Archive for Uncategorized

The language of love, maybe

I just received an email from a total stranger, a young blonde woman dressed fetchingly in pink (she included two photographs). She may want a romantic relationship with me. But to clarify why I use the modal auxiliary ("may want" rather than "wants"), let me share with you the entire text of the message:

hello how are you doing amd marry from benaughty i will be happy to here from you

One scarcely knows what to say.

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Inaugural embedding again

"Inaugural Embedding", 9/9/2005:


"The evolution of disornamentation", 3/1/2005

"Elaborate interiors and plain language", 6/3/2016.


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Rinse thoroughly

As Mark Liberman has often reminded us, when taking things from newspapers you have to be very careful about what to attribute to the person who allegedly said something and what to attribute to the journalist who reported it or the subeditor who futzed with what the journalist turned in. So when we read this in the New York Times about a Parisian hair stylist named Christophe Robin, caution is in order as we try to assign responsibility for the syntactic blunder:

Mr. Robin, who is based in Paris, has also noticed scalp problems at his salon, but he thinks the issue is not under-shampooing but rather that women are not cleansing properly.

"Women are in too much of a rush," he said. "You need to rinse very thoroughly the products out of your hair."

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AI panics

The last month or so has seen renewed discussion of the benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence, sparked by Stephen Hawking's speech at the opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University. In that context, it may be worthwhile to point again to the earliest explicit and credible AI warning that I know of, namely Norbert Wiener's 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings [emphasis added]:

[T]he machine plays no favorites between manual labor and white-collar labor. Thus the possible fields into which the new industrial revolution is likely to penetrate are very extensive, and include all labor performing judgments of a low level, in much the same way as the displaced labor of the earlier industrial revolution included every aspect of human power. […]

The introduction of the new devices and the dates at which they are to be expected are, of course, largely economic matters, on which I am not an expert. Short of any violent political changes or another great war, I should give a rough estimate that it will take the new tools ten to twenty years to come into their own. […]

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many industries-possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an industrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally.

Thus the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

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Intensifying assed

Laura Ellis, "Why Go There? A Linguist Dissects Jim Gray’s ‘Wild-Ass’ Zinger", WFPL 11/1/2016:

Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul and his opponent, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray squared off Tuesday night in their only face-to-face debate of the election season. For an hour, they talked about the future of coal, Kentucky’s heroin problem, and more.

But it was one particular turn of phrase, used by Gray, that caught people’s ears. It includes a word for the human posterior.

What Jim Gray said:

He wants us to believe
that his wild-assed theories and philosophies
are the remedies for everything

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Open Access Handbooks in Linguistics!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrung my hands on Facebook over the proliferation of commercial publishers' Handbooks of Linguistics. These are usually priced out of individuals' budgets, being sold mostly to university libraries, and the thousands of hours of work poured into them by dedicated linguists are often lost behind a paywall, inaccessible to many of the people who would most like to read them.

That post prompted a flood of urgent discussion; it seemed like this was a thought that was being simultaneously had around the world. (Indeed, Kai von Fintel had posted the identical thought about six months prior; probably that butterfly was the ultimate cause of the veritable hurricane  that erupted on my feed.)

Long story short, a few weeks later we now have a proto-editorial board and are on to the next steps of identifying a venue and a business model for the series. Please check out our announcement below the fold, and follow along on our blog for updates as the series develops!

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Yesterday, #VeteransForKaepernick became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with 264k tweets. (If you're just returning from a vacation on Mars, you can read about the background here or here.)

This reaction confirmed my impression that the end of the draft might be one of the reasons for the growing polarization of American politics. And it reminded me of an experience that I posted about back in 2003. I'll copy the anecdote below to save you all the trouble of following the link.

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Singular They of the day

Today's Questionable Content:

I think we've reached the point where no one who reads this web comic regularly would even notice. For more on those who would, see "Linguistic Reaction at the New Yorker", 3/8/2016.


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When is Ex- ?

This title on a Reuters story on Yahoo gave me a double-take:

Ex-Heisman winner Troy Smith arrested on DUI and drug charge

There is no suggestion that the Heisman trophy award was ever rescinded. I think in my dialect, once a Heisman trophy winner, always a Heisman trophy winner. I've never heard anyone called an ex-Nobel Prize winner. Am I missing something, or is this really unusual usage? I think even O.J. Simpson is still a Heisman trophy winner.

But I can imagine that the line between where I clearly use ex- and where I don't might not be sharp. Ex-president, ex-spouse are clear. (Hmm, there's also 'former' in competition — that's what I would use for 'department head', not ex-.) I find myself sometimes starting to say "Some of our former Ph.D's (never ex-!!)", but then I usually stop and remove 'former'. Aha, they're our former students, but not our former graduates – they're our graduates forever.

But back to the Heisman trophy. Even if you only hold possession of the trophy for a year, actually or symbolically, you're still a trophy winner forever, aren't you?


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Sanford stumble ringtone

In a comment on "Mark Sanford can't even" (2/15/2016), Thomas Lee wrote

If only I knew how to turn those marvelous eight seconds of mumbo jumbo into a ringtone for my iPhone…

Just download SanfordRingtone.m4r, add it to your iTunes library, and sync your iPhone. For Android users, download SanfordRingtone.mp3 and follow these instructions.

What you get in either case is this — the start of representative Mark Sanford's response to a question about whether he would support Donald Trump:

So you might want to reconsider.

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Freedom and flexibility

Muriel Spark's memoir Curriculum Vitae antedates discourse-particle like to the early 1920s. And J.L. Austin, in his posthumous work Sense and Sensibilia, defends like as "the great adjuster-word, or, alternatively put, the main flexibility-device by whose aid, in spite of the limited scope of our vocabulary, we can always avoid being left completely speechless."

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On the attacks in Paris

All of my friends in Paris are safe.

I don't know of any linguistic angle to these events. [Update — I do now, thanks to Sally in the comments.]

But here's a relevant (if ambiguous) comment, in form of Victor Hugo's 1828 poem L'Enfant:

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My usual blogging hour has been overwhelmed recently by a minor operation, course prep, research obligations, Ware College House events, and even a little sleep from time to time. So here are a few items from my to-blog list that I don't have time today to do justice to.

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