Archive for August, 2008

More on less

Further linguistic adventures at grocery store check-out counters: last time it was a New Yorker cartoon in which "10 items or less" was altered to "10 items or fewer", mimicking real-life episodes like the one in which (under grumbling from customers) the Marks & Spencer chain replaced its "6 items or less" signs with "6 items or fewer", reported on here.

And now, also from the U.K., comes the news that the giant supermarket chain Tesco is also replacing its checkout signs. This time "10 items or less" will bow to "Up to 10 items".

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A load of old Orwellian cobblers from Fisk

As unneeded further testimony to the lasting damage done by George Orwell's dishonest and stupid essay "Politics and the English language", with its pointless and unfollowable insistence that good writing must avoid all familiar phrases and word usages, Robert Fisk treated his readers in The Independent on August 9 to some ranting about his most hated clichés.

I supply below an exhaustive list of the alleged clichés about which he raved. All that is striking about them (for there is certainly nothing interesting or noteworthy about the choices made in his lexical hate list) is their utter arbitrariness and unreasoned character.

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Next week: an experiment in primate communication?

There's been surprisingly little discussion in the popular press of a recent paper about cohesion in human/ape conversation. So far, all that Google News turns up is a couple of republications of the press release, though a taste of the expected response can be seen in the headline for the press release at TopNews: "Apes can follow conversations the same way humans do".

Even the blogosphere is relatively silent so far — all that I've found is "Inter-Species Diplomacy" and "Let's talk dirty to the animals".

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New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city in preparation for Hurricane Gustav. He had warned that such a move might be necessary on Thursday night, at a press conference with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. A clip of Nagin speaking at the press conference was played in a segment on NPR's "Morning Edition" on Friday. I've isolated some of the audio here:

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This is, this is serious business, and
we would not be calling for a mandatory evacuation
unless we thought there was a serious threat
and I think most people will adheed [æd'hid] to that.

Though he clearly said [æd'hid], NPR transcribed it rather differently in its online article:

"This is serious business. We would not be calling for a mandatory evacuation unless we thought there was a serious threat," Nagin said. "And I think most people will pay heed to that."

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Identifying written Cantonese

A query by a commenter on Victor's post raises an issue that seems worthy of discussion here on the main page. The question is whether it is possible to distinguish written Mandarin from written Cantonese. A widely believed myth is that even forms of Chinese that are mutually incomprehensible in their spoken forms are identical in writing. This is not true. Victor's post itself points out small differences between written Taiwanese Mandarin and Mainland Mandarin. Written Cantonese can in fact be distinguished from written Mandarin.

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Two Chinese Languages (at Least)

The distinguished German writing instrument manufacturer, Staedtler, lavished 19 (!) languages on the box for its Mars® Lumograph® 100 pencils.

(Click on the images for larger versions.)

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Ron Fournier, computational linguist

I think it's turning into a trend — journalists are becoming linguists. Really bad linguists, but any sort of interest in the analysis of language and communication ought to be a good thing for the field, right? Unfortunately, in this case, it's a bad thing for the nation.

A couple of days ago ("Does CBS News mean it?", 8/27/2008), the CBS News Morning Show enlisted an ex-FBI gesture analyst to support the now-standard narrative about Clinton ego and Democratic disunity. There was one small problem: his analysis was based on vague but checkable assertions, which 20 minutes of investigation sufficed to call into question.

This morning, I'll subject another journo-linguistic analysis — of the same speech by Hillary Clinton — to a few minutes of empirical and logical scrutiny.

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LPGA language policy is a double bogey

This just in (well, a couple of days ago): the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) "has warned its members that they must become conversant in English by 2009 or face suspension". According to the NYT article, this policy is "believed to be the only such policy in a major sport". Three other North America-based major sports organizations (Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association) have no such policy: "Given the diverse nature of our sport, we don't require that players speak English," says MLB; "This is not something we have contemplated," says the NBA.

Many of the comments on the article are crying foul, claiming discrimination, xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, whathaveyou. The common denominator of all of these evils, ignorance, is almost certainly at play in the decision to adopt this policy as opposed to other ways to get what the LPGA claims to be aiming for with the policy: more sponsorship opportunities. Unlike larger, better-established sports organizations like MLB, the NHL, and the NBA, the LPGA "is a group of individual players from diverse backgrounds whose success as an organization depends on its ability to attract sponsorships from companies looking to use the tour for corporate entertainment and advertisement." The geniuses at the LPGA appear to think that the money will flow a lot better if only their excellent South Korean players can answer post-game interview questions in English.

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Whose standard?

As Mark notes in Innovation or error?, a commenter on my post The Languages of the Caucasus questioned my use of entitled with the meaning "having the title", citing a guide to common errors at CMU according to which the correct usage is titled. This may well be the historical usage, but in my judgment, not only is entitled correct, but titled is wrong. To me it sounds awful. Since this does not concern some specialized area in which I am not expert, in which case I would defer to experts, I take my usage to be correct.

I look at it this way: I am a native speaker of English. I grew up in Northern New England. I went to Harvard. I know a bunch of languages. I have a Ph.D. Therefore my usage is standard. Your mileage may vary.

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Innovation or error?

Towards the end of Will Self's recent meditation on "other people's nether garments" ("Garment District", NYT 8/26/2008), he writes:

Mal had on a suit of blue denim that made him look like an aging sociology lecturer at the Sorbonne, the type who conducts fraudulent anecdotes of mixing Molotov cocktails with Guy Debord during les evenements of ’68. [emphasis added]

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Mary Ellen Ryder

Mary Ellen Ryder, who taught English and linguistics at Boise State University (in Boise, Idaho) for roughly twenty years, died in a wildfire that consumed her house on Monday (two days ago). The news was reported in local newspapers yesterday and made it to the New York Times (National Briefing, p. A19) today; google on her name to get a variety of reports and an outpouring of grief from people at Boise State.

Mary Ellen investigated English morphology, arguing in several papers that both noun-noun compounding (the topic of her 1990 UCSD doctoral dissertation) and nominalizations in -er are multi-functional, with interpretations crucially dependent on context and background knowledge (along the lines of some recent postings here on Language Log). She was enormously enthusiastic, both in her public papers and in her teaching. Only 56, and a horrible death.


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Does CBS News mean it?

According to CBS News ("Did Hillary Mean It?", 8/27/2008):

In her speech to the Democratic convention Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton urged fellow Democrats to vote for Barack Obama, and she did it in no uncertain terms — verbally.

But did her body language match her words?

Body language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro says he doesn't think so.

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Moist aversion: the cartoon version

Rob Harrell's Big Top comic takes on word aversion:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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