Archive for July, 2010

Ask Language Log: "acrosst"

Janet Randall wrote:

I am faced with a query from someone at a pretty high level at Public TV who is objecting to an employee's use of the preposition "acrosst".  I looked for some dialect information about this variant of "across" but haven't been able to find it on language log, or anywhere else, without spending more time than I have, so I thought you might know of a post on the log, or know who might know whether this is regional, etc.

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Sweet Jersey eggcorn

Alexa O writes:

My daughter, who is two, loves corn. She loves it so much that she talks about it all the time. Since she is two and also loves eggs, she calls it "eggcorn."

On a whim, my mother wiki-ed "eggcorn" and, lo and behold, we discovered your term.

I can't tell you how excited I was, because I love saying "eggcorn" (was there ever a more satisfying set of syllables?) and now I have an excuse to do so even after my daugther stops asking to eat it.

I was even more excited when I found the various websites, including the Language Log and The Eggcorn Database, that gave so many delicious examples of said phenomenon.

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Language variability: pin vs pen and beyond

I'm not at all surprised that Mark's posts on regional variation in American English (here) and (here) have stirred up such reader interest, because speech variability seems to be one of the first things people notice, even if they can't pinpoint exactly what it is. It's not as well understood that there is a long tradition of studying variation in the languages of the world, even in the United States. But there was a time when the study of linguistic geography was an important part of most linguistics departments. In the 1950s and 1960s you could study with nationally prominent linguists at universities in Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York, Washington, Providence, Berkeley, Cleveland, Madison, Seattle, Austin, and other places. The BIG names in linguistics back then included dialectologists such as Hans Kurath, Raven McDavid, Fred Cassidy, Albert Marckwardt, Harold Allen, Carroll Reed, E. Bagby Atwood, W. Nelson Francis, Uriel Weinreich, David Reed, James Sledd, and others. Their papers about regional dialects were prominent features at annual meetings of the Linguistic Society of America.

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Hangzhou Wordplay

Although this sign over a children's clothing shop in Hangzhou is fairly simple, it offers much food for thought.

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How you speak and how you think you speak: Part 1

Among the comments on yesterday's pin-pen post, Eric (one of several) asked:

Hey academic linguists, I have a nerdy question. I assume that in phonetics "field research" or whatever, lots of scenarios have several investigators listen to a speaker, make independent IPA transcriptions, and then check their transcriptions against each other. And then when the various transcriptions show some level of convergence, that's taken to be the correct phonetic description of the speech. But are there ever scenarios where the results of the investigator's transcription is checked, not against the transcriptions of other listeners/investigators, but against the speaker's own belief about her pronunciation? As someone who merges like 90% of the pairs mentioned in this thread, I'm interested in pushing a radically skeptical line: that speakers are often subjectively convinced they make a phonetic distinction (like Mary v. marry) which objective investigation would dis-confirm…

Actually, Eric, your skepticism about the relation between how people speak and how they think they speak is not nearly radical enough. And there are actually three things to consider: not only how people speak and how they think they speak — which may be bizarrely different —  but also how they hear.

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Antedating "refudiate"

If you haven't quite yet gotten your fill after last week's refudiate-fest, I return to the Palinism in my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus. An excerpt of interest to all you antedaters:

Some have observed that Palin isn't the first to invent the word refudiate. Patrick Galvin of Politico notes a couple of recent uses, such as Sen. Mike DeWine's statement on "Fox & Friends" in 2006: "I think anyone that is associated with him campaigning needs to refudiate these comments." And on Language Log, Mark Liberman points to a playful usage in John Sladek's 1984 collection of science-fiction short stories, The Lunatics of Terra.

Even earlier is this glaring example that I found in the Atlanta Constitution of June 21, 1925: a headline reading "Scandal Taint Refudiated In Teapot Case by Court, Fall Says in Statement."

The headline refers to a court ruling in the Teapot Dome scandal that rejected accusations of fraud against former Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall and his cronies in the oil business. A Fall press release interpreted the verdict as "refuting all taint of scandal," and the hurried headline writer must have mashed up refute with repudiate, just as Palin would 85 years later.

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Pin or pen?

Jim T, commenting this morning on a post from back in June:

I currently work in Chicago but I'm from South Texas. My boss seems to get a real kick out of my pronunciation of the word "pen".

We have to go to him for supplies and he always make me repeat myself whenever I ask for one and laughs incessantly. He says that I pronounce the word "pen" is funny. My ignorance must shine through because although I've tried to understand the "sound" difference between "pin" and "pen", I just can't. You write with a "pen", you stick something to the wall with a "pin".

He states that I say "pin" when I should say "pen". When back home in Texas, when asked for a "pen", I've never given someone a "pin" or the other way around. So I don't understand how he hears a difference.

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Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism

Because of Hong Kong's colonial heritage and topolectal position, students here are forced to juggle three languages (English, Cantonese, and Mandarin) and two scripts (Roman alphabet and Chinese characters), the so-called policy of “biliterate trilingualism (兩文三語)” for schools and the Civil Service since the handover to the People's Republic of China in 1997.  In terms of the best schools to get in, parental expectations, government demands, and entry and exit examinations, the linguistic challenges faced by Hong Kong students are daunting.

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Boroditsky on Whorfian navigation and blame

Several readers have sent me links to Lera Boroditsky's recent article in the Wall Street Journal, "Lost in Translation" (7/24/2010).  We've mentioned Prof. Boroditsky's work on LL several times, starting back in 2003, and so long-time readers won't be surprised to learn that I think this is an interesting popularization of solid work.  However, most LL readers will also know that there is probably no single linguistic idea that is more prone to exaggeration and mis-application than the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" about the relations between language and thought. And the WSJ editors' subhed for Boroditsky's article gives their readers a push down that road:

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish.

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Wanting your life back

Since BP is "refusing to confirm the widespread reports" that CEO Tony Hayward is just about to be fired, I assume he will be out by the end of the day (if you get up in the morning and find your employer is refusing to confirm reports that you are on the way out, start removing passives from your resume, because you're already toast). Hayward is the man who incautiously said to the press that no one wanted the oil spill cleaned up more than he did: "I want my life back", he said, disastrously misjudging America's attitude toward the ecological catastrophe his company had wrought. And from the hour of that incautiously casual and selfish remark onward, he was toast. But I find myself wondering: whose remark was it, originally?

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It's scholarin' time!

The most recent PhD Comics strip by Jorge Cham features real-life material from the scholarly side of the 2010 Comic Arts Conference, and especially the work of Neil Cohn, a psychology grad student at Tufts who "measures people's brain waves while they read comics".

You can read Neil's own account of his presentation on his blog, The Visual Linguist:

My talk seemed to go fairly well (thanks to those who came!), and I greatly enjoyed the discussions with people afterwards. This was the first year I got to present actually experimental brain data on comics, which I'd been looking forward to for awhile.

You can also check out Neil's Visual Language Research Bibliography (which doesn't seem to include any of his neuroscience work yet), or read a PR profile from the "Tufts Office of Web Communication". I also note that the web site for Tufts' Center For Cognitive Studies supplements the usual lists of affiliated faculty, courses, publications, etc., with a list of relevant Zippy cartoons, which may be a symptom of the factors that led Neil to pursue his studies there.

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Transgender(ed)

[This is a guest posting by Larry [Laurence] Horn (of Yale), taken, with his permission, from a posting he made today on the American Dialect Society mailing list. If you comment on it, remember that these are his words, not mine.]

In the first paragraph of a letter to the editor in this weekend's NYT Magazine, a writer offers the following grammatical argument against the use of transgendered:

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More on the early days of obscenicons

Last week I posted about the early history of cartoon cursing characters, aka grawlixes, aka obscenicons. I had managed to unearth examples of obscenicons on comics pages going back to 1909, from Rudolph Dirks' "The Katzenjammer Kids." I've had a chance to do some more digging, and I've found that Dirks was getting creative with obscenicons as early as 1902 — and he wasn't the only cartoonist indulging in them.

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This binary here

Rachel Aviv, "Backpacks Among the Briefcases", NYT 7/15/2010, writing about students at the New School's liberal arts college:

Suzanne Exposito, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., who describes herself as a feminist and anticapitalist, says she can’t understand why some people fail to throw away their trash. “There’s this binary here between the people who have a cause and those who don’t,” she said. “Some people only came here to be in the city, and they just don’t care. I think they’re the ones who dump their cigarettes on the ground.” [emphasis added]

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Peter Sellers, Yogurtiere

While we're on the subject of yoghurting sprezzatura, let's not overlook the scene in the 1966 After the Fox in which Peter Sellers plays a monolingual Italian criminal masquerading as an American tourist in Rome:

(In his native Italian persona, Sellers speaks in Italian-accented English. Of course.) (I love this movie.)

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