Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Southern privilege

One of my favourite writers is Justin Myers, who among other things writes The Guyliner. He reviews the Guardian Blind Date every week and I look forward to it eagerly. It's funny, but it's also clever and insightful and often poignant. This week, he threw in a comment about 'doing funny accents' that was so spot-on in its identification of the problem of centring privilege.

Just to take a step back: we normally think about male privilege, white privilege, or straight privilege. It doesn't meant that (say) men don't have problems, or never face discrimination, but that they don't face the kind of systematic discrimination that those who aren't men face, while of course they may face systematic discrimination of other kinds (e.g. you might be a gay man, or a black man, and have male privilege but not straight or white privilege). In the grand scheme of things, northerners aren't who you think of as facing the worst discrimination, but nevertheless, there is a sort of 'southern privilege'. (North and south here refer to England, by the way - in itself this minimises the existence of the other UK countries and especially Scotland.) This shows up mostly in accent discrimination, which can be a proxy for class discrimination.

Justin talks about the way that people frequently imitate a 'northern' accent when he tells them that he is from Yorkshire. (UGH by the way - 'the north' is a big place with a lot of different accents.) He specifically mentions the way that they say 'oop north', and the way they think this must pronounced like 'poop' because they don't realise it's just the vowel like in 'book' but written with a double 'o' to emphasise the difference from the southern pronunciation. And here comes the part that I'd never even thought about before, which is that having this special spelling to indicate the northern pronunciation is in itself a staggeringly southern-centric way of doing things. As Justin points out, there is no northern equivalent of an approximation of the southern pronunciation (he writes it as 'ap', which is pretty close to the IPA for the RP pronunciation). The word 'up' spells both the southern and the northern pronunciation; the letter 'u' represents both the sounds /ʌ/ and /ʊ/. To write 'up' as 'oop' leaves it as representing only the southern pronunciation, ignoring the northern one altogether.

In this situation, as always, the people in the position of relative power fix the language in a way that positions the less powerful ones as 'others', not the norm.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Unexpected adverbials

Liliane Haegeman has been here at Kent all week on an Erasmus teaching mobility visit. She's been giving four seminars on adverbial clauses, including among other things the difference between what she calls 'central' and 'peripheral' adverbial clauses. Central adverbials modify the event itself, so in this case the 'while' clause tells you the time during which the main event happened:
I took out the rubbish [while you were watching telly] 
Peripheral adverbials, meanwhile, don't tell us about event time or anything like that, but are more about the relation between the clauses or speaker attitude. In this case, the 'while' clause gives a contrastive or concessive meaning: 
I’m quite active, [while he is a total slob] 
These clauses have various properties that distinguish them. One of these properties is the tense of the verb. Central adverbial clauses (e.g. expressing time) have the same tense as the main verb, or if they don't, they're interpreted as doing so. Here, there is a future marker 'will' in the main clause, and the 'while' clause has present tense 'watch', but it's interpreted as happening at the same time as the main clause.
I'll take the rubbish out [while you watch telly]
A peripheral (e.g. contrastive) adverbial with different tenses is interpreted as being two different times:
I was fortunate to get full funding for my degree, [while he has to borrow a student loan]
The 'full funding' happened in the past (with past tense 'was') and the 'borrowing' is now (present tense 'has').

All of the above is paraphrasing what Liliane told us in the first seminar. She also said this this is something that you specifically have to tell learners of English, that they have to use present tense in this kind of clause. 'If' clauses are the same, in that they have two meanings:
If you don't understand this part, you won't be able to follow tomorrow's seminar. [if = condition]
If you didn't understand, why didn't you raise your hand and ask? [if = assumed background]
The conditional one is the one where the tense should be present even if the main clause is future, as it is here. Then, at the end of the seminar, Liliane was talking about the following one the next day, and she said this:
Even if you won't come back to the class, you have the handout. 
For this to be a normal conditional, it needs to be present tense 'Even if you don't come back'. But Liliane used the future tense marker 'won't', and then all of a sudden it was forced into the assumed background interpretation: 'Even though I understand it's the case that you won't come back...' where the implication was that she knew that we wouldn't return, and so she had given us the handout, when in fact the meaning was that she thought we would but if we didn't, we had the handout.

Another example of the same thing is a little more complicated because you need to know about Dutch word order. Dutch has 'V2', which means that the finite verb is the second constituent in the clause. So it can look like English, where you have the subject, then the verb, then the object, or it can be some other part of the sentence before the verb, like the object or an adverbial clause like the ones we just talked about. Now here's the thing: only the central adverbials can be this first element before the verb. If it's the other kind, then it doesn't 'count' and you need something else to be there, like the subject. Look at this, where the verb is in bold (example from the seminar handout):
Dutch: [Als het je interesseert,] er zal in Parijs ook een vacature zijn.
Word-for-word: If it you interests, there will in Paris also a vacancy be.
Idiomatically: 'If you are interested, in Paris there is also a vacancy.'
The 'if' clause is the kind that gives you background info, that doesn't count, so you have something else (the subject 'there') before the verb 'zal', which is now the third constituent. If you swap the order and have 'Als... zal er...', namely 'if... will there' where the 'if' clause is the one element before the verb in normal second position, it magically gets forced into the interpretation where the 'if' clause is a real conditional - the vacancy only exists if you're interested in it!

(NB: I've massively over-simplified this, and much of the week was spent learning how lots of this has interesting exceptions, and I've conflated two types of clause, etc etc. I've also paraphrased Liliane's work to write this, so consider this a citation.) 

Monday, 13 May 2019

Ladies of science

The suffix -ist is added to a base to make a word that means 'someone who does something related to...', so an exorcist exorcises. It can mean someone who holds some belief system, so a Darwinist follows Darwin. And it can mean someone who practises some art or profession, so an etymologist studies etymology.

-ist is also helpfully gender-neutral, so it's never run into the same problems as -er/-(e)ress pairings like waiter/waitress, actor/actress. I learnt the other day that it was in fact invented specifically to refer to a woman, Mary Somerville, joint first female member of the Royal Academy, because she couldn't be called a 'man of science'.

Caption from exhibit at Turner Contemporary, saying that 'scientist' was first used to describe Mary Somerville

I'm pleased they went with this and not 'lady of science' or something.

Vaguely relatedly, there's a really nice essay by Laurie Bauer on why linguists are not called linguisticians, with some interesting insights on the connotations of each suffix (-ician was 'trivialising' at the time the words were being coined).

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Toilet flushing instructions and recursive binary Merge

Spotted in the Duke of Cumberland loos in Whitstable this weekend, this instruction on how to flush the toilet:

Press hard
Both buttons
I interpret this as two instructions:
You could read it as a single instruction ('Press hard both buttons') but it's awkward in English. It would be normal in, say, Spanish, but in English a more idiomatic word order is 'Press both buttons hard', or verb (press) – object (both buttons) – adverb (hard).

The way that this is broken down into two phrases can be seen as support for the idea that syntax comprises a series of operations of recursive binary Merge. That's a technical way of saying that sentences are formed by combining two elements at a time, and combining the resulting component with a new element, still two at a time.

So, for example, we might think of a sentence like Birds eat seeds as being formed as follows:
eat + seeds --> eat seeds
birds + eat seeds --> birds eat seeds
Our loo-flushing example is a little bit more complicated. We don't have a subject, because it's an instruction so there is an implicit 'you' as the presser of the buttons. We definitely want to say that both buttons is a unit (a 'constituent'), which seems intuitively right (there are also ways to test this kind of thing). Then we want to say that Press both buttons is a constituent, with the verb press combining with its object both buttons. Then we would combine that whole phrase press both buttons with the adverb hard, telling us how the action of pressing both buttons should be performed. This makes more sense than saying that the verb press combines with a constituent both buttons hard, which doesn't seem intuitively right. Adverbs tell us how verbs are done, not what nouns are like. So now we have this structure:
both + buttons --> both buttons
press + both buttons --> press both buttons
press both buttons + hard --> press both buttons hard
The fact that the adverb refers to the verb, and not to the noun, also tells us why we get the broken-up instructions in the photo. The adverb, as I said, refers to the verb. We interpret it as referring to the whole verb phrase press both buttons as the thing that has to be done in a hard manner, but in fact it's really the pressing that is to be hard. The whole phrase involves the three levels of recursive Merge (recombining constituents) shown above, giving a final nested structure like this:
[3 [2 press [1 both buttons 1] 2] hard 3]
If we want to make it much simpler, one way of doing that is to remove the recursive part of the operation, and have things combine just once. This means, if you assume that Merge is binary (that things can only combine two at a time and not three or more), that the maximum number of words you can have in an utterance is two. And that's exactly what is happening in the photo: two pairs of words (both buttons; press hard), and their juxtaposition is what tells us that one applies to the other rather than their syntactic combination.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019


You might have noticed that people yeet things now. It's a specific type of throwing. Here's a helpful hint I saw on twitter this week:
'Yoink' is the opposite of 'yeet'
Until as recently as January, I thought there was a regional difference in this word. The American Dialect Society had it as one of their Words of 2018, but with the meaning 'indication of surprise or excitement' - an exclamation. It was said to be onomatopoeic, the sound of yeeting something into a bin or whatever and 'pronounced with a celebratory gesture'. 

Urban dictionary
 seems to have only the exclamation in the older entries (though still accompanying the yeeting action of course). And as with so many new words, it may well come from black American pop culture, originating or possibly just finding new life in a dance

It may well have been onomatopoeic over here as well, but it was very definitely a verb of throwing, not an exclamation. What's more, because of its similarity to our Germanic-origin irregular verbs, it's got a past tense of yote and takes part in wordplay like yeeteth in the tweet above (see also twote for the past tense of tweet). 

I don't know if the two senses have always been available to everyone and it was just different bits of them got out into the mainstream, or if they've converged more recently. And I am FULLY aware of how painfully white and middle-aged and out of touch I sound just writing this post. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Who run(s) the world?

Which of the following is correct? 
(1) Who runs the world? Girls!
(2) Who run the world? Girls! 
If your judgements match mine, you picked (1). But if you think about it, that's really weird. And it seems like at least some people find both of them OK. The two options are illustrated in these images that I collected within a day or so of each other without even looking for them: 

Who run the world? Girls

Who runs the world? [Image of a woman with a toddler, both raising their hands]
If they were statements, not questions, there wouldn't be a choice. (4) is ungrammatical in standard English and most of its varieties:
(3) Girls run the world
(4) *Girls runs the world
The reason (4) is ungrammatical (that's what the asterisk means) is because it has a plural subject (girls) and singular agreement on the verb (runs, rather than run).

To go back to our original examples, who doesn't have any information about whether it refers to a singular or a plural subject. It could be either, and (5), with a singular referent for who, is just as good as (1), where the referent is the plural girls.
(5) Who runs the world? Mark Zuckerberg. 
So that explains why it can cause either singular or plural agreement to appear on the verb.

And although I find it more natural with singular agreement, you can easily nudge it towards the plural agreement if there's a clear expectation that the answer is plural, such as if you know that the answer is either boys or girls, and you've forgotten which.
(6) Remind me, who did you say run the world? 
And that just leaves us with one mop-up, which is to say that the default if you don't have any information about number is to use the singular. That fits with the general principle that singular is the unmarked form: languages usually have some way of marking things as plural, not singular, just like English using -s for plurals and nothing for singular nouns (girl vs girls).

Monday, 11 February 2019

Don't touch the actors and they won't touch you

The 'normal' way of making a conditional in English is with an 'if'-clause:
If you hurry up, we'll be in time for the train.
We'll be in time for the train if you hurry up
There are plenty of others too, of course (As long as you keep walking, we'll be in time for the train) and of course -- isn't it always -- it's much more complicated than this, but there's also a cool way of doing conditionals with and and or.

Consider this warning, which I saw at Dreamland in Margate at their Screamland Hallowe'en thing a couple of years ago:
Don't touch the actors and they won't touch you.
Image result for screamland
Poster for 'Screamland' in Margate
You could interpret that as an instruction combined with a simple statement of fact: the instruction is not to touch the actors, and the statement is a reassurance that they won't touch you, independent of the instruction. That might in fact be what is intended here, because even if you do touch the actors, they're probably still not supposed to touch the visitors.

But we're funny things, humans, always looking for connections, patterns, reasons, and causes. Those two things being joined makes us want to think that there is some meaningful link between them. It's like if someone says The car is making a funny noise and Jen borrowed it yesterday. You can be pretty sure they're blaming Jen for the funny noise the car is making, and not just telling you two unrelated facts about the car.

Generally, in an and sentence, both bits are the same type: both statements, for instance, in which case they must both be true (so for the sentence about the car to be true, it must be true that it's making a funny noise and that Jen borrowed it -- notice that the inferred link that Jen was to blame does not have to be true). Or they might both be instructions, in which case you're expected to obey both (at the same time or in order), as in Sit down and shut up. Our example sentence, about the actors, is a mix of an instruction and a statement. So we might be expected to obey the instruction and for the statement to be true. I don't know about you but I don't really know where I stand right now, as there is no obvious link between my obedience and objective truth.

It would make so much more sense if, say, the truth of the statement was conditional on me obeying the instruction. So if I don't touch the actors (obey the instruction), then it will be true that they don't touch me. And all of a sudden, we have a conditional like the 'if'-clause type I mentioned right at the top, but with and instead.

Can we do it with or, a disjunction? Well, yes we can, but it comes out as a warning or threat rather than a deal or an agreement.
Don't bother the tigers, or they'll attack you. 
Now, we still have to obey the instruction but if we don't, then the second part will be true: a punishment, rather than a reward for our obedience.

We can even do it with neither at all, just so long as it is a proper threat and not just a warning:
Touch my stuff, I'll beat you up. 
Now the instruction is an elliptical conditional. There's probably an understood 'If you' at the beginning, or else the link between the parts is the same as with and: if the first part is 'obeyed' (the person does carry out the action), then the second part is true.