Archive for October, 2009


Before there was yaourter, there was Prisencolinensinainciusol, an amazing 1972 double-talk proto-rap by Adriano Celentano, channeling the Elvis of some parallel universe:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)


Yesterday, most of the comments on The communicative properties of footwear dealt with the gender associations of the word cute. This linguistic stereotype is often used as the basis of comic-strip humor, frequently in the context of shopping, as in this Foxtrot strip from a few years ago:

And (with a twist) in this Preteena from 6/24/2009:

But in fact, the word cute really is used much more often by women than by men, in modern American culture.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (29)

The communicative properties of footwear

Two Cathy strips on this topic that I've been saving up:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

Is irony universal?

Yesterday's lecture in Linguistics 001 included some discussion of irony, and afterwards, a student asked a good question:

I just wanted to ask something that has been nagging me since your lecture today on Semantics. I was wondering whether irony and sarcasm are universal across all languages, and if so, could we then suppose that it were a selected trait in language–that is, something that we evolved? I have been trying to think whether there is any evolutionary benefit–or even linguistic benefit–to the development of sarcasm and i cannot think of any. On the other hand, if sarcasm and irony are not universal, then are they considered just a cultural phenomenon? If so, how likely is it that so many different cultures could have developed it? has anyone ever tested this by finding a cultural group that does not use sarcasm or irony, shown that group examples of it, and seen whether the group recognized it?

Although cultures stereotypically differ in their affinity for irony, I've never heard or read that any group completely lacked the capacity to produce and understand it.  And for the past three decades, there's been a special reason for this question to matter, because the alleged universality of irony is part of a well-known argument about theories of how people communicate.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (68)

Embuggerance & Feisty

Problems with Google's metadata are a recurrent theme here on Language Log. Now on his blog Stephen Chrisomalis reports a stunning cascade of screw-ups that led to Google Scholar producing the following citation:

Embuggerance, E., and H. Feisty. 2008. The linguistics of laughter. English Today 1, no. 04: 47-47.

Comments (22)

Stanford Linguistics in the Nooz

Not the news, the nooz.

Joshua Walker (Stanford '05) points me to this wonderful story in the Onion of October 21:

Report: 65% Of All Wildlife Now Used As
Homosexual Subculture Signifier

PALO ALTO, CA—A study released Tuesday by the Stanford University Department of Linguistics revealed that nearly two-thirds of all animal species have been adopted to describe various gay subcultures. "Many know that bears are large hairy gay men, and that otters are homosexuals who are smaller in stature but still hirsute," said Professor Arvid Sabin, lead author of the study, which also clarifies such denotations as wolf, panda bear, dragonfly, starfish, trout, and yeti. "But do they know, for instance, that 'chicken' is used to describe a thin, inexperienced 18- to 29-year-old gay male? Before long, we could see homosexuals referring to one another as pelicans or even Gila monsters." The study concluded that if immediate conservation measures are not taken, all animal species will be exhausted by 2015 and the gay community will have to start dipping into the plant kingdom.

As it happens, I have two gay male friends who are pandas. They're both Canadian, but I don't think that's significant.

I myself am both a penguin and a wool(l)y mammoth.

Related Language Log posting here.

Comments (33)


People probably imagine that the life of a linguistics professor is moderately dull. Think about language; sit at desk, type stuff; go to classroom, teach stuff; go to lunch, eat stuff; repeat… But no, in actual fact my life as a professor at the University of Edinburgh is one of thrills and excitement. Yesterday, after teaching my undergraduate class on English grammar in the David Hume Tower, I walked to the nearby Chrystal Macmillan building to hear a talk on phonology, and as I entered the building I realized there was something really special going on. Tea had been laid out in the public area of the ground floor; two security men lurked in the shadows; the room seemed tense, but somehow it was in a pleasant way; university people who were extremely smartly dressed were standing around, and all were looking in the same direction. I followed their gaze, and there, a few yards away from me, stood Annie Lennox.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

"The United States" as a subject at the Supreme Court

In an earlier post, I observed that the phrase "the United States" — regardless of whether it is treated as singular or plural — seems to have become more likely, over time, to occur in subject position ("The United States as a subject", 10/6/2009).  My (admittedly slim) evidence for this hypothesis came from some searches in newspaper archives, where the process of gathering data is painfully slow, because I was forced to search interactively via a web interface, and to check out the grammatical status of hits by wearing out my eyes on the article images that are returned.

Historians may find this complaint churlish, since they're used to an even more painful process. Traditionally, scholars have needed to travel to the local of a physical archive, and to read every dusty document as a whole in order to find the relevant pages.  (Well, maybe in recent years the process might involve reading dusty microfiche cards in some slightly more convenient location.)  All I have to do is to open a web browser, run a text search to find the relevant articles, and examine the page images that are returned!

But yes, I'm still complaining.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)


While people are discussing the label polymath in another thread (which reports that the polymathic Noam Chomsky has been cited as, in descending order, a philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, and author, but not as a linguist), a letter to the New York Times Magazine (October 18, p. 12, from Andrew Charig of Middlefield, Mass.) laments the death of William Safire, "who most likely was the foremost expert on the American language". Expert?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (36)

An availing collocation

Paul Krugman, "The Banks Are Not Alright", NYT, 10/18/2009:

Mr. Summers still insists that the administration did the right thing: more government provision of capital, he says, would not “have been an availing strategy for solving problems.”

Use of "availing" in this way struck me as a new linguistic strategy.  But the OED gives availing as a participial adjective meaning "Advantageous, profitable; of beneficial efficiency", with glosses back to the 15th century:

c1420 Pallad. on Husb. I. 562 To faat hem is avayling and plesaunte. 1850 MRS. BROWNING Substitution Poems I. 327 Speak Thou, availing Christ! 1862 RUSKIN Unto this Last 118 A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (36)

Regional road hazards

This GEICO commercial reinforces the general impression that a southern accent is intrinsically amusing:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (45)

Write It Right

Recently arrived in the mail: an advance copy of Jan Freeman's

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The celebrated cynic's language peeves deciphered, appraised, and annotated for 21st-century readers [NY: Walker & Company, publication date November 19]

(The subtitle of Bierce's 1909 booklet is A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, which should give you an idea of the tone of the thing.) Jan takes on WIR, item by item, with extensive annotations for each item, looking at the background for the proscription (in many cases its later history as well), trying to work out Bierce's motivation for it, and assessing the state of actual usage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (2)

A new target language for machine translation

Weasel-speak, as featured in today's Tank McNamara:

There's clearly money in it — and quite a bit of training material out there.

Comments (11)