Archive for July, 2012

What does this graph mean?

It's a time series, from 1890 to 2008, of a certain socio-cultural index. The points in red are the year-by-year values; the blue line is a smoothed ("spline") version of the sequence.

If you had to summarize this plot to someone over the phone or in text-only form, how would you do it? I might say something like

It starts at about 0.95 through the 1890s and 1900s. Then around 1915 it starts rising, and keeps on going up to a peak of about 1.25, around 1950. Then it comes down a bit, and wobbles around until the present, in the range of 1.15 to 1.2.

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Diving deeper into the metaphorical molasses

My column in Sunday's Boston Globe is on a popular topic here at Language Log Plaza: the multitudinous metaphors spun to explain the Higgs boson discovery to a non-scientific audience. Metaphors noted by Mark Liberman in his two posts on the subject (from divine wraiths to smoking ducks) make cameos in the column as well, and I dig a bit deeper into the history of describing the Higgs field as "cosmic molasses."

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Textual narcissism, replication 2

Yesterday, I tried replicating one of the experiments in Jean M. Twenge et al., "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960–2008", PLoS One 7/10/2012, and got results that seem to be significantly at variance with their conclusions ("Textual narcissism", 7/13/2012).

This morning, I thought I'd try getting a replication with word counts from a different source of historical data.  I used the Corpus of Historical American English (Mark Davies, The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009., 2010). Some of the problems with the Google Books source are removed here: the COHA collection is balanced by genre, and a detailed list of its 107,000 sources is available.

And the results remain hard to square with Twenge et al.'s main conclusion, which they expressed like this:

This study demonstrates that language use in books reflects increasing individualism in the U.S. since 1960. Language use in books reflects the larger cultural ethos, and that ethos has been increasingly characterized by a focus on the self and uniqueness.

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Global email skepticism

To my considerable astonishment I read this in a piece of boilerplate automatically tacked onto the end of an email reply that I received when I emailed my personal contact person and account manager at my bank:

This message originated from the Internet. Its originator may or may not be who they claim to be and the information contained in the message and any attachments may or may not be accurate.

I can't see anything in it that is actually incorrect (and I like the use of singular they); it just seems extraordinary to receive a sort of endorsement of global skepticism from one's bank. My philosophical friends tend to have no time at all for global skepticism of this sort. They would ask the sender, "Should we therefore not assume that this caveat is accurate? Should we doubt that it originated from the Internet, since the sentence saying so did?" And eventually the sender would vanish in a puff of logic.

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Textual narcissism

Tyler Cowen, "I wonder if this is actually true", Marginal Revolution 7/12/2012.

Researchers who have scanned books published over the past 50 years report an increasing use of words and phrases that reflect an ethos of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.

"Language in American books has become increasingly focused on the self and uniqueness in the decades since 1960," a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge writes in the online journal PLoS One. "We believe these data provide further evidence that American culture has become increasingly focused on individualistic concerns."

Their results are consistent with those of a 2011 study which found that lyrics of best-selling pop songs have grown increasingly narcissistic since 1980. Twenge's study encompasses a longer period of time—1960 through 2008—and a much larger set of data.

That 2011 study was not very convincing — for details, see "Lyrical Narcissism?", 4/9/2011; "'Vampirical' hypotheses", 4/28/2011; "Pop-culture narcissism again", 4/30/2011;  "Let me count the ways", 6/9/2011.

On the face of it, however, the new study (Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile, "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960–2008", PLoS One 7/10/2012) looks more plausible. But I thought  that for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I'd take a closer look. And what I found diverges pretty seriously from the conclusions of the cited paper.

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Because NOUN

Lindy West "Are Men Going Extinct?", Jezebel 7/11/2012:

Did you hear the big news? Men are going extinct. Really really slowly, and probably only in theory, but extinct nonetheless! […]

Lame! RIP, dudes! Now, I'm sure kneejerk anti-feminist dickwads think that the eradication of men is exactly what we women mean by "plz can we have equal rights now thx." Because logic.

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Linguistics: The magazine

A few years ago, as a half-serious ending for a talk that I gave at the LSA annual meeting ("The Future of Linguistics", 1/7/2007), I suggested that there might be some opportunities in the supermarket checkout line:

This was, of course, the scond in a series, preceded by Erotic Grammar and followed by Erotic Rhetoric

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Mair Eating

Kate Baldanza took this photo in Nanjing:

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The mystery cafe

"Let's have lunch at that café — you know the one . . . Aquamarine," said my friend. And realized immediately, before even getting to the end of the word, that the café was not called anything like that. There is no Aquamarine café in Edinburgh. The one I rapidly guessed my friend was alluding to is a very nice Turkish place on Nicholson Street, and it's called Turquaz (their sign says "TurQuaz"). What the hell was going on with that crazy error? A random brainslip?

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"A nation in which supports dependency"

Glenn Bingham send in a link to this passage in a recent radio address by Paul LePage, the governor of Maine ("Obamacare is on Hold in Maine", 7/7/2012):

Even more disheartening is that reviving the American dream just became nearly impossible to do. We are now a nation in which supports dependency rather than independence. Instead of encouraging self-reliance we are encouraging people to rely on the government.

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Tawking the tawk, wawking the wawk

Matt Flegenheimer, "A Voice of New York's Streets, Saying That It's Safe to Wawk" (New York Times, 7/7/2012):

In a city increasingly conditioned to the automated droning of public address systems, GPS guides and disembodied cellphone sages, Dennis Ferrara stands out, precisely because he seems to fit right in. Mr. Ferrara, 55, the supervisor electrician for the city's Transportation Department, provides the audio recording at 15 intersections for the department's so-called accessible pedestrian signals, designed to help people with limited sight cross the street safely.

And for pedestrians at some of New York's busiest crossings — in Downtown Brooklyn and the Flatiron district of Manhattan, along a main road in Astoria, Queens, and at an oddly shaped junction on Staten Island — he is the distinctly localized soundtrack of the streets.

In Mr. Ferrara's New York, "Avenue" takes on an "h" or three. The "a" in "Jay Street" is drawn out. And at least one "w" is appended to the first syllable of "Broadway."

"I grew up in Brooklyn," Mr. Ferrara said, in a bit of self-diagnosis. "What can I tell ya?"

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Presidential left dislocation

Reader GW wrote to ask about a construction in one of Barack Obama's recent speeches:

I was looking at the text of a campaign speech by the President today in Pittsburgh, and noted the following paragraph:

And then I think about Michelle's mom, and the fact that Michelle's mom and dad, they didn't come from a wealthy family. Michelle's dad, he worked a blue-collar job at the sanitary plant in Chicago. And my mother-in-law, she stayed at home until the kids got older. And she ended up becoming a secretary, and that's where she worked at most of her life, was a secretary at a bank.

I don't know if this text is as-delivered or the speechwriters' version, but what stuck out at me was the "NP, pronoun" construction seen here in the first three sentences. I don't think I'd use this construction, at least when speaking in English, but I'm not sure how common it is, or even what it's called. Has LL covered this one before? Does Obama do this a lot? Is it an identifying feature for any particular (sub)dialect?

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Use of gambling language in politics

Yesterday on the public radio program Marketplace, Sarah Gardner interviewed Ben Zimmer about the Obama campaign's "Betting on America" theme ("The president is a 'betting' man", 7/5/2012):

Gardner: Now as you just heard, the president was talking a lot about betting today. He's betting on the American worker, he's betting on Ohio, he's betting on America. What's with all the betting?

Zimmer: Well it reminds me of the whole tradition of gambling metaphors in American politics where you talk about the odds, the whole language of gambling, of bluffing, tipping your hand, raising the stakes. So it draws on that, at the same time is draws on a sense of confidence, the ability to take risks, which is perhaps an image that Obama would like to portray. At the same time, he doesn't want to be seen as a foolish risk taker. He says that he is going to bet on the American worker, and so that is giving you the sense that it's a sure bet, it's a bet that's going to pay off.

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