Archive for February, 2015

Language diversity

Yesterday, Walt Wolfram gave a talk here under the title "On the Sociolinguistic Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: Implications for Linguistic Equality". I was especially interested to learn what they're doing to educate students, faculty, and staff about Language Diversity at NC State:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Hundreds die in a sandwich press

Just as some folks have a special knack for being able to unravel "The latest word soup from the Bloomberg headline crew", I'm usually able to make sense out of Chinglish that is inscrutable to most readers.  Here's a humdinger sent in by Matt Trevyaud:

Using method: Ready to slice sandwiches and stuffed, in the middle of two sandwiches into a stuffed, hundreds die in a sandwich press, take off the broken edge and die, a lovely delicious sandwich snack is ready.

It's apparently a real set of directions for a sandwich cutter manufactured in China.  When posted, it usually comes with a photograph of the graying, crumpled paper on which the directions are printed in an undistinguished typeface that looks thoroughly authentic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Linguists get tough on promoting language change

The latest xkcd, at

Comments off

Sarah Koenig

Following up on our recent Vocal Fry discussion ("Freedom Fries"; "You want fries with that?"), Brett Reynolds wrote to suggest that "Sarah Koenig's vocal fry seems to be something new". As evidence, he suggested a contrast between a piece she did in 2000 ("Deal Of A Lifetime", This American Life #162, 6/23/2000) and one from 2014 ("The Alibi: Prologue", This American Life #537, 10/3/2014). Here are the opening passages from those two segments, along with another one from 2000 ("The Mask Behind The Mask", This American Life #151, 1/28/2000), her first for This American Life:

TAL #151
TAL #162
TAL #537

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

Suzette Haden Elgin (1936-2015)

Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist and feminist science fiction writer, died on January 27 at the age of 78. From io9:

Suzette Haden Elgin, who died last week, was a pioneer of using linguistics in science fiction, creating a whole constructed language in her novel Native Tongue. She was a giant of feminist SF. And she helped bring SF poetry to prominence, while also teaching us to defend ourselves with wit rather than bile.

Elgin had a PhD in linguistics, so it's no surprise that her Native Tongue book trilogy is all about language. The book takes place in a dystopian future, where women have been stripped of all rights when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1996. A group of women, who work as part of a corps of linguists who help to communicate with alien races, develop a new secret language for women to use as part of their resistance to their oppression. This language is called Láadan, and Elgin has a whole vocabulary and syntax on her website.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

The latest word soup from the Bloomberg headline crew

Bloomberg News headlines, as we've observed in the past, often sound like they've been written by someone with a bizarre journalistic strain of aphasia. Consider, as representative samples, "Ebola Fear Stalks Home Hunt for Quarantined Now Released" and "Madonna Addicted to Sweat Dance Plugs Toronto Condos: Mortgages." The latest specimen is especially inscrutable:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (23)


Nathan Hopson spotted this gem in Bangkok while recruiting students this past weekend:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Dogfood semiotics

A couple of days ago, the package room in the Quad sent me a notice of a FedEx delivery. I figured it was the antique toilet flush valve that I'd ordered, but when I went to pick it up, I discovered that someone had sent me a large, heavy carton of canned dogfood, maybe 70 pounds worth.

I don't have a dog, and had never visited the web site of the company that sent the order. But the order had my full name, correctly spelled, and my correct street address and zip code. So it didn't seem likely that I had ordered this stuff by mistake, nor that it had been delivered in error. A quick phone call to the company — amazingly, a real person answered immediately — verified that someone other than me had placed the order, using an apparently valid credit card associated with an address in Pittsburgh.

Internet fraudsters can be ingenious, and so I briefly wondered whether some convoluted identity theft scheme might be in play, maybe somehow part of mark.liberman.121's machinations? And then I thought of the horse-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather — the head for that scene was supplied by a dogfood company — did someone think that a FedEx delivery of the finished product would serve as a euphemistic version of a similar message? Nah, way too subtle to be effective.

But still, I wondered, is there some message that a large carton of canned dogfood, delivered by FedEx, could plausibly convey? And is there someone who would want to convey that message to me? Reflection on the contextual pragmatics of canned dogfood left me no wiser.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

Reflections on "Inherent Vice"

Last night I went out to see Inherent Vice, the only film so far made of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two and a half hours of bafflement later, the credits rolled. I was with two distinguished computational linguists, Mark Steedman and Bonnie Webber. "It was more coherent than the book," said Mark, who liked the film. Bonnie and I weren't so sure. Today there was a lot of talk in the British media about how people have been walking out without staying to the end (Owen Jones says he actually lost the will to live). I have only seen one movie in many years that was so bad that I walked out, and my will to live was undiminished by Inherent Vice; but I needed to go home and read the Wikipedia plot summary to make sure I had grasped something of what was going on. ("This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed," says a note at the top by an unidentified Wikipedian. Yes! It is, and I'm very grateful. Please don't try to "help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise." I need it just the way it is.)

The language angle on this, I hear you ask? I don't just post film reviews here in order to ensure that the cost of my cinema tickets can be charged to Language Log's corporate American Express card as a business expense. Oh, no. There's always a linguistic hook.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

You want fries with that?

Following up on "Freedom Fries", it's worth pointing out that some of the most spectacular examples of creaky voice and vocal fry on This American Life don't come from the young women on the program, but from the host, Ira Glass. Here's the first half-sentence of his opening from the segment on vocal fry:

Ira Glass OK, so let's all just pause here for a second, for something that is so rare on public radio — or, you know, I guess anywhere, actually —

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (18)

Freedom Fries

On 1/23/2015, as part of a This American Life show on "What happens when the Internet turns on you?", Ira Glass took up an issue we've devoted a few posts to ("545: If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS — Act Two, Freedom Fries").

Recently, This American Life has been getting a lot of hate mail about the young women on our staff — listeners complain about their "vocal fry." […]

What's striking in the dozens of emails about vocal fry that we've gotten here at our radio show is how vehement people are. These are some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women's voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention, so severe as to cause discomfort, can't stand the pain, distractingly disgusting, could not get over how annoyed I was, I am so appalled, detracts from the credibility of the journalist, degrades the value of the reportage, it's a choice, very unprofessional.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

Meredith Tamminga on NPR

Dave Heller, "Why an actor from Brooklyn can't talk like a Philadelphian", Newsworks Tonight (WHYY), 2/2/2015:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

You may have trouble describing it, but you sure know it when you hear it — the unmistakable Philly accent.

Meredith Tamminga, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania makes it her work to make sense of variations in language. She visited WHYY to tout the tones and words that make Phillyspeak unique.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)


Comments (23)