Archive for November, 2008

Early Indo-Europeans in Xinjiang

Some quotes from Victor Mair are featured in the NYT today ("The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn't Care to Listen To", 11/18/2008), with respect to the 3,800-year-old mummies found in the Tarim Basin.

Mr. Mair has disputed any suggestion that the mummies were from East Asia. He believes that East Asian migrants did not appear in the Tarim Basin until much later than the Loulan Beauty and her people.

The oldest mummies, he says, were probably Tocharians, herders who traveled eastward across the Central Asian steppes and whose language belonged to the Indo-European family. A second wave of migrants came from what is now Iran.

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"Not all these women actually are"

A postcard from my friend Chris Ambidge, an ad for the comedy movie Stiff Luv (2008), picturing six cast members, all dressed as women:

Something tells me, Arnold, that not all these women actually are.

(To judge from the cast list at the movie's website, I'd guess that NONE of the women actually are.)

Ok, Chris's note is a joke. The sentence isn't grammatical (though it's entirely comprehensible). But what's wrong with it?

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Agreement with nearest

Joel Berson wrote to the American Dialect Society mailing list on 12 November:

In the NYTimes Thursday, Nov. 6, Alessandra Stanley wrote (in "Cheers, Tears and a Sense of the Historic Moment"), "There was many a confessional detour, from Dan Rather reminiscing … to the former White House adviser David Gergin describing …".

This seems awkward, when "there were many confessional detours" is available (and uses the same number of keystrokes).

Many a N is "notionally plural" — it refers to more than one N — but grammatically singular:

Many a linguist has/*have wondered about how to analyze this construction.

So the singular was in Stanley's sentence is just the form you'd expect. But Berson found it awkward, and others agreed with him. Ben Zimmer suggested that the problem was the proximity of the verb to many, in which case you might get "agreement with the nearest": 

There were many a confessional detour…

This still doesn't satisfy me, because the unproblematic many confessional detours is available as an alternative.

As Ben noted, there's a problem here only because the sentence is existential, with there as the grammatical subject (in subject position, preceding the verb) and a referential NP in the predicate (following the verb). In standard English, this predicative NP determines the number of the verb (with some wrinkles for there's). And if this predicative NP has the form many a N, the plural quantifier many ends up as the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb (while when many a N is in subject position, the singular N is not only the head of the NP but also the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb).

It's been a while since we looked at agreement with the nearest, so maybe a re-play of another case involving existentials is in order.

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Blurt and babble

Mark struggles to maintain some sort of balance to counter the amateur linguistics we see in the press concerning the language used by political figures, even to the extent of trying to defend Sarah Palin's often incoherent public pronouncements. But I think she'll continue to outflank him. Here's a recent quote, from the Larry King show (on display in the Doonesbury site's "Say What?" feature over the last few days):

If there is anything that I can do in terms of assisting there and allowing the credence, the credibility that that great vocation, that cornerstone of our democracy called the press, if I can help build up that credibility in the press and allow the electorate to know that they can believe everything that is reported through the airwaves and through print, I want to be able to help.

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Can we really elicit an apology?

We may expect to get an apology for an offense committed against us but we sometimes don’t get one. Henry Alford’s opinion piece in the NYT offers one solution: apologize to the person who should have done the apologizing. It goes something like this:

(someone bumps into him)

Alford: Oh, I'm sorry you bumped into me.

Bumper: That's okay.

Alford calls this “reverse etiquette.” In an effort to elicit the expected politeness routine when somebody bumps into him, he tries to prime the pump by apologizing to the bumper. He admits, however, that this strategy doesn’t seem to work. But he tries again, more explicitly upping the ante with something like this:

Alford: I didn’t really mean for you to bump me with your bag.

Bumper: Don’t mention it.

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The great Montana parapet battle

A report from Languge Log's Rocky Mountain desk, where folks out here now fight over words rather than cattle rustling.

The Planning and Zoning Board of the Missoula Montana city government is having one of those ding-dong, small-town lexical battles, this time over what constitutes a parapet. Montana Lil’s has purchased the defunct 4 B’s Restaurant at a busy (by Montana standards) intersection and wants to turn it into a casino (yes, we have lots of these out here and we probably don’t need any more, but that’s how it goes out here in the new Rocky Mountain west).

The new owners want to erect a big video sign on the old restaurant’s roof, which has four equal sized, triangular sections that come to a point at the center. Current signage rules allow for parapet signs but they prohibit any signs on roof tops. No problem, say the new owners. Their new sign will be placed on a parapet that they’ll construct as a small, box-like structure on top of the building’s existing pointed roof. Unfortunately for them, their proposed construction is way too far from the edge of the outer wall of the building, where parapets normally are located. City officials say this doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of a parapet. They have a point.

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The WAGs back home

WAG is a very unusual initialism that has evolved in the last decade or so in the language of British newspapers. It is a back-formation from an acronym. Its origin lies in the the initials of the phrase Wives And Girlfriends, the phrase used to refer to the often newsmaking entourage of female companions surrounding (in particular) British soccer-playing celebrities. But once the acronym was established, and said females (often glamorous models or wannabes much sought after by celebrity photographers) could be referred to collectively as the team's WAGs, a singular noun was created as a kind of back-formation, and today an individual woman in a relationship with a soccer player can be referred to as a WAG.

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Reality check

Zippy and a stranger on the street puzzle about the fictional, the actual, and the real, somewhere in New Jersey, or at least the idea of New Jersey:

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Clouds of chatter

Zits returns to a familiar theme, the presumed chattiness of women, especially young women.

Folk sociolinguistics lives on, sturdily.

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Bebop language?

Dick Cavett recently called Sarah Palin "The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla" and "the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High". He worries that "ambitious politicos" will learn "that frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits". Peter Suderman, more specific if less witty, complains ("Sarah Palin speaks!",11/12/2208 ) that "I do not know what this means":

… massive leverage by everyone from consumers who bought houses for nothing down to hedge funds that were betting $30 for every $1 they had in cash a world economy that is so much more intertwined than people realized which is exemplified by British police departments that are financially strapped today because they put their savings in online Icelandic banks to get a little better yield that have gone bust globally intertwined financial instruments that are so complex that most of the C.E.O.'s dealing with them did not and do not understand how they work especially on the downside a financial crisis that started in America with our toxic mortgages …

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Epiglottal clicks and giant balls of feathers

Why, for heaven's sake, do journalists simply make stuff up when the science involved in a story is linguistic science? When the photos of those planets orbiting HR 8799 in Pegasus appeared this week, the press reported correctly that the objects in question were gas giants like Jupiter. They didn't say that they were giant balls of feathers. But when writing about the death of the late lamented South African singer Miriam Makeba, The Economist asserted that "she could sing while making the epiglottal clicks of the Xhosa language". Bob Ladd has pointed out to me that actually there are two asinine howlers in this. One, which I didn't immediately notice, is that we don't speak about Edith Piaf as being able to sing while making the uvular trills of the French language, because those sounds are part of the French language: they are perfectly ordinary consonants (r-sounds). She sings words that contain them, and if she didn't, she wouldn't be singing the right words. Well, the clicks of Xhosa are (for Xhosa speakers) perfectly ordinary consonants too. But the other thing is more serious: "epiglottal clicks" are a phonetic impossibility. In brief, clicks are produced with a suction action using the middle of the tongue, and the back of the tongue completely seals off the airway during a click. The epiglottis is way down near the larynx. It is literally impossible for there to be a click (i.e., velaric suction stop) articulated at or with the epiglottis. There are epiglottal sounds in some languages, but they are not clicks; and Xhosa doesn't have any epiglottals. The (anonymous) obituarist was simply slinging around phonetic terminology they had come across but did not understand. Shame on you, Economist. Hire a fact-checker. Or look things up on Wikipedia. Or ask Language Log.

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Annals of BioSpam

I've recently received an email offering me, for a mere $245, a yearly subscription to Surgical Technology International. As a teaser, the journal's marketing department invites me to view an online copy of "Site-Specific Rectocele Repair with Dermal Graft Augmentation: Comparison of Porcine Dermal Xenograft (Pelvicol®) and Human Dermal Allograft", by a long list of authors whose affiliations include not only the Harvard Medical School but also the Carolina Continence Center.

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Reproducible research

For the last few days, I've been in Düsseldorf for the Berlin 6 Open Access conference, where I organized a session on "Open Data and Reproducible Research". Here's the abstract:

In many scientific and technical fields, research is increasingly based on published data. Researchers also often publish detailed instructions or even executable recipes for reproducing their results. Combined with inexpensive networked computing and mass storage, these trends can radically accelerate the pace of research, by lowering barriers to entry and decreasing the time required to reproduce and extend innovations. These changes may also modify the balance between data collection and data analysis, and between experimental and theoretical work.

Nevertheless, these potentially revolutionary developments are mostly happening below the surface, with uneven progress across disciplines, and little general discussion of how to guide or react to the process. The goal of this panel is to publicize the experience of several communities who have up to two decades of experience with what Jon Claerbout has termed "reproducible research", and to begin a general discussion of the broader implications for scientific, technical and scholarly publication.

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