Archive for March, 2012

The cost of illiteracy in China

In yesterday's South China Morning Post (Saturday, March 31, 2012), Education section, there is an article by Raymond Li entitled "US136b — Cost of Illiteracy on Mainland". Here's the link (sorry I can't send a link that provides full access for non-subscribers).

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French political egology

Jean Véronis ("Sarkozy: Je revient", Le Monde 3/23/2012) traces the rate of je usage in 728 speeches by Nicolas Sarkozy, delivered over a period of nearly six years:

(French je is the first-person singular pronoun as used in subject position, approximately comparable to English I).

Sarkozy's variable use of je (between roughly 0.4% and 1.8%) exhibits long-term trends that plausibly track the political calendar.

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A meme in hibernation

Our posts about political language are usually reactions to things that politicians say, or things that pundits say about politicians. But this one is about something that mainstream pundits are not saying. Or more precisely, no longer saying very often.

The "President Me, Myself and I" meme — the false idea that Barack Obama uses first-person singular pronouns unusually, even unprecedentedly, often — seems to have slithered back into the swamp grass and gone dormant. It continues to infest the American Thinker (e.g. recently here), and it occasionally scurries out of the website weeds in places like Forbes, where one John Mariotti recently made a casual reference to the conventional falsehood in promoting his forthcoming book:

No other presidents in history have made so many speeches, appeared on television so many times, and used the pronouns “I” and “my” so many times.

But this sort of thing is not now regularly featured in the Op-Ed pieces of mainstream gasbags like George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Stanley Fish, as it was a few years ago.

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Rewriting Wikipedia in the passive?

Matt Cherett on Buzzfeed said: "Tonight, my friend Frank sent me a link to the Wikipedia entry for RHOBH star Kim Richards, which he'd just rewritten entirely in the passive voice, making it nearly unreadable and, at the same time, infinitely better." He supplied a screenshot.

But the spoof rewriting, supposed to be in the passive voice throughout, instead provides a fascinating a corpus of new evidence concerning the complete inability of educated Americans to understand the concept of passive voice. The attempts to create passive versions of the original fail as often as they succeed:

  • An American actress, former child actress, and television personality is (born September 19, 1964) Kimberly "Kim" Richards. [Merely reverses subject and complement of an ascriptive copular clause, changing A is an F to An F is A.]

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The return of "Blah People"?

A half a dozen people have sent me versions of this clip of Rick Santorum giving a campaign speech on March 27 in Wisconsin:

(The relevant passage starts at 34:24 of the recording.)

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Banner headline in this morning's Daily Pennsylvanian:

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Intelligent lack of design

The most recent Scenes From a Multiverse cleverly combines the intelligent design controversy with (an indirect form of) the Cretan liar's paradox:

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Pen|is broken. Please use finger.

Under the rubric "Kerning 101: I rest my case on the importance of spacing", Toni Tan, Director of Cambria Press, sent me this photograph:

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Death by Balzac

Last week, I came across what I thought was an artful headline in my local paper (Calgary Herald; 03/21/1012):

Police looking into death by Balzac

What reader wouldn't be lured into dipping further into this article, into wondering what human tragedy or comedy awaits in the finer print? Are we to be treated to the investigation of a lurid, long-unsolved murder committed by one of the fathers of literary realism? A horrible accident involving a tome flung from a high-rise balcony? Someone suffering an asthma attack after reading a suffocating passage of nineteenth-century French prose?

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Recently, a disagreement about the syntactic analysis of certain aspects of an obscure language has achieved an unusual degree of public interest: Tom Bartlett, "Angry words", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/20/2012; Jenny Schuessler, "How do you say 'disagreement' in Pirahã?", NYT, 3/21/2012; etc.  Of course, as those articles explain, this is all part of a broader controversy about the nature of language, whose latest round was kicked off by  the publication of Dan Everett's new book, Language: The Cultural Tool.

Geoff Pullum's latest Lingua Franca column, "The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute", puts this dispute into historical and intellectual perspective. If what you've learned of the squabble's linguistic, philosophical, or political aspects interests you at all, Geoff's essay is the thing to read.  In case you want more, I've collected a list of links below.

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Boko Haram and Peggy burrito

From California, Julie Wei sends me "tidbits:  curious words":

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Diagrammatic excitement

An interesting Op-Ed in the NYT today by Kitty Burns Florey — "A Picture of Language", about the history of sentence diagramming:

The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y.  His book, published in 1847, was called “A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices and Their Various Relations to One Another.” His goal was to simplify the teaching of English grammar. It was more than 300 pages long, contained information on such things as unipersonal verbs and “rhetorico-grammatical figures,” and provided a long section on Prosody, which he defined as “that part of the Science of Language which treats of utterance.”

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Crash blossom of the week

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