Archive for February, 2009

Weak and wimpy language

Language Log readers seldom have the opportunity to read The Billlings Gazette. So now’s your big chance. A recent article will tell you the way things are out here in the rugged mountain west. We don’t use weak, wimpy words in this part of the country. No, siree. We drink strong coffee, we drive power vehicles, and we don’t use weak, wimpy language.

Those who remember the fallen Montana war hero, Lt. Col. Gary Derby, recently killed in one of the many wars going on these days, have only good things to say about him, including the fact that he insisted that the troops under his command avoid weak, wimpy words, like “I think,” “I might,” and “maybe.” You have to be strong, firm, and optimistic if you’re going to command your troops. Lt.Col. Derby did this very well. But this got me thinking about what happens when academic linguists testify in lawsuits.

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Farewell, Yuki

With great sadness I report the death, on the 25th, of Yuki (Sige-Yuki, Shige-Yuki) Kuroda of the University of California at San Diego. His department is preparing an obituary, which I will link to when it becomes available. Here I report only my personal sense of loss: Yuki and I went to graduate school together (along with my Stanford colleagues Paul Kiparsky and Stanley Peters), and we were friends ever since. Yuki was a formidable linguist, and also one of the world's nicest people.

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Imperial BS flows?

Does the network of journalistic credulousness still follow the connections established during the glory days of the British empire? I'm not sure how else to explain the diffusion pattern of Mark Pagel's little jokes about his estimates of cognate-replacement rates in language change.

In my post a couple of days ago ("Scrabble tips for time travelers"), I linked to a calvalcade of foolishness that included coverage in the Times ("A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age"), the BBC ("Oldest English words' identified"), the Guardian ("Word facing extinction: 'Dirty' will be scrubbed from the English dictionary"), and the Daily Mail ("Revealed: The world's oldest words… and the ones that will disappear"). And a Google News search yields a cornucopia of other giddy idiocies in British-empire media.

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The bitches of Hong Kong

The Dutch pilot landed KLM flight 887 at the Hong Kong airport so smoothly that if I had been in a conversation I would not have noticed that there had been a landing. My suitcase made the carousel before I did. The uniformed airport greeter inside the terminal held a card saying "Prof Pullum" — not Pullam or Pullman or Pullen or any of the scores of other spellings I get on my mail labels and invoices and name badges: this seems to be a culture that cares enough to get things right. The greeter took me to my driver. As the sleek black car pulled away the driver said, "Sir, seatbelt please."

"Is it the law?", I asked idly, wondering if seatbelt wearing was legally enforced even for back seat passengers in limousines.

"Half hour," said the driver smartly.

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In memoriam Michael Noonan

Mickey Noonan, of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who died a few days ago, is movingly memorialized by Carol Genetti in a posting originally to the Linguistic Typology mailing list and now available on-line via the Linguist List, here.

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Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name

Mark Swofford, Steve Hansen, and Anne Henochowicz have just called my attention to a wonderful post by Joel Martinsen over at Danwei which tells about a man named Zhao C who was informed by the Public Security Bureau of the People's Republic of China that he can no longer call himself "C," something that he has been doing his entire life. Mr. Zhao and his father, a lawyer, brought suit against the Public Security Bureau. Last June, a district court in Yingtan, Jiangxi Province, found in Zhao C's favor, but the Public Security Bureau appealed. As one might have expected, Mr. Zhao was ultimately forced to "voluntarily" change his name.

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Scrabble tips for time travelers?

This morning's BBC's News Hour program featured one of the most densely nonsensical three-minute sequences that I can ever recall having heard from a respectable media outlet:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Teaching Zombie Rules

In a comment yesterday, Emily asked:

I tutor the SATs, including the writing section, in addition to helping students with other kinds of writing.

What am I supposed to tell my students about zombie rules? The fact is that some misguided teachers and graders may enforce them. (SAT graders not so much, though–-I think I'm close to getting a handle on what those people are looking out for.)

When I was in school I breezed happily by all this nonsense because I had smart teachers and a strong authorial voice. But not all of my students do. So what to say?

Let me start by quoting Rob Balder's PartiallyClips for 2/17/2009, which celebrates all of us who, like Emily, escaped from school with our souls intact:

(Click on the image for a larger version)

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The Hong Kong lectures

Allow me, if you will, to briefly pervert the general functions of Language Log to send a personal message to the Hong Kong readers of Language Log who have been asking me about my upcoming lectures in their city. The answer is, on Monday (2 March 2009) I will be doing two engagements at different universities in the city, back to back. From 2 to 3:30 p.m., a lecture called "English Grammar: The Lost Twentieth Century" at Hong Kong Baptist University, in room RRS905 in the Sir Run Run Shaw Building on the Ho Sin Hang Campus; and then (after a rapid transfer by limousine; I may arrive looking a bit harried) from 5 to 6:30 p.m. a lecture called "Language Studies: Bridging Science and Humanities", in the Inaugural Series for the new Faculty of Humanities at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in room N003. Both, I believe, are wide open to the general public with no ticketing.

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Afghanistan and Pakistan

In the sentence of Obama’s speech to congress that starts at 40:12 in the NY Times video-with-transcript, he says “Afghanistan and Pakistan”, and what caught my ear was that he pronounces all three a’s in Afghanistan like the a in cat, and both of the a’s in Pakistan like the a in father.  I know there was a lot of discussion of his pronunciation of Pakistan last October (some on the right accused him of elitism or unamericansim over it, and then there was the usual blog-battle, e.g. here), but it’s just interesting that it doesn’t carry over to Afghanistan, and that in each word all the vowels are identical, showing that he doesn't have a single suffix -stan with fixed pronunciation (nor do most Americans, probably). Now I wonder how he will pronounce all the other Stans in the region. (I think in my own dialect I pronounce Kazakhstan with all three a’s as in father, but Afghanistan the way Obama did. But Pakistan that way too. Presumably depends on how old one was, and in what environment, when one learned them.)

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Adverbial modification at the Supreme Court today

The following is a guest post by Jason Merchant.

The Supreme Court is scheduled today (25 Feb 2009) to hear arguments (Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., No. 08-108) to decide whether Ignacio Flores-Figueroa should have his conviction for aggravated identity theft reversed. The debate centers on the interpretation of a statute, 18 U.S.C. sec. 1028A(a)(1), which states that:

"Whoever … knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person shall … be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 2 years."

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The horror of ideograms

Well, I'm as recovered from my cold as I was able to get, and it is time to go. I am setting off for a trip to what everyone (following Europe) calls the Far East. (For Californians it is clearly the far west.) I head first to Hong Kong, for a few days during which I will be giving at least four lectures, and a panel session, and various other meetings (this really is not leisure time). And there is just one thing that really, really scares me about it. Perhaps you can guess.

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Lessons in limb lability

BioMedCentral continues to be a source of found poetry: today's mail alerts me to John J Wiens, "Estimating rates and patterns of morphological evolution from phylogenies: lessons in limb lability from Australian Lerista lizards", continuing the proud tradition of last week's odor plume flux.

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Real BeijingeRs

For a taste of Pekingese colloquial and a slice of traditional life in Beijing, I offer this 4 minutes and 24 seconds rap video entitled "běi jīng tǔ zhù  北京土著  (Beijing Natives)":

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Hobgoblins

According to this morning's After Deadline post, that's what Philip B. Corbett at the New York Times calls "rules that aren't", following the lead of Theodore M. Bernstein:

Another pet peeve of some After Deadline commenters is the use of “but” or “and” to begin a sentence — as in the third sentence of the previous section. Obviously, I don’t share their aversion.

It shouldn’t be overdone, but using coordinating conjunctions this way can provide a handy and very efficient transition. “But” is certainly preferable in many cases to the stilted “however,” and “and” is simpler than “in addition” or similar phrases.

I’d put this objection in the category of “Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins.” That’s how the former Times language guru Theodore M. Bernstein described overly fastidious rules and usage myths a grade-school English teacher might invoke to keep her pupils’ prose on a very narrow path. (Familiar examples include “Never split an infinitive” and “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”)

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