Friday, 29 June 2012

Inferior stationery

I am currently unhappy about my stationery situation. The most recent deprivation I have had to suffer is that I have had to purchase 'binder clips' (also known as foldback clips) in dull colours. This is not, in itself, a disaster, although I do think it is sadly indicative of the unimaginativeness of the people who make office-type stationery. I have paper clips in all manner of fascinating shapes and colours: shaped like stars, speech bubbles, aeroplanes... but when you get to the more heavy-duty stuff like foldback clips, it's boring all the way.

[Update: since discovering the name 'binder clips' I've done another search and found that M&S does eye-wateringly expensive floral ones and a dodgy-looking online company does pretty coloured ones. Search terms are everything, as always.]

Anyway, all that's not really the problem, I just like whinging. What is a problem is the fact that my notebook is not a Moleskine. I can get a bit evangelical about Moleskines, but they really are my absolute favourite notebooks ever and I don't like not having one. I normally have a red one like this:

As you may be able to tell, I take a lot of trouble to ensure I write on and with nice things. Then I enjoy the act of writing and I do it more. If I don't enjoy it I do it less, and I'm considerably more productive if I write more. I write any old thing down just for the sake of it and that leads to thinking more and better. If I don't write it down I'm trying to do it in my head and that's just not as good. 

I've got a notebook, and it's fine, but it's spiral bound and the paper's not as nice and it's not the right shape and stuff. So I only write down what I need to, and when I do write it down it doesn't look as nice so I don't look at it again so much. 

Just buy a Moleskine, you say? No, I can't, because they last a really long time and I won't get to the end of it before I finish my PhD and that would be wasteful. 

I do realise that all this makes me sound completely insane and also like a complete brat. But I do think it's an interesting thing that what stationery you have can affect the quality (or at least the quantity) of your work. Or mine, anyway. Might be just me. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

Homo sapien

The name of the human species is Homo sapiens, which means literally 'thinking man' ('man' obviously used in this case with its meaning of 'person of unspecified gender', rather than 'male human').

It's a bit unsatisfactory that part of the name for the human species is a word that means 'human', and that that same word also refers to all other species in the genus, which most people probably wouldn't consider to be 'humans' but rather closely-related species (Neanderthals and so on). Usually, people mean 'modern human' when they use the word 'human'. Still.

So, thinking man. Homo sapiens. Ever heard the song Homosapien by Pete Shelley? Or the band Del tha Funkee Homo Sapien? Both, you'll notice, use the 'sapien' part without the final s. Why? Well, it's a pretty straightforward case of mistakenly analysing a singular ending in s as a plural. 

The same thing happened to give us peas: we had a substance, which we knew as pease. We made pease pudding out of it. One day, someone started thinking that each of the little individual things was an instance of a pea (spelling not being people's strong point back then). It's as if we'd begun to refer to a grain of rice as a rie. That didn't happen because the final [s] sound is pronounced as [s], whereas in pease it's pronounced [z], which is just how the plural <s> is pronounced after a vowel. 
So we've got some people thinking sapiens is the plural of sapien. Can see how that happened: generally, when you hear the term Homo sapiens, someone's talking about the species as a whole, so it makes sense to assume it's plural (referring to all the members of the species). When you want to talk about just one, you use the singular. Obvs. 

So why am I blogging about it? Doesn't seem that fascinating. Although you have learnt about pease, which is definitely worth knowing. Well, I'm blogging about it because although this is a totally predictable, plausible, not-surprising reanalysis and you would think millions of people would get it wrong, no one does. Seriously. Apart from those two musical references, the google hits are sparse. There are not thousands and thousands of people typing blogs and questions and comments and all the other things you'd expect. Why not? How are they all getting it right all of the time? Are they always using the plural and so getting it right without knowing it? Is it just a term that no one who isn't reasonably well-educated uses? What's happening? I feel like I can no longer rely on real-life language to be messy and complicated.

Here is a link to Wikipedia's list of alternative names for the species. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

When is a draft full?

I've got a note on my calendar that says I intend to have a full draft of my PhD thesis ready by the end of this month. I don't know if that will happen, because I don't know how I'll know when it's a full draft.

I know some people write a draft and it's very rough, and then they go back and edit it, and edit it again, and eventually it's a nice polished version. This is a good way to write, as it means you improve it several times until it's as good as it can be. When I write, I get bored very quickly and don't really fancy going over and over it. I know I have to edit and proofread, so I do, but I do it minimally. So my finished versions are usually not that much different from the first version. (Luckily, the first version is awesome. Ahem.)

With a thesis, you can't help but edit to a greater extent, I suppose, and some sections have been moved around and tweaked to show something different, but then there are whole chunks that I wrote in one go and haven't been back to since. All of these count as first draft material to me.

So how will I know when the cut-off point is, when I've got a full draft, but not a finished thesis? Do I have to have filled in all the gaps and written all the sections? Because once I've done that I'll be fairly close to finishing and it's not going to happen by the end of the month. Is it OK to have notes to myself in it, saying things like 'find out if this is true'? Because that means there's more research to be done, and it's not a full draft. Or is it OK to have the majority of it written, but a few bits still to fill in?

The other issue is that I'm not doing what a lot of people do, and writing one chapter at a time. I've got all my chapters partially written. I would like to have completed each in turn, but that's not the way it worked.

I feel like I want some kind of cut-off marker, a goal to aim at, other than 'finishing'. So I think the solution is to say that a 'full draft' means not having bits to fill in, having done all of the sections and only needing to edit the text that's already there. So I'm also going to move that deadline to a bit later on, I think.

Monday, 18 June 2012

'Scare quotes'

Lately I've seen two very effective uses of scare quotes - the quotation marks you put round a word or phrase to indicate to your reader that you don't mean the word or phrase literally. 

There's a whole blog of scare quotes used wrongly or with unintended effect, including examples like this one:

This is the equivalent of doing the bunny-ears gesture when you say something (and it's weird that I just defined a writing convention by the gesture that clearly arose from the written form). 

Anyway. So there's this sign up in my department, because someone's phone is 'lost'. (I've removed the person's details so as, you know, not to put people's phone numbers on the internet without their consent, but if you've seen the phone let me know and I'll pass it on.) The sign looks like this:

Those magnificent scare quotes around lost convey, perfectly, this person's passive-agressive attitude to this: the phone is not lost, it has been stolen, but because the sign-maker has no evidence for this, he will keep up the pretence that it is merely lost. But you know who you are, phone-pincher.

The other scare quotes I saw this week performed a very different function. Our region is switching over to digital TV in September, and so 'they' (don't know who is in charge of this) have sent us a booklet telling us what will happen and what we need to do. One of the things we might need to do, if we have outmoded equipment, is buy a new telly. Luckily we're OK, but there might be some old people who need to buy a digibox but don't have a SCART socket on their telly (stay with me, we're going somewhere). The booklet tells them that if this is the case, they need to ask for a digibox with an 'RF modulator'. In scare quotes. This tells the reader, effectively,
Don't worry, we know all these technical terms are meaningless. You don't need to know what it is, just ask for this and you'll be given the right thing. 
The same punctuation mark, used in two different ways, to such different effect.

In the 'lost' sign, it's almost like lost and stolen are scalar implicatures, which means that stolen is a type of lost but more specific. If a phone is stolen it is also lost, but if it is lost it is not stolen (by implicature, as you would say stolen if you meant it, because you use the strongest term on the scale that is true).

In the second case, it's the use of quotation marks in the same way we might use them in academic or technical texts, when you use a term and need to show that you're using it as a term, for the first time. It's interesting, actually, that this is a type of punctuation that doesn't seem to need much explicit teaching. It must be an intuitive thing. Which might, of course, lead to the signs on the blog I mentioned earlier - the writers think they are defining terms, although they aren't really. The writer of the sign above thinks he needs to point out that (s)he is using the term 'urine drops'. Although why the writer felt the need to use the term 'urine drops' I really don't know.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


I just made up a word. I happened to need a word to describe the gifs that some kids make of themselves to express the way they feel about a thing, and I picked emotigif.

Actually, those of you who spend less time pootling around on the internet than I do will need some kind of explanation here.

On Tumblr, which is a blogging site which is mostly devoted to teenagers endlessly reblogging each other's inane cute/humorous images, telling the world about their love of Matt Smith/Benedict Cumberbatch and delivering expletive-laden diatribes on other people's inability to use the words you're and your correctly, people like to express their feelings on a subject by adding a gif (a simple moving image on a short loop) to their post. This is a gif which in no way expresses my feelings:

These gifs are commonly snippets of films or TV programmes, with a close up of an actor or celebrity making some kind of easily-interpreted facial expression or action (sometimes with speech which is usually also provided in writing). Like this:

Anyway, sometimes people apparently feel that there isn't a gif that expresses their emotions well enough. This is commonly when they need to express the emotion 'Yeah bitch, I'm totally right about this trivial issue in a really camp way and will therefore do a stereotypical camp finger-pointy head-waggly shoulder-shrugging movement shot at a bad angle that makes it obvious that this is taken with the substandard camera on my laptop in bad light in my bedroom and put it on the internet'. Like this:

This, my friends, is an emotigif. Based on emoticon, obviously. I learnt in the process of researching this post that they are already called 'reaction gifs', but my name is better.

Interviews with linguists about books in linguistics

This has just come to my attention: New Books in Language, interviews with authors of new books about language!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Talking to real people

Today I gave a talk to some real people. Actual non-academic real people. Normally, we only ever have to explain our research to people who already have a good specialist (or at least basic) knowledge of our topic and the background and framework that underpin it all. Everyone understands the technical terms you use, and you can make certain assumptions and everyone will go along with them.

But it does one good sometimes to step outside the warm bath of academia and see what impression you can make on people who don't have a rigorous grounding in the niceties of Minimalist syntax (for example). How are you going to explain what the Final-Over-Final Constraint is to an audience if they don't know what a head is? Or a VP? Or what 'final' means?

NECLL Current BrochureI was participating in the Explore programme run by the Centre for Lifelong Learning. They ran a training day for postgraduates at universities in the region aimed at helping us to present our research to a public audience. This is something that I'm interested in, because linguistics is so hopelessly unknown and misunderstood in the popular media, and yet everyone is interested in it. Programmes and newspaper articles about language go down an absolute storm, but the only linguist anyone's heard of is David Crystal. Yes, they've heard of Chomsky too, but not for his linguistics. Your average person knows more about how the Large Hadron Collider works than their own language.

The interest that people have in language was illustrated today, after my talk, when the audience had a chance to ask questions and make comments. They all had something to say, offering interesting facts about other languages, or making observations about the way language is used now or might be at some other time. From their feedback it seems that they found my topic interesting. Wow. Some readers of this blog will be wondering how on earth I made my dry, dull, theoretical syntax PhD into a talk that didn't send them to sleep. It is of course all due to my captivating speaking persona.

But seriously, these are people that learn for fun, so they're willing to put a bit of effort in (although they don't want to feel like they're back at school). However, I knew that for an audience with zero assumed knowledge of syntax, I had to lose a lot of the technicalities but not lose the quality. From the practice run we did at the training day, I found that some people panic at the sight of anything vaguely technical-looking. They pretty much switched off when they saw trees and abbreviations, even though I did try to explain them clearly. For that reason, I did away completely with tree diagrams and replaced them with an analogy of a mobile. I've used that analogy for years, after pinching it from a lecturer, and it works well. Then I entirely removed labels like VP and TP and just did without them. It's convenient for linguists to use them but it turns out you don't need them. Then I filled the talk with cats. People like cats.

I followed the principle we'd learnt at the training day, that rather than start with the general background, it's good to dive straight in to the interesting fact and show some kind of visual (or otherwise memorable) prop. I showed maps from WALS illustrating different patterns of word orders, and how question particles don't look the way they're meant to. It's not the most fascinating graphic in the world, but it's better than a lot of text. I also tried to end on something that they could engage with, and compared my analysis to spurious claims about languages lacking some characteristic or other. I thought that was something they would likely have read about, and have thoughts about, and they did - that sparked some nice discussion. I wish I'd thought to use the Hopi example that came up in the questions, though.

Marcus du Sautoy looking all mathsy
I think that in the middle, some people still got a bit lost. Maybe I didn't explain everything as fully as I should have, or maybe I tried to cover too much and could have sloughed off a bit more syntax. But overall, I was pleased with how it went. I'll work on those things for next time someone's fool enough to put me in front of humans again, and this time next year I'll be the Marcus du Sautoy of linguistics.

Just nobody, not ever, suggest I host this gameshow (I would derail it with anti-prescriptivism):

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Language is like trousers

Marie-Lucie, a commenter on a couple of different language blogs that I read, posted on Language Hat the other day on the topic of prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. She made this analogy between language and clothing:

One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing: we wear clothes not at random or just according to the weather but according to circumstances. It would be ridiculous to insist that we have to wear formal clothes all the time, or that it should not matter if we showed up for work in pajamas. Without wanting to wear a uniform, we normally adjust to the common standards of those around us, at least in our working lives. These (usually unwritten and even unconscious) standards include some obligatory rules (all men wear pants!), some more relaxed ones (colours, jewellery, height of heels), and some no-nos (no ripped jeans or baseball caps in an office). There are also exceptional occasions which call for specific clothing and language, often following more ancient tradition (weddings, religious ceremonies). In traditional cultures, ethnic differences are often reflected both in clothing and in language. So are some social differences in large cities. Some professions call for special clothing, along with specialized vocabulary (eg in hospitals). Members of teams or clubs often wear identical t-shirts or jackets, and share some in-group words and expressions. Language does change through time, as do clothing fashions.

Posted by marie-lucie at May 30, 2012 03:20 PM
I thought that was a brilliant way to think about the rules of language use. Although I would quibble with the obligatory rule of all men wearing pants (by which she means trousers, for a UK speaker - I think Marie-Lucie is Canadian). It's a very deeply ingrained rule, which is almost never broken (discussion of kilts followed on Language Hat, but that's irrelevant here). However, you certainly can break it, and if you're a man and you choose to wear a skirt people will notice, but they won't fail to understand what's going on.

I'd say this is the equivalent of Yoda in Star Wars. He breaks some quite basic rules of English word order, by topicalising the predicate or some other final constituent of every sentence. This doesn't make ill-formed sentences, but it makes his speech sound quite strange. It's comparable to a man not wearing trousers in that way: it's not an impossible clothing choice, but it's quite strange (to most people).

But crucially, you can still understand Yoda. Why? Because he is still following the rules of English. He topicalises constituents, as I said. He moves a complete constituent as a unit, without breaking it up or destroying its internal word order, to a specified position at the front of the sentence. If he did anything else, people would fail to understand him and the pressure to communicate would force his speech back within the basic rules of language. Likewise, if a man tried to wear a hat on his legs, he would simply fail.

Saturday, 2 June 2012


A Language Log post the other day included a use of the word boob by the male blogger, Victor Mair (whose always interesting posts have featured on this blog before):
sonar-like semi-circles emanating from the model's left boob
While boob is of course in very common use, and is perhaps the most common word that I hear for these body parts (subjective statement alert), it sounds funny to me to hear a man use the word (not completely weird, just enough to notice).

Perhaps men talk less about boobs generally than women do (sounds unlikely, I know), and when they do they refer to them in a more formal manner with the more neutral, formal, breasts? (Unless it's a discussion of someone's merits or otherwise in that department, in which case it's often tits.) Discounting lads'-mag discussions and passing mentions, that leaves few occasions for a man to use such a familiar word.

(Disclaimer: My thoughts apply only to UK usage, of course, and pretty only much my own experience.)