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).

Tuesday, 21 August 2018


This is a screenshot from a tweet that passed through my timeline:

tweet including the word 'ombudsmun'

It includes the word 'ombudsman', but spelt 'ombudsmun'. I'm a big fan of this spelling. The word  contains the word 'man', but as in many words, the syllable is not stressed and the vowel is reduced to a schwa (the sound at the end of my name). The writer has reflected that in the spelling (probably not deliberately, maybe not consciously) by spelling it 'mun'.

For a while, I was spearheading a single-woman campaign to get 'man' to be truly gender-neutral by using terms like 'postman' for female postal workers. In the end I gave up but it remains true that if it's to be reinterpreted either as a suffix (as in postman, policeman, etc) or as just an inseparable part of the word, with no independent meaning, as looks to be the case here, then it has to be the schwa pronunciation rather than the full 'man' vowel. That loss of vowel content hastens its loss of semantic content.

There are other instances of this spelling, even on quite official ombudsman sites (enough that I had to quickly check it isn't actually a variant spelling - seems not). And I ought to also note here that 'man' is used as a pronoun in some varieties of English, such as Multicultural London English, but that it is more or less gendered when it's used in a non-generic 'one' sense (you get some instances of it being used of women, but it's rare). It's also a pronoun in German, in an obviously historically-related turn of events.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Conversation: 'untranslatable' words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

I wrote a piece for The Conversation recently, which I'm reposting here just in case you haven't seen it yet.

Language: 'untranslatable' words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

File 20180806 191038 ewcqb9.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Say what? Shutterstock
Laura Bailey, University of Kent
When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee?
The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”.
In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter?
Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”.

Cultures in language

It is often said that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but it’s a myth that has been comprehensively dismantled, probably first of all by Laura Martin in 1986. “Eskimo” is a somewhat meaningless term anyway, but the structure of the languages spoken by peoples such as the Inuit or Aleut in the Arctic Circle are very synthetic, meaning that each “word” may comprise many parts or “morphemes”.
Entire phrases can be contained within words in these languages – a single “word” may literally mean “fallen snow”. For that reason, “having 50 words for snow” in these languages is about as remarkable as having 50 sentences to talk about snow in English.

The ‘50 words for snow’ fallacy is a perfect example of misreading a culture. Shutterstock

And yet the myth and others like it snowball, because we are fascinated by the idea that language reveals something about our psyche – or perhaps even determines it. The economist Keith Chen has devoted some considerable effort to demonstrating that speakers of languages that grammatically encode the future and the present separately behave more recklessly with respect to their health and money. He argues that it shows that overt future tense marking makes a speaker more aware of the future as a separate time from the present and thus more distant, which has a corresponding effect on behaviour.
Many linguists have some reservations about his conclusions, but the main claim hit the news and people were intrigued by the idea.

False cultural judgements

While careful experimentation has shown that having words for concepts makes them easier or faster to name, it is not true that lacking a concept means you cannot conceive of it, and vice versa. For instance, many languages have gender-neutral pronouns (the same word is used for he and she) but are spoken in cultures with very poor levels of gender equality.
This might seem obvious – it’s Orwell’s Newspeak (from 1984) in action. In Orwell’s dystopia, the word “free” was stripped of all meaning of individual freedoms and could be used only in the sense of a dog being free from lice, which in turn was supposed to remove the ability of the citizens of Oceania to conceive of such freedom. But it is not just science fiction. There is an important note of caution that linguists are always aware of: making claims about other cultures risks “exoticising” them.

A mural depicting indigenous people in Arizona. Shutterstock

At worst, this results in racism. The Hopi people of Arizona, who are sometimes claimed to have no way to express time based on a misunderstanding of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s work on their language, were assumed by some to be incapable of following bus timetables or arriving at work on schedule, a mistaken belief that led to obvious problems.
But even an apparently benign conclusion about how some Australian languages encode space with compass directions (“north”) rather than ego-relative position (“my left-hand side”) suggests English speakers often miss out on knowledge about language and cognition because they are busy measuring things against an arbitrary English-centric benchmark. Different language conventions are usually not exotic or unusual; it’s just that English speakers come from a position of very great privilege because their language is the default. People who speak other languages are seen as different, as outsiders.
The Conversation
I’m not a total killjoy. I still delight in “untranslatable” words. It’s something special to learn a word and along with it make concrete a nebulous but recognisable concept like hygge, or indeed its wonderfully chilling opposite, uhygge. I just suggest a position of healthy scepticism when you meet claims that a language has “no word for X” or “50 words for Y”, or, as the internet recently got excited about, that “tag” stands for “touch and go” (sorry folks, it doesn’t).
Laura Bailey, Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Kent
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Trump and sensitive editing

Trump (who I don't blog about much because I don't think it's helpful to criticise his poor command of language when he is so unbelievably awful in so many other more important ways) has been mocked on twitter again. He used the phrase [they] pour over my tweets rather than pore over. This is a very common mistake; lots of perfectly intelligent people also make it; it's not transparent enough for it to be a thing you could work out. You just either know it or you don't. In most uses, pore is a little hole for your skin to breathe through, so it's not obvious why it should mean 'gaze intently', and in fact we don't know where that meaning comes from - we just have it recorded in early English writing and without a known origin. So I'm not going to beat Trump up for not knowing that, but the internet did. The problem was that he used it in a tweet where he explicitly said how good his written English was, and a version of Muphry's Law states that if you write anything praising your accurate writing, there'll be an error in it.

So let's look at this positively. Lot's of people just corrected the spelling of pore, others pointed out other less-than-brilliant aspects of the writing in the original tweet, but this person, a writer himself, edited the tweet to read much better:

There's a commonly-criticised error in the original tweet, which Michael hasn't fixed: the dangling participle(s) at the beginning. Normally, people are keen to point out the comedy of such constructions (Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls). But in this case, it's fine: the potential confound is it, which is what we call an expletive, which means that it doesn't mean anything so you can't accidentally interpret the modifier as modifying it. And it sets up the context for the rest of the tweet nicely, so it's a perfectly acceptable construction.

Secondly, Michael has actually introduced a split infinitive (to constantly pore). I'm a big fan of these, especially if they make a sentence read better, which they often do, and which it definitely does in this case. It's not the liking that's constant, it's the poring, and the rhythm is also nicer in my opinion.

I like this sensitive editing with attention paid to how the tweet sounds and no rigid adherence to the rules given that it is a tweet. If you're an editor for a newspaper whose style guide says no split infinitives, then you must remove all split infinitives and that's it. But if you do have a choice, then it's good to be able to use them where it improves a thing.