Archive for October, 2008

Someone needs a good night's sleep

My latest email from, sent at 10:18 this evening, starts with four typos in two lines:

(Click on the image for a larger version)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (4)

Anthropological sign translation errors

Linguists occasionally encounter examples parallel to mistranslated signs like the one Mark wrote about. The situation arises when someone with little or no knowledge of the native language, typically an anthropologist, elicits information such as place names and writes down whatever the response is. When a linguist familiar with the language later reviews these records, some place name will prove to be uninterpretable until the linguist realizes that what has been recorded, usually in a garbled form, is the response "I don't know". There are various stories of this type in linguistic folklore, and I have encountered this myself.

I came across a variant of this in the census of a Carrier village carried out by Oblate priests, none of whom had much command of the language, in the 1870s. Several women are recorded as having been named tsandelh. What the priests didn't know is that tsandelh is not a name: it means "widow".

Comments (40)

Honest but unhelpful II

According to the BBC, the Swansea council should have gotten a second opinion on this road sign:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (29)

Starting out on the wrong foot

The most recent guide to "punctuation, grammar, and style" (quotation from the subtitle) to come across my desk is Jan Venolia's Write Right! (4th edition, 2001). "Over 500,000 copies sold", the cover exclaims — but still I'd overlooked it until Wednesday (when I found it for sale at my local carwash, of all places, along with books about cooking, pets, parenting, travel, and advice for businesspeople — a category I'm still trying to wrap my mind around).

The field of books offering to help people improve their writing on the job or at school is crowded, and some of them seem to sell well. But their treatments of English grammar are almost all seriously flawed and not especially helpful. Write Right! is better than some of its competitors, but it really starts out on the wrong foot, in its discussion of what nouns are and how you can tell which words are nouns. (Like most of these advice books, Write Right! begins with the parts of speech, nouns first.)

As a bonus, I'll tack on a wonderful bit about English "subjunctives" that readers couldn't possibly understand unless they already knew what the passage was talking about.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off


While researching my post on Dr. Jane Orient's theory that Barack Obama is using NLP hypnosis, I listened to Dr. Ron Paul's speech to the 62nd annual convention of the AAPS.  Dr. Orient's explanation of the techniques of trance induction ("… rhythm, tonalities, vagueness, visual imagery, metaphor, and raising of emotion") prepared me well for this experience, and I was especially taken by one particular metaphor that Ron Paul repeated three times, and reinforced in other ways:  true believers as a scriptural remnant.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)


I've been musing recently about minutiae of English punctuation: apostrophes, periods, commas, and all the rest of it. There is considerable variation in usage on many points, and astonishingly passionate opinion about some of these points, even when they are mind-numbingly inconsequential.

Case in point: the use of periods in abbreviations composed of initial letters: I.B.M. or IBM? U.C.L.A. or UCLA? F.B.I. or FBI? Style guides vary, from those that are fond of periods (because the periods clearly mark the words as abbreviations and indicate where material has been suppressed) to those that are shy of them (because the result looks cleaner and takes up less space). Something can be said in favor of each scheme, and there is no issue of substance here. But some people have strong preferences.

The Wikipedia entry on abbreviation surveys a variety of schemes, noting that

The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C. [personal computer], I.B.M., P.R. [public relations]. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to completely make do without periods for convenience.

Now a few words about the NYT's practices, and about the value of consistency.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off


Yesterday afternoon, as I tried to stay warm on the sidelines of a junior-high soccer game, another father and I discussed the upcoming continuation of the fifth World Series game, suspended in a 2-2 tie by a downpour, two days earlier, after the top half of the sixth inning.

"Seems like they ought to win", I said, "with four at-bats versus three for the Rays."

The response: "You're not from here, are you?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (12)

Dissin' Sarah

I agree with Politico's John Harris and Jim Vanderhei that the charges of media bias against the McCain campaign are exaggerated. On the other hand, no one ever went broke overestimating the media's capacity for offhand condescension, as witness these excerpts from the transcript that ABC published of Elizabeth Vargas' interview with Sarah Palin:

ELIZABETH VARGAS: If it doesn't go your way on Tuesday … 2012?

GOV SARAH PALIN: I'm just … thinkin' that it's gonna go our way on Tuesday, November 4….

… PALIN: Absolutely not. I think that, if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we've taken, that … that would … bring this whole … I'm not doin' this for naught.

PALIN: Well, I think that people can … can read the comments and hear the comments that he made, because again, the, the refreshing thing about that tape being revealed … from 2001… it's candidness there. It's not … it didn't seem to be his typical scripted, kinda … rhetorical message read off a TelePrompter.

Now you wouldn't expect the transcribers to photoshop Palin's anacolutha and false starts (though I don't think the public's need for full information would be compromised if they cleaned up a repeated "the" here and there). But do they imagine that Palin is the only one of the candidates who drops a g now and again, much less says kinda for kind of or gonna for going to? And if you want to hear condescension compounded, listen to Wolf Blitzer having a Tina Fey moment as he reads from the Vargas interview transcript and dutifully drops Palin's g's where indicated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (23)

A clever parrot learns to combine phonemes (not)

No matter how hard I try to locate the world's most stupid animal communication story, they keep outflanking me. I am always left behind. An even stupider one always comes along. All I can say as of this morning is that I never thought I would see a story as stupid as this in a respected news source, and right now I cannot imagine how it could be surpassed (though within a few weeks I suppose it probably will be). The Economist has published (10/25/08:103) a review of a new book called Alex & Me in which Dr Irene Pepperberg tells the story of her scientific life with Alex the grey parrot (see here and here for a couple of Alex's earlier appearances on Language Log Classic). The Economist has already shown a certain affection for Alex's story: it devoted its obituary of the week to Alex when he died in 2007. The review calls the new book "a memoir of two unusual scientific careers, one of them pursued — not exactly by choice — by a bird." Now, I should make it clear that I do not have the book. If this merited scholarly investigation I would of course obtain it; but given what I know so far, I am deeply reluctant to part with $23.95 to get hold of a trade book for sentimental parrot fanciers (the subtitle is: "How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process"). So I will simply tell you about the stunningly stupid part of the review, and leave it to you to determine, if you care to, whether the review misrepresents the book on this point. But I warn you, especially if you know a little elementary articulatory phonetics, that this one will boggle your mind. Are you prepared to face the rest of the day with a boggled mind? Then read on.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (56)

Google lawsuits settled

Rumors had been percolating for a while now, and today it was finally announced: Google has reached a settlement with U.S. authors and publishers who had filed lawsuits challenging the massive digitization project of Google Book Search. According to Google's press release, the settlement resolves lawsuits from the Authors Guild and five major publishers (McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Penguin, Wiley, and Simon & Schuster). Google will shell out $125 million, much of which will be used to establish the Book Rights Registry, a system for locating and representing copyright holders (a way of dealing with so-called "orphan works").

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Forget framing — it's hypnosis!

[Update 10/29/2008 2:20 p.m.: A bunch of hits from and similar sites suggest that Rush Limbaugh picked this story up, apparently in a credulous way, on his show today. I believe that he referenced the AAPS site, not this one, but people are finding their way here via web search.

So for any internet pilgrims who may be reading quickly: There is no credible evidence that Barack Obama — or any other candidate in the current election cycle — is attempting to use NLP or any other hypnosis-like technique. The discussion in the item on the AAPS site is a combination of unsupported assertions, transparent falsehoods, and general properties of political rhetoric as practiced by all effective candidates of all parties. The longer anonymous piece at Freedom's Phoenix is no better.

In my opinion, no one should treat this story as anything other than an opportunity for a good laugh at the wilder edges of current political paranoia; and anyone who promotes it seriously is either a fool or a scoundrel.]

At the web site of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons ("A Voice for Private Physicians Since 1943"), there's an unsigned "News of the Day" item dated October 25, 2008, under the title "Oratory — or hypnotic induction?". This article's disturbing message is indicated by the rhetorical questions in its opening sentences:

Is Barack Obama a brilliant orator, captivating millions through his eloquence? Or is he deliberately using the techniques of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a covert form of hypnosis developed by Milton Erickson, M.D.?

67 additional pages of anonymous evidence and argument can be found in "An Examination of Obama's Use of Hidden Hypnosis Techniques in His Speeches", hosted at Freedom's Phoenix ("Reigniting the Flames of Freedom"), a conservative website based in Phoenix, AZ.

But please don't panic; simply put on your tinfoil hat and continue straight ahead to the end of this post.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

Zero relationships

My posting a while back on countification (M(ass)>C(ount) conversion of nouns, with accompanying individuating semantics) elicited e-mail and blogging about other cases of zero relationships in English (of which there are a lot, though all  pretty much irrelevant to my topic in that posting), and now Bill Poser's posting on moose has set off a comments thread on zero plurals (moose being an example of a noun with a zero plural).

There's an important point here: formal relationships — like phonological identity ("zero relationship"), suffixation by /z/, and systematic vowel alternations, are "just stuff". They have no intrinsic meaning on their own, but are available to serve all sorts of grammatical ends.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

The pragmatics of market predicates

Collaborative post by John Kingston and Chris Potts

Newspaper stories about the financial markets often contain quantitative information that is intepretable only by experts. The headline screams "Dow Up 200!", but what does that mean? In some contexts (say, apartment rentals), 200 is a lot. In others (e.g., houses prices), it is hardly anything at all. Similiarly, what is a 3% change like? Sometimes we're asked to shrug off 3% differences as irrelevant (think of polling data). For the markets, though, most of us have the sense that 3% is a big deal.

The headlines do contain some information that all of us have intuitions about: the verbs and other predicates that describe the change. We know that rise says that the change was upwards, and we can intuitively juxtapose it with soar, which suggests really dramatic upward change. Conversely, fall and plummet describe motion in the downward direction, with the second implying much worse news than the first.

So much for our linguistic intuitions. Do they square with the way newspaper headline writers use these predicates in describing financial markets? This is much less clear. As part of our Data Rich Humanities project, sponsored by UMass Amherst CHFA, we have been exploring this question using the collection of 23,327 NY Times financial headlines described in this earlier post.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)