Archive for March, 2010

The male brain

Louann's Brizendine's The Male Brain has just come out.  I haven't read it yet — for some reason, the publisher didn't send me a review copy — and so I'll reserve judgment until my copy arrives. But Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks has an evaluation ("Brizendine, true to stereotype", 3/24/2010) based on an Opinion piece by Brizendine on CNN 's web site ("Love, sex, and the male brain", 3/24/2010).

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You've met the femivores, now "Meet the Hegans".

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Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance

Language is changing at a torrid pace in China, and it's not just a massive infusion of English words that is to blame.  Nor can we simply ascribe the dramatic changes in language usage to rampant, wild punning for the purpose of confusing the ubiquitous censors.

Creative manipulation of lexical and grammatical constructions is another way to express ideas that are not permitted under the harsh social controls imposed by the government.  This is evident from the fact that the "character of the year" in China for 2009 is bèi 被.

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How Language Log helped jump-start a subculture

Arika Okrent, author of the wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages, has a new article on Slate about the burgeoning community of Avatar fans who have become obsessed with the movie's alien language, Na'vi. Before the movie was released, I had gotten to know the creator of the language, Paul Frommer, for a New York Times Magazine column I wrote about Na'vi and other cinematic sci-fi languages. At my request, Paul was then kind enough to write up a Language Log guest post, "Some highlights of Na’vi," just in time for Avatar's opening weekend. As Arika tells it in the Slate piece, that guest post and its comments section played a key role in the emergent subculture of linguistically engaged Na'vi-philes.

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Tarski's theory of truth as a reason to leave linguistics?

According to Elif Batuman, "Confessions of an Accidental Literary Scholar", The Chronicle Review, 2/12/2010:

I didn't care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years—it took the experience of lived time—to realize that they really are the same thing.

In the meantime, I became a linguistics major. I wanted to learn the raw mechanism of language, the pure form itself. For the foreign-language requirement, I enrolled in beginning Russian: Maybe someday I could answer my mother's question about what Tolstoy was really trying to say in Anna Karenina.

The nail in the coffin of my brief career as a linguist was probably a seminar I took that winter about the philosophy of language. The aim of this seminar was to formulate a theory that would explain to a Martian "what it is that we know when we know a language." I could not imagine a more objectless, melancholy project. The solution turned out to consist of a series of propositions having the form "'Snow is white' is true if snow is white." The professor, a gaunt logician with a wild mane of red hair, wrote this sentence on the board during nearly every class, and we would discuss why it wasn't trivial. Outside the window, snow piled deeper and deeper.

By contrast with the philosophy of language and my other classes in psycholinguistics, syntax, and phonetics, beginning Russian struck me as profoundly human. I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story, and Russian (the study of a particular language) to resemble a set of rules, but the reality was just the opposite.

Apparently Batuman was an undergraduate at Harvard, so some people whose 02138-ology is more current than mine should be able to decode the identity of that gaunt logician.  Good academic gossip, I guess, but I don't care much (although I do wonder what department (s)he was in).  Rather, I'm interested in the idea that Tarski's theory of truth should be the critical factor in a young woman's decision to abandon linguistics.

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Talking Osage

An interesting discussion by Ryan Red Corn about efforts to revive the Osage language:

No longer than a short while after the program got up and running did the tribe watch its last first language Osage speaker pass away, Lucille Roubedeaux.

As Uncle Mogre explained, “This is the last train out. If we can’t get it done this time around, then that’s it. There is no more after this. That’s it.” Everyone who ever heard those words fully understood the gravity of the situation, and decided that they did not want the language dying on their watch, including myself. […]

With the introduction of the language department, dedicated students and teachers started to create new speakers for the first time in only God knows how many years. It’s quite literally been close to 200 years since the last time the number of Osage speakers INCREASED. It’s difficult to take into account what this scrappy bunch of Osages has done until you put it into perspective. The Vatican even called to verify the miracle (Ok I made that last part up).

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Disfluency gap

Is there one? Chris asks the question, citing a collection of LL posts.

Though George W. Bush certainly took his share of (in my opinion) unfair criticism on this issue, I should point out that Howie Carr's long-running Wizard of Uhs feature was focused on Ted Kennedy, and there's been a fairly large-scale attempt to transfer this epithet to Barack Obama, which hasn't really caught on, except in a diluted form as the Teleprompter Meme.

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Don't send me passwords

Keith Allan has bravely outed himself as editor of the journal from which I recently received a thoroughly discourteous message sequence. I thank him for responding to the discussion, and for confirming that it was not about him pressing the buttons in the wrong order. The reason his fine journal (the Australian Journal of Linguistics) sent me a message sequence I found annoying and presumptuous is the design of the stupid ScholarOne Manuscript software. Let me explain a little more about the nature of my life (perhaps my experiences will find an echo in yours), the part that involves those arbitrary strings of letters and digits we are all supposed to carry around in our heads like mental sets of keys.

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Erin McKean, "Hey guys! Yes, ladies, this means you", Boston Globe, 3/21/2010:

In the study of peevology, language subdivision, one of the more fertile areas of inquiry is the long list of things that people are annoyed to be called. Not the truly offensive terms — none of which can be printed here, and all of which have a level of discomfort far higher than “pet peeve’’ — but the more general terms, whose offense is often magnified when they’re used by strangers involved in a commercial transaction.

Some people hate to be called “honey,’’ or “sugar.’’ A few feel that any use of “hey’’ as an attention-getter is rude (with the classic retort being “Hey is for horses’’). Others believe that being called “ma’am’’ ages them 10 years. But one of the more widespread vocative peeves, at least for women, is being addressed as “you guys.’’

Whether it’s the group e-mail that opens “Hi Guys!’’ or the waiter who says “OK, guys, your table is ready,’’ the use of “you guys’’ for groups of mixed gender (and even for all-female groups) can send the needle on many peeve-ometers into the red.

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Common Core State Standards

Sandra Wilde writes:

The National Governors' Association has just published a draft version of new Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Sciences, which are open for public comment. I'm an education professor in the area of literacy with a special interest in grammar and related topics, and was wondering if you or other authors of Language Log would be interested in creating a post about them, since I know there have often been comments on the blog about published grammar advice for teachers. These standards are a big deal, since 48 states have agreed to adopt them. They're likely to have a big impact on curriculum for the foreseeable future.

SW suggests that LL readers may want to read the draft and submit comments, and that some discussion in LL posts and comments may be useful. According to the web site, "These standards are now open for public comment until Friday, April 2".

I haven't had a chance to do more than skim the draft, but meanwhile, the comments section on this post is open.

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Firemen, dental practice, and danglers

Said the story in the Ottawa Citizen:

The woman was trapped in her car unconscious for about 20 minutes while firefighters performed an extraction, he said.

And alert Language Log reader Diane commented: "I had no idea our firefighters were also trained at dentistry!" She also asked me whether the misleading phrase an extraction was a dangler (an analog of the dangling modifier that prescriptivists warn against).

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Stupid message sequencing discourtesy

Picture this: that you receive two unexpected emails from me in quick succession. The first is a boilerplate pre-packaged message informing you that I have entered your address on my website as my temporary address for two or three days later this month, and I have let my employers know that people can call me or fax me at your house. I'm a complete stranger to you, except that you know my name from Language Log; I have obtained your email address from public sources, and pre-emptively set up arrangements to that assume I'll be staying with you.

The second of the two emails is personally addressed, and says that I'll be in your area later this month to give a lecture, and since I'm on a tight budget, would it be all right if I came to stay for two nights?

I take it you'd be somewhere between insulted and shocked, despite the fact that it is sort of flattering that a famous Language Log writer has singled you out as a person he would like to stay with. Well the equivalent not only happened to me today; it happens to me every couple of months.

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Two cultures

Many years ago, as a grad student attending an LSA summer institute, I took a course from Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff based on their work with Gail Jefferson, published as "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking in conversation", Language 1974. That paper's abstract:

The organization of taking turns to talk is fundamental to conversation, as well as to other speech-exchange systems. A model for the turn-taking organization for conversation is proposed, and is examined for its compatibility with a list of grossly observable facts about conversation. The results of the examination suggest that, at least, a model for turn-taking in conversation will be characterized as locally-managed, party-administered, interactionally controlled, and sensitive to recipient design. Several general consequences of the model are explicated, and contrasts are sketched with turn-taking organizations for other speech-exchange systems.

At the recent IEEE ICASSP meeting in Dallas, one of the papers that caught my eye was Chi-Chun Lee and Shrikanth Narayanan, "Predicting interruptions in dyadic interactions", ICASSP 2010. Their paper starts like this:

During dyadic spontaneous human conversation, interruptions occur frequently and often correspond to breaks in the information flow between conversation partners. Accurately predicting such dialog events not only provides insights into the modeling of human interactions and conversational turntaking behaviors but can also be used as an essential module in the design of natural human-machine interface. Further, we can capture information such as the likely interruption conditions and interrupter’s signallings by incorporating both conversation agents in the prediction model (we define in this paper the interrupter as the person who takes over the speaking turn and the interruptee as the person who yields the turn). This modeling is predicated on the knowledge that conversation flow is the result of the interplay between interlocutor behaviors. The proposed prediction incorporates cues from both speakers to obtain improved prediction accuracy.

This work comes out of Shrikanth Narayanan's SAIL ("Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory") at USC, where a lot of interesting work is done. But before going on to tell you a little more about this work on interruption-prediction, I want to note the curious lack of communication between the disciplinary configurations represented by these two quoted passages.

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