Archive for May, 2008

Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on hearing

According to a recently published and very influential book, scientists have recently discovered some amazing things about the differences between boys and girls. For example, girls' hearing is said to be an order of magnitude more sensitive than boys' hearing. And this is a difference with major consequences in public as well as private life:

The difference in how girls and boys hear also has major implications for how you should talk to your children. I can't count the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I'm yelling." If a forty-three-year-old man speaks in what he thinks is a "normal tone of voice" to a seventeen-year-old girl, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing. [...]

The gender difference in hearing also suggests different strategies for the classroom. … [E]leven-year-old girls are distracted by noise levels about ten times softer than noise levels that boys find distracting. … If you're teaching girls, don't raise your voice …. [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys.

That passage is from p. 18 of Why Gender Matters: What Teachers and Parents Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Single Sex Education, by Dr. Leonard Sax, a pediatrician who is the leading light of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). Dr. Sax is a tireless advocate for the view that boys and girls are so different, in so many scientifically proven ways, that it makes no sense to try to educate them in the same classroom.

There's just one problem: the scientific foundations of this "emerging science of single sex education" are exaggerated, misunderstood, or misrepresented. At least, that's true in the cases where I've checked the original research that Dr. Sax cites, including especially his assertions about sex differences in hearing.

I posted about this two years ago; and a couple of months ago, Dr. Sax posted on the NASSPE web site a letter answering my objections. A few days ago, a reporter asked me for my reaction to his letter ("Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008). So here goes — I warn you that this may be a little tedious, unless you're specifically interested in some of the more obscure techniques for studying human hearing, or in the rhetoric of Dr. Sax's movement.

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A Tale of a Pot

A third century C.E. toddy pot from Tamil Nadu with an inscription in Tamil Brahmi

A few days ago an unusual article appeared in The Hindu. It is about the fragment of a pot shown above, a pot used for collecting toddy (palm sap, modern Tamil கள்ளு) made about 1800 years ago. The writing on the pot is in Tamil Brahmi, a writing system that only fairly recently has come to be well understood. It says: n̪a:kan uɾal, Old Tamil for "Naakan's (pot with) toddy-sap". In modern Tamil writing this would be: நாகன் உறல். As the article points out, the fact that a poor toddy-tapper would write his name on a pot is indicative of mass literacy at the time.

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Google Translate Adds Languages

Google Translate has added ten languages to its repertoire: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech,Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian,Polish, Romanian and Swedish. With the languages previously available (Arabic, Chinese (traditional and simplified writing), Dutch, English, French,German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish), Google now handles 23 languages. These comprise less than one-half of one percent of the world's languages, but their speakers include more than half of the world's population.

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Nature's dominoes

My colleague Tom Bever felt he had really hit the big time today when he learned that one of his example sentences had made it into the funny pages. Admittedly, it was in the linguistically hypersophisticated Dinosaur Comics (as usual, click on the image to see it full-size):


For a brief introduction to the example, try the Wikipedia article on garden-path sentences1, or for a rather more thorough discussion, Chapter 1, section 4.2 of this on-line introductory neuropsychology coursebook, in which Tom is referred to as 'a famous psycholinguist'. [Aside to Tom: It's true! Big time! Quick, ask for a raise — my finder's fee is a mere 10%.]

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Sax Q & A

As a result of some Language Log posts a couple of years ago, I get quite a few inquiries from journalists about Dr. Leonard Sax and his science-based arguments for single-sex education. It's in the nature of things that only a small fraction of such discussions wind up in the resulting articles. For example, for Elizabeth Weil's NYT Magazine piece ("Teaching Boys and Girls Separately", 3/2/2008), I wound up sending about 4,000 words worth of emails to the author and her fact-checker, in response to their questions about specific points raised in some of Dr. Sax's writings. In the final article, this all wound up as background to a 250-word passage about sex differences in hearing. (See "Scupulously avoiding sigma", 3/2/2008, for some comments about other aspects of the article.)

I'm not complaining; Ms. Weil had a lot of material to cover, and she didn't have a lot of space to work with. However, another recent journalist's inquiry, raising some of the same issues, inspired me start a new policy. From now on, when I get inquiries from journalists, I'll try to post an edited version of my responses on Language Log. This may be of interest to some readers — and of course our famous money-back guarantee is available to the rest of you — and it will also make it easier for me to deal with subsequent questions about the same issues.

In this case, I'll start with my responses to the four new questions that arrived yesterday afternoon. The answer to the last one brings up some of those emails sent to Elizabeth Weil, which I'll post in an edited form later this weekend.

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Heteronormativity and Indexical Reference

In the first sentence of her dissent from the California Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, Judge Carol Corrigan, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, explained that even though the marriages should not be legally sanctioned, "In my view, Californians should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriages." Leaving aside the wondrous temerity of allow, think for a moment about what a reader will do with that our. Did Corrigan really intend to convey that Californians, or at least  her sort of Californians, don't include gays or lesbians themselves among their number  (though they may have some living next door)? Not really, I suspect, but the pronoun betrayed the thought even so.

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Taboo mystification

This one is beyond me (Stuart Elliott, "Speaking Profanglish",NYT 5/16/2008):

People who attended the Univision presentation were buzzing about a closing remark made by Joe Uva, chief executive at Univision Communications. He wrapped up the event with a jocular, four-word question that ended with the phrase “Are you in?”

The first word of the question was a colloquial expression familiar to Puerto Ricans, which Spanish speakers at the presentation likened to the word bomb unleashed this week on WNBC-TV by the anchor Sue Simmons.

The remark by Mr. Uva was greeted with nervous laughter from the audience members, either because they did not understand what he said — or because they did.

I can guess a few Spanish words that the NYT would view as unfit to print, but none of those that come to mind would fit in the frame "__ are you in?"

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protest of

Back on 9 March, Daniel Schorr peeved on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday about five of what he viewed as media sins against English, the last of which was:

Finally, the commonly used "protest of" some action — wrong. To protest is to proclaim or announce, as methinks thou dost protest too much. What you mean is to protest against.

It's not at all clear what usage Schorr was ranting about here: transitive uses of the verb protest (as in to protest the war, discussed in my posting on approve); intransitive uses of this verb with the (oblique) object marked by the preposition of rather than against (protested of the war); or uses of the derived nominal protest (accented on the first syllable) with the complement marked by of rather than against (a protest of the war). At first, I thought he was talking about the nominal protest of — because he referred specifically to "protest of", and the verbal protest of was new to me (in fact, I find it unacceptable). But then his later references to the word were clearly, in context, to a verb.

So now I'll discuss all three.

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A sofa, a book, a knife, floating in a pool

Helen DeWitt at Paperpools describes an interesting classroom experiment in techniques for (adult) learning of grammatical gender ("Winnie der Pooh", 5/15/2008)

18 students were tested on an artificial-language task, where gender was marked by choice among different articles, as in German:

[They] were given a list of 20 words, each of which had been assigned one of three articles invented for the occasion (fif, led, had). They were given three minutes to memorise the articles; asked to chat among themselves for two minutes; then given a test on the articles.

The number of correct replies reported was:

2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19

In this first test, no particular technique was prescribed, but most students tried to memorize the word list for each article type, or to memorize two of the three lists and assign the third by default.

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Projectile rising?

Today at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall reprises a phrase that caught my attention when he first used it on Tuesday ("TPMtv: Terrymania!"): "[Clinton campaign chair] Terry McAuliffe has managed to turn projectile nonsense into something approaching the sublime".

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approve (of)

William Safire has taken up (in his column in the NYT Magazine of 11 May) the knotty question of whether political candidates should say they approve some message or approve of it. This caught my eye because I've been thinking recently about "diathesis alternations" in general (see here and here), and in particular about alternations in English between direct objects (no preposition) and oblique objects (marked by a preposition). I have an unfortunately large file of cases, in most of which the oblique, intransitive, construction is historically older (with the direct, transitive, construction a more recent innovation). But for approve, the oblique variant is the innovation; the first OED dates are ca. 1380 for the direct, 1658 for the oblique (with P on at first, later supplanted by of).

Safire tells us to lose the of. There are at least five things worth commenting on here.

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Changing your mind

We all change our minds once in a while. We think something is a good idea at first and then we decide that it wasn't so good after all. A recent Post article tells how the Maryland Court of Appeals recently overturned a ruling by an lower court. The former ruling held that when a woman first consents to have sexual intercourse and then changes her mind during the act, this change of mind doesn't override her initial consent. Her "yes" remained "yes." The Appeals Court, in contrast, held that when a woman first consents and then changes her mind in the midst of having sex with a man, that man can be charged with rape. Her "yes" changed to "no." 

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Evocative-phrase-a-day calendars?

Sheldon for 5/9/2008:

(Click on the image for a larger version, as usual.)

In my limited understanding of word-a-day products, they're not likely to give you multi-word noun phrases like "tempestuous bat guano", evocative or not. You might think that there's an unexploited market segment here, for evocative-noun-phrase-a-day calendars and other ENPAD properties. But on reflection, I think not — phrasal evocativeness is too individual.

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There's only one different America

There was a huge one thing going on in Grand Rapids, Michigan today. You know, one. Small step, Giant leap, Unity, Togetherness, Indivisible, all that stuff. This guy John, bit of an also ran, but real nice, he was like

There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership. There is one man that knows how to create the change, the lasting change that you have to build from the ground up. There is one man who knows in his heart that it is time to create one America, not two, and that man is…

You know what? The guy who it was, he was right there, and obviously a bit puffed up at that point, so he kinda did this

John Edwards and I believe in a different America. Hillary Clinton believes in a different America. The Democratic Party believes in a different America.

which, you know, sounds to me like at least four different Americas, but apparently it's just

One America, where we rise and fall together as one people and that’s why we are gonna take Washington by storm this November.

Oh, so that's why we're gonna take Washington by storm. Right, I got it now. One man. One people. One America (different).

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Operatic IPA and the Visual Thesaurus

In my new capacity as executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus (a job title Mark Liberman had some fun with), I'm responsible for editing the content of the website's online magazine and also for creating some of it. I've just launched a new column called "Word Routes," which I'll be posting a couple of times a week. (The column is freely available, but to leave comments or to take advantage of all the other Visual Thesaurus goodness you need to sign up for a subscription.) The first installment of Word Routes is on the word procrastination, which is also the subject of an article I wrote for today's issue of Slate. But rather than just toot my own horn, I wanted to draw attention to some great work that was recently done for the Visual Thesaurus, harnessing the unexpected prowess of opera singers to read the International Phonetic Alphabet.

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