Archive for November, 2009

Going quant

From "Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?" by Anand Giridharadas (New York Times/International Herald Tribune, 11/21/09):

In the Age of Metrics, vocation after vocation is discovering numbers. Doctors are going quant with evidence-based medicine, which promises to improve care by quantifying different treatments' probabilities of success. Wall Street has gone quant, with financial models automating trading — sometimes brilliantly, sometimes disastrously. Academia has gone quant, with once-humanistic fields like politics, on which I work at Harvard, studied in a more rigorous way, but at the price of having ever less to say about the world's big questions. Even charity, built on the instinct of altruism, has gone quant.

For a history of the phrase go quant, with links back to Mark Liberman's discussion of go rogue and other go + PREDICATIVE constructions, see my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus.

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Hacking: who does what to whom?

A couple of days ago, Jesse Sheidlower wrote to me about the recent climate-scientist email controversy.  Since Jesse is a lexicographer, he wasn't writing about whether this is the blue-dress moment for anthropogenic climate change, or a nontroversy based on the shocking discovery that scientists are not always scrupulously fair-minded in private.  Rather, Jesse was concerned about the argument structure of the verb hack.

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Questions and conditionals

Decades ago, when I was little, I read this joke in Mad Magazine:

Do your feet smell? Does your nose run? You may be built upside-down.

I giggled for a short time — just a couple of days, I think — at the surprising coincidence of the two verb senses, and the double pun, and then got on with whatever boys in short pants do during those parts of the day that are not taken up with giggling. But I see now that there is something linguistically interesting about the joke: the two questions convey the effect of a conditional. So the content of the joke could be phrased (though for some reason much less amusingly) like this:

If your feet smell and your nose runs then you may be built upside-down.

This similarity of effect between interrogative clauses and conditional clauses has a connection to the historical reason for an identity of form between the words introducing the interrogative subordinate clause in (1) and the conditional clause in (2).

    (1) I don't know if the car will start.
    (2) We won't go if the car won't start.

The two ifs share an etymology, but they have grown apart.

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How things have changed…

In today's Stone Soup, Val tries to catch up:

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The implications of excessive praise

Yesterday's Sally Forth:

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Suppose that Edward is married to Susan and Michael is married to Susan's sister Judith. Edward is therefore Judith's brother-in-law, and Michael is Susan's brother-in-law. In my usage, and what I think is standard English usage, there is no named relationship between Edward and Michael. In particular, they are not brothers-in-law. I was therefore surprised to see a news item in which men in this situation (one of whom is accused of trying to hire an assassin to kill the other) were described as brothers-in-law.

There are languages in which the relationship between Edward and Michael has a name. In Carrier, this is the -loh relationship. One could say Lhloh 'uhint'oh "they are each other's spouse's sibling's spouse/sibling's spouse's sibling". (For extra credit, try to pronounce the onset cluster [ɬl].) German Schwippschwager seems to mean the same thing. The term "co-brother-in-law" is apparently used by some authors as a translation of such terms, but doesn't seem to be in natural use.

What I'm wondering is whether the news item that described Edward and Michael as brothers-in-law is simply in error or whether there are native English speakers for whom this is correct usage.

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Just one word after another…

Yesterday's Get Fuzzy:

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Does marriage exist in Texas?

From Dave Montgomery, "Texas marriages in legal limbo because of constitutional amendment, candidate says", Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 11/17/2009:

Texans: Are you really married?

Maybe not.

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer and Democratic candidate for attorney general, says that a 22-word clause in a 2005 constitutional amendment designed to ban gay marriages erroneously endangers the legal status of all marriages in the state.

… [T]he troublemaking phrase, as Radnofsky sees it, is Subsection B, which declares:

"This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

Architects of the amendment included the clause to ban same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships. But Radnofsky, who was a member of the powerhouse Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston for 27 years until retiring in 2006, says the wording of Subsection B effectively "eliminates marriage in Texas," including common-law marriages.

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Another tribute to Dell Hymes

When Sally announced the sad news of Dell Hymes' recent death, she thanked him for his generosity and personal kindness to her. Thanking is a speech act that we all should use more often.

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Don't Try This at Home!

In a "Fresh Air" piece (audio, text) that aired today, I reprised a couple of the cases of quantitative quackery that Language Loggers have taken on, where someone counts up the words in a text to draw some utterly unjustified conclusions about its content or author. I mention the efforts to distill the essence of the Democrats' health care bills from the frequency of selected words, which I took up in a post a couple of months ago (it drew a number of useful comments thatI borrowed liberally from in the "Fresh Air" piece).

These enumerations have become more fevered on all sides as the bills make their interminable way  through Congress: Only seven instances of women! More than 3300 occurrences of shall, each a mandate that chips away at our freedom! On that last point, I note that, page-for-page, shall is more frequent in the Constitution than in the House healthcare bill, and conclude: "Critics of the bill are still free to insist that it opens a new fast lane on the road to serfdom. But that isn't something you can prove just by counting helping verbs."

Then there are the ubiquitous tallies of first-person pronouns aimed at demonstrating the egotism or arrogance of public figures.

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Bilingualism in Singapore

Within the short space of eight months, Singapore's founding Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, has done a nearly complete about-face in his attitude toward promoting the use of Mandarin in the republic.  As late as March of this year, when he was celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the campaign to "Speak Mandarin," Lee was claiming that "In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue.”

In those days, Lee was asserting that people have only so many “gigabytes” in their brains to devote to languages.  Though admitting that speaking “dialects” in some situations can provide “extra warmth,” he warned that, by using such languages, “You are losing important neurons with data which should not be there. And like the computer, when you delete it, it doesn’t really go away. It’s there at the back, and you’ve got to go to the rubbish channel and say ‘destroy.’ And it’s still disturbing your hard disk.”  (See this useful summary and detailed list of references by Mark Swofford.)

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Oxford W.O.T.Y. 2009: unfriend

We've been remiss in not linking to the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2009 Word of the Year, which Rebecca Ford announced on the OUP Blog a couple of days ago.

The modern (non-obsolete) positive verb to friend isn't in the current NOAD yet, or for that matter in the OED,  so I hope that it gets in as part of the package deal.

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In my recent go rogue posting, I reported a comment on an earlier posting from Daniel Gustav Anderson on go rogue as a sexual euphemism, saying that at first I suspected the comment of being spam, but decided it was legit. Then Jake Townhead commented on my posting, questioning my use of the word spam and suggesting that Anderson's comment was merely "bespoke mischief". So now some words on spam.

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Faults "intollerable and euer vndecent"

I haven't read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma yet — all I know about it comes from Laura Miller's review in Salon, "Memo to grammar cops: Back off!", 10/25/2009. But on the basis of her description, it seems to me that one of his claims is not quite right:

According to Lynch, the very notion of correct English is only 300 years old; in the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the idea that native English speakers could be accused of using their own language improperly would have seemed absurd. The advent of printing — and, especially, the growth of general literacy — led to efforts to establish authoritative standards of spelling and usage in the 18th century.

It's certainly true that Tudor and Elizabethan spelling was catch-as-catch-can, and it's also true that prescriptive rules of usage blossomed in the 18th century, along with the standardization of spelling. But it's not true that native speakers in Shakespeare's time never accused one another of using their own language improperly.

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Dell Hymes

I just heard that Dell Hymes died peacefully in his sleep last Friday (13 November 2009).    Linguists, anthropologists, and folklorists will all mourn his passing.  According to the grapevine, there will be a memorial gathering to remember him at the upcoming American Anthropological Association meeting in Philadelphia (specifically: Saturday, December 5, 7:30-9:30 P.M., in Grand Ballroom III at the Courtyard Marriott).  Dell's many scholarly accomplishments will be praised by others, people who know his work much better than I do; I have mostly admired his work from a distance, although I've often consulted his 1955 dissertation, The Language of the Kathlamet Chinook,  in my efforts to understand the structure of  the Northwest pidgin language Chinook Jargon.   But I have always been most grateful to Dell for the role he played in my own career — I'm reasonably sure that I would not have gotten tenure, all those years ago, if he had not written such a detailed and generous letter about my few and flimsy publications.

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