Archive for November, 2011

Keeping up our standards

The lower-grade newspapers in Britain this morning have been making much of what happened to a group of birdwatchers, gathered excitedly in a coastal area for a rare chance to photograph a Hume's leaf warbler. It seems they happened upon a calendar photo shoot and had a rare chance to also snap a blonde model, draped over a motorcycle, wearing nothing but a thong.

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The dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman

While we're talking about the politics of language peevers, I can't resist sharing with you the opening of Time Magazine's 1946 review of E.B. White's The Wild Flag:

E. B. White plugs federal world government with the dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman. He has the same high purpose, the same rosy vision, the same conviction that all it needs is a try.

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The politics of "prescriptivism"

I applaud Mark for taking on the question of left- and right-wing linguistic moralism. It encourages me to add some snippets from the disorganized drawer of Thoughts I have on this topic, some of them from stuff I wrote but never published. I leave the insertion of transitions as an exercise for the reader.

In the first place, doesn't make sense to think of this question other than historically. The distinction between "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism" is a twentieth-century invention, and an unfortunate one, I think, since it implies that this is a coherent philosophical controversy with antique roots. In fact both terms are so vague and internally inconsistent that we'd be better off discarding them, and to impose those categories on the eighteenth-century grammarians, say, is gross presentism. So let me talk about "language criticism," both because it's closer to the mark, and because what linguists describe as "prescriptivism" in most of the Western languages is by-and-large just a stream of the critical tradition. (Language criticism, it has struck me, is the dream-work of culture.) And the politics of both have always been in flux.

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Peever politics

In a comment on yesterday's post on "Momentarily", Alan asked

Is there any difference between the language peeves of left-wing authoritarian moralists and right-wing authoritarian moralists? Do they tend to peeve about different kinds of usage?

I don't have a large enough sample to make confident generalizations, but my impression is that peevers across the political spectrum have similar "crotchets and irks" (to use right-wing peever James Kilpatrick's felicitous phrase). The only things I've seen that seem likely to be systematic differences lie in the area of blame.

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Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week I was at the University of Maryland, giving the first edition of the newly-endowed Baggett Lectures. The first of the three lectures was on The Linguistic Culture Wars, and most of its content will be familiar to regular LL readers. But in the course of preparing it, I found a few new things that may be of interest. For example, I decided to use the now-available web resources to look for the origins of momentarily in the sense "at any moment; in a moment; soon". This came up because I quoted Dick Cavett's NYT Opinionator column "It's Only Language", 2/4/2007, as an instance of left-wing authoritarian moralist peeving.

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Garden path of the day

Encountering the headline "Whip rules furore claims first victim" on the Guardian's front page, Ian Preston (who has plenty of experience with British Headlinese) confesses to interpretive problems:

At first I thought a government parliamentary official (a "whip") had issued a ruling either regarding a victim of claims about a furore or decreeing that a furore had claimed a victim.  Neither turns out to be the case.  It is a story about horse racing and a controversy regarding rules about (non-metaphorical) whipping has led to a resignation.  I think the problem is that "whip", "rules" and "claims" are all words which could be either nouns or verbs – in fact, it is not until "claims" that you reach a verb here but that's not immediately obvious.

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Local Indian languages — "not dead"

"Wikipedia woos India with local languages", Hindustan Times, 11/19/2011:

Adding an article on a local Maharashtrian delicacy or making changes to an existing page on ‘Misal Pav’ on the Marathi Wikipedia could now earn you the title of the ‘Global Wikipedian of the Year’. The Wikimedia Foundation has instituted an annual award for regular contributors and editors of the online community resource. “Regular contributions need to be acknowledged. From this year, the foundation will honour one Wikipedian for his effort,” said Jimmy Wales, the site’s founder, who addressed 700 Wikipedians on the first day of the WikiConference 2011 in [Mumbai] on Friday.

This year’s award will go to a Wikipedian from Kazakhstan, most prolific amongst the contributors of his community. In 2011 the number of editors making five edits on the Kazakh Wikipage per day rose from 15 to 231, said Wales. The winner will get a direct entry to the next WikiConference with a fully paid ‘delegate pass’.

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Justin Bieber Brings Natural Language Processing to the Masses

Forget Watson. Forget Siri. Forget even Twitterology in the New York Times (though make sure to read Ben Zimmer's article first). You know natural language processing has really hit the big time when it's featured in a story in Entertainment Weekly.

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When is a name a claim?

The government of Canada, along with no doubt many others, frowns upon companies making health claims for which they have no evidence. This is supposed to nip in the bud deceptive practices like those exhibited in this pre-regulation 1652 handbill proclaiming the "vertues of coffee drink", in which the advertisement's author touted coffee as a prevention and cure for everything ranging from miscarriage to gout to "hypochondriack winds", whatever those may be. In that document, the claims were overt and brazen, with statements such as:

"It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy."
"It is very good to prevent Mis-Carryings in Child-Bearing Women."

Yup, those are claims.

But in a recent case that's made headlines here in Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has determined that the names of two brands of infant formula made by Enfamil, A+ and Gentlease A+, also amount to claims, the former constituting a claim about nutritional superiority to other brands, and the latter an additional claim about ease of digestibility.

Which begs the question: What counts as a claim?

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Quotes and context

HuffPo has a post today entitled "Michele Bachmann: 'I Haven't Had a Gaffe'", in which they take Bachmann to task for what she said to Greta van Susteren in a recent Fox News interview. This is easy bait for those of us who are appalled at the prospect of Candidate Bachmann and who have delighted at the many gaffes that she has managed to have in the course of her presidential campaign. But note the context from which the 'I haven't had a gaffe' quote was pulled:

As people are looking at the candidate that is the most conservative and the most consistent candidate, I've been that candidate. I haven't had a gaffe or something that I've done that has caused me to fall in the polls. People see in me someone who's genuinely a social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a national security conservative and a Tea Partier. I'm the whole package.

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Quantification of swearosity

The latest lesson from Surviving the World:

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Thinks wrong

There's been a certain amount of discussion recently about a grammatical aspect of Rick Perry's recent TV ad, which starts with a clip of President Obama saying "We've been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades", and continues with Governor Perry commenting

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.

Do you believe that?
That's what our president thinks wrong with America?
That Americans are lazy?

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Biopic man

My embarrassing failure with respect to tiramisu was one of failing to analyse the internal structure of a word and thus see what its origin and literal meaning must be. It is also possible to overanalyse, and see inside a word structure that isn't there, and similarly miss the etymology and the meaning. The latter happened to my colleague Bob Ladd, though no one knows about it, because no occasion ever arose that would cause him to reveal it. Basically, his mistake was of the eggcorn variety, though with sound and writing reversed in their roles. If an occasion for his unmasking had ever come up, he would have revealed his linguistic foolishness through a ridiculous mispronunciation of a word he knew only from writing, to general mirth. Because it never happened, nobody was ever privy to his secret shame.

Until now, that is. He committed the inexplicable blunder of sharing his shameful phonological secret with a staff member of the one linguistic blog site that knows no mercy, the News of the World of the language sciences, the one-stop-shopping linguistic revelation site that is . . . Language Log. How could he be so foolish as to tell a linguistic journalist without saying "This is off the record" first? I have no idea. This is Language Log, not Needless Self-Humiliation Log. Language Log's duty is to its readers. Read on!

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