January 29, 2006

Language Log final exam

For those of you who are taking Language Log for credit in the fall semester of 2005 and want to make progress toward your Diploma, you've had your January reading period (we are on the Harvard-style semester system, as you know), and it is now time for your final exam. No cheating; independent work only; essay-style answers. We will be judging you on neatness, originality, coherence, clarity, knowledge of elementary linguistic terminology and conceptual distinctions, and of course creative ranting. Your exam follows below. Submit the answers to your favorite Language Log contributor as usual, enclosing a stamped addressed envelope and a bottle of single malt scotch whisky.


Read this piece from The New York Times Real Estate section and answer the questions that follow below.

The yearning for a smooth transition from the surging [real estate] market is seen in the increasingly frequent use in the last six months of the phrase "soft landing."

"Soft landing is everyone's big hope," said Paul JJ Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor (languagemonitor.com), which analyzes language trends and their impact on politics, culture and business.

Mr. Payack, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature, calculated the popularity of some 36 buzzwords chosen by a reporter. He used his Predictive Quantities Indicator, or P.Q.I., an algorithm that tracks words and phrases in the media and on the Internet in relation to frequency, contextual usage and appearance in global media. It is a weighted index that takes into account year-to-year increases and acceleration in the last several months.

Among the market buzzwords he ranked, "soft landing" and "pause" had the highest P.Q.I.'s. They were ranked first and second respectively, while the more ominous sounding "housing bubble" ranked seventh. " 'Pause' is another one of these hopeful things," Mr. Payack said.

(Mr. Payack can also verify that "O.K." is the most frequently spoken word, that "outside the mainstream" was the top phrase of 2005 and that as of Jan. 26 at 10:59 a.m. Eastern time, the number of words in the English language was 986,120.)

  1. Discuss some reason why the text frequency of buzzwords might not tell us much about anything economic.
  2. Give the definition of the word "algorithm", and consider what might be meant by saying someone has an algorithm "that tracks words and phrases in the media" and so on. Compare with other gee-whiz locutions about computing, like "We ran him through the computer" in police procedural shows on TV and the like.
  3. Construct three or four interpretations of what Mr Payack might have meant by saying "'Pause' is another one of these hopeful things", and discuss them critically.
  4. Explain in detail why it is patently stupid to try and say exactly, down to a single word, how many words the English language has at a given instant, and why one would have to be a moron to think that a figure of about a million was right anyway.
  5. Rant a little about how silly this all is and how journalists really need to develop a bit more skepticism and a bit more knowledge about language than the typical 9-year-old has, and so on and so forth.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 29, 2006 05:38 PM