Archive for April, 2011

Max Mathews R.I.P.

Max Mathews died yesterday morning.  For his 80th birthday in 2007, CCRMA's MaxFest described his contributions this way:

Fifty years ago, in 1957, at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Max Mathews demonstrated that the digital computer can be used as a fantastic new music instrument. He created a revolutionary software platform destined to form the basis of all contemporary digital musical systems (Music 1–Music 5).

His audacious ideas were driven by the belief that "any sound that the human ear can hear can be produced by a computer". Mathews's mastery of this new instrument revealed new musical horizons and sparked a burgeoning curiosity into the very nature of sound. His comprehension and elaboration made five decades of art and research possible, laying the groundwork for generations of electronic musicians to synthesize, record, and play music.

Today at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) as a Professor Emeritus he continues not only to educate students and colleagues, but also to guide and inspire with his constant inventiveness and pure musical pleasure.

Join us in honoring Max for two evenings of sound, celebration and discovery of his ideas, works, music, and writings.

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Phone Etiquette 2.0

Today's Zits:

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No word for "mess"

We linguists know that the results of armchair reflection about one's own language are not always empirically reliable. In A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, Eric Abrahamson and David Freeman attribute to Hans Rindisbacher, professor of German at Pomona, an empirically dubious reason for the stereotypical neatness of Germans:

There may be another language-related reason why Germans can be less tolerant of mess than others: they don't really have a word for it. The closest is the word unordnung, which means "unorder," but that leaves Germans able to think of mess only in terms of what it is not, rather than having a concept for mess as a condition in its own right. It's like understanding coolness only as "unwarmth." It may be harder to appreciate something when the only way to conceive of it is as the absence of something else, especially when that something else is generally cherished. Many English words and phrases that refer to mess-related concepts and processes are utterly untranslatable into German in any meaningful way, adds Rindisbacher. Yard sale is an example. Relatively few Germans have yards or garages, he notes, and if they did, they wouldn't have hundreds of excess possessions with which to fill them, let alone expect others to buy them.

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An independent establishment is an establishment which is not part of an independent establishment

Matt Negrin at Politico is teasing Cass Sunstein over his 4/13/2011 memo "Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010" ("Deciphering 'Plain Language' Edict", 4/19/2011):

The White House has a new mission for agencies: Ditch the jargon, and speak “plainly” to the public.

But don’t look to the White House to lead by example.

Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is calling on federal workers to stop using “confusing, technical, and acronym-filled language.” To help them out, he’s issued “final guidance” on how to talk straight and not garbled – in convenient PDF form.

The “official interagency working group” created for this mandate is the Plain Language Action and Information Network. That’s right, “PLAIN.” An acronym.

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Inventory on nucularity

Over on my blog, an assemblage of postings (almost all from Language Log) on the pronunciation of nuclear: here.

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Unsucking the suck

On The New Yorker's Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes about a site called "Unsuck It" that translates corporatese: "You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—'incentivize,' say—and 'Unsuck It' spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context." Reynolds uses the occasion to vent about how words can change their parts of speech when they work their way into corporate jargon:

Once words enter the workplace they’re allowed to bounce about between different parts-of-speech with freewheeling fluidity. Nouns become verbs. Verbs become nouns. Sam Lipsyte’s miserably funny “The Ask” is, among other things, a brilliant riff on this alarming phenomenon.

We've grappled with such issues of anthimeria from time to time on Language Log (on the nouning of ask, for instance, see Arnold Zwicky's 2008 post). But I'm more interested in the morphology of "Unsuck It" itself.

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American Academy elections

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has now announced the roster of newly elected members, with six linguists (of various specialties) in the group of 212:

In Social and Developmental Psychology and Education: Melissa Bowerman, Michael Tanenhaus

In Archaeology, Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, and Demography: Penelope Eckert

In Philosophy and Religious Studies: James Higginbotham

In Literary Criticism (including Philology): Peter Culicover, Jay Jasanoff

(None this year in Neurosciences, Cognitive Sciences, and Behavioral Biology, though there are linguists in that section too.)

Yes, the category stucture of the Academy is odd. Occasionally it gets jiggled, but it never becomes particularly satisfactory.

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"We have not the word because we have so much of the thing"

Ardian Vehbiu wrote to draw my attention to a passage in Matthew Arnold's essay on Heinrich Heine:

Philistinism! — we have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing.

Ardian wrote "I found this quote counter-intuitive and funny. (I like the idea of the Inuit having no word for snow.)"

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New transitive adjectives

Rodney Huddleston points out to me a remarkable development in English that seems to both of us fairly new (though of course we may be in the grip of the Recency Illusion). English adjectives generally don't take noun phrase (NP) complements. (A complement is a phrase that accompanies a word to make up a phrase having that word as head — for example, something appropriate to a particular adjective that you can add after it to make up an adjective phrase.) The number of exceptions is extraordinarily small: one example is worth (notice how we say worth my time, not *worth of my time). Such exceptional adjectives have long been noted; Fowler comments on worth in his Modern English Usage (1926), and points out that it could be called a transitive adjective. But such adjectives are extremely rare in the dictionary. And yet some new ones appear to have been creeping into the language.

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Grammar, time, and truth

In "No word for 'lazy hack parroting drivel'?" (4/1/2005), Geoff Pullum quoted an exchange between the anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, discussing the response of some islanders near Thailand to a tsunami:

Ivanoff: "Time is not the same concept as we have. You can't say for instance, 'When.' It doesn't exist in Moken language."

Simon: "And since there is no notion of time, it doesn't matter if the last visit was a week ago or five years ago."

Geoff's comment:

Simon takes the (utterly unsupported) anthropologist's claim that they don't have the same concept of time as us westerners and stretches it to get to the notion that they have no concept of time. That, of course, will link to why they have no word for "hello": they have no idea whether anyone has been away. No concept of time, so no way absence could make the heart grow fonder. Utter, self-refuting nonsense, of course. If the Moken had no concept of time, how would they have known to flee to higher ground when the tsunami was coming, rather than three hours later? And how would they know that time had passed so it was OK to come back to the beach? How can people believe these things?

One answer might be "when they get some benefit from the belief". Back in 2005, Bob Simon got an appealing if incoherent story line. But in a story aired last Friday,  60 Minutes found itself on the other side of a similar discussion.

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Chinese typewriter, part 2

On June 30, 2009, I wrote a post entitled "Chinese Typewriter". It's time now to do an update, because on March 9, 2011, I travelled to the University of Kansas to deliver the Wallace Johnson Memorial Lecture. So what do Wallace Johnson and the University of Kansas have to do with Chinese typewriters? It's simply that Wallace Johnson is the only Westerner I know who became proficient in the use of the kind of Chinese typewriter I wrote about in my 2009 post, and he happened to teach Chinese history at the University of Kansas from 1965 to 2007. I knew Wally Johnson because of his interest in Tang period law and because he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania under Derk Bodde, who was a good friend of mine.

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She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives

Time for some pop-music phonology! Erin McKean directs our attention to a video for "Saskia Hamilton," a song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby from their 2010 album Lonely Avenue. The video is performed by Charlie McDonnell, known on YouTube as "charlieissocoollike."


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Phonemic diversity decays "out of Africa"?

A striking recent paper by Quentin Atkinson ("Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa", Science 4/15/2011) has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently. Its abstract:

Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder–effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

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