Archive for July, 2009

Lying is linguistic

Can you tell a lie nonlinguistically? That is, is it reasonable that certain actions or even physical objects should be regarded as embodying lies? A couple of clearly somewhat dishonest examples:

  • In the Best Western El Rancho Inn on El Camino Real in Millbrae (Millbrae sounds Scottish but it is near the San Francisco International Airport; I am waiting for a flight to take me back to Edinburgh) the Colombian-made cotton towels and facecloths bear a label stating the brand name "Five Star". El Rancho is nice, but it is a standard-grade California motel, not five star. Could the towel company be trying to misinform me about the quality I am enjoying?
  • In the Office Depot store across the street from the El Rancho there is a demo of wireless printing from an HP laptop to an HP All-In-One printer / scanner / fax / copier / toaster. The sign brags about the built-in wireless networking and says you should open WordPad on the laptop and type something and then click "File | Print", and what you typed will magically appear on the nearby printer. But I checked the laptop more closely. Discreetly plugged into the side of it is a USB cable. I traced the cable. It runs to the printer. There is no wireless connection at all. Could they be trying to mislead me about how well wireless printer networking works?

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Down the memory hole into bibliomysticism

For the better part of the past two years, I've resisted the temptation to run out and buy a Kindle. (Well, OK, I wouldn't have to "run out" to do it, nor could I; as far as I can tell, the Kindle can only be ordered on Amazon. But whatever, it's still an appropriate figure of speech.) The Kindle just seems made for me. I love books and I love to read, and I'm also a ridiculously huge fan of electronic publishing of all kinds, and (especially) of the idea of carrying a library worth of books with me wherever I go, because hey, you never know when you might want to read any one of them. (This also explains why my iPod touch overfloweth with just-in-case music.) The Kindle seems like it should be the best of both worlds: it's all there but the actual page-turning.

But still, I've resisted. I suppose I've been waiting for a sign, or at the very least for a definitive review of the Kindle — something other than the lap-doggish panting that was all I'd seen thus far. And in the space of the past two weeks, I've had both.

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And yet no man like he, doth greeue my heart

The entry on like as a conjunction in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Shakespeare as using "conjunctive like" in this line:

And yet no man like he doth grieve my heart.
Romeo and Juliet, 1595

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Car Talk translated

The "show open topic" for this week's Car Talk, according to the show's web page, is "Tom and Ray translate the grunts of mechanics".

It starts like this:

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.

In fact, Alexandra Sellers' Spoken Cat was published a dozen years ago, and similarly, the Newsweek article about it (Lucy Howard and Carla Koehl, "Talk The Talk"), ran on May 5, 1997. But Tom and Ray are not broadcasting from a parallel space-time continuum. Rather, this is an "encore edition", which apparently means that the jokes — and the automobile repair advice? — are 12 years old.

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On "Cronkiters" and "Kronkiters"

It was widely reported in Walter Cronkite's obituaries that "Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; In Holland, they are Cronkiters." Or by some accounts it's the Swedes who use "Cronkiters." This too-good-to-check linguafactoid came up in the comments on my post "Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite," and commenter Lugubert swiftly dismissed the Swedish claim:

Google "cronkiter" and you'll find all hits are in English. Smells of myth. I, Swede, 66, multilingual professional translator, have never seen or heard that word in any language. I'm afraid (read: convinced) that Mr. C is totally unknown by an overwhelming majority of Swedes.

If, never the less, a similar word would have been adopted into Swedish by the cognoscenti, I'm at least fairly sure that the for Swedish very odd -er would immediately have been replaced by a more normal nomen agentis ending like -erare.

There's no reason to believe the Dutch part of the story, either. Read all about it in my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus.

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Don't worry, study linguistics

Emily Finn, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linguistics", in the most recent NYT Education News:

My college admissions essay said it all — if only I had stopped and listened to myself at the time. I was more concerned with finding a hook that would set me apart from the tens of thousands of other applicants, who were, of course, trying to do the same thing.

At my affluent public high school, potential pre-meds and Wall Streeters (yes, at age 17) lined the hallways. Foreign languages were a more unlikely passion. So I seized on that, choosing to narrate my journey from middle-school Francophilia to full-blown foreign grammar nerd.

Looking through the brochures accumulated on endless campus visits, I didn’t find many schools that offered bachelor’s degrees to people who studied a random assortment of languages, and wanderlust made me reluctant to choose one. But most offered a major in something called linguistics. Maybe by professing my appetite for such a charmingly obscure course of study, I could win over the admissions officers.

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Against atheyism

This week's NYT On Language column features Patricia T. O'Conner and Stuart Kellerman defending singular they ("All Purpose Pronoun", 7/26/2009). They lead, topically, with the value of shedding five characters from "he or she" to help stay under the limit of 140 characters per tweet. And they blame the retreat from singular they to sex-neutral he on Anne Fisher:

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

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Law as applied linguistics

Barbara Phillips Long pointed me to Prof. James Maule's  tax-law blog, Mauled Again, because, she wrote, "he touches on three areas that intrigue me –language, teaching and economics". So I followed the link and read a few pages, and I was struck by a number of implicit connections. For example, his approach to teaching the tax code reminded me of the way I was taught, many years ago, to "construe" Latin texts:

I take the students through an analysis of how Code sections and Treasury regulation sections are constructed, showing them that the secret to parsing the language is … to break the conglomeration of words into phrases and other segments and then to re-connect them, preferably in a manner that resembles English more than what I call "tax-ese."

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Write like me?

Back on June 6, in his post "Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18", Geoff Pullum wrote:

I am not a style doctor or writing adviser, and (unlike Strunk and White) I don't think everyone should write like me. My interest here is solely in the fact that we need an explanation for the fact that educated Americans today have scarcely any clue what "passive clause" means. [emphasis added]

A few days ago, on July 21, (someone going by the name of) David Walker happened on this post and added a comment:

"I don't think everyone should write like me." Me? Is that correct?

The short answer, of course, is "yes". But if you were interested in short answers, you wouldn't be reading Language Log. So after the jump, you'll find a longer one.

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The Journal of Experimental Linguistics

We usually avoid shop talk here on Language Log. So those of you who are here for the cartoons may want to move along, since I'm about to (mis-?) use this forum to announce a new journal.

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Conversational incongruence

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Recognizing grammar (or door chime changes, or anything)

It has been two weeks now, and so far no one here at Language Log Plaza has commented on the BBC News story entitled "Monkeys recognize bad grammar." I suppose people are assuming that I cover the Stupid Animal Communication Stories desk. And often I have. But I have been procrastinating, because I am getting tired of being the animal grammar killjoy. People are beginning to think I hate monkeys and dogs and parrots and dolphins and such (my previous posts include this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and probably others).

The little animals in question (it's cottontop tamarins again) are cute. I don't have anything against them, or against the experiments on them being done by people like Marc Hauser. In the present case, the team was led by Ansgar Endress. And here is the evidence for these little creatures' ability to "recognize bad grammar". It's quite simple, and I don't think it's going to get them jobs as copy editors.

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The recent discussion of how to pronounce "Uyghur", and especially the treatment of the medial consonant, brought up the case of yoghurt/yogurt, which in French is "yaourt" — and today on the Omniglot Blog the Word of the Day is yaourter, "to yoghurt", which is said to be

a French word for the way people attempt to speak or sing in a foreign language that they don’t know very well. Often they mishear and misinterpret the word or lyrics and substitute them with familiar words.

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