Archive for May, 2012

Coolly rational in a second language

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An published an intriguing paper last month in Psychological Science in which they found that several different groups of bilinguals were more immune to common cognitive biases when making decisions in their second languages than in their native tongues. The paper has received a fair bit of attention in blogs and the media. I've added my own commentary in this post over at Discover Magazine, expanding on two plausible explanations for the effect that are alluded to in the original paper. Feel free to toss your comments in the hat over there, but I'll keep the comments open here as well for those who are in the mood for a more Language Loggy discussion.

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War of the 'iptivists

Steven Pinker strikes back: "False Fronts in the Language Wars: Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies", Slate 5/31/2012.

Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language.

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Big Data in the humanities and social sciences

I'm in Berkeley for the DataEDGE Conference, where I'm due to participate in a "living room chat" advertised as follows:

Size Matters: Big Data, New Vistas in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Mark Liberman, Geoffrey Nunberg, Matthew Salganik
Vast archives of digital text, speech, and video, along with new analysis technology and inexpensive computation, are the modern equivalent of the 17th-century invention of the telescope and microscope. We can now observe social and linguistic patterns in space, time, and cultural context, on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than in the recent past, and in much greater detail than before. This transforms not just the study of speech, language, and communication but fields ranging from sociology and empirical economics to education, history, and medicine — with major implications for both scholarship and technology development.

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The trouble with making linguistic claims

There is a lot for reasonable people to agree with and disagree with in Philip Kitcher's recent essay in The New Republic, "The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". This being Language Log, however, I can only urge readers of Kitcher's essay to take the following linguistic claim with a healthy dose of skepticism:

In English we speak about science in the singular, but both French and German wisely retain the plural.

Kitcher's point in making this claim — and the actual, reasonable argument that follows it — is that "science" is hardly a singular thing:

The enterprises that we [English speakers–EB] lump together [with the singular word "science"–EB] are remarkably various in their methods, and also in the extent of their successes. The achievements of molecular engineering or of measurements derived from quantum theory do not hold across all of biology, or chemistry, or even physics.

This argument is a key part of the larger (and again, reasonable) argument laid bare in the essay's subtitle: that "history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge". Anyone interested in this kind of topic (as I am) is encouraged to read this essay, followed by the other links further above, and perhaps counterbalanced by this NYT Opinionator blog post. (And don't forget to squeeze the comments.)

So what about the linguistic claim? Unfortunately for Kitcher, it's complete hogwash.

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Why "Hopefully"?

I have a piece airing on "Fresh Air" today on hopefully. I recorded it about a month ago and it has been sitting in the can since then, so I didn't have the opportunity to profit from the observations made by Mark in his recent posts here, here and here; if I had, I would have mentioned his points about the changing frequency of the word, among other things, and some of the points made by Arnold in a one-stop-shopping post at his blog. I simply described the usage as "floating hopefully," so as not to tax the radio audience's limited patience for grammatical pilpul. Mostly, I wanted to stress a couple of things that seem to me to make hopefully sui generis in the canon of linguistic infractions.

Start with its elevation to a shibboleth and the overwrought tenor of the denunciations, so disproportionate to the imagined offense:

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From the British royal big breast secret bookcase

Bob Hale sent in the photograph below with the following note:

I am currently living and working in Baiyin in Gansu province. I am trying to learn some Chinese but proving to be rather a poor student. My spoken Chinese is poor and my written Chinese non-existent so I am having trouble explaining the English on this sign. I follow your Language Log entries with great interest and when I see a sign I can usually take a guess at what might have happened but this one has me baffled. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

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Hopeful(ly) grammar

Although the popular discussion of hopefully often refers to "grammar", in fact no general point of grammar is usually at issue — the (now moribund) hopefully controversy was about the usage of a single word. And the genesis of the controversy, as discussed here and here, was clearly a rapid change between about 1960 and 1975 in the relative frequency of hopefully in the evaluative sense "it is to be hoped". However, one of the common rationalizations for this novelty-aversion does raise some grammatical questions of a more general nature.

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The New Yorker vs. the descriptivist specter

Readers of The New Yorker might be getting the impression that the magazine has it in for a nefarious group of people known as "descriptivists." They're a terrible bunch, as far as I can tell. First came Joan Acocella's "The English Wars" in the May 14 issue (see Mark Liberman's posts, "Rules and 'rules'," "A half century of usage denialism"). And now the vendetta continues online with Ryan Bloom's post on the magazine's Page-Turner blog, "Inescapably, You're Judged By Language," which promises to unmask the dastardly descriptivists and their "dirty little secret."

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Hopefully history

In The H-word, I quoted MWDEU  to the effect that the sentence-adverb use of hopefully "was [traditionally] available if writers needed it, but few writers did". I also quoted MWDEU quoting Copperud 1970 to the effect that the "rapid expansion of use of hopefully as a sentence-modifier" began "about 1960", and I exhibited a Google Ngrams plot supporting this date. And I quoted Bryan Garner as saying, among other things, that "the battle is now over", and "Hopefully is now a part of AmE". I didn't quote the end of that sentence, which asserts that hopefully "has all but lost its traditional meaning".

This morning (Istanbul time), I thought I'd take a closer quantitative look at the history of hopefully, using evidence from Mark Davies' Corpus of Historical American English. The executive summary of my conclusions:

  • MWDEU was right — going back at least to the 1880s, roughly one hopefully in a hundred was the evaluative type meaning "it is hoped" or "I/we/they hope" rather than the manner-adverbial type;
  • Copperud was right — in the COHA sample from the 1940s, 2 of 182 instances of hopefully were evaluative adverbials rather than manner adverbials (1%); in the 1950s, the titre was 10 of 220 (4.5%); in the 1960s, it was 82 of 233 (35%).
  • Garner was both right and wrong. By the 2000s, 76% of COHA's instances of hopefully are evaluative, many from esteemed writers in well-edited sources. So evaluative hopefully is certainly now part of American English. But the "traditional meaning" of hopefully, "in a hopeful manner", still accounts for 24% of instances, so it's misleading to say that this usage is "all but lost".

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The H-word

Clyde Haberman, "Is This the End of Proper Grammar? Hopefully Not", NYT, 4/19/2012.

Unsurprisingly, The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting early this week, for articles about the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods and organizations in the wake of 9/11. Also unsurprising was fresh controversy that the award stirred, given the sensitive subject.

Curiously, that clamor proved to be but a warmup for more hullabaloo over the A.P., on an issue that is dearer to some people’s hearts than police spying. This is about language. Language, of course, is the soul of a culture.

He's talking about the AP Style Guide's decision to allow the use of hopefully as an evaluative adverb, announced on Twitter at 6:22 a.m. on 17 April 2012:

Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update, announced at ‪#aces2012‬. We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it's hoped, we hope.

I didn't notice, frankly;  the "hullabaloo" was a muted one, compared to (say) the Ruckus in the Rada. The Boston Globe copy desk sniffed "Hopefully, we'll see it rarely". Andrew Beaujon at sighed "Hopefully, this is the last we’ll write about ‘hopefully’", and pointed out that

Cleverly, Clyde Haberman uses a sentence adverb to begin every paragraph of his story about the change, demonstrating that the prohibition was bunk in the first place, even if pouncing on such “errors” kept many fine copy editors employed (and, by extension, manufacturers of cardigans in business).

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Shades of gray of shocking lingo

I'm glad I'm not in the business of setting rules for the use of taboo language in film or broadcasting. I'd be tearing out my bleeping hair trying to articulate some non-abitrary, empirically defensible set of standards.

The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:

If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate. So Loach, whose new film is based in Glasgow, where the c-word abounds, has been forced to excise the more aggressive uses of the word in order for his film to be a 15. He is rightly annoyed that he has effectively been forced to censor "a word that goes back to Chaucer's time".

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Debate on the status of Russian in Ukraine

In the Ukrainian Vekhovna Rada (parliament) Thursday evening, there was a full and frank exchange of views on language policy:

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What's this pickled cabbage?

Semih İdiz, "The Uludere raid and pickled cabbage", Hürriyet Daily News 5/25/2012:

The American Ambassador to Ankara, Francis J. Ricciardone, made the headlines in Turkey, shortly after taking up his post in Ankara, when he used a local saying which is not easy for foreigners to understand, let alone pronounce in Turkish, as he bravely did.

“Bu ne pehriz, bu ne lahana turşusu” he said – much to everyone, except Prime Minister Erdogan’s, amusement. He was referring to the banning of a politically controversial book by journalist Ahmet Şık before it was even published.

The Turkish saying roughly translates into “How do you tally eating this pickled cabbage pickle your diet.” In other words it is meant to highlight a contradiction or an odd situation that simply does not add up.

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