Archive for July, 2008

Clear as glass

The comments on my posting "Commercial categories" struck me as useful, and also fascinating. They illustrated my observation that though technical, semi-technical, and everyday uses of expressions can be distinguished, these uses aren't fixed in stone, but can vary from person to person and time to time; and that both what's included in a category and also the label that's used for that category can vary in the same way.

Now comes a technical usage that was new to me, in a NYT Science Times article on Tuesday, "Anything But Clear", by Kenneth Chang, on glass. Two small points (none of them new): a technical usage that's an extension of everyday usage; and a mass-to-count conversion, taking a noun denoting a substance X to a noun denoting a type of X.

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Spanish is not a Secret Language

Last September a group of women spent a weekend at Foxwood's Casino to celebrate the 40th birthdays of three of their party. Two casino workers made vulgar comments about them in Spanish, thinking that they would not understand. One did and complained to the casino. One of the casino workers was fired as a result and the women received an apology and free food, drink, and rooms.

What prompted the press accounts of this incident is the fact that the ladies are not satisfied with the compensation that they received and are suing the casino for a total of $3.5 million: it seems to me and evidently a lot of other people that the casino reacted rapidly and appropriately and that the women were reasonably compensated for offensive conduct that nonetheless did little real injury.

What I find so curious about this is the belief of the two offending casino employees that they could speak Spanish without fear of being understood. With 322,000,000 Spanish speakers in the world and 34,000,000 in the United States, the odds of someone at a roulette table in Connecticut understanding the language are not exactly remote, and it doesn't take a linguist to be aware of this. Ironically, the casino is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, who have used part of their income from the casino for efforts to revive the extinct Pequot language.

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The Sichuan's hair blood is prosperous

More shabulengdengde poetry, from the menus of Chinese restaurateurs who put their trust in bad machine translations (as usual, click on the images for larger versions):

After all, who'd want to eat the hair blood of an impoverished person? Or a cowboy bone fried by a merely pentangular germ?

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Right angle turns

Many, many years ago I was privileged to study American regional dialects with one of the leading dialectologists of that era, Raven I. McDavid. It was a career-changing experience for me because he taught me the sheer joy of gathering and analyzing the actual language spoken by everyday people in everyday settings. The focus of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada was on older people, mostly in rural settings, so he sent me out to interview and tape-record a large sample of such Americans, first in the northern half of Illinois and later in the rest of that state. My experience of listening to 70-80 year-olds talk about farming and other topics was new and exhilarating to this city boy, making the arduous task of doing the phonetic transcriptions of their speech rather exciting.

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Work vs. play

Luckily, no one is paying me for doing this.

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Not exactly a smackdown

Ben Zimmer, posting on Monday on Visual Thesaurus ("Of Showdowns, Throwdowns, and Hoedowns"):

Last week we featured a debate over contemporary usage of whom, with Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre squaring off against Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. To be honest, the exchange was a bit too civil and reasonable to live up to its billing as a "usage showdown" — at least based on the Visual Thesaurus definition of showdown as "a hostile disagreement face-to-face." I was amused to see that on his copy-editing blog, "You Don't Say," John McIntyre facetiously referred to the debate with an even more inappropriate term: smackdown, which most people (in the U.S. at least) would associate with professional wrestling.

(Ben then went on to discuss a few other -down words: beatdown, throwdown, and hoedown.)

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The dangers of satire

In case you haven't already seen it, or heard it discussed anywhere, here's the cover of the 21 July New Yorker ("The Politics of Fear" by Barry Blitt):


One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong (from Sesame Street). Question: which one?

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Heroic feats of etymology

The "About Us" page for the new search engine Cuil says that

Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil.

There has been considerable discussion at the Wikipedia discussion page for Cuil about whether this is really true.

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Doggie concepts defended

[Marc A. Pelletier wrote to me after reading this post about canine concepts (or the lack of them). He offered a somewhat more pro-canine perspective. What he says is quite reasonable (not that I necessarily agree with all or any of it), and it may mollify a few dog lovers in the Language Log readership who continue to hate me if I present what what he said as a Guest Post. So I herewith do that. And you can comment on it if you wish. —GKP]

Guest post by Marc A. Pelletier

I am wondering why Geoff Pullum seems so insistent that dogs are unable to attach semantic meaning to words uttered by humans beyond the level of conditioned reflexes. Ethology has, in my opinion, contracted the disease of "reverse anthropomorphismitis": the desperate compulsion to avoid ascribing common cognitive mechanisms to animals other than Homo sapiens sapiens, even when doing so requires contriving many additional assumptions and evoking ad hoc hypotheses — I'm surprised that linguists feel the need to do the same (or at least, one linguist does).

Allow me to illustrate my position with an anecdote.

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The Linguistic Diversification of Spam

Most of the spam that I receive is in English, but I have also received spam in French and Chinese. A moment ago I received for the first time a spam message in Hungarian (a language that I do not understand). I can't decide whether or not to be pleased.

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This speaks for itself, I think — the first referral from the new Cuil search engine that I've noticed in our referrer logs:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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True might

"Heath Ledger Might Be Dead, but the Heath Ledger Scandal Dept. Is Still Taking Calls."

The gossip-sheet author who wrote that headline wasn't trying to cast doubt on the actor's demise. He was just using a common rhetorical device: granting a point with might or may, before stating the counterpoint in the next clause.

It seems to me that might was added to that first clause not because of any question about whether the clause is true, but rather as a way of signaling doubt about its logical connection to the point made in the second clause. In fact, you could eliminate the modal without really changing the force of the argument: "Heath Ledger is dead, but …"

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Got confusion?

Among the little known stories circulating recently, we learn from The Anchorage Daily News that the California Milk Processor Board, representing eleven dairy processors that market milk, is planning to bring trademark infringement charges against a batik artist in Talkeetna, Alaska. A few years ago, the artist, Barbara Holmes, whose company is Mountntop Designs & Baby Bugs Clothing, produced and advertised the slogan, "Got Breastmilk?" on tee-shirts and one-piece baby clothing called "onesies." CMPB's Sacramento law firm sent her one of those typical cease-and-desist warning letters to Holmes, telling her that her slogan will cause confusion with their own widely publicized and trademarked slogan, "Got Milk?" And she'd better stop doing this now, before they sue her.

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