Archive for January, 2010

We can't be second to none

An interesting misnegation was broadcast today on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, in a segment under the title "Exactly How Do We Go Forth and Innovate".  Liane Hansen quoted president Obama's SOTU passage about innovation and leadership in science and technology, including the phrase "Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America".

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And she asked Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, "The president referred to innovation several times in his speech. What did you think? Was there anything new there?"

His response began:

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There wasn't a- a lot new there,  I think I- I- what I was most impressed with was when he said "we can't be second to none".

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The Health Nazi

The BBC, perennially careless on language issues, incorrectly states here that radio talk show host Jon Gaunt was disciplined by Ofcom (the UK communications regulation authority) for calling a local councillor a Nazi. The error is repeated by The Times here, and by The Independent's headline here (and there may be many more). They misreport Gaunt's alleged offense. As the BBC article reports further down the page:

The pair had been debating Redbridge Council's decision to ban smokers from fostering children when Mr Gaunt called Mr Stark a "health Nazi" and an "ignorant pig".

I don't know the extent to which "ignorant pig" was the issue, but I do want to point out that "health Nazi" is not to be equated with "Nazi". The longer phrase evokes the bad-tempered and bossy lunch counter boss in Seinfeld — the one that they referred to with awe, though only when out of earshot of the awful man, as "the Soup Nazi".

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Lasciate ogni poesia

According to Dave Itzkoff, "Abandon All Poetry, but Enter Hell With Attitude", NYT 1/29/2010:

There’s a new edition of Dante’s "Inferno" that’s recently begun appearing in bookstores. Same words. Different cover. It’s got a big picture of a muscular fellow in a spiky crown and an overline that says, "The literary classic that inspired the epic video game."

It’s true. "Inferno" is now a video game, with a brawny, armor-clad Dante as its protagonist.

The guys at Electronic Arts' Visceral Games studio found it necessary to give Dante a little help:

"If you’re trying to make an action game, it’s thin," Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, said of the original text. "It’s Dante, who’s kind of passive, and he’s a poet and he’s philosophical. We had to take the bold step of saying, ‘How do we make this guy an action hero?’" […]

"It’s a highbrow/lowbrow project by design," Mr. Knight said. "If you know the poem, the game has a lot to offer. If you just want to mash buttons and kill demons, that’s all it has to be for you."

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It's still January, but I've already got a nomination for the 2010 WOTY competition: spokespirate:

Saying the US and Europe “have no moral authority” to control the aid going to Haiti, Somali pirates say they plan to donate booty from their hijackings to the relief effort. The pirates have taken in more than $150 million in the past 2 years, by one estimate, and now aim to redistribute some while thumbing their noses at the Western powers. “They are the ones pirating mankind for many years,” a spokespirate tells Agencia Matriz del Sur.

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Criticism as courtship

In his latest On Language column, Ben Zimmer examines "Crash Blossoms", and introduces the topic with a literary allusion:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once gave the poetry of her husband, Robert, a harsh assessment, criticizing his habit of excessively paring down his syntax with opaque results. “You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust,” she wrote him, “by sweeping away your little words.”

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Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times?

Regular LL readers know that we're not naive about the relationship between "news" and truth, especially when it comes to science reporting or the accuracy and context of MSM quotations and even video clips. In fact, we could fairly be accused of excessive cynicism. But this is breathtaking: "Science Reporting Gone Wild", Neuroworld, 1/18/2010; "The British media's 'Blonde Moment'", Neuroskeptic 1/28/2010.

Either Aaron Sell, a psychologist at UCSB, is lying about what he said to John Harlow, the West Coast Bureau Chief for the Sunday Times, or John Harlow seriously needs to be fired.

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All words have 900 definitions?

Reader RC sent in an item from the Australian Law Journal that brings together several LL topics: the relations of language to  legal interpretation, computation, and nonstandard brain states.

Here is the seal whose inter-word dots are discussed in the quoted transcript:

Wikipedia explains what a "McKenzie Friend" is (and gives some background on DM). Beyond that, you're on your own.

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Down the garden path

From the BBC, as reported by electric halibut here, the headline:

Last Alder Hey hospital child remains buried

which is to be understood not as being about a child continuing to be buried, but as about the remains of a child being buried. The beginning of the story:

The final human remains held by Alder Hey Children's Hospital after the organ retention scandal are to be buried later.

The Liverpool hospital removed organs from dead babies without permission and held them for medical research.

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Leading the reader down the garden path

From the cartoon Ham and Wonder (by "lapsed linguist" Joe), an adventure in garden pathing, with a bit of explanation:

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Buzzword correlations

I haven't had a chance to do any analysis of last night SOTU address, but Nate Silver has some interesting observations about the matrix of word-count comparisons to other such addresses over recent decades.

[Update: and more here from Jamie Pennebaker.]

[Update 2: discussion of computational models of standing ovations by Dan Katz, including a link to a NetLogo applet.]

[Update 3: for a discussion of the actual content, see James Fallows in the Atlantic.]

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Pragmatics as comedy

The theory of Speech Acts gives us a couple of dozen descriptive categories for the things people do with words and phrases. The theory of Dialog Acts gives us a couple of dozen descriptive categories focusing specifically on the things people do to a conversation with words and phrases. Rhetorical Structure Theory (RST) and its various competitors give us a couple of dozen descriptive categories for the ways people use relations between words and phrases in framing an argument or telling a story. There are several other descriptive systems for discourse structures, such as the one used by the Penn Discourse Treebank.

Discourse analysis using such categories, though often insightful, is rarely funny. But you can make people laugh by caricaturing a text or conversation through self-referential descriptions of discourse functions and relations, abstracted away from specific content.  I can think of two specific examples of this, though I'm sure that I've seen others over the years.

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Spectacular multiple adjunct fronting from Woody Allen

Carl Voss wrote to me about this sentence in a recent humor piece by Woody Allen in The New Yorker called "Udder Madness (I had already noticed the same sentence when reading the piece):

That's why when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day.

It is a remarkable piece of sentence construction. Here's what's going on.

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Language Log asks you (don't all shout at once)

What do support poles, staff positions, battery terminals, army encampments, blog articles, earring stems, trading stations, and snail mail have in common with billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats?

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