Archive for January, 2015

Biblical Philology: An Exhaustive Treatment

From Joshua Tyra:

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All ADJ and shit

Howard Oakley ("Birth of a new English phrase", 1/23/2015) was struck by the phrase "all proper and shit", in the context of a tweet by Christopher Phin noting that "[choice of printing mode] makes my writing seem all proper and shit". So Howard investigated the history of that four-word sequence by means of various web search tools.

I strongly support the combination of linguistic curiosity and empirical methods, but in this case, I'm puzzled by the fact that Howard saw the phrase as novel. As far as I can see, "all proper and shit" is a syntactically, semantically, and pragmatically compositional combination of two constructions that have existed in English for hundreds of years.

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The Shanghai Stampede: incident or accident?

On New Year's Eve, a fatal stampede broke out on the Bund in Shanghai.  Many people died (see below for a discussion of the total number) and many more were injured, some seriously.

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"The theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution"

From Missouri House Bill No. 486, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 13, 2015  (emphasis added):

The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, superintendents of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

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Happy Birthday in Biaviian?

As a mid-week diversion, let us put this to you. Language Log has been contacted by a producer for the Howard Stern show to provide an expert opinion on a purported song of alien provenance. Here's a recording:

What you are hearing is another Sirius XM radio host, Riley Martin, performing what he says is a traditional birthday song of the Biaviian aliens, who he says abducted him. Steve Nowicki from the Howard Stern show asked for a linguist who could “decipher the lyrics”. The Language Log team is stumped. Perhaps our readers can help out.

Mark Liberman, at the water cooler, pointed out that the phonetics are pretty straight American English, though maybe Riley Martin is just performing alienese with an American accent. Maybe some Language Log reader will recognize this as a mispronounced rendition of a traditional Cherokee lullaby, or something. So, have at it (but please be civil!).

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Cantonese input methods

Despite the efforts of the central government to clamp down on and diminish the role of Cantonese in education and in public life generally, the language has been experiencing a heady resurgence, especially in connection with the prolonged Umbrella Movement last fall.

"Cantonese resurgent" (12/11/12)

"Here’s why the name of Hong Kong’s 'Umbrella Movement' is so subversive" (10/23/14)

"Translating the Umbrella Revolution" (10/3/14)

"Cantonese protest slogans" (10/26/14), etc.

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Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier, "Is Obama More Interested in Progress or Politics?", National Journal, 1/20/2015:

Count how many times Obama uses the words "I," "me," and "my." Compare that number to how often he says, "You," "we," "our." If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed.

This leads naturally to a different question: "Is Ron Fournier More Interested in Analysis or in Bullshit?" (where I mean "bullshit" in the technical philosophical sense, of course).

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A [class.] zoo

In English, if we want to say something about a place where a lot of different kinds of animals are kept for viewing by the public, we just refer to it as "a zoo".  Ditto for other quantifiable or specifiable nouns.  But in Chinese, you usually have to put a measure word [m.w.] or classifier [class.] between the quantifier or demonstrative and the noun.  (In this post, I won't go into the subtle distinction between measure word and classifier.)

yī + class. + dòngwùyuán 动物园 ("zoo")

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Why definiteness is decreasing, part 3

Ten days ago, I documented a striking 20th-century decrease in the frequency of the definite article the ("Decreasing definiteness", 1/8/2015) — from about 6.6% to about 5.4% in the Corpus of Historical American English; from about 6.4% to 5.2% in the Google Books ngram indices; and from about 9.3% to about 4.7% in U.S. presidents' State of the Union messages.

In two follow-up posts, I offered some additional ideas about this change:

In "Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1", I suggested that it might be connected to an overall decrease in the formality of published English, starting with the observation that in contemporary English, the frequency of the varies by a large factor between very formal material (6.42% in the "Academic" genre of the Corpus of American English) and conversational speech (2.47% in the Fisher corpus).

In  "Why definiteness is decreasing, part 2", I noted that both in a collection of Facebook posts and in Fisher conversational speech transcripts, older people use the more often than younger people, and men use the more often than women; and I wondered whether this is a stable life-cycle and gender-identity difference, or the result of a change in progress. (Or both…)

Today, I want to discuss a third idea about the decreasing frequency of the, suggested to me by Jamie Pennebaker.

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Entitled: Zombie chain shift

Where do zombies come from? As Wikipedia tells us, it all started with evil Haitian sorcerers using necromancy to create undead slaves. But then, Hollywood invented contagious zombification, originally attributed to radioactive contamination from Venus, but more recently understood to be due to human zombism virus (HZV).

As for zombie rules, all that we really know, in most cases, is where they don't come from. They're not based on observations of language use, even of formal writing by elite authors. Nor are they based on usage advice from knowledgeable authorities. Rather, these mutations in the meme pool seem to pop up spontaneously from time to time, in ordinary literate people who are heavily invested in the idea that some aspects of common usage are ignorant mistakes. Like sexual selection in genetics, prestige-based cultural selection can favor arbitrary and even maladaptive traits, and therefore zombie ideas like "no initial conjunctions", "no final prepositions", and "no split verbs" can spread through an intimidated population for no apparent reason at all.

But still, it's natural to want an explanation, even for weird pseudo-elitist fashion epidemics. So at the risk of post-hoc rationalization, I'll offer a theory about the origins of one zombie rule which came to my attention recently, the "titled not entitled" prescription.

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Michael Kaan writes:

I was looking up information on the SERE program after watching Zero Dark Thirty, and noticed the odd patch the program has for its insignia:

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Tweet Chinese Fired

Jose Pagliery and Frank Pallotta, "Hacked news companies tweet Chinese fired on U.S. warship", CNN 1/16/2015:

[h/t Dmitri Ostrovsky]

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Social change

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