Monday, 27 January 2020

Very dedicated police force


I’m writing this on a train to Yorkshire (an East Midlands Railway train, train fans!). The announcer chap said that if we saw anything suspicious, we should contact a member of ‘the railway’s very dedicated police force’, the British Transport Police. Oh how I laughed. See, he’s taken a standard phrase ‘dedicated police force’, which contains the word ‘dedicated’, meaning they work specifically for the railways, are dedicated just to them. But he’s used that same word, ‘dedicated’, in a different way, meaning that they care about their job, they are dedicated workers. 

But - and this is important - all he did was add ‘very’. He did nothing else at all to alter the sentence. So how did I know that the meaning had changed? LINGUISTICS, people! In the standard phrase, ‘dedicated’ is a participle. It is shorthand for ‘the police force that is dedicated to the railway’ - it’s a form of the verb, in other words. And as a verb form, it can’t be modified by ‘very’. Things like ‘I’m very running’ or ‘I very work’ are not grammatical for the same reason. In the one he actually said, he used ‘very’. So the word ‘dedicated’ can’t be a participle. It must be an adjective, which is what ‘very’ can modify: ‘I’m very tired’, ‘I’m very clever’, ‘The very hungry caterpillar’, for example. And if ‘dedicated’ is an adjective, it no longer functions as the participle; it’s an attribute of the person it applies to, in this case the British Transport Police. 

All that from a simple addition of ‘very’! Honestly you people, how are you not constantly as amazed as me at how cool language is? 

Friday, 24 January 2020

Get someone to open… what?


Just before Christmas, I played a game with a group of friends that consists of secret missions that you have to complete without the other players realising. They’re written on little cards which fold in half and are kept in a wallet. One of them read ‘Put this card in a jar and get someone to open it.’ My friend tried complete this mission by putting the card in a jar of sweets, which she then later on took the lid off and held out to someone. We pointed out that she had not got the other person to open the jar, and had therefore failed the mission. It then transpired that there is ambiguity in the wording! She interpreted ‘it’ as referring to the card (which, remember, folded in half, so it could be opened up). We had all interpreted it as referring to the jar. 

Strictly speaking, either interpretation is possible. A pronoun refers back to something else in the sentence, and provided certain structural constraints are met, it might refer to more than one thing. Take an example like ‘I saw Lina arguing with Mira. She looked pretty embarrassed.’ Here, ‘she’ could be Lina or Mira - it’s equally possible that either of the women was embarrassed, and structurally speaking one is the subject (so the topic), and therefore likely to be referred to, and the other is closer to the pronoun, so likely to be the intended referent. We can’t tell and in this case you’d probably have to ask ‘Lina or Mira?’, unless you had some prior knowledge that made it clear. 

In the case of the jar and the card, are both equally likely to be ‘it’? Well, because of the specific nature of this card, yes, both are things that can be opened, so the meaning of ‘open it’ is at least possible for both. Jars are probably more canonically ‘things that are opened’ (think Family Fortunes, ‘name something you open’) so that might push you towards the jar option. The jar is closer to the pronoun, and this is another thing that influences the interpretation, but not by much, so this might also slightly affect the preference for the jar. (See Mira Ariel’s work over the last several years for much more on this!) 

What interested me, though, was the fact that another friend said ‘it literally says “get someone to open the jar” on the card’. It didn’t - it said ‘get someone to open it’. But her interpretation of the referent of ‘it’ as being ‘the jar’ was strong enough that she considered it to have literally said ‘the jar’. 

Anyway, we decided it definitely meant the jar and she was considered to have failed the mission. 

Monday, 20 January 2020

As someone firmly on the Left...

Dangling modifiers are one of those 'grammar' things that children learn about, writers are warned about, and peevers peeve about. Strunk and White give this one:
Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
They're also one of those grammar things, like so many of these peeves, that actually don't usually matter much. It's nearly always clear from the context what is meant, and maybe the sentence would be neater if it was changed, but not always. The one above is corrected to 'Being in a dilapidated condition, the house was for sale very cheap' which is fine too, but I don't think there's much in it, readability-wise.

So it was quite exciting to find one that actually does matter:
The dangling modifier here is 'as someone firmly on the left'. It can refer to the speaker, as these modifiers often do, or it could refer to Jeremy Corbyn, the closest referent. This is the interpretation that style guides would say is 'correct'. But both are plausible, which is why we can't disambiguate with context here. The two different meanings are as follows:
I am someone firmly on the Left, but I still think that Jeremy Corbyn would be a terrible Prime Minister. 
Because Jeremy Corbyn is firmly on the Left, I think he would be a terrible Prime Minister.  
I actually don't know which is the intended meaning, as I don't know the person who tweeted it. Probably the first is more likely given the audience and tweet it responds to, but who knows. A rare genuine case for writing out the dangling modifier.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Processing numbers as letters

I went to a training workshop thing at Canterbury Christchurch University recently. They number their rooms differently than we do at Kent. At Kent, typically, there's a letter or letters to denote the building, say CC for Cornwallis Central, and then a number for the room, where the first digit is the floor (or else it's LT for Lecture Theatre). So if your office is CC104, it's Cornwallis Central, first floor, room 4.

This is fine, once you know it, just like any conventional system. CCCU does theirs differently, and I'm sure it's also fine once you know it, but it really threw me. They also have a letter for the building  - in this case N for Newton - and a number for the room, in this case 03. But the floor is indicated by a letter that corresponds to the first letter of the name of the floor number - so ground floor is g, first floor is f, second floor is s, and third floor is t:
Sign with the text:
1st Floor Nf 01-14
2nd Floor Ns 01-17
3rd Floor Nt 01-19
This was absolutely flummoxing, even though I'd read the instructions and knew it to be the case. Every time, I had to think really hard about what letter 'second' or 'third' began with, perhaps because my brain was associating them with a digit rather than the written word, and it took me ages to process them.

Oh and if there's more than three floors (by which I think they mean three floors above ground floor), they revert to numerals. Honestly.

Monday, 13 January 2020

100% belief about 100% racism

As promised, more on Stormzy. He caused a right ruckus the other day, not on purpose. In an interview in Italy, he said, when asked if he thought Britain was still racist today, "Definitely, 100%". This was reported by ITV and then others as him saying that he thought Britain was "100% racist". This was widely condemned, ridiculed and mocked, as well as provoking an absolute meltdown among people who took it to mean that Stormzy was calling them personally racist. (An aside: even if he had meant that Britain is 100% racist, he wouldn't be wrong, on the sensible definition of a racist society as one in which your racialised identity affects your success and advantage in life, which it does in Britain.)

Curiously, both phrasings could actually mean both things, but there's a tendency for them to be interpreted differently. The two meanings are: Stormzy is 100% of the belief that there is (some) racism in Britain; and Stormzy believes that Britain is 100% (i.e. entirely) racist. '100%' either quantifies the amount of racism (complete racism), or it quantifies his level of belief (total belief). While his phrasing lends itself strongly to the interpretation where he means "Yeah, I believe 100% that there is (some) racism", the phrasing reported lends itself more to "Yeah, I believe that Britain is 100% racist". Why? the position of the '100%' next to the adjective 'racist' in the inaccurate reporting implies modification of that adjective, or in other words, totally racist.

His answer as it was actually given could also mean this, though, even with the preceding question ("is Britain still racist today") for context: "Definitely, [it is] 100% [racist]". As noted above, I'd have supported his answer if this had been what he meant. But he was clear about the fact that it wasn't!

And I think you can get this correct reading even with the inaccurate phrasing, although it's less salient. In "Britain is 100% racist", I can get an interpretation here where '100%' is an intensifier rather than a proper quantifier, and means something more like 'definitely'. The meaning of "Britain is definitely racist" doesn't necessarily mean that every aspect of and person in Britain is racist: "Britain is racist" can mean "There is some racism in Britain". But because it can also mean the entirety, and the partial meaning isn't made explicit, the 'entirely racist' meaning is more readily available.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Supporting black students in(to) linguistics

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) annual meeting has been happening, so loads of linguists I know are in New Orleans and I've got FOMO. Some of them are tweeting a lot and those people are heroes.

There seems to be a really strong theme this year focussing on race. At least, that's what I'm seeing on twitter - I don't know if it feels like a strong theme if you're sitting in the sessions on syntax or whatever. And that's actually part of the issue (as noted by Kirby Conrod here): talks on race and linguistics (and other 'social' stuff) are likely programmed as a special session, so you're either in 'proper' linguistics or you're in the talks on race, which is not going to bring those talks to the attention of people who aren't already interested in them, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, lots of really important and interesting stuff has been said at this conference, which I have been able to hear about because of the wonders of twitter and the free labour of the live tweeters (thank you again). For instance, Kendra Calhoun talked about how to encourage Black students to take up linguistics by having a Black-centred intro linguistics class. This is in the US, where linguistics is often a 'discovery major', and where there are Historically Black Colleges, as opposed to the UK where there are no such things and where you pick your subject before you start, but the principles of the talk seem to be pretty universal: ground the subject in things the students will be interested in.

For us, at my university, we have around a quarter to a third of students who are BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic - this is the term standardly used in the UK, and yes it is not ideal but it's the classification we use). The majority of these (in linguistics, at least) are Black British students.

Now, I'm going to try to articulate something and hopefully not make a mess of it. In the UK, people do not like to hear that systems and structures are racist. Stormzy highlighted that one quite nicely recently (more on that another day, maybe, as there are things to say about intensifiers). But they also don't think about race as being an issue here. I don't know if that's just a UK thing, but the default is always to say 'but gender!' or 'but working class!' and highlight gender or class as the relevant issue to whatever has been mentioned. Now, this in itself is a product of a racist society: to position gender or class in opposition to race means that you're talking about white women or the white working class. Including all working class people would include a lot of Black people too. I don't know the statistics nationwide, but among our students, Black students are disproportionately the first in their family to attend university or from a lower socioeconomic background, i.e. the proxy for working class.

So this tweet from Juan Luna Díaz-Durán seemed kind of relevant. He says (possibly quoting a conference speaker?) that when departments say they 'don't do sociolinguistics', they mean they 'don't do Black people'. Most linguistics departments in the UK do do sociolinguistics, I think, but that doesn't necessarily mean they talk about race at all. Traditionally, sociolinguistics focussed on dialect by looking at what are called NORMs, Non-mobile Older Rural Men, who have the most preserved older dialect forms. They're white, of course. Nowadays, there are lots of people who are looking at race/ethnicity and language, but because it's newer as a field, it's slow to find its way into our modules. Many of the best scholars are still doing their PhDs or not yet in full-time teaching jobs. Compounding this problem is the lack of confidence that most people have in talking about race, because it is such a taboo subject - we've been trained 'not to see colour'. So sociolinguistics classes can talk about classic studies of language variation and class and gender all term, and never once mention the literal language that many of our students speak, Multicultural London English, a variety that is absolutely linked to class, region, age, gender and ethnicity (despite the name).

This would be an ideal 'way in' to linguistics for students - their own language is new and emerging and interesting. Our inbuilt racism tells us that this is a minority subject, so it's best to stick to something universal like class - forgetting that just as we all have a 'class' (that doesn't mean much any more) we all have a racialised identity. Not to include discussion of race is to erase that part of our identity and perpetuate the whiteness and racism that exists in the field.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Strike strike strike

I'm on strike this week. My union, UCU, has called eight days of strike action over pensions (at many universities, not mine as we didn't reach the ridiculously high 50% turnout threshold), pay, workload, equality, and casualisation. Around 50% of staff are on precarious contracts, there's a 30% ethnicity promotion gap, we're working an average of 2 free days per week (much more for part time staff), and pay has fallen in real terms by 15% in the last ten years. The corporatisation of Higher Education has meant universities chase more and more students but the resources aren't there to teach them. My class sizes are two-thirds bigger than when I started teaching, and I'm not even that old.

Some people think we don't care about students, if we strike. Colleagues who don't strike may say they couldn't, because they care about students too much. Managers may say that we shouldn't, if we care about students. I know colleagues whose main role is to deal with students in need; I too would think twice about striking if that were the case for me, because the consequences for those students might be too harmful. But to say that we don't care about our students couldn't be further from the truth. We hate doing this. Everyone feels horrible about the effect it could have, and that it should not be the students who should suffer. But the fact is that we can't do anything else, and the students themselves understand that and have clearly shown their support (not least the amazing student union members who brought us tea and coffee!). And remember that we don't get paid. We're not being selfish; we're losing a lot more money than many of think we are realistically likely to gain. But if there is a chance we can change things, we have to try, and we have to show that we do care, to send a clear message that we cannot go on like this.

And I do love my job. I miss it. I'm looking forward to going back on Thursday. It's a genuine effort to not do work on strike days. I'm lucky in that respect, and I do appreciate it. I'm glad to have the job, and know that I'm in a fortunate position. But lots of my colleagues do the same job as me for a fraction of the pay. My students deserve more people like me - on a relatively secure contract, able to put in the time their education deserves because I don't have to constantly apply for another position or work another job to make ends meet. They deserve to see a world where they can succeed if they aren't a middle class white man. They deserve a good education, not to buy a degree that meets the requirements.