    At about 15:00 when told that the Germans made these tapes with the intention of using the data to learn native British dialects she reacts with what strikes me as an incredibly patronizing "Do you...Do you...Do you surmise that? Do you guess that? Or do you know that?"

    Her disfluency strikes me as indicative of a sudden discomfort. I don't think she believes Jürgen-Kornelius Mahrenholz. She has been leaning in towards him and as soon as she starts asking she backs away. My instinct tells me that she's aware that there's aggression in her question and she's padding it by her slight retreat. Notice that when he tells her that there is documentation of the fact her cheeky smile fades slightly. (She might not be used to people being able to actually back up their claims.) But I'm no Jack Byrnes. It's just an impression.

    Her claims regarding terrain and sinuses and temperature affecting the phonetics of dialects remind of the hokum I mentioned this past summer. But take a look at the IMDb page. At least one viewer thinks those are interesting claims. The stuff sells. Fallacies are the best opiate.

    Washington's label of Major and Minor keys in accents is particularly interesting. I can't imagine how the intonations of dialects would be bound to a major or minor key. They're really just full of accidentals. And given the relatively narrow range of pitches and the great variation in tones from phrase to phrase and sentence to sentence it's much more likely that we're looking at a chromatic scale.

    This major/minor distinction is a tough one for the untrained. People really know as little about music as they do about linguistics. Earlier today a rerun of My Wife and Kids featured a guest appearance by the wonderful Betty White. In one scene she plays a difficult passage on the piano and remarks "Did you hear that? ... Your C-major is a quarter tone off." C major could be a quarter tone off. Sure. But that wouldn't be a helpful observation because it could really only mean that one note in the C major chord or scale is off. And that same note could be in the A minor scale (It would have to be really) or the C harmonic minor or the C minor or the A long as it's a white key. But back to the dialect stuff:

    Washington makes the distinction between major and minor keys by saying that in a major key the speaker sounds self assured and confident and in a minor key the phrases and sentences don't end on any clear and definite note. Notes are all just as definite in every key. She seems to be talking about phrase ending intonation which is sometimes a rising or falling tone and sometimes not. But that has nothing to do with keys. Each key is as definite as the rest.

    The best example of the difference between a major and minor key that I can think of (and that people are likely to recognize) is the Gracie Films fanfare best known from the closing credits for The Simpsons. The normal ditty is in a major key but the Halloween Treehouse of Horror episodes feature a little shift into a minor key.

    Sunday, December 16, 2007

    A simple Sunday post

    The Ridger tagged me a while ago. The rules of this one are pretty simple. I have to respond to seven simple prompts.

    1. Share one random and or weird thing about yourself.
    2. I used to have 3 widow's peaks.

    3. Share a 2nd random and or weird thing about yourself.
    4. I got into linguistics because I like doing impressions and accents.

    5. Share a 3rd random and or weird thing about yourself.
    6. I learned how to do a wolf whistle from reading a book. I had always wanted to know how to do one and I finally learned how in high school when one English class was so boring that I started browsing through the bookcases for random books to read to pass the time. (Class was held in the library.)

    7. Share a 4th random and or weird thing about yourself.
    8. I never drink with my meals.

    9. Share a 5th random and or weird thing about yourself.
    10. In the 4th grade during a football game I go so mad at a classmate that the other kids had to hold me back. I kept fighting to charge at him and an older kid (Melvin I think...) kept saying to me "Stop looking at him. It's just making you madder." He kept blocking my view then turned me around until I calmed down. I felt so stupid afterwards and I haven't lost my temper since. I really don't even get angry anymore. (I'm so proud of myself.)

    11. Share a 6th random and or weird thing about yourself.
    12. I started violin lessons by the Suzuki method when I was 5 years old. I loved it. And I was pretty good. In the 5th grade I got a new teacher. She had me learn "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and I thought it was such a stupid song that I quit the violin.

    13. Share a 7th random and or weird thing about yourself.
    14. I haven't trimmed the length of my beard in 2 years.

    I'll not tag anyone. But if you choose to do a similar post go ahead and leave a comment and give me a link. Or don't. I promise I won't get mad.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Merry X[bar]mas

    Instead of Secret Santa parties linguistics programs should hold Contextually Neutralized Santa parties.

    But I missed out on the fun that several colleagues had this year. Dangit. I could have received a card like this to put on the coffee table. Dangit.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    What's another word for 'full of impact'?

    I'm watching the Thank You for Smoking with the audio track playing the commentary of Jason Reitman Aaron Eckhart and David Koechner.

    In a comment on one scene Koechner praises Reitman for including a small but effective detail. "It's impactful" he says.

    Impactful gets 93,200 hits on Google™. The first hit: Paul Brians' entry from his huge list of common errors. His entry's are short and clear. About impactful he says "this term does not appear in most dictionaries and is not well thought of by traditionalists." He suggests using 'influential' or 'effective' instead.

    The second hit is's entry culled from Webster's New Millenium. ( is not a true dictionary; But it does provide entries taken from dictionaries)

    The third hit is Michael Quinion's discussion of why such words are disliked by some. Nice piece. Read it when you're done here.

    The fourth hit is the Urban Dictionary entry.

    The fifth hit is an ABC NewsRadio rant "Presented by Kel Richards" about the word. He writes:

    Well, I’m always happy to cheerfully deride ugly new words that we don’t need – and the word is question here is impactful – and it’s certainly ugly, and certainly unnecessary (the two words 'with impact' will do the same job).

    Richards blames American journalists for producing this horror.

    So I disagree with Brians' estimation of the importance of traditionalist opinions. These "traditionalists" are choosing to dislike words for weak reasons. But at least Brians is alerting the reader to a real concern. If you care what traditionalists think then avoid the word.

    But Richards is trying too much here. What exactly makes a word ugly? Really. What? And what word isn't unnecessary if your argument is merely to suggest using another word or phrase in it's place. Brians suggests 'influential' or 'effective' which don't capture the right meaning. Influential has a sense of powerful and able to change an opinion or perspective to a particular end and effective has a sense of suited to a particular purpose. Impactful is a little more basic than that with a sense of characterised by ability to get or focus attention; possibly memorable with less of the sense of purpose or influence driven by an agenda.

    Richards argument that the word is "certainly unnecessary" gets completely tripped up by his suggestion that "'with impact' will do the same job." Really? the same job?

    "That was a very impactful sequence."
    "That was a very with impact sequence."

    "Her intense gaze and ability to speak with impact make her a fierce advocate."
    "Her intense gaze and ability to speak impactful make her a fierce advocate."

    Impactful isn't a an adverb. Yet.

    Right now it's true that some people don't know the word and they wince or twitch on hearing it. But all it takes is enough people using it to turn the naysayers into more obvious and tiresome pedagogues.

    So I'll keep using it when it works better than another word. But mostly I'll use it because I'm an American, Mr Richards. And if I don't use 'impactful' the traditionalists win.

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    It's a boy or a girl

    I had a chance recently to go back and look over the Beowulf translation I completed a year ago. On the second day of class I was given the five or so lines ending with the memorable exclamation regarding Scyld Sheafson: "Þæt wæs god cyning" -- translated by Seamus heaney as "That was one good king."

    When I got to the line I read it as "That's a good king" -- the professor just looked up at me and said "Well that doesn't help us out any." *sigh*

    His contention was that because Þæt is neuter and cyning is masculine it just doesn't make sense grammatically to say that they were both referring to the same good king. His suggested translation? Something along the lines of "Thusly (he) was a good king." "That" had to serve an adverbial function not a nominative -- perhaps like that or in that way.

    It made sense so I lowered my head with a quiet yessir and ceded to floor to the next trembling classmate.

    Looking at my translation again it occurs to me that my first attempt might work. Think of "That's a good king" as All that behavior adds up to a good king.

    Or let's look at another language.

    I say of my wife 'That is my wife' and I repeat it in Spanish: 'Ésa es mi esposa.' The demonstrative agrees with the gender of the predicate nominative.

    And if I use the definite article saying 'That is the best wife' my Spanish echo would say 'Ésa es la mejor esposa.'

    But if I change the sentiment slightly and say 'That is a good wife' I would say it in Spanish: 'Eso es una buena esposa.' The determiner on the nominative NP constrains the demonstrative.

    A possessive forces agreement:
    Ésa es mi amiga.
    Ése es mi padre.
    Ésa es mi casa.

    (I have a sense that perhaps a flippant phrase like 'that's my friend' delivered with a sigh meaning 'what more can we expect from her/him?' could take the neuter. I'll have to look into that.)

    But an indefinite article is fine with the neuter demonstrative.
    Eso es un padre.
    Eso es una casa.
    Eso es una mujer.

    If we use an intensifying quantifier in English: 'That is one big house' -- the Spanish counter would be 'Ésa es una casa grande' -- The quantifier looks identical to the determiner but each functions with a distinct demonstrative.

    English: That is a big dog.
    Spanish: Eso es un perro grande.
    English: That is one big dog.
    Spanish: Ése es un perro grande.

    Even tho the article forms are identical in Spanish the sharper semantic focus is evident from the demonstrative. Perhaps one≠one. (This may be further evidence that dividing determiners and quantifiers into definite and indefinite determiners is problematic.)

    For the sake of analogy (but not argument) I suggest that similar constraints on agreement might work in OE. When the demonstrative might indicate an collection of behaviors or qualities more than an individual or an item a neuter can function even when equated with a masculine or feminine noun.

    The line in Beowulf doesn't have an article. OE didn't have true articles. But because we have neuter þæt and not masculine se a translation into Modern English could easily be That was a good king distinct from He was a good king. If we accept this analogy we then have to reject Heaney's translation: "That was one good king."

    But I'm loath to criticise any decision Seamus Heaney makes regarding poetry. He's earned his license.

    (Yes--the line from the MS was cropped and reorganized to fit the space.)

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    What's behind this?

    Shannon Brownlee is perhaps a smarter and more reasonable version of Kevin Trudeau. Trudeau has made millions as the sultan of snake oil. He claims that doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are evil. Brownlee believes that medicine and treatment are good when administered sufficiently and necessarily. But she knows there are problems with the system. We all know that.

    She was just on Book TV talking about her book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer.

    It was an interesting presentation. I wish I had started watching from the beginning. And I wish had been paying closer attention when one fellow in the crowd asked her a question (I think it was about managed care) and he relied on the premise that some part of the system "has always been behind the progressive 8-ball."

    [Update: As Casey points out in his comment the program is now available. It must take some time before the video is posted on the C-SPAN website. I had looked at that page. Here's the full quote from the question (~45:50 into the video):

    "Two topics: medical assistance in Maryland, and mental health. Medical assistance in Maryland has always been behind the progressive 8-ball. Have you done any looking into programs in other states...? What have you seen in other states that makes medical assistance models look good?"

    And by medical assistance he means programs like Medicaid.]

    I think he was trying to accomplish more than this image is accustomed to.

    It makes sense that by saying its behind the 8-ball he means the system is in trouble. It finds itself stymied while facing an important task. Some people will throw in the word "proverbial" to make sure that we dense listeners catch the metaphorical intention.

    They're playing snooker ol' boy?
    No no. It's a proverbial 8-ball ol' chap
    Ah. But of course!

    Well since he was arguing for the importance of change I'm guessing that he meant the health care system is lagging in its response to the need for improvement and evolution. So the system is behind in its task of progress. And it's a tough situation. But instead of a proverbial 8-ball this is a progressive 8-ball.

    So here we find it behindblocked and behindlagging.

    So this blend seems to be functioning on the idea that "the 8-ball" is both a hindrance to progress and the model of progress. Awesome.

    This looks like a wonderful instance of several necessary influences interacting at the right time to create this phrase. The standard term --proverbial-- being close enough to another word --progressive-- so that because of an implication of the argument (we need progress) an idiomatic blending occurs maybe even influenced by several other 'behind the X' phrases taken to be sports/gaming idioms even if they're not all from the world of sports.

    Behind in the count
    Behind the curve
    Behind in points

    And I've found a few sites that use the phrase "behind the curve ball" meaning running late or in a difficult situation. see here see here.

    Apparently some people do see "behind the curve" as a baseball image.

    (BTW: Within a span of only a few minutes I heard Brownlee use Isis formation a couple of times. Loverly.)

    Sunday, December 09, 2007

    Sidebar updates

    I have just made some minor changes to the list of links on the right sidebar. I visit most of the links regularly and I was noticing that several of them had not been updated in a long time.

    Some of them are not only stale -- they're defunct. Many old friends have chosen to move on. So shall we. I hope you fare well Q-majiner and Truth Spelunker. Keep in touch Buppy.

    I moved some links to a different list. Some friends have moved away from Purdue but are still blogging. So they are now in a more general links list.

    And I've added a few links. On the Purdue list there are some new links a classmates blogs that I've recently uncovered.

    And please note the addition of the Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Dictionary and Mark Peters' Wordlustitude. Slang deserves our attention too no?

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    I have some ideas for what I should write in my head

    Three's the charm. One more syntactical ambiguity example then no more posts like this until after the new year.

    A recent post at provides...well a sentence fragment. A noun phrase really:

    "A perfect encapsulation of the asininity of the usual simplistic 'if you come here, you should speak English' attitude at xkcd."

    That's fine. I like fragments. I like using them. Sometimes they're necessary. For instance now. But the fragmentation...fragmentalism...fragmentality... well none of those is the theme of this post.

    My first time thru the line I read it this way (roughly): [here is] a perfect encapsulation of the asininity of the usual simplistic 'if you come here, you should speak English' attitude that we often find at xkcd.

    So I thought Really? xkcd is usually not too bad. I followed the link. I read the cartoon. And I thought hmmm...I must have misread languagehat's post.

    It makes sense now read (roughly): [here is] a perfect encapsulation of the asininity of the usual simplistic 'if you come here, you should speak English' attitude presented satirically by the fine folks at xkcd.

    It's a tough one to restructure. Even in the short comment I left at languagehat the distinction is tricky. There's a semantic waviness on this one because even if xkcd provided the encapsulation and did it knowingly it would still be possible to read the sentence with the implication xkcd believes this argument and it's clearly a dumb one. Syntactically there's a clear difference between these two structures:

    1. encapsulation of [the stupidity of [the attitude at xkcd]]

    2. encapsulation of [the stupidity of [the attitude]] at xkcd

    But semantically both can be criticizing xkcd's ideas. While only the second syntactic structure allows xkcd the possibility of being a fellow derider of the attitude.

    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Headlines can confuse some people: me

    Why all my recent confusion with phrases? Here are a couple more. While some clues are present in these headlines they can still baffle a slow reader such as I am.

    Man charged after Santa gets pie in face

    1. Why was he chasing Santa? And did the pie stop him? Oh no. That would require some sort of colon or semi-colon after "Santa". Now it's clear.

    2. So why did they wait till after Santa got the pie before they charged the fellow? And why did they charge him anyway? Well of course he must have thrown the pie. See--headlines are easy.

    3. O wait. The guy got the pie in his face. So why were he and Santa charged? And why was Santa charged first?

    You've gotta know when to walk away.

    Another headline that tied my mental shoelaces together.

    Mummified dinosaur reveals surprises: scientists

    They're pretty tasty but you have to remember to spit out the Bunsen burner.

    (This headline structure was mentioned over at polyglot conspiracy several months ago.)

    Monday, December 03, 2007

    Imus guilty as the next

    Yeah yeah it's been eight months and now Don Imus is back on the air. We all knew he would be eventually.

    OK. Just because he used a label doesn't immediately mean that he thinks it's an accurate depiction; he probably thought it was just a safe joke. Still--his comment was insensitive. Such cheap derogation is a weak way to entertain. He was a goat for the industry's expiation. And a safe one because CBS doesn't look like a bully canning a rich white man. At least that's what I'm convinced his banishment was.

    There's a point where the use of a phrase is the issue--not the opinions or intentions of the speaker. Humor blurs the line between using a term and referring to a term. And so a joke at the wrong time can be viewed as too dangerous a game to play. Those who decry such jokes often don't care that the performer might not actually see things the way the joke says. The problem they say is that the words and opinions are put out there without condemnation.

    Then why are so many reports and stories so eager to simply reprint the phrase unnecessarily? We all remember the phrase don't we?

    I would put up links to all the stories but what's the point?

    The meaning of a sentence you can't pin down

    A friend recently put up a very simple post suggesting a great movie title. That is -- a movie title that would be great (even if the movie is not).

    Bride of Frankenstein's Monster's Ghost!!!

    Why is it so great? Well I can't be sure that he loves the ambiguity as much as I do but he did complete his M.A. in linguistics (now working on a PhD in classics) and he's a true student of language--so I'm sure the several readings didn't escape him.

    Who is the main character of this movie?

    Is it the ghost of the bride (which bride is married to Frankenstein's Monster)?
    [Bride of [[Frankenstein]'s Monster]]'s Ghost

    Is it the ghost of the Monster (which monster belongs to Frankenstein's Bride)?
    [[Bride of [Frankenstein]]'s Monster]'s Ghost

    Is it the bride (who is married to the ghost of Frankenstein's Monster)?
    Bride of [[[Frankenstein]'s Monster]'s Ghost]

    Nice title Dave. I would like to be given the script of the film's writing's consultancy.

    Saturday, December 01, 2007

    Lexical chop shop

    I don't follow slang and coinages as closely as some others do, so I'm often pleasantly surprised to come across a word for the first time that has a fairly well-establish role in the lexicon.

    So there's a Church of Stop Shopping out there and it's headed by the flailing and annoying Reverend Billy who says of his credentials as a minister: "Well I didn't go to the Yale divinity school...But we've got a church. And we do...perform weddings and baptisms and funerals". And like every good evangelist he's using fear to change minds and inspire souls. What is the catastrophe he warns against? Well this one is new to me: shopocalypse.

    Okay so he's doing it tongue-in-cheek...I hope. You never know. It is a nice nod to the perils of consumerism that many acknowledge. But that discussion isn't so interesting to my linguistic self. The word has potential. That's somewhat interesting. Here's what else I notice.

    I'd likely pronounce shop as either [ʃap] or [ʃɑp]. In the word shopocalypse the first syllable is unstressed. Vowels in unstressed syllables like to neutralize -- so instead of shop ([ʃap]) + apocalypse ([əpɑkəlɪps]) = [ʃaˈpɑkəlɪps] we get a neutralization of [a] to [ə] for [ʃəpɑkəlɪps].

    And such a vowel change is predictable and expected. This might make the portmanteau sound less like shop+ocalypse and more like sh+apocalypse but the spelling (and some common sense) indicates that shop is intended.

    Well I can still wonder if the [p] which has now become an onset consonant is the [p] taken from the coda of shop or if it's the [p] taken from the second syllable onset of apocalypse? I'll say it's the [p] of apocalypse only because it's aspirated.

    Now the coda /p/ is certainly allowed to change and this could be simple allophonic variation. But I have this weird obsession with portmanteau balance. There's this tiny part of my brain that attaches theories of justice and equality to issues that make me seem crazy if I say too much about them. (Those of you who know my "balance and symmetry" issues might recognize this.) I don't like it when two words are combined and only one of them loses a segment.

    I could write about 6 pages on what shopocalypse has going for it and against it in this regard. Phonemically there's some equality but phonetically apocalypse has an unfair advantage. The spelling favours shop because its entire bank is represented even if we grant that the [p] is 'taken' from apocalypse. It's not a great portmanteau on the 'balance' regard. A word like 'liger' (lion+tiger) is pretty good because neither word is completely present. But it's not perfect because lion loses at least 50% of it's letters--maybe 75%; and tiger loses at most 40% of its bank--as little as 20%.

    Maybe I've said too much. And I can see some of you slowly backing away.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007

    Did you mean to vote for...

    One of the nice features of Google™ is the spelling suggestion given when a search term looks like a likely misspelling. Above the search results a helpful line in red letters alerts you to a more common spelling for what your search term appears to be.

    Type in 'winndows' and you get Did you mean: windows

    Type in 'johnny carsen' and you're asked Did you mean: johnny carson

    Type in 'conen o'brian' and you see Did you mean: conan o'brian (tho his last name is spelled O'Brien...and misspelling only his last name doesn't offer the correct spelling.)

    Note that the misspelled word gets the italic emphasis. That's nicely intuitive.

    You've probably also noticed the Sponsored Links in the peach shaded box above search results when the search terms scream I might spend money! Search for 'books' and Amazon jumps up begging for attention. Type in 'stereos' and Circuit City elbows its way in. But these are sponsored and not necessary suggested by Google™.

    I recently did an image search for Christopher Dodd and Google™ saw it fit to make the following suggestion

    Also try: john edwards

    At first I thought the search engine was just throwing out the names of other candidates -- an equal time thing. So I did image searches for all the candidates I could think of.

  • barack obama -- no suggestion

  • john mccain -- no suggestion

  • hillary clinton -- no suggestion

  • mitt romney -- no suggestion

  • rudy giuliani -- no suggestion

  • fred thompson -- no suggestion

  • bill richardson -- no suggestion

  • john edwards -- no suggestion

  • tom tancredo -- no suggestion

  • ron paul -- no suggestion

  • sam brownback -- no suggestion

  • dennis kucinich -- Also try: dennis kucinich wife elizabeth kucinich

  • Much as the spelling suggestion italicizes the respelled word, the additional or changed term gets bolded in these suggestions.

    These "Also try" offerings only work in the image search. I can imagine that most searchers would appreciate images of Elizabeth Kucinich more than images of her husband Dennis. And I can imagine that searches for images of Elizabeth are more common than searches for images of Dennis. But what's going on with Dodd→Edwards?

    Is politics really all about the hair?

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Distinctive features

    Am I allowed to say that some language choices annoy me? How about if I promise not to call them pet peeves?

    A while ago Mxrk posted about Paul Brians' list of non-errors that are commonly called errors. It's a decent list full of forms that occur regularly and which function within many constraints of standard English grammar.

    But I take partial issue with one point Brians makes. Regarding the ongoing argument that attributive woman is incorrect and female should be used because it is an adjective while woman is a noun Brians explains

    It may be inconsistent, but the pattern of referring to females as women performers, professionals, etc. is very traditional, dating back at least to the 14th century. People who do this cannot be accused of committing an error.

    It's true this is not a grammatical error. So I'll go along with it that far.

    But there is still something jarring about the form. I'm trusting my naked ear when I expect 'female doctor' or 'female pilot' or 'female police officer' to follow an already established relevance of the sex of the person. So I would expect 'female-X' to be used in contrast to and with the co-occurrence of 'male-X' -- not just plain ol' 'X'.

    But I would expect 'woman-X' to occur as a privative feature: there are doctors and some of them are woman doctors; We've had presidents and we might one day have a woman president.

    The issue here is what I see as the unnecessary qualifier. Consider the label given to models that weigh more than 90 lbs. 'Plus-size models'. Is this necessary? Well I expect that in a few years it'll change. Eventually full-figured will lose the ridiculous connotation of surplus and it'll make sense for a model with a complete body as opposed to those half-figured models out there.

    And then will this →
    be called a plus-ugly model? Or would that be minus-pretty?

    And let me just call attention to my own bias in a discussion of models that focuses on female models only. There are plenty of man-models out there that make me feel insecure with my own plus-size/minus-handsome-ness.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    Holiday stress...or intonation rather

    Buffy was too busy to travel today but she told me I could go drive up to Michigan for the day if I wished to visit family. How could I pass up the opportunity to cook my first Thanksgiving meal and share it with my wife for our first Thanksgiving alone.

    The food came out fine. That's always stressful. The only thing I hope to eventually do differently is replace those packaged buns in the background with homemade bread.

    Over at The Greenbelt the Ridger has posted on a couple of intonational and morphological issues related to the word Thanksgiving and the phrase Happy Thanksgiving.

    I was going to do a post on the stress pattern in the word -- but go ahead and read McWhorter and Liberman and you'll learn a lot more.

    One simple point. I always say THANKSgiving with primary stress on the initial syllable. And I was very surprised when I heard all my officemates say that they put the stress on the give syllable. So much for my ear being carefully tuned to what's being said around me.

    I hope you have enjoyed everything you chose to fill yourself with today.

    Whether it had anything to do with the American holiday or not.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    Phenomenon -- do dooo de do do

    I just finished watching the finale of NBC's magician edition of Star Search: Phenomenon. I haven't seen any of the previous episodes because I'm not that impressed by big magic acts. I like close-up magic -- the type of good ol' prestidigitation that's impressive even when you know that the cards are palmed, the quarters are held by the knuckles and the cups are switched deliberately. It's impressive because you see the skill on display.

    But besides being mostly bored by the big magic acts I would have been annoyed by this show because the whole show was full of announcements like on the next...Phenomenon!; or who will be...the next...Phenomenon? or find out on the series finale of...Phenomenon! or a phenomenon that will blow your mind...on tonight's...Phenomenon!

    ...and I'm almost absolutely certain that if I had been watching the whole season I would have been singing this for the last month.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Who are us?

    Please believe me -- two posts in a row mentioning Katie Couric shouldn't be taken as a sign of a new direction for this blog.

    In the last post I mentioned the Ridger's bewilderment regarding a recent statement made by Couric. And the perplexity is reasonable. Couric mentioned a problem that "could affect every one of us - and our loved ones." -- which leads the Ridger to pose the reasonable question: "Our loved ones aren't 'one of us'?"

    Well are they? It might depend on what Couric what trying to say. Here's how her comment doesn't make sense:

    "[this problem] could affect every one of us -- and our loved ones." ...because it's possible that each of us will be affected in manner.1 by the problem. And it's also possible that the people we love will be affected in manner.1 by this problem.

    So because Couric says "every one of us" this reading runs into the problematic hedging by "and our loved ones" disrupting what "every one" means or who "us" includes. The use of the first person plural inclusive us might seem to include everyone including those who are not watching the show. If that's the case why does Couric add "loved ones" as a necessary 'other' not covered by the previous statement?

    Here's how the statement might make sense:
    "[this problem] could affect every one of us -- and our loved ones." ...because it's possible that each of us producing or watching this broadcast will be affected in manner.1 by the problem. And it's also possible that the people we love (who are not producing or watching this broadcast) will be affected in manner.1 by this problem.

    Couric's use of "us" isn't then universal. Nor do we always expect it to be. It's inclusive but we're still able to draw a line between us and them. There's exclusivity in this one. It draws the line between viewers/producers and those loved ones who are not viewing or producing the show. It sounds a little elitist. Why draw the line? And where exactly is it drawn? This explanation -- tho it might work -- doesn't work for me. And considering that there is undoubtedly a circle of people who are neither watching/producing the show nor have any loved ones watching/producing the show...are they safe?

    Another way it might make sense:
    "[this problem] could affect every one of us -- and our loved ones." ...because every person can possibly be affected in manner.1 by the problem. And it would then happen that the people they love will be affected in manner.2 by this problem.

    This requires a switch. If I'm the viewer I've just been told that I could be affected in a primary way by this problem -- say I'll stub my toe and cry out in pain. That first hand experience is manner.1. And of course because I'm such a crybaby Buffy has to put up with my whining. She's affected in manner.2 -- the secondhand effect. And if Couric's "every one of us" is truly a universally inclusive group that means that even tho I'm the one watching the show it's also possible that Buffy will stub her toe and cry out in pain manner.1 and I will have to put up with her soft and adorable whimpering manner.2.

    This one makes the most sense to me because of Courics use of "and" coordinating the two claims. That it could affect every one of us - and our loved ones. If the effect was the same for both us and our loved ones I would expect or to coordinate the possibilities. That would be a complementary coordination that indicates the same effect going in either place -- the "and" might indicate a simultaneous coordination of people being affected at the same time -- but not necessarily in the same way.

    So within this claim I the viewer am at once one of us AND a loved one.

    That's one way to double their Nielsen ratings.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007

    Annan shrugged

    The Ridger's recent post about Katie Couric is not based on a prescriptivist argument or a peevish opposition to language change. It's an honest question about why Couric structures her claim the way she does. I'll get back to it in my next post. But for now it sent me down memory lane to a 2005 interview with Kofi Annan.

    In that interview with the then UN Secretary General, Couric said to him "you literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders." This was picked-up and bemoaned by bloggers and defenders of literal purity everywhere. It can't be literal they claim. Literal means there is no metaphoric sense to my claim. It means the claim happened in actuality. It means that there is no exaggeration.

    Well except that that's not true. Literally has been changing use.

    But Couric's claim to Annan is a fun one because she apparently intends to use literal just as the peevologists would have her use it. She is claiming that the entire world is literally Annan's concern. Saying to others 'you have the weight of the world on your shoulders' is usually an observation that their duties are onerous. That they feel great pressure. And we exaggerate the scope of their concerns. When someone is worried about everyone in the office or every problem at the school or every crime reported on the local news we call the reach of their cares 'the world': even tho it's not it might as well be because it's beyond their control.

    So I'm going to give Couric a pass on this one (as if passes are mine to give and withhold). When she added "literally" she signaled that the scope she mentioned was not an exaggeration. Yes -- there was still some synechdoche: calling all the people on earth "the world" -- there was still some metaphorical figuring: political concerns being "weight"; and his "his shoulders" used as an image of his awareness of those concerns -- but not everything in the statement has to be free of metaphor. There is a literal sense still at work in the claim worth calling literal: his concerns were global in nature. He had within his job description the responsibility for decisions and policies that affected every nation on this planet.

    'Literalness' is a problematic claim. Metaphors can be live or dead. A word can have a persistent implication of proper and extended usage. But metaphors will often settle in and become part of a word's commonly assumed meaning in ways that used to be merely figurative. To "handle stress" no longer sounds like much of a metaphor because 'handle' has broken away from a strict meaning of 'to manipulate and manage with one's palm and phalanges.'

    Literally on cloud 9 - Probably not actually up there. But very clearly and unambiguously elated.

    Literally climbing up the walls - Mr Parker perhaps. Everyone else would probably mean that the agitation was enough to cause excessive movement and frantic motion.

    Literally losing his mind - If he's mentally ill some would say this works. Others will hold it accountable to a second level of literalness claiming that there is still gray matter in the skull and activity in the brain. so...

    Literally going crazy - Fine right? The drudges will point out that 'going' means moving somewhere so he might be becoming crazy but he's not actually moving anywhere in a crazy manner. (Really. Those people are out there.)

    Literally strong as an ox - Unlikely but possible. Certainly could be stronger than some ox. A weak and anemic little baby ox? So the pedants will demand proof.

    Literally ran out of gas - Another one that might encourage some to find levels of literalness. It's story time:

    If someone is working on a task and gets tired and she says 'I literally just ran out of gas' she might mean that she really had to stop.

    So Peevy-1 comes along and says 'Nonono--you don't run on an internal combustion engine so you couldn't run out of the same fuel that allows an automobile to run.'

    The next week Peevy-1 is on the highway and his car sputters. Telling the story he says 'I literally just ran out of gas' and Peevy-2 says 'Nonono--your car ran out of gas. You don't run on gas.' Peevy-1 thinks about it and loves the correction. (They're all grammar masochists.)

    Peevy-2 is bragging about this to the English class she teaches so she instructs her students 'If you say literally you have to say my car literally ran out of gas.'

    A hand shoots up from the front row and and Peevy-3 (a promising young student) says 'but was the car "inside" a bunch of fuel and did the car actually "run" with two legs "out" of that body of fuel? It didn't "literally" "run" "out of" gas.' (The student uses 'air quotes'.)

    Does peevy-2 realize that this is spinning out of control? Or does peevy-2 say 'You are going to make a great English teacher one day.'

    image from here

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    The Oxford Primaries

    The announcement just came out.

    "Oxford has announced its WOTY and it is.....LOCAVORE!"

    You can read more about the New Oxford American Dictionary WOTY finishers at the OUP Blog.

    There you will find that

    The 'locavore' movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers' markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better.

    I hadn't heard this word before. Had you?

    Saturday, November 10, 2007

    The state of being truly hungry?

    Posting on the fly:

    about 27 seconds ago the commentator for the Arizona State versus UCLA said of the ASU quarterback: "He's playing with such [vəɻæsɪɾi] today..."

    Why did I transcribe it in IPA? Because that's how he pronounced the word that could have been "veracity" -- and that would be an odd claim. He played with truthfulness?

    It could also have been "voracity" which would make sense given that he was talking about the players persistence and intensity.

    The subtitles (obviously produced 'live') chose the former: veracity.

    And why not? It's the more common word. And tho it's an incorrect use (see -- I can say that too) the use is out there:

    We don't know who the people are, what motivates them, and why they continue to fight with such veracity. HERE

    This type of spam is not uncommon, however, this is the first time we have seen political spam sent at this scale, and with such veracity. qtd HERE

    This next one isn't clear. The speaker might be using the word discriminatingly:
    The aggressive campaigners against animal dissections put up convincing arguments to the orthodox zoology educators and higher education planners with such veracity that the arguments cannot be ignored. cached HERE

    OK it was about 4 minutes ago now.

    Tuesday, November 06, 2007

    Oftly ambiguous

    I just came across the phrase "which is going to be oftly hard" during my daily perusal of the worldwide net. It's going to be hard often? I thought. Then I caught the eggcorn possibility. I searched for "oftly" before various adjectives and adverbs. Here are some of the phrases I found:

    • It was oftly late, and he was tired. here

    • it's oftly dark and dreary right now. here

    • dane cook is oftly funny also. here

    • you're going to feel oftly dumb when you lose out here

    • Who knows if Eli Manning will ever be as good Peyton, its oftly early to tell, here

    • You were oftly quick on that one Corry. here

    • I was only curious because that Navigation button looks oftly difficult to use. here

    • They're easy to make, healthy, and you'd have to try oftly hard to screw it up. here

    I provide fuller snippets of this use because oftly meaning often or frequently could be used in pretty much the same phrasal environment. Longer bits of text give us clues that help distinguish between the two uses. Consider the possibility of an eggcorn or not in the following pairs of sentences:

    1. His shirts are oftly wrinkled

    2. That shirt is oftly wrinkled

    3. His shirts are oftly hideous

    4. That shirt is oftly hideous

    Sentences 1 and 2 can be referring to how often the wrinkles occur. It's easy for a shirt to be sometimes wrinkled sometimes not. Of course both sentences could also be using oftly for awfully. These are ambiguous.

    Both 3 and 4 could refer to how often the shirts are hideous. But 4 looks less likely. The implication of sentence 3 would be that he often wears hideous shirts--not that the appearance of each individual shirt often 'becomes' hideous. Sentence 4 focuses on a single shirt and is less likely to mean 'often'. Would the shirt change prints? There is still ambiguity but there's a more likely meaning of 4.

    Fortunately I found sentences like "you'd have to try oftly hard to screw it up" because often wouldn't likely occur between "try" and "hard". Modifying "try" it's more likely to follow the phrase ('try hard oftly') or perhaps precede it ('oftly try hard')--unless the intention was to use "hard" to modify how you "try oftly"--[[try oftly] hard]. Not a likely reading considering how common the phrase "try awfully hard" is.

    The necessary reanalysis of meaning (to make it an eggcorn) looks reasonable. This isn't likely a mere misspelling of a misheard word--especially since the new spelling is a less common word (270,000 hits for oftly vs 6,650,000 for awfully).

    The voiceless alveolar [t] might be excrescent between the voiceless [f] and the alveolar [l]. Then again who knows if it's pronounced by those who write it? There's plenty of historical evidence for [t]→Ø/[f]__: soften often not that a similar rule/process is necessarily applied or at work here but the result of the Early Modern English trend provides the precedents for a possible analogy.

    But it's still tricky trying to trace a clear path from oftly=often to oftly=very. There's a shared sense of escalation between the two words. And consider that from really to rather to terribly to quite and of course to awfully we see terms of intensification coming in from all directions.

    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Snow mutation?

    Jeopardy! is being coy with it's clues. It sounds like the clue writers have chosen to temper the popular claim of how many dozens or hundreds of Eskimo words there are for snow. Tonight's Tournament of Champions round included the following clue:

    "Eskimos have words for different varieties of this. Api is when it's on the ground."

    They just can't let go of the implication that the language is remarkable in this regard. But they've managed to be reasonable about how remarkable it is. The claim is exactly what you could say about English words for snow. There's more than one.

    Nerdy Public Radio

    I first grew suspicious of this little Big Ten town when I realized that there's no dedicated NPR FM station. Every morning at 8:00 the soothing liberal voices were shoved aside to make way for classical music. I love classical music but I need about 20 minutes of safely faceless voices in the morning before I can stand to make eye contact with anyone. Thank goodness I found an AM station hidden away.

    I was pleased to fire up the radio late last week and find a rerun of a Terry Gross interview with Patton Oswalt and Brad Bird. I love Patton Oswalt's comedy.

    Responding to one of Oswalt's bits about the recent trend in Black Angus restaurant commercials Gross asks Bird why the bit led him to cast the comedian as a rat with a refined palatte in the animated movie Ratatouille. (This segment begins around 5:20 into conversation.)

    Bird: Uh you know I don't know. I think it was the passion that I (laughs) ...that I was responding to more than anything else. The fact that he could get so wound up about the know Patton also talked about how he just loves know and...and

    Oswalt: Yeah...

    Bird: The weird thing is is I didn't really grok that Patton was a foody that was just one of many routines I...

    Oswalt: Did you just say grok?--He just said...

    Bird: --Grok. Yeah that's a Steve Jobs word by the way.

    Oswalt: You call me a nerd and you said grok?

    Gross: It precedes...

    Bird: Hey that's a Steve Jobs word and I learned it from Steve Jobs

    Gross: It precedes Steve Jobs. Isn't that...isn't that from like from Vonnegut or something? Is it...

    Oswalt: I think it's Heinlein.

    Bird: I don't know. Steve used it and...

    Gross: No...oh it's Heinlein...Heinlein. Robert Heinlein. Yeah.

    Oswalt: Oh I just nerded-out again.

    Bird: [whiny voice]You out-nerded me. yes...

    Oswalt: [whiny voice] It's Heinlein not Vonnegut. Excuse me. No're wrong.

    Bird: [whinier voice] Yes...isn't that Lovecraft? [normal voice] ...yeah. No I actually heard that from Steve Jobs. So...yeah. OK so Steve uses that word.

    Oswalt: Oh. OK. Good.

    Listen to the podcast. It's hilarious. Some observations:

    Penultimate) It's a fun little bit of light antedating. They go back to and settle on the accepted origin of the word in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Interesting that along the way Bird first appeals to Jobs as a reliable legitimizer of the word. As if he's not powerful enough. It's all done tongue in cheek. Good times.

    This is a good laugh they have at the expense of the cool reputation lexicographical linguists have been working to establish. (For more thoughts on "lexicographical" and nerdiness see Erin McKean.) Even amongst linguists antedating is getting a little geeky. Just take a look at some of the recent ADS-L discussion.

    Ultimate) I didn't mistakenly transcribe an extra is. Bird uses an ISIS formation early in this segment.

    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    Well obviously he's comprehensible

    This topic came up today in my practicum for teaching intro linguistics. Subtitles convey more than just a simple ongoing transcript of a spoken text. The decision for or against using subtitles carries with it the implication that some accents and pronunciation patterns are more or less likely to be understood by some viewers. But for which viewers are the subtitles intended?

    I habitually set the television to display subtitles. No matter what's on. So I often wonder how newscasts documentaries and telezine programs (60 Minutes, 48 Hours, Dateline, Frontline...) rationalize their alternating subtitling choices. I've seen several episodes in which it's clear that the choice involves a lot more than pure phonetics and phonology.

    Recognizing the implicit claims made regarding standard forms and mainstream usage helps to identify what lines the editors feel deserve attention. And which viewers are valued/catered to.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    Hope hopes

    Mark Liberman at Language Log recently posted some thoughts about minimalist political slogans. Considering some slogans from both British and the American campaigns he notes that they conspicuously sparse and occasionally unintelligible.

    He gathers all the slogans he can find for the Republican and Democratic candidates and concludes that "Among the 9 slogans in both parties, there is not a single verb (leaving out the quasi-adjectival participle forms proven and experienced)." But this conclusion overlooks one unlikely play on words and another that's more likely to be intended--tho I wouldn't argue the point beyond the felicitous possibility.

    John McCain's campaign slogan:

    • "Courageous Service Experienced Leadership Bold Solutions"

    The only likely reading is of three claims: 1. his service is characterized by courage 2. he has experience with leadership 3. his solutions are bold. But an unlikely reading could be paraphrased as "(the) courageous service did experience leadership (and) bold solutions". It doesn't make enough sense to get past a possible but unlikely reading.

    Ron Paul's campaign slogan:
    • "Hope for America"

    The primary reading of this one is as a claim that Paul offers hope: hope exists for American because of Ron Paul. But of course hope might be a verb. And the slogan could easily be a command. Consider it Paul's response to various questions/prompts: Who's going to benefit from the election? Will this country be like the America of old or some nefarious foreign regime? What will be the strongest world power in the future?

    ...(perhaps) Let's hope it's America

    It would recall John Kerry's slogan "Let America be America Again". Maybe that's a better argument against this as an intentional turn.

    How likely is it that a slogan chooses such an ambiguity. Unless both meanings are equally powerful and equally positive, ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Take for instance the Walgreens slogan that claims the store chain exists because life isn't perfect. Is that really what you want us to think? that in a perfect world you wouldn't exist? How about telling us that life is far from perfect but Walgreens gets us a little closer...or we're nowhere near perfect but Walgreens is working on it...or something that doesn't sound like we're the product of human fallibility!...right?

    Buffy's telling me to sit down and

    I really like the ambiguity in Jimmy Carter's slogan "A Leader, For a Change". Both readings make a nice point. "For a Change" is a nice way of both offering a new horizon (there will be change with the next leader) and judging the past administration (having a leader will be a welcome change). It's a nice play on words. So nice that I'm quite sure it was intentional.

    And of course political slogans like to float around sans verbs. A list of 45 slogans (here) offers 21 with clear verbs and one (Harding's "Return to normalcy") that could be a verb or a noun. Just like Paul's slogan it's either a promise or a command. You there! Return to normalcy this minute!

    The second possible meaning of Paul's slogan is unlikely because it sounds too meek--even pessimistic. Don't accomplish anything anything--don't fight for anything--just sit there and hope. But then neither reading smacks of the cock-sure strut that we heard in such slogans as "All the way with LBJ" "Pour it on 'em, Harry!" or "Vote Yourself a Farm".

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Getting your turds wisted

    Some of the most offensive jokes I know use an implied spoonerism as the punchline. Certain answers to the question 'What's the different between X and Y' easily evoke the same phrase with some inverted onsets. Especially when the words in the punchline aren't too common or are similar to conspicuously offensive words.

    And the relative frequency of spoonerisms as a speech error is good evidence that word sounds are organised in a manner that makes onset inversion one of the easier switches.

    But similar sounds can easily invert even if one an onset and the other is a coda. Even if the syllable onset is word internal.

    In the office the other day Ed our renaissance scholar was admitting the daunting task of submitting writing to our esteemed professors. One professor--last name Ross--is known for speaking his mind and not suffering foolishness. "I definitely feel the presure...pressure with Ross. I do feel the presure."

    Buffy looked over at me. I looked up at her. "You're going into his blog" she announced to Ed.

    I've chosen "presure" to represent his pronunciation with the alveolar [s] instead of the postalveolar fricative [ʃ]. I was sad to hear that he didn't actually flip the [s] and [ʃ]. He caught himself before he completed the phrase--corrected the pronunciation of pressure--and proceeded to say "Ross" instead of "Rosh" as I was hoping to hear.

    But when I told him that he paused and suggested that he might have in fact said "Rosh."

    "No" I assured him. "I was hoping you would."

    "Are you sure?"

    "I'm sure. I was disappointed when I heard you pronounce the [s]."

    But he did offer another interesting error. When he repeated pressure it flipped back to the alveolar fricative.

    That leads me to the following mysteries:

    It's not clear that the first [s] was a result of switched segments. He corrected himself and perhaps it was regressive assimilation (over a long distance) from the [s] in Ross. Maybe he was never going to say Rosh. That's not as fun.

    The [s] in the last performance of pressure didn't precede an occurrence of Ross--so progressive assimilation from the already pronounced "Ross" is likely. But it's more exciting to think that it was a partially realized inversion--the other half of which was never going to be pronounced. If so then even tho the second "Ross" wasn't going to make it to performance it was still part of the organization and structure of his sentence. And we saw its ghost by the appearance of the coda [s] in the 2nd syllable onset when he said "presure" [pɻɛsɹ̩ ] instead of "pressure" [pɻɛʃɹ̩ ].

    An inversion through phonemic haunting perhaps?


    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    An technicality at worst

    I'm not sure I want to write this post. Ben Zimmer's study of (and commentary on) language is impressive reasonable thorough precise entertaining and...good.

    And he has been kind enough to leave a few comments here. For all--our thanks. So I don't want to protest too much.

    In his wholly reliable style he recently posted over at Language Log about Victor Washington's case against the NFL. Washington seeks fuller retirement benefits because of his injuries. The NFL doesn't want to pay out so much. Washington's plan offered higher benefits if he suffered "a football injury" and the NFL is sticking to the argument that his several injuries don't entitle him to "Level 1" benefits. (Follow this link to read the story.)

    The sentence that caught my attention was the following observation by Zimmer regarding arbitrator Sam Kagel's use of "a" instead of "an" in the phrase "a injury."

    "The legal emphasis on the word a would apparently be lost if it underwent the regular addition of the epenthetic consonant /n/ to create an before a word beginning with a vowel like injury."

    His suggestion makes sense regarding the rhetoric. I'll buy it. I'm not sure about his analysis of the a/an alternation as epenthesis: the /n/ being an additional letter. It is additional if we say the underlying form of the article is a. But historically the form was an which was realized as a before most consonants. In that case "an" alternates with "a" by deletion of the /n/ coda. So at most this is a pure technicality.

    But let's say that for the sake of a clear point Zimmer is using the wording of the retirement/disability plan as the underlying form. Since the plan uses the phrase "a football injury" we'll say our input is "a"; and from that form to its reflex in the phrase "a(n) injury" we would expect that /n/ would be added because the new phrase places the article before [i] instead of [f]. But I'm still not sure I'd call it epenthesis in that case.

    And I'm not sure that I wouldn't.


    Monday, October 22, 2007

    Problem 1 with prescriptions: they assume disease

    I've started collecting the writings of powerful prescriptivists. Many are familiar. Some are new to me. But among the opinions of both familiar and new writers I keep finding surprising claims that leave me shaking my head.

    Many of their arguments are effective. I would have hailed and lauded them several years ago. Then I started to study language and I found many of my ideas foolish. But I don't think I would have ever agreed with something like this statement that Mark Halpern (one of the recurring voices) makes in a footnote to one of his pieces.

    Those of us who regard the patois of the Black ghetto as inferior do so not because we think it lacks "internal logic"-if it did, it could not serve as a medium of communication at all-but because it demonstrably lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses.

    I literally gasped when I read this. Really. I inhaled audibly--mouth agape. Is he choosing to ignore the fact (or is he merely unaware) that mainstream English also lacks the "means" of expressing what other varieties can?

    But it gets worse. When I read the following in the same footnote I physically backed away from the computer--my heartbeat noticeable faster. Briefly addressing the accusations that prescriptivism is often based on racist principles he scoffs--claiming that the desire to erase all variation is the opposite of racism.

    If prescriptivists were racists, we would want to perpetuate the disadvantages of Blacks, not remove them; cultural elitists we may be, but elitists who want others to share our lofty status.

    The mind boggles (and is boggled despite Jacque Barzun's objections).

    Halpern focuses most of his criticism against leading linguists like Geoffrey Nunberg and Steven Pinker who respond to some of his claims but have other more important things to do. I'm early enough in my career to work on shaping it against such egregiously arrogant and bigoted claims.

    Thursday, October 18, 2007


    Flat out acceptance of emerging variant forms is always a little tricky. My last post contained the line (regarding the spelling of vocal chord): "What makes it acceptable? Well ... the fact that it's accepted" and I knew right away it was too broad a statement. Too broad for me even. Perhaps my follow-up line "Sometimes linguistics is just that simple" unfairly overshadowed the fuller claim that there are always complicating issues and linguistically relevant inquiries involved in the discussion of spelling and semantic change.

    Nancy Friedman rightly notes:

    But teaching, writing, editing, and proofreading are not "that simple." Those of us who ply those trades can't afford to be descriptivists. We need guidelines.

    The discussion of usage will responsibly call attention to the important difference between a mistake and a variant form. And variant forms may or may not belong to different registers. And those forms that belong to different registers can be either conspicuous or inconspicuous. And of course we can investigate to which groups they are and are not conspicuous.

    So writing guituar instead of guitar is pretty clearly an error. There may be a jocular or purposeful use of the extra 'u' but I would bet that most people that choose to include it know that it should be recognized as a mistake. And it's not that common anyway. It gets fewer Google™ hits than a lot of other likely mistakes.

    And writing kewl instead of cool is rarely a mistake but it is probably a purposeful use of a nonstandard spelling convention meant to capture a pronunciation. Those who use the spelling probably intend it to be noticed but they probably don't intent to appear unaware of the standard spelling, nor do they intend to appear to be pretending to be unaware of the standard.

    By the time we get to cord and chord it's hard to know what awareness there is of the standards. Friedman asks in her post "[Does] Michael Covarrubias write vocal chords and free reign?" There's a wonderful nuance to her point with this question. I have spoken flatly and openly about descriptivism as a necessary approach to language analysis but what changes when I move over to language use?

    Now I may be somewhat of a smartass with a lot of my writing. I knowingly write 'tho' instead of 'though'--I avoid commas as much as possible (which really frustrates Buffy)--I often switch back and forth between -or and -our in words like colo(u)r hono(u)r humo(u)r--I'll put metre and center into the same sentence and 4 pages later I'll use meter and centre if I can fit them in.

    I don't know if Friedman remembers but a few weeks ago she noticed that in a post I had written "vocal chords" when reporting a Jeopardy! clue. She asked if the spellings were now "interchangeable" and I had to admit that I added the 'h' unwittingly. So I changed the spelling to "cord". And I will right now admit that I'm splitting hairs when I argue that even tho the spellings occur with almost identical frequency they are not truly interchangeable. There are people who notice the difference. There is a historical emergence of one form. There is an incongruity between the use of 'cord' as the conventional spelling for a cable or rope or rope-like structure comprising several strands, and the use of 'chord' when that type of structure is described as part of the vocal apparatus in humans. I've long been aware of that incongruity and yet I overlooked it when I chose the latter while writing the post in September.

    When Friedman called it to my attention I called it a typo and I changed it. And now the fine folks at OUP have chosen to report and represent the equal occurrence of the two spellings. Will I go ahead and leave the 'h' in there when I notice it before publication? Probably not unless I'm talking specifically about the spelling.

    It's not fair to say that I don't judge differences in usage. Let's agree for the sake of my current point that judgment does not equal derision. By being aware of forms there is some judgment going on. I'm certainly not impartial to variations in pronunciation and usage. There are many phenomena of language production that fascinate me and which I admire. Every language and dialect has some impressive phonotactic features and constraints. Whenever I hear about or learn a new one I judge it and then appreciate that the differences exist. That doesn't mean that I consider one language or feature or dialect or phoneme or construction a superior form.

    But I also know that choices and variations in spelling, pronunciation, syntax, semantics, volume or font size communicate various things to various groups. So I do have to judge the ability of any word, phrase or passage to communicate what I hope to say.

    Friedman asks an important question. "[I]f we can't find [the guidelines] in respected dictionaries, where shall we turn?" A good dictionary that earns your trust by giving as much relevant and reasonable information as possible is a treasure. Find a dictionary that lists variant forms along with information about each form including which is an emerging and which is traditional. Such a dictionary will also include information regarding register and common regard.

    And of course there are also style guides. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage may share its view that dichotomy is overused and bifurcation is preferred while most of my favorite dictionaries don't see that as their business. And the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook have interests in affecting usage that Merriam-Webster doesn't have. Style guides are concerned with the language choices made by writers over whom they preside.

    A good dictionary is having too much fun trying to figure out what is happening to spend too much time arguing about what should be happening.

    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    There's a change on the air

    Today was National Dictionary Day. And on ABC news Ben Zimmer was given a chance to agree on national television that vocal c-h-o-r-d is an acceptable spelling.

    What makes it acceptable? Well...the fact that it's accepted. Sometimes linguistics is just that simple.

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    Was Björn Borg born bored?

    Recently on another blog I read a comment offering a few typical observations and almost interesting comparisons of online networks. Then the commenter alerted the post writer to a spelling error with the following admission: "It's actually the reason I'm writing this now."

    It's a shame to see a conversation about interesting ideas turns into a prosaic editing session. And the spelling error in this case is actually an interesting example of a reduplicative coda. The spelling of smorgasbord as smorgasborg is relatively common. Below I list the Google™ hit results for "smorgasbord" and several misspellings


    The 4th spelling above is even attested in the OED as an erroneous spelling--reasonably related to smørrebrød/smørbrød/smorbrodt: Danish and Norwegian for a type of sandwich.

    Does the g occur more commonly or naturally as a coda? Certainly -org would not be more common than -ord -ort -orn or -ork. Tho I'm not going to take the time to count right now. The -g spelling even gets almost 40 times as many hits as the pretty obvious and completely homophonous spelling pun smorgasbored. And if a 'fingerslip' typo is at work here a much more common spelling string like -ore would probably show up more than just 6 times. There's even a January 1964 review in Time Magazine the 1963 film The Prize with the headline/title Smorgasbore (less than enthusiastic).

    I'll go so far as to say that it isn't really a typo. I've heard this as a pronunciation as well and this pattern in the orthography looks like a reflection of the pattern in the phonology.

    An interesting result: schmorgasborg gets 2,210 hits--more than schmorgasbord which gets 1630; and shmorgasborg (522) gets almost as many as shmorgasbord (682).

    Is it contamination by the cybernetic organism⇒ cyborg ⇒ borg compression? Not likely.

    The best explanation seems to be an echo in the final syllable. [Update: A better term of course is reduplication. See Neal's comment for a link to Kie Zuraw's paper on "aggressive reduplication".)]--perhaps combined with an impression of -org as a Scandinavian syllable. But then why do we only find 33 hits for smorgasbjord? Wait. Only 33 hits? That actually seems like pretty good evidence of the Scandinavian effect. I wish I had the time to investigate how often smorgasborg occurs in use by people who have followed tennis since the mid seventies.


    A bit of a digressive epilogue: The commenter I mentioned tacks the common complaint onto his spiel: "p.s. one of my pet peeves is the misuse of 'your' and 'you're'... how is it that people can't figure out when to use each one???" (peevologist is really so appropriate a term).

    People do know how to "figure" it out. People know the rule. They know the difference between the words. But spelling is closely tied to the 'mind's ear' which helps explain why words like to and too are used interchangeably as are there their and they're. I've committed the error many many times. Many. I will commonly interchange where and wear but it's less common for me to confuse them with were. It happens but not as often.

    Thursday, October 11, 2007

    A bigger fish is Fry

    There's some unevenness here.

    On one end of the scale: I've been posting on here for almost 2 and a half years. I have a handful of kind readers and a pinch of occasional commenters. I get a lot of accidental browsers and few searchers who are asking a questions that I have specifically set out to answer--I've put up more than 200 posts. The highest comment total on a single post: 12.

    On the other end of the scale: Stephen Fry has been posting for just under a month. Highest comment total on a single post: 292 (the other post has 278). He has posted twice.

    Of course he has earned the attention with his fine contributions to acting and writing. Tho I'm not sure I can appreciate his recent contribution to writing: He calls his lengthy blog essays blessays.

    I wonder if he's purposely going for the effect introduced by 'bless' showing up in the portmanteau. And I'm not sure why he doesn't just go with "post" or "entry"--the subject of my recent "postry". (That's probably worse than "blessay" but it's so close to the Spanish word for dessert that I'm keeping it.)

    And what about "blisquisitions"? Bliss + inquisitions?

    But his writing is good enough to support these slightly (and only possibly) presumptuous connotations.

    Appropriately--his second post is all about being famous. At least he's qualified.

    (via The Greenbelt)

    Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Randomly offensive numbers

    I was going to respond to Casey's David's and Daniel's comments regarding intelligence on the last post. But I'm not sure I could go much further than the standard discussion of the Stanford-Binet and all criticisms and defenses of its reliability and accuracy then I could mention Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and I'd have said nothing new or very interesting.

    So how about another quotient. If intelligence is so hard to pin down and measure how much more difficult would it be to measure the amount of offense intended or taken by different words? The folks at Random House believe it's possible to quantify both.

    On a scale of "Disparagement" from 0-5 some words are ranked based on the "degree of intent to offend." A possibly offensive word like welsh or gyp gets a zero because it is rarely intended as a disparaging term. A word of mild disparagement like nerd gets a one. The levels as they set them forth:

    • 0 - Not intended to offend, even though it may (Oriental, welsh [welsh on a deal], lady)
    • 1 - Intended to show mild disapproval (egghead, nerd, grind)
    • 2 - Rarely intended to offend, but indicates a lack of sensitivity (the little woman, harelip, cripple)
    • 3 - Sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use (haole, Canuck, goy)
    • 4 - Intended to offend or show contempt (spaz, honky, pansy)
    • 5 - Intended to offend and hurt (faggot, nigger, ofay)

    And they suggest a parallel "Offensiveness" scale for the "degree of offense taken."
    • 0 - Rarely taken as offensive (guys [when used to refer to women], Moslem [instead of Muslim], cover girl)
    • 1 - Taken as showing mild disapproval or lack of respect (housewife, Miss [instead of Ms.], old maid)
    • 2 - Usually taken as insensitive, rather than as completely offensive (Eskimo, deaf-and-dumb, dame)
    • 3 - Easily taken as offensive (Indian giver, baby [when used to address a woman], redskin)
    • 4 - Usually taken as offensive (dyke, Okie, wetback)
    • 5 - Taken as offensive and hurtful (cunt, Hebe, gook)

    This is isn't as far as they go. The quotient is actually a combination of the two scales based on an interaction of the intended and taken offense. The average of the two scores gives us the OQ. The page provides commentary on each example but here I'll provide only the term and its OQ:
    • gyp: D=0 O=2 OQ=1
    • Nazi, as in "soup Nazi": D=1 O=3 OQ=2
    • girl, when used about a woman: D=1 O=3 OQ=2
    • Holy Roller: D=3 O=3 OQ=3
    • pickaninny: D=2 O=5 OQ=3.5
    • city slicker: D=3 O=2 OQ=2.5
    • boy toy: D=4 O=2 OQ=3
    • half-breed: D=3 O=4 OQ=3.5
    • queer: D=4 O=3 OQ=3.5
    • cracker D=4 O=4 OQ=4
    • nigger D=5 O=5 OQ=5

    My initial reaction is disbelief. Then I go to a charitable view figuring some sense of 'degree' of offense is a worthwhile consideration. The discussion gives good attention to the issue of decorum, which I hold as a vitally important consideration when discussing offensive speech.

    But this whole thing loses me with the introduction of numbers and averages. Every one of these numbers can be not just mitigated but flat out shattered when audience and relationships and discourse and and other persistently independent variables are introduced.

    Of course there's no chance that Random House is going to start listing who is likely to be offended based on who is using a term. Tho a short paragraph at the bottom of one graph explains that some terms that are higher on a disparaging scale are so low on the offense scale that they don't even get a label.

    Certain terms, such as liberal or right-winger, are practically spat at people of the opposite persuasion, but those against whom the epithets are directed are more likely to respond, "Yes I am, and I'm proud of it." Such terms are not labeled either Disparaging or Offensive in Random House Webster's College Dictionary, since the degree of offensiveness changes depending upon context.

    Of course Random House is prudent to have some sort of system guiding the labels they use for the words they include. But is this system--and its implication that there are some words that don't vary based on context--is based on an ideal image of how aware people are of the language they use and how knowingly they work with everyone's connotations with every word. In reality there are such drastically mobile sensibilities involved--these numbers are too hopeful.

    One more consideration. Why is zero not used for words that are not at all derogatory? Are there some words that are a 'minus' on the scale? Or are some words simply not allowed to be rated on this scale? And what about a word like niggardly that has nothing to do with offensive speech other than the phonetic similarity? Its use is often used with absolutely no intention to offend and it can elicit nigh on the strongest reaction of offense taken. Is it an OQ=2.5 usually offensive word? Yeah -- it probably is actually.