Monday, January 29, 2007

I still haven't seen Gilroy

I like to look through my stats every once in a while (read: 6 times a day) to see who has been coming to my page. I use StatCounter to tally the visitors. It's a good meter. One of my favorite features is the Recent Visitor Map. But what I follow most are the keyword statistics. The counter provides a link to the pages that refered people to your page. When the visitor comes from a search engine the search terms are reported.

The search terms that have led the most visitors to my page have been related to banshees and the pronunciation of babel. There was a short time when pluto/ed and Word of the Year brought in a gaggle of Googlers. Burr in reference to winter and cold has been a steady term for a few months now.

Some searches are amusing. A few days ago someone came to my page asking "what's a good dare for a gf?" Use your imagination buddy. You'll come up with something. I have considered posting a little text box in the sidebar giving the most amusing search term of the week.

Today's find is not a search term but a page. Apparently there's a Pig Latin Google out there. Click here to take a look.

I notice on the search button that somebody named Peter probably designed the theme. I also notice that Google is never converted into Pig Latin. There are probably two reason for this.

1) The integrity of the trademark must be preserved. This is the prime directive.
2) Something about Ooglegay might not be quite right for mainstream marketing.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Stress and Confusion

A few weeks back (in two posts) I addressed a topic related to AmE post-stress intervocalic flapping of [t]. There are some complications to this rule. Some pure examples of this flapping are the AmE pronunciation of wattage batting and fated. I use these examples because on each side of the [t] there is a vowel with no complicating possibility of syllabic [ɻ] or [l] after the [t].

Let us consider another source of complication. The rule as commonly formulated specifies a post stress position. This can explain the lack of flapping in words such as meticulous baton and rotund. There are however examples of pre-stress flapping. The relevant contexts must be expanded to include word boundaries.

We consider a post-stress intervocalic [t] at a word boundary in the following sentences and the flapping rule appears to be at work.

"I'll jump when the mat is in place."
"Put it there please."
"Did you see how fat Elvis got?"

The first sentence has a clear primary stress on the word "mat." The second is not so clear. The primary stress is probably on "there" and I would argue that secondary stress is on "put" so the sentence comprises two trochaic feet. The third sentence might have a clear stress on "fat" but it could also have a clear stress on "Elvis". (depending perhaps on the established discussion topic: if it was already about Elvis, "fat" would probably get primary stress; if the discussion was about fat people, "Elvis" would likely get primary stress.)

This last sentence is evidence that even before a stressed vowel a [t] might undergo flapping. Consider a possible use of emphatic stress when the second syllable of "waited" is misunderstood.

"No...not 'wait-ing' I said 'wait-ed'"

The [t] in these examples may have dual citizenship. The words could be pronounced either with or without the flapping and either would fit into AmE flapping pattern; if we suggest that the flapping depends on syllabification. According to my ear (not the best test, but I trust it) a very common word with a flapped [t] subjected to this alternation of emphatic stress would more likely retain the flapping--I would expect "water" or "butter" to retain it more often than "wattage" or "waited" would with the same emphatic iambic stress.

Phrases like "nothing at all" or "write everything down but only once" show pre-stress flapping even when emphatic stress doesn't change the prosody.

The words "retail" "detail" encourage us to consider the gradable analysis of stress. The un-flapped [t] in these words might be a result of spondaic stress. Because there is clearly a lesser stress on the 2nd syllable of those words we could argue that the environment does not provide the stress differential necessary for flapping. We might also go back to look at syllabification. In either case we should go back to the original rule and scratch stress as a clear binary environment.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Culture vs Logic

Last week a fellow student in my History of the English Language shared a frustration with the textbook. The text is A Biography of the English Language by Celia M Millward. In an early chapter on writing systems Millward devotes a short section to syllabaries. Such systems may represent syllables but have limited or no way to differentiate between individual phonemes. She gives an example of the Japanese katakana and hiragana syllabaries, each of which uses 46 signs and some diacritics. Because Japanese syllables are relatively simple these few symbols are all that is necessary to represent every word in the language.

Millward explains that the Japanese system blends the kana syllabic symbols with the highly regarded Chinese characters--purely for reasons of "prestige." Here then she comments that the Japanese writing system "illustrat[es] how cultural factors may outweigh logic and efficiency in determining the written form of language."

My fellow student explained that she has some knowledge of Japanese language and writing, even if only by investigation, and the author's claim greatly offended her. In fact, based on this she announced that she hates the book. She believes the writer is biased.

I'm not sure I agree that this shows any bias or unfair judgment. I don't know enough about the Japanese writing system, but if Millward is claiming by a standard such as number of strokes and limitation of appropriate use that the Chinese logograms are more cumbersome than the Japanese kana the evaluation is reasonable. Since I know neither the data nor the argument I choose to defend her claim on other grounds.

It is no insult to claim that cultural factors influence writing systems. It is true of every language and every writing system, even the IPA. Why does the IPA use two symbols to represent affricates? Perhaps because of the influence of the French linguists whose native phonology contains no affricates. Perhaps. Why does the English language spell with so many silent "E"s? It's certainly more cultural than it is efficient.

And Millward does not make the claim that Japanese uses a more illogical system than other languages. She says it illustrates the phenomena. Perhaps she should have added that it can be said of all languages. Millward's stumble here is in the lack of a context for the logic. There is of course logic even in the choice to use a more complicated system when a more simple system is available. Logic requires the establishment of certain premises. If A then B is the most basic premise, and even though one may value another premise, say if A then C, that is not to say that only one of these is logical. Millward should clarify which logical premises the Japanese system ignores in favour of prestige.

But it's not an offensive flub.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Confused Tongues

The Golden Globes are over and one side of a pronunciation battle has landed a palpable hit. Wielding the foils are those who say [bebl̩] and those who say [bæbl̩].(If your browser is showing some boxes: they indicate the [l] is syllabic.)

[bæbl̩] is almost ready to make the finishing touch. Everyone who I heard to say the title of Alejandro González Iñárritu's film pronounced it the same as "babble". This post is not meant to complain. My friend Daniel does not approve of this, saying simply "Not good." My initial reaction is surprise, forgetting that for a long time I was ambivalent about the pronuncitaion. At some point I decided to avoid ambiguity and I adopted the traditional pronunciation [bebl̩].

The pronunciation of proper nouns is the hardest language convention to prescribe (or so I'll claim for the sake of this post). There is a strong emotional attachment to certain pronunciations. Consider the profuse apologies on first day of classes when so many nervous teachers mispronounce names; consider dumbfounded and aghast reaction of my German friend when I told him that many speakers of English pronounce the name of the founder of the Jesuits [ɪgnejʃəs] instead of [ignasjo]. "But...but...That's not...fair!" he pleaded. It was a rule that he did not believe anyone should be allowed to break. But this demand for a proper or correct pronunciation of a name is rooted in the belief the individual who gives the name is the lord of its pronunciation, and that single vote must be respected. Few prescriptivists are willing to give this power to the individual.

Several weeks ago (on the morning of the Golden Globe nominee announcements) I posted a comment regarding the pronunciation of Babel on the American Dialect Society's LISTSERV mailing list. One respondent revealed that a misguided teacher taught him "that the word 'babble' comes from the 'Tower of Babel' (pronounced 'babble')." As a result he says "'Baybel' sounds almost like an affectation." I say to deride either pronunciation is the more conspicuous affectation.

I've already written about the etymology on this web log. So you don't have to read it I'll sum it up: The word babble does not come from Tower of Babel. The pronunciations in America are often identical, but one would be wise to not create a folk etymology.

Friday, January 12, 2007

No Ap-ologies Necessary.

Well I can't remember exactly what the wording (or the clue) was, but in a category called "World Museums" Alex Trebek read aloud something that indicated the answer would be some type of -ology. I believe a patchwork or mötley form of the clüe was

(something-or-other was offered to this-or-that museum on the condition that they agree to keep on staff an expert in) "this -ology."

No contestant supplied the right response and Alex, true to the rhythm indicated in the clue, provided the answer with a pause after the type and before the -ology. I.e. the answer was anthropology, but he pronounced it with an obvious pause after "anthro-" then he proceeded to finish with "-pology."

So what type of "-ology"? According to Alex's pause, the "anthro-" type.

There's something missing there. The form of the clue and the syllabification of the response imply that the word is split two different ways. Either as anthrop-ology, or anthro-pology.

Is it that one is a phonetic/phonological syllabification while the other is an etymological syllabification? Well the phonological split would probably favour a maximized onset (some will disagree, but I like it as a rule of thumb) and that would explain why Alex provided the response with the pause before the [p]. [æn.θrə.'pa.lə.dʒi].

So it would seem at first that the clue asked for a type of "-ology" because etymologically the suffix is -ology. And other sciences would seem at first to support this as a suffix. bi-ology, psych-ology, anthrop-ology, astr-ology, meteor-ology, zo-ology all end in -ology. And that's the common belief: that -ology meanse "study of." But most people know that the root that means 'life' is bio- no bi-. And most people can figure that the root for star is astro- which makes more sense than astr-. And since we know the Greek for 'word' or 'reason' is logo-s (and some snooping shows us that logia was discourse) we're left wondering why the Jeopordy! writers decided to ask for a type of "-ology". Why take that stranded -o- (which lost an -n in the combinative role) and separate it from its root? This is an unfair question because the -o- in many -ology words is a productive connective form on analogy with the regular -o- ending of Greek nouns in combinative form. In other words, because it is so regular some argue that -ology might be considered a form.

But in our current tale Alex Trebek snubs the last TWO segments of the Greek combinative form άνɵρωπο-. Why? Probably because -pology is not nearly regular enough to be recognized as a suffix. And since the 'o' represents the stressed vowel of the word, without it "-logy" is a rare and uncomfortable pyrrhic foot. On it's own -logy would most likely get a stress on the first syllable and that would require either the odd sounding ['lʌdʒi] rhyming with "fudgy" or the shift to ['ladʒi] rhyming with "stodgy" or a shift to a possible underlying form ['lowdʒi] rhyming with...go-gee? flow-gee?

By choosing to give half of anthropology in the clue the Jeopardy! writers typed their way into a corner. It's like when you start an analogy and it turns out to be...a...not...good analogy.


Afterthought: There is of course a tangent right into the discussion of 'workaholic' which some continue to argue would mean a person addicted to workahol. But why isn't it spelled 'workohol'?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


As the new semester has begun I've now met with all my professors and learned what they have to offer. First I met with my advisor/major-professor who will help me shape a literature review for phonology. This is expressly intended to serve my studies within my field. My English language history class met today and I'm eager to do all possible learning guided by an excellent professor. It will be a philological focus, but that's fine. The class is usually taught by my advisor who focuses more on linguistics, but I expect my reach will not in this case exceed my grasp. I'm also enrolled in a Middle English Literature class, focusing on works other than Chaucer. This is the difficult part.

I took the advice of a venerable scholar who directed me through Beowulf and insisted it would be wise to continue through to the works that follow nigh. I'm studying the language, should I not study it's literature? It made sense to me. And I've always been one to argue for both great breadth and depth in education. But now I find myself focusing more on my education's relevance value. It's the question we asked our teachers when we were drippy-nosed kids: When will I ever use this? And to that question I immediately hear a very simple answer that shuts me up (for a while): "That's up to you."

And if it's a question about whether I'm up to the challenge, I of course want to prove that yes, I am. But I then change the framing of the challenge. It assumes that I care about this specific form of the challenge. Or that this class is the only way to meet it.

I have done my distribution. At one point it was called elementary education. I met and learned about several subjects with equal focus (with the exception of art which only got attention once a week). Then in middle school some of those classes merged (reading, phonics, writing, spelling > "English") some (Social Studies) split (Geography, history). This splitting and merging continued throughout high school and continues today. I've done well at each point and now I find that my question of "when am I going to use this" is probably better framed as a question of the continuity of investment. My success in a sufficiently broad education has afforded me (by a contract of sorts) the opportunity to choose narrowing paths and to plunge deeper in chosen areas.

And because I have promised to pursue uncommon fruit I have been trusted to change my wide embrace to a firm grip. At this point my grip should procure all things tiny within the language. I've zoomed in on one of the smallest units of language, the phoneme. Haven't I earned the right to tend the neglected details?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

ADS Word of the Year Winners

The American Dialect Society has announced its choice for Word of the Year. According to some the ADS WotY is the most prestigious of all WotY awards. At least it is so among ADS members. Unlike the Merriam-Webster or awards this one is not chosen by the public. Nominations were accepted from anyone, but open on-line voting was not used to decide. As Benjamin Zimmer wrote on Language Log, the free ballot "simply prove[s] that fans of Stephen Colbert and truthiness will swamp any such competition."

There were winners in several categories.

Word of the Year Pluto, verb: as in to pluto or to be plutoed. To demote or be demoted as was the planetary body. Nominees: climate canary, murse (man's purse), surge, prohibited liquids, flog (commercial/fake blog), YouTube, macaca/macaca moment.

Most Useful Climate Canary, noun: an organism or species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger invironmental catastrophe on the horizon. Nominees: data Valdez (a massive information leak), flog, sharrow (an arrow marking a bicycling route), boomeritis (Baby Boomers' afflictions or injuries).

Most Creative lactard: a person who is lactose-intolerant. Nominees: Fed-Ex (Kevin Federline), julie (verb, meaning to organize an event like Julie on The Love Boat), snowclone.

Most Unnecessary SuriKat: the scientolobaby. Nominees: the decider (with definite article indicates a micromanager), Fox lips, (colored and lined to make more prominent as of female anchors on Fox News).

Most Outrageous Cambodian accessory: Angelina Jolie's adopted child. Nominees: sudden jihad syndrome (sudden outburst of violence from a seemingly stable and normal Muslim), firecrotch, macaca, tramp stamp (tatoo on the back just above the wasteline).

Most Euphemistic waterboarding: interrogation technique of pretending/threatening to drown a detainee. Nominees: surge, lancing (forced 'outing' of closeted celebrity), lyric malfunction.

Most Likely to Succeed YouTube verb: to use the website. Nominees: carbon (in combining forms used as shorthand for air pollution), the decider, macaca moment, m-/man-/men- (known as "man-fixes" in compounds and blends such as moobs, manboobs, murse, man purse, mancation, man crush, manmaries, menaissance etc. They left out "manssière" aka "the bro".

Least Likely to Succeed grup: a Gen-Xer who does not act his or her age. Nominees: pwn, stay the course.

New Category: Pluto-Related Words pluto or plutoed verb. Nominees: dwarf planet, pluton, small solar sytem body (SSSB)

I must say the winner in the Most Creative category sounds juvenile. I'm guessing it's based on the root tard: slow. The root when taken as a clipped form of the noun retard is one of those brazen insults that is often a conscious challenge to Political Correctness. It's usually used in familiar conversation when the game is "who can be more offensive?" It goes something like this:

"Differently abled? What does that mean? Everyone is differently abled!"
"Yeah. It's not like 'special' isn't an insult anymore anyway."
"Why not just go back to calling them handicapped. It's saying the same thing."
"Or even 'retard.' That's a technical term. It's accurate isn't it?"
"Or how about 'tard.' I think that's what we should start saying."

And everyone laughs/groans in disbelief because it's so egregious.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Update: Post [l] flapping

During a news story this morning, a young woman spoke of the guilt she sometimes feels regarding any benefit she has received because of her father's death. The setting of the story is West Virginia. Why is the place relevant? Because in her comment the woman (named Amber) used the word "guilty" and pronounced it with the flapped 't' I mentioned in the last post. Evidence then (though not proof) that the environment for flapping has opened up to include [l] before the [t].

To formalize the previous rule we would first assume a post stress position (although that can be complicated/refuted) then we have some choices. I'll present two of them to explain the [t]-->[ɾ] conditioning environment.

We could rely on approximants and formalize the environment as /[+approx][-lat]__[+approx]. This would not require the added analysis of [l] in the pre-[t] environment--so it's not as much fun to do. The [-lat] strikes me as an ad hoc feature requirement.

We could make the argument that [l] is not +continuant before [t], so the rule could be / [+son,+cont]__[+approx]. It would be fun to find evidence in other places that could support the loss of continuance in certain environments.

To re formulate the rule (as it appears some dialects flap in a wider environment) we can change the first environment very simply: [+approx]__[+approx]. This shows enough simplicity for me to accept it. It accounts for the forms I've mentioned. It shows reasonable motivation.

But now we have to complicated things again by introducing a word like 'antifreeze' that shows something very like flapping. According to the last rule mentioned this would be pronounced with the underlying [t]. Why then do so many of us flap or completely elide the [t]? We'll come back to it.