Monday, 30 September 2019

He said she said

Normally when I read a China Miéville novel, I blog or tweet the whole way through because the language he uses is so exciting and lovely. True to form, I read The Scar recently and I have Thoughts.

The leaders of the city Armada are The Lovers, a couple (one male, one female) whose names we never learn. They're both simply referred to as The Lovers when they're talked about as a couple, or The Lover when they're referred to alone. The image below, of p.731 from my copy, is typical of the way they are described.
Image of p.731 of The Scar, with dialogue of each Lover speaking in turn.
Each of the two Lovers speaks in turn, the man first, and then the woman. Here's the relevant bit from the first part, where he speaks (you can tell because the male pronoun 'he' is used):
'Many of those who are dead,' the Lover began... and in that way... he continued. 
And then the female Lover speaks, which you can tell because of the female pronoun 'her':
'We are very close,' the Lover said, and an edge of excitement crept into her voice.
The interesting thing about it is the way that Miéville doesn't make any distinction between the two Lovers' names beyond using the relevant pronouns where appropriate. The Lover is what we call an R-expression, or referring expression. It's a definite noun phrase and it works basically just like a name. Imagine that you had two people called Billie speaking in a dialogue. You'd differentiate between them by using maybe the initial of their surname, like 'Billie J began... Billie C responded...'. Or if you were talking about two girls chatting, you'd say 'The first girl said... the other girl replied...'.

These expressions include as part of their meaning the notion of uniqueness. Using the implies that there is only one of the thing you're referring to, or at least only one in the relevant context. So if there's more than one, like with the girls example, you have to add in something that makes each the only one (like the first girl), so that the two referring expressions refer to different things. In the Lovers example, there is just one referring expression and so it should refer to just one unique thing. But it doesn't; it refers to either of the two Lovers. Without making any concession by saying, for instance, the male Lover, Miéville flouts this expectation of uniqueness, creating a very unsettling effect.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Pope Francis says no adjectives; I'm going to hell

If you like to take your grammar advice from authority, you'll enjoy the fact that Pope Francis has decreed that we shouldn't use adjectives. Specifically, he has said that his communications team shouldn't use adjectives. He twote thus:
Let us learn to call people by their name, as the Lord does with us, and to give up using adjectives.
And in a speech, he said:
The communicator must make people understand the weight of the reality of nouns that reflect the reality of people. And this is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs. 
He didn't use adjectives to say this, either, impressively. I'm trying not to use adjectives in this blog post and I think I've succeeded so far, with difficulty. So much difficulty, in fact, that I'm stopping now, with the observation that you shouldn't take the Pope's advice on this or probably anything else.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Croiffle: The verdict

On my way home from the Linguistics Association of Great Britain annual meeting last week, this advert on the train (too late, I was already on my way to Kent at this point) offered me a free speciality coffee with purchase of their new 'croiffle'.

Advert offering a free coffee if you buy a 'croiffle'
A croiffle?, you might ask. And what is a croiffle? Using my linguistic skills, honed over the course of the last fifteen years of intensive linguistic training, I intuited that it is a croissant of some kind (see image) with something unspeakable done to it. Obviously this is a blend, or portmanteau, of croissant and, I assume, waffle, as it's apparently been toasted in a waffle machine. Why you would do this, I do not know.

But how do you pronounce it? While I and a friend both went with the vowel of croissant (slightly different for each of us, with his being more similar to the French than mine (/ɒ/ vs /ʌ/)), another friend said it as she saw it and used the oi of, well, Oi!. And a portmanteau that no one knows how to pronounce is an unsuccessful new word, especially if it's also just a toasted croissant that's a bit bumpy.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Spotting a fake

Fake news is big news these days. Mostly, it's in the context of Donald Trump complaining about it, or alternatively being supported by it. There are millions of fake twitter accounts all tweeting away in support of something or other, or to try and scam something. Last week, Marc Owen Jones described his lengthy relationship with someone who was probably not who he claimed to be:
I tried a quiz recently to see if I could tell which product reviews were real and which were fake; I did terribly, no better than chance. I had read that you might see too many technical details in fake ones, superlatives, or lack of personal detail, and still I couldn't pick the fake from the real. It's actually put me off online shopping a bit.

This is something that you'd think linguists ought to be good at. It's something that linguists sometimes end up working in, at least: forensic linguistics is the analysis of texts to detect or solve crimes, and it's all about looking for (in)consistencies, patterns and giveaways in the text to tell you who did or didn't write it. Therefore, linguists have turned their hand to various genres of fake news, reviews and tweets to determine how we can spot them. (I should note, you do need a postgraduate qualification to work in these areas, and/or experience - you don't just magically learn how to do it by being a linguist in general.)

The best I've done is with these emails that have been arriving lately, the kind that look like they come from someone you know. In my case, it's nearly always either David Adger or my Head of School, because I think they pick on someone who sounds like they're senior to you, and then the email says something like 'Are you free? I need a favour urgently'. But they're on to a loser here, because at the very least, I can recognise the writing style of people I know. I also know that these highly educated people would not make the kinds of mistakes that these emails contain, even if they were typing in the midst of great angst and favour-needing. Their emails might be short, lacking capitalisation, or be sentence fragments, but they wouldn't have odd exclamation marks, strange spacing or ungrammatical wording.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Practice is nicer than practise

This exchange appeared in my facebook the other day. I don't know any of the people involved, and as always, I'm just commenting interestedly, not making fun or criticising them.


The image shows a conversation in response to someone mentioning 'practicing', with that spelling. Assuming that things haven't changed since I learnt this, that's a valid spelling in American English. British English would traditionally prefer 'practice' for the noun (as in We went to practice tonight) and 'practise' for the verb (as in Are we practising tonight?). In practice (ha!) this is very variable and it's probably one of those things that's on the way out really, and both spellings can do both jobs.

What interested me about the above, though, is that even though 2 out of the 3 people having this discussion obviously care about this spelling rule (otherwise they wouldn't be discussing it), they don't seem to be very clear on which it should be.

Person 1 says 'practicing with a c, though' indicating that they know it's spelt incorrectly, and sharing a link to that effect. Person 2 doesn't really notice the spelling comment (unless I'm missing some more subtle joke?) and comments on the content of the original post, spelling it with an 's' for both the noun and the verb (Some sides don't practise [verb] wilst half drunk, so it could well be 'intoxicated dance practise [noun]' for a newbie...). Then Person 3 brings it back to spelling and quotes the rule, presumably in response to Person 2 as much as the OP, to which Person 1 replies, agreeing, and saying I think it's nicer to think of it as morris 'practice' rather than 'practise'. I realise it's incorrect :)

But it's not incorrect! Both spellings are right depending on which 'morris practi{c/s}e' is intended (noun or verb).  And here, the commenter is probably actually correct, because with the pre-modifying 'morris', it is far more likely to be the noun, so 'practice' is the right spelling to use.

And – most baffling – why is it 'nicer to think' of it with a 'c'??

Monday, 15 July 2019

Fusilli bolognese

I had the good fortune to be on a train full of children, maybe about nine or ten years old, the other day. I mean, literally full, there were two of them in the seat next to me.

They were off on a residential visit somewhere so meals were involved, so they started talking about their various fussy eating foibles. One said she couldn't eat steak, to which the teacher responded with admirable restraint 'It's OK, we're not having steak'.

Another was alarmed when she heard one of the meals would be spaghetti bolognese (or 'skabetti', as the teacher called it, which I always find an adorable pronunciation), because she doesn't like spaghetti. Fortunately for her, it turned out that the spaghetti to be used was in fact fusilli (the spiral one), which she did like. For me, spaghetti is specifically the long, thin, solid, cylindrical ones, and any other pasta shape has to be called by its own name (or just 'pasta'). But spag bol is special, because it's the pasta meal most British people encountered first, so it's kind of a meal in itself. I'm not quite sure how to describe its cultural role, actually, for people that don't already have the same cultural knowledge of it. I mean, Heinz sells it in tins, is probably the most meaningful thing I can tell you about it. So I suppose for her, spaghetti isn't a thing in its own right and it could be used as the generic term for pasta as long as it's with that particular sauce.
Image result for spaghetti bolognese tin
Tin of Heinz spaghetti bolognese

Pasta words are one of those semantic fields where there's a lot of overlap and variation, by the way - 'noodles' for me has to be in an Asian dish, like chow mein, so even though they're long and thin, I couldn't call spaghetti noodles. For some people 'noodles' covers all kinds of pasta-type foods. 

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Yo, Samity Sam!

Brilliantly, the tweet I am going to be famous for (at 200+ likes at the time of writing), is one in which I present myself as an idiot.
Lane Greene said that American kids learnt how to pronounce 'Yosemite' because of the Looney Tunes cartoon character 'Yosemite Sam'. Despite plenty of exposure to this character, I did not similarly acquire the correct pronunciation of the word, because I interpreted the name as 'Sammity Sam', a sort of reduplicated nickname form of the name Sam. This is not unreasonable, as I'd not seen it written down and never heard of the place Yosemite. Other people did the same thing, and basically heard it as 'Yo, Sammity Sam'.

But here's the thing: I didn't interpret that first syllable as anything at all. 'Yo' wasn't specially in my vocabulary as a child in 1980s UK. So I just kind of heard it as a meaningless syllable. I'm not an acquisitionist so I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure this is NOT how language works. There are not meaningless syllables that consistently occur adjacent to a specific word. I should have definitely called on my pattern recognition skills and interpreted that sound as part of the name, or as being part of the phrase, as others did ('Yo!'). But I didn't.