Archive for January, 2010

In a world with no rules … one man … broke them all.

That's the tagline for Banksy's soon to be released film Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is turning out to be a good day for sentences you need to read twice. And it's rare to find one which says nothing and everything (about street art, grammar, movies, you name it) so precisely.

[via the Guardian]

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An ursine crash blossom

Via Wonkette and The Raw Story comes this shocking political headline from the Reuters newswire:

One can only imagine what Stephen Colbert will have to say about this.

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Manfred Schroeder

Manfred Schroeder died on Dec. 28, 2009, as I just learned.  He was a physicist specializing in acoustics, who worked at Bell Labs from 1954 to 1969, and then split his time between Göttingen and Bell Labs.  He carried forward the tradition of Harvey Fletcher, an accomplished physicist whose most important work was in the psychology of hearing. As Manfred jokingly pointed out to me when we first met in 1975, this is also the tradition of  Gleb Vikentyevich Nerzhin, the mathematician in Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle who seals his fate by chosing to work on psycho-acoustics rather than cryptography.

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Dilbert fails to apologise

Dilbert fails to grasp the distinction between brevity (a syntactic property of a locutionary act) and brusqueness (a pragmatic property relating to a perlocutionary effect), and fails to draw the distinction between sorry with clause complement and the same word employed in a speech act of apology (see here and here and here and here and other places); and more office discord results…

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"My friends thou hast defriended"

The winner of the 2009 Dutch Word of the Year, as selected in an online poll conducted by the Van Dale dictionary group and Pers newspaper, was ontvrienden, a social networking verb equivalent to English unfriend or defriend. NRC Handelsblad recently reported that ontvrienden can be found in the Dutch historical dictionary Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal with citations back to 1626:

The entry quotes references dating from 1626 and 1658. One is a reference to the infamous courtesan of Lais, a woman so beautiful — and sexually available — that she drew pupils away from a famous philosopher, "defriending" him in the old-fashioned sense of the word. "Today you can defriend someone. In the past, you were defriended," said Wouter van Wingerden, a linguistic consultant with the Society for the Dutch Language.

The other reference is found in Psalm 88:8, translated in the King James Bible as "Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me." The Dutch version quoted in the Woordenboek might be close to 400 years old but it is definitely more concise. It reads 'Mijn vrienden hebt ghy my ont-vrindt,' which translates to "My friends thou hast defriended."

The word fell into disuse after the 17th century, perhaps because the Netherlands had few friends left. By 1672, the young Dutch republic found itself at war with France, England, and the dioceses of Cologne and Munster.

Similarly, unfriend, the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of 2009, is dated by the OED back to 1659. For further thoughts on the revival of unfriend and ontvrienden, see my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, "'Sleeping Beauties' in English and Dutch."

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Mining a year of speech

John Coleman was on the BBC Digital Planet program a couple of weeks ago, discussing a recently-awarded grant from the (British/American/Canadian) "Digging into Data" challenge.  The proposal was submitted under the title "Mining a Year of Speech", and also involves the British Library Sound Archive, and some researchers at Penn, including Jiahong Yuan, Chris Cieri, and me.  An Oxford University press release is here.

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Tonal relationships and emotional effects

I'm a bit pressed for time this morning, so discuss among yourselves: Daniel L. Bowling et al., "Major and minor music compared to excited and subdued speech", Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 127(1): 491–503, January 2010.  The abstract:

The affective impact of music arises from a variety of factors, including intensity, tempo, rhythm, and tonal relationships. The emotional coloring evoked by intensity, tempo, and rhythm appears to arise from association with the characteristics of human behavior in the corresponding condition; however, how and why particular tonal relationships in music convey distinct emotional effects are not clear. The hypothesis examined here is that major and minor tone collections elicit different affective reactions because their spectra are similar to the spectra of voiced speech uttered in different emotional states. To evaluate this possibility the spectra of the intervals that distinguish major and minor music were compared to the spectra of voiced segments in excited and subdued speech using fundamental frequency and frequency ratios as measures. Consistent with the hypothesis, the spectra of major intervals are more similar to spectra found in excited speech, whereas the spectra of particular minor intervals are more similar to the spectra of subdued speech. These results suggest that the characteristic affective impact of major and minor tone collections arises from associations routinely made between particular musical intervals and voiced speech.

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Ludicrous, even derogatory?

Here's a case where English has it relatively easy. There's been plenty of fuss over whether to retain actress or to use actor for females as well as males, whether to adopt new gender-neutral terms like chair and craft in place of chairman and craftsman, and so on. But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral: president, senator, minister, dean, secretary, teacher, boss, judge, lawyer,

In languages like Italian and Spanish, in contrast, nearly all such words are specified for grammatical gender, and their grammatical gender is usually interpreted sexually. Furthermore, the option to create gender-neutral replacements is linguistically unavailable — the only practical alternatives are to use one gender (usually masculine) as the default for both sexes, or to coin a new word for the marked sexual category (as in English chairwoman or househusband).

This issue is discussed at length in Miren Gutierrez and Oriana Boselli, "Rejecting the Derogatory 'Feminine'", IPS,  12/26/2009. And what I learned from this article is that Italian and Spanish have dealt with the issue in strikingly different ways.

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That queerest of all the queer things

Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876.  In 1880, Mark Twain wrote a comic sketch about how strange it is to overhear one end of a telephone conversation.  A century and a quarter later, people have gotten used to the experience with landlines — or at least stopped complaining about it — but we still tend to perceive overheard cell phone conversations in public places as more distracting and annoying than real-life conversations, even when the real-life conversations are just as loud or even louder.

Now there's increasing experimental evidence that phone conversations are not only cognitively more troublesome than in-person conversations for outsiders, they're more difficult for participants as well. One recent study interviewed pedestrians who had just walked along a 375-foot path across an open plaza where a clown on a unicycle was riding around. Only 2 out of 24 cell phone users reported seeing the clown. In comparison, the unicycling clown was reported by 12 out of 21 people involved in real-life conversations as they walked the same path.

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Interpretation in the legal academy

[This is a guest post by Neal Goldfarb.]

While the Linguistic Society of America was holding its annual meeting last weekend in Baltimore, the nation’s law professors assembled in New Orleans for the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools. We know that some of the linguists talked about law; did any of law professors talk about linguistics?

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Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

That's the title of a recent book by science fiction writer John Scalzi (hardcover 2008, paperback 2010). The subtitle — A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 — refers to the fact that the book is a selection of essays from Scalzi's blog Whatever, which he's been writing since 1998, on a wide range of topics, including current affairs, politics, entertainment, parenting, and some goofy stuff. Every so often Scalzi responds to some of the voluminous hate mail his opinionated essays provoke, by critiquing the form and content of the mail (hence the title of this book). (Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

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Sarcasm punctuation mark sure to succeed:-!

Via John Gruber at Daring Fireball, I've learned that a company called Sarcasm, Inc., is marketing a "Sarcasm punctuation mark" called SarcMark, which people are supposed to use to "emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence or message". John Gruber's pitch-perfect assessment:

What a great idea. I'm sure it'll be a huge hit.

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Third time's the charm

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