Archive for Literacy

Famous last words

Guest post by Karen Stollznow


In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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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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Stupid FBI threat scam email

I recently heard of another friend-of-a-friend case in which people were taken in by one of the false email help-I'm-stranded scams, and actually sent money overseas in what they thought was a rescue for a relative who had been mugged in Spain. People really do respond to these scam emails, and they lose money, bigtime. Today I received the first Nigerian spam I have seen in which I am (purportedly) threatened by the FBI and Patriot Act government if I don't get in touch and hand over personal details that will permit the FBI to release my $3,500,000.

I wish there was more that people with basic common sense could do to spread the word about scamming detection to those who are somewhat lacking in it. The best I have been able to do is to write occasional Language Log posts pointing out the almost unbelievable degree of grammatical and orthographic incompetence in most scam emails. Sure, everyone makes the odd spelling mistake (childrens' for children's and the like), but it is simply astonishing that literate people do not notice the implausibility of customs officials or bank officers or police employees being as inarticulate as the typical scam email.

The one I just received is almost beyond belief (though see my afterthought at the end of this post). The worst thing I can think of to do to the senders is to publish the message here on Language Log, to warn the unwary, and perhaps permit those who are interested to track the culprit down. I reproduce the full content of the message source below, with nothing expurgated except for the x-ing out of my email address and local server names. I mark in red font the major errors in grammar and punctuation, plus a few nonlinguistic suspicious features.

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Endangered Alphabets

My attention has been recently drawn to Tim Brookes' Endangered Alphabets project and to its second Kickstarter project, Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh. You can follow the links to find out more; copied below is the text from the Kickstarter page, with images provided by Tim Brookes and Hailey Neal. If you feel moved to pledge to their cause, please do so — they have 127 backers as of this writing, pledging a total of $4,535, with only 19 days to go to reach their goal of $10,000.

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The cost of illiteracy in China

In yesterday's South China Morning Post (Saturday, March 31, 2012), Education section, there is an article by Raymond Li entitled "US136b — Cost of Illiteracy on Mainland". Here's the link (sorry I can't send a link that provides full access for non-subscribers).

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