Thursday, 11 December 2014

Spelling reformers get wrong end of stick shocker

Crikey. This Guardian article seems designed to elicit spluttering apoplexy. I think the author must be trolling. Nevertheless, I shall content myself here with pointing out a few minor quibbles. Throughout, letters within <pointy brackets> refer to orthography (spelling) and letters within /slash brackets/ refer to sounds and are in the IPA. My statements apply to English only unless otherwise specified. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Eric Pickles' personal taxpayer has funded a limo... oh wait

I'm aware that it's been far too long since I blogged. Life and work have both been a bit busy; I'll be blogging about our Genius of Language events soon. For now, I thought I'd share this crash blossom with you. This news story has now got a new headline, but when I saw it it looked like this:

Eric Pickles' Taxpayer Funded Limo Bill Passes Major Milestone

A crash blossom is a syntactically ambiguous headline that is either humorous or misleading or simply confusing, usually due to the telegraphic style of headlinese. In this case, it sounds like Eric Pickles has his own personal taxpayer. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Money for old rope

Pragmatics showed up again on this week's The Apprentice. (Pragmatics shows up in all communication but you know what I mean.)

The contestants were asked to find a one-metre length of old rope. One team found a length that was 1.7m long, and were given a right good telling-off for it. Now, whether that fits the bill depends on what you want it for. Suppose you want to lower something down a one-metre drop. Then, you might ask if someone has a metre-long rope and if they have a 1.7m-long one, they'll say yes. It's enough that the rope is at least one metre long for it to be true that it is one metre long. Lord Sugar is a literal chappie, though, and if he says one metre he means one metre, no more, no less, and they were not permitted to have it.

We saw this literalness again: the teams had to find an anatomical, full-size skeleton. One team found a full-size paper skeleton, which I thought was pretty clever, but it was also disqualified, on the grounds that it made Lord Sugar look stupid I think. I suppose that a completely flat skeleton is not technically anatomically accurate.

*The title of this post is not accurate either: the team got the old rope for free so no money changed hands.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Subgenres of autogenerated text?


I was checking my spam folder earlier today, and it seems that on the 2nd of November I got a bit of an email flood, all somewhat missing what is presumably their target market:

Seems to be some text scooping going on - note the incorrect spacing and capitalisation of my name. Obviously I didn't open any of these, but gmail shows you a little preview of the text, and it's very odd. Here's a close-up:

Looks automated, as it doesn't make any sense. 'Nodded as you with some clothes', 'Mean anything else that long and ricky', 'Family was still on but as connie'? Strangely compelling. I wondered whether the text might not have been autogenerated from some kind of 'romance' novel because of the names, and certain phrases. You'd be able to check, probably, whether such words and phrases occur disproportionately often in certain genres and in conjunction with each other, and given a large enough sample of emails you could answer that question. I won't, though. I'll just be happy the way I am.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Phones allowed (and encouraged)

Not so long ago, we told students off for using phones in seminars. Today I found myself encouraging the use of phones. What is the world coming to?

What's happened is that phones have gone from being a communication device to being a pocket computer. I still wouldn't allow students to text or facebook in classes (if I can stop it), but there are so many uses for a smartphone, you'd be missing the point to ban them altogether.

For one thing, students and universities in general are increasingly paper-free. All assignments are now submitted online and marked online. We no longer give out lecture handouts (though we might still do worksheets) because they're online for students to access themselves. Students are free to print these if they wish, and many do, but not all. Partly because of printing costs, I would guess (a few pence per sheet) or feeling that it's not worth the trip to the library to use the printer. Most still make notes on paper, rather than on a laptop, indicating that it's not really a desire to ditch paper that motivates the move away from printing slides.

In seminars, however, we refer to the lecture content quite a bit. This week, for instance, we were writing phonological rules and the seminar exercises referred to rules they'd learnt in the lecture. Some students had printed copies, some made do with their own notes, but some had the slides on their tablet or phone. When I saw others struggling to recall something, I suggested they do likewise. Perhaps they hadn't up till then because they thought phones were not allowed, but some didn't seem to have thought of it.

Similarly, a few weeks ago I suggested to students that they keep a copy of the phonetic alphabet chart in their phone to refer to in seminars so they didn't have to remember to bring one. Again, some hadn't even thought of doing it. But there are apps now that store documents, or scan paper ones and turn them into PDFs (I frequently do this with whiteboards or handwritten notes). I use ABBYY Finescanner to 'scan' (it takes a photo and 'flattens' it) and Evernote or Onenote or Notability to store them (yet to find one app that does everything I want in the way I want… I've only just started using Onenote so I'm hoping it might be that one). In fact, the camera function is handy in many ways - now, it's so easy to simply photograph a page of a book rather than photocopy it, and recently my students included their syntax trees as photos in their assignment.

Another way students sometimes use phones in seminars is to look things up. They need a definition, or to check some fact, and they can just quickly Google it. I might mention some particular speech characteristic (such as the weird way Britney Spears says /l/ with her tongue out) and they can look at a video on YouTube.

One thing I'm going to try next term is using an app in my lectures called Socrative. It's a voting system, so I can ask a question and the students press a button to choose an answer (or type something). Then I can show the results on screen and it's anonymous, if I want it to be. Much better than having them put up their hands or give the answer, which no one wants to do.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Machines can hear it

More from the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. The Elves have an incredible breadth of knowledge, but by necessity cannot have an in-depth understanding of all the facts they present. This becomes obvious when they talk about something that one happens to know something about. This morning, I was listening to them discussing accents, and they said a number of things that reminded me that there's a curious mismatch in terms of how much people like to talk about language and how poorly equipped they are to do so. (Linguistics is not the only subject to suffer from this, of course. Psychology springs to mind.)

The most striking thing was their discussion of (by now fairly old) research analysing the Queen's Christmas speeches over the years, which concluded that the Queen does not speak the way she spoke when she was younger. The reason that this is interesting is that it shows that older people's language shifts, not just young people's. But the shifts documented in that study are slight, and affect vowels, which are notoriously hard to pin down.

Because we need to be able to tell the difference between bet and bat, we hear vowels as categorically different sounds, but they are actually points in a continuous potential noise-range (you can easily slide from e to a with no break in between, and the intervening sounds are halfway between the two vowels). What distinguishes vowels from each other is their relative 'distance' from each other (scare quotes to indicate metaphorical usage and also technical terminology - the distance is literal as well).

This means that when sounds change very slightly, you might not be able to hear it, or you might not hear it reliably because you're expecting to hear a particular sound (the McGurk effect is a famous demonstration of just how useless you are at hearing a sound if you're expecting to hear another). If you can't trust your own ears, you aren't going to do a very convincing scientific experiment, are you? So people use specialist equipment to measure sounds, and then they can analyse these measurements to determine exactly what sounds were produced and how (for instance) the Queen's vowels have changed over time. So, one change they noticed was that her vowel in words like had was produced lower in the mouth in the 1980s than in the 1950s, causing it to sound a bit more like had and a bit less like hed.

The Elves reported the study and in the course of the conversation, said 'You can't hear it though. Machines can hear it'. This was met with astonishment from the audience and the other Elves, but it's no stranger than measuring anything else with a machine (blood pressure, brain activity, blood sugar levels, gravity, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, radioactivity...). It's a peculiar quirk of language that because we all do it with a reasonable degree of consciousness, we think we must know all about it, even though we don't know how our lungs or digestion work without explicit teaching.

So I think the moral of this is that everyone should come to my department's forthcoming event, consisting of an exhibition, two film screenings and a public lecture, and learn more about how amazing language is!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Geek English

This is an open question, or an idle wondering, depending how you view it.

I've noticed a particular variety of English which I'm calling 'Geek English'. I'm calling it that because I notice that it's particularly used by people who I would broadly identify as geeks, nerds, whatever you like, in a basically positive sense. You know, the kind of people who spend time playing online games, a lot of time in the internet in general, and are happy to be thought intelligent. It might also be people who would otherwise sound quite posh. For instance, some of the QI elves on their podcast 'No Such Thing as a Fish' have this accent (particularly Anna).

My question is, what characterises it and where does it come from? I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, but my immediate impression is that it has a vaguely transatlantic sound. There's a bit of what sounds like 'flapping' of the t's, and also the intonation is quite distinctive, and I think perhaps the vowels are a bit non-UK-like. But then, all this could be an incorrect assumption based simply on its unfamiliarity to me. A proper phonetician needs to study it.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Postik notes

I was recently at the excellent Petrie museum in London. It's got loads of ancient Egyptian stuff, including a lot of beads. They also had this board:

It says 'Please write any comments on postik notes'.

Someone has rather snarkily corrected the error by putting a squiggly line under the word and writing the correct word and putting 'sp' next to it. This is overkill, but no matter.

I thought the mistake was quite charming. Post-It notes are sticky, after all, so 'postik' is kind of an eggcorn, almost (it doesn't quite fit the definition). And 'post' is used in a not-very-British way - I think you post things on walls more in American English than UK English, and Lynne Murphy confirms this at her blog Separated by a Common Language. So that makes it more likely that the person didn't realise the meaning of the name Post-It (i.e. display it on the wall).

Monday, 13 October 2014

On being impolite to our smartphones

I'm behaving like an old person and getting disgruntled at new developments in technology. Google and Apple both have a voice-controlled thing in their various devices which allows you to speak your search query. You can activate this with a button, but now there's a way to make it notice that you want it by saying a specific thing. In the case of Google you have to say 'OK Google' and in the case of Apple you have to say 'Hey Siri' (Siri is the name of the pretend person in your iphone).

Both of these are very rude, 'Hey Siri' perhaps less so, but still rude nevertheless. I think it's just about OK to say 'hey' to a real person if, say, you were just talking to them and you're walking away and then you remember something and you want to signal to them that you want their attention again. Or you can say 'hey' instead of 'hi', if you know the person quite well. So perhaps you can say 'Hey Siri' as if you're saying 'hi' to it, but I haven't tested it to find out. From the inflection in the advert, it's much more like you're summoning a minion (which you are, but if they're going to make it sound like a real person, then you ought to treat it like a real person).

'OK Google', on the other hand, is just downright rude. It sounds to me as if Google is consistently messing up and you're resigned to that but giving it yet another chance to get it right. Poor Google. Or perhaps you're challenging it, like 'OK Google, you think you're so clever, try this'.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Web developer - literally

This screenshot and associated comment are linguistically interesting for (at least) two reasons:

The first reason is the meaning of the phrase 'web developer'. This is Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web (which is different from the internet in slightly complicated ways). Therefore, he is a web developer in the everyday sense of the term, in which he writes code or whatever it is that web developers do, but he is also the person who developed the web - literally, the web developer.

This is an insight into the way that the meaning of compounds in English (and other languages) can be arbitrary, in that a blackboard is a board that is black while a washboard is not a board that is wash, but also follow common patterns. So we can't know out of context that 'web developer' is a developer for the web, we just have to know that that's what it conventionally means. But we can make predictions based on common ways of combining words to make compounds. You wouldn't expect a hand mixer to be a thing that mixes hands, for instance - you'd expect it to be a mixer that is operated by hand, as that's more sensible. But grammatically, both are possible. The former is what's known as a synthetic compound, in which the first part (in English) is the object of the verb in the second part. So a hand mixer mixes hands, a lorry driver drives lorries, and a web developer develops the web. The latter doesn't have this relationship between the parts. Instead, the first part modifies the thing in the second part. A hand mixer is a mixer that is hand-powered, a safe driver is a driver who is safe, and a web developer is a developer who works on the web.

Secondly, this is a good example of the way a word can switch to meaning the exact opposite of what it used to mean. I'm talking about 'modest' in the comment above the photo. Modest is my contender for 'Word Most Likely To Mean Its Opposite In Fifty Years'. It's mostly used nowadays (in my unscientific opinion) in fossilised phrases like 'modest income' or in a sarcastic sense ('Oh, modest as well!' when someone boasts). That to me is prime material for reanalysis as its own antonym. For that to happen, there has to be some confusion or obfuscation of the meaning. In that comment, it's not clear if the commenter is being sarcastic (ie using the 'invented the web' reading of the job title) or genuine (using the 'programmer' meaning). Someone for whom the word means 'proud' or 'boastful' could interpret it their way, and one more instance of modest means the opposite of what it does to someone else. If they then use it in an unambiguous way to mean 'proud', well, that meaning scores one more point and semantic shift marches on.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mispronunciation humiliation

[Sorry - this is a short and rushed post. It's Week 0.]

I was reminded the other day (because I mentioned it) that I only recently discovered how to pronounce the word archipelago. As I said in that conversation, discovering how to pronounce words as an adult tends to be an embarrassing realisation that you've misinterpreted something your whole life, usually in front of more people than you would like.

In this case I suppose it's not so embarrassing, but the reason for my mispronunciation (with stress on the -la- syllable rather than the -pel- syllable) was because I was simply looking at the word as an undecomposable whole. Had I known that the word came from a Greek prefix arkhi and root pelagos (which I ought to have recognised, really, given how much I like the word pelagic), I might have had a better chance (though perhaps not, as I also pronounce pelagic with stress on the penultimate syllable).

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The complicated strange business of stacking up adjectives

There was recently a nice Slate article on adjective ordering. I won't repeat it all here, as you can go and read it if you're interested, but it seems to me to be a very clear and interesting description of which order adjectives can appear in, and why it's weird to say bad big wolf rather than big bad wolf. It discusses the clearly sensible idea that a more 'intrinsic' or 'permanent' or 'inherent' property is closer to the noun than a temporary one (happy French student vs. *French happy student), but also notes the fact that not all adjective orders can be determined that way, and some orders are actually in contradiction to that idea. It also provides a spectacularly unmemorable mnemonic, GSSSACPM. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two working toilets

I get the train to work, and I'm by now very familiar with the various announcements (and the different announcers, some of whom are very funny and all of whom are cheerful and polite) throughout the journey. My home station is at the end of the line, so they do a sort of 'welcome to this service' announcement when we set off. Part of this reveals a funny little quirk of the standard blurb.

On the train I get, there are six coaches and there's a toilet in the first and last coach (or if it's peak time, they combine two of these six-coach units). The conductor says this:
There are two working toilets on this train.
This is an existential sentence, asserting the existence of something (the toilets). This is what we need to know, along with the information that they're in coaches A and F. The extra fact that the toilets are working is also provided, and while it's arguably essential information, it introduces some other implicatures.

Take this alternative wording:
There are two toilets on this train.
Wouldn't you assume that they're both working? OK, previous experience of British railways might make you wary of such an assumption, but the lack of an apology for an out-of-service lav would leave me reasonably confident that the toilets are at least working when we set off, whatever may happen to them later on.

This means that the extra information 'working' is not required: it can be inferred without needing to be explicitly spelt out, along with everything else in the world that is either not relevant or assumed to be true unless otherwise indicated (so, for instance, you don't preface everything you say with the assertion that you are of sound mind, telling the truth, in possession of the relevant facts, and that grass is green and so on). The fact that it's there means that we assume it's relevant in some way. What could it relevantly mean? Well, that there are some other toilets that don't work, perhaps. Perhaps there's a toilet in every coach but only the two at either end are in working order. Or perhaps - and this is more likely - the toilets are often not working, leading to a long walk along the length of the train, so the fact that both are working today is worth knowing.

Either way, it's not giving the right impression of the train's toilets (which are actually clean and in working order most of the time).

Monday, 11 August 2014

Annual check-up on my dialect

I moved to Kent two years ago now, or very nearly, and we've been properly living in Margate for just over a year (I semi-commuted for the first year between Canterbury and Newcastle). Seems about time to do the annual check-in with what language changes I've undergone in that time.
Margate Main Sands
It's notoriously hard to analyse your own speech, but I'll have a go. I do know that the very instant we moved here, I dropped almost all the Newcastle features I'd spent 20 years very slowly acquiring and enthusiastically embraced a southern accent. This is a departure from last year, when I was trying to create an identity for myself and was 'the Geordie', and played up my accent a bit. I suppose now that my partner is also here, who has a much stronger accent than me, I can't be the one with the Geordie accent. Maybe it's also to do with the fact that I'm now settled here, whereas last year I was still not sure I'd be here any longer than that one year.

Some accent features I spotted very quickly were a change in my long vowels, which I can't quite pinpoint but I think it's a slight lengthening and lowering (technical stuff - they're basically very slightly different), and l-vocalisation. This means that your l's sound more like vowels, or w's, so you say 'miwk' rather than 'milk'. In addition, I've been levelling my copulas (oo-er). That means that instead of saying 'I was' and 'we were', you say 'we was' - just using that one form. You can also do it the other way, and say 'I were', but I've not been doing that one. This is funny because they do a similar thing in Newcastle and I hardly picked it up at all, but I got the southern one straight away.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

So syllogisms are tricky things

Hooray! It's been too long since Richard Dawkins last tweeted something massively ill-judged for me to blog about.
The context: Dawk is back in a previously-contested argument in which he says that 'mild' rape/paedophilia/violence is not as bad as 'violent' rape/paedophilia/violence, and then the rest of the internet gets cross with him about it. Previously, criticism was mostly around the debatable existence of 'mild rape' or 'mild paedophilia', whereas this time he has been more precise and talked about date rape versus violent rape at knifepoint. We don't need to debate which is worse, or if there is any need to have a hierarchy of such crimes (that's for judges or experts in traumatic incidents to decide, I suppose). What I want to focus on is two vaguely linguisticky things: Dawk's utter failure to grasp the need for something beyond logical truth, and 'so'.

Dawk is presenting this as a logical syllogism (in response to criticism; it wasn't how he first presented it). It isn't actually a classical syllogism, which is the 'all men are mortal' type of deductive reasoning. Really, he's just refuting an implication that some people inferred from a statement of comparison. It's unfortunate that the newspapers that get their content by summarising twitter feeds (I'm looking at you, Independent) couldn't be bothered to find this out, but no matter. While syllogisms and other logical arguments are relevant to linguistics (and I have fun teaching them in my semantics module), more important here is the fact that Dawkins is just banging on and on about logical truth, never seeing that the logical truth of his statement really isn't the point. Nobody seems to have put this in a way that he can understand, so it's not entirely his fault, but still: rape, paedophilia and the like are highly emotive topics and there is currently a lot of discussion about 'rape culture'. Given this, it's not surprising that many people would be less concerned with logical truth and more with the rhetorical effect of such public statements. Many people are extremely worried that some instances of rape are trivialised or simply discounted because the victim was drunk/married to the rapist/didn't say no etc. Saying that date rape is less bad than violent knifepoint rape may be logically true (or it may not be - Dawkins is agnostic on the matter), but humans do a lot more than just compute logical truths. We actually have to work quite hard to see purely logical truth (hence the zillions of logical fallacies that we can make), and we set a lot of store in the inferences we make. Even though saying that X is not as bad as Y doesn't condone X, it still appears to make excuses for those people who dismiss the 'date rape' cases as 'not really rape'.

So, on to 'so'. In the tweet pictured above, someone passive-aggressively tweets about Dawkins, not to him, while @ing him so that he sees it. This is the height of bad twitter manners. Dawkins, in his response, takes exception to Sequester Zone's use of 'so', asking why they used it. I assume that Dawkins is making bizarre linguistic assumptions again, and would hazard a guess that he considers 'so' to be incorrect when it is used as an introductory particle, similarly to 'and' or 'but'. I've seen some other peeving about this lately, with people claiming that 'everyone is starting their sentences with so these days'. As it happens, I agree with much of what it says in the article linked via the response above, but 'so' doesn't always indicate a rehearsed pitch or dumbing-down. It's long been used as a turn-beginning marker, or as a way to indicate that you're returning to a previous topic, or many other things. The OED's got an example from 1602 in their sense 5c, where it's a kind of 'hey I'm talking' marker:
So, let me see, my apron.
And in sense 10b(a) from 1710 (Swift, no less), where there is no preceding statement but one is implied:
So you have got into Presto's lodgings; very fine, truly!
And 10b(b), which it attributes to 'reflecting Yiddish idioms', where there is no preceding statement, or where there is adversative force (probably the use in the tweet) from the 1950s (this example is 1960):
‘I warn you..I ain't got no wine.’ ‘So who wants wine?’
Note, though, that it serves another function within twitter. In a tweet, if you begin with an @-name, it will only be seen by people that follow both parties. The convention, therefore, if your tweet begins with a name but is a mention rather than directed at that person, is to begin with a full stop so that all your followers will see it. Alternatively, you could make sure that the @-name isn't at the beginning of the tweet by using an introductory particle such as 'so'.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Noun phrase juxtaposition confusion

Associated Press caused a twitter hoo-ha when they mistakenly led a lot of their followers to think that there had been yet another air crash, this time involving the plane carrying the bodies of people who were killed in the recent Malaysia Airlines crash. They phrased it like this:
Breaking: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.
Lots of people reasonably thought that this meant that this plane had crash landed in Eindhoven. It didn't; it meant that the bodies from that crash have been taken to Eindhoven, where the plane has landed safely. You can read the Gawker article linked above for all the responses (my favourites are those who say 'well, AP style is 'crash-land' so it clearly didn't mean that').

One of the tweets, about halfway down the Gawker article, says that 'AP should have thrown some tactical commas/hyphens/apostrophes in that one'. Bear with me while I derail my linguistics blog into the realm of punctuation for today's post.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Aldi vs Audi

I now call the southeastern corner of England my home. Down here, they have a funny thing called 'l-vocalisation', which means that instead of the sound /l/, people are quite likely to produce a vowel (or sometimes it sounds like /w/). This is a widespread thing, people are familiar with it, it's not something that's really remarked upon. It does lead to some nice mix-ups though: someone recently said that he used to work for Audi. The person he was talking to said 'Audi, or Aldi?'. The two sound basically exactly the same.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Apostrophe is a letter and a sound, sometimes

I've just discovered a note to myself to blog about something that bugged me on Only Connect a while back. Only Connect is a BBC4 quiz programme (now moving to BBC2, which seems a shame for BBC4, but I'm not in charge of the schedules) which asks a variety of questions which all have something to do with making connections. The final round is the 'missing vowels' round, in which the answer is a word or phrase with all the vowels removed and the consonants respaced. To make it possible to answer, the contestants are told what connects the answers.

In the episode I'm thinking of, the connections was 'words that end in ii'. There was a Latin plural in there somewhere, I expect, and also 'Hawaii'. Now, the thing is, there is some controversy over this. When the islands became a state, they were the State of Hawaii in official documentation, and some people still do it this way. Others, however, now spell it with the extra symbol, and this seems (as far as I can tell) to be the way we ought to do it.

The symbol, which looks like a single inverted comma, stands for the glottal stop. We use it in English sometimes, when we write in 'eye-dialect': the word water with a glottal stop rather than /t/ is written as wa'er in lots of texts. In English, we usually don't count the glottal stop as a letter. In phonology it is a sound, so it's given much the same status as the other consonants, but replacing another consonant with it doesn't change the meaning. Wa'er and water mean the same thing. This is not to say that we only have letters for sounds that change the meaning, of course, but it means that it's kind of gone unnoticed for a long time and I suppose we just never got round to representing it, or felt the need to.

In the Hawai'ian language, on the other hand, the glottal stop is really considered to be a consonant in the language, and the letter is part of the alphabet. I realise that it's quite hard to find four words that end in ii, and Hawaii at least used to, but it seems like a programme that prides itself on being intelligent and pedantic ought to get things right.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The the style style

Ages ago, I wrote about centre-embedding. I saw a different, much less common, example of it when I went to the excellent Mondria(a)n exhibition currently on at Turner Contemporary in Margate. The exhibition shows a thematically/chronologically-organised selection of his works, and in his later period, he was an important part of the movement known as 'de stijl'. In describing how this group worked, a display board used the phrase the 'de stijl' style. De stijl is of course Dutch for 'the style', meaning that the translation of this is the the style style!
One of Mondriaan's red and blue paintings
This kind of centre-embedding could only happen in a very particular context like this, where one phrase is in another language, because double articles, even when there's a legitimate reason for them, are really really ungood in English grammar. For example, I always have trouble with the Philip Pullman series The 'His Dark Materials' trilogy because the his is not a well-formed English string. The de stijl example even sounded wrong to me - that's why I remembered it.

Footnote: I bracketed the a in Mondria(a)n's name because it was originally Mondriaan, but sometime in around 1905-7 he dropped an a, perhaps to sound more French. One website suggests it was to sound more Armenian, which doesn't seem very likely to me. However, this 'names end in -ian' characteristic of Armenian is something that's really part of public awareness of Armenia - perhaps the only thing. It might be to do with Kardashians, though two other Armenians spring readily to mind: Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian, and Principal Skinner is of course really Armin Tamzarian. An acquaintance of mine actually told me, when we were discussing the exhibition, that Mondrian's name was Armenian, on account of ending in -ian.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Department research day

We had another event last week, this time a research day for ELL staff and PGs, and friends (a colleague from psychology, Christos Pliatsikas, and our visiting scholar Marzena Zygis). As well as our 'friends of ELL', we had one PhD student (Sam D'Elia) and one MA research student (Iida Mahlio) present, and four of our staff members (me, Eleni Kapogianni, Christina Kim and Tamara Rathcke). I live-tweeted as usual, and Storified it:

Monday, 16 June 2014

English and American

I happened to be on a site where someone had asked what the difference is between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano (which are the same thing), and they got this answer:
Parmesan is the English and American translation of the Italian word Parmigiano-Reggiano.
This isn't the first time I've seen something like 'the English and American word for X' or similar, but it is jarring to me.

The thing that makes me have to stop and re-read it is of course that I'm interpreting English as the language, while the writer seems to be treating it as the country, and simultaneously conflating England and Britain/the UK. I know that to people in other countries, it doesn't seem very important that England and Britain are not the same thing (in Britain, we do a similar thing with Holland/the Netherlands) and furthermore, there is no adjective relating to the UK (UK-ish?), which would really be the more correct name anyway (to include Northern Ireland). But to me, England and the UK are not at all the same thing, and it is odd to say that something is English when it's clearly also British. This is a pragmatic implicature: you should give as much information as you are able, and here you're withholding some information (namely that the term is also used in other countries). And then what about Canada, Australia, Ireland and so on? Surely it's better to refer to English as a language here than to be unnecessarily specific about countries.

But I think there's more to it. Look at how it says 'English and American translation'. Most Americans are not idiots, contrary to the national stereotype that we like to believe in, and they know that they speak English rather than American. But a mixture of strong patriotism and some genuine confusion (actual people I know have been asked what language they speak when visiting America) means that it's sometimes tempting to write 'and American' to avoid people thinking you're just talking about England. I think many people probably do half-think of American as a language, even if they know that it's English really. And, of course, we might classify it as a separate language, if we so chose: language boundaries are not only determined by mutual intelligibility, as any linguistics student knows.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Never smoker

This was tweeted to Doctor Christian:
I was intrigued by the use of 'never smoker' - it fills a lacuna where we need a word to designate 'someone who not only doesn't smoke now (=non-smoker) but never has done'. It's not usually necessary, which is probably why it's not very common, but here it was required, and 'never smoker' does the trick. Sounds a little odd to me, but it apparently has a specific meaning (this is the Wiktionary link but it's the US Center for Disease Control's definition). It's a pretty loose use of the word 'never' if you ask me (someone who has literally never smoked a cigarette), but whatever.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Quick survey

Under the cut I'll explain this, but before you go there, decide on the answer to these questions:

If you heard the phrase The black ladies'/lady's bicycle, so you didn't have spelling as a clue, what could it mean?
a. a black bicycle designed for women
b. a bicycle belonging to a black woman
c. both a and b
d. neither

If you heard the phrase The ladies'/lady's black bicycle, again without spelling as a clue, what could it mean?
a. a black bicycle designed for women
b. a bicycle belonging to a black woman
c. both a and b
d. neither

Friday, 16 May 2014

Gwynne, sexist language and causing offence

He's good value, that Gwynne chap. Two posts out of one little book which I haven't even read.

In his preface, Gwynne explains about his use of pronouns. He notes that 'he' used to be used for 'a member of the human race of either sex', but now is found offensive by 'some people' (here, he implicitly compares these overly sensitive people to those sensible women who used to use 'he' 'without hesitation or objection'). He (rightly) says that 'he or she' is 'disagreeably clumsy', but then irrationally dismisses singular 'they', a perfectly elegant and simple solution with good historical pedigree. His dismissal is based on nothing more than the 'authoritative' opinion of a style guide and Simon Heffer, who is a journalist, and whose work has been called 'staggeringly erroneous' and inconsistent by, you know, actual authorities on language (=linguists). So, he says, he will avoid generic 'he' where it is possible to do so, so as not to potentially annoy those namby pamby sensitive readers. However, avoiding it completely is beyond even Gwynne's considerable writing skills, and so sometimes, he must use it to avoid awkwardness. He says,
Please be assured, therefore, on the few occasions that you see the all-embracing 'he' or equivalent, that it is occurring without any offence being intended.
Oh, well, that's all right then. If he doesn't mean any offence, there won't be any offence. Permit me to make an extreme analogy, which I'll put under a break as it contains highly offensive language (the 'n-word').

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gwynne's at it again

The odious Neville Gwynne is at it again, publishing books. This time, he's written a Latin book. He's so pompous, my immediate instinct is to disagree with anything he says, so when I saw an advert for it in the paper that said learning Latin would improve your English, I refuted it loudly and firmly to anyone who would listen.

I love Latin, and I think everyone should learn it. A friend who was subjected to the refutation pointed out to me several ways in which learning Latin can improve a person, and he actually mentioned things that most people never think of, such as scientific analysis (I think he said this, anyway - he said biology, so I suppose he may have meant that you'd understand binomial classifications better, which is true, but it would also help you with doing anything that requires careful, logical, rigorous analysis). This friend also agreed with Gwynne that Latin would improve your English, however, and until today I thought that I heartily disagreed with this point of view.

Latin grammar is sometimes held up to be 'better' than English, or alternatively the basis of English grammar. Although Latin grammar is a beautiful thing, it is not better and nor is it the root of our language. Gwynne says that Latin is the source of 'well over half' of English. This is sheer nonsense. I think he must be counting words, because I can accept that half of English vocabulary comes from Latin - we did borrow a lot when we were conquered by the Romans and then the French (I say 'we' - I've no idea whether I'm one of the conquerors or the conquered, or even if there's any way to tell at this distance). But even then, if you count tokens rather than types, it's nowhere near half. What that means is, rather than count the number of Latin-based words in the dictionary, you count a word each time it appears in use rather than only once. More common words tend to be Germanic rather than Latin, so the number of Latin-based words in any text is not likely to be half. Take my first paragraph: based on my instincts regarding the words' origins, only 10 of the 61 words are Latin-based. Hardly half. And then, words are so far from being the whole of language it's simply preposterous to say such a thing when our grammar is basically not Latin in any way whatsoever. So this is why I disagreed with the notion that knowing Latin improves one's English: a) There aren't really any similarities and b) it assumes that some people speak 'bad' English, and as a linguist I have to be a little bit forceful about making sure people know that there is no such thing (only inappropriate styles).

So, anyway, today I went on good old Amazon's 'look inside' thingy. And whaddaya know, I agreed with a lot of it (except that part about the influence of Latin on English). Let's look at what he says are the benefits of learning Latin:

  1. 'To know the source of any word is to understand it better'. Well, in some ways this is not true. Take a word like 'foliage'. Does it help you to know that it comes from the French for 'leaf'? I'm not sure it adds much. What about a word that's changed a lot over time, like 'nice'? It doesn't really help you use it any more accurately if you know that it comes from the Latin word for 'ignorant, unaware', although is is interesting and telling people this kind of this in detail has the nice side effect of getting rid of unwanted company at parties. And what about 'enormity', which is so misused, if you believe the pedants? Well, it has the meaning of a terrible crime, but is supposedly used wrongly by people who don't know any better to mean 'hugeness'. Do you know where it comes from? The Latin word for 'hugeness'. Clearly, we cannot base modern usage on etymology. But on the other hand, it might make your vocabulary more nuanced if you know the origin of some words. Gwynne gives the example 'radically', which comes from the Latin radix, 'root'. 'Radically' therefore means 'from the roots', which doesn't help me use it any better but might help me to think of it when I need a work that means that. 
  2. Translation from English to Latin requires you to reorganise the sentence, for which you need to understand how the sentence was put together. This is absolutely true and I have no quibble with it - it is good to understand how the mechanics of grammar works, and it does help you to write better sentences. 
  3. You must revise your translations thoroughly so they read well. Also true. This might make your writing more elegant, as you will be practising writing elegant translations and editing prose. However, the Latin is merely a means of doing this, and is not essential to the process. You might just as well translate any language, or even simply rewrite English passages. 
  4. The meaning of the Latin words and phrases we use in English will be 'very much clearer than if you were to rely solely on what a dictionary says as to their meaning'. Possibly. We don't use them all literally, so it won't always help, but I imagine it helps to remember what they mean if you recognise them, rather than simply having to memorise them. For instance, there's a mnemonic to get 'eg' and 'ie' the right way round, but I can never remember the mnemonic. I do know, however, that 'eg' stands for exempli gratia 'for example' and 'ie' stands for id est 'that is', so I get them right. (Side note: never follow 'eg' examples with 'etc' if you're writing an essay for me.) 
One benefit I'd add which Gwynne doesn't mention is spelling. I think if you know the root, you are more likely to spell certain words right. For instance, 'separate' is commonly misspelt 'seperate', but it comes from the Latin parare. Since I learnt that, I've never spelt it wrong.

So, unexpectedly, I'm broadly in agreement with Gwynne for once. Everyone should learn Latin right away.

We can't finish on such a positive note though. People will think I'm going soft. Here, have some criticism: Gwynne makes a number of mistakes regarding linguistic facts. Even without looking for them, I spotted two glaring inaccuracies, both, I think, a result of paraphrasing Wikipedia without understanding it properly and therefore introducing error. Here's the first:
Latin is the direct ancestor of, between them, the five so-called Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) of the largest European language group, and of both of the official South American languages (Spanish and Portuguese).
Even ignoring the fact that it's odd to list Spanish and Portuguese twice (we could give him the benefit of the doubt as there are many differences between the European and South American varieties), this is a strange sentence. Those five are the Romance languages with the most speakers, but he implies that they comprise an exhaustive list of the Romance languages, which is not true. There are lots more. He also implies a contrast between 'the largest European language group' and the South American languages, but the language group he refers to is presumably Indo-European, and this is a classification based on relatedness, not geography, so Spanish and Portuguese are part of it regardless of where they are spoken. And perhaps the biggest inaccuracy of all here is his use of the phrase 'both of the official South American languages', which can only mean that there are two official South American languages, and those two are Spanish and Portuguese. This is wildly wrong: English, Dutch and French are all official languages in South American countries, and oh yes, there are lots and lots of indigenous languages, which Gwynne, in the grand tradition of the superior white man, overlooks. A brief glance at Wikipedia lists Quechua, Aymara and Tupi Guarani in Bolivia, Guarani in Paraguay, more than 60 indigenous languages with official status in Colombia, and so on. None of this is relevant to Gwynne's point, but getting the facts so wrong doesn't fill the reader with confidence about his linguistic expertise.

Here's the second, in a footnote:
The language that Latin replaced [in Britain] was the Celtic language.
No. It wasn't. There is no such thing, and there wasn't when Latin was around either. There are several Celtic languages, and although they all derive from a common ancestor, that was a heck of a long time before Roman Britain. I mean, really, the fact that I'm only giving Wikipedia references here tells you how easy it would have been to check a few of these claims.

[Update: I noticed that later in the book, he says that 'no modern language comes close to approaching Latin in difficulty'. I can't even be bothered to explain why this is idiotic, so I'll just invite readers to share their contenders for 'a language more difficult than Latin' (for an English speaker, presumably, as difficulty of learning varies depending on your native language).]

Friday, 18 April 2014

More on 'is' and 'are'

Consider the following two sentences, talking about prizes:

Two million pounds is paid out every day.
Two million pounds are paid out every day.

Both seem ok to me, actually, and I'm not sure which I'd be more likely to say. Because 'pounds' is grammatically plural, the plural agreement is fine, and because it's semantically one sum of money, the singular is also fine. But I do think there's a slight meaning difference. I think that perhaps the singular implies that there is just one prize, while the plural implies a multitude of prizes. But then perhaps I'm overthinking it.

Friday, 11 April 2014

It's the last day of term today! That means no more teaching for this year. Wow. In honour of this, we had a party for our students on Wednesday which was really fun:

I also learnt something interesting. We use the term 'fresher' colloquially to refer to a first year student, particularly when it's the start of the year and they're arriving for the first time (so you have a freshers' fair, etc). I always assumed it was a shortening of the American term 'freshman', which we don't use here but which is totally standard over there. Turns out that maybe it is, but they don't use 'fresher' there - only the full form. So it seems like we somehow borrowed a clipped form which doesn't exist in its original context without ever borrowing the full form.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Why everyone who works with language needs linguistics

Someone on a blog I read the other day posted this question, asking for advice:
Does anyone know any tricks to know when English -ed is pronounced as [d~t] as in “begged” and “knocked” versus [ed] like “petted”?
Some of my students have issues and I don’t know how to help them.
(I haven't linked to the actual blog because I don't want to seem like I'm criticising them personally.)

You might think that people who teach language know linguistics. Most people seem to think that linguistics *is* teaching languages. In fact, lots of linguistics graduates go on to do language teaching, but they are far outnumbered by language teachers who don't have a linguistics background. TESOL MA programmes frequently have a core linguistics component, but people who've chosen to do TESOL but not linguistics are probably not that interested in linguistics anyway.

The reason I mention this is that the question above is taught on any first-year linguistics course as the absolute go-to example of phonologically-conditioned allomorphy in English. Typically, we point out that native English speakers do this subconsciously and consistently, and it's an example of how there are rules and we can discover them by careful investigation, as well as to teach the theoretical concept.

Of course, speakers of other languages with different rules will not do this subconsciously, because the rules of their language might not automatically force the same result as English. They'll need the rule taught to them. The fact that someone who (presumably) is teaching English doesn't know how to explain this simple fact is quite shocking to me, but I doubt the asker is alone. A few basic linguistics classes would make life as an English teacher so much easier, I can't even imagine why it wouldn't be standard.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

1912 grammar test

One of my former students tweeted this link at me this morning. It's a 1912 test for Kentucky 8th graders (13-14 years old) which includes a section on grammar. Oh dear. Well, I had to give it a go.

It's a good example of how a test can only test what's been taught: none of these are difficult, but some are impossible for me to answer, because I don't know what's required. It's not a matter of stating the facts (eg listing the parts of speech) because - of course - it's not that simple.

  1. There are some basic parts of speech, of course: noun, verb, adjective, preposition, adverb and so on. But there are others which aren't so easy to agree on. What about the German verbal particle doch? And the Mandarin aspect marker le? OK, this is an English grammar test (though it doesn't say that), so what about auxiliary verbs? Are they just verbs, or do they have their own part of speech category? Their definition will be very different from lexical verbs, after all. 
  2. OK, not so hard: a proper noun is a name. A noun, on the other hand, is harder: it's not just 'a naming word' or 'a thing'. Linguists define parts of speech in terms of how they behave in a sentence - so if it behaves like a noun, it's a noun. Therefore, defining a noun and listing its properties are the same thing. 
  3. Ditto. And as for declining 'I'... I'm stumped. I think the answer is just 'I, me' and perhaps 'mine' - but that seems too easy. Would 'my' be in there too? I suppose so, though it's actually a possessive determiner. What about 'we, us'? Still first person, just plural. Giving up on this one. 
  4. LOADS. What kind of properties might they be after? Well, they agree in person and number with the subject, to some extent, and in some languages with the object too. They are inflected for tense, aspect, mood and voice. They typically have a certain number of arguments, beginning with a subject and adding one or two objects depending on the verb (or the context). They are usually located adjacent to their complement, if they have one, though they might not be. Usually, the subject comes before the verb. 
  5. Easy. James was struck by William. Active to passive transformation. Next. 
  6. Three, I think? I'm not totally sure, but it's asking about the positive, comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. So good, better, best; wise, wiser, wisest; beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful
  7. I can't do the diagram. We do draw tree diagrams of sentences, but they don't do that in schools, whereas in the US they at least used to do a different type of diagram, called the Reed-Kellogg system, and I don't know how to do that. Here's one (not very modern or accurate) way of doing it linguistics-style:
  8. And finally, I don't know how to parse. As I use and understand the term, it's what people do when they hear a string of sound and they interpret it as a sentence with structure. So I suppose you have to identify a main verb (ranlove), which has a DP subject (John, Helen's parents) and a complement, if there is one (over the bridge, her). If we're going further, we can say that the PP over the bridge consists of a preposition over with a DP complement the bridge. We can also note that her must refer to Helen, and it can only do so because Helen is part of the subject of the clause but not actually the subject (her in Helen loves her can't mean Helen). 

So yeah, I'd fail. But if I'd been in this school and had been listening in class, I'd probably be OK.

Look though! It's got the now old-fashioned use of have as a verb that can undergo movement in questions: What properties have verbs?. Now, you'd say What properties do verbs have, with an extra verb do because we can no longer move all our verbs, like English used to be able to do (What say you and the like). There's also a spelling mistake in the spelling test section, if you go to the full link (which has maths, geography, physiology, civil government and history sections).

Monday, 24 March 2014

Helping 'them'

You'll probably have seen this by now:

It's - I was astonished to discover - not a parody. It's real. Not a parody. A real image produced by the Conservatives to publicise the benefits of their recent budget to 'hardworking people'. As you can see from the poster, this amounts to reducing the cost of bingo and beer. 

Actually, I have no opinion about bingo tax, but scrapping the beer escalator is a good thing, as far as I can tell, as it reduces the financial strain on smaller breweries. It doesn't actually help any individual drinkers, though, as they've only taken a penny off the price of a pint. Even I don't drink that many pints. I estimate I'd be better off by about £12 a year if the brewers passed the penny saving on to my local and my local passed on this penny saving to me (just kidding - that's how much better off I'd be if I drank 100 pints a month, which I don't. Honest). 

Anyway, the shocking fact that the Tories have done something right amongst all the wrong things they've done is beside the point. This is a linguistics blog, not a beer blog. There is so much wrong with this poster that I can't address it all, but there are two things about it that I will mention: the phrase 'hardworking people' and the pronoun 'they'. 

'Hardworking people' is an unfortunately overused phrase among all the major parties. I have no idea what it means or who it refers to. I'm a hardworking person. Is it me? Maybe. Are the Conservative MPs themselves 'hardworking people'? I'm sure they'd like to think so, but the wording of this poster doesn't seem to say so (more on that shortly, when we come to 'they'). Unfortunately, beer and bingo are stereotypical pursuits of the working class, and I fear that this is what they mean this time by 'hardworking people'. In this sense, it's very much a euphemism, because 'working class' really means 'poor people' and there are rather a lot of people currently out of work and therefore not doing very much 'work' at all. Whether they're drinking beer and playing bingo, I don't know. 

So, 'they'. Owen Jones in the Guardian describes this as 'the fatal pronoun'
The fatal pronoun is "they": it looks like a conscious attempt by well-heeled Tories to distance themselves from the great unwashed, who are presumably all getting hammered in bingo halls. This is the real "plebgate".
They is a versatile little word. It's very useful as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she, handy when you don't know someone's gender or would rather not specify one of those two. In its 'usual' use, as here, it's the third person plural pronoun, in nominative case (ie the one used as the subject of the sentence). It refers to some group of people who include neither the speaker nor the hearer. And that, perhaps, is the problem here. Clearly, the Conservatives (the 'speaker' of this sentence) do not consider themselves to be among 'the hardworking people', but neither do they consider the reader (the 'hearer' of the sentence) to be 'hardworking people' either. So who are 'they'? The 'little people', those who well-meaning people would like to help but really aren't one of us at all. 

The alternatives are no good either, by the way: the first of these is better, but still feels patronising, and the second is just clearly nonsense. 
'To help hardworking people to do more of the things you enjoy.' 

'To help hardworking people to do more of the things we enjoy.' 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Most tastiest

This story recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper, about a schoolboy who bullied Tesco into changing some 'ungrammatical' wording on its juice cartons. As you can probably tell, I'm (unusually) on Tesco's side here, or rather I would have been if they hadn't caved in instantly and completely.

Here's what happened: this 15-year-old boy noticed that his orange juice was described as being made with the 'most tastiest' oranges, and he felt that it should be either 'tastiest' or 'most tasty'. He felt this so strongly that he wrote first to Tesco customer services, and then to the Daily Mail when he didn't get a reply. And he wrote a real letter, with a stamp, not an email, which is how you know he was incandescent.

To clarify: yes, it 'should' be one of the two options he provided. The superlative doubling that he objects to is a very common feature of everyday speech, and I hear it approximately once a day (I listen out for it because I like it). In writing or formal speech it is considered wrong, and any piece of writing such as an essay should not include this construction. I'm very pleased that the standard of education in our schools is such that this child not only knows this, but cares about it. He sounds utterly insufferable, but I'm sure I was also insufferable at his age, so I'll let him off with that.

I do, however, want to suggest a better way for Tesco to have responded (rather than sending a grovelling letter promising to change the wording). The wording was probably carefully selected by a copy writer who knew exactly what they were doing, picking a construction that's frequent but not prescriptively correct, in order to come across as informal, friendly and possibly more eye-catching. Innocent, for example, while not using any 'ungrammatical' constructions that I can see, do their utmost to make their blurb informal, using no capital letters, lots of contractions ('we're', etc) and words like 'stuff', none of which would be acceptable in formal writing.

It's OK to use non-standard language if you know what you're doing and it's for a particular effect. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules before you know how to break them. Had Tesco been a linguist (and perhaps their copywriter is - lots of our students go on to do jobs like that) they might have responded to this young pedant with some facts about the frequency of use and the contexts in which superlative doubling is found, to demonstrate that it is not in fact ungrammatical, but merely register-specific. Then they could have explained to the young man that this wording was intentionally chosen to give the impression of a nice, friendly orange juice seller that you can trust, to mitigate the fact that you're buying concentrated orange juice from a huge corporation that probably pays its orange growers virtually nothing (I don't know this - just guessing).

Actually, the text from which this doubled superlative is taken is not specially informal, so it probably was an oversight. But there we go. I do think it's important not to always uphold the 'rules' of grammar, as being prissy about it is what causes people to dislike grammar when really it's such an interesting and fun thing, if you just look at it in the right way. I'm much more concerned about the genuinely ungrammatical things people (=students) write. If they'd never say it, why do they write it? But that's another rant for another day.

Monday, 17 March 2014

This 'public service announcement' exists:

Why on earth would it be Patty rather than Paddy, I hear you ask? Well, it's a simple case of homophony. Two identical-sounding words, one pronunciation, confusion abounds.

What's that? They're not homophonous? Not to you, maybe. Yer average British English speaker will pronounce these with a /t/ and a /d/ respectively, or possibly a glottal stop instead of the /t/. Yer average American, on the other hand, will have what's called a 'flap' or 'tap' instead of the /t/, and this sounds so much like a /d/ it's pretty much indistinguishable and they're pronounced exactly the same.

I'm ashamed to say I don't know how yer average Irish person would say them - my instinct is telling me there's variation between the flap and the /t/ and /d/ distinction, but I don't know. But then any Irish person is likely to know how to spell the name of their patron saint in any case, one would hope.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Code-switching contrastive emphasis

I'm watching Salamander. It's a kind of political thriller, lots of running about, photocopying and suchlike. It's also Belgian, and the dialogue is mostly in Flemish. It's a bit complicated to explain the situation, because 'Flemish' is Dutch as spoken in Flanders, but then some varieties (eg West Flemish) can be considered separate languages, and Flemish is a cultural label as well, and... well. Anyway. They're speaking Flemish for most of the time. Every now and then, though, they switch into French, either for a single word, a few words, or some of the characters seem to use French as their preferred language so you get a whole conversation in it. You also sometimes get 'parallel talk', where one person in a dialogue uses Flemish and another uses French.

One such scene took place, in which a dialogue took place between about five people, one of whom was using French. He said 'We have to know who our enemy is', and a Flemish speaker replied 'enemIES', stressing the fact that there are more than one single enemy. This is contrastive stress, and is a nifty way of indicating that you're contrasting something you've said with something the other person either said or implied. The contrast can be lexical/semantic: I want BEANS (not cheese), or it can be grammatical, as you can see here, where singular is contrasted with plural. Normally you need to contrast two things that are similar in some way, like two nouns/foodstuffs/potato fillings.

What's special about this is that the two languages do plural in different ways. French adds an -s in the written language, going from ennemi to ennemis. But in fact, in speech, you won't usually hear that -s, and the only thing to tell you the difference is the 'determiner', an article, demonstrative, etc. In this case it was 'our', which in French is notre for singular and nos for plural. I didn't catch the exact word in Flemish but in Dutch it's vijand for 'enemy' and the plural is marked with an -en: vijanden. The possessive determiner stays the same, and in any case the Flemish speaker didn't repeat 'our'. So we had this:
A: (We have to know who is) notre ennemi. 
B: vijandEN.
The Flemish speaker contrasted a possessive determiner with a totally different morphosyntactic category, a plural inflection, because he was contrasting the feature [number], which is encoded on the determiner in French and the noun suffix in Flemish.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Chavs throwing trees... or chillies?

I misheard someone say the other day that they'd seen some chavs (=charvas) throwing trees, rather than chillies. Tree and chilli are not very similar words, but there is a reason for this mishearing: the consonant cluster /tr/ is very often palatalised and pronounced with an affricate: /tʃr/ (='chr') That's actually quite hard to say, so the /r/ can be reduced, leaving the 'ch' sound.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The alarm, like, sounds like an alarm

I saw this tweet:

While it's funny to laugh at the stereotype of Californians saying 'like' (but highly problematic to stigmatise the speech trends associated with teenage girls), I'm intrigued. I would love to think that this sign is influenced by this common feature of speech in the region, but I also wonder if it's to do with the very large Spanish influence in California, where in Los Angeles, for instance, 36% of people speak Spanish at home. Is this a possible word order in (American) Spanish, as well as the English-like order hace un ruido como... ('makes a noise like...')? Then hace is intransitive, though, which probably isn't right. Perhaps it really is, like, filler-like after all.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Pharrell-timed discussion

I think there is this idea that a seminar is a place for lively discussion and informed debate. In practice, it's not like that. More often, in my experience, it's the seminar leader who does most of the work, and the similarity of the endeavour to drawing blood from a stone varied depending on a multitude of factors: group size, group ability, group demographics, work set, how much other work has been set that week, what time the seminar is, how hot the room is...

Today I had the first proper seminar for my spring morphology module. It started off badly, with only 50% attendance. After getting just 75% to the lecture, this is slightly worrying, so I hope it picks up. Anyway, the group itself is a good one - both seminar groups are filled with bright, keen students. Today I wanted them to discuss a chapter I'd asked them to read. It's an interesting and important discussion of the kind of data we use by the ever insightful Maggie Tallerman, who taught me everything I know about morphology.

I wanted this discussion to be interesting for the students, more so than just doing exercises. I put some discussion questions up on the projector to get them going. I even started them out with an easy exercise to get them in the right frame of mind. Then I split them into groups of 5, not so big that they would fight to be heard, but big enough to generate discussion. Trouble is, with only ten students, that's only two groups, and the room was suddenly silent. Each group could hear the other, and it was too intimidating, and no one said anything.

First, I tried to stimulate conversation by joining each group. That was successful for about three seconds. Then, fantastically, I realised the problem was feeling self-conscious, and put some music on. I had to ask the students the best way to do this, of course, but having been told to YouTube something, I just picked the first song on the 'music' channel, which was Pharrell Williams' 'Happy'. Straight away, discussion was easier because they weren't aware of the other group and me being able to hear everything they said. OK, they were still shy and quiet, but it really did make a difference. They talked till the end of the song (well, with some lulls) and then we discussed the questions in the full group.

In future, all seminar discussions will be accompanied by songs.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Passive voice

Yeah, I'm going there.

UPDATE: As I was writing this post, Geoff Pullum blogged on Language Log, noting that he has completed a paper describing his excellent position on the matter of passives, and you can read his forthcoming paper there.

So anyway, what I was going to talk about was just a couple of interesting times I've noticed it.

First: someone tweeted Alexander Armstrong to say that he wished he would 'stop being referred to as Zander':

As well as being a bizarre thing to say, this is a bizarre syntactic construction. I guess he has phrased it this way to avoid using a vague subject like 'people' or 'contestants and Richard Osman'. After all, one of the main reasons for using the passive is when you don't know or don't want to make a big thing about the subject. Unfortunately, using stop often implies some sense of agency, when it's predicated of a person. Not always: He's stopped burning would not be any more agentive than the fire's stopped burning, of course. I think it must be because stop occurs with another verb in the present participle form, and when that verb is agentive the whole construction is agentive. And refer is agentive. This gives the weird idea that Xander has to somehow stop a process from happening to him that's entirely beyond his control.

Second: passives betraying speaker attitudes. I was listening to the radio and someone told a very funny story about Stevie Wonder, in which he apparently used to freak out his house guests by picking them up at the gate and driving them half a mile or so up the drive to his house (this being terrifying on account of his being blind). The way the person phrased it (sorry I can't give more info or be specific - I had the details but they were lost in a technical snafu) was this:
Stevie Wonder was taught to drive from his gate to his house.
Was taught is passive, indicating that someone is doing something to Stevie Wonder. Passive reverses the roles in the sentence, so giving it in the active would mean the opposite: Stevie Wonder taught someone to drive. However, we have a nifty little thing whereby we have an active verb that means more or less the same as the passive form of teach: learn. (It doesn't mean exactly the same, but in some contexts, including this one, it's near as dammit.) So we now have a choice with no meaning difference, between these two sentences:
Stevie Wonder was taught to drive.
Stevie Wonder learnt to drive.
If there is no meaning difference, we make the choice on (among other things) stylistic grounds. Some would say don't use the passive - I'm not one of those people. Go ahead and use it if you like. But in this case, I think there is another reason not to use it, and that's again related to agency, although this time not just on grammatical grounds.

If you compare the two, with learnt, it was Stevie Wonder's volition to drive. With was taught, agency is given to some other, unnamed person. While I'm quite sure it was still Stevie Wonder's decision to do so, the sentence may be interpreted as reflecting a subconscious belief that people with disabilities can't or don't play jokes, make decisions or control their own lives to the extent that non-disabled people do.

Language doesn't influence thought (oversimplification - sorry), but it can reflect beliefs and reinforce attitudes.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Another Sweary Blog Post

A fellow linguist tweeted (ages ago):

To me, this is ungrammatical. For me, the pattern goes like this, where the asterisk next to (4) means it's ungrammatical:

  1. Answer some emails
  2. Respond to some emails
  3. Answer the fuck out of some emails
  4. *Respond to the fuck out of some emails
Answer and respond are a pair of verbs that have nearly identical meanings but behave differently in terms of their syntax. Answer needs a noun phrase complement like some emails, while respond also has to be followed by the preposition to. The structure is nearly the same in both cases, where the verb has some kind of phrase as its complement (that's what the brackets mean):
[answer [some emails]]
[respond [to [some emails]]]
If we add in the emphatic the fuck out of, then the fuck becomes the object of the verb, and we get something more like this:
[answer [the fuck] [out of [some emails]]]
It should be understood as meaning that the fuck, whatever it is, is the thing that is removed from the emails due to their being answered so comprehensively.

So if, like for the tweeter, it's grammatical with respond as well, then we must have an identical construction: the fuck is the complement of the preposition to, and we've got this:
[[respond [to the fuck]] out of some emails]
But for me, respond to the fuck doesn't work so well. It doesn't even have the idiomatic meaning of 'doing something so well it removes all the fuck from it', which we saw above. out of some emails has to be an adverbial phrase, I think, being something the location of the whole action. You'd have to respond the fuck out of some emails, and in fact that is much more acceptable to me.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Because survey.

I made a survey, because the construction that I called 'because+noun' back in July 2012 has suddenly become word of the year and we still don't know how it works! If you could take it I would be pleased. Many thanks. If you can't see it below, it's here

Thursday, 2 January 2014

What are the chances?

I've been catching up on iplayer episodes of the Christmas 'University Challenge', and in episode 7 Rory Bremner gave the same wrong answer I did: King Cnut (Canute? Not sure of how we spell that these days).

But the thing is, I was guessing any random historical figure, as the question was to say which historical figure some poem was about and I'd never heard of the poem or the poet, or indeed the correct answer, so I didn't even know what century to go for. (History is not my quiz forte.)

So why did we both say Cnut (Canute)? Maybe simple chance, but it's possible we were primed. That's when you hear or see a word and it makes you more likely to say a word that's similar phonetically or semantically. Paxo ended his question with the word 'brute', so maybe we subconsciously picked a word that rhymed.

Ten hundred words of confusing syntax

There's an interesting blog called 'Ten hundred words of science', in which people try to explain their research using only the thousand most common words of English (go to the page to find out why and how these words were determined). 

Here's a couple of screenshots: 

You'll notice that using simple words can have the unfortunate consequence of requiring very complicated syntax. The first paragraph is very hard to parse, especially that first sentence which has a very long subject [Big human like men animals that people go to see at parks they pay to get into]. It also has a comma following the subject which is strictly incorrect, but which would only add to the difficulty if it wasn't there. Similarly, the last sentence uses incorrect commas to try to clarify a very awkward construction.

The second entry, on the right here, has an almost incomprehensible sentence in it, the first sentence in the second paragraph. It does get better, and of course I picked two of the worst ones in this respect, but it just shows: simpler words does not necessarily mean simpler writing.