Eric Baković

Website: http://idiom.ucsd.edu/~bakovic/

I'm an Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at UC San Diego. My interests are in all things phonology, which I occasionally blog about at phonoloblog.

Posts by Eric Baković:

    Acting, speech, and authenticity

    In advance of the fifth and last season of The Wire, HBO released a documentary-like special called "The Last Word". The very first line is from an interview with series protagonist Dominic West, who says: "What makes The Wire so amazing is its level of authenticity." (Watch the first part of the special here.)

    Even now, after having re-watched the entire series several times, I'm floored by the irony of that line, spoken in West's native British dialect (born in Sheffield, but of Irish descent). West plays Detective James "Jimmy" McNulty of the Baltimore Police Department, and McNulty is a very American character: breaking all the rules in a very selfish (but also self-destructive) way, all in the name of some greater good (doing "real police" work and catching the bad guys). So how authentic can the show be, if this very American character is played by a Brit?

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    Protesters

    The word protesters has for obvious reasons jumped into abnormally high-rotation on the news radio dial, and to my surprise, many of the members of the media (on NPR and the BBC) that I've heard use the word are pronouncing it protésters [pʰɹəˈtʰɛstɚz] rather than the way I would pronounce it, prótesters [ˈpʰɹoʊˌtʰɛstɚz]. (Please ignore the r-coloring I've indicated on the last vowel, which reflects my r-ful pronunciation; it's the difference in stress that I'm interested in.) I think I've pinpointed both the justification for pronouncing what I'll arbitrarily call "the media's way" and why I pronounce it my way; read on below the fold if you're interested, and let us know what you think in the comments.

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    William F. Shipley, 1921-2011

    [Update: a memorial page for Bill, to which people can contribute thoughts, pictures, etc., can be found here.]

    It saddens me greatly to report that William F. Shipley passed away on January 20, 2011. He was 89 years old. Bill was my first linguistics professor, my first advisor and mentor, my first academic collaborator, and my dear, dear friend. I already miss him more than I am able to put into words.

    Bill completed his dissertation under the direction of Mary Haas at UC Berkeley in 1959, a grammar of the Native California language Maidu (published in the University of California Publications in Linguistics series in 1964, with a dictionary and texts published in 1963). In 1966, he left an appointment at Berkeley to be among the very first faculty to participate in the big experiment that UC Santa Cruz was at the time, and he retired from UCSC in 1991.

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    Bilingualism is good for you — but not for me, thank you.

    While travelling in Spain last week, I found myself waiting in the car for a long enough period of time that I decided to see what might be on the radio. By some cosmic coincidence, the first station I tuned to happened to feature a discussion of language.

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    Enduring Voices channel on YouTube

    I'm a bit tardy in reporting this, but better late than never: the endangered language research team of K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson, in collaboration with National Geographic, have started a YouTube channel for their Enduring Voices mission. (Read more about it here and here.)

    Enduring Voices on YouTube

    The last time I'd mentioned Harrison and Anderson on Language Log, back in July, their documentary The Linguists had just received an Emmy® nomination for "Outstanding Science and Technology Programming". Since then, Harrison's book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages has been published (in September), and there was an associated splash in the media (in October) concerning Harrison and Anderson's discovery of the 'hidden' Tibeto-Burman language Koro. Sorry, I've been away from my desk. I'll try to do better.

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    What does nth least X mean?

    I've thus far avoided hearing or seeing many political ads (not having cable television or listening to commercial radio has its advantages), but yesterday I happened to hear an ad for Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial campaign. For those not in the know: Meg Whitman is the Republican candidate for governor, running against Democrat (and former California governor and current state attorney general) Jerry Brown; she's also the founder a former CEO of eBay. [Thanks for the correction, Atario.] As a successful businesswoman, much of her platform is about making California more "business-friendly", and so she talks a lot about the apparent fact that California is currently very "unfriendly" to business.

    Anyway, in the ad Meg Whitman says the following. Please note that I don't recall the exact wording of anything other than the part in boldface.

    California is the 48th least business-friendly state.

    I know what she means, of course: of all 50 states, California is extremely unfriendly to business — near the bottom of the list, just two up from the absolute least business-friendly state (whatever that one is). But is that what "48th least business-friendly state" really means? For me it means there's a list arranged from #1 least friendly to #50 least friendly, with #50 being the #1 most friendly. Under that conception, #48 is pretty damned good for business, isn't it?

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    Sure, I'll take a stab at it

    In a comment on Ben Zimmer's post about two linguists being among this year's MacArthur "genius" grant winners (one of those going to my UC San Diego colleague Carol Padden), a reader identifying themselves as "Pflaumbaum" writes:

    Off topic, but I wonder if any of the profs will comment on Emma Thompson's prescriptivist rant:

    http://in.news.yahoo.com/139/20100928/906/ten-emma-thompson-says-youngsters-poor-l.html

    Apparently "ain't", "like" and "innit" make you sound stupid, and we need to reinvest in the idea of, um, as it were, articulacy, as a form of human freedom and power.

    Well, at least Pflaumbaum warned us that it was off topic. Anyway, go ahead and follow the link to read the story about Emma Thompson. It's very, very short. I'll be here waiting, below the fold.

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    Saving energy and you money!

    A new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opened up in my corner of Language Log Plaza this week, and as I walked through the aisles on the day of the grand opening, I noticed signs that read "look up for savings". This company is apparently committed to green building, so they have a bunch of skylights on the ceiling that let in the abundant natural light that we have here in San Diego. The signs pointing this out continue: "our skylights save energy and you money". Others will no doubt disagree, but that conjunction between the direct object energy and the benefactive + direct object combination you money strikes me as very unnatural. I can't think of a single constituency test that establishes something like you money as a constituent to be coordinated, but then again I've been wrong about this sort of thing before.

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    The Linguists receives an Emmy® nomination

    Nat Geo E-TeamThe documentary film The Linguists has just received an Emmy® nomination for "Outstanding Science and Technology Programming". The press release can be found ; for those of you who would like a downloadable keepsake, the relevant nomination can be found on p. 25 of the PDF and Word versions of the press release.

    In related (and even more awesome) news, the stars of The LinguistsK. David Harrison and Greg Anderson — are also featured members of the Nat Geo E-Team on the National Geographic Kids website. You can spot their cartoon likenesses in the full image fairly quickly: they're the only ones who are talking. But there they are on the right for those who just want a quick peek.

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    David Pogue assails singular they

    I'm a fan of David Pogue's tech reviews in the NYT, but his recent review of David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World has me wondering whether I care much for his book reviews. For example, Pogue writes:

    Kirkpatrick's writing is low-key but also workmanlike, and punctuated by jarring grammatical constructions ("Everybody carried their stuff themselves"; "every Thefacebook user had their own public bulletin board"). Ouch.

    Two examples, and both involve singular they? Not much variety there, which indicates to me that there's probably not much variety in the constructions Pogue finds jarring in the book. So why even mention this? It's clear that Pogue has plenty of other justifiable reasons to dislike the book; this comment about grammar seems entirely unnecessary — and, as has been discussed here on Language Log so many times that it's not worth trying to compile a list of links (but see the Wikipedia page on the subject), singular they is just not that big of a deal.

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    Oh, we got endangered languages / right here in New York City

    [ Note: the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza is about as far from NYC as you can get in the continental U.S.; I just couldn't resist the title. ]

    Surely, most if not all of our devoted Language Log readers have by now noticed the recent NYT story "Listening to (and Saving) the World's Languages", about some of the work being done by the Endangered Language Alliance to document and preserve endangered languages spoken in New York City. (And in case you hadn't noticed it, there it is. Check it out.)

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    Translate at your own risk

    Last month I posted a link to a Schott's Vocab Q&A with Claude Hagège on endangered languages. Some commenters immediately picked up on one of Hagège's statements about translation:

    However, there exists an important activity which clearly shows that even though the ways languages grasp the world may vary widely from one language to another, they all build, in fact, the same contents, and equivalent conceptions of the world. This activity is translation. Any text in any language can be translated into a text in another language. These two texts express the same meaning. We can therefore conclude that despite the differences between the ways languages grasp the world, all languages are easily convertible into one another, because humans interpret the world along the same, or comparable, semantic lines.

    Barbara Partee contributed this comment:

    Emmon Bach has put it nicely: The best argument in favor of the universality of natural language expressive power is the possibility of translation. The best argument against universality is the impossibility of translation (i.e. that we often can't really translate exactly). [link added--EB]

    Translation ain't easy, even for skilled humans — and (especially) for machines. Google Translate appears to be among the better tools out there, but as the comments section of what (I believe) was Language Log's first reference to Google's translation tool shows, you can have quite a bit of fun breaking it. Moreover, breaking it is easy and can happen completely inadvertently, a lesson that (from what I hear, anyway) is quite often learned too late by desperate students trying to take shortcuts while doing their homeworks for beginning language classes.

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    Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B

    The book Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B: Linguistic Explorations in Honor of David M. Perlmutter, edited by Donna Gerdts, John Moore, and Maria Polinsky, has just been published by MIT Press. According to the book blurb:

    Anyone who has studied linguistics in the last half-century has been affected by the work of David Perlmutter. One of the era's most versatile linguists, he is perhaps best known as the founder (with Paul Postal) of Relational Grammar, but he has also made contributions to areas ranging from theoretical morphology to sign language phonology. Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B (the title evokes Perlmutter's characteristic style of linguistic argumentation) offers twenty-three essays by Perlmutter’s colleagues and former students.

    Many of the contributions deal with the study of the world's languages (including Indo-European languages, sign language, and languages of the Americas), reflecting the influence of Perlmutter's cross-linguistic research and meticulous analysis of empirical data. Other topics include grammatical relations and their mapping; unaccusatives, impersonals, and the like; complex verbs, complex clauses, and Wh-constructions; and the nature of sign language. Perlmutter, currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and still actively engaged in the field, opens the volume with the illuminating and entertaining essay, "My Path in Linguistics."

    Follow that link at the end — the chapter is available as a free sample. And if you're at the secret cabal, stop by the MIT Press stall at the book exhibit and get yourself a copy.

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    The people question, Hagège answers

    It seems you can't swing a dead cat in a bookstore these days without hitting a recent book on language endangerment and language death. One of the newer entries is Claude Hagège's On the Death and Life of Languages (Yale University Press, 2009). Schott's Vocab (at the NYT) recently invited people to ask Hagège questions about language endangerment and death; and some of them (plus answers, of course) were published yesterday. Check 'em out.

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    Variation and second language transcription

    I was trying to keep up with the news on Iran's "secret new nuclear enrichment facility" a couple of weeks ago, as I'm sure many of our readers were also doing. In reading one update in the NYT, I came upon this quotation:

    [Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear program, said in an interview with ISNA news agency on Sunday, said] that Iran had taken defensive measures against possible military threats against the facility into consideration. "We are always faced with threats," he said. "We don't think that those threats would necessarily take place but we have prepared ourselves for the worse."

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