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.