Archive for Inflection

Taking a selfie

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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Whom loves ya?

What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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The accusative of panic

On the Muskegon Opinion page at m live in Michigan, Paula Holmes-Greeley posed a Question of the Day: After this election, what will pull our country together. Among the clowns who answered the call for comments (people saying that we should start an impeachment movement, or that all the Republicans should jump into the sea), Harry Masters posted this comment:

What will pull the country together?

The question should be "What/Whom has so divided our country?"

My question is different: What or who is responsible for teaching Americans grammar so badly that when commenting online, i.e. communicating publicly rather than conversing, they will change who to whom just as a shot in the dark, to cover themselves against the vague fear that who might be incorrect? What or who is the source of the nervous cluelessness that leads to this sort of panic-attack accusative?

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Sing, sang, sung

According to the UK Daily Mirror's report on Whitney Houston's funeral:

The funeral service included a eulogy by Kevin Costner, who starred with Whitney in her hit film The Bodyguard, and a performance by Alicia Keys, who sung with tears in her eyes.

What the linguist notices here is that the system of around 200 irregular verbs in English is so complex and hard to memorize that native-speaking professional journalists and editors are unable to pick the right preterite form for extremely common verbs. Alicia Keys, of course, sang with tears in her eyes.

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Myaamia revitalization and Meskwaki insults

Two conferences I really want to attend are currently in progress. The one I'm at is in Milwaukee, on Language Death, Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization; there have been some wonderful talks here, highlighted by "Searching for our talk" by Daryl Baldwin, head of the Myaamia Project at Miami University (that's Miami in Ohio, not Florida): an inspiring and moving description of his and his tribe's efforts to revive and revitalize the Miami language, an Algonquian language that had not been spoken (until Baldwin began his personal journey) for over a hundred years but that is richly documented from past times, from Jesuit missionaries onward.

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Be appalled; be very appalled

It is traditional for readers of The Daily Telegraph to write letters to their editor saying how "appalled" they are by the terrible abuse the English language suffers daily. One little neologism, one split infinitive or other such stupid shibboleth that's easy to spot, and they're on it like wolves, excoriating the usage and protesting that the syntactic sky is falling. Well, earlier browsers of the photo gallery that the Telegraph has put up on its website concerning the riots and looting in Tottenham (north London) over the weekend will be shocked not only by the scenes of masked looters, buildings ablaze, police cars torched, and a double-decker bus going up like a roman candle, but also by the caption under a photo of a trashed and gutted ATM lying on its side round the corner from a bank:

A looted cash machine lays down an alley

(Added a day later: I've been surprised that the Telegraph hasn't yet changed the caption. When CNN wrote that clues to the earth's future may lay in the past, they changed it soon after Language Log commented on it. The Daily Telegraph's people clearly don't read Language Log.)

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We have the stadia, he has the mafia

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, spent the day before yesterday in Zurich with two high-power celebs, Prince William and the soccer star David Beckham, lobbying to get the World Cup soccer tournament hosted in Britain in 2018. Said Cameron: "We have got the stadia, we have got the facilities…", and I guess I was thinking, "You can take the boy out of Eton but you can't take the Eton out of the boy." I wondered how his Latinism would go down with the officials of the famously corrupt International Federation of Association Football (FIFA).

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Genitivizing the ungenitivizable?

Bob Ladd visited his doctor's office today. Which wouldn't normally be news for Language Log; but while waiting to be called he idly picked up a magazine, as one does. It was Birds, the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and he spotted a linguistically interesting item in an advertisement offering this:

5% off your next cottage holiday for Bird’s readers

Bob was truly puzzled by the spelling of the penultimate word. Rightly so, I think.

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Making linguistics relevant (for sports blogs)

The popular sports blog Deadspin isn't the first place you'd expect to find a lesson in inflectional morphology. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the recent post "Learn Linguistics the Latrell Sprewell Way," featuring this shot of a linguistics textbook:

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Inflected Adj/Adv

Following up on my commoner posting, I write to ask for some data. What I'm looking for is cases where person A uses an inflected adjective or adverb (comparative or superlative) and person B objects to it, saying that A should have used the periphrastic variant instead, or declaring that the variant A used is "not a word" or "not English". It's ok if you are person B, so long as you can cite the source of the material you objected to. It's also worth noting cases where someone says explicitly that they are unsure of which variant to choose.

Some things that need flagging: if person A is not a native speaker; if person A is a young child; if the original production is likely to have been a deliberate invention, intended as play or display, or to have been a quotation.

Now some information about what's in my files already. The items are listed in their base forms; some of these were collected in their comparative form, some in their superlative form, some in both. (Judgments on comparatives and superlatives aren't always parallel, by the way.)

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commoner

James L., in a comment on Mark Liberman's "Concerning" posting:

"The second thing to say is that it's commoner in spoken registers…"

Shouldn't that be "more common"? I ask, fully expecting to be proven incorrect.

Every so often on Language Log we discuss inflectional (commoner) vs. periphrastic (more common) comparatives and superlatives, and the topic has come up again and again on ADS-L and sci.lang, often in response to someone's claim that some particular inflectional form X is just wrong.

Sometimes the claim rests on a belief in One Right Way, in this case the assumption that an adjective or adverb takes inflection or periphrasis, but not both as alternatives. If you also judge X to be not what you would say, then it must be wrong and the periphrastic variant must be right.

Even if you don't subscribe to One Right Way, you might still project your personal dislike of X onto others.

In every case I've seen where a complaint about X has been lodged, it turns out that X is attested, in fact attested in serious writing, and in many cases X is also listed in reputable dictionaries. Both things are true for commoner.

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