Archive for August, 2011

Seidenberg on Singer and Nim

[Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg, following up on Geoff Pullum's post "Nim: the unproject", 8/16/2011.]

Nim Chimpsky and I met when I was a graduate student at Columbia. "Project Nim" is an excellent documentary, a deeply sad story leavened with humor and astonishment at the behavior of the personalities involved . The parts of the movie that cover events I observed—the period when Nim lived at the Delafield Mansion in Riverdale NY and was driven down to Columbia for teaching—was accurate as far as it went. It's a documentary, not a detailed record of what happened, and it is stronger on Nim's personal history and the foibles of his human caretakers (and I use the term loosely) than on the science.

I was preparing to write a commentary on the movie and the project, but then Peter Singer's piece appeared in the New York Review of Books ("The troubled life of Nim Chimpsky", 8/18/2011). Singer is the Princeton philosopher famous for "Animal Liberation" and other influential, controversial books. His blog post about Nim got many facts wrong and I was moved to write a short response. It might be of interest to Language Log readers.

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He's on first

The most recent SMBC presents an updated chemical version of the classic "Who's on first" skit. I think that Zach Weiner does a better job of setting the joke up than Abbott and Costello did:

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All let alone some

Edward Rothstein, "A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred", NYT 8/25/2011:

Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.

Reader MH, who sent it in, feels that "let alone" is pointing in the wrong direction. Is it?

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Boundary upon amicable networking

According to http://www.dailyginger.com/uk-minister-to-discuss-twitter-facebook-bans/99263828?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter", on "your one stop online daily news portal" the Daily Ginger, which I will not link to for reasons that will become clear below, yesterday this happened:

Prime Minister David Cameron referred to boundary upon amicable networking in a arise of a unrest

Top military officers as well as alternative supervision officials will additionally be benefaction for a meeting, which follows riots which swept England progressing this month

Twitter, Facebook, as well as BlackBerry builder Research in Motion all declined to contend what on all sides they would take during a meeting

British Home Secretary Theresa May will lay down with officials from a amicable media attention Thursday, her bureau said, as a supervision considers perplexing to anathema people from amicable networking during or after crises

I'm actually going to miss print media when they go away.

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Is it a prosodic-ass constraint?

Because comments were turned off on "Root haughtiness", reader JCL added this comment to a different post:

I just wanted to propose that the unwritten restrictions on the use of -ass has NOTHING to do with the meaning of the adjective, and everything to do with meter. One-syllable words (/), trochees (/ -), and dactyls (/ – -) work, but everything else doesn't. For example: smart-ass, purple-ass, raggedy-ass.

Try it with words that aren't monosyllabic, trochees, or dactyls. Doesn't seem right, does it? Again, has nothing to do with the meaning of the words. What do you think of this hypothesis?

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A warm welcome to a new determinative

Every English dictionary in the world categorizes numerous as an adjective. And quite rightly: it mostly is. But a recent development has seen it pick up a second life as a determinative: a word like all, many, most, none, several, some, that, and this. Crucially, (i) at least some determinatives can form a noun phrase all on their own, as in All were approved, and (ii) at least some determinatives can make up a full noun phrase when accompanied by a partitive of phrase (but no head noun), as in some of my best friends. Adjectives cannot perform either of these feats: *Good were approved and *Happy of my friends liked it are wildly ungrammatical. Articles can't either: the articles a(n) and the are special determinatives that have neither of the properties (we don't find *The was very thoughtful or *An of my friends did it). But in recent writing, numerous is turning up (albeit rarely) with both properties, and thus taking on the syntax of a word like several.

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Increase by 200%

A full page advertisement for Nature Valley granola bars on the front of the Metro free newspaper in the UK this morning carries the legend:

We wanted to increase deliciousness by 200%

So we put two bars in each pack

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The visibilizing analyzer

Less than 50 years ago, this is what the future of data visualization looked like — H. Beam Piper, "Naudsonce", Analog 1962:

She had been using a visibilizing analyzer; in it, a sound was broken by a set of filters into frequency-groups, translated into light from dull red to violet paling into pure white. It photographed the light-pattern on high-speed film, automatically developed it, and then made a print-copy and projected the film in slow motion on a screen. When she pressed a button, a recorded voice said, "Fwoonk." An instant later, a pattern of vertical lines in various colors and lengths was projected on the screen.

This is in a future world with anti-gravity and faster-than-light travel.

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Counting hierarchical kinds

Nick Collins, "Earth is home to 8.7 million species", The Telegraph 8/23/2011:

Previous guesses had put the total number of different species at anywhere between three million and 100 million, but a new calculation based on the way in which life forms are classified puts the estimate at the lower end of that scale.

The list of known species currently stands at about 1.2 million, but experts said that advances in technology meant that the remainder could be found and classified within the next century.

The study was undertaken by researchers from the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year project involving 2,700 scientists from more than 80 countries aimed at assessing the diversity of life in our seas and oceans which concluded in October 2010.

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A note on the "basketbrawl"

The infamous melee between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets that took place this past Thursday has been widely covered in the American press, but has been mostly scrubbed from Chinese media.

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Ask Language Log: Why don't Americans say "mate"?

Reader AW asks:

What difference is there, if any, between the words "mate" and "friend"? I once had a British friend insist to me that he doesn't have mates, but that he has friends. My own feeling about the word "mate" is that it connotes a relationship that at least resembles one you have with a schoolmate — that is, a kind of collegial friend who's part of your cohort, whatever that may be, and who you've come up with. Why don't Americans say "mate"? Did we break from that culture of fraternal camaraderie? And for that matter, is there a difference between the British "mate" and the Australian "mate"?

AW is asking three different questions: (1) What's the difference (in British or Australian English) between mate and friend? (2) Why don't Americans use mate in the way that Brits and Aussies do? (3) Are the British and Australian versions different? In this post, I'm going to try to answer only question (2).

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Insolence and anteriority

From Kathleen Parker in today's Washington Post:

Scene: An elevator in New York Presbyterian Hospital where several others and I were temporary hostages of a filthy-mouthed woman who was profanely berating her male companion. It wasn't possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter.

Every other word out of the woman's mouth was mother——, presumably a coincidental reference to any familial relationship. Finally, she shared with us bystanders her belief that said mother—— would not be welcome in her house (Hark! Good news at last!) and that he could very well seek shelter at his mother—-ing father's house. Aha, family ties established.

The race and class of the woman and her companion weren't specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man's "baggy drawers," which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information. (If it had been an upper-middle-class white woman screaming "motherfucker" at a phat-pantsed white preppie, communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions.)

I've always found those nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity immeasurably more vulgar than an explicit mention would be, in a sense of "vulgar" that's ought to be a lot more ethically troubling than the one that Parker is focused on — you think of the way people intimate someone's Jewishness by saying they're "very New York." But that's not the kicker…

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Feeling bad(ly)

A couple of readers have drawn my attention to Jay Nordlinger's critique of  Arne Duncan's grammar ("The Education Secretary's Poor Sense of Touch", National Review Online 8/20/2011):

Arne Duncan, our illustrious education secretary, is all weepy over the young'uns in Texas. They don't get no education, what with that mean Rick Perry in charge. Duncan said, "I feel very, very badly for the children there."

He feels badly, does he? Something wrong with his sense of touch? He can't tell wood from water from sand? Does he feel sadly and terribly and angrily too?

(The source of the quote is here.)

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