Monday, April 30, 2007

Cool news

This isn't about linguistics. I'm not sure how many have clicked on the sidebar link to Behind Forgotten Eyes. The link is promotional page for a documentary about the Korean "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

Buffy's good friend Tony Gilmore directed the film, which has for some time been listed on IMDb without distribution information. Yoon-jin Kim narrates the film (Casey, you know her from Lost) and I just read that Horizon has agreed to distribute the film. It will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

This is very exciting news. To provide a face to accompany the name dropping I offer this picture of our New Year's Eve 2004 dinner with Tony and his (now) wife Mayu, and Daniel.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

As as a pre pre-position

Over on the Spectrum Blog I found a strange sentence. Many of them actually. But only one that I care to write about.

Adding to a discussion of religious-marketing/evangelism one commenter writes the following:

But Dutch Reform is as about an 'easy sell' as Adventism!

It's pretty clear right away that the sentence means to say that Dutch Reform and Adventism are equally easy to sell. Whether or not the speaker believes they are easy to sell isn't clear. Or relevant.

The closest rewrite I can give this sentence will move only two words: "as" and "an". I'll have to change 'an' to 'a' because of the following word. Thus:

But Dutch Reform is about as easy a sell as Adventism!

But is it possible to parse the original sentence so that it makes sense? If we represent the sentence with the following skeleton, Concept-A is as Quality-X as Concept-B (is Quality-X), we see that the sentence doesn't fill the Quality-X slot appropriately. To call Concept-A/B "an 'easy sell'" is not the same statement about quality. "An 'easy sell'" is a modified predicate nominative and the qualifier is on "sell." So our construction is looking for a predicate adjective but the adjective is already modifying another word. It would be acceptable to say Concept-A is as easy as Concept-B (is easy). So "as" has to be followed by an adjective. The adjective could be modified by an adverb and still sound fine: Concept-A is as incredibly easy as Concept-B (is incredibly easy)

Let's rethink what the writer sees as his constituent phrases. Let's play with his punctuation and move the first quotation marks:
But Dutch Reform is as about 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

Now we paraphrase "about" and put another word in there. We could also go with "near" "almost" or "close to" "around" or several other proximators. We see the switch working in other sentences:
Are you nearly/about done?
That about/almost does it.
About/close to 10 people showed up
It took us about/around 3 hours

So now we have these possibilities.
1. But Dutch Reform is as nearly 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

2. But Dutch Reform is as almost 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

3. But Dutch Reform is as close to an easy sell as Adventism (is)!

4. But Dutch Reform is as around 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

Sentence 4 is the worst. Three sounds best to me. To my ear 1 and 3 sound okay (just okay) while 2 and 4 sound pretty bad. #1 functions as an adverb and #3 uses an adjective alongside a preposition. Three works so well because "as" gets it adjective and "an easy sell" functions clearly as the object of a preposition and doesn't even need quotation marks as a reminder of constituency. The other two sentences use lone prepositions and following "as" they don't fulfill the required adjective/adverb requirement of the comparative. That would require a full phrase "almost an easy sell" or "around an easy sell" to function adjectivally and that's just clumsy no matter how much we try to argue for a possibly grammatical structure.

Quiz: Would fixing the common prescriptions I eschewed in the first 3 sentences of this post make the opening better?

Jaŋari suggests that one reading might view "about" as closer to a phrase like "intent upon" (see the comments). If so I could see a decent reading of the sentence this way:
But Dutch Reform is as [interested in] an "easy sell" as Adventism (is)!

This is so simple a reading that I tracked it down the comment at the source to see if this was a likely intention from the writer Dr Thomas J Zwemer.

Because the two preceding sentences focus on the difficulty of gaining "converts" through evangelism I'll stick with my original reading that he is comparing the easy sell-ability of the two philosophies. Though Jaŋari's reading makes for a better sentence I don't think we can give the good doctor that pass. It's the very awkward sentence I first thought it was.

If he had intended to say that Dutch Reform and Adventism are both interested in or dedicated to the easy sell A clear indication would be a wording like X is as much about an easy sell as Y is. Or not as smooth would be X is as all about an easy sell as Y is.

I'm all about giving suggestions.]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Neither time nor place

I shall dignify Daniel's good remarks with yet another dedicated post. Tho I repeat, this is not an argument.

In response to his comments on my last post:

It seems to me that a "nonce" word can be expressely suited to a purpose while "rare" simply means "seldom found." Reading an OED entry we might show judicious skepticism regarding the continuation of the "nonce" status. What is likely a note on the origin of a word becomes a curious fact only about the past when a word enters general use.

That said -- neither of these words is flying around wantonly, tho by his searching Daniel has found that anachorism is twice as common (a statistic that my search does not support--as I search, anatopism leads with a ratio of 2270:535).

If we step away from the OED and consult the Oxford Companion to the English Language we find that anatopism is completely left out while anachorism gets its own entry as an accepted term in "rhetoric, literature, and drama" And though it is called "a rare term" it merits a cross-reference under foreignism.

I hardly think it fair to deem anachorism the step-brother--thus giving it the bastard status. Let's call them peers. We'll likely never know which will end up with the inheriting the wealth. Though I would bet on anatopism given given how transparent topos is as a root meaning place.

How many gigawatts would it take...

Daniel often plays around with words over at his non-etymologically-dedicated web log. Choosing to fashion a word for one occasion he writes

I think I collected Praveen because that seems like an anatopism (anachronism for a place?) for Bow, New Hampshire.
So of course I piped in with a chiding tone and offered the following jab.
anachorism already works for that.

Daniel always responds well to any discussion of words and can always contribute as much as he is willing to learn. He writes
Even though there are twice as many occurrences of anachorism as there are anatopism (4,400 to 2,200), I'm gonna stick with anatopism for a couple reasons. First, I "created" (though it previously existed) it for myself, and second, the Shorter OED has anatopism and not anachorism. And while it isn't worth anything Wikipedia has an entry for anatopism too. What does "chor" mean in Greek?

I don't really like the close spelling of anachorism and anachronism either, and it seems like anachorism has more connotation of error or mistake, while I'm looking for "out of place." Thank you for providing some options though, I do appreciate it.

I will not argue against his decision to stick with it.

Some observations:
A) Anachorism and anatopism were both probably coined specifically to serve as companions to anachronism. To deem the former suspect because of its similarity is a valid aesthetic stance.

2) The use of ana- as a prefix for the "out of time" word is a stretch as the prefix means back or backwards. It is perhaps appropriate in anachronism which etymologically means something closer to "too early a time" than "in the wrong time." Etymologically anachorism and anatopism don't make much sense. Does "behind or after the place" really capture the intention?

For the sense of "outside the correct time (or place)" the para- prefix works well. In fact parachronism is listed by the OED with a citation about 5 years earlier than anachronism. But an even earlier citation than that (by almost 25 years) is given for metachronism in 1617. The meta- prefix is slippery and can mean with or above or beyond or behind or between or resulting from or occurring after or it can denote a process of change. So at least one of those can work well for the typical meaning of anachronism. I like para- because with its own varied uses it retains the idea of beyond. Even when used to mean with it has a strong connotation of separateness.

Next) To answer Daniel's question: χωρίον can be read as country or place. It would be fun to make a well navigated journey between anachorism and anchor. The connection between a word about being out of place and a word about being in only one place could support quite the fun little etymoscopy. A quick and unexamined glance shows me that it's not as simple as this post could handle; though for a second I thought it might be.

4th) The Shorter OED is an excellent desk reference that goes deeply into its hoard. In exchange for this depth the tome sacrifices breadth. The ambition of the full OED cannot be well met on a desktop. Of course we can trust that the editorial decisions account for something of course; but shall I start trying to use "bootylicious" just because it's listed?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How is that now?

My brother-in-law Mark recently sent out a response to one of those questionnaire emails that that gets sent around as a forward. This one was simple and contained very pedestrian questions about everyday things: what's your favourite color, favourite restaurant, favorite flavour of ice-cream, where would you like to retire...

For a cuisine he doesn't care for he wrote down a type of rice that he called "pagaw." I had no idea what this was.

Now my family, influenced by my mother's taste for Puerto Rican cuisine, has always loved the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan and toasts to a lovely crunchy crunchiness. I once attended an Hispanic potluck where a Hispanic but non-Puerto Rican woman serving the rice reached to the bottom of the pan with her spoon and grumbled something about the rice being almost burnt. As she picked up the dish and was about to take it into the kitchen to throw it out every Puerto Rican within earshot of her annoyed complaint charged the table and demanded that she scrape out the rice and serve it. It's the best part! they yelled (in Spanish) even louder than usual.

In Puerto Rican Spanish the dental approximant [ð̞] in -ado, the past-participle ending of a word, is often elided resulting in an ending [-ao] sounding very close to the diphthong in English "how" "now" "brown" and "cow". Slightly less rounding of the falling segment.

I remember my grandfather offering toast to everyone in the house calling out ¿quién quiere pan tostao? instead of "tostado." When going to the beach I'd have to have cuidao or I'd end up quemao.

So as the Spanish word for "stuck" is "pegado" Puerto Ricans will often pronounce it [pɛgao].

When I first read Mark's "pagaw" I had in mind a pronunciation more like [paga] or [pɔgɔ]. Something that would rhyme with the second syllable of "heehaw". The spelling did not at all look like [pɛgao] to me. Apparently he hears the lax [ɛ] in Spanish (or at least our relaxed pronunciation of it) as a schwa. And in an unstressed syllable an 'a' makes sense in English for the schwa even though I would have expected an "e". And I must assume that he hears the diphthong as [aʊ] or [aw] which is probably how we gringified speakers say it--which I would have expected him to represent with the spelling "-ow". But that can be confused with the [oʊ]/[ow] sound in know low throw and blow.

And confusing things a more was that since this was probably a foreign word (some rice he had recently eaten at an exotic restaurant I assumed) I figured the "a" was probably not a schwa. In fact I thought the word might have the equal stress of a spondee. This assumption might have been further contaminated by the spondaic city name nearby: Paw Paw. A name which I always pronounce with an even stress and the single vowel [ɔ] as in "saw" "law" or...well..."paw" -- but which my mother (who speaks with a notable accent) always pronounces with the diphthong [aʊ] -- much closer to the "how" "now" contour.

But Mark doesn't speak Spanish and since he doesn't have a southern accent I can't think of any word spelled with [-aw] that he would pronounce as [aw] or [aʊ]. Is this a case of vigilantly foreignized orthographical transcription?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Damn to you!

An AP story reports that a flight was canceled due to language. Before the plane took off, the pilot flew into a rage while on his cellphone.

'Passengers who were boarding the aircraft could hear his end of it,' Gregor said.

Las Vegas police were sent Friday to McCarran International Airport to investigate, Gregor said. Authorities were told that the pilot cursed one passenger who confronted him, Gregor said.

After reading this I posted a little note to the American Dialect Society. Here I include a small bit of the exchange.

In my first post I wrote

Inanimate objects are cursed all the time, but with a human object I would expect to find 'cursed at' or some other syntactical indication of a dative form.

This transitive use of 'cursed' sounds like a case of nefarious magic to me. How common is this form?

Benjamin Zimmer offers a helpful response:
'Curse' = 'swear at' is fairly common. Here are some more news articles in which people are "cursed" with obscene epithets rather than evil spells:

And the examples clearly support his point.

Dennis Preston writes

'Cursed (cussed) at' sounds odd to me. The completely idiomatic form of this in my vernacular (with a human object) is 'cuss out.'

I pissed off old Hatfield and he cussed me out something awful.

'Cussed at me' would be unusual for me here.

I agree. But would he say or expect to hear "cussed me"?

Charles Doyle challenges the premise of my question more directly.
I don't understand why there's an 'issue' here; most of the OED's historical examples of transitive 'curse' have human (or anthropomorphic) objects (was Job supposed to 'curse AT God and die' or 'curse God OUT and die'??). I don't find anything odd about simply CURSING a person!

So I had to respond.
Remind me not to get on your bad side.

What caught my attention wasn't the stark syntax. The semantics were peeking around the corner and that's what I noticed.

Clearly the form is common enough not to be conspicuous or interesting to most readers. Sure--Job probably did curse. But as I read that, the character truly does intend a curse. He isn't just saying 'damn you' to his deity out of anger--he is actually uttering a curse of _effective_ ill will (now that's chutzpah). The use of 'to (curse|cuss)' as a simple expression of anger or frustration is common enough. I guess my ears are slow to catch on to its transitive use.

I should have made it more clear in my original observation that since I hear the meaning changing slightly I was just unsure of how common the usage is without the semantic distinction (which I now see no one else hears).

Having read the AP story Mark Liberman offers an amusing suggestion over at Language Log.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bananya peppers?

I'm not sure they were actual hypercorrections. This evening on Jeopardy! Alex Trebeck used two incorrectly affected pronunciations. Okay--on one I'm not sure I heard him correctly. The correct response called for the capital of China. The clue was "Hu Jintao" as each clue in the category gave the name of the country's president and asked for the name of the capital city. No contestant took a guess so Alex provided the answer: Beijing. His pronounced the middle consonant using the de-affricated [ʒ] (a common English pronunciation of Beijing instead of the more accurate consonant sound [ʤ].

The name is pronounced by native speakers with the non-English [tɕ]. I'm not sure why the English pronunciation voices the affricate. The initial consonant [p] is realized as [b] in English--probably because of the unaspirated quality of the [p] which in English is almost indistinguishable from a [b]. (See here for a related discussion.) Perhaps a fortis analysis would help explain the voicing. I'll ask John Wells about it. But we do have affricates in English. The pure fricative [ʒ] in place of [ʤ] or [ʧ] is probably based on a belief that [ʒ] is a more 'foreign' or 'exotic' sound, and more likely to be found in borrowed words. It is an relatively uncommon sound in English, found mostly in recent and ostensible borrowings. But it's not necessary in Beijing as it uses an affricate and we have affricates in our inventory.

The other pronunciation I noticed was in Alex's reading of a clue naming three dances. One was the Habanera, the Cuban dance. Alex pronounced it [abanjɛra] affecting the 'n' as if it was identical to the palatal nasal in jalapeño. This palatal nasal [ɲ] is not an English phoneme, so it's usually pronounced with an alveolar nasal followed by a palatal glide [j]. In a word like jalapeño the 'e' is pronounced as the diphthong [ej] and this will often palatalize the following nasal making it very close to the Spanish [ɲ]. Nasals love to assimilated in place of articulation.

But Alex's mistake was not due to any gap in his phonemic inventory. His mistake was to assume that "Habanera" is pronounced with the palatal nasal in the first place: in Spanish. The name of this dance comes from its connection to Habana/Havana in Cuba. The 'n' is not palatalised. I've heard this mistake many times in the masculine form of the word when referring to the habanero chile. It's likely by contamination with jalapeño and probably by an exoticizing effect similar to the previous process by which [ʤ] becomes [ʒ].