Monday, 25 July 2022

Getting drank

Beavertown Brewery currently have these billboard adverts up, with the slogan Out of this world beer. Drank on Earth

A billboard advertising Beavertown beer, on a street with sky and trees in the background. The text says 'Out of this world beer. Drank on earth.'
Photo: @nicholasd on instagram

The verb drink is one of our irregular verbs, as it doesn't have a past tense of drinked, adding the regular past tense ending -ed, and instead changes its vowel, so you say I drank beer not I drinked beer. It also does this for the participle, which is what you use for various things including perfect aspect (I have drunk beer) and passive (The beer was drunk by me). This passive participle is also the one we use for things like relative clauses (The beer that is drunk on Earth). 

But there is variation! Not everyone has all three of these forms in all contexts. For a lot of people, drank is used for all the non-present forms (I drank the beer, I have drank the beer), while for others, drunk is used (I drunk the beer, I have drunk the beer). For everyone, the adjective is drunk, though (no one says I am drank!), which I think is a nice indication that it's somehow separate from the verb. 

In formal English, then, this slogan would say Out of this world beer, drunk on Earth, because it's the relative clause type: this is short for which is drunk on Earth. They've chosen instead to go with the form used in more informal contexts and said Drank on Earth. The company's image is very informal and friendly, so they presumably felt it fit more with that vibe, and it has the added benefit of not being mistaken for the adjective which might imply getting drunk, not a good look from the point of view of the advertising standards people. 

Monday, 18 July 2022

Performing a flying fuck

At our students' graduations this week, a colleague told me about a (non-canonical) ballet step which, because of the particular way that it's performed, is called the Flying Fuck. 

(As an aside, we had a conversation about how many of the names of dance steps are bodily, sexual or generally risqué, something that is also true of one of the types of dance that I do.)

So as you probably know, there is an expression, I don't give a flying fuck. It means that you don't care at all. For anyone who's using this blog to learn English (ill-advisadly, maybe), it's pretty rude so go carefully. 

In this expression, a flying fuck is what linguists would call a Negative Polarity Item or NPI. These are words that don't sound grammatical in a sentence without a 'licensor', often a negation, hence the name. So we can say (1) but not (2), where there is no negative word in the sentence to license the NPI and it sound really weird: 

(1) I don't give a flying fuck about his career prospects. 

(2) *I give a flying fuck about his career prospects. 

There are actually more licensors than just negation. Lots of NPIs can be licensed by expressions like exactly two. We can see this with another NPI, any

(3) *Some people have eaten any salad. 

(4) Exactly two people have eaten any salad. 

NPIs are tricksy and puzzling. There are several different theories to explain why they work the way they do, all of which are appealing in some way, and none of which quite satisfy completely. For example, some theories of how NPIs work predicted that flying fuck would not be licensed by exactly, as it's what is sometimes known as a 'minimiser', but it actually sounds ok to me: 

(5) Exactly two people give a flying fuck about his career prospects. 

I think this fact would be predicted under what seems to me to be the most widely-accepted (current) idea, however, which is known as 'non-veridicality' and is essentially about (4) being more specific than (3), though in more technical terms than that. 

But especially interesting to me is the fact that because this is the name of a ballet step, the exact same expression can completely lose its NPI status, and doesn't need licensing at all: 

(6) They performed a perfect flying fuck.

(7) The dance opens with a flying fuck. 

I like this sort of almost-literal interpretation of the expression to repurpose it for the name, at which point it becomes just a bog-standard phrase like any other. 

The literature on this is very fun to read, by the way, because it's full of phrases like I don't give a flying fuck so I recommend it. 

Friday, 8 July 2022

Despatches from Barcelona

I’m just back from Barcelona. If you haven’t been, I recommend it, it was great! Here’s a selection of linguistic observations. 

I spoke mostly (Castilian) Spanish to people I interacted with while I was there, though people who live there speak Catalan. I don’t have any great insight on Catalan other than it’s a cool language. It does have this interesting spelling thing: because <ll> is a letter, but sometimes two instances of <l> occur together, they put a dot between them to separate them. So there’s a metro station called Paral.lel, for instance. This seems very helpful, if not strictly required. 

In general, people did speak Spanish back to me as well, which is something that seems to vary in different places. I spoke French in Paris, but mostly people spoke back in English. Perhaps my French accent is bad enough that it just felt easier… and it definitely wasn’t that people didn’t speak English well in Barcelona. Pretty much everyone we talked to spoke it fluently. 

That’s partly a result of the massive levels of tourism there. Before I went I’d read that tourism is getting to be a problem there, and I wasn’t sure how that could be. In Margate we moan about the DFLs (Down From London) clogging up our local bars and making a mess on the beach in summer, but they bring in money and allow the town to thrive. But I could see what they meant when I was there. There were so many of us, and I could see how Airbnb must be causing a real housing crisis. I saw a sticker saying ‘You tourist kills my neighbourhood’. Just to bring it back round to linguistics, I wondered if this was a generic singular (like ‘the Humboldt penguin lives in South America’), or a vocative (addressing the audience) and it was directed at me. 

Lastly, a phonology one. On our last day we went to a nice ice cream place with old-fashioned decor, granizado, orxata, etc. They had a sign that said ‘More sits upstairs’. Much as I would love this to be an adorable use of the verb ‘sit’ as a noun, I suspect it’s a result of the words ‘sits’ and ‘seats’ being more or less homophonous if you have Spanish phonology. Spanish (and probably Catalan, I don’t know for sure) doesn’t have what linguists call a ‘phonemic distinction’ between the vowels in those words, which means that there isn’t an equivalent pair of words where the only difference is the vowel, like English ‘sits’ vs ‘seats’. And if your language doesn’t have a phonemic distinction, it’s really really hard to hear it and remember the difference in another language. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Is a great deal more than a lot?

I'm sure this survey made it clear what the options meant, but to me, 'a lot' and 'a great deal' mean exactly the same thing. 

Screenshot reading '27% of respondents said [Brexit] had affected the a great deal, and 14% a lot'

Monday, 25 April 2022

Going places in Welsh and English

I'm learning Welsh on Duolingo. Most people in our department are doing a language on it, in some cases for practical purposes but for many of us, for family reasons. In my case, my grandmother was Welsh and spoke it as a first language, so I feel a connection to it for that reason even though I'm not Welsh myself. My other grandparents also lived in Pembrokeshire for a long time, though they weren't Welsh, and so when we visited we'd hear it spoken, especially if we went along the coast a bit to Carmarthenshire. 

I knew a fair amount about Welsh grammar before I began, because I'm a linguist so I happen to know quite a few things about quite a few languages that I don't speak, and Welsh is a language that has been studied and written about reasonably often. It's frequently studied alongside others as well as in its own right because you can compare it to other Celtic languages for within-family comparative work, or with languages from other families where it's useful as an example of a language that has VSO word order. 

Backtrack! VSO? V stands for Verb, S for Subject and O for object, and these three letters are how we talk about the basic or default order of the elements of sentences in a language. English is SVO: [S The British public] [V despise] [O the current government]. This is one of the two most common orders globally, the other being SOV (e.g. Korean). VSO is less common and it can be useful, when examining linguistic theories, to illustrate how they work in languages with this order. The same VSO order is found in languages all over the world, including Berber, the Mayan languages, and Te Reo Māori. 

There are lots of other interesting things about Welsh grammar, obviously, it's just that this is the one I happen to have read most about because word order is the area I've worked in most of all. And of course VSO is an abstraction and there is widespread use of auxiliary verbs (the English equivalent would be something like The British public is despising the government) which is still VSO but it's not quite so straightforward as just classifying languages and being done with it. Luckily, I suppose, or I'd be out of a job. 

So all this is to say that as I begin to work out what the heck is going on with this language, I might write some posts about it. So far I'm floundering in the dark as many things are very different from English. The app starts you off with things where you can make comparisons, but I'm honestly finding some of it baffling. Of course you don't get explicit grammar instruction on Duolingo, so I've got myself a grammar book as well to help me work out the things that aren't easily deducible. 

I assume they deliberately choose constructions to teach you that are similar to your language of instruction (English, in my case), to make things easier at the beginning. For me, a linguist, some of this was actually really surprising to me. For instance, all of the prepositions and articles that I've had to use so far have worked just like in English. Maybe this doesn't sound so strange but I know very well that prepositions and articles are infamously unpredictable and variable across languages. So when I'm getting sentences to translate that include a direct word-for-word equivalent of going to the office or whatever, I'm surprised. The main thing that has been different in this respect is the absence of an indefinite article (a/an in English), so here I felt back on more solid ground as I know this is a feature common to lots of languages and fully expected it. 

Another, more specific, thing that seems weirdly the same is the verb(-type thing) mynd, which apparently means 'going'. English uses go for a travelling or motion event, like going to the office: I'm travelling from one place to another. Welsh also appears to do this: mynd i'r swyddfa is the direct equivalent, and both languages need to use it with a subject and an auxiliary verb: I'm going to the office or Dw i'n mynd i'r swyddfa. Here's the weird bit though: English also uses go for expressing the future, which is not totally bizarre but also not universal by any means, and Welsh seems to do the same. So just as in English you can say I'm going to wait here, you can say Dw i'n mynd i aros yma in Welsh, and they both express future with no motion involved. This use of go for expressing the future isn't unique to English and Welsh (French and Spanish have it, and Jamal Ouhalla describes it for Moroccan Arabic here) but it's also not that common. Perhaps someone can tell me whether this similarity is a result of the very close contact between the languages, a shared familial feature, or simply coincidence that both languages have travelled this grammaticalisation path, just like Moroccan Arabic. 

Monday, 18 April 2022

It wasn't then, but it was now

Linguists are liable to stop mid-conversation to write down something they or their interlocutor said, if it was linguistically interesting. Out for drinks with colleagues, the following happened. 
David, picking up a nearly-empty beer: Is this mine? 
*David downs the last of the beer*
Me: Well, it was now! 
And at this point we stopped to reflect on the fact that you really can't say that, unless you're a linguist mucking about with language for funnies. 

Now is a flexible sort of thing. It doesn't only mean this precise moment (which can be measured in infinitesimally smaller moments anyway). It can be the present time give or take a few minutes, or a few hours: 
I'm busy right now; I'll call you back when I'm finished. 
Or the present time give or take a few days: 
The delivery is due around now, I think. 
It can be the present time, probably extending into the future, since some past causal event or just compared to before: 
We have to submit form 3A now to claim expenses, not form 3B (since the new manager updated the policy). 

We generally have better living conditions now (compared to in the last century), though there are still too many people living in poverty.  

My now was, I think, a present situation resulting from a causal event, where since David had downed the pint, it was now (and forever, I suppose), his. If the beer wasn't his before, It is now

But as I said my line, I mentally switched it from It is now. Because the beer no longer existed, I changed the tense from present (is) to past (was). I left the temporal adverbial now untouched, however, thereby creating a weird mismatch between past time (the tense of the verb expressing the existence of the beer) and present time (the adverbial expressing the time that the state of affairs described pertains to). 

This is why we have things like present perfect and past perfect, that you might have studied at school: I have drunk the beer is present (state of affairs) and perfect (action completed in the past), so although the beer is already drunk, I'm describing the present situation. I had drunk the beer is about a completed action and a past state of affairs – the situation that I'm describing, in which the beer had already been drunk, was at some past time. 

I was, in effect, trying to make now cover both the present time (our current situation) and a past time (when the beer existed). Now can easily include some time in the past, like all of the past time since the new manager changed the policy in the example above, but crucially it has to be conceptualised as not being in a distinct past time. It has to be a single now period compared to a before period (or then, or whatever). So it has to be present tense for a current state of affairs. 

And lastly, the reason my line was a dorky linguist joke rather than an incomprehensible failure of tenses is that the phrase It is now! has become a set phrase or 'chunk' of language. I wasn't consciously referencing the commentary of the 1966 football world cup final, but this is an extremely well-known use of the phrase and I think it has got into people's vocabulary, including mine, as an idiomatic expression. It highlights the inevitability of the current situation, the sense of having pinched a victory, and the impossibility of having the outcome reversed. 

Monday, 11 April 2022

At last, someone has written about Wordle!

I've held off on blogging about Wordle, because everyone else did it, and because I didn't have anything particular to say. People tend to assume that if you're a linguist, you like word games, but I don't think that's any more true for us than for normal people. Some of us do, others don't. I happen to love crosswords (because there is a quiz or a puzzle element) and dislike Scrabble (because I'm not good at anagrams). I do, as it happens, love Wordle. I love logic puzzles like sudoku, and this is basically just a logic puzzle with an added constraint. 

There is, or used to be, a board game called Mastermind which was a pure logic version of Wordle. (If you don't know what Wordle is, by the way, I don't know where you've been. It's what we all spent the early part of 2022 doing.) There, the thing you had to guess was the sequence of coloured pegs. There were only a few colours, and only a sequence of four, so much fewer than the 26 letters and five slots that Wordle involves. And you needed like ten goes to get it, rather than the six that you get with Wordle. The rules were the same: you got told if you'd got one right and in the right place, or right but in the wrong place, or wrong. You weren't told which one, though, which did make it harder in that respect (otherwise it would have been incredibly easy). I loved this game and I'm not sure why I never had my own copy (maybe no one else liked playing it with me, or maybe I never mentioned that I liked it?) but I played it when I was at other people's houses. 

So yes, I do love Wordle, because of the logic puzzle aspect. The word part of it does add something interesting for me, though. I like the constraint it puts on the possible answers. It's not the case, as in Mastermind, that every combination is equally possible. Some just aren't, or are much less likely, and that's due to the rules of either languages in general, or English in particular. So an example of a language-in-general thing is that there are going to be some vowels in the word, and some consonants. An example of an English-in-particular thing is that the last letter is probably an 'e' or a consonant, because we don't have so many words that end in 'a', 'i', 'o' or 'u' (though we do have some, so it's not absolutely ruled out). Another English-in-particular thing is that if you know you've got an 'h' in there somewhere, it's possibly the first letter but if it's not, you've likely also got a 't' for 'th' or a 'g' for 'gh' in there. Not always; ahead would have stumped me in that case. 

Screenshot of my Wordle stats showing a normal distribution with most words taking me four guesses to get.

I've been paying attention to how I solve them, and I usually get the answer on the fourth go. I imagine this is true for most people, as we'd expect a 'normal distribution' with very few right on the first or second go (that's a lucky guess) and few taking six (that's some bad luck or a word that has many very similar to it). 

I'm not sharing any new insights on how to solve them – I just do the same as you all do and rule out the most common letters first until I can see what it's likely to be. But what interests me is how quickly you get to the point where it can only realistically be one word. This is normally where I am by guess four. 

Here are a couple of recent ones, where the answers were epoxy and lowly. Just coincidence that they both end in a 'y', I think. I vary my starting words but always try to include some common letters. Sometimes I just use things I see nearby like the dogs' names. In both these cases, by the time I'd had three guesses I didn't have many right, but I had ruled out nearly all the possibilities, and there was only one possible word that I could think of in each case that could fit what I knew. 

Screenshot of Wordle with the word 'lowly', correct on the fourth go with few correct letters on the previous three. The previous image shows the same but for 'epoxy', but I can't edit the alt text for some reason.

This is the most satisfying way of playing the game, I think. If you end up with only one letter to get and several possibilities, it becomes chance and annoying, and if you get it right with some lucky guesses you don't feel like you earnt it, whereas this way you feel happy that you worked it out. 

I also saw Lesley Jeffries talking about doing it in other languages, and noting that her guess distribution was much more spread, presumably because her vocabulary is not a large in those languages and so she is likely to need more goes to get it right than the average speaker of that language would (and she noted that she is relying on phonotactics, which is those rules of the language that I mentioned earlier).