Archive for April, 2011

Word-order "universals" are lineage-specific?

This post is the promised short discussion of Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson & Russell D. Gray, "Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals", Nature, published online 4/13/2011. [Update: free downloadable copies are available here.] As I noted earlier, I recommend the clear and accessible explanation that Simon Greenhill and Russell Gray have put on the Austronesian Database website in Auckland — in fact, if you haven't read that explanation, you should go do so now, because I'm not going to recapitulate what they did and their reasons for doing it, beyond quoting the conclusion:

These family-specific linkages suggest that language structure is not set by innate features of the cognitive language parser (as suggested by the generativists), or by some over-riding concern to "harmonize" word-order (as suggested by the statistical universalists). Instead language structure evolves by exploring alternative ways to construct coherent language systems. Languages are instead the product of cultural evolution, canalized by the systems that have evolved during diversification, so that future states lie in an evolutionary landscape with channels and basins of attraction that are specific to linguistic lineages.

And I should start by saying that I'm neither a syntactician nor a typologist.  The charitable way to interpret this is that I don't start with any strong prejudices on the subject of syntactic typology. From this unbiased perspective, it seems to me that this paper adds a good idea that has been missing from most traditional work in syntactic typology, but at the same time, it misses two good ideas that have been extensively developed in the related area of historical syntax.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (96)

Is "plagiarism" in a judicial decision wrong?

The Court of Appeal for British Columbia handed down a very unusual decision today that raises an interesting linguistic issue. The underlying case, Cojocaru (Guardian Ad Litem) v. British Columbia Women’s Hospital, was a medical negligence suit by the parents of a brain-damaged baby against the hospital at which it was born. At trial before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Justice Joel Groves ruled for the plaintiffs and awarded them $5 million in damages.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)

Must Cinco de Mayo fall on the 5th of May?

Last night Jay Leno presented an advertisement by someone a little bit confused about Mexican(-American) culture: it urged people to get ready for Cinco de Mayo on May 6th. "Cinco de Mayo" of course means "the fifth of May". In this case the confusion is real – Cinco de Mayo does not fall on the sixth of May, but in theory it could. "Cinco de Mayo" is the name of a holiday. The holiday is named after the day on which it falls, but the name is not itself a date. That means that we can imagine a future in which the holiday is still named "Cinco de Mayo" but falls on another date. It might be decided to celebrate on another day but to keep the traditional name, or Mexico might adapt a different calendar, one that had no month called "Mayo".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (53)

English dialect quiz of the day

What is this woman saying, and where is she from?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

For several American listeners, these have turned out to be surprisingly difficult questions. I'll give the answer and the broader context later today.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (95)

Hwæt about WH?

In discussing his recent post about aspirated initial /w/ in Japanese pronunciation of English, Victor Mair asked about the historical phonetics of the strange English spelling 'wh':

I've tried repeatedly to pronounce the H part *after* the W and it seems to be virtually impossible to make such a sequence of sounds. What is it about the evolution of these WH- words in English that has led to this peculiar spelling? Weren't they all Q- words in Latin? Are they WH- words throughout Germanic? What would they have been in Proto-Indo-European?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (72)

Would a linguist always grade your writing A+?

I occasionally wonder whether people might be picking up the wrong idea about the descriptive orientation we tend to promote here on Language Log: because we so often point out that edicts defended by conservative usage pundits lack support from either decent writing or common sense, people might imagine that if college papers were graded by a linguist everyone would get an A+, because the instructor would endorse and excuse all their mistakes. Well, Ben Yagoda is a real live English professor (he's at the University of Delaware, where he mostly teaches journalistic writing), and a couple of months ago he published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about college writing and the changing kinds of awfulness that he sees in it. (One or two points from it were discussed here on Language Log, and Ben responded in the first comment below it.) He can surely serve as some kind of example of the prescriptive curmudgeonliness of writing instructors. He goes through this (possibly invented) sample of what he sees as error-stuffed prose to pick out its mistakes:

For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go. But, the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey, so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie, "Iron Man 2".

So let's check with a real live descriptive linguist and see if there is agreement, shall we?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Another polysemy quiz

What is the link between (a) denigrating, (b) ceasing to hold in one's hand, (c) making written notes, and (d) euthanasia?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)

A sigh is just a sign

Spotted at CNN: "Federal employees breathe sign of relief on budget deal", 4/8/2011. The obligatory screenshot, in case they fix it:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

Matrix in Japanglish: why, why, why?

Lareina Li called my attention to a delightful clip from the Matrix trilogy as dubbed in Japanese accented English. But before you watch it, try listening to the sound track to "see" how much of it you understand without looking at the subtitles.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (76)

Lyrical Narcissism?

I've generally been skeptical of claims about counts of first-person singular pronouns as an index of self-involvement, mainly on empirical grounds. In particular, the pundits who beat this drum mostly make assertions without any counts, much less comparisons of counts.  For some of the Language Log coverage, with links to articles by George F. Will, Stanley Fish, and Peggy Noonan (among others), see "Fact-checking George F. Will" (6/7/2009);  "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme" (6/8/2009); "Inaugural pronouns" (6/8/2009); "Another pack member heard from" (6/9/2009); "I again" (7/13/2009); "'I' is a camera" (7/18/2009).

And there are problems with the theory as well, as Jamie Pennebaker explains here.

But look at this impressive graph, from C. Nathan DeWall, Richard S. Pond, Jr., W. Keith Campbell, and Jean M. Twenge, "Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular U.S. song lyrics", Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3/21/2011:

Here we've got numbers galore — from the lyrics of Billboard's 10 top songs from each of 28 years, 88,621 total words — and comparison of numbers across time. There still might be some questions about the explanation, but at least we have a strong effect to explain, right?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (38)

Morphophonetic aesthetics

At Non Sequitur, for the past few days, Danae has been bingeing on "words that are fun to say out loud, and when you say them over and over, they get to sound even funnier":

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (45)

Speech error of the week

Mike Pence (R-IN), interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Fox News:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

T-Rex has a new idea

The latest Dinosaur Comics:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)