Archive for December, 2008

Deflationary language

Things have been rather quiet here at Language Log Plaza. Monday I was the only one in the office. With nothing else to do I decided to play an old Victor Borge tape and it gave me an idea that might be an interesting game you can play during the holidays.

Victor Borge made inflationary language popular, or at least his presentation of it did. It was a great idea for the glory days of constant inflation, but things are just not the same today. We’re now told that deflation is rampant in our economy. Naturally, that would call for Victor Borge to revise his inflationary language routine to its opposite. Since he’s no longer with us to do it, someone has to. Try it. It’s lots of fun and it makes a nice holiday party conversation. So here are some samples to get you started:

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Those Brits are hiding something

In other news about mysterious Winter Solstice traditions, at least two of this morning's (American) comic strips feature a reference to the (British) observance of Boxing Day. Here's the take on it at Sally Forth:

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Seven fishes

On Christmas eve we went to Abbraccio with some friends for the festa dei sette pesci. This was our second seven-fish feast of 2008, since some other friends had their traditionally non-traditional big-party version last Saturday.  Over the years, I've heard several different explanations for the fish and for the number, and a quick internet search turns up many other examples of the post hoc explanations that people routinely develop to give meaning to facts. But I've so far failed to find even a speculative answer to the sette pesci question that really interests me.

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Happy Christmas

For about thirty years, Professor Laurie Taylor (retired from the University of York) has been doing a humor column in Times Higher Education, a U.K. university administration magazine, in the form of a newsletter from an imaginary Poppleton University. This week it included a painfully awkward message from an equally imaginary Interfaith Chaplain, struggling to find some kind of contentful and seasonal greeting that couldn't possibly offend anyone of any faith:

You know, very soon we will be reaching that special time of the year when people who subscribe to certain religious beliefs rather than to others will be celebrating what they regard as a very significant event. May I therefore take this opportunity to wish all such believers a very happy special time of the year…

Language Log, however, is not quite so inclined to imagine that simple words of greeting will shock or disgust anyone; it seems to us that such worries are rather closely related to word taboo, with which we have little sympathy. So it has been our custom for some years to come out quite boldly and use the C word at this season. We love writing for you, and as time permits, in our odd moments of spare time between full-time university jobs or research projects, we will continue to do so. And whatever your religion or lack of it, we wish you a happy Christmas Day.

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Medical uptalk

In earlier posts on the final-rising intonation patterns known as "uptalk", I've commented that "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", at least with respect to the North American version. So as I notice notice relevant examples in publications like archived radio shows, I've been documenting them here.

A couple of other examples turned up yesterday, in a "Radio Gift" segment on NPR's Day to Day program: "Dr. Boots Tries A No-Insurance Model", about Elizabeth Crowley, a doctor in New Jersey who decided to stop taking health insurance payments. (There's more background here, and the featured doctor also has a blog that's well worth reading.)

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More meta-commentary

Someone using the moniker "Tarlach" tried to post a number of comments last night. This one, related to Chris Potts' post "Probably they shouldn't", was typical:

Actual speaks of language have no problems with antecedents. They are completly un-noteworthy, and I don't understand why people make posts about these un-noteworthy language events on here. If Obama's slogan was "Yes, Fred can!" with no common perception of who the hell Fred is, that would be noteworthy.

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Reverse Whorfianism and the value of SHAs

Yesterday's Zits:

For a teenage boy, according to this joke, the idea of cleaning up his own messes is so alien that learning to understand its expression in simple English is part of learning a foreign language. I suspect that the stereotype is at least somewhat unfair, in terms of age as well as sex; but this comic strip also mocks (and thus illustrates) a common tendency to equate language and thought.

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Probably they shouldn't

Verb phrase ellipsis in English normally requires an overt linguistic antecedent of approximately the right morphological form. That is, I can't normally begin my conversation with "He did!", but this is perfectly normal after "Sam said he would win, and …". There are exceptions, of course (Geoff Pullum's Hankamer Was! is lively and informative on this topic). Obama's campaign slogans "Yes, we can" and "Together, we can" were prominent exceptions. Lacking antecedents themselves, they invited inferred antecedents or allowed Obama to fill in occasion-appropriate ones. The first time I noticed headline writers playing with the slogan was November 5, 2008:

Obama did! (The Independent Nov 4, 2008, headline

Using Google News, I gathered a bunch more, based on can, can't, and do.

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Is there a classroom after the classroom is gone?

Reporting from the geriatric desk at Language Log Plaza: I retired from the classroom almost 13 years ago and I sometimes miss teaching linguistics to my students. I’ve continued to consult with lawyers on their criminal and civil law cases and I still write articles and books, but I’ve found that I rather miss my daily contact with students. So, in an effort to keep some kind of contact alive, I set up my website in such a way that if people who want access to some of my papers on it, they first have to email me and tell me something about themselves and why they want access to this material.

Even when the information they give me is minimal, I usually give them my password anyway. We often have two or three email exchanges about their questions, but most of the time I never hear from them again. Once in a while I actually get an opportunity to teach that is more than simply giving them access to my published papers. One example of this bears some amplification. Here’s the story.

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Are we inured yet?

The December 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek contains an article called, “Desperate Housewares”, a catchy title that plays off the name of a popular television program called “Desperate Housewives” (full disclosure: I’ve never watched this program but I do subscribe to Newsweek). In the article was this sentence:

Shoppers seem inured to the relentless Christmas spirit.

From this I’d guess that most readers understand that shoppers are accustomed to and even accept this relentless Christmas spirit and that it’s not a good thing– except perhaps for the retail trades. Inure, that is, conveys something negative here. Hold that thought while I describe a very different use of inure.

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X the Y

This morning's NYT article on conflict at the New School mentioned a linguistic dimension (Lia W. Foderaro and Marc Santora, "To New School Critics, Their Leader Lacks Focus", NYT, 12/21/2008):

Even a 2005 campaign intended to help integrate what one professor called academic “silos” fell flat with names that made clear the programs were part of a larger whole but were tortuous to say: Parsons the New School for Design; Eugene Lang College the New School for Liberal Arts.

The institutions in question used to be known as "Parsons School of Design" and "Eugene Lang College". Although the new names are certainly longer,  they're not exactly tongue twisters — if they're "tortuous to say", it must be because of their unusual syntax. (And of course the names of such institutions are always in practice reduced to a syllable or two, in this case "Parsons" and "Lang".)

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In memoriam Vi Hilbert

Vi Hilbert, a fluent speaker of Lushootseed, the native language of the Puget Sound area, known for her dedication to her language and culture, passed away Friday. She taught courses in Lushootseed at the University of Washington, founded Lushootseed Research, and wrote extensively. Her work includes: Lushootseed Texts, Lushootseed Dictionary, and Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound. She was the recipient of a Festschrift: Writings About Vi Hilbert, By Her Friends.

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The Rosa Parks of Blogs

Snowclones, those endlessly flexible phrasal templates, have already spawned their own database, launched by Erin O'Connor in March 2007. Now Mark Peters, who has helped bring snowclones to the masses in articles for Psychology Today, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Good, has created an even cozier online niche: a blog devoted to a single snowclone. It's called "The Rosa Parks of Blogs," and as you can guess from the title it's based on the "X is the Y of Z" snowclone, discussed here, here, and here. Mark explains:

Everybody is the Rosa Parks of something—or at least the Michael Phelps, Cap'n Crunch, Dick Cheney, Elmer Fudd, or Paris Hilton of whatever. This blog collects examples of the adaptable idiom "X is the Y of Z", which is a snowclone. Feel free to use these descriptions when discussing your beautiful children, longtime companions, sworn enemies, favorite foods, and elected congressvermin.

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