Archive for October, 2011

Don't joke the monkeys

I believe that the following photographs are exclusive for Language Log, since they were taken by Ori Tavor in Sichuan province this past summer, and I don't think that he has sent them anywhere else.

I'll first say where the photographs were taken and generally what category they fall into, and then explain each of them briefly. They will not each receive the full-dress treatment I usually give Chinglish specimens, both because there are too many of them and because they're fairly obvious.

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Dejobbed, bewifed, and much childrenised

That's the title of a post (October 13, 2011) on "Letters of Note: Correspondence deserving of a wider audience," a fascinating website hosted by Shaun Usher. It refers to this letter sent to the British Embassy in Calabar, Nigeria in 1929 by a disgruntled employee named Asuquo Okon Inyang who had been fired, apparently for slacking off on the job:

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No dabble

Sign at a Chinese park:

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Even again

Today's Girls with Slingshots opens with this exchange between Clarice and Tucker:

Clarice's contribution is a nice example of the new (?) negative-polarity emphatic even (discussed in "What does 'even' even mean?", 2/8/2011). Danielle Corsetto, the strip's author, puts this instance of emphatic even in caps to indicate prosodic focus, which emphatic even doesn't always have — perhaps some aspiring even-ologist can figure out why it sometimes does and sometimes doesn't.

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Jill Abramson's voice

Ken Auletta, "Changing Times: Jill Abramson takes charge of the Gray Lady", The New Yorker 10/24/2011:

The first thing that people usually notice about Jill Abramson is her voice. The equivalent of a nasal car honk, it’s an odd combination of upper- and working-class. Inside the newsroom, her schoolteacherlike way of elongating words and drawing out the last word of each sentence is a subject of endless conversation and expert mimicry. When she appeared on television after her appointment as executive editor, the blogger Ben Trawick-Smith wrote, “Speech pathologists and phoneticians, knock yourself out: what’s going on with Abramson’s speech?” He was deluged with responses. One speculated that, like a politician, she had trained herself to limit the space between sentences so that it would be hard to interrupt her; another said she had probably acquired the accent in an attempt to not sound too New York while she was an undergraduate at Harvard. The writer Amy Wilentz, a college roommate of Abramson’s, has said that the accent probably has something to do with trying to sound a bit like Bob Dylan.

The cited blog post is  "Jill Abramson’s Accent", The dialect blog 7/28/2011. LLOG readers were apparently all playing beach volleyball that week, and so no one drew my attention to Ben Trawick-Smith's plea for assistance.

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What the occupiers believe in

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Centrally-planned peeving

The Académie française has recently added to its website a feature Dire, Ne pas dire ("Say, Don't Say")

… qui donne le sentiment de l’Académie française sur les fautes, les tics de langage et les ridicules qui s’observent le plus fréquemment dans le français contemporain.

… which gives the feelings of the Académie française on the errors, clichés, and absurdities that are most often seen in contemporary French.

Lee Moran, "Fight against Franglais! French language website creates list of English words it wants to ban" (Daily Mail 10/12/2011) quotes Valérie Lecasble, communication consultant at the TBWA Corporate agency, as saying "if the Académie Française doesn't protect the French language, who will?"  This is a typically statist attitude — in terms of quantity, frequency, and intensity of peeving, Dire, Ne pas dire is far from matching the standard set by the Anglophone free-enterprise peeving system.

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Replicating the snuckward trend

In yesterday's post "Deceptively valuable", I made use of counts from the Google Books ngram dataset, as seen through Mark Davies' convenient interface. That was a case where the ngram dataset's flaws (uncertain metadata, lack of ability to look at context, etc.) are more than balanced by its virtues. In thinking about some of the other issues involved, I remembered a case that makes it possible to check the ngram dataset's answers against those given by another historical collection: the trend over the past century for Americans to replace "sneaked" with "snuck".

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Deceptively valuable

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Baković posted about phrases of the form deceptively <ADJECTIVE>, and gave the results of an online survey of more than 1500 LL readers ("Watching the deceptive", 10/2/2011), who were each asked to interpret one of two phrases:

The exam was deceptively easy. The exam was deceptively hard
The exam was easy. 56.8% The exam was easy. 11.8%
The exam was hard. 36.0% The exam was hard. 84.0%
The exam was neither. 7.2% The exam was neither. 4.2%

Eric suggested that this variability in judgments, and also the asymmetry between easy and hard, might be connected to the phenomenon of misnegation. And there were many other interesting observations and speculations in Eric's post and the 64 comments on it. But a simple tally of collocational frequency for the word deceptively suggests a couple of relevant factors that neither Eric nor any of the commenters noticed.

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Whoa as me

None of the words in the expression "woe is me" are especially rare or obsolete, but the syntactic structure and semantic interpretation are definitely archaic. If you learned the expression by listening rather than by reading, you might well go for some alternative way of composing similar-sounding words to arrive at the contextually apparent meaning, like "whoa as me".

That's not much closer to being compositional in contemporary English, but it's certainly no further away either. And at least a few people seem to have taken that route, including one that I noticed in a recent weblog comment.

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"Whose speech is free of p3's"

In response to "Strunk and Ptah", 10/6/2011, Reader KD has pointed me to a passage in James P. Allen, "Middle Egyptian: an introduction to the language and culture of hieroglyphs", 2000, which describes a real instance of ancient Egyptian prescriptivism.  Crucial background is provided by the history of demonstratives in Egyptian:

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"Words for snow" watch

It's been a while since we've rounded up public appearances of the old "Eskimo words for snow" myth. Here are a few recent examples that have been sent in to Language Log Plaza.

Item #1: The singer-songwriter Kate Bush will be releasing a new album on Nov. 21 with the title (sigh) 50 Words for Snow. That's also the name of a song on the album, and some other tracks are similarly snow-themed ("Snowflake," "Snowed in at Wheeler Street"). It's unclear at this point exactly how Eskimos will figure into Bush's songwriting, but it's safe to say they'll be in there somewhere. It's perhaps also a telling sign that the album features a guest appearance from Stephen Fry, he of "Fry's Planet Word."

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It's possible that you don't know who Dennis Ritchie was. Even if you do, you should read some of his obituaries, and think about the ways in which he changed the world: Steve Lohr, "Dennis Ritchie, Trailblazer in Digital Era, Dies at 70", NYT; Elizabeth Flock, "Dennis Ritchie, father of C programming language and Unix, dies at 70", Washington Post; Cade Metz, "Dennis Ritchie: The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On", Wired News; Mark Memmott, "Dennis Ritchie, C Programmer And Unix Co-Creator, Has Died", NPR.

Johnny Truant, commenting on that last piece, contributed a tribute that Dennis would have appreciated:

#include "stdio.h"
int main(void)
printf("goodbye, world\n");
return 0;

(Though everyone who knew Dennis, or who knows what he did for the world, would object to that return value.)

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