Archive for Language and the media

Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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"Perform a sex act"

How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.

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Internecine strife at Language Log?

Are we seeing the first signs of discord at Language Log Plaza? Mark Liberman seems to be flatly rebutting Geoff Pullum's "no structure at all" remark about what he calls "Trump's aphasia." Mark maintains that Trump's speaking style is no different in kind from any other human's spontaneous speech, even crediting him with "eloquence." Geoff, by contrast, seems to regard Trump as barely capable of expressing himself in human language. This looks like the beginnings of a proper scholarly punch-up. Is Liberman pro-Trump and Pullum anti? Have Mark and Geoff fallen out?

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Jones and Palin on noun-pile headlines

From "Dr. Fegg's Encyclopedia of All World Knowledge", by Terry Jones and Michael Palin:

[h/t Don Porges]

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"Love in Translation" (with footnotes)

In the Aug. 8 & 15 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Lauren Collins has a "personal history" piece entitled "Love in Translation" (subtitled, "Learning about culture, communication, and intimacy in my husband's native French"). It's very nicely written and will surely be of interest to Language Log readers. But Collins relies on some linguistic research without giving proper credit, an oversight I've tried to rectify below.

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Seven nouns

"Pilot Fish Project English Channel crossing bid begins", BBC 8/5/2016. Turns out this is two French guys aiming to cross the channel in a home-made pedal-powered submarine:

Two men attempting to cross the English Channel in a pedal-powered submarine have begun their journey. French engineers Antoine Delafargue, 33, and Michael de Lagarde, 36, plan to travel 135 nautical miles (250km) from Plymouth to St Malo. The vessel, which the pair designed and built themselves, left on Friday, travelling at 3km/h (1.86mph), a spokesman told the AFP news agency. Their trip is expected to take seven days.

John Coleman, who sent in the link:

A record? Pretty much totally opaque to me.

He means for consecutive nouns in a headline, I think, not distance traveled in a home-made pedal-powered submarine. Though presumably that will also be a record.

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Campaign for promoting falls awareness

The Health Promotion Board (Bǎojiàn cùjìn jú 保健促进局) of Singapore has launched a campaign to promote awareness of falling.  Here's the poster they circulated in conjunction with the launch:


(Source)

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Clamp down on English

In media reporting on current events in China, two of the most conspicuous terms one encounters are "clamp down" (qǔdì 取缔, qiābā 掐巴, qiánzhì 钳制, etc.) and "crack down" (yánlì dǎjí 严厉打击 / 嚴厲打擊 [to show how different simplified and traditional forms of the characters can be]).  There are also numerous other similar terms with related meanings in common use, such as those for "ban; forbid; outlaw; suppress; repress".  These clamp/crack downs and bans can be directed toward Islam, Christianity, feminism, human rights advocates / lawyers, any form of dissent, and so forth.  Yet no other clamp down has occasioned so much spontaneous and widespread opposition from those representing a broad spectrum of a large segment of the general population as the recent announcement of the new rules governing online video games.

"Mobile game devs are very pissed about China’s new censorship rules", by C. Custer, Tech in Asia (7/6/16)

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Transformer Trump

From an anonymous colleague:


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Don't be awkward

Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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The NYT catches up…

Or maybe David Crystal does — as reported in Dan Bilefsky, "Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style", NYT 6/9/2016. Better late than never, in any case.

For some background, see

"The new semiotics of punctuation", 11/7/2012
"Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics", 11/26/2013
"Generational punctuation differences again", 8/1/2014
"Query: Punctuation in personal digital media", 2/23/2015

And even: Jessica Bennett, "When your punctuation says it all (!)", NYT 2/27/2015

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What other people might put it

depp

Comedian Doug Stanhope is unable to sleep at night over the way his friend Johnny Depp is being pilloried as a wife-abuser by Amber Heard (she says he hit her in the face with a cell phone); so he did the obvious thing any friend would do: he submitted an expletive-laced article about his angst over the situation to The Wrap. (It has 9 shits, 7 fucks, and one asshole, all cloaked in partial dashification by The Wr––'s cautious c–nsors.) But this is Language Log, not Celebrity Embarrassment Log, and my topic here is syntax. Stanhope and his girlfriend Bingo "have watched Amber Heard f––– with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from being f–––ed with," and he now believes it is time to "tell the f–––ng truth" about his friend:

Bingo and I were at Johnny's house for most of that Saturday until just before the alleged assault. We assumed initially that his dour mood was because of his mother's death the day before. But he opened up in the most vulnerable of ways that it was not only his mother, but that Amber was now going to leave him, threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn't agree to her terms. Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might put it, including the manner in which he is now being vilified.

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Two dozen, two thousand, whatever

For Times Insider, David W. Dunlap has an article about some of the more entertaining errors and corrections that have graced the pages of The New York Times: "The Times Regrets the Error. Readers Don't."

Among the goofs is this one from a Q&A with Ivana Trump that appeared in the Oct. 15, 2000 New York Times Magazine:

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