Archive for Language and music

"Spastic" and a different kind of "word crime"

Weird Al Yankovic's new song "Word Crimes" has generated a lot of heated discussion among linguists and other descriptivist types who didn't take kindly to its litany of language peeves — satire or no satire. (See my original post and Lauren Squires' guest post for extended commentary.) But in detailing various "word crimes," Weird Al managed to commit a linguistic foul of his own. And no, I'm not talking about the split infinitive at the end of the song ("Try your best to not drool"). Weird Al assured his Twitter followers that the line was an intentional bit of trolling:

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25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes"

The following is a guest post by Lauren Squires.


While "grammar nerds" are psyched about Weird Al's new "Word Crimes" video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don't do things the "correct" way. What's behind linguists' reactions are at least three factors.

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Word Crimes

For his new album Mandatory Fun, Weird Al Yankovic has crafted the ultimate peever's anthem: "Word Crimes," to the tune of last summer's big hit, "Blurred Lines."

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"Slide down my cellar door"

In a 2010 NYT “On Language” column, Grant Barrett traced the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in English back as far as 1905 1903. I posted on the phrase a few years ago ("The Romantic Side of Familiar Words"), suggesting that there was a reason why linguistic folklore fixed  on that particular phrase, when you could make the same point with other pedestrian expressions like linoleum or oleomargarine:

…The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw cellar door rendered as Selladore — lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography … to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." … In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people use to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience.

But that doesn't explain why the story emerged when it did. Could it have had to do with the song "Playmates," with its line "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door"? There's no way to know for sure, but the dates correspond, and in fact those lines had an interesting life of their own…

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Corsican polyphony

I spent last Thursday and Friday at a workshop on error analysis, and Thursday evening there there was a Corsican banquet, with a concert by the musical group Sarocchi. The banquet and concert were in honor of Joseph Mariani, who is originally from Corsica. Here's a video of part of an a capella duet, which I took with my cell phone:

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Ode to The Best I Ever Had

Cassandra Gillig mashes up Frank O'Hara's 1957 Ode to Joy (read in 1966?) with Drake's 2009 Best I Ever Had:

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Simply having misplaced modifier trouble

Why does Sir Paul McCartney's 1979 song "Wonderful Christmastime" (it was playing just now in a store I had to visit) make my teeth itch? It is catchy, and perfectly crafted to sound Christmassy, and I admire Sir Paul's musicianship and taste, and in every way his song should be placed in the upper quartile of the Christmas music you hear in every retail outlet now that December's here in the USA. (Think about it: What it's competing with is "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and "Jingle Bell Rock", and numerous other songs that make you want to think again about the merits of Vogon poetry.) So what is it that bugs me? I think I've figured it out. Misplaced adverb.

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"Oppan Chomsky Style"

Somehow, Language Log has yet to take notice of the international sensation that is "Gangnam Style," the deliciously weird Korean pop video that currently has more than 560 million views on YouTube. Here's a good opportunity to rectify that oversight: among the countless spoofs of the video is this one by enterprising MIT students, featuring a cameo by Noam Chomsky at 3:20.

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A life out of key

As I followed last month's big educational scandal in Britain, the story of the teacher who ran away with a young schoolgirl, a song was going round in my head. The obvious one (what else?): Sting's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," the last big hit by The Police back in 1980 (they recorded a moodier reprise of it in 1986). Sting's lyrics ("Young teacher, the subject // Of schoolgirl fantasy…”) are a remarkable piece of writing, telling their story in spare yet evocative phrases. But I've noticed something else: The grammar of the song's chord structure also contributes to the storytelling.

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"G-dropping" in songs and life

One of the requirements for the Introduction to Linguistics course that I teach is a term project, for which I ask students to

In plain language: explain something about how a piece of talk works.

More exactly: analyze the communicative effects of some aspects of one or more linguistic performances, attending to at least two different levels of linguistic analysis.

This is just one part of one introductory undergraduate class (it counts for 20% of the grade), but most of the 120 course participants do something interesting. This year, two students looked at the differences in g-dropping rates between musical performances and interviews, for two quite different performers.

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Life's twists and turns

Swiss Life, the insurance company, has a series of advertisements (see them here) in which the punchline is always "For all life's twists and turns: flexible financial plans", and the main text, in large print to catch your attention, is a non-sentence with weird structure. For example:

I love my house now belongs to my ex-wife.
I never want children are great.
I'm not interested in getting married in church is more romantic.
She's my everything went wrong.
I like working with you is impossible.
You are the only woman I love a man now.

A reader named Shreevatsa wrote to ask me what kind of structure these lines have. Well, no structure that English syntax permits. But I've seen this kind of thing before, and I'll tell you where.

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She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives

Time for some pop-music phonology! Erin McKean directs our attention to a video for "Saskia Hamilton," a song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby from their 2010 album Lonely Avenue. The video is performed by Charlie McDonnell, known on YouTube as "charlieissocoollike."


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Rap scholarship, rap meter, and The Anthology of Mondegreens

Paul Devlin has a fascinating series of articles at Slate on transcription errors in the recently-published Anthology of Rap.  Well, the first one starts out as a review of the book, but after the first paragraph or so, it's all about the Mondegreens: "Fact-Check the Rhyme (The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?)", 11/4/2010; "It Was Written (Why are there so many errors in The Anthology of Rap? The editors respond)", 11/10/2010; "Stakes Is High (Members of the Anthology of Rap's advisory board speak out about the book's errors. Plus: Grandmaster Caz lists the mistakes in his lyrics.)", 10/19/2010.

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Boldog születésnapot!

To mark 20 years of the Theoretical Linguistics program at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, our friends there celebrated with remarkable panache:

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"Bohemian Rhapsody": Bismillah or… Mitch Miller?

The Associated Press obituary for Mitch Miller includes this highly questionable tidbit:

Miller's square reputation in the post-rock era brought his name and music to unexpected places… During Queen's nonsensical camp classic, "Bohemian Rhapsody," the group chants "Mitch MILL-uh!" as if to affirm the song's absurdity.

Surely that's a mondegreen. The AP would have been well-served to consult Am I Right or Kiss This Guy, online repositories of misheard lyrics. It's not "Mitch Miller" that Queen is singing, but bismillah, the formulaic utterance in Classical Arabic that introduces each sura (chapter) of the Qur'an. (It means "In the name of God"; the full formula is bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.")

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