Archive for Ignorance of linguistics

I am much encouraged

At last, an animal communication story involving healthy skepticism rather than vacant-eyed credulity, and human sagacity rather than wondrous communicative brilliance by our furry, finned, or feathered friends. Read on to be reassured about the intelligence of your species.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Phys-splaining

Ray Norris, "Why old theories on Indigenous counting just won’t go away", The Conversation 9/5/2016:

Last year researchers Kevin Zhou and Claire Bowern, from Yale University, argued in a paper that Aboriginal number systems vary, and could extend beyond ten, but still didn’t extend past 20, in conflict with the evidence I’ve mentioned above.  

As a physicist, I am fascinated by the fact that the authors of this paper didn’t engage with the contrary evidence. They simply didn’t mention it. Why?  

Although my training is in astrophysics, I have for the last few years studied Aboriginal Astronomy, on the boundary between the physical sciences and the humanities, and I am beginning to understand a major difference in approach between the sciences and the humanities.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (40)

More bovine excrement to rebut

Recently someone who runs some sort of online discussion forum wrote to ask me about the accuracy (or otherwise) of two bipartite claims. One said that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness" and that "This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and the other said that in non-literate cultures "people have more verbs in their language" while we English speakers "have more nouns," and that "Our language [= English] is actor centered and their language is action centered."

I feel I have to make an effort to aid the benighted, so I responded to this cry for help. I made a few false starts on drafts containing phrases like "utter raving nutball" and "toxic, festering, postmodernist bullshit," which I then erased, and finally I settled down to write a kinder, gentler response. I didn't manage brilliantly — what I wrote won't win any prizes at a kindness-and-gentleness show, if they have such things — but I reined myself in a little (not voicing my suspicion that the writer's brain had been poisoned by reading Derrida, for example, because I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive), and what I wrote back was as follows.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

The writing on the wall

Why won't they call in a linguist?

The producers of "Homeland," a TV spy drama, were filming a scene (shot in Berlin) in which one of the show's main characters walks through a refugee camp run by Hezbollah, and they employed a group of Arabic-speaking graffiti artists to daub the walls with authentic slogans saying "Muhammed is the greatest." (Presumably referring to the revered Arabian prophet, but sounding a bit more like an allusion to the celebrated American boxer; who knows.) But they forgot to hire a trusted Arabic-competent linguist to proofread. They had no idea what the artists had written on the set walls. It turned out to be slogans like "Homeland is not a series," "Homeland is racist," and "Homeland is rubbish." And those graffiti duly appeared on TV (whereupon the guerilla artists, not wanting their subversion to be missed, revealed what they had done).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

A thousand things to say… Not!

It is not clear to me whether Chris Lonsdale, the managing shyster director at the language-teaching company Chris Lonsdale & Associates, is an out-and-out liar or merely has pork for brains and believes the nonsense he spouts. But what is clear to me is that not enough people are paying attention to the conjecture I mention in one section of this paper: that almost all strings of English words are ungrammatical.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe

I'm grateful to Peter Howard and S. P. O'Grady, who within an hour or so both mailed me a link to this extraordinarily dumb article by James Gingell in The Guardian. As Howard and O'Grady pointed out, Gingell's wildly overstated rant illustrates a point I have made on Language Log many times before: that when language is the topic you can pother at will in a national daily despite visibly having no knowledge or understanding of your subject, and failing to get your facts right, and lacking any defensible point. No editor of a national newspaper would let drivel of this sort get by if it were about politics or sport; but on the topic of language they all will.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

No dawn for ape-language theory

As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

The state of the machine translation art

I don't know any Hebrew. So when I recently saw a comment in Hebrew on a Google Plus page of discussion about Gaza tunnel-building that I was looking at, I clicked (with some forebodings) on the "Translate" link to see what it meant. What I got was this:

Some grazing has hurt they Stands citizens Susan Hammer year

This does not even offer enough of an inkling to permit me to guess at what the writer of the original Hebrew might have been saying. It might as well have said "Grill tree ecumenical the fox Shove sample Quentin Garage plastic."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off