Archive for May, 2010

A concept cluster quiz

What do the following concepts have in common lexically? (1) understanding; (2) judging; (3) experiencing; (4) finding out; (5) dating; (6) consulting; (7) visiting; (8) ensuring; (9) escorting; and (10) sending away?

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C(a)u(gh)t short

David Craig was puzzled by this AP News headline:

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Mapping the Demographics of American English with Twitter

[This is a guest post by David Bamman.]

It took me a while to really make sense of Twitter. For the longest time, it was (to me) the stomping ground of 14-year-olds and Ashton Kutcher, each issuing a minute-by-minute feed of their lives. Around the time Twitter arrived, however, I had just had a breakthrough on YouTube's enormous popularity – it was only after watching a dozen different videos of the Super Mario Brothers theme song performed a dozen different ways that I finally got it: I may not care about cats playing the keyboard or wedding parties dancing down the aisle, but somebody does, and without a distribution system for people to broadcast whatever their hearts felt like, I never would have had my life improved by that kid with the beatboxing flute or the one with the double guitar.

So I waited for a similar breakthrough with Twitter. It came, at long last, after I realized that it was exactly what I first thought it was: 14-year-olds (and Ashton Kutcher) chronicling the minutiae of their lives. It is colloquial language, constrained by 140 characters: everyday conversations about waiting in line at the grocery store, your flight just landing at ORD, what to do this Saturday night, "omg did u see hr dress?" In spurts it is, of course, much more than that, as its use during the protests of the 2009 Iranian election proved, but in its unmarked use, it's the language of how millions of people across the world talk to their friends.

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Gone phishing

If I was going to go phishing, with English as my medium of communication in the ocean of dupes out there, I think I would first learn a little bit about the cultural practices of the English-speaking world. I like think that if I were a phisherman I would do a little better than this (received today; I quote the entire text):

From Sat May 15 20:32:16 2010
Date: Sat, 15 May 2010 15:32:03 -0400
Subject: bank draft
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

You have a bank draft of $250,000.00 USD,Please Contact the TNT INTERNATIONAL COURIER for claims with your

Name,Address,Age,Occupation,Tel and Country.Contact person Mr.Ellen Hanson,Tel:+2347025919258 Email:servicescouriertnt01

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No longer the only X

I was puzzled for a few minutes by the following one-sentence summary of an editorial on the New York Times Opinion page:

Thanks to five justices on the Supreme Court, the United States is no longer the only country to impose sentences of life without parole on its teenagers.

I couldn't think how our Supreme Court justices could make some other country impose such sentences, and I really couldn't "get" the intended reading (we will no longer impose such sentences, so there will from now on be NO such countries) — it didn't even occur to me until I was really forced to it. Am I alone? This made me realize that for me, only is really strongly presuppositional: to no longer be the only X means for me that you're still an X but no longer the only one.

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Maltese Google

I'm in Malta for LREC 2010, and it's nice to see that Google comes up here in Maltese, the only Semitic language normally written in a Latin alphabet:

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Free Summer School

Busy June 20 – June 26? Could you manage to squeeze one of the most intellectually intense weeks of your life into your summer schedule? For free?

NASSLLI PICI'm talking (once again!) about the North American Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information (NASSLI 2010), of which I am program chair. It's aimed at graduate students, researchers, and advanced undergraduates, in fact anyone interested in formal approaches to language, philosophy, and computation. And I bring you, Language Log reader, some hot news that gives you the chance of attending the school and making 100-150 new friends for life for free… provided you apply by June 1.

Here's the news (and this is aimed at students). The National Science Foundation has given preliminary approval for a sizable grant to NASSLLI 2010. Together with other funds we have raised this will enable us to provide students with financial support to attend the school. We expect to be able to reimburse the registration fees of about 40 deserving students, and to pay further travel expenses for those whose need is greatest. You can find online information on how to register and how to apply for the grants – see the Support is Available from NASSLLI Itself section on the NASSLLI grants page. Basically, you need to send NASSLLI an email with a reason why NASSLLI is relevant for you, and have your academic advisor send an email too.

I'm really, really looking forward to meeting many of you in Bloomington, Indiana at the end of next month, and if you want to ask me personally about it, send me an email.

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Pamela Harris did not use ‘of diversity’ as a modifier

In case anyone fails to notice what W. Kiernan has pointed out in the comments following this post, we now know that Jan Dawson was wrong about the intended meaning of the phrase practitioner of diversity in the quote from law professor Pamela Harris, and I was wrong (and others including Barbara Partee were wrong) to agree with her interpretation. Briefly, the people who read of diversity as a complement of the noun practitioner were right, and the people like Jan and me who interpreted it as a modifier were wrong — not about the grammatical possibilities, but about the writer's intent in this particular case.

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Sauce Like This: A New Fusion Word in Mandarin

Jeisun Wen mentioned to me that, several nights ago when he was reading some of his friends' statuses on Facebook, one in particular jumped out at him:

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Impolite politeness?

A few days ago, I listened to Frank Deford advise the Wall Street Journal to modify its style guide ("Mister Is To Sports As Crying Is To Baseball", NPR 5/12/2010):

… because it is the Journal's style to refer to hedge funders in their bespoke suits and Turnbull & Asser shirts and ties by their courtesy title, it has foolishly decided to maintain this same policy in sports.

Thus we have a discussion of a "Mr. Braden's perfect game," a "Mr. Barajas behind the plate," and a "Mr. James, who works for a Cleveland firm." Having the Journal cover sports is rather like having Miss Jane Austen write them for you, with Mr. Darcy batting and Mr. Bingley pitching.

Thank heavens the legendary Grantland Rice was not working for Mr. Rupert Murdoch when he wrote about a Notre Dame backfield — that most famous line ever to appear on a sports page — or it would've come out this way: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they were known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Mr. Struhldreher, Mr. Miller, Mr. Crowley and Mr. Layden."

Or as Howard Cosell would've called out memorably on Journal television: "Down goes Mr. Frazier! Down goes Mr. Frazier!"

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Name change

Richard Smith, a 41-year-old care worker in Carlisle, England, did not think his name did justice to the exciting person that he actually was, so he changed his name by deed poll. The new name he chose was Stormhammer Deathclaw Firebrand.

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Their mouth … its mouths

I don't think we've had one of these before.

In many earlier posts (e.g. "Candidates must be a student", 4/16/2009; "Xtreme singular they", 4/18/2008; "'Singular they', God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006; "They are a prophet", 10/21/2004), we've noted that they/them/their is often used with non-specific singular human antecedents, not only as an alternative to "he or she", "him or her", "his or hers", but even in cases where the sex of the antecedent is known.

But here's a case where the antecedent is a snake, and a generically definite one at that ("How spitting cobras shoot for the eyes", Discover Magazine 5/14/2010):

It may seem a bit daft to provoke a snake that can poison you from afar, but Young’s antics were all part of an attempt to show just how spitting cobras make their shots. Their venom is a potent defensive weapon, but it’s also completely useless if it lands on the skin or even in the mouth. To work, the cobra must aim for the eyes. Just think about how hard that is. The cobra must hit a moving target that’s up to 1.5 metres away, using a squirt gun attached to their mouth.

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Weird Signs

Andrew Jacobs' article on Shanghai's efforts to unmangle Chinglish generated tremendous interest — for several days it was the most e-mailed NYT article.  The Chinglish fervor also spawned a broader interest in strange signs from all over the world.  Several friends have called to my attention this wonderful collection of bizarre notices, placards, and postings in the Times that were sent in by bemused travellers.

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