Archive for Books

Sahaptin Dictionary

The first modern dictionary of Sahaptin has been published. Sahaptin is a language of the Northwestern plateau, spoken in the drainage of the Columbia River in southern Washington, northern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho. There are now no more than 200 speakers. This dictionary is of the Yakima dialect, called by its speakers Ichishkíin Sɨ́nwit.

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Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

That's the title of a recent book by science fiction writer John Scalzi (hardcover 2008, paperback 2010). The subtitle — A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 — refers to the fact that the book is a selection of essays from Scalzi's blog Whatever, which he's been writing since 1998, on a wide range of topics, including current affairs, politics, entertainment, parenting, and some goofy stuff. Every so often Scalzi responds to some of the voluminous hate mail his opinionated essays provoke, by critiquing the form and content of the mail (hence the title of this book). (Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

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Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B

The book Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B: Linguistic Explorations in Honor of David M. Perlmutter, edited by Donna Gerdts, John Moore, and Maria Polinsky, has just been published by MIT Press. According to the book blurb:

Anyone who has studied linguistics in the last half-century has been affected by the work of David Perlmutter. One of the era's most versatile linguists, he is perhaps best known as the founder (with Paul Postal) of Relational Grammar, but he has also made contributions to areas ranging from theoretical morphology to sign language phonology. Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B (the title evokes Perlmutter's characteristic style of linguistic argumentation) offers twenty-three essays by Perlmutter’s colleagues and former students.

Many of the contributions deal with the study of the world's languages (including Indo-European languages, sign language, and languages of the Americas), reflecting the influence of Perlmutter's cross-linguistic research and meticulous analysis of empirical data. Other topics include grammatical relations and their mapping; unaccusatives, impersonals, and the like; complex verbs, complex clauses, and Wh-constructions; and the nature of sign language. Perlmutter, currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and still actively engaged in the field, opens the volume with the illuminating and entertaining essay, "My Path in Linguistics."

Follow that link at the end — the chapter is available as a free sample. And if you're at the secret cabal, stop by the MIT Press stall at the book exhibit and get yourself a copy.

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Peeving over the (recent) centuries

Over on my blog, I've been coming down hard on Ned Halley's Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, a dreadful volume purporting to be a guide to "grammar, syntax and style for the 21st century" (postings here, here, and here). When I find myself engaging with such a book, I usually try to read something more satisfying along with it. This time it was Jack Lynch's recently published The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park, which I recommend enthusiastically.

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Crystal on Fowler

Oxford University Press has published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Nothing especially notable in that, except for bibliophiles and usage scholars. But what sets this publication apart is David Crystal's introduction to the volume, an assessment of Fowler's entries.

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Find the adjective phrases

Now for another piece of evidence (I gave one here) that even if you have no clue about grammar you can write grammar textbooks or reference handbooks and make good money by doing so. Here is an exercise set in Pupil Book 4 in the Nelson Grammar series (published by Thomas Nelson, now Nelson Thornes Ltd in the UK; ISBN 0-17-424706-0):

Three of the examples below are adjective phrases and three are sentences. Find the three adjective phrases. Add a verb and any other words you need to make each one into a sentence. Find the three sentences and write them with their correct punctuation.

  1. thank you said Jim
  2. Janet ran home
  3. the poor injured duck
  4. a shivering and frightened
  5. give me that
  6. with a heavy bag

Can you do this homework, Language Log readers? It appears to be aimed at children in elementary school, not older than 8 or 9. You will need the definition of "phrase", which is given on the previous page: "A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a verb" [sic; I swear I am not making this up]. I will now leave you to do the exercise (comments are open). Later I will come back to this and discuss it.

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The grammar gravy train

Looking for a job? How about one where you set your own hours, you don't have a boss, you have nothing to do but write at your own pace, you end up receiving fat royalty checks, and you don't have to know anything at all about the topic that you write about? The job is to write non-fiction (textbooks and handbooks), only it's OK if you don't have a clue about the subject matter.

One word about your new career (and it's not "Plastics"): grammar! The field where nobody much cares about anything that's been discovered since the 18th century, and you don't even need to get the 18th-century stuff right!

I'll give you some examples over the next few days or weeks — it depends how much time I get (unfortunately I have a real job where I have to attend meetings, teach things that are true, respond to questions, write sensible exam questions, and so on). Here's just one example for today.

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Alexander of __?

As the Google search suggestions on the right indicate, we generally view Alexander the Great as a Macedonian, and therefore, as the Wikipedia article about him says, a "Greek king".

But according to one of the many contrarian nuggets in Jim O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire, this is the wrong way to look at it.

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The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English

Another notice of a recent book, this time Nathan Bierma's Eclectic Encyclopedia of English (William, James & Co.), an assortment of material from five years of his "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune (no longer a regular feature in the paper, alas). It's meant for a general audience; in fact, a number of the entries originated as responses to queries from readers.

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Write It Right

Recently arrived in the mail: an advance copy of Jan Freeman's

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The celebrated cynic's language peeves deciphered, appraised, and annotated for 21st-century readers [NY: Walker & Company, publication date November 19]

(The subtitle of Bierce's 1909 booklet is A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which should give you an idea of the tone of the thing.) Jan takes on WIR, item by item, with extensive annotations for each item, looking at the background for the proscription (in many cases its later history as well), trying to work out Bierce's motivation for it, and assessing the state of actual usage.

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A deeply flawed character

When phrases are coordinated, readers infer that the the juxtaposed elements are in some way parallel. Careless coordination produces unwanted inferences. Today's Daily Beast serves up an object lesson:

Stunned colleagues Friday described veteran CBS News producer Joe Halderman—who was arrested outside the network’s West 57th Street offices Thursday in the alleged scheme to blackmail David Letterman—as a rogue and a womanizer, a lover of literature, a “smart frat boy,” a swashbuckling journalist, and an occasional barroom brawler who distinguished himself in dangerous war zones and occasionally displayed a certain reckless streak.

Fucking literature lovers.

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The inherent ambiguity of "WTF"

I'd like to echo Arnold Zwicky's praise for the third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's fan-fucking-tastic dictionary, The F Word. (See page 33 to read the entry for fan-fucking-tastic, dated to 1970 in Terry Southern's Blue Movie. And see page 143 for the more general use of -fucking- as an infix, in use at least since World War I.) Full disclosure: I made some contributions to this edition, suggesting possible new entries and digging up earlier citations ("antedatings") for various words and phrases. I took a particular interest in researching effing acronyms and initialisms. For instance, I was pleased to contribute the earliest known appearance of the now-ubiquitous MILF — and no, I'm not talking about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. (For the record, a Buffalo-based rock band adopted the name MILF in early 1991, based on slang used by lifeguards at Fort Niagara State Park.) Another entry I helped out on is the endlessly flexible expression of bewilderment, WTF.

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The F Word, take 3

The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's dictionary The F Word is now out, to much (and much-deserved) acclaim. The book has a scholarly introduction (of 33 pages) on the etymology of fuck; its taboo status; its appearance in print (including in dictionaries) and movies; euphemism and taboo avoidance; and this dictionary and its policies. The many uses of fuck are then covered in detail in the main entries.

There's an excellent review of the book by slang scholar Jonathon Green on the World Wide Words site. From Green's review:

… as a fellow lexicographer (and, I must admit, a friend — slang is a small world) what impresses me most is the excellence of the overall treatment. The subject happens to be fuck, but this is how any such study should be conducted and sadly so rarely is. Not via the slipshod infantilism of the Net’s Urban Dictionary, but disinterestedly, seriously and in depth. The F Word, I would suggest, is a template that we would all be wise to follow.

Website for the book here.

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