Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I've got the Mrs Wagner's Pies

Looks like an impressive trip don't it? From Indiana up to Minnesota down to Nebraska then back. We're hoping that the little stint in Nebraska will pay off and cover our gas expenses. In return we'll be giving some pharmaceutical company a new list of possible side effects to put on their product.

IPA symbol for the day: $ -- What sound does it represent? Cha-ching

I expect to have internet access.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Semantic tectonics

The commentary from a recent post alights on some very basic (but always interesting) historical linguistics topics.

Textbooks are always sure to provide a list of traditional semantic changes including amelioration and pejoration, and common examples such as knave churl hussy nice...etc. The following list gives some loose examples of amelioration but it's not exactly the type of elevating shift that is intended by the term.

bad sick fierce mad wicked ridiculous crazy insane terrific awesome

Rather than having shifted meaning by undergoing simple amelioration the first eight of these are a type of contranym (or autoantonym, or "janus word" or several other rarely necessary words that few dictionaries list). But those labels usually indicate a word like cleave or peruse that is equally likely to have contradictory meanings without consideration of style or register while the first eight words above typically have clear meanings based on the context. Consider the following pairs of uses:

She is a bad mother.
She's one bad mother!

Trying that stunt was ridiculous.
Dude that 360 nac-nac was ridiculous!

In formal speech the 2nd meaning would be very odd for each word. Like ridiculous in slang usage crazy and insane don't simply mean extremely good. They have a connotation of impressiveness and "hard-to-believability" (that was awkward).

Terrific and awesome are good examples of a complete semantic shift, having abandoned an earlier meaning. Awesome has the interesting tie to awful which has kept its negative meaning. We can trace awe back to OE ege and its cognate in ON agi: fear and terror.

Amelioration and elevation don't quite capture the force on these words. There is an inversion that isn't explained by simple lenition of the semantic force. In fact there is no lenition at all, but an equally forced reversal; there is no significant loss or gain of neutrality in these words.

The common theory that a word must go through polysemy in order to acquire new meanings is probably quite relevant here. For a word like terrific there was clearly a time when the more specific meaning "causing fear" generalized to include other emotions before moving over and settling on "worthy of praise." But what generalization and polysemy was there with bad? In some of these words like insane and mad there is that space where they are used to concurrently indicate positive attributes like bravery and daring while also indicating a lack of good judgment.

How about "that's sick"? Maybe something like "It's sick that anyone should be so talented. I'm jealous of your skill." Wicked? Perhaps an intention like "You must have connections to darker powers to be so successful." Both of these jocular in use. But there always a little truth in any good jest no?

And bad might follow right along with that but with a more basic sense of the fascination we have for those people who break rules and show no fear or remorse. In fact the OED suggests in its very recent draft addition the meaning of "dangerous, menacing, or imposing to a degree which inspires awe or admiration; impressively tough, uncompromising, or combative."

Considering all this we go back to a word like comprise, which when considered alongside a word like apprise is evidence that the mental representation of a word's semantics is much more broad than just to include the intention. Somewhere in that encyclopedic matrix of 'what this word means' is an awareness of what the word does not mean and a sense of the word's opposites and even complements. So when called up, a word like start brings with it a role of opposite of stop. That's pretty clear. What I find fascinating is that the understanding and use of a word like gather comprises not only disperse but also be gathered. And a word like learn travels with be taught and forget and teach in its pocket. These words must have such pockets. Otherwise it'd be hard to understand why we are always finding new meanings in there.

Monday, June 25, 2007

We don't have franken berries either

Nancy Friedman at Away With Words posted this exchange that she found at Overheard in New York.

Someone going by the name Waplow submitted this--overheard at a Starbucks:

Tourist: What kind of berry is a triberry?
Barista: What?
Tourist: You're selling a triberry muffin. Well, what's a triberry? I've never heard of that before.
Barista: It has blueberry, strawberry, and raspberry in it. They call it triberry because it has three kinds of berries in it.
Tourist: So there aren't any triberries in it?
Barista: No.
Tourist: Then why do you call it a triberry muffin? That's false advertising.
Barista: As I explained, it's called that because it has three berries in it.
Tourist: But none of those berries are triberries?
Barista: No. There is no such thing as a triberry.
Tourist: I don't understand.
Barista: Look, do you want the muffin or not?
Tourist: I don't think so. I don't want to eat anything unless I know what it is first.
Barista: So what can I get you?
Tourist: Do you have a donut?
Barista: No.
Tourist: Never mind. [leaves]
Barista: Dumbass.

What's my commentary? Brand names? Taking things literally? Ambiguity?

Actually I'm going to ignore the exchange for now. What I first noticed was an implication about the players. A Tourist and a Barista. I wonder what information the 'reporter' had that led to the label Tourist. Was it an accent? Was it a t-shirt that said Hey there! I'm from the Midwest! Was there some sort of announcement?

So let's assume that indeed there was a clear indication that it was a tourist. Why use the label? Why not Customer? Tourist doesn't add anything necessary to the structure of the joke. But there is a definite misoxenic pitch in this. Looking over the archives at Overheard in NY this is not typical. Many of the dialogs that identify a tourist do so when that identity is relevant to the conversation and necessary for the humour. Such as the following overheard on the subway:

Manic tourist lady #1: Oh wow, the front of the train. I've never been in FRONT before. Look! Haha! No driver!
Manic tourist lady #2: No driver? Seriously? Excuse me, sir? Who's driving this subway?

Local looks up from paper and looks around frantically.

Manic tourist #2: Wait, seriously? Oh my God, should we get off?
Manic tourist #1: Oh, calm down. He's just joking. We can't get off 'til Union Square.
Local: Ma'am, I swear to God that I'm not joking. Nobody's driving this train. I'm just as terrified as you are.
Manic tourist #2: Oh, whatever. He's one of those New York assholes we heard about. Ignore him.

--Location: 4 train, 59th St

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nabokov Schmabokov

It's 'naBOKov'

John Wells has given us some entertaining guidance regarding the pronunciation of Vladimir Nabokov (i.e. the pronunciation of his name/s of course). I grew up thinking it was a dactylic dimeter. And by "grew up" I mean from the time I first heard the name in junior high from my sister who loved Sting and decided to learn more about Nabokov after hearing his name in the song "Don't Stand So Close to Me."

3 poems to make the point that each name is not a dactyl. Lines 1-3 of each stanza are dactylic dimeter. One line has to be a single word. Lines 4 and 8 must rhyme. (These were the regulations of the New Statesman competition. The third poem below was the winning entry.

VN the novelist
Wrote of a passion pro-
scribed by the law.

Careful! His names must be
Stressed à la russe, i.e.
("...dímir Nabó...").
-Nigel Greenwood

The next one is in Dutch. The rhythm is the same so you should be able to "utter" it and hear how it works. I'm assuming the "Na-" of "Nabokov" in the final line is orphaned from the second dactyl in the preceding line. Translation follows:

Vlinder- en kindervriend
Vladimir Nabokov...
Lezer, uw uitspraak doet
Pijn aan mijn oor.

Volgens de Russische
Moet het Vladimir
Nabokov zijn hoor!

Lover of butterflies and children,
'Vladimir 'Nabokov...
Reader, your pronunciation
hurts my ear.
According to the Russian
it ought to be Vla'dimir Na'bokov!
-Jan Kal

The winning entry:

Higgledy piggledy
Vladimir Nabokov —
Wait! Hasn't somebody
made a mistake?

Out of such errors, Vla-
dimir Nabokov would
paragraphs make.

Why should we care? Only because Nabokov himself cared. Wells writes: "Apparently Nabokov himself characteristically liked to point out that his first name rhymed with Redeemer."

Friday, June 22, 2007

The joy of anaptyxis

I'm not the only one who is hypnotized by Bob Ross. His soft voice and slow rhythm are famously popular. I used to watch him every summer afternoon at 12:30 on PBS and his calm joy and belief in the general goodness of rocks helped to ease and clarify my turbid adolescent soul.

I found some of his videos on YouTube realized that I had forgotten what a lovely soft drawl he had. Some notable vowels that add to his light lilt:

  • He adds a soft diphthong to the [ɛ] in 'again': it sounds like [əgɪən] or [əgeən]

  • Initially [ɛ] in 'anybody' is raised to [ɪ] so it sounds like 'inibody'

  • Compunded '-body' doesn't gain the mid vowel [ʌ] -- it keeps a nice open [a] (usually 'body' becomes 'buddy' in compounds somebody and anybody)

  • [ɪ] is tensed/raised to [i] so 'him' sounds like 'heem' or 'eem'

Two words this video he pronounces with an extra syllable. Each should be analysed differently.

Around 3:15 he says "canvasseses" reduplicating the final [-əz] syllable. Not part of his dialect. And so quickly said that I'm fairly certain it was an accident. A 'happy accident' to be sure.

His anaptyctic vowel in 'umbarella' (7:20 into the video--2:40 left in the countdown) is pretty carefully pronounced and probably not accidental. This is a common pronunciation similar to 'athalete'. Note that in each word an approximant [ɹ/l] follows a consonant of lesser sonority [b/θ]. Of all the possible analyses of this extra segment--anticipatory vowel or delayed articulation of the alveolar or pure epenthesis (i.e. not a "part" of either adjacent segment)--I like to think that Bob Ross was such an optimist that he simply believed every word had the potential to be more than it was.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

That'll learn ya

Buffy just finished reading a book that her former professor and now friend Chris Blake wrote. Along with the occasional bursts of laughter (because he's quite funny) and the frequent pauses to discuss and investigate his claims (because he's quite provocative) she also pointed out a few mistakes (because he's quite human). There were very few -- such editing oversights as giving a character two different names and giving a quote two different speakers.

Buffy is a close reader. I flinch every time she looks at my writing. She follows arguments well and she catches all inconsistencies. And she remembers from several years ago Blake enlightening his students by informing them that nauseous (causing nausea) is commonly misused when the speaker means nauseated (feeling nausea); and that comprised of is misused when the speaker means composed of.

So there on page 82 of his book Buffy found that her mentor wrote

and the human sanctuaries that comprise the church are free to wonder and probe without fear

A stumble she figured. Surely he remembers his old rule. Then on page 92:

It was a test comprised of one hundred problems

Blake is a fine writer and editor. He uses words knowingly and he expresses himself clearly. And I'm not going to say anything critical about his use of the word comprise in these sentences. When Buffy shook her head on reading them I asked her to temper her distaste. There were certainly other instances of Blake's writing that deserved a some teasing.1

I will however take issue with his lesson to the students. Perhaps he will temper the very advice he has shown he doesn't always heed.

Here's the usual argument regarding this word: To comprise means to bring together or collect. So a house comprises thousands of bricks. A mall comprises many smaller stores. And a university comprises several schools/colleges. Ergo! (those pedants like to say as much as they can in Latin) it is incorrect to say that a burrito is comprised of lettuce tomatoes beans cheese etc. It is incorrect to say that 88 keys comprise a full piano keyboard. And it is doubly incorrect to say that this nation is comprised of 48 states.

Before I address the fluidity of language I should note that the etymology of the word does go back to a meaning of collecting and gathering. And if we look carefully we find that the word merges with comprehend. According to the OED the -prise ending was probably formed by analogy with several other English words such as enterprise -- the verb derived from the formally identical noun.

To put it simply: nouns that ended in -prendre showed a pattern of becoming verbs ending in -prise. Some verbs ending in -prendre followed suit.

Now some will wail and moan and argue still that comprised of meaning made up of is a recent misunderstanding and misappropriation of the word. That it's a flat mistake: the wrong meaning. This argument will often go to such horrific worst case scenarios as "what if up starts to mean down?" They argue that words so arbitrarily linked to meanings will eventually become meaningless.

Point 1) The very fact that they know a word is being used incorrectly means that the intended meaning is clear. If I say "Two cups comprise a pint" or "I listened to a choir comprised of 32 singers" the meaning of the word is clear. Not arbitrary. We are allowed to use context.

Second point) It's not a recent trend. The OED entry includes the meaning "To constitute, make up, compose" and provides citations as early as 1794. Nine citations are included for this meaning: more quotations than are given for any other use. The passive use meaning "To be composed of, to consist of" gets four citations of its own. The earliest included is from 1874.

Meanings change. And it's mere convention that determines which meanings connect to which forms. This is not to say that those conventions don't serve a purpose. My point is simply that when the currents of language create the occasional polysemy and the occasional complete shift it is not a deterioration. It is merely evidence that language is of the people for the people and yes by the people.

And scoff as you might I'll bet you are okay with this (I now address the skeptics). Let's take a look at the history of apprise. The -prise ending is also derived (by analogy) from a form ending in -prendre. That early form of the word (from the French) had the meaning to grasp or understand. We still have that meaning preserved in the familiar form apprehend. And apprise once had the same meaning. But it went through a very reasonable shift and came to mean inform teach or enlighten.

Where's all the complaining about that shift in meaning?


Take a look at his Union College profile page (link above) and note his use of aerobie as a mass noun. It's like he thinks it's a real sport or something. (This may be related to the aggrandizing effect of mass nouns that I've mentioned before.) Now I agree that "throwing aerobies" sounds like a juggling act. Couldn't he just say "throwing around the ol' aerobie"? Yeah. That sounds more like fun and less like a sanctioned and organized activity.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Changing RSS Feed

I changed the title of this blog a few months ago. The old title has left a trace in the form of the RSS feed address. In a few days I will update the address at FeedBurner so that will be abandoned. The new feed address will be

I think I also have to do a little tinkering with some of the head elements in the template. If any feed readers stop reporting updates for a while just remember that I'm still here.

Before I update the RSS feed I have to figure out a few details regarding autodiscovery and validation of a feed without revealing an e-mail address in the source code.

I'll put an alert in the left sidebar when I make the change.

Keeping up with the Joneseses

In an article about a snide memo from the Obama camp (regarding Hillary Clinton's financial interests in India) is an interesting use of the plural possessive.

The AP article explains that the memo

referred to Bill and Hillary Clintons' [sic] investments in India; her fundraising among Indian-Americans; and the former president's $300,000 in speech fees from Cisco, a company that has moved U.S. jobs to India.

So apparently the surname now has to agree in number with compounded personal names.

  • Bill Clinton

  • Hillary Clinton

  • Bill and Hillary Clintons

Benefit of the doubt disclaimer: It could be a simple cut-and-paste/editing error. It might have originally read "referred to the Clintons' involvement" and when the names "Bill and Hillary" were added they writer/editor didn't catch the change. But that's so boring an explanation that it's probably true.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Language Maven gets a strike again

William Safire's On Language column yesterday decided to pay a tiny bit of attention to language. In the midst of a rambling and uninteresting survey of the use of tier regarding presidential candidates he decided to look at the etymology of the word.

Having asked "What’s a tier, anyway, and who arranged its rendezvous with this generation of Americans?" he tries to answer his own question.

Here goes: Tier, from tire, is of Old French origin, the noun meaning “rank, order,” surfacing first in 1569, leading to the verb tirer, “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” (maybe that’s where “to pull rank” comes from).

Then he jumps to its use in ranking those who aspire to political office.

He has obviously referenced the OED for much of this information. Except for that "pull rank" conjecture. Where did that come from? Just because tier might have origins meaning both words? How do we get from tire to pull rank? Other than that, Safire's information is very close to the entry, which reads in part

tier - [Orig. tire, a. F. tire, in OF. (c1210 in Godef.) ‘suite, sequence, range, rank, order’: cf. tire à tire in succession, one after another, f. tirer to draw, elongate.]

And as he has done before the pundit mistakes the OED early entry of 1569 for the date the word surfaced. OED early entries are not to be taken as earliest known usages of a word. It's not just common sense tells us that the words were around before the citations: it's documentation. The OED entries are often just early notable and exemplary usages.

*The noun tire is found in ME meaning a row of fur (1437) or gems ("Ye Ruby suld be ye fyrst in ye secund tir of ye xij stones": Lapidary in Bodleian MS Add. A.106 a1500). And Safire's claim that the noun (which we know surfaced and even made it into print at least 100 years before 1569) led to the verb tirer is hard to understand. The very OED entry that he has mistakenly trusted to provide an earliest date, claims that tire à tire came from the verb tirer.

And the ME verb tiren (f OF tirer) that most closely matches the meaning “to draw, drag, elongate, pull” is usually found in relation to a bird of prey tugging and tearing flesh. A similar verb (of identical form) tiren is a shortened form of atiren from OF atirier meaning to outfit, furnish, equip, prepare or adorn, and has many connections to martial and ceremonial contexts. This second verb seems a likely source of modern tier meaning "A row, rank, range, course" or "A row of guns or gun-ports in a man-of-war a fort." Either ME verb can be found as early as the fourteenth century. They certainly did not come from (or after) the 1569 "surfacing" of the noun.

Of course this much searching would have led Safire to make a connection with attire which certainly would have confused the surety of his findings and forced him to talk about an interesting tho unclear etymology. And Safire seems to enjoy stopping short of good (or any) scholarship, and ignoring it when he finds it.

*ME dates and citations from the excellent Middle English Dictionary.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

When to expect what

Friday night on David Letterman Michael Moore made his case for greater access to quality health care using the usual appeals to emotion. To set up his point that change is vital he told the story of a woman who took her feverish child to a hospital. When the hospital contacted the woman's HMO they were told that the child had to be treated at another hospital across town. In the time that it took to get to the other hospital the child, whose fever was as high as 104, went into a seizure and died.

Commenting on this tragic story Moore, probably trying to propel the relevance of the story claimed "That happens more often than not."

This is a ridiculous claim if we don't put a reasonable limit on the bank of relevant incidences. Let's create two categories of incidental limitation on the phrase: absolute and defined.

Absolute incidence:
More often than not there's a game of poker going on.

This claim is applicable at all times. The only limitation might be a epochal. It may not have been the case in the past and it may not be in the future that a poker game somewhere is more commonly the state of things than a poker game nowhere; but as things are -- at any point in time the odds are favorable that someone's playing.

Some other statements that fit the type

    More often than not:
  • my house is too cold.

  • the pond is frozen over.

  • the earth is spinning on its axis.

When I was living in North Dakota I heard many weather jokes claiming jocular absolute incidental relevance as in More often than not there's snow on the ground.

Defined incidence:
More often than not I burn the toast.

It's not true that at any given time I'm likely to be burning a piece of toast. The implied defined incidental relevance is at those times that I am making toast. So when I make toast I burn it more than half the time.

When Moore told the story, Letterman responded with horror and disgusted disbelief. I can't remember if he asked How often does this happen? but let's assume that he at least indicated he wanted an answer. Moore's response, "That happens more often than not" needs to define the relevant incidences. His use of "that" is ambiguous. Is it more often than not the case that a woman is taking her acutely feverish child to a hospital, being denied treatment and directed to another hospital hence suffering a tragic loss as a result of delayed treatment? Or is it more often than not the case that when a patient seeks treatment at a hospital treatment is either denied or delayed? (We'll leave the patient outcome as an uncounted variable.)

Moore very likely was working with such an implication. And those are vital to practical communication. We don't have time to address and deny every possible reading except the intended one. Reasonable problem solving skills allow us to hear a possibly ridiculous claim and still understand the rational intent. At least half the time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What's in dossier's dossier?

Nancy Friedman (at Away With Words) has posted some observations about Perrier's new campaign that plays with the water's familiar logo. Comparing the ads to an older (for Napier jewelry) ad she notes that while the jewelry slogan "Napier is Snakier" was a clue to pronunciation (they obviously rhyme right?) the Perrier ads probably don't intend the same. She writes (regarding the word 'manlier' incorporated into the logo): "I'm not certain Perrier actually wants us to say man-lee-AY, but maybe we can start something."

This reminded me of the recent Gallicism topic (scroll down or click here). For the record: If people start pronouncing common words like easier, funnier hungrier manlier angrier etc with the "-eeAY" ending I'll definitely agree with Mr Urdangs "pretentious crap" claim. "Oh...this brie is a little cheesi-ay than I like. I don't usually try foreign foods but I'm feeling a little risky-ay than usual."

So I started thinking about the -ier ending on words that are likely to be pronounced in English with the Gallic "ee-ay" ending. I came up with a list of several words and started comparing all listed pronunciations in all my dictionaries. Of course the etymology of the words is relevant so I started paying attention to those too. And I found a fun little disagreement. As etymologies will often reveal. The word in question: dossier

Sources consulted: OED, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Webster's New World, Webster's New Twentieth Century, Funk & Wagnalls, John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins, Online Etymology Dictionary

All sources agree that the word is French in origin, meaning a bundle or collection of papers, and those who push it further agree that the root goes back to dos: back < Latin dorsum.

The connection to back as identified by MW AHD WNW and Ayto is that the bundle of papers was labeled on the back (probably spine?).

The OED says of the bundles: "from their bulging [they] are likened to a back."

A nice online site, the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the only source I found that claims both possibilities, saying that the connection is "supposedly" to the label on the back, but "possibly" from the resemblance to a curved back.

Will we find conclusive answer to this?

Monday, June 11, 2007

The McCain mutiny [updated]

Bill Poser at Language Log tips his hat to John McCain for his reasonable stand regarding English as the official language of the United states.

In the Republican debate (6/5/07) Wolf Blitzer posed the following invitation:

If there's someone here who doesn't believe English should be the official language of the United States please speak up right now.

In this debate McCain is the only one out of ten that takes the stance. Blitzer notes that in the Democratic debate only one of the eight candidates thought that English should be the official language.

I'm not sure how to read the chuckling at this prompt. Perhaps the candidates see it as simple baiting. Perhaps they're nervous because they know how controversial the issue is. McCain offers the following.

I think it's fine.

I would like to remind you that we made treaties with Native Americans such as the Navajos in my state, where we respect their sovereignty. And they use their native language in their deliberations. It's not a big deal. But Native Americans are important to me in my state.

Everybody knows that English has to be learned if anyone ever wants to move up the economic ladder. That is obvious. And part of our legislation by the way is a requirement to learn English.

McCain's opening line is ambiguous. What is fine? Not making English the official language? This is one of those yes/no negative 'solicitations' that can make the yes/no answer confusing. But his answer give some assurance that he sees no need to make an official statement about official languages. He seems to understand that language issues will often take care of themselves as organized cultures learn to function harmoniously.

I appreciate that Blitzer does not open the floor to the eager opposing views. Not because the debate should never be allowed--but because the debate isn't part of the topic. Nice way to stick with the interests of the premise.

Relevant comments begin around 3:30 into the video (or around -6:30 in the countdown).

Responding to the ambiguity in McCain's opening, Bill poser writes:

Hmm, that's true. I think that I may have interpreted McCain's first sentence as meaning something like "I think things are fine as they are." but it isn't clear whether that is really what he meant.

He directed me to this site where Matt Welch disputes the claim in the Washington Post that all ten candidates "endorsed English as the nation's official language."

Welch adds

Wolf Blitzer then asked "Is there anyone else who stands with Senator McCain specifically on that question?" Later, McCain pointed out that in Arizona, "Spanish was spoken before English was."

McCain in fact has been an outspoken opponent to English-as-official-language for decades; I have in my possession letters back and forth between him and Barry Goldwater where he defends his position from the old man's strong desire to codify federally our one national tongue....


Saturday, June 09, 2007

You've got some Gallicism

Here's a little peek at an exchange (as hosted by the ADS-L) between me and venerated dictionary editor Laurence Urdang. Google his name and take a look at his impressive body of work.

I will present segments of this exchange with nothing other than these introductory remarks and a closing benediction. The eminent lexicographer is not to be dismissed as an ignorant blowhard -- his reasonable and clearly stated claims are evidence enough of his reason. I can only hope that I will publish as successfully as he has. He has both experience and expertise.

After Urdang establishes a complaint against spelling pronunciations and other choices in language use, the noted lexicographer writes the following:

And whence comes homage, a word borrowed and assimilated as HOM-ij or OM-ij, from 12th- or 13th-century French, made to rhyme with fromage? What pretentious crap!

These are all current in the speech of those who otherwise sound like native speakers of American English. Now that we've taught them to read, maybe we can teach them to read a dictionary once in a while so that, as Pick and Pat used to say, they can keep their ruby lips flip-flip-flappin' in the breeze reflecting more or less "standard" (or, at least, high-frequency) usage.

My response
I suppose AmE 'garage' could sound just as pretentious to some. We're surrounded by Gallicisms. Shall we bid them all adi...goodbye?

His response
It might seem unpleasant---even rude---to reject remarks like that of Mr. Covarrubias for asking if we should reject Gallicisms, but I am too old to tolerate silly nonsense. Garage is a borrowing, a loanword from French, and not a "Gallicism." Unlike the British, who, owing to generations of wars, despise the French and warp everything they say if they can (and say GAR-idge just for spite), American speakers harbor no such venom and make an honest, though often unsuccessful effort at simulating the pronunciation of the original.

Covarrubias wishes to regard language clinically, without criticism or comment, accepting what he finds, much as the oncologist never tells you that cancer is "bad," then that is his privilege. I too have a clinical hat, which I don when I need to hark back to my B.S. in English Literature and my Ph.D. in General and Comparative Linguistics (Columbia, 1958) or to my (few) years teaching English and linguistics at New York University, in the 1960s.

But I am also possessed of taste and discernment, and I know good art, especially in language, when I see it or hear it. And mispronunciations, among other errata, are not among the perpetrations I enjoy. Others might delight in them, but I, for example, have not heard any speaker of American English use the word lie correctly in the past few years" it is invariably lay (and I don't mean the past tense, either). Such errors in grammar not only interfere with the communication of ideas but they mark the speaker's education level and his lack of sensitivity to the traditional ways in which English works.

You might well say, "Bugger tradition," in which case you may go on saying, "I ain't got no money" (or whatever you're lacking), and it is unlikely that the language police will incarcerate you for using infer for imply or for rhyming homage with fromage. Also, many of your interlocutors won't even notice the difference between your speech and that of an educated speaker. But I will know and, possibly, so might a handful of others whose opinions are just as unimportant to you.

It all come down to art and to how important that is to you. The use of traditional grammar in language is akin in function to that of the appendix; but, like the appendix, when it endangers infecting the surrounding (t)issues, it must be excised.

My response

Yes I suppose the American venom towards the French...I mean the Freedom People is less vitriolic than the British. Common pronunciations provide some fine evidence: ahnvelope, ahmbiawnce, corsawge, coo-de-grah, ahnclave, homage...some borrowings have retained a semblance of their original sounds. Some had lost an original sound and have now regained it. Some have even changed to sound "more" French in a mistaken attempt to follow what we think are the rules of French pronunciation. I choose not to say much about "pseudo-French" forms because "Gallicism" covers those forms that are *from* French and those that are merely *like* French forms. Borrowed or not.

Yes "homage" is a borrowed word and there are descriptive rules for the assimilation to English pronunciation when a word was borrowed more than 700 years ago. I'm sure that some who insist on reintroducing or just using a Gallicized vowel are trying to use a prestige form. And I'm sure that some who insist on that same pronunciation think it's a recent borrowing, or at least that the pronunciation is standard. I'm not going to call shenanigans on either.


If I see a "cancer" threatening to destroy a language too quickly I'll judge it. I'll say it's "bad." But I'm not going to suggest that every freckle be chopped off.

I don't think he and I are in stark disagreement. We probably view a lot of usages with the same judgment regarding style. And when I hear speech that is riddled with affected prestige forms I'm likely to roll my eyes as well. Perhaps where we differ is in our view of what these forms do to the language if they become parallel standards.

I do wish he would have kept tearing into my arguments. I realize of course that my young and clinically sterile perspective is of little interest to him. He has bigger fish to spear.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Swearing like a tailor

On Buffy's current 'must-see' television show, a young dancer responded to hard-to-believe news using the exclamation "shut the front door!" For a split second I thought she was trying to stop an escape. But knowing that I'm old and uncool I've learned to reconsider my first impressions when young cool people speak. I learned this trick years ago when my students kept telling me how fat I was. Learning about the ph- spelling helped me with some deep-seated esteem issues. Those students must have thought I was so cool. I kept overhearing them in the hall saying "go ask the phat bald teacher..."

So shut the front door pretty quickly made sense as a replacement near-expletive phrase. A similar rhythm is important. Some examples:

Shut the Front Door!
Mother Father!
Cheese and Rice!
Cheesy Crust!

I'm not sure how I feel about these. Their over-eager use can carry a wink and a nudge that begs for attention. As if the speaker is demanding that's clever eh? Isn't it funny? But they really can work very well to get that release that only the right metrical foot can provide. And they can be hilarious. I remember a high school teacher threatening (teasingly) my friend Tim "I'm going to flunk you!" to which Tim responded without hesitation "Flunk me? Flunk you!" Even the teacher had to laugh.

Flip-flopping on metathesis

The structure of Wikipedia creates an interesting argument. Instead of talking about the mistakes here on this blog should I just correct them over on the Wikipedia page? What if I'm not interested in making Wikipedia more accurate? But obviously I'm interested correcting information that the site puts out there. Why else am I about to correct it here? I'll let the insignificant wrangler address the question if he wishes. Let's get to linguistics.

On the page for metathesis the wikipedants have provided several transcriptions of supposedly metathesized forms. I'll comment on a 6 of the 11.

/ˈkælvəɹi/ for cavalry
This is a fair example of metathesis. It's interesting that the metathesis is not a simple ab>ba but an asymmetrical a-bc>bc-a. This is probably because of contamination by Calvary, the other name for Golgotha (Hill of the Skull).
/ˈkʌmftɚbl̩/ for comfortable
This is another good example. It may involve both metathesis and schwa deletion. Several possible steps in several possible orders would make for decent analyses. It introduces the question of of ɚ vs ɹ̩.
/ˈɪntɚˌdus/ for introduce
I'm not sure I've heard the [-tɚ-] syllable in this word. I'm not a fan of the rhoticized [ɚ] anyway. I prefer the analysis with a syllabic [ɹ̩], but that could still be a rule applied after metathesis has occurred. This would explain the common loss of [t] after a nasal coda of a stressed syllable (as in common pronunciations of 'plenty' 'splinter'...). But the surface representation I hear most often [inʧɹədus] undergoes affrication, not metathesis.
/ˈzɹeɪl/ for Israel
I've never heard this. So I can't comment.
/ˈpɝti/ for pretty
This might be metathesis or it might just be syllabification of the [ɹ̩].
/ˈvɛtʃtɪbl̩/ for vegetable
This is not metathesis. It's not even movement. This looks like metathesis if you overlook an analysis of regressive voice assimilation ʤ>ʧ /__[t] and analyze the [t] before the [ʃ] as metathesis of the ʃt cluster. But let's compare the order of the segments.

ˈv ɛ ʤ t ɪ b l̩ -- standard form
ˈv ɛ ʧ t ɪ b l̩ -- alternate form

Not metathesis.

One more observation (this gets overly pedantic). It's more a matter of convention. The back slashes are usually reserved for phonemic (or underlying) representations (UR). For phonetic (or surface) representations (SR) the symbols would take square brackets. Elsewhere in Wikipedia's tome of information these are called broad (UR) and narrow (SR) transcriptions. I've not seen the broad/narrow terminology before. But I'm just a beginner here.


The comment from Buffy highlights a question about the correct spelling of rhoticize. In fact according to the OED the only spelling is rhotacize. This is confusing since the adjective is rhotic and the noun is rhoticity. The present participle listed by the OED is "rhoticizing". I'm not going to turn this into another post. I'm just acknowledging that it's mostly stubbornness that keeps me from changing the spelling I chose. Though the OED's spelling of of the ppl a does give me some support.

I'll not accept blame for the ambiguity with erotic. I think Buffy is just too eager to talk about country matters anyway.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Me Tarzan. You don't understand.

Over on the wall of the Truth Cave I recently etched a link to Geoffrey K. Pullum's Language Log post on apes and language. Pullum's voice is keen as ever and his insights are always worth noting. His post focuses on the silly credulousness in John Berman's piece for ABCNews. Read it. It's an excellent post.

Pullum's point (making it clear that apes can't understand English) is most strikingly made when he parses one researcher's claim: "Qualitatively, there is no difference between Kanzi's language and my language." He writes

Let's look at that first sentence Fields uttered. It has a preposed adverb in adjunct function (qualitatively) at the beginning of an existential clause with a singular postcopular noun phrase with a negative determiner (the determinative no) and a complement preposition phrase headed by between. The preposition between has as its complement a noun-phrase coordination in which the two noun phrases have contrasting genitive noun phrase determiners (Kanzi's and my, respectively). Bill Fields knows how to construct English clauses with typical syntactic sophistication.

Kanzi, on the other hand, sometimes presses the EGG lexigram on hearing a human say "Egg".

Some who would defend Kanzi's ability to understand language would be hard pressed to show that the ape is able to understand how any of those words are functioning. And I'm not talking about analysis. I'm talking about simple competence.

One commenter on the ABCNews site tries hard (with several comment posts) to assure readers that there is good evidence of the ape's English competence. Posting under the name sarunfeldt the commenter says of Kanzi:
He clearly understands spoken English sentences where syntax is critical. ... Apes, and particularly bonobos, are clearly able to communicate symbolically and to use a limited form of ordered syntax.
And in another comment
Kanzi readily distinguishes between the sentences - Kanzi, did you eat the benana?, Kanzi, eat the banana. Kanzi, give me the banana., Kanzi, better not eat that banana. and Kanzi, do you want to eat the banana?
At least sarunfeldt admits that intonation probably has a lot to do with the apes ability to "distinguish between the sentences."

Distinguishing is vastly different from understanding. And it's not a simple "matter of degree." An ape that distinguishes demonstrates little more than that he knows when to choose an appropriate response. Let's look back at the claim that Kanzi shows syntactic competence. The ability to recognize a few (or even many) frozen forms and respond differently to each one does not indicate syntactic competence. One important test is productivity and the ability to understand how a syntactic alternation changes a statement.

Let's look at a very simple example. I noticed this form in a typo that I committed. Imagine your dog is talking with words. Consider two sentences it might say, each missing a word.

1. (*)I have chewed bone.
2. (*)I have chewed bone.

Both sentences look the same. Both are clearly wrong (unless we use "bone" as a mass noun -- that'd be odd) tho the meanings are easy to work out. When assured that they are different and the missing word is the article 'a' the two meanings are then clear to the hearer. Let's assign them correct forms thus

3. I have chewed a bone.
4. I have a chewed bone.

I'll agree that both facts can be "known" or even "understood" by a dog. All it requires is a tiny memory. But could any non-human animal comprehend the critical role of syntax? A simple movement of the article makes the meaning unambiguous by relying on the simple rule that a verb following a determiner must be a participle (a converse of the rule that keeps the participle from preceding the article as adjectives must come after the article). Hence the following obviously contrasted phrases

running the machine
the running machine

lit a match
a lit match

eating the shark
the eating shark

giving the tree
the giving tree


And another simple little difference between sentences 3 and 4 is the verb have. In sentence 3 have is an auxiliary verb which must then take a main verb "chewed" as a complement. And in 4 it's a verb meaning possession and must be, since an article cannot follow an AUX verb. Only a main verb can. In the decontextualized fragment "...have chewed..." the first word is ambiguous: it could be an AUX or main verb, but in "...have a..." it can only be a main verb.

These are rules of English that you understood before reading this elementary analysis. This is what grammatical competence allows you know without ever having heard a sentence.

Let's move beyond the claims that Kanzi shows an ability to distinguish between some simple syntactic alternations. Has Kanzi ever shown the ability to produce any syntactically determined differentiation? And nothing like YOU.BYEBYE or ME.EAT.BANANA (which I doubt he would differentiate from BANANA.EAT.ME).

Let's see Kanzi express the difference between I have related a story and I have a related story using the rules of English he has allegedly acquired.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Remind me not to do yoga with him

I've never been a fan of Jackass or any of those crazy-stunt shows that focus on attention starved boys kicking each other in the groin. I'm not sure what they do or say to each other to convince themselves that their little dares are worth taking. Perry Caravello must have known what he was getting into doing business with Johnny Knoxville. And at some point while putting his genitals a mousetrap he must have thought This might not be entirely pleasant.

Yes. He put his genitals in a mousetrap.

His lawsuit now claims that he was injured. Not a surprise. Wasn't that the whole point? I don't know how much tissue damage is necessary to constitute injury but even if there was no tissue damage I'm willing to go ahead and say that a mousetrap snapping on your slim-jim counts as an injury. So don't do it.

Here's the surprise. The lawsuit makes the following claim.

Plaintiff agreed to do so, and, much to his emotional tranquility and to his physical harm, was severely injured when the trap literally went on his manhood[.]

Is this a legal term? Emotional tranquility? Uhhh...what? Either this is a mistake or Mr Caravello is one hell of a Buddhist.

The phrase anticipates the phrase "was severely injured" and the sentence is trying to say that his emotional tranquility was severely injured -- he sustained severe injury to his emotional tranquility. But putting it alongside "physical harm" confuses the whole sentence. How can severe injury undo his emotional stability while at the same time furthering his physical harm? But if "and to his physical harm" is a parenthetical that isn't coordinated with "to his emotional tranquility" then we have a reading that makes more sense to me. Let's see if we can rewrite that just a little:

"In regard to his emotional tranquility (and this caused him physical harm) he was severely injured when the trap literally went on his manhood."

Now one last question. Did it hurt as soon as it "went on" his manhood or was it when it "went-off on" his manhood? It doesn't matter. It was a stupid idea from the beginning.

And according to the lawsuit he didn't get paid. Yeah I'm sure that stings.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The sunn wil comme out...

I always thought Dan Quayle was unfairly ridiculed for his potato moment. First of all how many people have ever misspelled an easy word? Everyone I know. Consider also that the plural of potato does have an 'e' which could lead to some confusion when the poor guy was given a card on which someone else had spelled the singular potatoe.

And so I will downplay the importance of the following picture as well.

First of all Hillary Clinton did not create the banner. Second that's a common misspelling. (It took me a couple passes to understand what the joke was.) Third it's still pretty funny.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Standards of linguistic inquiry

The little red-penned devil won't leave me alone. And sometimes it's worse than the tired and baffling arguments against split infinitives and final prepositions. I'm am learning to leave those behind even as style issues. But I'm ashamed to say that sometimes even phonology trips me up.

In a recent ADS-L message thread a contributor offered examples of what he classified as "an attempt at speech sophistication." He claimed this was what was happening when "the adolescent girl (and occasional guy) characteristically distorts the vowel sounds."

I had no idea what further claim he was going to make so I offered a couple of media examples of vowel backing that might be part of the same "attempt." We were immediately pounced upon by learned linguists who called these characterizations "strange" warned against "psychoanalyzing".

It was a fair assessment considering the large amount of recent and well-known research on some of the vowel alternations mentioned. Just look for Northern Cities Shift and you'll find it.

I stepped down from my claim, did a little searching and found that at least one of the speakers I mentioned was raised in a region that would be expected to show the vowel change. Oops.

Why are claims like "she's trying to sound smart" or "he's trying to sound fancy" so vigilantly shot down? Because linguistics has established a method of conclusions based on measurable and observable data. There is certainly theory involved but that theory addresses the data that has been collected and its relevance. Good theory does not seek to introduce new unobserved data or suggestions of possible factors that could explain the collected facts. Good theory may argue about organization and interpretation, but it doesn't add unaccounted-for variables into an equation.

Consider the following skeleton:

- Some people say [Q].
- Who says [Q]?
- In what phonological environment do some people say [Q]?
- Now we know that [people$] say Q when it falls between [x] and [y].
- The phonology of [people$] has undergone change of a type just as we have found in the phonology of every other group of [people] that has ever been studied.

Now imagine that a dolt like me comes in and makes glib comments like "I think [people$] are just trying to..." without any data; without any theory to support the data-less claim. What happens to the value of a field of inquiry if its practitioners do not hold their claims to a higher standard than an impression? "Because that's what I've always thought" is not reliable data.