Friday, February 29, 2008

The language of thought

Yesterday The New York Times ran a story The Language of Autism focusing on a YouTube video In My Language by Amanda Baggs.

According to the story Baggs can type 120 word per minute and that is the only way she can communicate -- with humans.

[full transcript following post]

I can take nothing away from her claims that she is thinking and interacting and that she is capable of using language to communicate. Nor would I care to dismiss the importance of her claim that she is considered less human and she is disregarded too easily just because she doesn't communicate conventionally.

It's a sad characteristic of many societies that we are too willing to abandon pursuit of an active and knowable humanity when we encounter a barrier. Sometimes it's easier to think there's nothing on the other side.

Some of her claims can be investigated further. She calls her interaction with her surroundings 'language' and she questions a seeming double standard by which it is called a "deficit" when an autistic individual doesn't learn 'our' "language" but 'we' are not called disabled when we don't learn her "language."

The definition of language is important here. She herself notes that hers is not a semiotic system. But language is a semiotic system. Language is also learnable. But it's impossible for us to learn her 'language.' Not just because there isn't a means to learning it but because it isn't a system that can be learned.

She explains that her expression "is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret." That makes it impossible to learn. We can at best learn about it. She can learn our language because it is a language. We can't learn her language because it's not a language. I make these distinctions only to redirect the double standard as I see it. It's not because of ignorance of a language that her behaviors are dismissed as meaningless; they're devalued because they're significance isn't known. And through language, actual language, she can make that significance known. But significance doesn't make it a language. Even if her interactions are a stream of communication with everything around her -- communicating doesn't make it a language.

I don't want to simply blow a whistle on technicalities. That would overlook her real claim as I see it: we should be aware that she recognizes and actively considers the value of many behaviours that we may have thought were mindless.

So let's put aside the argument of what makes a language. She's not the only one that uses language for those expressions and interactions that aren't technically language and that don't lend themselves to linguistic analysis. We hear such phrases a lot: the language of love; the language of dance; the language of colour; the language of fashion; the language of flowers; the language of cooking. These rarely refer to the jargon or dialect associated with these topics. These lines typically refer to the import of any gestures that use these media. What are you saying when you wear pink? What does it mean when you kiss your wife? What are you saying when you cook farfalle with lamb and garlic cream sauce?

When I hug my wife I want it to be meaningful. And I want her to understand that. I want to communicate a lot to her with that embrace. But it's not language. It's a meaningful gesture. We like to use the word language even when we don't mean Language.

So I don't fault Amanda for that use. I say her claim is strongest when she focuses on the purposefulness of her actions. She has a point when she says that the description of her as being in a world of her own falsely represents her interaction with her surroundings. She sees value in interacting with many things that we regularly overlook. So she's not shut in. She's tuned in. That's a nice distinction.

I must assume that when she suggests we could learn her language she means that we could learn to value just as she does the effect she has on her environment and the effect it has on her. Perhaps we could even learn to be more aware of our own surroundings. And we can respect those who value that which we don't understand.

[I include here a complete transcript of the video script (taken from the subtitles).]

The previous part of this video was in my native language. Many people have assumed that when I talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message within it designed for the human mind to interpret. But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

[as video focuses on her fingers in a stream of water] In this part of the video the water doesn't symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me.

Ironically the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as 'being in a world of my own' whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limit part of my surroundings people claim that I am 'opening up to true interaction with the world'. They judge my existence, awareness, and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to.

The way I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right. However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language no matter how we previously thought or interacted.

As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.

I smell things.

I listen to things.

I feel things.

I taste things.

I look at things.

It is not enough to look and and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well. I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe I wrote this.

I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described as mysterious and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves who are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don't speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe they don't exist.

In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in a world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person. And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On the crossword

Crossword puzzles aren't that interesting linguistically. They're interesting. But it's usually for the trivia or problem solving. Do them long enough and you get pretty good at reading some of the common clues within each clue. Some of them are obvious.

When the clue is 'X and Y' the answer will be plural. When its 'X or Y' it'll be singular.

Any time there's a question mark or a 'perhaps' the answer will be a pun.

If the clue is an abbreviation the answer will be one as well.

Any clue asking for something Juan would say or have (eg Juan's week, Juan's goodbye, Juan's snack) is asking for a Spanish answer. Henri and Pierre are French. Hanz and Fritz are German.

Then you have to learn to look out for words that are ambiguous. The verb in 'run out of town' could be an infinitive and the answer could be something like 'repel'. But it could also be a past participle and the answer would be 'repelled' just as easily. And a phrase like 'paid dues' could be past-tense Verb Phrase as in 'she paid the dues' or a passive participial VP as in 'she was paid the dues' or even an adjectival participle 'dues that were paid'.

These ambiguities trip up a lot of people who are just getting into the habit of doing crosswords. And they can trip up people like me who after years and years of daily puzzles are still only mediocre solvers.

Like the clue in my daily Yahoo! puzzle this morning (one of the easier series): Hot flower (4 letters). I know that an Aster is a late bloomer, and a Lily is an Easter flower, and November flower briefly is Mum. I thought that perhaps there was some sort of greenhouse reference here -- or a play on the phrase 'hothouse flower' that I was missing. And the first letter 'l' kept nudging me towards Lily.

Some ambiguities are so obvious we don't consider them. The clue didn't mean flower. It meant flower.

Not [flawɹ̩] but [flowɹ̩]

The puzzle was a good one for lexicographical trivia. The theme (and title): Word Oddities. (Follow the link to do the puzzle). I'm sure dear astute reader that you don't need me to give the answers. I'll just post the theme clues here. For those of you who would like the trivia and don't care for crosswords I'll post the answers as a comment.

I haven't tried to find if these claims of the words' uniqueness or superlativeness are attested.

  • Only word containing three consecutive pairs of double letters (10)

  • Longest number when spelled out in words that has no repeated letters (12)

  • Longest word not containing an a, e, i, o, or u (7)

  • One of the only 12 letter words that typists can produce with just the left hand on a standard keyboard (12)

  • The longest word containing only letters from the second half of the alphabet (10)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to translate idioms

Philipp Lenssen at Google Blogoscoped has posted a list of idioms written in code.

If you have a quibble with the format of these remember to
take(salt * .01); (That's one of his coded idioms.)

For the full list go to his page -- and for answers read his readers' comments where issues of syntax and well formedness (appropriately) come up a few times.

// idiom
cop[0].goodInPercent = 100;
cop[1].goodInPercent = 0;

// idiom
a = getThickness('blood');
b = getThickness('water');
assert(a > b);

// idiom
function die(max) {
for (i = 1; i <= max; i++) {

// idiom
prey = 'worm';
time = getCurrentTime();
if (time >= 4 && time <= 8) {

// idiom
var here = false;
var there = false;

// idiom
if (i == 2) {

// idiom
function tunnel() {
var dark;
for (i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
dark = true;
dark = !dark;
return dark;

// idiom
function getGain(pain) {
return pain >= 1;

// idiom
if (a != 'cake');

// idiom
var location = getLocation();
if (location == 'rome') {
do( location.getCitizen() );

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Headline shortening

A recent headline on a story about the lapsed provisions on FISA now that the PAA amendment has expired.

I'm ignoring the missing article before "spy act" because it's so common. It's barely noticeable in headlines. Something else is missing but what?

A subject for the clause?
U.S. says [it] missed intelligence after spy act expired

Existential there and a necessary verb?
U.S. says [there is] missed intelligence after spy act expired

Or is there later verb deletion? (Various verbs would work.):
U.S. says missed intelligence [exists] after spy act expired

The story begins and gives us clue but not an answer.

"U.S. spy agencies have missed intelligence in the days since terrorism surveillance legislation expired, the Bush administration said on Friday."

This might clarify the ambiguity of whether or not missed is used attributively. But not necessarily.

I can't remember seeing this form in headlines. Anyone know of further examples?


Friday, February 22, 2008

With monitors like this...

Follow-up to the last post.

The Global Language Monitor has been monitoring itself. The paragraph calling Barack Obama "Obama Barack" has been corrected.

The switch struck me as a production error when I saw it. Then I tracked down a clip of Mr Payack himself talking about political buzzwords. This video was posted on YouTube last August.

Pay attention to the #2 buzzword (2:20). It could just be one of those words/phrases he keeps messing up. Like people who can't say cinnamon. And he stumbles on the last name too -- saying something like "Bryereck". He might be nervous. He sounds nervous.

But this isn't just a speech error. Mr Payack simply doesn't know the name. Keep listening. I'll transcribe his remarks (ellipses mark his stammering).

OK. So number 2 is Obama. Obama. Obama Barack. ... He's a junior senator from the state [of] Illinois and he's running for president. He's had quite a following and ... he uses this facility a lot to ... talk to and have commercials and things of that such from supporters and ... and how Obama the first name alone is a #2 political buzzword affecting the campaign.

Even tho I don't quite understand what's happening with all of his syntax it's clear that he believes (or believed) that Obama is a first name.

From most people this slip is not a big deal. And it would not deserve a post. But this guy is claiming to have a definitive count of words in the English language. It's a number that requires a level of precision that the finest lexicographers largely agree is beyond the grasp of the most assiduous attention to detail -- if a single number even exists. And he just yesterday learned the name of the most celebrated politician in my lifetime.

And it's a name he has been following and discussing for more than 6 months.

His book is available from Amazon.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I've got a word for him

I've heard a lot lately about mistaken spellings and pronunciations of Barack Obama's name. As if a slip of the tongue is disrespectful. It happens. I've already heard him mistakenly called Oback Barama several times. And just last week Jay Leno slipped and called him Osama. I trust it was a mistake. It has nothing to do with attitude.

Now over at the Global Language Monitor Obama is being counted as a new root word in English and its various derivations are adding up: Obamamentum, Obamacize, Obamarama, ObamaNation, Obamanomics, Obamican, Obamafy, Obamamania, Obamacam

Why is the word count important? Because Paul JJ Payack, "GLM’s president and chief word analyst" has been peddling his million word landmark for several years now and his latest promise is that we are only 4,882 away in the English language. There's a clock on the page keeping track of seconds.

Back to the mispronunciation topic: whole word metathesis was never mentioned. Over on the Global Language Monitor page

A lot of papers and stations are taking this Payack fellow seriously. He's worth ignoring. A simple mistake like switching the names is nothing. The mistake is believing that anyone could pin down and count the words in the English language. And the shame is in claiming to be the one doing it. I'll make up a word: lexicanery. That's trying to make money by making false but seductive claims about language.

It didn't drop to 4,881 did it?


On deck: wheelhouse

A while back I wrote that I disagreed with a professor's argument. I didn't make all my points as clearly as I could. However a friend was kind enough to suggest that the professor's point was doomed from the beginning because he had picked a topic that was in my "wheelhouse."

I hadn't heard the phrase "in your wheelhouse" before that. The context and our shared knowledge made it clear that my friend meant that the topic was a favourite or a familiar one -- and I was therefore adept at arguing my point.

I looked in several dictionaries to find out more about this word/phrase.

Random House: PILOTHOUSE

American Heritage: See pilothouse.

Merriam-Webster: pilothouse

WordNet (Princeton): an enclosed compartment from which a vessel can be navigated [syn: pilothouse]

Websters New World: PILOTHOUSE [also tags the entry as an Americanism.]

Webster's Deluxe Unabridged: a shelter built over the steering wheel of a ship; a pilothouse.

Funk and Wagnall's: 1 A small house on the deck of a vessel in which the steering wheel is located; a pilothouse. 2 A paddle box.

Thank goodness the OED doesn't worry about saving space and giving only the essentials. So the entry there is predictably more informative than the rest.

OED: 1. A structure enclosing a large wheel, e.g. a water-wheel; spec. a house or superstructure containing the steering-wheel, a pilot-house; also, the paddle-box of a steam-boat.

2. a. A building in which cart-wheels are stored.

3. Archæol. A circular stone dwelling of the late Iron Age of a type widespread in northern and western Scotland, having partition walls radiating from the centre.

The various definitions of pilothouse are not so various. All indicate a room housing the wheel used to steer a ship or boat.

And none of these gives me a good answer regarding my friend's use of the term. So I search for wheelhouse on Google™ and the first hit is an entry at the The Phrase Finder. Telling me that this is used in baseball to indicate that area (usually in the strike zone) that makes a pitch easy to hit. The page includes a citation from James Carville with Jeff Nussbaum's Had Enough: A Handbook for Fighting Back: "[W]e're going to take it into this administration's supposed wheelhouse."

It also provides an address to a baseball jargon page but that link has changed and is now a useless matrix of circular advertising.

So we go elsewhere. Over to the Urban Dictionary where we get an entry for wheelhouse with several definitions. The first is provided by Reimer Cunningham who defines the word as an "area of expertise, a particular skill". An illustrative quote is included: as an alcoholic, a beer drinking contest is right in my wheelhouse. This definition has received 62 positive votes and 3 negative.

The second definition gives a little more information claiming the term refers to that area within a batter's range to makes good contact easiest. This definition also provides two examples of use. There is an ambiguous attribution on each use but it's not clear if these are actual quotes. This definition has received 49 positive votes and 2 negative.


The Wiktionary entry for wheelhouse is simple -- but it gives 3 definitions:
1. (nautical) An enclosed compartment, on the deck of a vessel such as a fishing boat, from which it may be navigated; on a larger vessel it is the bridge or pilothouse
2. (nautical) The enclosed structure around side paddlewheels on a steamboat.
3. (baseball) A batter's power zone

The reach of wheelhouse has extended from its use in sports to the more general sense of skill. Much like to hit it out of the park can mean to have any success or to perform an impressive display of ability.

But I'm still curious about the move from the nautical into the baseball.

A third definition in the Urban Dictionary makes the following guess:
Anything that can be acted on with confident success.
I'm guessing it originates from the fact that a wheelhouse is the room on the bridge of a ship where you steer from, providing you with clear view & control to steer the situation.

I'll disagree. It makes sense to look past the pilothouse meaning. Consider instead the paddlewheel enclosure extending into the baseball sense. As a wheel swings easily on a point or axle any object that enters that box is in danger of being smacked silly. Imagine the damage done to any object that gets caught in that wheelhouse. It only had to happen a few times before the wheelhouse was known as a dangerous spot.

* * *

As often as Jesse, Graeme, Erin, Ben et al decide to include a new definition in their impressive tomes the words and meanings pop up and shift too quickly. They're playing catch-up because it's impossible not to. The best dictionary editors can't predict which word will come into the language. And new definitions are tried and tested by the churning cultures of the roiling masses. Good luck with that forecast.

The best dictionaries are not too slow to reflect language change. They're just careful. And every metaphorical use isn't worth mentioning. No matter how beautiful or effective or striking. Should a dictionary tell us that a poem out there defines Petals (on a wet, black bough) as human faces on a Paris Subway? It's not a dictionary's job to tell us everything that has been done with a word. So this is a good reminder that a dictionary is a still shot of a moving object. And not every twitch and flutter needs to be documented.

This is less and less troubling these days because of our ongoing self-documenting language technology. Google™ is an impressive lexical tool. Type in your term and you can find millions of of instances of its use which give a good image of how a word is understood. And sometimes Google™ anticipates well that you're looking for just that information. The first hit is often a definition.

And Sites like Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers and The Phrase Finder are more likely to report recent development. The compromise of such responsiveness is well discussed.

The greatest strength of a carefully compiled dictionary is the depth that a work like the OED obviously values. Few of the contributors to UrbanWiktionAnswers will stick with a word long enough for a full investigation. Even when the work is carefully done and attested these lexicographical dilettantes tend to move on to the next word before a full history has been uncovered. Those who snort around a word like a truffle pig are precious. And they tend to devote their work to the service of those dictionaries that value accuracy and depth more than quickness and breadth.

But this wheelhouse phrase isn't too obscure is it? It's not hard to find the meaning and especially in baseball jargon it must be pretty well known. How does this it fare on number of Google™ hits?

in my wheelhouse    - 6,640
in his wheelhouse - 5,020
in your wheelhouse - 2,500
in their wheelhouse - 1,280
in our wheelhouse - 1,200
in her wheelhouse - 1,020

Searching for 'in the wheelhouse' brings up mostly boat references. Going with the pronouns weeds out a lot of those. Tho using "her" pulls up a lot that refer to the earlier meanings - "she" being the boat/ship.

It's not huge. But open it up with a wildcard and narrow it back down by adding "right in" and we find that "right in * wheelhouse" gives us 20,300 hits. A few of the hits on the first page are references to the phrase. The rest look like a relevant use. Three of them refer to baseball. The following pages show a good mix of relevant uses regarding sports, music, dancing, automotive engineering, comedy, politics...

All evidence that the phrase has a firm footing.

And there's this post by someone else who wonders about the phrase. A commenter (going by emetic sage)suggests that the phrase works because of the central location of the wheelhouse on a boat. But wheelhouses aren't characterized by their central location nor are they a paragon of a centrality. I still like my paddle box idea.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Quiz show softballs

American Quiz shows are too easy. Jeopardy! pushes the level of obscurity to a decent level but I still occasionally throw my hands up in disbelief at the banality of the clues. At least the money on the show doesn't reach ridiculous levels.

The winnings on Who Wants to be a Millionaire don't go too high because so many contestants go for that one guess that knocks them back to $1000. But I just can't stomach the awful jokes that always sully option D of the first question.

1vs100 rewards a contestant for answering very easy questions -- but only if enough people in a group of 100 get the same question wrong. The show gives away a lot of money for pretty simple questions. And they're getting even easier.

The show used to ask questions that forced two levels of knowledge. All questions on the show are presented in multiple choice format. So the first level would come in the question section that asked something simple like 'which state comes first alphabetically?' The contestant would exhale with relief thinking Yes! I know the alphabet but then the 3 options would add a complicating second level.

A) the state whose capital is Columbia
B) the state whose capital is Augusta
C) the state whose capital is Frankfort

This format is especially tricky because at some point contestants are given the option of continuing or stopping after hearing a question.

But I haven't seen that question type used as much lately. Most questions now just involve one level and that level isn't all that difficult. Consider the following question from the most recent episode.

"In the play Cyrano de Bergerac what abnormally long body part did his peers marvel at?"

A) his nose
B) his toes
C) his fingers

First of all: there's almost a grammatical clue in there. The plural=singular mismatch does occur in native speech a lot. But in a written (and presumably carefully-crafted) question I suspect this was intended as a clue to influence even a baffled contestant to guess the right answer.

Second of all: who doesn't know that? How can knowing something like this be worth money?

The first day of the rest of my life.

I no longer have to begin here:

The FedEx shipment tracking page told me so.

I've got one thing to say to Windows.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cosby is just looking for the truth

I used to interpret the phrase the proof is in the pudding as the proof is in the putting since as an American flapper I pronounce them identically. And putting made more sense to me. I figured it meant that until you put something in its final place -- that is, you resolved a situation -- there was no telling how things would 'fall' or end up.

It was a stretch but it worked. Then I read phrase saw that I had been misinterpreting it. But the new meaning didn't make much sense. Did it mean that hidden somewhere in that bowl of murky pudding was some sort of evidence?

But context helps smooth over those ambiguities and mysteries that allow idioms to frolic free from much understanding. It's not even important if the pudding is British savory or American sweet.

Then I read -- who knows where -- that the 'real' phrase was the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Well that makes perfect sense. You can tell me the pudding is good but there's no proof until I taste it. Sure.

But who says that? I had never heard it. And I still hear it only rarely. I've heard it mentioned (not used) in conversations about odd phrases. And in the last month and a half I've heard it used by exactly two speakers. That's two more times than I can remember having heard it previously.

On 2 January 2008 Husain Haqqani spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on the topic of US Foreign policy and recent events in Pakistan. I watched on C-SPAN as he shared his view that the situation has been getting worse:

The number of terrorist deaths in Pakistan in 2006 was 1,471. In 2005, it had only been 648, so it was doubled. Now for 2007 the figure is something like 2,300. So if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, well, with due respect, this pudding does not taste too well.

And recently Dr Phil use the phrase as well. I'm sure he was telling somebody to change some habit and be a better person.

No more commentary from me. Read Michael Quinion if you'd like a little more discussion.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Barnyard humor

I can't believe I sat through an entire 2 hours of The 100 Most Outrageous Moments of All-Time! last night. It was the same battery of TV clips and bloopers that NBC likes to play whenever they don't expect many viewers. Last night it was sort of a ratings tap-out opposite the Grammys.

There's no longer any surprise that the capstone of the show is going to be the witless newlywed's confused response to Bob Eubanks: "In the ass..."

Or at least that's what I figure is being bleeped. The first time I heard about this clip I was in high school and it was in the middle of its urban legendary mutation. It was supposedly a black man who responded quickly (because he was making an obvious joke according to my friend): That'd be up the butt Bob. For some reason Bob always makes it into the legend.

One of the funnier clips is one cameraman's reaction after a Space Shuttle countdown when the boosters aren't igniting and the there's nothing happening on the launchpad. He suddenly swears "Oh @#$% I'm in the wrong place!" and the camera pans frantically over to a shuttle that has already taken off from another launchpad.

And I saw a new one this time. New to me. It has been on YouTube for a while. An announcer calling a horse race almost 20 years ago gives an excited call as the announcers typically do.

But first:

(I don't give away the joke with this preamble. But you can just skip to the video if you don't want the phonological background information.)

There is a phonological rule in English that shortens lengthens a vowel before a voiceless voiced consonant or when word final. So the vowel in sweet is the same as the vowel in Swede -- just shorter. [Update: I absent-mindedly combined this prevoiced/no coda lengthening with the prevoiceless effect of Canadian Raising.]

sweet [swit]
Swede [swiːd]

There are some confusing possibilities. Consider the interaction with a rule that leads to a glottal stop instead of a voiceless alveolar stop at the end of a word. Changing the pronunciation of cute: [kjut] → [kjuʔ].

So let's imagine that Gwyneth Paltrow's little daughter is adorable: we could call her a cute Apple. And 'cute Apple' would likely be pronounced without the [t] sound as a coda. The phrase [kjuʔ.æpl̩] might be confused with 'Cue Apple' a phrase a stage director might say when it's the little darling's turn to make her stage appearance. That possible confusion is because word with a vowel onset will often get a glottal stop onset if the preceding word doesn't end with a consonant: [æpl̩] → [ʔæpl̩]

So how can we tell if the uttered phrase is 'Cute Apple' or 'Cue Apple'? Well that vowel lengthening rule helps. If the vowel is short it would likely be perceived as part of a word with a voiceless stop coda. either [kjut] or [kjuʔ] would be pronounced with a short [u]. But if the vowel is perceptively longer [uː] it would likely be heard as part of a word that has no coda -- just like [kjuː].

So the glottal stop in [kjuʔ.æpl̩] gets syllabified as a coda because of the short vowel -- and in [kjuː.ʔæpl̩] it's syllabified as an onset because of the long vowel (since the syllabification would be in a feeding relationship with the vowel lengthening rule). Now watch this.

The onset [f] makes a clearer onset than does the [h] and might serve as a sort of maximizing segment so [hufˈhaɹɾəd] might give way to [huˈfarɾəd] -- especially when the announcer certainly gets the joke and is willing to play along -- and he really draws out that one [huːː] that sells the resyllabification.

For a pronunciation that is clearly working to avoid the joke just listen to Keith Olbermann's clearly syllabified [ˈhuf . haɹɾəd] here. Notice how short the vowel is in his pronunciation of hoof. And of course the long enough pause completely avoids a mishearing.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Did you mean it or just say it?

Every once in a while the contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire work as a team. Right now it's wedding week.

The couples usually work well together and the mutual respect is obvious. They talk it out -- they wonder out loud -- they ask each other questions like Have you heard of this? or Should we phone a friend? or Are you sure?

But one eager fellow earlier today kept jumping in and sealing his answer with the magic "final answer" phrase before his fiancée could say anything. I get nervous telling the waiter at a restaurant that I don't need anymore water before checking with Buffy (not because she tells me what to drink but because she commandeers my water and needs the refills even if I don't).

One question asked about the lyrics to a song. I think it was (I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo. Because this fellow had played a videogame that mentioned several cities he vaguely remembered that Kalamazoo is in Michigan. His future wife asked skeptically if he was really going to risk the money by making a guess based on a videogame. He disregarded her incredulity and muttered something about learning a lot from them.

He then plowed forward and said "I would say Michigan final answer." The young woman kept smiling and just repeated his answer. Buffy would be stepping on my throat if I ignored her like that. And rightly so.

Well his answer was right and the game kept going. They'll be on again tomorrow. Here's what I wonder:

Saying 'Final' or 'Final answer' is the speech act that locks in the answer on the show. It's what keeps contestants from getting caught by a phrase like I think it might be 'C' when they're just thinking out loud.

When the contestant seems to settle on an answer and even says something as assured as Yes it's 'C'. I'm sure of it. It's definitely 'C' host Meredith Vieira still asks if the answer is final. I've often wondered if a response of Yes to her question would be enough to lock it in.

Usually the contestant just says 'Final' or 'Final answer' with a falling intonation that signifies completion. But what if it's a rising intonation?

Vieira: Is that your final answer?
Contestant: Final?

Or what about the incredulous high-falling intonation as if the suggestion is hard to believe


Would that count?

And what if the contestant says I think I should make that my final answer? Would that close probation? Because saying I think I should is not the same as making it so. Now this is starting to sound like the smart-ass complaints of quasi-peevologists who whenever a speaker says something like I'd like to welcome you all or I'd like to thank you for coming lean over and say nudgingly then why doesn't she?

But when it comes to the rules on a show these ambiguities regarding speech acts can be relevant concern. In everyday speech we communicate without evaluating every technicality. But when playing a game we expressly agree on certain technicalities. Consider the rule of a question form on Jeopardy! The point of the response isn't only to communicate that you know the answer or even prove that you know the answer. You agree to abide by a technical rule that really isn't about communicating anything new. It's not even about communicating that you know the expectations. It wouldn't be enough to say I know I'm supposed to answer in the form of a question but I'm just going to say 'Oberon' anyway.

Johnny-jump-in-there said "I would say Michigan final answer" and it could go either way depending on the scope of "final answer."

If he meant I would say Michigan. And that's my final answer he locked it in. He used the phrase "final answer." (The subjunctive is a common form on the show. For some reason contestants are regularly drawn to the phrase That would be...)

If he meant I would say "Michigan: final answer". He could still have the out because he merely mentioned the phrase "final answer" without using it. The use/mention distinction could be an important one unless the producers have made it clear that any mention will be counted as a use.

But such a rule could go even further. It could go even to phonetics. This would lock in the answer even if the contestant doesn't use or mention the word but articulates the same sounds in another phrase. If the contestant mentions "fine aluminum" the [ faɪnl̩ ] segments could equal a lock.

But that would be just evil.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Not so grating

Minnesota Public Radio puts out a show called Grammar Grater: with Luke Taylor. It is done weekly.

Each show is a short piece about five minutes long that addresses a simple issue of grammar with radio skits the occasional short interview and a quick sermonette. The arguments aren't always prescriptive. I don't always disagree with them. At times the show even suggests that complainers should just get used to the fact that language is always changing and it's not a bad thing.

Good for them.

But they do stumble. Sometimes egregiously. Sometimes more reasonably. My quibble for the day: the treatment of the Minnesota dialect sentence final '[verb] with' form.

Buffy uses this all the time.

'I think I wanna go with.'
'Are you going to come with?'
'No I just rode with.' (as a response to a question like 'Did you go in the store with them?')

Episode 20: Unfinished Business (listen here]) begins with an analogy using the legend of Constanza Mozart waking up her husband by playing an unfinished C major scale.

"Wolfgang couldn't stand it. His ear was begging for some kind of fulfillment, so he'd leap out of bed, rush to the piano and bang out the final note, much to his relief."

From this little tale the topic switches to language forms that do the same. This is where the '[verb] with' form comes in.

Some sentences have the Constanza Mozart...effect, though—if you can resolve it with a direct object, it's probably best to do so:

'Are you coming with?' sounds better when it's 'Are you coming with us?'

'Mr. Posthumous was planning to take over' is more specific when it becomes 'Mr. Posthumous was planning to take over the balloon factory!'

Let's take a quick look at some of the gaps. First of all the phrase "to take over" is not simply "to take over [X]" with a null object. Take over can be either intransitive or transitive but it's not merely because of the null or expressed object. Each sentence uses the phrase differently. Let's do a quick substitution test to see if take over = take over

Using assume control for take over we have

He is planning to assume control.
*He is planning to assume control the factory.

Using lead for take over we have

He is planning to lead.
He is planning to lead the factory.

What's going on here? The word/phrase forms take over and lead are ambiguously transitive/intransitive. But the form assume control does not show that same ambiguity. So it's not fair to say that the underlying forms of leadT and leadI is the same in each sentence simply with a null complement in one and an expressed complement in the other. Is the intransitive use less specific? Maybe. Not really tho. But specificity isn't really a grammatical issue.

Let's look at the other pair of sentences. Is "coming with" simply ellipsis from "coming with us"? Is it basically "Are you coming with ___?"

This is a common analysis of this sentence type. It's used in an almost identical sense. Come with us is almost always an appropriate substitution for come with. But my favorite recent analysis comes from John Spartz here at Purdue who has been investigating the non-complement form as a particle that attaches to verbs of movement.

Just today John was telling me that some analyses suggest a null complement that is always first person. But when I asked Buffy to use a with-final phrase, she came up with the above "rode with" sentence that would have to take a 3rd person complement.

One way to think of the "with" in these sentences is as along. This might not be the perfect substitution. I wonder if John has found any "with with" sentences. John?

With all this in mind: The suggestion that one sentence "sounds better when it's [X]" and another sentence "is more specific when it becomes [Y]" puts too much faith in the premise that the alternate forms are underlyingly identical. But I say they're not. So it's like saying 'Meatloaf tastes better when it's lasagna' or 'Wine is sweeter when it becomes Cola.' Even if the premise is true the judgment might not be.

Now the episode does end with a decent bit of advice: don't let the prescription against ending a sentence with a preposition force you into awkward or "clunky" constructions.

In the name of effective language Taylor actually says "it's okay to have sentences ending in prepositions."

It's a start.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Surprising connections

I wrote a post about Buffy's grandmother's interesting phrases. I searched for one phrase ("ready for the fox farm") and found only three Google™ hits. One of those hits was in a book by Margo Howard presenting a collection of letters from her mother Ann Landers.

In a comment Jan Freeman not only directed me to some information about fox farm in DARE but she also indicated that she had contacted Howard and asked her about the term. Howard contacted me and told me that she enjoyed the post and in a quick volley of emails she shared a few more quick and fun details about her mother and her appreciation for Hubert Humphrey and his sense of humour.

What a pleasing network these interwebs can be. If I had known that a few people are actually reading I would have edited a little more carefully.

To those of you who read stop by occasionally -- my thanks. To those of you who share the site with others -- my thanks. To those of you who get in touch -- my thanks.

By the way: Jan Freeman is the fine thinker who coined the term peevologist which I have used several times on this site and in classes I teach. I believe the term captures very effectively the agenda of those people who are intolerant of real language but think it's because they love it -- my thanks.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Deep in the heart of the Midwest

Several months ago I put up a poll and some discussion about the midwest. I still get a few visitors a week looking for a map of the Midwest region. Sometimes they even ask for a shaded or colored map. I've got one. The poll got a good number of votes for a humble little blog like this one and even tho it wasn't a perfect poll some results were still enough to surprise me.

The last time I was speaking with Buffy's father the topic of the Midwest came up. He grew up in Texas and now lives in Minnesota. At one point he remarked "But Michigan isn't considered part of the Midwest is it?"

I no longer like to answer a question like that with a yes or no because there really isn't a yes or no. It depends on who's doin' the considerin'. I just told him that several voters included it in their definition of the region.

But I was interested in what he thought. What did he consider the Midwest?

"Oh I figured from Texas straight up through the plains"

I thought back to a comment I made back then. I said I found it "very unlikely that anyone would choose...Texas." And GalloPinto2's response: "Haha I bet if you called Texas a Midwestern state they would take GREAT offense!"

Maybe some Texans would. But I know one that apparently wouldn't.