Archive for October, 2011

30 years of linguistics at Gallaudet

[Below is a guest post by Arika Okrent.]

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a celebration for the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet is the world's only university for the deaf. Nearly all the undergraduates at Gallaudet have some kind of hearing loss (a very small number of hearing students may be admitted each year), while the graduate school (offering programs in audiology, deaf education, psychology, and interpretation, among others) has a significant number of hearing students. I received an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet in 1997.

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Censoring "Occupy" in China

Last weekend I was on the NPR show "On the Media" to talk about how the word occupy has evolved since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement in mid-September. I reiterated a point I had made in my Word Routes column the previous week, namely that the success of the movement has been helped along by the modular nature of the Occupy slogan, allowing any place name to fill the "Occupy ___" template. That template has shown up in protests around the world, from Frankfurt to Tokyo, with English Occupy generally left intact (perhaps for maximum media impact). In China, meanwhile, Occupy has a translation-equivalent that is being censored online.

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Fact v. Assertion

It is asserted that the following passage contains an elementary grammatical error:

When I called to see her in June, 1842, she was gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont (I am not sure whether it was a male or female, and so use the more common pronoun), but her mistress told me that she came into the neighborhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish-gray color, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming stripes ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. [Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854.]

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The secret of Shu-Shan

Long-time readers will know that I sometimes attend films that I deem to be of linguistic interest and report on them for Language Log (here and here, for example). I attended another screening today: I went to see Johnny English Reborn.

Was there serious linguistic content to report on, you instinctively ask? Of course there was, of course there was. You surely cannot seriously think that I would attend a lowbrow Bond-spoofing comedy starring Rowan Atkinson and pretend there was linguistic interest just so that I could charge the price of my ticket on Language Log's corporate American Express card! Ha! No, no, no.

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Ask Language Log: "Anything" and "everything"

LS, in Charleston, West Virginia, writes:

I have a question I've thought about for years, and today, when I decided to poke around google, I stumbled upon a blog that had your name.  Can you tell me why, in southern dialects where the velar nasal changes to a coronal nasal, there are two exceptions?  I know of no dialect that would "drop the g," as it were, in the words

everything and anything?

The being in human being is iffy.

If you can answer this, I'll be able to sleep at night again!

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In response to a recent burst of postings, on several blogs, on which vs. that as relativizers and on restrictive vs. non-restrictive relative clauses, an inventory of Language Log postings, plus a few others, on my blog.

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Check all boxes

What a complete disaster the which/that rule (the one saying you're not allowed to use which to begin a restrictive relative clause) actually turns out to be in the lives of American users of English. It instils fear in them lest they be found to be doing something wrong; they tremble at the thought of what a writing tutor might say about their writing, and cower before their word processors; but it doesn't help them, it just ruins their lives.

If you type "Check all boxes which apply to what you are looking for" into a Microsoft Word file it will be identified as a grammar error (the version I verified this on was Word 2008 for Mac 12.3.1). The highest-ranked proposed correction that Word will give you (insertion of a comma) turns it into what appears in the Help box for the Additional Information section when you are trying to enter a Home Wanted posting at Sabbatical Homes:

Additional Information: Check all boxes,
which apply to what you are looking for.

What a grammar disaster.

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Eugene Volokh has suggested a new piece of socio-grammatical terminology ('Descriptivism, Prescriptivism and Assertionism", 10/4/2011):

Our readers likely know that I have many disagreements with prescriptivists when it comes to English usage. But while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists in general, my main practical disagreements are with people who might best be labeled “assertionists” — people who don’t just say that prescriptions set forth by some supposed authorities define what is “right” in English, but who simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say. Usage X is wrong, they say. Why? Because it violates this rule. What’s your authority for the proposition that this is a rule? Well, it violates the rule.

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Myaamia revitalization and Meskwaki insults

Two conferences I really want to attend are currently in progress. The one I'm at is in Milwaukee, on Language Death, Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization; there have been some wonderful talks here, highlighted by "Searching for our talk" by Daryl Baldwin, head of the Myaamia Project at Miami University (that's Miami in Ohio, not Florida): an inspiring and moving description of his and his tribe's efforts to revive and revitalize the Miami language, an Algonquian language that had not been spoken (until Baldwin began his personal journey) for over a hundred years but that is richly documented from past times, from Jesuit missionaries onward.

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What English sounds like if you have Wernicke's aphasia

Half a million people watched this on YouTube over the past couple of weeks:

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Jill Abramson's voice: difference tones?

John Kingston's comment on "Jill Abramson's voice" (10/18/2010) suggests that what's going on in her final low-pitched syllables is a kind of difference tone, or "beat":

I wonder if the modulation is a rather extreme form of tremolo, which is a regular variation in level. Now, giving it a name doesn't explain how she does it, but in two-reed instruments it's a product of tuning them slightly differently, and as a result producing beats. The question then becomes how this could be produced with vocal fold vibration, in particular, how the vocal folds could be caused to vibrate at two frequencies at once about 25 Hz apart. I haven't got a clue, but suspect that it is related to the low F0 she produces at the same time.

The oscillation of the vocal folds is a physically complex phenomenon, and both in numerical simulations and in real observations, two or more different periodicities can sometimes be observed (though I have no idea whether that's what's behind the observed low-frequency modulation in Ms. Abramson's voice).

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Amani hairs

The following sign may be seen on Chengzong Road in Jiading, Shanghai:

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No Jose

Yesterday evening, before the first game of the 2011 World Series, Scotty McCreery sang the national anthem.  He started out fine:

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But in the next-to-last line (of the first verse, the only verse normally performed on such occasions), he did something odd:

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What should have been

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

seems to have become

No Jose does that star-spangled banner yet wave

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