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 Asking for it to be withdrawn sounds a bit like censorship to me.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.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Subject omission is gendered in English and Swedish

My student, Helen Pettersson, recently completed her MA dissertation on null subjects in English and Swedish text messages. She constructed some fake Whatsapp conversations, presented them to participants online, and asked for their judgements on various types of sentence. She wanted to know whether Swedish behaves like English in its acceptance of null subjects in colloquial registers, and as a sub-question, whether text messages are more like spoken English or like the more elliptical 'diary' register (things like Saw self in mirror today. Felt was growing fatter, which is OK in a diary but not in speech). Well, spoilers, in all the contexts she tested, English and Swedish are quite similar. But there was one way in which they differ, and it wasn't the topic of her dissertation but it is quite interesting.

Some of her stimuli presented a message with no prior context (it wasn't a reply to another text message) and asked her respondents what they thought the missing pronoun was: was it I, you, he, she, it, we, you (plural) or they? These were sentences like Might watch a film later. We expected that the majority of people would choose I, because that's what we know null subjects most commonly refer to in English, probably because it's the most accessible referent (you're more likely to be talking about yourself than someone else). But we also thought that there would be some variation, as it's perfectly possible that it could refer to someone else.

Here are the results for Swedish:

Mostly I (jag), as expected, with a smattering of the others, mostly He and She. Funnily enough, there are quite a few more participants who went with he when the sentence was about having broken a mirror - perhaps because boys are clumsy? 

And here are the results for English: 

There are lots more votes for they than in the Swedish data, and I wonder if this is because people were allowing it to be singular they, as in the pronoun used when it's an unspecified person involved with no known gender or possibly even number, as well as the third person plural pronoun. But in addition, just look at how many more votes the masculine pronoun got than the feminine! This is really a striking difference from Swedish, and I'm not aware of any particular reason for this, which makes it all the more intriguing.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Bears, hamsters, coffee and hashtags

All hipster bars and coffee shops these days have signs with quirky slogans or jokes on them. They come with a punchline that undercuts the set-up, and the first time you see them they are genuinely really funny. For instance, this classic 'bears' sign:
Image result for funny coffee shop signs
Dunno, maybe bears... 

And this one self-referencing hipsters:

Image result for funny coffee shop signs
Hipsters... no wait, hamsters
But after the first time, the joke is no longer funny because it has to be original. That doesn't actually matter, because it will be new to most of the people that see it for quite some time, so it's OK that some people are bored of it (it probably won't put them off going to their regular place or a cafe that looks nice).

There's something more to the joke format that I'm beginning to find wearing, though, and I think it's the Conventional Set-up --> Twist format. Even though this is essentially how jokes work, it has somehow become a cliche on blackboard coffee shop signs.

I was at the annual meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain last week. I go every year, as I'm on the committee, and it's held in a university somewhere in the UK. They had this sign:

Drink responsibly!
If this had been a normal blackboard sign, I'd have found it twee and predictable, even though I haven't seen this exact joke anywhere. The format has become wearing. But somehow, putting the punchline in a hashtag was enough for my jaded joke palate to accept this as a witty sign. A normal blackboard says "We're cleverer than you: we made you think one thing and then turned it round on you". The hashtag somehow says "The sign is real; we mean the main message literally and aren't trying to subvert it. However, look at this funny interpretation too".

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

I stan for eponymous words

"The dark side of gay stan culture" is the subject of a Guardian article today. It's about the link between gay men and female pop star divas like Ariana Grande, Beyonce, etc, and how it's often couched in criticism, either overt or implied, of those stars' songs, attitude or appearance. Anyway, point is, it says this about the word stan:
[It's a] portmanteau of "fan" and "stalker" taken from Eminem's hit about a crazed follower.
Now then. That sounded off immediately. I can well believe it's a portmanteau of those words, and I can also believe it's from the Eminem song, but both? No. The character in the song is called Stan, and there was no suggestion that he's called that because it's a portmanteau. He just is.

Approximately one second of googling returned a link that says exactly what the Guardian says, attributed to Urban Dictionary. And Urban Dictionary does indeed say both of those things, but in different definitions. Urban Dictionary is compiled by people who submit entries, so any one word can have any number of definitions, frequently repetitive and of very variable quality. In this case, many of them say it's from the song, and one says it's a portmanteau. There's no real way to know which is true, either, though with new words like this it often is the thing that most people think it is.

I actually assumed it was from stand, with consonant cluster simplification at the end of the word, because I've much more often heard it as the verb, as in I stan (for) Beyonce. I hadn't even considered the Eminem origin, maybe because it's so long since that song (Stan was released in 2000) and I've only really noticed this word in the last year or two. But the Bustle article I linked above says that the word has actually been around since then - just not in mainstream use (it says it's been related to K-Pop, for instance). This is the recency illusion: words are always waaaaay older than you think they are.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Is true. Or is?

Image result for queen oona disenchantment
Queen Oona from Disenchantment

In a dramatic departure from blogging about the Simpsons, I'm blogging about Disenchantment, the latest Matt Groening cartoon series. This is Queen Oona, a fairly minor character (the wicked step-mother in this fairytale-inspired set of characters).

Queen Oona is from the neighbouring kingdom of Dankmire, and her accent is... European. Vaguely Russian, maybe? Kind of German? Anyway, whatever it's based on, the Dankmirian language clearly has what we call 'pro-drop', 'null subjects', or 'zero anaphora'. That means that in the right context, you can leave out a subject pronoun (this Spanish example is from Wikipedia):
Está completamente seco.
is completely dry
'It's completely dry.'
In the example above, you can infer that the subject is he/she/it because the verb (está) has 3rd person singular agreement. From there, you have more or less as much information as if we'd just used the word it, and you use your normal contextual knowledge to fill in the referent, as with the English equivalent.

Oona said, in episode 6,
Is true. 
Shortly followed by
Or is? 
Both of these sentences would be totally grammatical in Oona's (let's assume Slavic) first language, where the word it can be left out. I don't know Russian so let's illustrate with Spanish again. This is the exact equivalent, and I think it's good:
Es verdad. O es? 
But the thing is, it made me laugh, and I think it was meant to. I don't know why. I came here thinking I had a good explanation: maybe because is is a clitic (a word that needs another word to lean on) in English, so this literal translation sounds just too unnatural? Maybe lack of familiarity with post-verbal null subjects, like in the question 'is (it)?' in this example? Another one to file under Things Someone Else Should (And Probably Has) Research(ed).