Roger Shuy

Website: http://www.rogershuy.com/

Posts by Roger Shuy:

    Do we have to talk in order to remain silent?

    In the recent case of Berghuis v. Thompkins [560 U.S.____(2010) (docket 08-1470)] the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five to four that persons being interviewed by the police are required to articulate their answers to the Miranda warning that they have the right to remain silent. The case originated when Van Chester Thompkins was being questioned about a shooting in which one person was killed. Instead of invoking his Miranda right to remain silent, Thompkins simply remained silent, which is what the warning seemed to be allowing him to do. In fact, he remained silent through two hours and forty-five minutes of questioning, at which point the detective asked him if he believed in God and prayed, to which Thompkins spoke for the first time, saying "yes." The detective then asked him, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting the boy down?" Thompkins again answered "yes," but refused to produce a written statement.

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    Language variability: pin vs pen and beyond

    I'm not at all surprised that Mark's posts on regional variation in American English (here) and (here) have stirred up such reader interest, because speech variability seems to be one of the first things people notice, even if they can't pinpoint exactly what it is. It's not as well understood that there is a long tradition of studying variation in the languages of the world, even in the United States. But there was a time when the study of linguistic geography was an important part of most linguistics departments. In the 1950s and 1960s you could study with nationally prominent linguists at universities in Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York, Washington, Providence, Berkeley, Cleveland, Madison, Seattle, Austin, and other places. The BIG names in linguistics back then included dialectologists such as Hans Kurath, Raven McDavid, Fred Cassidy, Albert Marckwardt, Harold Allen, Carroll Reed, E. Bagby Atwood, W. Nelson Francis, Uriel Weinreich, David Reed, James Sledd, and others. Their papers about regional dialects were prominent features at annual meetings of the Linguistic Society of America.

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    Crash blossoms and product hazard warnings

    Although recent Language Log posts about crash blossoms have focused primarily on newspaper headlines, this phenomenon is even more important in messages written to warn customers about immanent hazards, where the same readability problems exist, but with heightened significance. For example, this one recently appeared on a Montana gasoline pump dispensing unit.

    STATIC ELECTRIC SPARK

    EXPLOSION HAZARD

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    Another tribute to Dell Hymes

    When Sally announced the sad news of Dell Hymes' recent death, she thanked him for his generosity and personal kindness to her. Thanking is a speech act that we all should use more often.

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    A bit more about content

    I got a nice email from Joshua Fruhlinger about my post on Harper’s denial about having any content in their magazine. It seems that I’m a bit in the dark about how this word is being used in the tech industry these days, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Here’s what Joshua wrote to me:

    The ad is a somewhat cheeky response to a particular way that the word “content” has come to be used in the publication industry in the last decade or so. As the internet has become the main (or at least the most novel and talked about) publishing platform, the tech folks who are designing the new infrastructure tend to label and lump together as “content” the stuff that isn’t in their department – the actual text, video, audio, or what have you that various exciting new publishing platforms are designed to present.

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    Warning: Harper's Magazine has no content

    I was surprised when the mail brought me my October issue of Harper's, where on page 43 was Harper's full-page ad, defining the word, "content," in what seemed to me to be an unusual and counterproductive way.

    The ad says:

    WARNING! Harper's Magazine is 100% Content Free! Everybody gives you "content." But you'll never find that in Harper's Magazine. Instead, you'll get literature. Investigative reporting. Criticism. Photojournalism. Provocative adventures. Daring commentary. And truth-telling as only Harper's Magazine can tell it. Subscribe today and join the thoughtful, skeptical, witty people just like you who pay for culture, not content.

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    Flash: Admitting mistakes gaining in popularity

    A few years ago, before my wife was released from the hospital after hip replacement surgery, her leg began swelling up and she had great pain and discomfort. Quickly she was sent back to surgery to have a previously undetected bleeder repaired. The highly respected surgeon obviously missed it. Next day a huge bouquet of roses appeared in her hospital room, sent by that very doctor. And then, perhaps coincidentally, he retired from practice within the next few weeks. I don’t recall now whether he actually said he was sorry for his error, but the roses gave us every indication that he was. It was a malpractice suit waiting to happen.

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    Verbing up in the trademark business

    It's common practice in the trademark world to never, never, never use your trademarked name as a verb or a noun. If you do this, you'll be committing genericide, because your brand name will surely lose its distinctiveness and pretty soon you'll be losing your market edge. Why else would Xerox try so hard to teach us to say " to photocopy" rather than "to xerox"? Always use your name as an adjective, "Xerox photocopiers." But the New York Times reports that Microsoft's Steve Ballmer doesn't much believe in common practice, and he's now busily ignoring what everyone else is doing. He wants us to say, "he will bing you tomorrow," which more problematically might lead to, "he banged you yesterday."   

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    Linguist jumps out of skin over "sorting head out"

    An article today’s NY Times and another in WalesOnline tell us about a linguist in Wales who was praised for discovering that a murderer — who had been having an affair with his victim — unconsciously revealed his identity as the writer of a fake text message that included either the phrases, “need to sort my head out” and “sorting my life out” (according to WalesOnline) or “sorted her life out” and “head sorted out” (according  to the NY Times). Regardless of which quotation is accurate (assuming that one of them got it right), this can sound like something from an ill-conceived TV cop show and hardly something that would cause the linguist to “jump out of” his skin.

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    Gentleman cows

    Fifty years ago, my job was to conduct field interviews of older residents in the rural part of the state of Illinois as part of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada.  The Atlas was trying to document the words, expressions, and pronunciation patterns of older residents who had lived in the same general area all their lives. This proved to be  a fascinating experience for a young man who had lived in large cities all his life. But it actually made me a good field interviewer because I knew nothing about farming and other aspects of rural life and this ignorance actually legitimized my rather mundane questions about such things as what the farmers called the utensil they use to fry eggs with, the machinery they use  to reap their harvests, and what  they call their animals. I haven’t done linguistic geography since those halcyon days, but this New York Times article about the controversy over FCC’s crackdown (the Bono Rule) on the use of dirty words brought back some fond memories.

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    Diamond, the New Yorker, and corpus linguistics

    Forbes reports that the April 21, 2008 New Yorker article, “Vengeance is Ours,” by Jared Diamond, has recently generated a $10 million dollar lawsuit brought by Daniel Wemp,  a New Guinean who Diamond claimed was pursuing vengeance for his uncle’s death. His efforts are said to have led to six years of warfare that have claimed the lives of 47 people in New Guinea.  Rhonda Roland Shearer’s very long blog at StinkyJournalism.org provides more details. There’s a connection to Language Log because Shearer asked linguist Douglas Biber to assess whether the long, numerous, and allegedly direct quotations in Diamond’s article were actually spoken language or whether they were written language modified to look like direct quotes. Biber is an expert on measuring the differences between written and spoken language, so it was prudent for Shearer to seek his help with corpus linguistics to help resolve the issue.

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    More on syllables

    Not surprisingly, my post on /men tuh list/ yesterday was not well received. I tossed it out, stirred the pot, and it bubbled up. Many readers, some angry, have written me to tell me how utterly wrong my syllabification was. I fully agree.  But that wasn’t what I wanted to communicate. I don’t really care how Mentalist syllabifies the name of that TV program. My point, obviously made too obscurely, or too subtly, or too ineptly, had nothing to do with the phonological property of a word. It had to do with children learning how to read. Language Log readers set me straight, but also they were unanimous in saying that the phonologically correct division of mentalist produces two words totally unrelated to the meaning of that word, men and list. I could be very wrong (not unusual for me), but when children find these two unrelated words in mentalist as they try to split the word into phonologically accurate syllables, the result seems counterproductive to the process of learning to read. As heretical as this may sound, I suspect that sometimes a correct analysis of something can actually hinder rather than help children learn new tasks.

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    Men tuh list

    A new cop show called Mentalist has been one of the big hits of this season’s television fare. It features Simon Baker as a former fortune teller turned honest by renouncing his former fraudulent practice and now working with an unlikely bunch of California Bureau of Investigation officers to catch the bad guys. What caught my eye, however, was the title of the show, which is broken into what the writers believe to be the syllables of Mentalist:

    /’men – tuh—list/    noun

    Okay, the second syllable is actually /t / plus schwa, but I don’t have a keyboard with a schwa, so you understand what I mean by the /-uh/.

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