## Mark Liberman

Website: http://ling.upenn.edu/~myl

## It's not easy seeing green

The whole dress that melted the internet thing has brought back a curious example of semi-pro semi-demi-science about a Namibian tribe that can't distinguish green and blue, but does see lots of different kinds of greeen that look just the same to us Westerners. This story has been floating around the internets for several years, in places like the BBC and BoingBoing and RadioLab, but it seems to be somewhere between wildly over-interpreted and completely invented.

I caught the resurrection of this idea in Kevin Loria's article "No one could see the color blue until modern times", Business Insider 2/27/2015, which references a RadioLab episode on Colors that featured those remarkable Namibians. Loria uses them to focus on that always-popular question "do you really see something if you don't have a word for it?"

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## We play Haydn until the sun comes up

Kevin Knight wrote that "our approach to syntax in machine translation is best described in D. Barthelme's short story 'They called for more structure'", and a few days ago, Jason Eisner described what Kevin meant. So in the same spirit,  here's Donald Barthelme on the past future of journalism,  originally published under the title "Pepperoni" in the New Yorker, in the 12/1/1980 issue, and reprinted in Overnight to Many Distant Cities, 1983, under the title "Financially, the paper. . ."

Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper's timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box, and greeting-card divisions, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data-processing and satellite-communications groups are all flourishing, with over-all return on invested capital increasing at about eleven per cent a year. Compensation of the three highest-paid officers and directors last year was $399,500,$362,700, and \$335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

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## Reliability

On Thursday and Friday, I participated in a workshop on"Statistical Challenges in Assessing and Fostering the Reproducibility of Scientific Results" at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.

Some of the presentations were even more horrifying than I expected — at one point, an audience member was moved to ask half-seriously whether ANY reproducible result has ever been published in biomedical research — but others described positive trends and plans.

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## Transplant semantics

Jessica Firger, "First human head transplant two years away, says one surgeon", CBS News 2/26/2015:

Most people can't wrap their head around the concept. But one scientist believes head transplants in humans are possible and that the first could occur as early as 2017.

In expressions of the form X transplant, for X=kidney, heart, etc., the X comes from a donor, and is installed in or on a recipient. If Kim and Leslie get kidney transplants, their identities remain the same from both a common-sense and a legal perspective.

But suppose Kim and Leslie get head transplants. Are they still Kim and Leslie? Or are their post-transplant identities those of the donors of the heads? And in that case, shouldn't we call the procedure a body transplant?

[The projection of head transplants in 2017 seems to be controversial at best, but even if doesn't happen until 2117 outside of science fiction, the linguistic question remains…]

There's been a certain amount of discussion in the media about the accent of the ISIS spokesman on the video showing the mass beheading of Egyptian christians on a beach in Libya, e.g. on ABC News here. But the video itself has been kept off of the internet, for obvious reasons, which limits the opportunity for crowdsourcing perceptions of the audio. So here is his opening statement:

And the shorter statement that he makes after the gruesome beheadings:

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## SCOTUS: A fish is not a "tangible object"

At least, a fish is not a "tangible object" in the context of 18 U. S. C. §1519:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

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## SOCAL is getting fleeked out

[Guest post by Taylor Jones]

For anyone who's been living under a rock for the past few months, there is a term, "on fleek," that has been around since at least 2003, but which caught like wildfire on social media after June 21, 2014, when Vine user Peaches Monroe made a video declaring her eyebrows "on fleek."

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## Query: Punctuation in personal digital media

From Jessica Bennett:

Friends! I'm doing a piece for the NYT about the ways punctuation has changed — and taken new weight — in the texting era. For example:

• I've started putting a space before an exclamation point in text messages, ie, "Can't wait !" Didn't immediately realize this but upon further reflection decided this is because a straight exclamation point sounds too intense, and I like to have a little space for pause.
• The other day somebody replied to a text about dinner plans with "what time" (no "?") and I was like, UH YEAH FUCK YOU TOO.
• Nobody uses commas anymore, right? A comma after "Hi" or "Hi Jess" is basically, as one friend put it, "geriatric."

What are your texting and/or email punctuation quirks?

What can you learn about a person from their e-punctuation style?

Stories? Theories? Linguistic knowledge?

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## Oscar crash blossom

Attachment ambiguity strikes again! Originally the headline was "Screenwriter Graham Moore reveals he tried to commit suicide during 2015 Oscars acceptance speech for 'The Imitation Game'". Now it's "Screenwriter Graham Moore reveals during Oscars acceptance speech for 'The Imitation Game' that he tried to commit suicide at 16", Daily News 2/23/2015.

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## "They called for more structure"

I think our approach to syntax in machine translation is best described in D. Barthelme's short story They called for more structure….

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## Solving the mystery of "off the cuff"

Peter Reitan, "Paper Linen and Crib Notes – A Well-Planned History of 'Off the Cuff'", Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, 2/20/2015, following up on "The 'off the cuff' mystery", 8/16/2012:

The idiom, “off the cuff,” meaning “without preparation . . . as if from impromptu notes made on one’s shirt cuffs,” dates to the 1930s.  Mark Liberman, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, pushed the earliest known use of “off the cuff” back from 1938 to 1936; but wondered how or why the expression came into being decades after detachable paper cuffs had long fallen out of fashion, and with no apparent immediate impetus.  Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, released in February 1936 (which features a scene in which Chaplin’s Tramp writes notes on his cuffs), notwithstanding; he could not find a satisfactory reason for the decades-long gap between paper-cuff fashion and the “off the cuff” expression; none of the seemingly plausible explanation made sense.  “So what happened?”

For the answer, see the rest of Peter's post.

## Comparative diglossia

In the comments on "From Bushisms to la langue François", there was some discussion of whether French is more diglossic than English — that is, whether the differences between (formal) writing and (informal) speech are greater in French than in English. As I mentioned, it's not clear how and what to count — informal words and expressions, informal morphological and syntactic variants, sentence complexity and discourse structure? Is the issue relative frequency, or categorically different options? And there's the question of whose version of French or English,  as used in what contexts, to look at.

But however we answer these questions, I remain unconvinced that French is more diglossic than English. Here are a few of the routine features of more-or-less mainstream spoken English that are not found in formal writing:

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## From Bushisms to la langue François

Remember the Bushisms industry? Something similar, mutatis mutandis, seems to be springing up in France.

Stéphane Ratti, "De la langue française à la langue François", Le Figaro 2/14/2015:

Pourquoi François Hollande s'acharne-t-il à massacrer ainsi la langue française dans toutes ses interventions? Plusieurs analystes se sont à juste titre posé la question après avoir, avec précision, analysé quelques-unes des monstruosités syntaxiques présidentielles à l'occasion de sa dernière conférence de presse.

Why does François Hollande insist on butchering the French language in all of his comments? Several analysts have understandably asked the question, after having analyzed carefully several of the president's syntactic monstrosities on the occasion of his last press conference.

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