Archive for August, 2018

The pig(s) and the raccoon

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "At least we can all agree on the enormity of this usage."

See "Begging the question: We have answers", 4/29/2010.

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Slurs inside idioms are still slurs

Below is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald:

Earlier this week (August 29, 2018, for readers in the future), Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for the governor of Florida, said of the victorious candidate of the Democratic Party, Andrew Gillum, that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” and elect the left leaning Gillum. This has caused some controversy, since Gillum is a black man while DeSantis is white, and the discursive association of Black people with non-human primates is a longstanding racist trope.

A prominent linguist (anonymized here just in case he wouldn’t like his politics publicized like this) expressed a conflicted feelings between his political joy that DeSantis has gotten into hot water, and his knowledge of the non-denotative properties of idioms. That is, “kicking the bucket” and “buying the farm” refer to dying, not to buckets nor farms. Some of the conversation that ensued was about the nuances of idioms, and how prosodically prominent the world “monkey” was in context. This is, in fact, reminiscent of a controversy from last summer surrounding a British MP who used an idiom to refer to “an overlooked problem” that includes an explosive racial epithet that I won’t retype here, for reasons to be clarified below.

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An irreplaceable void joins the much-needed gaps

In purely linguistic terms, of course. Paul Kane, "‘Kind of an irreplaceable void’: GOP wonders if anyone can seize the McCain mantle", WaPo 8/28/2018:

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham tackled a question that many have asked since John McCain’s death Saturday: Who will fill the role of traditional conservative, particularly on national security, that has been held by the Arizona Republican for the past three decades? […]

“There’s no doubt he’s leaving a void, kind of an irreplaceable void,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said Tuesday.

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I was recently a week late submitting a report to an administrative department of a French university, and experienced a moment of panic when I saw that the response began "J'accuse …"

But it turns out that in "J'accuse bonne réception ce jour de votre rapport", the French verb accuser can just mean something like "register" or "acknowledge".

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Skim reading, speed reading, and close, critical reading

When I was in high school and college, I read massive amounts of fiction (e.g., Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain), history (e.g., The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), current events (e.g., Time from cover to cover for about twenty years), and so forth.  But almost everything I read — if I considered it worth reading at all — I read very carefully, sometimes taking several minutes per page, and rereading particularly difficult passages until I assured myself that I understood what they were really about.

I had heard about Evelyn Wood's speed reading — it was hard to miss because it was so widely advertised — but was always skeptical of the extravagant claims made for it (e.g., finishing Gone with the Wind — nearly seven hundred pages — in less than an hour).  I could, if I wished, read very quickly by focusing on key elements of texts, but then I never felt that I completely comprehended them and that my retention was limited.

Because of my reading habits, it was always very important for me to have quiet surroundings when I was working my way through books, articles, essays, and so forth.  I was particularly deliberate when reading poetry, because I felt then, and still feel to this day, that to fully appreciate a good poem, one needs to go over it again and again to ruminate and savor not only its meaning, but also its sounds and rhythms.  That is the approach I use in my Chinese Poetry and Prose class, which I offer every third year, and whose current iteration began today.  We spend more than two weeks on a single poem by the Tang poet, Wang Wei, called "Deer Park / Enclosure", which consists of twenty syllables.  I may ask my students to keep a journal of their growing awareness of what the poem is actually telling us (in my forty years of teaching, I've never asked students to keep a journal about anything, but it might be worth doing in this class).

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Blindly busy

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Pronouns: identification by paradigm?

A graduate student in classics expresses appreciation for the new norm of academic staff announcing their pronoun preferences, but wonders why everyone gives their preferences as three-element paradigm: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their. It's not like anyone is going to mix and match, she/him/their or whatever.

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Please Wait to be Seated

Sign at a hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, spotted by Marc Sarrel:

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Biscriptal ad in the Hong Kong subway

Jenny Chu spotted this ad from a campaign for Nescafe currently being shown in the Hong Kong MTR:

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Annals of English verbing

From Dana Loesch, Relentless, NRATV 8/22/2018:

Th- they’re trying to Al Capone the president. I mean, you remember. Capone didn’t go down for murder. Elliot Ness didn’t put him in for murder. He went in for tax fraud. Prosecutors didn’t care how he went down as long as he went down.

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Behavioristic communication

Last week ("Joos jokes", 8/14/2018) I linked to the "Proceedings of the Speech Communication Conference at M.I.T.", published in 1950 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,  and I promised to revisit "this window into a bygone age" in a later post. So today I present to you the following passage from "Introduction: A Definition of Communication" by S. S. Stevens:

Although no phenomenon is more familiar to us than communication, the fact of the matter is that this magic word means many things to many people. A definition broad enough to encompass all these meanings may risk finding itself dissipated in generalities, but for the purposes of this conference a broad operational definition of communication is, I believe, both appropriate and possible. I should like, therefore, to venture the following: Communication is the discriminatory response  of an organism to a stimulus.

He goes on to confirm that this perspective is indeed as weird as it seems:

This definition says that communication occurs when some environmental disturbance {the stimulus) impinges on an organism — and the organism does something about it (makes a discriminatory response). If the stimulus is ignored by the organism, there has been no communication. The test is differential reaction of some sort. The message that gets no response is not a communication.

This definition is broad, operational, and behavioristic. It includes the anxious clucking of the mother hen, which brings the chicks scurrying to shelter. At a different extreme it includes the modem treatise on information theory, which some people seem to read and respond to with a glow of understanding. By appealing to behavioral operations as the test for the presence or absence of communication, we explicitly forsake all concern with abstracted meanings, significations, and the like, unless, of course, these words are in turn defined in terms of discriminatory responses. In short, we stick to observable phenomena.

Are we really supposed to believe that some people's "glow of understanding" on reading about information theory is an "observable phenomenon", sufficient to characterize what has been communicated? This strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum of Stevens' behavioristic prejudices — as effective an argument as Noam Chomsky's 1959 Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior.

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Stylistic preferences in English and Chinese

This is from an ad for a new apartment building in University City next to Penn:

Wèi nín xià gè rénshēng jiēduàn ér zuò de gōngyù


"Apartments made for the next stage of your (honorific) life"

Here's the English version from the same website:

Apartments for the next phase in life

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