Our field is spectacularly backwards sometimes. The web site for the journal Language is a disgrace. It doesn't even have titles and abstracts up yet for the excellent June issue, which reached me by snailmail some time ago. As for full on-line access to articles, well, the LSA's web site has a page for "LANGUAGE Online" that offers a (dead) link to a Project Muse site that promises access to the volume for 2001.
As I clicked the link and got this helpful page, several spiders and mice scurried back into the woodwork and a puff of dust wafted across the room.
In fact, Project Muse does really offer "Vol. 77 (2001) through current issue", at this address -- and the June issue is already there -- if your institution has a subscription. The disfunctional LSA page says that individual subscribers also get access, but I couldn't find any information on the Muse web site about that.
There's a free sample issue -- 77.1, March 2001.
You know, I think we could do better.
[Update: let me make it clear that I mean "we as a field could do better than we are now doing", not "some group that I profess to speak for could do better than the people now responsible". But really, under any construal, the current web site for the LSA's journal is a disgrace.]
[Response to comments:
Ken says: "The username and password for individual subscribers to get on to project muse is in the welcome letter that comes to new members and (I would hope) also makes its way to renewing people."
I say: I'm a subscriber, and I read every issue as it arrives, and I go to the meetings more often than not, but I've never seen this information. I don't doubt that it was in some accompanying letter that I didn't read. That doesn't excuse not having updated the relevant page on the journal's web site since 2001, with a dead link for the Muse connection.
Joe Tomei asks "Isn't one explanation the fact that LinguistList has soaked up much of the volunteer effort that online efforts require?"
I respond: I don't know, but LinguistList is not a substitute for a usable web site for the journal Language.
He adds "I have found that almost all the individual subscriber online systems to be problematic, and even the for profit sites (Oxford, Cambridge, Blackwell come to mind immediately) have some serious interface problems."
I reply: That hasn't been my experience. I just checked the web sites for Language Variation and Change, Computational Linguistics, International Journal of American Linguistics, American Anthropologist, American Speech, Speech Communication, and Linguistic Inquiry; all the sites were current and I didn't find any dead links. The APA, the ACL, the AAA, the ADS, etc. all seem to have working web sites that are kept current. To find a site as musty as the site for Language, I have to prospect among third-rate journals; but Language is a first-rate journal.
There are plenty of complaints to make about the scholarly and scientific publishing; I think the arguments for Open Access/author-pays approaches are compelling, for example. But this is not an argument at that level -- it's much more basic. When the journal's home page has a three-year-old dead link to the online version, it's like misspelling the editor's name on page 1. ]
OK, everybody, listen up. Sit back, hang on to your chair, and brace yourself. I'm going to violate the ultimate taboo.
No, I'm not going to defend the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I've already done that. And I'm not going to argue that chimps, dogs and parrots are starting down the road to language. I'm still thinking about that one.
I'm going to venture into territory where no linguist has ever dared to set foot -- until now. I'm going to praise William Safire.
The poor guy writes a few sensible paragraphs on gone missing in the NYT magazine, and he gets artfully slammed for it by our own David Beaver. Now, sometimes Safire deserves a rebuke. Many of his 50 "fumblerules" are recycled nonsense from centuries of self-appointed experts who invented linguistic principles out of thin air and tried to impose them by force of cultural authority. However, his discussion of gone missing is reasonable, and even uses some grammatical terminology correctly.
David expresses surprise that Safire writes as if "the opinions of people who don't have Language Maven stamped on their business cards actually count". This is unfair to a man who once wrote a book entitled "In Love with Norma Loquendi", referring explicitly to Horace's dictum that language will change "si volet usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi" ("if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language").
Safire starts with a question from a reader, Daniel Baldwin of New York: ''My intuition tells me that the term goes missing is grammatically incorrect,'' he writes. ''Here is a possible explanation: It is proper to link goes with a gerund (e.g., goes fishing) but not with a participle (e.g., goes missing). Am I on the right track?''"
Baldwin is all wet, actually. Go fishing involves a different sense of go: transitive sense 3 "to engage in" in the American Heritage Dictionary's entry, rather than intransitive sense 10.b. "to come to be in a certain condition". And fishing in go fishing is probably not a traditional gerund at all, since it can't be replaced by a noun (in contrast to "I regret destroying it" vs. "I regret its destruction").
Safire responds "A technically correct track -- I salute all gerundologists -- but headed in the wrong direction." I take this as a brief, polite way to pat Baldwin on the back for using words like gerund and participle (which Safire is probably as uncertain about as almost everyone else is), though in the service of an analysis that's wrong. Safire goes on to say "This is a tale told by an idiom that leaves many of its users vaguely uncomfortable", and I think this is correct, if a bit compressed.
Here at Language Log, we're not constrained by the petty word count restrictions of a New York Times column, and so I can go into more detail in support of Safire's point of view. As he explains, "one sense of to go is ''to pass from one state or place to another'", and this is the sense that is involved in go missing as well as many other expressions. His analysis is not new, but it's correct. The OED puts go missing under sense 44 of go:
44. To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration. a. With adj. complement: To become, get to be (in some condition). (Cf. COME 25a.) to go less: to be abated or diminished. Also with n. complement: to become, use, or adopt the characteristics of (something specified); to go all ____: see ALL C. 2c; to go bush: see BUSH n.1 9e; to go missing: to get lost; to go native: to turn to or relapse into savagery or heathenism; also transf. (cf. FANTI b); to go ____ on (someone): to adopt a particular mode of behaviour towards or affecting (that person); to go public: to become a public company.
Safire notes that go missing is "British English", and supplies an earlier citation than the OED does. He quotes "a naval correspondent for The Times of London on Aug. 10, 1877, in a dispatch about the Turkish armies in the Balkans'' as writing "I was obliged to return to Adrianople to get some supplies, as a box which should have reached me at Tirnova had gone missing.'' The OED's earliest citation is from 1944:
1944 E. BENNETT-BREMNER Front-Line Airline (1945) viii. 50 Qantas Empire Airways have been called upon to conduct searches for missing aircraft, and it was only natural, therefore, that being ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ they should be asked to join in when aircraft went missing.
As the OED suggests, "go PREDICATIVE" often suggests that the predicative is a kind of deterioration: go bad, go ballistic, go bananas, go bankrupt, go blank, go cold, go crazy, go dead, go gray, go Hollywood, go lame, go mad, go native, go numb, go nuclear, go nuts, go sour, go vacant, go wrong.
Sometimes the corresponding positively-evaluated condition doesn't work: go bad but ?go good (in the sense of "become good", not as an informal version of "go well"), go crazy but ?go sane. However, there are some positively evaluated conditions in common inchoative collocations with go: go live, go platinum, go blonde.
On the other hand, there are also common adjectives expressing deterioration that don't seem to work well with go, preferring get instead: ?go sick, ?go fat, ?go dizzy, ?go sleepy, ?go antsy.
Note also that the meaning of the predicate is often restricted: thus went dead is fine if you're talking about a phone line or a radio, but doesn't work to mean that an animate being died.
All in all, the collocational propensities of go, in this construction, seem much more like derivational morphology than like normal compositional syntax. A good shorthand term for this situation would be idiom, and that's what Safire calls it. Good for him.
I need to temper my praise with a bit of criticism. Safire says that gone missing "may well stretch our hard-wired sense of syntax." This is completely nuts, at best. Is Safire saying that we are genetically disposed against making an inchoative out of a motion verb and a predicative? This would be weird biology and worse typology. Is he saying that our genes have been programmed by evolution to resist inchoatives that involve becoming lost? or include two-syllable predicative words starting with /m/? This is beyond even the bounds of journalism.
No doubt Safire means something much less grand. I bet his train of thought went something like this: "gone missing is on the edge, stylistically; I'll call this 'stretching our sense of syntax' in order to get the alliteration I'm famous for (remember the 'nattering nabobs of negativism'? those were the days!); and I'll add "hard-wired" as a nod to my fellow language maven Steve Pinker..."
Prof. Beaver expresses uncertainty about whether Safire has read The Language Instinct or not:
NEWSFLASH: Safire reads Language Instinct
Of course, I could be wrong about this. All I have to go on is the following paragraph in Safire's latest On Language piece...
I also can't be certain that Safire has read The Language Instinct, but Google tells me that he reviewed it for the New York Times, calling it "[a] deliciously erudite, if somewhat grainy, glass of Metamucil for the legion of English speakers troubled by irregular verbs."
Lila Gleitman has also testified that Safire has read some of her work, as well as Pinker's, though her experience was apparently not a positive one (perhaps because of the ritual uncleanliness alluded to earlier in this post?):
I believe the worst nightmare for any linguist would come in these three parts:
(1) being cited by William Safire in the NY Times
(2) being cited approvingly by William Safire in the NY Times
(3) being cited approvingly as claiming the OPPOSITE OF WHAT ONE HAS CLAIMED by William Safire in the NY Times
These three nightmarish events happened to me (and my collaborators, Henry Gleitman and Elissa Newport) this week. Probably this was God evening things up for granting me a fond linguists' dream last year, i.e., being elected President of LSA.
Continuing briefly on the subject of go missing as opposed to William Safire... There are some more elaborated structures that seem to be more permissive than simple inchoative "go MODIFIER", like "go (all) MODIFIER on PRONOUN":
(link) Alexa just went all Googley on us.
(link) I asked Bernard for a few moments of his time, and he went all poetic on me.
(link) moveabletype went all 730 on me and purged everyone that had signed up for notification after may 31.
(link) they looked at their desks and scuffed their feet and went all shy on me.
Even just "all" seems to help:
(link) The Day the Universe Went All Funny.
as do some other modifiers:
(link) One of the projects, restoring a historic pier in Swansea, went somewhat pear-shaped when it was discovered the relevant planning permission hadn't been approved.
There also seem to be special cases involving colors (go white, go red, go yellow, go brown, go green) and some other semantic classes.
In fairness to Daniel Baldwin, there really is an issue about the syntactic category of the complement of verbs like seem -- "this seems disturbing" vs. "*he seems sleeping" -- and missing may fall on the wrong side of that line -- "*it seems missing". However, gerund vs. participle is not the issue, which in any case will have to wait for another day.
Update: Eric Bakovic points out to me that the Safire quote on Pinker -- "metamucil" etc. -- is actually from a review of Words and Rules. Oops. I still bet that Safire read The Language Instinct long ago -- or at least had one of his researchers summarize it for him.
In his recent post, Adam Albright uses parentheses, scare quotes, and a question mark to indicate a certain amount of insecurity with the use of the word "speako" to refer to the oral equivalent of a "typo". So much CYA-age seems unnecessary, though; Adam also provides a convenient link to wordspy.com's entertaining definition of "speako", giving it at least some external validation.
Still, I'm with Adam (assuming I understand his hesitations correctly): "speako" just doesn't sound exactly right, although I also agree with wordspy.com that "wordo" is worse (by far).
At a recent linguistics event in LA, Bruce Hayes used the word "talko" to refer to an oral typo. It made sense in context, but John McCarthy thought that Bruce was offering culinary advice ("talko" being homophonous with "taco" in Bruce's apparently Californiated accent). But even respecting the East Coast vowel distinction, "talko" doesn't quite do the trick, either.
I think the relative unacceptability of all of these forms has something to do with trying to promote -o to the status of a productive nominalizing suffix. But I haven't thought about it much beyond this. As a side-stepping alternative, my wife Karen suggests "mistalk", with final stress like "mistake" ... nah.
[ Comments? ]
From Arnold Zwicky by email comes a citation to this quote from Barry Bearak's article "Poor Man's Burden" in the New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2004, p. 32; it's about Lula da Silva, the working-class president of Brazil:
His speech lacked syntax; he cut off the S's on his plurals like a peasant.
Bearak at least appears to be illustrating his claim about Lula having no syntax with a comment about something that is either morphological or phonetic. The Brazilian Portuguese of the lower classes, it would seem, drops either the plural -s morpheme (that would be about noun inflection) or any final s (that would be purely about pronunciation). Why is it that journalists make remarks of this kind about language when they don't even have a clue how to distinguish between sentence structure, word endings, lexical choice, pronunciation, spelling, and punctuation? It's like journalists writing about ecology being unable to distinguish between birds, insects, fish, and land mammals. It's like a political journalist having no inkling of the distinction between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. As we have pointed out over and over again on Language Log (don't make me list the links), it isn't good enough. Journalists should know at least something about language if they're going to make derogatory, and supposedly informed, comments on people's speech.
On the topic of "...is is..." (following up on Mark Liberman's recent posts, here and here), and while we're in the business of speculating about G. W. Bush's grammar, it seems worth mentioning that GWB is also by far the most pervasive "double is" speaker that I've ever heard. This was first called to my attention during his April 13th prime-time press conference, in which he used the construction 3 times in quick succession, along with a related variant:
In fact, he uses this construction so often in his press statements that at times I have wondered whether there's something intentional going on. (Is he stalling for time? do his speechwriters think that the construction sounds folksy? are they reducing the length of his phrases?) A quick survey of statements made by the president during "press availabilities" in the past month shows quite a few occurrences (in a rather small corpus), and the answer seems to be more mundane.
Transcripts from about a month's worth of press statements turned up the following examples:
|6/28||"Yes, my sense is, is that there's a hope that we succeed with all the nations sitting around the table. Everybody understands the stakes."|
|6/24||"But the reason why is, is because her job is to give grant and loan programs for rural development."|
|6/17||"What I'm telling you is, is that the economy's strong, it's getting stronger."|
|6/14||"Another problem is, is that people — they feel like it may be too complicated, the procedures may be too complicated to get a drug discount card."|
|6/10||"What I can tell you is, is that we're going to make sure we fully understand the veracity of the plot line. And so we're looking into it, is the best way I can tell you."|
|6/10||"The point is, is that we understand that the Iraqi people need help to defend themselves, to rebuild their country — and, most importantly, to hold elections."|
|6/1||"What did happen is, is that we moved too quickly"|
|5/25||"The thing about Sid is, is that
he is such a loving guy that he wants to help somebody in life."
"My view is, is that we need to empower consumers and doctors."
Some of these examples do seem to involve hesitations or disfluencies (as with the "...is, is that, again to repeat what I said earlier..." example; see also the 6/14 quote), and we might wonder whether they were merely "typos" ("speakos"?). In other cases, though, the sentence is short and otherwise unremarkable: "What did happen is, is that we moved too quickly". They occur in both (apparently) scripted and unscripted utterances (though slightly more often, perhaps, in questions than in the text of a speech), and they are transcribed faithfully in White House press releases. He seems to produce them without prior planning, and there is no effort to edit them out. I suppose we'll never know whether he subconsciously associates this construction with folksy, hypermasculine speech (as Arnold Zwicky suggests for some other features). At the most basic level, however, the answer seems to be that, like so many other speakers, he simply finds them grammatical, and uses them routinely. Maybe if I had a PR machine transcribing my every word for a month, someone would find just as many "...is...is..." constructions in my own speech...
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Richard Lederer thinks that "... the essential reasons for the ascendancy of English lie in the internationality of its words and the relative simplicity of its grammar and syntax." Trevor at kaleboel thinks that "... English is so popular (and so strongly associated with ideologies of freedom) not because of its status as the world's primary language of intercommunal transaction but simply because it is such a delightful chaos."
I'd bet on Hollywood, GNP statistics and the Pentagon, myself, though Trevor's theory is a sentimental favorite. Anyhow, if languages had commercials, this would suggest a remake of the old Miller Lite debates:
"International and simple!" "Delightful chaos!"
As Adweek points out, Miller's "Tastes great! / Less filling!" campaign provided "a retirement haven for ex-jocks" for more than 15 years (and it's recently been revived using mud-wrestling supermodels). Our version could give aging language mavens something better to do with their time than telling us all what not to say.
An image is beginning to form: it's the bar at the 2005 LSA meeting; William Safire is chatting with Geoff Pullum... no, it's fading, I've lost the signal.
I'm also skeptical that Miller's master slogan will work: "Everything You Ever Wanted in a Language and Less". Maybe for Interlingua; though a quick check with Google suggests that no one has used this modified slogan yet. However, "tastes great" "less filling" is quite popular, with 8,500 Google hits, almost twice as many as "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" with 4,850.
If Richard Lederer is right, then the newly-free people of Iraq will soon all be speaking English -- in part because English-speaking armies will probably still be occupying their country for quite a while, but primarily because English borrows many words from other languages and because English grammar is relatively simple. (Though this latter fact appears to be somewhat easy to forget.)
Lederer has a PhD in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire, and writes many books on language and other matters. He lives here in San Diego and can be regularly heard on my local public radio station. He co-hosts* a locally-produced radio show on language (on which Geoff Nunberg was once a guest) and makes other public radio appearances, such as during pledge drives (become a regular member for $120 and get an autographed copy of one of his books, become a Producer's Club member for $1000 and get Richard to speak at your favorite function). On November 5, 2003, Lederer appeared as a guest on another locally-produced radio show, promoting one of his new books A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language.
I wasn't tuned in at the time, but heard about it later from a colleague. Apparently, Lederer claimed sometime during this appearance that English is "the most cheerfully democratic and hospitable language on earth", and offered as evidence that English speakers borrow words like kimono effortlessly from Japanese while Japanese speakers must adjust English words like baseball, pronouncing it besuboru, in order to borrow them. (The bit in quotation marks is quoted from a subsequent e-mail exchange I had with Lederer, as noted below.)
Now, I'm thinking that this would be a perfect topic to discuss in my 101 class: we could pick this claim apart with the help of judgments from the Japanese-speaking students in my class who will undoubtedly find English speakers' pronunciations of kimono to be atrocious. But, being the responsible academic that I at least pretend to be, I wanted to know exactly, word for torturous word, what Lederer said. So I wrote to Lederer requesting a recording or transcript. After a little back-and-forth, Lederer eventually provided me with an electronic version of a chapter entitled "In Praise of English" from his 1991 book The Miracle of Language in which the claim in question is supposedly supported by evidence.
The main thesis of this 12-page (double-spaced, 12-point type, standard margins) chapter is as follows:
"The emergence of England and then the United States as economic, military, and scientific superpowers has, of course, contributed to the phenomenal spread of the English language. But the essential reasons for the ascendancy of English lie in the internationality of its words and the relative simplicity of its grammar and syntax."
As you might suspect, the evidence adduced to back this thesis up is seriously lacking. The support for the "internationality" claim consists of lists of words borrowed from many languages into English; no comparison is made with borrowings in any other language, lists or otherwise. What's more, not a single shred of evidence for the "relative simplicity" claim is made: not one rule of English "grammar and syntax" is mentioned, not even obliquely, much less compared to the rules of some other language.
Returning to the kimono vs. baseball example, we can imagine what Lederer might have been thinking: Japanese admits a proper subset of the types of syllables that English admits. But doesn't this make English syllable structure rules more complex than Japanese syllable structure rules? Besides, this all ignores the fact that English and Japanese have nonoverlapping sets of phonemes, and that their phonological rules are also not in a subset/superset relationship. Ask an English speaker to pronounce sukiyaki, with an unrounded high back vowel and high vowel devoicing, or futon, with a bilabial fricative, high vowel devoicing, and a nasal glide, or any of the many other words English has borrowed from Japanese, and Japanese speakers will giggle just as much as English speakers might at besuboru (or any of the many other words Japanese has borrowed from English).
I wrote again to Lederer to point some of this out to him, but never got a response. I did talk to him on the phone recently, however, and took the opportunity to mention that Japanese has sounds that English doesn't have. Lederer responded that he wasn't aware of that, though he didn't thank me for raising this point. You'd think he would, because he also mentioned to me that he considers The Miracle of Language to be one of his "serious" books, and that he writes all of those other popular/humorous books in order to support his writing of the more serious ones. Clearly, "serious" does not mean "held up to basic standards of scholarship" in Dr. Lederer's view.
*(Lederer's co-host recently left the show due to a "dispute over contract language", and there was a search for a replacement co-host. I'm eagerly waiting to find out who, if anyone, got the job.) back
[ Comments? ]
I've gotten a lot of fascinating feedback on my "... is is ..." post, from people who have studied the construction for a lot longer than I have, and in more depth than I'm ever likely to. We're talking about sentences like
(link) The worst thing is, is that procrastination is so easy to stop.
(Be warned: the rest of this post is just lightly-commented references and links. Some more easily-digested commentary is likely to come along later, but if you're interested in the contruction, you'll want to look at this stuff.)
Patrick McConvell sent in a couple of early references:
Bolinger, Dwight. 1987. The remarkable double "is". English Today 9:39-40.
McConvell, Patrick. 1988. To be or double be: current change in the English copula. Australian Journal of Linguistics 8.2:287-305.
along with a brand-new set of slides from a talk he gave a couple of days ago, entitled "Catastrophic change in current English: Emergent Double-be's and Free-be's." [warning -- these are ~1MB files -- .ppt, .pdf].
Arnold Zwicky emailed to say that
Locally, we call it "Isis", with a bow to ancient Egypt. (if you know some Mozart, you can even sing it.)
In any case, I have quite a lot to say about it. More bibliography, *lots* more analysis, the observation that the historical source(s) of the construction and its current status aren't necessarily (in fact, aren't) the same, and the observation that there are several distinct systems for its use now. Lord knows how i could get this into a LL posting...
Arnold sent in a bibliography, a bunch of notes, and a handout from an Isis Fest on Memorial Day 2003. He'd like to update the bibliography before posting it, and edit the notes in various ways, but here's the IsisFest handout (.pdf) while we're waiting.
[Continued from part 1]
Ordinary people, faced with what are for them deviant, "wrong", bits of language, see nothing but a mistake, period. They are resistant to the linguist's idea that there could be a rationale for the "mistake", even a system to it, or that, in fact, the very same thing could result from different sources or represent different systems. (This attitude presents a tough challenge when we teach beginning linguistics courses -- not only when we talk about dialects, but also when we talk about language acquisition. One of the hardest lessons for many students is that instead of saying what's wrong, what people "can't" or "won't" do, they should be describing what people *do*, and making hypotheses about *why* they do that.)
Geoff Nunberg's Going Nucular" piece makes a significant advance in trying to get these ideas out to linguistically unsophisticated people. First, it makes an inadvertent/advertent distinction (via the labels "typo" vs. "thinko"); some people say "nucular" because they've inadvertently reshaped the pronunciation to fit a common -ular pattern for learned words (tabular, globular, tubular, vernacular, oracular, popular, spectacular, oracular, etc., but especially molecular), but other people say it because they think that (at least in some contexts) this is the way the word is pronounced. What Nunberg doesn't stress is that these days virtually everybody who says "nucular" is in the second group; though the support of other -ular words helps to make "nucular" sound right, these people are saying it because other people say it. (The same point can be made for almost any innovative usage. Though hypercorrection surely played some role in the development of nominative coordinate object pronouns -- the famous "between Kim and I" -- for some time now people with this usage have it because that's what they hear, with some frequency, from the relevant people.)
Second, Nunberg doesn't stop there, but speculates some about the possibility of different systems for the use of "nucular". In particular, he cites at least one speaker for whom "nucular" refers specifically to nukes, with "nuclear" used in expressions like "nuclear family" and "the nuclear material of the cell". This is a tremendous advance, with many analogies in other areas (there are several different systems of nominative coordinate object pronouns, several different systems of multiple negation, and so on), but it stops well short of telling the whole truth. To do that, the whole discussion has to be re-framed.
Instead of talking about "nucular" as a mere thinko, we need to treat it as a variant pronunciation for a word, an alternative to "nuclear". Just like alternative pronunciations for: radiator, apricot, tomato, envelope, and many, many other words (with item-specific variants). So, put aside judgmental attitudes for a while, and ask how people use these alternative pronunciations. There are five types of systems:
Type 1: "nuclear" all the way. (This is my system, for what that's worth.)
Type 2: free variation, or as close as people come to this. While you might be able to discern reasons for one choice or the other in particular contexts, for the most part the motivations for choosing one variant over the other are too context-specific, too idiosyncratic, too much in the moment: inscrutable, in fact. As far as I can tell, that's my situation for the /a/ vs. /E/ pronunciations for "envelope", and for the cursive vs. the printed variants for the capital letter a, even in my first name.
Type 3: variation according to context, say according to formality, with "nuclear" as the formal, fancy, or scientific pronunciation, and "nucular" as the informal, homey, everyday pronunciation. My own pronunciation of "tomato" is mostly /a/ (thanks to living with an /a/-speaker for decades and to residence in the U.K. for significant periods), but more and more I'm inclined to use /e/ when speaking to Americans.
Type 4: variation according to semantics, as in the nucular-nukes variety reported by Nunberg.
Type 5: "nucular" all the way; the -ular pronunciation is *the* pronunciation for the word. There are, I belief, very many speakers of this sort. They understand that other people say the word differently, just as I understand that some people have /ae/ in "radiator" or "apricot", instead of my /e/. That's ok for them, but what I do is ok for me.
Nunberg suggests that George W. Bush might be a Type 4 speaker, but he could well be a Type 5 speaker. Instances of the "nuclear" pronunciation are so rare in his speech as to preclude the other three possibilities.
There's a further dimension to all of this, namely the question of intentionality, or conscious choice. Nunberg is inclined to see GWB as having *chosen* the "nucular" variant, to project a particular persona; in even less neutral phrasing, GWB "puts on" his folksy, Texas-rancher, hypermasculine persona, with the linguistic accoutrements that go along with that.
I don't doubt that some people sometimes consciously re-shape their behavior in certain respects. But I think that most accommodations to social varieties and most constructions of personas via behavior (linguistic and otherwise) happen below the level of consciousness, usually with very little awareness of what features are being chosen or why. (In a sense, this *has* to be true. There are just too many bits of behavior for choices among them to be under conscious control. This is especially true for bits of linguistic behavior, which have to be produced in tiny amounts of time, many at the same time.)
Some years ago it was pointed out to me that when I'm trying to be very precise in talking about linguistics, I use dental rather than alveolar articulations for consonants. Eventually, this astute observer (Ann Daingerfield Zwicky) noted that I'd never done that before I went to graduate school. After some reflection on this odd state of affairs, we realized that I was reproducing the articulations of my graduate school adviser, Morris Halle, in my Serious Linguist persona. All entirely unconsciously, I assure you.
Anecdotes like this could be multiplied endlessly. There's even some research on the matter. As a result, I'd be very very cautious in attributing someone's ensemble of linguistic features to conscious choice. GWB could come to his pronunciation "nucular", his extremely high use of "-in'" over "-ing", and so on without ever thinking any of it through (and without consciously rejecting standard or formal variants). He could get there just by behaving like the kind of person he believes himself to be. Like, in fact, the rest of us.
[Also posted 6/28/2004 to the ADS-L listserv]
In trying to write some commentary on Geoff Nunberg's discussion of "nucular" (in a 10/2/02 Fresh Air commentary on NPR, now in his collection Going Nucular), I've been reflecting on that thin line between error and mere variation.
Nunberg begins this piece by drawing a distinction between "typos" and "thinkos" -- in my terms, between inadvertent errors, things that are "wrong" for the person who produces them, and advertent errors, things that are ok so far as the producer is concerned but "wrong" from the point of view of at least some other people. (Faced with a typo, you call in the psycholinguist; faced with a thinko, you call in the sociolinguist.)
The distinction is a familiar one in the literature on language errors. In the typo camp, you have, for instance, Fay/Cutler malapropisms (so called from a 1977 article by David Fay and Anne Cutler), like my (alas, only too frequent) productions of "verb" for "vowel", or vice versa, in class lectures. In the thinko camp, you have, for instance, classical malapropisms (so labeled by me in a 1979 article), like "behest [beset] with all these difficulties", written by someone who *meant* to write "behest" (and was willing to defend this word choice). It might be hard to decide, in any particular instance, which kind of malapropism you're looking at, but in principle, with more information about the producer and their intentions, you can sort things out.
But matters are not so clear in the world of thinkos. The deviance of thinkos ranges from extremely high, as in clear examples of classical malapropisms, to extremely low, as in violations of the more fanciful proscriptivist pronouncements, like the one against possessive antecedents of pronouns.
(A side issue: It would be a good thing to expunge the moral language usually applied to thinkos, even by Nunberg, who should know better: Typos "can make you look foolish, but they aren't really the signs of an intellectual or ethical deficiency, the way thinkos are. It's the difference between a sentence that expresses an idea badly and a sentence that expresses a bad idea." (p. 59 of GN). Look at the most extreme case... Someone who writes "behest" for "beset" is certainly wrong. But they aren't morally defective, or evil, or stupid. Technically, they are very specifically ignorant, of one of the zillion facts about the world one might be called on to marshal in everyday life. It's like getting Björk mixed up with Bork, or not knowing at all who Hugo Wolf is.)
The "behest" thing is, yes, an extreme case. But things don't get any clearer as we work towards possessive antecedents. They just get messier and messier, in fact. As soon as we leave the clear "behest" zone (where almost everyone says the usage is wrong for them), we have to confront a world in which usage is contested and variable.
We come first to the Retart Zone, a label I use to honor a poster to the newsgroup sci.lang, 6/24/04:
Called by Peter Daniels on the voiceless final consonant in his insult "What a retart", the poster responds:In later discussion, the pugnacious poster concedes that (some) other people say, and write, "retard", but maintains that *his* version is perfectly fine. That is, he claims that this is a case of variation, not error. He is surely in a small minority in his pronunciation, but probably not a loner; I have no doubt that some searching would turn up others with his pronunciation.
And what's wrong with my use of "retart"...it's a perfectly acceptable word when describing those who are SLOW. A retart is a SLOW person.
Certainly, there *are* plenty of examples of variation. Some English speakers (I am one) have a voiceless final consonant in "with", some have a voiced final (a fact that I did not appreciate until I gave an exercise in phonetic transcription in an introductory linguistics course); I believe that the voiced variant is statistically the predominant one, by a considerable margin (some dictionaries list only this pronunciation), but theta-speakers like me don't provoke dark looks and snickers with our minority pronunciation. Similarly, some English speakers (including a great many South Africans) have edh rather than theta in the "South" of "South Africa"; I believe that they are definitely in the minority in the English-speaking world, but who am I, an American theta-speaker, to tell South Africans how to pronounce the name of their country? Similarly, many New Yorkers stand "on line" rather than "in line"; they're a small minority in the English-speaking world, and they are aware (at some level) that other people use "in" here, but everybody knows that people speak differently in different places, so where do you get off telling them they're "wrong"?
On the other hand, we do tell "needs V-ed" speakers (again, a small minority in the English-speaking world) that they're "wrong". These folks are aware (at some level) that other people say "needs V-ing", but most of the people they know personally are "needs V-ed" speakers, so from their point of view, they're talking appropriately, and the dark looks and snickers from outsiders are just nastiness.
Even in the Retart Zone, we're in trouble. What's unremarkable variation, and what's a thinko-type error?
But then we get to the Nucular Zone, the Hone-In-On Zone, and the Another-Thing-Coming Zone. The percentage of people who use the (historically) innovative variant steadily increases. (Google web searches have "home in on" somewhat above "hone in on", 64,200 to 35,200 in raw numbers, but "another thing coming" *way* over "another think coming", 21,400 to 5,830.) Those who use the innovative variants are probably aware (at some level) that other people have other variants, but for them this is just unremarkable variation, and their version is, well, *their* version, and perfectly ok.
The argument from history isn't going to carry much weight for these people, and anyway it's intellectually disreputable, since very few current standard variants have a pedigree going back to Old English; almost everything was an innovation at some point. How to decide when the ship of language change has sailed?
The argument from authority won't carry much weight, either. I can tell you that *I* (a noted linguist and writer) use "nuclear", "home in on", and "another think coming" (and "too big a dog" rather than "too big of a dog", but don't use positive "anymore", etc.), but you're entitled to ask why I should be telling you how to talk and to note that anyway you think I sound bookish and prissy.
If anything might work, it would be the appeal to the practice of those who are noted for their abilities in writing and speaking -- there's a reason AHD ended up with a Usage Panel, awkward though it turned out to be -- but in fact these experts are quite often divided in their practices and in their opinions, and in any case they're not necessarily models for writing and speaking in other than formal contexts.
The fact seems to be that the line between mere variation and error is largely a matter of intellectual fashion -- lord knows why speaker-oriented "hopefully", restrictive relative "which", split infinitives, logical "since" and "while", etc. get picked on while other variants thrive without criticism -- rather than a result of observation and reasoning. In this context, the label "thinko" doesn't really seem much better than "error" or "mistake".
[on to part 2]
[also posted 6/26/2004 to the ADS-L listserv]
Of course, I could be wrong about this. All I have to go on is the following paragraph in Safire's latest On Language piece, in a discussion of gone missing:
Is it good grammar? It may well stretch our hard-wired sense of syntax. To critics, a simple is missing would solve the problem. But because gone missing has acquired the status of an idiom, which is ''an unassailable peculiarity,'' it is incorrect to correct it. As the fumblerule goes, ''idioms is idioms.'' Relax and enjoy them.
Our hard-wired sense of syntax? Like, when he says our, does he mean our as in we and us? Meaning that the opinions of people who don't have Language Maven stamped on their business cards actually count? And when he says hard-wired, is he referring to some sort of like, you know, genetic endowment thingy? Not a tablet of official rules given down to Safire on Mount Sinai? Oh my, how sophisticated!
I don't think Safire thought of that stuff about hard wires himself. I think he's been reading linguistics. Or at least Pinker's pop Chomsky. (What? Chomsky and Pinker are related?)
Even more amazing, Safire seems to completely buy the idea that usage can trump what would otherwise be good grammar. All you have to do is find an excuse to label your preferred usage idiomatic, and it's just fine and dandy with the relaxed Mr. Safire. For idioms may be peculiar, but as everyone knows, they are unassailable.
The term fumblerule appears to be Safire's. He has a book about them which I have not read. It is called Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage, and it seems to be a book primarily devoted to helping you avoid ordinary usage in favor of strange rules. For example, it apparently tells you not to end sentences with prepositions. According to a definition I found which is probably Safire's, a fumblerule is a mistake that calls attention to the rule, and the lighthearted twist to the book appears to be that every rule is stated in such a way as to break itself. I like this idea. Apart from introducing self-referentiality (which, of course, is something I myself try to achieve at least once in every blog post), the fumblerule style has the benefit of making traditional mavenesque prescriptions sound exactly as silly as they are. Here is the prepsoition fumblerule (which I found in this excellent critique):
Fumblerule #49 Never Use Prepositions to End Sentences With
But the rule Safire cites in the paragraph above, idioms is idioms, is very special. If applied widely enough, it is the exception to end all rules. What if ending a sentence with a preposition becomes idiomatic? Relax! Enjoy it!
Safire, if I read him correctly, is no longer one of the critics, those naive language experts who think that since gone missing can be replaced by is missing, it should be. No, Bill Safire is one of us. Welcome, Bill, we've been waiting a long time for you.
[Note: the author of this post is Arnold Zwicky. It appears over another name by accident]
Hot on the heels of the Jennee the Talking Dog story comes a Palo Alto Daily News opinion column -- 6/28/04, p. 12 -- by Rowland Nethaway (RNethaway@dailynewsgroup.com) summarizing the achievements of Rico and Jennee and putting forward a third contender for "absolute king of the smart dogs": Jim the Wonder Dog, of Marshall MO, who died in 1937 and is memorialized there by a bronze statue, park, and small museum.
To hear Nethaway tell it, when Jim, a black and white Llewellyn setter, was 3, he "amazed [owner Samuel] Van Arsdale [elsewhere: VanArsdale] during a hunting trip when Jim trotted to the shade of an [sic] hickory tree after his owner suggested they rest there. Van Arsdale... then asked Jim to show him an oak tree, which Jim did. Then Jim obliged Van Arsdale by showing him a walnut tree, a cedar tree, a stump, and a hazel bush."
The whiff of Clever Hans gets stronger and stronger as the story unfolds. "For the rest of his life, Jim displayed signs of great intelligence by obeying commands as though the dog could understand English, along with a number of foreign languages, assuming English was Jim's native tongue."
Not only was Jim multilingual, he "could go outside and find a cars [sic] by their colors, their owners, their make and even their license plate numbers. Jim could also pick out people by the color of their clothes or even their occupations. Dogs are supposed to be colorblind."
Even admitting that dogs are not in fact colorblind -- which, if it were true, would have made Jim not merely astonishingly smart, but also telepathic -- and admitting that some dogs distinguish people in uniforms from everybody else, which is at least a stab in the direction of picking out people by their occupations, this story is way too good to be true.
To appreciate just how extravagantly good the story is, compare Jim to Rico. Rico was taught to respond to one of some roughly 200 German expressions (uttered by his owner) by fetching the specific object the expression named. That is, Rico learned responses to what we would think of as proper names (though, as other critics have noted, it's not clear that the dog viewed the expressions as names), denoting individuals. Jim, however, is described as responding to category names.
Now, dogs are certainly capable of acquiring category knowledge (beyond the categories, like the dog category, that are good candidates for innate knowledge): uniformed vs. non-uniformed person, for example. Presumably, they are capable of associating names (pronounced by people) to these categories, although that wasn't actually demonstrated in the Rico study. Presumably, they are capable of picking up some of these associations spontaneously, without explicit training, although spontaneous category learning wasn't demonstrated in the Rico study, either, which used a standard behaviorist stimulus-reward design. Jim, in contrast, is supposed to have spontaneously acquired categories like hickory vs. oak vs. walnut vs. cedar (this is not entirely preposterous, though you could wonder why a dog might have an interest in these distinctions) and to have spontaneously learned associations between these categories and their English names (even supposing that his owner chattered on incessantly to Jim about vegetation, makes of cars, and the like, this really is preposterous).
Well, Jim the Wonder Dog died in 1937. But, like any world-class phenom, he has a website: http://www.jimthewonderdog.com/. His talents, as reported there, substantially exceed Nethaway's account, since he exhibited not only phenomenal abilities in comprehending English (and Italian, French, German, Spanish, and Greek), but also, like Jennee, communicated to human beings, though not vocally: "As Jim could not speak, a variety of answers were written on slips of paper even in different languages and Jim would always pick out the correct one."
As a sideline, Jim predicted the winners of elections, the World Series, and the Kentucky Derby. "And most amazingly, he could predict accurately the sex of an unborn infant." Rather less amazingly, he seemed to know "which fields contained birds and which ones didn't."
There's a tape of Jim performing. A book. And other merchandise. And you can
contribute to the Jim, the Wonder Dog Memorial [sometimes printed with a comma,
sometimes without]. Everything except links to Clever Hans sites.
According to Mike Kemble's " Lernin' Yerself Scouse" page,
Scouse - or to give it its full title, Lobscouse, is of course a food rather than a dialect; it is the native dish of the Liverpudlian, or Scouser. Scouse is to Liverpool what Bouillabaisse is to Marseilles or Schnitzel is to Vienna.
I'd heard the term "scouse" for the Liverpool dialect, but did not know this etymology, which the OED agrees with, and fans of Patrick O'Brian will be happy to learn about -- if they've previously shared my ignorance of the lobscouse/Liverpool connection, at least. Kemble describes scouse as follows:
A simple stew made from the cheapest cuts of meat, usually mutton, boiled with potatoes and onions. The meat ingredient is optional, without which the Scouse becomes Blind Scouse. Either kind is eaten with red cabbage pickled in vinegar. However, like the years of poverty, Scouse is now part of the history and the visitor to Liverpool will search in vain for a restaurant that serves Liverpool's own dish, although it is sometimes possible to find Irish Stew, a direct ancestor, on bills of fare. The author found in a German Cookery Book the following translated recipe.
Labskaus (Sailors dish, original recipe)
Boil a piece of fairly lean salt beef (or equal quantities of beef and ham) till soft and chop it into coarse pieces. Meanwhile boil some potatoes in unsalted water and add a great quantity (!) of small onions which have been braised in butter. Mash all of this together, season with pepper and pour over it enough of the meat stock to produce a mash of soft consistency. This simple dish is extremely tasty and nourishing, especially when taken with pickled cucumber and a glass of beer.
The first paragraph of an email message I received today read as follows:
jmfuw. ovorzuhle mtworo. nrsjdmu yjesj umxcbd vvxccr kxszujpyv twdmhngn rjgccvx nfanfttgj dlwoikmqa vrbytalpc qbeoaqst rizxdn cigoli kferlsrtt- lagna nuuvna llsaw bkrxmexmi afimqwiqm ezyayo txuyuxkrd sxahjkfio bdndt uozxzikqw. hbgedjmsg fjdru- ypuuukoo okwxjaua uzbao xxoxd rcmtar nkjsf kvqhezojd. oacyce. kcdlvwxxo vwlpufdgl feoiwwo niikoa atlwia dwwjik uhcja jeuio ouiphubfv jwrfewd hkhqu djjuw isdjs
Have you ever had one of these? I think I know what it all meant. And I didn't even need to use my secret decoder ring (though, being a linguist, I do have one, of course, and I have a babel fish too). Let me explain.
The idea, I think, was to send enough plain text gibberish at the top of the message to delude spam filters into thinking that the message is ordinary personal plain text mail. Spam-filtering robots can't really read, of course. They're good at spotting HTML-heavy advertisements, but they don't read on to the end before they make a snap judgment: just as the rest of us sometimes do (admit it), they just browse the first bit to get the general impression. On the basis of that they form their prejudices about whether the message should be blocked.
As a statistical approximation to what English text is like, the above is pretty terrible (three letter u occurrences in a row??), but annoyingly, it worked: my spam robot was fooled (I have had some sharp words with it, and it has undergone some retraining).
Following the above appetizer, of course, was the main dish of spam that the message conveyed: an HTML-laden ad for one of those degree mills that give diplomas for money to lazy morons who then can say "I have a Master's degree!" in their job interviews so they get hired in some government job only to be found out and humiliated and fired later for having faked their credentials. Thanks, but no thanks. I happen not to have any Master's degrees, and I'd love to have one, but I don't think I'll get one this way.
I read Mark's post on "harp back to" vs. "hark back to" this morning and then, not 15 minutes later, coincidentally read an article in which both "harks back to" and "harkens back to" are used (the former in the article's abstract, the latter in the body).
Subsequent Google searching revealed the following:
|harpen back to||
|harken back to||
|harpens back to*||
|harkens back to||
|harpened back to||
|harkened back to**||
|harpening back to||
|harkening back to**||
* All 9 hits for "harpens back to" are separate copies of the same music review: "The later songs are more bare in a way; the band sheds some of the piano and effects and harpens back to their old sound a little."
** I also found a small handful of hits each for "harkenned back to" and "harkenning back to".
This is not inconsistent with Mark's "harp on" hypothesis, but I think it offers more support for the hypothesis that the "harp back to" variants are cases of (lexicalized) place assimilation: since none of the forms with -en pit the /k/ against the /b/, alternate (assimilated) forms with /p/ are not expected and thus not found.
Incidentally, the OED lists "harken" as a variant of "hearken", of which most of the senses are more or less the same as the first three of "hark" ("give ear, listen"). None of the senses refer to the hunting-dog-call business, and none are declared to be used with "back".
[ Comments? ]
In the wake of reports about Rico the German Wonder Dog [Science article here, Language Log discussion here, here, here and here], dog owners, I suppose inevitably, are singing the praises of their pets. Now this, from the 6/27/04 Palo Alto Daily News, p. 6: Owner says dog is talking:
The English language is not solely reserved for humans. Jennee, a 10-year-old mixed-breed Laborador retriever and pit bull who resides in Redwood City, has been taught to speak several English words through the lack or presence of food. The canine was bought from a Labrador shelter in Redwood City. Jennee's owner Paul Severino said Jennee's journey through the dictionary began three years ago while his sons were wolfing down a pizza pie and started flipping pepperoni slices in her direction. "My kids used to throw pepperoni slices at her all the time," Severino told the Daily News. "And one day I started giving her commands to say 'rebberoni." [PADN's punctuation] Severino said a package of hot dogs and a tupperware container of ground beef is a familiar and friendly site [sic] for Jennee. The genius canine can also say hamburger, I love you, hungry, London broil and foooooooooood, Severino said. "I've literally had people fall on the floor laughing," Severino said.
There is an accompanying photo, with the caption: "TALKING DOG -- Jennee begs for a treat from her owner Paul Severino of Redwood City." Sweet dog.The article doesn't say if Jennee rejects hamburger or pepperoni when she calls for London broil. Somehow I doubt it. (Rico, at least, usually fetches the thing he was told to get.)
Severino's description of his training regimen is desperately thin. (For Rico, we have a pretty detailed account of the training.) Merely telling a dog -- even a dog that's devoted to pleasing, not to mention hungry -- to say "rebberoni" just won't do.
By a wonderful accident, the same day's New York Times Book Review reports the paperback publication of Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel, a book that was recommended to me a year ago by a neighbor who knew I liked dogs (well, certainly, her dog) and was a linguist whose partner had just died. Unlike the linguist protagonist of Parkhurst's moving, creepy book, I didn't have my partner die in mysterious circumstances, with the family dog as the only witness, so I didn't assuage my grief by trying to teach a dog to speak (and testify as to the cause of death), as Parkhurst's protagonist does, with predictably unsatisfying results. The book is about love and grief and self-deception and, alas, an underground organization devoted to the mutilation of dogs (modifying them so as to make speech easier). Not always easy to take, but, as I said, moving.
In a recent Washington Monthly article on Niall Ferguson, Benjamin Wallace-Wells cited a deverbal noun that was new to me. The context is a talk by Ferguson at the Council on Foreign Relations:
In the row in front of me, a broad-shouldered, uniformed officer stood up. "Big disagree here, sir," he bellowed. "Big disagree with your characterization."
It's obvious what this means, and perhaps it's become a conventional idiom of objection in the U.S. armed forces these days, but it hasn't made it onto the internet much. I could find only a couple of examples, neither one military:
I wonder if this usage comes from response categories in surveys: "AGREE ... DISAGREE."
The American officer's reaction came in response to Ferguson's assertion that recent problems in Iraq are an inevitable consequence of military occupation:
"In behaving the way they did," Ferguson said, "those soldiers and military policemen [at Abu Ghraib] were largely doing to their prisoners what routinely people in the American military do to new recruits."
The American officer who objected went on to say
"The institution I have spent my life in abhors what went on in Iraq," he said. "It's not the way we treat anyone-- a fresh recruit or a plebe at West Point." The crowd clapped vigorously. In less than 10 minutes, Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.
Based on my own experience, which was limited but took place at a time when the U.S. Army might have been rougher with its recruits than than it is now, I have to agree with him. Basic training was often painful and humiliating, and not always safe, but nobody was ever attacked by dogs or made to stand on a box holding (even fake) electrical wires. More generally, no one was ever (what I would call) tortured.
I suppose that what Feguson meant was that military recruits are always subjected to a systematic process intended to break them down and build them up again in a new way. When it was done to me, aspects of this process were things that might be called torture in another context: six weeks of systematic sleep deprivation, or running a couple of miles while holding a heavy rifle over your head, or belly-crawling in freezing mud while drill instructors yell at you and kick you back flat if you get up on your hands and knees, or having your bunk upended at 4:00 a.m. if you don't get out of it before the sergeant can get to you.
But context changes interpretation. These things were done as part of a process of training and initiation, not part of a process of interrogation. I suppose there's a common thread of subjugation, of breaking down someone's will by pushing them beyond their normal physical and social boundaries, but there's still a big difference between something done to recruits or inductees and something done to prisoners. Even if it's the same thing, it's not the same thing.
And there were definite limits. They were often crossed, but not always with impunity. While I was in basic, trainees had a clear concept of what the limits were, and were quick to object when they thought something was wrong. Objections were usually overruled and even punished, but drill instructors who were too fond of hitting recruits, or whose trainees were injured or killed as a result of questionable practices, were brought up on charges and disciplined.
There were definite limits at Abu Ghraib too, and they were definitely crossed, and the people who crossed them are now in trouble. I think that this similarity is another basis for the officer's "big disagree", which I also agree with: even partial and hypocritical adherence to ethical norms is a step forward over no recognition of such norms at all.
I wonder what the history of military initiation is. Some of the techniques are apparently quite old. As I recall, Patrick O'Brian describes seamen in the British navy of 1810 or so being awakened by a call of "Here I come, with a sharp knife and a clear conscience!" Anyone who wasn't out of his hammock in time found himself abruptly on the deck. This is the same technique that was used on us in basic training, and it certainly works. Especially from an upper bunk, it's not a way of waking up that anyone wants to experience twice.
Over the past 24 hours, there have been intermittent outages in the connection between Language Log's server and the internet. Hundreds of computers in several buildings have been affected, so Penn's highly competent tech support people will no doubt diagnose and fix the problem soon. Sorry for any inconvenience; as always, the Language Log marketing department stands ready to refund your subscription fees in full.
The answer is is I don't know, but I'll speculate anyhow. Here's another case where it seems that a common syntactic pattern is a grammatical confusion:
(link) The thing is is that it all depends on the graphic card's drivers.
(link) The best thing is, is that they are spill proof.
(link) The worst thing is, is that a client believes them.
(link) "The important thing is, is that it is for all the right reasons—for Columbia College and its students," Schlossberg said.
(link) The amazing thing is is that this data can now be represented as a vector (gradient vector).
However, this time I think it's different. In the case of the extra that that I wrote about yesterday, I argued that people are indeed just confused: those are production errors. In the case of the extra is that I'm writing about today, I believe that people are not getting confused, but are producing phrases that are grammatical -- in terms of a non-standard grammar.
I could be wrong, in either or both instances. And some people might argue that it's misguided to make a qualitative distinction between production errors and grammatical modifications. But let's go on a bit anyhow.
Why do I think these are the result of a non-standard conception of English grammar, rather than just a faulty implementation of standard English grammar?
Well, for one thing, many of the examples are way too short for the speaker or writer to be befuddled by length and complexity. For another thing, I know from experience that (at least some of) the people who use double-is constructions don't see any problem with them, on reflection, whereas I suspect that (at least some of) the perpetrators of double-that constructions would see them as errors on careful reading. (Though this is a weak argument at best, since it might only show differences in degree of prescriptive awareness or obedience).
But the main reason is that it's easy to see how to make double-is constructions grammatical. One obvious idea is to treat them as variants of structures like:
(link) What the thing is, is not cowardly, but profoundly and detestably wicked.
(link) What the result is, is that when the carb gets hot, almost all of the clearance at the shaft is taken up by expansion.
(link) How serious the problem is is less important than how serious it feels to them.
These are fully grammatical in standard English -- the first one is a quote from the esteemed prose stylist G.K. Chesterton, from an essay that is well worth reading on other grounds.
This analysis is not without problems. As far as I know, every instance of a double-is construction has a plausible (fully grammatical) alternate with an overt wh-word; but the mapping doesn't always work in the other direction.
Thus I think you could get a non-standard version of the second example above:
The result is, is that when the carb gets hot, ...
but not the first one
???The thing is, is not cowardly, but profoundly and detestably wicked.
So it's not good enough just to say that [the ADJ N is] can sometimes be a noun phrase, roughly equivalent to [What the ADJ N is]. Still, this might work if we insist on the right kind of interpretation for what, which is surely different in the two sentences contrasted above.
The construction doesn't require a clause introduced by that -- it can be a bare sentence
(link) And the key thing is, is we have Elizabeth back right now.
or some kind of indirect question, as in the title of this post, or this internet example:
(link) To restate Rabbi Nachman's point about fear, life is a narrow bridge and the important thing is is not whether you are afraid; the important thing is that you choose to try to cross the bridge.
It seems to be optional -- at least, there are lots of other examples like the one just cited, where the double is phases in and out:
(link) And we've got some problems. One problem is there's misinformation about these cards. Another problem is, is that people -- they feel like it may be too complicated.
There are some examples where the complement (of the second is) is just a nominal:
(link) The answer is is verse 22.
or an infinitive
(link) I think the answer is is to have Thread B not terminate but rather have the Thread A delegate release the Mutex for Thread B when bytes are receieved.
or some other sort of element:
(link) Let’s say the answer is is no.
There's a theory of this presented in the following paper, which I haven't read (though I took 2/3 of the title of this post from its title): Tuggy, David. 1996. "The thing is is that people talk that way. The question is is why?." In Eugene H. Casad (ed.), Cognitive linguistics in the redwoods: The expansion of a new paradigm in linguistics , 713-52. Cognitive Linguistics Research, 6. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Its content is summarized here. Apparently Tuggy points out that this construction gets reinforcement not only from the what-clauses, but also from real production errors, namely disfluent repetitions of is, a very common occurrence.
It's worth noting that this construction, though stigmatized, is widely used by highly educated people. I have a valued colleague who can be counted on to use it several times per lecture, and here's a quote from Bob Moffet, who is a health analyst at the Heritage Foundation and was deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Health & Human Services during the Reagan administration:
(link) But the important thing is, is that it would give individuals and families the right to pick and choose the plans they want at the prices they wish to pay and control their own health care.
I can't resist adding one more quote before closing -- the one that I took the last third of the title from:
(link) You got it; that's the question. The answer is is (drumroll please) "Delegate to the modules".
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the fascinating cover story in the July/August Atlantic, in which James Fallows examines the debating histories of George W. Bush and John Kerry. Yesterday, NPR got around to interviewing Fallows on this topic, and as Geoff Pullum pointed out last night, the segment features Scott Simon (the host of Weekend Edition) making a bad joke about "psycho linguists".
Here's a link to the NPR Weekend Edition program segment, which is worth listening to, apart from Simon's boorish intervention, because it includes some audio clips of past debates. If you focus on the passage where Simon makes an idiot of himself, you'll notice something odd.
Fallows: A second hypothesis, which a number of psycholinguists told me, is that there's a particular form of dys-
Simon: Excuse me, I've never heard that term. Do you mean -- linguists who are, are MAD?
Fallows: No -
Simon: or - or - um - or -
Fallows: There's an actual field called "psycholinguistics", believe it or not.
Now, Fallows de-stresses "linguists" (and/or contrasts "pycho") in psycholinguists, because he's just been talking about a theory due to "the linguist George Lakoff", but in context, that's not odd. What odd is that Simon uses the word mad when he clearly means "mentally disturbed", as in the slang sense of psycho for "psychotic". The American way to say that is "crazy". For Americans, mad usually means "angry", except in certain expressions (like "mad with rage") or when imitating British speakers.
I can't figure out why Simon would have chosen this word. Perhaps he associates puerile sarcasm with a British debating style? If so, he was insulting the British as well as the linguists.
It's worth adding that Simon was probably not telling the truth when he claimed never to have heard the term -- presumably this was just his jocular way of intervening to clarify a word that he felt his audience might not understand. Even if Simon has managed to remain unaware of the general use of Greek compounding to name scientific disciplines, the particular terms "psycholinguist" or "psycholinguistics" make the news from time to time. Slate's Today's Papers has two hits over the past few years; the Atlantic has three; the NYT index returns 14; and even npr.org has one -- in a review of The Language Instinct. More recently, Fortune had an article a few weeks ago about Annie Duke that features the term in its first sentence.
Psycholinguistics was mentioned on NPR this morning by Jim Fallows, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who was talking about the communication styles of John Kerry and George W. Bush, and the explanation for the latter's evolution in the direction of inarticulacy. The program host, Scott Simon, seized the opportunity to interrupt to say he'd never heard the word psycholinguist, and to ask whether it meant a linguist who's crazy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides are aching!
Get a grip, Scott. If someone mentioned psychopharmacology, would that elicit a similar joke? You can guess what compounds with psycho- mean. The difference, I think, is that people realize that pharmacology is a scientific subject that they may not personally know much about, so they accept psychopharmacology as a name for a psychological variant of it; but they don't think there is any such thing as the scientific study of language (everyone's an expert on that; failed sports reporters and political journalists can easily turn their hands to writing books about language), so the term psycholinguistics seems fit for a giggle. Us linguists don' get no respect.
Sometimes people put in more thats than they ought to:
(link) It's strange that given the huge community of programmers at slashdot, that the number of books isn't really that long.
(link) No but seriously, I think it's obvious that because Michael Moore eats frequently that everything he says must not have one iota of truth.
(link) I'm surprised that after a bus falling 100 feet and landing on its front, that anybody survived at all.
(link) I'm sure that given the technological complexities and the demanding financial needs of both theater and national missile defense programs, that we will be able to spend this additional $1 billion.
I used the prescriptive formulation "put in more thats than they ought to" because as far as I can see, this is not a variant or non-standard grammatical pattern, it's just a mistake. I take it as obvious that there's a difference. But in fact, I'm not entirely sure which diagnosis applies here.
[Warning: what follows is some stream-of-consciousness musing about this general question, focused on the "extra that" case. Unless you're interested in both syntax and psychology, you'll probably want to turn your attention to some of our other fine posts...]
Why do I think these apparently extra complementizers are a mistake, rather than a non-standard grammatical pattern? Logically, there are two arguments for such a position: that a "different grammar" theory doesn't work, and that a "production error" theory does.
I won't say anything specific about the failure of "different grammar" theories, except to say that I've tried to make up grammars that would license "... that ADV that ..." patterns, and don't find any of them convincing. I might well be wrong about this, and welcome suggestions.
What about the production error theory? If these repetitions of that are mistakes, why do they happen? The obvious answer is that you put that in before the adverbial, and then forget you did it and put it in a second time after the adverbial. One piece of evidence for this is that the stretch between the two instances of that is often very long:
(link) I'm convinced that given they totally fucked up the planning of this whole thing, and they're totally chained to their neo-con preconceptions, and they totally lied from start to finish, that if the same people are left in charge certainly someday this will all end, but it won't be a good ending.
However, there are a couple of problems with the forgetfulness theory. One is that the mistake sometimes happens with short adverbials, both in writing:
(link) I believe that we have a Creator who made us to live in a certain way, and that therefore that there is ‘natural law’.
(link) This ensures that all students have the same outline information in anticipation of examinations, and that therefore that coverage across discussion groups is as uniform as possible.
and in speech:
(link) MR. BOUCHER: We have not changed our position, and in fact, we believe that the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court needs to be -- can't be established over nationals of states that are not party to the Rome statute and that, therefore, that Americans and others who are not members of the Rome statute, who participate in UN peacekeeping, need to be protected from some kind of misguided prosecution because of actions they might undertake while participating in those operations.
If the forgetfulness theory is correct, some people have very short memories, at least in some circumstances, or else such examples are the result of different sorts of mistakes, namely careless post-editing in writing, or self-correction and restarting in speech.
We could certainly check whether the double-that construction is more frequent, other things equal, when the adverbial is longer. After a bit of searching for examples, I have the (scientifically unreliable) impression that it is. This is another case where one could perhaps do some valid, quantitative Google psycholinguistics.
A second problem with the "oops I did that again" theory is that the two string positions for that seem to be semantically incompatible. This doesn't invalidate the theory, but it adds some additional implications.
We're talking about phrases with a matrix (like "It's clear", "I'm surprised", "It's obvious", "I'm convinced") and a complement clause ("that S"). Possible locations for an adverbial in such sentences include these three:
(a) ADVERB MATRIX that S ("Therefore I'm convinced that blah")
(b) MATRIX ADVERB that S ("I'm convinced therefore that blah")
(c) MATRIX that ADVERB S ("I'm convinced that therefore blah")
When the adverbial modifies the whole thing, you get (a) or (b):
Moreover, I'm convinced that our alumni and friends recognize and accept the basic premise of what I'm proposing.
I’m convinced, moreover, that this sentiment is shared by the US Administration.
but not (c):
?I'm convinced that, moreover, our alumni and friends recognize and accept the basic premise of what I'm proposing.
?I’m convinced that, moreover, this sentiment is shared by the US Administration.
In contrast, when the adverbial modifies only the complement clause, you get (a) or (c):
I'm convinced that before long she'll be sleeping in it.
Before the rebuild, I'm convinced that oil in the rocker area couldn't drain away fast enough and was getting sucked up by the PCV and blown into the intake manifold.
but not (b):
?I'm convinced before long that she'll be sleeping in it.
? I'm convinced before the rebuild that oil in the rocker area couldn't drain away fast enough and was getting sucked up by the PCV and blown into the intake manifold.
Anyhow, some kinds of adverbial phrases like "given blah" can take either scope. I can intend to say
(1) "given X, I'm convinced that Y", where I mean that X is what convinces me of Y
(2) "I'm convinced that given X, Y", where I mean that I'm convinced of the inference from X to Y.
If you object that the difference in meaning is a subtle one in most cases, you're right. After all, it's not easy to think of a circumstance in which (1) would be objectively true and (2) false, or vice versa.
It seems plausible to me that a speaker or writer may on a given occasion mean both (1) and (2) at the same time, and/or may be in a sort of mixed state of mind, part way in between intending to say (1) and intending to say (2). You can think of this as a mixture of underlying communication intentions, or a mixture of implementational choices, or both, it doesn't matter to this argument.
The point is that meaning (1) licenses the two forms (a) or (b), while meaning (2) licenses the two forms (a) or (c). Since what we actually get (in the "double-that" examples) is a blend of form (b) and form (c), it seems that the folks who produced the "double-that" examples were in a kind of psychological superposition of state (1) and state (2).
That's fine with me. I generally feel like I'm trying to say several different things at once, and I'm fond of the idea that linguistic knowledge and linguistic intentions should be modeled as distributions over linguistic structures, not as specific, individual forms. But others will find this notion less attractive.
I have a feeling that someone is going to write in to complain that all such examples are fully and completely grammatical; and that someone else will inform me that this usage was the norm in Chaucer's English, or 18th-century legal prose, or something. Well, we'll see.
According to Blinger, it seems that the South Korean government is blocking access to several weblog hosts (at least blogger and typepad), because "they run a threat of carrying the video of the beheading of Kim Seon Il". Here's an extensive and thoughtful discussion from The Marmot, with more from him here (and some posts in between), including the news that 12 people have been arrested for uploading the video to a P2P site. Here's a story from the Korea Times, which writes that "The Ministry of Information of Communication (MIC) on Thursday said it ordered all the nation's Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down access to Web sites that carry the execution of Kim Sun-il", and that "As a preemptive measure, the MIC also called for local Internet portals to ban searches using such terms as 'beheading' and 'Kim Sun-il footage.'"
As yet, there's nothing on Google News (at least on the index page), nor in any of the American papers whose websites I've checked.
In an essay in Spiked, Dolan Cummings critiques some critiques of critiques of the modern world. He observes that these critiques of critiques all take the same rhetorical stance: the complainers are accused of 'declinism', looking back to a golden age that never existed.
He quotes from three anti-declinists, two of whom accuse their subjects of of harking back to a mythical past, while one uses the term harping back.
As he explains,
Leaving aside the question of whether one harps back or harks back to a golden age, clearly it is considered a very bad thing to do. The charge of utopianism works by portraying someone, often unfairly, as a hopeless dreamer, but accusing opponents of nostalgia for a golden age is an even dirtier trick. Not only are they deluded, but they are reactionary too, dreaming of the past rather than embracing the future.
But here at Language Log, we won't leave aside the question of whether one harps back or harks back. First Google:
|harp back to||
|hark back to||
|harps back to||
|harks back to||
|harped back to||
|harked back to||
|harping back to||
|harking back to||
So writers on the internet hark back about 48 times more often than they harp back. And a good thing, too, because that's the historically sanctioned idiom.
As the OED explains, hark back comes from a cry used to get the attention of hunting dogs, and if you want, you (or rather the dogs) can hark away, hark forward, hark in, hark off, or hark on as well.
4. intr. Used in hunting, etc., as a call of attention and incitement, esp. in conjunction with an adverb directing what action is to be performed: hence denoting the action .
1610 SHAKES. Temp. IV. i. 258 Pro. [setting on dogs] Fury, Fury: there Tyrant, there: harke, harke. Goe, charge my Goblins that they grinde their ioynts.
a. hark away, forward, in, off: to proceed or go away, forward, in, draw off.
b. hark back. Of hounds: To return along the course taken, when the scent has been lost, till it is found again; hence fig. to retrace one's course or steps; to return, revert; to return to some earlier point in a narrative, discussion, or argument.
1829 Sporting Mag. XXIV. 175, I must ‘hark back’, as we say in the chace.
1868 HOLME LEE B. Godfrey xli. 225 Basil must needs hark back on the subject of the papers.
1877 CRUTTWELL Hist. Rom. Lit. 223 The mind of Lucretius harks back to the glorious period of creative enthusiasm.
1882 STEVENSON Stud. Men & Bks., J. Knox 349 He has to hark back again to find the scent of his argument.
1895 F. HALL Two Trifles 31 To hark back to scientist..I am ready to pit it against your agnostic.
c. trans. hark on, forward: to urge on with encouraging cries. hark back: to recall. [...]
d. hark after: to go after, to follow.
Where does harp back come from?
First, like any other eggcorn, it's very similar in sound to the original. Second, there is probably some resonance of the phrasal verb harp on, which the AHD defines as "To talk or write about to an excessive and tedious degree; dwell on." Many of the eggcorn examples use harp back to refer to someone's complaints about something, which might well be described as harping on it as well as harking back to it:
If ever you get a tiresome old relative harping back to the good old days...
These people lament the coming of the backpacker age, harping back to the sixties and seventies when you had to drop out of society to get on the trail...
Even when Grahame wrote it he was harping back to a time that he missed...
He made no new concessions and harped back to "bold steps" he had taken and India's non-response to them.
It is still very much harped back to because it was the first and the only full study of what was needed...
To my surprise, Paul Brians' list of errors doesn't have this one.
The June 19-25 issue of The Economist reports (p. 33 of the print edition) that Claire McCaskill, who is running for governor of Missouri, has been documented by the St Louis Post-Dispatch as having pronounced the state's name "Missourah" in a commercial aimed at rural areas but "Missouree" in ads running in the cities, and (if I read the implication right) is being portrayed as two-faced and untrustworthy for it. Funny, it is generally accepted as the height of sociolinguistic sophistication to shift the shiftable aspects of your speech (vowel quality being a prime example) in the direction of the speech of those you are speaking to. A mark of respect, politeness, solidarity [though people may reject your attempt at solidarity if they think you're just imitating them, as Ray Girvan points out to me by email]. We are in awe of the Swiss when we learn that if two of them are speaking to each other in French and an Italian speaker joins them, they are likely to switch into Italian just to be polite. Yet in American politics, linguistic sophistication (like almost everything else) may actually be held against you (as I believe I mentioned once before).
In connection with a post on Thomas Jefferson's attempt to learn Gaelic, I read an interesting paper by Jack Lynch entitled "Authorizing Ossian", in which he calls James MacPherson "history's most perfidious literary fakir". Lynch is being unfair to fakirs -- though in a characteristically American way. Fakirs were not fakers, before a series of 19th-century American shifts of meaning.
The OED tells us that fakir was borrowed from Arabic faqīr "poor, poor man", and has variously been spelled fokers, fuckeires, facquiers, faquirs andfakeers. Its meaning is
1. a. ‘Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics’ (Yule).
1609 RO. C. Hist. Disc. Muley Hamet vii. Ciij/2 Fokers, are men of good life, which are onely given to peace.
1638 W. BRUTON Newes from E. Indies 27 They are called Fuckeires.
1704 Collect. Voy. (Church.) III. 568/1 You shall take care to embark all the Facquiers.
1763 SCRAFTON Indostan (1770) 27 Bestowing a part of their plunder on..Faquirs.
1813 BYRON Giaour xi, Nor there the Fakir's self will wait.
1861 DICKENS Tom Tiddler's Gr. i, A Hindoo fakeer's ground.
1874 MORLEY Compromise (1886) 178 A fakir would hardly be an estimable figure in our society.
b. erron. for FAKER, pronounced (ˈfeɪkə(r)). U.S.
1882 in S. Poe Buckboard Days (1936) 99 Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunkco-Steerers.
1902 A. D. MCFAUL Ike Glidden xvii. 127 Each day brought its new characters, fakirs, peddlers, schemers and promoters.
1903 N.Y. Even. Post 31 Oct. 5 One may see at almost any of the downtown corners a street fakir selling shoestrings.
1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost ix. 87 Some listen to a patent-medicine fakir.
If the 1932 citation is to Edmund Wilson, then Lynch is in good company. But is it?
The OED 2nd edition has 37 citations from "1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost", and the new edition adds a few more. Like the fakir quote, many involve content or word uses that are specifically American, e.g. one of the citations for bellboy:
1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost xxiii. 245 Glimpses as a bellboy of the luxurious life of the hotel.
The date, the prominence given to the work, and the range of topics covered make it seem likely that E. Wilson is indeed Edmund Wilson, the "American writer, critic and social commentator" who died in 1972. And I have a dim memory of having once seen a book entitled "Devil take the Hindmost", perhaps by Wilson. But it's not listed in Wilson's works, and the chronology of his life shows only "American Jitters" as a publication for 1932. Checking the RLG Union Catalog doesn't turn it up either, nor any other "Devil Take (the) Hindmost" by any other E. Wilson.
The printed copy of the OED bibliography in the "Compact Edition" is not helpful, as the only thing by an "E. Wilson" is a 1675 publication by one Edward Wilson entitled Spadalcrene Dunelmensis.
Ah, but the online OED bibliography lists Wilson, Edmund, Devil take the hindmost: a year of the slump (US ed. with title The American jitters) 1932.
OK, this settles it: Edmund Wilson used fakir in the sense of "dishonest sidewalk salesman" or something like that.
Wilson was reflecting a common usage that arose out of the American spiritualism craze of the 19th century, whose context can be glimpsed in this 1890 article on fakirs by Helena P. ("Madame") Blavatsky. Blavatsky complains about the generalization of fakir, from Muslim religious ascetic to Hindu "Yogi" to a sort of streetcorner or marketplace "producer of illusions":
First of all, we ask them why they call the "juggler" a "fakir"? If he is the one he cannot be the other; for a fakir is simply a Mussulman Devotee whose whole time is taken up by acts of holiness, such as standing for days on one leg, or on the top of his head, and who pays no attention to any other phenomena. Nor could their "juggler" be a Yogi, the latter title being incompatible with "taking up collections" after the exhibition of his psychic powers. The man they saw then at Gaya was simply--as they very correctly state--a public juggler, or as he is generally called in India, a jadoowalla (sorcerer) and a "producer of illusions," whether Hindu or Mohammedan. As a genuine juggler, i.e., one who makes us professions of showing the supernatural phenomena or Siddhis of a Yogi, he would be quite as entitled to the use of conjuring tricks as a Hoffman or Maskelyne and Cook.
It's easy to see how the idea of "street magician" was further generalized to "street salesman depending on trickery". Lynch's usage is a further generalization, removed from the context of untrustworthy American sidewalk peddlers in the late 19th and early 20th century, and applied to an 18th-century literary hoax.
There's a whiff of the eggcorn about all of this; at least, the similarity in spelling and sound is likely to have played a role in encouraging what is otherwise an ordinary process of historical meaning shift.
As a closing digression in this divergent post, I'll point out that the White Dog Restaurant, whose menu I discussed earlier, is located in what was once Helena Blavatsky's house, at 3420 Sansom St. in West Philadelphia. The White Dog's name commemorates a important event in her life:
While living on Sansom Street, Madame Blavatsky became ill with an infected leg. During her illness, she underwent a transformation which inspired her to found the Theosophical Society. In a letter dated June 12, 1875, Madame Blavatsky described her recovery, explaining that she dismissed the doctors and surgeons who threatened amputation, ("Fancy my leg going to the spirit land before me!") and had a white dog sleep across her leg by night, curing all in no time.
I recently learned that Thomas Jefferson, the well-kown 18th-century American linguist and politician, once set out to learn Gaelic.
Impressed by James MacPherson's Ossian, he wrote on Feb. 25, 1773 to a relative of MacPherson's that he had met, one Charles McPherson Albemarle, asking for a copy of the (nonexistent) Gaelic originals:
Merely for the pleasure of reading his works, I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung, and of possessing his songs in their original form. Mr. McPherson, I think, informs us he is possessed of the originals. Indeed, a gentleman has lately told me he had seen them in print; but I am afraid he has mistaken a specimen from Temora, annexed to some of the editions of the translation, for the whole works. If they are printed, it will abridge my request and your trouble, to the sending me a printed copy; but if there be more such, my petition is, that you would be so good as to use your interest with Mr. McPherson to obtain leave to take a manuscript copy of them, and procure it to be done.
The letter goes on to make it clear that Jefferson proposed to learn the language in order to read the manuscripts:
I would further beg the favor of you to give me a catalogue of the books written in that language, and to send me such of them as may be necessary for learning it. These will, of course, include a grammar and dictionary.
Ossian, which purported to be translated from a body of Gaelic epic poetry analogous to Homer, was in fact mostly faked. However, Jefferson was not alone in being impressed. Among others outside of the British Isles who were deeply affected, Goethe depicted his hero Werther as preferring Ossian to Homer ("Ossian has taken Homer's place in my heart. What a world, into which this magnificent hero leads me!"), in a work based on Goethe's own unhappy love affair of 1772-73; and J.G. von Herder saw Ossian as a key example of "the songs of ancient peoples" (in his seminal essay Briefwechsel über Oßian und die Lieder alter Völker, written 1771, published 1772).
Since Jefferson is in many other ways a typical Enlightenment guy, it's interesting to see him responding so enthusiastically to this early harbinger of Romanticism, in exactly the same time period as Goethe and Herder.
At the same time, it's also possible to read into Jefferson's letter a bit of the early skepticism about Ossian's authenticity, more pointedly displayed in this 1775 letter from Samuel Johnson to MacPherson. Certainly he's taking a very American "show me the facts" attitude.
I'm confident that Jefferson never succeeded in getting the Gaelic originals of the Ossian poems, and I suspect that his plan to learn Gaelic did not go any further forward. He may have been disappointed by his failure to get the Gaelic originals, or distracted by subsequent events. And yet, I'm impressed that he wanted to try, and believed that he could.
Trevor at kaleboel passes the time, "when a talking pig looks like being the highlight of the televisual entertainment", by transforming a Chinuk-wawa glossary into a tragic drama, with "a romantic comedy set on Wall Street ... on its way". The Effle page says that Ionesco used a similar technique to create The Bald Soprano. As I pointed out last winter, classic glossaries and phrase lists often enter into this process with a suspicious degree of ease, requiring little of the creative invention that Trevor displays in working with the more skeletal Chinuk-wawa material.
Q_pheevr cites an eggcorn sighted on OxBlog -- "...soft-peddle news..." instead of "...soft-pedal news..." -- and comments that "I know that there are discovery procedures for finding eggcorns in bulk, but I think I prefer the ones that come by chance, singly, and present themselves as remarkable because of the sense they make".
Last week, I noted that Kyrie O'Connor at the Houston Chronicle has apparently coined a new word: smoothistas, for the people who mix and serve smoothies. This is obviously an analogy to barista, which has come to be used for the folks who work behind the counter at coffee bars.
At the time, I searched via Google and found nothing at all for smoothistas, and for smoothista, only a single usage in Finnish: "jotka hyppää toistaiseksi smoothista kokonaisuudesta esiin kuin sukellusvene Gobin autiomaassa". The spelling made it seem likely to be a borrowing, with the -sta part being elative case, but I can't read Finnish, and didn't have time to check with someone who can, so I left it there.
Now Stefano Taschini has sent email with the translation:
... a finnish friend told me that the sentence you reported ... is a relative clause meaning "that jump out of a seemingly smooth whole like a submarine out of the desert of Gobi."
Looking at the page where you excerpted that sentence from, he also told me that they are talking about music and this daring simile refers to some "riffs in minor mode."
OK, so Ms. O'Connor's international cross-linguistic priority on smoothista is safe. Meanwhile, though, it's been a whole week since smoothista hit print, and if anybody else has picked it up, Google doesn't know about it.
For added value, here's the OED entry for barista, showing a history in English back to 1982, or in the more modern sense to 1988:
A bartender in an Italian or Italian-style bar. Also spec. (orig. U.S.): a person who makes and serves coffee in a coffee bar (the more frequent sense in English).
1982 P. HOFMAN Rome, Sweet Tempestuous Life 24 A good barista can simultaneously keep an eye on the coffee oozing from the espresso machine into a battery of cups, pour vermouth and bitters..and discuss the miserable showing of the Lazio soccer team.
1988 Boston Globe (Nexis) 13 Dec. 61 A feisty but cordial competitor to the larger caffeine chains the [Boston Coffee] Exchange has unfurled a help-wanted poster titled ‘Learn to be a coffee barista’.
1990 Atlantic Nov. 157/2 This ritual unites all the baristas in Italy. But not everyone accomplishes the layer of light-colored crema, or foam, that is the pride of an expert espresso-maker.
1999 Dominion (Wellington, N.Z.) (Nexis) 24 Feb. (Business section) 24 New bariste undertake an intensive training programme which covers the philosophy, history, and science of coffee, and the psychology of service.
2001 Times 7 Mar. II. 5/1 The key to a good espresso lies in the barista..and whether he or she cares enough to do it right.
[Update 6/25/2004: Abnu at Wordlab has posted a note on smoothista from a naming and branding perspective. ]
Under the intriguing heading, "After Century in a Log Cabin, Emma Buck
Dies at 100 or 101," the NY Times ran an affecting obituary
the other day for Emma Buck, who died on the Illinois farm "originally
settled by Miss Buck's maternal great-grandparents,
Christian and Christina Henke, German immigrants from East Friesland
who came by boat from New Orleans and settled in western Illinois,
about 35 miles down river from St. Louis, in 1841."
What caught my eye was that Ms. Buck was described in the piece as
"speaking in a thick German accent." That's a dramatic reminder of how
tenacious foreign languages could be in rural America in the 19th
and early 20th centuries. It's unimaginable that any child born today
whose great-grandparents immigrated to America before the Second World
War would still be speaking English with an accent -- in fact such a
child is almost certain to grow up knowing no more of his or her
ancestral language than the names of a few ethnic dishes, at best. But
that's the specter Semantic
Compositions considers in a thoughtful post entitled "Huntington contra
Nunberg," which contrasts some of the things I have said
about English-only in a recent LanguageLog post
and an earlier article
in The American Prospect with
the views offered by Samuel Huntington in his recent book Who
Are We? (The post is the third of a four-part discussion of
Huntington, of which the other parts are here,
As SC notes, Huntington acknowledges that patterns of Spanish retention suggest that Hispanics are following the same pattern of linguistic assimilation that earlier generations do -- though, as the Times obituary reminds us, a lot more rapidly than people did a century ago. But Huntington also suggests, as SC puts it, that "this time it's different." SC offers a cogent summary of Huntington's arguments:
Looking at Mexican immigration patterns since 1975, Huntington identifies several features which are distinctly different from previous generations of immigrants: substantially higher proportions of illegal immigration than any other ethnic group, high regional concentration (most notably in the Southwest , Florida, and New York City), persistence (no significant closing of the borders has occurred in the past 30 years), and historical presence (unlike all other migrant groups, Mexicans have a plausible ownership claim to American territory grounded in historical facts), and finally, a government which encourages the mindset that emigrants are still Mexicans first and foremost.
SC's response to this is too complex and nuanced for me to summarize here, but he winds up giving credance to the possibility of the specter that Huntington raises, though allowing that "It is probably 30-40 years too early to attempt to verify these claims empirically." And in his fourth and final post, gives a qualified endorsement to some of the symbolic measures that Huntington advocates -- a roll-back of Executive Order 13166, for example, which mandates the accommodation of LEP speakers for programs receiving federal funding (apart from the provision of emergency services), and an end to offering driver's licence tests in languages other than English.
The point about licences SC bases on the assertion that
In most states [driver's licenses] remain exclusively the privilege of citizens. American-born citizens presumably are brought up speaking English; naturalized citizens are either presumed to have learned enough English to pass a basic examination, or to be too old to acquire adequate English skills.... The notion that a test in English permitting a privilege with life-and-death consequences is an unreasonable imposition on people who theoretically have undertaken to learn English is itself a mocking of the idea that English was learned. To the extent that American society requires mobility, and this represents a handicap to the economic opportunities of non-English-speakers, Huntington might well rejoin that this is an excellent method for deciding between the validity of his analysis and Geoff Nunberg's. If Nunberg is right, this sort of policy reform should ultimately only serve as a barrier to those immigrants who are too old to learn English; if Huntington is right, the number of citizens driving illegally should skyrocket.
This example is worth considering. For one thing, I don't know whether most states restrict the issuance of driver's licenses to citizens -- frankly, that claim surprises me -- but I do know that there is no such requirement in many states with large immigrant populations, like New York and California. And a good thing, too. When I'm driving my daughter to school in San Francisco, the last thing I want to run into -- figuratively or literally -- is a driver who is ignorant of the rules of the road because he or she had insufficient competence in English to take the license exam. Here as elsewhere, that is, making it harder for LEP residents to access various privileges and services doesn't impost a burden merely on them.
More generally, the argument against giving driver's licences to those with limited English proficiency, like the argument for rolling back 13166, rests on some questionable assumptions. First, it assumes that immigrants will learn English only if that becomes a means to attaining certain legal privileges and government services, rather than out of an interest in acquiring the cultural and economic benefits that English proficiency confers -- and by implication, it suggests that immigrants are too ignorant or lazy, or too much under the thrall of native rabble-rousers, to recognize those advantages. Hispanics are right to bristle at that implication, which has no grounding in fact.
Second, it assumes that a language learned for these reasons alone would be the vehicle for inculcating a stronger sense of identification of the national culture. (There have been many cases in which states have been able to impose a national language on minorities who were otherwise reluctant to learn them -- you think of the Slovaks in Hungary, the Hungarians in Slovakia, the Catalonians, and the Irish -- but it's hard to think of any instance in which that has enhanced the sense of identity with the national culture, in the absence of broader cultural and economic opportunity.)
Third, as I suggested in my earlier post, it presumes that English itself can be the bearer of the values implied by the phrase "Anglo-Protestant creed" -- a kind of irredentist Herderianism that linguists, at least, will recognize as a persistent fallacy in thinking about the relation between language and national identity. Somehow, that is, a people doing their daily business in English will naturally come to identify with the majoritarian cultural values it stands in for. Tell that to the Irish.
In fact, English is too useful and important to imagine that any immigrant group would be willing to turn its back on it in order to maintain a marginal, ghettoized existence. Whether the acquisition of English will continue to bring with it a sense of belonging to a national culture depends entirely on the economic and social opportunities that assimilation offers to immigrants, and on our ability to refashion the idea of American citizenship to meet new challenges. To date, the prospects are every bit as promising as they were a generation ago -- and a lot more so than they were in Emma Buck's day. Paul Starr put this point beautifully in the closing paragraphs of his review of Huntington's book in the New Republic (unfortunately available only to subscribers):
There is a legitimate case to be made.. for a deepened sense of common citizenship in America. If we want Americans to vote and to participate in civic life, citizenship has to matter for them. Huntington is entirely right when he observes that "those who deny meaning to American citizenship also deny meaning to the cultural and political community that has been America." But he is wrong, repugnantly wrong, about how to strengthen that community, and wrong also to suggest that those who disagree with him about the means of doing so are betraying the country.
In the book's foreword, Huntington remarks that Who Are We? has been shaped by his identities as a scholar and a patriot. But he has put distorted scholarship at the service of a misconceived patriotism. The idea of building American identity around an Anglo-Protestant revival would be entirely self-defeating. Far from unifying Americans, Huntington's vision of America as a re-energized Christian society would be deeply divisive. Samuel Huntington's nightmare of an American crackup could come true, but only if more people think as he does.
Welcoming Cass Sunstein to the Volokh Conspiracy, Randy Barnett writes
Cass Sunstein was in the office next store in his very first year of teaching and we spent quality time together that year. Now Cass is a "Visiting Fellow" of the Volokh Conspiracy. Welcome to the office next door, Cass!
"Next store", after a bit of consonant cluster simplification, is phonetically similar if not identical to "next door", and "next door" is a semantically non-compositional idiom, and "store" is roughly as close to the meaning of dwelling as "door" is, so "next store" is a likely eggcorn candidate.
And Google doesn't disappoint us:
(link) When I received these little remembrances, I often thought of a comment our next-store neighbor made after he left that first morning.
(link) He needed photos of our next store neighbor's garbage cans.
(link) It's one of those "urban nightmare stories" in which your newly befriended next store neighbor turns out to be a cold blooded mass bomber, and a mastermind who never loses.
(link) The best thing I can say about 'The Girl Next Store' is that it had all the requisite components for a Stupid Teen Movie:
(link) John Brooke is a tutor to the boy next store. The boy next store 's name is Laury.
(link) Hiding already in the alcove was a young man who lived next store to the March's with his grandfather.
(link) US 1880 Census show that Adam & Mary lived next store to Mary's parents.
(link) I think of the elderly couple who lived next store to me, so in love and wondering what was happening to them physically.
This is a new one to me, but not to Paul Brians. No doubt Prof. Barnett used the phrase as a joke :-).
[Eggcorn alert in email from Linda Seebach].
I recently re-read Ken Macleod's SF novel Cosmonaut Keep, which is partly set on earth in 2048, after "the Fall of the Wall, the Millenium Slump, the Century Boom, the Unix rollover, the War, the Revolution." It's clever of Macleod to slip the Unix rollover in there -- it's due at 03:14:07 Tuesday, January 19, 2038 (UTC).
Old-fashioned computer operating systems are relevant to Macleod's story in several ways, starting (and ending) with Matt Cairns, a Scottish hacker who makes a living on the fringes of the mid-21st-century computer industry. Cairns introduces himself in chapter 2 like this:
Software project management has always been like herding cats. So I've been told, anyway, by old managers, between snorts of coke in the trendy snow-bars where they blow their well-hedged pension funds. In their day, though, the cats were human, or at least the kind of guys who are now code-geeks. These days, the programmers are programs, as are the systems analysts. My job as a project manager is to assemble a convincing suite of AIs -- not untried, but not too far behind the curve, either -- then let loose marketing strategy webcrawlers to parade their skills before the endless bored beauty-contest of the agencies' business 'bots, take the contracts and ride herd on the whole squabbling mob when a deal comes in.
You need something almost like people skills to do it, but you need to be practically borderline Asperger's syndrome to develop these skills with AI. And when you need code-geeks for the bottom-level stuff, you need to be something of a sociable animal after all. It's a sufficiently rare combination to be worth more than the average wage. I'm an artist, not a technician. It pays the bills.
I think that Macleod has put his finger on something about software project management in all eras. The fact is, the technical side has always had an aspect that is like dealing with really strange and difficult people: legacy systems, software and hardware combinations that don't quite work the way the interface definitions say they should, and so on. And then you do need to deal with other programmers, as well as system architects and perhaps even travelers from the far lands of marketing and ergonomics. There aren't very many people who are good at all this, and few of them can also hack.
I'd like think that Trevor was right when he wrote that
I sometimes suspect that English is so popular (and so strongly associated with ideologies of freedom) not because of its status as the world's primary language of intercommunal transaction but simply because it is such a delightful chaos.
However, some contrary evidence is provided by the failure of the Nilotic language Nuer to become more popular.
According to the sketch of Nuer grammar in the now-online Nuer Project Field Notes, nouns have four cases and two numbers, and "[i]t is difficult to anticipate what the various case forms will be due to the extravagance in noun classes. It appears that the majority of nouns each form a class in themselves".
The sketch identifies the "possibilities of case identification" as follows, indicating that none of these these subregularities outnumbers its exceptions:
The sketch provides a table of sample forms, which are charmingly identified as "some poignant examples".
Verbs are similarly idiosyncratic: "the possibility of stem changes in one verb are numerous. The difficulty is that they follow no distinct and easily grasped pattern."
The Nuer (or Naath as they call themselves) have suffered greatly from the genocidal conflict in southern Sudan, which alas is different from the recently-reported genocidal conflict in western Sudan.
[link to online Nuer materials provided by Language Hat]
The world's most difficult word to translate has been identified as "ilunga" from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.
It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.
Ilunga means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time"
1,000 linguists? And they didn't ask me? How will I show my face at the next meeting of the LSA cabal?
OK, in fairness to the Beeb, it wan't their survey at all. According to the story, it was carried out by "Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations". And since googling these names turns up no further information about the survey, I'll wait a bit before feeling slighted.
The thing that puzzles me, though, is where Zilinskiene turned up 1,000 linguists who know Tshiluba vocabulary. I'm beginning to get the feeling that this survey might have been a class project in one of Zilinskiene's Problematics courses...
The BBC's intrepid reporter, Oliver Conway, gives us the top three hard-to-translate words from the "survey".
In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for "a chronically unlucky person".
Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.
I'm no kind of expert on translation, but if they'd asked me, I would have been tempted to nominate some morphological category like inchoative, or some preposition or determiner. The thing about words like shlimazl is that they have pretty clear definitions, and you can always just borrow them in a pinch -- as English has done with shlimazl, which was even featured on a TV show. I'm not sure how useful ilunga will really be, but if you feel you need it, and none of the available paraphrases or approximations will do, you could just start using it.
Apparently Conway asked some similar questions:
Although the definitions seem fairly precise, the problem is trying to convey the local references associated with such words, says Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey.
"Probably you can have a look at the dictionary and... find the meaning," she said. "But most importantly it's about cultural experiences and... cultural emphasis on words."
Fair enough. But I'm still wondering about that survey. Googling Zilinskiene, I find her described by a feature in the Guardian's jobs section as having "recently won the Shell LiveWire Award for young entrepreneurs". But her company Today Translations seems to be so new that it doesn't yet have a web site indexed by Google, and likewise her LiveWire award seems to be so recent that it's not yet in the LiveWire news archive.
Conway's story makes an amusing little feature, which probably didn't take him any longer to research and write than the 20 minutes that this post took me. But if BBC News were a serious organization, you'd think his editor would have asked him to ask a few linguists or translators for some reactions. Or they could even have assigned a writer with some knowledge of the genuine problems of translation, and some interest in the methods that translators use to solve them.
[Link sent in by Peter Conn.]
[Update: Alexander Koller emails:
not to mention the problem that the notion of a "most untranslatable word" is inherently ill-defined anyway. Surely you need to fix the target language to decide what the most untranslatable word would be. I can easily translate "shlimazl" into German "Pechvogel", and that seems to express exactly the same meaning (although I don't know about the finer points of the cultural references associated with "shlimazl").
Yes, I suppose it means "hard to translate into English". But the news article carefully avoids this level of precision.
Yes. The problem is that Alexander's dashed-off email represents an order of magnitude more thought than Oliver Conway devoted to the topic. Perhaps Conway just re-wrote a press release from Today Translations, or maybe he went so far as to interview Zilinskiene on the phone.]
I have a confession to make: I have almost no interest in punctuation. Out of respect for the opinions of others, I try to use apostrophes and commas correctly, but I'm less interested in the details of punctuation than in nearly any other topic I can think of. Give me a choice between talking about varieties of dashes and debating the choice of lining material for suit jackets, for example, and I'll be all over the rayon-vs.-polyester controversy. Give me a choice between reading about the order of quotation marks and commas or perusing a random phone book, and I'll dive right into the A's.
Luckily, these are not choices that life has often presented me with. Aside from the occasional copy editor, I've rarely met anyone who focused much on punctuation. So I was skeptical of this paragraph in Louis Menand's review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves in the New Yorker:
The supreme peculiarity of this peculiar publishing phenomenon is that the British are less rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and bibliographic form, than Americans are. An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness. In a book that pretends to be all about firmness, though, this is not a good excuse. The main rule in grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and the most objectionable thing about Truss’s writing is its inconsistency.
Well, I thought, I guess Louis Menand hobnobs with a different class of Americans than I do. But Margaret Marks at Transblawg zeroed right in on this passage, and she agrees with it:
How true this rings. Oh, the times I used to tell my students, ‘You can’t do that. You know, the Americans are even more pedantic than we British are.’ Did they believe me? No - because pedantry is bad and Americans are good.
(Dr. Marks is a professional translator who has dealt with clients from many countries, and in this passage she is explaining the norms of the business to her students.)
Reading this, my instinct was to leap to the defense of my fellow Americans, who are surely... But wait a minute, should that be "fellow-Americans", as Edmund Morris has it in his New Yorker piece on Ronald Reagan:
Merely by breathing, “My fellow-Americans,” he made his listener trust him.
In fact, this seems to be one of the rules that they stick to over there at the New Yorker:
(link) Kerry had made the decision along with three close friends, classmates and fellow-members of Yale's not so secret society, Skull and Bones...
(link) While Lieberman and his fellow-Democrats were doing the bidding of the public-employee unions...
(link) The camera captures one particularly wild-eyed defendant in a green caftan as he extends his arms through the bars of the cage, screams, and then faints into the arms of a fellow-prisoner.
(link) This is what happened when a fellow-critic and I emerged, on December 11th, from a screening of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
This is something that you see in lists of punctuation principles -- it's rule #4 in this list, for example -- but I find it weird. Seeing "my fellow-Americans" in the Edmund Morris article took me aback just as much as seeing a non-standard apostrophe did in Jefferson's letter ("we are disgusted with it's deformity").
While the New Yorker isn't alone in hyphenating this way, it disagrees with the practice of most other American publications, such as the New York Times:
(link) But do Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow citizens?
(link) "American Taboo" has assembled considerable evidence that Mr. Priven murdered one of his fellow volunteers and got away with it.
(link) As European leaders gathered in Brussels over the last few days to negotiate a proposed constitution for their ever-closer union, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans from all over the continent descended on Portugal for the 2004 European Championships, to wave their national flags and jeer at their fellow Europeans.
the Washington Post:
(link) But most of her fellow Christians still do not view gay marriage as a personal threat, Raglin said.
(link) His paper is both a catalogue of recent examples of such partnerships and a call to fellow environmentalists to look more actively for common ground with the world's religious.
(link) "Art brings us closer to our fellow man" -- is true only in a grim, comical sense.
And the Atlantic:
(link) The continental peoples are grave, compared with our jocose fellow citizens, and especially in their hours of business.
(link) ...for all intents and purposes embracing Dylan as a fellow wordsmith, perhaps even a fellow poet...
(link) He had been highly respected by fellow specialists for the papers he wrote while in charge of Lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology...
Shucks, maybe Margaret is right.
In a Slate review entitled Unfairenheit 9/11, Christopher Hitchens makes it clear that he doesn't like Michael Moore or Moore's new documentary:
To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.
It's obvious that this paragraph is not part of a positive review. I got a similar impression of Fahrenheit 9/11 from a journalist acquaintance, who saw it last weekend, and said "I hate Bush, but the movie was so unfair that it made me want to defend him". However, my concern here is not with the politics of Moore's documentary, but with the semantics of the first two sentences of Hitchens' paragraph quoted above.
The rhetorical trope in play is a routine one: "To describe X as P is an understatement", where P is some scalar evaluative predicate. P can be something negative:
or P can be something positive:
(link) To describe this report as timely is an understatement.
(link) So to describe this machine as portable is an understatement.
(link) To describe this room as simply a venue is to understate its place as a truly unique experience.
In either case, the point is that X has property P to an extreme degree, perhaps even to the point where some other description, on beyond P on the same scale, should be used instead. The point is emphasized by making it metalinguistically, stepping outside the descriptive flow to comment explicitly on the terminology to be used, thus suggesting that the author is choosing words with special care.
There are lots of different ways to say "is an understatement", some of them simple:
(link) To describe this book as “a gold mine” or as “monumental” does not do it justice.
(link) to call this "a reach" is being kind.
(link) To call this a mistranslation is too euphemistic, we should call this just what it is; another Christian falsification of their Bible translations...
and some of them more elaborate:
(link) To describe this lot as Limousine Liberals is to slander liberals.
(link) To describe this film as the worst movie that I've seen at the Cannes Film Festival so far is to do a disservice to all other movies that actually attempted to put together a narrative that makes sense on an actual cinematic level.
(link) To describe this maneuver as a tackle would be to make it sound far more polite than it is.
(link) The eponymous Carrie has a mother, of course, and to describe this woman as a clichéd and one-dimensional stereotype would be to pay a compliment to the characterization.
So it's pretty clear that when Hitchens writes
To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.
he means that "dishonest" and "demagogic" are not strong enough terms to describe Fahrenheit 9/11, which is much worse than that. But how does his sentence actually deliver that meaning? Let's stipulate that descriptive contact with this film might make the terms "dishonest" and "demogogic" respectable -- how do we get from there to the idea that the film is significantly beyond "dishonest" and "demogogic" on the scale of partisan propaganda?
The line of argument seems to be something like "X is so much beyond simple criminality that in comparison, a criminal is like an honest person"; but that doesn't imply that calling X a criminal would "promote" the term criminal to honesty. On the contrary, it seems to mean that if we use the term criminal to describe X, then we would have to call regular criminals honest folk. This would degrade the term honest, not promote the term criminal, which in fact has been made to mean something even worse than before.
Likewise, when Hitchens writes
To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.
he clearly wants to say that F. 9/11 is worse than crap. It's somehow so much worse than crap that to call it crap would mean that we could never call anything else non-crap again. I'm getting a glimmer here: does he mean that F. 9/11 shifts the scale of crap so far towards turpitude that all the terms appropriate for all normal objects of disdain just kind of slide off the far end? But when I try to set up a numerical model of the evaluative process that would have this result, I keep getting the opposite outcome, namely that in comparison to something as bad as Hitchens judges F. 9/11 to be, everything else seems good.
Can someone help me out here, with a bit of formal semantics that works the way Hitchens wants it too? Otherwise I'm going to have to conclude that this is a sort of disguised overnegation, a rhetorical thunderbolt that blows back semantically the wrong way.
Be careful, when you do the analysis, not to be fooled by the fact that there is a common rhetorical trope parallel but opposite to the one we've been talking about, of the form "to describe X as P is an overstatement":
(link) To call this a bid is an exaggeration.
(link) To call this a rapids is stretching things a bit, but it made nice subject for the shot.
(link) To call this a consultation is really stretching the definition of the word.
(link) To call this a mall is being very generous.
(link) To call this a comedy is a sign of optimism; to call it a comeback for Murphy is a sign of blind faith.
(link) To call this a 'farm' is perhaps, a little misleading.
(link) To call this a memorial is nuttier than squirrel poop.
(link) For them to call this a crime is an insult to victims of real crimes.
(link) ...to call this a war is an insult to those who fought in wars
(link) To call this a madhouse is an insult to (psychiatric patients)...
Of all the stories I've heard that are based on malapropisms, I think the one that Edmund Morris tells about Ronald Reagan in this week's New Yorker is the most amusing.
Perhaps the best of Reagan’s one-liners came after he attended his last ceremonial dinner, with the Knights of Malta in New York City on January 13, 1989. The evening’s m.c., a prominent lay Catholic, was rendered so emotional by wine that he waved aside protocol and followed the President’s speech with a rather slurry one of his own. It was to the effect that Ronald Reagan, a defender of the rights of the unborn, knew that all human beings begin life as “feces.” The speaker cited Cardinal John O’Connor (sitting aghast nearby) as “a fece” who had gone on to greater things. “You, too, Mr. President—you were once a fece!”
En route back to Washington on Air Force One, Reagan twinklingly joined his aides in the main cabin. “Well,” he said, “that’s the first time I’ve flown to New York in formal attire to be told I was a piece of shit.”
I guess this is also a morphological joke, since feces is from Latin faeces, which is the plural of faex "grounds, sediment, lees, dregs of liquids". As far as I know, the English borrowing has never had a singular form, though the AHD says that it's "used with a sing. or pl. verb".
By the way, apparently it's now OK to write "Cardinal John O'Connor" rather than "John Cardinal O'Connor, according to this wikipedia entry.
Ray Girvan surveys the on-going Chatnannies story, including links to a New Scientist piece and the compendious history at Waxy.org. It's nice to see that the New Scientist editors are making up for their originally credulous story on this topic, in contrast to the BBC, who just silently removed their story from their web site, and (as far as I know) still haven't retracted their much-ridiculed mutant frog and telepathic parrot pieces, much less apologized. As I asked earlier, isn't it time for the BBC to get an ombudsman?
A NYT article on something else that David Huffman did. Another relevant link is here. Amazing stuff. There's no obvious language hook, but as usual, the Language Log marketing department will cheerful refund your subscription fees if you are dissatisfied in any way.
Fernando Pereira emailed an "eggcorn alert": tongue and cheek for tongue in cheek.
You could certainly make up a story to explain the phrase tongue and cheek -- it makes as much sense as a lot of idioms do -- but it's not a sanctioned collocation, even though (as Fernando points out) it has 9,280 Google hits. That's 2,166 whG/bp (web hits on Google per billion pages). The original phrase "tongue in cheek" has 330,000 Google hits, or about 77,009 whG/bp.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between an incompetent editor and a very subtle joke, as in this sentence from a recent AP story:
(link) In a tongue-and-cheek opinion poll released Friday, 30 percent of 1,277 people aged 35 and older, said Swedish success on the pitch would increase their sex drive.
On reflection, it's probably safe to bet on incompetence.
Just to keep the prepositions and conjunctions in balance, I'll pick a random idiom of the form NOUN and NOUN, and see whether we can find NOUN in NOUN. We should be able to count on substitutions in both directions being common, since the sounds are nearly identical except in facultative pronunciations. Sure enough, "hole in corner" has 548 Google hits by comparison to 2,840 for "hole and corner", or about one (possible) eggcorn per 5.2 originals.
However, most of the instances of "hole in corner" are for real:
(link) Cut a small hole in corner of bag; squeeze to drizzle over madeleines.
(link) Install valve in the provided hole in corner post (Fig. 5) and attach water supply line.
(link) ISBN:671-10303-2. cover has small hole in corner, worn and torn from use, book in very good condtion.
Some others are certainly mistaken versions of the idiom, including uses by journalists and (other) intellectuals:
(link) This is odd because similar hole-in-corner meetings to create the fiction of grassroots support for such assemblies are being organised in all England's other eight "Euro-regions" (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London already have their assemblies).
(link) These considerations indicate that, appearances to the contrary, Qumran was hardly the hole-in-corner establishment the "Essene" hypothesis would lead us to expect.
as well as other uses in less intellectual contexts:
(link) They have been taught so very well by their Boomer parents; who, in turn, were taught so very well by their Authoritarian Hole-in-corner Parents, or A-hole for short.
In fact, I suspect that you have to be pretty literate to know this idiom well enough even to get it wrong. In any case, the mistake is not common enough to make Paul Brians' list.
The OED has citations for "hole and corner" starting in 1835 -- I wonder when the eggcorn "hole in corner" started?
hole-and-corner adj. phr.
Done or happening in a ‘hole and corner’, or place which is not public; secret, private, clandestine, under-hand. Contemptuously opposed to ‘public’ or ‘open’.
1835 FONBLANQUE Eng. under 7 Administ. (1837) III. 205 Hole-and-corner meetings are got up to speak the voice of the nation.
1839 STONEHOUSE Axholme 77 Any manufacturer of the hole and corner political petitions of the present day.
1862 H. KINGSLEY Ravenshoe III. 55 Tell me at once what this hole-and-corner work means.
1878 S. WALPOLE Hist. Eng. I. vi. 600 The Queen's friends declared that the King's supporters were ‘hole-and-corner’ men.
WordNet (and various derivatives and rip-offs thereof) sanctions hole-in-corner as a synonym of hole-and-corner, but I haven't been able to find any other dictionaries that do so. In particular, Webster's 2nd, Webster's 3rd, the OED, the American Heritage Dictionary and Encarta don't mention it.
Lynne Truss may believe that "people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place ... deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave", but apparently she herself isn't very careful about where she puts her commas. In a New Yorker review posted today, Louis Menand comes down on Truss like a whole squall line of Jovian thunderbolts, and after his first 1200 words, there's not enough left to hack up and bury.
He starts this way:
"The first punctuation mistake in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” (Gotham; $17.50), by Lynne Truss, a British writer, appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” presents itself as a call to arms, in a world spinning rapidly into subliteracy, by a hip yet unapologetic curmudgeon, a stickler for the rules of writing. But it’s hard to fend off the suspicion that the whole thing might be a hoax."
He ends his discussion of Truss by pointing out that her fans are mad as hell
"and they do not wish to be handed the line that “language is always evolving,” or some other slice of liberal pie. They don’t even want to know what the distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause might be. They are like people who lose control when they hear a cell phone ring in a public place: they just need to vent. Truss is their Jeremiah. They don’t care where her commas are, because her heart is in the right place."
Having vaporized Truss in about 1200 words, Menand devotes the second half of his review to an interesting series of digressions about the differences between speech and writing and the nature of a writer's "voice". Punctuation plays a minor role in this discussion, and Truss almost no role at all.
Menand may have foolish, hypocritical and incoherent ideas about possessive antecedents, but he can sling a mean lightning bolt, and I think it's fair to say that Truss was asking for it. And after the smoke clears, Menand tells a couple of nice stories about W.H. Auden, James Agee and Luciano Pavarotti.
An email from David Goldberg, Acting Director, MLA Foreign Language Programs and ADFL, in reference to the MLA Language Map discussed here last week:
Thank you for the posting on Language Log. We have had a number of comments about our too-casual use of the term density and we are grateful to have been alerted to this. We have changed the wording (it now reads Numbers of Speakers), and hope that an anticipated expansion of the site will include a reflection of actual density of speakers, that is, numbers of speakers of each language in relation to the entire population of each county or zip code.
So, an immediate terminological improvement, and soon, more useful information! It's a wonderful world...
In response to my post on by no manner of means, Abnu from Wordlab wrote in to suggest that the legal variant by no manner or means is a typical example of lawyer's redundancy, citing the entry for aid and abet in the law.com legal dictionary:
v. help commit a crime. A lawyer redundancy since abet means aid, which lends credence to the old rumor that lawyers used to be paid by the word.
I'm sure that Abnu is right, though this doesn't modify my tentative conclusion that "all those legal by any manner phrases are back-formations from a misconstrual of by any manner of means as by any manner or means".
Other claimed examples of legal redundancy from the law.com dictionary include:
n. one who is a member of a partnership. The prefix "co" is a redundancy, since a partner is a member of a partnership. The same is true of the term "copartnership."
n. and adj. owed as of a specific date. A popular legal redundancy is that a debt is "due, owing and unpaid." Unpaid does not necessarily mean that a debt is due.
n. since a presumption is an assumption of fact accepted by the court until disproved, all presumptions are rebuttable. Thus rebuttable presumption is a redundancy.
Legal English, like Chinese compounding, seems to be a case where redundancy is not widely excoriated as ridiculous and unnecessary. Perhaps lawyers get a pass on this because they are felt to be guilty of more important sins, but it seems more likely that people value the goal of explicitness and completeness enough to forgive a few perhaps-unnecessary words.
Today's edition of Eric Umansky's Today's Papers in Slate includes a phrase that struck me as being one that Umansky favors:
The Marines announced one of their men was killed around Fallujah. Per usual, they didn't give details.
A search of Slate's archives suggests that I might be right.
Here are some earlier Today's Papers where Umansky uses the same phrase:
(link) Today's editorials in the NYT, per usual, confront the crucial issues of the day...
(link) Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which, per usual, the papers describe as a group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah militia.
(link) Per usual, Woodward doesn't interject with any context and simply lets the president tick off his talking points..
Furthermore, this seems something that is specific to Umansky, rather than deriving from the topic or context of the daily Today's Papers feature. Other authors for the feature include Benjamin Healy, Emily Biuso, Sam Schechner, Zachary Roth, Hudson Morgan, Avi Zenilman and Michael Brus, but according to the archives, Umansky is the only one of these who has ever used per usual.
Umansky appears to have written 550 of the 2481 Today's Papers pieces in Slate's archives (can the feature really have been running for 2481/365 = 6 years and nine months? I guess so!). Each of these pieces is around a thousand words long, so Umansky has used per usual 4 times in 550,000 words, or about 7.27 per million words, whereas the other Today's Papers writers have used the same phrase 0 times in about 1.93 million words (and yes, I know that it is silly to use three significant figures when my estimate of article length has only one...). If the other writers had the same propensity to use per usual that Umansky does, we would have expected to see about 14 instances. Without doing the statistical calculations in detail, we can guess that 0 is significantly different from 14, over this span of time and text.
I've noted before that a word or phrase can come to seem characteristic of a speaker or writer, even if we don't encounter it very often in their productions. I gave an example of a common expression, "and yet", which becomes a sort of stock phrase associated with a particular character in a novel, although it's only used three times.
Another curious statistic emerges from the OED's entry for per usual (part of the entry for per, edited for relevance):
III. As an English preposition.
1. By, by means of, by the instrumentality of; esp. in phrases relating to conveyance, as per bearer, per carrier, per express, per post, per rail, per steamer, etc. Also = according to, as stated or indicated by, as per invoice, per ledger, per margin, etc.; as laid down by (a judge) (quot. 1818). So, in humorous slang use, (as) per usual = as usual; also with ellipsis of usual. Also (exceptionally) in other senses, as per this time = by this time, per instance = for instance (cf. F. par exemple). Also in other humorous and extended uses.
1874 W. S. GILBERT Charity IV, I shall accompany him, as per usual.
1922 JOYCE Ulysses 343 As per usual somebody's nose was out of joint.
1923 ‘K. MANSFIELD’ Bad Idea in Doves' Nest 146 So I took her up a cup of tea..as per usual on her headache days.
1938 J. PHELAN Lifer xxi. 212 That's right,..no grounds, as per.
1959 N. MARSH False Scent (1960) i. 12 He'll be bringing his present later on, as per usual.
1960 S. BARSTOW Kind of Loving II. vii. 263, I reckon after tonight we can't carry on as per.
1972 ‘A. ARMSTRONG’ One Jump Ahead i. 13, I came back as per usual about five o'clock.
1977 J. BINGHAM Marriage Bureau Murders i. 9 I'll stay in a pub... As per usual.
The curiosity is that of the eight citations for (as) per (usual), three (Phelan, Marsh and Bingham) are from detective or mystery novels. Maybe four -- I'm not sure about Armstrong.
[Update: another observation on Umansky's frequency of usage... If we take the observed frequency of 4 in 550 pages as a valid estimate of his propensity to use this phrase, we'd predict (4*10^9)/550 as the frequency per billion pages, or 7,272,728. By comparison, "per usual" actually occurs 63,900 times in the 4,285,199,774 pages that Google currently indexes, corresponding to a rate of 14,912 whG/bp ('web hits on Google per billion pages'). Thus Umansky is using "per usual" roughly 488 times as often as the background rate.
If the other Today's Papers writers were using the phrase at the background rate of 14,912 whG/bp, we'd expect 0.03 instances in the 1931 pages that they've collectively written. This is quite consistent with the observed value of 0.]
Margaret Atwood's recent dystopian novel Oryx and Crake is based on the idea that biological science will soon lead to the extermination of the human species, but she takes a lick or two at other fields as well, including the subjects favored by "word people":
Problematics was for word people, so that was what Jimmy took. Spin and Grin was its nickname among the students. Like everything at Martha Graham it had utilitarian aims. Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis.
Jimmy had few illusions. He knew what sort of thing would be open to him when came out the other end of Problematics with his risible degree. Window-dressing was what he'd be doing, at best -- decorating the cold, hard, numerical real world in flossy 2-D verbiage. Depending on how well he did in his Problematics courses -- Applied Logic, Applied Rhetoric, Medical Ethics and Terminology, Applied Semantics, Relativistics and Advanced Mischaracterization, Comparative Cultural Psychology, and the rest -- he'd have a choice between well-paid window-dressing for a big Corp or flimsy cut-rate stuff for a borderline one. The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour pickup time at the local campus bars and pubs.
I found this amusing. Imagine if future journalists, PR flacks and advertising folk really took college courses in logic, rhetoric and semantics, applied or otherwise!
I have two comments on the list of courses. First, "advanced mischaracterization" is implausible the name of an imaginary course in the imaginary field of Problematics, whose experts would surely do a better job of verbal window-dressing on their own product. And second, what happened to syntax? should we assume that "word people" don't need to know anything about the structure of sentences in order to "spin and grin"? How will they identify those "unnecessary subordinate clauses"? (And while we're at it, there's sociolinguistics, the phonetics of spoken performance, and other courses to fill the syllabus out with ...)
There's been some controversy about this novel's category. Atwood says that it's not sci-fi, it's "speculative fiction", because "[s]cience fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen".
"We have a big box, called The Brown Box... it's a brown cardboard box - in which all the research clippings are filed: so there's nothing I can't back up,"
Her research doesn't seem to have included reading much SF, which doesn't always have spaceships, and often has fewer monsters than Oryx and Crake does.
The reviews have been mixed. Michiko Kakutani called it "this lame piece of sci-fi humbug", while Thomas Disch compared it favorably to Brave New World and 1984. For me, it was mostly too silly to be engaging. I was grateful for this, because it would have been a depressing story if it had managed to draw me in.
Atwood is a effective writer, even in the service of a lame story line. And she has a special flair for depressing puns, like the one on "sentence" in the passage quoted above, or this example from one of her poems:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye
[Update 6/21/2004: David Elsworthy observed via email that most likely "Attwood was also poking fun at academics who use the word 'problematize' and (God help us) 'deproblematize'".
Author Elizabeth Manus explains the concept thusly:
In academia, reading a text in a new way is generally known as "problematizing" a text.
This technique can be applied to anything.
It offers exciting possibilities for scientists. Problematicization can be applied to anything that is generally accepted as being understood. The result: the subject is no longer understood. This creates an instant infinity of publishing opportunities.
So: "Imagining a future academic discipline of Problematics, informally known as "Spin and Grin", Atwood problematizes postmodernism by equating it with public relations..." Am I using the word right?]
In support of Geoff Nunberg's uncovering of the old meaning of the phrase "under God" as "contingent on God's will" or "God willing", I observe that Robert Browning clearly intended it in this sense in the passage that I quoted a few days ago from his 1855 poem An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician:
1 Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
2 The not-incurious in God's handiwork
3 (This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
4 Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
5 To coop up and keep down on earth a space
6 That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
7 ---To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
8 Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
9 Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
10 Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
11 Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
12 Back and rejoin its source before the term,---
13 And aptest in contrivance (under God)
14 To baffle it by deftly stopping such:---
15 The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
16 Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)
As I wrote:
I take "under God" in this passage to be modifying "contrivance", to express the conventional caveat "inshallah" meaning "God willing". It might be objected that this is an adverbial use -- but it is such a loose sort of adverbial that it could be placed nearly anywhere, including in the pledge. "One nation (God willing) with liberty and justice for all". Thus we've found another interpretive option!
The point of Browning's usage -- put in the mouth of the Arab physician Karshish -- was that Abib, "all-sagacious" in our art", is "aptest in contrivance" to save his patients' lives, but only "under God"; that is, subject to God's will. This expression of divine contingency would have been required by the linguistic culture of Islam, or at least seemed so to Browning; but it is imposed (or at least recommended) by other theologies as well.
In my previous post on "under God," I missed the real meaning of the expression, as Lincoln and others used it -- and so, by a wide mark, did the people who interpolated it in the Pledge.
gives as one entry for under
the meaning "In
to; besides," as in
That definition may be a little hard to understand, but you can see how the phrase is used when you search for it in the works collected in the Library of America, where it's actually rather frequent in works published before 1860, usually with the meaning "with God's help," or "after God" (with an implicit "of course") in expressions of indebtedness, gratitude, obligation, and the like:
In response to the discussions that Geoff Pullum,. Bill Poser, and I have
been having about the syntax and meaning of "under God" in the Pledge
of Allegiance, a lawyer named John Brewer writes to suggest that the
phrase might be best understood as a rendering of "sub Deo":