Mark Liberman


Posts by Mark Liberman:

    Like thanks

    In addition to the evergreen list of things to be thankful for — family, friends, health, worlds full of wonder — I'd like to make a plug for the internet, that connects us to all of them. Less directly than we might sometimes wish, but much more easily.

    And for anyone interested in speech, language, and communication, the internet and the virtual universe behind it offer an extraordinary opportunity to make voyages of discovery, and to share what we find.

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    Jeopardy gossip

    The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

    To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

    "Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

    Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

    Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

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    UM/UH accommodation

    Over the years, we've presented some surprisingly consistent evidence about age and gender differences in the rates of use of different hesitation markers in various Germanic languages and dialects. See the end of this post for a list; or see Martijn Wieling et al., "Variation and change in the use of hesitation markers in Germanic languages", forthcoming:

    In this study, we investigate cross-linguistic patterns in the alternation between UM, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel followed by a final labial nasal, and UH, a hesitation marker consisting of a neutral vowel in an open syllable. Based on a quantitative analysis of a range of spoken and written corpora, we identify clear and consistent patterns of change in the use of these forms in various Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese) and dialects (American English, British English), with the use of UM increasing over time relative to the use of UH. We also find that this pattern of change is generally led by women and more educated speakers.

    For other reasons, I've done careful transcriptions (including disfluencies) of several radio and television interview programs, and it occurred to me to wonder whether such interviews show accommodation effects in UM/UH usage. As a first exploration of the question, I took a quick look at four interviews by Terry Gross of the NPR radio show Fresh Air: with Willie Nelson, Stephen KingJill Soloway, and Lena Dunham.

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    Taste the translation

    Unfair, but funny:

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    Whore or horde?

    Several people have written to ask whether phonetic analysis can settle a Canadian political controversy, described in a November 19 CBC News article "Sask. MP Tom Lukiwski denies callng female politician a 'whore'":

    Saskatchewan Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski has denied that he referred to a female politician as a "whore" — and interim party leader Rona Ambrose says she accepts his explanation.

    "I did not say 'whore,'" Lukiwski told CBC News on Thursday. "I said 'horde,' as in NDP gang."

    Lukiwski's comment came after Saskatchewan journalist Mickey Djuric blogged about Lukiwski's victory speech at the Eagles Club in Moose Jaw, Sask., on election night, Oct. 19. […]

    "This is a very important election provincially," Lukiwski said. "We got to get Greg back elected."

    "He's too important of an MLA to let go down to an NDP" — and at this point Lukiwski says either "whore" or "horde" —"just because of a bad boundary."

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    Corporate PR + correspondents on location

    From last summer's pilot episode of What The Fox, put together by Zach Fox and a group of other Penn undergrads:

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    Nicholas Wade's DNA decoded

    Today's xkcd:

    Mouseover title:  "Researchers just found the gene responsible for mistakenly thinking we've found the gene for specific things. It's the region between the start and the end of every chromosome, plus a few segments in our mitochondria."

    For background, see "The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009.

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    Ask Language Log: -er vs. -or

    From Matthew Yglesias:

    A few of us at work were talking about why it's adviser and protester but professor and and auditor and after bullshitting around for 10 minutes I thought "maybe I should ask a linguist." Have you ever blogged on this?

    I don't think that we have, though you can find well-informed discussions elsewhere, e.g. here or here/here. The executive summary is that -er is (originally) Germanic while -or is (basically) Latin, often via French.

    But this doesn't help much with the particular examples you cite, since all four words are from Latin via French. Like most things about English morphology and spelling, the full answer is complicated, and also more geological than logical. But the OED seems to have the whole story — lifted from the depths of the discussion, the key point is that

    Many derivatives [formed with -er as an agentive suffix] existed already in Old English, and many more have been added in the later periods of the language. In modern English they may be formed on all vbs., excepting some of those which have [Latin- or French-derived] agent nouns ending in -or, and some others for which this function is served by ns. of different formation (e.g. correspond, correspondent). The distinction between -er and -or as the ending of agent nouns is purely historical and orthographical.

    For a (much) longer treatment — you have been warned — press onward.

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    Mea culpae? Meae culpae? Meis culpis? Mea culpas?

    The following is a guest post by frequent LLOG commenter J.W. Brewer:

    Someone forwarded me a link by a distinguished emeritus professor (I recognize the name, think I once saw him speak at a conference, have the impression his scholarly work is generally well-regarded by people whose judgment I trust) writing about current campus turmoil, and I was caught short by the sentence. “Reflexive mea culpae may buy temporary peace and goodwill but only invite more extreme demands.”

    I got distracted from the substance of the piece (with which I largely agreed, give or take some matters of tone or emphasis) by the notion that this was not only pretentious but Wrong Wrong Wrong (so serves him right for letting pretension lead him into error).  Google books, however, suggests that it’s not an original error, and there are instances in English going back at least to the 1870’s.

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    That should work well

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    WOTY 2015

    According to a press release sent out earlier today,

    Today Oxford Dictionaries announces the emoji, commonly known as “Face with Tears of Joy,” as its “Word” of the Year for 2015.

    They explain that

    This year Oxford University Press partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world. “Face with Tears of Joy” came out a clear winner. According to SwiftKey’s research, “Face with Tears of Joy” was the most heavily used emoji globally in 2015. Their research shows that the character comprised 20% of all emoji used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of all emoji used in the US. This compared to 4% and 9% respectively in 2014. In the US the next most popular emoji was “Face Throwing a Kiss,” comprising 9% of all usage.


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    Cloud Conversations

    David Donnell writes:

    My initial thought was that there was a climate-related "cloud conversation" that the French were oppposing — Michele Kelemen, "Paris Attacks Cloud Conversation At Summit Of World Powers", NPR 11/15/2015.


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    Pronouncing "Daesh"

    In the comments on yesterday's post, the question arose about how the  Arabic-based acronym "Daesh" (from al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, "the islamic state of Iraq and the Levant", maybe better rendered as "Da’ish") would be pronounced in English.

    We now know what Barack Obama's choice is — [dæʃ], as in "dash":

    Turkey's been a strong partner with the United States and other members of the coalition in going after uh the activities of ISIL or Daesh uh both in Syria and Iraq
     uh to help to fortify the borders between Syria and Turkey that uh allowed Daesh to operate
    and to eliminate uh Daesh as uh a force that can create uh so much pain and suffering

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