Archive for June, 2009

Doing stupid

It's not quite as ineffably koan-like as "The biggest self of self is self," but Gov. Mark Sanford delivered another parsing puzzler in his latest comments to the Associated Press, in which he admits to additional liaisons with his Argentinian mistress and further unspecified "line-crossing" with other women:

What I would say is that I've never had sex with another woman. Have I done stupid? I have.

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Chinese Typewriter

This (the machine invented by the famous Chinese author, Lin Yutang, and described on the first page [first four paragraphs] of the Wikipedia article here) is probably the closest the Chinese ever got to decomposing their script into an "alphabet" consisting of "letters" (recurrent graphemic elements that can be combined in a principled way to form all of the characters / morphemes in their writing system).  You'll note that it didn't really work during their presentation to the Remington Typewriter Company executives.  The press conference demonstration they had the next day was probably of the carefully rehearsed, staged, orchestrated sort designers of Chinese information processing / technology software and hardware often present (the kind documented by Li-ching Chang in her film made at a vocational high school in Beijing), not one prepared to respond spontaneously to tasks posed by the audience.  Judging from my own experience with Chinese software and information processing / technology developers over more than a quarter of a century, this may have been what went wrong when Lin presented his typewriter to the Remington executives:  they asked him (or his operator) to type something impromptu.  Incidentally, the development of this fatally flawed typing machine left Lin — whose books were bestsellers in America — bankrupt.

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Puzzling passive

Every so often I come across a passive sentence that puzzles me: why did someone write this? Last month I posted about one such case on my blog, but there you could imagine how the sentence arose. My most recent find just looks perverse, and it has an awkward adverb placement as well.

This is the caption to a photograph (of an aged woman smoking a pipe) on a postcard:

Ralston NB: 92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that five pipefuls of tobacco are daily smoked by her! 

(The photograph, dated 1925, is credited to Underwood and Underwood, with copyright by Underwood Photo Archives, Ltd. in San Francisco. The postcard is from Pomegranate Communications, Inc.)

Why this, rather than:

92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that she smokes five pipefuls of tobacco daily.


92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to smoking five pipefuls of tobacco daily.

Meanwhile, though I have nothing against "split verbs" (see my recent blog posting, with links to earlier Language Log postings), "are daily smoked by her" strikes me as more awkward than "are smoked by her daily".

So it's a thorough puzzle.

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And then she takes that club and …

Hannah Poturalski, "Basketball legend visits Kenton", Lima News, 6/19/2009:

Thursday evening nearly 70 members of the Ohio State Alumni Club of Hardin County, as well as community members, saw an animated presentation by [Jerry] Lucas on the new way he plans on revolutionizing learning.

Lucas, now 69, said he's been involved in memory training his entire life. As a boy he invented mind games to keep himself entertained.

Through conditioning his mind with new ways to learn and memorize things, Lucas has established the Lucas Learning System. The system focuses on linking visuals with things that don't have an identity, such as pronouns and Arkansas.

To remember a pronoun, Lucas created an image of a Catholic nun with a golf club. She was a professional golf player, hence pro-nun. Lucas ingrains that image in the mind, so every time you hear pronoun, you see the visual.

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When the U.S. soccer team plays Brazil this afternoon in the Confederations Cup final,  the stadium will be buzzing with the sound of plastic trumpets called vuvuzelas. (See Delia Robertson "Vuvuzela: Popular Symbol of South African Football", VOA News, 6/25/2009).

Here's an example (with simulated crowd noise) of how a vuvuzela sounds:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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"ma ko MA ko SA" … "ma MA ku SA"

Yesterday, Ben Zimmer traced the nonsense-syllable chant at the end of Michael Jackson's Wanna Be Startin Somethin back to its roots in Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa, a 1973 Cameroonian hit that played a role in the origins of disco in New York City. The chants in these songs are nice examples of a phenomenon that I discussed a couple of years ago ("Rock syncopation: stress shifts or polyrhythms?", 11/26/2007), where linguistic accents and musical beats start off aligned at the beginning of a phrase, and then go out of sync, typically with one or more of the later textual accents shifted "to the left", i.e. ahead in time, relative to the apparent musical beat.

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Inventories of postings

Over on my blog, I've been posting inventories of postings (on Language Log and my blog) on various topics: back on 13 June, an inventory of postings on two-part back-formed verbs and one on split infinitives; today, one on Omit Needless advice and one on conflicts between faithfulness and well-formedness.

More to come.

[Added 6/28: Now an inventory on the usage advice One Right Way.]

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Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa

Ever since Michael Jackson's unexpected death yesterday, his music has been omnipresent. The iTunes sales charts are overwhelmed by Michael Jackson songs: as of this afternoon, New York Magazine's Vulture blog reports, Jackson appears on 41 songs in the iTunes Top 100 singles chart. One of the top songs is "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," the infectious opening song from the 1982 album Thriller. The lyrics can be a bit befuddling ("You're a vegetable, you're a vegetable…"), but there's no denying the song's catchiness, especially the chant at the end: "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa." The story behind these seemingly nonsensical syllables is a fascinating one, originating in the Cameroonian language Duala.

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From Language Hat:

A couple of years ago, lexicographer Erin McKean … gave a TED talk about the evolution of language and the shortcomings of traditional dictionaries (an hour long, well worth your while). Since then she has been working on an entirely new sort of online dictionary to address some of those shortcomings, and it's now gone live (in beta) as Wordnik (great name). In the words of Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, "A crowdsourced toolkit for tracking and recording the evolution of language as it occurs, its goal is to gather as much information about a word as possible — not its mere definition, but also in-sentence examples, semantic “neighborhoods” of related words, images, statistics about usage, and more."

Check it out.

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Insufficient agency!

On her blog, Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky reports an encounter between her daughter Opal (now 5) and the passive voice:

Jun 23, 2009 Our worst moments today came with the best language. This morning Opal did not get to open the garage door, after an interaction she found unfair, and while she howled with fury I said to her "You feel cheated." She said, outraged, "I was NOT cheated. YOU cheated me." Ah, the importance of indicating agency.

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"Passive construction" means… nothing at all?

OK, I give up. I admit that I was wrong. I thought that the grammatical term passive had developed a spectrum of everyday meanings like "vague about agency", "listless writing, lacking in vigor", and "failure to take sides in a conflict". But I've now reluctantly concluded that for some members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".

The evidence that drove me over the edge? Hank Stuever and Wil Haygood, "Parsing The Book Of Mark", Washington Post, 6/25/2009:

Wow. Was that a press conference or was that a press conference? That genteel lilt of hubris, sorrow, guilt! But other than a very slow, meandering build to I just needed a little strange, what did it all mean? What language was South Carolina's Republican governor speaking yesterday as he forlornly told the world of his travels and travails, of how sorry he is to his wife, to his sons, to his staff, to "the Tom Davises of the world" (not the Virginia one, all the other ones)? Is it a new Pat Conroy novel? Is it a megachurch sermon? Is it the language of couples therapy? The metaphysics of Oprah? Shakespeare? The psychobabble of cheating husbands? (Note all the passive constructions, the avoidance of first person.) [emphasis added]

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Slang affixation: it's all mystery-y-ish-y

If you haven't picked up a copy of Michael Adams' new book, Slang: The People's Poetry, well, what are you waiting for? For starters, it's a lively and engaging look at English slang and its multitudinous forms. At the same time, it's a thoughtful interrogation of what "slang" actually is, and how we might determine its boundaries. One way that Michael expands traditional notions of slang is in his treatment of affixation, or what he amusingly calls "unorthodox lexifabricology." I talked to Michael about slangy affixation in the second part of my two-part interview with him for the Visual Thesaurus. An excerpt follows below.

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The biggest self of self is indeed self

Gov. Mark Sanford, back in pocket, explained himself (from the NYT transcript of his statement):

I'm here because if you were to look at God's laws, they're in every instance designed to protect people from themselves. I think that that is the bottom line of God's law, that it's not a moral, rigid list of do's and don'ts just for the heck of do's and don'ts. It is indeed to protect us from ourselves. And the biggest self of self is, indeed, self; that sin is, in fact, grounded in this notion of what is it that I want as opposed to somebody else?

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