Sunday, June 29, 2008

Say my name! Say my name!

John Wells writes on his phonetic blog: It’s Wimbledon fortnight, and our television screens are full of tennis.

Mine are too. Tennis comes second after hockey among my favourite professional sports to watch. Perhaps it's the names. Both sports offer some gorgeous spellings and pronunciations. So Wells provides helpful advice on some pronunciations that are often slaughtered:

English people seem to have a complete blind spot about the letter c having the value ts in eastern European languages.

Remember: When Polish is Anglicized orthographically, a <c> is pronounced ts.

But: In Turkish the <c> is a voiced postalveolar affricate ʤ: the consonant in 'edge' and twice in 'judge'.

He adds:

Ljubičić gets his medial in English, too, although Ivanišević, like the late Milošević, usually misses out on his ʃ.

What's a fellow to do? Especially when all your efforts to correct a pronunciation fall prey to a clumsy tongue.

Not only does the chair umpire miss the ʃ; he pronounces it as n. He gets closest at the end but instead of the more common depalatalisation to s it sounds to me like he added voiced: z.

Goran was always fun to watch. I remember when he won as a wild card at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in 2001. I almost cried. I can turn into a baby watching this sport.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Q: Do you know? A: I don't know.

I might have some advice for John Yoo. One exchange between Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties) and Yoo (Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General) from yesterday's hearing on detainee interrogation:

Nadler: The question is not "would an American president order such terrible things" but "could he legally do so?"

Yoo: Let me -- sir it's -- I think it's an -- it's not fair to ask that question without any kind of facts -- any kind of --. I mean you're asking me to state some kind of broad

Nadler: So in other words-- so in other words -- so in other words there is nothing conceivable..

Yoo: No sir I'm not saying...

Nadler: No no let me finish the question because you don't know what I'm going to ask. There is nothing conceiveable that -- to which you could answer 'No, an American president could not order that' without knowing facts and context?

Yoo: Sir I told you I don't agree to that because you are trying to put words in my mouth about --tr-- attempting to get me to answer some broad question covering all circumstances. And I can't do that. I don't like the way you're characterizing my answer.

Nadler's question has so many semantically additive negations that it is difficult to understand exactly what he's asking. It's possible to figure it out but those negatives keep switching directions (yet another argument in favor of negative concord).

Yoo could easily and convincingly say that he doesn't even understand what he would be saying with either a 'yes' or 'no' answer. And Mr Nadler has shown that he's either unable or unwilling to simplify the question or shorten that stack of negatives.

But Mr Yoo rejects the question by saying that it is there are too many variables that he cannot anticipate that might or might not limit the President's options. And since he doesn't know which way these undefined facts would go he's unwilling to say that the facts might go in either direction. So there's our answer.

Hypothetical Questioner and Responder:

Q: Do you know if there are doodads in that box?
R: I don't know what doodads are.
Q: So you're not willing to deny that there is no vacancy of doodads in that box?
R: What?
Q: Can you imagine that if you found out what a doodad is that you might know if there are any in that box?
R: I can't tell you that because I don't know what a doodad might be.
Q: Is there any possibility that a doodad might be the type of thing that fits in that box?
R: I can't tell you that because I don't know what doodads are.

Within the refusal to say that a doodad could not be any one thing the Responder is insisting that a doodad could be anything.

So Yoo's refusal to comment is a refusal to rule out even a hypothetical horrendous interrogation technique.

Mr Nadler could have avoided so many variables in his question. Each of the following could lead to a simple follow-up.
  • Do you know of any interrogation technique short of murder that can always be ruled out?
  • Is it true that given the right facts the President has unlimited freedom to order any form of torture?

But we all know how easy it is to simply avoid a yes or no answer. How many times did Tim Russert ask Will you rule out the possibility of running for president? only to be told I'm happy where I am. No matter how many times he pushed them saying that's not what I asked the eely politicians played dumb. They're geniuses at that.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mass/count appreciation post

Several weeks ago I picked up my sister's kids from school. I saw this poster in the window of the entrance shelter.

That's a nice gesture. Good teachers deserve our deliberate expressions of appreciation. And the staff of a school also deserve our thanks. I didn't pause on the slightly non-parallel construction of this poster. I didn't even notice it. In this sentence both teacher and staff are being used as nominal adjectives. And I'm going to forgo a hefty discussion of how an adjective indicates the individuals or groups at whom the appreciation is directed. This form is just as clear as Appreciation-for-teachers-and-staff Week.

But the non-parallel structure that I mention is between the count noun "teacher" and the non-count noun "staff." As a nominal adjective they both work the same.

Teacher Appreciation Week
Staff Appreciation Week

Both fine. And I'm not saying that when used together there's a problem. Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week is also fine. Like I already said -- I didn't even notice it when I read this poster.

But I did notice it once I read the second poster encouraging expression of that appreciation.

To me that one sounds funny. I hear staff as a non-count mass noun I expect each individual in the staff to be called a staff member. Or maybe a member of the staff.

It is just barely OK to my ear to say 'have you thanked staff today' meaning 'have you thanked several staff members today?' So in the sentence "have you thanked a teacher or staff today?" I automatically extend the determiner "a" to both "__teacher" and "__staff" which I then understand as a teacher and a staff which sounds to me like a teacher and a walking stick.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cocksucker stands alone - RIP George Carlin

George Carlin was a descriptivist. He stood aside from the language and reminded us that it's an often misunderstood system. Misunderstood by speakers who don't realize how much is going on. And misunderstood by those who want to corral its use.

Enjoy his take on The Seven Dirty Words.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Word Blog rides again

Jan Freeman's The Word column has a companion blog (also available on sidebar!). It's up and running again. There are few mainstream writers on language who don't complain about usage and change and who don't make up rules and constraints based on whims. Tell anyone that you write about language and you're expected to point out desecration and degeneration.

Such complaints feed on and foster elitism and exclusion. It's a promise to judge everyone who doesn't learn the secret handshake. It pulls in the readers.

Read Freeman instead.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The matchup linguistics has been waiting for

A Facebook group that promises to make linguists look even dorkier. And that's a good thing.

[Update: Dammit! I should have titled this post "Penultimate Fighting Championship!"]

My money's on the Philadelphia kid. Boston Pops hasn't been the same since Ali G. "Norman" -- Hilarious.

Did you not hear me?

One definition of an idiom: a phrase or sequence of words that conveys a meaning that cannot be explained by its construction.

Sometimes the construction isn't grammatical or doesn't occur elsewhere in a speaker's language (e.g. a couple three __s or you bet you). Most commonly cited idioms have a grammatical construction but a meaning that can't be extracted other than by convention (e.g. she had to eat crow).

Such idioms are often picturesque and many have traceable metaphorical meanings.

  • To trip the light fantastic
  • Filling your eyes before your stomach
  • Lay an egg
  • Shoot from the hip
  • Pulling your leg

    But for the moment I'm more interested in those utterly prosaic idioms that don't paint a picture or rely on an image or sound very colorful. The idioms that sometimes don't even sound like idioms.

    I've been wondering for a while about the phrase You don't say. In a 1935 article in Language L.W. Merryweather uses it as the translation for the phrase "The hell you say!"1 Allen Walker Read includes it in a fuller form ("You don't say so!") alongside a quote illustrating old scratch as a 1848 "Nantucketism."2

    It can express interest with little or no surprise.
    • That new restaurant was quite good.
    • You don't say. We'll have to try it.

    It can express surprise.
    • I won the lottery!
    • You don't say! That's great.

    It can be an ironic expression of surprise in response to an obvious statement.
    • The sun will rise tomorrow.
    • You don't say. And here I thought the government cut that program.

    But the path to its meaning isn't clear. There could easily be some connection between disbelief that a claim is true and disbelief that a claim has been--or should be--uttered. Somewhat as 'don't tell me' connects I don't want to hear that with I don't want that to be true.

    So -- you don't say (so) [unless it's true]?

    It's an inelegant explanation. I'm entertaining better offers. I know they're out there.

    Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to read John McIntyre's blog: You Don't Say.]

    1. American Speech, Vol. 6, No. 6 (Aug., 1931), p. 433
    2. American Speech, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Feb., 1935), p. 41

  • Friday, June 13, 2008

    From the cheap jokes file

    From Dr. Deb's post about Dissociative Identity Disorder (commonly called Multiple Personality Disorder):

    There are no precise numbers on how many people experience [Dissociative Identity Disorder]. Many who have the disorder don't seek treatment for fear that they will not be believed. But Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel - who has been studying this disorder for over three decades - estimates that DID affects about 1 percent of the population.

    It all depends on how many times you count each case.


    Wednesday, June 11, 2008

    Leaving our words behind

    I have no idea what a treasure trove I'm living with.

    Prompted by Mr. Verb's post today I just asked Buffy as she walked past me: You know that game kids play where you walk around a circle patting people on the head... Here she interrupted me: Yeah. Duck Duck Grey-duck... Why?

    I was so sure she wouldn't say that. And she had no idea why my eyes grew big and my jaw dropped. She remembers hearing about duck-duck-goose but she was shocked to learn that the grey duck variation is largely a Minnesota thing.

    I say the study of children's terminology is especially interesting because those are often lexical items that are learned from other children. Adults often leave their first nest but they don't spread the terms too quickly because you don't often find a bunch of adults sitting around playing duck-duck-anything. And those that do probably don't have much influence over children.

    So we use our childhood argot then leave it behind as we pick up our new lingo acquired at a different time in a different place.

    For this to be true we need to grant that kids learn language from kids. Makes sense. I never heard my parents call the woodlouse a potato bug. But that's what I learned as a child splitting time between Worthington Ohio and Beltsville Maryland. A few years ago that I saw an episode of Fear Factor refer to the Jerusalem cricket as a potato bug and my childhood died a little. Mostly from watching that horrible show.

    Do we have a language full of lexical items abandoned on the playground waiting for the next pair of grubby little hands to pick them up?

    Monday, June 09, 2008

    Hezbollah style

    I'm usually the one rolling my eyes at people who are afraid to see the language change. This fear often shows itself in the form of attempts to suppress those meanings, phrases and structures that have been around for a while but that haven't yet broken into a mainstream standard.

    So how come I'm now on the verge of complaining about a phrase that might be too recent to get full credit as an attested form?

    On May 27 2007 Cal Thomas wrote a column criticizing Barack Obama for his diplomatic naivete. A commenter on that column spun out of control and called Michelle's fist-bump a "'Hezbollah' style fist-jabbing." The comment is now removed but the line is quoted by few other commenters.

    I've never heard such a description of a fist bump. I've been looking around for it and every instance is a reference to Thomas' column, his commenter, and FOX face E.D. Hill who described the fist bump as a "terrorist fist jab" in a tease to a vapid bit about body language.

    The tease:

    A fist bump; a pound; a terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently. We'll show you some interesting body communication and find out what it really says.

    This is too much faith in an occurrence for the nonce. It's almost as if FOX is all too happy to pounce on this baffling description because of some partisan interest or something. But I'll leave that discussion to other forums.

    And for the record -- Hill and body language "expert" Janine Driver really don't show any interesting body communication (they show a clip of the gesture) and they don't get close to telling us what it really says.

    But who expected them to?

    (h/t Jon)

    Friday, June 06, 2008

    Going gaga over phonetics

    (Nancy Friedman's recent post reminded me of the McGurk Effect.)

    A long time ago I started to doubt that [m] and [n] could possibly be different sounds. I would close my mouth and make the mmmmm sound then I would put my tongue on the alveolar ridge. That's really not as dirty as it sounds. I would open my mouth trying to make the transition so smooth that the change in sound was imperceptible. I figured I was probably succeeding.

    My parents were worried about me.

    One of the reasons I went into linguistics was my fascination with stand-up comedians. Especially those that did impressions and impersonations. As a kid I was also taken by ventriloquists. Not kidnapped -- just amused.

    It all seemed like some sort of magic trick. How could they say [p]s and [b]s and [m]s and even [f]s without using their mouths? The [f]s were easier for me to accept because air quickly forced between both lips sounded a lot like the puff between lips and teeth. But those others had me stumped.

    In fact there is a difference between [m] and [n] and it has to do with the amount of space allowing the sound to resonate in your mouth. But it's a slight difference and it's mostly context and the interaction with surrounding sounds that allows us to perceive it.

    And ventriloquists can count on our eyes to influence what we hear as well. [added later: That may seem counterintuitive because the ventriloquist isn't showing the correct articulation. But in the ventriloquist's case we're expected to ignore the performer's face and concentrate on the dummy's mouth movements. That in combination with ambiguous articulation and reliance on clues such as familiar words and likely interpretations. E.g.: We rarely hear such clusters as thl- so in a word like thlag we are more likely to hear it as flag especially in a sentence in which we expect to hear flag.]That's the McGurk Effect (the influence of visual cues on aural information). Watch this video. (downloaded from Arnte's sound site)

    What sound is he making? Even when Buffy tries really hard to listen 'objectively' and even after she has listened while looking away and agreed that he's saying [baba] Buffy cannot but hear it as [dada] while watching. Even if she's just looking at his eyes.

    The man you see in the video is articulating [gaga] but most people hear it as [dada]. We 'hear' [dada] because the phonetics of [dada] (alveolar stop) are closer to [baba] (bilabial stop) but look more like [gaga] (velar stop). So our perception splits the difference between the sound we hear on the audio track and the image we see in the video track.

    The following isn't actually the McGurk Effect because the sound actually is changing as you hear it. But this is one of those tricks I used to do when I was a kid playing around with sounds. I figured that since I said [w]s by almost closing my mouth I could approximate that same effect using my hands. I would hold my mouth in an exaggerated 'aaah' position and use my hands instead of my lips to create a 'labial' approximant as an onset and a coda.

    I've never performed this for anyone. And since no one reads this blog I'm willing to post a quick video of it.

    Buffy's worried about me.

    Wednesday, June 04, 2008

    Scaring up votes

    This is old news. But I just came across the headline recently.

    I know that some newspapers can be conservative with language. But insisting on a spelling from the 15th to 18th centuries is a bit of overkill isn't it?

    But wait. Remember Samantha Power's little "monster" comment?*

    Maybe this is a verb form of the interjection that is usually followed by 'A mouse!'

    I was eeked out by that spooky story.**
    Monsters totally eek me out.**

    Maybe Indiana was scared too. That laugh...

    To be fair: my nieces have told me that my laugh can be scary.


    * It really wasn't that bad was it? What's next? 'The M word'?
    ** Made-up examples. But I looked for some real examples and found a few. The use/spelling is not common but it's out there.

    Tuesday, June 03, 2008

    On the spelling bee...t

    I misheard it too. The first pronunciation ends so abruptly that it sounds like a glottal stop: the same closure that interrupts the voice and airflow in 'uh-oh' and 'uh-uh'. The vowel length is just long enough to make me think that the speaker is trying to avoid that confusion. Since in AmE the voiceless dental stop /t/ is usually articulated as a glottal stop [ʔ] it's easy to interpret [nʌmnʌʔ] as a surface representation of /nʌmnʌt/. In order to make his interpretation clear, young Master Mishra (from West Lafayette!) makes sure to aspirate the /t/ for [nʌmnʌtʰ].

    (Hat tip Jon)

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    Whether or not you care

    Nicole writes:

    Is it ever necessary to use the phrase "whether or not...?" It seems to me that the word "whether" all by itself implies both possibilities of positive or negative outcomes -- the "or not" shouldn't be necessary and indeed may be redundant. I routinely read memos in which the "Issue for Decision" is "Whether [or not] to approve a contribution of $X million to X organization."

    WordzGuy suggests that in some sentences it is necessary. E.g.
    'They're going to go [to] the movies whether or not we do.'

    It would be ungrammatical to say 'They're going to go to the movies whether we do.' But there are some sentences in which whether and whether or not are both acceptable.

    I wonder whether they'll show up.
    I wonder whether or not they'll show up. (could also be worded '...whether they'll show up or not.')

    Whether is similar to the complementizer if in such cases. They can both introduce a subordinate complement clause.

    I wonder if/whether she called
    I wonder if/whether she called or not

    These statements with a subordinate complement clause can answer the question What do you wonder?

    But the question Why or in what situation do you wonder? can't be answered quite the same way. They require a subordinate modifier clause. An if clause is fine as an answer for both. And so it's ambiguous without context.

    I'll ask if she called.

    It's not clear if I'm asking for information regarding her call or if I'm asking (something) on the condition that she called.

    The ambiguity of the same structure using whether patterns differently. If I use whether it is unambiguously a subordinate complement clause.

    I'll ask whether she called.

    Whether cannot introduce the modifier in that sentence.

    But if we use Nicole's phrase -- whether or not -- we have ambiguity.

    I'll ask whether or not she called.

    This sentence could mean
    1. I will request the information regarding her call
    2. If she called I will request the information. If she didn't call I will still ask for the information.

    Because of this ambiguity we have an answer to Nicole's question. And it's exactly as WordzGuy suggested. There are some sentences that rely on the whether or not phrase. When you wish to express that one thing is true regardless of a set of possibilities you might want to use whether or not to introduce a subordinate modifier phrase.

    In the example that Nicole provides -- Whether [or not] to approve a contribution of $X million to X organization -- the phrase is grammatical with both whether and with the less abridged whether or not. After whether or at the end of the sentence the or not tag is perfectly fine on statements that can be remodeled as a yes/no question.

    He asked whether we should approve the contribution (or not).
    Should we approve the contribution (or not).

    If you're running out of breath you might want to leave it off. But there's no grammatical concern here. Interestingly -- it turns out that the constraint moves opposite to all those who suggest that language must be trimmed of all fat. There is no grammatical reason for leaving out or not but there is a grammatical reason for including it.

    An interesting cite in the OED for whether. My question: is the following an example of a subordinate modifier or subordinate complement? Joseph Addison in The Spectator No. 92 p.5 (1711): Whether or no they are real Husbands or personated ones I cannot tell.

    Sunday, June 01, 2008

    Honey I'm home.

    I had to go dark. In the north country. The last opportunity for the internet was while driving through Iowa where the rest areas have wireless access. But Buffy gets anxious to keep moving so I didn't go rummaging for my laptop.

    While in Minnesota I only talked to a few people so I didn't get a lot of data to comment on. But I did some reading and listened to the radio and took some notes.

    You might notice that the writing is quite faded. That's proof that I wash my hands at every pit stop. I think I'll start taking notes higher on my arm where they're less likely to get scrubbed. I was able to get some of those entered into the computer as sketches and early drafts.

    I'm happy to be back.