Friday, March 30, 2007

Changing names

The name of this blog will change this weekend. I will surrender In a Word... and adopt a name that echoes the URL: Wishydig.

Wishydig is an Old English compound word meaning "wise thinking." The first word in the compound, wis is clear. The second word, hydig is a variant form of hygdig, (adjective form of hygd, mind, thought) meaning heedful, careful, prudent. The arrogance is just obvious enough for me to hope it doesn't come across as a serious and heavy handed boast. Let's just say that I don't think of the sobriquet as an epithet. It's just wishful thinking. Wishy-ful? Heh? Heh?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Another frog dissection

Buford, a shy and unpopular man frequents a bar where he tries to meet women with no success. He grows more and more frustrated night after night, but he comes to recognize an average looking fellow who is much more successful. From his barstool the shy man watches as the other guy walks confidently up to many woman, strikes up a conversation and leaves the bar with his arm around her. He must find out the secret.

One night Buford walks up to the man and meekly asks him how he does it. "Simple" says the player. "I just walk right up to her when a loud song is playing and I playfully ask 'tickle your ass with a feather?' If she smiles or laughs I know I'm dealing with a freak and I'm in for a good time. If she looks offended and demands 'What did you say?!' I just say more clearly 'Particularly nasty weather.' She usually assumes she misheard me and we start talking. It can't fail."

"Oh--I don't know if I can do that" says Buford. "I'm so shy."
"You just need to build up your confidence" says the Casanova. "Relax. Have a few drinks. Pick out your target and walk right up to her knowing you're in charge. You'll be fine."

Buford figures he has nothing to lose so he sits at the bar and has a few drinks while waiting for his mark. He gets very nervous when an attractive woman sits down right next to him, so he takes one more drink and feels a surge of adrenaline. He silently goes over the phrase several times in his head just to get the rhythm right "tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather, tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather, tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather..." He takes a deep breath turns to the woman and blurts out "Can I stick a feather in your ass?"

This joke relies on a few variables that are hard to control in writing. Of course there is the pacing. The rhythm and intonation is hard to convey. The mishievous and charming delivery of the 'tickle' line is key. And the personality of each character through stammering, hedging, boasting, chuckling, or even just audible breathing do a lot for the joke.

This brings up of course the phonology. The joke must establish a similar phonetic contour for the two lines delivered by the successful seducer: tickle your ass with a feather and particularly nasty weather. Let's see how they match up.

/tɪkl jɔ:ɹ æs wɪθ ʌ fɛðɹ/
/paɻtɪkjulaɻlɪ næstɪ wɛðɹ/

If we rely on fast speech phonetics we can trim them down to look a little more similar. We move the [ɹ] to the be the onset of the following word (making [jɔ:ɹ] a weakened [jə]) then we rhotacize the penultimate vowel in "particularly" and cut down the first syllable of "particularly" noting that the [aɹ] is almost completely elided and so we are left with a non-standard syllabic [p] in [ptɪkjulɚlɪ]. We can also neutralize the vowel in [kju] which would more likely be pronounced [kjə]. So our respective phrases begin

The syllabic [p] is easily lost in a loud room and now the biggest difference between the phrases so far is the extra [lɪ] syllable. It's a word final syllable and it comes before a stressed ['næs-] so it is also easily lost in a cacophony. So now we have

Then we have the phrases "with a feather" and "-ty weather"
[wɪθ ʌ fɛðɹ]
[-tɪ wɛðɹ]

that unstressed indefinite article is almost inaubible. It's certainly more [ə] than [ʌ]. And the /f/ and /w/ are both labialized which in a raucus room would at least look similar while the listener uses all clues available to make out the phrase. So we'll tag them as "easily confused" phonemes, along with the other similar and even identical phonemes in the following parallel transcription.
tɪ.kl.ɹæs wɪθ ə fɛðɹ
p.tɪ.k.lɚ.lɪ.næstɪ wɛðɹ

We further note that approximant segments at the onset of the the second syllable in [jə.ɹæs] and [lɚ.lɪ] also contribute to the contour confusion.

And the punchline shows a beautiful disregard for the deliberate order of all those carefully chosen sets. And if you know how to slur your speech and sound drunk it really helps the delivery.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

You say "potato" I say "loathsome starchy glob thing."

An AP story reports that Keanu Reeves allegedly conducted his Porsche into contact with a man on Monday evening. The story opens thus:

Keanu Reeves was behind the wheel of a Porsche that allegedly grazed a celebrity photographer standing in the path of the sports car, investigators said Tuesday. The photographer fell to the ground and paramedics were called after Reeves' car allegedly struck the man at 7:30 p.m. Monday, said Deputy Ed Hernandez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

I had a hard time starting this post because my point was to highlight the writer's chosen wording especially in reference to the pedestrian. I know my first sentence sounds tethered and evasive. I was trying to be so.

The headline reads Reeves' car allegedly hits photographer and the story twice refers to the pedestrian as a "photographer" and once as a "celebrity photographer" before a quote from LA Sheriff's Deputy Ed Hernandez refers to him as a "paparazzi."

Before we roll our eyes too dismissively regarding the writer's obvious agenda of impartiality (can an agenda be impartial?) by using the neutral term in place of the loaded paparrazzi or paparrazzo we should note that Mr Reeves' lawyer Jay Lavely is given ample attention with an uninterrupted and conspicuously long quote. In the generous spotlight Lavely uses "paparazzo" 4 times. He also says the hit was "brought on more by the actions of the [cameraman] than by the actions of Mr Reeves." Laver attempts not only to deflect culpability, but tries to lessen the incident by saying that Reeves "slowly inch[ed] the car away from the curb." Notice that he has drawn attention away from the claim that Reeves was driving, calling attention to the curb: where cars tend to be stationary.

Regarding the hit (a noun which the headline implies by using the related verb) or graze (which the Deputy Sheriff implies by his use of the related verb (thus prompting the writer to report the allegation with the same verb)) Lavely starts with "If" and refers to "contact with the paparazzo."

He then says "It appeared as if the paparazzo was trying to
cause this type of encounter."

Did the filthy paparazzo take a dive? Was the celebrity profile artist assaulted? Is this a case of a visual promotions specialist being crushed under a wheel or was an exploitative private-life profiteer lightly brushed by a door handle?

Only the box office gross of Keanus Reeves' next movie will tell.

Aren't all jokes linguistic?

Revisiting double negatives: this time in joke form. Two people told me this joke today. One attributed it to Garrison Keillor; the other attributed it to a Purdue professor. My guess is Keillor told the joke this weekend and it is now making the rounds in English and linguistics departments.

A linguistics professor stood in front of his class and began his lecture on double negatives: "In the English language it is well known that two negatives equal a positive. This is not the case in every language. In some languages two negatives equal a negative. There is however not a single known language in which two positives equal a negative!"

A cynical student in the back row crossed his arms and muttered "Yeah right."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Either or neither

In The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo says:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

In the second line Shakespeare has chosen to break one of those rules that often incites the grammar dogs to sic. He starts the line with "Nor" when there has been no "neither" to set up the form. The "neither...nor..." construction may be more strictly enforced than "either...or..." because of questions using "or" that can't use "either" without sounding grossly awkward or being ungrammatical.

"Are you going to pay with check or with cash?"
"Can you handle that or should I help you lift it?"

When "or" is used without "either" as in

Shut up or I'll give you something to cry about.

some might argue that the "either" is understood and left out. Much as the [you] is left out of imperatives like "[x] Close the window." In that case we would have a null [either] in

[x] Shut up or I'll give you something to cry about.

I've never looked at the syntax of these statements so I'm just guessing here. "Either" would be perfectly grammatical in the sentence which supports a shared structure.

Where would we put the [x] in the questions? Let's move the copula back into it's declarative position in the check/cash question and use the "either".

You are going to pay either with check or with cash.

When I move the copula over for the question the either sounds questionable to me.

?Are you are going to pay either with check or with cash

What keeps it from being completely ungrammatical is the possibility that it becomes a yes/no question conditional on only one of the payment methods being true. Ie paying with check gets a yes and paying with cash also gets a yes.

But we reanalyze the sentence, remembering to account for every underlying representation (UR) missing from the surface representation (SR). Our underlying form would then be

[Either [you are going to pay with check] or [you are going to pay with cash]]

The declarative form of "can you handle that or should I help you?" helps us to see this UR.

[Either [you can handle that] or [I should help you]]

We see then that while "or" always stays in place "either" usually doesn't. The following still sounds awkward to me but not ungrammatical.

Either are you going to pay with check or are you going to pay with cash?

This emphatic use of either sounds like a demand for a decision. Something along the lines of "either come inside or close the door" when a lollygagging visitor lets the elements into the house.

The "either" sounds almost ungrammatical in the following:

??Either can you handle that or should I help you?

Apparently either doesn't really like sitting next to a raised copula. But "neither" almost always does. Even in a declarative the "neither" seems to pull the copula forward.

You are neither smart nor funny. cf Neither are you smart nor (are you) funny.

We note here that simply raising the copula does not create a yes/no question. We also have to put the "neither" after the subject to form the question.

Are you neither smart nor funny?

And at this point I realize that the post is getting long, and I'm getting farther away from an explanatory analysis. I would keep writing, but I started this post thinking about pursuing double negatives. Now that I've let that fish off the hook I'm going to reel in and recast later. Any syntacticians who can contribute to some actual understanding are welcome to point out my mistakes and oversights.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Academic website

I've been redesigning my Purdue website. The old one was starting to look clumsy. I had based the colour scheme on the header graphic (the banner that reads "Graduate Studies: Department of English) and it's just not worth the pepto-dismal shade of all the pages.

Besides the design and layout of the pages the site is purely HTML based. I've been learning CSS and it's a much nicer tool for a multi-page or regularly updated sight.

The new site is coming along and I'm mostly happy with it.

Several of the pages are empty and few of them are complete. Do you have any suggestions? Form and content are both fair targets for critique.

If you have an academic site (linguistic or otherwise) that you'd like included in the links page let me know.

I just noticed that I wrote "sight" when I meant "site"--twice. Okay show of hands: how many of you noticed that and didn't say anything?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is the pope catholic?

Here's an old and crass joke that I used to find very funny.

A rabbit is hopping happily along in the woods. He suddenly looks up to see a bear squatting. The bear looks annoyed and then notices the rabbit.

"Hey can I ask you something?" he inquires of the rabbit.

"Sure" replies the rabbit.

"Do you have a problem with shit sticking to your fur?"

"No" says the rabbit.

So the bear grabs the rabbit and wipes his ass with him.

Okay sorry.

When I first heard the joke I laughed because the punchline very simply capped a story about a bear who can do whatever he wants with/to a rabbit. There was no language play, no revealed secret, no one really playing the fool. The only frame switch was from the bear asking for advice (or just sympathy) to the bear being a jerk.

When the bear first asks if the rabbit has a problem with that specific hygiene issue I heard it as does this happen to you. When the he picks up the rabbit it's because he has taken the rabbit at his word and knows that he can wash it right off. Why would the rabbit care? It doesn't stick.

Then a few years later I thought about it some more and decided that there was some language play in there. I still hear the question at first as does this happen to you but after the bear scrubs with the bunny a new meaning of the question might explain the bear's chutzpah. Instead of having asked does this happen to you we might hear does this bother you as the bear's intention. So the bunny doesn't mind. The shit might stick, but he told the bear he doesn't have a problem with it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Medical mass nouns

I remember a commercial for a migraine drug from several years ago. I can't remember the drug or the exact wording, but I'll pretend that it was Zomig® (there were a lot of commercials for it back then) and I'll craft a fake pitch:

If you suffer from migraine you should ask your doctor about Zomig®. Zomig®: before migraine controls your day.

That was not the exact wording of the commercial. I only remember the noun form for "migraine."

There was a commercial for Actonel® on television recently that had the tagline:

"Keep fighting fracture with Actonel" (Does the "®" belong in a quote?)

Notice the similarity? The two ailments in the commercial are used as mass nouns instead of count nouns. As these are the only two times I've noticed this I'm not sure if it's a trend. But there must be a reason for these two wording decisions. What could it be?

Migraine and fracture are usually used as count nouns. Sufferers of the former that I've talked to would say "I suffer from migraines" or "I had a terrible migraine yesterday." And I would likely ask "How often do you get them?" or "How bad are they?" Someone with a broken bone would say "I suffered a fracture" or "the x-ray revealed several fractures in my tibia." Notice that the singular of each gets the indefinite article, and the plural of each is...well possible.

There are some conditions that don't get either. No one would likely say "I have a cancer" or "I recovered from two cancers."

Mass nouns can take the definite article (like "the water" or "the air") so mass noun illnesses can as well. This is not in every use. To say "the water is cold" or "the air is dry" refers to a limited portion of water or air. The portion is not always known and the boundaries are not always clear, but there is an implied relevant mass of the air or water that is being described. The same is true for an illness like cancer. That memorable line from The Royal Tenenbaums "He has the cancer" is not standard English unless you're talking about an oncologist holding the bowl after a successful surgery. Of course there are some health conditions that would take the definite article with this "X has the Y" usage: he has the flu, she has the measles, he has the delirium tremens, and about 150 years ago you might have said she has the fever. But you still wouldn't say anyone had "one flu" or "a flu." Fever has switched and now is often (usually?) used as a count known.

So why are a fracture and a migraine more likely to be counted? Is it because they are relatively finite in space or time. Many people will suffer more than one broken bone and those who suffer from migraines know that the pounding and pressure will unfortunately return. But we can see where a fracture is. We know that a migraine will soon abate. (I experienced a migraine headache that lasted a week. Twice. My sympathies to all who suffer them more often.)

When everyone in the office succumbs to the effects of the rhino-virus we don't usually say that "the cold was everywhere." We say that everyone "caught colds" or "a cold." We ask how many colds there were, not "cases of the cold" as we would with the flu.

But I'm getting away from my earlier question. Why would drug companies advertise some count nouns as mass nouns? Does it make the condition sound more serious? My theory is that mass nouns in illnesses sound like a well studied, carefully analysed, scientifically defined and assessed condition. And it sounds just a little more serious. The drug company then sounds like it has a handle on the condition and it has the tools to help those who suffer from it. And perhaps, just perhaps, it's a hint at the chronic nature of the condition -- something that will encourage even a mild sufferer to seek help.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Coulter II

Geoff Pullum has posted some brief and (mostly) direct commentary over at Language Log about Ann Coulter's joke. Thank goodness "conversational implicature" made its way into my last post. Otherwise it could have sounded like the mistaken ramblings that incited Pullum to write.

The tone of his post sounds like he might disagree with some of what I say. He says that Coulter "mentions but does not use" the word. (This agrees with my post. It's the distinction I intended when speaking of "the difference between talking about a word and actually using the word.") I did claim however, that only linguists are adept at negotiating this difference. (Ok. Maybe the claim that "only linguists know how to do it" is too strong.) Pullum claims that "the remark is clever, funny, and highly indirect." I called it an "impotent jest" and opine the fragment "not very clever."

I'm right. The joke is too easy. Coulter certainly is not in a class with "Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern [or] Sacha Baron Cohen" as Pullum suggests. Well...okay. She might be in a vertebrates. But she's not as clever funny talented original or interesting as they are.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Coulter tells us what she can't say

I'll go ahead and say that only linguists should talk about offensive words. It's not because I'm looking to take away anyone else's right. It's because I think only linguists know how to do it. Semiotic ignorance leads many people to overlook the difference between talking about a word and actually using the word.

Isaiah Washington's post Golden Globe rant was on the fringe. Ann Coulter thinks she's only flirting with that same offensive word, but she's way past flirting. She has long been nurturing a love affair with hateful speech and she has consummated the affair in public several times.

Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference the demure Coulter decided to show impressive restraint by not referring to Presidential hopeful John Edwards as a "faggot." Here's the example of her impotent jest.

I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,' so I'm...kind of at an impasse. Can't really talk about Edwards, so I think I'll just conclude here and take your questions. Thank you.
You see what she did there? She says she's at an "impasse" in her desire to use the word "faggot" and explains that she cannot therefore talk about Edwards, which at first sounds a lot like she really is refusing to say he is a "faggot." She could possibly hide behind a flimsy shield of conversational implicature and insist that she never said Edwards is a faggot, but let's follow the structure of her joke.

She's not allowed to say "faggot."
She has said it.
She tells us to whom she would like to apply it.

Not very clever.

Here's how she smuggly tried to dismiss the offense. Responding to criticism she said
C'mon, it was a joke. I would never insult gays by suggesting that they are like John Edwards. That would be mean.
(The New York Times reports this response came via email.)

See what she did there? Through the shrill peals of her turgid laughter we have her admission that she is very comfortable calling homosexuals faggots. "It was a joke," she says. Not the use of the word, but the comparison to Edwards.

Perhaps the best course of action with offensive language is to let it flow freely in all media and in all situations. We will surely find that the people who choose to speak a certain way will, through their intellectual inanity, do the best job of illustrating just how moronic it sounds.

[The original picture I posted of Coulter was too heavy handed. When an article or newscast finds it necessary to illustrate its commentary with a "crazy" picture it comes across as at least one of two things: A)a lack of confidence in the writing to adequately convey the poor judgement of the individual -- 2)just plain ad hominem malevolence. Too understand what Buffy's comment below refers to, click here to see the original picture.]