Archive for January, 2011

A contribution

Back in December, a fan of Language Log e-mailed me with a simple query that I answered almost immediately, after checking my answer with a Stanford colleague who's a specialist in the area of the query (as I am not).

My original correspondent thanked the two of us, adding:

As a token of my appreciation for your time and responses, I made a small donation to Stanford. I hope I was successful in seeing that it would be directed to the Linguistics Department.

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Headline misdirection

From Jesse Sheidlower, this headline:

Hooker Overcomes Illness, Slaps Beaver

It's a puzzler. Jesse says:

It's not about what you think it's about. Really. No matter what you think it's about, that's not it.

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"Chinese — Traditional"

The other day, just before going through security at the international terminal at the airport in Melbourne, Australia, I noticed a second sign beside the sign of instructions on what you couldn't take onto the airplane.  The second sign was (I assume) the same set of instructions in Chinese, and it was headed "Chinese – Traditional".

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"Game Over"?

A widely-reprinted picture from Danny-Ahmed Ramadan's twitpic feed, wtih the caption "on Qasr Nil bridge the lion says: Game Over Mubarak":

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Wild Ass Homestay

John Hill kindly sent me this photograph of a sign that he took at Tsokar in Ladakh:

Intrigued by the name of the establishment, I wondered just what sort of services Wild Ass Homestay offers.

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Surprising Transformations of a Beijing Street Name

In a recent LL post, I wrote about Northeast and Northwest Mandarin borrowings from Russian that — in the mouths of those who are not highly literate in characters — seem to have escaped the phonotactic constraints of the sinographic script. In this post, I write about a Beijing street name that began as a sinographically writable expression, but which — again in the mouths of those whose speech is not strongly conditioned by the characters — devolved into a form that cannot readily be written in characters.

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Annals of word rage

In a recent post at Jezebel, Sadie Stein documents the usage of literally as in intensifier, and the often-intense negative reaction, both to the word-sense itself and to its sometimes-spectacularly-frequent deployment ("Saying 'Literally' All The Time Is Literally An Issue").

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Dwindling your thumbs?

Rosey Billington sent in this passage from a blog post:

I used to hate staying in my room. I used to hate sitting on my chair for hours, being unproductive and just dwindling my thumbs away.  I had to constantly walk about the house, which I still do…But I also hated the fact that I had such a small room and nothing was in my room.

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"New Tools and Methods" Workshop

This weekend, here at Penn, there's a workshop on "New Tools and Methods for Very-Large-Scale Phonetics Research", organized by Jiahong Yuan, Andreas StolckeSuzanne BoyceFrancesco Cutugno, Sarah Hawkins, and me. The call started this way:

The field of phonetics has experienced two revolutions in the last century: the advent of the sound spectrograph in the 1950s and the application of computers beginning in the 1970s. Today, advances in computation, networking and mass storage are promising a third revolution: a movement from the study of small, mostly artificial datasets to the analysis of published corpora of natural speech that are thousands of times larger.

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LanguageLoggingHeads: SOTU edition

Last September, the folks at Bloggingheads.tv brought John McWhorter and me together for a spirited dialog (sorry, diavlog) on a range of language issues. Today they asked us back to do a postmortem of President Obama's State of the Union address, analyzing the president's rhetoric. Here's the video.

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"21 generations"?

I haven't yet thought of any interesting linguistic aspects of last night's State of the Union message, or of the various official and unofficial responses to it. But in preparing for the event, I saw some coverage of a recent speech in Iowa where Rep. Michele Bachmann said something that made me wonder about the meaning and rhetorical use of the word "generations", and about her particular choice of the phrase "21 generations" to describe the historical span of American ideals.

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Hoisting a couple of pints at Starbucks

Michelle Rafferty at OUPblog has a post on "Why the Trenta?" (1/24/2011), which includes this interesting Google Chat exchange with her friend Gabe, who "specializes in buying and selling unroasted green coffee from all over the world and loves discussing anything and everything related to coffee":

Me: So you work in coffee. What do you think of this whole Trenta thing?
Gabe: Honestly, this is about McDonald’s. They are very successful with their iced coffee and Sbucks is trying to compete. [...] They have already lost a lot of customers to McDonalds/ McCafe due to quality and price. McDonalds has better coffee.
Me: Whoa, really?
Gabe: Yeah, McDs has won numerous blind tasting competitions and they have cheaper prices.

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The second life of "In no uncertain terms"

"In no uncertain terms" is an idiom in which the "no" and the "un-" cancel, so that the result means something like "in very specific and direct language", "very clearly", "in a strong and direct way", or perhaps "emphatically". In other words, "in no uncertain terms" means "in certain terms", construing "certain" as in certainty. The earliest example that I've been able to find is this sentence from the Chicago Tribune, July 20 1863:

Our dispatches contain another circular from the Provost Marshal General's office, and accompanying, the voice of the Government, couched in no uncertain terms, that the draft will be enforced in every loyal State, without fear or favor.

And "in no uncertain terms" is still being used that way, as in this example from today's New York Times:

After last week, the question now is: Why am I writing a post this week instead of sleeping?

When more than 200 people tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the first step to dealing with the exhaustion incurred when a child does not sleep is to find ways and moments for you, yourself, to sleep, that’s a fair question.

But recently, through the miracle of misnegation, this elderly cliché has found a new role in life.

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Kim Possible Taste

Carley De Rosa sent me this illustrated description of an intriguing dish from a menu at a restaurant in Beijing:

Seldom does one encounter so many delectable Chinglishisms in such small space.  Furthermore, several of the items, especially the last, are both rare and challenging, so I take particular delight in explaining how they came about.

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The passive in English

Numerous Language Log posts by me, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky among others have been devoted to mocking people who denigrate the passive without being able to identify it (see this comprehensive list of Language Log posts about the passive). It is clear that some people think The bus blew up is in the passive; that The case took on racial overtones is in the passive; that Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened is in the passive; and so on.

Our grumbling about how these people don't know their passive from a hole in the ground has inspired many people to send us email asking for a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I'll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay; I can't make things simpler than they are. There is no hope of figuring out the meaning of grammatical terms from common sense, or by looking in a dictionary. Passive (like its opposite, active) is a technical term. Its use in syntax has nothing to do with lacking energy or initiative, or assuming a receptive and non-directive role. And the dictionary definitions are often utterly inadequate (Webster's, for example, is simply hopeless on the grammatical sense of the word). I will try to explain things accurately, and also simply (though this is not for kids; I am writing this for grownups). If I fail, then of course the whole of your money will be refunded.

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