Archive for December, 2013

New from Plato

Google Books is much improved, but there are still occasional gems:


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Cow dialects: They're back!

Kat Chow, "Make It So: Sir Patrick Stewart Moos In Udder Accents", NPR Code Switch ("Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity") 12/30/2013:

Cow-d it really be? Have our ears herd this correctly? (Sorry, I can't help myself.)

Patrick Stewart — ahem, Sir Patrick Stewart — mooed up a storm on the podcast, How To Do Everything, impersonating cows from various regions. You might even say Stewart was code-switching.

A listener who says she moos with "kind of an American, Nevadan accent" posed the question: Just how would a person moo in a British accent? (And, by the way, it's true: cows do moo in regional accents.)

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Passive blindness in the NYRB

In Mark Danner, "Donald Rumsfeld Revealed", New York Review of Books 1/9/2014, a beautiful example of the grammatical incoherence of contemporary intellectual discourse:

Caught by Morris, he is not embarrassed or nonplussed. Nor does he acknowledge that he’d been wrong, or indeed engage Morris’s question—the question about his own responsibility—at all. We get only a blank stare, and the same mild serious attentiveness. The dogged indomitable wrestler will not admit that he has been prevaricating. The filmmaker, determined to pierce the opacity, persists:

Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?
Rumsfeld: Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that hadn’t been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn’t occur.
Morris: Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there at all?
Rumsfeld: Well, I guess time will tell.

We have reverted here to the bureaucratic passive tense that attained its true fame in the mouth of Rumsfeld’s mentor, Richard M. Nixon: “Mistakes were made….”

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School grammar, round two

There were many interesting comments on my recent post "Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal". I wasn't able to participate in the discussion, due to competition from travel, holiday activities, fall semester grading, conference deadline, a wedding, …, so today I'll take up one or two of the points that were raised.

First, let me say that Dick Hudson has kindly agreed to write a guest post about grammar teaching in the UK, and educational linguistics in general, expanding on his comment. In what follows, I'll make a few observations of my own about the motivations for putting grammar — and linguistic analysis in general — into the school curriculum; about ways and means for moving towards this goal in the U.S.; and about what skills and concepts I had in mind.

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Dialect chat on MSNBC

The interactive dialect quiz on the New York Times website, developed by Josh Katz from Bert Vaux and Scott Golder's Harvard Dialect Survey, has proved to be immensely popular. It's been a viral sensation on social media, much like the original Business Insider article on Katz's heat maps back in June (currently at 36 million pageviews and counting). And as in June, Katz's work is attracting plenty of mainstream media attention, too. This morning, I was on a panel discussion talking about the dialect quiz, and regional dialects in general, on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki" (segment 1, segment 2).

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Multiscript Taiwan advertisement

Jason Cox sent in the following ad for a Christmas-themed exhibition of papercutting artwork from Taiwan:

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"Words / Characters of the Year" for 2013 in Taiwan and in China

Back on December 17, 2011, I wrote a post entitled "Morpheme(s) of the Year" about kòng 控 ("control", but having lots and lots of other meanings, all covered in detail in my post).  The unusual title and thrust of that post were due to my dissatisfaction with the concept of a "character of the year" as a satisfactory parallel for or clone of Western "word of the year" competitions.  It was probably due to that dissatisfaction that I seem not to have written anything along these lines for the year 2012.

Now, however, we are inundated with Chinese words and characters of the year for 2013, so let's see what they convey and whether there has been any improvement in the grammatical understanding of what words are and how they function.

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Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal

A few days ago, out of the 21,595 visitors to LLOG that Google Analytics counted, 88 arrived after asking what part of speech is the, and thereby landing on Arnold Zwicky's post "What part of speech is 'the'?", 3/30/2006. Unfortunately, if they were looking for how to fill-in-the-blank on a homework assignment, they probably went away unsatisfied, because Arnold's excellent post starts by complaining, cogently and at length, that "the school tradition about parts of speech is so desperately impoverished", and closes by noting that

[A] linguist who proposes to introduce, say, the technical term determiner for a class of pre-adjectival modifiers in English that includes the articles, demonstratives, quantifiers, possessives, and more is likely to be seen as UNDERMINING tradition, casting off the sureties of the past in favor of fashionable jargon.

All true — but hard for a student to boil down to a single label. And just as hard for a teacher to use as the foundation for an assignment. This confusion and controversy about what standard grammatical terminology (and methodology) ought to be is one of several reasons that grammatical analysis has all but vanished from the curriculum of American schools.

I feel that it's past time to do something about this. So, as a Christmas present to the English-speaking world, let me propose a simple and practical way to cut through the tangled undergrowth of grammatical tradition and the dense thickets of recent grammatical argumentation. The goal: a standard, canonical grammatical description for English. Yes, really. It's already Out There — all we need to do is to recognize it for what it is.

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Watch out for those talking animals tonight

H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival":

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.

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Reindeer talk

It's Christmas Eve.  Tonight Santa Claus will be flying through the sky in his sleigh pulled by nine reindeer to distribute gifts to all the good little boys and girls around the world.  The names of the reindeer, as we all know, are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (also spelled Dunder and Donner), Blitzen (also spelled Blixem and Blixen), and, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Wikpedia informs us:

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement Clarke Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen," rather than the original 1823 version using the Dutch spelling, "Dunder and Blixem."[1] Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though German for thunder is now spelled Donner, and the Dutch words would nowadays be spelled Donder and Bliksem.

Rudolph wasn't added to the team until 1939, and that was in a version of the story written by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  Rather, I want to introduce Language Log readers to a most curious Finnish word concerning reindeer behavior.

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Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål

I just received this note from a colleague:

I found a document on the Hong Kong Education Bureau's website that says:  "Xiānggǎng de qíngkuàng shì yǐ Zhōngwén wéi mǔyǔ 香港的情況是以中文為母語" ("The situation in Hong Kong takes Chinese as the Mother Tongue").

Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is a rather curious, ambiguous, and imprecise term since it can essentially mean just about any kind of Chinese. I think using it to refer to a person's so-called mother tongue is especially dubious and sneaky.

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Interactive dialect map

A cute interactive feature: "How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk" ("What does the way you speak say about where you’re from? Answer all the questions below to see your personal dialect map"), NYT 12/21/2013. The description:

Most of the questions used in this quiz are based on those in the Harvard Dialect Survey, a linguistics project begun in 2002 by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. The original questions and results for that survey can be found on Dr. Vaux's current website.

The data for the quiz and maps shown here come from over 350,000 survey responses collected from August to October 2013 by Josh Katz, a graphics editor for the New York Times who developed this quiz. The colors on the large heat map correspond to the probability that a randomly selected person in that location would respond to a randomly selected survey question the same way that you did. The three smaller maps show which answer most contributed to those cities being named the most (or least) similar to you.

For more about the background, see Ben Zimmer's post "About those dialect maps making the rounds", 6/6/2013.

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Cattle raid, spray, whatever

In a Yuletide email message, Victor Mair found holiday cheer in the American Heritage Dictionary entry for spree — not so much the definition (just "A carefree, lively outing", "A drinking bout", or "A sudden indulgence in or outburst of an activity"), but in the etymology and "Word History":

[Perhaps alteration of Scots spreath, cattle raid, from Irish and Scottish Gaelic spréidh, spré, cattle, wealth, from Middle Irish preit, preid, booty, ultimately from Latin praeda; see ghend- in Indo-European roots.]

Word History: A spending spree seems a far cry from a cattle raid, yet etymologists have suggested that the word spree comes from the Scots word spreath, "cattle raid." The word spree is first recorded in a poem in Scots dialect in 1804 in the sense of "a lively outing." This sense is closely connected with a sense recorded soon afterward (in 1811), "a drinking bout," while the familiar sense "an overindulgence in an activity," as in a spending spree, is recorded in 1849. Scots and Irish dialects also have a sense "a fight," which may help connect the word and the sense "lively outing" with the Scots word spreath, meaning variously, "booty," "cattle taken as spoils," "a herd of cattle taken in a raid," and "cattle raid." The Scots word comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic spréidh, "cattle," which in turn ultimately comes from Latin praeda, "booty." This last link reveals both the importance of the Latin language to Gaelic and a connection between cattle and plunder in earlier Irish and Scottish societies.

So, he explained, "when you go out on your Christmas shopping spree this year, you are essentially raiding the stores and bringing home the booty!"

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