Archive for December, 2009

Annals of automatic bowdlerization

At FanNation ("the Republic of Sport"), in reference to the fact that Texas Tech fired coach Mike Leach, Haledorn from Flower Mound, TX, commented:

Let me tell you as a Tech Alum that this is about traditional football. This is the only football in the area entrenched in traditional football ideals set in stone by Spike **** running an I formation and handing the ball to Bam Morris on 3 down and 8. This is about who gets credit for the rise of a program. Gerald Myers wants it and Leach should get it, so the man in power finds a way to cut him loose. I call it "Jerry Jones Syndrome".

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Professional verbs

Stephen Judd complains about the slogan for a New Zealand beer:

"Brewed by brewers, not chemistered by chemists".

Stephen's (reasonable) complaint is that "if it weren’t for chemists, there would be no commercial brewing". But I was more interested in the copywriter's attempt to create a verb for what chemists do to things, by a bizarre sort of chiasmic analogy: brewer:brew::chemist:chemister.

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Singular y'all: a "devious Yankee rumor"?

From reader EG:

I am writing you because I encountered the perplexing singular y'all while watching trailers for Disney's newest film, The Princess and the Frog. Now, not being a Southerner I can't attest to my own usage of "y'all," but my linguistic intuition is in accord with your Language Log posting "Out of the y'all zone" (9/18/2005), namely that y'all is generally not used to address singular individuals, but plural and occasionally implied plurals. [...] In the cited trailer, Tiana uses singular y'all three times. Addressing the frog with evident dismay, she says "So what now? I reckon y'all want a kiss." at 0:32. And then again, at 2:14, when the frog is dismayed that she will not kiss him after her apparent offer, she retorts "I didn't expect y'all to answer!" In the intervening time, she does refer to him (using apparently less careless or emotionally influenced wording) as standard second person singular "you." Finally, "Y'all don't look that much different… but how'd you get way up there?" 3:13. This last example is perhaps the most perplexing of all, as it contains both forms.

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Tool use?

From the holiday special issue of New Scientist, a short item "Coconuts make the best hideouts" (in the print version, the more sober "Octopuses use coconut shells as portable shelters" in the on-line version). Andy Coghlan writes (in the on-line version):

Octopuses have been observed carrying coconut shells in what researchers [in Current Biology] claim is the first recorded example of tool use in invertebrates.

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Ask LL: A paradox of words?

Charlie Clingen writes:

This year I have started to notice an ambiguous use of the terms Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. In the good old days, it seems to me that those terms commonly were used to mean the evening of the day before Christmas Day/New Year’s Day. Now, in addition to those meanings, I have been hearing them used to mean the entire day before Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, especially in weather forecasts and financial news. Are the terms Christmas Eve Day and New Year’s Eve Day becoming less popular? I admit it does save a few bits here and there; maybe the occasional ambiguity is worth it.

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The notes of Candace's complaint

Commenting on "Three-syllable Mom" (12/28/2009), Brooke observes that

You can hear a genuine three-syllable "Mom" in the opening title sequence of the kids' television show, "Phineas and Ferb." The character Candace says,

"Mmm-MO-om, Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence!"

The pitch matches the stress, low-high-low. The first syllable is brief but clearly discernible. I suppose one could argue that it's not a true syllable, since it lacks a vowel, but the word is certainly three distinct beats.

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Words of the decade

A piece of fluff on the op-ed page of the NYT on December 28: Philip Niemeyer, "Picturing the Past 10 Years", with an item a year for 2000 through 2009 in twelve categories. The last two categories are words: Nouns and Verbs.

There are no statistics here, just someone's judgments about what was hot in each year; others would no doubt have made other choices. For the last two categories:

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More models of binomial order

Following up on "The order of ancestors" (12/24/2009) and "Sexual orders" (12/27/2009), I need to note one other important recent paper: Sarah Benor and Roger Levy, "The Chicken or the Egg? A Probabilistic Analysis of English Binomials", Language 82(2): 233-278, 2006. And several readers have pointed me to an older tradition of corpus linguistics that comes to a different set of conclusions about binomial ordering: Mishnah Keritot 6:9, etc.

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Leading the league in snowclones

Snowclones, in Geoff Pullum's early formulation, were defined as "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists." Of course, the field of snowclonology has moved beyond "lazy journalists" to a consideration of phrasal templates used by the broader populace, in varieties exhibiting a wide range of creativity. But journalists who have many column inches to fill remain a fertile source for the more clichéd strain of snowclones.

Sports journalism might be particularly prone to such hackneyed phrase-making. Case in point: in his most recent Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated, Peter King wrote that Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith "leads the NFL in guts." The sports blog Deadspin had already been tracking King's "funny little tic of expressing abundance by saying something like, '[Person or Team X] leads the league in [Intangible Category Y].'" Deadspin's Tommy Craggs then laid out the damning evidence of King's endless snowcloning.

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Cupertino of the week

Noted by John McIntyre, from "Eastern University demolishes nearly century-old log cabin", The Daily Local News (Chester County, PA), 12/26/2009:

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Three-syllable Mom

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Campbell's monkeys: incipient syntax?

Lest anyone should think that the Animal Communication desk at Language Log Plaza is asleep, let me just note that we have indeed taken note of recent reports about how Campbell's monkeys have complex syntax. Among these Ivory Coast primates, according to one report: "males have a repertory of six types of alert calls (Boom, Krak, Hok, Hok-oo, Krak-oo, Wak-oo) but only rarely use them in isolation, preferring to produce long vocal sequences of an average of 25 successive calls (each sequence being made up of 1 to 4 types of different calls). Furthermore, Campbell's monkeys combine calls in order to convey different messages. By modifying a call sequence or the order of calls within a sequence, the messages are changed, and can relay precise information about the nature of the danger…" You read, you decide. The original research paper has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but I have not yet seen it. At present Language Log has nothing to say, except to utter a long series of about 25 successive alert calls warning you that anything concretely tied to present dangers apparent in the immediate spatiotemporal environment cannot bear a very strong relation to natural use of a human language. The things we say are not just long sequences of "Watch out!", "Fore!", "Timber!", "Stop thief!", "Hey!", "Ouch!", and so on. (At least, not for me; not on a good day.)

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Sexual orders

In the comments on "The order of ancestors" (12/24/2009), there was some discussion about the possible role of gender bias in determining the preference for orders like "mothers and fathers" over "fathers and mothers".  This discussion faced a basic empirical problem: there were more plausibly-relevant principles (a long list of apparent semantic and phonological preferences) than there were facts to explain.

In this post, I'll review in more depth the evidence about the preferred orders of English binomial expressions for gendered categories of humans. This review will leave us in the same logical impasse.  Then I'll tell you about the clever solution found by Saundra Wright, Jennifer Hay and Tessa Bent in their paper "Ladies first? Phonology, frequency, and the naming conspiracy", Linguistics 43(3): 531–561, 2005.

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More people than you think will understand

Andrew Dowd sends me a genuine, attested case of the kind of sentence that I have elsewhere called plausible angloid gibberish. It is a particular kind of mangled comparative that somehow seems English when it isn't. It has absolutely no right to be called grammatical, and nothing can explain why it is that we (falsely) believe that it has a meaning that could be accounted for in the regular way — it doesn't and it couldn't. No syntacticians that I know of can say why it sort of slips by, in comprehension and sometimes (as here) even in production. The sentence came from http://www.backspace.com/notes/2004/06/, citing AdAge, and it reads thus:

In Michigan and Minnesota, more people found Mr Bush's ads negative than they did Mr Kerry's.

Complete and utter syntactic nonsense. And yet when you read it you see what they meant long before you realize that they couldn't have meant it.

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Vowel chart body art


Before I had even met American Heritage Dictionary supervising editor Steve Kleinedler, I knew about his tattoo. A 2005 New York Times article about the young Turks of American lexicography revealed that Steve "has a phonetic vowel chart tattooed across his back." Recently Steve upgraded his ink with an even more elaborate IPA chart. Since my brother Carl has supplemented his science blog The Loom with the Science Tattoo Emporium, I asked Steve to send along a shot of his new improved body art to add to the collection. Read all about it here.

(Also in the Emporium, there's an Aztec speech glyph, some Paiute IPA, and a glottal stop. Feel free to email Carl with photos of your own linguistic tattoos.)

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