Archive for June, 2013

Finch song learning in the news again

Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, "From the mouth of babes and birds", NYT 6/29/2013:

Researchers who focus on infant language and those who specialize in birdsong have teamed up in a new study suggesting that learning the transitions between syllables — from “da” to “do” and “do” to “da” — is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking.

“We’ve discovered a previously unidentified component of vocal development,” said the lead author, Dina Lipkind, a psychology researcher at Hunter College in Manhattan. “What we’re showing is that babbling is not only to learn sounds, but also to learn transitions between sounds.”

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City of the big disjunctions

Continuing in another connection with the exploration of real-estate listings that I discussed earlier ("Long is good, good is bad, nice is worse, and ! is questionable", 6/12/2013; "Significant (?) relationships everywhere", 6/14/2013), I stumbled on this curious factoid about the use of and and or in's listings for the ten cities I've harvested so far:

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New WSJ column: Word on the Street

For the past couple of years I've been writing a language column for The Boston Globe (and before that for The New York Times Magazine). Now I'm starting a new language column for The Wall Street Journal, called "Word on the Street." Each week I'll be focusing on a word in the news and examining its history. First up, cyber, which is showing up with increasing frequency as a noun.

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Scalia's argle-bargle

Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in the DOMA decision had some harsh words, to say the least, for the majority opinion. But the word everyone has been fixated on is rather light-hearted: argle-bargle.

As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by '"bare . . . desire to harm"' couples in same-sex marriages.

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But for …

From reader V.D.:

Justice Kennedy got himself tangled in a quasi-double negative in today's DOMA decision:

Windsor suffered a redressable injury when she was required to pay a tax from which, in her view, she was exempt but for the alleged invalidity of § 3 of DOMA.

Either "but for" or "invalidity" is wrong.  If DOMA is invalid, she is exempt from the tax.

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If these knishes could talk

I'm in Ann Arbor for the 2013 LSA Institute, where I'm teaching a course on Corpus-Based Linguistic Research, and this evening the Institute organizers showed "If These Knishes Could Talk: A Film About the New York Accent". It was quite a lot of fun, and I certainly recommend it to all LL readers — though unfortunately it has not previously been shown outside of the NYC area, and the only way to buy a DVD is apparently to contact the filmmaker Heather Quinlan directly.

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Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going?

Recently we've had several discussions about how tones in Sinitic languages aren't as uncomplicated or inflexible as one might imagine or as is often claimed:

"When intonation overrides tone"

"Mandarin by the numbers"

In these posts and in the comments to them, we have seen how stress and musical tune / melody often override or distort the canonical tones for given morphosyllables in sung or spoken context.  This is a completely different matter than tone sandhi, where tones are modified according to their position within a sequence of syllables (I believe that most instances of tone sandhi occur for simple physiological reasons, e.g., in normal speech it is virtually impossible to pronounce two full third tones in a row because they both dip so low in an individual's register that one needs a means for readying oneself for the onset of the utterance of the second third tone and does this by changing the first third tone utterance to a rising second tone).

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How far up the garden path can a Time Lord go?

[From here via David Morris, who adds that we should not doubt the seriousness of the doctor's situation]

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Giant Bomb E3 Set Porn Bears

Noun pile? Crash Blossom?  We report, you decide… Rollin Bishop, "Quest for Giant Bomb E3 Set Porn Bears Fruit", 6/24/2013:

The Electronic Entertainment Expo — E3 for short — is held in Los Angeles every year, typically in June, and it means that a lot of journalists descend upon the area in short order. This year was no different, and popular gaming site Giant Bomb rented a “professional studio” for some of their coverage. Things got weird, though, and it quickly became apparent that what they were renting was actually the set for a bunch of pornography. Yeah.

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Recommended reading

R.L.G., "A language with too many armies and navies?", The Economist 6/21/2013. This post gives a laudably concrete discussion of the differences among contemporary regional varieties of Arabic, with examples taken from the r/Arabs Dialect Project. It also quotes from a 1998 paper by my colleague Mohamed Maamouri, "Language Education and Human Development: Arabic diglossia and its impact on the quality of education in the Arab region" (Discussion paper prepared for The World Bank Mediterranean Development Forum, Marrakech, 3-6 September 1998).

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Forensic linguistics in the Zimmerman case

The judge in the Zimmerman case has recently decided to let the jury decide for themselves about the source of the screams in the 911 tape ("Jury to decide whose voice on 911 call in Zimmerman case"). This decision is a stinging rebuke to the "expert" testimony of Tom Owen and Alan Reich, and supports the testimony of Peter French, George Doddington, and Hirotaka Nakasone. For a summary of the dueling experts, see Andrew Branca, "Zimmerman Case: Dr. Hirotaka Nakasone, FBI, and the low-quality 3-second audio file", Legal Insurrection 6/7/2013, "Zimmerman Prosecution’s Voice Expert admits: 'This is not really good evidence'", 6/8/2013, and "Zimmerman Case: Experts Call State’s Scream Claims 'Absurd' 'Ridiculous' and 'Imaginary Stuff'", 6/9/2013.

I don't have time this morning to discuss the issues at greater length, but it's clear that the judge's evaluation of the situation was correct.

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Chi and squares and contingencies

Sybil Shaver writes:

Reading Stephen White's novel Line of Fire I encountered the following: (in the middle of a discussion of a death which is either accidental or suicide, p. 51 of the hardcover)

"What do you mean 'if she intends to die'? Isn't dying always intent?"

I shook my head. "It helps to think about suicidal behavior having two pairs of defining variables. Picture a simple chi square – a two-by-two graph. On one axis is the dichotomy of intent – the person intends either to die or to survive. On the other axis is the dichotomy of lethality – the person chooses either a method of high lethality or one of low lethality.

"The two-by-two chi square allows for four possible combinations." I turned over our grocery list and sketched a chi-square with four boxes. "People with low intent sometimes choose methods of high lethality. They can end up dying, almost by accident, because death wasn't what they were seeking. The opposite is people who intended to die, but they chose a low-lethality method. They're the ones who believed that five aspirin and two shots of vodka would kill them. But they end up surviving, again, almost by accident."

"You drew four boxes. What are the other two?"

I squeezed water from a rag to use to wipe the counter. "I described low intent/high lethality, and high intent/low lethality. The other two are low intent/low lethality, and high intent/high lethality. People in both those categories get the outcome they intended. Low intent/low lethality is the classic 'cry for help' suicide attempt-someone who intends to survive but is eager for someone else to know about the gesture. That person doesn't wish to die, and she chooses a method that makes death unlikely. High intent/high lethality is the guy who puts a shotgun barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger with his toes. He intends to die and chooses a method that is damn near certain to do it.'

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Call me Ishmael

From Roy Peter Clark:

I've been writing a bit lately about famous literary texts and what makes them work.  The beginning of "Lolita," say, or the ending of "The Great Gatsby."

So I've been thinking about "Call me Ishmael," arguably the most famous short sentence in American literature.  Among its charms, I argue, is that it is a short, short first sentence for a long, long book, "Moby Dick."

What stumps me is the syntax.  I get that the subject is understood, that "call" is an imperative verb.  The word "me" feels like an indirect object.  But what the heck is "Ishmael"?  A direct object?  A noun in apposition to "me"?

I asked the question on Twitter, but got no results.

Can you or your Language Log colleagues enlighten me?  I would be grateful.

Lost on the high seas of language — Roy Peter Clark

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