Monday, 30 December 2013

Excellent correcting effort

I spotted this sign in Canterbury, which someone has neatly lettered but made a mistake by leaving out the p in 'imported'. Not to worry, they've corrected it so that no one will know... 

Saturday, 28 December 2013

RT, MT, and I was like OMG

A tweet from the Invisible Woman made me think about attribution and reported speech:

Just in case you don't tweet, I'd better explain what's going on here. The Invisible Woman has tweeted her own comment, *speechless with delight* (the asterisks mean that she isn't saying it, it's an action, state or feeling). The rest of the tweet is from Corrie Corfield, which Invisible Woman has repeated - RT means 'retweet'. Now, retweets may just consist of the original tweet, repeated in order to bring your followers' attention to it, or they may, as here, have some comment added. Either way, the RT means that the tweet is quoted as it originally was. You might modify the tweet slightly, by removing some content to make it fit or editing it somehow, and then the normal rules apply (preserve the original intent) and you use MT ('modified tweet'). IW uses RT, so we can assume the tweet is verbatim.

Corrie replies, however, to the effect that she didn't in fact put it like that, and I checked her timeline and it appears that none of the tweet is hers. RT isn't really appropriate here, then. She did, however, say something to this effect, so the original intent is preserved. Should IW have used MT? I would say not, actually, because modified tweets tend to be edited only slightly. It's similar to quoting or paraphrasing academic authors: if you put it in quotation marks, the words are the original author's. You can edit them very slightly, by missing out some words that are not needed for your purposes, or adding in a clarifying bracketed phrase to replace a pronoun that's not clear in context, but no more than this. Any more serious changes and what you're doing is paraphrasing, not quoting. Retweeting is quoting, and MTing is quoting with minor editorial changes. We need a convention to indicate paraphrasing that allows us to use it in 140 characters or less.

It's similar to the use of 'like' for reported speech, maybe. If you say (1) below, we can reasonably safely assume that those were more or less her words. If you say (2), we don't have that security. (3) is more like (2) than (1) in this respect, in that it conveys her message but not necessarily her words. This is an oversimplification, but perhaps this is how RT and MT will come to be used.
(1) Phyllis said "I really hate Bertha".
(2) Phyllis says she really hates Bertha.
(3) Phyllis was like "I really hate Bertha".

Friday, 13 December 2013

You sure?

This blog post neatly illustrates how one person can have strong opinions about a particular usage and yet have absolutely no awareness whatsoever of how they themself use the word in question.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Legal language: 'it's just semantics'

I read this utterly depressing article about the legal problems of rape cases in India. (Note that I'm not passing judgement on any particular country being better or worse than any other in this regard - I'm not a lawyer. But this is in the news, and it made me think.) It describes, among other things, the fact that some sexual assault crimes are described using very out-dated terms: 
A non-penetrative sexual act is still described as "outraging the modesty of a woman" - a relic of a penal code written by the British in 1860.
"Because of the language, it has often led to judgments where courts have held that a woman did not have 'modesty' which could be outraged," says law professor, Mrinal Satish.
"Such judgments are few and far between nowadays, but the continuance of the archaic language is itself problematic."
Language has become very important here: an old-fashioned term is allowing defendants to get away with serious crimes. Sometimes, I think that as long as people agree on what a word means, that's what it means, and we ought not to get hung up on it. But here it's having a serious effect on real life and has consequences. If ever there was one, this is an argument for prescribing language. (I've written about other instances before.)

It reminded me of this LanguageLog post from last month. In it, they discussed a claim made in The Economist:
In Urdu there is no word for rape. The closest direct translation is "looting my honour". 
LanguageLog and its commenters swiftly demolished this 'no word for X' claim, just as they have done many times before. It's complicated, but if everyone knows and agrees that a particular word means rape, then there is a word for rape. Take English, for instance. The word comes from the Latin word rapere, or 'seize', 'carry off', etc. But no trial is going to turn on whether an accused rapist actually carried their victim off somewhere - all speakers of English agree that the word means something very different from its original 'literal' meaning (and it already had the 'modern' meaning in Latin, by the way). From what the knowledgeable commenters on LanguageLog say, the situation in Urdu is similar:
The legal term is "zina bi'l-jabr" (aggravated fornication), and everyone who speaks Urdu knows what it means. 
The difference in (some parts of) India seems to be that some judges accept the specious 'literal meaning' argument. People who think that saying 'it's just semantics' implies that the question is unimportant are wrong. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Tom Daley's sibilant 's'

The diver Tom Daley posted a video on YouTube in which he told his viewers that he has a boyfriend (if he made any more revelations in the last minute or so, I missed them because I stopped watching - he doesn't half go on). Some delightful person called RogerGT posted a comment saying 'Of course he's gay! He has a sibilant 's'.':
This is obviously a gross stereotype. While there may be a stereotypical 'gay' manner of speech, this is about campness rather than gayness, and Daley does not have camp mannerisms. This is likely to be a post-hoc application of new knowledge causing delusions of prior knowledge. Similarly, an acquaintance of mine said people often tell her they could hear the German in her accent after she reveals her nationality, despite the fact that she sounds entirely English.

More to the point, though, is that everyone's 's' is sibilant: that's the term for that particular type of 'hissing' sound. 'S', as normally pronounced, is the canonical example of a sibilant. So, not a good diagnostic for someone's sexuality then.

What RogerGT is probably referring to is the camp stereotype of 'lisping': producing a sound more like 'th' /θ/ instead of 's' /s/. Daley does actually do this a tiny bit, though I'd never noticed it before I went back and listened out for it.

So what  have we learnt today? Well, from a linguistic point of view, we've learnt that people are quick to stereotype or judge people based on their accent, that people don't use linguistic terminology right (jk we all knew that already), and that people are really extraordinarily good at spotting even tiny differences in the production of speech sounds.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

(On the) origin of (the) species

Recently I went to the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. I had a look round their shop and saw this iPad cover designed to look like the jacket of Charles Darwin's book On the origin of species.

The trouble is, as you can see, it says Origin of the species. This is a reasonably common mistake: the content words are present and the 'little words' get mixed up or left out. Doesn't matter? Well, maybe not, but maybe it does.

The way Darwin wrote it, it's clear that it refers to the process by which there are lots of different species (natural selection). The way it's written on this cover, it might do, because the plural of species is species. But it easily might not, and I suspect that it doesn't in the minds of the people who make this mistake. After all, one of the major ideas in this book is the idea that humans are descended from apes, so it's natural for people (self-centred as we are) to think of it as being about the origins of the human species.

Does it matter? Well, I think so, because humans are not the most important thing in the world, no matter what we may think. To us, though, we are. It would just be nice if people designing (quite expensive) products to sell could take two minutes to make them accurate.

Friday, 22 November 2013

A lovely instance of involuntary code-switching due to L1 (first language) influence on this LanguageLog post:

Biagio intends to write in English, because LanguageLog is an English-Language-medium blog. They use the Italian conjunction e 'and', presumably because it occurs between two Italian words and the instinct was just too strong to overcome the (conscious?) act of writing in English.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fox gloves and puns

I've got a pair of gloves (those fingerless ones with mittens that flip off so that you can work your phone) that have a fox design, from Primark:
Fox gloves from Primark [photo source]
I've been wearing them for some time, and refer to them as my 'fox gloves'. I shift the primary stress to the first syllable (FOXgloves), indicating that I consider this to be a compound. During the time I've owned these gloves I've said the word 'foxglove', referring to the flower. And yet I've never, not once, realised that it would be hilariously witty to refer to them as foxgloves until this morning, when I wasn't even wearing them (it's proper winter glove weather now).

This is testament to the power of our language faculty to keep homophones apart. Puns wouldn't work, for instance, if we were constantly aware of similar-sounding strings. There's a joke which goes like this:
Two cats, one called OneTwoThree and one called UnDeuxTrois, were having a swimming race. Why did OneTwoThree win?
Because UnDeuxTrois cat sank! 
This joke works because UnDeuxTrois cat sank is exactly homophonous with un deux trois quatre cinq (the numbers from one to five in French) for many English speakers, not to mention this set of numbers being learnt pretty much as a 'chunk' or formulaic utterance by the 8-year-olds telling this joke, and so we are presented with a situation in which our brain is temporarily confused by the words, finds the humour and then has a good old chuckle.

Not all puns are exact homophones, and one of my favourite jokes is this one:
Why are there no aspirins in the jungle?
The parrots eat 'em all!
This pun relies on parrots eat 'em all sounding like paracetamol, but in fact I pronounce paracetamol  the other way, with an e as in bed (something like /ˌpæɹəˈsɛtəmɒl/ for the linguists), and my all is not like the ol syllable. Nevertheless, there are many puns that work because a string of sounds is precisely identical with two different meanings, and yet our brains don't ever confuse them until we are made to by the complicated joke set-up. Similarly, we don't ever seem to get homophonous words mixed up (pen, bank etc., where the words have two or more totally separate meanings). We even manage to think of different lexical categories from the same root as different (analyses is one I use in teaching: it can be the plural of the noun analysis or the 3rd person singular present tense form of the verb analyse). How we store and retrieve these is a question I'm going to let the brain scientists work on. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Interesting uses for linguistics 1

In the book '48 hours' by J Jackson Bentley (a fairly crappy crime thriller), forensic corpus linguistics turned up. In the book, a woman is kidnapped and her kidnappers make her send a videoed message to her boyfriend. She's a smart cookie so she gives lots of coded information about where she's being held in the message, including the word 'print'. The police try to find out what she might mean by this. They do that by running the word through a database to see what words 'print' occurs with most often.
“Luke again,” the speaker chirped. The computer is showing that the word ‘print’ can be associated with the word ‘press’ in the next sentence, as in ‘printing press’. This could be code for Dee telling us that the industrial unit houses a printing press.”
There's a good deal of suspension of disbelief required to get through this book, but this is a real thing. It's called 'collocation': when a word tends to co-occur with another one with greater than chance frequency.

If you look at a corpus (collection of texts) like the British National Corpus, you can very easily make it tell you this stuff (I'm no corpus linguist and even I can do it). Here's a screenshot of what happens if you look for the words that most frequently occur immediately after the word 'print' or one of its derivatives (such as 'printing'). The photo's a bit small but 'press' is there on the list, in eighth most common position (if I've worked the search terms right), after things like 'characters', 'material' and so on. I suppose, if you were looking for a clue to a place, 'press' would be the first one to give you anything to go on.

You can click on the words and find out what the context is, just in case there's some false results or you want more detail or whatever, and you get this:

That shows you the type of writing it was found in, and gives you the bit of sentence either side so that you can understand the phrase in context. I'm not really au fait with police techniques, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do use this kind of method when it's appropriate. There are such people as forensic linguists who work closely with the police, whose job is often to determine if a particular person is the author or a document.

Spoiler alert: 
So they located a nearby printing press and, after much showdown, rescued 'the girls', as the two adult hostages were patronisingly referred to throughout. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Linguists have accent opinions too!

Linguists have to spend quite a lot of time explaining that they don't correct people's grammar, and trying to prevent people from judging each other based on the language they use, and trying to explain that one standard language is not inherently better than a non-standard version or a different standard version.

But you know, we're people too, and we have human opinions. This was an exchange between two linguists:

As you can see, the second linguist, as well as the one mentioned in the first tweet, have negative opinions of their own regional dialects. I also know another linguist who said that she didn't think she'd be taken seriously as an academic if she used the accent she grew up with.

It seems that we need to distinguish between disliking an accent and thinking that it's wrong or worse than the standard. We know that all dialects (and indeed languages) are equally valid, equally correct and equally suitable for use. This is where we differ from many non-linguists, who often think that a person speaks in a non-standard way because they're lazy or stupid. We also know that objectively, accents don't sound stupid or unfriendly or untrustworthy: those are values projected onto speakers of that dialect by the listener. We're like non-linguists, though, in thinking that some accents are simply not as suited to our own preference. And we also know how much people judge you based solely on the way you speak - more reason than any other to moderate your accent if you think people might regard it unfavourably.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Past tense is not past

It was the final of the Great British Bake Off last week. Now that it's been long enough for everyone to catch up, I can post this with no spoilers.

One of the contestants was Ruby, a very young baker (just 20) who divided opinion: many were annoyed by her apparent lack of confidence, thinking that it seemed fake. This seemed a bit harsh to me, but then as a university lecturer I'm well placed to see the lack of confidence that many young women have in their own abilities. Ruby has won over a lot of people with this article about the way she and the other female contestants were treated.

But lots of people loved Ruby and were rooting for her to win. She didn't, losing out to the contestant who was better in the final, as is right and proper. On twitter, The Invisible Woman tweeted her thoughts in the moments before the announcement was made:

Tweet: "'We will always remember Ruby for her perfect picnic pie...' I think that past tense is a clue."
The Invisible Woman is an intelligent woman and we all tweet things without thinking about them properly, so I just want to be clear that I'm not picking on her or making fun of her for making a mistake. Nevertheless, it is a mistake, and it's interesting to see why it might have been made.

We can distinguish between 'tense' and 'time' - we might talk about past, present, future, and so on, but we might not always talk about past time with past tense, for instance. Just imagine someone telling a story and saying 'So I start walking away, and he says...'. If we talk about tense, we mean something that is a grammatical feature of the language - an ending on a verb, or a word that functions to make the sentence past.

English has two tenses that are indicated with inflection on the verb: present (with either no ending or -s) and past (with -ed or an irregular ending):
walk - walks - walked
To indicate other tenses, other methods are used. We might discuss the future and use be going to, or just a present tense verb: The party starts at 8 tonight. Future tense can also be marked 'periphrastically' - that means with another word, will. That's what we've got in the tweet above: We will always remember. Future tense is about is non-past as tenses get. But not only that, it's not even referring to past time. It's referring to some time in the future, using future will, describing the action at that future time. The only past-ness about it is the fact that the meaning of remember refers to the past - if you remember something, you necessarily remember a past event.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Yeah and yes

I had this text conversation:

The response (the white bubble on the bottom left) consists of two ways of pronouncing the affirmative answer word 'yes': 'yes' and 'yeah'. We all use both of these, and I would have said pretty interchangeably, but here it does look like there's some functional difference between them.

It appears that 'yeah' has been used to agree with a statement and 'yes' to answer a question. This isn't a rule, by any means: you can certainly answer a question with 'yeah' or agree to a statement with 'yes'. But it's interesting that the distinction was made here.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Ket... carrion or sweeties?

On Twitter today, Richard Osman bemoaned the fact that British English lacks a word that covers both 'chocolate' and 'sweets'. I remembered this northeast word that I think has that meaning: ket. It's not in my personal vocabulary, and possibly not so common these days, but it does seem to mean this, according to Wiktionary:

But just look at the etymology! It's from the word meaning 'flesh' in Icelandic/Swedish/Danish, and in other parts of northern England it means 'carrion'. Eew, and also how? 

Wiktionary has two theories: either it comes via the term 'sweetmeats' (I don't know if they mean in the sense 'sweet treats' or 'testicles') or it could be that the word was used to put kids off eating too many sweets! 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Onomatopoeia from my students

In my first-year introductory seminar, I had the students coming up with new onomatopoeic words, which we then tried to guess the meaning of (spoilers: you usually can't guess, despite the supposed relation of the sound of the word to the sound it describes). Some of the words seemed quite useful, so here they are:
frip: the sound of flicking or rifling through a sheet or sheets of paper.
shplup: the sound of dropping something damp onto a hard surface.
zhoom: the sound of a car going by at high speed.
ouge (pronounced like 'rouge'): the noise of a washing machine.
mmm: the noise a fridge makes.
shlup: the noise it makes when you drink from a bottle with a 'sports cap'.
twing: the melodious jingling of windchimes or bracelets. 
I thought there were some very nice creative ones, and some interesting similarities in words or definitions.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Yes or no what?

I was sort of half-heartedly watching ITV's 'This Morning' programme while I was working yesterday (honest) and they were talking about vigilantes. They had one of those viewer polls, where viewers have to text or tweet their opinion about an issue and either the result is an equal split or it confirms what we already knew. 

This was the question put to viewers about this 'issue': 

Perfectly reasonable question. Two opposing points of view to choose between: either vigilantes have a valid role (in the process of catching criminals) or the job of catching criminals is one that should be left to the police alone. Choose the position you agree with and tell ITV. 

But here's how the results were presented: 

Well, yes or no what? Yes, either vigilantes have a valid role or catching criminals should be left to the police? And no, neither of the above apply? 

Clearly not. Obviously, what they meant was yes or no to the first part of the question (do vigilantes have a valid role), as this clearer presentation shows:

Probably no one except me was confused by the wording. I've spent more time than most people thinking about questions over the last few years, though, so I noticed this strange construction. 

The question was presented as if it was an 'alternative question': one where the answer is one of the alternatives that are mentioned in the question. More everyday examples tend to have smaller parts of the sentence given as alternatives, as in Are you coming for lunch or tea? The answer is either 'lunch' or 'tea'. The question from ITV had two whole questions as the options: Do vigilantes have a valid role? and should catching criminals be left to the police?

This kind of alternative question, as far as I can tell, is hardly ever used as a real alternative question (as the lunch or tea example is). More often, the second part isn't a real alternative, and you aren't meant to pick one of them as the answer. Instead, the question is really a 'yes/no' question, or one where the answer is either yes or no. You can't answer yes or no to a real alternative question (where # means that the utterance is strange in some way): 
Did you buy that suit or hire it? #Yes.
But in the poll above, and in most cases of apparently alternative questions with two entire questions as the 'alternatives', the answer can be yes or no, showing that they must really be yes/no questions. But! You can also answer by providing one of the alternatives. This is sort of the case for yes/no questions as well, in a trivial sense which I won't go into here, but it's different with these strange halfway things.

This was actually pointed out to me pretty early on in my PhD (by Sten Vikner), who gave an example like Have you done the washing up or have you just been sitting in front of the TV all day?. The question provides two alternatives, and you can answer it by providing one of them as the answer, but it's really just asking Have you done the washing up? and it's more natural to answer with yes or no. I didn't really address this problem then, but perhaps I ought to now.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


I snapped this photo while I was in London recently, at the annual LAGB meeting. It's a newsagent just next to Russell Square tube station, and it offers, among other things, 'tobaccos'. 

'Tobaccos' is a word you won't hear much. You're far more likely to hear the singular, 'tobacco'. In fact, it's not quite right to call it the singular, because 'tobacco' doesn't usually refer to a single tobacco. It's a mass noun, and what that means is that it's a substance rather than individual things that can be counted (those things are called count nouns!). Water is a mass noun, as is rice, bread, tea, juice, gravel, and so on. Some mass nouns are physically uncountable, like water - it's one continuous thing, unseparable unless you're looking at the molecules. Others, like gravel, are composed of little bits you could count, but we don't refer to each one as 'a gravel' or 'a rice' (for rice, we have a separate word 'grain'). As I've mentioned before, 'pea' is now a count noun, but used to be a mass noun 'pease' before it was reanalysed as a plural, with each individual bit of pease being a pea.

So normally, you can't pluralise a mass noun because it's uncountable. You don't order some rices in a restaurant, for instance. However, there is one time when you can, and that's when it refers to types or instances of a thing. Let's take rice. I wouldn't ask for rices in a restaurant, but I might if I was a rice salesman wanting a wide selection of rices to sell - basmati, long grain, brown, etc. Then I could ask 'What rices do you have?'. Or beer: I might ask for 'two beers, please', and I mean two instances or servings of beer.

This makes me think that this shop might have a wide variety of tobaccos, from all over the tobacco-growing world. Alternatively, it might have been written by someone who didn't know that tobacco is a mass noun and pluralised it to mean 'tobacco products'. This would actually be a perfectly legitimate use of the plural, but we just happen not to use it to mean 'different types of tobacco products'.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Sensible advice from Morrison's

Morrison's offers this advice to shoppers at its Margate branch: 

I intend to accept no responsibility for any of the above, even if I cause the damage myself. Thanks, Morrison's!

(We can talk about why it's 'on' this car park rather than 'in' another time.)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Lembit, txt spk, computer programming

I wrote this post and then didn't post it on the day GCSE results came out, a couple of weeks ago. Here, have it now.

Lembit Opik was on the Wright Stuff talking about GCSEs being dumbed down (always a nice thing to talk about on the day kiddies are finding out if their hard work has resulted in a bright future). The conversation inevitably became about what's wrong with education today, and he said that kids use text speak and 'there is no doubt that this causes problems'.

No doubt? In his mind, maybe. But if you asked, you know, an actual expert on language, you'd find that the exact opposite is true.

For instance, this article describes a study looking at literacy levels of users of text speak and non-users, and says that there was no difference in their literacy (although interestingly, the study participants themselves believed that text speak did have an effect on their literacy!).

This article discusses how the ability to speak in more than one register is no bad thing. It's called code-switching (the term also applies when you switch between languages).

If you don't have access to academic articles, here is Language Log discussing another study about this. You could also do worse than read David Crystal's various books and news items on this topic.

And one point to bear in mind is that kids don't use text speak any more.

All this raises a perennial complaint among linguists: why are random commentators' views more valid than actual experts'? If something about almost any other subject is in the news, they bring in an expert on that topic (or at least something close to it - Dan Snow, for instance, does have a history degree and therefore has some level of history knowledge). If there's an item about language, they'll either trot out some insufferable know-it-all who's totally unqualified, or the presenters will simply discuss amongst themselves. This isn't really acceptable. For one thing, it's not at all useful, whereas an expert might actually provide some new information or a perspective not known to the general public. I may have said this before and I'm just ranting. And linguists' weariness with this situation perpetuates it, because it makes them less likely to want to try to correct misconceptions on breakfast television.

Of course, linguistics is not special in this respect. We all think we know something about a topic if we have even the slightest experience of it. At another point in this programme, someone (I think it might have been Saira Khan) said computer programming was important but not covered in GCSEs. Lembit, in his wisdom, said kids don't need to learn that because they know how to use computers. Saira pointed out that this is true, but they don't know how to programme them. You know what he said? They don't need to know that because they can already use them better than he can. The mind boggles.

Saturday, 17 August 2013


Ms. is intended to be equivalent to Mr., not signifying the marital status of the person using the title. This reflects our modern attitude of not absolutely needing to know whether a woman is available for seduction when she, for instance, buys contents insurance.

I have traditionally fluctuated in my use of Ms., because I like equality, but then I also sometimes want to make clear that I am a Miss because otherwise you get called Mrs. anyway, and I really hate that. I tell call centre people that there's no such person when they ring up for 'Mrs Bailey', or sometimes I tell them my grandma lives in Cheltenham. So my bills and things are a mixture of Miss, Ms. and, lately, Dr.

Now and again, drop-down menus are very restrictive and don't allow you to be Dr., Rev., Lady and so on, and you have to pick a gender-specific title. A friend of mine was recently in this position and had to choose either Mrs. or Ms.

At first, this seemed reasonable. You get the choice: do you want to me Mrs. and reveal your marital status, or do you want to be Ms. and keep it undisclosed? But in fact, this completely undermines the whole point of having the title Ms. as an alternative to Mrs./Miss. It only functions if it doesn't state anything about the bearer's marital status, after all, and if it's used in opposition to Mrs., then it implies 'unmarried', becoming synonymous with Miss. For it to retain its purpose, it has to be the only option (with Mrs. and Miss not available) or the Mrs./Miss system must be available: both options must be present. Otherwise, an unmarried woman has to choose Ms., giving it the same function as Miss. While Miss and Mrs. are a pair of contrasting choices, Ms. has to remain non-contrastive (or contrast only with Mr.).

Friday, 9 August 2013

Filled with vs full of

Apologies for the scarcity of posts; I've been moving house and we've been internetless and busy. Should be back to normal soon. In the meantime, have a brief observation on the subtle difference in meaning different syntactic structures can imply. 

Reece Shearsmith tweeted this photograph yesterday:

'Please do not use: machine filled with BEES'
Someone commented beneath it that using filled with rather than full of makes it sound 'almost like somebody has done it deliberately'. Full is an adjective, related to the verb fill. Filled is the past or passive participle of the same verb. As is clear from this photo, the adjective and participle can often be used interchangeably, and give basically the same meaning. Sometimes, there isn't an adjective and we just use the participle for everything: consider She is qualified to teach the course. Qualified is just like filled, and there's no corresponding adjective to full to use instead.

If we have two words that are basically the same, you'll often find a subtle distinction in use, which is why we have the sense that filled with has more 'agency' (i.e. someone did it) than full of (which is just a state of affairs). Because filled can be the passive participle, we perhaps interpret this as meaning that the machine (has been) filled with BEES (by someone).

Anyhow, don't use the machine. It's got BEES in it.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Gwynne, and racism, classism, sexism and all the isms

A couple of weeks ago (because I am slow to get round to blogging), that Neville Gwynne person was on the BBC again talking his usual nonsense. In case you've forgotten, he's a retired teacher who wrote a grammar book and occasionally pops up in the media with odd opinions and crazy thoughts (he is a big fan of Michael Gove, which really tells you all you need to know). I wrote about Michael Rosen's response to him and his antics back in March.

This time, I wanted to talk about correcting people's grammar, and whether it's a good thing or not.

First, let's clear something up. Rosen says (in the article cited in the previous post I linked to)
In fact, we would neither be able to speak nor understand if we didn't know [grammar].
Gwynne says (in his book, on page 5)
For genuine thinking we need words... If we do not use words rightly, we shall not think rightly.
(Note his use of the hideous adverb 'rightly' because of his obsession with not using adjectives as adverbs!)

These are two very different positions, and I agree wholeheartedly with Rosen and disagree wholeheartedly with Gwynne. Rosen is right because language is, basically, grammar. 'Grammar', when not used in the school sense, is simply the way language works. Without it, you just have a bunch of sounds and maybe not even that. But you cannot go from that to saying that thinking requires words. This is a complex philosophical issue and one that I'm not going to get into here. It is possible that thinking does require language (definitely not just words), and if it does, OK, fine, we need to know grammar (not just words) to think, or at least think clearly and in some sophisticated manner which goes beyond what all animals do. But it is absolute fact that we do not need 'correct' grammar to think, and that is the dangerous message that Gwynne peddles.

I can see his argument, but he's got it wrong. He sees well-argued, cogent writing with correct grammar and poorly-argued, badly-written writing and thinks that one leads to the other. No. The two may well be related, but one is not a cause of the other. I see it myself: the most able students are often those who can also write well. The students less able to put together a clear, logical argument also tend to write less well. But this is far more likely to be due to general ability level, which affects both variables independently.

Furthermore, take this video of Boris Johnson and Russell Brand on Question Time (it's a BBC thing on YouTube so if it disappears, just look for any other footage of these two people):

Russell Brand has a persona, and part of that persona is his dialect, which includes many non-standard forms that Gwynne would consider to be wrong. However, Brand is also intelligent and is often booked for these things because people love to see him in opposition to the posh morons in power. He is highly articulate (he also writes well, and has a newspaper column). He sometimes says stupid things, but he says them all quite well and certainly makes a good, insightful argument. Boris, on the other hand, is educated, probably got taught all this 'proper grammar' stuff, but can barely string a sentence together. His spoken grammar is not 'correct' because he never utters one single 'grammatically correct' sentence. Ever. (I haven't checked everything he's ever said, but his hit rate is a lot lower than Brand's, for sure. Scripted speeches don't count.)

Gwynne teaches mostly non-native speakers of English, as far as I can tell, via the internet. This is admirable. I should think that his students, many of them in developing countries, will benefit greatly from having a good standard of written and spoken English. It is important to teach the standard, because that is what learners will be expected to learn by those who test them and those who judge them for entry to university courses and employment, and it's what they themselves will expect to learn. Some people can go too far with their linguist-centred descriptivist outlook and claim that it's oppressive to do this, but in fact we are failing language students if we don't teach them the standard. Similarly, when I mark essays, I correct them if they don't use standard English. I do think, though, that students should be taught what people really say and what the acceptable alternatives are, alongside what is 'correct'. Sometimes this is beyond the time constraints of the course or the abilities of the student.

Likewise, children should be taught how to use the standard dialect of their language (in their country, as standard US is different from standard British and so on). This will help them to get on in life. But they should not be told that any other way they speak is wrong: if you are a normally developing human, you speak your own language perfectly. There simply isn't any other way to do it. It's like telling a person they walk wrong. Maybe they walk in a way that displeases some people (dragging their heels, or too slowly) but they still walk perfectly fine.

It might not seem that important, but there are serious consequences of views like Gwynne's. In the recent Trayvon Martin case, Rachel Jeantel's testimony given largely in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) caused a lot of debate. A common example used in sociolinguistics classes is the Oakland school board case from the 1990s: in a county in California, it was decided that something needed to be done to help the black children, who were systematically performing worse than the white children, even when all else was equal. It was suggested that they might be at a disadvantage because they spoke AAVE at home, which is significantly different from standard English, and needed to be taught how to 'translate' it into standard English. This stirred up an enormous amount of racism and eventually the scheme came to nothing. People would rather black children continue to underperform and start their academic life at a significant disadvantage than risk their own children coming into contact with this dialect in the classroom. But the point is, there is no inherent reason why AAVE is not the standard dialect: it's simply an accident of history. What is now the standard is the variety spoken by the people in charge. A good education should teach children how to use the standard as well as their native dialect, but you can't judge a person's intelligence by the dialect they speak.

In the UK, there is no equivalent to AAVE. We have Multicultural London English, which is similarly stigmatised, but the two are very different. We do have a lot of regional dialects, though, and these are generally looked down upon and their speakers thought to be stupid, lazy or simply wrong. This means that working-class people, who are more likely to use regional dialect features, have to make a far greater effort than those who grew up with the standard as their native dialect. They may therefore do less well at school, and they may get less good jobs. Given that they are already at a societal disadvantage simply by being working class rather than middle or upper class, this only serves to compound the problem.

Gwynne no doubt considers people who use non-standard forms to be either stupid or lazy (because why else wouldn't they have learnt the correct forms?). Some of them are. But some people who use standard English are also stupid and lazy, and their language doesn't give you an easy way to judge them. Meanwhile, the dialect-users who are intelligent and hard-working are unfairly discriminated against. Young women are routinely judged to be less intelligent, because they tend to use linguistic features that often become mainstream later on. All of this perpetuates an unequal society in which rich white men have greater advantages and poor people, women and ethnic minorities have to work harder to achieve equal or lesser status.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Swansea question tag on 'the Call Centre'?

I couldn't sleep a few nights ago and watched a truly horrific programme called 'The Call Centre'. It's a 'structured reality' programme, which basically means getting real people to provide cheap, low quality, soap opera type entertainment. It's set in a call centre in Swansea and most of the young call centre workers have very strong Swansea accents. It's a really distinctive accent so I began to enjoy the programme for its linguistic appeal, if nothing else.

Accent is the thing we notice most about the way people from other areas of the country speak, but dialect is not only a matter of accent. Accent is only the sounds: things like what vowel you use in 'bath' or whether you tend to use a fully aspirated /k/ sound in the middle of 'chicken'. Dialect is 'accent plus'. It includes lexis (words), morphology (whether you say 'I've gone' or 'I've went'), and syntax (whether you can say 'Hasn't she not?' or just 'Hasn't she?').

The Swansea accent is great, but what struck me was a matter of syntax. I don't know if it really is a feature of the Swansea dialect, but what I heard was what sounded like an invariant question tag 'inne' (not sure how to spell that, but it sounds like 'innie').

A tag question is one that ends in a tag, like 'isn't it', 'wasn't she', 'aren't they' and so on. These tags vary to match the subject and verb of the main clause, so you get 'That's nice, isn't it?', 'She was good, wasn't she?', and 'The students are keen, aren't they?' Invariant tags, as the name implies, don't vary. We see ones like 'right', 'yeah' and 'no', but we also see ones that look like they should vary. 'Innit' is the famous one: 'He's a good worker, innit?' (rather than 'isn't he').

This 'inne' that I heard, twice in one episode, sounds like a reduced form of 'isn't he'. If you're going to have an invariant tag, then you just pick one of the available tags, and 'isn't he' is just as good as 'isn't it' (well, I would have a preference for 'it', but preference has never had much to do with language).

The thing is, I only heard it twice in that one episode. I watched another one (for research...) and didn't hear it again. Any Welsh readers know if it's widely used?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Why can you email an email but you can't letter a letter?

A commenter on my recent blog post suggested that I blog about the fact that you can blog a blog, and then followed it up with the question 'Why can't you letter a letter but you can email an email'? 

Blog as both noun and verb is another instance of the process I mentioned a while back, the nounification of verbs or the verbification of nouns (that's not the real name: it's called 'zero derivation' or 'conversion', but that's dull). The process goes both ways, but you get different results. If you turn a verb into a noun, it's an instance of the action: a kick is an instance of kicking. If you turn a noun into a verb, you can't always say what the meaning will be: to fish means to catch a fish, to trouser means to put something into one's trouser pocket and to book means to make a reservation or charge with an offence, and so on. Here I think we've got noun to verb, and I'm fairly certain that this is supported by the date of the earliest appearances of the noun (which derives from weblog) and the verb, though that can be tricky to verify.

Back to blogging a blog and lettering a letter. It's quite unusual that the noun can be an object of the verb derived from it. I can't really think of any examples other than the ones given above, and maybe text as in text message. Maybe message itself. I don't know if it's important that these are all communication acts... you can shout a shout, I suppose, and whisper a whisper

In US English, the verb is more commonly mail, whereas in British English post is used. But in the US I don't think that mail is used for one particular letter, so you can't mail a mail. When email was invented, the word email was used, probably by analogy with mail, for the general process/system. It quickly became used as the name for a particular message sent by email, as no specific word for this item existed, and for the verb, by the same process of verbification. Thus you could email an email

You can't letter a letter because there already exists a verb post, or mail if you prefer. We could, when email was invented, have broadened the sense of post or mail to include sending an email, but we didn't, perhaps because it seemed quite different (and in British English, the verb post is not even the same as the one used in email). Post (or mail) likewise would have blocked the use of letter as a verb - but the plausibility of all this is dependent on when each was first used. 

So in short, my answer is: because there is already the verb post but there is no equivalent verb for the use of sending an email or writing a blog other than the generic-verb+noun combination like send an email

Sunday, 23 June 2013


Sorry for the lack of blogging - it's been a busy time. I'll blog a blog again when I have time to think about blogging again, promise!

Friday, 14 June 2013

ELL research day

Me and a couple of others were live-tweeting today's department research day - see the complete tweets Storified below!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Q is for 'search'

My grandma got an ipad recently (which means that now she reads this blog: hello Rosemary!). I was playing with it a while back and one of the things that came up was what the little symbol that looked like a Q meant.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Learning grammar

Recently, English children aged 10-11 had to take their SATs (tests that children take every few years to check the school isn't useless). The English test included a test of their spelling, punctuation and grammar, a new thing introduced by the wildly unpopular and widely-derided Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
Michael Gove:
as much of an idiot as he looks.

I am, of course, in favour of these things being taught in schools. It seems sensible to me that children should learn how to write well and how to understand the language they speak. It would be even better if they learn how language works and were taught linguistics. This can be done, and I once read a very good proposal for how to implement it, which I now can't find. But anyway - that aside, yes, teach children how to spell. Good.

The problem is how Gove wants this taught and tested, as with all his reforms (his changes to history make the curriculum just a list of facts and figures, according to history teachers, because he felt that children were learning too much about Martin Luther King and not enough about ancient kings and queens of England).

Michael Rosen has written about this at great length and David Crystal has added his comments, so I won't add my thoughts here, but basically it's teaching children meaningless terminology out of context, which is at best confusing and at worst wrong. See the Crystal link for examples. It means that people end up with fixed rules that they don't fully understand and can't apply - one of the comments on the Crystal piece:
My son (an American) had a high school Advanced Placement composition teacher who would take points off for every "passive" sentence in a composition. Actually, what she did was go on hunts for instances of "was" and "is", and would deduct points even if the sentences weren't passive.
What I wanted to add to the conversation was this: is it actually useful to teach children grammar?

I know that's blasphemy to anyone of a certain age or temperament, but I'm serious. And I say that as someone whose job is basically grammar. What would the answer be?

If we teach it the way we do now, then I would be of the opinion that we don't teach it till they're older - 13 or so. Then they can cope with learning these unfamiliar terms and rules. But I also think we shouldn't teach it the way we do now, as if there are hard and fast rules. Knowing grammar is useful if you want to learn another language (although it is entirely possible to do it without, if you learn in an 'immersion' style), so perhaps we should introduce it earlier. Many people my age, who weren't taught English grammar at school, learnt all they know from their French lessons. In that case we could do it differently, showing children that there are basic categories of words and they're combined in certain ways, but that language is only real when it's used, and it behaves in interesting ways and the real skill is in learning how to investigate it.

Or, as an alternative, we could just not. I wasn't taught much grammar, as far as I remember. When my generation was at school it just wasn't on the curriculum. It hasn't done me any harm. If you need it or like it, you'll learn it later, and if you don't, well, there is literally no situation in real life where you will desperately need to know if a word is a noun or a verb.

There is one aspect of grammar that does affect real life, and that's using 'correct' grammar - you have to do that if you don't want people to think you're uneducated and not give you a job. That is important, but it's a different thing from learning grammar. That's learning the rules of how to use a particular register of the language to conform to a certain social group. There's no question that schools are failing children if they don't teach them how to do this, because like it or not, it's a vital life skill to be able to speak and write according to the standard language.

And you know what? Schools don't teach children this. I mark essays and there are so many mistakes in them, most students clearly haven't grasped all of the rules. There are maybe 5-10% of essays that are really well-written in any bunch. The rest are mostly not terrible, but they aren't great. This was shocking to me, because I assumed that most people who have managed to reach this stage of education have learnt this stuff along the way.

BUT I do not advocate more grammar lessons in school to remedy this problem. I've taught first-year syntax for long enough to know that if an 18-year-old struggles with grammar, a ten-year-old isn't going to fare any better. It's just going to make them hate writing and feel stupid.

I conducted a poll among my most writerly non-linguist friends - the ones who studied English literature. Some of these people have PhDs in English literature, or will soon, some make a career or hobby out of writing. They know their stuff. Almost all of them said that they don't have conscious knowledge of grammar, it's 'just instinct'. Even the stuff that these children are supposed to know, they wouldn't be confident if they were tested on it. But they can do it, and surely that's the important thing - who cares if you know what a gerund is, if you can use one right?

The way that they (and I) all learnt grammar was by reading a lot. If you read a lot, you pick up good grammar, is my hypothesis. Now of course it is possible that some child might read a lot but still not 'get it'. It might just be that these people picked it up easily AND liked reading, and one is not a cause of the other. I'd like to hear from you if you read a lot but still don't write well, or naturally write well but never read much.

I'm not pretending that this is an easy solution: a lot of children don't like reading and you can't force them to do it, or they end up hating it. I'm just saying, the way Gove is doing it is stupid. Maybe they do have to teach it explicitly. But if they're going to, then they should at least listen to the people they consulted, who specifically advised against the approach they've taken.

And I would bet Gove ten quid that he wouldn't be able to correctly identify, say, the subject of a sentence every single time, but it's not done his career any harm.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

In which continent is Honolulu?

In linguistics papers, we often need to give examples of some linguistic construction or other, and so we use example sentences. It didn't strike me as at all odd until I talked to other people about linguistics, and they found it hilarious. Still. It's what we do. What I mean by this is that, say I'm writing about questions, and I need to illustrate what questions look like in various languages, I'll just give an example of a question. It doesn't matter what question, usually; it just has to be a normal question with nothing syntactically weird going on. So I might give these two examples:

neih johng hohk sahn ma
‘Have you  rushed into the crane god, eh?’ (Morrison 1828, cited in Cheung 2001: 223)

vok i2-­‐n vulʔ doon1 em2
‘Are you going to raise pigs?’ (Chhangte 1989: 162)
I can generally be relied on to pick the silliest examples I can find, so my thesis contained lots of examples involving trousers being covered in bitumen, and expressions with rude words in them. You don't always have a lot of choice, if you don't speak the language, but if you're working on a language you speak, you can make up good examples. I despair of the number of papers I read in which John lends Mary yet another book. In my constructed examples, all sorts of things happen: gorillas get seasick, Poirot solves murders, Richard Burton is a post-mortem actor, and we have to choose whether we would rather be able to fly or be invisible. (You have to make sure you don't go too far, though. The Generative Semantics movement of the 1970s got a bit silly in this respect.)

Reading examples in other languages can be informative: I learn the words for all sorts of things in other languages, for instance. Did you know that the Cantonese for 'Christmas' is literally 'Jesus birthday'? And the Swahili for 'lion' is 'simba'?

But today I was reading a paper and was baffled. It's Hamblin's classic 1958 paper on questions. In it, he discusses how some questions include a presupposition. The (in)famous example of this is 'Have you stopped beating your wife?', which the defendant cannot answer 'yes' or 'no', because either answer presupposes that he has, in the past, beaten his wife. Hamblin notes that a question like 'In which continent is Luxembourg?' also contains a presupposition (that Luxembourg is in a continent), but that it is unimportant because the presupposition is true. He gives this question as the equivalent example where the same presupposition would be untrue: 'In which continent is Honolulu?'. You cannot, says Hamblin, answer by simply saying what continent Honolulu is in, because it is not in a continent at all.

Clearly, this is now false because Honolulu is in Hawai'i, and Hawai'i is in the United States, and the US is in America (or North America - do we class North and South as separate continents these days or not?). In 1958, when this paper was written, Hawai'i was not yet a State: it became one in 1959. But it was a Territory, and so, I thought to myself, surely still considered to be in the continent of (North) America?

Anyone any idea?

Friday, 10 May 2013

They wait you

Sounds sinister, that title, like a line from a classic ghost story. It's not - I said it, in the perfectly pleasant surroundings of Côte in Covent Garden, talking about the lunch we'd had that day in the London Review Bookshop.

This bookshop is a very nice bookshop with a small selection of linguistics books hidden at the bottom of a small set of shelves in the basement. But I wasn't there to peruse the books. It was lunchtime, I was having a break from seeing Ice Age things at the British Museum with my parents and we needed some lunch before going to see Pompeii and Herculaneum things. There's a very nice cafe in the bookshop, selling home-made sorts of food and a million types of tea. It's small though, and popular, so we had to wait for a table. The waitress suggested we wait in the bookshop and she'd come and get us when there was a free table.

I was telling my aunt about this when we met her later on, and I said:
They wait you in the bookshop.
Wait is not normally used this way, but I liked it so I let it stand. Normally, wait doesn't have an object - that is, (roughly) something acted on by the verb. Sleep doesn't have an object (I slept) but catch does (I caught a rabbit), and eat either can or can't (I've eaten or I've eaten six Jaffa cakes). Wait is like sleep (I  waited). What I said included an object: They wait you (we can ignore in the bookshop for now, because it's optional in the sentence).

Sometimes, we have verbs that change the number of objects they have (in this case from 0 to 1) because of some syntactic difference. This is different from eat, which either has a 'null' object meaning 'some unspecified kind of food' or just has two very closely related meanings.

Wait normally has a subject which is the person doing the waiting: if I say I waited, it's me who's done the waiting. With eat, that subject stays the same whether we add an object or not: I ate or I ate six Jaffa cakes, it's still me who ate something. But look at the sentence above: the subject is not the person who is waiting. When I said They wait you in the bookshop, it's not 'they' who are waiting, it's the object of the sentence, you (=us, in that case). So when I added the object, I also changed the role of the participants in the action.

What I meant by that utterance was, I suppose, They make you wait in the bookshop or They cause you to wait in the bookshop. I've turned it into what linguists, in an uncharacteristic show of naming things transparently, call a 'causative'. It's comparable to grow: I can say either I grew, and then it is me who became larger, or I can say I grew a plant or I grew the profits and then it is something else that I have caused to become larger.

It's also related to something called 'middle voice'. It's called that because it's in the middle between active and passive. If you think about a sentence like The cake cuts well, then the cake is grammatically the subject of an active verb, but the meaning is that the cake is the thing that is cut, and that's the meaning you'd get from a passive form: The cake has been cut. English doesn't do this loads, compared to some other languages, and that's not what's happening with wait above. It's just a similar phenomenon.

Monday, 6 May 2013


OK, tell me this: can you translate the following conversation, in a language that you almost certainly speak?
Jon do?
A dee nah. 
Answer after the fold.

Friday, 3 May 2013


Someone who shall remain nameless recently said the following about a piece of technology:
It might defunk.
Wooohoooo, reanalysis in action! Reanalysis is when someone interprets the structure (or meaning, etc) of a word or phrase differently from previous speakers. This can result in widespread permanent change to the language in question, and in fact is how much language change takes place. For instance, we all know that apron and adder were originally napron and nadder, but because a nadder is identical to an adder when it's spoken, people reanalysed it as the latter. Ditto peas and cherries, which are now the plural forms of the singular pea and cherry, but when they were first borrowed from French they were pease and cherise - mass nouns. We still have pease pudding and the colour word cerise (that one was probably borrowed again later on, though).

The reanalysed word in question is defunct, meaning something like 'not working'. This comes from Latin, literally meaning 'not working' (dēfunctus, with the prefix de- and the past participle of fungī 'to perform', says the OED). We don't really think about the etymology when we use it though, especially if we don't know Latin, which most people don't. So it's just a word that means 'not working' or 'not in use'.

The reanalysis has come about because the word-final consonant /t/ sounds just like the past participle ending -ed. (This is because -ed can sound like /d/ or /t/ depending on the sound it follows.) Therefore, defunct sounds exactly like defunked. Defunked doesn't exist (with this meaning), but it follows the pattern for verbs in English, with a regular past tense ending. So we can postulate that the word is the past participle of defunk. If that's the case, the verb can be used in all its forms, including the bare stem form used in the original example, defunk.

The process I've hypothesised here takes a word which is used in its current form as an adjective and reanalyses it back into its past participle form (possibly even complete with negative prefix on the root funk) from whence it came!

(By the way, clever people have of course spotted the potential for the word as a band name, so it's hard to google for other examples. But the fact that hits for this interpretation don't outweigh the band's hits shows that this is either non-existent or very rare so far. In addition, Urban Dictionary notes the verb with the meaning 'to remove funk [dirt]' or 'to make less funky', both predictable meanings of de-+funk.)

Monday, 29 April 2013

Simpsons and more linguistic innovation

Yet again, I find myself noticing cute linguistic constructions in the Simpsons. Take this:
Marge: What did I say about joining La Cosa Nostra?
Bart: You said to not to.
And this:
Louie: Won't it be easier if we just take care of this Simpson lady?
Fat Tony: Louie, Louie, Louie, women are for taking care of, not 'taking care' of. 
The second one involves the use of the same string of words ('take care of someone') with two very different meanings (to look after vs to kill). We obviously do this all the time, using 'pick up' to mean 'elevate using the hands', 'pay' (as in 'pick up the bill'), 'seduce' and so on. It's not a problem. Context disambiguates. (Unless it doesn't, as in the memorable 'Comic Strip Presents...' when Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson mistakenly believe they're supposed to murder Nicholas Parsons when they are asked to 'take him out'.)

In this example, Fat Tony uses the two in the same sentence, in a kind of metalinguistic use. It's not quite true metalinguisticity, because that's when you refer to a word rather than use it, like 'How do you spell harlequin?'. Here, Fat Tony is using the phrase both times, but he is contrasting the different meanings. To do this, he will need to show contrast somehow. I saw this written down rather than heard it said, so I don't know for sure, but I'd put money on a contrastive intonation. If you imagine that someone says to you, 'You greedy pig, you've already had pizza once today', and then you correct them by saying, 'No, I had pizza yesterday, not today', then the stress on 'yesterday' and 'today' is your contrastive intonation. That'll be what Fat Tony uses on the two instances of 'take care of'. (He may also do bunny ears: in the written form, it's with inverted commas (or 'scare quotes').)

Now let's turn to the first example. This could just be a typo, of course, for 'You said not to', which would be the standard form. But that would be boring so let's assume it's not a typo. Given the frequency of language play in the Simpsons, I don't think that it's implausible. So Bart has an extra 'to' in there. What's it doing?

Imagine that Marge had told him not to go, rather than telling him not to [join La Cosa Nostra]. Then Bart could have said either of the following:
You said to not go.
You said not to go. 
'Not' can appear either before or after the infinitive marker 'to' (though the 'rules' would have you put it before so as to not split an infinitive). That's with an infinitive form of the verb, 'to go'. You can also omit the verb itself if it's repeated from before, leaving just the infinitive marker:
You said not to.
You said to not.
(The second one here isn't as good, but it's still acceptable, I think.) This is called ellipsis.

There are two explanations that spring to mind for Bart's utterance, 'You said to not to'. One is that he is using 'to' the second time as a stand-in for the elided material, in the same way that we might use 'do':
She said she'd get even, and she did. 
'Did' isn't in the first part of the sentence but we use it to replace the 'get even' which is omitted. Is that the reason for Bart using an extra 'to'? 'You said to not [join La Cosa Nostra]'? This isn't something which I've heard before, but it's not impossible. If Bart has a tendency to place the negation after the infinitive, then he either has to say 'You said to not', which (as noted) is a bit less natural than 'You said not to', or he has to say 'You said to not join them' or similar, which is more cumbersome. For maximum ellipsis without saying the less natural sentence, you need a stand in. 'Do' doesn't work in this case, because 'do' as a verb replacement is an auxiliary verb: not a main verb, but a 'helping' verb. In 'He did do all his homework', the first 'did' is an auxiliary and the second 'do' is a main (lexical) verb. 'Do' as an auxiliary can't occur with an infinitive 'to'; only the lexical one can. So we need a different verb replacement and what more appropriate than a word that's already associated with verbs, the infinitive marker 'to'?

The other explanation is that it's a speech error, like when people who wouldn't normally say 'might could' produce it because they 'forget' that they already said 'might' and then say 'could' as well. I'm hoping for the former, but if it is, there'll be other examples to find and testing to do, so let's get cracking.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Explore: Words around the world

You may remember that I did a talk for the Centre for Lifelong Learning's Explore programme last year, as part of a training exercise in presenting research to a public audience. I found it a very enjoyable challenge to present my PhD work to people who had no specialist knowledge of linguistics. 

Happily, they invited me back to do a session on the themed season 'The Word'. Well, seeing as words are a large chunk of what linguists study, that sounded like good fun. I've been teaching morphology all term, and so I thought I'd do a bit of a romp through some fun morphological stuff. 

The nice thing about doing a one-off session for fun is that you don't have to make sure they grasp all the fine points of the technical terminology, so you can essentially leave out the boring bits and just do the fun bits. I thought that for this session, I'd get them to think about what words are, so first of all we built words out of morphemes (parts of words) written on cards, and I introduced them to the concept of building words from smaller parts and how this works in different languages. We also covered a few 'language myths' (Eskimo words for snow, no word for X, Sapir-Whorf and colour terms, etc.) and finished by thinking about how to define 'word'. 

The venue was St Nicholas' cathedral in the centre of Newcastle, and rather than in one of the function rooms, I actually spoke in the south transept: 

This was a lovely venue for a talk, and made a nice change from seminar rooms. 

The audience was the best I could have wished for, interacting with me right from the start and asking intelligent questions that showed they were really interested in the topic. They contributed some interesting facts and examples of their own, and overall made it a truly fun afternoon. 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dawkins on 'not English'

You know, Richard Dawkins is a clever chap, I think he writes well and I've enjoyed many of his books. But sometimes he says such stupid things, it's like he wants people to misunderstand him.

Take this tweet:
'Grade' as in '7th grade' is not part of the English language
I mean, honestly, what a thing to say. He's making a perfectly good point, namely that if you're writing for an international audience it's more useful to state the age of a child in years rather than using a US-specific system. (In fact, because in the US children can skip or repeat a year in school, it is sometimes relevant to refer to the stage in their education that the child has reached. However, for the majority of children, this is not the case.) He clarified this, along with the statement that for a US audience, he has no problem with referring to grades. None of this is controversial.

So why on earth did he put it in such a stupid, guaranteed-to-cause-a-row way? Does he like getting into fights so much that even innocuous opinions must be stated in a controversial manner?

The bit I'm referring to, if it's not blindingly obvious, is the bit where he says that 'grade' is 'not part of the English language'. It... but... it... well, it obviously is. How can it not be? American English, or the collection of dialects of English spoken in that part of the world, are most definitely English. And if 'grade' (in this sense) is part of at least some of those dialects, then it is part of English.

It's possible that Dawkins was using some rather unusual definition of English. If you take any English speaker, let's say me, then we can agree that I speak English, I hope. And if you take another English speaker, let's say Richard Dawkins, then we can also agree that he speaks English. And so on and so on for any English speaker in the world. But our two Englishes are not precisely the same. In the case of me and Dawk, they're not far removed from each other. We're both speakers of British English dialects, although his is a bit more old-fashioned than mine. But if you compared Dawk and a teenage speaker of English from, say, California or South India or Grenada or Kiribati, then you're going to find a few more differences between the dialects. One might, then, wish to say that something is only 'English' if it is found in all dialects of English. This is a silly way to define English because it leaves you with about three words and a smattering of grammar and no sounds with which to pronounce them (I exaggerate, of course, but not much).

You can say the opposite, and say that something counts as 'English' if it is found in at least one English-speaker's dialect. But then you run into trouble defining English, as it can get a bit circular. You could also say that there is no such thing as English, merely a collection of idiolects (personal dialects) which converge with each other to a greater or lesser extent, some of which are mutually intelligible and some of which are not. Some people do say this, I think, but it's a somewhat extreme position to take. It's largely a philosophical problem, and for practical purposes one usually needs to define English in some partially arbitrary way. On any of those definitions, American English still counts as English and Dawkins is being a numpty.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Live Latin speakers wanted

Two weeks ago in the Guardian magazine, Mary Beard (who is becoming nearly as much of a regular on this blog as Marcus du Sautoy) said that if she could bring one thing back from extinction, it would be a 'live Latin speaker'. This week, a reader called Brian Bishop wrote in and said she needn't go that far: there are lots of them and Beard would be welcome at any of their 'Latin speaking weeks'.

Well. This does somewhat miss the point of why she wanted to bring this Latin speaker back. Beard is a classicist, which is not the same thing as a linguist, and she would have her own reasons which would be very different from the reasons I would give for bringing back a Latin speaker, I'm sure. But I think we would overlap in one opinion, which is that it really isn't the same thing at all!

I should think that Beard probably speaks Latin herself. If she doesn't she could of course learn it, if she wishes to hear it spoken so much. The main problem with this is that she is not a native speaker of Latin, and neither are any of the people at these 'Latin speaking weeks', unless any of them were brought up bilingually in Latin by extremely keen parents. (Incidentally, googling 'Latin speaking weeks' does not find any relevant results other than very dodgy-looking Latin summer schools.)

Linguists do lots of different types of research, but almost all of it involves finding out how people speak, recording that and using the resulting data to test a hypothesis. Some linguists use their own intuitions as data, some use other people's intuitions, and some use other people's natural speech.

Let's say I wanted to find out about the use of Isn't he not? and Isn't he? in the Geordie dialect, and what the differences are in the use of each. I might try to record some people's natural speech, and I might do some kind of survey where I asked people what sounded most natural to them. I might use my own intuitions to start me off, but I wouldn't rely on them, because I wasn't born and brought up in Newcastle so my intuitions might not be reliable.

When I wrote my PhD thesis, I needed to know facts about a lot of different languages. I used books for this, grammars that describe how the language works. That meant that I didn't have to spend a lot of time and money travelling around the world finding people to record. But these books can only take you so far. There are two problems with them: the first is that they might not be reliable. Modern descriptive grammars are good, thorough and accurate, written by linguists with a lot of training. The grammars written by missionaries from the SIL are generally very good, too. But an old grammar might be written by any unqualified person with little training, and with who-knows-what purpose. And grammars are almost never written by a native speaker of the language, so even with the best intentions they don't always know for sure that what they're being told is accurate: perhaps their consultants are subconsciously telling them how they should speak - like if you told a linguist that every sentence has to have a subject and then went off and said 'Don't know what he wants all this information for', without using a subject.

The second problem is that they can never tell you absolutely everything about a language. Hardly any of the grammars I looked at for my PhD could tell me if the question particle could be used in embedded questions. Therefore, I had to supplement this knowledge with intuitions about some of the languages. Obviously I don't speak these languages, so I couldn't give the intuitions, so I asked native speakers of those languages. And it is important that they are native speakers. Just because someone has learnt a language doesn't make them capable of making subtle judgements about what is and isn't grammatical, especially when you get into non-standard forms.

There are some linguists who can't ask people about their language because there aren't any people to ask. These are the historical linguists. Someone studying Old English can't ask a speaker of Old English what the language is like, but fortunately there are some texts written in Old English that still survive. Without those, we'd have no idea beyond the reconstructive work that can be done based on regular changes over time. There is a massive amount that can be learnt from historical texts, and historical linguists do some truly amazing things. But it is limited to what exists already, whereas a living language is infinite and can constantly provide new data.

Latin, similarly, has no living native speakers. It has evolved and become the modern Romance languages, but these are not the same as Latin any more than present-day English is the same as Old English (the language of Beowulf). There are living people who speak it, but they are not native speakers, and more than I'm a native speaker of French because I learnt it at school. In fact, these people are even further removed from being native speakers of Latin because they didn't even learn it from a native speaker (in fact, I didn't learn French from a native French speaker, but that's beside the point). There are lots of things we don't know about Latin, and those are the things linguists might be interested to find out, and there's no way we can find them out from modern Latin speakers because their knowledge of Latin is based only on what we already know, not their native competence. We aren't going to get very far trying to find out what we don't already know if we ask people who only know what we already know.

So whatever reason Mary Beard has for bringing back a real live Latin speaker, perhaps for the sheer pleasure of hearing them speak, I too would like to bring one (or ideally, several) back, so that I could do research on their language without having to rely on written sources.