Archive for October, 2010

Keep those skeletons working

The new Musselburgh health center, quite close to where I live in Edinburgh, is not complete; the construction process is at a standstill. The problem? According to the Scotsman newspaper's rather startling headline, it seems to be the workforce:

Skeletons halt work on clinic

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Puns to Make You Yuan

In an article entitled "Yuan more pun" on The Economist's "Johnson" blog (Oct 28th 2010), Lane Greene Gideon Lichfield has tracked a long string of bad puns based on the name of the Chinese unit of currency.  The Economist's Yuan groaners stretch back several years.

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Times have changed

Six and a half years ago, in a Language Log post about the spread of texting in Japan, I commented on the lack of enthusiasm for texting in the U.S. ("Texting", 3/8/2004):

I don't think that I've even seen anyone texting in the U.S. Now that I think about it, this is a bit surprising, since there are plenty of foreign students at Penn who come from places (like China, Korea and much of Europe) where texting is common.

Times have certainly changed. Now pretty much everyone in the U.S. — certainly every high school and college student — seems to be texting all the time. And a recent Nielsen blog post cites some extraordinary statistics ("U.S. Teen Mobile Report", 10/14/2010):

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The new black is back

From TPM, a billboard in Houston:


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So you want to be a college professor

Passed on to me via Nancy Whittier, this disturbing and bitterly funny animation, here, "So you want to get a PhD in the humanities", which has elicited some Facebook discussion about advising undergrads about going to grad school and about advising grad students.

I was born at the right time, knew that I wanted to be a college professor when I was in high school, and achieved it all as easily as these things can be done (though that involved periods of deep self-doubt and anxiety). Now it gets harder and harder to advise students. Wonderful to teach people, but is it moral to attract them into an academic career? Could any young person find a life doing what I do?

(Allowing comments, with considerable trepidation.)

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Three more deaths

Following on the announcement of the death of my dear friend Ellen Prince (here), I'm now passing on three further death announcements from recent days: sociolinguist Faye Vaughn-Cooke and lexicographers Fred Mish and Sol Steinmetz.

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Translating the untranslatable

Language Log has not so far commented on Jason Wire's 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World on the Matador Network. You might expect (since I yield to no Language Log writer in the fierceness of my hatred for things-people-have-no-words-for genre of writing about language) that I would hate it like poison. But in fact I rather liked it. I just want to point out, however, that not a single one of the words shows any of the promised untranslatability.

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R.I.P. Ellen Prince

A note from the Penn Linguistics Department, written by Gillian Sankoff and Tony Kroch:

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our colleague Ellen F. Prince. Ellen died peacefully at home in Philadelphia on Sunday, October 24, after a long battle with cancer.

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How powerful is sisterhood?

Yesterday, the "most viewed" and "most emailed" item on the New York Times website was Deborah Tannen's essay, "Why Sisterly Chats Make People Happier", which opens this way:

"Having a Sister Makes You Happier": that was the headline on a recent article about a study finding that adolescents who have a sister are less likely to report such feelings as "I am unhappy, sad or depressed" and "I feel like no one loves me."

These findings are no fluke; other studies have come to similar conclusions. But why would having a sister make you happier?

The usual answer — that girls and women are more likely than boys and men to talk about emotions — is somehow unsatisfying, especially to a researcher like me. Much of my work over the years has developed the premise that women's styles of friendship and conversation aren't inherently better than men's, simply different.

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Zoological analogies

Back in 2003, Mark Liberman recounted a line attributed to Roman Jakobson when asked if Harvard should give Vladimir Nabokov a faculty position:

I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?

And in 2006, I mentioned a snippy remark that The New Republic's Martin Peretz made about Garrison Keillor, who had panned Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville in The New York Times Book Review:

So maybe Keillor was actually an inspired choice. Why shouldn't a bird review an ornithologist?

Now the political historian Garry Wills provides another zoological analogy in his new memoir, Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer.

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Ravens are non-rhotic

In the month of Poe's death (in October 1849), and of course the month of Hallowe'en, BBC television showed a program called "Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women". As I watched it, and listened to the speaker of standard American English that they used for the readings from his poetry (as so many radio and TV programs have done before), reminded me that I have always thought the dialect Poe had in mind when he wrote The Raven couldn't possibly have been one of the rhotic ones. It has to be one of the non-rhotic New England accents. That is, I don't think anybody who pronounces nevermore with an r sound at the end is reading The Raven correctly.

The sound made by ravens and crows is not [kɔɹ], like a typical Midwesterner saying core; it is much more like [kɔ:], reminiscent of a speaker with an Oxford accent saying the word (rhyming it with the educated Southern British pronunciation of law). The repeated nevermore has to sound like that, or the poem makes no sense as far as I can see. The raven's invariant repetition of "Nevermore!" at the end of each stanza has to sound like a raven cawing. Ravens don't have postvocalic r.

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Just add "intelligent" and "informed" …

The latest xkcd:

Mouseover title: "And what about all the people who won't be able to join the community because they're terrible at making helpful and constructive co– … oh."

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Demographic valence

In the New Yorker article discussed in an earlier post about leaf-blower noise, Tad Friend wrote that "a Berkeley psychiatrist [...] addressed the problem's demographic valence", describing an attempt to rebut the idea that anti-blower activists are "just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise". Mark P noted in the comments that

I have never seen the term "demographic valence." I'm familiar with the term "valence" in chemistry and home decor. I can see how it could mean something like "attractiveness." But in this context, I have to assume that it means the tendency of noise to be a problem within different demographic groups.

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Leaf-blower metathesis?

Tad Friend, "Blowback: The great suburban leaf war", The New Yorker 10/25/2010:

Dr. Michael Kron, a Berkeley psychiatrist who had been canvassing studies on noise, addressed the problem's demographic valence. "Because we're not living in Oakland ducking the next hail of bullets, there's this idea that we're just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise,", he said. "But noise is very powerful. We've used Britney Spears songs on Guantánamo Bay prisoners."

The actual noisiness of blowers is a vexed issue. The average new blower is rated at about sixty-nine decibels, only as noisy as a loud conversation. But that official rating is determined by measurements made fifty feet away in an open field. Those operating the blowers are subjected to considerably more noise, as are neighbors who live in cramped or reverberant terrain; Kendall had just clocked the Stihl BR 500, which is rated at sixty-five decibels, at ninety-eight decibels up close — nearly ten times as loud. Kron continued, "Children exposed to these noise bombs, it's a disaster: impaired concentration, impaired sleep, inability to learn to read and speak. Children in loud, loud places like East Oakland are the ones who grow up saying, 'Can I ax you a question?'" [emphasis added]

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George Fox, Prescriptivist

Jen wrote to inform me that today, being William Penn's birthday, is International Talk Like a Quaker Day. Jen explains that

I like to combine it with my pirate talk from International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  "Arrr, thee must give us all thy money to donate to the Friends Service Committee, or we will nonviolently board thy ship and elder thee."

And before you get on Jen's case for using thee instead of thou, that's her question too:

What I've never understood about Quaker plain speech is why "thee" is used in both the objective and and subjective cases.  I understand that early Quakers wanted to avoid honorifics and status distinctions, and so addressed everyone with the familiar pronoun.  But why isn't it "thou"?  And why is it "thee is" and "thee says" rather than "thee art" and "thee sayest"?

Is this just the opposite of the "who-whom" merger, with the subjective case being lost instead?  And was it unique to plain-speaking Quakers?

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