Archive for Language and the media

Cantonese poetry recitation

A recent issue (1/7/14) of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) carried an article by a staff reporter entitled "Hong Kong student's poem recital goes viral in the mainland ". The article features this amazing video of a Hong Kong high school student reciting a couple of Classical Chinese poems:


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Plebgate: an overdue apology

It is time for Language Log to set things straight about the Right Honourable Andrew John Bower Mitchell MP. The story of what everyone thought had happened in London on 19 September 2012 was reported here (by yours truly) in this post and this follow-up. It involved (we all thought) a snooty and arrogant Conservative government minister and member of the House of Commons snarling words of class prejudice, in front of shocked independent bystanders, at an honest cop who was merely trying to enforce the laws that Parliament had ordained. The linguistic point of interest was that the nastiest of those words was alleged to be the noun pleb. Not the expressive expletive fucking: Mitchell never denied muttering something like I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us when the police told him to push his bike out of Downing Street through a small pedestrian gate rather than ride it through the big one. No, the scandal was that a minister of the crown had used a contemptuous upper-class snob's term for the common people.

Language Log repeated the story that the British newspapers gloried in; but after 15 months of glacially slow police investigation costing around a quarter of a million dollars, yielding one prosecution, the story now looks very different. It appears the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell was both right and honorable. He was framed by lying cops, and deserves an apology.

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"Because" with non-verbal complement

The American Dialect Society's recognition of because as Word of the Year has sparked a number of intriguing linguistic arguments. In its innovative use, because can take various different parts of speech as its complement: nouns, adjectives, interjections, and even adverbs. (See Tyler Schnoebelen's Idibon post for some corpus analysis.) While Geoff Pullum urges us to treat because as a preposition, regardless of its complement, Gretchen McCulloch has argued that we should be thinking of innovative because as a member of a "class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements." (The complements are "interjectionary" as long as they can serve as interjections, regardless of part of speech, like the adjective awesome or the adverb seriously.)

One of the most peculiar reactions to the ADS WOTY selection comes from "Stumblerette," a self-identified linguist who objects to the choice of because "because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty." Wait, because is not a word? In a previous post, Stumblerette explains that the selection "is stretching the meaning of the word 'word'" presumably because the innovative "because X" construction requires at least two words to work.

Or does it? On Facebook, Stephan Hurtubise shared a clip from last night's episode of "Parks and Recreation" demonstrating that because even works with non-verbal complements.

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'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

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Lumpatious lexicography

In the latest episode of "Sam & Cat," a teen comedy on Nickelodeon, the plot takes a lexicographical turn. As Nickelodeon describes it,

Sam and Cat make a bet with the annoying older brother of a babysitting client that "lumpatious" is a real word. When they discover it is not, they must figure out how to get it in the dictionary.

Here's a clip:


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Cow dialects: They're back!

Kat Chow, "Make It So: Sir Patrick Stewart Moos In Udder Accents", NPR Code Switch ("Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity") 12/30/2013:

Cow-d it really be? Have our ears herd this correctly? (Sorry, I can't help myself.)

Patrick Stewart — ahem, Sir Patrick Stewart — mooed up a storm on the podcast, How To Do Everything, impersonating cows from various regions. You might even say Stewart was code-switching.

A listener who says she moos with "kind of an American, Nevadan accent" posed the question: Just how would a person moo in a British accent? (And, by the way, it's true: cows do moo in regional accents.)

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Passive blindness in the NYRB

In Mark Danner, "Donald Rumsfeld Revealed", New York Review of Books 1/9/2014, a beautiful example of the grammatical incoherence of contemporary intellectual discourse:

Caught by Morris, he is not embarrassed or nonplussed. Nor does he acknowledge that he’d been wrong, or indeed engage Morris’s question—the question about his own responsibility—at all. We get only a blank stare, and the same mild serious attentiveness. The dogged indomitable wrestler will not admit that he has been prevaricating. The filmmaker, determined to pierce the opacity, persists:

Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?
Rumsfeld: Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn’t been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn’t occur.
Morris: Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there at all?
Rumsfeld: Well, I guess time will tell.

We have reverted here to the bureaucratic passive tense that attained its true fame in the mouth of Rumsfeld’s mentor, Richard M. Nixon: “Mistakes were made….”

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Dialect chat on MSNBC

The interactive dialect quiz on the New York Times website, developed by Josh Katz from Bert Vaux and Scott Golder's Harvard Dialect Survey, has proved to be immensely popular. It's been a viral sensation on social media, much like the original Business Insider article on Katz's heat maps back in June (currently at 36 million pageviews and counting). And as in June, Katz's work is attracting plenty of mainstream media attention, too. This morning, I was on a panel discussion talking about the dialect quiz, and regional dialects in general, on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki" (segment 1, segment 2).


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Despicable human scum

For those wondering why on earth an official announcement about the solemn business of executing a traitor would use wildly overheated language like "despicable human scum" and "worse than a dog" (especially about the uncle of the reigning monarch), the BBC has published a short article on the language of North Korean posthumous character assassination.

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Qunu

The little village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, birthplace and final resting place of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, is in the news today. But I have heard no one on the BBC's radio services who can even attempt to pronounce the name correctly. The IPA transcription is ['k!u:nu]. That initial consonant does not sound like [k] as in a word like kudu (the [k] in the transcription merely signifies that the consonant transcribed [!] is voiceless). It is a click consonant, produced by creating a suction effect above the tongue in the roof of the mouth and then pulling the tongue tip away from the ridge behind the upper front teeth so that air rushes in to make a dull "pop" like the sound of a champagne cork coming out. The lips are rounded to amplify the lower frequencies of the resultant click. It is not at all difficult to do: most people can imitate the popping of a champagne cork with their tongue. Putting it into a syllable like [k!u:] is not quite so easy. And after quite a bit of listening to BBC reporters and newscasters during this week of farewell for the great Nelson Mandela, I have heard no one even attempt it.

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Brain wiring and science reporting

People have been asking Language Log (well, at least one somewhat off-topic commenter asked once) whether we have a view about the recent study alleging sex differences in brain wiring by Ragini Verma and colleagues. Language Log does not really regard this as a linguistic story, but keeps an eye on such neurophysiological topics for their occasional implications for language and the way it is implemented in the brain, and also on the language in which such science is reported. The study has been (of course) wildly overhyped, with newpaper stories around the world talking about men's and women's brains being wired completely differently (guys, you have tons of front-back wiring to aid you in spear-chucking and direction-finding; gals, you have oodles of left-right cross-connections to aid you in gossiping and domestic multi-tasking; that sort of thing). For a short, sharp, and well-informed critique of the way ideology (and philosophical error) warps the press interpretation of brain-scan results, take a look at the letter by Rae Langton and John Dupré in the Guardian, submitted by two excellent British philosophers with interests in both the biology and ideology of the relations between the sexes. They call the press coverage of this study a "deterministic fairy-tale" that is "bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all."

Update: A fuller version of the Langton/Dupré letter with discussion can be found on Brian Leiter's blog, and there is more here on Language Log here and here.

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British headlines: 18% less informative shorter

Chris Hanretty, "British headlines: 18% less informative than their American cousins", 11/29/2013:

I’m currently working on a project looking at the representation of constituency opinion in Parliament. One of our objectives involves examining the distribution of parliamentary attention — whether MPs from constituencies very concerned by immigration talk more about immigration than MPs from constituencies that are more relaxed about the issue.

To do that, I’ve been relying on the excellent datasets made available from the UK Policy Agendas Project. In particular, I’ve been exploring the possibility of using their hand-coded data to engage in automated coding of parliamentary questions.

One of their data-sets features headlines from the Times. Coincidentally, one of the easier-to-use packages in automated coding of texts (RTextTools) features a data-set with headlines from the New York Times. Both data-sets use similar topic codes, although the UK team has dropped a couple of codes.

How well does automated topic coding work on these two sets of newspaper headlines?

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Pushing Pekingese

At the expense of English and of other Chinese topolects and languages?

We have seen that, in recent weeks and months, there has been considerable agitation against the increasing role of English in Chinese education and life in general. Supposedly, overemphasis on English is leading to the deterioration of Chinese language skills. Consequently, the amount of time devoted to English in schools is to be reduced, the weight placed upon English in college entrance examinations is to be decreased, and there are calls for children to begin to study English later than first grade of elementary school, which is the case now.

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"Schwa Fire" ventures into long-form language journalism

For several years now, many linguists and their fellow travelers have talked about the need for a magazine about language issues that could capture the public attention. Mark Liberman has beaten the drum at least since his 2007 LSA plenary address (see: "Linguistics: The Magazine"), and there have been a few recent efforts along these lines. But Michael Erard, author of Um… and Babel No More, has taken matters into his own hands by launching an online magazine called Schwa Fire to specialize in high-quality long-form language journalism.

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Stupid police investigation of racist language

As I have frequently pointed out here on Language Log before, the contrast between the constitutionally protected free speech of the USA and the many legal restraints on speech in the UK is really striking. In the latest incident, a British lord posted a tweet with a photo of three Chinese toddlers dressed in watermelon-rind costumes. Two of the kids look delighted, but the one in the center is crying. To accompany the picture the noble lord tweeted a remark that I will position below the jump, because I don't want those of a nervous disposition to see it. His remark was the subject of a police investigation. The question was whether it was so racist that it should be regarded as violating the criminal law. If you think you can bear it, take a deep breath and read on.

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