Monday, 5 December 2016

The bestest

In my German class last week we learnt about comparatives and superlatives. German is simpler than English in this respect, as it always adds a suffix: -er for comparatives, -(e)ste(n) for superlatives. For superlatives, there are two ways of doing it. You either say am intelligentesten or die intelligenteste.

As usual, there's a really simple rule that my book didn't tell me and I had to go looking for. You use the am kind when it's predicative (not followed by the noun it modifies), as in Laura is the most intelligent, and you use the other kind when it's attributive (followed by the noun), as in She is the most intelligent woman in the room.

Some of the exercises I had to do involved wh-questions, like Which hotel was the nicest?. We can analyse these (in some theories) as having an understood hotel following nicest: we know that it means the nicest hotel. This is more evident with a question like Which biscuits did she bake?: it corresponds with She baked which biscuits, which relates to the answer She baked these biscuits.

Note, though, that we can't so easily put the wh-phrase back with the hotel question: *(It) was the nicest which hotel just doesn't work at all. This perhaps explains my observation. I had predicted that maybe when you have a wh-question, you'd use the der/die/das form, because there is an understood noun and it's sort of attributive. Sadly for me and my homework answers, this turned out not to be the case, and you use the am form there. Not so sad for the theory, though, because maybe this is precisely because of the impossibility of 'putting back' the wh-phrase to the position following the adjective.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Worst. Blog. Post. Ever.

The snowclone 'Worst. X. Ever' (from the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons) is easy enough: just substitute X with whatever it is you're commenting on, and you're done.

The full stops represent the way Comic Book Guy says the phrase, with a distinct pause between each word. It distinguishes this quotation use from just any old utterance of 'worst X ever'.

What do you do with them when the X is more than one word? These two tweets illustrate the difference. This one gets it wrong:
While this one gets it right:

If your X is more than one word, you can't put full stops after every word. The full stops represent pauses, and you don't pause in the middle of perfume name and Tinder bio. They're intonational phrases, spoken with a single intonational contour.

I slightly suspect it might be different with a phrase where the stress falls on the second word, though. For example, Worst. Jacket. Potato. Ever. seems to work a bit better (though Worst. Jacket potato. Ever is still best in my view).

Monday, 28 November 2016

Don't you not want some points?

On this week's episode of QI (available on the iPlayer for a few days if you're in the UK), Sandi Toksvig asked Alan Davies the following question:
Don't you not want some points or not? 
The point of QI, if you don't know, is that the questions are all kind of a trick. In this case, the trick is that it's hard to work out what the right answer is, and there's a penalty for a wrong answer.

This question brought about some linguistic chat, all of which ended with Sandi saying that only 'arbitrary pedants' would worry about double negatives, and explaining why the stigma came about in the first place. Gyles Brandreth also took the opportunity to tell us at length how English has half a million words and German only a hundred thousand (I guess it depends how you count them).

But the point here is the difficulty of the piled-up negatives, of course. Let's dispense with the easy one first: the or not at the end caused both Alan Davies and Victoria Coren to claim that it wasn't a yes or no question: it's two questions. WELL. This is technically true, it is two questions, but as I discuss at length in my thesis (and as is generally known; it's not my idea), this is actually one question because yes/no questions are a choice between two alternatives. So that's OK. We can in theory give a yes or no answer to this question. So which is the right one, assuming that you do want points?

WE DON'T KNOW! That's one of the cool things about this question and it's not even because of the double negative! It's because negative questions are inherently ambiguous! Look:
Don't you want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
We don't always really have a clear sense of what 'yes' means in answer to a negative question. Probably, you feel that it means yes, I do want some points in this case. I do. But it's got to have the right intonation otherwise it doesn't mean anything much, though it can't mean that I don't want points, I don't think.
Do you not want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
Again, it's not clear, without a sort of contradictory emphasis, what this means. There's tons of research on this which you can read if you're interested. Kramer & Rawlins use examples like the following to show that in fact, the interpretation is likely to be negative in such questions:
Is Alfonso not coming to the party?
No (=he isn't coming)
Yes (=he isn't coming)
So we've already got an issue with this kind of negation. Adding in a double negation, as in the original question, just adds parsing difficulty to the already ambiguous question. It is a real double negative, so it cancels out, as in I don't not like him... or is it double negation as found in many varieties, where one reinforces the other, as in I didn't do nothing or Didn't you not? We just don't know.

What, you thought I was going to answer this one? Nope. Unsolved problem, my friends.

(The 'correct' answer was yes, which is actually not what I'd have gone for: I'd have said it meant something like Isn't it the case that you don't want some points, or is that wrong?, so I'd have answered No, that's not the case. But maybe they went with yes as in Yes, that's true, it isn't the case that....)

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

This adverb is super interesting

The Oxford Times published a whinge about the prefix super- recently (don't click the link; you'll get the idea from this post and like all local papers, the page is full of really annoying adverts that play audio). They're unhappy about the increase in adjectives preceded by super, such as super-strong, super-expensive and super-fit.

The claims about its increased frequency are discussed for American English in this post by Neal Whitman from February this year, and are true. It is getting more common (this is super-unusual, by the way, because normally it's the frequency illusion). Whether the claim that its use over here comes from American English is true or not I don't know; I can't be bothered to check because I don't really care.

What I do care about is whether it really is a prefix in all the examples they mention. Neal has it as an adverb and I instinctively classed it as that as well before I was pointed to his post. Why, though? The Oxford Times' examples are all written with a hyphen, and they explicitly call it a prefix. I also have an intuitive hyphen when it's an attributive adjective rather than predicative (a super-compelling argument vs this argument is super compelling). Whyyyyy??

[Aside: the fact that it can be unambiguously an adjective in examples like This pudding is simply super is irrelevant. Words don't usually have a category* when considered in isolation, and only have categories when considered in context.]

With a noun, as in superyacht, I'd not hesitate to call it a prefix, regardless of whether it's written like that or as super yacht or super-yacht. And when rich is a noun, I'd class it as a prefix (the super-rich ought to pay more taxes), but when it's an adjective it's a more ambiguous (The owner of this company is super rich). This is easily explained: adverbs can't modify nouns, so super (adverb) can't modify a noun like yacht; it must be a prefix meaning something like mega- or über-.

So let's focus on the ambiguous cases where it modifies an adjective, so could be a prefix (like über-strong) or an adverb (like incredibly strong). How do we tell which it is? Intuition is notoriously unreliable.

It would be useful to know if anything else can occur between the putative adverb and the adjective. You couldn't split a prefix from its base (apart from with expletives, like un-bloody-fortunately) but you might be able to put another word between an adverb and an adjective (really very pleasant). I don't think you can with super, but it's not a super-compelling argument; you also can't put anything between very, an undisputed adverb, and an adjective (very really pleasant is awful). But you can stack it up, which is more adverbial-like (super super happy).

One argument for it being a prefix would be that it can modify just adjectives. Adverbs can modify verbs and prepositional phrases (not nouns, as noted above). But it looks like super can actually modify these too: Neal Whitman gives these examples of prepositional phrases:
Three is super off tee, but not off turf.
I was super into rollerblading which I'm not any more.
Other adverbs:
Lift super slowly, taking 10 seconds to raise and 5 to lower.
My job was to 'appear', super suddenly.
And verbs:
Their media strategy... is to kind of exalt and super serve the conservative media.
I super hate to lose.
I super want a desert tortoise!
We super like this song.
The fact that these are less common is slightly an issue, though - perhaps this is a prefix in the process of breaking free and making a bid for adverbialhood? It's times like these I wish I was more of a morphologist and knew how to find out. Advice welcome - anyone want to do a study?

*That's a super-controversial way of putting that. I don't mean to imply any stance on whether the category of a word is part of its inherent content, or whether the same word in more than one category is a single word that changes category rather than being two homophonous words, or anything really. I have opinions about these things but they aren't the point of this post. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Margaret Atwood is perfect

I saw this tweet today and thought it seemed really weird.
If you 'want for' something, then you lack it. It's usually used in the negative, such as We were poor but we wanted for nothing. Note that we wanted for nothing does not mean the same as we wanted nothing! They may very well have wanted lots of things, but didn't need them or feel a lack of them.

Want (without for) also means 'desire', however, because if you lack or need something, you may in fact also desire it, so the meanings overlap. The overlap is especially obvious if you think about a context like buying vegetables at a farmer's market. If you haven't brought your reusable bag (tut tut), the stallholder might say You'll want a bag for those. You don't specially feel a burning desire for one, but you need one, so you do also want one.

If the tweet had said 'If I wanted perfection...' then it would make a bit more sense. As it stands, Atwood seems to be saying 'If I lacked perfection, I would never write a word'. That implies that she writes because she has perfection, which is not at all the sentiment intended.

She may well be perfect, in fact - I think she's right up there in the best writers I've ever read. Top three, for sure. But it's a typo, of course... she actually said 'If I waited for perfection'.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Comments policy

Just to let you know, I've switched on comment moderation. I'm getting spammed by some Italians who are obsessed with someone they're accusing of stuff in capital letters and I'm fed up with deleting the comments. I'll try and be good about approving real comments quickly.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The gender of Brexit

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to this article about the gender of the word Brexit in various European languages. It notes that the word is masculine in French and German, but feminine in Italian. The Independent's version of the story points out that it's also masculine in Polish, Flemish, Catalan and Welsh.

Italian has a justification for making it feminine, in that the word it's based on, exit, is feminine when translated into Italian (uscita). This is a terrible justification, in my view, as it isn't the word uscita - it's the borrowed word exit, and there's no reason on earth why they should have the same gender. As someone in the comments noted, you can have two words for the same thing with different genders, and gives the example of das Auto (neuter) and der Wagen (masculine), both meaning 'car' in German. It's word that have genders, and exit is a different word from uscita. However, it's the Accademia della Crusca, Italy's language body, that has decreed this and they have fixed principles on the matter, so they must stick to them.

If a new word is similar to an existing one, then it'll tend to behave like that one. An invented verb like gling might have an irregular past tense glang, on analogy with sing. We might be tempted to pluralise POTUS (President of the United States) to POTI on analogy with other words ending in -us, like cactus.

If there isn't an easy parallel to draw, then I'd expect it to be masculine, as it is in the other languages mentioned. In Spanish and Italian, for instance, nouns end in -o or -a. This doesn't, so we have to just pick a gender. As the article says, most new words get masculine gender. This isn't, however, because 'Spain, being a Latin country, opts for male', as the Guardian lazily jokes. It's because whenever you have sets of things in grammar, there is a marked and an unmarked option. Consider number: we add something (usually -s in English) to show that a noun is plural, and without that, we assume it's singular. Singular is 'unmarked', plural is 'marked'. Consider positive and negative sentences: we have a word to show that the sentence is negative, but nothing to show that it's positive. Negative is 'unmarked', positive is 'unmarked'. The unmarked option is the default option.

When it comes to gender, masculine tends to be the unmarked option. If you have a group of friends in Spanish, then if they're all male, they're amigos. If they're all female, they're amigas. If they're mixed, then they're amigos (masculine). Now, whether this reflects a deeply sexist mindset, whether it has contributed over many generations to sexist thinking, or whether it's totally unrelated, probably remains an unsolved question. But it does mean that new words get masculine gender in most languages.

Welsh appears to be taking a very pragmatic approach to the matter: it's masculine because if it was feminine, it would have to have 'consonant mutation', which is when certain nouns change the sound they begin with under certain conditions. It's just easier to make it masculine.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Quite Black

I've been meaning to write a post about quite for quite a while. This is as a result of Google announcing a phone. In this country it comes in just two (boring) colours, but elsewhere it comes in three: Quite Black, Very Silver, and Really Blue.

At first, I found Quite Black a funny name - I'm not sure why, but the understatement of it seemed amusing. But! Google is American and there is definitely some difference in the meaning of quite in UK vs US usage. The latter two make me think that Google intends quite in its meaning of very or completely. We can use it like that here, although it sounds a bit old-fashioned or posh:
That's quite enough of your nonsense, young lady! I'm quite sure you wouldn't speak like that to your mother! 
So it isn't an understatement; they mean that it's very black, or completely black. Disappointing.

Lynne Murphy has (of course) written about this difference, here and here. She points out that the difference is 'very much' (AmE) vs 'not so much' (BrE), or that it strengthens the force of an adjective in American English but weakens it in British English.

I don't know know quite how I would characterise it in British English. It does weaken the force, and it does mean 'not so much', but so much, as always, depends on the tone. How you say it can make It's quite black mean that it's waaaaay too black (sort of rise-fall intonation - I'm not a phonetician, sorry) or that it's really a very good level of blackness (rising intonation). Of course, this is what intonation does, and to some extent you get this without quite, but it adds this ambiguity. In both cases, it means that there is a high level of blackness. With yet another intonation (strong emphasis on quite), it can also mean that it's relatively black, but not as black as you would hope.

Either way, even though the 'high level of blackness' meanings are very accessible in British English, we interpret the phrase Quite Black as an understatement, a weakening of the force of black, and not as a strengthener.

If I was Google, I'd have released it in Purest Green:

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Linguistics of 'Arrival'

In this post I slightly spoil some of the funny bits and a lot of the linguistics in the film, though probably not the crucial bits, I don't think. Stop reading now if you want to play it safe.

Excitingly, I managed to get invited to a screening of Arrival last week, a good six weeks before it's due out on general release. I went with a handful of other linguists, so we enjoyed the complimentary booze with a bunch of (we assume) critics and then settled down to watch a film that we were somewhat trepidatious about. The main character in this film is a linguist, and this doesn't always give a terribly accurate impression of our business. However, some of my companions had read the short story it's based on, The story of your life by Ted Chiang, and were hopeful that the film would do this story justice.

It did, as it happens, and I'd recommend it if you like thoughtful scifi with aliens, stern US military types and a romantic side-plot. Personally I'm not a huge fan of all these things; the romantic side-plots can do one as far as I'm concerned, but in this film it worked well and contributed to a really clever twist to the story.

Right. David Adger has written a nice post about the language of the aliens and how 'alien' it really is. I'm going to focus on a few points where linguistics was a focus of the film and how it was treated.

The language in the film, Heptapod (the aliens have seven tentacle-feet things), is a visual language. There is a spoken language as well, but the linguist protagonist, Dr Louise Banks, decides that the visual language is the one she can work with to communicate with them. I can't remember why she thinks that, now, but it probably would have been harder to synthesise the spoken language to communicate with them (and she certainly couldn't produce it herself). (Note to self: don't try and write film reviews after having seen them and then drunk lots of wine a week previously.)

This language is formed by the heptapods squirting a sort of squid-ink-type substance in circular shapes with irregular edges, like coffee cup rings. These irregular bits are not actually irregular, of course, as they are what conveys the meaning. Each ring is a sentence (I don't know if we found out if they have complex sentences, with more than one clause). These symbols (the Independent calls them a 'complex form of hieroglyphs', though I'm not sure why) are holistic: they're produced as a whole, not made up of obvious parts. This is important to the story, as it is representative (in fact the cause) of the way the heptapods see the world: time is non-linear to them. However, they're not inseparable. In translating the language, with a good deal of computer analysis, the scientists identify tons of nodes in the rings that map onto meaning. When Louise talks to the heptapods, she creates rings from four or five segments. Clearly, there is combinatorial stuff going on here. I think the story talks more about how it works, so I'll know more about that once I've read it.

I liked the way Louise and her job are portrayed, for the most part. She is called a 'linguist', not any other job title, and she really is one. Near the start of the film, we see her giving a lecture on comparative romance linguistics. She employs what are, as far as I'm aware, linguistic fieldwork methods in her efforts to understand the heptapod language (she proceeds very quickly, but maybe that's because she has the US military and its computers behind her). Linguistics is referred to as a science and compared favourably to maths at one point by the theoretical physicists (not sure what he was there for).

***slight spoilers***
At one point, she told the kangaroo story, which Wikipedia relates like this:
Cook and Banks were exploring the area when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you", which Cook took to be the name of the creature.
The row of linguists sat in stony silence at the punchline. However, when she reveals it not to be a true story a moment later, we had the last laugh.
***spoiler over***

Some things were a little bit less accurate. For one thing, her house was amazing. What mid-career female linguist is paid that much money? Perhaps she was well-paid for the work she'd done when seconded to the army previously.

She also speaks all the languages. I mentioned at the start that she was lecturing in comparative romance linguistics. Perhaps this isn't her specialism; heaven knows I lecture in all kinds of things that I don't know an awful lot about. But we do know that she was able to help the military with some Farsi interpreting. When the Colonel turns up on her doorstep and asks 'Do you speak Mandarin?', the answer is apparently 'yes'. There's possibly an explanation of this later in the film, but at that point it feels like a very lucky coincidence and playing into the stereotype of what linguists do (i.e. speak all the languages).

At one point, it seems that she is going to be unsuitable for the work they want her to do. She asks them if they're going to see some other guy next (let's call him Linguist B as I didn't make notes) and says, 'Ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation' (which as my colleague noted doesn't make much sense, but I guess I know what they meant). He comes back and says that Linguist B said it means something violent, and what does she say it means? She says 'a desire for more cows'. A quick internet search shows that this is generally known, although I'm afraid I lack the desire to fact-check it. This plays into the Sapir-Whorfianism that runs throughout the film, whereby language shapes the way you think. It doesn't actually make much sense to say the Sanskrit word for 'war' means 'a desire for more cows'. Either it literally means that but is used to mean 'war', in which case it means 'war', or else it isn't the word for 'war'. Sanskrit speakers definitely have the ability to wage war, so it's not that they don't have a concept of it due to the lack of a word for it.

But still. At one point she is explaining why she needs to go through a ton of basic stuff like pronouns when all they want to know is 'What is your purpose on earth' and we get a great linguistic explanation of everything that's involved in understanding and therefore answering that question. We also get a nice 'problem of translation' point when it hinges on whether a certain word means 'weapon' or 'tool' (and the answer to which it is is pretty cool by the way).

I'm happy with it, as a linguist and as a scifi fan. Go and see it. It's good.

Aside: Reviews are less linguistically well-informed. Apart from the aforementioned use of 'hieroglyphs' in the Independent, the Guardian says this:
Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex.
I assume they've said this just to make a sort of political joke, but this is such a stupid question it should never have been asked. I also have an understanding of 'deep structure' in language, having studied it for 12 years or so now, and I can assure you it doesn't give you a magical ability to understand unfamiliar languages. If anything, it might make him less able to work with a language that may not conform to this deep structure (see David's post linked earlier). Linguistic fieldwork is a fiendishly difficult task that takes years of training and practice to do well, and it's something that Chomsky has not specialised in. In fact, he's often criticised for doing precisely the opposite.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Nocuous stuff

I saw this lovely example of a backformation in my twitter timeline the other day: the use of 'nocuous', the opposite of 'innocuous'. It's an existing word and so perhaps not technically a backformation, but I'd put money on the writer having backformed it.

Thursday, 8 September 2016


I'm at LAGB all this week. I'll attempt to write some kind of post about what's been going on at some point when I'm less conferenced-out, but in the meantime, this happened.

At our committee meeting, I was reporting on my Membership Secretary duties. At one point, discussing how I'd been 'lapsing' members who hadn't renewed, I said I might have 'over-lapsed' some people (i.e. lapsed their account erroneously). Later on, I mentioned that people who register for the conference who aren't already members are 'forcibly enmembered'. By this point, people were noticing my neologisms and pointed it out. I said 'sorry; I over-morphologised'.

As I'm sure you'll appreciate, this amused me no end.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bear cats aren't cats. Or bears.

This tweet appeared in my timeline today:
All of this is useful and important information, and it's cool how things get to be named things that they aren't, but the linguistic point I wanted to make is in relation to the last one.

Each of these has two parts to its name, either an adjective plus a noun (slow+worm, horny+toad) or two nouns (killer+whale, bear+cat). (I've analysed 'killer' as a noun here, but I suppose it might be an adjective too - it doesn't much matter.) In each case, it's the second part that tells you the type of thing that it is (or isn't): a worm, a toad, a whale, a cat. That's because when you put two things together in language, you (nearly) always have one that's the 'head' and the other part modifies the head in some way. Here, it tells you what type of worm/toad/whale it is: a slow one, a horny one, a killer one. This is a general fact of English: the Right-Hand Head Rule.

This means that even when the two parts of a compound are nouns and either could theoretically be the head (a bear cat could be a type of cat or a type of bear), we interpret the right-hand element as the head. This is evident from the wording of the tweet, where we're told they're not a type of cat, and the fact that they're also not bears is added as a humorous parenthetical, just in case we were tempted to think that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The object of sleep

A while back, I wrote a post about what appeared to be a causative alternation with the verb wait: I said They wait you in the bookshop. In that post, I said 'sleep doesn't have an object', and this is true: it's the prototypical example linguists use of an intransitive verb (i.e. one that doesn't have an object).

Language is a flexible beast, though, and you can get things like I slept the whole night through, where one might argue that the whole night is an object. But this isn't so clear cut, as you might prefer to say that the whole night through is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb slept, the same as if it was I slept all night or I slept for ages.

However, last week I heard an example where sleep definitely did have an object, and it was the same sort of construction as the wait example in my earlier post. I was on holiday at a folk festival with some friends, including an 11-year-old boy. His mum commented on the fact that he'd only had a short nap, and he said I know but it slept me enough. In this sentence, the subject is it (the nap) and the object is me (i.e. the sleeper). I think that's quite cool.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Congratulations on being an alumni?

My final-year students are graduating today. They'll be graduands for the duration of the morning and afternoon, and by around 3.30pm they'll be graduates. I enjoy this use of Latin morphology: the -and ending comes from the Latin gerund and gerundives, which end in -andum or -andus/-anda/-andum respectively.

The gerund is a noun derived from a verb, so in English it would be something like Graduating is a reason to celebrate. The gerundive is an adjective, and it's translated as something like 'to be graduated' (or 'fit to be graduated' or 'ought to be graduated'). It's this gerundive sense that we use in English: they are the students who are (fit) to be graduated. (Notice that we're using an adjective to refer to a thing, as in 'the French'.)

It appears that we've knocked off the gender agreement ending (-us, -a, or -um) and this helps us out in English so that we don't have to worry about whether it's a male or female graduand. Incidentally, when we borrowed this word into English I'm pretty sure they'd have all been chaps so I don't think this was gender equality at work.

When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, and even there we're not fully signed up to a gendered system (we make no distinction other than for singular humans that aren't me or you (he and she, in other words), and singular they is also available if we can't be bothered even with that).

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Who are men?

News changes quickly at the moment and this article from last Friday is already well out of date. However, it contains an interesting turn of phrase.

It's about having a female Prime Minister, and being female in politics. It says this:
Even now women who choose politics have to decide how to define themselves in the context of gender in a way that would seem bizarre for men (although familiar enough to politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds). 
If I'm being generous, I'll say that it's contrasting women with men, and white people with people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and these two groups cross-cut each other (you can be both or neither).

If I'm not being generous, I'd say that 'men' here refers to 'white men', given that otherwise there's a weird contrast in that 'men' would find this situation bizarre but 'politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds', who are likely to be men, wouldn't.

OK, intersectionality is hard, and we haven't mentioned the fact that plenty of other sorts of people would recognise this disparity, but it is possible to avoid clumsiness like this.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Can you not?

I've written before about negation and the difference in meaning when it takes different scope. The other day, a friend in the pub said this, directed at a football 'pundit' on telly:
You're 60, can you not wear a suit and trainers? 
By this, he meant
Because you're 60 [and should know better/are too old], please don't wear a suit and trainers. 
It can have another meaning, though, and one that I think is much more accessible, or perhaps only available, in certain dialects:
You're 60, so is it impossible for you to wear a suit and trainers?
For me, both those readings work fine for the sentence and the intonation is pretty much the same in each case. The difference is once again a matter of how 'high' the negation is in the sentence:
Is it the case that
you can
[not wear a suit and trainers]?
Is it not the case that
you can
[wear a suit and trainers]?
For more on this, a very easy to read article (old now, but still good) is Bob Ladd's 1981 paper.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English Grammar Day

I seem to do nothing but livetweet linguistics events these days. Here's the tweeting from the English Grammar Day at the British Library yesterday, organised by UCL.

Monday, 27 June 2016

ELL research day 2016

We held our annual department research day on Thursday, and I storified the livetweeting (as usual, mostly from me and Christina):

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lies and lying by implication

The UK voted (by a narrow majority) to leave the EU this week. I am furious about this and terrified about what it says about us as a country and what it means for our future, both as a country and for me personally. Nevertheless, life goes on, so here's an EU referendum-themed blog post on lies and lying by implicature (meaning beyond what is said).

A lot of the debate raged around the figure of £350million, which was claimed by the Leave campaign to be the weekly amount the UK spends on the EU. This figure is itself not actually accurate, and it was quoted even more inaccurately (I heard it mentioned as the daily amount, for instance), but the main deception here was the idea that this £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if we voted to leave the EU. Immediately after the result was announced, Nigel Farage said that this promise would not be kept and that if you voted for Leave on that basis it was 'a mistake'. This was no surprise to those of us who knew that there was no £350million a week, or to people like me who assume that Farage is lying every time he says anything, but a large proportion of the 17million Leave voters did apparently believe this promise from a politician with no ability to enact anything.

After the result and subsequent backtracking, people said things like 'no one ever promised that £350million would be spent on the NHS'. Other people responded like this:

This makes that point that they did indeed say that they would do exactly this. Here, it's absolutely impossible for it to be read any other way:

Pronouns are notoriously slippery little buggers and their meaning is entirely context dependent. They refer back to something in the discourse, and what that referent is depends partly on some syntactic constraints but mostly on whatever is the most recent possible referent. Here, it's more or less impossible to interpret 'it' as referring to anything other than the £350million:

(It could do, if that ellipsis included some other referent. Imagine: 'Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I only get £5 pocket money per week, but I would spend it on the NHS.')

Here, the Leavers have some wriggle room: nowhere do they actually state they'll spend the £350m on the NHS:

They merely make the point that we spend £350million on the EU, and that we should spend some unspecified amount on the NHS instead. If we put an extra fiver into the NHS, that would technically be fulfilling this. Not only that, they don't even promise to do it (which they can't anyway): they say Let's, which is a suggestion (a 'hortative'). A hortative has no truth conditions, which means it can't be true or false, and it certainly isn't equivalent in truth conditions to 'We will spend £350million a week on the NHS'.

However, this is a sticky legalese way of getting out of it. If you write two sentences on the side of your battle bus (actually, they're one sentence, but an ungrammatical one - they need some punctuation in there), it's entirely reasonable for people to assume that they're related. It would be disingenuous and misleading to say that the 'fund' in the second clause does not have any relation to the '£350million' in the first, and I would consider that lying by implicature.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Warning: extra care has been taken

Asda's smoked salmon trimmings have this warning on the packet:
Warning: Extra care has been taken to remove bones, although some may remain. 
If you scroll down a bit at the link, you can see it there. For most of the time it took me to make smoked salmon crostini this morning, I was trying to work out why I didn't like this phrasing. Eventually, I worked it out, and I think it's a real-life example of the misunderstanding that conjunctions and subordination work in different ways that I'm constantly correcting in my students' work.

Our online marking software allows you to create comments that you can use whenever you need them. Here's the one I created for this:
Whereas: introduces a subordinate clause (usually before the main clause). It is not followed by a comma, but the clause it introduces is. It therefore looks like this, where X and Y are complete sentences:
1. Whereas X, Y.
2. X, whereas Y.
And it does not look like this:
3. X. Whereas Y.
Although: works exactly like 'whereas'.
However: Unlike 'whereas' or 'although', when followed by a comma, it can introduce a sentence. Also unlike them, it cannot join two sentences unless you also use a semi-colon. If you're trying to do this with 'however', you probably want 'but'.
It looks like this:
1. X. However, Y.
2. X; however, Y. [but I would recommend 'X but Y' instead]
It does NOT look like this:
3. X, however Y.
4. X however, Y.
Therefore: works exactly like 'however'.
The substitution of however for but is the one that annoys me the most: it's pure 'big word syndrome', and sounds clunky.

Back to the salmon, they've used although when but would have been better. That would have given them the precise meaning they wanted to convey, namely that even though they've been totally diligent, there might even so be some bones in the salmon. That would work because but coordinates two clauses, so neither clause 1 (extra care has been taken to remove bones) nor clause 2 (some may remain) has more importance than the other and the whole of clause 1 and clause 2 together is interpreted as the warning.

The problem with although here is that it subordinates the clause that it introduces. In their formulation that's clause 2 (some may remain). This clause, because it's subordinated, can't be the main bit of that sentence and therefore can't be the warning. Only the main clause can be the warning, and the main clause is the one that's not subordinated, namely extra care has been taken to remove bones. They're warning me that they've taken extra care to remove bones, and as some extra information they note that some may remain. That's not right! If they really wanted to use although, they could have: they just need to make the warning be the main clause and although subordinate the real extra information (their claim of diligence):
[Although extra care has been taken to remove bones,] some may remain.  

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Doing Public Linguistics

I was at the brilliant 'Doing Public Linguistics' symposium yesterday, organised by Lynne Murphy at the University of Sussex (thanks again, Lynne!). There was an absolute ton of livetweeting, partly because some very active twitterers were in attendance including Superlinguo's Lauren, who I was so excited to meet irl for the first time. I met some other people who I previously only knew through twitter as well, and some new people, and plenty of old friends too. The talks were excellent and the livetweeting added an extra dimension of discussion to the day, so thanks to all who joined in. Here's the full set of tweets, as they appeared at the time.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Using Twitter for linguistic research: Benefits and difficulties

We held our workshop on twitter yesterday (funded by the Faculty of Humanities and the Centre for Language and Linguistics). It was great! All the talks were really interesting and we all learnt some cool things. Here's a Storified version of the livetweeting, and you can find slides and summaries of the talks on our website once we've got them (give us a bit of time).

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The ones I could see

I'm reading The City and the City by China Miéville at the moment. I'm only about 60 pages in but I already really like it, partly for its clever ideas which are currently just emerging, but also for its languages. Miéville has a linguistics background and this shows in the plot of some books (Embassytown, for example) and the writing in all of them: he's creative and clever and does really unusual things with words. Not that you need to have a linguistics background to be able to do that, but it seems like he really knows what he's doing with language. I don't know, I know nothing about literature, so I can only waffle in an uninformed way on that point. But his sentence structure is so clever sometimes, and in this book the characters are from somewhere in central Europe, so the names are all made up but completely believable, and things like that. I think there was even some zeugma at one point and I really love zeugma. 

[Very slight spoilers follow, maybe? Not sure, I haven't read enough of it myself to know.] 

One thing that made me stop and admire it today was a clever use of could. There are parts of the city that the main character can't see. The sentence that caught my eye was describing some railway arches. He says (my bolding):
Not all of them were foreign at their bases. The ones I could see contained little shops and squats decorated in art graffiti.
At this point in the story, the reader doesn't know what the concept is here. Is it that he was able to see the arches, or that he was permitted to see them? This latter idea is what other events have hinted towards, but so far it could be either. 

This is because can and could (present and past tense respectively) can mean two different things. The first meaning, where he was able to see the arches, illustrates logical modality, or the possibility of him seeing them. The second, where he was permitted to see them, illustrates deontic modality: what is possible within the rules. This is an absolutely lovely use of this ambiguity which allows him not to reveal too much of this conceptual device this early in the story. I'm pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote it that way. 

This ambiguity is also, by the way, why you get smartarses responding to a question like 'Can I go to the toilet?' with 'I don't know, can you?'. 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Gretchen McCulloch on 'Getting linguistics out of the ivory tower'

Gretchen McCulloch, of All Things Linguistic fame, is very excitingly in the UK for a bit and managed to fit in a talk at our place. I livetweeted it and have storified the tweets. The hashtag search wouldn't work for some reason, so I located a couple more but will have missed some tweets - sorry.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Grammar! It's the bestest!

Schoolchildren in this country are currently mired in SATs. These are tests designed to assess how well a school (not individual children) is doing, but have been being roundly criticised because they're stupid and pointless. Michael Rosen in particular has been very vocal on Twitter about the SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) one, which I believe is happening today.

It does seem a stupid test, and many of the examples he has picked out do contain confusing or apparently pointless things. The main criticism many people seem to have is that young children don't need to know this stuff, that it's too hard, and that it doesn't take creativity or expression into account, and that grammar puts kids off language. This facebook post is (I think) an analogy which makes exactly that point - that focussing too much on the mechanics ruins the fun of it. Lynne Murphy has written a good post pointing out that learning grammar is good and useful and helps you to know more about language. I would go further, though, and make the case that grammar is absolutely bloody brilliant.

Spelling and punctuation are a bit dull. The types of grammar that kids are having to learn is a bit dull: they're essentially labelling parts of speech. But real grammar, the kind that I spend all day every day thinking about, the grammar that I chose to study for 8 years and then make my career, is fantastically and endlessly interesting.

How can you not be fascinated by the fact that words might not really exist, that adjectives occur in a particular order (small green apples, not green small apples), that the rules of be deletion in AAVE are precisely the same as the rules of be contraction in British English, that you can have a cheeky Nando's but not a cheeky salad, that speakers can innovate constructions like because noun and the exact same damn thing happens in Finnish and French and who knows what other languages, that through reanalysis and tiny shifts Latin became the romance languages, that languages all over the world are wonderfully diverse but equally astonishingly similar... hell, even the most basic fact about syntax, that it is a hierarchically-structured system, is still amazing to me and something that most people don't even realise.

And even more than this, most of what I've just said is controversial to some people. We don't know the answers. Language, and I take grammar to be central to language (some would disagree but I'm happy to be biased), is inextricably bound up with our humanity and we don't even know how it works. We are still finding out. Isn't that exciting?

Don't teach 8-year-olds about subordinating conjunctions. It probably will put them off writing stories for fun. And don't ban 'slang'. That'll make them scared to speak. Once again, I make my call for all teachers to study linguistics and then teach everyone grammar - but fun grammar. Learn a foreign language and see how it's like English, or different from English, and wonder why. Look at Beowulf and Chaucer and marvel at how far English has come, and what happened to that verb-second word order. And then come and study linguistics.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Acknowledgement text tokens

The other day, I was having a conversation with someone over social media. Bear with me, because I'm about to stray into conversation analysis and this is so far out of my area it might as well be cell biology.

Conversations are prototypically turn-taking exercises, with A saying something, B responding, A responding to that, and so on. But obviously this isn't always (or even usually) the way - we interrupt each other, talk over each other, don't finish our sentences, and so on. Another thing we often do is talk for an extended length of time because we have a long story to tell or whatever. When we do this, the other person typically nods, makes encouraging noises, smiles, and generally lets the speaker know they're still listening. But in a text conversation you can't do this. If you try and do it, the little symbol that shows you're typing can put off your interlocutor because they think you're saying something meaningful, and they might stop telling their story. But if you don't, might they think you've gone off somewhere or fallen asleep or lost interest? We need a button that just sends an 'mh-hmh' symbol to show we are still there and paying attention. These are called 'acknowledgement tokens', and we need a text version.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word

There's a really great post at Merriam-Webster about why the word antidisestablishmentarianism isn't in the dictionary. Basically, it's because it isn't a word in common usage. This raises interesting questions about the nature of lexicography, what 'in common usage' means, meta-linguistic mention vs. use, and compositionality of meaning.

The word clearly does have a meaning. Merriam-Webster say it's this:
opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status
I thought it was something like the movement against the separation of church and state, but maybe that's the same thing - I'm not at all clear about what that actually means. But the point is that the meaning arises directly as a sum of its parts: it's compositional. Well, this isn't strictly true: there is some idiomatic meaning to do with the church and the law as well. But the length of it comes from attaching affixes with strictly compositional meanings. When you have compositionality, you can theoretically create longer and longer words, up to the limit of your cognitive capacity. I could add a morpheme and create antidisestablishmentarianismation, for instance. Some long words in quite common use aren't in the dictionary simply because they're made by standard suffixation processes, and that suffix is in the dictionary so you can work out the meaning for yourself.

So antidisestablishmentariansim is a real word, in the sense that people recognise it and can understand its meaning and it's made with proper word-formation processes. But for M-W, it's not a word in common usage. They have only three quotations for this word which use the meaning they give above, and dictionaries rely on written uses of words. This is why they can seem slow: words only get in when they've achieved plenty of use in print materials.

They do have plenty of quotations of the word with reference to it being a long word, however. It is in the OED, and their quotations refer to this:
1984   T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xxvi. 216   The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism..and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
This is metalinguistic mention of the word, not an actual use of the word. We're stepping outside language and talking about the word itself, not using the word to say something. This is sort of difficult to get your head round because we have to use language to talk about language, a long-recognised philosophical problem in linguistics.

Interestingly, M-W say at the end of their piece that it might be considered a viable entry 'simply because it's a well-known word'. The meaning is not well-known, however, so it would be an entry whose definition read something like 'famous long word', and the definition as a secondary bit of information. That would be quite cool and very meta.

Irrelevant postscript: There's a really stupid joke that goes like this: 'Antidisestablishmentarianism is a very long word. How do you spell it?' and the answer is, of course, 'I, T'. I sometimes try that out on my students and some of them groan but a lot of them simply don't understand the joke. Maybe it's the way I tell 'em. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

You and your family's best interests

There's been a leaflet sent round lately about the EU referendum happening in the UK. The government has sent this leaflet to all households, setting out the case for remaining in the European Union. Here's how it puts it:
The Government believes it is in you and your family's best interests that the UK remains in the European Union.
A friend mentioned on facebook that he was disappointed that despite the £9m spent on this leaflet, it contained this grammatical error. I begged to differ: this is stylistic variation, not a mistake.

He argued that it should be your and your family's best interests, as both conjuncts should be possessive. This is right, as you should be able to leave either out and it still be grammatical.

But there's two complicating factors here. The first is that the possessive your is kind of already a combination of you plus 's, so perhaps the 's is redundant. I don't actually think this is the case, because I think there's another reason why it's OK to say you. 

It's to do with the nature of 's. This is what we call a clitic, which means that it's phonologically dependent (has to attach to) another word, but is not as tightly linked to the word as a suffix like the plural s. While the plural suffix can only attach to countable nouns, the possessive can attach to a much wider range of things. The only requirement is that the noun it refers to be within the phrase it attaches to. This means that we can have phrases like the following, where the possessive attaches to something other than the possessor, and sometimes not even a noun:
The woman with the long hair's dog
The guy I was talking to's friend
The girl dressed in blue's mother
It's a little more complicated with coordination, of course, as we have to have the 's referring to both conjuncts. But I think that's OK. Language Log have discussed this before, and examples like this are all right:
I and my friend's work (a bit clumsy in my opinion, but not bad)
Me and my friend's work (perfectly well-formed)
So, unusually, I'm with the government on this one, both in terms of their grammar in in staying in the EU.

Friday, 8 April 2016

(At) home

It's a well-known fact that home has no preposition when it occurs with go:
I went (*to) home
(The asterisk inside the brackets means that it's ungrammatical if you include to.)

And it has to have one if it's an adverbial phrase (optional extra information about the event):
I worked *(at) home today
(The asterisk outside the brackets means it's ungrammatical without at.)

There are some verbs where the preposition is optional, such as stay:
I stayed (at) home.
I think there might be some regional variation on that one, though I'm not sure.

But when it's with be, omitting or including the preposition gives a meaning difference. I ran a twitter poll to make sure I wasn't alone in this, and found overwhelming agreement with my judgements. In a context in which I've been for a night out and want to tell my friend that I've arrived back at my house safely, I would say I'm home. If my friend had rung my and wanted to know where I was, I would say I'm at home. I could use either in either context, but both I and those who responded to my twitter poll felt that the distinction above was right. So that preposition at being pronounced has a kind of locative meaning - location in a place - while omitting it has some sort of directional meaning - movement to (or arrival at) a place.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Kisses at work

A friend drew my attention to this story about a judge who ruled that an MP was representing a constituent as a friend, not an MP, based on 'familiarity of the wording' and a kiss at the end of an email.

MP Jess Phillips was acting on behalf of a woman described as 'frail' and who is having her PIP (disability benefit) stopped by this brutal government. Her appeal had gone to a tribunal and Jess wrote to the constituent to update her with what was going on, and this email was the one that the judge based the decision on.
Hi [name redacted]
Hope you are well and are keeping smiling. Below is the email trail with the DWP, I will let you know as soon as I hear anything.
The 'familiar wording' is presumably the use of Hi, the constituent's first name, the cheery greeting, and the sign-off with her own first name. More on the kiss later.

Emails are not formal letters, or at least not usually (they can be). They don't need to begin with Dear Madam, or even Dear anyone: Hi is perfectly acceptable. If I'm writing to someone I don't know, I'll always used Dear the first time, but I'll usually switch to Hi once we've established a connection, which is to say fairly quickly. I'll almost always use first names right from the off; only with very senior people would I use a title. But then that's academia, where things are pretty chilled. What about this, where the MP has a professional duty to the member of the public? I think that given they've probably met several times, and had many conversations about this matter, it would be strange to stick to the formality of a title and surname. Similarly with Jess's own first name: they're on first name terms. I generally prefer the use of my first name with anyone I'm interacting with regularly: when my bank person who sorted my mortgage kept calling me Dr Bailey, I had to make him stop because I was calling him Jamie and there was a weird sort of mismatched power thing.

A cheery greeting is nice: as Jess has said, she was acting in a compassionate way towards her constituent, and included a little message to show that she was thinking of her. The rest of the email is entirely formal language (there's a comma splice, but that's a punctuation error rather than an inappropriate register).

And then that kiss. Kiss etiquette is hard. Another friend of mine, from Germany, was talking about just this the other day. How many, and when to use them? I had a more or less accurate rule of none for work friends, lots for family, and other friends somewhere in between. Then it gets messy, though. I use them in text messages but not chat conversations, except for sometimes when I do. Male friends get them less often than female friends just in case it seems inappropriate, except that some male friends do because that's just what we do. Some female friends don't because we send short and frequent messages. Sometimes I include kisses for first and last messages but not for the bulk of the conversation. I think I tend to mirror what other people do, just as in real life (in real life, my preference would be for hugs for all greetings with friends, but in practice some people get hugs, some kisses and some nothing because I am bad at initiating hugs). Lynne Cahill from Sussex University is preparing an article on this very matter, which I'm looking forward to reading.

That's my complicated system, though. Jess might be someone who always puts kisses on her emails and texts. Many people do, especially if they're young, which she is - she's 34 and 34 is definitely still young (I am telling myself this). In addition, she is old enough to have gone through school before email was really a thing, and therefore, like everyone my age, not been taught how to write an email in an appropriate register. We learnt how to write a formal letter, but we hadn't yet realised we were going to need to do something different for emails. We've made it up as we go along, getting less formal along the way - even a few years ago I always included a salutation and sign-off in emails, but now I often don't, even at work. It's not necessary. It's like putting your name on a text message.

What I'm saying is, it's a minefield. The judge was mean.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Rotate, but don't turn

I've been looking at mattresses lately. It's bewildering. Not least is the instruction that some of them have:
No-turn mattress. Rotate regularly. 
Rotate and turn are one of many pairs of words that English has that are more or less synonymous but come from different sources. Typically, the one that we get from Romance (French or Latin) is used in more formal contexts or has a technical sense: here, that word is rotate. The Germanic counterpart (here, turn) is usually used in a more everyday sense.

That works for this pair. The OED has examples like The whole stage rotates concentrically and the kid turns on the spit, where each could be substituted for the other. The definitions are also more or less identical:
Turn (intrans): to move round on an axis or about a centre
Rotate (intrans): to turn about a centre or axis
We actually have the transitive senses here, as there is an implied object the mattress, but the transitive definitions are based on the intransitive ones.

The above discussion implies that it ought to be contradictory to say no-turn; rotate regularly, as how can you rotate something that can't or needn't be turned? Of course they mean it doesn't need to be flipped over, but you should turn it 180 degrees about its vertical axis (is that what I mean?? the thing stays flat, anyway) now and then to make sure it wears evenly. Here's an example of a pair of synonyms getting put to use in a situation where two different words meaning turn are needed. If one were so inclined, one could check whether the specific meanings each has (turn = flip over and rotate = stays flat) were generally consistent or if it's random which is used for which. That'll have to wait for another day, though, unless one of my readers wants to do it.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Do you yourself say themself?

The other day, I used the word themself during a lecture and on the spur of the moment, conducted a brief poll of whether the class would use it or themselves to refer to a singular individual.

Here's an example of themself with a singular referent:

I always use themself because it is singular to match the semantic singular of the referent, and also because I like to upset Word's spellchecker whenever possible. But themselves is plural to match the grammatical plural number of the pronoun: we always use plural agreement on the verb, too, never singular. Spellcheckers disagree with me on the use of themself and give it a red squiggly.

The results from my class were overwhelmingly in favour of themselves, with only one of the group saying they'd use themself, but then English Language and Linguistics students are a fairly linguistically conservative lot (this changes if they grow up to be linguists, but many of them are in it to be writers or teachers). I followed this poll up with a twitter poll:

As you can see, it was pretty equal with themself ahead by a narrow margin. I predict full matching to logical number before much longer. Here's Stan Carey's post which is more detailed on the history and usage patterns of this word.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Mandarins and oranges, tortoises and turtles, rolls and sandwiches

Recently, a story appeared in the news about some plastic-wrapped peeled mandarins for sale in Whole Foods. Whole Foods swiftly removed them and said 'our mistake'.

Here's the tweet that the BBC story used in its report:

Nathalie uses the term 'oranges' to refer to these fruits, which the story refers to as 'mandarins'. In my own native dialect, orange refers to something different from mandarin as well, with oranges being bigger, harder to peel, full of pips and generally a nuisance to eat. Clementines and satsumas are smaller but similar tasting, easier to peel and a much more pleasant experience. Mandarins are something I hardly ever eat, but they have a sharper, almost sour taste which is quite nice but very different again.

Many of the dialect differences I've experienced come from the time when we moved from Shrewsbury to Newcastle when I was 11, and this is one of them, although I don't think it's really a regional difference: I think that it just emerged through mixing with a different peer group. Plenty of my friends did call all these orange citrus fruits oranges, and I assimilated (though I still do make the distinction myself).

This kind of variation in the semantic coverage of a term is one that often causes great debate. A surprising one was tortoise/turtle. To my mind, it's easy: tortoises live on land and turtles live in the water. Americans (I thought) simply call all of them turtles. It turns out that not only is my classification of chelonians not quite accurate, neither is my classification of Americans (they vary! who knew?). I'm yet to work this one out fully, but it sparked a full-on twitter row last time I tried.

The most bitterly-fought battle is probably the one over what different kinds of bread should be called (buns, rolls, baps, etc.) but a related one is what counts as a sandwich. An effect of moving south a couple of years ago was that I would sometimes order a bacon sandwich in a takeaway place and get bacon between two slices of bread. Now stay with me, this is complicated. At home, or in a place where I'm sitting down to order a bacon sandwich, I expect this. But in a takeaway place, I expect it to come in a bun (bap, roll, whatever). In places round here, it seems that sandwich is more restricted in meaning, and covers only those made with sliced bread. You can have a roll, but you have to ask for it specifically. A bacon roll is a taxonomic sister of a bacon sandwich, not a hyponym of it (in other words, bacon rolls and sandwiches are two different examples of bacon-in-bread items, rather than a bacon roll being a sub-type of bacon sandwich).

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Covert swearing

Following on from my last post about mishearing words in connected speech, here's an example of when I deliberately do this: covert swearing.

Covert swearing demonstrates that the taboo of swearing is not about the words themselves, or at least not the sounds of those words. I frequently utter the very same string of sounds found in the worst swearwords, but it's not swearing. We all do it, in fact: it's just that I do it on purpose. I don't know why I do this, but I find it amusing in a daft way.

To ease you in to the idea with an example that is inappropriate but not actually swearing, I'll always say penis instead of pianist. They sound more or less the same. Once you've smooshed together the vowels (basically, you don't really pronounce the second vowel in the first syllable of pianist) it's just a matter of reducing the consonant cluster at the end, which you might well do in connected speech anyway. I don't think people notice me doing this, or if they do they don't let on. I therefore sometimes say to people that Elton John is a penis.

More inappropriately again, when I say if I can... I'll more often than not reduce the initial vowel to nothing, and the second and third ones to schwa, so it sounds like /fəkən/, or in other words exactly the same as fucking (try and just pronounce the consonants and you'll get the idea). I'm almost certain people don't notice this, or they would surely say something. 

And so on. Nice demonstration that words are not just sounds: there has to be deliberate intention to say some particular word as well as the correct string of sounds. And in fact, the sounds can be extremely different from the carefully-pronounced version, as long as the intention is there and there is enough context to allow understanding. See this old post for an example. This is also why every now and then there's a toy-swearing story in the newspapers. 

I'm going to have to stop doing it now I've revealed it, though, else it'll feel weird. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Eggcorn morphemes

Twice this week I've heard a phrase that sounded like the speaker had misheard it. On the QI podcast 'No such thing as a fish' Andy said that meteors/meteorites came from out of space rather than outer space, and a television continuity announcer said that a garden in an Alan Titchmarsh programme needed some tender love and care rather than tender loving care.

These, I think, count as eggcorns. I'm not certain, because 'eggcorn' has a very specific definition: it's misinterpreting a word or phrase as something else that makes sense. It's named after an example of itself: an acorn looks like an egg in an eggcup, so eggcorn makes sense.

In this case, it's a function word (or part of a word) that's been misheard as something else that makes sense. In outer space, the -er is just a schwa if you have a non-rhotic accent (you don't pronounce the 'r' at the end). As it happens, so is of in connected speech, at least a lot of the time. We even have a way of writing it: o' (although this looks affected or like you're mimicking an Irish accent or something). Another way of writing it is when we merge it into another word: a lotta fun, a lorra lorra laughs. And it's reasonable to say that a meteorite has come from out of space. The Eggcorn Database has an example of outer body experience, which is the same thing in the opposite direction.

In tender loving care, it's the -ing morpheme (part of a word) that's misanalysed. Again, the pronunciation in normal speech may be reduced to 'n', and so might and. And again, it's just as reasonable that you would give a garden tender love and care as that you would give it tender loving care (maybe more so, actually).

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Building sites is dangerous

There is a building site at my work (show me a university that doesn't have at least one building site on campus at any given moment) and it has this sign:
'Building sites are dangerous; Keep out'
Every time I walk past it (a couple of times a day at least) I think to myself 'Building sites is dangerous'. This is a sort of in-joke that me and approximately one other person in the world will find amusing, and he probably doesn't read my blog, so I'm going to explain it to you all instead and tell you about the moment I decided to become a syntactician.

It wasn't exactly the moment I decided to do it as my job, but it was the point of no return. It was in my very first syntax lecture, in September 2004, when aged 21 I had decided to go to university to do Linguistics. Why linguistics? Not sure. I don't think I was specially bothered about English Language in 6th form, but I did do three languages and enjoyed the grammar. (That's why I signed up to do Latin as my optional outside subject, and it's why I'm currently learning German.)

Anyway, back to the syntax lecture. The lecturer was Noel Burton-Roberts. I can't remember what else he said in that lecture (I've got the notes so I can look it up) but he used an example to show that syntax is a thing, and that words aren't just strung together in order.
Flying planes are dangerous (=planes that are flying are dangerous)
Flying planes is dangerous (=the activity, flying planes, is dangerous)
The verb has to agree in number (be singular or plural) with the subject of the sentence, and specifically the head of the subject. The subject of that sentence is flying planes both times, but in the first instance flying describes planes, so planes (plural) is the head and we have are, while in the second example it's flying that's the head, and planes could be left out (flying is dangerous), and flying is singular so we get is.

Such as simple example, but upon seeing this something just clicked in my mind. It's a cliché, but it's true. It was as if I had suddenly discovered this whole secret world, where the language we speak every day had proper structure and rules and could be explained. Everything from that point on just made sense.

I suppose that makes me a bit weird. But it's why I'm a syntactician now.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Linger with Laura

It's election season at the university: the students are voting for their union officers for next year. This means that the campus is covered in scruffy handwritten cardboard signs in support of one candidate or another. There are some common themes.

Some are old-fashioned and simply go with this format:
[Name] for President
Many, however, have chosen an alliterative slogan which functions as an exhortative speech act:
Rely on Ruth
Stand with Stuart
Make it Millie
And one candidate had instead chosen a (near) rhyme and an alliterative nickname:
Only Sam can / Super Sam
She has a superman outfit to campaign in as well.

I don't know if these things go in fads, or what. The most effective signs by far (in my opinion) didn't have any of these gimmicks, but had the same logo (a green pharmacy-style cross) and the candidate's name and one of her sensible policies, a different one on each poster, clearly written. The others don't put their policies on their signs, apparently assuming the alliteration will be enough.

Friday, 4 March 2016

I were saying I wa'

It's National Grammar Day! Sadly this isn't as fun as it sounds due to the idiots on the internet. However, here is a thing I have learnt. Jeremy Butterfield wrote an article about how linguists and other people have different ideas about what grammar is, and in the comments someone mentioned the famous(?) Dennis Skinner complaint about being misquoted as saying I were. It's mentioned at the bottom of this link.

As he says there, he's not saying I were, because that would be 'grammatically incorrect'. He's saying I wah, as in dropping the 's' from was, and it just happens to sound like I were. Someone from Yorkshire in the comments agreed with him:

This is fine, I suppose, except that I really want it to be I were. It's a nice symmetrical counterpart to the We was found in many other places. Both are examples of levelling of verb forms, and I  teach it as an example of how levelling is something that tends to happen, but that it's more or less chance what form is chosen in what dialect. If it's not levelling, then that means the the levelling only takes place in some dialects, and it's always towards was.

On the other hand, if it is a phonological reduction of I was, then there's other interesting questions to answer. Why don't these dialects level? Do other dialects actually have I were? If not, why would there be a preference to level towards was? How can we tell, for sure, that it's I wa and not I were?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

It's hard to close the windows after you've left the room

I was in a room at work today that had a sign on the inside of the door saying something like this:


Underlining is the written form of stress on that word (before), and that kind of stress in that position can only make the word contrastive. That is to say, it contrasts before with after and any other word from the appropriate semantic and syntactic class (while, during, etc). It also makes before the focus of the sentence, so that the rest of it seems to be already-known information. The implication is that people have been trying to close the windows after they've left the room, it hasn't worked out well, so now we're being reminded to do it before and not after we leave.

Monday, 29 February 2016


I re-watched the Minions film last night, and wondered about their language. The Minions are these chaps and their buddies (there are no female Minions, as far as I can tell):

They speak in a language that isn't quite understandable but you get the gist - like Pingu or the Clangers. However, unlike Pingu or the Clangers, there are very definitely words in the Minions' speech, and some of them are definitely recognisable. Some are English but most are Spanish or Italian, or a mix of them all. There's also a little bit of romance language grammar in there too: at one point, one of the Minions says me le due, meaning 'I will do it', and you can see the object clitic le (a clitic is basically a type of pronoun that goes before the verb in romance languages, like the m' in je m'appelle Laura).

When I asked about the Minion language on Twitter, @terminologia directed me to this Arika Okrent article which goes into much more detail, including noting the many aspects of 'baby talk' - in that me le due sentence, for instance, there is the object form me - just like an English toddler might say me do it. The article also points out that some of the language is Indonesian - I hadn't noticed it, but there's a very clear terima kasih 'thank you' at one point. (Actually, I thought terima kasih was Malay, and so it is, but it was borrowed into Indonesian and that's the language the director is familiar with.)

Here's the Minions Dictionary (though I don't think it's quite complete).

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Why did the dinosaurs die out?

The other day (cannot now remember where but I suspect QI), I heard someone ask this question:
Why did the man who invented the weather forecast think that the dinosaurs died out?
My suggested answer was:
Because they did?
In fact, the answer was supposed to be:
Because they were too big to fit on the ark. 
You see the problem here. I have (some might suspect wilfully) misinterpreted the scope of why. I understood it as referring to the verb phrase think that the dinosaurs died out, and so asking why he thought that. It in fact referred to the verb phrase died out, and was asking why they died. The why-question could be asking about either of these things, as in both cases the corresponding because-clause would be at the end of the sentence:
The man who invented the weather forecast thought that the dinosaurs died out because they did (in fact) die out.
The man who invented the weather forecast thought that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark
The difference in meaning comes about because of a difference in the syntactic structure. We can't see or hear this, but it's there. I've colour-coded the clauses here to make it clearer what belongs to what:
[The man who invented the weather forecast thought [that the dinosaurs died out] because they did (in fact) die out]
[The man who invented the weather forecast thought [that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark]]
In both cases, the man who invented the weather forecast thought something. In the first example, he thought that the dinosaurs died out, and we also get to hear the reason why he thought that. In the second example, he thought that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark (and all of that is one single thought).

I think that I was led towards the interpretation I chose because of the presence of that, which is optional here. When it's present, because it doesn't have to be there, my little brain wanted to assign it some job, and that job was to kind of turn the clause it introduced into a finished-off unit (that is a declarative clause introducer). So my little brain said 'it is a fact that the dinosaurs died out. Why did this man think that this thing happened?'.