Archive for July, 2011

2011 Linguistics Olympiad getting underway

Ben Piché has written to let us know that the 2011 International Linguistics Olympiad, hosted this year by the USA, at CMU in Pittsburgh, is getting underway. Ben, one of our UMass linguistics alumni, is presiding over the admissions desk at the IOL (note the international word-order). Ben writes:

We're still setting up here on campus, and the competition hasn't formally begun yet, but we're hard at work scheduling programs and activities for the participants. We hope that this will be the best IOL yet!

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Star what?

Unlike the clever fake Apple stores discussed in my last post, this sign seems intended to amuse potential customers rather than to fool them:

This sign was reported to have appeared last year on a construction site in Liuzhou, Guangxi Province, south China. It apparently did not signal the opening of a planned Starbucks knock-off, but rather was meant to drum up rental interest in a site under construction.

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Modifier targeting: the awkward cusp between error and creativity

According to the BBC News for US & Canada website today, "The Pentagon is set to announce that the ban on gay people openly serving in [the] US military is to end"; and my colleague Heinz Giegerich did a double-take. He notes with puzzlement that he understood it despite the fact that the adverb is clearly in the wrong place. It's not open service that is banned by the military; it's open gayness. How can we possibly understand an adverb positioned as a premodifier of the verb serve when it ought to be positioned before the adjective gay?

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Etymology gone wrong: (un)impregn(at)able

A few days ago, Larry Horn sent this note to the  American Dialect Society's discussion list:

On an article lauding the Texas Rangers’ defense in today’s NYT sports section, I did a double-take on reading that

The defense—anchored by shortstop Elvis Andrus and the impregnable glove of Adrian Beltre at third base—has saved more runs above average than any other team but the Rays.

Once I got past the metaphor in which baseball gloves may or may not become pregnant, my first thought was that the writer (Neil Payne) had meant “unimpregnable”, i.e. incapable of being impregnated, just as “uninflammable” means 'incapable of becoming inflamed'.  I checked the OED and found to my surprise that, as they say, “there is no such word” as unimpregnable, and that the im- (i.e. iN-) of impregnable can only be a negative prefix, so that impregnable already (officially) means what I had thought unimpregnable would mean, rendering the doubly-prefixed form otiose.  Evidently, unimpregnable does not and never did exist.

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Regulating transgenic grass skirts

Who can doubt that transgenic grass skirts are in dire need of regulation? Certainly not Nature, which published "Transgenic grass skirts regulators" in its issue of 7/20/2011:

When the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this month that it did not have the authority to oversee a new variety of genetically modified (GM) Kentucky bluegrass, it exposed a serious weakness in the regulations governing GM crops. These are based not on a plant's GM nature but on the techniques used for its genetic modification. With changing technologies, the department says that it lacks the authority to regulate newly created transgenic crops.

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Google thinks Darwin is Freud

Or at least some automatically-derived Google thesaurus does:

For some searches including the term "Freud", a significant fraction of the hits (including the second one in the screenshot above) do not contain "Freud" (or derivatives like "Freudian") at all. At the same time, instances of "Darwin" in the displayed snippets are put into bold typeface, as if they were instances of one of the search terms.

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Dignify diathesis

Are we losing it? [*] It's been almost three weeks since the latest and greatest episode in the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal began dominating the world's news, and no one at Language Log has yet found a linguistic angle. I mean, Geoff Pullum connected a World Series victory with Strunk & White; I found a way to put Paris Hilton together with birdsong syntax; surely we can relate Rupert Murdoch to hypotaxis, or Rebekah Brooks to FOXP2?

Well, not so far. But this morning, I've got at least the peripheral glimmer of a connection.

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Your friendly fake Apple Stoer in Kunming

There are four authentic Apple stores in China, two in Beijing and two in Shanghai, with plans to open another in Shanghai and one in Hong Kong by the end of the year. I've been in one of the Beijing stores and in one of the Shanghai stores; they are palaces of iPods, iPads, iPhones, and all manner of other Apple products.

A blogger in Kunming, Yunnan Province of China, has stumbled upon devilishly realistic Apple Store knockoffs — the whole kit and kaboodle, including circular stairs and laid-back staff in blue t-shirts who appear to believe that they are working for Apple Computer, Inc., not some Chinese shānzhài 山寨 ("imitation; pirated brand") outfit. Her account of these stores in Kunming (BirdAbroad (July 20, 2011, with later updates, including a video) "Are you listening, Steve Jobs?") has gone absolutely viral, with more than a million visitors to her site, and the story being picked up by thousands of news outlets.

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Please don't offend this post

On a recent commute via Calgary's light rail train, the following recorded announcement caught my ear: "Please stand clear of the doors as this train is trying to depart." Beyond my initial bemusement, I thought little of it. I imagined, perhaps, a harried public transit employee playing a bit fast and loose with selectional restrictions in much the same way that a certain child I know puts together jigsaw puzzles: by pounding together pieces that approximately fit together and hoping for the best. But later in the week my husband fielded a call that made me wonder whether the train announcer's overextension of animacy features wasn't in fact a crafty linguistic maneuver to increase rush-hour compliance.

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Love <–> hate

Baidu ("the Chinese Google") is a popular search engine in China.  The web services company (registered in the Cayman Islands) and its name are discussed in "Soon to be lost in translation," which I posted a little over a year ago.

Now Baidu has launched a new machine translation service.  A friend of mine in China impishly suggested that I give Baidu Fanyi a whirl by typing in 我恨中国.  Language Log readers are invited to try it themselves and see what they get.

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In our recent discussions of anti-Americanisms-ism in Britain, commenters have occasionally brought up the question of whether or not Americans ever show similar linguistic xenophobia. The fact that we're as human as the Brits is demonstrated by Marc Lacey, "'Haboobs' stir critics in Arizona", NYT 7/21/2011:

The massive dust storms that swept through central Arizona this month have stirred up not just clouds of sand but a debate over what to call them.

The blinding waves of brown particles, the most recent of which hit Phoenix on Monday, are caused by thunderstorms that emit gusts of wind, roiling the desert landscape. Use of the term “haboob,” which is what such storms have long been called in the Middle East, has rubbed some Arizona residents the wrong way.

“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

Diane Robinson of Wickenburg, Ariz., agreed, saying the state’s dust storms are unique and ought to be labeled as such.

“Excuse me, Mr. Weatherman!” she said in a letter to the editor. “Who gave you the right to use the word ‘haboob’ in describing our recent dust storm? While you may think there are similarities, don’t forget that in these parts our dust is mixed with the whoop of the Indian’s dance, the progression of the cattle herd and warning of the rattlesnake as it lifts its head to strike.”

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Ask Language Log: One = only one?

Keith Ellis got into an argument with a friend about the meaning of the number one, and asked us for help:

In a discussion I had today with someone about the probability puzzle of "one of my two children is a boy, what is the probability that my other child is a girl?" we got hung up on her (very strong) inference of "only one of my two children is a boy" from "one of my children is a boy". [...]

She insisted that if one "takes the statement literally" that the statement necessarily has this ["one is" == "only one is"] meaning.

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Don't read this post: Be a Language Log reader!

The big deal in a new paper "Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self" (see also the official PNAS site, or e.g. this Discover magazine article "The power of nouns….") is that people can be manipulated into voting simply by clever use of nouns instead of verbs in a questionnaire. In each of several studies, potential voters were split into two groups and given (amongst other questions which didn't vary by group) one of two questions to answer:

Group 1 question: How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?

Group 2 question: How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?

Turned out that Group 1 turned out. Really. In one of the studies an amazing 95.5% of them actually turned out to vote, whereas only 81.8% of Group 2 voted. That's obviously a huge effect on voting behavior. And it appears to be caused by the use of a construction with the nominal "voter" instead of the verb "vote".

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Last night, with some diffidence, for the first time since Barbara's death, I made an attempt at cooking the excellent mushroom risotto that she used to do. I knew how to do it in broad outline. But through a careless fumble when adding more olive oil to the pan at the sauteeing stage, I put way too much olive oil in — like about half a cup too much. Barbara (mistress of delicious low-fat cooking) would have thrown the whole mess in the bin. I made a different decision. I decided to reconceptualize. This was not going to be Barbara's mushroom risotto at all; this was an olive oil risotto with mushrooms. Qua mushroom risotto it would not have ranked highly, but qua olive oil risotto it wasn't too bad.

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