Friday, December 18, 2009

Hey, your fake English is Oll Raigth

In 1972, Italian singer/actor/director/comedian/general entertainer Adriano Celentano wrote this campy rap.

Each time I hear it, I think I hear an earworm burrowing further into my head.

The "Oll Raigth" is pretty clearly an attempt to capture an English sound of all right. And I kinda doubt the 'th' is a typo on the end. It sounds like they might be pronouncing the fricative [θ], which is an interesting interpretation of a glottal stop [ʔ]. Both avoid the plosive I suppose.

What makes it sound English? Well, if it does sound English (and it kinda does to me) it's probably a few things:

the fronting of /oʊ/ to [əʊ]
the breaking of [e] to [eɪ]
the aspiration on stops [pʰ] [tʰ] [kʰ]
the retroflex [ɻ]
the velarized (or dark) [ɫ] in some places
and it seems to me a lot of the off-glides before nasals, [ɻ]s and [ɫ]s.

And scads and scores of other features on other phones and details that have to do with contour, and stress patterns.

Anything you notice?

(thanks ed)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another one bites

Quick post on Alex Trebek and an odd stress pattern from this evening's Jeopardy!.

Reading the name of Ben Stiller's movie, Reality Bites, Alex put the phrase's primary stress on reality. This would be okay if the name of the movie referred to 'bites of reality' or something like that in which 'reality bites' is a noun with 'bites' as the head noun, and 'reality' as the specifier. So you'd have computer bytes, and be covered in mosquito bites, and have all sorts of bites in addition to reality bites.

But I've always understood the title to be a sentence. The noun/subject is 'reality' and the verb/predicate is 'bites.' In that case the primary stress of the phrase should be on 'bites' unless a contrastive stress is intended. As in a correction if someone were to say that fantasy bites.

"No, fantasy doesn't bite; reality bites."

I would call Alex unhip if the movie were actually any good.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

That's not an Ugg. This is an ugg. ...or at least an ugh.

I've been asked to get the word out.* So I'll actually get out two words: whooga and ugg.

First, I like the word whooga. According to Sarah at Whoogaboots, whooga "is [an] Australian slang word which refers to joy and happiness" and she tells me it's pronounced [hugaː]. In combination with boots it would likely lose any stress from the 2nd syllable, which would then be reduced to [ə]. That creates a nice easy contour over 3 syllables: primary stress/unstressed/secondary stress. Like boomerang. Or bandicoot. Similar in contour to didgeridoo. And the repetition of the [u] vowel is playful. Hula Hoop. Loop de Loop. Toodaloo. Foofaroo. Whoop-de-doo.

Now on ugg(s)

A few years ago when I heard people talking about uggs or ugg boots, I assumed it was a brand. The boots looked familiar, and I figured some company decided to specialized in an established style, and chose the name to play with "ugg" as a shortened form of "ugly" because of the rustic look of the boots. Well there is an UGG® brand out there, and perhaps ugg is a shortened form of ugly. Tho Sarah at Whoogaboots reminds me that, as is so often the case, "the exact origin and meaning of the name is still fiercely debated."

A 1994 mention in the New York Times (by Timothy Jack Ward) refers to the boots as "ughs", explaining that it's Australian slang for the sheepskin booties that surfers use to keep their feet either warm or cool. (Hey, just like a thermos.) That's the same story you'll find in several places. That spelling could be combining a shortened form of ugly, with an onomatopoetic grunt. Now I mostly find uggs, a spelling perhaps influenced by the popularity of the Ugg brand. Which brand Ward then called "the footwear of the moment on the American West Coast."

One usage feature that's worth noting is the variation between "uggs" and "ugg boots". Those who object to "ugg boots" as a pleonastic form will claim that "boots" is unnecessary, as all uggs are boots. This is the same objection we might hear regarding a "cardigan sweater" or "Stratocaster guitar".

Others who object to the use of 'boots' might do so because they believe uggs should be contrasted with boots. By this view, there are boots, and there are uggs. They are distinct types of footwear.

Interestingly, tho the Whooga website itself alternates between "uggs" and "ugg boots"—which would seem to indicate that they believe the pleonastic use is acceptable—the site copy also apparently contrasts uggs and boots. Offering a bit of fashion advice, they write

"Black uggs tend to look much slimmer and more boot like than ’ugg’."

Now does the syntax mean that they're relying on a gap there, meaning "more boot like than 'ugg' [like]"? Or are they using 'ugg' as a complete predicate adjective as well? In other words: are they saying that black uggs don't look very ugg?

Well, the folks at Whooga are obviously proud of their product, and they're hoping to reclaim the association of the footwear with their brand. If you ask me, the boots are desirable for function more than form. And if you've seen the way I dress, you know I don't care much for style.

I'm not much of a boot wearer, but I also tend to avoid socks. And these uggs are designed to be worn without socks. Who knows, if I received a pair, I might just wear them. But only once I'm sure the fad is spent. And I'd probably go for the shorter style. Just in case, you know, you're feeling generous.

I've added to the title of the post. The fight over spelling is not merely forthcoming. It is here. A Google™ search for "ugg boots" brings up several DMCA complaints asking for search results to be excluded. Among the sites that do appear are the UGG® Australia site, an site, the Whooga site, an Authentic Ugg Boots site, and several others. Fritinancy's predicted tUGG-o-war is going on. (See comment.)

Any comment I make regarding the generic or common spelling of the style of boot is in no way an opinion regarding the legal limitations on that or any other spelling. I just report what I find and describe what I see.]

* Full disclosure, I have received a consideration for mentioning the brand in this post and for linking to the website.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

And here I thought Oscar was the crotchety one.

This NSFW caption is brought to you by the letter C.

(via might red pen on Twitter.

Image from Criggo's post.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cutting down on minims

Every time I teach about the history of the English Language I go over the confusion caused by minims in older scripts. Minims are those little vertical lines used to write <i>s, <n>s, <m>s, and <u>s, and occasionally other letters in combination with other strokes. To point out to my students just how troublesome <i>s, <n>s, <m>s and <u>s could be, I write <minimum> on the board. What makes it at all readable? The dots over the <i>s. It makes the counting of strokes easier.

But what if the minim count is off? Those little dots are still really helpful. I'm actually surprised I even noticed this sign.

I saw this on a Saturday morning near Cambridge Ohio about a month ago. I believe it was at a BP. If you have other examples of this phenomenon, I'd love to see them. It's a great way to save space and characters. And it can't be a mistake can it?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oxford Word of the Year: Unfriend.

Oxford University Press has chosen unfriend as its word of the year for 2009.

To unfriend is "To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook."

Christine Lindberg explains that unfriend assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!) Altho a search for the verb forms, friended and friending bring up a couple million hits on a major web search engine.* And the intact phrase "tried to friend" (with quotes around it) brings up almost 35 million hits.

I'd say the verb friend really is used. And it's no secret. There has been lots of discussion about the verbing of friend for quite a while now. A lot of fear regarding anthimeria. Some people think these functional shifts are a sign of language anarchy. Except of course when Shakespeare does it. Then it's a sign genius. But we have no business trying to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

But let's see what commentary in reaction to unfriend we can roll our eyes at. To the TV!

Keith Olbermann commented on last night's show (Nov 17):

Altho the youngsters on the staff have informed me that defriend is the more common term for that. So there might be another vote on this.

Those youngsters that are constantly telling their parents what's cool and what's not, are often… not so cool.

Perhaps Olbermann's resident Hipper Youth prefer defriend for some reason. Maybe they see de- as a prefix indicating an act of reversal, and un- as a prefix indicating the withholding of a quality or state (read tangent here). But whatever their preference or their reason for it, I'm not sure there's reason to believe them that defriend is more common.

Our (marginally) trusty search engines offer up the following numbers.**

Search engine 1
  • unfriend: 5,890,000
  • defriend: 1,070,000

    Search engine 2
  • unfriend: 5,330,000
  • defriend: 218,000

    Search engine 3
  • unfriend: 297,000
  • defriend: 28,200

    Search engine 4 (which refused to exclude "Oxford")
  • unfriend: 138,000
  • defriend: 24,000

    This is a quick and sloppy survey. But I stand by it as evidence that people who don't observe language systematically, or with the tiniest bit of investigation, are bound to throw around worthless opinions about it. 'Tis Common.

    * I'm getting tired of putting that little trademark sign in.

    ** The current discussion about OUP's choice is bound to inflate numbers for unfriend and not for defriend, so I've tried to correct for that but searching only for instances that don't also mention Oxford. This has played with the numbers some, actually increasing the hits when I exclude "Oxford" from some of the searches, but the relative hits are still definitely in favor of unfriend.

  • Wednesday, November 04, 2009

    Maddow chooses to inexplicably apologize

    The metaphor of language as music is fruitful.

    When I used to perform music publicly, my teacher (Roger Jackson) gave me a bit of advice that I should follow more often. "If you make a mistake," he said, "make it proudly." His thinking was that more often than not, I knew more about that piece of music than anyone in the audience. He repeatedly assured me that the masses have no idea what note's coming next and they can't remember what note was just played. If you mess up a note (or seven) in Fernando Sor's Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart from The Magic Flute, the only way the audience will know it, is if you grimace or react with shame.

    My habit of wincing at a missed note had come almost certainly from an attempt to say to the audience I'm better than that mistake. If you caught that, please know that I did too. In other words: don't criticize me, because even if I didn't play it perfectly, I know this song as well as you do. Judge me not by what my fingers do. Listen not to which strings they pluck.

    Makes no sense, does it.

    I think of this every time I hear someone apologize for a word or a phrase they feel guilty using. But unlike a musician, who might slip from an accurate performance off a score, speakers who apologize, typically haven't missed or failed to meet anything other than an arbitrary and artificially enforced standard. I'm not speaking of errors such as spoonerisms or retrieval errors that are in fact mistakes of inaccuracy. I'm thinking of the false rules that English teachers have lobbied for and which many of the more assiduous students have accepted as proof of attention to detail. As proof of language skill. But which are little more than proof of a list memorized.

    And the zeal to show that this list is mastered, can lead to this:

    Maddow: …which the Democratic party inexplicably still allows him to keep. When he campaigns for Republican candidates, he is biting the hand that inexplicably feeds him. Pardon the split infinitive.

    The only infinitive I can see in there is "to keep" and it's not split. What is Maddow apologizing for? Probably for the split relative pronoun/verb pair, "that feeds" interrupted by "inexplicably."

    I don't have to spend much of this space shaking my head at how well-educated people know so little about the terminology of language and its structures. Labels are thrown around and terms are used without regard for their established use by people who study language for a living. Don't use the terminology of linguists just because linguists use it; use the terminology because linguists are among the only people who use it systematically.

    Looking first at Maddow's confusion: a split infinitive typically refers to an adverb coming between infinitival to and a verb.

  • to→boldly←go

  • to→falsely←accuse

  • to→overzealously←apologize

  • But here it looks like Maddow thinks a split infinitive is more generally an adverb jumping between a verb and another preceding word that feels like a unit with the verb. In this case, a relative pronoun, that, introducing the relative clause that … feeds him.

    If the sentence was rewritten around the phrase the hand that continues to feed him, a split infinitive—to inexplicably feed—might be a less than optimal choice (if only because of ambiguity). However the ideal place would be pretty much in the same place as the sentence Maddow apologized for: between the relative pronoun and the verb
  • the hand that→inexplicably←continues to feed him

  • Any other placement of the adverb in Maddow's sentence would be either ungrammatical or awkward or misleading or at the very least, less clear.

  • He is biting the hand, inexplicably, that feeds him.

  • This would mean either that he is biting in an inexplicable manner or that it is inexplicable that he is biting.

  • He is biting the hand that feeds, inexplicably, him.

  • If this one is even grammatical it probably means that it is inexplicable that he is the one being fed. It could possibly mean what Maddow seems to be going for, that the fact that the hand is feeding him is inexplicable, (this is all so close to that old familiar complaint about sentential modifier hopefully). But that's a horribly awkward sentence.

  • He is biting the hand that feeds him inexplicably.

  • This one is less awkward than the previous sentence but it remains ambiguous and, to my ear, leans towards the wrong meaning, sounding more like an adverb on the manner of feeding.

    Altho Maddow's sentence is also ambiguous, the context is a big help in making the intention clear. It is pretty easily the best place for "inexplicably" as the sentence is constructed. And going with "inexplicably" is much better than trying to shoehorn a phrase like 'it is inexplicable that the hand feeds him.'

    I assume Maddow is reading from her own script. So she has chosen, probably carefully, a structure that she feels she has to apologize for. It's likely that she chose the wording because she recognizes that it's a good way of saying what she's trying to say. In the metaphor of music, this is not a missed note. This is the chord just as she wanted. It came out just as she had hoped. So why the apology? Sometimes the self-reproach I mentioned earlier comes not because a flub, but because of an expected rebuke. In a sense, 'Leave me alone. I did that on purpose.' It's like performing your own composition and apologizing for a rasgueado because you know your audience would have preferred an arpeggio.

    And my guess is that Doctor Maddow senses her fans are given to peevology. I have not enough evidence to make the same claim about Maddow's views on grammar.

    Since this post has gone on long enough I'll stop before I turn to contributor Kent Jones, whose grammatical snobbery is thick and deserves a post of its own.

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    The English language in America is not threatened.

    My addiction to C-SPAN has me thinking that Steve King (representing the poor people of Iowa's 5th district) is just talking in the hopes of stumbling across a good idea. Much of his ignorance revolves around ideas about language and the threat of multilingualism.

    As Sally Thomason points out in a recent Language Log post, this is an ignorance worth countering.

    Below I post in full the relevant Resolution adopted in 1987 by the Linguistic Society of America (mentioned by Thomason in her post).

    Resolution: English Only

    Drafted by Geoff Nunberg

    28 December 1986: Approved by members attending the 61st Annual Business Meeting, New York Hilton, New York, NY

    1 July 1987: Adopted by LSA membership in a mail ballot

    Whereas several states have recently passed measures making English their "official state language," and

    Whereas the "English-only" movement has begun to campaign for the passage of similar measures in other states and has declared its intention to attach an official language amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and

    Whereas such measures have the effect of preventing the leglislature and state agencies and officials from providing services or information in languages other than English,

    Be it therefore resolved that the Society make known its opposition to such "English only" measures, on the grounds that they are based on misconceptions about the role of a common language in establishing political unity, and that they are inconsistent with basic American traditions of linguistic tolerance. As scholars with a professional interest in language, we affirm that:

    The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

    American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

    History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco's efforts to impose Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.

    It is to the economic and cultural advantage of the nation as a whole that its citizens should be proficient in more than one language, and to this end we should encourage both foreign language study for native English speakers, and programs that enable speakers with other linguistic backgrounds to maintain proficiency in those languages along with English.

    Presented and approved at the LSA Business Meeting in New York City, December 1986.
    Submitted to and passed by membership in a mail ballot, March 1987.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Windmill cookies, they'll give you gonorrhea

    Just make sure to read more carefully than you listen.

    (h/t Elizabeth)

    Monday, October 19, 2009


    Maybe Tom and L. Ron are right about this psychiatry racket.

    My favorite proposed diagnosis:

    God Complex

    Antecedents: Creating the known universe.

    Symptoms: Thinking you own the place. Snooping on people's private conversations even when not addressed through prayer. Fickle support for Steinbrenner's Evil Empire during playoffs. Sufferers will sometimes exist just to spite Christopher Hitchens.

    Notes: Those with long beards, devout followers, and immortality are often misdiagnosed. Inquire about bandmates. See: ZZ Top Complex.

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    Remembering and Musing: or Conan, the Barbarian

    On last Thursday's Talk of the Nation Neal Conan had a conversation with Farhad Manjoo about password security.

    There was some good advice on the show. For instance, don't choose <123456> as your password. No really. Don't.

    The best passwords are of course also the hardest to remember. Numbers and symbols and primarily unintelligible strings of letters are the way to go. So how to remember such a random string? According to Manjoo you should use a mnemonic device. He uses a pronunciation somewhere between [nəmɑnɪk] and [nʊmɑnɪk]: between a schwa and the vowel in book. Not quite the pronunciation with first syllable rhyming with boo zoo and you (that [u] possibly from the influence of a word like pneumatic).

    As I pronounce mnemonic the first vowel falls somewhere between the [i] in beet and the [ɪ] in bit. Manjoo and I pronounce the word almost identically with a slight difference in the front/back place of the first vowel. The sequence of vowels and consonants is the same: CVCVCVC.

    Conan also mentioned mnemonic devices. His pronunciation is quite distinct from mine. In fact it's a pronunciation I'd never heard before [mɛmnɑɾɪk] as if the word was spelled <memnotic>.

    I thought this might be a simple performance error, not a fixed pronunciation, but he uses the same pronunciation later in the segment. It appears to be his somewhat intentional pronunciation of the word.

    There's an obvious effect of the initial <mn> in the spelling of the word. An onset cluster not possible in English. Of course when the [m] is the coda of one syllable and the [n] is an onset of another that's a perfectly acceptable sequence because it's no longer a true cluster. That's one possible fix for a spelling confound on phonology.

    But I suspect it's more than just a fix. I wonder if it's not also the result of a couple other influences: memory and hypnotic. Memory is obviously a relevant word probably assumed to be a related form. Hypnotic isn't as direct a connection, but the relevance of psychological terms and 'mindwork' types of tricks and strategies pushes it forward as an influence. Once you've got the initial mem- and you need to put the 'mn' sequence in there and you know the word ends with [ɑCɪk], the [ɑɾɪk] of nearby hypnotic can easily push aside the [ɑnɪk] of already corrupted mnemonic. Perhaps.

    I didn't find loads out there. A Google™ search for "memnotic" brings up almost 5000 items as raw hit results, not all of them relevant or even accurate. "Memnotic device" brings up only about a dozen.

    It's an interesting blend.

    Friday, October 02, 2009

    Linkin' logs

    A Daily Portmanteau gives just what the name promises: one portmanteau every day. Some of them are pretty good. I have even had the chance to use hangry in conversation with Buffy recently. Don't make Buffy hangry. You wouldn't like her when she's hangry.

    My First Dictionary enjoyed a volcanic boost in popularity when Ross Horsely started it earlier this year. I laugh at some of the entries, cringe at some of them, and shake my head nervously at most of them.

    The link to John Wells's Phonetic Blog has changed. He's now on blogspot at Professor Wells won't be posting for about two weeks, so now is a great time to catch up on any of his posts that you've missed. His old site didn't work with my RSS reader, but the new site is ready to go. And of course, well worth your time if you're interested at all in phonetics.

    Jack Windsor Lewis' Phonetiblog is another important stop for such topics. I've been reading his posts for a while.

    Several of the blogs I read are collected in a folder I've labeled "Peevology". I've got a bunch of posts started in the queue, responding to the claims, complaints, premises and analyses I've found in those blogs. Some I understand. Some I don't. Who knows when I'll get around to finishing the posts.

    The Grammar Vandal hasn't posted in a while, but I just have to keep checking in on a blog that says, based on a minor spelling issue "I can’t imagine how many mistakes were made at so many levels within the company for this shirt to have been put on shelves and sold." I suppose the presence of your instead of you're on a T-shirt means someone on the board of directors lost a finger, and someone in the mailroom has been widowed. Poor spelling is a scourge, people!

    The Grammarphile at Red Pen, Inc. likes pointing at typos and giggling, as does the wielder of Mighty Red Pen, who likes to pick out errors with a slightly more temperate tone. All harmless fun.

    And yes, I even stop by Martha Brockenbrough's SPOGG blog to see what she's up to.

    After reading these and other more aggressive complaints, I turn to Gabe Doyle's Motivated Grammar for some familiar and reasonable descriptivism.* He does a fine job addressing issues of usage with evidence taken from actual language rather than the evidence created from an ideal speaker. Go read him with high expectations.

    *Not that all prescriptive views are unreasonable. I'm not being a snob here.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    I talk gibe

    The recent auto-industry goings-on have put my friend David Shepardson (auto-industry reporter for The Detroit News) in the spotlight in all sorts of fun and impressive venues.1 He's a regular on the Diane Rehm show. He's almost got his own folding chair in Jim Lehrer's NewsHour studio. And until The Detroit News recently updated their photo file, his high school yearbook picture was a regular feature on Washington Journal during phone interviews with Peter Slen.

    In the meantime... my Facebook page is booming!

    This is one of those wonderful opportunities to tease Dave about something that I really don't think is embarrassing.

    I recently received a copy of the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage. It's a hefty text. Each entry striving to provide both informative observation, and helpful advice. A snippet of Dave's writing is included as an example of benign but better-avoided alternate usage. He used jibes when he should have used gibes.

    The argument is reasonable that, for the sake of simplicity, language should adopt only one form per sense. There's no reason to strive for two spellings if nothing but variety is accomplished by the alternation. But the argument that language should only accept one form is unrealistic. Language will always have some sort of redundancy. When studying language, and defending this fact from my descriptivist stance, I'm not saying that it should be this way or that language is better this way. I'm just saying that it is this way and it seems to work fine. And in language, acceptance is determined by what happens in that language. Language is as language does2

    True -- Garner's advice is more concerned with the general confusion surrounding jibe/gibe/jive. I have no problem with that concern. But I don't really see how the example from Dave's writing could be confusing.

    It's hard to say how representative the OED citations are on details like spelling. In citations for the verb "gibe/jibe" 15 of 16 examples are spelled with initial <g>; for the noun 6 of 9 in <g>, 2 in <j> and 1 in <i>. Of course we can't just take those numbers as representative of current spelling conventions because the earliest is from 1567 and the most recent is from 1893. So at least historically <gibe> looks to be the clear dominant form. But now?

    A Google™ search runs into problems because we want to compare relevant forms only. We have to make sure that we're not counting instances of <jibe> meaning agree: read jive.

    Garners Third Edition has introduced a Language-Change Index with such issues in mind. It's a wonderful contribution to the purposes of the text. In a coming post I'll take a look at the feature as well the work's other treatments of the prescriptivist/descriptivist dialogue.

    1. Previously I've mentioned Dave's appearance in the America Heritage® Dictionary. Tho access to the AHD is no longer offered through it looks like you can get to it through Yahoo Education. The entry for Mace is there intact with the citation of Dave's use of the word as a verb.

    2. The terms of this claim deserve to be revisited and clarified.

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    Safire remembered

    The posts I've done out of frustration with William Safire were a lot of fun to write. And tho my first reaction to hearing of his death was to lament the loss of the occasional kindling for my own tiny little flame war, I'm now glad to have read some kind words about him from the linguistic community.

    I'm especially happy to contrast their words with the thoughts of a friend who has sought to diminish Safire as "merely a wordsmith" who "wowed the hick hoards and the Right's craven captains of capitalism." Merely, Alex? C'mon.

    On the ADS LISTSERV Gerald Cohen comments: "Safire was a very valuable link between academia and the general public on matters of lexicography, and (bless him) etymology."

    Grant Barrett, who has never been afraid to point out the gaps in Safire's scholarship, has posted in memory of Safire's generosity:

    He supported the Historical Dictionary of American Slang when it applied for funding during my editorship, by writing letters of support that shone with erudition and respect. He gave my book, the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, a much kinder review than it deserved.

    Perhaps most importantly, he gave me credit as often as possible in his column for helping him with his research, which allowed my own star to rise in the "language dodge," which is what he called this maven-rich, grammarizing, languagey niche we both inhabited. He did this for lots of people and he did it unbegrudgingly.

    Steven Dodson at languagehat posts a very fine memory of Safire's graciousness in response to Dodson's demanding editing of Safire's Political Dictionary:

    He fully appreciated my pickiness about details and had no hesitation making changes I recommended, even occasionally adding chunks of text I provided; what's more, he credited me by name in those entries and added this heartwarming text to the acknowledgments: "For this fifth edition, Stephen Dodson provided the kind of creative copy-editing and a lust for historical accuracy and semantic precision that a political slanguist expects in dealing with the Oxford University Press, world’s greatest lexicographic organization."

    It's nice to see that linguists know how to hold on to their standards and share a kind thought as well.

    Saturday, September 26, 2009

    A stillborn neologism

    Here's a new and not very promising vocabulary word:

    The 28-minute program -- quite possibly the first ever birthermercial -- features community access production values, heavy use of foreboding strings soundtrack, and standard-issue Birther ideology.

    Birthermercial fits into the X-mercial form alongside infomercial and other less successful runts of the litter, like webmercial and edumercial.

    Sure it's clear. The semantics are manageable: if you know what a birther is, you can probably figure out what a birthermercial is. It'll fit into conversations that can occur with people of all regions, professions, classes, political views, and most ages. It's relatively easy to say. It doesn't sound too similar to other words. But it's not likely to catch on.

    It's not applicable to something that comes up a lot. Or has ever come up. There aren't that many commercials that even mention the issue of Obama's birth certificate. And even if there were, the issue won't be relevant beyond the length of Obama's presidency. Even if the word does remain relevant to future presidents —which isn't likely— how necessary is such specificity? If the semantics of birthermercial were to widen and be applied more generally, it would have to push out the words or phrases already in use. We can use negative ad or conspiracy theory or paranoia to point to such enterprises. I'm not sure how long the verb swiftboat will last, but it's already handy as a more general term for engaging in this type of smear campaign.

    A search for the term brings up about 150 results on Google™.* All of them in stories about one commercial. The article linked to above uses the word once in the headline, once in body of the story, and twice in subsequent updates. A follow-up posting uses the word three times all in the body of the story. That smacks of hope that the word will last. It won't.

    *About 1180 hits are reported as found, but as usual, those results overstate the actual number.

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Exactly like nothing we've ever seen

    Undiscovered animal, alien, or a hoax? How about none of the above?

    allowscriptaccess="always" allownetworking="all" allowfullscreen="true"

    Again with the suspension of ignorance. We don't know what any aliens look like. So to say that this looks like an alien requires that alien be shorthand for what we have imagined or previously suggested that some aliens look like. And undiscovered of course means previously undiscovered. Both of those abbreviations are reasonable and common in conversation.

    But it's quite a stretch to say that a hairless sloth is the most bizarre discovery.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    This is why I have such a hard time keeping up with politics

    On the September 6 broadcast of Meet the Press, David Gregory pronounced distrust as if the syllabification was di-strust rather than dis-trust. How can I tell? Because he didn't aspirate the /t/. Listen:

    Let's do a little lab.
    Put your hand in front of your mouth. Say spit.

    Leave your hand there and say pit.

    Notice the difference between the two? You should have felt a stronger puff of air after the /p/ of pit. The difference is represented in IPA with a small superscript 'h' on the stop when aspirated.
    spit: [spɪt]
    pit: [phɪt]

    The rule simplified: when a voiceless stop occurs initially on a stressed syllable, it's aspirated. Aspiration is that little puff of air. Do the above test to hear the difference in all the following voiceless stops.

    The [s] before each stop changes the conditioning environment. When the [p] [k] or [t] aren't the first segment in the syllable, they aren't aspirated.

    So, some possible explanations of Gregory's unaspirated pronunciation of distrust:
  • He just messed it up, and normally he would have pronounced it [dɪsthɹʌst] with the standard syllable initial aspirated /t/. This would make sense because the morphology of a dis- prefix and trust root is probably still intact in his competence.

  • If that morphology is not intact, Gregory might be syllabifying either on an analysis of a di prefix strust root (very unlikely), or a single morpheme syllabified with maximal onset* -str- on the second syllable. The latter is possible, but not likely because of the strong semantic preservation of a still relevant -trust root.

  • The standard morphology is intact, but the onset maximization is a stronger influence on aspiration than is syllabification. This is problematic in many ways, but I think it's part of a likely explanation.

  • The morphology and syllabification are not factors as the st string is simply not an environment that conditions or allows aspiration in Gregory's speech, regardless of onsets and codas.**

    Why don't I think this was just a mistake? Because I remember a broadcast from about a year ago, (October 22 2008) when he was talking with Senator Sherrod Brown, (D-OH) that makes it seem this is a feature of Gregory's speech? (about 25 seconds in.)

    Le…let me show you a— a piece of reporting from the Boston Globe where they were talking to Youngstown voters and getting their thought [sic] about this election in such a tight race in your state.

    Because of his pronunciation of Youngstown it looks like Gregory occasionally leaves off aspiration of the dental stop in the string st, even when morphology would typically split the segments into different syllables. He does not however, block aspiration of /k/ in the word disconnect around 45 seconds in.

    Mr Gregory, you've got some 'splaining to do.

    *A simplified theory of onset maximization might be stated as a rule that any segment in a string that can be well-formed on either the end of one syllable or the beginning of another, will be syllabified as an onset segment. The segment in question for this post is the /s/.

    **For the sake of relative brevity I'll leave out of this post the discussion of bleeding, counterbleeding, feeding or counterfeeding.

  • Monday, September 21, 2009

    They must be so honored

    It's bragging, yes. But you can't blame me. There's obviously no way I believe I deserve the association.

    A few months ago I wrote about the silliness of Paul Payack's word-counting scheme. I had forgotten all about the post. Then a couple days ago I tracked some incoming links and found that Stan Carey* had made mention of my thoughts. That's always nice. I went to check out what he said. Here's what I found:

    I’ll limit the links to a handful, each of which I heartily recommend: Ben Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, Grant Barrett, Michael Covarrubias, and David Crystal.

    One of these is not like the others. I left a comment saying that being in such company reminded me of George Gobel's famous line:

    It's not often I can so proudly proclaim that I'm in over my head.

    *Note that Carey's blog Sentence First has been on the sidebar for some time now.

    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Statistics don't lie. People who use them do.

    Mark Liberman makes his latest run at the zombie that won't die: the significance of the changes in the difference between male and female happiness. Douthat, Dowd, Leavitt, Leonhardt and Huffington are not to be trusted on these numbers.

    A general word of advice: if a newspaper article or opinion piece tries to use a study and its statistics to make an interesting point, don't believe it; investigate it.

    Liberman does a nice job of accurately presenting the statistics in a manageable form.

    I'll do my best to capture his point. This idea:

    Is mostly BS.

    But the best part of Liberman's post: the mouse-over text on the first graph.

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    So that was a male chicken?

    Thanks to The Daily Show I now have another example of a verbal stumble from our favorite filthy newsman. This one's not as bad as yesterday's (it all goes down in the first 30 seconds):

    This helps to make my point from yesterday when I suggested that the error was perhaps not just an articulatory error. That is, perhaps the change from [pl] to [f] in the pronunciation of 'plucking' was not just a mix-up of meaningless sounds. There might also have been, for some odd reason, a looming influence of the word fuck complete with it's connotations.

    The point is easier to make with today's clip.

    If you want to log on to My Fox N-Y dot cock, you c— dong— dot com, click the Seen-on-TV tab for the link to the auction site.

    His first stumble, saying cock instead of com is a pretty clear phonetic slip. Maybe the influence of a couple preceding velars in log and Fox and the pronunciation of dot is a little muddy. It almost sounds like he says don instead of dot. And if he has in fact said don there's some flipping around of segments, or even just features, possibly going on. The voiceless alveolar stop [t] is replaced by a nasal [n] (voiced), so the nasal at the end of com might be part of the switch, and it comes out as a voiceless velar stop. This is a little convoluted, and the pattern of flipping and flying segments isn't clear.

    But what happens next is a pretty reasonable guess: when he catches it, and he tries to correct cock he goes way out of his way and says dong instead of com. Why dong? Influenced perhaps, not just by the mess of velars, alveolars, nasals and stops he's been spewing, but also by the semantics of the surprising naughty word that has suddenly gotten all of his attention.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Her reaction: priceless.

    Turn down the sound if there are innocents within earshot.

    What does he say to start off?

    Takes a tough man to make a tender forecast.

    Is that right?

    But after that, he must have meant "keep plucking" right? 'Plucking' starts off with a voiceless bilabial stop [p] which must have been influenced by the voiceless labiodental fricative [f] both at the end of tough and the beginning of forecast, contributing to phonetic assimilation.

    But that lovely taboo gravity has to have been at work there too. He's just got [fʌkɪn] on the mind.

    If you missed his coanchor's reaction, watch again.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is

    Over at the Spectrum blog Ryan Bell recalls a list of spiritual "one-liners" he heard from Jurgen Moltmann. One of the lines confused me:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his presence.

    Why did it confuse me? Because I thought the second half of the coordination was leaving out more than it actually was. What?

    Most of what we leave out of sentences, we don't think about. The following sentences are examples of ellipsis in coordinated structures—specifically, elliptical forms that are more common than the corresponding spelled-out alternatives:

    1a. Are you more likely to eat a peach or an orange?
    1b. Are you more likely to eat a peach or are you more likely to eat an orange?

    2a. I don't want mushrooms on my pizza, but sausage.
    2b. I don't want mushrooms on my pizza, but I want sausage on my pizza.

    3a. Don't run across the road; walk.
    3b. Don't run across the road; walk across the road.

    4a. I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't.
    4b. I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't hit him.

    Tho punctuation and prosody can help disambiguate some structures, there are some structures that just don't lend themselves to a clear understanding. Sentence 3a for instance, would most likely be understood as an imperative telling you to walk across the road. But it could also be understood as two sentences. One telling you to walk. Take a walk. Walk for fun. Just walk. And another sentence telling you not to run across the road.

    Consider 2a. Stressing mushrooms and sausage makes the contrast of two toppings most likely. Stress pizza and sausage and it might seem that I want mushrooms on sausage. Odd. A little awkward syntactically. Another possibility: if mushrooms and pizza get similar stress, and sausage gets the primary stress of the entire utterance, it's possible that sausage isn't a topping, but an independent choice.

    Imagine a slightly different form. Tho this one makes sausage's independence easier to see, it's still ambiguous:

    I don't want mushrooms on my pizza; I want sausage.

    Is there there a silent prepositional phrase — on my pizza — following that banger?

    Example 4a remains ambiguous. Most likely understood with hit him as the omitted verb phrase, but just as reasonable with want to hit him understood.

    I want to hit him, but I know I shouldn't want to hit him.

    The one-liner at the top of this post is confusing if we assume the coordinated phrase has omitted more than just the verb phrase we celebrate. As I first understood the sentence it was structured thus:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but we celebrate our theories about his presence.

    That makes no sense. It contrasts the complement of the preposition with itself. We would expect one complement of a preposition his presence to be replaced with a different complement of the same preposition: say, his kindness. Instead of celebrating theories about his presence they would be celebrating theories about his kindness.

    But what Moltmann almost certainly meant is represented by the following structure:
    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but we celebrate his presence.

    The important difference here is that no longer is the complement of any preposition contrasted. The prepositional phrase isn't even a part of the omitted phrase. There is ellipsis in this form, but not the ellipsis that my first reading used in interpretation. Instead, a direct object of the verb is coordinated as a contrast to the noun phrase that happens to include it as a prepositional phrase complement. This could be made clear (and very likely was, as this was a spoken line) by stressing the two items being set in opposition: theories and presence.
    • We do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his presence.

    That's hard to capture in writing. One strategy would be to specify presence with something that identifies its suggested actuality:
    • We do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his actual presence.

    The ambiguity could also be avoided by completely avoiding ellipsis, and writing out a conspicuously—but not awkwardly—overt verb phrase. Actually, I would suggest leaving out the conjunction and using a lovely semicolon:

    At the Lord's Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence; we celebrate his presence.

    But I repeat, if spoken, this would probably be clear with the right emphasis on the contrasted segments.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009

    Yes, you can use the word that way.

    I kinda hate it when this happens. But I also kinda like it when this happens. Neal Whitman beats me to the punch.

    I had been composing (mentally) a similar post on the somewhat anomalous tense and aspect of Joe Wilson's ejaculation: "You lie!"1 With most other verbs you'd expect the progressive aspect marker auxiliary are and a progressive participle verb with -ing suffix in this context, where the intention is probably something like You are doing this right now.

    Wilson could have been implying that this is something Obama does all the time. Much like You drive so slowly! This of course is usually said when the behaviour is currently … being … done. And the utterer is fed up.

    But for some reason lie lends itself to this form with the notionally simpler sense of just you are doing this right now or even you have just done this. Other accusatory phrases of disbelief seem to work this way: you kid, you jest and perhaps you don't say (as mentioned by a commenter over at Neal's place.) Stop by over there and share your thoughts.

    1. But had I been left to myself I likely would have come up with a bloated and meandering post. Nothing like Neal's sharp work.

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    A little phthalo schwa & some alizarin fricative

    One of my favorite tools on my Mac is the IPA Palette (found here) that allows me to click on each symbol to choose it when typing. Download the package. Put the component in the /Library/Components folder. Then it's available from the menu bar.

    Choosing from here ↓

    brings up this ↓

    I've recently upgraded to Snow Leopard. The menu option is still there, but clicking on it now brings up nothing. "Show Character Viewer" works. "Show Keyboard Viewer" works. "Show IPA Palette" doesn't work.

    There's some sort of workaround that I don't fully understand, and so it isn't reliable. Nor is it practical even if it were to become reliable. I select the palette from the menu then I click on some application in the dock, (seems that only 3rd party applications do the trick) and the palette shows up. And even tho it shows up, it doesn't function. Click click click. No output.

    I know most of you don't care. But if two of you do, and one of you knows something about this and has a little advice... Yeaaaah, that'd be greaaat.

    Saturday, September 05, 2009

    Speak American!

    Joe posted this video over at the Mr. Verb plaza. It's. Amazing.

    The English Only movement is fascinating. So often driven at the same time by such pride and such insecurity. Such assuredness and such fear. Combine that confused stance with the dynamics of the current health insurance volley, and you've got a roiling mass of 'We have a right to tell you how to speak.' I have to imagine that the same boos that are elicited by a reasoned dismissal of death panel rumors or the calm denial of nefarious motivation, are also elicited by the sound of a question asked in an unknown language: I.e. They simply boo when you say something they have no way of processing.

    Thursday, September 03, 2009

    Chupacabra = not very coyote-like coyote

    We have another chupacabra candidate.

    Jerry Ayer pretty much admits that not knowing what to call it is good enough for him. So he might as well call it a chupacabra. And why not? It'll help bring some attention to his taxidermy business.

    But the issue of what we expect a chupacabra to be is harder to resolve. From an investigative position I have to say that longer front legs doesn't convince me this isn't a coyote. Some will argue that just looking at it should be enough evidence that it's not a coyote. It doesn't look like one and that's how we decide most animal classifications. This is an OK argument as far as we trust that seeing something provides us with enough information about it to include or exclude it in a class. If we take the time to identify what exactly doesn't look like a coyote, we come up with the same argument. Just more detailed. No fur = we trust it's not a coyote. But long legs? This is why just lookin' can be so easily countered. Because impressions need to survive investigation.

    The old saying about looking sounding and... tasting like a duck is really based on an interplay of feature analysis and prototypes. Prototype theory suggests that we have an idea of an ideal duck in mind when we call something a duck. And we know when we see a good example of what we were thinking.1 Feature analysis works by proposing a checklist of those features common to a set. Proper features might be something like physical characteristics. Size. Shape. Skin/coat type. When distinguishing species, it's safe to say that something [+scales] is not the same species as something [-scales][+fur]. So for any category, feature analysis will suggest that there is a set of features that are necessary and sufficient for classification. So every member of a group is and must be [+F1] [+F2] [+F3]...

    But features are tough to lock down. Features like quadriped or biped can be used when categorizing members of some classes. So among other things, a human is [+biped] and a dog is [+quadriped]. But a husky with two legs is still a dog. Even if it was born with two legs. So we can add a set of transitive features. A little mammal born of a dog is also a dog.2 Even if it doesn't have some of the features we use to identify dogs. But this is just passing the buck. Such transitive features rely on the premise that the class of one dog is already known. In some cases this is valid. Like the difference between a Ford and a Chrysler.3 But we haven't moved too far with the analysis. We find ourselves stuck with the ultimate feature being tautological. A dog is [+dog].

    This question of the chupacabra works by subtraction. The argument is almost explicit that since it's "unlike anything native to Texas" it must be that mysterious chupacabra that we have never before seen. That's not a very strong argument. But we use some of the assumed features of the chupacabra in our analysis. I wrote about this exact topic a couple of years ago.

    So now we see that Texas has produced two of what look like the same weird little sucker. And only 130 miles apart. I'll go out on a limb and say that if we find a few more of these creatures that look like bald coyotes with long front legs, a new category will be created. Some name will be suggested. But no one will accept that this is the little monster. The chupacabra will still be an elusive little wingless bat that must remain [+mysterious].

    1. That's too simple to be very helpful. But we'll move on for the sake of space.
    2. One big question here: are we sure it's a dog because when born of a dog it must be a dog, or because we trust that it simply will be a dog?
    3. Let's avoid the arguments about quality usually heard in the vicinity of a set of truck nuts and bumper sticker of Calvin taking a leak.

    Tuesday, September 01, 2009

    To put it simply

    These good people feel that there is an almost indecent nakedness, a reversion to barbarism, in saying No news is good news instead of The absence of intelligence is an indication of satisfactory developments. Nevertheless, The year's penultimate month is not in truth a good way of saying November.

    -H.W. Fowler

    So... I'm back to posting again. 'Nuff said.

    Thursday, July 30, 2009

    Call it an honored, stunned silence

    Top 100 Language Blogs 2009

    Lexiophiles Top 100 Language Blogs list for 2009 included me at #27. In about two weeks I'll have the time and energy to get back to putting up the types of posts that somehow earned me this undeserved ranking.

    And thanks for checking in.

    Saturday, July 04, 2009

    Yes we can!

    Wishydig has been nominated for Lexiophiles Top 100 Language Blogs list for 2009. Last year I was ranked #73.

    That was a pure judgment ranking. But this year, votes are half the formula. Sure, that means that popular blogs have a huge advantage. So a strong showing from my 7 readers will probably only help me in some theoretical way. But all it takes for evil to triumph is... no that's another plea.

    Some things to keep in mind:

    Yes, posting has been slow lately. I've been away from the megaphone, but the mouth will rise again!
    Voting begins this Wednesday, July 8 and will close the July 27.
    I'm in the Language Learning category. I don't know if that matters.
    It's an honor to be nominated.
    It'd be a much much greater honor to do well in the rankings.
    Rather than ranking the quality of the blog, if they ranked by the fragility of the ego, I'd win in a landslide.

    No pressure.

    Friday, June 26, 2009

    (Oh) for ____!

    When I was living in North Dakota I heard the phrase 'for cute!' alot. (Never in reference to me of course.) I understood it to be close in meaning to 'that's (so) cute!' or 'how cute!' or something along those lines. I heard it from teenagers to forty-somethings. From the Dakotas and Minnesota. I was going to write about this a while ago, but I'm glad I put it off.

    Since I don't remember hearing 'for ____' with anything other than cute filling the blank, I was thinking that it was a single idiomatic phrase and not a productive construction. The only variation I heard was the occasional 'Oh!' introducing the exclamation. Not relevant.

    That's why programs like Antiques Roadshow are so wonderful.

    A couple weeks ago I was watching, enjoying all the Northern Prairie/Upper Midwestern dialect features from the show's stopover in Bismarck. Plenty of open Os, defricated dentals, raised pre-velars, and yah you betchas. Unfortunately I didn't hear any ufdahs. That was one of my favorites.

    But during the closing credits two treasure hopers were whooping about the good time they had. For fun! said one. For neat! said the other. And earlier today, when I mentioned elsewhere that I want to be recycled when I die, a North Dakotan friend commented That's icky. For gross.

    So if we know that 'for ____' is productive, the next step is to find out what constraints there are on productivity. It looks like adjectives fit in the blank. But all adjectives? Semantically it looks like the adjectives are more likely to be those of judgement and quality. It's not very likely that someone would say 'Oh, how pleated!' unless they find pleats particularly exciting. Similarly I wouldn't expect to hear something like 'for transparent!' or 'for polished!' even though there's really no syntactic constraint. But for all you Northern Prairie/Upper Midwest speakers: are there any adjectives that wouldn't fit in the blank?

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    Hoekstra is a verb

    Hoekstra: v. to complain about your own situation by comparing it to a much much worse situation. To act like a hilariously whiny little bitch.

    I wouldn't bet on this one catching on. It's less than a dozen hours old. But I love the story behind it.

    U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, has a Twitter account. And apparently, when he learned of Twitter's role in the Iranian protests, he felt a certain bond with those who were organizing their stand against the oppressive theft of democracy. He felt a camaraderie with those who were putting their lives at risk for the sake of democracy.

    Around noon today, he posted the following in solidarity:

    Now that's a tone deaf tweet.

    some tweets in reply:

    paganmist: @petehoekstra Had to move all my stuff to a new office w/o a corner view. Now i know what the Trail of Tears was like. #GOPfail

    netw3rk: @petehoekstra Someone walked in on me while I was in the bathroom. Reminded me of Pearl Harbor.

    DeadBattery: @petehoekstra I splashed my face with cold water this morning after shaving – which is similar to having been waterboarded.

    And one from a friend:
    Marcy's dog, Lincoln, put its wet nose on my foot, now I know how Siegfried and Roy feel.

    And now there's a blog.

    [Update: Stopped Clock has alerted us to the new URI

    Saturday, June 13, 2009

    Crossing the threshold of hype

    If you watched the video in the last post and you follow reputable language bloggers, you could probably guess that what caught my attention was Craig Crawford's acknowledgment of the Global Language Monitor's claim that English now has one million words.

    But acknowledgment doesn't sound right to me. How about 'Crawford's duped acknowledgment...'? That's more like it.

    I've written about Payack before, and so have the important language bloggers. The arguments haven't really changed, but they're worth repeating.

    A relaxed definition of word would easily lead to several million words in the English language. At any point that you decide to limit the definition of word you've got an argument to make. Do we count rock and rocks as separate words? How about mouse and mice? How about the different tenses of verbs?

    Once we get past such grammatical distinctions we have the hard part. Certainly teeter-totter and seesaw and hickey-horse should be counted as words distinct from each other, but what about potato bug referring to the Jerusalem cricket and potato bug referring to the woodlouse? Is potato bug1 distinct from potato bug2?

    And then we have words like tubular which used to mean resembling a tube then during my childhood I learned it as cool, far out, groovy, outasight. One word or two? Does the second meaning even count as a word? How do we count slang?

    How about ginormous? Fucktastic? Krunk? Bevemirage? The arguments about what is and what isn't a word immediately dissolve Mr Payack's claims that on June 10, 2009 at 5:22 GMT the millionth word entered the English language. The only way this determination is even theoretically defensible is if Payack and and his algorithm were able to account for ever slang word and every bit of jargon and every portmanteau and sandwich word and regionalism and simply say when you count everything without argument about what should be counted, there are X words known to and used by English speakers.

    And that's only theoretically possible. And the count would be many times what Payack says it is. Especially if phrases like "wardrobe malfunction" are counted as words. How about other compositionally predictable items like "terrorist attack" or "computer program"? If they occur together enough, are they single words in addition to the individual words they comprise?

    But he claims that his number is only an estimate and it's meant to celebrate the globalisation of English. We already know that English is global and we could have celebrated it a long time ago. And there's no reason to celebrate the threshold now just because he has marked the date.

    According to a barely skeptical story

    [Payack's] computer models check a total of 5,000 Web sites, dictionaries, scholarly publications and news articles to see how frequently words are used, he said. A word must make 25,000 appearances to be deemed legitimate.

    So it's a late celebration if we decide a word needs 10,000 appearances from 10,000 sources. And it's a very early celebration if we decide 30,000 appearances on 2,500 sources is necessary. And that is if we agree on a standard of word-form count.

    Craig Crawford's home turf is CQ Politics, not Language Log or Visual Thesaurus. So we can't expect his bullshit sensor to be as well-tuned on issues of lexicography. But there is a tendency to believe a sparkly press release merely because it would be cool for it to be true. And the coverage of Payack's pronouncement has been more eager than investigative. The linguists are usually included as mere dissenters: stingy academics stifling the entrepreneurial spirit. There are exceptions.

    A BBC4 segment pitted Payack against Ben Zimmer on level ground. With the opportunity to speak plainly in response, Zimmer shut down the claims pretty easily. When PRI's The World reran the story the silliness of such claims was pushed even further to the fore with David Crystal's reasonable voice adding some lovely and firm criticism.

    The relevant segment takes up the first 10 minutes.

    Even the host, Patrick Cox, speaks with a clearly dismissive tone, not just of Payack, but of the headline writers who were "the only people who seemed to like the story and the declaration."

    Bravo Mr Cox. Bravo.

    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Palin and Letterman and cooperation and coordination

    A lot of linguistic fodder packed into one segment on Keith Olbermann's little show:

    Intentions Inferred through Available Extensions

    Sarah and Todd Palin have lashed out at David Letterman for making sexual jokes about their fourteen-year-old daughter. Letterman didn't name a daughter but he claimed the joke was intended as a dig at the older daughter, Bristol. How would we know? Daughter has the intention (think of a dictionary definition) of a 'female offspring.' But when using a term that then has several possible extensions (the actual person or object being referenced) we look for clues as to where the speaker in 'pointing.'

    The joke used the phrase 'knocked up.' Bristol was 'knocked up.' She's reasonably likely intention.

    But Bristol didn't go to New York with the family, so by their understanding, the only daughter 'available' for the jokes was Bristol's younger sister. It's a fair assumption for them to make if they thought that Letterman knew which kids went on the trip, and they assume that he's referring to the family members on that trip. That's assuming a Common Ground understanding about the trip. And the implications then rely on Grice's maxim of quality: assuming that a statement is truthful.

    Letterman then defended himself by offering more facts for the Common Ground: specifically, that he would never make such a joke, so they should trust that his intention was not the younger daughter.

    More on Grice's Maxim of Quality in Jokes

    There's a fuzzy line where Gricean maxims stop being relevant to humor (we're allowed to make up some facts and say more than we have to etc.) and it starts to flout them deliberately. One of Letterman's jokes on the Top 10 list straddled the line:

    2. Bought makeup at Bloomingdale's to update her "slutty flight attendant" look

    Among Palin's complaints: she never went to Bloomingdales.

    OK. It seems pretty clear to us that she's missing the point of the joke. But let's imagine that the joke was worded differently:

    2. Reason she went to Bloomingdale's: to buy makeup to update her "slutty flight attendant" look

    Excusing the clunky rhythm, another reason that wording doesn't work as well is the implication that the trip to Bloomingdale's is a premise on which the joke is built, not a factual introduction of the joke itself. As the joke is actually written, her complaint sounds silly. But it does call attention to that fuzzy line where jokes have to be careful about what facts they introduce.

    Scope of Adjective

    The phrase "slutty flight attendant" gets some attention from Olbermann who wonders if it's fair to use a word like "slutty" to make fun of a public figure. His on-air comrade, Craig Crawford agrees that it's probably too crude. Then Crawford adds

    And of course—uh—it's also an insult to flight attendants

    That reading is possible. Some would say any comparison to Palin is unfair to respectable women. HEY-OHHHH.

    But grammatically this is debatable. If "slutty" is a specifier of "flight attendant" then this isn't really an insult to flight attendants generally. It's a claim that some flight attendants are slutty. And so are some engineers and some librarians and some pilots. So to argue that this is not an insult could offer a structure something like

    [[slutty [flight attendant]] look

    to be contrasted with

    [[prudish [flight attendant]] look

    and the joke is then merely saying that Palin is trying to look like the first type of flight attendant.

    However, there are also readings available that do conflate "slutty" and all flight attendants. Imagine that both "slutty" and "flight attendant" are specifiers of a type of look, we have a structure something like

    [slutty]/[flight attendant] look

    where "flight attendant" is almost a restatement of "slutty". The important distinction in coordinations here is that it's not slutty AND flight attendant but slutty IE flight attendant. If it were the first, it could still be contrasted with that "look" that is specified as slutty BUT NOT flight attendant. Using them in identical coordination the specifications are conflated and cannot be distinguished.

    Which one did Letterman intend? I don't really care.

    Watch the video, another post will address the bit that really caught my attention.

    †Note that a specifying NP, "flight attendant" is awkward or ungrammatical in a predicative role.

    I completed my flight attendant training.
    *My training was flight attendant.

    Monday, May 25, 2009

    A Free Dictionary

    Grant Barrett's book The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English has been bootlegged. And so he's playing along and providing a link to a free PDF since the copyright is his.

    Well, not just playing along. He writes:

    But the main point here is that I'd like to draw people to my site for the free download, not to some shady place on the Internet.

    Head on over.
    No fees, registrations, logins, passwords, ad-clicking, or hoop-jumping required.

    It's realistic and sensible.

    Friday, May 15, 2009

    New slang spawned from phish

    It's new to me at least: whaling

    (from Steve Jobs' Amazon account hacked?)

    If the rumor is true, Jobs would be the latest victim in a string of "whaling" attacks aimed at corporate executives, legal firms, government agencies and other high-value targets. iDefence has reported over 15,000 victims in the past 15 months, saying the hackers would target bank account information to net "millions of dollars."

    I like how intuitive it is.

    And of course Grant Barrett has already got it in his net.

    Thursday, May 14, 2009

    Awkward of the day

    Head over to Ross Horsley's My First Dictionary. He has done some fine work there. Very Edward Goreyish.

    So in that spirit— a tribute to Mr Gorey. My favourite letter of his alphabet was N.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    Summer Reading

    This summer will probably be about as busy as the semester. But it's a fine time to reorganize the table top and move books up in the queue.

    I received a copy of Michael Adams' Slang: The People's Poetry. Looking at the chapter and section headings, my expectations are high. I'll get back to you on it.

    Friday, May 08, 2009

    Third's not always a charm

    News stories about simple homicide and acts of violence typically don't interest me. Maybe if the story looks culturally significant. Or if there's a dash of cannibalism in there. But throw a little ambiguity into a headline or lede and I'll sink my teeth into it.

    Ambiguity is always tasty. When I saw the following headline one meaning pushed it's way to the front:

    Drew Peterson indicted in 3rd wife's death

    The easiest reading for me is that he was married three times and he killed his third wife, not the first two. But other readings are possible. Even if unlikely.

    To interpret the phrase we have to assign a quality that the ordering term refers to. In the headline above, we have very little information for 3rd to refer to.

    David Beaver has recently written a post on a similar ambiguity with the phrase first American. There he suggests the simple reading:
    In general, "the first X" means "the example of an X that was first to achieve Y". In simple cases, Y is just reaching a state in which the description X is appropriate.

    So the 3rd wife is the example of a wife that was the 3rd to achieve 'being his wife.' And that's how I come to my first interpretation.

    To get other interpretations we open up the scope of the ordering. In this case, every different answer to 3rd to do/be/experience what? gives us another understanding. And as Beaver suggests, the possibilities are endless. In a sentence like he killed his third victim we assume that the first two victims were also killed, even tho the sentence doesn't require that reading. He could have maimed the first two. Victims don't always die. But we make a short jump, giving third N the meaning of an individual who was the third to have received the action of the deed we are claiming he committed. This is the same jump that would lead us to read the headline as if this was his 3rd wife to die.

    It's also possible to interpret 3rd wife as the third person to be a wife, not necessarily Peterson's wife. An absolute scope of ordering would require that we find the 3rd human being to ever be a wife. This isn't likely. I don't think Peterson was indicted of killing the mother of Irad.

    But it would be reasonable to assign thirdness to a list of wives that Peterson has been indicted for killing. This could even survive the inclusion of a possessive pronoun, his, if we understand it the same way one might say I saw my third Sasquatch last week. I don't have any Sasquatches. The possessive is more about the sighting than the object of the sighting. If Peterson is indicted for killing his third wife, it could be his third indictment, but not wife.

    There's also the possibility that three wives have died, but only the third one that looks like his work. The scope of ordering could be absolute—only three wives ever have died—or more likely, relative. The story would then probably tell us what the 3 deaths had in common that justifies a grouping.

    We've been focusing on the structure, [[3rd wife]'s death]. And I could go on and on, trying to tackle [3rd [wife's death]] as another possible, and rather awkward, structure.

    But after having just finished a season of Dexter earlier tonight, I think I could stand to cleanse my palate of the macabre. Leno's on. That doesn't help.

    Tuesday, May 05, 2009

    Its dem dadbrn fonez

    The grad students were reeling and stumbling looking for some way to keep moaning about how horrible the schools have gotten and how their cruel English teacher with the leather mask and gag-ball was the best thing that ever happened to them and that's what schools should be again in order for students to be able to write.

    A professor here at Purdue (one that Buffy holds in the highest regard, calling him a sharp reader, and a very diligent stylist) had mentioned to a group of his graduate students that every year he samples submitted undergraduate papers and he quantifies the quality of the work on mechanics and style. Before he had revealed what he has found, all the grad students at the table closed their eyes and nodded dejectedly, jumping in with some form of the seemingly obvious observation: It's just gotten worse and worse. They weren't asking. Not even guessing. Everyone was sure. Students are worse. The professor shook his head. 'No. It's never really changed. It goes up and down. The lowest point was actually about 15 years ago.' That relative stability is what we would expect.

    It takes numbers to convince some people. When you're lucky.

    Ben Zimmer was on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins Monday morning, talking about language change in the electronic age. Fellow guests on the show were Cynthia Lewis, Professor of English at Davidson College, and Pam Kelley, reporter at the Charlotte Observer. When Zimmer's phone connection was cut, in the middle of the interview, I actually wondered if he had just decided bail, and let the party spin its mad little tales without him. I wouldn't have blamed him.

    In his intro to the hour, Collins mixes in a bit of the should-we-be-worried? panic with a dash of the but-language-has-always-changed sobriety. He leans towards worry, but as the hour goes on he sounds willing to learn. Right as things get started he questions Strunk & White's proscription regarding less, calling it a silly rule. But he rolls over too easily when Kelley and Lewis stand firm insisting that it's just plain wrong. They choose to believe that less doesn't go with countable quantities. Ignoring the fact that— it does. And they both agree that they themselves use it with countable quantities. And neither can come up with a good reason that it shouldn't be used that way other than a capricious and unnecessary rule that does absolutely nothing to improve writing or speaking. It's a rule for the sake of a rule.

    Here's a bit from later in the show right after Zimmer was introduced. He comments on the supposed worsening of literacy:

    Zimmer: Studies that have been done on the effects of text messaging, for instance, among students [inaudible] have shown that in fact it has not led to a decline in the ability to spell or a decline in literacy rates. In fact it may very well have the opposite effect. There's been some work done in the United Kingdom where text messaging has kind of taken off 5 years before it took off in the US. And according to those studies, in fact texting may have a positive [effect] on student literacy because they're being exposed to so much more reading and writing just through the act of texting.

    Collins: Cynthia Lewis? Are you certain he's right about that? You're the college professor.

    Lewis: Well I can't say for sure why, but I do know that spelling ability has declined considerably in the 29 years I've been teaching undergraduates.

    Collins: Why do you suppose that is? It can't just be spell check— depending on spell check.

    Lewis: Well I think students don't read as much as they used to. And they are exposed to—you know, as Ben was saying—a variety of texts some of which are much less accurate than others.

    These claims about declines in literacy and writing skill are so easily thrown around as if they represent attested measurements. The professor I mentioned earlier has probably chosen several standards and marks of writing quality that I wouldn't choose. But a few of the things he mentioned were the familiar crumbling pillars. From his work with Buffy I know that he also pays attention to substantial and fundamental matters of organization, clarity, development and style. If he says a word doesn't work, it probably doesn't. The important point in all of this is that his quantification has shown overall stability. And recent improvement.

    In the exchange above, Zimmer mentions research that has produced similar results, (he later specifically mentions David Crystal's book on the topic) and offers a simple, believable suggestion, based on the numbers. No. It's not proof. And the study shows a correlation, not cause and effect.* But it's certainly a more convincing argument than anecdotal evidence. And even a correlation problematizes the claim that texting is harmful.

    Lewis responds by holding even tighter to her observation. And what of the suggestion that all reading helps develop literacy? She turns it around and suggests that spelling is simply declining, and it must be due the small and sloppy portions of reading that kids are doing. What's her evidence? How does she know they're not reading? Not reading what? What does she mean by worse spelling? Is it there/their/they're confusion? Does she regard that the same as there/thare confusion? Those/doze? Has the writing gone down only since the online boom? Are the students at Davidson the only ones that are getting confused by all these less accurate texts? I don't doubt that she believes the trend exists. And I'm absolutely sure that she can mention a student's paper in the last few years that was horrible horrible. Most Horrible. But that's not much of a case against the state of literacy today. Nor does it make the more specific case for texting as the cause of spelling woes amongst these digital whippersnappers.

    Lewis' assurance that the best writers have never been better at her school is probably true at every school in the country. And there might even be some truth to her claim that there's more mediocre (or even bad) writing coming across her desk than there used to be.

    But let's separate slight changes in higher education from changes in society. The make-up of the student population has changed. The percentage of males aged 18-24 enrolled in school was pretty much unchanged from 1965 to 1984. In 1965, 38% of females aged 18-19 were enrolled. In 1984 that number rose to 48%. For females aged 20-21 the number rose from 19.5% to 31.7%. And from 22-24 years of age it rose from 6.5% to 14.6%. The weighting of several groups has shifted, as has enrollment in types of programs. How many students are in the classroom that would never have made it past high school years ago? How many students with strengths in specific areas are now given the chance to attend university because of skills other than composition? And how many of those students would have dropped out of high school in the system of 50 years ago, and would have chosen training from a more limited set of options? These are important variables.

    But I'm most curious about Lewis' analysis of spelling ability. Is it in fact increased inability that she laments? Or is it increased apathy? Perhaps even increased antagonism. Rogues and rebels armed with wanton pens.

    It's unfortunate that with this attitude critics are often unwilling to even see much value in texting conventions as creative problem-solving. When one caller suggests that the limitations imposed by the technology require pragmatic editing, and whittling in combination with time saving techniques, one of the studio guests simply responds That's why I don't text. I just pick up the phone and call. I guess that's one way to avoid bad spelling.

    * I'm assuming that Zimmer is speaking of Plester, Wood and Joshi "Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161. But that's just a guess.

    Friday, May 01, 2009

    Baltimore's son

    Mr McIntyre has moved You Don't Say to his new writing pad, and his new blog is up. Funny, I always figured him for more of a Minima than a Scribe. (Blogspotters should know what that means.)

    It seems he's been waiting a while to stretch out and put his feet up on the table.

    As the observant may have noticed&hellip, now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    Edit or perish

    [If you caught the original spelling of the post title, you'll notice that it now makes a little more sense. Thank you Nancy. If I wanted to make up some clever explanation for the parish/perish pun, I'm sure I could. Especially in a post about editing. But when the red pen is right, I shouldn't look too hard for a way to make it wrong. No dignity in that.]

    John McIntyre wrote Tuesday evening that he mixed himself a nice big Manhattan in honour of his last day at The Baltimore Sun. On Wednesday he explained in his final post that it's the result of "the grim economics of the newspaper busines."

    We can rest assured that my post title is an overstatement. A reasonable voice like Mr McIntyre's will out. He's on Twitter, and that's where I expect to find news of his re-emergence.

    He closed his antepenultimate post with the following two paragraphs that read very differently now that I know his desk is cleared.

    So long as people have difficulty writing with precision and clarity, copy editing will be useful. Whether that usefulness will be recognized, however, is questionable. The 'dead-tree media' — newspapers, magazines, books — are dismissing their copy editors at an alarming rate to cut costs. Electronic media have never invested all that heavily in editors to begin with. These developments have been accompanied by a great deal of asinine rationalization to the effect that writers don’t really require all that much editing.

    So, you smart young people who want to get into the paragraph game, who show some ability and enthusiasm for the act of editing, there is an enormous need for your services. The potential inner satisfactions of taking low-grade prose and turning it into something clearer, more forceful, and more precise have never been greater. Unfortunately, you may not be able to land a job, and any job you land is unlikely to lead to prosperity. For you, going into editing will be like following a monastic vocation. God bless you, and don’t forget to write.