Archive for Psychology of language

Moist! Chuckle! Slacks! Dollop!

Below is a guest post from Kavita Pillay, co-host of the new Subtitle podcast.

Do you hate a seemingly normal word for reasons that you can't quite pinpoint?

Or, are there words that you love to say out loud?

If so, the Subtitle podcast (more on us below) wants to hear from you!

On Nov. 19th, we're airing an episode on words we love…and love to hate. From reading the comments section of Language Log, we've noticed that Language Log fans and readers have very well articulated opinions when it comes to word aversion, word rage, and word affinity. Now you can share those opinions with the world.

Here's what to do:

  1. Open the voice memos app on your phone
  2. Record a 30 second (or so) message about a word (or words) you love or loath
  3. Feel free to include your name if you feel comfortable doing so, and / or a brief explanation about how the word(s) in question make you feel.
  4. Once you complete the recording, email it to, and we may use it in our upcoming episode on word affinity / word aversion

DEADLINE: Monday, Nov. 11th

Feel free to share this request with others. We'd especially love to hear from people for whom English is not their native language. And if you are completely perplexed as to why anyone would love or hate a normal word, then that's all the more reason to tune into our Nov. 19th episode.

A little about us: Subtitle is a podcast about languages and the people who speak them, co-hosted by Patrick Cox and Kavita Pillay. It's the successor podcast to The World in Words, which previously aired on PRI's The World. Funding for Subtitle comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and excerpts from every episode will begin airing this fall on NPR's Here & Now.

Many thanks, and we look forward to your voice memos!

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"The travesty that is taking fold"

Representative Mo Brooks on Fox News, commenting on the proposed impeachment-inquiry resolution:

I've yet to see the resolution, ((from)) I understand we probably won't see it until
uh later this week,
but if substantively it opens the doors
so that the American people can see the travesty that is taking fold,
then that's a good thing for the American people.

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Trent Reznor Prize nominee: Jamie Salter

From Ben Zimmer, a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding.

The nominee: Jamie Salter,  CEO of Authentic Brands Group.

The source: Jacob Bogage and Ben Strauss, "Sports Illustrated shaken by major layoffs and massive reorganization", WaPo 10/3/2019 —

Reached by phone Thursday and asked about the turmoil at SI, ABG chief executive Jamie Salter described the situation at the magazine as "awesome."

"I can only tell you that we buy troubled companies that we think there's enormous amount of value in the intellectual property in," he said.

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Conservation of orthographic gemination, again

Earlier today, BBC News wrote about the latest #sharpiegate development: "Trump Dorian tweets: Weather staff 'faced sacking threat' over Alabama", 9/10/2019:

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire senior staff at the federal weather agency unless they backed President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, the New York Times reports.

It says this led to last week's statement by the agency, disavowing an earlier position by a regional office that the US state was not at risk.

The acronym NOAA (for "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration") occurs six times in the article. But there's one apparent slip of the fingers resulting in "NAOO":

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Up or down the garden path?

Recently a friend sent me this example of a hard-to-parse sentence (source here):

What have you been surprised men you've been seeing expect without doing the work to show they deserve it?

This is not exactly a "garden path" sentence, which  Wikipedia tells us

[…] is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or yields a clearly unintended meaning. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down [or up] the garden path", meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler describes such sentences as unwittingly laying a "false scent".

The parse we start out with is the correct one — it's just that it runs into a wall when it gets to the sequence "men you've been seeing". If we persist, that original parse eventually recovers.  We need to figure out that "men (that) you've been seeing expect _ without doing the work to show they deserve it" is the complement of be surprised (that); and what has been painfully extracted from the object position of expect in that clause.

But this analysis left me with several questions: Is there a metaphorical name for that kind of sentence, assuming that "garden path "is not appropriate? And what's the history of the "garden path" phrase, in general and as applied to sentence processing?

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Inconvenience now

In "Which justifies what?" (7/3/2019) and "Thematic spoonerisms" (7/14/2019), we noted cases where writers exchanged noun phrases so as to produce literally nonsensical propositions: the inconvenience didn't justify the cause instead of the cause didn't justify the inconvenience, and ampicillin is resistant to multiple strains of U.T.I.s instead of multiple strains of U.T.I.s are resistant to ampicillin.

In this morning's email, Bob Ladd point out a letter referencing the story where the inconvenience didn't justify the cause, not to complain about the swap but to repeat it — "Have your inconvenience now and avoid it later", The New Scientist 7/17/2019:

Chelsea Whyte mentions that many people resented the disruption that the Extinction Rebellion protests created because they "felt the inconvenience didn't justify the cause" (22 June, p 20). I think this sums up the global attitude to action on climate change.

Maybe people need to be reminded of the inconveniences that global warming will cause. Instead of stopping trains, perhaps future protests should cordon off low-lying coastal areas and hand out flippers and snorkels to those who want to enter?

Any complaints can be met with a polite reminder that this will soon become a permanent inconvenience.

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Lapsus digiti

Ivanka Trump congratulates Boris Johnson:

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In response to my question about a "term for exchange errors in the mapping from thematic roles to syntactic positions" (in "Thematic spoonerisms"), Jerry Friedman pointed us to hypallage. The OED's first citation for this word is to George Puttenham's 1589 The Arte of English Poesie:

1589 G. Puttenham Arte Eng. Poesie iii. xv. 143 The Greekes call this figure [Hipallage]..we in our vulgar may call him the [vnderchange] but I had rather haue him called the [Changeling].

So I looked up the book, and the context is so much fun that it deserves to be reproduced in full.

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Thematic spoonerisms?

Matt Richtel, "Urinary Tract Infections Affect Millions. The Cures Are Faltering", NYT 7/13/2019 [emphasis added]:

For generations, urinary tract infections, one of the world's most common ailments, have been easily and quickly cured with a simple course of antibiotics.

But there is growing evidence that the infections, which afflict millions of Americans a year, mostly women, are increasingly resistant to these medicines, turning a once-routine diagnosis into one that is leading to more hospitalizations, graver illnesses and prolonged discomfort from the excruciating burning sensation that the infection brings.[…]

The drug ampicillin, once a mainstay for treating the infections, has been abandoned as a gold standard because it is so often resistant to multiple strains of U.T.I.s.

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The battle of the airports

Donald Trump's July 4 speech included this puzzling passage:

In June of seventeen seventy five
the Continental Congress created a unified army
out of the revolutionary forces encamped around Boston and New York
and named after the great
George Washington commander in chief
The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter
of Valley Forge
found glory across the waters of the Delaware
and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown.
Our army manned the air((ports))
it ranned [sic]
the ramparts
it took over the airports it did everything it had to do
and at Fort
McHendry [sic]
under the rockets' red glare
it had nothing
but victory.
and when dawn came
their star spangled banner
waved defiant

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Which justifies what?

Chelsea White, "Does people power make a difference? The truth about protests", The New Scientist 6/17/2019 [emphasis added]:

Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Hong Kong on 9 June to protest a government plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. The demonstrations have continued regularly since, with seas of protesters surrounding a government building and preventing law-makers from meeting about the proposed law. […]

One way to bring attention to a cause is to disrupt the hum of normal life. In April, climate protesters Extinction Rebellion had success with this method, bringing some transport hubs in central London to a standstill by blocking the streets with people and gluing themselves to trains.

The movement quickly gained attention from the press and attracted new supporters, partly thanks to social media. But it also drew criticism from people who felt the inconvenience didn't justify the cause.

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Jeremy who?

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Towards automated babble metrics

There are lots of good reasons to want to track the development of infant vocalizations — see e.g. Zwaigenbaum et al. "Clinical assessment and management of toddlers with suspected autism spectrum disorder" (2009). But existing methods are expensive and time-consuming — see e.g. Nyman and Lohmander, "Babbling in children with neurodevelopmental disability and validity of a simplified way of measuring canonical babbling ratio" (2018).  (It's also unfortunately true that there's not yet any available dataset documenting the normal development of infant vocalizations from cooing and gooing to "canonical babbling", but that's another issue…)

People are starting to make and share extensive recordings of infant vocal development — see e.g. Frank et al., "A collaborative approach to infant research: Promoting reproducibility, best practices, and theory‐building" (2017). But automatic detection and classification of vocalization sources and types is still imperfect at best. And if we had reliable detection and classification methods, that would open up a new set of questions: Are the standard categories (e.g. "canonical babbling") really well defined and well separated? Do infant vocalizations of whatever type have measurable properties that would help to characterize and quantify normal or abnormal development?

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