Archive for August, 2008

Hillary unwavers?

If a desert island is uninhabited by humans, it doesn’t follow that humans uninhabit it. Likewise, if half the money was unaccounted for, that doesn’t mean that anyone unaccounted for it. And you can say that someone’s support was unwavering, but you can’t say that it unwavered.

But wait a minute, maybe you can after all.

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Silent in a thousand languages

A follow-up to yesterday’s post on Barack Obama’s half-Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. There’s a difference of opinion about how to pronounce her name, or at least the Ng part (taken from her husband, Konrad Ng). The "real" pronunciation of Ng is a syllabic velar nasal [ŋ̩]. Westernized versions of the name insert an initial vowel, but which one? When she was introduced at the Democratic National Convention last night, the announcer said [ɪŋ], as can be heard in this YouTube clip. But when John Roberts interviewed her earlier today for CNN’s "American Morning," he said [εŋ]. So does the Filipino American anchor for New America Now here, but this Hawaiian host says [ɪŋ]. And Soetoro-Ng herself? In this clip, and this one, it sounds like she says [ɪŋ], or perhaps [ɨŋ]. So let’s go with [ɪŋ].

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Trademark sanity restored

The US Patent and Trademark Office recently embarrassed itself by granting preliminary approval to a ridiculous application by Dell to trademark the generic term cloud computing. It partially reversed course soon afterward by canceling the Notice of Allowance. The matter has now reached a conclusion: USPTO has denied the application. The letter to Dell, which contains numerous examples of the use of cloud computing as a generic term, is available here.

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When zombie rules attack

My post on “The split verbs mystery“, which was stimulated by a comment from Alan Gunn, in turn stimulated a couple of informative reactions from copy editors.

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RIP, Larry Urdang, Logophile

The New York Times carries an obituary today for lexicographer Larry Urdang, who was the managing editor of the first edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language and the founding editor of the language quarterly Verbatim. He studied linguistics at Columbia University and lectured on the subject at New York University, but he never completed his dissertation. His wife Nicole told the Times, "He always said he considered the Random House dictionary his dissertation."

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Tapping on the aquarium glass?

The most recent Partially Clips strip:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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2008 political parapraxis II

A lovely example of a word-substitution error, from David Kurtz’s commentary in “TPMtv’s View of Michelle’s DNC speech“:

[audio:http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/DavidKurtzSlip.mp3]

and uh below us is speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi
((uh)) and a coterie of other Republic- or Democratic leaders

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The languages of the Caucasus

The New York Times has a piece by Ellen Barry entitled Barriers that are steep and linguistic about linguistic aspects of the situation in Georgia, which quotes both me and Johanna Nichols, who unlike me is an authentic expert on the languages of the Caucasus. As newspaper articles go this is actually pretty good, but I thought it might be useful to fill in some of the details.

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Crotch mistake?

My little posting on Nico Muhly’s “I like the crotch on the idea that …”  has elicited a flood of e-mail suggesting that crotch is just a malapropism of some kind — an eggcorn, perhaps — for crux. I’ve dismissed this proposal, in part because of the preposition on in Muhly’s sentence, in part because R. Kelly’s song “I like the crotch on you” seemed to me to be an obvious model, and in part because I’m disinclined to jump to simple error as the explanation for examples I find remarkable at first (especially in the writing of people who take some care about their style).

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The Chinese word for “graboid”

Last night the movie Tremors 4: The Legend Begins was on TV. This is the prequel to the other three Tremors movies, and I had never seen it, so in the interest of learning the fictional-historical background, I watched it. For those lacking a classical education, the Tremors movies are about monstrous worm-like creatures known as “graboids” that emerge from underground to terrorize the population of the tiny desert town of Perfection, Nevada. A Chinese family figures prominently in Tremors 4, and from time to time one of them speaks Chinese. By dint of careful observation I am therefore able to report that the Chinese name for graboids is 土龍 tu³ long² “earth dragon”.

P.S. I think that a Chinese dub of any of the Tremors series would be hysterically funny. Whether the film industry shares my sense of humor and will take on this project remains to be seen.

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Trackback it

This just hit me in a blog my son Morriss just sent me a link to:

“I was going to post this as a comment there, but it’s rather long so I’ll just trackback it. “

My first reaction: no, it has to be “I’ll just track it back”.

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Maya Soetoro-Ng: what’s in a name?

Tonight is the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, and the headliner is Michelle Obama. I’m actually more interested to hear from another speaker who will be brought out to “highlight Barack’s life story,” as the Convention schedule says. That’s Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack’s half-sister, who is scheduled to speak shortly before 7 p.m. Denver time (9 p.m. Eastern time). At the very least, I expect her to lead off with some self-deprecating remarks about her difficult-to-pronounce surname. Since there’s already been such a to-do over Barack’s name (see my two posts from Feb. 2007), you can bet there will be a lot of head-scratching over “Soetoro-Ng.” Let me try to break it down.

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When a word is redundant enough to be omitted

I am greatly enjoying Steven E. Landsburg’s book More Sex Is Safer Sex (Free Press 2007, paperback 2008). Landsburg is a brilliant popularizer of his academic subject, economics. He writes the way popular material should be written, I think. I wish I could do it that well. His sentences are exactly the right length. Mine are too long (this one isn’t, of course, or at least it wouldn’t have been, except that I went and added this bit… oh, damn…). However, just because someone is a brilliant writer, that doesn’t immunize them against unintentional grammar slips. We all make those. And although we on Language Log often defend users of the language against stupid claims of ungrammaticality by prescriptive usage authorities who don’t know their facts, we don’t deny the existence of flatly ungrammatical sentences that occur anomalously in excellent prose. Take a look at this clearly ungrammatical sentence on page 33 of the paperback of Landsburg’s book:

(1) *This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare today.

The question is how to say in precise terms why it is ungrammatical. Keep in mind that this alternative would have been perfectly grammatical:

(2) This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare in the twentieth.

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