Archive for Language and the media

Quick, short those kidney futures…

Unfortunate juxtaposition of the week, from today's MedPage teaser:

The last batch was hard to beat, but I think this one manages it.

Comments (5)

Led astray by the corpus of memory: a response to Hendrik Hertzberg

The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.


Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

Synonymy and quotational contexts in New Jersey

The "Say What?" feature on the Doonesbury site quotes this error correction from the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, about the misreporting of something Governor Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael Drewniak said:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.'

What do we learn from this? (Remember, this is Language Log, not New Jersey Politics Log.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (88)

Coca-Cola's multilingual "America the Beautiful"

The Super Bowl may have been a lackluster blowout this year, but the commercials provided an opportunity to inflame the passions of some viewers. Coca-Cola ran a commercial with a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful," with languages including English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (39)

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:


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

"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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

'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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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:


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

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.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

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….”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

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).


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off