Archive for June, 2008

ETAQ strikes baq: more from Queensland

The editor of a journal for teachers sets out to write and publish some helpful materials for those teaching grammar "at the coalface" (a worryingly dark metaphor for what it must be like in classrooms these days!). After publication she finds that she has made so many gross mistakes that the material is worse than useless. One can sympathize with someone in such a position. It is the position Dr Lenore Ferguson managed to put herself in about a year ago when she started publishing a series of articles on elementary English grammar, under the title "Grammar at the coalface", in Words’worth, the journal of the English Teachers' Association of Queensland (ETAQ) — see this Language Log post.

It is certainly sad to see good intentions going so far awry. Rodney Huddleston thought that too, which is why his initial efforts at suggesting that her errors needed correction were polite and tentative. I could even understand it if Dr Ferguson initially hoped that she might be able to just minimize her errors or cover them up. However, my sympathy for her and her association has diminished as the days have gone by. ETAQ has started to strike back, and its defensive manoeuvers have headed rapidly toward outright dishonesty. Various rhetorical strategies are being deployed, but frankness and attention to the evidence are not among them.

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Airport business

I always thought I knew what people meant when they say they're on "airport business"–like buying an airline ticket, dropping off or meeting someone, or flying somewhere themselves. But leave it to resourceful suburban Washington DC area commuters to add new meaning to this word. This Washington Post article describes the lexicographical advances they've caused recently.

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Today's little amuse-bouche

Here at Language Log, we don't just sit around unravelling the mysteries of by-topicalization, stress-timing, resumptive pronouns, and the like. We have our playful sides: cartoons, "lost in translation" examples, Cupertinos, fun with taboo avoidance. Here's today's little amuse-bouche (or, if you prefer, amuse-gueule), which came to me originally on a card from a friend: a photo of a sign on a platform at the Penrith (English Lake District) railway station. The card was a grainy print-out, but here's a much better image:

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Timeliness, accuracy, relevance, effort, ethics, and stupid names

At the end of a series of fascinating Bad Science columns and weblog posts about the £2,000 Dore “miracle cure” for dyslexia, Ben Goldacre wrote ("Blogs vs mainstream media", The Guardian, 5/31/2008):

I make no sweeping claims about blogs and mainstream media – both have their roles – but in this case it seems the bloggers win on timeliness, accuracy, relevance, effort, ethics, and stupid names. Gimpyblog broke the news … PodblackBrainduck …  Holfordwatch

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Innate sex differences: science and public opinion

Yesterday ("Sexual pseudoscience from CNN", 6/19/2008), I promised to follow up with a discussion of Jennifer Connellan et al., "Sex Differences in Human Neonatal Social Perception", Infant Behavior & Development, 23:113-18, 2000. This post fulfills that promise. But first, I want to say something about the appropriate role of such studies in influencing public opinion and forming public policy.

Scientists mostly understand the dangers of overinterpretation and the importance of replication and triangulation. The public mostly doesn't. Unfortunately, journalists and editors also mostly don't understand these issues — or at least they act as if they don't. As a result, the role of science in the marketplace of opinion is seriously degraded by popular prejudice and by lobbyists for various commercial and ideological interests. I hope that this post, aside from any intrinsic interest that the content may have, will provide some material for discussion of those points.

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Sexual pseudoscience from CNN

The old oppositions between girls and boys — sugar and spice vs. snips and snails — continue to be reinforced and extended in the popular press by sexual pseudoscience. For example, Leonard Sax's false claims about boys' inferior hearing are front and center again in Paula Spencer, "Is it harder to raise boys or girls?",, 6/17/2008:

Why don't boys seem to listen? Turns out their hearing is not as good as girls' right from birth, and this difference only gets greater as kids get older. Girls' hearing is more sensitive in the frequency range critical to speech discrimination, and the verbal centers in their brains develop more quickly. That means a girl is likely to respond better to discipline strategies such as praise or warnings like "Don't do that" or "Use your words."

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Banned words in the courtroom

I was kinda hoping that nobody would notice my recent lack of productivity here at Language Log Plaza but nay, not so. Arnold Zwicky must have observed how much time I've been spending playing ping-pong with Eric Backovic in the Plaza's well-equipped recreation and weigh-training room. So he sent me an interesting article from to prime my pump, I suppose. 

The article shows something that most of us already knew anyway–that language is central to the field of law. The latest development is that a number of courts in the US are now forbidding lawyers and witnesses to use certain words during trials. Words like "rape," "victim," "crime scene," "killer," "murder," "drunk," "homicide," "embezzle," "fraud," and "robbery" are now not allowed in some courtrooms.

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Annals of Essentialism: sexual orientation and rhetorical asymmetry

There's been a lot of discussion, both in the mainstream media and on the intertubes, of a study that came out a couple of days ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Ivanka Savic and Per Lindström, "PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects", PNAS, 6/16/2008.

And in this case, the study's rhetorical reception is more interesting than the study itself.

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What did it mean to 'bear arms' in 1791?

In the case of D. C. v Heller shortly to be decided by the US Supreme Court, the central issue is the meaning of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

One of the issues is whether the Second Amendment guarantees a private right, that is, a right of individuals to own and carry arms, or a public right, that is, a right of militias to own and carry arms, or both. Many advocates of restrictions on the right of individuals to own and carry arms promote the interpretation that the Second Amendment is meant only to protect the organized militia units, which, they typically argue, are now subsumed under the National Guard. For advocates of this interpretation, there is no individual right to own and carry weapons.

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We don't need no stinking interpreters

Reuters' report on the trial of British mercenary Simon Mann in Equatorial Guinea for his role in a 2004 attempted coup indicates that:

Tuesday's trial was conducted in Spanish without translation… Mann… does not speak Spanish…Asked by reporters if he thought he was getting a fair trial he replied "No comment".

I'm not worried about offending the court or what passes for a government in Equatorial Guinea so I'll take the liberty of answering for him: No. A trial conducted in a language that the defendant does not understand without an interpreter cannot possibly be fair. You'd think even a tinpot dictatorship would be ashamed not to provide at least the pretense of a fair trial.

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Another world

I'm nearly sure that the people who submit comments on this and other weblogs are all intelligent, knowledgeable and thoughtful. Often, this is plain in what they write. But sometimes, in order to maintain my commitment to this belief, I'm driven to conclude that a commenter has recently tunneled through the barrier separating us from some parallel — and fairly distant — universe. Yesterday, one such transdimensional pilgrim contributed this observation:

Transformational grammar hasn't been accepted as plausible for decades, except, for some reason, in English departments.

Now, I know several of the inhabitants of several English departments in American colleges and universities. And if these organizations are full of partisans of transformational grammar, they're keeping a very low profile. In fact, in my (admittedly limited) experience, English departments are among the last places on campus where you're likely to find any indication of interest in any form of linguistic analysis whatever.

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Stress in Supreme Court oral arguments

We just got the acceptance notice from Interspeech 2008, so it's OK for me to inform you that Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has joined Queen Elizabeth II in the elite ranks of those international celebrities who have served as subjects for experiments in instrumental phonetics. The paper accepted at IS2008 is Jiahong Yuan, Stephen Isard and Mark Liberman, "Different Roles of Pitch and Duration in Distinguishing Word Stress in English".

In fact, not only Justice Scalia, but also seven of the eight other justices on the 2001 Rehnquist court were (unwitting) subjects in our experiment. (Associate Justice Clarence Thomas didn't speak often enough to be included in the analyzed data.) We applied automated measurement techniques to recordings of 78 hours of oral arguments from the 2001 term of the U.S. Supreme court, in order to look at the (average) effects on pitch and time of primary word stress (e.g. the third syllable in jurisdiction), secondary stress (e.g. the first syllable in jurisdiction), and lack of stress (e.g. the second and fourth syllables in jurisdiction).

Most well-informed linguists will probably not find our two main conclusions very surprising — at least, not the content of our conclusions. But there's a methodological suprise, I believe, in the fact that such clear-cut results emerged from automated measurements of medium-quality recordings of natural interactions.

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Many eyes on Siwu ne?

An invitation from Mark Dingmanse:

I just posted a piece on Many Eyes, a nice text visualization tool which I have fed some Siwu texts.

Now this is an open access tool with an interesting philosophy: "Many Eyes is a bet on the power of human visual intelligence to find patterns. Our goal is to "democratize" visualization and to enable a new social kind of data analysis."

I would like to test this philosophy in a peculiar way: by seeing if readers can come up with some kind of account of the functions of the Siwu word 'ne' *only by looking at the patterns* here.

Would you like to join all my eye and Betty Martin in some pattern hunting?

For more discussion, see Mark's post at The Ideophone, "Visual corpus linguistics with Many Eyes", 6/14/2008.

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