Archive for November, 2008

Elementary-school uptalk

In previous posts on "uptalk" in America, I've noted that there there are many conflicting assertions about its phonetic shape as well as its social distribution and its contextual function, but surprisingly few published examples that we can use to evaluate these claims. So from time to time, I've documented real-world examples on this blog. Such anecdotes are not a substitute for a systematic and demographically balanced study, but they're better than nothing.

However, you could argue that my posts on the subject have been, so to speak, demographically anti-balanced. In order to debunk stereotypes about the distribution of this intonation, I've often chosen strikingly counter-stereotypical uptalkers, like President Bush. So in the interest of equal time for stereotypes, this post documents some examples from the stereotypical sweet spot of the uptalk demographic — prepubescent girls.

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Pickin' up on those features also

Today's Doonesbury celebrates Sarah Palin's way with function words and inflectional affixes:

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Grauniad literally teases Telegraph

As the Wikipedia article for the British newspaper The Guardian explains,

The nickname The Grauniad for the paper originated with the satirical magazine Private Eye. It came about because of its reputation for frequent and sometimes unintentionally amusing typographical errors, hence the popular myth that the paper once misspelled its own name on the page one masthead as The Gaurdian, though many recall the more inventive The Grauniad. The domain is registered to the paper, and redirects to its website at

The reputation for typographical laxity is apparently undeserved:

In fact, the paper was not more prone than other papers to misprints but because the paper was printed in Manchester, Londoners saw the first edition printed each night. National papers in Britain at this time contained large numbers of "typos" which they removed progressively as the night wore on and they were noticed. Thus a paper like The Times would have as many mistakes in the North of England as The Guardian did in London. However, because media opinion was set in London, only The Guardian got a bad reputation.

So it must have been a special treat for the Guardian's Media Monkey blog to post "Heff in a huff over Telegraph gaffes":

"Mnokey" is delighted to treat you to one of Daily Telegraph associate editor Simon Heffer's regular email missives berating journalists at the title for their spelling, style and grammatical errors.

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What's the problem with keeping penta?

Maybe I'm dense, but I don't see the problem with keeping the term pentathlon for the modified competition in which shooting and running are combined into a single contest. While the modifications result in a reduction from five to four events, five sports continue to be involved. Nor is counting sports rather than events an innovation. The biathlon, which combines shooting and skiing, is a single event in which skiers stop at intervals and shoot. The term biathlon, to which, as far as I know, nobody objects, provides precedent for the interpretation of the names of such competitions as denoting the number of sports which they combine rather than the number of distinct events. There is no reason to treat this as a case in which a word's meaning has ceased to correspond to its etymology.

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Staying "penta"

Today's NYT brings us sports news with a linguistic touch. On the front page, no less, in "Modern Pentathlon Gets a Little Less Penta" by John Branch:

Shooting and running will be combined into a single event, a new final exam of intermittent focus and endurance. But modern pentathlon — derived from Greek, combining five (penta) and contest (athlon) — has no plans to change its name to tetrathlon. There has not been such a blatant mismatch between a title and its meaning in sports since 1993, when Penn State’s athletics program became the 11th member of the Big Ten Conference. In a nod to the faulty math, the Big Ten, which still has no plans to change its name, placed a subtle but distinctive “11” into its logo.

“The classicist in me says: ‘Wait a minute. This is crazy,’ ” said Brian Joseph, a linguistics professor at Ohio State — referring to pentathlon, not his university’s membership in the 11-member Big Ten. “But the linguist in me realizes that words change their meaning.”

Nice to see a linguist (and colleague and friend of mine) quoted on the front page of the Times.

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Flash from the LSA

Just out, from the LSA website:

Linguistics, Language and the Public Award

The Linguistic Society of America announces the 2009 recipient of the Linguistics, Language and the Public Award, given for a body of work that has had a demonstrable impact on the public awareness of language and/or linguistics.

The award will be given to Language Log, a collaborative science blog devoted to linguistics and written by a team of more than a dozen prominent linguists, almost all members of the Linguistic Society of America (their names are listed on the front page at

Language Log will be recognized at the LSA's business meeting on January 10, 2009, in San Francisco, California. The award will be accepted on behalf of the Language Log team by two of its members: University of Pennsylvania professor of phonetics Mark Y. Liberman (who founded Language Log in 2003 along with Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is now at the University of Edinburgh) and Stanford professor of linguistics Arnold M. Zwicky (who has been a prolific and prominent contributor since shortly after the blog was started).

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One of them, plus two others… were or was?

A tricky agreement situation arose for "Bagehot" while writing his eponymous column in The Economist last week. The topic was the "furious festival of blame in Britain recently". Among other scandals, two crude radio shock comics recently called a much-loved aging actor's answering machine and told him that one of them had fucked his granddaughter, and the call was recorded, and editorially approved, and actually broadcast. Bagehot wrote:

Two comedians make cruel jokes on BBC radio: heads must roll! (They did—one of the comedians, plus two executives, were forced out.)

My interest is in the agreement form chosen for the verb I have underlined. People like Stephen Fry in prescriptivist mood would say that the subject is the noun phrase one of the comedians, which is singular, so it should be was forced out. However, I'm not dinging Bagehot on the plural agreement form. I believe it's not just a simple binary decision in this case. Things are much more subtle and interesting.

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WOTY candidate: "malus"

It's Word of the Year season again, and a dark-horse candidate is surging on the inside turn to the home stretch: malus.  (OK, well, it appeals to me at least — my poor past record in predicting WOTY choices suggests that my lexical tastes are in the minority.) A press release from the Union Bank of Switzerland, dated 11/17/2008,  explained that "[b]eginning in 2009, UBS will adopt a new compensation model for the Board of Directors and the Group Executive Board", according to which

Variable cash compensation for the Group Executive Board is based on a bonus / malus system.

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The "meh" wars, part 2

Last week a truce was brokered in the great Philadelphia Alt-Weekly Battle over Meh. But fresh fighting has broken out on the webcomic front. Here's today's Overcompensating strip from Jeffrey Rowland (click to expand):

Meh has its supporters, particularly among fans of "The Simpsons" (see this piece by Mark Peters for more Simpsoniana). But in his comment on the Overcompensating strip, Rowland has a retort to the pro-Simpsons crowd:

I know it started with a Simpsons episode. So did "don't have a cow man." People had the good sense to knock that crap off though.

(Hat tip, Dan Holbrook of Language is the People's, who notes that Rowland is no stranger to word rage.)

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The American compound rise?

Yesterday, in answering a question from a reader, I glanced over the section on intonation in the 1877 edition of Henry Sweet's "A Handbook of Phonetics". I found what I was looking for, namely the section where Sweet distinguishes three "primary 'forms' or 'inflections' of tones" in the intonation of English — level, rising, and falling — and the "compound tones" such as "compound rising" (= fall+rise) and "compound falling" (= rise+fall).

But next came something surprising:

280.  The use of tone varies greatly in different languages. In English the tones express various logical and emotional modifications, such as surprise, uncertainty, &c. In some languages there is a tendency to employ one predominant tone without much regard to its meaning. Thus in Scotch the rising tone is often employed monotonously, not only in questions but also in answers and statements of facts. In Glasgow Scotch the falling tone predominates. In American English the compound rise is the characteristic tone. [emphasis added]

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Uptalk v. UNBI again

A reader from France, SW, wrote to ask some questions about English intonation:

It is with great interest that I discovered your posts on ‘uptalk’ on Language Log, in which you briefly retrace the history of the study of the phenomenon. In several of these posts, you highlight the fact that the association of uptalk with unassertiveness and tentativeness is unfounded, to say the least.

May I ask you if you thereby intend to correct the view propagated by somewhat simplistic newspaper articles, or if you are also disputing the views held by certain linguists?

(I would like to specify that my question is by no means meant to be polemical. I am currently doing research on language change and suprasegmental innovations in Leeds, where young people have recently been observed to use rising tones (UNB rises, not HRTs) at the end of declaratives, and I am trying to obtain information about the history of research on uptalk.)

I also noticed that you had entitled one of your posts ‘uptalk is not HRTs’. Could I ask you what difference you would then make between uptalk and HRTs (I had hitherto assumed that Alan Cruttenden and Robert Ladd established a clear difference between UNB rises on the one hand, and HRTs, *that is, uptalk*, on the other hand).

These questions and their answers are a bit more "inside baseball" than usual for Language Log — but perhaps some readers will be interested, and the rest of you are hereby warned to move along to another post.

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Getting laid in the NYT (part 2)

A while back I commented on the New York Times's reluctance to print "get laid" (even in quoted speech). Then it occurred to me to check out what the paper did with the movie Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987: directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Hanif Kureishi). And, surprise, it had no problem with the title back then; Vincent Canby did a review on 30 October 1987, and the title has appeared in the paper's pages a number of times since then (though some publications referred to it just as Sammy and Rosie). Then in 2005, in Ben Brantley's review of David Rabe's play Hurlyburly, we got 

It is a hangout for friends who want to get stoned, get sloshed, get laid.

And there's more, a lot more.

I have some idea about how this variability in practice could come about. It starts with an attempt to regulate publication practices rigidly: writers are expected to adhere to the prescribed practices, and editors are expected to correct them when they don't. But there are at least two problematic situations for this program of regulation.

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Thematic relations from both sides of the aisle

From President-elect Obama's latest weekly YouTube Address:

I know that passing this plan won't be easy. I will need, and seek, support from Republicans and Democrats; and I'll be welcome to ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle.   (emphasis added)

This sounds to me like an amalgam of

1. … ideas and suggestions will be welcome from both sides of the aisle; and
2. … I'll welcome ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle; and
3. … I'll be open to ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle.

misread from the teleprompter. But maybe not.

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