Archive for October, 2009

The communicative properties of footwear

Two Cathy strips on this topic that I've been saving up:

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Is irony universal?

Yesterday's lecture in Linguistics 001 included some discussion of irony, and afterwards, a student asked a good question:

I just wanted to ask something that has been nagging me since your lecture today on Semantics. I was wondering whether irony and sarcasm are universal across all languages, and if so, could we then suppose that it were a selected trait in language–that is, something that we evolved? I have been trying to think whether there is any evolutionary benefit–or even linguistic benefit–to the development of sarcasm and i cannot think of any. On the other hand, if sarcasm and irony are not universal, then are they considered just a cultural phenomenon? If so, how likely is it that so many different cultures could have developed it? has anyone ever tested this by finding a cultural group that does not use sarcasm or irony, shown that group examples of it, and seen whether the group recognized it?

Although cultures stereotypically differ in their affinity for irony, I've never heard or read that any group completely lacked the capacity to produce and understand it.  And for the past three decades, there's been a special reason for this question to matter, because the alleged universality of irony is part of a well-known argument about theories of how people communicate.

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Embuggerance & Feisty

Problems with Google's metadata are a recurrent theme here on Language Log. Now on his blog Stephen Chrisomalis reports a stunning cascade of screw-ups that led to Google Scholar producing the following citation:

Embuggerance, E., and H. Feisty. 2008. The linguistics of laughter. English Today 1, no. 04: 47-47.

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Stanford Linguistics in the Nooz

Not the news, the nooz.

Joshua Walker (Stanford '05) points me to this wonderful story in the Onion of October 21:

Report: 65% Of All Wildlife Now Used As
Homosexual Subculture Signifier

PALO ALTO, CA—A study released Tuesday by the Stanford University Department of Linguistics revealed that nearly two-thirds of all animal species have been adopted to describe various gay subcultures. "Many know that bears are large hairy gay men, and that otters are homosexuals who are smaller in stature but still hirsute," said Professor Arvid Sabin, lead author of the study, which also clarifies such denotations as wolf, panda bear, dragonfly, starfish, trout, and yeti. "But do they know, for instance, that 'chicken' is used to describe a thin, inexperienced 18- to 29-year-old gay male? Before long, we could see homosexuals referring to one another as pelicans or even Gila monsters." The study concluded that if immediate conservation measures are not taken, all animal species will be exhausted by 2015 and the gay community will have to start dipping into the plant kingdom.

As it happens, I have two gay male friends who are pandas. They're both Canadian, but I don't think that's significant.

I myself am both a penguin and a wool(l)y mammoth.

Related Language Log posting here.

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People probably imagine that the life of a linguistics professor is moderately dull. Think about language; sit at desk, type stuff; go to classroom, teach stuff; go to lunch, eat stuff; repeat… But no, in actual fact my life as a professor at the University of Edinburgh is one of thrills and excitement. Yesterday, after teaching my undergraduate class on English grammar in the David Hume Tower, I walked to the nearby Chrystal Macmillan building to hear a talk on phonology, and as I entered the building I realized there was something really special going on. Tea had been laid out in the public area of the ground floor; two security men lurked in the shadows; the room seemed tense, but somehow it was in a pleasant way; university people who were extremely smartly dressed were standing around, and all were looking in the same direction. I followed their gaze, and there, a few yards away from me, stood Annie Lennox.

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"The United States" as a subject at the Supreme Court

In an earlier post, I observed that the phrase "the United States" — regardless of whether it is treated as singular or plural — seems to have become more likely, over time, to occur in subject position ("The United States as a subject", 10/6/2009).  My (admittedly slim) evidence for this hypothesis came from some searches in newspaper archives, where the process of gathering data is painfully slow, because I was forced to search interactively via a web interface, and to check out the grammatical status of hits by wearing out my eyes on the article images that are returned.

Historians may find this complaint churlish, since they're used to an even more painful process. Traditionally, scholars have needed to travel to the local of a physical archive, and to read every dusty document as a whole in order to find the relevant pages.  (Well, maybe in recent years the process might involve reading dusty microfiche cards in some slightly more convenient location.)  All I have to do is to open a web browser, run a text search to find the relevant articles, and examine the page images that are returned!

But yes, I'm still complaining.

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While people are discussing the label polymath in another thread (which reports that the polymathic Noam Chomsky has been cited as, in descending order, a philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, and author, but not as a linguist), a letter to the New York Times Magazine (October 18, p. 12, from Andrew Charig of Middlefield, Mass.) laments the death of William Safire, "who most likely was the foremost expert on the American language". Expert?

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An availing collocation

Paul Krugman, "The Banks Are Not Alright", NYT, 10/18/2009:

Mr. Summers still insists that the administration did the right thing: more government provision of capital, he says, would not “have been an availing strategy for solving problems.”

Use of "availing" in this way struck me as a new linguistic strategy.  But the OED gives availing as a participial adjective meaning "Advantageous, profitable; of beneficial efficiency", with glosses back to the 15th century:

c1420 Pallad. on Husb. I. 562 To faat hem is avayling and plesaunte. 1850 MRS. BROWNING Substitution Poems I. 327 Speak Thou, availing Christ! 1862 RUSKIN Unto this Last 118 A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength.

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Regional road hazards

This GEICO commercial reinforces the general impression that a southern accent is intrinsically amusing:

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Write It Right

Recently arrived in the mail: an advance copy of Jan Freeman's

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The celebrated cynic's language peeves deciphered, appraised, and annotated for 21st-century readers [NY: Walker & Company, publication date November 19]

(The subtitle of Bierce's 1909 booklet is A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which should give you an idea of the tone of the thing.) Jan takes on WIR, item by item, with extensive annotations for each item, looking at the background for the proscription (in many cases its later history as well), trying to work out Bierce's motivation for it, and assessing the state of actual usage.

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A new target language for machine translation

Weasel-speak, as featured in today's Tank McNamara:

There's clearly money in it — and quite a bit of training material out there.

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Freakonomics: the intellectual's Glenn Beck?

The new Freakonomics book is about to come out (called Super Freakonomics, natch), and Marginal Revolution thinks it's great: "a more than worthy sequel, a super sequel you might say." So does Bryan Caplan at econlog: "Overall, it's better than the original." Time Magazine thinks it's "very good — jauntier and more assured than their first".

But not everyone is convinced: negative voices include Ezra Klein, "The Shoddy Statistics of Super Freakonomics", WaPo, 10/16/2009; Matt Yglesias, "Journalistic Malpractice From Leavitt [sic] and Dubner", 10/16/2009; Bradford Plumer, "Does 'Superfreakonomics' Need A Do-Over?", 10/16/2009; Andrew Sullivan, "Not So Super Freak", 10/17/2009.

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Stream to the yak-fest meld

Ellis Weiner has a very funny "Shouts and Murmurs" feature in The New Yorker this week (October 19): it's an imagined memo from a marketing assistant at an understaffed publishing company, laying out a marketing plan for a new book. Those who have published books and filled out author's marketing questionnaires will smirk at slight exaggerations of things they actually recall reading ("We can send you a list of bookstores in your area once you fill out the My Local Bookstores list on your Author's Questionnaire"); but there is worse to come.

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Rude word

Michael Quinion reports in his latest World Wide Words (#661, October 17):

TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE TWINK  It's amazing what you can learn from e-mail error messages. The issue last week was blocked by one site in the UK because it had a rude word in the message body. Do you recall reading any rude words? I don't remember writing any. It transpired that the offending "word" was in the title of a nursery rhyme I listed: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The filtering system spotted the first five letters of the first word and pounced. I had to look it up: TWINK is gay slang (I quote Wikipedia) for "a young or young-looking gay man (usually white and in his late teens or early twenties) with a slender build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair."

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Ockham's broom

Yesterday in the Journal of Biology, the editor introduced a new series (Miranda Robertson, "Ockham's broom"):

Although it is increasingly difficult to gauge what people can be expected to know, it is probably safe to assume that most readers are familiar with Ockham’s razor – roughly, the principle whereby gratuitous suppositions are shaved from the interpretation of facts – enunciated by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, in the fourteenth century. Ockham's broom is a somewhat more recent conceit, attributable to Sydney Brenner, and embodies the principle whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet in the interests of a clear interpretation of a messy reality. (Or, some – possibly including Sydney Brenner – might say, in order to generate a publishable paper.)

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