Archive for September, 2014

Failure not to make payment

From Dick Margulis, for the misnegation files:

The source is a Facebook post, which you may or may not be able to read. Another picture of a similar sign is here or here — slightly different wording and line-division, same extra "not".

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This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

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UM / UH in German

We've previously observed a surprisingly consistent pattern of age and gender effects on the relative frequency of filled pauses (or "hesitation sounds") with and without final nasals — what we usually write as "um" and "uh" in American English, or often as "er" and "erm" in British English.

Specifically, younger people use the UM form more than older people, while at any age, women use the UM form more than men do. We've seen this same pattern in various varieties of American English and in John Coleman's analysis of the spoken portion of the British National Corpus, and we found the sex effect in the HCRC Map Task Corpus, which involves task-oriented dialogues among college students from Glasgow in Scotland.

It was even more surprising that Martijn Wieling found the same pattern in a collection of Dutch conversational speech.  And to make the puzzle more puzzling, Joe Fruehwald's analysis of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, which includes recordings across several decades of real time, suggests an on-going change in the direction of greater overall UM usage, as well as a life-cycle effect within each cohort of speakers. And Jack Grieve's analysis of Twitter data indicates a pattern of geographical variation within the U.S.

For additional details, see "Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005; "Fillers: Autism, gender, age", 7/30/2014;  "More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014; "UM UH 3", 8/4/2014; "Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014; "UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014; "Educational UM / UH", 8/13/2014; "UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014; "Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014; "ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014; "Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014.

Now Martijn Wieling has found the same pattern in German. His guest post follows.

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Left-handed toons from 8/13/2010, "Jasper got a dog", starts like this:

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Evaluating terminological oppositions

In "Biomedical nerdview", I noted that the terms "sensitivity" and "specificity" seem to be hard even for biomedical researchers to remember, and also denote concepts that are deeply misleading from the perspective of patients and their physicians. I offered a "flash of insight" about why researchers chose to focus on the concepts — they're relevant to public health concerns, though not to patients — but I confessed to being baffled about the hard-to-remember choice of terminology. Bob Ladd responded by email:

While not wanting to take away anything from your flash of insight, I was wondering if you wanted to write another LL post, not about nerdview, but about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another. 

Since Bob goes on to suggest an interesting morpho-phonological theory about why some terminological oppositions are so problematic, I got his permission to post his note.

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400 years of referential inequality

In "More fun with Facebook Pronouns", I noted that Facebook posts by males use masculine rather than feminine pronouns about 70% of the time, while female facebookers are much closer to a 50/50 split between masculine and feminine pronominal reference (48% masculine, to be exact). Tanja S. commented that

The discrepancy between male and female use of cross-sex pronouns is also present in the British National Corpus (1990s British English) and in the Corpora of Early English Correspondence (where we analysed English letters from 1600 to 1800).

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More fun with Facebook pronouns

Class discussion of the Facebook pronoun data brought out some interesting points.

We started by looking at the relationship between first-person singular pronouns ("I", "me", "my", "mine") and first-person plural pronouns ("we", "us", "our", "ours") as a function of the age of the poster. Here's the ratio of FPS/FPP frequencies:

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Commas (and parsing) are important

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Biomedical nerdview

My new hobby, as Randall Munroe sometimes says, is asking biomedical researchers what "sensitivity" and "specificity" mean. The modal response is "Um, yes, I always have to look those up".

But recently, preparing a homework assignment about the evaluation of binary classifiers, I had a flash of insight. My new insight answers one of the questions I've always had about these terms: Why do biomedical researchers focus on the (apparently misleading) concepts that "sensitivity" and "specificity" denote?  (My other question remains unanswered: Why did they pick those singularly un-mnemonic names? As far as I can see, they might as well have called them  "delicacy" and "capacity", or "intensity" and "curiosity", or "Jupiter" and "Saturn".)

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Snowclone blizzard

Elif Batuman, "The Awkward Age", The New Yorker 9/9/2014:

As the Eskimos were said to have seven words for snow, today’s Americans have a near-infinite vocabulary for gradations of awkwardness—there are some six hundred entries in Urban Dictionary.

Since the Eskimo snow word count has been dialed back to a mere seven here, its value seems to be limited to a vague sort of evocation of words-for-X ideology. And the next piece frames the Eskimo vocabulary as an explicitly legendary reference, rather like mentioning Lot's wife to illustrate the dangers of looking backwards:

Giovanni Rodriguez, "The Sisu Social: Can Finns Teach The World to Hang Tough?", Forbes 9/1/2014:

How many mainland Americans, as children, hear that Eskimos have more words for snow than we – mere mortals — can even imagine? There is more legend than fact in the old cliche (it’s complicated), but it’s rooted in a truth we all learn at some point in our development:  how language can evolve to help us navigate the particular worlds to which we are born.

As a boy growing up in the sixties in New York, I was exposed to many words for venting, complaining, and otherwise toughing out life’s many indignities. The language was New York street Yiddish, from which I learned to kvetch when I am wont, schlep when I must, and turn on the chutzpah, when appropriate.  


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Colbert on Krauthammer

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Only 7% of people in China speak proper Putonghua: PRC MOE

[This is a guest post by Mark Swofford.  N.B.:  Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 = Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM); PRC = People's Republic of China; MOE = Ministry of Education]

In the South China Morning Post this week:

"One-third of Chinese do not speak Putonghua, says Education Ministry".

I tracked down the Ministry of Education's release. It's here.

The Web-based e-mail system I'm using at the moment will scramble any Hanzi, so I'll write in Pinyin.

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"Judgement of error"

Sent in by M.C. — Fiona Simpson, "Breast-feeding mother asked to 'cover up' with dirty dishcloth at Bexleyheath pub", News Shopper 9/24/2014:

An outraged mother has organised a 'boob and bottle' protest at a Bexleyheath pub after being 'ordered' to cover her breast-feeding baby with a dirty dishcloth.  

Mother-of-four Olivia Pozniak was breast-feeding her 11-week-old son, Louie, at the Furze Wren pub, owned by Wetherspoon, in Market Place on September 21 when she was asked to cover up.

An admirably straightforward apology ensued:

Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon said: "We apologise wholeheartedly to the lady. This should never have happened.

"Our pubs are welcoming to mothers who wish to breastfeed their children.

"The Wetherspoon staff member made a judgement of error in this case.

"There are no excuses and we do not offer one.

"We completely understand that this incident upset the lady in question and hope she accepts our apology."

The point of linguistic interest is the phrase "judgement of error", which M.C. suggests is a sort of phrasal malapropism for "error of judgement".

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