Monday, December 29, 2008

I do not bite my thumb at you

I shouldn't be surprised that John McIntyre's response to my post on disenfranchised is largely interested in extending the spirit of goodwill.

Mr McIntyre has well-reasoned views of where prescriptions serve a purpose and when they should guide decisions about language. And by well-reasoned I of course mean that I largely agree with them. I read his blog daily and I see that he has more to teach than I do. This has been a refreshingly affable exchange. Cheers sir.

My views on language are often responsible for more discord than my views on politics or religion. Anytime I'm called a dangerous and irresponsible libertine I assume it's because of my radically tolerant views on language. Descriptivism is an oddly disintuited view: shattered by rulers on knuckles and stern red pens.

Just last week I mentioned to someone that I believe a common sense approach to language should lead to the argument that as negative concord is rarely confusing it's hardly an unclear, ineffective or structurally inferior form. It's the "additive" constructions that often get confusing, leading to over/undernegation.

'So,' I said, 'there's no reason to think, just based on non-standard forms, that a speaker is dumber or less adept at language.'

'Right. Sure,' he responded in honest agreement. Then he added 'But that's usually the reason they talk that way, right?'

Training and learning are so regularly linked with ideas about intelligence that the popular view of language as a taught system has replaced the linguistic view of language acquisition. This is one of the important factors in the view that language must adhere to a prescribed standard rather than a naturally acquired one.

Of course I'm convinced that if the linguistic view was understood accurately, few would disagree with it. But then isn't that why everyone holds all opinions dearly?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The hotdishes make up for the cold weather

Some perfect timing while on the drive to Minnesota: The route from Indiana of course takes us through Wisconsin. And playing on the iPod during that stretch of road were the 6 amusing and informative episodes of the Wisconsin Englishes Podcast with Tom Purnell and Joe Salmons. Very accessible. Worth listening to at least once. I hope they put up a new one soon.

On Christmas day in St. Cloud Minnesota I was able to inform a roomful of Minnesotans that golden birthdays are not observed nationwide. Buffy has never believed me on that one for some reason.

The golden birthday is the birthday when you turn the same age as the day of the month on which you were born.

That's as odd to me as duck, duck, grey duck.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ohh Fruitcake. My Favorite.

I nominate the following as Best Replacement for Dogs Barking Jingle Bells

Andrew Sullivan defines hathos as the attraction to something you really can't stand; it's the compulsion of revulsion.

The Word Spy definition: Feelings of pleasure derived from hating someone or something. (First Use credit given to Alex Heard, "Beyond Hate: The Giddy Thrill of Hathos," The Washington Post, May 17, 1987.)

Sullivan has gone on to provide several seasonal examples on his blog: a series of Christmas Hathos Nominees.

A painful sampling (including the two above):

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Looks like a cupertino

From The Onion:

SACRAMENTO, CA—Activists on both sides of the gay marriage debate were shocked this November, when a typographical error in California's Proposition 8 changed the state constitution to restrict marriage to a union between "one man and one wolfman," instantly nullifying every marriage except those comprised of an adult male and his lycanthrope partner.

Laughed out loud reading this to Buffy.

No one is born unfranchised

In a recent post John McIntyre writes

I came across a sentence in James McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief that referred to disfranchised African-Americans. To enfranchise is to give someone the franchise, the vote. To deny someone the vote is to disfranchise. The more common term in use is disenfranchise — which would suggest taking the vote away after it had been given. I’m not going to grow red in the face and pound my fist on the desk over this one — it’s not worth it. But it gladdens the heart to see a writer use a word in a precise sense.

Oh that he could move just a little farther away from his lightest of censures. I disagree with this good-natured judgment regarding these forms on several grounds.

I disagree with his judgment of precision. Praising the precise use implicates the use of disenfranchise as less precise. It is of course not so. The precision lies within the nuanced intention of the writer/speaker and the understanding of the reader/listener. A change in meaning dulls not the edge of meaning.

But the morphological premise of his argument is shaky anyway. To franchise is just as much to grant rights as is to enfranchise. So disenfranchise no more means to take away a previously held right than does disfranchise. And if we want to look at the history of the words (which is relevant by the agreed terms of a discussion of language change) disfranchise has meant, and still often means, to deprive of rights held prior.

The prefix en- doesn't give enfranchise any further derived meaning. It's probably from the Old French enfranchiss- and not simply formed from the addition of en- to the English verb franchise. Enfranchise means the same thing as franchise and has historically meant the same thing.

What Mr McIntyre seems to want is a morphology that compositionally derives a sense of deprivation or keeping from. Something that could be accomplished by a prefix like un- which would indicated the state of not having been affected in the way indicated by the verb. Unfranchised and Unenfranchised are both attested by the OED with only a few citations.

The prefix dis- on either word could be considered equally problematic if we read the derived meanings as an undoing of a previous state. The 6th definition given in the OED is having the sense of undoing or reversing the action or effect of the simple verb. In these words the state would be having certain officially recognized rights. And as Mr McIntyre says, this would suggest taking the vote away after it had been given.

But I suggest that those un- forms are not only superfluous, they are incorrect. The dis- prefix is not merely acceptable despite it's compositional meaning, it is in fact more accurate. The sense of reversing is important in the use of the the terms. As I hear and try to use the words, they indicate that certain inalienable and inherent rights and freedoms have been taken away by institutions that don't respect all people equally.

To put it most simply: disfranchisement and disenfranchisement is precisely what happened to the slaves who used to have freedom and rights. These were taken away from them. If we believe the words of our founding documents then we also believe in G-d given rights.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Log branches

Arnold Zwicky has started his own blog. He's writing original pieces and not just cross-posting his LL work, so it looks to be worth more than the subscription price.

Friday, December 19, 2008

They really turn the house? How?

Man, I've haven't been called an ignorant foreigner since I left North Dakota. It's frustrating.

It's almost like a grammaticality judgment. Ironic humor relies on a similar sense of "obviously wrong" so that a false statement is more clearly intentional. You need to know the system well enough to get it. To readers of this blog a word like interweb would most likely look intentional. And if I describe the internets as a big truck you all know that I realize it's really like a series of tubes.

I used to bother my sister by referring to things with a related but completely wrong word. I would ask, for instance, what she thought of that new song by Otter. 'You know, Kissed by a Rose.'

And mispronunciations can work the same way. Since I'm a big fan of Three's Company I sometimes refer to the soup of the day as soup doojer. But never at a nice restaurant. The garkons at those places hate jokes. Even at a Taco Bell when I asked for a kwessadilla I was corrected by the kid at the counter. It's pronounced 'kaysa-deeya' he told me. Suuure it is, I said and winked.

If I'm going to risk having my intelligence misunderestimated I should at least try better jokes. So far these are all as bad as the tired line about putting the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. As annoying as playing air-drums and saying ba-DUMpum after every pun.

Last April Grant Barrett posted a column he wrote for the Malaysia Star on intentional mispronunciations: "Saying it wrong on purpose." He could have called it 'Saying in wrong on porpoise.' It's probably a good thing that he didn't.

One of his commenters writes:

My wife and I have a habit of saying the name of the actress from Pirates of the Caribbean as Keira Kuh-Nightley—just for fun. And the Actress from Batman Returns as Michelle Puh-Feiffer.

Keira Kuh-Nightly is so common in our household that we once said it in front of a friend, who explained that her name was pronounced “Nightly.” Oops.

"Oops"? Nonono. Your friend is the one who should be embarrassed for missing the little joke. It seems to me that the non-silent 'K' is one of those mispronunciations you should assume is a joke. Right?

There was a scene on Friends in which Chandler, trying to embarrass Joey, asks him where the Dutch are from, and Joey of course has no idea. Chandler teases him about it saying that it's somewhere near the Netherlands and Joey smartly responds that the Netherlands are a made up land where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell come from.

I'm sure a good chunk of the audience laughed then thought Wait. where DO they come from? That's just short of where humor fails. If Joey had said Dutchland the laugh would probably have been cut in half. Especially if he took the stress off '-land' like in England or Poland. Because Dutchland almost sounds real. Especially to half the audience of Friends.

And if you live just south of a country that no-one can name, and you're constantly running into people who think that because you speak Dutch you must live in Deutschland, then you see something a lot like that on a blog post about swaffelen you're probably going to assume the silly writer is making that same mistake. Because it can be tough for Belgiumites for a Netherlandians to know that round here, "Dutchland" is so wrong as to be ridiculous (even if not funny). And so way over there in Belgium our friend, Loveoranges, is getting the wrong idea about us.

In her own profile she laments "ookal heb ik zelf geen humor." But in this case, I don't know that it would have helped any.

Is there a word for this?

You're driving home and you see a giant monkey statue in the playground that you never noticed before. It has obviously always been there. It's old looking.

You walk into the grocery store and realize that there's a little coffee shop to the left of the customer service desk. You've been shopping there for years and you were just there yesterday but you never saw it.

You visit your in-laws (for the 15th time) and you notice a shed sitting next to the garage. You ask your wife about it and she tells you that she used to play in the shed when she was young. It's not new.

Is there a word for this? Other than being clueless or absentminded?

Ask around.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dutch treat

If you're getting bored with all the US's Words of the Yearses, just take a gander at the skanky Nether regions of Dutchland where swaffelen won 57% of an online vote.*

What does it mean? The press release explains that it means 'to swing one's penis, making it bump against something, in order to stimulate either oneself or someone else.' Regarding the word's trajectory: The word gained notoriety through a video posted on YouTube, in which a Dutch student got arrested for "swaffling" against the Taj Mahal in India.


Grant Barrett has included swaffle over at his Double-Tongued Dictionary. You can also find it at the Urban Dictionary where the entry for swaffelen adds a note on the uh … history:

And then in the early middle ages, the noble art of swaffeling was lost. Many feared that the swaffel phenomenon had been taken away forever from mankind, however, on a booze-holiday in Blanes a group of youngsters rediscovered swaffeling, and even perfected it!

Practice, man. Practice.

[Update: If you missed my attempt at humor in this opening sentence you may have been misled by the lame joke. Be sure to read loveoranges' helpful comment.]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Last 12 opening lines/7 of anything

Two memes today

Elizabeth tagged me for an open-ended meme. It's especially difficult because I'm a narcissist and I've already told every fact and story about me that I think is worth telling—somewhere. Even here.

This forces me to think back. It's tough to make a list about me interesting. So my standard shall simply be things about my childhood that might be just a tiny bit embarrassing, but that were mostly just typical of a childish mind.

  1. For about 3 years in elementary school I told my friends that I was 10% blind in one eye from being hit with a bat. For no reason.

  2. When I was 10 I joined a softball league. I didn't really care about playing. At all. I just wanted a chance to win a trophy because all three of my sisters had: 2 of them for a fire-prevention-poster contest and one for a good-citizenship award. My team won the championship. yay.

  3. The chimney sweep Step in Time dance in Mary Poppins scared me. Those hooligans were getting out of control. And it was bad enough that it came right after that freaky Chim Chim Cheree song. But when Mary Poppins did that spinning thing and they focused on her head she looked like pure evil. And I hadn't even seen The Exorcist yet.

  4. When I was 9 the Halloween episode of "CHiPs" Rock Devil Rock gave me nightmares. Even tho it was a breakout performance for Donny Most. The three messages stick with me still: Moloch must die! then Moloch will die! and finally Moloch is dead with his fiery breath! I think this grammatically escalating threat sent me into linguistics as therapy.

  5. I had a sticker collection.

  6. When I was 7 years old I heard this song and I couldn't wait to grow up so I could fall in love for the first time. Anne made it sound so wonderful.

  7. When I was about 4 years old my father shaved his beard. My older sister asked what I thought and I spat out He looks stupid! My sister was shocked that I could be so brazen. But I didn't care. I knew I was speaking the truth. I was upset because I assumed it would never grow back. After all, the hair on his head never did.

The Ridger has posted a nice overview of the year in Greenbelt posts.

It's a nice exercise because looking back at my posts shows me how prosaic and uninformative my first lines are:

January: Every year someone up at Lake Superior State University releases a list of banished words and phrases.

February: Several months ago I put up a poll and some discussion about the midwest.

March: Bill Cunningham is "a bit of an historian".

April: I'm still here and I'm OK.

May: See I was alway told that baldness is inherited from the mother.

June: I had to go dark.

July: My fingertips need to dance on the frets instead of the keyboard for now.

August: Blogger thinks I'm suspicious.

September: The old brain-bender about 'how do we know that blue looks the same to everyone' is pointless.

October: We can categorize the uses of and references to expletives and slang into several strategies and effects.

November: On the way to Chicago Midway Buffy announced that we needed to make a pit stop.

December: I just started listening to a podcast from last week of the Diane Rehm Show.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Said in 215 today:

'I never need to use the term kairos in a discussion. It doesn't make my argument any better. All it does is help my ethos.'

I need about 3 weeks away from Purdue.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ranking usage

Casey has asked an interesting question in a comment to the previous post. He's afraid to used the word forte because he learned that it's pronounced just like fort. (Unless you're speaking of volume in music, that is. The opposite of piano is indeed pronounced 'fortay'.)

So what do you do when you know Group.1 thinks that pronunciation A is ignorant and Group.2 thinks that pronunciation B is ignorant and Group.3 knows the debate but thinks that you're only choosing pronunciation B because you're pretentious?

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage identifies this paradox as a skunked term: a linguistic lose-lose situation as Casey calls it.

In this article at his former roost, Ben Zimmer mentions a few other terms that have been skunked to varying degrees of rankness. Enormity is torn between enormousness and horribleness. Fulsome has one foot in the abundant camp and the other in the grotesquely abundant camp. Some people will shy away from hopefully in any use (both as it is hoped and in a hopeful manner) because they know there are some who jump on the word indiscriminately. There are those who believe nauseous should only be used as a synonym for noxious while others say it's fine to use it like nauseated or feeling sick.

Step forward confidently and use your word brazenly. Because there are plenty of people in Group.4: those who know the debates and are willing to assume to that no matter which pronunciation you've chosen it's in good faith.

I'll stop my list and let you contribute any answers to Casey's question. Are there others?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A ready-made list

You're not going to buy me a gift, I know. But if you were I'd ask for either a pair of strange socks or a book. If you chose to go with the latter, I'd direct you to Jan Freeman's column where she has put up a nice list of books that I don't yet own. She didn't know that of course.

The Psychologist online

This is an interesting form of print/online parallel publishing. It provides free access to the January issue of The Psychologist.

(click on page image to open new window)

You can zoom in and out and flip or scroll through the pages or browse thru a plate overview of all pages. It's a decent interface.

Via BPS Research Digest Blog

Monday, December 08, 2008

Say it don't spray it

**WARNING! Crude and adolescent jokes follow video.
Written-out and everything.**

While watching I noticed that 'jizzed' was left out of the subtitles. Two dashes instead. So it read "I -- in my pants" while the audio obviously allowed multiple jizzes. They were jizzing all over the place.

You can jizz out loud as long as no one sees it? They have no problem with premature articulation. So as long as you don't put it on paper, jizz can come out of your mouth?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

To neologite

You might recognize Daphne Maxwell Reid from her role (replacing Janet Hubert) as Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Now she's making appearances as a producer and co-founder of New Millennium Studios.

She recently took part in a panel discussion, Politics 2009, What Now?, that first aired on C-SPAN in late November. She's introduced about 23 minutes into the program.

Despite her fine contributions to political discourse and analysis I was most interested in her productive derivational morphology.

I am the one on the panel who's totally non-professional political person. Totally non-professional. They don't ask me to be on TV to pundite.

There are some verbs that are formed with the -ite suffix. expedite, incite, requite, recite. These aren't easy to think of. And none of these has a related form of the performer ending with -it. One who expedites is not an expedit. One who requites is not a requit. The analogy at work here is tough to see.

That's what makes the neologism so interesting. Why did she go with such an uncommon verb morphology? She skipped right over pundize punditize punditate pundificate even pundate.

And it's an infant. Not one hit on Google™ for "to pundite" even tho "punditing" gets 3,320 hits. But punditing is probably inflection after anthimeria (for you rhetoricians) or functional shift (for you linguists) rather than inflection after derivation. So

pundit.noun >shift> pundit.verb > +ING

rather than

pundit.noun >derive> pundite.verb > +ING

The more productive forms with -ite are those nouns and adjectives that indicate inclusion in a group: Canaanite, pre-Raphaelite, luddite, &c. So could a pundite be someone who pays a lot of attention to pundits. Tho I guess that might be punditite. Or would these just be redundant forms for pundit?

But you know what? I like it as a verb. To pundite. It works.

The lack of determiner on non-professional looks like the result of a switch in mid-use from non-professional as a predicate adjective which doesn't need a determiner (I am [non-professional]) to an attributive adjective in a predicate nominative noun phrase which does need a determiner I am [a non-professional political person] but once she decides to turn it into a NP it's too late to shimmy that determiner in there.

She probably changed in mid-sentence because at first she was willing to call herself simply "non-professional" but then she realized that she is professional, just not as a political analyst.

Anyway it's not a typo on my part and I hate including in-text sic notations but I love footnotes.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Is sloppy the new moist?

From an AP story about Sean Avery's NHL suspension

“I’m really happy to be back in Calgary; I love Canada,” he said. “I just want to comment on how it’s become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my (former girlfriends). I don’t know what that’s about, but enjoy the game tonight.” He then walked out.

Legend: (former girlfriends) = sloppy seconds

What's wrong with the line? Too picturesque? Too evocative? Or is it the dismissiveness of referring to a person in such an objectifying manner?

When I first heard Avery make the comment about sloppy seconds I thought he was talking about all the goals that other players make from picking up rebounds of his shots on goal. Seriously.

Stréss test

In a recent post languagehat reminded readers that there is no accent diacritic in the spelling of Remy de Gourmont. He found that the Wikipedia page used one in the title and in the URL.

His reader Trey Jones rushed right over and fixed it.

So no now there are two pages on Wikipedia.

One URI with an accent:émy_de_Gourmont
where readers are redirected from here.

One URI without:

Identical pages. Both with a note early in the entry, explaining that the spelling with the accent is incorrect, although very common and used by Ezra Pound in translations of his work. Ezra was so damn pretentious.

But wait. You can use diacritics in URIs? Has that always been true? I know that you have to use Roman characters, but diacritics are allowed to float around? If you know the answer maybe you'll also be able to explain to me the Ven diagram of Uniform Resource Identifiers/Locators/Names.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bosworth Toller online

A fellow lover of Old Timey English sent me a link to a downloadable version of Bosworth & Toller's Anglo Saxon Dictionary.

A version for Mac users is also available.

It's a very simple interface on the Mac application.

This streamlining has apparently gobbled up some of the features for the Mac. I'm having trouble working with special characters. I can cut/copy and paste them in but there's no dropdown menu as the PC version apparently has. Nor can I get HTML to work in the search (e.g. æ = æ) which supposedly works with PC full text searches.

But it's fun to play with the searches anyhow.

Also available for download are images of the complete print dictionary. You'll need 653 MB for the 2069 jpg files.

Our friend Mxrk has started a comic for the transitional period. A series of conversations between Bush and Obama. He calls it The Red Phone. He's put up three already so we can almost predict the trajectory. One more and we've got him pegged. Show him some love.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Textual perversion

One topic on Talk of the Nation today was David Crystal's study of texting and its effect(?) on language. Not surprisingly Crystal isn't too concerned. Rational study tends to give you that comfort.

A friend let me know about the show just in time for me to listen.

His text message was telling.

Talk of the Nation on NPR now debating about whether texting corrupts the language with a linguist. Is that an ambiguous construction? Im driving.

See how texting licensed the deletion of a copula verb in that first sentence? And as if that's not bad enough he then leaves out an apostrophe in Im driving! This is what texting is doing to us, people. This guy's a professor and he can't even write complete Standard English sentences with pristine punctuation. And while he takes the time to wonder if his construction is ambiguous he doesn't bother to go back and disambiguate his meaning with a careful rewrite. Oh how our standards have fallen.

Overshare &c

Webster's New World Dictionary word of the year: overshare.

overshare (verb): to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval.

Read Ben Zimmer's post at Word Routes.

I usually hear the noun as in 'That was an overshare.' The concept has been around since the invention of taboos and etiquette. I remember little Rob Schneider's bit about oversharing from his stand-up act in the 80s. Specifically his set on the 13th annual Young Comedians Special on HBO. Schneider didn't use the word overshare, but he told a joke about admitting way too much. Something about admitting having killed someone. It was too obvious a line. Not worth quoting now.

I've always thought Fred Stoller had the most memorable set. Especially his bit about not finishing college.

You know what my mother bothers me about the most? Um—few years ago I quit college. She's always going When are you gonna go back, get your degree?

I go What for? What's it gonna do for me?

This is her reason: she goes You'll be able to say you're a college graduate.

Like I'm not able to say it now? What? Like I try, I go I'm a kaa gegagaweh! I'm a college gegagawah! Damn. Four credits short. I almost had it.

Since then college gegagawah has been an active part of my vocabulary.

† Stoller later had an appearance on Seinfeld as Fred Yerkes, the guy that didn't recognize Elaine, but who easily remembered other details of their meeting: 'The bathroom door. I remember someone had played tic-tac-toe on it, and the Xs won; they went diagonally from the top left to the bottom right.' He also played Cousin Gerard on Everybody Loves Raymond.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Such a bitter bounty

My direction has been swerving heavily towards issues of prescriptivism and all it's strange forms. I'm not just looking at the structures they (the peevologists and prescriptivists) pre-/pro-scribe but also the arguments they use. Their assumptions about language. Their assumptions about linguistics. Their assumptions about descriptivism. What they ignore. What they don't notice. What they don't know. (Yes Casey. Some of this is knowledge.)

I have subscribed to several peevological blog feeds and I thought I would be running into the same ol' arguments that we've heard and discarded. But I'm so delighted to find such varied confusion out there. From big names who are considered experts. On language.

We already knew they were out there, but I'm just so happy to see that categorizing the mistakes and misapprehensions will be fruitful. If you know of any good 'highly regarded' prescriptivist sites or sources please send them my way. They need their due attention.

Putting the intellect in president-elect.

I just started listening to a podcast from last week of the Diane Rehm Show. I could have sworn that I heard her refer to first intellect Obama. I agree that he's a smarty-pants but I didn't quite understand why she would call him that. By the time she finished the sentence I reassembled the pieces and decided that she had almost certainly said President-elect Obama.

I've gone back to listen to the line several times and now I see why I misheard. Instead of a clear three syllable pronunciation of president Rehm utters two syllables. Not only that: instead of a clear [ɛ] nucleus on the first syllable it sounds like she's very close to a syllabic "r" [ɹ̩]. So president elect becomes purse-dent elect. And the nucleus of -dent is neutralized to a [ə] or [ɪ] unstressed vowel. With a slightly stressed final syllable of president we have a phrase, purse-dint elect that sounds a lot like first intellect.

Rehm's speech is affected by spasmodic dysphonia which gives her voice a quavering or halting quality. This can make judgment of the voicing very difficult. In this word it could have caused a very quick devoicing of the /z/ making it [s] and perhaps even devoicing the following /ɪ/ which could give the impression of elision or syncope. Voiceless vowel? Yes. They exist. Even in English. It's not clear, however, that this is what's happening here.

So we listen on to see of this was an error or if it is in fact her regular pronunciation. About two minutes into the program she says it again: [pɹ̩s.dənt].

Mixed in here is her pronunciation of constitutional. Around ninety seconds in she says it with what almost sounds like a syllabic [s]. And a few minutes later she pronounces it with a similar quasi elision of the unstressed syllable. Maybe even both unstressed syllables: It's something like [kants̩tuʃnɫ̩] or [kan(t)s(ə̥)tuʃn̩ɫ̩] or some blend of the two. She could be producing three syllables or four or even five. Four tokens is not enough to figure out the representation.

The main reason I wonder about the syllabification and about those vowels being voiceless, is for the sake of patterning. Would her pronunciation of them be the same if the vowels weren't between two voiceless segments? I wonder too about spasmodic dysphonia as a factor. If this were my dissertation and if I knew enough about the voice disorder I'd take the time to gather the data and figure something out. But for now it'll have to remain an interesting question.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Time to reprioritize

Cautious about getting a deal, that is.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Island effects

About 11 years ago I started teaching at a small boarding school in the Northern Prairies. A few years after I moved there one of my colleagues, Jerry, started using a mild exclamation to express surprise and disbelief. I doubt that he ever spelled it out but I assume it would be something like critney criteney or criteny. Two syllables: the first sounding like bright; the second sounding like knee.

This was about the time that Steve Irwin's popularity was reaching those upper latitudes. Everybody was working on an impression and around Halloween all the stores were selling out of khaki and stuffed wild animals.

Jerry's expression was obviously an altered form of Irwin's constant refrain: crikey. That expression itself is probably an altered form of Christ along the lines of cripes criminy and other similar vegetarian oaths.

He started saying it after a another friend (Keith) and I had one of our many arguments about language. Keith said it was crankey and I said he was wrong. (Keith was the same friend who argued that the word for a positively charged ion, cation, rhymes with ration. Back then I didn't bother looking for a community that pronounced it that way, I just called him an idiot. He was OK with that.)

So in his attempt to gather evidence against me Keith went around asking everybody what they thought Irwin was saying. He asked about 10 people and got about 12 answers. Keith and Jerry both liked crit/-ney/-eney/-eny so Jerry started using it. Ad Nauseam.

And back in 2001 he was using it so much that a hefty number of students started using it too, hungry as they were for a swear word that didn't offend the presbyters. Why do I bring it up now? Because it's been a while. And now I am so curious about its longevity. Did everyone give up on it once they realized that Keith and Jerry made it up? Did they just forget about it the same way they stopped wearing Members Only jackets and snow goggles in the summer? Is it possible that that this rare word (I couldn't find any relevant hits on Google™) is still being used in that odd and insulated little community 15 minutes north of Bismarck? I'd call and ask but I don't think the phone lines have made it up there yet.

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's true! I do enjoy having fun!

The Typealyzer plays around with all that psychology that gets its popularity by telling you about you and convincing you that it's accurate because it tells you so many things that you've thought about yourself.

It's called the Forer effect. (My thanks to Nancy Friedman for having provided the term several months ago in a delightful post.)

To get your pop psychology degree all you have to do is say 'You like to understand things' and the biologist thinks 'Naturally. That's my job' while the musician cries out 'Well yes! Music is very logical after all' and the athlete says 'That's the secret to my winning record!'

So I suggest two standards to see if these tests are worth anything at all. Just because a profiler passes my little tests doesn't mean it's a good analysis based on sound principles. Let's call these bare minimum standards. They're really just watered down versions of validity and reliability.

  • Test 1: Can I recognize the appropriateness (validity) of the test's profile?
    As long as the test isn't wrong about its claims it passes this test. This is why the tests do well consistently. The descriptions are so bland as to be appropriate to almost everyone. Not all that meaningful, but at least it's not providing false results. I call this is a watered down version of validity because these analyses are so general that they fool the subjects into thinking that something has been measured. They pass the validity test on a technicality.

  • Test 2: Can the profile recognize me?
    This one is harder to run. But there's a simple way to verify its ability. As long as the analysis hands out different answers. Give yourself a different identity and see if it says the same thing about you each time.

    I have another blog where I don't talk about linguistics, I don't analyze language much, I don't use technical terms, but I'm still writing as myself. At times when writing a post here or there I get confused and can't remember on which blog I've posted, even tho the topics are pretty much in a complementary distribution. This makes for a decent test of the reliability of Typealyzer because I'm not changing the important variable. And yet we find...

    Here I'm a Mechanic.
    The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously.

    But over at my other blog I'm a Thinker.
    The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into.

    These are compatible, sure. And you might argue that I take on a different persona at each blog. But it's claiming to know how I use my brain. And this is most simply a test of one person administered twice. And it's choosing to give a differing analyses for a reason. Probably because it's not really analysing my personality.

    Typealyzer does measure something that gives it the appearance of validity and reliability. It somewhat accurately measures the topics covered based on the words found (maybe it even counts sentence length, who knows) and it categorizes the writer according to the role being played. And if it looks at 20 posts, 50 posts, or every post on a single blog, and if it runs the test again and again it's probably going to reliably come up with the same result. Or a similar result.

    But that's where the claims fall apart. Because we were promised a look at our brain and our personality. But it's just telling us about our topic. Our style. If it was really digging into the way I look at things, at the way I think, it should be able to analyze me reliably no matter what I'm writing about. And it doesn't.

    But let's back up. These profiles actually do get some things very wrong.

    enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people

    I hate working with people.

    often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life.

    Only if C-SPAN counts as action. And really -- how cheap is that fun part?

    enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

    Uhh… No.

    are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people

    Oh. Well…fine.

    might come across as arrogant

    Oh please.


    Now this one I can disagree with honestly.

    insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

    Well if I haven't made my point by now…

    I first saw this at Mr. Verb (a fellow Mechanic) then at Language Log where David Beaver tackled it gently.

  • Saturday, November 22, 2008

    A Gross injustice?

    Terry Gross is no Tim Russert. Her interviews are light. Airy I guess. I often imagine her and her guest leaning back in twin recliners. Dave Winer has posted on her recent interview with William Ayers. It wasn't as light. And Winer doesn't approve. He concludes:

    Either she adopts the gotcha style and goes after everyone, from clowns to reporters, and I'll tune out for the same reasons I don't listen to other reporters who use that style; or she stays with the softball style I like, but I'll never be able to stop thinking of her as a hypocrite for being so gutless with Ayers.

    I disagree with Winer's opinion. What bothers me most about his post and following responses is that while he complains about the tone, he only gives one specific: the question about an apology. He also misrepresents the question, claiming that she asked if he would be willing to take the 'unrepentent' part off the label 'unrepentent terrorist.' If that's what she had asked I would be right on board decrying the premise that after the apology Ayers is still a terrorist. But she didn't ask that. Here's her phrasing:

    A lot of people have called you an unrepentant terrorist. I know— I think a lot of people want to hear you make a full fledged apology for—um—some of your actions—uh—with the Weather Underground, such as bombing the Pentagon. —Um—and so I want you—now that we've heard a lot of your story—to give us your answer to that.

    She doesn't even ask if he'll apologize. This is so wide open that all she has said is that some people are demanding an apology and she just turns it over to him for a response. It's a dumb prompt. It's not tough. Not even tricky.

    When I started reading Winer's post I stopped to listen to the interview before I knew his thesis. I wanted to get a sense of her questions without being contaminated by whichever complaint he made. After listening, I expected him to criticize her for throwing softballs. I was surprised that he thought she had done a gotcha interview. I thought it was more like a 'here ya go' interview. We can go back and forth saying 'she was too tough' or 'she was too soft' but that'll get nowhere. I posted a couple comments saying that I don't think Gross deserves much criticism. I provided some examples to make my point.

    Towards the beginning of the interview she rolls over to give him all the room necessary to clarify what he meant by saying that he was misquoted about wishing he had done more. Later, Gross gives him easy questions like Do you think some of the tactics that you took on were in part this kind of youthful expression of anger: something that only a young person would do? Ayers is set ready to pounce on a hand-off like that. And she lets him. That's completely consistent with her usual style of letting the guest just tell a story. She doesn't question his explanations, she doesn't question his honesty or his facts. I only remember her questioning Ayers' consistency once: he speaks of the tactic of bombing as relatively harmless at one point and unnecessarily dangerous at another, so she asks him to explain.

    I almost feel like posting some more but I don't want to be a pest. And Winer has now closed the comments.

    The basis of my disagreement: Gross used a less conversational tone than her usual. But she really didn't push him on anything substantive. Her last question, asking about an apology, was gratuitous, but she gave him so much space to respond that he was free to reshape the issue and he was pretty much in charge of his answer, as he was through the entire interview. She didn't avoid every tough question, but she made it exceedingly easy for him to choose his posture and make his path. If her tone was a problem then give some specifics. Show me that she's trying to trap Ayers. That she's being at all tenacious. Her interview with Gene Simmons was tougher than this one. It really was.

    I disagree that Gross should take the same approach no matter who the interviewee is. Each guest is a topic. And changes in tone to match a topic are always appropriate. Sometimes she laughs. Because comedians say things to make you laugh. Ayers didn't. Ultimately I'm not really sure what sort of interview Winer was hoping for. 'You know, I really admire your earlier bombs. How much fun did you have making them?'

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Since I have some free time.

    I was going to make this a really short post.

    Then I changed my mind.


    Sunday, November 16, 2008

    What goes with the bath water?

    This story had been confusing me for a few days. I think I've got a handle on it now.

    We all remember FOX's Carl Cameron reported to Shepard Smith that a source inside the McCain campaign accused Sarah Palin of not knowing the continents. Everybody chuckled and realized that it's a non-issue. At least not for another four years.

    Then MSNBC came out with a story that Martin Eisenstadt had revealed himself as the source.

    Almost immediately Eisenstadt was exposed as a fictional character. A publicity stunt for a movie.

    The retractions of the story are where I got confused. There are several claims in any story as it unfolds. Which part is false?

    If I tell you that Mrs Royce my homeroom teacher in the 3rd grade told me that four plus three is eight, then another source tells you that it's not true, there are several ways you could understand that. First of all you probably know that the equation is incorrect. So is that all I meant? Did Mrs Royce really tell me anything like that? Did she say five plus three? Four plus four? Eleven minus three? Four times two? And what if you know that Mrs Royce was my 4th grade teacher? Was it in fact Mrs Royce, but not in the 3rd grade? Was it my 3rd grade teacher Mrs Wolford who told me that? Did anybody's teacher say anything like that to me? Ever?

    So I blame my confusion about the hoax on stories like the following quick post (by RIGHTISRIGHT over at

    MSNBC was the victim of a hoax when it reported that an adviser to John McCain had identified himself as the leaker of an embarrassing story about Sarah Palin. The story was faked by filmmakers Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

    The second sentence can be read two ways:
    1. The story that was faked was the identification
    2. The story that was faked was the embarrassing one about Palin.

    Because story in the 2nd sentence can so easily be connect to story in the first, and because they are in such close proximity, this report makes it sound like the hoax was the embarrassing story about Palin. But it could go either way. So it should probably be rewritten.

    This wasn't the first report I read about the hoax but whichever one I read or heard left me with the same question. Exactly what was being retracted?

    Friday morning during my daily NPR fix the story came up on the Diane Rehm show when Sheryl Gay Stolberg responded to an email by a listener, Theresa:

    Rehm (reading): Regarding Governor Palin: The recent lies being spread about her are deplorable. I think that that says much about her image: that people and news organizations could believe she did not know that Africa is a continent. These kinds of lies would never be entertained if they were with regard to any other candidate on the national stage.

    Stolberg: You know, I think the caller does tap into something. First of all…uh…it…it was a hoax…um…eh…somebody…uh…posing as a McCain advisor…uh…trying to promote a movie I think…uh…fancied himself a…a spokesman, created a YouTube video and…uh…got…got picked up on TV that this so-called McCain advisor was saying Sarah Palin didn't know that Africa was a continent. it abs—

    Rehm: And thus NBC then had to correct itself—

    Stolberg: —picked it up. That's right had to correct itself. So absolutely wasn't true. I guess unfortunately for Sarah Palin she became during the course of the campaign the kind of candidate that…about which those kinds of things could be believed. … It's sad to say but uh the news media was taken in but she herself made some statements that made that kind of hoax believable.

    Before I listening to this show I had been thinking that the hoax was only about the identity of the McCain source, not the story about Palin. Here Stolberg states clearly that the whole thing was a hoax: that no source from the McCain campaign ever made such a claim. Of course she also said early in the show that Joe Biden had called Dick Cheney the most dangerous man in America. A listener corrected her and she graciously accepted the responsible correction. So she's not an airtight source.

    What is? It might surprise you.

    A FOX News story addresses this confusion clearly.

    The hoax was limited to the identity of the source in the story about Palin -- not the FOX News story itself. While Palin has denied that she mistook Africa for a country, the veracity of that report was not put in question by the revelation that Eisenstadt is a phony.

    Before we heap praise on FOX for simply being a more responsible and precise news source we should note that they have an obvious interest in preserving the dignity of the original story which they reported. Naturally when they correct the later development contributed by MSNBC they're going to be vigilant in letting the reader know that the story as first reported by FOX is still legitimate.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Regrets? I know some who've had a few.

    You know the drill. Does he ever say he's sorry? Not that he has to, but how honest are these regrets?

    You know I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said.

    And he does give some specifics.

    Like 'dead or alive' or 'bring 'em on.'

    And he probably should regret the latter. Not because it was irresponsible or because it caused a problem. But because it was pretty clearly, as Dick Gephardt said, phony, macho rhetoric. It was…inelegant.

    Any other regrets? Well he has more but it gets less impressive as he goes on.

    You know being on this ship reminds me of when I went to the USS Abraham Lincoln and they had a sign that said Mission Accomplished. I regret // that…uh…you know…that sign was there. It was a sign aimed at the sailors on that ship. However it conveyed a…a broader knowledge. It…to some it said Well Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over when I didn't think that. But nevertheless it conveyed the wrong message. So there are things I have regretted.

    So he makes sure to say that the sign was somebody else's idea. They had it there. He just showed up on deck and saw it.

    The long pause after I regret is curious. I interpret is as a reiterative pause. If the pause could be translated it might be something like 'Didja get that? I said regret.' And what does he regret? That the sign was there.

    Then he makes sure to explain that the intended audience was not the nation. It was the crew on the ship. They're apparently myopic. But that damn nosy media caught the subtle banner on camera with their high tech zoom lenses.

    Then he says that its message was misunderstood. That must be why it was distasteful to some people. They took it the wrong way. So they were wrong but the sign was there, which is what they misread.

    So to recap: He's sorry that somebody put up a sign where people could see it, that made him look bad even tho it shouldn't have.

    In all fairness, when giving his list of "proud" moments Bush doesn't actually mention anything that he accomplished or did. Just as he regrets the actions and perceptions of others, he's proud of the works and strengths of others. Share the blame and the credit I suppose.

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    Now for the important elections

    I almost ran screaming from the supermarket this weekend when I heard a Christmas carol playing over the sound system. I just about bolted but I composed myself and merely hurried out of the store. I'm a bit of a sap. I do love Christmas. But At Christmas. Don't rush me. It ruins the season.

    Speaking of seasons...

    The first carols of the WotY season have started jingling. And our earliest submission comes from the Oxford University Press. This year's Word: Hypermiling

    343,000 Google™ hits.

    From the OUP post:

    Some history:
    “Hypermiling” was coined in 2004 by Wayne Gerdes, who runs this web site. “Hypermiling” or “to hypermile” is to attempt to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques. Rather than aiming for good mileage or even great mileage, hypermilers seek to push their gas tanks to the limit and achieve hypermileage, exceeding EPA ratings for miles per gallon.

    I understand the tendency of some people to run screaming from these announcements. But you come by looking for language blather so 'tis always the season here.

    If I want Christmas carols in April I'll go to Frankenmuth.

    Sunday, November 09, 2008

    Crystal on Clarity

    David Crystal (whose Encyclopedia of the English Language is always within reach as I write) has posted an appreciative analysis of Barack Obama's acceptance speech. Specifically the ambitiously intricate yet clearly effective opening:

    What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma.

    My own favourite phrase from Obama's speech: the dream of our founders. With this line he celebrates the potential of a document, which knowingly allows slavery, to eventually connect with its principles, which do not. At the same time he evokes Martin Luther King's most memorable idea. And the moment of his speech is a testament to the trajectory of history. And a well-crafted piece of writing.

    Friday, November 07, 2008

    I could care less about McCain agreeing more...I mean less

    These pundits need to learn when to simply say Ehhh. It happens. (You only need to watch if you haven't yet seen or heard McCain's "I couldn't agree with them more" flub. The relevant part starts around 3:20.)

    So now we've all seen the video of John McCain's stumble. Memorize it. Practice it. Impress your friends with your inability to move forward from old news stories.

    I think you may have noticed that Senator Obama's supporters have been saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, I couldn't agree with them more. I couldn't disagree with you. I couldn't agree with you more than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh] G-d loving most…most patriotic part of America... this is a great part of the country. My friends: I could not ag— I could not disagree with those critics more.

    Keith Olbermann wonders if it's fatigue, panic or a Freudian slip, and Chris Cillizza prudently suggests it's just fatigue. While fatigue is just the type of factor that makes these mistakes more likely, it's an unnecessary analysis. The phrase gets tripped up more by negation than anything else. Cillizza adds that he tries not to ridicule in such cases because he's probably going to make just such a mistake someday. Bravo Chris. Leave the carping to us silly bloggers.

    What was McCain trying to say? Probably I couldn't disagree more. But that simple 4 word phrase is very easy to mis-negate (We'll use that word for any overnegation or undernegation that results in an incorrect negation.)

    correct negations

    I disagree

    I couldn't/can't agree

    I couldn't/can't disagree more

    incorrect negations

    I agree

    I couldn't/can't disagree

    I couldn't/can't agree more

    While we tend to process language word by word when we hear it (input)—that's what makes some garden-path sentences so difficult—when we produce language (output) we tend to plan ahead. And even tho we have a sense of where we're going we sometimes forget where we've been.

    So let's track McCain as his plans of saying I couldn't disagree more gang a-gley

    [They're] saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately. And you know, —Say it's wrong John they're wrong which means I don't agree with them— I couldn't agree with them —that's right. I couldn't. No. Wait. Can't. No it's cool. The line starts with couldn't. Now how does it end?—more. —CRAP! Change it quick!—I couldn't disagree with you…—Stop! Don't say 'more.' So it's still OK, right?— I couldn't agree with you more —What? They didn't say anything. Ah hell just finish it somehow. What comes after 'more'? ... 'more than' OK.— than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most [eh]&mdashWhat did they tell me about these 'most' lines?— G-d loving, most—Wait, that's the line that's been getting us in trouble. Don't say it!—most patriotic part of America...—SHIT!— this is a great part of the country. —That's fine. Let's wrap this up.—My friends: I could not ag—MOTHERFUCKER!!— I could not disagree with those critics more. —sweeeeet

    We've all done something like this. Obama's done this. Olbermann's done this. Such mangled utterances are too common to be very telling. But they're certainly inopportune.

    † I'm convinced this is what accounts for some double-prepositional construction such as for whom are you waiting for? or with whom are you speaking with?

    Tuesday, November 04, 2008

    McKean Hartman Muphry et al vindicated

    Nebraska TV offers the following report on the scourge of texting-induced illiteracy.

    (click image to enlarge)

    If this is an honest bit of typographical witlessness… I don't know; is it possible?

    (via the ridger)

    Monday, November 03, 2008

    So maybe it's me

    On the way to Chicago Midway Buffy announced that we needed to make a pit stop. I sighed and muttered an of course to Dave who was starting to recognize how often Buffy needs to stop when travelling. I compared her to a thimble and she shot back in her own defense: I drank way more than you guys do!

    Don't you mean you drank more than we did? I asked. And I realized that I had misheard. Again. Last time she said drank /dɹæŋk/ and I heard 'drink' because she probably says something like [dɹe̝ŋk] (the uptack below the 'e' indicates a raised articulation). A diacritic doesn't tell us specifically how high the vowel is and I'm starting to think that perhaps Buffy's [e̝] is pretty much identical to her /ɪ/.

    Of course I can stand on no conclusion regarding her vowel distribution. I can't make a judgment like that based on two misheard tokens. This is not how questions are answered, this is how they are raised. So my question: has Buffy completely merged /æ/ and /ɪ/ before ŋ?

    I have at the very least some evidence that she has merged them enough so that I have confused each for the other. Well either she's saying them the same or I need to start listening more carefully.

    Thursday, October 30, 2008

    Don't Vote.

    The language of Jesus

    The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program, Foreign Correspondent, presents a report from Matt Brown on the efforts in Malula, Syria to preserve Aramaic.

    My favourite lines from the piece, from a shepherd to his sheep:

    Come to the meadow, come to drink and dance. … Come here, you blonde. You are prettier than a bird.

    (On my browser the only video link that works is the Flash Video link below the main text.)

    Via matjjin-nehen

    Monday, October 27, 2008

    The road not understood

    Today I ran into two sentences that caused mild confusion due to a garden-path-like effect. Each of them influenced by a different red-herring.

    The first occurred sometime before noon. Here at Purdue (and certainly at other institutions) everyone logs on to the computer network via their career account. It's the same account that stores files and hosts personal web pages. Mine has been acting up and I was going through a little manual fix. My friendly officemate walks in and asks how I'm doing. Without turning around and with an apparently distraught tone I say: 'Oh…I'm just trying to work out some problems with my career account.'

    It's a pretty specific and obvious garden-path effect. In the full sentence it should be clear that the noun career is a specifier on account. So it functions like an adjective. But until you've heard the entire sentence you might think that I've said I have career problems. And the look of concern on my officemate's face betrayed the temporary misdirection. She was relieved. I started to explain a model of the source of her confusion. She changed the subject.

    The second mis-taking occurred when I was listening to Buffy explain her recent fatigue. I don't think I drink too much coffee yesterday. And so I thought she was tired enough to produce that ungrammatical sentence. But she didn't flinch. And in the moment just before I prepared to tease her I finished processing the effect of her Minnesota accent on the sentence. I started to explain to her and another officemate what led me astray and they told me to write a blog post instead. So…

    You see, Buffy's a pre-velar raiser. She raises the cat hat back snack vowel /æ/ to a closed-mid front [e] (name bake say) when it comes before a voiced velar stop /ɡ/ or before a velar nasal /ŋ/ —the gang bang coda consonant. I don't raise much (if at all) before the stop. I do raise a little bit before the nasal. But nothing like Buffy. She raises so much that it's almost a lax high front [ɪ] (or perhaps the higher close central [ɨ]).

    So her pronunciation of drank is almost identical to her pronunciation of drink. And without a disambiguating context leading into the word I couldn't tell the difference. If she had said Well, yesterday I only drank a small cup of coffee I wouldn't have been as likely to wander down the wrong path.

    The first sentence, wandering down the wrong career path, is a pretty typical temporary detour and the correct meaning becomes clear quickly and easily.

    The second sentence is almost a simple mishearing because her pronunciation is ambiguous. But I'm not usually confused by her pre-velar raising and I can see how the path of the sentence made it easier to hear the wrong word. So it isn't just pronunciation that can make all the difference.

    † But not because she's bored by linguistics. She simply had a question about other linguisticky matters. Such officemates are a treasure.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008

    Just special words

    Sotto Voce has just published its online Issue #1. Included in this opening issue is Mark Leahy's beluga, beluga. A fine story. And Mark has been listening carefully to his linguistics teachers:

    She said softly, to herself, “Kites,” which I had forgotten about, but was part of a language we invented when we were kids. Not a real language, just special words.

    See he could have stuck with the claim that codes and clues and symbols are enough to make a language. But instead he stays credible. And he's stays calmly and believably tragic. Go ruin your weekend by reading it. And vote for it to be included in a print anthology.

    † Full disclosure: He's also been listening to me. He's a friend. And we've known his work for a while now.

    Monday, October 20, 2008

    It's not a compliment

    Nancy Friedman posted a 'tweet' about this somehow disconcerting page.

    I skimmed through the copy and found myself constantly misreading "Twittad" as twitwad or twit wad.

    Twit wad. I love it. It uses twit: a mild but nicely dismissive term. It evokes all the '___ wad' insults, especially shit wad. It hints at the very effective and very crass twat. I'm going to use it. But for what? What is a twit wad?

    Google™ results:
    Search term "twit wad" yields 7 hits.
    Search term twitwad yields 48 hits.

    So it's young. Let's give it a personality.

    My first thought of course is to connect it to Twitter:

    Twit Wad
    That idiot in every meeting or class or audience that's constantly making little side comments that aren't nearly as funny as he thinks they are.

    This is how Johnny 5 learned too

    On a stupid stupid sitcom a character named Sheldon (with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that name) used two pronunciations that caught my attention.

    "novice" pronounced ˈnoʊ.vɪs | NO-viss

    "plebeian" pronounced pləˈbi.ən | ple-BEE-en

    Sheldon's pronunciation of novice isn't attested anywhere. I've only ever heard the first vowel ɑ (as in father) except maaaybe from a highschooler reading the word aloud for the first time. Sheldon's an arrogant genius who's utterly socially inept so maybe it's a part of his character to overdo a pronunciation. Did the actor (Jim Parsons) put that in or did the writers? We may never know.

    On the other hand, his pronunciation of plebeian is attested everywhere. In fact I couldn't find my pronunciation (ˈən | PLEE-bee-en) anywhere. I'm an arrogant 'smart' guy who's wondering how orthoepically inept he (I) is (am). I'm guessing I've based my pronunciation on a preservation of the stress on monosyllabic plebe.

    You don't have to admit that you use the same pronunciation I do (tho that'd be kind). But have you at least heard it? Have you been snickering behind my back every time I say it?

    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    ELBONICS has nothing to do with language.

    Elizabeth has posted a few suggestions for teaching morphology and semantics. She's been putting up some nice posts on classroom instruction.

    To get the kids doing some word formation she suggests a sniglets game. I wish I had thought of that. I used to read a lot of Rich Hall's stuff. I'd even laugh occasionally. I remember a couple of his terms (please forgive me if the spelling is wrong).

    bevemirage: the colored plastic base of a 2-liter soda bottle that always makes you think there's still pop

    accordionation: the ability to read a roadmap while driving

    That second one might have been the adjective accordionated. I'm not sure. But the fact that they're both completely made up and yet one form makes the other a very likely alternative form is a good morphology lesson in itself.

    Elizabeth provides a few more definitions for things that don't have a single word name, but could.

    a. People who go through the express checkout with more than the maximum number of items (best neologism I've heard (from a magazine): "expressholes")

    b. Americans who sew Canadian flags to their backpacks when travelling to avoid anti-American sentiment (best answers I've heard: "conardiens" (from the very rude French insult conard) and "ehmericans")

    c. The feeling you get after turning in a test when you realise one of your answers was wrong (best answer I've heard: "whommmmp")

    d. The dirty melted snow that builds up on roadsides (best answer I've heard: "dookie-yuki" (from the Japanese word for snow, yuki))

    e. What you would call Indiana if you were an explorer and discovered it as it is today (best answers I've heard: "cornhole," "Nascarolina")

    I'm done teaching this semester's morphology unit, so it's too late for me. Next time I'll be sure to give the game a try.

    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    Is it because you're stupid or because you're ignorant?

    (audio only)

    (h/t to casey)

    Howard Stern sent Sal to do a man-on-the-street bit. It's pretty funny. But it doesn't say as much about the voters or their ignorance of policies as it does about the power of a question to trigger a presupposition.

    An important point: It's unfair to point this accusation only at black voters. Ask voters of all races supporting either candidate questions like this and you'll get similar results.

    When I heard the first question I didn't catch on immediately to what happened. And believe it or not I'm a reasonably smart fellow. I know the difference between pro-life and pro-choice but when someone asks if I support Obama "because he's pro-life" I might very likely hear it as pro-choice. Remember the old gag that asks Where do you bury the survivors? It doesn't work because of ignorance. It works because of cooperative principles.

    In the next interview it doesn't sound to me like the person answering the question is taking a stance on stem-cell research. It sounds more like he's taking a stance alongside Obama on a phrase that he doesn't quite understand

    Q: Are you for Obama or McCain?
    A: Obama.
    Q: OK. And why not McCain?
    A: Well I just don't agree with some of his…you know…policies. No.
    Q: Now Obama says that he's anti stem-cell research. How do you feel about that?
    A: I…I believe that's…I wouldn't do that either. An—…I'm anti stem-cell…yeah

    He's obviously not anti stem-cell. We kinda need those to become...well, everything. But it sounds like an issue that he doesn't quite get.

    I'm not just trying to defend these interviewees. These are embarrassing exchanges. And it sounds like their grasp of the issues is a bit light. But I suggest that their willingness to agree to some of the statements is largely due to the pragmatic conventions in discourse. Questions that begin "is it because X" presuppose that X is true. The same way that a yes/no question can easily trap you into answering in a way that accepts an unfair presupposition. One old standard example is did you stop beating your wife? If I answer either yes or no I've simply affirmed the unstated condition: that at some point I did beat my wife.

    The episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Coast to Coast Big Mouth shows Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) getting caught by just such a question. I have to go by memory here: talk-show host, Johnny Patrick asks Laura if Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) ever takes off his toupee. I can't remember if she answers yes or no, but it doesn't matter. [Update: Elizabeth's comment sounds about right. 'Oh no, he wears it all the time' sounds just like Laura Petrie.] The form of the question presupposes that Brady wears a toupee. Laura then takes this to mean that Patrick knows about Brady being bald. And she answers accordingly.

    There's always the option of responding without agreeing to the premise of the question: 'neither' or 'I've never beat my wife' or 'he doesn't wear a toupee' or 'Obama isn't pro-life' are fair responses. It's just not clear that you'll need to resort to this when you're being interviewed by someone that you assume is asking a felicitous question.

    Monday, October 13, 2008

    First poll in a while

    I'm curious. Please answer this simple question.

    How do the following sentences sound to you?

    • We transferred the money to Kim.
    • We transferred Kim the money.

    Good? Bad? Not sure?

    Arnold Zwicky just used them in a post and gave a grammaticality judgment that I don't completely agree with. [Update: Maybe I should ask that you not read the LL post until after you cast a vote. This is serious stuff here you know.] Such differences occur often, so every careful linguist remembers to qualify grammaticality judgments appropriately. And Zwicky does just that. He makes it clear that he's talking about how most speakers would judge the sentences.

    Please answer the poll question on the left sidebar and leave any comments below if you have them. My thanks.

    [Update2: please ignore the poorly worded sentence in the poll! …the following sentences above… Ha! I can't edit it because people have answered the poll. *sigh*]

    Sunday, October 12, 2008


    The moral of the story: You can't take a bull by the horns and eat it too.

    So is Palin Goose or Charlie?

    A short piece at takes a look at the history and current state of maverick. Usually pieces like this are eager to provide an easy story that sounds reasonable. And they're often much too easy to be true. Those are called folk etymologies.

    But this story keeps it together and gives a decent history.

    In the 1860s, Samuel Maverick was an indifferent herder who refused to brand his cattle. When cowboys would see his unmarked cows wondering the countryside, they'd say, 'Oh that's a Maverick.'

    Compare that to the OED entry:

    < the name of Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-70), U.S. politician, and the owner of a large herd of cattle in Texas in which the calves were unbranded.

    Also relevant to the story of this word: the use of an emerging derivation

    It seems the family's biggest confusion is not that McCain links himself to a liberal family (We have some Republicans in the family now admits Mrs. Maverick) but that he hasn't done anything very mavericky.

    Mavericky is an adjective that is formed by the derivational adjective suffix -y. It's been making the rounds. SNL used it amusingly in its VP debate sketch

    Tina Fey (as Sarah Palin): With Barack Obama you're gonna be payin' higher taxes. But not with me and my fellow maverick. We are not afraid to get mavericky in there and ruffle feathers, and not got to allow that. And also too: the great Ronald Reagan.

    † We could say a lot about the different types of folk etymology. Two major types: 1) Explicit: a false story about the history of a word. Explanations like the claim that posh is an acronym for Portside Out Starboard Home; or that fuck is an acronym meaning for unlawful carnal knowledge or fornication under carnal knowledge or fornication under command of the king; or that hooker (prostitute) is related in origin to Civil War general Joseph Hooker —all false. 2) Effective: a morphological analysis that mistakenly connects words just because they sound or look similar. These might not be explicitly noted but they often affect pronunciation (as Geoff Nunberg suggests that a folk etymological connection to words like molecular and particular has effected the pronunciation 'nuk-yu-ler') or meaning (as jejune has been connected to the idea of youth probably because of resemblance to juvenile while the true etymology connects it to the sense of emptiness by fasting).

    Friday, October 10, 2008

    It's not guessing if you're good

    I came across this fun little game recently. It's simple. Just figure out from the accents where the speakers are from when they read lines from an English poem (Rudyard Kipling's If).

    After the lines are read you'll get to pick from a list. I missed one country and a few of the cities. But true to the name of the game some of these were guesses. I don't know that I'd do so well with a new batch of speakers.

    Which clues were you able to use to identify nationality? Any misleading pronunciations?

    Wednesday, October 08, 2008

    Perhaps he should wash more

    Barack Obama: Now Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and I'm just spouting off and he's somber and responsible.
    John McCain:: Thank you very much.

    McCain could have responded with a bit more of a chide. Something like 'No. I never said that. I said you're wet behind the ears,' as that's the typical saying.

    This is a blend. Not so much a syntactic blend, which ends up making a sentence ungrammatical, but a blended idiom. Obama took two idioms, the phrase wet behind the ears and the single word green meaning inexperienced, and combined them by replacing the adjective in the phrase with the single word -- easy to do because it's also an adjective.

    Years ago in high school I wrote a story that I thought was very clever, about matador who won a bullfight then feasted on steak made from the slaughtered animal. He ate too much and got sick. He learned his lesson. Because of course the moral of the story is...

    Sunday, October 05, 2008

    Worth investigating. So...

    Michael Quinion has made available an online version of his Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings. Take a look.

    Not worth investigating. But...

    Then maddening antics of Paul Payack have caught the attention of CNN. (We know Payack from his claims about the English word count. He's still making ridiculous claims about a vocabulary size that he thinks is worth giving a specific number. That's like counting the teaspoons of water in a rainstorm. How would you decide what to count and how in the world would you do it?) His latest gimmick is commentary on the debates. The CNN story reports:

    An analysis carried out by a language monitoring service said Friday that Gov. Sarah Palin spoke at a more than ninth-grade level and Sen. Joseph Biden spoke at a nearly eighth-grade level in Thursday night's debate between the vice presidential candidates.

    Yes numbers of that sort are possible to produce. Most word processors have some sort of calculator. But here are some red flags.

    Payack says nothing about what grade level means. The story then jumps immediately from grade level discussion to passive/active voice statistics. Then it goes to a simple word count. Which is really pretty meaningless in a timed back-and-forth exchange. Payack counts words per sentence which is problematic because of the disfluencies and truncated sentences that always occur in speech. Do you count a repeated word twice? Do you count truncation and restructuring as a single sentence or as two (or more) separate sentences? Payack also offers a number for ease of reading. For speech. Have you ever tried reading a faithful transcription? Few people have much experience reading extended passages of faithfully transcribed speech. It's choppy. It's full of repetitions and ungrammatical segments. So how is ease of reading determined? Payack bases all this (with some sort of modification) on the Flesh-Kincaid formula which, according to Wikipedia, would rank a single monosyllabic word as the easiest possible reading. On Payack's scale 100 is the easiest to read or hear. The Flesch-Kincaid system puts 121 as the easiest. I don't need to investigage at the Flesh-Kincaid formula. Even if it is legitimate I trust that Payack knows how to butcher it for his own benefit. Lastly, evidence that Payack found a hammer and thought everything looked like a nail: he gives us a statistic for number of sentences per paragraph.

    Now during that last paragraph I was struggling with the issue of when I should break it apart. I promised a list of red flags and because those are all red flags with a tiny bit of discussion, I decided to keep it intact. But I might have split it into smaller more manageable sections for ease of reading. I probably should have. When speaking we don't do anything like that. There are no paragraphs in oral language. Yes, there are changes in direction and occasional obvious changes in topic or approach. But the paragraph is a writing convention that has no hard correlation to a structure in discourse. At least not anything that's worth attaching a number to.

    These habits of statistical assurance make me wonder: Does Payack like naming every bird that he hears flying outside his window?

    † I do have some reservations about the system. Ranking any two sentences it rates every shorter sentence as easier as long as the average syllable length of the words in each sentence is the same. Just that claim is worth its own post. Further, each Wikipedia page on Rudolf Flesch, J. Peter Kincaid and their formula, is full of unsupported and biased claims. One example: the article on Flesch includes the following passage.
    Flesch practiced what he preached. His writing is clear, vigorous, and plain; his style is direct and energizing. Those who read How to Write Plain English often comment that his writing motivates them to write more plainly. For example, here is Flesch on clearing up legalese:

    The shill who wrote that then provides a sample (that I don't need to include) of Flesch's writing that doesn't exactly actually address clearing up legalese. It's mostly a complaint against the view that complex ideas need complex language. It's a valid complaint. But it's not really a clearly written one. I would hope it's not Flesch's best work.