Monday, 21 September 2020

Plan B: Stay home instead

Sometimes, the trains are disrupted for engineering works, usually over Christmas and New Year when fewer people are travelling on expensive peak time commuter tickets that would be costly to lose out on or refund. When they announce the disruption in advance, the standard message is something like this:

There will be no trains on the following days. Please make a Plan B for your journey. 

Here's an example of exactly this:

I was thinking about this once because there was no other way for me to make my journey, so my only option was simply to not go. This doesn't count as a Plan B, though! Plan B can only be an alternative means of achieving the same ends as Plan A. 

So let's say that Plan A was to catch a High Speed Southeastern train to London on May Day bank holiday. This isn't possible because they're doing some works and there are no High Speed trains on that line that day. A suitable Plan B would be to catch a slow train to London on that day. It isn't quite as good but it achieves the end of going to London that day. Or you could get a bus, if there were no trains at all, or you could drive, if you were able to. All would get you to your chosen destination on your chosen day. 

Would getting the train to London on another day count as a Plan B? It might, but only if you could do the original thing you were going to do. Maybe you were going to meet a friend, and you decide to do it on Tuesday instead of Monday. I think that would just about count as a Plan B for your original intentions. But if you were going to an event on that Monday, then going another day doesn't allow you to do what you were going to do, so it's not a good Plan B. 

Staying at home instead, as I had to do when I first mused about this announcement, definitely doesn't count as a Plan B for your original journey - you haven't managed to make the journey at all. But it would count as a Plan B for your holiday plans, for instance. Let's say Plan A was to go and spend Christmas with your parents, but because of work and trains, you can't get there, so you decide to spend Christmas at home. That's a Plan B for the Christmas holidays, but not a Plan B for your journey. The difference is what is under discussion, and therefore what Plan B is an alternative to. 

Monday, 14 September 2020

Religion means lack of religion

We've got some new legislation to make the latest guidance on how many people can hang out together absolutely clear as mud. One of the things you're allowed to have up to 30 people in one place for is religious gatherings and their non-religious equivalents in the case of weddings and funerals and so on. It's written in a way that implies that weddings are religious ('weddings and other religious life-cycle events'; 'other' meaning 'as well as the one just mentioned'), which of course they may not be at all, or they may be a fundamentally religious thing - that's dependent on your religion and beliefs. So then they qualify this with the following wording (it's the same wording as in the EHRC, I just hadn't read it before as I don't make a habit of reading legislation): 

(1) Religion means any religion and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion. (2) Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.

Pragmatically, you wouldn't normally include 'lack of X' in the meaning of X. More likely, we add a bit of meaning along the lines of 'if relevant' - the old joke about the boy who was late to school because there was a sign saying 'dogs must be carried' and it took him ages to find one relies on this, as the boy failed to infer the usual additional meaning 'if one is present'. 

When we use nouns (like 'religion') usually, we don't include the lack of that noun in their meaning. When I say that the purpose of university is to provide an education, I'm not including 'lack of education'. If I say that the role of politicians is governance, I don't normally include 'lack of governance' in that (insert your own wry comments here). 

You can sort of fiddle with this to fit in with that interpretation, if you say that 'religious' applies only where relevant, like the 'dogs must be carried' sign. But in fact it's more a reflection of the fact that rather than the default being religion and not having religion is a lack of the thing (X or not-X), we now recognise that lack of religion is an ideological stance as much as having religion. The fact that there are many religions probably makes this meaning easier to arrive at, because rather than X or not-X, we have options A, B, C, and D, where one of them is a lack of any religious belief, or 'none of the above'. 

Monday, 7 September 2020

Mishearing condemnation, literally and metaphorically

On the news last week, it was announced that Boris Johnson (UK Prime Minister) had accused Keir Starmer (leader of the opposition) of condemning the IRA (Irish Republican Army, who committed many violent acts in the Northern Ireland conflict in the second half of the 20th century, during some of which time Starmer worked there). 

The British government generally sees itself as in the right in this conflict, as neutral peacekeepers, and I'm not going to get into the politics of it because it's complicated and I don't quite see how an occupying nation can actually be neutral, but certainly the IRA in the 1980s and 90s is on the list of terrorist organisations and killed many civilians in brutal ways. I was therefore surprised to hear Johnson accusing Starmer of condemning them, not because I don't think he would condemn them, but because he accused him of it. 

To accuse someone means that you think they shouldn't have done the thing. Behold these examples of interactions between us and the dogs, in which the first two examples are bad things, and thus the kind of things you can be accused of, and the second two are good things, and so accusing someone of them is infelicitous: 

Arrow accused Blanquita of sitting on his tail.

Blanquita accused Arrow of taking up too much space. 

*Jim accused Blanquita of behaving very well. 

*Laura accused Arrow of walking nicely on his lead. 

So to accuse Starmer of condemning the IRA means that Johnson thinks (a) that Starmer has condemned the IRA and (b) that Starmer ought not to condemn the IRA. (b) is the surprising part, as noted above. It turns out that the newsreader misspoke (or I misheard) and the word was condone, which in fact means the exact opposite of condemn and is entirely consistent with the political relations and the implications of the word accuse. Starmer has asked him to retract the accusation; it rumbles on. 

From that literal misheard condemn to a condemnation of a mishearing. In a twitter thread, the conversation turned to prescriptivism and bugbears about speech, as it so often does if you talk about language on the internet. Someone I don't know complained about double superlatives like bestest and cited a song lyric that contains the double comparative more deadlier: The female of the species is more deadlier than the male. I only know of one song with that lyric and it's one I know very well because I absolutely loved the band as a teenager: it's 'The female of the species' by Space, and the lyric is The female of the species is more deadly than the male. I've double checked with google and everything. In the course of my checking I learnt that there is a Walker Brothers song called Deadlier than the male, but there's no 'more' in the lyric, so again, just a single comparative, not double. And I also learnt that the Space song is based on a Kipling line, which is, again, more deadly. So this Person on the Internet has managed to get annoyed by something that doesn't exist, which happens a lot when people get angry about so-called culture wars and also English usage (hey it's almost like in fact the language peeves are a proxy for their dislike of women, working class people and Black people), but it would really help people's blood pressure if they just didn't. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Dictionary update ahoy!

I always think of dictionaries as like a huge, slow-moving (but graceful) sea creature, a sort of enormous beast like the avanc in Mieville's The Scar, making inexorable steady progress. Lexicographers probably feel very nimble and agile, skipping through language and keeping abreast of linguistic change as it eddies around them and I'm doing them a terrible disservice. 

Print dictionaries, of course, are hopelessly out of date before they're even published. Online dictionaries can include much more recent usage, though they still tend to be a few years behind what we think of as current, because they need to include general usage with evidence, not just Jay from down the road's definition of a word. published an article about its latest update, with a very thorough overhaul of its entries, including adding #MeToo and af. It's also updated the language in some of its older entries too, though. For instance, it capitalises Black now when referring to Black people/culture, following style guides including AP in doing so. It has also separated out the entries for the word more generally (e.g. the colour) and when it refers to people: 

In the dictionary world, separating the people-related definitions of Black from the other definitions of black is a major—and extremely rare—move. As a rule, different senses of words that share an origin, as lowercase black and uppercase Black historically do, are included under the same entry. It’s a rule worth breaking. Dictionaries are not merely a linguistic exercise or academic enterprise. What are the effects of Black, referring to human beings, being grouped together with black, which can mean, among other things, “wicked”? The effects are social. They are psychological. They are personal. How words are entered into the dictionary—especially words concerning our personal identities—have real effects on real people in the real world.

It's also  reworded the entries referring to gay or gayness to remove the term homosexuality (they now use gay sexual orientation instead). They note that homosexuality now has connotations of 'pathology, mental illness, and criminality'. Whether it always has done, I don't know - one can check these things using concordances and corpora. But this is an interesting case of specialisation, where the term gay has become the default term, and so the use of another term carries some extra layer of meaning and now those connotations are very strong and the word is no longer (if it ever was) neutral. It's a technical-sounding, scientific word, so it makes sense that it would be used for technical things like medical or legal contexts. 

Take a look at the whole article. It's really worth reading, and it includes this list of words that they consider to be late-2010s-defining:

battle royale
dead white male
Dunning-Kruger effect
empty suit
gender reveal
information bubble

Monday, 24 August 2020

Adventures in funny old phrasebooks

Some time ago, back in March, I bought this cute little 'universal phrasebook' in the massive second hand bookshop in Rochester. 

A small black leather-bound book held so you can read the silver lettering on its spine: 'Lyall's languages of Europe'

The contents page of the small book, showing the 25 languages that are included and the publication dates (1932, 1935, and 1940)

As you can see, it covers 25 European languages (not all, and not only), and each section has the same phrase given in each language across a double page spread. So I can tell you that luggage is les bagages, il bagaglio, el equipaje, a bagagem, and bagajul in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian (Rumanian, in this book, as it's old) just by running a finger across one of the pages. 

Like me, you might have spotted the anomaly that is Esperanto (an invented language, unlike the others), and being a language nerd I immediately turned to the grammatical description of the language that's helpfully provided at the start of each section (for languages associated with a particular country, it also has useful traveller advice such as what side of the road to drive on and how to address letters). 

The phrasebook open at the grammatical descriptions of Arabic and Esperanto

There, it informed me that the language has suffixation to indicate many meanings, including -ino for feminine, and -ido for juvenile - I inferred this from the examples: 

hundo - a dog

hundino - a bitch

hundido - a puppy

There's ones for big and small and many and so on:

hundeto - a little dog

hundego - a big dog

hundaro - a pack of dogs

And even one for a kennel, hundujo. Being a language nerd, I was of course immediately infuriated: nowhere does it tell me how to say 'a young female dog'. Is it hundinido or hundidino? Does one indicate gender or age closest to the noun? I just did it in English: gender was closer to the noun, which we normally attribute to it being more 'inherent' (this is a bit of a fuzzy notion sometimes), and I didn't say a female young dog. So if Esperanto follows this rule of more inherent characteristics being closer to the noun, it should be hundinido. But then I found this on a forum which seems to say the opposite: 

For instance, if we want to say "a tiny female kitten," we commence with the root kat-, giving the idea only of "cat"; then add -id- (suffix for "offspring of") kat-id- = kitten; then -in- (female suffix) kat-id-in- = kitten, female; then -et- (diminutive suffix) kat-id-in-et- = kitten female tiny; we have now got the root and all of the suffixes, and we might want a noun, so add O, kat-id-in-et-o = a tiny female kitten. If we place -et- after kat-, we commence by speaking of a "tiny cat", for kateto has that meaning, so katetidino would be the "female offspring of a tiny cat." If we reversed the three suffixes, we should get kat-in-et-id-o = offspring of a tiny female cat. This exaggerated example of building up suffixes will show the importance of placing them in their natural order. The student cannot make a mistake if he commences with the root and forms a word of each suffix in succession; for instance, hund-o = a dog, hund-id-o = a puppy, hundid-in-o = a female puppy, hundidin-eg-o = a huge female puppy.

Notice that the English word kitten has the meaning 'offspring' built into it, so there's no way to express this any other way than with that meaning closest to the noun. I think this might be a case of an English-speaking mindset obscuring the alternative options that are logically possible. 

But also, it's interesting that katetidino ('cat-small-offspring-female') doesn't apparently mean 'a small female kitten' (katidineto) and that presumably katinideto ('cat-female-offspring-small') would mean 'small offspring of a female cat', as there is no possessive marker in this word. Anyway, all this talk of 'natural order' is very reminiscent of the way that Latin grammarians would talk of the parts of the sentence being in the 'natural order' - which, of course, is only natural if that's what you're used to. 

My favourite translation of them all, though, was hundaĉo, translated as 'cur'. Clearly this is another suffix, but what does it mean? It doesn't help that I don't really know what 'cur' means. I've only ever heard it as an insult, not as its literal meaning, so the best I could infer was that it's some kind of dog-negative meaning. I looked up the suffix elsewhere and it means 'of low quality', so you find it in the words for 'scrawl' and 'shack', and now I'm very happy to learn that this useful suffix exists and that a 'cur' is a low-quality dog. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

They're really confusing as well

 I found a new thing on the internet to be annoyed by. 

On twitter, you can share links (of course) and you can write something about those links, and when you do, your comment appears first and then a preview of the link. When the link is an article, this is typically an image, the headline, and the sub-heading stuff. 

The process of you sharing this link is that you read it, you copy it into your tweet or click the share button to make it appear there, and then you write your comment about it before you tweet it. Therefore in your mind you've read the headline first and then your comment. But when someone else sees it, they see your comment first. 

This can be amusing, as in this tweet where the image (not of SpongeBob) doesn't match the comment about SpongeBob, which is just meant to give more information once you've got the main point of the headline below: 

It can also lead to weird linguistic effects when the comment includes something that normally has to refer back to something else in the discourse. In this tweet, the comment refers to the discovery mentioned in the headline, and so tells us more about 'the molecule'. But because it comes first, we think 'what molecule?'. 
That's because the comes with a presupposition of existence and individuality; when you say the you're asking your conversation partner to accept that the thing exists, and that you both know which one you're talking about. If you've read the headline first, no problem - you've just been told it exists. If you haven't, as in the twitter format, you don't yet know it exists (you know some molecules exist, but you don't know the specific one under discussion here). 

Let's see another. This time, if you read the headline and blurb first, you can see they're asking for regular donations, and the comment tells you that you don't have to donate regularly if you can't afford it, you can also make a one-off donation. 

But if you read the comment first, you run up against two things: first it's pragmatically strange to read that you can donate once, as if there's a limit on how many donations you can make. Without the contrast with 'regular', we understand the meaning of once as 'once and once only' (that's some more pragmatics there). Then we get too and that needs to come after the first option, otherwise what's it as well as? 

Anyway, just a little quirk of the way the parts of the text are displayed, on this specific platform. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The everyday every day

Moose Allain, the cartoonist, tweeted about the word everyday and the phrase every day, noting that the distinction between them is probably being lost:
Maybe so, and if it is, we'll all get used to it and it'll be fine. In case you already don't have this distinction, everyday means 'ordinary', as in Just your everyday clothes will be fine for the event, while every day means more or less the same as each day: Parking charges apply every day. Just another bit of the internet sad about an ongoing language change, then.

I was intrigued by his follow-up tweet, which noted that pedantry is usually wrong, and this minor spelling change doesn't matter because we'll still have both possible meanings. Which is true. But he also thinks that the local authority should get it right.

On the face of it, it's totally logical. It may well be a change in progress, but while there is still a 'correct' option, official bodies should get it right, because official writing should follow formal conventions. I would tend to agree, in fact. But there is clearly a contradiction here. If it doesn't matter, then the local authority shouldn't have to get it right, no matter who they are. And if it is a change that's happening anyway, then at some point it won't be a mistake, and that line isn't a date when something is incorrect the day before but correct the day after. It's just the time when people can look back on 'the past' and note that we did things differently then.