Archive for Variation

Nine quid for two?

The Daily Mail explains that this viral video features "Marnie and Mylah, from Burnley, [who] hit out at the ice cream van for high prices":

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

Subordinate clauses as noun phrases

In a comment on "Inerrancy and prescriptivism", Philip Minden wrote that "'just because… doesn't mean' is chalk drawn slowly down the blackboard", referring to the panel on the right.

The traditional reference is to fingernails on a chalkboard, not chalk on a blackboard — if chalk on a blackboard produced that irritating visceral response, mid-20th-century school days would have been a (greater) source of trauma.

But tangled idioms aside, there's an interesting socio-syntactic point here, namely whether and why it's OK for certain subordinate clauses to serve as subjects, as if they were noun phrases — and whether (and when) that works for clauses introduced by just because.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)


Jichang Lulu briefly alluded to work on languages of Italy in the dialectometry thread (here [the whole comment is well worth reading, as are the comments by Jonathan Smith [here — this one on an earlier thread, here, here, and here] on that post). He also thought that Language Log readers might find of interest some comments in this paper by Mauro Tosco.

"Measuring languageness:  Fact-checking and debunking a few common myths", DIVE-IN

“Interestingly, the more traditional classifications are marred by purely sociolinguistic analyses – and quite often their accompanying political and ideological underpinnings – the more they are proven wrong when dialectometry is applied.”

(Tosco:  homepage; International Research Group on Contested Languages)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)


Every individual's speech is variable. And when we look beyond the individual, we see variation across space, time, style, and social structure — among other dimensions. And these variations are generally gradient rather than abrupt, although standardization efforts by national or regional governments may try to eliminate the variation.

For millennia, scholars have noted and catalogued these patterns of variation — and for the past couple of hundred years, this study has been called dialectology. But until 1970 or so,  people interested in this topic faced an uncomfortable choice: you can either pretend (falsely) that the variation can be put into a few well-defined boxes; or else you can limit your research to compiling very large lists of who said what where, when, and why.

About 50 years ago, some European researchers began trying to get past this dichotomous barrier, under the banner of "dialectometry". For a recent survey, see Martijn Wieling and John Nerbonne, "Advances in dialectometry", 2015 (from which I'll quote a long explanation):

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

Crazy bone

One of the students in my class — all from China — hit her elbow on the edge of her desk and grimaced.  I asked her, "Did you hit your crazy bone?"

She didn't know what I meant, and none of the other students in the class knew either.  I explained what "hit my crazy bone" signifies (see below for a physiological note), and the entire class thought it was funny.  Lots of giggling and laughing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Mix and match Japanese orthography

Most Language Log readers are aware that the Japanese writing system consists of three major components — kanji (sinoglyhs), hiragana (cursive syllabary), and katakana (block syllabary).  I would argue that rōmaji (roman letters) are a fourth component, as they are in the Chinese writing system.

How do people decide when to switch among the different components of the Japanese writing system?  Of course, custom and usage determine when to use one and when to use another.  (It's a bit like masculine, feminine, and neuter in gender based languages [a frequent and recent topic on Language Log] — you don't ask why, you just do it].)  In most cases, convention has fixed which of the three main components of the writing system is used for a particular purpose.  On the other hand, since I began learning Japanese half a century ago, I noticed a fairly conspicuous slippage regarding what I had been led to believe were predetermined practices.

Sanae Heist, a senior studying linguistics at Columbia University, brought this whole matter to the surface when she wrote to me as follows:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Words for Water Being Sent to the Moon Europa

"Water", "water", everywhere — and it's pronounced differently wherever you go.

See the dozen or so US and UK phonetic and phonemic transcriptions and audio clips provided by Wiktionary here.  The last of the US audio clips even has the trace of an initial "h", as some people pronounce "wh-" interrogatives.


From Marc Sarrel

I recently heard about an engraving that is attached to the Europa Clipper spacecraft, to be launched to the moon of Jupiter in October of this year.  Europa likely has a large liquid water ocean underneath its shell of water ice.  There is more liquid water on Europa than on Earth.

The vault plate features waveforms for the word “water” in 103 spoken languages, plus a symbol that represents the word in American Sign Language.  If you scroll down a bit on the page, you can choose one of the languages, see the waveform and hear the spoken word.

I think this is a really compelling way to represent the common link between Earth and Europa.

I agree with Marc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

"Who's for POONSH?"

Samuel Johnson's anti-Scots prejudices are well know, as Wikipedia notes:

Although Boswell, a Scotsman, was his close companion and friend, Johnson, like many of his fellow Englishmen, had a reputation for despising Scotland and its people. Even during their journey together through Scotland, Johnson "exhibited prejudice and a narrow nationalism". Hester Thrale, in summarising Johnson's nationalistic views and his anti-Scottish prejudice, said: "We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch, & indeed to be abused by them in return."

I have a dim (perhaps false?) memory that his prejudices included a complaint about the use of final rises on declarative sentences, a documented feature of Scottish English (see e.g. the examples in this 2008 post). But I (very lightly) skimmed Johnson's A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, Boswell's parallel The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, and Boswell's Life Of Johnson, without finding any basis for my belief. If anyone can do better, I'll be grateful.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

"Overgrowin'" in San Francisco?

From C.B., an exchange in S.F.:

This week I heard an unusual usage from a random stranger on the street.

I was questioning whether a stairway in the adjacent block – which was not visible from where I was without climbing a steep hill first – had been repaired and could once again be used for through access. They replied that it had been, "But it's overgrowin'."

I couldn't tell whether they were using the word "overgrowing" where I would have expected "overgrown" or whether they were pronouncing "overgrown" with syllabic "n".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)


A.A. wrote:

In the recent Christmas movie "Jingle Smells", a character says "[if I had experienced what you did] I would have crawlen into a bottle too". Is this usage of the form crawlen grammatical in English? Perhaps a dialect thing? Because to my ear it sounds valid, but others have said that to them it sounds like a mistake.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (45)

Slap varieties

Sunny Jhatti wrote to me: "I didn't know what 'pimp slap' meant till I saw this."

After witnessing her astonishing diatribe, Conal Boyce said:

I felt like I needed to take a shower.

(Adding insult to injury, google failed to elucidate 'Skims' for me. Had to look elsewhere to get an inkling of what that recurrent theme was about.)

I found the presenter's self-introduction here. She even has her own YouTube channel and other social media platforms.  Her handle is Genevieve Akal.  She is a Gnostic Priestess and Nun.  From the pieties expressed on her homepage, I would never have imagined that she could indulge in such vile vitriol.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Read vs. spontaneous speech

Across the many disciplines that analyze language, there's surprisingly little focus on the properties of natural, spontaneous speech, as opposed to read (or memorized and performed) speech. But of course that dichotomy is an oversimplification — there are many linguistic registers, many ways to read each of the many styles of text, and even more individual, social, and contextual factors influencing spontaneous speech.

So one place to start is events where the same speaker, addressing the same audience for the same purposes, both reads a passage and answers questions — in such cases, at least the speaker and the context are controlled. In "Fluent 'disfluencies' again", 9/3/2022, I looked at the question-answering part of such an event, a press briefing by the U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary, Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder. At least, I looked at one small aspect of some of his answers, namely the distribution of certain kinds of disfluencies interpolations.

The focus of this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ will be one of Ryder's more recent press briefings, comparing the introduction (where he reads prepared text) to the first of his answers to subsequent press questions. I'll look at (aspects of) the properties of speech segments and silence segments, as well the statistics of local inter-syllable durations. For both of those features, fully-automatic analysis techniques allow research at scale, though this morning's data sample is small.

I'll also take a short comparative peek at his filled pauses and rapid word-repetitions in the two passages.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)


That's bù 不, plus = a-, il-, im-, in-, ir-, un-, non- prefixes in English.

It can enter into Mandarin contractions, such as 不 ("not") + yòng 用 ("use") = béng ("needn't), and the two Sinoglyphs used to write the constituent morphosyllables can fuse to become béng 甭 ("needn't).

Here's a whole slew of such fusion words and contraction characters:

Included among them are whimsical items such as one composed of bù 不 ("not") above and lǎo 老 ("old") below (= xiān 仙 ["ageless; immortal; transcendent"]), also another fairly well established one with bù 不 ("not") above and 好 ("good") below (= huài 壞 and other words / glyphs meaning "bad; evil; spoiled", etc.) — see if you can spot them. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)