August 28, 2007

Syntax under pressure

According to the Doonesbury site's feature "Say What?" today, Lauren Caitlin Upton, the reigning Miss South Carolina, was recently asked on TV why so many Americans can't find their own country on a map, and her impromptu reply, dutifully transcribed by various sources (though not yet checked aganst the original recording by Language Log staff), was:

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps, and I believe that our education like such as South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should... our education over here in the U.S should help the U.S or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future.

Those who enjoy laughing at stereotypically pretty young women (yes, Miss Upton does appear to be blonde) for stereotypically lacking intelligence will get a few giggles out of this one. And they will probably not reflect on whether they themselves have ever sounded similarly stupid when speaking spontaneously under pressure and under lights, in response to an unexpected question under circumstances that made them feel they are expected to talk.

There can be no doubt that the young woman in question had no idea what she was going to say, except that she knew she should try to mention maps and name a country or two and sound sort of interested in foreign affairs and education. But I have a feeling I have occasionally blundered around in similar manner myself when faced after a conference presentation with a question I simply had no answer to.

Normally one can just say nothing, or "I have no idea", if one has no idea. But there are some circumstances in which all the attention is on you and you feel you have to provide some talk: being on TV, press conferences, classes where you're the teacher, prime minister's question time, job interviews, parole board hearings, question periods, and so on.

The one syntactic peculiarity (as opposed to the general fluency meltdown) that caught my eye was "the Iraq", which occurred twice. But this is a tricky topic (no wonder so many Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian speakers are utterly baffled over when to use the definite article and when not). What Miss Upton was struggling with was the question of whether Iraq is a strong or a weak proper name. Weak proper names need the definite article. Strong ones don't. You may be clear about the difference, but large numbers of people think that Language Log is a weak proper name (needing the), as we see from our mail every day. (It is not true. Language Log is a strong proper name: we do not prefix it with the definite article.)

The matter is not trivial or straightforward. As noted in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 517ff, there are a number of countries that have two different ways of being referred to, strong and weak, the weak forms being a bit more common in Britain and tending to be replaced by the strong forms:

strong   weak
(no article)   (with article)
Argentina   the Argentine
Ukraine   the Ukraine
Yemen   the Yemen
Lebanon   the Lebanon
Holland   the Netherlands

There are some generalizations, but also many exceptions. Cities, boroughs, and regions are usually strong (like Amsterdam or New York or North Africa or Antarctica) but a few are weak (like the Hague or the Bronx or the Maghreb or the Antarctic). And remarkably, to a rough approximation at least, numerical freeway names are weak proper names in Southern California ("Get on the 55") but strong proper names in Northern California ("Take 17 South").

Don't laugh too hard at poor Miss Upton until you've successfully answered a few geography quiz questions under TV lights, that's what I'm saying.

Addendum: For those interested in checking the text, this blog post has a link to the video (it's on YouTube of course), and offers the following slightly different transcript (slightly more disfluent; and it agrees on *the Iraq):

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uhmmm, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and uh, I believe that our, I, education like such as uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uhhh, our education over here in the US should help the US, uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 28, 2007 05:58 AM