Archive for July, 2011

More "screaming and spluttering" from Matthew Engel

Several readers have pointed out that Matthew Engel, the author of last week's odd BBC News peeve about Americanisms (discussed here and here), fired a couple of  earlier salvos last year in the Daily Mail. The first one was "Say no to the get-go! Americanisms swamping English, so wake up and smell the coffee", Daily Mail 5/29/2010:

In 1832, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fulminating about the 'vile and barbarous' new adjective that had just arrived in London. The word was 'talented'. It sounds innocuous enough to our ears, as do 'reliable', 'influential' and 'lengthy', which all inspired loathing when they first crossed the Atlantic.

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Nothing if not un____

Jan Eliot's Stone Soup for today:


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Friendly friend friendly

Yesterday's Sally Forth:

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The other shoe drops at Harvard

Carolyn Johnson, "Embattled Harvard psychology professor resigns", 7/19/2011:

Marc Hauser, a well-known Harvard psychology professor who has been on leave since an internal investigation found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct, is leaving the university.

“Marc Hauser has resigned his position as a faculty member, effective August 1, 2011,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an e-mail statement today.

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Third party

Sean Hoare, a British journalist who blew the whistle on the News International phone hacking scandal, was found dead yesterday. Today, the papers tell us that the police are calling his death "non suspicious". But there's a curious linguistic aspect to the police report:

There is no evidence of third party involvement and the death is non suspicious. Further toxicology results are now awaited and there is an on-going examination of health problems identified at the post mortem.

As reader MM asked me by email, "who's the second party?"

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Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea

After being inundated with Bruce Lee movies in the 1970s and saturated with Kung Fu Panda films and TV series in the 2000s, only a zombie would be numb to the call of the Kung-fu masters.  Unless you are a tea aficionado, however, you may not have heard of Kung-fu Tea.  (N.B.:  Kung-fu is Wade-Giles romanization, gongfu is Hanyu Pinyin.)  For those who do know about Kung-fu Tea, even tea specialists among them are divided over both the meaning of the term and the way to write it in Chinese characters.  Should it be gōngfu chá 工夫 茶 or gōngfu chá 功夫茶?  And does the name mean "tea that requires a lot of effort and skill to prepare" or "martial arts tea"?

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Hating Americans and their Americanisms

I will say only two brief things about the list of 50 alleged Americanisms that British people hate just published by the BBC, and the hundreds and hundreds of supportive comments and new examples that are flocking in minute by minute. First, people don't check the origins of the words and phrases they cite; here on Language Log Mark Liberman found a rate of just 20% correct geographical attributions in the article that has provoked this latest tsunami of prejudice and peevery. (I checked number 10 on the new list of 50, the word physicality, and found that the earliest potentially relevant OED citation is from an 1827 book published in London.) And second, the clear hostility displayed toward us Americans in the statement of these linguistic grudges is not evinced in the streets.

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Corpus linguistics in a legal opinion

Gordon Smith, "A Landmark Opinion: Corpus Linguistics in the Courts", The Conglomerate 7/19/2011:

Last month I blogged about the "best student comment ever," the first law review article to rely on corpus linguistics as the basis for analysis. As I have worked with corpus linguistics (through the comment's author, Stephen Mouritsen) over the past few months, I have come to conclude that it will revolutionize the study of law, at least insofar as we are attempting to understand word usages.

Today, my former colleage and current Utah Supreme Court Justice Tom Lee used corpus linguistics in a lengthy concurring opinion (the relevant section starts at page 34). In this opinion, Justice Lee is interpreting the word "custody," and he brings corpus linguistics to the fight. […]  Justice Lee's collegues are not enamored with the approach, but you can read the opinions for yourself and see who gets the better of the argument.

This seems to be the first judicial opinion anywhere using corpus linguistics, but it will surely not be the last.

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One apostrophe short of a good hoax

The LulzSec hackers who broke into the computer systems of The Sun by exploiting a weakness in a mailback page on an outdated Solaris server really can program; they would never expect a script to work with a misspelled variable name, or a closing single quote omitted. But spell English correctly? They couldn't even write a simple four-word headline without a tell-tale error:

They meant media mogul's body. A nice spoof front page ruined by a failure to recall that genitive singular nouns are spelled with ’s in English. The curse of the forgotten letter strikes again.

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Job trends

At the Revolutions blog, David Smith posts a nice little discussion about growth in jobs where people are making sense of data; he used job search site indeed.com to look at trends in job postings. Apparently postings involving "statistician" are not seeing a lot of growth, but "data scientists" have really started to catch on during the last year or so. (Hat tip to Joe Reisinger for tweeting this. He comments that data scientist is a "truly terrible name, but it's undeniably a different skill set: way too many statisticians can't code".)

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Wow, patterns!

In "Wow…?", 7/17/2011, I presented 10 isolated examples of "wow" or "oh wow" from published telephone conversations, and invited readers to judge the intensity and valence of each of the ten items (where "valence" is taken to mean the speaker's apparent negative or positive evaluation of the situation under discussion). There were 56 usable responses — I discarded another 5 or 6 because of  problems like 9 or 11 judgments instead of 10. I've done some simple analysis, described below.

The 56 sets of usable responses were well differentiated and fairly consistent: people evaluated these utterances in a lawful way. This kind of survey has promise as a source of input for efforts to learn the mapping between acoustic properties and human responses.

There's no obvious independent check on the "intensity" judgments, so the main question was how consistent they would be. In the case of the "valence" judgments, we can also look at the context to see how the speakers seems to be evaluating the state of affairs that they're responding to.

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Markov's Heart of Darkness

It seems that the length of Joseph Conrad's paragraphs — unlike the length of zebra finch song bouts — is well approximated by a two-state markov process.

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Sedaris endorses compositionality

Thanks to Graeme Forbes for alerting me to this! He has given me permission to post his note to his pro-compositionality friends. [For readers for whom compositionality is a new concept: it's a central tenet of formal semantics, usually credited to Gottlob Frege (but not without some controversy): The meaning of the whole is a function of the meaning of the parts and of the way they are syntactically combined. See, for instance: this introductory handout or the entry on Compositionality in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

From Graeme Forbes:

You may have already seen this, but in case not, here's an excerpt from an article in the current New Yorker, "Easy, Tiger", by David Sedaris (July 11/18 2011, p.40). It's an entertaining piece about how he "mastered" Mandarin, Japanese and German with the aid of tourist-courses on his iPod, including one from a company called Pimsleur. The "Easy, Tiger" alludes to a phrase in the section on romance in the Mandarin course. Or was it the German course? Surely not!

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You don't need no stinkin' passive

AN EXTRAORDINARY SERIES of news revelations about "hacking" scandal in the Murdoch-owned tabloid press continues to amaze the UK public. There are bombshells exploding here in Britain every eight hours or so: an ex-editor and former government aide arrested; a whole newspaper permanently closed down on 48 hours' notice; news that CEO Rebekah Brooks' resignation had been refused by Rupert Murdoch, followed by news that she had indeed resigned, and then by her interrogation at a police station, and finally by her arrest; the resignation (because they had received favors from the newspaper and done favors for it) of the head of London's Metropolitan Police and a former assistant commissioner . . . I have never seen anything like this in the turbulent history of Britain's feisty press. But none of it has been mentioned here on Language Log, because linguistic issues are simply not coming up. The issue is crime, not grammar. In fact, I noticed in one recent case that you could see grammar being quite decisively not the issue. People keep accusing the English passive construction of evils like concealment of agency and evasion of responsibility (and you can see the trope coming up in the context of this story in this post by Adrian Short), but it is a bum rap; the passive is ultimately irrelevant. Take a look at the truly staggering piece of misdirection concerning agency to which Erik Wemple and subsequently James Fallows have drawn our attention. They note that the Fox News program "Fox and Friends" recently raised the topic of "hacking" and then brought on an expert in corporate public relations, Bob Dilenschneider, to talk about how people shouldn't be "piling on" The News of the World or its parent company News International because there's hacking all over the place and we need to focus on that . . .

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Wow…?

Robert Coren, in a comment on "X là là", 7/7/2011:

Surely the various shades of meaning of such exclamations are conveyed as much or more by tone of voice than by choice of vowel. I can certainly imagine saying "wow" to mean "That's really amazingly beautiful", and also saying "wow" to mean "Oh, that sounds really bad, I hope it gets better soon", and there being no doubt in my hearers' minds which one I meant.

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