Monday, 14 January 2019


We were in Brussels just before Christmas for a little holiday, and we visited a couple of lambic breweries while we were there. One of the brewers at Verzet was great and took the time to show us all round it and tell us loads about the process and their beers.
Some of the barrels at the Verzet brewery
(named after their music heroes)

He was talking about the background of the guys who work there, and he said at one point that one of them helped upstarting a brewery, meaning 'helped to start up' a brewery.

In Flemish, there are what's called 'separable verbs'. These correspond to English verbs that have a preposition-like particle as part of it, so in this case start up. The Dutch version is opstarten. You can see that the 'up' part is a prefix, so it's literally 'upstart'. Flemish does have the option of separating that prefix from the main bit of the verb, more like the English equivalent, but it doesn't always separate (based on some rules of what kind of sentence it is). You can see that he basically just anglicised the word (it's called a 'calque' when this happens).

An interesting aside: I say Dutch in the paragraph above because that's what Google Translate has, and I think that the Dutch of Flanders is not different in this respect. Where there is a difference, according to this site,* is exactly when you separate the verb. The verb remains joined together when it's the only verb in the clause, it seems. When there's another verb, as in our sentence (He helped to start up a brewery), it's more likely to be separated in the Netherlands (he helped to start a brewery up) and more likely to remain intact in Flanders (he helped to upstart a brewery).

*If you, like me, like reading about grammar, this seems to be a really comprehensive grammar of Dutch that you can download as a PDF. 

Monday, 7 January 2019

Omni rage

Image of a facebook post describing
a satirical rant as 'omni Greggs rage'
You may have watched The Thick of It, in which Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, characterises someone as an 'omnishambles'. It caught on because it is an excellent word. So I don't know, but I think that this use of omni in this facebook post might be an example of it going wild (the post it refers to isn't for real, but it is a convincing pastiche of a certain type of person).

Omni is a prefix most of the time. It means 'every', like in omnivorous. Prefixes can cut loose from their roots if they're typically used in one specific word, or if the free version has just one meaning. So, for instance, cis means cisgender because we don't really use cis for much else (though we could - cisalpine is a word, though not a common one, meaning 'on this side of the Alps', where 'this side' means with respect to Rome - it's a Latin thing). So cis has specialised into this one meaning. Other gender- or sexuality-related prefixes have similarly gained independence, so you can describe yourself as bi, meaning bisexual, even though we have the bi- prefix in loads of words (bicycle, biped, biennial). It's just with that one meaning that it can be used solo.

I checked Urban Dictionary for omni and quite frankly didn't understand most of the definitions, so I'm not totally sure what's going on here. I didn't find anything that suggested it's used alone in the omnishambles sense but that really does look like what it might be. Omni rage as a term for that pure, hysterical rage as displayed by Malcolm Tucker in full flow?

(If you're not in the UK you'll have no idea what anything in the facebook post is about but don't worry about it; it's just the latest nonsense. Basically, professional moron Piers Morgan threw a hissy fit about 'snowflakes' when Greggs started doing vegan sausage rolls and people were quick to point out the irony of his rage about something so harmless.)

Wednesday, 2 January 2019


Family members have names, obviously, but they also have sort of pseudo-names - the kinship terms we call them like 'Mum'. I've actually always called my parents by their first names and also my maternal grandparents, who I always called Paul and Rosemary. My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, are Grandma and Grandad.

Now these kinship terms are normal nouns when you're talking about them, and occur with a determiner (usually a possessive determiner, as in my mum). When you're using them as a term of address, though, they work like a name. So just as you don't say the Louise or my Jane, you just say plain Grandma when you're talking to them as opposed to about them.

It turns out that I have inadequately acquired the rules about this. When I'm talking about my grandma, I'll often refer to her just as 'Grandma'. So I'll say something like Grandma sent us a Christmas card today. This apparently sounds a bit odd and I should say My grandma sent us a Christmas card today in order not to sound like she's also the grandma of the person I'm talking to. I think that because all my other relatives just have names, I treat 'Grandma' as her name and use it accordingly: compare Rosemary sent us a Christmas card today, which is totally normal. 

Monday, 31 December 2018

Academic resolutions

New year's resolutions time!

Last year I resolved to read #100papers (a more modest version of Jen Nycz's #365papers) and I didn't. A combination of just not being disciplined about reading enough so work got in the way (the whole point was to make time to read because it often gets pushed out for other stuff) and not keeping records when I did read things because I was reading them for a specific reason when I was writing an article or whatever.

I also had a couple of others that I didn't do much about, and some that I did: I swam in the sea, which was rolled over from 2016, and I *just* kept a resolution that I made some years ago to go abroad at least once a year by going to Belgium just before Xmas.

This year, I'll have a mixture of work ones (submitting a proposal I'm working on, for instance) and personal ones (e.g. learn to enjoy cheese). Here are a few academic resolutions that I think are worth considering if you're an academic too and you don't already do them.

  • Read regularly. Maybe 365 papers is way too ambitious. Maybe even 50 papers is. But if you only find time to read when you need to find something out, try to fit in a bit of keeping-up-to-date time during each week. 
  • Create permanent links that won't die using a service like webarchive (I got this off twitter the other day but can't find the tweeter to link to their advice. But it was basically that)
  • Cite your own data properly and link back to the original. Make your work reproducible, accountable, checkable. 
  • If you publish in a journal that allows you to include a load of meta-information about methods etc (CUP can do this, for instance), do so. 
  • Practice inclusive teaching. Disparities in society exist, and yes they are created before our students come to university, but they worsen while they're with us and it is your problem and your responsibility to try to fix it. It is up to you personally to do something about it. Don't say that it's spoonfeeding or that students will have to get used to inequality in the real world. Those things may well be true but they're spoken from a position of power. Why not try and make things a little bit less horrible? 
  • Be a role model. Find students who might benefit from a bit of guidance and offer it without them asking. Suggest opportunities to people who might not think they're good enough. Be an academic 'life coach'. Model good academic behaviour. Show your PhD students how to have a good work/life balance. 
  • Respect professional services staff. They're humans. They work hard, they're not stupid, and they don't work for you. They also aren't creating bureaucracy just for the sake of it, I promise.
  • Be a genuinely good citizen. Don't just make a token effort. Don't just do the minimum possible so you can tick the box on your promotion application. If you do, you're pulling up the ladder behind you for someone else who has to take the jobs that you won't. Remember that it's not as easy for other people to say no as it might be for you. They may be on probation and feel under pressure, or they may have to work twice as hard because they're female/black/disabled (and don't say that's not true or that it's their own choice - it is true, for an awful lot of people). If someone asks for a favour, say yes now and again, so that the same few people don't always end up doing it. (If you're the person who always says yes, say no now and again so that someone else has to do it.) But see below if you're not full-time. 
  • Take time off. Don't make yourself ill working. If you're getting ill then talk to someone, because your job is not right. See if you can scale something back or if you're doing something too thoroughly. If you're in precarious employment and have no choice but to work all the hours for no money, talk to your union and see if they can help - and cut corners, skimp where you can, and say no all the time, to everyone. Saying yes to free labour will not get you a permanent position (sorry). 
  • Do extra-curricular things that you don't get credit for, but that add value. Go to your students' events to create a bit of departmental goodwill. Organise staff drinks. Be in the office and be sociable now and again. Organise some extra events for undergraduates. 
  • This turned into a bit of a grump. Enjoy your job. It's a good one, despite efforts to erode the good parts. It really is. Try and remember that and be grateful for all the nice things. 

Monday, 10 December 2018

Having yourself painted and cutting men's heads off

On last week's episode of No Such Thing As A Fish, they said that women at *some point in history that I've forgotten - Tudor England?* enjoyed "having themselves painted as a biblical character in the middle of cutting a man's head off".

Ah, ambiguities. Have a think and see if you're as much of an idiot as me.

First, I recognised and chuckled at the obvious one: [in the middle of cutting a man's head off] can describe the time of the action of the painting - they were in the middle of this action when they stopped and had themselves painted. Clearly this is silly. It describes what the biblical character (Judith, obviously) was doing. She was [a biblical character in the middle of cutting a man's head off], and that's what they had themselves painted as. I'm an intelligent person, see, and I spotted this potential pitfall and navigated it proficiently.

Which makes my next misunderstanding all the more ridiculous. Now, as I'm sure you realised, these women were having their portraits painted, in the guise of Judith cutting off Holofernes' head. But as well as having their portrait painted, 'having themselves painted' could mean that someone was applying paint to them: compare 'having themselves painted blue'. And yes, dear reader, that is the meaning I leapt to, and retained until about halfway through the item when I realised the more sensible interpretation. Honestly, I despair of myself sometimes.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Economist finds WALS; plays with features; gets publication

Update: Since I wrote this, there's been more discussion on Twitter, with some people thinking that linguists just don't want other academics stepping on their toes. That's definitely not the case! Other suggestions are that linguists have been trained to have a knee-jerk reaction against anything Sapir-Whorfian. That probably is true for a lot of people (including me, actually, which is why I try to be aware of that), but I hope it's clear below that that isn't my problem with this article.
There has also been an open letter started and signed by many linguists asking for the paper to be retracted. I think this is a mistake; there is nothing fraudulent or ethically wrong about the paper. It's just not a very good paper, in a not very good journal. Asking for it to be withdrawn sounds a bit like censorship to me. The review process is where crappy work should be stopped, and that process failed here, so it's worth bringing that to the journal's attention, but seeing as this publicity will have brought them many more readers I doubt they're too bothered about fixing it for the future.

Anyway, here's the post as I wrote it before I thought about all these things.

Linguists love it when economists do linguistics. Linguist Twitter was a super fun place to be when this article came out. It argues that languages that can leave out pronoun subjects (like Spanish), are spoken by people that have lower levels of education due to their more collectivist culture. I know right?

No need for me to point out all the ways in which it is wrong and incorrect and foolish; Joe McVeigh spent a happy while with a whisky or two doing that.

The thing is, it's actually not unreasonable to write articles like this. There are a lot of very credible papers that show that our attitudes are easily influenced by factors like what our language encodes. There's ones about noun gender affecting how elegant or sturdy we think bridges are, directionality affecting our ability to orient ourselves in our environment, and so on. And psychological experiments seem to show that it only takes a bit of a reminder that we're female to make us do worse on maths tests, etc. Some of these studies maybe are not as robust as they look, and I don't know about the reliability of the psychology ones, but the point is they are by linguists and psychologists and they look credible. So why wouldn't you write an article showing how some facet of language influences your behaviour?

Well, perhaps if you're not only not a linguist, but you also don't know anything about language and don't ask anyone who does, and you don't do it very well.

I don't know the economics dataset that the author uses, but I do know the linguistics dataset very well. It's the World Atlas of Language Structures, which I love very much. This author, Feldmann, uses it because it "provides the most authoritative information on a large number of languages". It does indeed cover a large number of languages, but there is no reason to say it is "the most authoritative". It's compiled from published grammars. Many of those are careful, detailed, accurate descriptions of the language; others are a hundred years old, written by someone who didn't necessarily have much linguistic training. You have to be careful and check those sources out. His only reason for saying it's "authoritative" is that an economics reference says it is, using that same word, and then he cites them with a glaring error in a Spanish example ("yo ablo").

Another thing is that it doesn't control for languages being closely related unless you ask it to, and to do that you need the CD-ROM version, not the online free version, and there's not indication of the method the author used so we don't know if he did that. He just says that he looked at 103 languages. 711 have this information in the free version; I can no longer use my CD-ROM copy as I don't have a CD drive in my computer any more :( so I don't know what subset he took. For example, if you take all the languages spoken in Northern Europe, it's not so surprising if most of them require pronominal subjects, because they're all related. It's better to take a genus of language to avoid skewing your results. Maybe he did this; we don't know.

His citation is poor; his linguistic sources are old or eccentric or missing or simply odd choices. They look like the citations of someone who hasn't read the linguistics literature or asked anyone who has. He doesn't give any sources at all for his claims about collectivist cultures not wanting girls to be educated, which is a big claim and one that really needs backing up.

Go ahead; make claims about culture based on linguistics. They don't tend to stand up to much scrutiny, but maybe yours will. But don't exoticise those people because of it, and don't base those claims on superficial data with no referencing or linguistic research.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

"I explained to her that it was a joke", he apologised.

This clipping on the right is from an article in the Guardian.

Recently, a footballer named Ada Hegerberg won a Ballon D'Or, which is a football award. She was asked if she knew how to twerk by the man presenting the award and apparently 'seemed to attempt to leave the stage, before reluctantly agreeing to dance to another song'.

The man, Martin Solveig, says that he apologised. Now then. An apology, I think, has to include the words 'I'm sorry' or 'I apologise' or something along those lines. To be effective, it also has to acknowledge that harm was done, and it has to apologise for the right thing. Let's see how he does.
'I explained to [Ada]'
Oh dear. Explaining to someone that they were wrong is not really the same as  apologising to them.
'My apologies to anyone'
Well, it's Ada who needs the apology, but I guess that includes her?
'who may have been offended'
Ah, OK, he's not apologising to her. If he was, he'd have apologised for making inappropriate comments or making her feel uncomfortable or overstepping his boundaries. He's apologising to the world at large who may have been offended. But maybe no one was offended! Maybe nothing was wrong at all! Maybe there was no need to apologise at all! In which case, it's a good thing he didn't.