June 03, 2006

Vocalize, don't vocalize, whatever

Standing around the Language Log water cooler yesterday, Ben Zimmer told us about these two reviews of Far From the Madding Gerund. The first is by Linda Seebach, who knows a little something about linguistics, having done some graduate work in the subject; her review of FFtMG is uniformly positive, and even includes a summary of the recent feud between Geoff Pullum and Mark Steyn (as documented by Mark Liberman).

The second is by Michael Quinion, who "writes about International English from a British viewpoint". Quinion concludes that the book is not for everyone; basically, if your eyes glaze over at the sight of grammatical terminology, or if you don't mind reading Language Log for free on the Web, don't bother:

This is a book to dip into, not to be read straight through. Nobody will find every item interesting [...]. If you're flummoxed by such grammatical terms as hierarchical ontology, predicate, nominalisation, count noun, or prepositional phrase, you perhaps ought to give the book a miss. If you're not sure, the miracle of the Web means you can test-read articles by popping over to the Language Log site.

Should you trust Quinion's opinion? Dear Language Log readers, I think not.

Compare Quinion's summary of one FFtMG piece with the relevant portion of the original post:

They discuss why wedding vowels often appears when wedding vows is meant (many North Americans don't fully vocalise final l, so that they say vows and vowels alike).

There are many dialects of English that fully vocalize syllable-final /l/, turning it into a high back off-glide, and for speakers of these dialects, vows and vowels have merged phonologically. They've become homophones.

I don't know how this could be more clear -- even if you have no idea at all what 'vocalize' or 'high back off-glide' mean -- but Quinion gets it exactly backwards.

Note also that, earlier in the review, Quinion states about Language Log: "The theme of the site is grammar and correctness in English." Whether this claim is true depends on the structure of this phrase:

If Quinion means the first of these, he's basically right, though rather trivially: the theme of Language Log is grammar, and some posts happen to be about correctness in English. But this can't be what Quinion means, because he would then be talking about the themes of Language Log, not the theme. If Quinion meant the second, which I suspect, then he's just wrong: Language Log is decidedly not only about English.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 3, 2006 03:05 PM