June 30, 2005

Bringing journalism into the 21st century

In response to my posts on the liberties that reporters take with quotations from interviews, Linda Seebach sent a persuasive email in defense of her profession. I'll quote her in full, and then argue back.

She wrote:

But most reporters don't have transcripts; we have notebooks.

So the person I'm interviewing comes out with a killer quote, and I write it down with great care. But writing is much slower than talking, so by the time I've got that sentence down, he's 150 words further on.

When I get back to my desk, and I'm writing about the interview, I assume as a practical matter that any two successive remarks were separated by a lot of stuff I didn't or couldn't get down, and I don't run them together as if they were a single sentence. As long as I don't misrepresent the sense of what the person said, though, he doesn't have any more exact memory of what was said in what order than I do.

We ran a feature for a while in which we interviewed interesting people, and then edited the transcript of what they said "for length and clarity" as we said on the page. The editing involved very substantial revisions, in fact. Not only for length -- from 6,000 words or so in a half-hour interview down to about 1,800 -- but also in order of topics and putting related material in one spot even if the speaker mentioned it at different times. People ramble. Many of the people so interviewed said they liked how the page came out, but not one ever so much as mentioned how extensively the transcript was edited. I doubt they noticed.

As Lord Peter Wimsey's Harriet observed, after Lord Peter's valet had repacked her luggage, she was surprised to find herself such a neat packer.

Let me note in passing that my own experience of being revised by journalists has often been less positive. I notice, acutely and painfully, when things are taken out of context or rephrased so as to mean something new and unintended. I won't whine about my own experiences, but I've documented several other people's in some detail, for example here and here.

It's a very real problem that typical speech rates are around 150 word per minute, while typical handwriting speeds are more like 20 wpm. That's why British journalists are still required to learn shorthand (though the certification level is only 100 wpm). Rex Rhoades discusses the problem from an American perspective ("Should reporters learn shorthand for notes?"):

Either people need to speak more slowly or I need to write more quickly. I’ve been telling myself that for 25 years and neither one has happened yet.

I mourn the great quotes I’ve lost to indecipherable notes and the quotes abandoned when speakers simply outran my note-taking ability.

And it’s not just me being left in the dust by fast talkers. When I peer over a reporter’s shoulder at some freshly recorded notes, the mess I see never inspires confidence.

Yes, a tape recorder can help. But try juggling tapes for three multi-source stories, all of which are due in two hours. The benefit of the recorder is usually sacrificed to the reality of the daily writing load.

Thus the question I recently posed to a variety of journalists and journalism educators here and abroad: If taking notes is so important, shouldn’t journalists know shorthand?

There’s a world of opinion out there — literally. While U.S. educators are generally cool to the idea, the skill is considered indispensable to print reporters on the other side of the Atlantic.

Bernie Corbett, national organizer for Britain’s National Union of Journalists, explained that most journalism jobs there require an academic “qualification.” And, he said, most print journalism degree programs require shorthand skills of 100 words per minute.

But shorthand is the 19th-century solution. This is one of those cases where 21st-century technology really can help. The existing technology -- with a bit of training and effort -- can solve most instances of this problem fairly easily. The technology of the (near) future should make it nearly trivial.

With existing technology, you can easily upload recordings -- from an iPod, or a minidisc recorder, or an old-fashioned analog recorder, or whatever -- to your laptop. You can let the uploading run while you're doing other things. If the interview circumstances permit, you can record from a microphone (or a telephone interface) directly onto your computer. With a bit of cleverness, you could do direct recording via wireless remote, using this (cellphone to cellphone to PC) trick, or some other way of controlling digital audio recording on your computer via a wireless link. Perhaps there's already a product out there that will do this out of the box, with no cleverness required at all. If it's not true now, then it won't be long before wireless handheld devices combine intercom-like ambient audio I/O with remote control of transfer to a computer suitable for transcription and editing. Or maybe you'll be able to access your handheld's mass storage without any transfer.

Once you've got access to the audio on a real computer, you can use convenient free software (I use Transcriber) to create (typically partial) transcriptions. By moving through the file in a nonlinear way, you can find and mark the crucial bits, and transcribe them or make a note for more detailed examination later on. No "juggling" of multiple cassettes is required -- you just open as many windows as you need. You can cut and paste between the transcript and your notes or your story.

If I were a reporter, that's how I'd do it. In fact, even though I'm not a reporter, that's how I do it anyhow, for those Language Log posts where there's a question about who said what when. The biggest pain is that I usually need to get the audio from some streaming source like CSPAN or CNN or NPR. And don't tell me about deadlines, please -- my general policy is not to spend more than half an hour on a post, and I usually manage to stick to that. As I mentioned in my post on Ipsissima Vox Rasheedi, getting an accurate transcript in that case took me about 12 minutes, of which about 10 minutes was spend finding the right part of the (streaming) interview.

In the near future, you'll be able to use automated media indexing on your audio archives to make it easier to find the bits you want. In this Language Log post, I discuss my experiences with an existing HP system called SpeechBot. In my opinion, these applications are now probably not worth the trouble. (At least this is true for the applications we're talking about, where you're dealing with a few hours of audio that you've heard at least once -- the situation is different if you're looking for something in hundreds of thousands of hours of otherwise unindexed material). However, the basic enabling technologies (figuring out who spoke when, and turning speech into text) are improving steadily, and within a few years they should be good enough to be useful for interactive audio search in many applications, including this one.

I should also note here that more and more public discourse -- certainly press conferences and speeches and hearing and so on -- is recorded and archived anyhow, so that reporters don't in principle need to make their own recordings at all. In many cases, a real-time subtitle-quality (or court-reporter-like) transcript is also created. Right now, there is probably an issue about delay in access to such material, which makes its use impractical for reporters on deadline. But there's no reason in principle that such recordings could not be made available as a real-time feed, spooled onto reporters' laptops while they make notes to themselves about less objective things than who said exactly what exactly when.

It's also easy to imagine software for real-time annotation of a recording -- in the simplest case, a reporter could just hit a button that would mean "what (s)he just said was important, flag it." Adding a few words of comment via stylus or keypad (or keyboard) would be just as easy.

Reporters ought to be leading this transformation. I mean, even when quotations from sources are largely ceremonial in character, why not make them accurate? What do you want to bet, though, that bloggers will be using such techniques routinely for years before journalists take them up?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:12 AM

The French aren't really against

Against "the ending of a sentence or clause with a preposition", that is.

Chris Waigl wrote from Paris to point this out, in response to Starcreator's suggestion that we should "look, simply, to the French" so as to "see how things are supposed to be done" with respect to clause-final prepositions.

Chris observes that

...if the argument is entirely deleted from the clause (and retrieved from the context), and also in a few other cases where the argument is fronted, some prepositions end up stranded in standard spoken French.

She offers an example from a speech by Victor Hugo:

"Ici, messieurs, quand j'approfondis ce vaste ensemble, ce vaste concours d'efforts et d'événements, tous marqués du doigt de Dieu; quand je songe à ce but magnifique, le bien-être des hommes, la paix; quand je considère ce que la providence fait pour et ce que la politique fait contre, une réflexion douloureuse s'offre à mon esprit." [emphasis added]

"Here, gentlement, when I examine in detail this vast collection, this vast coincidence of efforts and events, all marked with the hand of God; when I dream of this marvelous goal, the well-being of mankind, peace; when I consider what Providence does for [it] and what politics does against [it], painful thoughts fill my mind."

And another from Emile Zola's Germinal:

"Quand on savait s'y prendre, un logeur devenait une excellente affaire. Seulement, il ne fallait pas coucher avec."

"When you know how to manage one, a lodger could be a good thing. Only, you mustn't sleep with [them]."

Chris also offered some "random samples of informal writing", taken from the web. [The English translations thoughout this post are mine -- Chris would have done a better job. The clause-final prepositions are signaled by bold italics, and a bit of orthographic hygiene has been performed here and there.]

"Je lui avais dit oui pour sortir avec mais j'aurais jamais dû."
"I told him yes for going out with [him] but I shouldn't have."

"Sortir avec et se marier, c'est pas la même chose."
"Going out with [someone] and marrying [them], it's not the same thing."

"Je me garderais bien de dire si il s'agit de la verité ou juste d'une sorte de fantasme de Catherine Allegret qui somme toute pourrait fort bien être l'une des rares femmes à avoir côtoyé Montand sans avoir couché avec et qui en ressentirait une sorte de jalousie."
"I'd be careful not to say whether it's the truth or just a sort of fantasy of Catherine Allegret who in the end could well be one of the rare women to have been around Montand without having slept with [him] and who therefore felt a sort of jealousy."

"Il faut choisir un bijou vraiment fait pour cet endroit et pas prendre un piercing nez comme on me l'avait conseillé, ils ne sont pas faits pour et du coup se prennent souvent dans les cheveux."
"You should choose an ornament really made for that location, and not just take a nose piercing as someone suggested to me, they're not made for [that] and often suddenly catch in your hair."

"Quelque temps plus tard ils voient deux hommes monter dans la voiture et partir avec."
"Some time later they saw two men get into the car and leave with [it]."

"Voilà donc, au diable les règles, elles ne sont jamais faites que pour ceux qui ne savent pas vivre sans."
"OK then, to hell with the rules, they're only made for those who don't know how to live without [them]."

"C'est moi qui lui ai couru après."
"I'm the one who ran after her/him."
Word-for-word: /it is me who her have run after/.
("courir après <quelqu'un>" is a special case and particularly flexible; lots of stranded prepositions)

Chris observes that

This is all perfectly grammatical and extremely common.

As far as I can tell, this works for _avec_, _pour_, _contre_, _sans_, _après_ .... It doesn't for _à_ and _de_ (they get absorbed into the pronouns _y/lui_ and _en_ when their argument is deleted), nor for _sous_, _sur_ or _dans_ (they transform into the adverbs _dessous_, _dessus_ and _dedans_, which anaphorically link back to the argument of the preposition).

There are a lot of other prepositions that can also function as adverbs (_devant_, _derrière_), for which I'd have to find out which category the stranded word belongs to before going any further. And for some it doesn't work and I don't know why (_par_, _en_, _jusque_...).

It's important to keep in mind that all this is separate from the stranding of prepositions at the end of relative clauses, which is allowed in some varieties of Canadian French (and maybe here and there in varieties of continental French? I don't know). See these Language Log posts for more:

Quoi ce-qu'elle a parlé about?
More on Canadian French preposition stranding

And I can't resist ending with this characteristically American take on grammatical correctness:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:54 AM

June 29, 2005

If we look, simply, to the French

Channeling James Thurber, someone modestly named Starcreator recently offered "Help with prepositions" to the readers of the WordReference Forums. David Remnick should rush to recruit Starcreator right away -- no one this funny is writing for the New Yorker in these latter days.

Here's the whole piece:

I just joined this discussion and thus I'll just throw in my hat.

The way I learned it and the way we grammarians still see it today, the ending of a sentence or clause with a preposition is wrong.

Traditional English tells us that there are ways around it and if we look, simply, to the French we can see how things are supposed to be done - the pages on which the book was written, the store at which I bought the hat - do these not sound much more distinguished in written language?

Let us look to the reason why it is acceptable today to end sentences with prespositions - in a word, laziness. People over the ages have left their prepositions to the end of their clauses and now because this is so widespread it has been accepted by grammarians as informally correct.

I do not see many situations in which grammarians would except the "hanging" preposition, but I advise all of you to use it cautiously and, above all, only in spoken or colloquial language. Using it in written language would definitely harm your professionalism.

I above all see no point in debating this though as English has no Academie Francaise to determine what is right or wrong and instead things are correct based on usage - hence, both you and I can be correct at the same time. But I will advise you that if I were ever marking a paper of yours you'd be docked marks for each and every preposition with which you ended a sentence.

My favorite part is

Let us look to the reason why it is acceptable today to end sentences with prespositions - in a word, laziness. People over the ages have left their prepositions to the end of their clauses and now because this is so widespread it has been accepted by grammarians as informally correct.

Those slovens over the ages, leaving their "prespositions" lying around like half-eaten pizza crusts and cast-off underwear!

But no, my really favorite part is

Traditional English tells us that there are ways around it and if we look, simply, to the French we can see how things are supposed to be done - the pages on which the book was written, the store at which I bought the hat - do these not sound much more distinguished in written language?

Parbleu, évidemment! For what is it that one not knows more to look, simply, to the French for grammatical models? Oops, make that "models grammaticals".

And perhaps the crowning touch is the sly Straussian substitution of "except" for "accept":

I do not see many situations in which grammarians would except the "hanging" preposition...

Sheer comedic genius.

[Those who insist on spoiling a good joke with obsessive concern for the facts may be interested in these relevant Language Log posts:

An Internet Pilgrim's Guide to stranded prepositions
A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:08 PM

Caring more or less

Ben Van Hof wrote in with a minority variant of "care less" that was new to me: "care or less".

I enjoy perusing Language Log occasionally (I'm not a linguist, but hey, language is interesting), and in light of your posts concerning "could (not) care less", thought you might like to hear about a variation that I grew up with: "couldn't care *or* less" (pronounced "couldn't carer less", with "care or" sounding like one word).  At least, that's how *I* always parsed it, and just accepted it as an (admittedly ungrammatical) idiom; to this day, seeing the phrase in print without the "or" looks odd to me. 

As Ben pointed out, a quick web search demonstrates that he's not not the only one with this variant:

I personally think Jesus could care or less about our individual political persuasions.
I could care or less what it looks like, as long as it rocks on game playing.
These are the individuals that could care or less about hunting, the future of the sport, and the future of the ducks.
And the group behind you is often made up of non-athletic bitter divorcees who could care or less how slow you’re moving.
You've got to remember that George is 100% motivated by money these days and couldn't care or less for the fans.
Who on the Broncos displayed a couldn't care or less attitude?
They could not care or less about the American public or what havoc that broadcast has created.

I'm disposed to classify this as an eggcorn, on the grounds that the extra "or" is an attempt to make better sense of the whole "(not) care less" bestiary.

The case is especially interesting phonetically. The syllable that Ben has spelled "-er" would be pronounced as an r-colored vowel -- a rhotic schwa -- which is essentially just a vocalic form of the syllable-final [r] in "care". So the pronunciation of "care or" is really just "care" with a rather long final [r]... a perfect substrate for eggcorning.

[Update: Chris Waigl points out there are many more web hits for "could care a less" -- 2,550 vs. 225 on Google, 861 vs. 72 on Yahoo.

My Pisces can be very loving one day and seem like he could care a less another day.
Whenever I called HW, they could care a less.
I could care a less about the Superman movie, since I don't like Bryan Singer and Superman is lame as a character.
Texas could care a less about oklahomans.
I for one could care a less what you or other Europeans think because you're quickly becoming nothing more than a continent size geriatric ward.

In "could care a less", the reduced vowel associated with the article "a" will assimilate in rapid speech to the following [l], which is acoustically similar anyhow, so that it winds up as a lengthened [l], likewise an excellent candidate for acoustic mis-parsing in either direction.

There are even a few hits for "could care of less":

You could care of less about the evil and deciept that the Democrats engage in.
And I'm gunna be nice and not put these bitches names down but there are ALOT chicks on this planet that I could care of less if they lived or died..
Of course people will downgrade, I know alot of people who could care of less about internet video or file downloads, and if the cheaper cable plan is there, they would downgrade in a heartbeat.

and a couple for "could care if less":

I could care if less if all 25 are homosexual.
Personally, I could care if less if cliques exist or don't exist because the fact is people are naturally going to click (no pun intended) with certain people better than others and will want to spend time with each other because they have similar interests.

(though I guess these last two might be typos echoing the "if" that follows "less"...)

Every time I poke around in an area like this, I'm amazed by the range of nascent constructional folk etymologies that are out there. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:39 PM

Conjunction and punishment

Am I soft on conjunction abuse? A number of Language Log readers think so. I was surprised to read in the New York Times that "Infiniti also lets you choose your favorite satellite radio service, either XM and Sirius", and no one complained about that negative judgment. But because I tried to explore the root causes of this unfortunate phrasing, which I attributed to associative uncertainty about the expression of choice, several people wrote in to complain that I was muddying the clear waters of logic with fuzzy-minded ramblings about pragmatic influences. So let me try again.

When you offer someone a choice, you can indicate the range of alternatives with a plural noun phrase:

On our web site, you can chose from over 25 furry friends...
...you can chose from many tables with varying limits.
There'll be barbeque with all the good stuff that goes with it and your choice of desserts.

It's no surprise that this plural noun phrase can be conjunctively modified:

You can choose from Dell and HP laptop computers
...you can choose from mechanical and computerized models.
Ability to choose from low and high ISO settings to increase effectiveness.

Nor are we shocked to find that the range of alternatives expressed in a noun phrase with conjoined heads:

Choose from 180000 photographs and illustrations.
Choose from different styles and colors.

In the examples above, the conjunctive phrases are just being used to denote the relevant set -- there is no notion that the alternatives in the world are aligned one-to-one with the conjuncts in the words.

However, in other examples this is not so clear:

Choose from ENERGY, BOSE, and SONANCE.
Players can choose from .25, 50, and 1.00.

Here it's simultaneously true that the conjunctive phrase denotes the set of alternatives, and also that each element of the conjunction denotes one of the alternatives.

In most of the cases just sketched, we can find similar examples with or instead of and:

With this plugin you can choose from low or high ISO settings.
You can choose from different colors or cute doggie prints.
Choose from 2 oz or 4 oz bottle.

The two connectives and and or are not equivalent in meaning or frequency in all contexts, but sometimes both meaning and frequency seem similar:

  DVD and VHS VHS and DVD total "and" DVD or VHS VHS or DVD total "or"
choose from ___
choose between ___
choice of ___
choice between ___
choose ___
either ___

What's going on here?

Phrases of the form "choose from A and B" are inevitable, given the fact that you can say "choose from the members of set X" and the fact that a nominal conjunction can be used to denote a set. What about "choose from A or B"? That's surely not short for "choose from A or choose from B". It's possible that it's just a mistaken form of "choose A or B", but that seems unlikely to me, especially because "the choice of A or B" seems to be absolutely the normal form. Pending clarification of the details from some insightful semanticist, let's assume that "A or B" is also a sound way to express the set of alternatives that includes A and B -- at least in some contexts.

OK, now what about either? Leaving aside the constructional status of "either ... or ...", we're talking about a word that means something like "one or the other [of two]".

Since one of the possible syntactic frames for either is "either of <plural-noun-phrase>",

You can download the latest browser from either of the locations listed below.

it's not surprising that there can be a conjunction inside the plural-noun-phrase part:

In any triangle, if one of the sides be produced, the exterior angle is greater than either of the interior and opposite angles.

In this last sentence (which is proposition 16 of Euclid's elements), the phrase "either of the interior and opposite angles" collectively names a set of two, as this alternative translation makes clear:

An exterior angle of a triangle is greater than either remote interior angle.

It's possible to find a few examples of the form "either of the A and B Xs" where the meaning allows us a choice of "the A X" or "the B X":

(link) Either of the CD45RB and CD45RO Isoforms Are Effective in Restoring T Cell, But Not B Cell, Development and Function in CD45-Null Mice

However, this sort of construction seems to be quite rare, and I haven't been able to find any similar examples involving conjoined nominal heads. This may be related to the relative rarity of phrases like "choice of A and B" compared to "choice of A or B"; it might also reflect the influence of the constructional pattern "either A or B"; and it might have something to do with the fact that either as a modifier takes singular rather than plural heads ("either man", not "either men" -- though a disjunction of plural heads like "either men or women" is fine).

Since several readers brought it up, let me note in passing that none of this seems to have anything to do with any implication of exclusivity associated with either. Like disjunction in general, either often suggests exclusive choice, but doesn't force it, since the implication can be cancelled:

This is either brilliant or embarassing, or both.
Either vote or donate. Or both.
Thus the number of positive integers less than 11 are divisible by either 2 or 5 or both is 5 + 2 - 1 = 6.
The output is "true" if either or both of the inputs are "true."
A domain already exists on the system that matches either or both the type or the name that has been specified.

OK, now back to the poor old Infiniti and its choice of "either XM and Sirius". That unlovely sequence, you'll recall, was tacked on as an adjunct to the object of choose:

Infiniti also lets you choose your favorite satellite radio service, either XM and Sirius.

Phrases of this general pragmatic shape are common, with either and or or as the conjoiner of alternatives:

While in port, guests can choose from many activities like kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, bird watching and visits to sites of international importance.
Plus read about your favorite books like Harry Potter, Animorphs, Goosebumps, Captain Underpants and more.
Serve with your favorite toppings such as sour cream, guacamole, cilantro and green onions.
Organic gardeners choose from various products like fish emulsion or concentrated sea-weed products.
For a break from intense mint, they can choose from fruit flavors like tropical twist or candy-coated strappleberry...
...participants will appreciate event updates and articles about their favorite sports like hiking, kayaking, or snowboarding.

My point? The NYT writer Michelle Krebs (or her editor) probably started out by thinking about the pragmatics of available alternatives, and wound up aground on the syntax (and semantics?) of either.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:50 AM

June 27, 2005

Clueless in Dallas

I might need some help with the bleeding edge of contemporary urban slang. But according to a post by Josh at crabwalk.com, there are journalists and editors at a newspaper in Dallas who are way more out of it than I am:

Lots of buzz yesterday about this story (and the accompanying video). Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after doing a TV interview, said "Adios, mofo" while the cameras continued to roll.

Amusing stuff. But more amusing was this conversation between some of my colleagues in the newsroom (and I am not making this up):

Editor: What does "mofo" mean, anyway?

Reporter #1: It's a bad word for black people, I think.

Reporter #2: (overhearing the conversation, somewhat stunned) Actually, it means "motherfucker."

Editor: Oh, in Spanish?

Josh writes about education for the Dallas Morning News, as a link in his blog indicates, and it's hard to believe that he isn't making this conversation up. How can you pass through the life stages minimally required to become a working journalist in the United States of America without learning "mofo"? I mean, we're not talking about a term of art like 'zurp, or a literary reference like H-to-the-izzO. Mofo has 1.44 million Yahoo hits (only a few of which lead to the law firm of Morrison and Foerster, known colloquially as "the mighty MoFo"). Mofo is even in the OED -- and not as the nickname of a law firm, either -- as I mentioned in my own post on the Governor's mofodictory oration...

I fear for the republic, really I do.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:01 PM


Uche Ogbuji at Copia tries to knock some of the rust off of my appreciation of urban slang. In particular, he takes me to school on the contemporary proliferation of back-end abbreviations. From Rasheed Wallace's rendition of championships as "ships", I learned that back-ending, which I thought was over, is stronger than ever in some circles. Surprised that I didn't know this, Uche offers a list of examples:

  • "dro", for a particularly potent form of hydroponically grown marijuana (shortened from the slang term "hydro")
  • "lo" for Ralph Lauren Polo clothing
  • "nana" or "nanny", for female genitals, shortened from "punanny"
  • "gauge", a shotgun, shortened from "twelve gauge"
  • "zurp", for a codeine cocktail, shortened from "sizzurp", a corruption of "syrup"

His conclusion: "My personal theory is that hip-hop slang is far too rich and fast-moving for linguists to easily keep up".

Well, I'll defend my profession by claiming that a linguist who tried to keep up with it -- and there probably are some in that category -- could do as well as anyone else. But apparently it's even a challenge for the folks who transcribe lyrics for the web. Googling a little through Uche's list, I was intrigued by the many variants of Kanye West's Through the Wire:

Version 1:

I drink a boost for breakfast, and ensure for dizzert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizzerk
Not to worry y'll Mr. H 2 the Izzo's back to wizzerk

Version 2:

I drink a boost for breakfast, an intro for dizzert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizzurp
Not to worry the Mr. H says that the izzles back wizzerk

Version 3:

I drink a boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dizzert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizerk
Not to worry the Mr. H-to-the-Izzo's back wizzork

Version 4:

I drink a boost for breakfast, and ensure for dizzert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizzerk
Not to worry the Mr. H to the izzles back to wizzerk

Exercise for the reader: in the the last line, what did Kanye actually say, and what did he mean? (3 MB .wav file of the quatrain here.)

[And the winner is...

Joseph Burke:

After listening to that Kanye quatrain a couple of times, I think the line is "Not to worry, Mr. H-to-the-Izzo's back to wizz-ork" or something close to that.

And what does he mean?  Well, Mr. H-to-the-Izzo is he, Kanye West.  Kanye produced the song Jay Z song "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)".  It was a pretty significant hit and put Kanye on the map as a mainstream hip-hop producer.  If you recall,  Jay Z raps "H to the IZZO" in the chorus of "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)."  And "back to wizzork" is of course a way of saying "back to work."

Interesting enough, the hook from the song ("H to the IZZO/V to the IZZAY") is itself a form of back-ending abbreviation.  One of Jay-Z's self-declared nicknames is Jay-Hova.  Leave out the obligatory IZZes in the hook, and it's clear he's spelling out "Hova."

Got it. (And Kyle Benefiel wrote in with essentially the same information a short time later, along with a link to a ad-free transcription of Izzo (H.O.V.A).)

But hard as I listen to the clip, I can't hear the "to the", or any space for it either -- I think that what he says is just "mister H-IZZO's back to wizzerk", even if the classical allusion says that it should be "H-to-the-IZZO".

[ Matt T. emailed to tell me that my version of the audio is corrupted by some sort of digital skip, and that "you can hear [the 'to the'] fine on [his] CD version" ]

And now I have another question: what's with "to the" as a connective? Jay Z uses it to turn "H O V A" into "H to the O, V to the A" (and then you stick in the IZZes, of course). But I've heard something like this a lot: J-Kwon's Tipsy has

1, here comes the 2 to the 3 to the 4
everybody drunk out on the dance floor

then later "4 here comes the 3 to the 2 to the 1". And of course the lyrics to Rapper's Delight from 1979 have more than 50 repetitions of "to the", though mostly in collocationally expected places like "to the beat", "to the rhythm", "hello to the black to the white", as well as plausible quasi-nonsense like "up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie" or "baby bubbah to the boogie da bang bang da boogie". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:33 AM

Heavy metal umlaut

A piece of summer amusement: the Wikipedia page on heavy metal umlaut. The sort of thing that Wikipedia can actually do well. ÖŸ. [Thanks to Lauren Hall-Lew for the pointer, which she got, ultimately, from Shawn Steinhart on the LINGUA mailing list.]

[Added 6/28/05: a pointer from Andrew Gray to John Udell's video lecture on the development of Wikipedia pages, using the "heavy metal umlaut" entry as a demonstration, showing its evolution from a one-line entry on 4/15/03 to a complex multi-part entry today. Along the way, the claim that the n-diaeresis in Spinal Tap, which I do not attempt to reproduce here, is not a character in any known alphabet has been replaced by the claim that it occurs only in Jacaltec (which Udell mispronounces); in the most recent version, "some orthographies of Malagasy" are added. Scholars of writing systems might want to check that out. There are now, surprisingly, Wikipedia pages for both Jacaltec and Malagasy.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:15 AM

Either/and, both/or

According to an article by Michelle Krebs on the new Infinitis in the 6/26/2005 NYT:

Infiniti also lets you choose your favorite satellite radio service, either XM and Sirius.

The meaning is clear enough, but I was taken aback by the phrasing "either XM and Sirius" instead of "either XM or Sirius".

However, phrases of the form "either X and Y" (meaning "either X or Y") are surprisingly common on the web:

The Grand Vitara is available in LX and EX trims, and in either 2WD and 4WD models.
Do you think either Arsenal and Liverpool will make it through to the last eight?
Are either Tia and Tamera Mowry married?
Easily build and maintain either online and offline HTML-based documents in several formats (XLR, XML, HTML).

You can also find plenty of examples of "both A or B":

Taking a vehicle out of the UK both temporarily or permanently.
These diamond blades are available both wet or dry and in different widths and thicknesses.
For both novices or advanced statisticians, an easy to use, searchable reference tool.
Sexual Assault Addressed Both On or Off Campus
Both Nurses or Doctors are available by appointment Monday to Friday.

We provide both private transfers or shared airport transfers.
How to Apply Windows Up-Dates For Both School or Home Use

And why not? After all, and is often used to connect terms referring to two alternatives, either of which may be chosen:

More automakers offering choice between XM and Sirius
The Neuronal Basis of the Behavioral Choice between Swimming and Shortening in the Leech.
I couldn't decide between University and Music College.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has been pushing the plan of having a United Nations supervised plebiscite for the Kashmir people to decide between India and Pakistan.
The two choices are literal and SOAP encoded.
Concepts 2 and 4 are the two alternatives that seem to best meet the overall interests of the City, County, and development.

And or often connects alternatives that are both available:

You can choose "Military" or "Normal" time format.
Calamari, shrimp & clams sautéed in your choice of alfredo or spicy marinara.
All Eggs served with your Choice of Homefries or Baked Beans and Toast or English Muffin.
Intel may prefer India or Malaysia to America for next major infrastructure investment

But "either XM and Sirius" still rates a WTF from me.

[P.S. I found it interesting that the pattern {"your choice of * or"} is so strongly associated with the menu register.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:28 AM

Down with journalists!

Those are not my words. I'm a fan of journalists, although they sometimes disappoint me. My title is a translation of the (French) title of a blog entry by Pascale Riché, the Washington correspondent of the (French) newspaper Libération: "A bas les journalistes!"

M. Riché is down on his own profession because he experienced the distressing effect of being the person selectively quoted rather than the person selectively quoting. His entry is worth reproducing in full, with an English translation (by me, and thus suspect).

Une journaliste du Washington Post m'interviewe au téléphone sur notre "Block Party" annuelle (cela consiste à bloquer la rue et à se relaxer sur la chaussée pendant une demi-journée). Je lui réponds longuement, je lui parle de ma découverte de l'importance des communautés aux Etats-Unis, je cite Toqueville, je fais une digression sur le lien créé par les enfants dans ce bloc et plus largement dans la société américaine...

A journalist from the Washington Post interviewed me on the telephone about our annual Block Party (this consists of blocking the street and relaxing on the pavement for half a day). I responded to her at length, I told her about my discovery of the importance of community in the U.S., I cited Tocqueville, I made a digression about the bond created by children on the block and more broadly in American society...

Ce qu'il en reste dans le journal? Cela:
"Her neighbor, Pascale Riche, pulled all the tables from his house and lined them up in the street, so everyone could dine together banquet-style.
"It was perfect," Riche says. "I'm French, and in France we like to have conversation around a nice dinner."

What remained from all this in the paper? The following:
"Her neighbor, Pascale Riche, pulled all the tables from his house and lined them up in the street, so everyone could dine together banquet-style.
"It was perfect," Riche says. "I'm French, and in France we like to have conversation around a nice dinner.

J'imagine retrospectivement ce qui a défilé dans sa tête pendant qu'on parlait: "Qu'il arrête un peu de me gonfler avec sa sociologie de bazar... Quand est-ce qu'il va me dire qu'il est Français et qu'il aime la bouffe... Ah ça y est, il accouche!"
Le pire, c'est qu'à sa place, j'aurais peut-être retenu la même citation idiote. Ma voisine Ruth m'a dit hier soir : "Comme ça, tu sais désormais ce que les gens que tu interroges pensent de tes articles!"

I imagine in retrospect what went on in her head while we talked: "I wish he'd stop blathering on with his pop sociology... When is he going to tell me that he's French and that he loves food... Ah, there it is, he finally came out with it!"
The worst thing is that in her place, I would perhaps have kept the same idiotic quotation. My neighbor Ruth said to me yesterday evening: "So now you know what the people that you inverview think of your articles!"

Here's the WaPo story in question: "Summer, Time to Close Down The Block And Party", by Julia Feldmeier, 6/21/2005.

This example is from a feature on block parties rather than from news articles on a sports championship, but the situation is the same one that I described in a recent post on the ritual role of material from interviews in stories on the NBA finals. The journalist knows what (s)he wants to write, and what sort of facts and quotes are needed in support, and therefore manipulates the person interviewed so as produce suitable copy -- in this case mainly by selecting a few suitable fragments from a long interview. At least, that's Pascale's professional opinion about what happened.

In my experience -- both personal and second-hand -- science reporting often works pretty much the same way. The reporter may not approach an interview with the idea of learning more about the topic, much less providing an accurate characterization of the views of the person interviewed, but rather with the goal of getting suitable quotes to slot into a narrative that is already more or less in place.

[Blog link via email from Chris Waigl of Serendipity]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:41 AM

June 26, 2005

Spanish in Charlotte in 1965

About a week ago, I expressed puzzlement that the Spanish name Oribe wound up (according to the New York Times) "pronounced OR-bay". It's not likely that there's a variant of Spanish in which a stressed penultimate vowel can be deleted, but this also doesn't seem like the sort of thing that the New York Times would get completely wrong. Today, Leslie Pressley McDonald sent email that clears up the mystery.

I went to high school with Oribe and his brother Cisco. We met in the 10th grade. From what I learned he'd been in Charlotte, NC since grade school.

Yes, Oribe is pronounced oh-REE-beh exactly as it reads, and as anyone who knows anything about Spanish knows, for the most part all vowels are pronounced. The "Orbay" came I believe because when he moved to Charlotte as a little boy there literally were no Hispanics in the area. You can imagine southerners trying to get the name right.

Teachers on the first day of school, all the kids asking "how do you say your name.. Orbay??"

It just became easier for people to say and less of a hassle for him to explain, so it stuck. It's not a hard name to pronounce but lots of people just don't read phonetically.

I'd bet my last dollar he always has been and still is called Oribe with the correct pronunciation by his Cuban relatives.  

Oribe graduated from Independence High school class of '75. In fact we are having our 30th high school reunion in October.

It's interesting that when Oribe Canales transformed himself into the one-name celebrity hair design brand Oribe, he decided to keep the mistaken pronunciation of his childhood friends in Charlotte, NC. And it's also interesting that the NYT reporter -- though giving the oddball pronuncation -- didn't ask the reason, or at least didn't tell.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:47 PM

June 25, 2005

The ships, it shuts everything up

I first heard back-end abbreviations -- like "stache" for moustache and "rents" for parents -- about 30 years ago, and I thought this fad was more or less over, except maybe as a way of forming nicknames like "Zo" for Alonzo Mourning (who probably got his monicker 25 years ago, anyhow). For example, urbandictionary.com calls za "an old way of sayin pizza, its stupid noone says it so dont".

However, this method of word-formation is still hip in some circles.

Rasheed Wallace is not like most athletes. He refuses to give up his Voice, and this defiance is both admirable and infuriating.

'Sheed believes if there is a questionable call, he must protest; if there is an open teammate, he must pass the ball; if his sole goal is to help his team win, that should be the beginning, middle and end of his story. These are the tenets of his faith.

"Personally, it doesn't matter to me if I had the worst career stats in NBA history," he said Wednesday, "as long as I got my ships. The ships, it shuts everything up."

What did he say? Ships? Chips? Chits?

Ships, I was told - 'Sheedish for championships, and I have never felt whiter in my life. [Michael Rosenberg, Detroit Free Press, "Inside the curious case of Rasheed Wallace", 6/15/2005]

On the other hand, Rasheed Wallace seems to represent the traditional slang lexicon in other ways as well:

On the media: "I don't care what none of you cats think. Half of you are bandwagon, and the other half got the Spurs winning anyway, so it don't matter to us.''

I thought that cats was also obsolete slang, but apparently it's back on the streets -- with a difference. For the likes of Louis Armstrong, cats were the musical in-group, but it looks like these days, it's Dogs Out against "you cats".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:00 PM

Ritual questions, ritual answers

Rasheed Wallace has a model for how reporters frame interview questions:

Rasheed Wallace pretended to be a reporter. This was on an off-day during the Miami series. As Ben Wallace sat down at courtside, Rasheed shouted his question:

"Is it true that you're the team's asshole?"

This made Ben laugh, an invaluable gift in the middle of a tense playoff series. But I suspect that if many reporters at these NBA Finals could respond, they would say, "No, Rasheed. You are." [Michael Rosenberg, Detroit Free Press, "Inside the curious case of Rasheed Wallace", 6/15/2005]

Reporters, even sports reporters, aren't usually quite so blatantly provocative. However, when I listen to recordings of journalistic interviews, I rarely get the impression that anyone is trying to learn anything new. The journalists already know what the stories are. Their questions are not designed to discover any new facts or ideas, but rather to get quotes that will fit in to designated places in the frameworks of logic and rhetoric that they have already erected.

To see how this works, let's look at a couple of cases from Tim Duncan's interview after game 7 of this year's NBA finals.

Case 1: The headline for Sam Smith's piece in the Chicago Tribune is "Ginobili's why these Spurs are the best". Smith leads with a riff on how "Tim Duncan finally emerged ... from the forest of Detroit Pistons defenders to protect, if not secure, his legacy as one of the game's greatest players ever", and then quickly switches focus to the role of Emmanuel "Manu" Ginobili:

...it was Manu Ginobili, the usually unpredictable and often spectacular Argentine, who again finished what Duncan started and carried the Spurs the last steps to their third title in seven years. He scored 15 fourth-quarter points and made the plays that made you gasp, remember, stand and cheer.

"Manu is unbelievable," Duncan said. "I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care if it's a preseason game or a Finals game.

"He's going to continue to grow, and we're going to continue to grow around him. He was so big for us every game. We love what he does down the stretch."

Here's the whole of the relevant question and answer from which Smith's quote was taken. The question was actually asked by Massimo Moriani from La Gazeta de lo Sport. I did the transcription from the recording on the nba.com website. The selections used by Smith are in boldface.

Q: Can you please tell me what it's like to uh- have had Manu as a teammate for the last three years, and watching him grow so much?
A: Oh, Manu's unbelievable. And uh- um- [pause] you can say this about so many people and- and- and whether it'd be true or not, I- I think it's absolutely true for him. I don't think we've even scratched the surface with him. He's uh- he's got so much to him. Um, he- he's- he just plays with reckless abandon. He doesn't care the time, the situation, he doesn't care um- if it's a pre-season game or it's a finals game, he plays the same way. And uh- uh- he's gonna continue to uh- to grow and we're going to continue to grow around him. We're going to continue to understand what he- what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. And uh- um- he was so big for us, every game of this in the fors- in the fourth quarter. He jus- he was the guy that really took things o- really th- really made things happen. And- and to have s- to play beside someone like, who can do that in that situation, uh- it- it takes so much pressure off myself, off of Tony, um- uh- it- it helps our team so much, and- and he can just- you can see it in him, he does- he doesn't care, he's- he's gonna- he's gonna make the play. He's gonna make it happen, um- and he got a lot [pause] uh- well he gave himself a lot of crap for the- for the- the finish of uh- whether it be game six or whatever, he- he thought he took some bad shots, he thought he uh- he thought he didn't make some plays down the stretch and missed some shots, he- he got on himself about it more than anybody else got on him, but that's what he's gonna do. And- and- and we understand it now, a- and we're- we uh- we love having him, and we- we love uh- uh- we love what he does down the stretch.

Let's note in passing the selective snip-n-trim quotation. As in the quotes from Rasheed Wallace that I cited before, the meaning is not significantly changed in this case, but it might have been, and I'd rather not have to rely on the reporter's judgment and good faith. If something is in quotes in a news story, without any indication of ellipsis, it seems to me that it ought to be a genuine quotation, not a collage of fragments from which hundreds of words have been silently omitted.

However, that's not the point I want to make here. Smith didn't learn from Tim Duncan's interview about how important Ginobili's contribution was. He heard it on the wind, he saw it on the court during the game, and he backed up his impression with scoring statistics. Why did he bother with the quote? I suppose that it was partly because Smith wanted to suggest that Duncan recognizes Ginobili as Pippen to his Jordan, but the main reason is surely that a news story is supposed to follow each point with a supporting quotation from a newsmaker. Once this obligation is recognized, then the questions and the answers in most journalistic interviews become completely predictable. It was certain that someone would ask Duncan about Ginobili -- both because of Ginobili's play and because he is so popular overseas -- and it was equally certain that Duncan would say a bunch of complimentary things. There was a place in Smith's story for a <Duncan-says-nice-stuff-about-Ginobili> quotation, and the postgame interview ritual predictably supplied it, without adding anything to anyone's knowledge of Ginobili's play or Duncan's attitudes.

Case 2: The headline for Stephen Holder's piece in the Miami Herald is "Not just Spurs of the moment". His point is that "The Spurs are here to stay, folks, with the primary pieces of their roster -- Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- under contract through the end of this decade". And like Smith, Holder anchors his point with a quote from Tim Duncan:

''It's a great feeling,'' Duncan said. ``In years past, we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys in a year and rebuilt. I think we've really got a core here that we're in love with; that obviously is a pretty decent core, and we're going to have it together for a couple of years.''

There will be no rebuilding project this time around. The Spurs have all five starters coming back. And four-fifths of the starting five is expected to be here awhile.

Here's the relevant part of my transcript of the postgame interview:

Q: Tim, along ((those same lines)), are- you're not the GM, I don't- I don't think you are, but you know, you guys had a-
A: Not officially, at least.
Q: Yeah, not officially. Everybody comin' back, you know, long range things set up, is that a good feeling, and do you expect that, you know, this is a team that can kind of- besides some little pieces, can stay together-
A: It's- it's a great feeling. It's a great feeling. Years past, we've uh- um- we've lost six, seven, eight, nine guys, in- in a year, and- and- and rebuilt, I think uh- we've really got a core here that we're um- that we're in love with, that uh- um- obviously is a pretty decent core. Um- and we're going to have it together for- for- for a couple years. And- and uh- um- Pop'll probably come in here and say that we- we did- we didn't play very well tonight. and uh- he'll be tough on us, but uh- um- we- we can play- we can play a lot better. And- and- and that's- that's so horrible ((to)) say right now, as we're sittin' up here NBA champs, but um- w- we have- we have years t- t- to do that, and I think that's the greatest feeling in the world. We have a team um- that we'll be able t- t- to try to uh- in- in years to come, to try to get back to this point.

In this case, the quote is an accurate, contiguous selection, with entirely appropriate editing of disfluencies.

However, the content of the quote is again almost completely uninformative. Everyone knows that the Spurs have a terrific core of relatively young players under long-term contract. It's predictable that someone will ask about this -- it's such an obvious question that Duncan doesn't even wait for the (admittedly numb-tongued) reporter to finish asking before he interrupts and starts to answer. And the content of his answer adds nothing to what we already know, either about the situation or about his attitude towards it. Even if he was perversely dissatisfied with the situation -- which he surely is not -- he wouldn't say so in a press conference.

So why did the reporter bother to ask the question? Well, there are places in a news story where convention dictates that there should be a quote, and so the ritual Q&A must be enacted. And when Holder got to the spot in his story where he needed that quote, there it was.

In a case like this, where everyone pretty much agrees about the content, these apparently pointless rituals do still have a social function. They tend to ensure that the content of newspaper and wire service stories will not stray very far from the publically sanctioned conventional wisdom. However, when there's significant disagreement or controversy, the same techniques take on a very different character. Then it becomes a matter of journalists trying to trick people into saying things that can be taken out of context to make them seem to have said things that they never meant.

And from a certain point of view, the goals and the methods of the ritual love-fest and the confrontational grilling are essentially the same. The journalist wants to get a quote to slot into a certain place in the story's logical and rhetorical structure, and asks questions designed to elicit answers from which the needed words can be taken, in more or less the right order, without too much extra stuff in between.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:06 AM

June 24, 2005

Ipsissima vox Rasheedi

I complained yesterday about the variations in journalistic reports of Rasheed Wallace's remarks after game 6 of the NBA finals, and went so far as to accuse the reporters involved of "laziness rising to the level of incompetence". But Edward Cook at Ralph the Sacred River points out that their stories were, in a certain sense, the gospel truth. Edward also takes up Richard Hershberger's reports of three versions of remarks in 2002 by A.J. Feeley, and explains why the Daily News is Markan, the Philadelphia Inquirer is Matthean, and the New York Times is Lukan.

In the face of this display of scholarship, I feel abashed for my little outburst of indignation. Tout comprendre rend très indulgent, I guess. But still, the modern world does offer inexpensive recording devices and simple software for accurate transcription, so I'll continue to believe that we have a right to expect journalists to make a reasonable attempt to approximate real quotes.

As a small contribution, here's a careful (orthographic) transcript of the relevant portion of the recorded post-game interview (the first Q&A in Wallace's segment):

Rachel Nichols (ESPN): Rasheed, you said this morning, you were talking about the play you made at the end of game 5, and you said that you were going to be particularly [pause] goin' after it tonight. How emotionally did you approach the game, and how do you feel you played?
Rasheed Wallace: Uh, just- just went at it as- as another good game, uh, even though I did a bonehead play the other night, had to put it behind me, it was over with, and we just came out here and had to play tonight.
Rachel Nichols: As a group, the Pistons all talk about how you guys are best when your backs are up against the wall. How do you feel that you personally react when you're under pressure?
Rasheed Wallace: Uh, I mean it's no pressure, I don't- I don't feel pressure. Uh, no matter if it's the game winning shot, or I got the ball, you know, last possession, I don't feel no pressure. 'Cause you still got to go out there and play.

It took me about five or ten minutes to find the right section in the on-line recording at nba.com, and about two minutes to make the transcript. Here's a comparison of what Rasheed actually said with what the various journalists reported (Dallas Morning News added):

Ipsissima Verba Rasheedi Uh, just- just went at it as- as another good game, uh, even though I did a bonehead play the other night, had to put it behind me, it was over with, and we just came out here and had to play tonight. [...Q elided...]
Uh, I mean it's no pressure, I don't- I don't feel pressure. Uh, no matter if it's the game winning shot, or I got the ball, you know, last possession, I don't feel no pressure. 'Cause you still got to go out there and play.
NYT I just made a bonehead play the other night. I had to put it behind me, it was over with and I had to come to play tonight.
Inquirer Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, I just had to put it behind me.
Houston Chronicle I did a bonehead play the other night. I had to put it behind me. It was over with. It was no pressure. I don't feel pressure. I had to do the things I needed to do.
Toronto Sun I did a bonehead play the other night, but I had to put it behind me.
Dallas Morning News I did a bonehead play the other night and I had to put it behind me.
Inside Hoops Just went at it as another good game. Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, I had to put it behind me. It was over with, just came out and had to play tonight.

I'm happy that everyone removed the filled pauses and false starts; and you have to deal with the fact that the interviewee is responding to (leading) questions. I wouldn't object to sticking in a dropped subject, which would give you a perfectly good quote like:

"Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, [I] had to put it behind me, it was over with, and we just came out here and had to play tonight."

The Houston Chronicle falsely combined the answers to two completely different (leading) questions, and also added in a phrase that Wallace never said at all ("I had to do the things I needed to do") -- I don't know what they teach in journalism school, but that strikes me as a violation of ethical principles. It doesn't make much difference here, but such techniques can be used to produce seriously misleading "quotations". If you wanted to quote Rasheed on pressure, you could render his answer to the second question -- in an independent set of quotation marks -- as something like:

"I don't feel pressure. No matter if it's the game winning shot, or I got the ball [on the] last possession, I don't feel no pressure. 'Cause you still got to go out there and play."

Now what's so hard about that?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:10 AM

June 23, 2005

Not over it is

Today's Doonesbury:

Gary Trudeau seems to be just as confused as everyone else about how "the sentence structure of Yoda" really works -- note for example the subject-auxiliary inversion in "Widely known am I for..." SAI is normal for that particular type of constituent fronting in English, but it's occasional at best in Yodic.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:46 AM

Adios, FCC?

The genie is out of the bottle. A few weeks ago, Anthony Lane used the word fucking in a New Yorker movie review, to express his exasperation with George Lucas. In the June 13-20 issue of the same magazine, David Sedaris describes his hostile neighbor on an airplane as directing the air nozzle above her head in his direction, as "a final fuck-you before settling down for her nap". The May 26 issue of Nature printed a fictional comment on a hypothetical presidential statement about bird flu preparedness: "Ready, my ass." And according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was cringing Tuesday after he was captured on a news video a day earlier using street slang for a common vulgarity at the end of an interview with a Houston TV reporter.

"Adios, mofo," the governor said into a live microphone and video camera after being interviewed at an Austin studio via satellite by Ted Oberg of KTRK-TV. The station aired the clip, which was taped Monday afternoon, during its newscasts Tuesday and included the fact that Perry called later to apologize.

For those foreign readers whose command of American slang is incomplete, mofo is a conventional orthographic representation for a slurred fast-speech rendition of "motherfucker". The first two citations in the OED are

1967 H. S. THOMPSON Hell's Angels 33 The ‘Mofo’ club from San Francisco.
1970 R. D. ABRAHAMS Positively Black vi. 154 Soul is walkin' down the street in a way that says, ‘This is me, muh-fuh!’

At least, mofo started out that way -- I think it's now taken on its own spelling pronunciation, in the style of tsk and phooey and other such orthographic expedients.

Anyhow, given all of this, I'm slightly surprised that Language Hat was "greatly amused" that Geoff Nunberg "slipped one past whoever monitors Fresh Air for decency" in his commentary yesterday:

Unless you're one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up effortlessly, most of what you've got left of the poems you've learned is only snips and snatches—"My heart aches, and a something something pains my sense"; "I will arise and go now, and go to whatchamacallit"; "Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do."

As Hat points out

That last quote is the opening of perhaps the best-known English poem of the last few decades, Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse"; I can't imagine that anybody who's once heard or read the line "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" could possibly half-remember it as "Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad."

True for the poetry and memory, but the FCC has no regulations against on-air quotations whose (unread) context includes forbidden words. Nor is it forbidden to evoke that context with metrical placeholders like "ta tum ta tum". After all, this is more indirect than bleeping taboo words is.

Anyhow, I wonder whether the FCC will fine KTRK-TV $500,000 for each airing of Gov. Perry's valediction, as the law apparently calls on them to do:

(link) ...the term 'profane', used with respect to language, includes the words `shit', `piss', `fuck', `cunt', `asshole', and the phrases `cock sucker', `mother fucker', and `ass hole', compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).'

If so, I wonder whether the station will send the governor the bill. This would be the next logical step in what Stuart Benjamin called the FCC's "fucking brilliant regulatory strategy".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:37 AM

What did Rasheed say?

Should reporters and editors correct the language of quotations? I'm happy enough to see disfluencies removed, and I'm in favor of charity towards other sorts of speech errors (see also here and here). However, when someone says what he meant to say, I'd rather read what he said than what some reporter or editor thinks he ought to have said. I saw a possible example of journalistic standardization yesterday, in the various renditions of a basketball player's postgame interviews.

In overtime of game 5 of the NBA finals, Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace left Robert Horry unguarded in the final seconds, and Big Shot Bob hit a 3 to win the game for San Antonio. In game 6, Wallace redeemed himself by scoring 7 points in the final few minutes of a game that Detroit won. He also contributed several rebounds and a crucial steal at the end of the game. The post-game interviews made it clear that the contrast was on Rasheed's mind, or at least on his list of talking points.

From the NYT:

"I just made a bonehead play the other night," said Wallace, who finished with 16 points. "I had to put it behind me, it was over with and I had to come to play tonight.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, I just had to put it behind me," Wallace said.

From the Houston Chronicle:

"I did a bonehead play the other night," he said. "I had to put it behind me. It was over with. It was no pressure. I don't feel pressure. I had to do the things I needed to do."

From Inside Hoops:

Q. You said this morning you were talking about the play you made at the end of Game 5 and you said that you were going to be particularly going after it tonight. How emotionally did you approach the game and how do you feel you played?

Rasheed Wallace : Just went at it as another good game. Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, I had to put it behind me. It was over with, just came out and had to play tonight.

And the Toronto Sun:

"I did a bonehead play the other night (leaving the Spurs' Robert Horry open for the winning shot in Game 5), but I had to put it behind me," Wallace said.

(I'll assume that each of these reporters interviewed Rasheed separately and got a slightly different version of the same story, though of course there might have been some group Q&A or even some copying of quotations). Four of these interviews quote Wallace as saying that he "did" a bonehead play, while one quotes him as saying that he "made" a bonehead play. I wonder if that's because his usage is variable, or because one source (the New York Times) made free to correct his choice of verbs? My guess is that the NYT corrected the quote, whether as a matter of policy or because the reporter's linguistic memory just made the switch unconsciouly.

Leaving aside the ethics of modifying a quote, the NYT had good reasons to disagree with Rasheed's choice . In general, you do things but make plays:

  Yahoo Google
did a stupid thing
made a stupid thing
did a big play
made a big play

Thus Norma Loquendi seems to vote overwhelmingly for the verb choice in the NYT's version of the quote.

On the other hand, this norm is not especially logical or coherent, and its application in this case is unclear. Semantically, performing an action (even as abstract an action as failing to guard someone in the closing seconds of a basketball game) ought to be something that you do, not something that you make. And when you make a play, you're talking about succeeding at something, not neglecting or failing at something. So if Rasheed was putting words together from first principles, rather than slavishly following phrasal fashion, it makes sense for him to have said that he "did a bonehead play".

In the end, I have no idea what was really going on in Rasheed Wallace's head, or in the heads of the NYT's reporter and editors. But when I read a direct quote, I want to be able to trust the journalists to give me the words that the source actually used.

[ Update: Richard Hershberger points out by email that the variant forms of Rasheed's quote, whether with "did a bonehead play" or "made a bonehead play", might well represent different re-imaginings by different reporters rather than slightly different performances by Rasheed himself:

I was interested to read your recent Lanuage Log post on reporting of what Rasheed Wallace actually said. Remember back in 2002 when both Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer were injured, so A.J. Feeley, the third string quarterback for the Eagles, played several games. In one of these, the offensive line prevented him from being sacked. At the post-game news conference he was jokingly asked if he was going to buy gifts for the linemen, as is sometimes done. He jokingly responded (with the subtext being that as a third stringer he doesn't make much money) with, depending on which newspaper you read:

"On my salary, I'll take them out to Wendy's for a cheeseburger," Feeley said. "Make it a limit of one." (Inquirer)

"With my salary, I'll take 'em out to Wendy's for a cheeseburger," Feeley said, flashing his perfect smile for the cameras. "And they get limited to one...the Happy Meal." (Daily News)

"With my salary," he said, "I can take them all out to Wendy's for dinner. Limit them each to one cheeseburger." (New York Times)

This caught my attention because I watched that news conference on TV, and what I read the next day wasn't
what I remembered. So I did a compare-and-contrast and took notes. This was at a formal, recorded news
conference, not serial impromptu interviews in the locker room. Any reporter could have reviewed the tape to get the quote right. It was an additional nail in the coffin of my opinion of the media. It's not bias I worry about: it is competence.

I agree. This case seems harmless -- it's just sports, after all, and the different forms of the quote mean pretty much the same thing. But if journalists present a direct quote, it ought to be a direct quote. And in this day of digital electronic recording devices, it's trivial to get quotes right. The fact that journalists don't bother even to try to do this does seem to be a matter of laziness rising to the level of incompetence. ]

[Update #2 -- Edward Garrett emailed:

You can find postgame interviews from the NBA finals here: http://www.nba.com/finals2005/video.html

I just watched Rasheed Wallace's interview. Inside Hoops has it right. Here's what he said:

"Just went at it as another good game. Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, had to put it behind me. It was over with, just came out and had to play tonight."

I've transcribed it differently from Inside Hoops in only one way: I don't think he said the "I" in "I had to put..."

You write:

(I'll assume that each of these reporters interviewed Rasheed separately and got a slightly different version of the same story, though of course there might have been some group Q&A or even some copying of quotations)

No, in fact, this isn't how things work. the players are interviewed one after another by the media as a whole, and most of the quotes in articles that you read end up coming from these extended sessions. So it's virtually certain that these guys are all quoting the same quote.

In fact, given Wallace's general disdain for the media, it's unlikely that he said the same thing twice. In today's NY Times, there is an article about him and Duncan that includes the following:

Yesterday, for example, Wallace came half an hour late to a scheduled interview feast, where reporters ask the questions we've asked all week and players give the answers they've given all week. Wallace finally arrived, left to change shoes, came back, put his clothes down, then finally came to the podium, where reporters stood with notebooks out, cameras rolling.

He asked what we wanted. Somebody asked what he was listening to.


How will San Antonio adjust to Detroit's defense against Duncan? Wallace said that would be the Spurs' problem.

There were a few more questions, but basically the "interview" was over, and there was plenty of grumbling by reporters. Yet, if Detroit wins Game 7, Wallace should be the most valuable player of the finals.

OK, that nails it: journalistic laziness rising to the level of incompetence. I know from personal experience that "quotes" in non-sports stories can sometimes be semi-fabricated to an even greater extent. But the striking thing about these examples is that there's no real point to the fabrication -- they don't make the story better or simpler or clearer. The only value seems to be to save the reporter a few seconds of work. ]

[More here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:55 AM

June 22, 2005

Enforcer Syndrome (pre-adolescent phase)

enforcer Sometimes the signs can be observed at a young age.  Unfortunately, no truly effective treatment has yet been found.  Here's a report of a case with especially florid symptoms, from A. J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All, p. 177:

    Grandma starts passing around the bowls of food.  "This is less potatoes than usual," she apologizes.
    [Jacobs's 11-year-old cousin] Douglas suddenly stops pecking away on his computer and looks up.
    "Hold it!" he says.  "That's incorrect!"  Douglas takes out a piece of paper and pencil, checks something off, then leans across the table and slides the paper toward Grandma.
    I pick it up.  It's something called a "grammar citation."  It's got a list of grammar infractions like "free gift" and " 'impact' misused as a verb."  Douglas has checked off a box that says " 'fewer/less' abuse."  Apparently, grandma should have said "fewer potatoes than usual" instead of "less potatoes than usual."
    "Douglas has gotten into grammar," explains Jane [his mother].  "He's an officer in something called the grammar police."
    "Word police," corrects Douglas.
    "Isn't that something," says Grandma, chuckling.
    "He gave a citation to his teacher last week," says Jane.
    "What'd she do?" says Grandpa.
    "She said, 'Between you and I.' " replies Douglas.  He shakes his head, no doubt feeling both sorrow and pity at her pronoun abuse.

What to do?  What to do?  Throttling him is illegal, and gagging him surely counts as child abuse.  Some authorities recommend a studied absolute failure to respond: just ignore the symptoms.  Other authorities report that the silent treatment fails to dampen the manifestations of the syndrome and may in fact exacerbate them.  It is known that the condition can persist throughout life; David Foster Wallace, for instance, is an admitted sufferer from Adult Enforcer Syndrome.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 12:53 PM

Protesting words

British potato farmers want 'couch potato' removed from the OED, according to The Times, the AP and others. Farmers, flacks and a celebrity chef demonstrated outside Parliament yesterday, in what may be the first such protest in the annals of lexicographic politics.

"The potato industry are fed up with the disservice that 'couch potato' does to our product when we have an inherently healthy product," said Kathryn Race, head of marketing at the British Potato Council, a body set up by the government to run advertising campaigns promoting potato consumption and research issues linked to the vegetable.

Ms. Race says that the BPC "[wrote] to the Oxford English Dictionary stating its objections but had not yet had a response." The AP reporter, Emily Rotberg, called the OED's chief editor, John Simpson, and got his response:

"Inclusion is based on currency of the term rather than on the basis of what people want us to put in the dictionary," he said. "When people blame words they are actually blaming the society that uses them."

This is great PR all around -- good for potatoes, good for dictionaries, good for the news outlets (153 of whom have picked this story up, according to Google News). Since the words for many farm animals, common crops and food products have uses with negative connotations, you'd think that the tactic ought to be widely imitated. However, it's not going to work out so well in other cases.

In the U.S., the National Cattleman's Beef Association may feel that it's uncattlemanly to whine about the negative connotations of cow, bull and cattle. For the National Corn Growers Association, corny may not rise above the level of annoyance. The National Chicken Council certainly has a beef with chicken in the sense of "coward", since fighting cocks are the epitome of suicidal courage, but cockfighting is illegal in the U.S. and is widely felt to be un-american as well. And there is no single U.S. dictionary that has the status of the OED in defining what counts as a word of English.

In contrast, there are many countries in continental Europe where there is an official Academy or similar body that is nominally entitled to legislate or adjudicate usage in the standard national language. And I suspect that it's a linguistic universal for farm animals, crops and food products to figure in terms of disdain and abuse. Still, I don't expect to see PR groups organizing demonstrations addressed to the Académie Française, the Institut für Deutsche Sprache, or the Svenska Språknämnden in order to petition for rectification of the negative connotations of particular food-industry-associated words.

What's special about "couch potato", of course, is the health angle. The goal of the British Potato Council was to feature the potato's role in a healthy lifestyle, countering the effects of carb-counting. As John Simpson put it, "I think the potato has taken a bit of a mashing after the Atkins diet." Still, I like the idea of a worldwide series of protests against the negative connotations of common animal and plant words.

[Update: Paul Bickert points out by email that

A few years ago, after a well-publicized epidemic of Salmonella poisonings, spokesmen for the salmon-processing industries tried to get the name of the bacterium changed to "Sanella". Unfortunately for them, the bug wasn't named after the fish but after the researcher who identified it, one Daniel Elmer Salmon; and the learned societies weren't about to deprive him of posthumous eponymic glory.

Also, Son1 at Quantum of Wantum points out that a number of cattle industry groups sued Oprah Winfrey a few years ago, over mad cow talk on her show. I don't think that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association actually sued her, but they weren't happy. This case, as I understand it, wound up being a test of the Texas "False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act". Although Oprah was vindicated by the courts on the grounds that "exaggeration does not equal defamation", along with some question about whether live cattle are perishable food or not, I believe that the statute is still on the books, so maybe the American equivalent of demonstrating in front of the Parliament building would be to sue for disparagement of potatoes.

Finally, Ben Zimmer reminded me that McDonalds tried to get Merriam-Webster to pull McJobs from the 11th Collegiate, but failed. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:00 AM

June 21, 2005

A recipe for WTF coordination

recipe Kathryn Campbell-Kibler wrote me (on 8 June 2005) with an example from the most recent Cook's Illustrated, where a bit of recipe register has escaped into otherwise ordinary English prose, yielding a decidedly odd coordination, and causing me to reflect some on what it means to say that this example is "telegraphic".

Kcat, as she is known to her friends, reports:
In the "Quick tips" section, it says "Instead of letting any of the smoothie left behind in the blender melt and go to waste, Marya Skrypiczajiko of Nelson, British Columbia, freezes it in Popsicle molds (or 3-ounce waxed paper cups).  She lets the "pops" freeze partway before placing a Popsicle stick in the middle, and freezes them till firm and someone wants a quick snack. "

Two issues here.  One is the importation of a feature of the recipe register into otherwise ordinary English prose.  This sort of thing happens a lot: features of other dialects, other styles, special registers, other languages even, find their way onto novel terrain, where they are deployed for some effect.  Sometimes, for example, people talking or writing about cooking will inserts bits of recipe register into their discourses, in effect quoting the register and evoking its careful instructional tone.

In this case the feature is Recipe Subject+Copula Omission (RSCO for short), in which till firm is understood as till SUBJECT COPULA firm, for contextually appropriate values of SUBJECT and COPULA.

Note: I'm going to sidestep the question of whether RSCO is a construction of its own or a register-specific extension of ordinary SCO, illustrated in free adjuncts like those below:
While turning the handle, Kim noticed a crack in it.
Though finished with the talk, Terry remained on the stage.
While/Though persistent, Sandy was no match for the baby.
What's important is that till firm in freezes till firm is a recipe-register thing, a bit of "telegraphic" English not normally found outside abbreviated written instructions.

Now, the syntactic issue, which concerns
(1)  ??till firm and someone wants a quick snack
in which an AdjP firm is conjoined with a clause someone wants a quick snack.  The intended interpretation is that of
(2)  till they [the "pops"] are firm and someone wants a quick snack
That is, the pops are to stay in the freezer until both these conditions are satisfied.

(Please do not write me about till vs. until vs., ugh, 'til.  If till troubles you, just replace it by until in all of its occurrences in my text and read on.)

A coordination of parallel predicatives would certainly be possible:
till firm and wanted as a quick snack
(with shared understood subjects).  And so would the version in (2), with distinct, but explicit, subjects.  The problem is that the omitted subject doesn't match the explicit one.

The point is that the anomaly of (1) is just what we'd expect if RSCO was simply a construction of English, one that happened to be limited to occurrence in certain discourse/social contexts.  It would be like ordinary SCO examples in nonparallel coordinations:
??While turning the handle and Alex looked on, Kim noticed a crack in it.
??Though finished with the talk and Alex was ready to speak, Terry remained on stage.
??While/Though persistent and the rest of the family was supportive, Sandy was no match for the baby.

The anomaly of (1) is unexpected only if you take the idea of "telegraphic" language very literally -- if you assume that what is said or written is MERELY an abbreviation of a longer expression, in the way that $4 is a mere abbreviation for four dollars and has the same external syntax as it.  On that assumption, (1) is just an encoding of (2), so that the anomaly of (1) is a surprise.

In general, register-specific constructions are fully integrated into the language -- just as register-specific lexical items are -- and must fit into the syntax of their surroundings.  No doubt very few people have thought otherwise, but it's always nice to have an argument.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 06:03 PM

But how can you buy or sell a literary invention?

The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the text and the sparkle of its words, how can you buy them?

Richard "free software" Stallman has an article in the Guardian describing the dangers of a current move in Europe on extensions of patent law in the software domain. He has a cute take on how to make the issues more comprehensible even to those with skulls as thick as a Euro-politicians - an analogy with literary copyright law. Hugo's Les Misérables, he argues, would not have been publishable if anyone had patented the following:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents, in the mind of a reader, the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time and becomes bitter towards society and humankind.

Claim 2: a communication process according to claim 1, wherein said character subsequently finds moral redemption through the kindness of another.

Claim 3: a communication process according to claims 1 and 2, wherein said character changes his name during the story.

I gather that Stallman chooses Hugo as his example because it was Hugo who was one of the earliest advocates of patent law, proposing an extension of already extant copyright law to other domains - see this piece on Hugo by Geoffrey Barto. Stallman also suggests some even more general potential literary patents:

Communication process structured with narration that continues through many pages.

A narration structure sometimes resembling a fugue or improvisation.

Intrigue articulated around the confrontation of specific characters, each in turn setting traps for the others.

I'm not able to say whether the literary patent analogy is apt for current extensions of Euro patent law into the software domain, but the concept of a literary patent is fun. I'm reminded of this discussion of a real literary patent involving 68 claims: fortunately it protects a device which would do nothing whatsoever to enrich our language or literature.

I wonder what literary patents would cover this blog entry? A general patent on the quoting or paraphrasing of others would do the trick. My title and teaser, of course, paraphrase words standardly mis-attributed to Chief Seattle. Now there's a patentable idea: mis-attribution. If I could earn a cent for every published mis-attribution, I'd soon be able to build myself a penthouse on top of the Liberman suite in Language Log Plaza's Infinity Tower, so my address would be infinity + 1. And when I'm at the literary patent office, I'm gonna take out a patent on one of the most popular literary devices in academia: plagiarism. Yeah, there may be prior art, but who is going to own up to it? Soon, I will plagiarize freely and legally, while everybody else will have to ask my permission.

Posted by David Beaver at 02:49 PM

The CliffsNotes version

cliffsnotes I suppose it's foolish to expect good advice from CliffsNotes, a series that isn't willing to supply the appropriate apostrophe in its own name -- there was a real Cliff, founder Cliff Hillegass (1918-2001) -- but on stranded prepositions CliffsQuickReview (an antipathy to apostrophes and spacing between words seems to be widespread in this division of Wiley Publishing) Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style (by Jean Eggenshwiler & Emily Dotson Briggs, 2001) achieves a stunning amalgam of inaccuracy and unhelpfulness.  Not to mention poor writing.

The advice, in toto (p. 51):

Ending a sentence with a preposition can cause problems.  The rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition is no longer strictly enforced.  Still, many writers avoid ending sentences with prepositions, which is generally a good idea.  But use your own judgment.  If you feel ending with a preposition makes a particular sentence more natural, do so and don't worry about it.

Ok, five sentences, four of them with some variant of "end (a sentence) with a preposition" in them.  I'm sorry, that's just too many repetitions.  It's like ringing a damn bell again and again.  But even that amount of repetition isn't enough to smooth the transition from the first sentence to the second.  Then there's the which clause in the third sentence: is it generally a good idea, in the writers' view, to end sentences with prepositions, or to avoid ending sentences with prepositions?  Clearly, they intend the latter interpretation, but as it stands the sentence is an example of the sort of indefinite-antecedent which they warn about elsewhere in the manual.

So much for the form of the advice.  The content is even worse. 

Sentence one: I know of no evidence that stranding prepositions causes "problems" in anybody's writing; I've seen no examples where stranding a preposition has produced difficulties in interpretation, and I'll bet Eggenschwiler & Biggs have no such examples from real life.  (Of course, you can invent examples with ungrammatical strandings in them, but if people aren't inclined to strand in these situations they don't need advice on where to put their prepositions.)  In real life, awkward or even ungrammatical FRONTINGS do occur, though, as an unfortunate consequence of Dryden's Rule, to which I now turn.  Ok, but not before I give an example of a really bad fronting, from LaTeX documentation (thanks to Geoff Pullum, who sent me this gem on 28 August 2002):

The graphics backend driver now knows with what you are TeXing the document, so it can go out and look for the file with an admissible extension...

Sentence two states Dryden's Rule (in a common, but inadequate, formulation) and presupposes that it used to be "strictly enforced", whatever that means.  This is just false.  English, whether spoken or written, has never obeyed Dryden's Rule.  There has been no lowering of standards, no falling away from some golden age of order and regulation in the world of prepositions.

Sentence three maintains that "many writers avoid ending sentences with prepositions", a claim that is probably also false.  I doubt that the number of non-stranding writers is very high, and I'm sure they don't consistently avoid stranding.  Just look at actual writing.

And then we get the advice: Dryden's Rule is generally a good thing, but you should do whatever feels right to you.  This is monumentally unhelpful.  If I find that I am about to strand a preposition in my writing, well, then, it felt natural to me, so why should I consider rewriting my sentence so as to front the preposition?  As far as I can see, the only effect of this advice is to mess with students' minds by inducing Preposition Anxiety.  There's enough of that going around already.

The CliffsNotes volumes are supposed to function as guides to "the basics" (that's what Hillegass's "Note to the Reader", inside the front cover of each book, says).  They are a souped-up version of the Classic Comics/Classics Illustrated volumes that they drove out of business.  (I have an enormous fondness for these comics.  But of course as guides to literature they were hopeless, since they translated prose into a very different, largely visual, medium and drastically chopped plot lines and character development to fit everything into a 64-page format.  Hmm... Now I'm trying to imagine the Classics Illustrated version of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)  Souped-up in the sense that they present themselves as both accurate and useful.  (The most that the Classics Illustrated people said for their comics was that they might encourage kids to read the original literature.  I was once, and only once, led to an original in this fashion: W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions.  It hadn't occurred to me that the prose might be even more overheated than the comic book.  It was not a good date.)

I have no idea how the other CliffsQuickReview volumes measure up on the accuracy and usefulness scales, but I have to say that, on the basis of this one, I'm glad there's no Linguistics volume.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:09 PM

June 20, 2005

The care less train has left the station

According to eminent linguist and negative polarity expert John Lawler,

*They don't care less.

is an ungrammatical sentence. Even though I'm a carefree user of idioms like "I could care less", I agree with John's judgment about "don't care less." However, there's some evidence that John and I are both behind the stylistic curve on this one. The editor of Cosmopolitan, no less, has been quoted in the New York Times expressing a contrary opinion.

Well, not exactly. Kate White didn't make any meta-comments, she just used the expression in giving a quote to David Colman for his article "Gay or Straight? Hard to Tell". And she used the (generic) second person, not the third person plural. And she puts it in a conditional clause, which makes a difference. But I think it's still pretty good evidence that the Care Less Train has left the station without us:

"Have I been called gay a gazillion times?" said Robert Vonderheide, a straight man who is a sales representative for a several clothing lines in New York. "Yes. Do I give a damn? No." He added, though, that it does not happen as much lately, as he sees less difference between gay and straight men in terms of how they express masculinity outside the bedroom.

"If you don't care less, it just adds to your appeal now," said Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan. She pointed out that Seth, the sensitive, moody character played by Adam Brody on "The O.C.," who is constantly razzed by the straight jocks on the show for seeming gay, has become the surprise heartthrob among viewers. [emphasis added]

In fact, Ms. White's usage is entirely in keeping with John Lawler's Negation by Association theory, discussed and linked here. On this view, "care less" is becoming an emphatic negative form of "care", sometimes used with an explicit negative morpheme, and sometimes carrying the burden of negation all by itself.

And in keeping with my recent policy of assembling a topical index to Language Log, one topic at a time, here's the rest of our Care Less Archive...

Negated or not (Chris Potts)
Why are negations so easy to fail to miss? (Mark Liberman)
Lederer should care less (Eric Bakovic)
Caring less with stress (Mark Liberman)
Still on the hook (Eric Bakovic)
Could care less occurs more (Mark Liberman)
Negation by association (Mark Liberman)
Speaking sarcastically (Mark Liberman)
(Auto)biography of a blog thread (Eric Bakovic)
Most of the people in the world could care less (Mark Liberman)
Caring less all the time: A variant of the etymological fallacy, and some cautious notes about the pragmatics-phonetics connection (Arnold Zwicky)
Wrong for so long (Mark Liberman)
The future of the history of usage (Mark Liberman)

[NYT reference from Tim MacDonald]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:50 PM

Even more etymological arguments

It amazes me that people find arguments from etymology (of the type Mark has recently discussed) so compelling. As Mark notes, it hardly matters whether the etymologies are correct or bogus; the point is that they are not legitimate arguments for the kinds of things that some people seem to use them for.

So what are etymological arguments good for? Aren't they at least useful as answers to questions about language? Only if the question is specifically about etymology; otherwise, they're still not legitimate. Allow me to illustrate with an example.

A listener recently called in to A Way with Words, a locally-produced public radio show about language hosted by Richard Lederer and Martha Barnette. The listener asked:

My question is about the letter b in words such as plumb and catacomb, the origin or the sou-- why there's no sound.

(Precise quote thanks to KPBS's podcasting feeds.)

Richard and Martha were quick to pull out their dictionaries in order to provide the listener with an answer. (One wonders why the listener couldn't just pull out a dictionary himself, but one wonders this of virtually everyone who calls the show.) And, surprise surprise, according to the etymological portions of the relevant dictionary definitions, the silent b in these and other words used to be pronounced. That was the entire answer to the listener's question, and the listener was apparently very satisfied with it.

But ask yourself: how does this answer the listener's question? Sure, he now knows a little something about the "origin" of the silent b -- it used to really be pronounced. But what about the other part of his question: "why [is there] no sound"? Richard and Martha don't even seem to be aware that this is a separate question with a separate answer, and the listener, having received an answer from these self-proclaimed linguistic authorities, will never know.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 01:10 PM

June 19, 2005

Etymology as argument again

Russell Shorto's article on gay marriage in the 6/19/2005 NYT magazine quotes Brian Racer of the Open Door Bible Church as presenting an example of the argument-from-etymology that I recently posted about:

''The Hebrew words for male and female are actually the words for the male and female genital parts,'' he told me. ''The male is the piercer; the female is the pierced. That is the way God designed it. It's unfortunate that homosexuals have taken the moniker 'gay,' because their lifestyle and its consequences are anything but. Look what has happened in the decades since the sexual revolution and acceptance of the gay lifestyle as normal. Viruses have mutated. S.T.D.'s have spread. It shows that when we try to change the natural course of things, what comes out of that is not joy or gayness.''

Focusing only on the male=piercer, female=pierced part, we have several strands to untangle here. There's the use of philological arguments in the exegesis of sacred texts, which is valid in principle (though dubious to say the least in this case). But as quoted by Shorto, the Rev. Racer is not trying to tell us how to interpret Genesis 5.2 correctly. He's framing an argument about the proper role of the sexes in sex, or something like that. As in the example of the Rev. Jakes' argument about forgiveness in Greek, it seems that appeals to etymology in scriptural languages are felt to retain some residual rhetorical force, even when no specific scriptural citations are at issue.

And as in the Greek forgiveness case, the Hebrew male and female story seems to be a weak one at best. I assume that the Rev. Racer is in fact referring indirectly to Genesis 5.2, so let's take that as the basis for choosing which Hebrew words for male and female to look at:

male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

And I assume that Racer's preferred method of linguistic exegesis would be to use Strong's Numbers, which will tell us that the words for male and female in Genesis 5.2 are (in Strong's rendering) zkr -- Strong's Number 02145, definition "male (of humans and animals)" -- and hbqn -- Strong's Number 05347, definition "woman, female child" or "female animal". zkr is said to be derived from the "primitive root" rkz, Strong's Number 02142, definition "to remember, recall, call to mind", while hbqn is said to be derived from the primitive root bqn, Strong's Number 05344, meaning "to pierce, perforate, bore, appoint".

Uri Horesh, a linguist who knows Hebrew well, emailed this as a comment on the quote from Racer:

The word for 'female', /nekeva/, is of the same root as /nekev/, 'puncture', presumably indicative of the vagina. As for the word for 'male', /zaxar/, I cannot see any connection with anything having to do with a penis. It's of the same root as the verb 'remember' (and in fact, in Modern Israeli Hebrew they're homophones [no pun intended]; in older varieties of Hebrew there were two different /a/ vowels, distinguished by either length or height).

This agrees with my guess that the words at issue at those in Genesis 5.2, and with Strong about the derivation of those words. Apparently Racer remembered the "puncture" part and fantasized the rest. It's interesting that people who favor arguments from authority are so careless about what the authoritative sources actually say.

While I would be the last person to argue against using linguistic methods in textual interpretation, I'm very skeptical about the idea of transmuting etymology into philosophy. Taking the glosses given by Strong, perhaps the Hebrew etymologies for male and female should lead us instead to a theological position in which women get appointed, and men's dominance is just a memory? We can tie this further to the old theory that relates the Latin source of English male, which is mas (masculus was a diminutive form) to an Indoeuropean origin connected to a word for thinking or remembering. As Lewis & Short have it, mas is "prob. from Sanscr. root man, think; manus, man, human being; cf.: memini, moneo, etc.". Well, I think that the alleged IE connections between words for thinking and words like man and male are now generally rejected, and there's a lot more to be said about words for the sexes in classical languages, where I'm no kind of expert, but in any case this whole style of argument is silly, even when the philology is right.

[Link to Shorto's story by email from Eh Nonymous at the Unused and Probably Unusable blawg]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:13 PM


girllost News stories sometimes begin in medias res, to create a sense of vividness.  Occasionally, alas, they end in medias res, when a story that's being narrated in chronological order is cut off before resolution, presumably to make the story fit into the available space.  A case in point: the cliffhanging tale of Little Girl Lost, from the Palo Alto Daily News of 6/16/05, reprinted here in its entirety.

Police seek carjacking suspect

Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies are searching for the suspect in a home burglary and subsequent carjacking that occurred earlier this month in east San Jose, according to Deputy Terrance Helm.

The suspect was interrupted during a burglary attempt on June 4 at a home near the San Jose Country Club on Alum Rock Avenue.

Helm said the suspect was burglarizing the home when the home's owners returned.

As the suspect fled the home, he encountered a female resident standing next to a car in the driveway.

The suspect then brandished a small silver or chrome semi-automatic handgun and got into the vehicle.

However the suspect did not realize the woman's 8-year-old daughter was still inside the car.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

[Follow-up: Kerim Friedman, remarking that "humans have an instinctive need for narrative closure", points us to the full story on Google News; yes, the little girl got out of the car before the suspect took off in it.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 12:03 PM

June 18, 2005

Language don't get no respect

jacobs A. J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004), might have worked his way through the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (and lived to tell us about it in this book), but the very few things he remembers about his college classes aren't entirely accurate.  Language don't get no respect.

Jacobs writes engagingly, and his first name is Arnold, which is a plus in my book, but already on page 2 I gave a little cry of dismay, on reading the following:

Like many in my generation, I've watched my expensive college education [at Brown University] recede into a haze...  Off the top of my head, I recall exactly three things from my classes:

1.  When my comp lit professor outed Walt Whitman.

2.  When the radical feminist in my Spanish class infuriated the teacher by refusing to use masculine pronouns.  "La pollo."  "No, el pollo."  "La pollo."  "No, no, no, el pollo."  Et cetera.

3.  When the guy in my Nietzsche seminar raised his hand and said, "If I listen to one more minute of this, I'm going to go crazy," then promptly stood up, walked to the back of the class, and jumped out the window.  It was a ground-floor window.  But still.  It was memorable.

(I left item 3 in there because I was impressed that Jacobs spelled Nietzsche's name right.)

No, no, I moaned, not pronounsArticles, man, articles.  Did you learn nothing in Spanish?

No doubt the radical feminist also insisted on using feminine pronouns, but in these examples it's the (definite) articles that she's wielding.  Granted, in Spanish the definite articles and the third-person definite pronouns are closely related (sometimes, homophonous), but still they are grammatically distinct, and it's useful to have different labels for them.  Too bad that Mr. Know-It-All didn't remember that from his Spanish class at Brown.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 04:39 PM

Etymology as argument

Some linguistic myths are durable because they're useful: the Eskimos have an extraordinary number of different words for snow; the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the words for danger and opportunity; and so on. These myths are useful in part because they exemplify attractive ideas: language reflects experience and influences thought; acute problems can lead to new solutions. The linguistic truth of the matter is beside the point.

Geoff Pullum has observed that the Eskimo vocabulary hoax is frequently evoked in a particular rhetorical pattern: If the Eskimos have N words for snow, then the <members of group X> must have <even more than N> words for <things in some semantic field stereotypically associated with group X>. An email yesterday from Carrie Shanafelt drew my attention to a different rhetorical device that is also a common motivation for linguistic fantasy.

Carrie's example came from an episode of Oprah featuring adult women who described being raped by their fathers.

It was horrific and gruesome and I wondered how any of these women could get through each day without committing patricide. Then Oprah asked T.D. Jakes, of Potter's Touch Ministries, to explain how a person could ever get past a betrayal that awful. He said, "The word 'forgiveness,' in Greek, is the same word as 'to exhale.'" The whole audience gave a long sigh together, as if that explained everything.

Oprah (herself a victim of incestual rape) wasn't buying it. "Forgiveness is a pretty complex word in a situation in which you already love and trust your rapist. The desire to forgive can also be the desire to blame yourself and not be able to confront what's happened." (This bit is paraphrased, but her argument was along these lines.)

The weird thing was that everyone seemed to disagree with Oprah, something no one wants to do. Once Jakes pulled out the "forgiveness in Greek" (a language which the audience probably associates with the Bible, democracy, and ancient philosophy) line, it was all over for the case that these women should be hunting their dads down with lawsuits (or crossbows). I'm a rhetorician, not a linguist, and it seemed as though this little linguistic flourish of useless (or false) knowledge has somehow become quite a successful rhetorical device. I suspect this device grew up in the church, where it was probably born in legitimate word-study sermons for congregations who don't know Hebrew or Greek. Strong's Numbers can seem massively important when you first look at them.

The form of this rhetorical trope seems to be:

In <language X>, the word for <concept Y> is based on the word for <concept Z> (or perhaps, a combination of the words for <concept Z1> and <concept Z2>). Therefore, in order to understand <concept Y>, you should think in terms of <concept Z>, recognizing the deep traditional wisdom inherent in the lexicographic history of <language X>.

As John McWhorter pointed out with respect to the Mohawk word for justice, this is not an impressive philosophical argument even when its premises are true. Word meanings drift and mutate so widely that an argument of this form can be constructed, from valid examples in some language or another, for just about any pair of concepts. But as Carrie observes, the force of the argument seems to depend on the audience's willingness to accord a certain prestige or authority to the linguistic traditions in question, and so languages like Greek, Hebrew, Chinese and so on are often favored choices. Also, there are no reference works in which one can easily find a language in which the word for X is derived from the word for Y, for an arbitrary X/Y pair of interest. As a result, no appropriate and genuine etymology or usage may come to hand, and so people make one up, or at least to force some bits of lexicographic truth into a harness of falsehood.

T.D. Jakes' form of this little argument, as reported by Carrie, is that in Greek, forgiveness is exhaling. The implication, I guess, is that respiration is necessary to life, and involves a natural cycle of breathing in and breathing out; in the same way, psychic health requires a natural cycle of anger and forgiveness. Or something like that.

I'll guess that Jakes was talking about the Greek word aphesis, from aphiêmi "to send forth, discharge". Liddell and Scott give this set of glosses (put into a single list -- see the entry at Perseus for details and citations):

letting go, release; of persons, dismissal; quittance from murder; discharge from a bond; exemption from attendance, leave of absence; exemption from service; remission of a debt; forgiveness; relaxation, exhaustion; divorce; starting of horses in a race; hence, starting-post itself; metaph., the first start, beginning of anything; discharge, emission; discharge, release of an engine; release; hence, in concrete sense, conduit, sluice;

Forgiveness is in there, but breathing out is not (though it wouldn't be a surprise to find that word whose basic meaning is "letting go" was used at some point to refer to exhalation). I doubt that Jakes could have won any converts by saying "The word forgiveness, in Greek, is the same word as letting go." Bringing in breathing out evokes the natural inevitability of a cycle essential to life. You can't hold your breath forever; sooner or later you have to forgive.

It's important to distinguish this argument-by-metaphor from the common argument-from-word-history, where we try to shed some light on a concept or institution by examining the history of the terms used to refer to it. Here the historical facts are at least relevant to the topic under discussion, and the audience is free to take them for whatever they may be worth.

In the case of the argument-by-metaphor-from-a-random-language, the only point is to offer some authority for an interpretative frame that ought to stand or fall on its own merits. The alleged patterns of Greek word usage aren't relevant to Jakes' argument about forgiveness as exhaling. If Jakes were right about aphesis, it shouldn't help his case. The fact that he's wrong (at least for classical Greek) shouldn't harm it -- maybe he's right about forgiveness in Lappish or Tibetan or Pottawatomi. But Carrie has put her finger on a rhetorical truth: lexicographical exegesis is usually an effective way to introduce an interpretive frame. At some level, we all believe that etymology is destiny.

[By the way, the Strong's Numbers that Carrie mentions are "numbers given to words in the Bible by Dr. James Strong for his Exhaustive Concordance, first published in 1890". You can explore the system in detail here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:05 AM

Vietnamese restaurant and Google threaten strike?

I was in the Dakao Vietnamese restaurant/snack bar in San Jose yesterday and saw the following sign:

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

I had an image of the serving staff having a collective bad hair day and refusing to serve anyone. Not the intended reading of course. Whereas my reading has them potentially giving no service to anyone (at all), on the intended reading they reserve the right to give anyone (they choose) no service.

This is a classic case of the difference between what semanticists call "free choice any" and "negative polarity any". The free choice any is the intended one, and you find it in sentences like: she can do anything and anyone can be a semanticist. In this case, the sentence is of the form we reserve the right to do X to anyone, where the X that will get done in this case is refusing service. It is relevant that reserving the right is an action implying plenty of choice. Suppose the potential refusal was not a matter of free choice by the refuser, but instead was externally mandated. In that case, a quite different effect would have resulted, and my zero service reading would be much more prominent:

We have been instructed to refuse service to anyone.

Negative polarity any, as the name suggests, is found in negative contexts. Often these involve explicit negation, as in I don't like anything on the menu. But sometimes the negativity is more subtle, as in I doubt I'll eat anything, I regret I ate anything or indeed I refuse to eat anything. There is a nice literature on what exactly makes words like doubt, regret and refuse sufficiently negative, but I'll leave that for another time. What matters here is that in negative contexts, we often get a negative polarity reading of any, with a result that has a universal flavor: if you don't eat anything, then everything is such that it does not get eaten. And though there remains disagreement as to whether these are really distinct meanings of any (or, in this case, anyone), the difference between the readings of sentences including these words is uncontroversial. Incidentally, Language Loggers have written about negative polarity several times: see e.g. this discussion of Mark's.

The restaurant's formula turns out to be an incredibly common one. Google claims it can find 102,000 occurrences of the quoted string refuse service to anyone, and as far as I know its web crawling technology does not yet include restaurant walls. Google itself includes the following terms on its Google Answers service:

Further Google reserves the right to refuse service to anyone at any time without notice for any reason [....]

On my reading, that would be one very quiet Google.

Posted by David Beaver at 03:04 AM

June 17, 2005

Descent into the advice literature

grano In this week's mail: two observations from Stanford student Tommy Grano on the perils of the advice literature on grammar, style, and usage: one illustrating Do As I Say, Not As I Do, and one illustrating the Ad Hoc Instruction.  Both illustrate the unfortunate consequences of approaching matters of usage through (largely unarticulated) "theory", rather than by observing the practice of the relevant speakers and writers.

First, on the question of using while as a logical connective ('(al)though') rather than as a temporal connective ('during'), Grano writes:

I... had an unpleasant run-in with the advice literature a few days ago while looking for a GRE prep book. While one of them advised against using "while" as a logical connective, I promptly found two such usages in the introduction to the same book. Now how can I trust the book in other areas that I'm not as savvy about??

An excellent question.  Do As I Say, Not As I Do is regrettably prevalent, in the advice literature on language as in parental advice to the young.  People who tell you to replace every occurrence of restrictive which by that use restrictive which in their own advice manuals.  People who tell you that possessives can't be antecedents for pronouns use possessives this way in THEIR manuals.  People who tell you not to strand prepositions strand them all over the place; I mean, nobody says or writes things like Of what could you have been thinking when you wrote that?  And on and on.

We're dealing with self-delusion here.  The advisers have an explicitly formulated "rule", which they subscribe to so thoroughly that they believe they follow it themselves; in my experience, they also believe that they notice all violations of the rule (though a fair number pass by unremarked).  But in fact, when they're not consciously monitoring language, they mostly produce and process it without reference to the rule.

Why should they think they do adhere to the rule?  Usually because they believe that there is a "theoretical" basis for the rule.  In the case of logical while (and its sibling, logical since), there are two supporting assumptions: that any potential for ambiguity should be avoided, and that words should be used in their historically "original" meanings.  Now, neither of these hypotheses bears close examination, in general or in the specific case of logical while, but they are remarkably difficult to dislodge, because a great many people believe that this is the way language OUGHT to be.

On to Grano's second tale from the world of the advice manuals:

Then there was one usage book saying that in order to determine the grammaticality of a sentence, sometimes you have to add words (e.g., he's as tall as me --> *he's as tall as me am), and sometimes you have to subtract words (e.g., me and Sandy went to the store --> *me went to the store). I found that amusing...either add or subtract words, depending on which action will result in whatever judgment the book was going after.

Taken at face value, these instructions do seem entirely ad hoc.  Expand here, trim there.  Certainly, students must find this advice baffling.

But there are justifications, rarely articulated with care, that lie behind the instructions -- that there's a class of words in English (one of which is as) that occur in combination with a NP only by ellipsis from a full finite clause (with the elliptical version maintaining the formal features of the full version), and that when NPs are coordinated, each must be separately licensed in the context for the whole coordination.  Indeed, these justifications are widely assumed to be, in some sense, universal, because they are taken to be logical necessities; this is the way language HAS to be.  Once again, the "theoretical" justifications don't bear close examination, but they are remarkably difficult to dislodge, because they seem almost self-evident to many people.

As a piece of practical advice, what I say to students preparing for these exams is that they should get as many questions as they can from actual exams (with answers) and study them to see what points of grammar, style, and usage are in fact being tested.  Their task is to psych out the exam; the details of real (formal standard written) English aren't exactly irrelevant, but when the crunch comes these details might have to be set aside in favor of learning arbitrary stipulations.  It doesn't please me to be giving such advice; I'm appalled at the way "grammar" is taught and tested.  But to urge students to revolt at exam time would only be to disadvantage them.  They are not the part of the system that needs changing.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:45 PM

The case of the mysterious vanishing [i]

In yesterday's NYT Fashion and Style section, there's an article by Ruth La Ferla on the rise, fall and rise of Oribe Canales. He's clearly a hairdresser, and apparently -- both by name and by various clues in the article -- of Latino origin. The weird thing is how La Ferla tells us to pronounce his name:

Grand enough himself to go by his first name only, Oribe (pronounced OR-bay) was seized by a burst of cocaine-fired inspiration.

It seems to me that "Oribe" should be pronounced (in NYT-ish pseudo dictionary pronunciationese) as or-EE-bay; or in IPA as [oˈri.βe]. I don't have any expertise in the matter, but a couple of native speakers of Spanish agree with me, and so (for whatever it's worth) does the Columbia Encyclopedia's entry for Manuel Oribe, president of Uruguay from 1834 to 1838.

I'm willing to believe that there's some variant of Spanish -- Cuban? -- where the normally-stressed vowel of Oribe is deleted, with stress shifted back to the initial syllable. If that's really true, I know some phonologists who would be very interested. The alternative is that La Ferla (or some NYT editor) just misheard. Perhaps the [i] followed a tapped [r] seemed to them like a trilled [r]? If you know anything about this, please let me know.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:48 AM

June 15, 2005

Job opportunity: joke checker at McSweeney's

Andrew Golden has an article at McSweeney's Internet Tendency entitled "An Episode of Star Trek Tediously Written for an Audience Entirely Composed of Remote Amazon Tribesmen". It's not clear whether the tribeswomen are allowed in the audience or not, but that's not the only problem here. In fact, essentially every factual premise of this joke is wrong.

The tribe cited is the Yanomami; and the gag has to do with numbers larger than seven. However, it's the Pirahã and the Mundurucú who have been cited as having issues with counting -- and seven was not the crucial barrier (see LL posts here, here, here, here, here, here etc. for discussion and links). After a few minutes of web searching, I couldn't establish one way or another whether the Yanomami are used to counting above seven. However, I suspect that at least these days, basic arithmetic is not a problem for most of them, since they are much more numerous (17,653 vs. 150) and more accessible than the Pirahã, and it doesn't seem to make sense for folks like Peter Gordon to study counting skills among a remote remnant if a much larger and more accessible group has the same properties.

My guess is that Andrew Golden invented the premise of the joke: how to get Star Trek across to people who don't really deal with numbers. And he vaguely remembered something about some Amazon tribes who can't count. But he couldn't really remember who they were, and couldn't be bothered to look it up, so he plugged {primitive amazon tribe} (or something like that) into Google and took the first name that came up: the Yanomami. And he couldn't remember exactly what the counting problems were, but he dimly recalled a college psychology course where George Miller's famous essay on "The Maginal Number Seven" was discussed, so he figured it must be that the primitive Amazonians can't count past seven.

He was wrong on all counts. This is not the first evidence that McSweeney's needs a joke checker.

I know, it's just a joke. But if a joke make obviously factual assumptions in passing (say, that Kansas is east of Missouri, or that Jacques Chirac is a leader of the socialist party), and these assumptions have nothing to do with the funny part of the joke, then it kind of spoils the fun. Especially if the funny part is supposed to be about how some people are ignorant of elementary facts and skills.

[McSweeney's article via email from Nicole Finch]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:46 PM

June 14, 2005

Language, trade and sex

The orthographically diverse Ste(x)ens of 'Freakonomics' -- Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt -- devoted their June 5 NYT column to language and monkey sex. Well, not really. It's about research by Keith Chen and Lauri Santos at Yale to teach capuchin monkeys to use money. After "several months of rudimentary repetition", the monkeys learned that one-inch silver disks with a central hole "were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day". Chen and Santos were then able to experiment with price shocks, wealth shocks, gambling games and so on. And along the way, the monkeys began on their own to exchange money for sex:

Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

The authors primly observe that "it wouldn't reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel", and tell us that "Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it", though we don't learn what methods the monkey vice squad uses. This is a curious intervention, since capuchins in the state of nature apparently trade food for sex as a matter of course, or at least share food and other favors, including sex, in ways that appear to involve calcuations of reciprocal benefits. Thus prostitution -- if that's what we should call this -- is OK in Yale's monkey cages, but only for in-kind payments, not for symbolic ones.

Kerim Friedman at Savage Minds picked up on the symbolic aspect of such exchanges:

...money is a form of symbolic communication. As such, it meets several of Charles Hockett’s design features for comparing animal and human communication: interchangeability, arbitrariness, discreteness, displacement, and learnability.

But I'm not sure that the silver disks are really relevant here. Dubner and Levitt start their article with the famous quote from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations about how "Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that" [Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2]. What seems to contradict Smith is that capuchins sometimes trade food for sex: "this (marshmallow) is mine, that (redacted) is yours; I am willing to give this for that".

The silver disks don't really change this communication -- if it is one -- in any essential way. The displacement of reward from a grape to a coin makes the exchange seem more anthropomorphic, but this seems like a bit of a presentational trick to me. We're not so surprised to learn that monkeys (as well as other animals) can be taught (by "months of rudimentary repetition") to associate some arbitrary counter with food rewards, and to work for such tokens more or less as if they were pieces of the associated food. When a monkey, on his own, uses one of these counters in a natural exchange with another monkey as if it were a piece of food, this seems very human. But we could alternatively see this "displacement" as analogous to what happens when a monkey learns that marshmallows -- which don't occur in the state of nature -- are good to eat, and therefore begins to value them as if they were especially yummy pieces of fruit. For the monkeys, the coins are arguably just a more complicated kind of fruit, one which you've got to take to the experimenter to peel.

Adam Smith begins his chapter by wondering whether human's "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" is "one of those original principles in human nature of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech". But normal capuchin sharing is apparently much more diffuse -- animals share food with others that they like or fear, or who have things they want. You could call this a general "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another", but it's not very specific or contractual. It's not at all clear that the cited instance of Capuchin "prostitution" was more than another example of this general kind of "be nice to others so that they'll be nice to you" kind of behavior.

The main point of the Chen and Santos experiments is to show that capuchins can learn to engage in a wider variety of behaviors that look like human economic transactions. In my view, this is yet another interesting demonstration that non-human mammals have more of the basic abilities required for speech and language than one might have thought. Each discovery of this kind makes it all the more puzzling to me that non-human animals never seem to take those next few, small, logical steps towards effective communication, without "months of rudimentary repetition" in the laboratory.

[For some background on the relevant parts of capuchin monkeys' cognitive landscape, see Frans de Waal and Jason Davis, "Capuchin cognitive ecology: cooperation based on projected returns", Neuropsychologia 41 (2003) 221–228.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:08 AM

June 13, 2005

Burger is as burgher does?

R Devraj at Dick & Garlick links to a post on Engdu at The Bezels of Wisdom, which mentions the slang term burger:

A TV show of the 80s assumed that a burger was the apogee of western sophistication. Today a "burger" refers to any westernised Pakistani (like me ?) in a derisory but humourous manner.

Devraj also cites a GupShup web forum thread that discusses the differences among the terms burger, abcd, mommy/daddy, tapori, anglo, tommy, paindoo, and more. The forum participants variously use the spellings "burgher", "burg(h)er", "burger" and "burghar", indicating some etymological uncertainty. In particular, there's an obvious connection to burgher in the sense "A comfortable or complacent member of the middle class" with burger the characteristically American sandwich, perhaps with some residue of a special Sri Lankan sense of burgher, glossed in Hobson Jobson as follows:

The Dutch admitted people of mixt descent to a kind of citizenship, and these people were distinguished by this name from pure natives. The word now indicates any persons who claim to be of partly European descent, and is used in the same sense as 'halfcaste' and 'Eurasian' in India Proper.

Devraj adds that burger-wannabes are known as bun kebabs "after the cheap, street version of the burger", and links to an article at Chowk by Ayesha Hoda Ahmad that presents this conversation:

At a party, after two people were introduced:
First: “I live in Defence. Where do you live?”
Second: “I live in Gulistan-e-Jauhar.”
First: “What? Don’t mind but that’s a terrible place and you look the elite, you know, burger-sort.”
Second: “I used to live in Defence when I was young.”
First: “Oh, that’s why!”
The second one thinks, “So, does the shifting turn the burger into a bun kebab?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:42 AM

June 12, 2005

When does it bear X-ing?

In an earlier post, I quoted the final paragraph of a newspaper essay: "Once it would have seemed unnecessary to point out that <dubious piece of conventional wisdom>. Today, perhaps it bears reminding". I observed that the phrase "it bears reminding" deserves a post of its own. So here goes.

I associate the frame "it bears X-ing" with X = repeat or mention, and remind struck me as very odd in that context. Counts on the web confirm my intuition (these are from Yahoo):

  __ bear __ bears __ Total Ratio
(Xing to bear(s) Xing)
98 to 1
41 to 1
8,418 to 1

The phrase "bear(s) reminding" is 421 times less common than "bear(s) repeating", and 205 times less common relative to the frequency of the -ing form in question. Furthermore, some of the "bear(s) reminding" phrases turned up by the web search are spurious:

Hi, I'm Bubba the Bear reminding you to play in the Spring Battle 2002 Bubbashoes tournament May 4th @ 1pm.
"Beary Bitty Ballerina" is an adorbale vignette featuring a Marie sculpted doll and an exclusive Annette Funicello plush bear, reminding us that dancing with a friend can be beary fun!
Those who violate the NetEtiquette will receive a communication from the Oregon Bears reminding you of the BearZone rules of respect for others.
The route passed through homelands of indigenous people as well as pristine habitat for Caribou, Mountain Goats and… Grizzly Bears, reminding Steve that he was not at the top of the food chain.

On the other hand, there are certainly a few genuine "bear(s) reminding":

Does it bear reminding that Rambo films are the stuff of Hollywood fiction?
Another thing I think that does bear reminding for adult students is to wear the proper undergarments.
Secularism [...] has turned into such a bad word that it bears reminding what it really denotes.
This is probably known to all of you already, but if not, it bears reminding of: Wikipedia is a multilingual project to create a complete and accurate free content encyclopedia.

That last example brings out what I thought was going wrong with "bears reminding". Repeating and mentioning are things that people do to questions, observations, facts and so forth, whereas reminding is something that people (or things or events) do to other people. All of these verbs (can) deal with two people and some information that passes between them, but the phrasal schemata are quite different:

<person1> repeats <information> (to <person2>)
<person1> mentions <information> (to <person2>)
<person1> reminds <person2> of <information>
<person1> reminds <person2> [that S]

NOT <person1> repeats <person2> of <information>
NOT <person1> repeats <person2> [that S]
NOT <person1> mentions <person2> of <information>
NOT <person1> mentions <person2> of <information>

NOT <person1> reminds <information> (to <person2>)

We can make an analogy to structures like "It's worth X-ing that <sentence>". Again, these work well with X as mention or repeat, and badly with remind. Counts from Yahoo again:

  __ worth __ that Ratio
(Xing to worth Xing that)
26 to 1
627 to 1
5,942 to 1

So "worth reminding that" is 292 times less common than "worth mentioning that".

However, my intuition that the differences in common usage are due to the differences in verbal argument structure is not entirely supported by the evidence. Other verbs like say, explain and discuss, whose argument structure is similar to that of mention and repeat, are even less likely to occur in frames like "bear(s) X-ing" than remind is:

  __ bear __ bears __ total ratio
98 to 1
41 to 1
8,418 to 1
saying 108M 1,310 1,410 2,720 39,706 to 1
explaining 27.7M 220 190 410 67,561 to 1
discussing 24.2M 211 202 413 58,596 to 1

Although "it bears reminding" took me aback in the NYT essay quoted above, I don't have any problem with "bear(s) explaining" in web examples like these:

The title bears explaining: According to Celtic lore, the oak king is born at Beltane, during the rule of the holly king.
For those readers who are not "journos," it bears explaining that Romenesko's Media Watch page is the clearing house for professional news, gossip, etc.
Does it bear explaining that acoustic means no electric guitars and no electronica?
Frankly, this is simple enough that it doesn't bear explaining much beyond the example code.

However, I can't point to any simple frequentistic explanation for my judgments. It looks like "bear(s) repeating" and "bear(s) reminding" are common fixed expressions, and other instances of "bear(s) X-ing" are rare, independent of the argument structure of X.

[Update: Lance Nathan emailed:

I was poking idly at the "bears X-ing" construction, to see what would fall out. One result that strikingly illustrates your conclusion that this is independent of the argument structure of X is "bears disclosing":

disclosing: 3,670,000 Ghits
bear(s) disclosing: 5 Ghits (and three of those five are the same document at different URLs)

But "disclose" has, as far as I can tell, exactly the same argument structure as "repeat" and "mention".

Actually, "bear(s) investigating" gets a decent number of hits--a casual scan suggests that some of them are about bears who investigate, but not all of them. It makes sense, insofar as you have:

This bears repeating -> we should repeat this
This bears mentioning -> we should mention this
This bears reminding -> *we should remind this
This bears investigating -> we should investigate this

even though "investigate" doesn't have the structure "investigate that X (to Y)". (I tried "bear(s) wondering", but there are too many hits with clause breaks and too many typos for "bears wandering".)

One also gets a large number of hits for nominalized forms: "bear(s) mention", "bear(s) repetition", "bear(s) investigation". (There are a few non-irrelevant hits for "bear(s) reminder".)

I'd think more about what this all means, but I have this dissertation that bears writing.


[Update #2: Russell Lee-Goldman emailed:

I was reminded of something while reading your post on "it bears x-ing." There is another syntactic frame for 'bear,' namely "NP bear VP-ing," where the NP is a semantic argument ("object," if you will) of the head of the VP rather than the expletive 'it.' Thus,

this bears mentioning to the AIC membership
some clever remark which I thought bore repeating to someone back at the office.

It's just a guess, but other complements of the verb (like the addressee) may prefer to live in the inner VP when the subject of 'bear' is contentful, though of course "it bears x-ing to... that..." is not uncommon.

However, as far as I can tell, the "person2" argement of 'remind,' which is at least in the same syntactic position as "information" is with verbs like 'repeat' and 'mention,' seems very awkward in the "NP bear VP-ing" frame:

(unattested) contemporary readers bear reminding {that... / of...}

I haven't been able to find any examples like this. In fact, the number of "it bears reminding NP that..." is quite small on google. This seems like some sort of blend, where speakers want to talk about the worthiness of saying some piece of information, but the construction available "deprofiles" the addressee, so other means of squeezing in info about the addressee have to be found.

It bears observing that both Nathan and Russell used the "Subject:" heading "This bears emailing". (Well, Russell spelled it "e-mailing".)]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:25 AM

June 11, 2005

Linguists continue to get no respect

If you do a quick Google search for "animal sounds" or "animal noises", then one of your first few hits will be Cathy Ball's really fun and excellent Sounds of the World's Animals website. This site is constantly under development, accepting contributions from readers, and has been up (and recognized with various awards and such) since 1996 1995.

Which is why I was surprised to hear this story on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning.

Scott Simon interviews the creators of bzzzpeek.com, Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek. This site is similar to Cathy's, though (oddly) based on nationalities rather than languages, and with a few vehicle sounds thrown in (and actual sound files, recordings made by children from the various different countries represented). It's graphically more sophisticated than Cathy's site, but that's because the creators are graphic designers -- bzzzpeek.com redirects to a directory at FL@33 Ltd, a London-based "multi-disciplinary design studio for visual communication". The studio's news page notes that the New York Times published a story about bzzzpeek.com on June 7, which began a media mini-avalanche and, of course, more visits to their site ("Our server is smoking as the daily average of unique visitors to bzzzpeek.com is currently up to approx. 10.000 and rising (up from approx. 2.000).")

What struck me about all this was the following exchange near the end of the NPR interview:

Simon: What convinced you there was a crying need for this website?

Vollauschek: Well, we run a design studio for visual communication, and it's a good challenge for us to come up with fun projects like this one, so ...

Jacquillat: We've been actually surprised that it didn't exist.

Oh, but it did exist, and it was put together by an accomplished linguist. I'm disappointed in NPR and the Times for not not(ic)ing this. As noted above, two obvious Google searches turn up Cathy's site in the top two; bzzzpeek.com doesn't even make the first page of search results.

[Update: I wrote to Cathy Ball to ask about her Sounds of the World's Animals site. She clarified that the site went up in 1995, and that she did an interview on NPR herself -- just three years ago (05/18/02) on Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon, no less! Shame on you, Scott, for not at the very least cross-referencing one of your own interviews.]

[Cross-posted, with superficial differences, on phonoloblog.]

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 02:41 PM

A new idea about the evolution of language

Derek Bickerton has a "blog". I put the word in quotes, and I haven't added it to our blogroll yet, because so far there's only one post, from 3/25/2005. On the other hand, it's a doozy: a 12,000-word paper with 98 bibliographic references entitled "The Origin of Language in Niche Construction."

Derek's theory is that it's all about cutting up dead elephants.

In more sober and scientific wording: Language emerged because of the need to recruit and coordinate crews to help in scavenging the carcasses of naturally-deceased megafauna. On this view, our ancestors "engaged in counteractive niche construction" by turning to scavenging megafauna because

...when woodlands were replaced by grasslands, food sources other than meat (except for tubers, O’Connell et al. 1999) became much more rare. At this point, hominids engaged in counteractive niche construction (Odling-Smee et al., 2003: 46): a process in which a species counteracts an environmental change by relocating to a new environment or changing some aspect of its behavior. The new niche was a logical move for organisms that had already used stones to break open bones and (probably) digging sticks to excavate tubers. All they needed were the flakes struck off in the production of Oldowan tools.

At least by the Plio-Pleistocene boundary hominids had moved their focus from brain and bone-marrow to active scavenging and butchery (Bunn & Kroll 1987 Blumenschine 1987). The efficacy of Oldowan tools was practically demonstrated by Kathy Schick and Ray Dezzani, who used them to butcher an elephant that had died of natural causes (Schick and Toth 1993, pp. 166ff). They "were amazed as a small lava flake sliced through the steel gray skin, about one inch thick, exposing enormous quantities of rich, red elephant meat." Since "modern scavengers normally do not eat a dead elephant until it has decomposed for several days"–they can’t, their teeth cannot penetrate the skin until decay and the expansion of internal gases has split it open–"such carcasses may have provided occasional bonanzas for Early Stone Age hominids" (see also Blumenschine et al, 1994). In fact, the bonanzas may not have been so occasional.

This in turn motivated a "fission-fusion" type of social organization:

On the one hand, the scarcity of good night refuges plus the need for numbers to protect against a mass attack by nocturnal predators of the hyena class would have pushed towards large nighttime group sizes. On the other, the thin and dispersed state of food sources would have pushed towards small daytime group sizes. The optimal solution would have been for nighttime groups of, say, ~50 to split into several smaller groups for daytime foraging, then regroup at the original point of dispersal.

Derek argues that living off the carcasses of nautrally-deceased megafauna

...fulfilled all the conditions requiring recruitment. They were scattered, indeed relatively rare. Their location was unpredictable, except perhaps that in drought seasons they were somewhat likelier to be found around dried-up waterholes. They were highly transient, in that they offered a very narrow window of opportunity between the moment of death and the first rupture of skin. Post-rupture, they would have been highly dangerous, surrounded by hungry and impatient animals in considerable numbers. Indeed, prospective scavengers may have start arriving well ahead of the first rupture, so that the sooner hominids located the carcasses, the better. One thing going in their favor was that predators and scavengers alike are good cost-benefit analyzers. No animal is going to risk being lamed by a well-aimed stone when the feast is a prospect still several hours away (when the carcass is open and ready and you either grab your piece or go hungry, it’s a different story). But the most crucial condition was that the carcasses were sizeable–many times larger than any hominid.

Thus scavenging megafauna rewards cooperation:

The paradigm case for all other primates is that of an animal confronted by a rare and delicious fruit, probably not more than a pound or so in weight, whose possession of it is in no way threatened by any other species–only by other members of its own group. Under such circumstances, selfishness pays off, and the animal will employ any stratagem that allows it to eat undisturbed. Now consider an animal confronted by a rare and delicious carcass, weighing in excess of a ton, whose possession of it is threatened by a variety of very ferocious species. Selfishness is futile here, co-operation is the only way to go; animals that do not co-operate get nothing.

Suppose a small sub-group of hominids, alerted by vultures or just lucky, stumbles on a huge carcass, still unruptured. Possibly other animals are already stalking around. The group could, of course, take its chance and start cutting. But to start cutting would have the same effect as a rupture, it would immediately trigger a feeding frenzy in the other scavengers, and the smells of blood and meat might draw more of them. The whole sub-group could be overrun in minutes and end up as dinner too. Besides, how could they, even if they drove off all other scavengers, eat all that meat by themselves? Some might have close relatives in other sub-groups; inclusive fitness would then also come into play. In other words, almost every factor in the situation would cause them to seek additional helpers...

and the best way to get folks to cooperate is to talk with them:

Unlike ants, hominids did not have any physical mechanism with which to present samples of the food. They did not have the ability to lay chemical trails. They might jiggle about excitedly, but how would this persuade others in their group to drop whatever they were doing and accompany them?

Having a brain the size of a coconut rather than the size of a pinhead has disadvantages as well as advantages. One disadvantage, in this context, is that you are then an individual rather than a cog in a machine; you have your own agenda, your own preferences, and definitely a will of your own. This can only be a thought experiment, but imagine approaching a troop of chimpanzees and bonobos and trying to get them all to do the same thing at the same time. ... Moreover, another subgroup might have made finds of its own (piles of bones, bees’ nests, termite mounds...) that could satisfy more than that one sub-group. The state of mind might often have been: why should I go to your find, why don’t you come to mine? Optimal foraging required some way to express, compare and evaluate the finds of different sub-groups.

Recruitment, therefore, couldn’t happen unless the nature of the find could somehow be indicated. One of the advantages of the coconut-size brain is that it holds primary representations (Bickerton 1990) of a very broad range of organisms and entities, including all the species with which the individual habitually interacts. To express these, all that is needed is a layer of secondary representation: some unique labels that will signify the objects concerned and trigger associations with those objects in the minds of others.

I'm glad to be able to add this to the list of theories of the selective pressures for development of language. Charles Darwin (and more recently Geoffrey Miller) suggested that our ancestors developed language so as to sing more convincing love songs. Robin Dunbar thinks it was because gossip is more efficient than grooming for social group maintenance. Terrence Deacon thinks it's because male provisioning of meat for women and children required a socially-sanctioned symbolic marriage ritual. Now Derek Bickerton argues that it's because efficiently cutting up dead elephants required "some way to express, compare and evaluate" the opportunities found by different scouting parties.

I think that Terrence Deacon's observation still holds:

From the perspective of hindsight, almost everything looks as though it might be relevant for explaining the language adaptation. Looking for the adaptive benefits of language is like picking only one dessert in your favorite bakery: there are too many compelling options to choose from. What aspect of human social organization and adaptation wouldn't benefit from the evolution of language? From this vantage point, symbolic communication appears "overdetermined." It is as though everything points to it. A plausible story could be woven from almost any of the myriad of advantages that better communication could offer: organizing hunts, sharing food, communicating about distributed food sources, planning warfare and defense, passing on toolmaking skills, sharing important past experiences, establishing social bonds between individuals, manipulating potential sexual competitors or mates, caring for and training young, and on and on. [From The Symbolic Species]

In my opinion, the biggest mystery is not why we humans developed language, but why nobody else did. If language is so great, why doesn't everybody have one -- or at least the best approximation they can manage? Judging by their contemporary descendents, the cephalopods of 400 million years ago probably had as many qualitatively different communicative displays as chimpanzees do. Since then, surely, many other species have gotten into situations that motivated symbolic communication for fission-fusion scavenging, or for social group maintenance, or for sexual display, or whatever.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:32 AM

Mix master

OK, it's official. Just Plain Folks have decided that Yodic syntax is random word scrambling with sporadic category change. Here's Vox Pop himself, James Lileks, on Episode 3:

I love Yoda. I really do. Especially when he gets that mean look. Even though he reminds me of a cranky old man who finds his favorite stool at Denny’s is occupied by some high schoolers. People forget what a crappy death he had in Episode 6 – essentially, Luke went back to the Swampy Planet to check up on him, and he expires in a scene that had all the emotional impact of a wet shoe drying in the hot sun. Why? Because bucket kicking in the trilogy part of the last had someone to, I guess. [emphasis added]

To put the Yoda-imitation back in order needs something like this:

[bucket] [kicking] [in the] [trilogy] [part of the] [last] [had] [someone] [to]
    1       2         3        4           5          6      7       8       9

    3      6          5          4        8         7     9     2         1 
[in the] [last] [part of the] [trilogy] [someone] [had] [to] [kicking] [bucket]

in which the last shall be not only first, but also anomalously nominalized.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:08 AM

June 10, 2005

WTF coordinate questions

wtf Over on the newsgroup sci.lang, Ron Hardin has posted (3 June 2005) another one of his finds, the radio ad:

(1)  Are you like most Americans, and don't always eat as you should?

Hardin thought of this as just an error, but I find it surprisingly good, despite the failure of parallelism between the two conjuncts.  Even more interesting, the obvious way of "fixing" the failure of parallelism makes things worse, rather than better.  Example (1) looks like an instance of a special construction, the details of which I don't yet understand.

Hardin is exquisitely sensitive to failures of parallelism and almost always attributes the examples he collects to failures of attention, inappropriate revising for conciseness, or, more generally, "deafness" to the conditions on coordination.  This literalism can be annoying, but there's no denying it leads him to notice a variety of interesting examples, especially of WTF coordination.

Some invented examples like (1):

(2a)  Do you like Spam, but can't stand Spam casseroles?
(2b)  Have you written a thesis, but have no idea what to do next?
(2c)  Was Kim a typical American, and couldn't speak a word of another language?

Hardin's first reaction was that the problem was just the coordination of an interrogative with a declarative.  But coordination of unlike sentence types is not in itself fatal; as is well known, English has a variety of constructions of this sort:

(3a)  Eat that sushi, and you're a dead man!
(3b)  Eat that sushi, or you're a dead man!
(3c)  Eat that sushi, or are you too much of a wimp to do it?
(3d)  You have to eat that sushi, or are you too much of a wimp to do it?

In the right circumstances, you can even coordinate an NP with a declarative clause, in the "one more beer" construction made famous by Peter Culicover (Linguistic Inquiry 1.366-9 (1970)):

(4)  One click of the mouse, and I'm on my way to untold, Trump-level riches, only without the bankruptcies.  ("Doonesbury" cartoon by Garry Trudeau, 9 June 2005)

As Greg Lee pointed out in sci.lang, the problem is that the missing subject in the second clause (which is not inverted) is not in the same position as the explicit subject in the first clause (which is inverted).  If they weren't questions, there would be no puzzle about these examples; the corresponding declaratives have unproblematic conjoined VPs, marked by square brackets below:

(1')  You [are like most Americans], and [don't always eat as you should].
(2a')  You [like Spam], but [can't stand Spam casseroles].
(2b')  You [have written a thesis], but [have no idea what to do next].
(2c')  Kim [was a typical American], and [couldn't speak a word of another language].

Now, examples (1')-(2c') have semantically equivalent versions in which full clauses are conjoined, as in:

(5)  [You are like most Americans], and [you don't always eat as you should].

But supplying an explicit subject for the second VP in (1)-(2c) produces odd results, as in:

(6a)  ??Are you like most Americans, and you don't always eat as you should?
(6b)  ??Do you like Spam, but you can't stand Spam casseroles?

What seems to be going on with (1)-(2c) is that they are simply the yes-no question versions of (1')-(2c').  Semantically, this is just right.  And pragmatically: coordinating the VPs conveys that the VPs taken together are to be understood as characterizing a single state.  But there's a syntactic problem: (1)-(2c) have the inversion associated with yes-no questions only in the first clause.  It's as if the syntax follows the semantics/pragmatics in treating [VP Conj VP] as a unitary constituent, with the first V as its head.  Now to work out the details.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:00 PM

June 09, 2005

Spinoza Prize awarded for cognitive neuroscience of language

One of the four winners of the 2005 Spinoza Prize, announced June 6, was Peter Hagoort, a cognitive neuroscientist who is head of the F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in Nijmegen". The announcement from the NWO (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek = "Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research") says that Hagoort "has demonstrated that brains in which the language-processing area is damaged can still understand language via other routes."

The "jury report" adds

Another part of his research focuses on the brain's activity during speech. Under Hagoort's supervision, researchers devised a method that shows at which moment the brain collects information about a word. With this they demonstrated that during speech, people know the grammatical data about a noun approximately 40 milliseconds earlier than the first syllable of the word. Another 120 milliseconds have elapsed before they have formed the complete sound of the word so that they can speak it.

[via Onzetaal

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:06 PM

Cubist syntax

Michael Kimmelman's NYT review of Richard Serra's installation in Bilbao had (at least) two examples of the incompletely-parallel conjunction that Neal Whitman has dubbed "FLoP coordination":

It rejuvenates and pushes abstraction to a fresh level.
Mothers now cheerfully push strollers and kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds.

The basic pattern is a "right node raised" coordination of the form [A B] and [C D] E, meaning [A B E] and [C D E], in which the right-hand piece has an extra part that only belong in the second conjunct: [A B] and [C D] E F[A B E] and [C D E F]. In this case, we have [It rejuvenates] and [pushes] abstraction to a fresh level[It rejuvenates abstraction] and [pushes abstraction to a fresh level]. (More Language Log commentary on FLoP coordination can be found here, here and here, and Neal's posts on the subject are here).

In general, Kimmelman seems to have a sort of cubist approach to syntax, at least as far as the New York Times' copy editors will allow. He likes sentences that juxtapose a set of phrasal fragments whose integration requires analytic effort, as in this example from his June 3 review of Lee Friedlander's show at the Modern:

So in pictures like the one he took in 1972, of a dog sitting at a vacant street corner in Albuquerque, N.M., what results is not a moral parable, although it is, in its regard of the mundane, uplifting.

Sometimes his structures would be clear in a spoken form, but strain the capacities of punctuation in the absence of prosody:

With Winogrand's appetite and aplomb but with fewer neuroses than either Winogrand or Arbus; without Mr. Frank's anger or Evans's caustic wit - just by being rather cool and nonchalant, he has, over the years, refined a mischievous but fundamentally rigorous and unforgiving style.

Here's another example, from his May 27 review of the Jasper Johns show 'Catenary':

To give him his due, he's still a virtuoso control freak, and the sheer fluency and imaginative energy of his multifarious techniques, while nothing new, inevitably elevate his closeted and obfuscating enterprise to a level that commands admiration, if purely on formal terms.

In other cases, a spoken form might be harder to assimilate, since several readings and even a few calculations in the margins may be required. From the Jasper Johns review again:

The massing of remote private symbols, whose decoding Mr. Johns invited by devising them, then said missed the point, alternated with the most obvious and banal subjects, which were easy to read on the surface.

[Update: John Cowan thinks it's fine to interpret the second quoted sentence to mean "[Mothers now cheerfully push strollers through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds] and [kids dash through his sculptures as if they were playgrounds]". He could be right, but my experience of strollers and playgrounds is that you push the stroller to the playground, then stop and let the kid get out to play. I guess you could design a playground for stroller-slaloming, though, and perhaps that was what Kimmelman had in mind.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:59 AM

June 08, 2005

You are in a maze of twisty little conversations, all alike

Seth Schiesel's NYT article "Redefining the Power of the Gamer" foresees "a future where games are driven as strongly by characters as combat, where games are as much soap opera as shooting gallery", based on "virtual characters powered by advanced artificial intelligence techniques, which [allows] them to change their emotional state in fairly complicated ways in response to the conversational English being typed in by the human player".

The canonical example, for Schiesel, is Façade, a "one-act interactive drama" set to be released for free next month, where

You, the player, using your own name and gender, play the character of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage. No one is safe as the accusations fly, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are forced to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed the course of Grace and Trip’s lives – motivating you to re-play the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out differently the next time.

Schiesel is reporting from the first Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment conference (Marina Del Rey, June 1-3). So he's quoting people who have something invested in a future where "artificial intelligence as a feature, like graphics is a feature or sound is a feature" (Bing Gordon, chief creative officer at Electronic Arts), and "what is starting to differentiate games is what is happening inside the characters, how the opponents behave and make plans, how comprehensively and realistically the worlds respond to what the players want to do" (Ian Lane Davis, CEO of Mad Doc Software), and "the computer is ... analyzing the player, and the program is customizing the experience based on the internal model it has created of the human" (Will Wright, creator of The Sims).

This is a bit like a game-flavored re-run of the rhetoric of 1970s AI research. Based on the preferences of the third and fourth graders that I know, it rings true as a picture of what the gamers of the future want. And certainly some pieces of this future are already starting to appear. However, the aspect that involves "response to the conversational English being typed in by the human player" still seems to lag, as far as I can see. The (very simple) modes of conversational interaction of Eliza and of Adventure-style games seem to have been a kind of technological "sweet spot" -- as designers have tried to add more sophisticated natural-language interaction, my impression is that so far, the pay-off has been low relative to the extra effort expended. There may also be a question about how much gamers like typing as opposed to joy-sticking and other less textual modes of interaction.

Nick Montfort has some interesting ideas on this set of questions. His book Twisty Little Passages is an analytic history of interactive fiction; and here are some slides from a recent lecture by Nick on applications of narratology to game design.

If game engineers really succeed in creating a qualitative advance beyond Adventure-style conversational interaction, the next step would be gaming based on spoken conversation. I mean real, free-form speech communication, not just responses to a limited set of patterns. Maybe some day, some of those people walking down the street talking to themselves will be playing games rather than talking to friends on their cell phone. If that ever happens, then I predict that the distinction would start to dissolve, as the game characters begin to participate as disembodied cell-phone voices in players' everyday lives. But the premise is a difficult bar to clear -- it's not easy to make even text-based conversational interaction convincing, as Alan Turing pointed out long ago.

Meanwhile, I'll be interested to see whether Façade lives up to its buzz.

I have one more question. In traditional dystopian SF, the evil AIs who subvert the human world develop from runaway national-security mainframes, or military battlebots, or similarly serious hardware and software. Has there ever been an SF plot where the subversive silicon lifeforms come out of the game industry? And conquer the world via the social network of game play? "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated -- into the game."

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:49 AM

June 07, 2005

The intensified crack of dawn?

Geoff Pullum suggests that a sort of associative revulsion may be one of the forces behind the surprising expression "the butt crack of dawn". Although I'm someone who enjoys the early morning, I have no doubt that he's right. However, another source for this expression may be the spreading use of butt as an intensifier: "butt ugly", "butt expensive", "butt stupid", and so on.

"The butt tip of the iceberg" and similar expressions are not yet found on the web, and seem unlikely to show up any time soon. But the hypothesis here is that the spreading use of "butt" as an intensifier combines with the existing expressions "butt crack" and "crack of dawn" to put "butt crack of dawn" over the top as a plausible blend.

And just as "ass" substitutes readily for "butt" as an intensifier e.g. in "ass-ugly", as well as in the expression "ass crack", so "ass crack of dawn" has 4,650 hits on Google, and 14,100 on Yahoo.

[Update: Jill Beckman emailed to observe that

A friend of mine claims that "Californians usually use 'ass-crack' of dawn!"

I have to say that, in my own (relatively frequent) use of "butt-crack of dawn", there's no conscious sense of intensification or associative revulsion--rather, I'm merely playing off of the readily available (dominant?!) sense of "crack" in my lexicon. (NB: "butt-crack of doom"? Seems decidedly odd.)

These Yahoo counts show that Jill's intuitions about dawn vs. doom are quantitatively validated:

butt __
bare/butt ratio
bare/ass ratio
crack of dawn
crack of doom

(And Deborah Friedell claims that "a statistical tool has no ear for allusions"!)

But Jill's theory that it's "merely playing off of the readily available ... sense of crack" doesn't seem to explain this difference, unless I'm missing her point.

The role of intensification, I thought, is that in the expression "crack of dawn", people these days think of "crack" as meaning "the earliest signs" or something of the sort, a concept that can naturally be intensified. In contrast, "crack of doom" refers (as the OED says) to "the thunder-peal of the day of judgement, or perh. the blast of the archangel's trump", which is not so naturally intensified. ]

[Update: a correspondent reports reading trump as rump in the last sentence, while perusing Language Log over morning coffee, with "sinus-clearing" effects.]

[Update #2: another correspondent, requesting anonymity, wrrote:

I say ass-crack of dawn a lot (usually in regard to having to get up for an early flight). I live in NYC, and grew up 2 hrs north of here. I do have a sense of using an intensifier. If I had to get up at 4, that's REALLY EARLY, hence the ass-crack of dawn.

However, all other uses of ass can't precede the noun--they have to follow. "Ugly ass" and "dumb-ass" are all possible.

In fact, way back in 1998, I had an email exchange about this with my far more sophisticated friend, X, who wrote:

"the productive -ASS as used in cool-ass, trivial-ass, stupid-ass, dumb-ass cliticises with most adjectives, except where prohibited by the ass filter (see also X, 1998). Thus we fail to see,
        * existentially-quantified-ass
        * dependent-on-the-meaning-of-the-word-"is"-ass
        * automatically-garbarge-collected-ass
Analyses by X et al. (1998b) posit a +ASS feature on adjectives that specifies whether or not they can take part in these constructions. +ASS is strongly correlated with the semantic features +HUMAN and -BRAIN_IN_VAT."

I'm not sure that I agree with X's judgments -- we hear things like "get your existentially-qualified-ass proposition off of my blackboard, m*****f*****!" around Language Log Plaza all the time...

Seriously, I started a web search for counter-examples, but I gave up in dismay after finding this quote:

Employment of a qualified ASS consultant experienced in ASS projects similar to that proposed, will often save time and money in the long run and reduce exposure to future litigation.


[Update #3: Phooky, commenting at Language Hat's site, notes a classical reference:

I'm so goddamn horny, the crack of dawn better be careful around me.
-Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975.

Hat identifies this as a "vital intermediate expression", but Vanya points out that Waits' referent is open to question.]

[Update #4: more butt-crack scholarship at Sauvage Noble.]

[Update #5 (9/6/2005): Martin Keegan points out by email that "The phrase 'butt-crack of dawn' is attested in the Christina Applegate vehicle 'Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead' (1991)".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:59 PM

The butt-crack of dawn

Rob Chametzky writes from Iowa City (which is in Iowa) to say that while watching his first grader do gymnastics class last Saturday he overheard two couples talking, and one of them said that their son was "up at the butt-crack of dawn this morning." Chametzky froze; this was a magic linguistic moment, but he needed corroboration concerning the astonishing figure of speech that he thought he had just heard, for the first time. And luckily he got it: one member of the other couple proceeded to say something about how their kids used to be up every day "at the butt-crack of dawn" and how they hated it, it woke up the whole family, etc. And then one of the two people who hadn't yet spoken up added that they didn't know what's worse, being up at the butt-crack of dawn on a weekday or a weekend morning. And then the conversation drifted on to other topics.

"What the hell is going on here?", Rob asks. And I can only say that I too am close to baffled. Conceivably, I told him, there is a rather extraordinary piece of folk metaphor creation going on here, involving a comparison between the slow sunrise over the Iowa farmland and the slow moonrise as an overweight plumber with low-slung jeans bends down and leans further and further forward trying to reach behind a pipe under the sink... But really, I just don't know. "The crack of dawn" is a familiar phrase, but the sense of crack there is "moment" or "instant" (Merriam-Webster's gives the example "I'll be there in a crack").

The exact moment defining the start of the day described in terms of a metaphor involving the cleavage between the buttocks? I am speechless. Yet the phrase gets six thousand Google hits. Someone's original wisecrack (the crack of dawn as a horrible time to have to get up, the butt as a horrible part of the body, blend the two) must have spread widely enough that innocent, ordinary people now use it without a hint of any vulgarity (Rob reports that the two couples apparently did not even live in Iowa City; just ordinary rural people from the heartland, not wisecracking intellectuals from the university). I'm telling you, there's a lot that we don't yet know about the English language over here at Language Log.

[Added later: It's not that new, and it's not Iowa-specific, we have now learned through our nationwide network of informants. Quite a number of people have already written in to say that they've heard it occasionally over a period of ten years or more. And several note that "the ass-crack of dawn" is also encountered; see Mark's next post.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 06:51 PM

Women with tea

Rob Balder's Partially Clips for 5/19/2005:

Rob's commentary says:

The "self descriptive text revealing an underlying formula" is not a joke I invented, certainly. I saw it done as a comedy routine in the 80s about commercials:

Guy 1: Say, popular-overused-man's-name, cheerful greeting!
Guy 2: Oh, other-popular-overused-man's-name, subdued reply.
Guy 1: Question of concern, with condescending overtones?
Guy 2: Severe depression, based on common, trivial condition.
Guy 1: Well, I have the remedy for your self-induced melancholy. It's a consumable product!
Guy 2: Awestruck expression! Followed by repetition of the product's name for emphasis!

And of course, DaVinci's Notebook has their brilliant send-up of boy band songs, "Title of the Song." I guess the actors went for the formula that annoyed them the most, as did the singers, as did I.

He might also have cited this passage ( transcript, mp3) from (an old edition of) the NeoFuturist's show TMLMTBGB.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:24 PM

Captain Crunch among the literati

In her 6/5/2005 NYT essay "The Word Crunchers", Deborah Friedell sends a mixed message about the value of quantitative methods for literary analysis. She telegraphs her ambivalence in the first paragraph, by citing the passage in David Lodge's "Small World" where "a novelist" (Frobisher) learns from "a literature professor fond of computer programming" (Dempsey) that his novels are lexically "saturated with grease". (Friedell says that the novelist's "favorite word" is the form greasy -- Lodge actually says "Grease. Greasy. Greased. Various forms and applications of the root, literal and metaphorical" -- you can read the passage here). In Lodge's novel, this is an episode without a hero. Perhaps analyzing word counts kills creativity: Frobisher "[loses] faith in [his] style" and "has never been able to write fiction since". On the other hand, Lodge intimates that this is no loss to literature: perhaps the refiner's fire of stylometry purifies art?

In the next section of Friedell's essay, she places Amazon's concordance function in the context of the history of systems for word-indexed access to books, starting with Hugh of St. Cher and his 500 Dominican monks in the 13th century. (You can read more about this history here). We're meant to be impressed that concordances, which used to be so hard to build, are now so easily available to everyone. But what is this access worth? Friedell describes Lane Cooper, who produced a Wordsworth concordance in 1911, as "a geneticist of language, isolating and mapping the smallest parts with the confidence that they will somehow reveal the design of the whole". Though this phrase associates Cooper with a group whose intellectual prestige is now high -- the geneticists' reductionism has worked out pretty well, on the whole -- that "somehow" conveys a clear note of skepticism.

Friedell's most positive evaluation of concordances and such is here:

Why did they labor so? Monks used concordances to ferret out connections among the Gospels. Christian theologians relied on them in their quest for proof that the Old Testament contained proleptic visions of the New. For philologists, concordances provide a way of defining obscure words; if you gather enough examples of a word in context, you may be able to divine its meaning. Similarly, concordances help scholars attribute texts of uncertain provenance by allowing them to see who might have used certain words in a certain way. For readers, concordances can be a guide into a writer's mind. ''A glance at the Lane Cooper concordance'' led Lionel Trilling to conclude that Wordsworth, ''whenever he has a moment of insight or happiness, talks about it in the language of light.'' (The concordance showed the word ''gleam'' as among Wordsworth's favorites).

She also cites with approval some insights derived by James Painter from an analysis of words that occur only once in Yeats, but it's downhill from there. She complains that

To read a concordance is to enter a world in which all the included words are weighted equally, each receiving just one entry per appearance. While Amazon's concordance can show us the frequency of the words ''day'' and ''shall'' in Whitman, ''contain'' and ''multitudes'' don't make the top 100. Neither does ''be'' in Hamlet, nor ''damn'' in ''Gone with the Wind.'' The force of these words goes undetected by even the most powerful computers.

And she closes with some random examples from Amazon's extremely random "statistically improble phrases" feature (discussed at somewhat greater length here). The word on the street is that the "statistically improbable phrases" stuff was an undergraduate intern's summer project; as far as I know, the algorithm used has never been documented, and judging from its results, its absence from the technical literature is not a serious loss to science.

Nevertheless, there are real, interesting, and approachable problems in explaining why certain low-frequency linguistic events are psychologically salient. I discussed one class of such problems in this Language Log post. My conclusion: none of the simple and obvious methods will work, but there are some promising directions in the recent machine learning literature.

Friedell has a very different take on the situation:

Once it would have seemed unnecessary to point out that a statistical tool has no ear for allusions, for echoes, for metrical and musical effects, for any of the attributes that make words worth reading. Today, perhaps it bears reminding.

This is the real point of her essay, I think, and its logic is bizarre. Friedell has discussed word-based indices, simple considerations of (maximum and minimum) word frequency, and two undocumented attempts at slightly more sophisticated analysis of lexical statistics (Dempsey's fictional de-styling of Frobisher, and Amazon's SIP). She's never raised or discussed the question of how "allusions", "echoes" and so on might be described and modeled statistically. She certainly hasn't mentioned the extensive quantitative work on "metrical and musical effects" in metered verse. There's no evidence in the essay that she really knows what a "statistical tool" is.

Her point appears to be that the methods of rational investigation have no real place in the analysis of literature. This widely held view would be more convincing if its proponents understood the methods they reject.

[Some relevant Language Log posts:

The shadow of stylometry
A briefe and a compendious table
And yet.
Strange bookfellows

The essays's final phrase "it bears reminding" deserves a post of its own.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:16 AM

June 06, 2005

What's wrong with Plain English?

Following a link in a recent post at Semantic Compositions, Dave Rattigan has been puzzling over our criticisms of the Plain English Campaign. After all, who could be against Plain English?

It started with the PEC's "Foot in Mouth" award to Donald Rumsfeld in December of 2003, and continued with their cliché-ridden campaign against clichés. Rather than go over the same ground again, I'll just point to these previous posts:

Clear Thinking Campaign gives "Fogged Spectacles" Award to John Lister (Mark Liberman)
No foot in mouth (Geoff Pullum)
Economist follows Language Log (Geoff Pullum)
Fed up with 'Fed up'? (Mark Liberman)
Irritating cliches? Get a life. (Geoff Pullum)
Diamond geezer? (Mark Liberman)
The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and other fresh American art songs (Mark Liberman)
Baffling award of the year, again (Mark Liberman)

For a summary, see John 8:1-11.

Meanwhile, I've been meaning for the past week to cite some dazzling historical scholarship from Trevor at Kalebeul. In a post (from 5/31/2005) entitled "Rumsfeld, Bush and the Swedenborg Conspiracy", Trevor exposes the extraordinary connections among Donald Rumsfeld, the 18th-century Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, George Bush (not the current president, but his great-great-great-granduncle the professor of Hebrew at NYU) and the MIT geology department. It's like a fourth volume of the Baroque Trilogy compressed into one brief blog post!

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:30 AM

Blog or Block?

Has my joke been spoiled by an inconvenient fact? I recently observed that the French have been instructed by the authorities to pronounce "blog" as if they were speaking German. But Lucas Champollion wrote in to explain that

Actually, we don't devoice "blog" - otherwise it would sound like "Block", which has the same meaning as its English counterpart. Even if the context might be enough to disambiguate, it just wouldn't sound serious.

Lucas admitted that his judgments might be affected by the fact that he has been speaking mostly English for a year or so, so he provided a scholarly citation (Caroline Féry, "Final Devoicing and the Stratification of the Lexicon in German", HILP 4, 1999), which mentions "rave" (p. 14) as another example of a recent foreign borrowing that resists final devoicing.

This surprises me a bit, since I had always thought that German final devoicing was a phonologically transparent process, somewhat like the process of flapping and voicing in American English that makes "latter" sound the same as "ladder". Among other things, it's not uncommon to hear a German native speaker devoicing at least some final consonants while speaking English. This is a stock feature of caricatured German accents ("Ve haff vayss to make you say 'bloc'...").

So now I wonder what's really going on in German. Is final devoicing variable in borrowed words? Is it perhaps also a gradient process, so that specific instances might be partially but not completely devoiced? I welcome observations from German speakers (you can send email to myl@cis.upenn.edu), but references to empirical studies would be even more welcome. Judgments about variable and gradient phenomena of this type are rather unreliable. For example, I believed for many years that my pronunciations of word like "latter" and "ladder" were distinct, until I discovered by trying the experiment that I'm unable to distinguish my own normal productions at better than chance level.

[Update: Joe Salmons emailed:

German final devoicing (or fortition in a growing number of recent views, like those of Iverson & Salmons, Jessen and others) is almost certainly a complete neutralization (Fourakis & Iverson, Jessen, see now Piroth & Junker) when speakers are unaware of the task in an experiment. F&I argued (persuasively, I think) that speakers who are aware of the task, can produce differences here -- they have not only orthography but also alternations involving these pairs and most German speakers have some knowledge of a language with final laryngeal distinctions.

On loan words, there's long been controversy -- brav and naiv are the classic examples, like rave with a final /v/. My sense has long been that this is a matter of integration of loans: Most speakers have categorical fortition and do it here too. Some speakers, though, produce this as a basically French- or English-like rendition. The former pattern is more widespread, but my impression is that the latter is spreading, esp. among those who are very proficient English speakers. I don't have acoustic data, but I vaguely recall that it's been argued (maybe just in conversation somewhere) that where they do this, it's mostly vowel length that distinguishes the pairs (versus glottal pulsing, for example).

And speakers most definitely carry this over into English. Purnell et al. (along with other works in the pipeline) look at apparent devoicing/fortition effects in Wisconsin English and our German-speaking control showed complete neutralization in English. This is somebody who's lived in the US for ca. 40 years and speaks very good English with a clear accent. I'm pretty sure that the perceptual results for his productions showed nothing beyond chance at all, but Tom will correct me if that's wrong.



Fourakis, Marios, and Gregory K. Iverson. 1984. “On the ‘Incomplete Neutralization’ of German Final Obstruents.” Phonetica 41:140-49.

Iverson, Gregory K. 1997. Review of Final Devoicing in the Phonology of German, by Wiebke Brockhaus. American Journal of Germanic Languages and Literatures 9:255-64.

Iverson, Gregory K., and Joseph C. Salmons. 1995. “Aspiration and Laryngeal Representation in Germanic.” Phonology 12:369-96.

———. 1999. “Glottal Spreading Bias in Germanic.” Linguistische Berichte 178:135-51.

———. 2003. “Laryngeal Enhancement in Early Germanic.” Phonology 20:43-74.

Jessen, Michael. 1998. Phonetics and Phonology of Tense and Lax Obstruents in German. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

———. 2001. “Phonetic Implementation of the Distinctive Auditory Features [voice] and [tense] in Stop Consonants.” In Distinctive Feature Theory, ed. Tracy Alan Hall, 237-94. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jessen, Michael, and Catherine Ringen. 2002. “Laryngeal Features in German.” Phonology 19:189-218.

Piroth, Hans Georg, & Peter M. Janker. 2004. “Speaker-dependent Differences in Voicing and Devoicing of German Obstruents.” Journal of Phonetics 32:81-109.

Purnell, Thomas, Dilara Tepeli & Joseph Salmons. 2005. German substrate effects in Wisconsin English: Evidence for final fortition. American Speech 80.135-164.

And Geoff Nathan wrote:

I certainly remember Ulli Dressler, while talking about the difference between natural processes and rules (several hundred years ago at the LSA Institute in Maryland), attempting to pronounce final obstruents and literally being unable to do so without the addition of an audible and fairly forceful final schwa.  'See', he said, 'I just can't say [bundə];  I mean [bunt].  No, [bundə]'   And it wasn't as if Ulli couldn't give us a disquisition on the physiology, phonology and whatever of the process involved....

It may be that younger speakers, under the influence of lots of English are losing that constraint (we Natural Phonologists used to say 'process'), but it sure felt pretty categorical twenty years ago.

This strengthens my belief that the pattern Lucas reports, while perhaps found in younger, more English-aware speakers, is not typical of traditional German pronunciation norms. ]

[Update #2 -- Philip Newton wrote:

I'm a native speaker of both German and English and was born and grew up in Germany.

In response to http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002228.html , I'd like to say that in my experience, German final devoicing is ubiquitous, even when this causes ambiguity.

For example, in my work as a software developer, there is occasional confusion between "Logfile" (log file, file containing diagnostic output) and "Lockfile" (lockfile, file used to co-ordinate several processes sharing one resource), since they are pronounced identically, even though differentiating them would be beneficial.

This sometimes leads to misspellings such as "Life-Übertragung" for "Live-Übertragung" (a television transmission that is broadcast live).

I can't think of a borrowing with a voiced final consonant. (I could image, though, that they might exist, especially in words coined by youths who are comfortable with English.)

I don't know of any cases where a phonological process (such as German final devoicing, or English flapping) is suspended in ordinary speech just in order to avoid ambiguity. There is certainly such a thing as "facultative pronunciation", where a speaker may use special means (including cancelling some normal assimilations, lenitions, fortitions etc.) in order to convey a distinction that would otherwise be unclear. But that's different. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:38 AM

June 04, 2005

How well do you spell?

I had a strange message waiting for me on my office voice-mail yesterday. A reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune called to see if I knew anything about "why these children from India seem to be doing so well in spelling bee contests". The reporter clarified that he was not sure whether I (or we? I don't know if anyone else in my corner of Language Log Plaza also got this call) knew anything about this sort of thing, that at this point he was just on a fishing expedition, etc.

[Update, 6/5: two readers have sent me links to two related articles published this week: one on ESPN.com (6/2), the other in NYT (6/5). And here's the UT article (6/5).]

To be honest, I'm a little curious -- not so much about the abilities of "these children from India" (and let's put aside the reporter's poor choice of phrase here) but rather more about whether it is even true that "children from India" are doing significantly better than the norm on spelling bees. (I'm also a bit curious about what counts as being "from India" -- are we talking about first- or second-generation? But that's a separate question.)

So I went to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee website, where I found that this year's winner -- just this past week -- was 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap of Poway, California. Poway is in San Diego County, about 20-30 minutes north of the city of San Diego. And Anurag was sponsored by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

So now I'm thinking that this has more to do with the Tribune wanting to put a little angle on a story about the National Spelling Bee winner that they've just sponsored. But looking at the list of National Spelling Bee winners, it turns out that 5 of the last 7 champions (including this year's champ) are "from India" -- which I at first tentatively discerned with the childrens' names, but quickly verified by finding this article about how there were "12 Indian kids" (out of 51 total) in the final round of this year's National Spelling Bee. According to the article:

Indian American children have doen [sic] very well in the Spelling Bee competition over the years. Balu Natraj became the first Indian American champion in 1985, followed by Rageshree Ramachandran in 1988, and later by Nupur Lala in 1999, George Thampy in 2000, Pratyush Buddiga in 2002 and Sai R Gunturi in 2003.

Coincidentally, the 1999 National Spelling Bee (when the streak of 5 began) was the one covered in the surprisingly compelling 2002 documentary about the National Spelling Bee, Spellbound. Both the 1999 champ, Nupur Lala, and another Indian American, Neil Kadakia, were among the 8 kids profiled in the film. The 2000 champ, George Thampy, also makes an appearance, and there are at least two other Indian names in the list of 21 credited and uncredited cast members on IMDB.

I'm still not sure what the significance of all this is (in the statistical sense, I mean), and I'm certainly not in a position to speculate about any possible reasons should it turn out to be significant -- which is why I probably won't be calling that reporter back. But this other article (which I dug up to comment on here) reminded me of something about Neil Kadakia in Spellbound:

Neil of San Clemente has an affluent, East Indian father who supervises a rigorous regimen of drills and tutors. Back in India, a relative has paid 1,000 people to chant prayers for Neil during the bee.

Neil didn't win, but he got far. He and his older sister Shivani are quite accomplished in other areas, so perhaps all the chanting has been successful. And maybe the spelling bee winners have had more than 1,000 chanters in their respective corners. Or perhaps better tutors.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 03:25 PM

Blinded by content

In a recent NYT Op-Ed entitled "Devoid of Content", Stanley Fish argued that "Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the [freshman writing] classroom". According to Professor Fish, "Form is the way." If this diagnosis and prescription puzzle you, you should try reading Eric Korn's review in TLS of Neil Belton's novel Schrödinger in Dublin. Consider, for example, the first sentence of the second paragraph:

Bold in speculation, in the problems of everyday life, and especially in political and sexual matters, Schrödinger was muddled, cowardly and self-deluding.

The content is clear, though I had to read the sentence twice to get it. Korn is making a contrast between Schrödinger's style in science, which was clear and bold, and his style in everyday life, which was muddled and cowardly. The syntactic form, however, leads us naturally to a completely different reading, where the domain of Schrödinger's boldness is a conjunction of three prepositional phrases, spanning life, politics and sex as well as the world of the mind. We can use parentheses to sketch the syntax of this reading:

( Bold ( in speculation
         in the problems of everyday life
         and especially in political and sexual matters
( Shrödinger was ( muddled
                   and self-deluding

On this analysis, "bold in speculation ... and especially in political and sexual matters" is a predicative adjunct modifying the subject of the main clause, which is "Schrödinger". This is a simple and elegant structure, but it makes no sense at all in the context of the Korn's review. To get the intended meaning, we have to assume that the second and third prepositional phrases don't belong to the initial adjective "bold", but instead have been fronted from the conjunction of adjectives at the end of the main clause, "muddled, cowardly and self-deluding".

You can see the intended pattern more simply if we dispense with the conjunctions:

A. Clear in content, Korn's sentence is muddled in form. →
B. Clear in content, in form, Korn's sentence is muddled.

Korn's sentence uses the structure of Version B, which is awkward but perfectly grammatical. I looked around a bit for an admirable (as opposed to merely grammatical) sentence of this structure, and failed. Perhaps some reader will be able to do better. In any case, Korn means his sentence to be construed according to the schema below:

( Bold ( in speculation )
( ( in the problems of everyday life
    and especially in political and sexual matters
  ( Shrödinger was ( muddled
                     and self-deluding

However, with the added conjunctions, the sentence transcends awkwardness and approaches incoherence. If we replace the content words by their formal (syntactic) categories, we have


No normal reader of English can process this sequence without being tempted to group (in X, in Y, and especially in Z) as a unit, and thereby being led down a formal garden path.

Eric Korn is an accomplished and insightful writer. We can see this from the content of this TLS review, and from the many other pieces by him available on line. His insights are complex and nuanced, and so is his writing. How did he go so far wrong in this sentence?

It's all too easy. Most writers naturally think in terms of the structure of their content, not the structure of their sentences. And content also has form -- see this earlier Language Log post for some discussion. Furthermore, speech has its own structure, independent of discourse structure and sentence structure -- think about the phrase-sized groupings you can hear in skilled doubletalk. In Korn's unfortunate sentence, where the ambiguities are structural, a skilled speaker could easily signal the desired analysis by differences in timing, pitch contour and voice quality.

The writer starts with a meaning plainly in mind, and hears it rendered in inner speech. If the syntax is not congruent with the structures of meaning and sound, well, two out of three ain't bad. The reader, however, faces worse odds. In reading, the meaning is the end of the process, not the beginning, and there is no prosody on the page. If the sequence of written words falls naturally into a syntactic pattern that clashes with the intended meaning, reading goes wrong.

This is how I interpret the view that "content is a lure and a delusion". In fact, the goal is congruence of form and content. For today's freshman composition students, however, just as for Eric Korn and all the rest of us, content too easily displaces form, if formal analysis is never taught or learned.

In the olden days, students learned to harmonize form and content by being drilled in the explicit construal of form-meaning relationships, via the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It helped that this explicit analysis was done in a new language, usually Latin, where the content did not come easily to mind independent of the process of construal.

I'm not sure that requiring composition students to invent a new language is the best route to a modern trivium. Apparently it works well for Professor Fish, a charismatic teacher who may succeed where others would fail. But in any case, something needs to be done.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:54 PM

June 03, 2005

France officially adopts the German pronunciation of "blog"

According to the Journal officiel of the French Ministry of Culture for 20 mai 2005 (NOR CTNX0508288K), La Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie has determined that the correct French word for blog is "bloc-notes". If you want a shorter form, you should use "bloc".

The compound term bloc-notes is an old one, whose meaning strikes me as rather inappropriate as a basis for extension to blogging. It's cited in the 1932-35 DAF as a "terme de Papeterie" with the gloss

Feuillets de papier de même format légèrement collés ensemble sur un seul côté, de manière que l'on puisse les détacher facilement un à un pour prendre des notes ou écrire des lettres.

Leaves of paper of the same format lightly stuck together on a single side, so that one can detach them easily one at a time in order to take notes or write letters.

This is what we would call a "writing tablet" or a "pad of paper", I think. Somehow I don't think that the tabletosphere is going to take off, terminologically speaking, or the padosphere either.

The short form, bloc, basically means "block", but in sound it's curiously similar to "blog" -- you just have to change the final consonant from a voiced velar stop /g/ to a voiceless velar stop /k/.

So, it seems, that the official French word for blog is now just "blog" pronounced as a German would, with final devoicing. Several witticisms come to mind, but I'll restrain myself, at least temporarily.

However, I can't resist quoting Mahalanobis on the response from Brussels:

In Brussels, the EU Ministry of Technologie reacted with alarm to this proliferation of 'blog' terms unique to each country, especially after they learned that the Poles intended to call them gzybrgrlz. The EU has consequently appointed a commission to draft a plan to hold a meeting to prepare an agenda. Officials are hopeful that a single, Europe-wide standard term can be introduced in time for the 2104 Olympics.

Because this remark preceded the French electoral defeat of the new EU constitution, the situation is now more complex, perhaps requiring a preparatory committee to decide on the methodology for establishing priorities for the commission drafting the plan for the meeting to set the agenda.

[via Quantum of Wantum via Mahalanobis via C|Net]

[Update: Jean Véronis has written a wonderful essay on this subject, entitled Lexique: A bloc contre les blogs!. He observes that

nos lexicographes officiels ont oublié un petit détail : on a besoin d'un nom et d'un verbe dérivés. Les bloqueurs vont-ils bloquer ? C'est un peu bloquant...

...our official lexicographers have forgotten one little detail: we need both a noun and a derived verb. Are "blockers" supposed to "block"? It's a bit "blocked up"...

Jean also quotes Montaigne about the nature of language:

"Il escoule touts les jours de nos mains : et depuis que je vis, s'est alteré de moitié. Nous disons, qu'il est à cette heure parfaict. Autant en dict du sien, chasque siecle."

It slips from our hands every day: and during my lifetime, half of it has changed. We say that it is now perfect. Each century says the same.

And Stefan Tilkov points out by email that "one of the meanings of the German word 'Block' actually is 'Leaves of paper of the same format lightly stuck together on a single side, so that one can detach them easily one at a time in order to take notes or write letters'". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:40 AM

Step on a crack, break a grammar rule

A few days ago, I posted on metafilter a link to Stanley Fish's NYT Op-Ed "Devoid of Content". One of the mefi commenters observed that

I don't know if anyone noticed, but the article isn't grammatically correct, itself. He starts at least one sentence with "And..".

I'm a mere amateur in the bacteriology of prescriptivism, compared to professional bug-hunters like Geoff Pullum, Arnold Zwicky and Geoff Nunberg. Still, this struck me as a particularly interesting specimen.

The usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for and says that

It is frequently asserted that sentences beginning with and or but express “incomplete thoughts” and are therefore incorrect. But this rule has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and the stricture has been ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates. When asked whether they paid attention to the rule in their own writing, 24 percent of the Usage Panel answered “always or usually,” 36 percent answered “sometimes,” and 40 percent answered “rarely or never.”

This is wild. There is nothing in the grammar of the English language to support a prescription against starting a sentence with and or but --- nothing in the norms of speaking and nothing in the usage of the best writers over the entire history of the literary language. Like all languages, English is full of mechanisms to promote coherence by linking a sentence with its discourse context, and on any sensible evaluation, this is a Good Thing. Whoever invented the rule against sentence-intitial and and but, with its a preposterous justification in terms of an alleged defect in sentential "completeness", must have had a tin ear and a dull mind. Nevertheless, this stupid made-up rule has infected the culture so thoroughly that 60% of the AHD's (sensible and well-educated) usage panel accepts it to some degree.

Imagine something like this happening in another domain. For example, someone decides that stepping on sidewalk cracks puts your spine out of alignment and tends to cause bad posture and muscular weakness. No evidence is provided, and the idea is widely ridiculed by biomedical researchers, but all the same, after a few years, 24% of a panel of family doctors say that they "always or usually" pay attention to this rule in their own perambulations, and 36% say that they "sometimes" do.

The only way I can make sense of this story is to see it as an infectious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But why are the cultural domains of grammar and linguistic usage so vulnerable to such epidemics, at least in modern times?

For anyone who thinks that there is a basis in historical patterns of usage for this "rule", a few examples can be found below.

The fastidious Henry James was fond of sentence-intitial And. According to the Hyper-Concordance of the Victorian Literary Studies Archive, Washington Square alone contains 128 instances in 65,392 words, for a rate of 1,957 per million words. The first two examples:

It was the way a young man might talk in a novel; every one looking at him, so that you wondered at his presence of mind. And yet Mr. Townsend was not like an actor; he seemed so sincere, so natural.

For a minute, if it had not been for the rumbling of the carriage, you might have heard a pin drop. "I don't know, Aunt Lavinia," said Catherine, very softly. And, with all his irony, her father believed her.

The elegant elitist Virginia Woolf was even fonder of this usage -- there are 175 examples in the 69,811 words of To the Lighthouse (a rate of 2,507 per million). For example:

When they talked about something interesting, people, music, history, anything, even said it was a fine evening so why not sit out of doors, then what they complained of about Charles disparage them -- he was not satisfied. And he would go to picture galleries they said, and he would ask one, did one like his tie? God knows, said Rose, one did not.

She had a dull errand in the town; she had a letter or two to write; she would be ten minutes perhaps; she would put on her hat. And, with her basket and her parasol, there she was again, ten minutes later, giving out a sense of being ready, of being equipped for a jaunt, which, however, she must interrupt for a moment, as they passed the tennis lawn, to ask Mr Carmichael, who was basking with his yellow cat's eyes ajar, so that like a cat's they seemed to reflect the branches moving or the clouds passing, but to give no inkling of any inner thoughts or emotion whatsoever, if he wanted anything.

The first example in Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer comes early in the first chapter:

The old lady reached out her hand and felt Tom`s shirt, and said: "But you ain`t too warm now, though." And it flattered her to reflect that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing that that was what she had in her mind.

Tom Sawyer has sentence-initial And 139 times in 73,844 words, for a rate of 1,882 per million.

Similarly in Charles Dickens' Bleak House, the first of the 629 examples come on line 134 out of 40,353:

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

In this novel, the 629 examples of sentence-initial And in 361,977 words correspond to a rate of 1,738 per million.

As point of reference for these rates, consider that the word "think" occurs in the same texts at rates of 2,340 per million (Washington Square), 688 per million (To the Lighthouse), 650 per million (Tom Sawyer), and 1,392 per million (Bleak House).

[Update: a reader emailed to observe that Microsoft's Grammar Checker attempts to impose this rule by putting wavy lines under sentence-initial and and but, offering "moreover" or "in addition" as substitutions. I just checked, and this is sad but true. The same correspondent suggested that:

Some people may perceive the use of and and but as more appropriate for casual or informal writing/discourse (in terms of register), including fiction (which is probably forgiven or accepted because it's "art"), while academic and formal writing registers are perceived to require either more complex sentences in which single "thoughts" comprise a sentence (i.e., rewrite the sentences to form one complex - and probably much longer and harder to read - sentence) or longer, rarer, and more obscure alternatives should be used to the monosyllabic and and but.

Perhaps some people think that sentence-initial and is informal and should only be used in fiction -- the author of the note is apparently an existence proof -- but I doubt that this belief is held on the basis of any evidence. When I look at well-regarded works of history, political analysis, economics, philosophy and so on, I find a rate of sentence-initial and that is similar to the rates found in works of fiction.

Here are two examples from Gibbon's Decline and Fall:

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.


Among the innumerable monuments of architecture constructed by the Romans, how many have escaped the notice of history, how few have resisted the ravages of time and barbarism! And yet, even the majestic ruins that are still scattered over Italy and the provinces, would be sufficient to prove that those countries were once the seat of a polite and powerful empire.

Here are a couple of example from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia:

A true answer to these questions would probably lighten their authority, so as to render it insufficient for the foundation of an hypothesis. How unripe we yet are, for an accurate comparison of the animals of the two countries, will appear from the work of Mons. de Buffon. The ideas we should have formed of the sizes of some animals, from the information he had received at his first publications concerning them, are very different from what his subsequent communications give us. And indeed his candour in this can never be too much praised. One sentence of his book must do him immortal honour. `J'aime autant une personne qui me releve d'une erreur, qu'une autre qui m'apprend une verité, parce qu'en effet une erreur corrigée est une verité.'


Of their eminence in oratory we have fewer examples, because it is displayed chiefly in their own councils. Some, however, we have of very superior lustre. I may challenge the whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, and of any more eminent orator, if Europe has furnished more eminent, to produce a single passage, superior to the speech of Logan, a Mingo chief, to Lord Dunmore, when governor of this state. And, as a testimony of their talents in this line, I beg leave to introduce it, first stating the incidents necessary for understanding it.

From Federalist Papers #1, by Alexander Hamilton:

Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion.

And from Federalist #5, by John Jay:

Considering our distance from Europe, it would be more natural for these confederacies to apprehend danger from one another than from distant nations, and therefore that each of them should be more desirous to guard against the others by the aid of foreign alliances, than to guard against foreign dangers by alliances between themselves. And here let us not forget how much more easy it is to receive foreign fleets into our ports, and foreign armies into our country, than it is to persuade or compel them to depart.

And from Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

Obviously our quantitative analysis must be expressed without using any quantitatively vague expressions. And, indeed, as soon as one makes the attempt, it becomes clear, as I hope to show, that one can get on much better without them.

As an exercise for the reader, I recommend trying Microsoft's suggested "Moreover" or "In addition" as substitutions for the sentence-initial Ands in the passages above. Is this ever an improvement, or even equally good? I don't think so.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:09 AM

Polysemy in action

Eric Bakovic is puzzled by a line in Team America: World Police. "[A] Team America member is temporarily fooled by an actor, so he says to Gary: 'I could've sworn she was telling the truth.' To which Gary replies: 'That's why they call it acting.'" Eric explains "When the x of that's why they call it x has (or at least evokes) two somewhat different meanings, the expression makes perfect sense", but he doesn't think this is what's going on with Gary's quip.

The American Heritage Dictionary's entry for acting as a noun lists three senses:

1. The occupation of an actor or actress.
2. Performance as an actor or actress.
3. False behavior; pretense.

So the Team America line could mean: "Acting1 is acting3," exactly according to Eric's prescription, right?

A quick web search turns up many other uses of the "that's why they call it X" phrasal template that also conform to Eric's interpretation in terms of polysemy:

That's why they call it the blues.
That's why they call it work.
That's why they call it racing.
That's why they call it space.
That's why they call it hunting.

If only for indexing purposes, I'll also point out that we've been calling these phrasal templates snowclones, following Glen Whitman's suggested coinage.

I wonder how many such templatic clichés we have in English? Of course, a category like this has fuzzy boundaries -- how many times does an attractive phrase need to be copied before it qualifies? -- but it wouldn't surprise me to find that there are thousands of patterns that are clearly in the set.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:03 AM

That's why they call it x

Last week, I finally saw Parker & Stone's Team America: World Police. Most of it had me rolling on the floor with laughter, but one exchange got me thinking about the expression that's why they call it x.

For those who haven't seen it (yet): a major theme of the movie is about how actors can be oh-so-self-important. Perhaps ironically, the hero of the movie is a stage actor named Gary that Team America has recruited specifically for his acting skills; his job is to infiltrate a terrorist cell and to "act like a terrorist" so that the Team can figure out who's planning the next big terror attack.

ANYWAY, at one point in the movie, another Team America member is temporarily fooled by an actor, so he says to Gary: "I could've sworn she was telling the truth." To which Gary replies: "That's why they call it acting." (If you're interested in the script, here it is.)

And then, as if to taunt me, I heard the very same expression again two days later on NPR, in a Weekend Edition Saturday piece on Henry Fonda (here's a link if you're interested; I'm not going to bother fetching an mp3 clip). Scott Simon was wondering aloud about the fact that Fonda's apparently distant personality (as revealed in Jane Fonda's recent autobiography) was at odds with the very close feeling one gets from his acting (or something like that) -- to which the guest film critic (Shawn Levy) replied, "That's why they call it acting."

But what does this expression mean? When the x of that's why they call it x has (or at least evokes) two somewhat different meanings, the expression makes perfect sense (to me). After playing a new piece of music for the first time and improvising a little, for example, I can imagine saying "(so) that's why they call it playing". Compounds can also be used in the expression, when the meaning of the first (non-head) member of the compound is somewhat obscured by the meaning of the compound as a whole; for example, I can imagine saying "(so) that's why they call it a root canal" when I see it being performed on Dentist TV. (Oh, does that channel not exist yet? Give it time.)

But neither of these appears to be what's going on with "acting". It's certainly not a compound, and I can't imagine what two meanings might be evoked by this word in order to produce the intended effect. To accept that it's kind of being treated like a compound -- "(so) that's why they call it acting" -- means to also accept "(so) that's why they call it painful" (after, say, having a root canal yourself. (Actually, come to think of it, that form's not so bad. I guess the fact that -ing is not quite as clearly a derivational suffix -- or at least not unambiguously so -- makes me distinguish "painful" from "acting".)

I was telling my friend Colin Wilson about the "acting" examples, and he reminded me of a similar line in the excellent 2001 David Mamet film Heist. Danny DeVito's character, Mickey Bergman, says: "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." Mamet's intended effect with this line is clear; it perfectly captures Bergman's obsession. It's as if, to Bergman, the sound of (the word) "money" is ... well, for lack of a better way to put it, synonymous with what the word means. I guess I can sort of imagine Parker & Stone toying with this idea (for obscure comedic effect, of course) in their use of the expression in Team America, but I'm less inclined to think that this was behind Shawn Levy's use. Any ideas?

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 12:30 AM

June 02, 2005

OED obsolete on "obsolete"

I just spotted a verb that was new to me in the current edition of Newsweek (May 30, 2005, p. 12), in an article about the upcoming mop-bot Scooba: `We are not just going to replace mopping, we are going to obsolete it,' says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. I thought at first that this was just another case of someone weirding a word (to paraphrase Calvin from the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip posted on my office door, which I could give the date of if I weren't 2000 miles away in Montana), but a check of both Google and the OED proves me wrong.

First, the Google research (or "research", whichever you prefer): 76,400 hits for obsolete it, but, as I expected, the vast majority of these have an adjective obsolete in clause-final position followed by clause-initial it, as in Once a product is obsolete, it is.... Of the first 100 Google entries here, only 6 had a verb obsolete. So I tried unambiguous words and phrases: 457 hits for obsolete them, 29,100 for obsoleting, 332,000 for obsoleted, and 518,000 for obsoletes. (Some items in the last set might be plural nominalized obsoletes rather than verbs, but the ones I checked were third-person singular verbs.) All these googled obsolete verbs show that I was at best slow to notice the verbal use of the word.

Next step, the OED (a.k.a. Oxford English Dictionary), which showed that I wasn't just slow to notice this, but several centuries late: the first OED example for obsolete as a transitive verb is from 1640. But the OED itself seems to be obsolete here. The electronic New Edition of the dictionary says this about the verb:

obsolete: trans. To render obsolete. Formerly (also): to consider obsolete; to discard as being out of date, to cease to produce or use (obs.).

The Google hits for obsolete as a verb include things like I'd say obsolete it and ...explained in terms of obsoleting what you know before others obsolete it..., in which (in the context) the verb clearly means `to discard as being out of date, to cease to produce or use'. So either the OED's claim that that meaning is obsolete is obsolete because the usage has recrudesced, or the OED was wrong all along because that sense of the verb vanished only from formal written prose, not from the spoken language.

But then, any dictionary is inevitably obsolete in spots, unless the language is long dead and known only from a closed and fully-analyzed corpus. It goes with the territory.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 12:33 PM

X-ing outside the Y

Mr. Sun recently offered 13 items of ironic advice to graduates, including this one:

Contrary to what you may have heard about business, you should not think outside the box. You should get your green-as-grass self back in the box and don't come out unless it's to bring me some hot coffee and do my work so I can take credit for it. Welcome to the working world, Rookie.

By coincidence, I've keeping an eye for a few weeks on the snowclones "X outside the box", "think outside the Y", and (of course) "X outside the Y".

Rummaging around on the web, we can find advice to "think outside the" album, axis, bag, basket, bison, boat, bomb, book, booth, bowl, bus, cabana, cage, clock, condom, cup, docs, feed, gates, grid, helmet, house, mall, niche, office, SarbOx, season, stocks, square, vote, window, zone and many other constraining structures.

There are also many particular sorts of boxes we are invited to think outside of, including these: age box, ballot box, big box, cereal box, firebox, gas mileage box, idiot box, lunch box, mailbox, pretty box, semester box, and (last but not least) xbox.

Other activities besides thinking that some have suggested that we do outside the box include advertising, believing, bowing, dining, designing, hiring, learning, living, marrying, preaching, stepping, styling, teaching, testing, voting and working. (Some outside-the-box activities are not recommended, such as crapping.) And other things that can usefully be found outside the box, according to the Wisdom of the Web, include apartments, chocolates, church, eating, evangelism, linux, medicine, music, religion, security, solutions, spirituality, therapy, treatment and worship.

According to the OED, the origin of this phrase is

With allusion to a puzzle in which the aim is to connect the nine dots of a square grid with four straight lines drawn continuously, without pen leaving paper; the solution is only possible if some of the lines extend beyond the border of the grid.

The OED's first citation is from 1975:

1975 Aviation Week & Space Technol. 14 July 9 We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.
1984 Fortune 6 Feb. 114/3 He tells his managers to be ‘cross-functional’ and to ‘think outside the box’ of their own specialty

The first use in the NYT appears to be in an article by Shirley Christian, March 18, 1985, "City Plans New Effort To Curb Dropout Rate", which quotes Victor Herbert, newly named as superintendent for dropout prevention in the New York City School system:

"We need to think outside the box to find what may be radical solutions to a radical problem."

A few other searches through historical databases turned up a flurry of examples starting in the mid-80s, but nothing earlier -- though I expect Ben Zimmer to write in with a list of citations from the Roaring Twenties or before...

[Update: Ben comes through--

Sorry, I was away from my computer today so I missed your blog entry. And I'm also sad to report that I can't oblige with cites for "thinking outside the box" from the Roaring Twenties. But I can provide a more modest antedating, taking the "box" metaphor back to 1969. It appeared in a newspaper column by Norman Vincent Peale about how people get "blackmailed" by their problems:

Norman Vincent Peale, "Blackmail Is the Problem"
Chicago Tribune, Oct 25, 1969, p. I13, col. 4
There is one particular puzzle you may have seen. It's a drawing of a box with some dots in it, and the idea is to connect all the dots by using only four lines. You can work on that puzzle, but the only way to solve it is to draw the lines so they connect outside the box. It's so simple once you realize the principle behind it. But if you keep trying to solve it inside the box, you'll never be able to master that particular puzzle. That puzzle represents the way a lot of people think. They get caught up inside the box of their own lives. You've got to approach any problem objectively. Stand back and see it for exactly what it is. From a little distance, you can see it a lot more clearly. Try and get a different perspective, a fresh point of view. Step outside the box your problem has created within you and come at it from a different direction.

Considering how widely read Peale's motivational writings were, this could very well be the origin for "stepping/thinking outside the box". The 1975 OED cite, for example, looks very similar to Peale's formulation. It's intriguing, though, that more recent motivational writers have apparently not attributed the metaphor to Peale. Perhaps the image was taken up by various writers/speakers in the '70s, so that by the time "think outside the box" became an '80s catchphrase the Peale origin (and the story about the puzzle) had been forgotten.

(Checking Peale's bio, I see that he published a weekly newsletter for businessmen, Guideposts, which reached as many as two million subscribers. So perhaps the newsletter was more responsible than the newspaper column for propagating the "box" metaphor in the business world.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:35 AM

Who are you writing to?

Another cartoon.  This time, Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy" (6/1/05), on who(m) and stranded prepositions...

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:11 AM

June 01, 2005

Scanting out

scanting Some forty years ago Haj Ross coined the term scanting out for the paralytic bafflement that afflicts many people when they try to say how they use some relatively infrequent expression.  It happened to me yesterday.

Scanting out goes like this: 

You're asked how you use the word scant, and immediately you supply some instance of a scant MEASURE of SUBSTANCE, say a scant cup of sugar.  You go on to observe that, though scant  certainly appears to be an adjective, it can't be used predicatively: *This cup of sugar is scant.  Now you've got it boxed in, between a context in which it's clearly acceptable and one in which it's clearly unacceptable.  But at this point things can get nasty, there in the middle.

If it's an adjective, maybe it can be compared: ?This is an even scanter cup of sugar.  ?This is a more scant cup of sugar than I've ever seen.  ?This is the scantest cup of sugar I've ever seen.  Or otherwise modified: ?This is a really/pretty scant cup of coffee.  Though it can't occur in ordinary predicatives, maybe it can occur in fronted ones: ?Scant though the cup of sugar was, it was enough for the cake. 

At this point, other expressions crowd into your consciousness and interfere with your judgments: scanty, skimpy, sparse, not quite a, nearly/almost a.  One moment nearly everything seems not too bad, the next moment hardly anything seems fully ok.  You have scanted out.  The mechanism that allows you to make acceptability judgments has shorted out on scant, its circuits overloaded.

That's the scanting-out experience.  Yesterday it happened to me, after I read this sentence:

    You seem proud of your ignorance, inventing words as they seem fit.

(I was being berated for my defense of trepidatious, but that's not what's at issue here.)  My eye and ear were caught by as they seem fit, which didn't seem quite felicitous to me.  So I started to think about how I use seem fit.  ?I sent a small gift, as seems/seemed fit.  ?It seems fit to close the meeting at this point.  And so on.  Maybe it should have been as you [not they] see [not seem] fit.  Or maybe as they seem fitting [not fit] (to you).  Maybe the original sentence was a blend of these.  On the other hand, it didn't seem THAT bad; maybe  it was really ok.

In any case, within seconds I no longer had any feel for how seem fit works for me.  I googled on "seem fit" and "seems fit", but that merely produced a blizzard of examples, none of which seemed entirely acceptable or entirely unacceptable to me.  I began to wonder if I actually used seem fit at all.  I'm sure I use seem fitting/appropriate and see fit to, but maybe I don't use seem fit myself, except with fit in other senses: physically and mentally fit, fit for the job, fit to go to war, fit to be tied, and so on. Maybe I just recognize it when other people use it.  My head hurts.

No doubt some other people are clearer about how things work for them.   But that won't help ME.  Maybe if I had a large enough searchable sample of my own speaking and writing, I could figure out what I do with seem fit (if anything).  Meanwhile, my seem fit circuit is out.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 09:00 PM

Fearful (also nauseous, addictive, dubious, suspicious...) symmetry

In a recent post, I asked for examples of adjectives that have switched from modifying the cause of an experience to modifying the experiencer. For example, if substance X induces nausea in person Z, then person Z is nauseated and substance X is nauseous; but then, for many people, it's person Z that is nauseous. Or, if substance X induces addiction in person Z, then person Z is addicted to substance X and substance X is addictive; but then, for some people, person Z is addictive to substance X.


X induces Y/noun in Z (or X causes Z to experience Y/noun)
which can be expressed as
Z is Y/verb-ed or X makes Z Y/verb-ed
X is Y/adjective

... → Z is (or becomes) Y-adjective or X makes Z Y-adjective

Ben Zimmer responded by email:

Sometimes such polysemy becomes entirely accepted:

X is doubtful to Z -> X makes Z doubtful
X is dubious to Z -> X makes Z dubious
X is suspicious to Z -> X makes Z suspicious

The OED supports the idea that these adjectives of doubt were originally applied to the cause of the experience, and slightly later to the experiencer. But for each item the two senses have existed side by side in Modern English without any controversy.

There are also cases when the experiencer adjective comes first and is then applied to the cause, e.g.:

X makes Z hysterical -> X is hysterical (i.e., hysterically funny) to Z
X makes Z in/credulous -> X is in/credulous (i.e., in/credible) to Z

The former is more accepted in modern usage than the latter, though both
of them show up on Paul Brians' list of " Common Errors in English":

Brians also supplies another eggcorny "-ive"/"-ed" confusion to go along with "addictive"/"addicted": "calm, cool, and collective".

Some of Ben's cases share the property that there is a morphologically related verb which takes the experiencer as subject: doubt, suspect. The cause/experiencer equivocation seems common (though far from universal) among adjectives of this sort. In addition to the dubious and suspicious cases cited by Ben, we can add:

joyous -- apparently started as "Having a joyful nature or mood" (c1315) and soon became also "Inspiring or productive of joy" (c1450). (The verb "to joy" is no longer used much, but was once commoner.)

fearful -- has meant either "causing fear" or "experiencing fear" since 1350 or so.

desirous -- used for "having desire or longing" since c1300, and for "exciting desire" since 1430. The "exciting desire" sense is listed as obs., and now most people would use desirable instead, but it's still often seen on the web (probably as as a neologism), e.g. in

This is so different, yet so desirous to me.
... we don’t want to let go of those pet sins that are so desirous to us.
It terrified him that the simple idea of harming himself had been so desirous to him.
Menolly longs to see a dragon, but even more desirous to her would be to play her harp.

Ben later wrote to point to the class of adjectives expressing sorrow or grief: (doleful, dolesome, dolorous, mournful, rueful, ruthful, sorrowful, woeful, etc.), which have also generally applied both to causes and to experiencers over the past few hundred years.

There are some adjectives of psychic experience that seem to resist this type of change, for example apprehensive, which modifies experiencers and has never modified causes, as far as I can tell; and timorous, which began in the 15th century modifying both experiencers and causes, but seems to have stopped modifying causes at some point in the 17th century. In contrast, it seems to be entirely regular that an adjective associated with experiencers of a psychic state can also be used to describe symptoms of the experience, i.e. "...he threw quick, apprehensive glances round him...", or "...the capital markets have ... made timorous sounds of willingness".

The back-and-forth between modifiers of experiencers and modifiers of causes seems to represent a type of stable quasi-regularity in derivational morphology. It's not the case here that there was once a regular pattern, now obscured by layers of historical change. Instead, there seems to be a stable but irregular tendency, which is always generating new sporadic usages, some of which catch on, while others drop out of favor.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:41 AM