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.