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.