Archive for January, 2012

The curse of bottled water

Six of us were dining in Tarragona on Tuesday night, and the topic of bottled water came up. We all agreed, it is a scandal that diesel fuel is being used to move bottled water around the earth's surface when often it has no chemical advantage whatever over tapwater. What an ecological disaster. What a ripoff. We all insisted we wanted tapwater, and our Spanish-speaking Catalunya-resident host clearly understood us. But three bottles of spa water duly arrived.

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Happy LÓNG year!

Every year around this time, I write about the relevant Chinese zodiacal animal.  Here are some recent posts:

2012 is the year of the dragon, which in Modern Standard Mandarin is lóng (simplified 龙 traditional / complicated 龍).

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Trent Reznor Prize nomination: Mark Steyn

We inaugurated "The Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding" back in 2005 to honor this inspired effort:

When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie.

While I don't think that we've actually ever gotten around to awarding the prize again, we've nominated other candidates intermittently over the years. The latest to deserve nomination is Mark Steyn, for his channeling of Mitt Romney in "The Man Who Gave Us Newt", National Review 1/22/2012 (emphasis added):

Why is the stump speech so awful? "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love." Mitt paid some guy to write this insipid pap. And he paid others to approve it. Not only is it bland and generic, it's lethal to him in a way that it wouldn't be to Gingrich or Perry or Bachmann or Paul because it plays to his caricature — as a synthetic, stage-managed hollow man of no fixed beliefs. And, when Ron Paul's going on about "fiat money" and Newt's brimming with specifics on everything (he was great on the pipeline last night), Mitt's generalities are awfully condescending: The finely calibrated inoffensiveness is kind of offensive.

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The sustainability bubble

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Puzzled in Tarragona

In the Hotel Ciutat de Tarragona, the beautiful modern hotel in Tarragona where I am currently staying, I ate breakfast in the 1st-floor restaurant (Americans: that would be the 2nd floor), and then came out to take the elevator back up to my 5th-floor room (Americans: 6 floors up). But I was baffled: there was no button to call the elevator for upward journeys. There was just a button labeled with the Down-Arrow symbol for calling the elevator to go back down to the lobby on level 0. Some sort of security, I assumed, to ensure that random restaurant patrons don't go up in the elevator to wander up and down the halls looking for unlocked doors or stealable items. But then how was I to get back up to my room? I'm ashamed to report just how long it took me to resolve the conundrum here. Perhaps you would like to solve it for yourself before you read on.

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Puzzled in Barcelona

At the Barcelona airport, near the parking structure where I was waiting for a Plana bus to Tarragona yesterday (two hours on the flight; two hours waiting for a bus: sigh), is a large and prominent box of what is obviously important equipment of some kind; and it is clearly labeled as being exclusively for the use of bombers.

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50 years of linguistics at MIT

The videos are now out — from the 50th-anniversary celebrations ("a scientific reunion") of the linguistics program at MIT, December 9-11, 2011. The schedule of the talks (with links to slides for them) is available here, with links to other material: a list of attendees, a list of the many poster presentations, videos of the main presentations, personal essays by MIT alumni, photographs from the event, a list of MIT dissertations from 1965 to the present, and a 1974 history of linguistics at MIT (particularly interesting for the years before the first officially registered graduate students entered the program, in 1961).

The eleven YouTube videos (of the introduction and the main presentations) can be accessed directly here.

(Thanks to Sabine Iatridou for the links.)

MIT linguists on Language Log (with dissertation dates): Barbara Partee (6/65), Arnold Zwicky (9/65), Mark Liberman (1975), Bill Poser (1984), Heidi Harley (1995). [David Pesetsky reminds me that although Kai von Fintel's degree is from UMass, he's now on the MIT faculty.]

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Draft

In a series of Language Log posts, Geoff Pullum has called attention to the prevalence of polysemy and ambiguity:

The people who think clarity involves lack of ambiguity, so we have to strive to eliminate all multiple meanings and should never let a word develop a new sense… they simply don't get it about how language works, do they?

Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.

The other day, as I reading a discussion in our comments about whether English draftable does or doesn't refer to the same concept as Finnish asevelvollisuus ("obligation to serve in the military"), I happened to be sitting in a current of uncomfortably cold air. So of course I wondered how the English word draft came to refer to military conscription as well as air flow. And a few seconds of thought brought to mind several others senses of the the noun draft and its associated verb. I figured that this must represent a confusion of several originally separate words. But then I looked it up.

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Locative detection

Another linguistically interesting passage from Ed McBain's Long Time No See:

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Quite

Ed McBain, Long Time No See, 1977 (the 32nd of the 87th Precinct novels):

"Mrs. Harris," Carella said, "there are some questions we'd like to ask about your son and daughter-in-law."

"Yes, certainly," she said. "I'll try to assist you as best I can."

She was adopting the kind of formal speech many blacks used with whites, especially when the whites were in a position of authority. […]

"Mrs. Harris," Carella said, "did your son and daughter-in-law have many friends?"

"Some, I believe." Still the phony speech. Carella guessed she would use the word "quite" within the next several sentences. "Quite" was a sure indication that someone was using language he or she did not ordinarily use.

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Language logging at Discover Magazine

You, dear readers, understand that the scientific study of language is, well, scientific. But the rest of the world doesn't always see it that way. So I thought I'd let you know that I've signed on to contribute to Discover Magazine's recently-launched science blog, The Crux, where you'll be able to read the occasional piece on language alongside some fine articles on particle physics or avian flu. My first post is on bilingualism's impact on cognition, and can be found here.

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'Only and only if'

John Parkinson, "Boehner on Keystone Pipeline: 'President is Selling Out American Jobs for Politics'", ABC News, 118/2012:

"President Obama is destroying tens of thousands of American jobs and shipping American energy security to the Chinese.  There's really just no other way to put it," Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "The president was given the authority to block this project only and only if he believes it's not in the national interest of the United States. Is it not in the national interest to create tens of thousands of jobs here in America with private investment?  Is it not in the national interest to get energy resources from an ally like Canada, as opposed to some countries in the Middle East?"

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Southwest path information gap, a cloister

Someone recently told Tom Bishop (creator of Wenlin software for learning Chinese) that Google Translate is really good now, so he tried translating this English paragraph into Chinese (chosen randomly from the cave adventure game):

You are on one side of a large, deep chasm.  A heavy white mist rising up from below obscures all view of the far side.  A southwest path leads away from the chasm into a winding corridor.

The result is:

Nín shì yīgè dà de, shēn de hónggōu de yībiān. Yīgè chénzhòng de bái wù, cóng xiàmiàn shàngshēng yǎngàile suǒyǒu de yuǎnfāng de kànfǎ. Xīnán lùjìng xìnxī hónggōu, chéngwéi yīgè huíláng. 您是一个大的,深的鸿沟的一边。一个沉重的白雾,从下面上升掩盖了所有的远方的看法。西南路径信息鸿沟,成为一个回廊。

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