Archive for January, 2010

Phrase Detectives

Massimo Poesio writes:

Phrase Detectives is a game-with-a-purpose designed to gather data about anaphora. We put online about 1.2 million words – half Wikipedia, half fiction from the Project Gutenberg (the plan is to make all the data freely available through LDC and the Anaphoric Bank), and ask our players to tell us what an anaphoric expression refers to, or to check what other 'detectives' have done. The game collects 8 judgments for every anaphoric expression, and each interpretation is validated by 5 other players, so that the data can also be used to study disagreements in anaphoric interpretation. We have collected over 700,000 anaphoric judgments in this first year and around 300,000 validations, and we'd like to complete the annotation of the first 1 million words before moving on to release 2 of the game (as you'll see if you play, there are several limitations), so we started a competition – $500 to whomever gets the most points in January – to double the number of players (we have around 1500, it would be nice to get to at least 3000).

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Editing and anti-editing

At the end of a recent post ("Opening up the Google-China mailbag", 1/14/2010), James Fallows adds this "language note":

Usually when quoting reader responses, I leave them just as they are, warts and all. But if I am sure that the note is from a non-native speaker of English, I will sometimes correct small mistakes of spelling, grammar, or usage — "have" for "has," "hypocracy" for "hypocrisy," — that would unduly draw attention to themselves. In this note I made three or four of these tiny copy clean-ups while leaving the rest of the phrasing and word choice unchanged. Writing in a second or third language is one of the harder intellectual challenges that exist. (Hey, writing in a first language is not always that easy!) Even though English has a larger share of non-native speakers and writers than any other language and therefore a greater tolerance for "diversity," I think it's justified to remove minor brambles from the writer's path.

I admit that this practice leaves a logical gray zone. If somebody seems to be a native speaker who just writes sloppily, I don't bother trying to save that person from himself. But if I quickly get the sense that this is not a native speaker — and within a sentence or two I think I can always tell — I may do a little cleanup. The gray zone is when the command of grammar is shaky enough to raise questions, but not unusual enough to suggest that the writer grew up with a different language and therefore deserves affirmative-action help. This is all part of the endless saga of language being one of the most absorbing aspects of dealing with different cultures.

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Labov's Haskins Prize Lecture

Bill Labov's 2009 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, “A Life of Learning: Six People I Have Learned From", is now available in a new form, as a text with embedded audio highlights.

The Haskins Prize Lecture is named for the first chairman of the American Council of Learned Societies. Each year's winner is asked "to reflect on a lifetime of work as a scholar and an institution builder, on the motives, the chance determinations, the satisfactions (and dissatisfactions) of the life of learning, to explore through one’s own life the larger, institutional life of scholarship".

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Because of the awful disaster in Haiti, that country's name has been in the news, and this prompted reader RH to wonder about its English pronunciation.

I am currently watching the CNN coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, and without exception the name of the country is pronounced "hatey". Surely "Hayiti", or even "Ayiti" would be better, and just as easy for the reporters to learn?

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The forthright negotiator

A comment on my post "No understandings not specified here" points us to an article (Jef Feeley and Jason Kelly, "United Rentals Can't Force $4 Billion Cerberus Buyout", Bloomberg, 12/21/2009) about a case where "some of the best lawyers in the world, and the Delaware courts, couldn't work out the meaning of what they had written". A bit of internet search turns up a link to the opinion in that case, in a post by Peter Lattman at the WSJ Law Blog, "Chancellor Chandler Hands Cerberus a Big Win", 12/21/2007, which quote the first two paragraphs of the opinion's opening:

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Open Lab 2009

The list of selections for Open Lab 2009 ("a printed annual anthology of science blogging", edited this year by Scicurious) was posted this morning.  According to Open Lab's judges, the "50 best science blogging posts of the year" included my post "Betting on the poor boy: Whorf strikes back", 4/5/2009.

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The "Team X" meme

Fans of Conan O'Brien, who announced he wouldn't accept NBC's plan to move "The Tonight Show" to midnight, have flooded Twitter with the #TeamConan hashtag. In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I trace the evolution of the "Team X" meme (what Arnold Zwicky would call a snowclonelet composite) — from Team Xerox to Team Aniston to Team Edward. An excerpt:

"Team X" didn't cross over into pop-cultural usage until the summer of 2005, when Brad Pitt began appearing in public with Angelina Jolie, soon after his divorce from Jennifer Aniston. Ah, the mid-aughts, when the "Brangelina" portmanteau was inescapable. This celebrity coupling generated huge amounts of fodder for the tabloids and the budding blogosphere. On June 14, 2005, the New York Daily News reported that T-shirts reading "Team Aniston" or "Team Jolie" were all the rage in Los Angeles. There was even a three-month waiting list for the shirts (with Team Aniston "overwhelmingly" outselling Team Jolie, according to manufacturer White Trash Charms).

Read the rest here. (And compare the similar snowclonelet "X Nation," discussed a few years ago on the American Dialect Society mailing list here and here.)

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McWhorter on Reid on Negro dialect

Several readers have written to wonder why no one at Language Log has written about the recent Harry Reid controversy.  In fact, one of us has, but in a different forum — John McWhorter, "Reid's Three Little Words: The Log In Our Own Eye", TNR, 1/9/2010. You should read John's article, if you haven't already.

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"Chimps have tons to say but can't say it"

Nicholas Wade, "Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys", NYT, 1/11/209, starts out with a Dr. Dolittle trope that may raise a red flag or two among those who are tired of facile anthropomorphizing in stories about animal communication:

Walking through the Tai forest of Ivory Coast, Klaus Zuberbühler could hear the calls of the Diana monkeys, but the babble held no meaning for him.

That was in 1990. Today, after nearly 20 years of studying animal communication, he can translate the forest’s sounds. This call means a Diana monkey has seen a leopard. That one means it has sighted another predator, the crowned eagle. “In our experience time and again, it’s a humbling experience to realize there is so much more information being passed in ways which hadn’t been noticed before,” said Dr. Zuberbühler, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Do apes and monkeys have a secret language that has not yet been decrypted? And if so, will it resolve the mystery of how the human faculty for language evolved?

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Year names and number names

Following up on Mark Liberman's "2010" posting (and on an earlier "rigid complementarity" posting of mine), I've written a series of postings on my blog about year names, number names, and related matters:

on "bald assertion" here;
on decimal 'decimal point' here;
and on a cluster of issues surrounding these topics here.

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Drunkenness at the LSA

One of the papers that caught my eye at the just-complete LSA meeting in Baltimore was Abby Kaplan, "Articulatory reduction in intoxicated speech". Here's the abstract:

Voiceless stops are commonly voiced post-nasally and intervocalically. Such alternations are often attributed to articulatory ‘effort reduction’: a hypothesis that voiced stops are ‘easier’ in these environments. My experiment tests this hypothesis by comparing productions of intoxicated subjects with those of sober subjects, assuming that intoxicated subjects produce more ‘easy’ articulations. Intoxicated subjects did not uniformly increase voicing of post-nasal or intervocalic stops; rather, the range of voicing durations contracted for both types of stops. I conclude that considerations of effort do not straightforwardly predict post-nasal and intervocalic voicing: the traditional effort-based account of these processes must be refined.

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Disconcerting customers at Egbert's

"Egbert's, a custom car shop at this location since 1992, specializes in restoring and building unique cars to disconcerting customers", says the website for Egbert's, a company that designs and restores hotrods and collectible cars for street use. I am quite sure that by "to" they meant "for". And although perhaps some of the tattooed customers who bring in muscle cars to have skull motifs or gang insignia incorporated into the paintwork may be a bit disconcerting, surely they must have meant that they restore and build cars for discerning customers.

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No understandings not specified here

Creative Commons is a "nonprofit organization that increases sharing and improves collaboration" by providing "free, easy-to-use legal tools … [that] give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work". In particular, many Open Access journals now use a Creative Commons license, among them the new eLanguage initiative of the Linguistic Society of America.

But yesterday, at the LSA's annual meeting, someone raised a question about the use of Creative Commons licenses for this purpose. The question has an interesting linguistic aspect — I'd describe it as a matter of pragmatic scope — which I thought I'd explain to you here.

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