Archive for February, 2009

Set your recorders now!

As Scott Simon reminds us on Weekend Edition Saturday this morning, The Linguists will premiere on PBS stations across the nation this Thursday. (Check and double-check your local listings for the exact time (or even the day) of the premiere, which may vary.)

I'm looking forward to finally seeing the film. I'm also looking forward to David Harrison's upcoming visit to my corner of Language Log Plaza on April 23 and 24. If you find yourself in the San Diego area around that time, come on by.

I have to add that I was a bit disappointed with Scott Simon's interview with David Harrison and Greg Anderson this morning. After a fairly good introduction and a good first couple of questions (asking what first brought David and Greg together, and what happens when a language dies), Scott decides to lighten things up a bit and chuckles to himself as he says: "May I ask, each of you in turn: what's the strangest language you think you've ever heard?" Greg (rather wisely) prompts David to go first, and David avoids immediately taking the bait by saying, "Well, they're all strange from a certain point of view, and English is strange, but…" — at which point Scott interjects: "English can be particularly strange." (David: "It can be, indeed.") Things devolve into a discussion of "strange language sounds", the idea that some technical linguistics terms sound obscene, and so on — it gets serious and picks up again towards the end, but Scott can't resist closing with more chuckles and another reference to the language Birhor (sounds like "beer whore"). Sigh.

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Noun compound of the week

Scientific writing is full of great noun compounds. My favorite recent example is part of the title of a paper featured in this morning's email from BioMedCentral: "Representations of odor plume flux are accentuated deep within the moth brain".

Odor plume flux turns out to mean just what you'd think: time variation in airborne smells. I look forward to using it in everyday life: "Mm, what's that delicious odor plume flux?"

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Wouldn't of have

I know that Language Log has already (e.g. here) mentioned the widespread would of, though I haven’t seen a whole lot about the gradual expansion of that of into uses like hadn’t of where there never would have been a  have (oh! I tried to be funny and write ‘would of been’ but Word automatically turned it into 'would have been' – but at least its little pop-up offered the option of restoring it and even to “stop automatically correcting ‘would of been’” – that’s very open-minded of them!), suggesting that 'of' is becoming a general marker for counterfactual modality, but I just have to report a really beautiful example I heard on my favorite public radio station, WFCR of Amherst, on Feb. 16 during their recent fund drive, out of the mouth of a very literate member of their development staff, K***, –- I’ve even met her and been interviewed by her, and I won’t name her simply because she might be embarrassed and I wouldn’t want to cause that. You know how the announcers have to just keep talking all the time to try to fill the time interestingly enough in between repeating the phone number to call – I’m impressed that they stay as coherent as they do. Anyway, the other announcer, a regular classical music host, had just said something interesting about some composer, and K*** replied, “I didn’t know that, and certainly wouldn’t of have without listening to WFCR.”

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Fair and balanced

The latest Partially Clips (click on the image for a larger version):

They don't get onto the news broadcasts much either.

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Don Ringe ties up some loose ends

Don Ringe's guest post back on January 6, "The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe", sparked a lively discussion, and Don responded with a series of other posts responding to questions and comments: "Horse and wheel in the early history of Indo-European", "More on IE wheels and horses", "Inheritance versus lexical borrowing: a case with decisive sound-change evidence", "The linguistic history of horses, gods, and wheeled vehicles", "Some Wanderwörter in Indo-European languages".

Now, despite his claim that "after this I'm going to have to stop posting for a while", he's sent another essay:

Here is an interim post clearing up some outstanding questions; the last part turned into an in-depth discussion of the "thorn cluster" problem that will probably be published somewhere eventually.  I do mean to get back to the "IE homeland" problem, but that won't be possible till the summer.

Here's hoping that he gets drawn back in again earlier than that!

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Someone is wrong on the internet

The self-described "grumpy old coot" who writes the blog  Right Wing Nation has recently put up a generally admirable post ("On An Entirely Different Note", 2/19/2009) on the relations among music, mathematics, physics. Unfortunately, his account of the Pythagorean comma is psychoacoustically, historically and mathematically wrong.

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"Silence on the Savannah!" On Bickerton's Yodeling Australopithecines and Missing the Point of Musical Protolanguage

Last week, in honor of Darwin's birthday, we featured a guest post by Tecumseh Fitch: "Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited". A few days later, Derek Bickerton contributed a critical commentary.  Now Tecumseh has sent in a response to Derek — or, perhaps I should say, Prof. Fitch has contributed a response to Prof. Bickerton — which is presented below.

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The dangers of monolingualism

If ever there is a question about the need to know a few foreign languages these days, see this BBC link about the embarrassed Irish cops who have been stymied in their hunt for a serial traffic violator who went by the name Prawo Jazdy. It seems that Mr. Jazdy is not who the cops thought he was. He wasn’t even a person. In Polish, the words mean, hold your breath, “driver’s license.”

Hat tip to Ruth Morris.

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Fasces and humanitas

Ancient Rome played a prominent role, in two different ways, in the comments on yesterday's post "Progress and its enemies". This was unexpected, since the post was about the rhetoric of names in political philosophy. In any case, my comments on the comments are too long to fit gracefully in a comment, so I'm posting them here separately.

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A few days ago, Geoff Pullum pondered the use of subject to mean "person" in police jargon ("One subject in the residence", 2/13/2009):

A police spokesperson from Buffalo speaking about yesterday's plane crash on BBC Radio 4 this morning said that in addition to all the people on the plane (no one survived) there was "one subject in the residence". The baffled Radio 4 presenter had to repeat back a translation into normal English.

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Progress and its enemies

Nate Silver at specializes in quantitative modeling of political trends, but yesterday he posted a terminological discussion of political philosophy, "The Two Progressivisms", distinguishing what he calls Rational Progessivism from what he calls Radical Progressivism. This reminded me of something that I noticed recently in reading Mark Halpern's book Language and Human Nature, namely Halpern's surprising level of interest in the word progressive and its derivatives, discussed on 15 different pages.

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Worst pun of all time?

Bill Benzon writes that "This video embodies a pun so wonderfully awful that it deserves mention on the Log."

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Castro on Emanuel

Fidel Castro is evidently alive and well — and writing rambling, incoherent columns on political onomastics. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic blog The Plank reports, Castro's latest editorial for Granma Internacional is a "deliciously confusing" excursus on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his name. Here are the opening lines in Spanish and English:

¡Qué apellido tan extraño! Parece español, fácil de pronunciar y no lo es. Nunca en mi vida conocí o leí el nombre de alumno o compatriota entre decenas de miles, que llevara ese nombre.
¿De dónde proviene?, pensé.

What a strange surname! It appears Spanish, easy to pronounce, but it’s not. Never in my life have I heard or read about any student or compatriot with that name, among tens of thousands.
Where does it come from? I wondered.

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