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?'.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

You never got in the market

I was watching a programme about Spitalfields market. A man, aged probably in his early 60s, who had worked there his whole life, was talking about how you got a job there in the early days:
If you never knew anyone, you never got in the market. 
This illustrates a characteristic of many non-standard varieties of English: the use of never as a past tense negator instead of as a negative temporal adverb. Jenny Cheshire describes this as a difference between referring to universal time (the not ever meaning) versus a particular point in time (the not meaning). I'll not say more about this here because if I start trying to summarise it all, that's my day gone, as I find it so interesting. But suffice it to say that if you look it up there's a ton of research on it, and much of it pretty accessible to a non-linguist.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

German lunchtime

Sorry for the gap - marking nearly killed me but I made it out the other side. I haven't got long but I thought I'd share what I learnt in my German class today: Germans eat lunch at midday, no matter what time they eat lunch.


Well, the German for 'to have lunch' is zu Mittag essen, or 'eat at midday'. I asked whether you would still say this even if you have lunch later (which I usually do), and the answer was 'well, midday is usually lunchtime' but that yes, you would say it anyway. So in my homework I have written Um 1 Uhr esse ich zu Mittag, which literally means 'at one o'clock I eat at midday'.