Archive for June, 2010

Using the wisdom of crowds to translate language

Today's Morning Edition on National Public Radio had a piece by Joel Rose on linguists' contributions to efforts to translate the Haitian language Kreyol, using the knowledge of Haitians dispersed around the world: transcript here, with a link to the audio version. This is an update on work reported on by Phil Resnik here on Language Log back in January, and in fact Phil is one of the three linguists quoted in the piece; the other two are Rob Munro (at Stanford) and Judy Klavans (at Maryland).

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Proposed to by a lightning strike?

Poor Bethany Lott; poor Richard Butler, who would have married her; and poor headline writer who penned this appalling crash blossom:

Bethany Lott killed while being proposed to by a lightning strike in Knoxville

Bethany was not proposed to by a lightning strike. She would have been proposed to by her boyfriend Richard Butler, who took her hiking in the North Carolina mountains that she loved and planned to pop the question when they reached the top. Three lightning strikes homed in on them, and the third scored a direct hit, killing her and wounding him. The story is here. And what a disaster of a headline it got.

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A web-based survey of North American English

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Manute Bol and the "language experts"

Five years ago, Geoff Pullum wrote a post here entitled, "Pick-up basketballism reaches Ivy League faculty vocabulary," about the spread of the apologetic interjection "my bad." In an addendum, Geoff raised the possibility that Manute Bol had popularized or even originated the expression while in the NBA in the late '80s (or a bit earlier, in his days playing ball in college). I had sent Geoff a bit of supporting evidence, two snippets from newspaper articles in early 1989 talking about Bol's use of the phrase when playing for the Golden State Warriors.

All of this came up again after Bol died this past weekend, as commentators were looking for ways to eulogize him. Geoff's post was frequently linked to by bloggers (e.g., Kottke, Boing Boing, Deadspin, The Atlantic Wire), and the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg gave the "my bad" story a thorough going-over on D.C. Sports Bog.

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The unexpected attractiveness of snuck

Continue to follow the Saga of Snuck, I thought that I'd check the relative frequency of snuck and sneaked in the LDC's collection of conversational transcripts, which amount to about 25 million words, mostly collected in 2003. These conversations involve people across all ages, regions, socio-economic levels and amounts of education. The verdict? Basically, sneaked is toast.

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Subject-Dependent Inversion in The Economist

The Economist article whose first sentence I quoted in this post about inverting subject and verb in dialog reporting frames ends with a textbook example of a very different kind of inversion:

Harder still than understanding the significance of such barbarism may be accepting that it can never be completely prevented.

This is a case of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p.1385) calls subject-dependent inversion. It involves switching places between the subject of a main clause and some dependent from within the verb phrase (often a complement of the copula). In the above example, the subject is the subjectless gerund-participial clause accepting that it can never be completely prevented. The adjective phrase harder still than understanding the significance of such barbarism is a predicative complement licensed by the copular verb be. They have been switched. The most straightforward order of constituents would have been this:

Accepting that it can never be completely prevented may be harder still than understanding the significance of such barbarism.

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Gösta Bruce 1947-2010

I just learned that Gösta Bruce died last week.

His 1977 dissertation Swedish Word Accents in Sentence Perspective was one of those works that seems to open up a whole new intellectual continent for exploration — when I first read it, I immediately felt that "it smells of horizons", as my grandfather used to say.

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Skeptical dad

"I don't really believe anything any more," said my dad, reflecting on the increasing skepticism to which his old age was leading him.

"Hold on, dad," I said, "you can't be right there."

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Dance your dissertation

On the AAAS Facebook page, this announcement from:

Alison Chandler McNew June 18 at 10:35am
Dear science enthusiasts,The 2010 Dance Your Ph.D. Contest is underway, and we'd LOVE to have even more entries this year than last. You can help us surpass 100 entries by telling anyone you know who has a Ph.D or is pursing a Ph.D. in a science-related field about the contest.

Who knows, maybe it will be one of YOUR friends who will entertain us all by being gutsy enough to tromp around on stage in only a loin cloth! Of course, if your friend wants points for originality, he or she will have to think up something else equally as riveting. Yup, all KINDS of crazy stuff has been done in years past. Check out these videos from 2009: (link)

Here is our official announcement:

We are proud to announce this year’s "Dance Your Ph.D." video competition. We invite anyone who has a Ph.D. or is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in a science-related field to transform their research into an interpretive dance and submit it for a chance to win up to $1,000 and receive recognition from Science magazine. Submitting your entry is easy! Please become a fan of our Facebook page, here, to get more information, receive updates, and help spread the word! This is your chance to prove to the world that scientists CAN dance! Best wishes,

Alison Chandler
Marketing Manager

I'm imagining a dance on Sanskrit sandhi, with words combining with words, or morphemes with morphemes, and one or both participants being altered in the process…

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Graphically snuckward

Following up on yesterday's Snuck-gate post — and on "Snuckward Ho!", 11/29/2009 — I thought I'd take advantage of Mark Davies' new Corpus of Historical American English to provide a graphical summary of the origin and progress of the strong past tense of sneak.

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Stan Carey at Sentence First links to an unusually campy usage fight between The Awl and The Paris Review, and offers a thorough survey of snuckological scholarship. Read, as they say, the whole thing.

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Overcharging the dead

RESPA overcharges dead in the Ninth Circuit, says the headline of the brief news item at this page on Lexology, a news site for business lawyers.

But don't worry about the fleecing of the deceased; it was just a crash blossom, sent in by Edward M. "Ted" McClure, the Faculty Services Law Librarian at the Phoenix School of Law.

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Several readers have drawn my attention to the domain and web site "", and the on-going discussion of this question at Hacker News.

I don't really have much to add to all the fuss. The origin of "log in" as an idiomatic combination of a verb and an intransitive preposition is obvious. There's nothing unusual in the transformation of this V+P combination into a noun, or in the tendency to write the noun (and sometimes the verb) without an internal space. The list of analogous cases is a long one: "strike out", "show off", "make up" — or "strike-out", "show-off", "make-up" — or "strikeout", "showoff", "makeup". Etc.  Nothing to see here, move along please.

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