Archive for November, 2008

This week's HiHB moment

Among the comments on Information Week's story of 11/20/08, "Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced", is this rant from "Guest" (Nov. 20, 2008 8:32:45 AM), which will provide this week's Hell in a Handbasket (HiHB) moment:

I'm not worried. Whenever I see the deteriorating English skills contained in all these blogs and comments, I am convinced that Homo Sapiens are now in a stage of "devolution" and within less than 10,000 years we will once again be equal in intelligence to not only Neanderthals but Cro-Magnons as well. Maybe we will need whatever beasts we can "manufacture" now so we can use them in the future.* not to mention the ridiculous reasoning or lack therof reflected in so many absurd comments.

According to this commenter, not only are English skills deteriorating, but in fact human cognition itself is deteriorating. (You can supply the implied intermediate steps: the English language is deteriorating, language in general is deteriorating.) You don't see such overheated alarm very often.

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Vile signeds

Steve Bell takes us behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace, where Prince Charles discusses the GOAT ("tately", "naybody") and MOUTH "vile", "signeds") diphthongs with his mother the Queen:


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Annals of transitivization?

Mark Liberman has reported on a use of the transitive verb quiesce 'render inactive', in a passive used adjectivally: "Server is currently quiesced". Transitive quiesce seems to be almost entirely restricted to computer contexts, and also to be recent enough to have escaped general dictionaries.

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Annals of Euphemism

When I tried to take a look at my calendar this morning, I got a little box that told me, in red letters:

Error:
There was a network error while attempting to log you in. Please try again. If this problem persists, please contact your network administrator.

Administrator diagnostic information: Failure logged on 21 Nov 2008 07:35:21,243 as incident 15,241; the original exception text is:

com.meetingmaker.sys.RpcException: Server execution error: 9334: Server is currently quiesced (auto-shutdown)

The server log has more information on this error.

(Emphasis added.)

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The "meh" wars

The announcement that the next edition of Collins English Dictionary will be including the indifferent interjection meh (having beaten out other submissions from the public) has set off a bit of a squabble between Philadelphia's two alt-weeklies. Molly Eichel of Philadelphia City Paper blogged that "meh isn't a word — it's a sound effect." Joel Mathis of Philadelphia Weekly responded that meh is "not only a word, but a great word." Eichel emailed me to try to settle the dispute, and I was only too happy to oblige, given my interest in meh ever since my June 2006 post here, "Meh-ness to society." You can read all about it in my latest Word Routes column over on the Visual Thesaurus (where I hang my hat these days).

While I'm in self-promotion mode, why not try the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee? It's an addictive spelling challenge that adapts to your skill level, and it comes with the seal of approval from such Friends of the Log as Languagehat, Mr. Verb, and Jan Freeman. If you're interested in some background on how we made it adaptive, check out my recent post on OUPblog, "Building the Ultimate Spelling Bee." I hope you find the results anything but meh.

[Update: There's a truce in the meh wars. Mathis responds here and Eichel here.]

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An amateur gets it right

We not infrequently point out the gaffes of non-linguists who misuse linguistic terminology and concepts, so I'm pleased for once to have an example of the opposite type, an instance in which a non-linguist has correctly used a technical term from linguistics. In his novel Bad Business at p. 302, Robert B. Parker writes:

"You fucking prick," Lance said to O'Mara. He managed to make the words hiss without any sibilants.

Many people know sibilant in its non-technical sense of "making a hissing sound", but here Parker is clearly using the term in its technical, linguistic sense, in which it refers to a class of consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow passage resulting in a hissing sound. Parker's sentence would be a contradiction if sibilant were meant in the non-technical sense, but is perfectly sensible if sibilant has its technical sense: he is asserting that Lance's utterance "you fucking prick" contains no consonants like [s] and [z], which is correct, but that it nonetheless gave the auditory impression of hissing. Congratulations to Robert Parker.

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My brain hurts

The Typalyzer website gives an instant and fun psychological profile of any blog based on the language used. Asked about Language Log, it says we're "scientists". It's true! It's true!

Although we are "intellectually curious and daring", we "might be pshysically hesitant to try new things." I admit it. I'm so pshysically challenged that I can't even pronounce it.

Further, we "tend to be so abstract and theoretical in [our] communication [we] often have a problem communcating [our] visions to other people and need to learn patience and use conrete examples." Yes, also true. Communcating has never been our strong point. Note to self: more conrete.

But ok, spelling aside, this stuff isn't bad at all, until you get to the next part of the analysis. Which is the most misleading picture of a brain since Dan Hodgins showed us where to find the Crockus:

That's why my brain hurts.

[Below the fold, a note for the curious on how the Typalyzer website works.

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Crockusology returns

No, sorry, I don't have any updates on the brain region named by Dan Hodgins after the eponymous and legendary Dr. Alfred Crockus. But the Neuroskeptic has picked up on some "Educational neuro-nonsense" voiced on the BBC's morning Today Program by Vicky Tuck, president of the (British) Girls' Schools Association:

If you look at the girls they sort of approach maths through the cerebral cortex, which means that to get them going you really need to sort of paint a picture, put it in context, relate it to the real world, while boys sort of approach maths through the hippocampus, therefore they're very happy and interested in the core properties of numbers and can sort of dive straight in …

…in the study of literature, in English, again a different kind of approach is needed. Girls are very good at empathizing, attuning to things via the emotions, the cerebral cortex again, whereas the boys come at things… it's the amygdala is very strong in the boy, and he will you know find it hard to tune in in that way and needs a different approach.

As NS notes, "This is, to put it kindly, confused."

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Speaking (in)coherently

Yesterday, LizardBreath at Unfogged made an excellent point in response to my recent post about Sarah Palin's (in)coherence ("I Think There's A Problem With the Methodology Here", 11/19/2008):

If even the clearest speakers' speech often looks incoherent when transcribed, then this argument establishes that no one can ever be validly criticized as an unusually incoherent speaker. And that can't possibly be right — some people do sound clear and logical when they talk, and other people sound error-ridden and confused.

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The politics of agreement

There was rather an unfortunate fracas in the sherry lounge at Language Log Plaza yesterday. Liberman was still throwing his weight around with evidence that attacks on Palin's language are mostly ill-informed linguistic snobbery, when Pullum, who is much better informed than most snobs, pulled the rug out from under his feet.

Now, at last, we can get discussion of political language from an expert whose credentials are not open to question. Here is presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota (quoted at the Huffington Post, by his mouthpiece Andy Borowitz):

Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement….

Now, it's true that this apposite little witticism reinforces a stereotype (i.e. Obama speaks fluently compared to certain other salient politicos). And it's also true that no evidence at all is offered for the generalization. But it's important to keep in mind that the expert providing the quote, Davis Logsdon, is a distinguished university professor. And Professor Logsdon's primary distinction… is that he doesn't exist.

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What al-Zawahiri called Obama

Since The Economist has come in for a bit of scolding here recently, it's only fair to cite an example that illustrates why it's usually one of the most intelligent and well-informed periodicals around, linguistically as well as in other ways. (The link is to the blog "Democracy in America" at Economist.com, but still…)

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Early Indo-Europeans in Xinjiang

Some quotes from Victor Mair are featured in the NYT today ("The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn't Care to Listen To", 11/18/2008), with respect to the 3,800-year-old mummies found in the Tarim Basin.

Mr. Mair has disputed any suggestion that the mummies were from East Asia. He believes that East Asian migrants did not appear in the Tarim Basin until much later than the Loulan Beauty and her people.

The oldest mummies, he says, were probably Tocharians, herders who traveled eastward across the Central Asian steppes and whose language belonged to the Indo-European family. A second wave of migrants came from what is now Iran.

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"Not all these women actually are"

A postcard from my friend Chris Ambidge, an ad for the comedy movie Stiff Luv (2008), picturing six cast members, all dressed as women:

Something tells me, Arnold, that not all these women actually are.

(To judge from the cast list at the movie's website, I'd guess that NONE of the women actually are.)

Ok, Chris's note is a joke. The sentence isn't grammatical (though it's entirely comprehensible). But what's wrong with it?

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Agreement with nearest

Joel Berson wrote to the American Dialect Society mailing list on 12 November:

In the NYTimes Thursday, Nov. 6, Alessandra Stanley wrote (in "Cheers, Tears and a Sense of the Historic Moment"), "There was many a confessional detour, from Dan Rather reminiscing … to the former White House adviser David Gergin describing …".

This seems awkward, when "there were many confessional detours" is available (and uses the same number of keystrokes).

Many a N is "notionally plural" — it refers to more than one N — but grammatically singular:

Many a linguist has/*have wondered about how to analyze this construction.

So the singular was in Stanley's sentence is just the form you'd expect. But Berson found it awkward, and others agreed with him. Ben Zimmer suggested that the problem was the proximity of the verb to many, in which case you might get "agreement with the nearest": 

There were many a confessional detour…

This still doesn't satisfy me, because the unproblematic many confessional detours is available as an alternative.

As Ben noted, there's a problem here only because the sentence is existential, with there as the grammatical subject (in subject position, preceding the verb) and a referential NP in the predicate (following the verb). In standard English, this predicative NP determines the number of the verb (with some wrinkles for there's). And if this predicative NP has the form many a N, the plural quantifier many ends up as the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb (while when many a N is in subject position, the singular N is not only the head of the NP but also the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb).

It's been a while since we looked at agreement with the nearest, so maybe a re-play of another case involving existentials is in order.

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Blurt and babble

Mark struggles to maintain some sort of balance to counter the amateur linguistics we see in the press concerning the language used by political figures, even to the extent of trying to defend Sarah Palin's often incoherent public pronouncements. But I think she'll continue to outflank him. Here's a recent quote, from the Larry King show (on display in the Doonesbury site's "Say What?" feature over the last few days):

If there is anything that I can do in terms of assisting there and allowing the credence, the credibility that that great vocation, that cornerstone of our democracy called the press, if I can help build up that credibility in the press and allow the electorate to know that they can believe everything that is reported through the airwaves and through print, I want to be able to help.

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