Archive for May, 2009

Deranged DPRK bomb test boast audio search

I'd be interested to know if any clever net-wranglers who read Language Log could provide a link (I haven't found one) to non-overdubbed audio of the official broadcast announcement of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's recent nuclear test. The BBC played a little bit of it, and it was truly astonishing. High pitched, over-the-top emotional, and bombastic in a kind of frantic way that sounded utterly ludicrous. Not just like a squeaky and histrionic Korean voice bragging in a deranged kind of way, but like a Saturday Night Live sketch depicting a squeaky and histrionic Korean voice bragging in a deranged kind of way. It was creepy, but I'd sort of love to hear it again. No I wouldn't… Perhaps I would. I don't know. Give the link in the comments area if you can find one, and I'll think about whether it's too creepy to listen to.

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Logical prescriptivism

Rick Detorie's One Big Happy for 10/27/2008:

We find it amusing when an apparently logical generalization about word formation goes badly wrong, as Joe's idiosyncratic inference does in this strip.

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Shandong Dialect Intelligibility

From time to time, I have written about the mutual (un)ntelligibility of Sinitic languages, including here.  Of course, the distance between Cantonese or Shanghainese and Mandarin is immense.  But even within Mandarin there is tremendous variation.  A friend recently sent me a video about patient abuse in a Chinese mental hospital, along with this short note:  "The video footage shows three hospital staff workers in white lab coats kicking and beating an elderly patient with a mop and tying her to a bed. Staff are also shown making her sit naked from the waist down on top of a plastic cloth during winter."

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Latin legal terms are unconstitutional?

Some of the things that proponents of the English Only movement say strike me as pretty strange, but today I stumbled on a truly mind-boggling claim by Supremacy Claus, namely that:

All Latin violates the Establishment Clause, being the foreign language of a church.

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Absolute pitch: race, language, and culture

A couple of days ago, Geoff Pullum illustrated "The science news cycle" by citing an article that told us "You can develop musical skill comparable to Hendrix and Sinatra — if you learn an East Asian language."  Geoff might have cited some other articles exhibiting a depressingly wide range of other misunderstandings of the same research, like "Find Out If You're Tone Deaf; Plus, Are Asians Naturally Better Musicians"; "The key to perfect pitch lies in tonal languages"; "Chinese languages make you more musical: Study"; etc.

The basis of the news reports was a paper presented at the Acoustical Society of America's 157th Meeting: Diana Deutsch, Kevin Dooley, Trevor Henthorn, and Brian Head, "Absolute pitch among students in an American music conservatory: Association with tone language fluency", Paper 4aMU1, presented on Thursday Morning, May 21, 2009.

The link just presented was to the 200-word abstract in the (now online) conference handbook.  The source of the media connection was probably the "lay language version" also offered on the conference web site: "Perfect Pitch: Language Wins Out Over Genetics".  The route of the media connection was (I believe) via a story by Hazel Muir in the New Scientist, "Tonal languages are the key to perfect pitch", April 6, 2009, along with a press release by Inga Kiderra in the UCSD publication relations office ("Tone language is key to perfect pitch, 5/19/2009).

The provisioning of "Lay Language Papers" is part of the Acoustical Society of America's effort to reach out to the media (the online "press room" is here). I'm a member of the ASA, and I applaud this effort.  One obvious benefit is that the "lay language papers" are written by the researchers themselves, not by PR people. More scientific societies should do this kind of thing.

But I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of points that were left out of yesterday's discussion.

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MSM science bait

Jorge Cham at PhD Comics follows up on his analysis of the science news cycle:

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What's wrong with this passage?

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky has forwarded to me a site with (yet another) little "grammar test" (a "Google Grammar Test", from Tyler Cowen) — this one has only two items — that makes me scratch my head.

(I guess I should remind you that in some quarters, "grammar" covers absolutely anything in language that can be regulated: discourse organization, syntax, word choice, morphological forms, stylistic choices, politeness formulas, punctuation, spelling, whatever. So, ahead of time, I had no idea which features of this very short passage might be seen as reprehensible. Was it, for instance, spelling homepage as a solid word, rather than as two separated words?)

Here's the passage:

Here’s what’s on Google’s home page on May 16, 2009:
  Over 28,000 children drew doodles for our homepage.
  Vote for the one that will appear here!
Test yourself: Can you find the two grammar errors?

and here are the answers (from Penelope Trunk):

The AP Stylebook says "over" is a way to move—a preposition. And “more than” must precede a number. Also, if you are voting for one, specific doodle, then the AP Stylebook tells you to use “which” rather than “that.”

Here I'm going to talk about the which/that issue. I'll save a return to the adverbial-over question for another time.

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The science news cycle: today's example

You might think the cartoon about the science news cycle that Mark Liberman recently reproduced here is exaggerating the silliness of newspaper reports of scientific findings. It isn't. Take a look at today's example, from the psychology of language and music. Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego, has recently shown that possession of perfect musical pitch (ability to state the pitch of an isolated note without having first heard a reference note) correlates with two environmental factors: (i) having early musical training, and (ii) being a fluent speaker of a tone language such as Mandarin Chinese. Now here is the opening sentence of what the Metro (a free paper in the UK) made of it this morning:

You can develop musical skill comparable to Hendrix and Sinatra — if you learn an East Asian language.

I swear I'm not making this up: take Chinese lessons and you can be like Jimi Hendrix, that's their take. (They then go on to say that tone language speakers are more likely to have perfect pitch, as if that were an expansion of the content of the first sentence, that's about it, except for crediting Deutsch as belonging to the nonexistent "California University".) It barely needs the commentary that I've decided I'm not going to give, does it? When Language Log tells you that science reports touching on language are often so stupid that it boggles the mind, don't imagine that we're exaggerating.

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The Dowdbot challenge

A few weeks ago, Maureen Dowd fantasized about a secret Google team trying to simulate her in software ("Dinosaur at the Gate", 4/14/2009):

When I ask [Eric Schmidt] if human editorial judgment still matters, he tries to reassure me: “We learned in working with newspapers that this balance between the newspaper writers and their editors is more subtle than we thought. It’s not reproducible by computers very easily.”

I feel better for a minute, until I realize that the only reason he knew that I wasn’t so easily replaceable is that Google had been looking into how to replace me.

There's a lot of far-out stuff over at Google Labs. But I'd be surprised to find that designing an army of Robot Maureens is in the mix, even though digital Dowd design poses some interesting challenges.

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How much is that in nanoseconds per inch?

Or fathoms per hogshead, as in this Language Log posting from last month. Here's Zippy's take:

[Addendum: Richard Pérez writes to say that Zippy's "eighteenth of an inch" answer is way off, at least if if you understand the length of a nanosecond to be the distance light travels in a nanosecond (which is close to 30 centimeters, or between 11 and 12 inches). Grace Hopper (of computer fame) used to illustrate this fact in her public lectures with lengths of wire of the appropriate size — a demonstration that Pérez remembers from his high school days.]

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The linguistic roots of the Sri Lankan civil war

In the coverage of the civil war in Sri Lanka, I haven't seen much discussion of its linguistic aspects. In particular, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was a key event, whose causes and consequences are worth considering.

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The Science News Cycle

According to Jorge Cham at PhD Comics (click on the image for a larger version):

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Word aversion and attraction in the news

Language Log readers who have been following our recent posts on word aversion and word attraction will want to check out Kristi Gustafson's article in the Albany Times Union, "Words we love, words we hate," which quotes Barbara Wallraff and me on the subject. As evidence for lexical likes and dislikes, I discuss some of the favorite and least favorite words that have been selected by subscribers to the Visual Thesaurus. And over on the VT website, I follow up on the Times Union article in my latest Word Routes column. As you might expect, the oh-so-vile word moist figures prominently.

[Update: And now BoingBoing has picked up the story.]

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