Archive for December, 2008

No word for integrity?

According to Michael J. Jordan, "Corruption in Bulgaria tests EU expansion", Christian Science Monitor, 12/31/2008:

As the economy worsened here, so, too, did corruption, says John Heck, who runs an EU-funded, anticorruption project in Sofia. The problems are ingrained deeply into modern Bulgarian society, he says, "Integrity – if you look in the Bulgarian dictionary, you won't find the term."

This is an alternative version of an old anti-corruption anecdote about how language X has no word for "accountability", for X = {French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Bemba, Chinese, …} — see "Solving the world's problems with linguistics", 12/17/2006.

Although I don't know any Bulgarian, I disbelieve Mr. Heck on general principles: when someone makes a sociological point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong. (And if they say or imply that speakers of language L have no way to express concept C, then you'll almost never never lose by betting against them.)

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More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence

As a public figure, you're in trouble when the media are less interested in what you have to say than in how you say it. This is now the sad situation of Caroline Kennedy, whose filled pauses seem to be getting more press than any other aspect of her bid for Hillary Clinton's senate seat.

A sample of the stories: "How Many Times Can Caroline Kennedy Say 'You Know' in Under a Minute?", Gawker, 12/27/2008; "Say goodnight, Caroline: How JFK's daughter flubbed the audition to become the next Senator Kennedy", NY Daily News, 12/28/2008; "Caroline Kennedy roasted over lacklustre press debut" AFP, 12/30/2008; "Kennedy's 'you knows' become political fodder", AP, 12/31/2008.

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Blagojevich

Several Language Log readers have asked me what a linguist might be able to do with the undercover tapes in the escalating case of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. The simple answer is, “I don’t know; I haven’t heard them.” That puts me in the same predicament with his lawyer, Ed Gensen, who faces the problem of having to defend the governor on charges that, so far at least, have not been accompanied with the hard evidence allegedly on the tapes. But hey, that’s how the system usually works. Prosecutors wait as long as possible before revealing their best evidence. Among other things, this helps to delay the defense from preparing as quickly as it could.

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The Hokey Cokey as a hate crime

One scarcely needs to comment at all sometimes. I am most grateful to Victor Steinbok for alerting Language Log to an article in the Daily Telegraph (the link will be given below) about how singing the old song "The Hokey Cokey" could be defined as a hate crime, at least in Scotland. You might like to reflect for a minute, before I give you the link, on how this song could conceivably stir up hatred against any racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural group. A sample of the lyrics (you can read the whole of the lyrics here):

You put your left arm in, your left arm out
In out, in out, you shake it all about
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around
That's what it's all about
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Knees bent, arms stretched
Raa raa raa…

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Gaelic as a bonsai word bag (with two missing)

Back in October, Allan Brown wrote a piece in Times Online about the money being spent on promoting and broadcasting the basically moribund Scots Gaelic language. It seemed at first that he was making a reasonable critique: spending about $30,000,000 on a digital TV service for a language with no more than 50,000 speakers, all of them bilingual in English and most of them without digital TV, could be argued (though linguists aren't supposed to think this way) to be an enterprise of doubtful value. But just as I was getting interested, Brown blundered into linguistics and revealed his dumb side:

I say language but Gaelic isn't one, not really. Its vocabulary is tiny, with no form of saying yes or no and attuned to a distant, pre-technological world. It's essentially a kind of rural patois, a bonsai idiolect; a way of specifying concepts central to a particular, highly codified way of life.

Yecchhh. Everything about the layman's concept of a language that I rail against is there.

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The biter bit

In re-reading my post on Prof. Fish's attempt to correct the syntax of an AT&T call center employee, I'm led to wonder whether his cri de coeur ("It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct") is itself syntactically correct.

The basic construction here is what is traditionally called "extraposition from subject" (see e.g. here for further discussion and examples). It involves an expletive pronoun it (sometimes also called a "pleonastic" or "dummy" pronoun) in subject position, standing in for a sentence-final clause that might have been the subject:

It's a shame that things turned out so badly. = That things turned out so badly is a shame.

It's not clear what she wanted. = What she wanted is not clear.

It's odd how well the timing worked out. = How well the timing worked out is odd.

So the sentence "It is a factual matter what is and is not syntactically correct" would be normal, though awkward because of the three repetitions of "is", the hard-to-parse "and", etc. The version with the what-clause in subject position would be "What is and is not syntactically correct is a factual matter".  However, adding "as to" between "matter" and "what" is not only redundant, but (it seems to me) probably ungrammatical.

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What is putatively inviolable but it got violated anyway?

I was busy throwing out works by Jerry Fodor today (one really has to, every year or two, or one's whole office would eventually become clogged and unusable) when I noticed that the title of his December 2005 Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the (published in Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association 80:2 [November 2006], 11-24) is a violation of the Coordinate Structure Constraint:

What Is Universally Quantified and Necessary
and A Posteriori and It Flies South in the Winter?

You might think it would embarrass a famous defender of the idea that we have innate knowledge of universal grammar if he unreflectingly wrote and published a sentence that violated an important constraint of universal grammar. But it won't.

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Grouch v. Ernestine

Yesterday in the New York Times, Stanley Fish got his peeve on with some representatives of my former employer, AT&T ("Return of the Old Grouch", 12/28/2008). Although the real problem seems to have been the difficulty of arranging for voice mail to be turned on, he focused on a linguistic irritant:

… finally, after pressing a number of zeros, I was rewarded with the voice of a live person who said, “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”

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Implicit restriction of temporal quantification

Today's Get Fuzzy:

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Incommunicado

I may perhaps have commented before that I am a firm believer in the pessimistic principle that every upgrade is a downgrade. So when I saw on December 22 a message from our technical staff at the University of Edinburgh saying that on the following day the Unix servers would be taken down "for the installation of security patches and general maintenance", I naturally felt a chill like the coldness of the grave.

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Filled pauses and faked audio

After a period of having her staff send answers in writing to written questions, Caroline Kennedy recently granted an interview to Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger of the New York Times. On 12/27/2008, the NYT published an 8,600-word transcript of the interview, along with a conventional summary presentation whose online version includes a sidebar with nine short audio clips.

Sheila at Snarker Gawker listened to the first audio clip, and asked "How Many Times Can Caroline Kennedy Say 'You Know' in Under a Minute?" Sheila's answer was 12, and she remonstrated that "We can't listen to two years of this! Caroline: every pause need not be filled with wordage, you know?"

But for me, the most interesting part of this story wasn't Caroline Kennedy's choice of pause fillers, but the New York Times' editorial policy with respect to audio clips from interviews.

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Alternative semiotics of footwear flinging

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"Any" = "hardly any"?

One of the segments in CNN's "Planet in Peril: Battle Lines", 12/14/2008, led with this quotation about the market in shark's fins:

PETER KNIGHTS, CO-FOUNDER, WILDAID: The tradition will end. The question is will it end before there's any sharks left?

This seems to be one of those cases where the interaction among multiple negatives and scalar predicates ends up one negative off, plus or minus. At least for me, Mr. Knights' sentence means roughly the opposite of what he intended, if it means anything at all. (I take it that he meant "… before there's no sharks left" or "… before all the sharks are gone".) But apparently CNN's editors didn't have any problem with it — was this a sign of a difference in grammar, or just another indication that mis-negation is hard to fail to miss?

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Deflationary language

Things have been rather quiet here at Language Log Plaza. Monday I was the only one in the office. With nothing else to do I decided to play an old Victor Borge tape and it gave me an idea that might be an interesting game you can play during the holidays.

Victor Borge made inflationary language popular, or at least his presentation of it did. It was a great idea for the glory days of constant inflation, but things are just not the same today. We’re now told that deflation is rampant in our economy. Naturally, that would call for Victor Borge to revise his inflationary language routine to its opposite. Since he’s no longer with us to do it, someone has to. Try it. It’s lots of fun and it makes a nice holiday party conversation. So here are some samples to get you started:

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Those Brits are hiding something

In other news about mysterious Winter Solstice traditions, at least two of this morning's (American) comic strips feature a reference to the (British) observance of Boxing Day. Here's the take on it at Sally Forth:


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