Archive for May, 2008

Sometimes language is not enough

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has upheld the decision of a lower court in a suit by the American Council for the Blind, holding that US paper money violates the rights of blind people and ordering that it be modified so as to make it possible for blind people to distinguish one denomination from another. Another advocacy group, the National Federation of the Blind, sided with the Treasury Department, arguing that modifying paper money to accommodate the blind would make business take blind people less seriously and make it harder for blind people to find employment. Of the more than 180 countries that produce paper money, only the United States uses bills whose denomination can be determined only by reading. Euro banknotes, for example, are larger for larger denominations, are of different colors, so that people with limited vision can more easily tell them apart, and have the denomination printed in intaglio, which allows the denomination to be read with the fingers.

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Retinal sex and sexual rhetoric

This post follows up on my promise ("Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008) to respond to Dr. Leonard Sax's answer to my 2006 critique of the sensory physiology and psychophysics in his 2005 book Why Gender Matters. The first installment, yesterday, was about hearing ("Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on hearing", 5/19/2008). This one is about vision. I'll try to make it shorter, and I'll try to keep it entertaining — but I'll warn you again, this is probably more than you want to know about the subject, unless you're deeply interested in the anatomy and physiology of vision, or in the rhetoric of Dr. Sax's movement.

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Disappointing Movies

I'm sorry that Geoff and Barbara had such a disappointing movie experience last night. Myself, I watched The Scorpion King on TV. For a movie to watch while doing other things it was fine. It has exotic settings and clothing, plenty of fighting and stunts without excessive gore, beautiful women, everything a guy could want.

This was not the first time I had seen it, so I knew what to expect, but when I first saw it, I was quite disappointed. Why? Well, I naively thought that it would be about the real Scorpion King, one of the small number of known figures from the late Pre-dynastic period of Egypt. He may have been the immediate predecessor of Narmer, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the First Dynasty, or he may have been the same king under a different name. Naturally, I figured that a movie called The Scorpion King would be about the unification of Egypt and perhaps would even portray the origins of the Egyptian writing system. Alas, that movie remains to be made.

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Come back, Dan Brown, all is forgiven

WHY did we walk all the way from the New Town to the Edinburgh Odeon without reading the goddamned movie reviews first? Are we so stupid? I guess we must be. It has been years since either Barbara or I was at a film so bad that we felt we had to just get up and walk out of the cinema. Great God in heaven, is The Oxford Murders ever baaaad.

How bad is it? Kevin Maher said in Times Online (only we failed to read it beforehand): "Imagine The Da Vinci Code remade by a philosophy student, set mostly in Oxford bedsits and starring Elijah Wood in the Tom Hanks role, and featuring the world's most unerotic sex scene…" Kevin has been there.

And since he mentions The Da Vinci Code, let me say that I hereby repent — I retract and repudiate all of the harsh words I have uttered about the writing in the works of that fine novelist, the excellent Dan Brown. I did see the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, on a plane, and let me tell you, the writing in The Oxford Murders is much, much, much worse. I am not sure that the English language has appropriate words or phrases to express it…

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Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on hearing

According to a recently published and very influential book, scientists have recently discovered some amazing things about the differences between boys and girls. For example, girls' hearing is said to be an order of magnitude more sensitive than boys' hearing. And this is a difference with major consequences in public as well as private life:

The difference in how girls and boys hear also has major implications for how you should talk to your children. I can't count the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I'm yelling." If a forty-three-year-old man speaks in what he thinks is a "normal tone of voice" to a seventeen-year-old girl, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing. […]

The gender difference in hearing also suggests different strategies for the classroom. … [E]leven-year-old girls are distracted by noise levels about ten times softer than noise levels that boys find distracting. … If you're teaching girls, don't raise your voice …. [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys.

That passage is from p. 18 of Why Gender Matters: What Teachers and Parents Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Single Sex Education, by Dr. Leonard Sax, a pediatrician who is the leading light of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). Dr. Sax is a tireless advocate for the view that boys and girls are so different, in so many scientifically proven ways, that it makes no sense to try to educate them in the same classroom.

There's just one problem: the scientific foundations of this "emerging science of single sex education" are exaggerated, misunderstood, or misrepresented. At least, that's true in the cases where I've checked the original research that Dr. Sax cites, including especially his assertions about sex differences in hearing.

I posted about this two years ago; and a couple of months ago, Dr. Sax posted on the NASSPE web site a letter answering my objections. A few days ago, a reporter asked me for my reaction to his letter ("Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008). So here goes — I warn you that this may be a little tedious, unless you're specifically interested in some of the more obscure techniques for studying human hearing, or in the rhetoric of Dr. Sax's movement.

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A Tale of a Pot

A third century C.E. toddy pot from Tamil Nadu with an inscription in Tamil Brahmi

A few days ago an unusual article appeared in The Hindu. It is about the fragment of a pot shown above, a pot used for collecting toddy (palm sap, modern Tamil கள்ளு) made about 1800 years ago. The writing on the pot is in Tamil Brahmi, a writing system that only fairly recently has come to be well understood. It says: n̪a:kan uɾal, Old Tamil for "Naakan's (pot with) toddy-sap". In modern Tamil writing this would be: நாகன் உறல். As the article points out, the fact that a poor toddy-tapper would write his name on a pot is indicative of mass literacy at the time.

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Google Translate Adds Languages

Google Translate has added ten languages to its repertoire: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech,Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian,Polish, Romanian and Swedish. With the languages previously available (Arabic, Chinese (traditional and simplified writing), Dutch, English, French,German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish), Google now handles 23 languages. These comprise less than one-half of one percent of the world's languages, but their speakers include more than half of the world's population.

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Nature's dominoes

My colleague Tom Bever felt he had really hit the big time today when he learned that one of his example sentences had made it into the funny pages. Admittedly, it was in the linguistically hypersophisticated Dinosaur Comics (as usual, click on the image to see it full-size):

For a brief introduction to the example, try the Wikipedia article on garden-path sentences1, or for a rather more thorough discussion, Chapter 1, section 4.2 of this on-line introductory neuropsychology coursebook, in which Tom is referred to as 'a famous psycholinguist'. [Aside to Tom: It's true! Big time! Quick, ask for a raise — my finder's fee is a mere 10%.]

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Sax Q & A

As a result of some Language Log posts a couple of years ago, I get quite a few inquiries from journalists about Dr. Leonard Sax and his science-based arguments for single-sex education. It's in the nature of things that only a small fraction of such discussions wind up in the resulting articles. For example, for Elizabeth Weil's NYT Magazine piece ("Teaching Boys and Girls Separately", 3/2/2008), I wound up sending about 4,000 words worth of emails to the author and her fact-checker, in response to their questions about specific points raised in some of Dr. Sax's writings. In the final article, this all wound up as background to a 250-word passage about sex differences in hearing. (See "Scupulously avoiding sigma", 3/2/2008, for some comments about other aspects of the article.)

I'm not complaining; Ms. Weil had a lot of material to cover, and she didn't have a lot of space to work with. However, another recent journalist's inquiry, raising some of the same issues, inspired me start a new policy. From now on, when I get inquiries from journalists, I'll try to post an edited version of my responses on Language Log. This may be of interest to some readers — and of course our famous money-back guarantee is available to the rest of you — and it will also make it easier for me to deal with subsequent questions about the same issues.

In this case, I'll start with my responses to the four new questions that arrived yesterday afternoon. The answer to the last one brings up some of those emails sent to Elizabeth Weil, which I'll post in an edited form later this weekend.

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Heteronormativity and Indexical Reference

In the first sentence of her dissent from the California Supreme Court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, Judge Carol Corrigan, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, explained that even though the marriages should not be legally sanctioned, "In my view, Californians should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriages." Leaving aside the wondrous temerity of allow, think for a moment about what a reader will do with that our. Did Corrigan really intend to convey that Californians, or at least  her sort of Californians, don't include gays or lesbians themselves among their number  (though they may have some living next door)? Not really, I suspect, but the pronoun betrayed the thought even so.

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Taboo mystification

This one is beyond me (Stuart Elliott, "Speaking Profanglish",NYT 5/16/2008):

People who attended the Univision presentation were buzzing about a closing remark made by Joe Uva, chief executive at Univision Communications. He wrapped up the event with a jocular, four-word question that ended with the phrase “Are you in?”

The first word of the question was a colloquial expression familiar to Puerto Ricans, which Spanish speakers at the presentation likened to the word bomb unleashed this week on WNBC-TV by the anchor Sue Simmons.

The remark by Mr. Uva was greeted with nervous laughter from the audience members, either because they did not understand what he said — or because they did.

I can guess a few Spanish words that the NYT would view as unfit to print, but none of those that come to mind would fit in the frame "__ are you in?"

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protest of

Back on 9 March, Daniel Schorr peeved on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday about five of what he viewed as media sins against English, the last of which was:

Finally, the commonly used "protest of" some action — wrong. To protest is to proclaim or announce, as methinks thou dost protest too much. What you mean is to protest against.

It's not at all clear what usage Schorr was ranting about here: transitive uses of the verb protest (as in to protest the war, discussed in my posting on approve); intransitive uses of this verb with the (oblique) object marked by the preposition of rather than against (protested of the war); or uses of the derived nominal protest (accented on the first syllable) with the complement marked by of rather than against (a protest of the war). At first, I thought he was talking about the nominal protest of — because he referred specifically to "protest of", and the verbal protest of was new to me (in fact, I find it unacceptable). But then his later references to the word were clearly, in context, to a verb.

So now I'll discuss all three.

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A sofa, a book, a knife, floating in a pool

Helen DeWitt at Paperpools describes an interesting classroom experiment in techniques for (adult) learning of grammatical gender ("Winnie der Pooh", 5/15/2008)

18 students were tested on an artificial-language task, where gender was marked by choice among different articles, as in German:

[They] were given a list of 20 words, each of which had been assigned one of three articles invented for the occasion (fif, led, had). They were given three minutes to memorise the articles; asked to chat among themselves for two minutes; then given a test on the articles.

The number of correct replies reported was:

2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19

In this first test, no particular technique was prescribed, but most students tried to memorize the word list for each article type, or to memorize two of the three lists and assign the third by default.

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