February 28, 2007

"As if there could be a war on an adjective, or an adverb -- it doesn't really work"

On today's Radio Times , Marty Moss-Coane interviewed Stefan Halper,

...co-author with Jonathan Clarke of “The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing.” He is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York. He is also author of “After the Crusade.”

About 4:04 into the interview, this exchange takes place:

Marty: Would that be also true then for the war on terror, as it is described today, does that limit debate and discussion?
Stefan:   Well, I think it does, I mean I think uh the con- th- the phrase "the war on terror"
uh as- as if there could be a war on an adjective, I mean it's- it's just-
or an adverb -- it doesn't really work.

This is not the first time that a prominent intellectual has gotten prominently confused about what part of speech terror is: "Terror: not even a noun (says Jon Stewart)", 5/19/2004. Not to prolong the suspense, terror is indeed a noun, not an adjective or an adverb. Questioning whether there could be a war on an adjective or an adverb, in this context, is roughly like asking a question about foreign policy presupposing that New Guinea and Paraguay are in the Middle East.

The point of this post is not to poke fun at Halper's ignorance of elementary grammatical analysis. Rather, I want to emphasize again a point that I've made many times before: we've reached a historical low point in the ability of Americans, even some of the smartest, best educated and most intellectually curious Americans, to engage in any coherent analysis of the speech and language that they use every day. It's not that they've been taught outmoded ideas -- in effect, it seems, they might as well never have been taught anything at all. Despite this, they remain interested in the problem, with predictably embarrassing results.

Stefan Halper, in particular, is what Donald Trump would call a "top intellectual". He's got doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and a string of prestigious academic appointments. He's held high-level foreign policy positions in four American administrations (Reagan and Bush senior). He's the author of four books.. So the fact that he doesn't have the tiniest clue about the simplest aspects of linguistic analysis is striking.

Some might think that this is depressing. On the contrary, it seems to me, it's exciting -- from this blank-slate state of public awareness, there's no direction to go but up.

[Update -- Simon Musgrave pointed out by email that "there is a fine literary precedent for attacking adjectives and/or adverbs":

All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared on day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and adjective. The next day he made war on articles. [Joseph Heller - Catch 22. Simon & Schuster reprint 1996: 16]

Simon observes that Yossarian, having been educated in an earlier age, did apparently know one part of speech from another, or at least thought that he did. ]

[Update #2 -- Norm Geras makes the point that Halper's political argument is no more coherent than his linguistic one:

Halper says, for example, that terrorism is differentiated, used by different kinds of groups, with different ideas and in different contexts, all of which we have to understand. It's a good thing these arguments didn't prevail during the Second World War, thought of by many as a war against fascism. You know Germany, and Italy, and Japan... different countries, different contexts. As if there could be a war against a bunch of proper nouns and conjunctions.

It did make things easier that Germany and Italy and Japan were countries with well-defined armed forces to engage and defeat. But still... ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:07 PM

The use of "use"

Sometimes it's the apparently simple words that stir up problems in law cases. This time it's the use of the noun and verb, "use," in a case that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider (see here).

The Court will try to decide whether or not a defendant "used" a gun while he was engaged in  a drug trafficking crime. If he did, the Court would have to support a mandatory five-year sentence. This issue was raised in the case of Michael A. Watson v. United States of America, when the Louisiana man pleaded guilty and was given the mandatory sentence for trading his drugs for an unloaded gun. In the past, various Circuit and Appellate Courts have split on the issue of whether trading a gun for drugs consititutes "using" a gun. The Supreme Court will now have to decide what "using" means in this context.

It is agreed that the defendant, a convicted felon, told an undercover informant that he wanted to purchase a firearm to protect himself from robbers and asked the informant how much one might cost. The informant had a semi-automatic pistol with him, so he offered to trade it for Watson's drugs. The exchange took place and Watson was arrested and then convicted for distributing illegal drugs and for using a firearm "during and in relation to" a drug trafficking crime.

Section 924(c)(1)(A) of the criminal code imposes penalties on "any person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence of a drug trafficking crime uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm."

Sixty months of Watson's 262 month sentence included his conviction for "using" a gun. The Court of Appeals rejected Watson's claim that his trade of drugs to the undercover agent did not consitute "use" of a firearm during and in relation to the crime, citing the precedents set by several past cases. It decided that even though the idea of a trade was the agent's, and even though Watson possessed the gun for only moments, and even though the handgun was not loaded, Watson "used" the firearm illegally. In one previous case the Court reasoned that the use of a gun "as an item of barter falls within the plain language of Section 924 above as long as the 'use' occurs during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense." In another previous case the Court ruled: "the firearm is an operative factor in relation to the offense," noting that the "active employment understanding of 'use' certainly includes...'bartering' and that 'use' encompasses 'use as an item of barter.'"

This issue is not a new one. In the past, the Third, Fourth and Ninth Circuits have held that trading drugs for firearms consitutes "use." But the Eleventh, D.C., Sixth, and Seventh Circuits have concluded that a defendant  does not "use" a firearm when he receives it in exchange for drugs. And Mark Liberman has posted (see here) about an almost identical case that has already reached the Supreme Court (Mark's post is must reading about the way Justice Scalia reasons). There must be more to this than the above summary suggests and it will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court makes of it all this time.

One possible consideration is that people conventionally think of "using" something in relation to that thing's known and customary purpose. Guns are used to shoot things, animals, or people but not, for example, as hammers to nail something down. Another possible consideration is that the use of a gun in this case had little or no bearing on the way guns are usually thought of in violent, illegal acts. People also conventionally think of the expression, "in relation to," as being directly related to the event under discussion. In this case, the gun was directly related to the trade rather than to the drug crime. It will also be interesting to see what the Court does with "possession" and "carried." Watson clearly "possessed" the gun briefly before he was arrested and, I suppose, may have "carried" it for a moment or two, but both verbs have little to do with the sale of the drugs. The Court will have to consider what both verbs have to do with "the furtherance of the crime."

I hope it's clear that I'm trying not to take sides here. Drug dealing is a bad thing. As a convicted felon, Watson was not permitted to possess a gun, even for a few moments. I'm more interested in what the Supreme Court will do with this language. It's fascinating how often law comes up with linguistic problems like these, ones that occupy linguists daily. Language is clearly an integral part of law.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:07 PM

Googlelessness at the Gray Lady

OK, here's a logic puzzle for you. How should we assign historical illiteracy and carelessness to various writers and editors in order to create the situation described in the following four notes?

1. Michael Wines, "Song Wakens Injured Pride of Afrikaners", NYT 2/27/2007:

The Sunday Independent, perhaps South Africa's most renowned newspaper, says the song "answers a deep sadness" in Afrikaners' souls, a feeling that they have not merely fallen from power but have been marginalized in South African society — tossed into history's dustbin, as Ronald Reagan once said of the Soviets.

2. The version of the same story from the IHT ("Anthem to Afrikaner general raises questions about pride", 2/27/2007),which leaves out the attribution to Reagan speaking about the Soviets:

The Sunday Independent, perhaps South Africa's most renowned newspaper, says the song "answers a deep sadness" in Afrikaners' souls, a feeling that they have not merely fallen from power but have been marginalized in South African society — tossed into history's dustbin.

3. The (original?) source of the "history's dustbin / dustbin of history" phrase: on Nov. 7, 1917, at the Second Congress of Soviets, when the Mensheviks and the center and right wings of the Socialist Revolutionaries walked out, leaving the Bolsheviks in control, Leon Trotsky supposedly said (in Russian, of course): "You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!"

4. Ronald Reagan's use of the phrase (according to an essay at The Conservative Voice, " Emulating the Gipper", 2/2/2006):

In a sobering remark made on September 10, 1974 that would certainly pertain to today, Reagan said, "The dustbin of history is littered with the remains of those countries that relied on diplomacy to secure their freedom. We must never forget…in the final analysis…that it is our military, industrial and economic strength that offers the best guarantee of peace for America in times of danger."

Two other variants -- I have no idea whether any of these Reagan quotations are really authentic:

“Someone once said that every form of government has one characteristic peculiar to it and if that characteristic is lost, the government will fall. In a monarchy, it is affection and respect for the royal family. If that is lost the monarch is lost. In a dictatorship, it is fear. If the people stop fearing the dictator he'll lose power. In a representative government such as ours, it is virtue. If virtue goes, the government fails. Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable? Are we in truth losing our virtue? . . . If so, we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize.”

"We know that we are paying a high price in dollars for imported oil—how much are we paying in loss of independence and self- respect?... Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable ... Are we as Americans so thirsty for oil that we'll forget the traditions upon which our country is founded and let our foreign policy be dictated by anyone who has oil for sale? If so we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize" (Reagan in His Own Hand, 2001, p. 16).

So, to sum up, Trotsky used the "dustbin of history" phrase on the Mensheviks and their allies; and Ronald Reagan seems to have used it several times to warn about the future of the United States. Perhaps Ron did use it somewhere in reference to the Soviets, but if so, I haven't been able to find the quote. (The quote was found -- it was "ash-heap", not dustbin -- see below.)

The particular kind of carelessness that the Gray Lady's writers and editors exhibited? Failure to use simple web search to check a fact. Should we call it googlelessness?

The NYT article now has two corrections appended:

Correction: February 28, 2007

A front-page article yesterday about an identity crisis among Afrikaners, who invented the apartheid system that ended about a dozen years ago, misstated the colors of South Africa’s old apartheid flag. It is orange, blue and white, not orange and green. The article also referred incompletely to the name of a soccer stadium where an Afrikaner pride song was temporarily banned, and misstated the stadium’s location. It is Loftus Versfeld Stadium, not Loftus Stadium, and it is in Pretoria, not Johannesburg.

The article also misstated the location of Mpumalanga, a province that recently decertified an Afrikaans-language school that had refused to teach courses in English. While it is indeed in the eastern side of the country, it does not border the Indian Ocean. And the article misspelled the given name of an Afrikaner legislator who expressed concern that the government is excising Afrikaner history from official textbooks. He is Carel Boshoff, not Corel.

These corrections remind me of the old Radio Yerevan jokes.

In any case, the apparent misattribution of the "dustbin of history" quote is still there. My own guesses about the puzzle's solution: either Wines put in the misattribution, and a savvy editor at the IHT in Paris took it out, but the editor in New York was asleep at the switch; or else Wines had no attribution for the phrase, and an ignorant editor in New York stuck it in.

Of course, it's always possible that Google has failed me, and Reagan really did use the phrase prominently in reference to the Soviets.

[Update -- Frederick Vultee has drawn my attention to the fact that William Safire wrote about a closely related question back on Oct. 16, 1983 ("On Language: Dust Heaps of History"):

''Those who encroached on the integrity of our state,'' thundered Soviet leader Yuri Andropov a few weeks ago, ''. . . found themselves on the garbage heap of history.'' That was the official Tass translation: garbage heap .

Speaking in London more than a year before, President Ronald Reagan blazed forth with his belief that ''the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxist Leninism on the ash heap of history.'' That was the official White House text: ash heap .

Well, gentlemen, which is it? What kind of heap does history offer?

The phrase was popularized by Leon Trotsky, who told the Mensheviks departing from the 1917 Congress of Soviets, ''Go to the place where you belong from now on - the dustbin of history!'' That was the way his phrase, transliterated as musornyi yashchik , was translated in the English edition of Trotsky's autobiography; in reviews of the movie ''Reds,'' Trotsky was quoted as saying of the faction opposing the Bolsheviks, ''They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage heap of history.''

A third translation is trash heap , which rhymes with ash heap and compounds the confusion. ''The transliteration for trash heap . . . is closer to trash can ,'' says Prof. Carl Linden of the George Washington University's Institute of Sino-Soviet Studies. ''In old Russia - and probably still - there would be a courtyard . . . with a big box for all the tenement trash.'' That was probably the trash can, ashcan, ash heap, dustbin, dust heap or garbage heap Trotsky meant.

The most accurate translation would be dust heap . That is what the original English phrase was, stolen by Trotsky in its metaphoric form. In 1887, the English essayist Augustine Birrell coined the term in his series of essays, ''Obiter Dicta'': ''that great dust heap called 'history.' ''
I will returneth to dust in a minute, but first to the meaning of ashes when they appear in a heap : An ash heap , which is written as two words because of the adjacent h 's, was a collection of household refuse, including but not limited to the contents of stoves. The present-day definition would be garbage , which is rooted in the Middle English word for chicken's innards. (Where is this taking me?) In the Bible, when Job announced he would ''repent in dust and ashes,'' according to the 1611 King James translation, he meant he would sit ignominiously amidst the refuse. In British usage, dust retains its secondary meaning of garbage: A dustbin is what Americans would call a garbage pail, and a dustman - immortalized in Shaw's ''Pygmalion'' in the character of Alfred Doolittle - was until recently a garbage collector , when he became a sanitation worker .

Thus, while the translation offered by Tass - ''garbage heap of history'' - is accurate and up-to-date, it loses its historical evocation of Trotsky. Mr. Reagan's choice of words - ''ash heap of history'' - is close, but does not win the cigar. I would go with Birrell's original dust heap , until this phrase winds up in the waste-disposal unit of oratory.

The 1982 speech in question was Reagan's "Address to Members of the British Parliment [sic]" -- I've linked to a copy on the Heritage Foundation web site. He seems to have been extraordinarily fond of this metaphor, and to have used one version or another many times with respect to various countries, groups, or systems -- including "leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history", which is close enough to "tossed into history's dustbin, as Ronald Reagan once said of the Soviets" to get the NYT reporter or editor off the hook. Still, it seems to me that the IHT's choice to leave the phrase unattributed was better.

Google is great to find a quote, but not as easy to use to find a paraphrase. ]

[And as it happens, Language Hat had a great post on "The dustbin of history" just a few weeks ago -- including Trotsky's quotation in the original Russian. Nothing on Reagan, though.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:38 AM

Was that a Sachertortology or a Pflaumentortology?

Green Bamboo has selected a few choice examples of Hartman's Law from the Telegraph's recent linguistic gripe-fest. The best catch:

How about tortologies like "reduce down", "past history". Or there the politicians' favourite: "absolutely right".

We shouldn't make (too much) fun of people like Peter L., who contributed the little gem above. He's one of the millions who are intensely interested in the analysis of speech and language, but get no chance to learn how to do it competently, and no place to pursue their interest except in prescriptivist group gripes.

[Let me note in passing that someone submitted tortology to the eggcorn database's contributions page back in 2005, but it hasn't made it into the database itself, perhaps because it's rather rare. Do you suppose that those who use it (presumably r-less individuals for whom it's homophonous with "tautology") think that it has something to do with legal torts?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:43 AM

(Y)our day will come

According to a story Monday in BreakingNews.ie ("Irish language teacher in Belfast guilty of disorderly behaviour", 2/26/2007):

An Irish language teacher was convicted today of hurling abuse in Irish at police officers during a night out in Belfast.

Maire Nic An Bhaird, 25, had denied shouting “Tiocfaidh Ar La” – our day will come – a declaration regularly used by republicans as part of their struggle for a united Ireland, during a confrontation in the city last May.

She claimed police held her in custody, demanding she spoke in English before they let her go.

But after hearing both sides a magistrate ruled against Nic An Bhaird and ordered her to pay a £100 (€150) fine.

Jim McCloskey helped me with the analysis and pronunciation of this phrase:

Tiocfaidh ár
come[FUT] our day
`Our day will come.'

This is a slogan which is indelibly linked with the Provisional IRA. I first began to hear it used in the early to mid 1980's (I think). I don't know where exactly it came from, but it features a lot on murals in areas where the IRA is or was strong (often linked with images of armed IRA volunteers or with the hunger strikers).

In Gaeltacht Irish, it would be something like:

[t'uki ar la:]

(the [t] heavily palatalized, the [u] very centralized, [k] velarized, the [i] short and centralized, strongest stress on the final syllable). It's more often used in English than in Irish contexts (and therefore is most often used by people who don't in fact speak Irish), in which case it comes out basically as:

Chuckee our law

Ms. Nic An Bhaird claimed to have said something different:

She was arrested after leaving a bar on the Malone Road in south Belfast with friends.

But while those with her walked on ahead, Nic An Bhaird became embroiled in a confrontation with police officers.

During the contest she gave evidence insisting what she had actually said at the time was Tiocfaidh Bhur La, which translates as you’ll have your chance.–

According to Jim, that one would be:

Tiocfaidh bhur
come[FUT] your[PL] day
`Your day will come.'


[t'uki wər la:]

The magistrate apparently didn't care what pronoun she used:

But in her ruling Magistrate Fiona Bagnall said the defendant had taken a substantial amount of alcohol on the night.

She accepted that Nic An Bhaird shouting in Irish was not a reason in itself to be arrested for disorderly behaviour.

And even though the magistrate said defence witnesses appeared to have given truthful accounts she added that the accuracy of their recollection may have been distorted because of their distance from the defendant.

All police witnesses have been consistent in their accounts of what happened, Ms Bagnall told the court.

She said: “I’m satisfied that the defendant continued to address police officers in a loud and aggressive manner. I therefore find her guilty of disorderly behaviour.”

Jim commented:

I have very, very bad associations with this slogan, which always carries with it (to me) the smell of menace (not to mention the cynical and hypocritical use of the language for propaganda purposes). That said, how it could possibly be construed as being `abusive' in any literal or legal sense is absolutely beyond me.

Though I have no idea what the law in Belfast says about "disorderly behavior", I wouldn't be surprised if it would technically cover reciting the alphabet "in a loud and aggressive manner". Of course shouting the Provos' slogan, or something close to it, would no doubt have had more impact on the attitude of the police.

The arrest apparently took place back in November -- some links and quotes are given here and here and here -- and the different descriptions give radically differing pictures of what actually happened.

[Martin Cornell writes:

The linguistics of Ulster is a minefield, with the Protestant side insisting their language is just as much under threat, and demanding provisions such as an Ulster Scots translation service for the Northern Ireland Assembly - you may have missed this announcement last week:

Progress with Ulster Scots Academy plan
Belfast, Tuesday, 20 February 2007 by Michael Montgomery
A commitment to an Ulster-Scots Academy, announced in the April 2003 Joint Declaration between the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, has steadily moved toward fulfilment with submission in September of a comprehensive set of proposals to the Northern Ireland government at the invitation of the province's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and ensuing consultation.

Talking of linguistic minefields, you'll notice Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brun was quoted in the first story you link to as saying: “The feeling right across this island is ..." instead of "The feeling right across Ireland is ..." because Ireland is ambiguous, as that's the short name for the 26-county republic, and "Northern Ireland and the Republic" would appear to legitimise the division ...

For similar reasons Nationalists in the North and anybody from the Republic will never refer to "the British Isles", only "these islands", since the usual name, they feel, implies British ownership - ignoring, one might feel, the fact that that Pretanni/Cruithni who gave their name to the islands were a Celtic or pre-Celtic tribe, not Angloi-Saxon, and were found on both sides of the irish Sea ...


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:32 AM

Give yourself an Italian name!

Christopher Wlach wrote to me to tell me that he dined at an Olive Garden restaurant the other night, and noticed that the children's menu — which comes with crayons — had the following as a suggested activity:

You're an Italian artist! Give yourself an Italian-sounding name by taking the first syllable of your last name and adding "elli." Draw your masterpiece in the frame below--don't forget to sign it!

He tried it, of course, and got "Wlachelli", which didn't look all that Italian. How does it work on your name? I wonder how frequent -elli is as the ending of an Italian surname anyway. (Not nearly as frequent as ending in a vowel, that's for damn sure.) The Italians I can immediately think of have names ending in -ani, -ano, -asi, -erdi, -etti,-ini, -izzi, -neo, -odi, -one, -oni, and -uzzi. Perhaps I have encountered a biased sample.

By the way, Steve of Languagehat points out to me that — strangely enough — Chris's name, Wlach, is a Slavic root that sort of means... Italian! Though only sort of. Jon Nighswander supplies a few more precise details about this. In Polish, the adjective meaning "Italian" is włoska, and Italy is Włochy. Wlach actually means "Wallachian", or "Vlach". The Vlachs were the Latinised people of south central Europe — the descendants of the Roman colonists in Thrace whose descendants are for the most part the modern Romanians. During the middle ages Wlach and its many variants (vlasi, vlahi, etc. etc.) seemed to have been used by Slavic peoples fairly indiscriminately for any speaker of a Romance language. Włoska is etymologically related to Wlach, but it would not quite be true to say Wlach is the usual word for an Italian.

Jon also notes that -elli is certainly not atypically common in Italian surnames. It's not rare — Petruzzelli is apparently common in Puglia for example, and Agnelli is certainly well known — but really not unusually frequent either, so it's an oddly random choice for making your name Italian.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 01:12 AM

February 27, 2007

The Theory of Date Formats

Arnold's discussion of the clever forensic use of date order by the Iranian government made me think a little about date formats. An analysis along the lines of Optimality Theory seems appropriate.

The constraints, in descending rank order, are:

Are the units in a consistent increasing or descending order?
Are the month and day adjacent?
Of the first two units, does the larger come first?

We obtain the following tableau, which seems to predict fairly nicely the attested distribution.

Pattern Attestation Monotonicity Adjacency Endianness
y-m-dEast Asia and ISO8601
y-d-mUS Fish and Wildlife Service

Empirical questions remain. The topic of date format not having been the focus of much research, one has to wonder whether some obscure tribe in the Amazon will turn out to write its dates in m-y-d or d-y-m order. Indeed, my colleague Geoff Pullum informs me that Pirahã dates are of the form "?-?-?". I'm not sure whether this means that they are unable to specify any of the three components, which would be consistent with the reports that their language has no numbers, or whether this is an ASCII version of IPA [ʔ ʔ ʔ], which doesn't seem any more informative.

It is also interesting to note that these properties appear to have analogues in word order:

  • Monotonicity ∼ Head-finality
  • Month-Day Adjacent ∼ Presence of Verb Phrase
  • Largest First ∼ Subject Precedes Object

[Addendum: as a reader has pointed out, "Endianness" here is not the same as in its use in computer science. I didn't intend it to be - it just seemed like a convenient term and I couldn't think of anything better. Proponents of OT will recognize that the analysis here is not true OT. It isn't intended to be. Another reader has reported that the US Fish and Wildlife Service uses dates in the y-d-m format for some purposes.]

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:43 PM

Tell-tale date format?

In a letter published in the New York Times on 2/26/07 (p. A24), M. A. Mohammadi, the Press Secretary in the Mission of Iran to the United Nations, attacks U.S. allegations about his country:

The United States media should not become the conduit for the systematic disinformation campaign against Iran reflected in a new wave of baseless accusations about Iranian weapons inside Iraq.

Iran flatly denies the United States' allegations aimed at deflecting attention from the failures of American policy in Iraq.

... The evidence that has been produced is preposterous (the dates on the evidence are in American date format -- month first, day second -- whereas the rest of the world does not use this format).

I don't know what the facts are for this particular evidence, but an American date format on putatively Iranian material would indeed be suspicious.

As the Wikipedia entry on "calendar date" explains, there are three systems for ordering the three components of dates:

Little endian, from smallest to largest unit: 27 February 2007; 27/2/07 or 27/2/2007.  Used in "the vast majority of the world's countries", including Iran.

Big endian, from largest to smallest unit: 2007 February 27; 2007-02-07.  The ISO 8601 standard, used in computer dates.  Also used in a dozen or so countries, notably China and Japan, sometimes coexisting with other systems.

Middle endian, starting with the month: February 27, 2007; 2/27/07 or 2/27/07.  "Used in the United States and countries with U.S. influence".

(There are also variations in the separating characters -- slash, hyphen, period, or space -- and in details of the date components.)

[Note, 2/28: In the face of an avalanche of e-mail, let me stress that this posting is NOT a survey of the world's date notations; it's entirely about just one aspect of these notations, the ordering of the three components of a date (all the other details, however fascinating, are beside the point), and the association of one of these orderings with the United States.]

So a middle-endian date would strongly suggest that the date was written by an American, not an Iranian.

[Added 2/28: Mike McMahon notes that this story broke about two weeks ago and supplies links to the evidence in question, including the marking "5-31-2006", and to the Wikipedia page on the controversy.  (Mike Brown now observes that this marking is not obviously a date: "it could as easily indicate it's the 31st batch produced in plant 5 during 2006, or the 5th batch of the 31st design. Or, "5-31" could merely be an arbitrary lot code meaning nothing whatsoever to an outsider.")  Meanwhile, I'm waiting for a U.S. response claiming that American-notation dates were deliberately used by the Iranians so that Iran could dismiss the evidence as faked.

While the facts of the matter -- whether the markings are dates, and how they got on the weapons -- are obviously very important, I'm not competent to judge.  I'm merely making a small point as a linguist: that if the markings are dates, they're much more likely to be of American than Iranian provenance.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 10:18 AM

The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming

There's something stirring in the online New Media sections of the world's newspapers. At the New York Times, Dick Cavett's inaugural blog post "It's only language" now has 761 comments. And across the Atlantic, on the Telegraph's web site, readers have devoted more than 1,270 comments to (as Christopher Howse put it yesterday)

... naming and shaming some of the most irritating phrases to have insinuated themselves into the English language.
("What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?", 2/23/2007)

Looking around quickly on the web sites of those two newspapers, I don't see any non-linguistic discussions that are generating as many comments as these are. For example, on the Telegraph Speakers' Corner site, "Is the Anglican Church obsessed with sex?" has gotten 44 responses; "Who were the real winners and losers at the Oscars?" has gotten 35; "Should Prince Harry be sent to Iraq?" has gotten 205; "What would a world without America be like?" has gotten 232. Since I haven't done a systematic survey, let's just say that the reader interest in linguistic matters is strikingly large.

Of course, the theme of this flood of linguistic interest is mostly griping. Some of the items in this gripefest just list words, phrases, pronunciations or structures that readers find annoying; but in many cases, a guilty group is also named: politicians, rugby commentators, Americans, Californians, BBC announcers, South Africans, the youth of today, estate agents, footballers, the military, management, and train attendants, among others. Contributions often cite or imply one of a few standard reasons for being annoyed: overuse, redundancy, inconsistency, novelty, and failure to observe an allegedly traditional distinction.

There's a topic here for a social psychologist or a sociologist, I think. I'm neither one, but here's how it looks to me.

Social annoyance and public griping reinforce one another.

By social annoyance I mean a distaste for the way someone looks or acts that sees its object as an instance of a type. Someone's appearance or behavior gets under your skin, and it's not just that particular person, it's the whole class of people who look like that or act like that. And usually it's not just a random set of people, it's kids today, or jocks, or German tourists, or 30-something suburban women in Hummers, or those people who hang out with so-and-so. You associate the irritant with some salient combination of social features: race, ethnicity, age, sex, class, location, occupation, clique.

By public griping I mean the process of sharing your annoyance with a sympathetic group. You might trade anecdotes around the coffee machine or the dinner table, or write a letter to the editor. People enjoy listening in groups to skillful expressions of social annoyance, and so stand-up comedians do a lot of this. Cartoons and newspaper columns often express similar feelings, and allow you to join in by putting a clipping or printout up on your refrigerator or your office door. These days, you might send a copy to your friends by email, or chime in on your weblog.

In some places and times, linguists might have been presiding over the speech and language sessions of this ritual reinforcement of group identity. But these days, our reaction is generally to observe that most of the gripes are arbitrary and many of the explanations are false. For example, one of the hundreds of word-usage gripes on the Telegraph's site is:

Our house was robbed instead of burgled.
Only people can be robbed.

Sez who? Not the OED, which gives sense 3.a. as "To plunder, pillage, rifle (a place, house, etc.)" and cites examples from 1230 forwards that include Shakespeare and Macaulay:

c1230 Hali Meid. 15 Wes helle irobbed, & heuene beð ifulled.
1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, III. vi. 106 One that is like to be executed for robbing a Church.
1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. xii. III. 221 In the country his house was robbed.

Another gripe, typical of the type that claims logic as its basis:

One in particular is
As in at about 1030 pm
It is surely either
at 1030 pm or about 1030 pm.
How can it be both at the same time.

But at about is listed in the OED as a sequence of prepositions meaning "at approximately" -- a useful and not intrinsically inconsistent concept -- with citations from eminent authors over the centuries:

a1882 TROLLOPE Autobiogr. (1883) I. ix. 214, I have been paid at about that rate.
1915 V. WOOLF Voyage Out iii. 37 At about that hour he reappeared.
1929 D. H. LAWRENCE Paintings sig. B1r, At about the time of our Elizabethans.
1945 E. WAUGH Bridesh. Rev. II. v. 272 My divorce case..was due to be heard at about the same time.

We can take it back a bit further with a quotation from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818):

At about half past twelve, a remarkably loud rap drew her in haste to the window, and scarcely had she time to inform Catherine of there being two open carriages at the door, in the first only a servant, her brother driving Miss Thorpe in the second, before John Thorpe came running.

This kind of gripe-debunking could go on for a long time, but it's really beside the point.

Linguistic sins, real or imaginary, are not really what's driving this process. And the original emotion of irritation, though sometimes expressed in colorful displays of (mock?) disgust and anger, is also secondary, I think. The real key is the public ritual that Christopher Howse called "naming and shaming", which helps the group to converge on a set of norms. (While giving everyone a good deal of pleasure along the way, apparently.)

As we gripe-debunkers relentlessly demonstrate, these aren't the usual norms of linguistic usage. They're not even the norms of the standard language or the norms of elite users. These days, those accused of offending against these odd, artificial norms are as likely to be high-status people -- politicians, business managers, journalists -- as members of (linguistically) lower-status groups -- blacks, young people, Americans, athletes.

Often there's a political dimension, though it's rarely as explicit and hostile as it is in this example from the Telegraph:

The current expression which causes great irritation is "Carbon Footprint". Should anyone of those namby pamby, nerdy, mummy's boys (known as greens) utter that expression in my presence it would give me great pleasure to plant a large Carbon bunch of fives up his mandibles. (if you will forgive an earlier expression)

While social annoyance is sometimes an original emotion, public griping reinforces it and in many cases creates it out of nothing. This is especially true for the linguistic forms of this process. Sentence-initial however, for example, annoys many people who would never have noticed it if they hadn't been trained to do so by the public griping about this alleged abuse that Will Strunk started a hundred years ago. (See "The evolution of disornamentation", 2/21/2005; "Fossilized prejudices about 'however'", 2/22/2005, "If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all",10/31/2006 for details.)

Arnold Zwicky has observed ("Tolerating variation, or not", 2/24/2007),

I'm often puzzled why some usages get such opprobrium (in the face of the actual practice of good writers) while others go unnoticed and uncommented on.  Recently, I've been looking at preposition + of (out/outside/inside/alongside/off of) versus plain preposition (I intend to post on this eventually); many usage advisers are hostile to the versions with of: the of is said to be "superfluous" (Omit Needless Words!); the usage is (in most cases, incorrectly) labeled "colloquial", or even "non-standard"; it's believed to be more recent than the alternative (the of has been, inexplicably, added); and it's less frequent than the alternative.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to pay any attention to except for vs. plain except ("Nobody talked, except (for) Kim"), though you could try to mount a case against this for similar to the case against of.

Once a proscription -- even a silly one, like Dryden's Rule, banning stranded prepositions -- is in the marketplace, it tends to persist.  But where do the proscriptions come from?  Here, there's an enormous amount of randomness: somebody in the usage community happens to notice something that offends him (it's almost always a man) in some way -- often because he views it as colloquial or innovative or regional or used by the wrong sort of people, occasionally because that's not the way you do things in Latin -- and writes or teaches about it.  We then end up with a collection of personal quirks and accidents of history, a big grab-bag of assorted stuff.  Speaker-oriented hopefully gets excoriated, while speaker-oriented frankly and so on get a free pass.  Sentence-initial linking however is judged to be poor style, while sentence-initial linking consequently and so on escape the red pencil.  I could go on like this for quite some time.

There's has always been a sort of black market in populist usage peeves. Thus Arnold has shown elsewhere ("However, ..." 11/1/2206) that the "No Initial Coordinators" rule (NIC) has become widely accepted and taught without even the crankiest and most idiosyncratic of language mavens ever having preached it:

Mark notes that the AHD note for and rejects NIC out of hand, and he provides a smorgasbord of cites (and statistics) from reputable authors.  Similarly MWDEU.  Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error".  Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity.  Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators.  A point of usage and style on which Liberman and I and the AHD and the MWDEU stand together with Brians and Garner and Fiske (and dozens of other advice writers) is, truly, not a disputed point.  NIC is crap.

But still it lives on, as what I've called a zombie rule.  It's been lurking in the grammatical shadows for some time -- at least a hundred years, to judge from MWDEU.  Hardly any usage manual subscribes to it, but it is, apparently, widely taught in schools, at least in the U.S., with the result that educated people tend to be nagged by a feeling that there is something bad about sentence-initial and (and but and so).  (It might well be that this sense of unease rises with level of education.  Someone should look at this possibility.) 

The internet has made it possible for this populist ferment to emerge in widely-read group gripe sessions, like the one organized and summarized on the Telegraph's site by Christopher Howse, or the flood of comments on Dick Cavett's first NYT blog post, or the many web forums where usage debates have been taking place for some time.

Will this result in an explosion of pet peeves enshrined as artificial linguistic norms, an epidemic of what I once called the "infectious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder" afflicting some sectors of the usage industry? Or will lowering barriers to entry, and flooding the market with usage gripes, cause the whole industry to crash? Or will language mavens and their audience find some unanticipated new equilibrium?

Although people have been worried about correct speech for thousands of years, it's apparently the status anxieties of modern societies that create the market for usage advice in which artificial "rules" can spring up and spread, independent of the genuine norms of speaking and writing. But the cycle of social annoyance and public griping seems much older and more fundamental. As the internet turns up the gain on this paleolithic social feedback loop, will something new arise?

[More commentary in blog posts at the Telegraph by Christopher Howse:

"The clumsy phrases you basically, like, hate", 2/25/2007
"Modern English abusage", 2/26/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:14 AM

Long Waiting Lists for English Courses

The main argument of those who think that the United States needs laws making English the official language is that many immigrants do not want to learn English and must be forced to do so. They're in for a reality check. The New York Times reports that there is such a shortage of English courses for immigrants that in some states waiting lists are as long as two years. I can see how immigrants might find it difficult to learn English in such circumstances, and might indeed infer that no one really cares whether they do.

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:33 AM

Turkey Continues Suppression of Kurdish

The AP reports that Turkey has sentenced the President and Vice-President of the Democratic Society Party to a year in jail for publishing political materials in Kurdish. Do they really think that no one will notice, or do they just not care about joining the European Union?

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:26 AM

Aramaic in the Tomb of Jesus

Today's New York Times has a report on a new documentary by a team that claims to have found the graves of Jesus and his family and that they show that he was married to Mary Magdalene and was not bodily resurrected. Whether their claim proves to be true remains to be seen - I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it. Unfortunately, the New York Times article is confused about the languages of Israel in the first century C.E., characterizing Aramaic as "an ancient dialect of Hebrew". Actually, Aramaic is a sister language of Hebrew and is not limited to ancient times.

In what is probably the most widely accepted subgrouping of the Semitic languages as given in Wikipedia, Aramaic is one of several subgroups of Northwest Semitic. One of its sisters is Canaanite, which includes Hebrew.

An alternative subgrouping is given in the Ethnologue family tree. In this classification, Aramaic is one of the two branches of the Central branch of the Semitic languages. The other branch is Southern, which consists of two subgroups: Arabic and Canaanite. Canaanite includes modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew, and a number of other extinct languages.

Although some varieties of Aramaic were spoken in ancient times and are extinct, Aramaic continues to be spoken, primarily by Eastern Rite Christians, though also by some Jews. If you meet someone who calls himself or herself an "Assyrian", he or she is probably a member of a community whose traditional language is a form of Aramaic. Another group of modern Aramaic speakers are a dwindling subset of the Mandaens living in Iran, who practice a religion descended from ancient Gnosticism.

Posted by Bill Poser at 04:45 AM

February 26, 2007

Another comic strip on the missing -ic

This one, from Darrin Bell's Candorville, explains why it's offensive.

Here's another Candorville strip that explores the relevant parallelism between presidential signing statements and graffiti:

Turning to the non-political linguistic arena, here's a strip on paralinguistic communication:

Every once in a while, Bell uses that format with subtextual footnotes explaining what people really mean. Usually, the subtext re-interprets ordinary English, but this time, the "text" is sighs and mouth clicks and grunts and coughs. The background joke is banal: you can communicate a lot, in context, without actually saying anything. But the much more subtle punchline makes a different point: the paralinguistic system isn't rich enough to express a real semantic anomaly. Or is it?

[Update -- John Cowan suggests:

Consider this passage from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic. Sneer is a drama critic, and Puff is the director (and author) of a play about the Spanish Armada that is in rehearsal. Lord Burleigh is one of the characters.

LORD BURLEIGH comes forward, shakes his head, and exit.
Sneer: He is very perfect indeed! Now, pray what did he mean by that?
Puff: You don't take it?
Sneer: No, I don't, upon my soul.
Puff: Why, by that shake of the head, he gave you to understand that even though they had more justice in their cause, and wisdom in their measures -- yet, if there was not a greater spirit shown on the part of the people, the country would at last fall a sacrifice to the hostile ambition of the Spanish monarchy.
Sneer: The devil! did he mean all that by shaking his head?
Puff: Every word of it -- if he shook his head as I taught him.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:31 AM

Garrison Keillor on Indecency

Just a few days ago a friend gave me a copy of Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat. He has something to say (p. xxiii) about twits who have a problem with body part words.

The word indecent can be interpreted in so many ways that a radio station in Lexington, Kentucky, decided to cancel a radio show of mine because I used the word breast. Here in the land of the free, freedom won by brave men whose speech was salty and whose interest in women was keen, a man cannot say breast on the radio. How do these people manage to order fried chicken in a restaurant?
Posted by Bill Poser at 01:44 AM

February 25, 2007

OK, if she starts to bend over, run...

Arnold Zwicky argues that in the controversy over a children's book where a rattlesnake bites a dog on the scrotum, the problem isn't the word, it's the reference to the concept of male genitals. If that's true, then the Sacramento Bee is heading for trouble with the nation's librarians. But this time it wasn't a snake biting an animal's genitals, it was a government lawyer.

According to David Whitney, "Sacramento lawyer's ascent takes a turn", Sacramento Bee, 2/25/2007

Sue Ellen Wooldridge received a hero's send-off from her partners at a Sacramento law firm when she took a job as special assistant to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in 2001.

Six years later, after climbing to a top position at the Justice Department, the lawyer whom the Sacramento County Bar Association journal said in a 2001 headline was on her way "into the stratosphere," instead is facing tough questions about her professional ethics.

Wooldridge has been linked by love, if little more, to a Justice Department target in the still unfolding Jack Abramoff scandal, J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 person at the Interior Department.

The House Judiciary Committee also is investigating how she came to jointly own a $1 million beach house with Griles and the chief lobbyist for an oil company she let off the hook in a pollution case while serving as the Justice Department's top environmental prosecutor.

No scrotum-biting so far, right? But wait:

While Wooldridge has been charged with nothing and has explanations for everything, her linkage to unfolding corruption scandals has cast a cloud over her reputation that a matter of months ago was unassailed.

Wooldridge's attorney, Stephen Grafman, declined a request for an interview with her, and offered no comments himself.

Wooldridge, 46, grew up on a farm near Willows, where her father was superintendent of schools. She was an honors graduate from the University of California, Davis, and Harvard Law School.

As a government official, she was regarded as tough but fair. She once told a gathering of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers that "when I was growing up I used to castrate sheep with my teeth."

Try to explain that one to an urban pre-schooler...

When I was in the second grade, the girl who sat at the desk just behind mine -- let's call her Alice -- was excused from school for a couple of days because it was time to castrate the sheep on her parents' farm. That's how she explained it, unapologetically, in front of the class. In this case -- and we're talking about rural New England in 1954 -- the librarian wasn't involved, but the teacher didn't see any problem with either the word or the concept.

Arnold quotes a (news story quoting a) librarian about the snakebite in Susan Patron's story: "If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn't want to have to explain that. I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson."

I can see that it might be difficult to explain to 9- or 10-year-olds what Sue Ellen Wooldridge really meant about castrating sheep with her teeth. But I believe that all the 7-year-olds in our class knew more or less what was happening on Alice's farm, though some of us had seen the process and others had only heard about it. (Teeth were not involved, at least not on the farm across the road from where I lived. And I can't imagine that Alice, a demure and gentle girl who was often my partner in class projects, would ever have pretended that they were. Though maybe law school would have changed her...)

In Susan Patron's book, we're talking about a straight-up normal rattlesnake bite, not the kinky fantasies of a top Justice Department lawyer. It's hard to believe that there are many 9- or 10-year-olds these days who don't know that rattlesnakes bite and that dogs have genitals, even if they haven't put the two concepts together before.

Would Susan Patron have kicked up as much of a fuss if her story had dealt with the castration of sheep? I'd hope not -- as long as she didn't feature a young girl doing it with her teeth. It looks like Sue Ellen Wooldridge is going to have some time on her hands, so maybe she can work that one up for the young adult market.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:30 PM

Blame it on the word!

The headline -- page 1 in the New York Times, 2/18/07 -- reported:

With One Word,
  Children's Book
    Sets Off Uproar

In the jump on page 23, a bolded inset summarizes the story:

Teachers, authors and
librarians take sides
over a story that
names a body part.

The body part in question is the scrotum, and the word scrotum appears on the very first page of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, who won a Newbery Medal for the book.  The 10-year-old protagonist Lucky "heard the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog ... on the scrotum", as Julie Bosman writes in the NYT piece.

Wait, wait!  The WORD is the problem?

Language is right out there on the front lines.  We get to thoughts, ideas, concepts, proposals, beliefs, recollections, etc. through what's spoken or written.  So when there's a problem, we're inclined to blame the language.  In this case, it's definitely a bum rap.

The problem isn't the WORD scrotum.  The problem is referring to this body part at all.

There aren't a lot of choices here.  In plain language, there's nutsack/nut-sack/nut sack (815,000 Google webhits) and the variant spellings nutsac/nut-sac/nut sac (55,000 hits).  (The Latin-derived medical term scrotum gets 1,460,000 hits, by the way.)  And there's the metonymic alternative balls.  But these alternatives would not have done in a children's book.  There are less specific terms she might have chosen, for example the euphemistic private parts or privates or the medical genitals or genitalia, but since these are less specific they are are also less informative

Patron is reported as saying, in Bosman's words, that "one of the themes of the book is that Lucky is preparing herself to be a grown-up" and that "learning about language and body parts ... is very important to her."  Patron says of scrotum: "The word is just so delicious".  (Perhaps because it combines the initial sound-symbolic scr- of scratch, scrape, etc. with the elevated -otum of factotum and -tum of quantum, sanctum, etc.)

So she chose the topic (basing her account on a true incident involving a friend's dog), and then selected the most accurate term that wasn't street talk.  And librarians around the country balked at stocking the book on their shelves, despite the Newbery Medal.

All except one of the librarians Bosman quotes blame the word:

"If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn't want to have to explain that."

"I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson." [Nice example of subject myself for my collection of remarkable reflexives.]

"Sad to say, I didn't order it for either of my schools, based on 'the word.' "

One of them eventually gets the point.  She's quoted first as issuing a general complaint:

"This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn't have the children in mind," Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., wrote on LM_Net, a mailing list that reaches more than 16,000 school librarians. "How very sad."

But in a quotation at the end of the article, she blames the thing referred to and not the word that refers to it:

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. "I don't want to start an issue about censorship," she said. "But you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature."

"At least not for children," she added.

I'd imagine that the people objecting to the passage in Patron's book would not be satisfied if Patron altered "on the scrotum" to "on the genitals" or "on his genitalia".  You'd still have men's genitalia in children's lit, and you'd still have something to explain to the kiddies.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Note added by Geoff Pullum: See Gelf Magazine's Gelf Log for some textual evidence that in fact literature for young people has repeatedly had references to scrotums in the past (hat tip to Susie Bright's Journal). The crazies who are prudishness to new extremes of looniness in this country are not representatives of tradition.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:36 PM

Script quiz

Via Adam Wells, a question from the Ikea Hacker forum: what script and language is this, and what does it say?

Or is it a calligraphic equivalent of lorem ipsum? If you think you know, tell me and I'll post the answers.

[Update -- even though there was a typo in my mailto address above (now fixed), Andrew West managed to get through to me with this information:

The script is the "headless" cursive style of Tibetan. The large word says zhwa mo "hat", and the accompanying text translates as something like "whoever has a head has a hat". Tibetan text below:


Note that you'll need a Tibetan font to view the text that Andrew gives us.

Next question: what's the source of the text -- a traditional proverb? a Buddhist saying? a Swedish invention translated into many languages? And what interpretations were intended or assumed by its authors, its transmitters or the folks at Ikea who chose it for their wall decoration?

For example, does it have something to do with the traditional association between Buddhist sects and hat colors, thus meaning something along the lines of "like it or not, you need to take sides in sectarian conflicts"?

This reminds me of the old joke about a conversation between a native of Belfast and an American:

Belfast: Are you a protestant or a catholic?
U.S.: Well, neither one, actually. As it happens, I'm a jew.
Belfast: All right, but are you a protestant jew or a catholic jew?


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:13 AM

Dared questioned

Take a look at this paragraph by Philip Nobel ( "Lust for height", American.com, 2/23/2007):

In October, at the premier international conference of skyscraper builders, the first speaker announced without a hint of irony or doubt that by 2030, somewhere, a mile-high skyscraper would be built. Five thousand two hundred and eighty feet. One-tenth of the way to the ozone layer. More than three times as tall as anything now standing and exactly as high as the most fantastic towers ever dared conceived. [emphasis added]

The last two words brought me up short. (Please calm down, Mr. Rose! If I saw this "ever dared conceived" in a student composition, I'd red-pencil it and suggest substituting the simpler "ever conceived", or perhaps the more emphatic "that anyone has ever dared to conceive". Now, may I propose a truce in the War of the 'Scriptivists while we try to figure out what's going on here? Feel free to help yourself to a drink and browse through my heirloom collection of the McGuffy Readers. This won't take long.)

Let's start with a simpler example of the same construction, chosen from the many available on the web:

Nothing was dared left outside.

People who use this construction seem to see it as a passive form of dare+V, following an analogy something like this:

<someone> left nothing outside
 ⇔  nothing was left outside
<someone> dared leave nothing outside

nothing was dared left outside

With an extra "to be" -- "Nothing was dared to be left outside" -- this would be just like the "double passives" that Neal Whitman blogged about a couple of years ago ("Double Your Passive, Double Your Fun", 5/16/2005). Some of Neal's examples:

For custom orders, full payment must be received before the item is begun to be made.
If any terms or conditions are failed to be followed it will result in grounds for immediate account deactivation.

I agree with Neal that this construction "makes less sense the more you try to parse it like any other passive, but ... sounds pretty natural if you just go with it". At least Neal's examples -- which all have the form "<be> past-participle to be past-participle" -- are like that. Like the need + V-en construction ("The cat needs fed"), they're not part of my version of English, but they don't feel all that far outside it.

The "dared conceived" and "dared left" examples seem much weirder to me. Despite this, they're fairly common on the internets:

In the fall of '97, this frighteningly talented foursome crossed paths, generating in one action-packed week in upstate New York, some of the most visceral, spiritual, and meticulously textured instrumental progressive rock dared attempted in the late '90s.
Come down to The Comic Strip and witness freakish acts not dared attempted by the craziest of carnival carnies.
You are facing a player in a tournament who has brought in a deck that has never been dared tried before.
The strong room in the cellar contains several expensive vases and glass lenses that are not finished, but not dared left in the open.
Barely a breath was dared drawn.
There is no government as coldly efficient as a dictatorship--no opinions are requested--none are dared given.

But while I was looking for these examples, I found a range of dare contructions that are way beyond weird. Here are a few samples:

The true potential of our children is far more profound than we've dared imagined.
But nobody dared attempted a coup: too dificult too risky...
During the following five years, Frances, disappointed, never dared opened her heart to anyone about the distress of her soul.
Frequently when these countries dared pushed back, the west made sure governments were toppled, or coerced into playing along.

There are active, not passive. Where I would say or write "she never dared open her heart", these folks use "she never dared opened her heart".

It appears that the morphology of dared -- which may be a preterite in cases like "nobody dared" or a past participle in cases like "we've dared" -- is copied on the following verb, which (in my version of English) should be the bare stem form. We can tell this from irregular verbs that distinguish the preterite and past-participle forms, e.g.

The backdoor was always unlocked and Mom served only red Kool-Aid to the neighborhood kids – we never dared drank that New Coke.
So, we never dared gave him anything chunky.
For years, no one dared gave another interpretation, but slowly the situation changed.
Two hours later and still no sign of Tyson, Kai was feeling irritable and glared at anyone who dared gave him a flirtatious look or a sympathetic one.

Hamas stated this week that the real problem was Rushdie was still alive and if he'd been gotten then nobody would have dared drawn those cartoons.
If Kloss thought the Jewish Defense League were going to kill him, he would never have never dared drawn it.
They have served as police officers, tax collectors, teachers, and have dared drawn a salary from the mandatory tithe to "support their families"
He hasn't dared eaten it.
Bourdain has played a large role in my burgeoning love of good food, opening my eyes to things I wouldn't have dared eaten before.
Now mind you, I wouldn't have dared eaten one of them since she licked her fingers every time she put a chocolate chip or jelly bean on them.
I would not have dared given that speech myself, unless I knew for sure the outcome of the Iraqi elections.
He dearly loves his father and sister, and he feels comfortable expressing it--again, I don't think he would have dared given dad a hug six months ago,

I've only found two examples where the preterite (wrote, ran) is used in a context where the past participle (written, run) would be expected:

lol true story son cuz if he had myspace she wouldn't of dared wrote that on my wall.
When I was in elementary school I wouldn't have dared ran home and told my parents I got in trouble at school, I would have been in even more trouble.

But I wouldn't be surprised to find that these same writers would produce "she wouldn't of wrote that" or "I wouldn't have ran home". I haven't found any examples where a distinguished past-participle form is used where the preterite would have been expected. (By the way, Mr. Rose -- yes, that Midleton's is rather nice, isn't it? -- I hope that you appreciate my efforts to check that strange syntax is coupled with appropriate morphology.)

Here's a sample of other examples from the web. (There are so many irregular verbs because those are the ones I searched for.)

While I owned my old Prostar, I preached MC and would not have dared bought another brand.
It gave me the title Convolution and the game has grown and evolved in ways I wouldn't have dared imagined earlier.
It had the reputation of getting out of difficulties through smaller chances than few would have dared attempted.
Since I haven't even been able to make the simple scarf, I haven't dared attempted a dress.
When I read The Nation that winter, I wouldn’t have dared thought that I would be engaged in a private spat with Noam Chomsky himself.
I wouldn't have dared left on my own, but getting thrown out--I suppose I owe you for that, if nothing else.
NITANALDI is very possibly the store you have dreamed of but never dared thought would exist.
So she had never once dared opened a Bible, even though she would see them sometimes and wondered what could be so dangerous about the book.
Well before wine snobs dared opened their minds -- and palates -- to bottles under $15, Bennett was specializing in the stuff.
She noticed Harry closing his eyes and taking a deep, steadying breath before he dared opened them again.

It's so strange to discover that this is part of some people's version of the English language that you may be worried that these are simply compositional errors of some sort.

There are at least two ways such errors could creep in.

First, someone might simply perseverate a verb form while typing . Thus when I mean to write "wanting to leave", once in a while, I can imagine that my fingers might produce "wanting to leaving". That's not because I think that "wanting to leaving" is part of the English language. There are 25 instances of {"wanting to leaving"} in Google's index now, and I'd guess that most of them would be disavowed by their writers. And there are 198 examples of {"wanted to tried"}. (Though who knows, maybe English syntax is more variable than we think...)

Second, someone might write the form without dared -- e.g. "he would never have drawn it" -- and then decide to add the daring part, while forgetting to change the original verb to the bare stem form.

I don't have a compelling argument against the theory that many if not all of the examples above are mistakes of these types. A weak argument is that such things do occur in publications that have been edited (though of course these also sometimes contain typos):

Raymond J. Haberski, "It's Only a Movie!: Films and Critics in American Culture", 2001, p.104, writing about The Bicycle Thief:

The ending of de Sica's movie was a stark illustration of the potential power of realistic films: After attempting to steal a bicycle in order to replce the one stolen from him, the protagonist is caught and humiliated in front of his son, set free by the owner of the bicycle, and closes the film weeping and still without a bicycle. No Hollywood producer would have dared left the audience with such a final image.

Mark Rogers, 52 Greatest Moments World Series of Poker, 2007 (Acknowledgments)

I could not have had a better consultant than my father, Mark G. Rogers, for the book and for that matter, anything else I have dared attempted in life.

David Zahn, Quintessential Guide to Using Consultants, 2004, p. 65:

However, far fewer of those consultants would have dared attempted to consult on topics outside of their "Quality Improvement Process" work.

Ocala Star-Banner, 10/26/2005:

"I don't care how many vacant seats were there, nobody dared attempted to sit up front," said Parker, a retired educator.

So for now, I'll leave it that there's some evidence of a minority pattern in English that spreads preterite or past-participle inflection across active dare+V sequences. If this pattern is part of your idiolect, or if you know someone who talks or writes this way and doesn't see anything wrong with it when you ask them, please let me know.

And don't worry that I'll think badly of you. Before collecting and studying these examples, I would never have dared thought that anyone would speak or write this way; but it's starting to seem almost normal to me. (Whoa, Mr. Rose, I said "almost". Please put down that bow of burning gold, walk away from the chariot of fire, and let me pour you another drink.)

[Update -- Beatrice Santorini writes "the funny thing is that this construction is starting to sound quite natural to me!" And John Foreman explains that he started out in that state, giving these details:

My initial intuitions are that the dared+past participle constructions you mentioned sound just fine to me. In fact, I was having a hard time seeing what your issue with them was at first. So,

   I wouldn't have dared gone and written something like that.

sounds fine to me. In fact, the plain forms sound a little odd:

   ?I wouldn't have dared go and write something like that.

It's ok if we remove the perfective and get plain forms across the board:

   I wouldn't dare go and write something like that.

This does suggest that the verbs are agreeing with one another in form. I think I can even do it with the 3rd singular -s:

   If he dares goes and writes something like that, I'll be so upset.

Oddly though, I had more trouble with preterites following dared. The examples you gave with irregular preterites after preterite dared generally sounded odd to me. The one sentence

   Two hours later and still no sign of Tyson, Kai was feeling irritable and glared at anyone who dared gave him a flirtatious look or a sympathetic one.

sounded better. The others, not so good.

In those, I think I would be tempted to use the plain form but honestly, the plain form doesn't always sound right there either:

   *I never dared did such a thing.
   ?I never dared do such a thing.

   ??I never dared went and wrote something like that.
   ??I never dared go and write something like that.

My intuitions are breaking down on these following guys, but I kind of like the second and third ones better. The first and fourth not so much.

   Who dared went to the party?
   Who dared go to the party?
   Who dared went and wrote something like that?
   Who dared go and write something like that?

(The she wouldn't of dared wrote and I wouldn't have dared ran home examples are fine for me, since I do say I should've went to the store. And I do recognize this as nonstandard and wouldn't write that in formal contexts, but I didn't view non-plain forms following dare as nonstandard (or even as a place where there is dialectal variation. Neat.))

Again, my intuitions are shaky with preterite dared and unfortunately I don't have an analyzed corpus of my speech to search through. But I will try to keep my ears open for such unseflconscious uses in the future. I look forward to seeing what else you turn up on this.

OK, I'm convinced. This is a real lectal difference, not just a collection of sporadic typographical errors. The next questions: What are its geographical and social distributions? When and where did it start? Or is it a sporadic grammatical mutation rather than a variant that's transmitted from parent to child or from peer to peer? And most important, what is it, really?

(Sorry, Mr. Rose, I'd forgotten about you. "Ecrasez l'infame", you say? Um, did I ever show you my first edition of Walton Burgess's "Five Hundred Mistakes Corrected", from 1855? His remarks about that and which are fascinating. And he agrees with you about the importance of using adverbs in place of adjectives whenever possible -- correction #454 urges "the genteel speaker" to substitute "This writing looks shockingly" for "This writing looks shocking"...)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:19 AM

The perils of comic-strip lead time

According to the "Doonesbury" FAQ, Garry Trudeau has to deliver his weekday strips ten days ahead of time, while the Sunday strip must be submitted a whopping six weeks ahead of time. The schedule evidently remains unchanged even in the face of rapidly developing news. As Trudeau (or his FAQ-writer) puts it:

This is a narrow lead-time for a strip cartoonist, but a vast delay by the standards of an editorial cartoonist, who can address events on a next-day basis. Doonesbury's lag time is long enough to make it perilous for GBT to address fast-breaking and unpredictable stories.

Today's strip is an interesting example of what can happen during the six-week lead time for the Sunday installment. When Trudeau delivered the strip on or around January 14th, he probably didn't think there would be too many developments in his chosen topic: President Bush's penchant for using Democrat as an adjectival or attributive modifier instead of Democratic. Now with the benefit of hindsight, Trudeau can be seen as either remarkably prescient or scooped by the President himself.

Here's the strip:

Given that the strip had to have been created by mid-January at the latest, Trudeau's likely inspiration was a Nov. 22 Washington Post column by Ruth Marcus (which in turn may have been inspired by Hendrik Hertzberg's piece in the Aug. 7, 2006 New Yorker). If Trudeau were really on the ball, he might have caught one of Geoff Nunberg's earlier examinations of Democrat vs. Democratic, either on Language Log or NPR's "Fresh Air." But both the tone and content of the strip are quite similar to what Marcus wrote (right down to the Joe McCarthy reference), so it's a fair bet that her column is the proximate source.

Bush's usage of Democrat would become big news after his State of the Union address on January 23rd, more than a week after Trudeau's due date for the strip. You can find a recap of these developments in this post, including the self-deprecating joke Bush told in a Feb. 3 speech before the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference:

The last time I looked at some of your faces, I was at the State of the Union, and I saw kind of a strange expression when I referred to something as the Democrat Party. Now, look, my diction isn't all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.

Since I think we can rule out the possibility of Trudeau supplying the joke to Bush's team of speechwriters, this looks like a case of independently invented punch-lines. And here's some more synchronicity for you... The "Doonesbury" version of Dubya is faced with a tradeoff between sounding "stupid" or "insulting." After Bush's Feb. 14 press conference, in which he used Democrat as a modifier three times and Democratic only once, Mark Liberman's comment was: "So you could say that he was either 75% insulting, or 25% competent." Spooky!

Thanks to Mr. Verb for the heads-up. I agree with Mr. V that this isn't really a matter of (mis)pronunciation, as claimed by both the real President Bush and his comic-strip advisor, but rather a matter of morphology. Or perhaps "morpho-ideology" would be the better term.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:28 AM

February 24, 2007

Tolerating variation, or not

An interviewee on Fresh Air (heard on KALW, 2/22/07)  referred to "people who are inimicable to our interests", and my ears perked up at "inimicable" (where I would have used "inimical").  So I started looking around in dictionaries and found that they either didn't list inimicable at all (AHD4, NOAD2) or treated it as a synonym of inimical (Dictionary.com, Wiktionary), in one case (Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993) noting that inimical was much more commonly used.  The OED had it, marked as "rare", with only two cites (from 1805 and 1833).  MWDEU said it was a "less often encountered" synonym of inimical.  A Google web search got 25,400 raw webhits, which isn't trivial -- but then inimical gets 1,240,000, over 30 times as many.

Now, when there are apparent synonyms, usage advisers either look for some subtle semantic difference between them (the usual tactic for "content words") or else recommend against one of them, as being unsuitable in formal contexts or as being generally unacceptable (the usual tactic for grammatical markers and "little words").  Advice writers are especially hostile to relatively rare alternatives and to more recent items.  Given the rarity of inimicable and its recency relative to inimical (which the OED has cites for from 1643), I expected inimicable to be the object of scorn in the usage manuals.  At first, I found no mention of the word at all, but then I struck paydirt in a few of the most recent usage dictionaries, Garner (1998), Garner (2003), and Fiske (2006, but not 2005).  How had inimicable escaped censure for so long?

I began with a sampling of usage advice (ranging from the excoriating to the scholarly) over the past hundred years.  Inimicable was not in Ayres, Bierce, Bryson, Dowling, any of the three versions of Fowler (original Fowler, Gowers's Fowler, Burchfield's Fowler), Peters, Shaw, or Trask.  Then I turned to more recent things, Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), its revised edition (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003), Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon's Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar (2004), and its "deluxe edition" of 2006, and got hits in three of the four volumes.

Garner (1998:374) tells us that

Inimicable for inimical is a fairly common error.  The OED records inimicable as a "rare" adjective, but it should be even rarer than it is.  [with examples from the Atlanta Journal & Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune]

Garner (2003:454) hardens the judgment, now saying "but it should be extinct", and adds a third example, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Fiske (2006:202-3) proclaims, in his usual scornful way, that it's not a word at all:

...inimicable, a nonword, not a nonce word, is mistaken for inimical by some... [with the example] In general, however, anti-Semitism refers to the denouncement in speech or writing of Jewish culture, traditions and attitudes as being inimicable to a nation's welfare. USE inimical.

My guess is that Garner and Fiske, noting the rarity and recency of inimicable, are taking it to be a kind of reshaping of inimical, along the lines of reshapings like overature, perculate, pectorials, and fellatiate.  These are all non-standard variants.  But there is a very close parallel to inimical/inimicable, namely unseasonal/unseasonable, and here both variants are standard.  I wrote about this pair on ADS-L back on 9/26/04, starting with:

... the seasonable/seasonal competition.  These two adjectives now have clearly different (but somewhat overlapping) meanings.  According to NSOED, they appeared at different times: seasonable and seasonably in Middle English, seasonal and seasonally not until M19.  Nevertheless, seasonal and seasonally have it all over seasonable and seasonably, presumably as a consequence of the frequency with which people want to convey one meaning vs. the other:

  seasonal:  8,440,000         seasonally:  785,000
  seasonable:   44,900         seasonably:   23,600

(In fact, if you do a Google web search for seasonable, you're asked if you meant seasonal, and similarly for seasonably/seasonally.  Google takes its numbers seriously.)

But now consider their negative versions.  MWDEU points out that unseasonal and unseasonable are essentially synonymous (ditto, I add, for unseasonally and unseasonably), and that unseasonal "is a very rare word".  Well, unseasonal (which I had thought, for years, was the ONLY acceptable word, until I realized that unseasonable was all over the place) definitely lags behind unseasonable, and unseasonally is HUGELY behind unseasonably:

  unseasonal:     13,300        unseasonally:     2,380
  unseasonable: 42,000        unseasonably:  67,900

So here, where the meaning difference is leveled, we see history mirrored: the earlier word continues to outnumber the later synonym.
(Garner (2003) differentiates seasonal and seasonable in meaning, but doesn't treat unseasonal/unseasonably.)

Ordinary people will tolerate synonyms, if they can see the variants as matters of personal style or as having different virtues.  Unseasonable and inimicable have the virtue of being longer than their alternatives, a difference in phonological weight that can translate into metaphorical weightiness -- greater seriousness and formality (cf. partially vs. partly, and British usage of prepositional vs. premodifying university names, as in vs. The University of Sussex vs. Sussex University).  Usage sticklers are generally less tolerant, tending to take the position that there should be Only One Right Way.  They strive, mightily and ingeniously, to find semantic differences between partially and partly, and they remind us that the prepositional versions of British university names are (in most cases) the official ones and maintain that the premodifying versions are casual and colloquial and should not be used in formal contexts (though I see no evidence that British speakers avoid the premodifying versions in formal contexts; the prepositional versions can be used to convey seriousness and formality, but the premodifying versions are still available in formal contexts).

Two things determine what appears in usage manuals.  One is how much of a stickler the author is; Garner is on the high end, and Fiske is extreme.  The other is what is fashionable in the world of usage advice.  This world is a kind of loose community, in which people influence one another.  As I said a while back:

... you develop your sense of style from the models around you.

You also develop your sense of style from explicit teaching and advice.  Once a proscription against sentence-initial however was articulated, it had a life of its own and could be passed from one generation of writers and teachers, in communities of stylistic practice, to the next.  Like other fashions in taste, it diffuses.

Apparently, no one had articulated a proscription against inimicable until recently, when usage advisers like Garner and Fiske got hold of the word and decided it must be an error.  Now the proscription is out there in the marketplace of taste and will probably be picked up by others.

I'm often puzzled why some usages get such opprobrium (in the face of the actual practice of good writers) while others go unnoticed and uncommented on.  Recently, I've been looking at preposition + of (out/outside/inside/alongside/off of) versus plain preposition (I intend to post on this eventually); many usage advisers are hostile to the versions with of: the of is said to be "superfluous" (Omit Needless Words!); the usage is (in most cases, incorrectly) labeled "colloquial", or even "non-standard"; it's believed to be more recent than the alternative (the of has been, inexplicably, added); and it's less frequent than the alternative.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to pay any attention to except for vs. plain except ("Nobody talked, except (for) Kim"), though you could try to mount a case against this for similar to the case against of.

Once a proscription -- even a silly one, like Dryden's Rule, banning stranded prepositions -- is in the marketplace, it tends to persist.  But where do the proscriptions come from?  Here, there's an enormous amount of randomness: somebody in the usage community happens to notice something that offends him (it's almost always a man) in some way -- often because he views it as colloquial or innovative or regional or used by the wrong sort of people, occasionally because that's not the way you do things in Latin -- and writes or teaches about it.  We then end up with a collection of personal quirks and accidents of history, a big grab-bag of assorted stuff.  Speaker-oriented hopefully gets excoriated, while speaker-oriented frankly and so on get a free pass.  Sentence-initial linking however is judged to be poor style, while sentence-initial linking consequently and so on escape the red pencil.  I could go on like this for quite some time.

It looks like inimicable got by uncensured until recently simply because no one was particularly offended by it.  Not any more.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:19 PM

"Babel" babble

There's a pre-Oscars article from the Associated Press making the rounds, all about how to pronounce the name of one of the Best Picture contenders, Babel. Turns out the star of the film isn't exactly sure:

"Thank you for honoring our film 'Babble.' Or 'BAY-bel' or 'Bah-BELL,'" Brad Pitt said after the film received an earlier award at a film festival in Palm Springs, Calif. "We're still arguing how to pronounce it."

With input from American University linguist Robin Barr and University of Illinois religion scholar Wayne Pitard, the AP article provides a not-half-bad historical summary of the word Babel from Akkadian onwards. Along the way it's been reanalyzed as having something to do with Hebrew balal 'confuse' (in the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11), and more recently with English babble. In the end, the article doesn't actually give any pronunciation advice, attributing to Barr the sentiment that "none of the pronunciations can be held up as the sole 'correct' one." (The reporter also appends an irrelevant quote from George Orwell about language corrupting thought, along with a cliched quote from the Gershwin brothers about calling the whole thing off, but let's not dwell on either of those digressions.)

As to the standard pronunciation of Babel in English, British dictionaries like those from Oxford and Cambridge tend to give only one choice: [ˈbeɪbəl], rhyming with table. U.S. dictionaries, on the other hand, from the New Oxford American to Merriam-Webster to American Heritage to Random House, advise that both [ˈbeɪbəl] and [ˈbæbəl] are acceptable variants. The latter pronunciation is probably influenced by the happenstance similarity to the onomatopoetic English word babble, as the AP article suggests. But note that the related toponym Babylon is pronounced with [æ] rather than [eɪ] in both U.S. and U.K. English, so that likely encourages the babble pronunciation as well.

The conflation of Babel with babble (or Babylon with babble-on) is also helped along by latter-day interpretations of the Tower of Babel story. It all goes back to Genesis 11:9: "Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth." The use of balal 'to confuse' in the original Hebrew version of the passage is understood by modern Biblical scholars to be "a satirical word play in the story," as Pitard told the AP, taking advantage of the Hebrew verb's phonetic similarity to the Akkadian place names Babel and Babylon, which actually derive from bab 'gate' + ilu 'god.' (See The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg for more on this wordplay.) But the Genesis author's paronomasia was apparently taken as serious etymology by St. Augustine; in his exegesis of the Tower of Babel story in The City of God, he states simply, "Babylon means Confusion."

To follow the Augustinian way of thinking, we could chalk up all of these battling interpretations and pronunciations to the hubris of Nimrod, the builder of the tower at Babel. St. Augustine took a decidedly glum view of the possibilities for cross-linguistic communication ever since the dispersion of tongues at Babel destroyed the perfectly unified language of Adam. Elsewhere in The City of God he writes,"man is separated from man by the difference of languages," so much so that "a man would more readily hold intercourse with his dog than with a foreigner." Hence the world at large is "fuller of dangers" than any smaller community linked by a common tongue. I haven't seen the film Babel yet, but I gather that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has reached roughly the same conclusion. Fitting, then, that even the pronunciation of the movie title should be so emblematic of confusion.

(Hat tip, Martha Barnette.)

[Update #1: Steve of Languagehat points out that deriving Babel from Akkadian bab-ilim (bab 'gate' + ilu 'god') is a bit of a simplification. See this Languagehat post, which quotes a more complex description of the toponym's development:

"The Sumerian name for this small village was Ka-dingir-ra. In Semitic Akkadian it was called Bab-ilim. It seems that the name came not from Kadingirra, but from another name for the town, Babil, the meaning of which is unknown. Later the plural name Bab-Ilani 'the Gate of the Gods' was used."

Steve adds, "It seems more likely to me that an older name Babil (perhaps ultimately from some long-vanished language) was reinterpreted by the Akkadians to make sense in terms of their own language than that the village was originally named 'Gate of God.'" So apparently the folk-etymological reanalysis of Babel was going on from very early on!]

[Update #2: Anders Ringström sends along a relevant quote from Bruno Meissner and Karl Oberhuber, Die Keilschrift (Sammlung Göschen Band 708/708a/708b, Berlin 1967), p. 65:

baabu(m) Tor; babilu Babylon (volksetymologisch als baab ili(m) "Tor Gottes" verstanden; in Wirklichkeit alter Flurname babila)

So that accords with the idea that Babel/Babylon is actually derived from an older toponym Babil(a) that was folk-etymologically analyzed in Akkadian as baab ili(m) 'gate of God.' Babila is here called a 'field name' (Flurname), which refers to a geographical landmark rather than a populated settlement (Ortsname).]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 02:12 PM

February 23, 2007

Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?

James Dreier has drawn my attention to a recent opinion piece that presents in a remarkably clear form the failure of my profession to educate the public. The author is Alex Rose, identified as "a writer and editor based in New York", and his essay, "Does form follow function?", appeared in The Providence Journal on 2/23/2007. It starts like this:

"NEW YORK -- DRIVE SAFE," reads a flashing traffic sign on Tillary Street in Brooklyn. Is that wrong? It depends on whom you ask.

A linguist such as my cousin would say no; “drive safe” effectively performs its linguistic function in that no one misunderstands its intended message. An English professor, such as my father, however, would say yes; in standard written English there are grammatical rules stipulating that the imperative verb “drive” be qualified by the adverb “safely,” not the adjective “safe.”

No doubt Mr. Rose knows what his father would say. But I'd hope that a generic English professor, while locating her red pencil, would pause to wonder what the connection of the adjective safe to the verb drive really is here. Is it the non-standard adverbial use seen in phrases like "that was real nice" or "my leg hurts fierce"? Or does it have something in common with Shakespeare's "safe mayst thou wander, safe returne agen"?

She'd surely stop to think of the famous passage from Henry V that starts

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Shall yearely on the vygill feast his friends,
And say, to morrow is S. Cryspines day...

Once started on this train of throught, she would probably remember the famous passage from Algernon Swinburne's "The Garden of Proserpine" (1905), quoted in Jack London's Martin Eden:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

If she specializes in 17th-century drama, she might recall Francis Beaumont's line (Philaster, 1679) "An innocent man may walk safe among beasts". And as a lover of early 20th-century poetry, she might well think of Wilfred Owen's lines

He feels, this devil feels; then, mark my wisdom,
For all his plots he, too, is lost, is lost!
Amid this vague uncertainty I alone
Walk safe ...

So our generic English Professor might ask Mr. Rose, in all scholarly humility, red pencil in hand: should these passages also be amended to use safely rather than safe?

Meanwhile, a generic linguist might wonder whether these adjectives are some sort of predicative complement. If he's interested in contemporary culture, he might wonder whether this case is related to the structure of Apple's slogan "Think Different", discusssed last year by our own non-generic linguist Eric Bakovic ("Think this", 5/14/2006 ). And having read Eric's post, he might comment, as I did, that

The “think different” slogan always seemed to me to be an echo of catchphrases with postverbal appositives (or whatever they are) like “Think Big”, or “Dress British, Think Yiddish”. Note that there are some verbs, like “look” and “act”, which take such predicate-phrases freely. The generalization to “think” is an easy one, even if the pattern is not quite so regular or free in that case.

If he knows something about the history of the English language, he might note, as John Cowan did, that

Adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever, or at least since the fall of final short e, which was the original adverb ending. In OE, we had a contrast between læt ’slow’ and læte ’slowly’, but later these came to be pronounced identically. Similar stories stand behind go fast and hit hard and many other adverbs, most of them monosyllabic.

Indeed, the ModE adverb ending -ly was -lice in OE, a compound of -lic (same as lic ‘body, corpse’ > lich, lyke ‘corpse’) and this same original -e.

But Alex Rose wouldn't hear any of this, being busy girding his loins for intellectual combat:

This conflict lies at the heart of the so-called “Usage Wars,” the epic battle between the “Descriptivists” and the “Prescriptivists.”

To a Descriptivist, there are no such things as “correct” or “incorrect” where language is concerned.

There is only the multi-faceted spectrum of human communication and the myriad ways in which people convey meaning to one another. Descriptivists correctly note that language, like etiquette or fashion, is largely a function of class; a society’s official rules of grammar and lexicon reflect the attitudes of whoever happens to be in power.

The Prescriptivists, however, believe that language is as much an art form as a utility. It’s one thing to name objects and command that traffic laws be obeyed, another thing to express oneself with clarity, precision and cultivation. It’s the difference between playing a scale and playing a sonata; between eating for nourishment and eating for pleasure. One way gets the job done, the other gets it done well.

In untangling the confusions in this passage, it's hard to know where to start.

Let me decline to enlist on either side of this concocted War of the 'Scriptivists, and speak instead on behalf of a third group: the Rational People. We believe in making value judgements about language use: some writers are better than others, and even good writers sometimes make poor choices and outright mistakes. But we also believe in the value of facts, both about linguistic history and about current usage. We're unwilling to accept the assertions of self-appointed linguistic authorities about what is "right" and "wrong" in standard formal English, if these assertions conflict with the way that the best writers write. We understand that vernacular forms of English are not faulty or degenerate approximations to the formal standard -- instead, they're just, well, vernacular. We're willing to accept, as Horace was, that new words and structures, and new uses of old words and structures, can be a valuable addition even to the most formal linguistic registers.

In a nutshell: we don't worship our own prejudices, and we're more curious than censorious.

There's a characteristic psychological dynamic here. People like Mr. Rose see a bit of writing or talk that irks them. They're not interested in analyzing the problematic usage, tracing its history, looking at its contemporary distribution and its relationship to other phenomenon, exploring the nature of their own reaction to it -- no, they just want to make those people stop, dammit. And they want the rest of us to join them in howling at the miscreants. If we suggest a more temperate investigation, or dare to question whether a crime has been committed at all, they turn their wrath on us as well. In fact, our analytic detachment seems to annoy them even more than the object of their jihad does.

Some previous attempts to explain the perspective of the Rational People can be found in these earlier Language Log posts:

"Dangling etiquette" (12/14/2003)
"Cullen Murphy draws the line" (12/27/2003)
"At a loss for lexicons" (2/9/2004)
"Sidney Goldberg on NYT grammar: zero for three" (9/17/2004)
"Not a word!" (11/17/2004)
"'Everything is correct' versus 'nothing is relevant'" (1/26/2005)
"The fellowship of the predicative adjunct" (5/12/2005)
"Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3" (6/8/2006)
"Go and synergize no more" (6/9/2006)
"There's no battle, Morgan!" (6/28/2006)
"Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects?" (12/19/2006)
"Less than three years: a policy revision" (1/04/2007)
"Stupid wild over-the-top anti-linguist rant" (1/19/2007)
"I have different determiner constraints so you're awful" (2/5/2007)
"If you can possibly do without them they must be banned" (2/10/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:27 PM

For first time, chimps seen making pencils

Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning what gives every indication of being pencil-like tools from short, thin sticks and then using them in a manner suggesting to researchers that the chimps are in the early stages  of acquiring the skill of writing -- the first routine production of writing instruments ever observed in animals other than humans.

The multi-step pencil-making process, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that our human forebears fashioned similar writing  tools centuries ago.

The landmark observation also supports the long-debated proposition that females -- the makers of these pencils among the chimps -- tend to be the innovators and creative communicators in primative culture.

Using their hands and teeth, female chimpanzees were seen repeatedly tearing the side branches off straight sticks, peeling back the bark, and sharpening one end. Then, grasping these pencils between their thrumbs and forefingers, they made apparent symbolic indentations on large, flat leaves that they held in their other hands.

In one case, after using the pencil to make repeated marks on a leaf, the female chimp handed the leaf to a nearby male, who looked at it briefly, then scurried off as though on an errand of some kind.

"It was really amazing how forceful it was," said the lead researcher on the project, adding that it reminded him of a scene from the movie, Breach, where the young FBI agent steals a memory chip from mole Robert Hanssen's computer and then scurries off into the night. "The multiple steps taken by the chimps in writing messages to activate their males involve the kind of foresight and intellectual complexity that most likely typified early human couples."

Scientists have documented tool use among chimpanzees for decades but the tools have been simple and were used mostly to extract food rather than to send messages. While chimps have been observed throwing rocks -- perhaps with the goal of heaping retribution upon their mates -- and a few others have been known  to swing clubs at them, only human females have been known to give their mates "to-do" lists.

Linguists studying animal communication are anxious to get their hands on the leaves that contain the alleged writings but so far the Senegal research team has been unsuccessful in their efforts to retreive any. In most cases, the female has eaten the leaf immediately after her mate rushed off into the savannah.

[Hat-tip to the Washington Post (here).]

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:50 PM

Express opinion, leave the country: it's the law

Yesterday Fadzai Gwaradzimba was given 48 hours to leave the Republic of The Gambia in West Africa. She is the resident coordinator of U.N. operations there, and the U.N. stands by her, so one might wonder what her offense was. It was in fact a speech act. She expressed an opinion. She was quoted in a Sky News story in the UK as saying that someone who claims he can cure AIDS might be encouraging risky sexual behavior among those who believe him, and thus promoting the spread of the disease. The backstory is that the former wrestler and soldier who has ruled Gambia since a coup in 1994, President Yahya Jammeh, has been going around hospitals with a copy of the Koran and some herb pastes and potions and staging AIDS cures. Sky's Emma Hurd did a story about it, and interviewed Gwaradzimba. And in The Gambia, you criticize President Jammeh in the media, you leave the country. (Language Log readers in The Gambia might do well not to chat too widely about their web reading habits.) There are many things I appreciate very deeply about this country, but right up near the top are these two facts: (i) although it is certainly possible for a wrestler to attain a high executive position in government, anyone who expressed the view that herbs can kill the HIV retrovirus would face a swift exit from public life (unless some overwhelming scientific evidence had turned up in the meantime, of course, which seems vanishingly unlikely right now); and (ii) although people in power hate to be criticized, it is almost impossible for even the president to get you expelled from the country for expressing opinions, whether stupid ones (like the view that herbs can kill HIV) or sensible ones like Fadzai Gwaradzimba's.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:52 PM

Lexical ambiguity in the funny papers

I guess this is also a demonstration of the semantic flexibility of Noun+Noun structures in English. Thus pack rats aren't pack animals either, neither in the sense that wolves are, nor in the sense that some horses, mules and camels are.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:46 AM

February 22, 2007

Labels Are Not Definitions

My recent positing on Extris constructions in English began, very carefully:

For at least 35 years, English speakers have been producing sentences with an occurrence of a form of BE that is not licensed in standard English (SE) and is not a disfluency...

This was designed -- perhaps too subtly, but my posting was an abstract for a conference paper, so it was necessarily concise -- to exclude two types of examples: those that are in fact licensed in SE, and those that are disfluencies.  Nevertheless, examples of the Isis subtype (most of which have is is or was was in them), and, especially, the widespread labeling of Isis as the "double is", "is is", "double be", or "be be", phenomenon often cause people to think that any sentence with is is or was was in it is an instance of the phenomenon.  But some are just SE and some are disfluencies.  People have been misled by the labels.  The larger lesson is:

Labels Are Not Definitions (Or Descriptions)

Early on in our investigations of the phenomenon, the Stanford/Colorado research group began to use the label Isis or ISIS (pronounced /ájsIs/), just to get away from the possibly misleading "is is" etc. stuff.  The label is suggestive, but doesn't look like a characterization or description of the phenomenon.  (This tactic doesn't always work, but we still think it's better than the alternatives.)

In any case, people come to us with examples of both of the types we try so carefully to exclude.  I'll look at disfluencies first.

The kind of disfluency that can get confused with genuine Isis is a repetition disfluency: speakers, in the heat of speech production, pause and repeat some material while they're groping for how to formulate what they want to say next.  Usually these repetitions are of "little words", like the, a, infinitival to, personal pronouns, and, yes, forms of the verb BE.  The article the is an especially frequent target of repetition disfluency; if you look at carefully transcribed natural speech, you'll see an awful lot of occurrences of "the, the".  These are inadvertent repetitions, not part of the speaker's system of English syntax.

The published material on Isis mixes examples that are punctuated with a comma (suggesting a pause, and a possible disfluency) and those punctuated without.  In collecting our own examples on the fly -- my personal file has 133 examples in it at the moment -- the Isis group has tried to distinguish the two cases.  We are particularly impressed by examples that are pronounced smoothly and without pause, like the ones below:

The difference is is that I don't want him to find you.
Part of the problem is is that they gave me a project and...
The problem is is that you get into...

The first is from an episode of the television show Charmed, and was surely not a scripted bit (and was probably not noticed by anyone involved with the episode).  The other two are from a male speaker, a Silicon Valley type, overheard in the Palo Alto Gordon Biersch restaurant on 11/20/06.

But there are also plenty of repetition disfluencies.  (Some people have suggested that these are, historically, the source of Isis.  But no other such disfluency seems to have been grammaticalized, and Brenier & Michaelis (2005) -- in the list of references in my Extris posting -- have argued that Isis has a much more interesting motivation, involving separate functions for each of the forms of BE in Isis.)  Eventually, the more phonetically minded members of the Isis group set about studying how to distinguish repetition disfluencies from instances of a (non-standard) syntactic construction Isis.  The result was the Coppock et al. paper cited in my earlier posting (which is, alas, not yet published, but is, hooray, available on-line here).

Ordinary people -- people who aren't into Isis professionally -- don't distinguish the two phenomena, and they probably notice the disfluencies much more than the Isis occurences; certainly, my non-linguist friends are often astonished that I've detected a smooth Isis production when they didn't.  What this means is that the cases that non-linguists bring to me are just the ones most likely to involve disfluencies.  So it is with two examples offered to me by Edith Maxwell yesterday:

The thing is is, is that..
What it is is, it's a...

These look like spectacular triple-is examples.  But note the punctuation.  I suspect that the first one has Isis ("The thing is is") followed by a repetition disfluency, and that the second starts out as a perfectly well-formed pseudocleft ("What it is is" -- see below) followed by a repetition, in this case a partial restart with "it is" repeated in the form "it's".  Neither exemplifies a triple-is construction.

On to examples that are just SE, for instance:

What it was, was football.
What this was, was a victory for North Carolina's team.

Colleagues who know that I'm a student of "double be" every so often write and post to suggest the first of these, an Andy Griffith punchline, as an example.  And a colleague wrote to offer me the second.  These are just ordinary pseudocleft sentences in which the subject clause happens to end in a form of BE, which is then, of course, followed by a form of BE that belongs to the main clause (it's part of the construction).  (The commas indicate an intonation contour rather than a pause.)  There's nothing even slightly non-standard about these examples; they're in pretty much everybody's syntactic system.  In fact, eliminating one of the occurrences of was yields rubbish:

*What it was(,) football.
*What this was(,) a victory for North Carolina's team.

Now we have a way to get Isis examples that have three occurrences of is in a row, but where the first two are just part of a pseudocleft sentence, and the third is the extra is of Isis:

What part of it is is is that the irony...

This one's from KFJC's Robert Emmett, host of the Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show, on 3/5/05.  Emmett is a virtuoso Isis user and has been providing me with examples for six years now.

(Some people have suggested pseudoclefts that have a form of BE at the end of the subject and another at the beginning of the predicate as the historical source of Isis.  But such examples are not especially frequent, and some kind of "double function" account is much more satisfying.)

If you take the name "double be" to be not just a label, but actually a definition, you'll be tempted into seeing repetition disfluencies and entirely standard pseudocleft sentences to be instances of the phenomenon.  But, to hammer it home again:

Labels Are Not Definitions (Or Descriptions)

I make this point every few months.  Here's a version of the idea in a discussion of the English "subjunctive":

I've been providing arbitrary designations for both phrase properties (Constr:286) and word properties (Form:I), along with suggestive labels of my own devising or from CGEL (plain counterfactual, irrealis). It's important to realize that these suggestive labels play absolutely no role in the description of the language. If they're well chosen, they allude to some relevant aspect of syntax or semantics, but the labels are in no way descriptions, of either the syntax or the semantics.

So there's no substantive issue here. "Irrealis" is a much better name for Form:I than, say, "cislocative" or, for that matter, "elephant", but it's at best a hint at the semantics of the constructions in which it occurs.

And one from a treatment of plural, mass, and collective in English:

I'm going to reject the standard labels, because they encourage you to think that the grammatical categories are semantically defined -- with a singular word used to refer to one thing and a plural to more than one -- while the fact is that the connection between grammatical categories and meaning is much more indirect.  What I'll do instead is use the labels SG and PL, which are helpfully suggestive but also evidently novel.

[Later, I introduce C vs. M and COLL vs. ~COLL]

And from a piece on somewhat woozy VPE examples, where I make the principle explicit:

Though the construction is usually known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (sometimes Verb Phrase Deletion), the omitted phrase is not always a VP.  In (4), it's an AdjP.  "VPE" isn't a bad name, but it doesn't tell you everything.  The slogan is: Labels Are Not Definitions.

Finally, in connection with pronoun case:

"Nominative" and "accusative" (or "subject case" and "object case") aren't bad names, but the labels aren't definitions, and they aren't descriptions.

Still, people are inclined to think that words are tightly bound to their referents; pigs are so-called because they're, well, pig-like.  Linguists know better, or so we think; we understand about the arbitrariness of the sign, after all.  But when we're confronted with derivative or complex expressions, pretty much everybody, linguists included, hopes that the labels are going to be definitions; just unpack the expression, and you know what it means.  But this is almost never going to be the case -- certainly not for ordinary-language expressions, and hardly ever even for technical terminology.

Our touching faith in labels as definitions is routinely exploited in creating new labels or choosing labels from a set of alternatives.  We argue, for example, over whether a particular set of people should be called Black or African American or something else, but (even if we agree on who belongs to this set) no choice of label could possibly bear the burden of picking out just this set of people.  We similarly argue over which of a number of labels to use for language varieties used by many of the people in this set, and once again the labels can't do the work of picking out just this collection of varieties.  As with grammatical terminology, the best we can do is nod in the right direction.

Occasionally, you see real silliness that comes from a naive faith in the power of labels.  Every so often, someone explains to me that you can't end a sentence with a preposition because the word preposition means '[a word] placed before [its object]', and stranded prepositions aren't followed by their objects.  Q.E.D.  (Note also the Etymological Fallacy in this reasoning.)

And you see people desperately hoping that technical terms will mean what they would mean in ordinary language.  Here's a complaint from Mark Morton in The Lover's Tongue (2003), p. 17:

... some people, such as my first-year English students, mistakenly call the language of Shakespeare Old English.  It's not.  In fact, Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, which is also the language of the King James Bible.

Well, it's a form of English, and it's certainly old, meaning from a considerable time ago, and these people have probably heard of Old English, so if anything should deserve this label it's the language of Shakespeare.  But, too bad, the label isn't a definition.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:00 PM

This explains a lot

A sample of Language Log commentary on journalists who took the second option (or its moral equivalent):

"Flacks and hacks and Hitchens" (12/4/2006)
"Alarming decline in literacy among publicists and journalists" (11/12/2006)
"Scottish dialect genetics" (8/27/2006)
"It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section" (8/26/2006)
"Freedom of speech: more famous than Bart Simpson" (3/3/2006)
"Rorschach science" (8/12/2005)
"Another day, another reprinted press release" (4/24/2005)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:21 AM

Frananglais or Camfranglais?

According to Francis Ngwa Niba, "New language for divided Cameroon", BBC News 2/20/2007,

Teachers in Cameroon are concerned that the new language frananglais - a mixture of French, English and Creole - is affecting the way students speak and write the country's two official languages. [...]

From nursery to primary and secondary schools, frananglais is fast becoming the lingua franca over Creole (pidgin English) which until recently was the best-known and widely used language across the country.

Some linguistic examples from the article:

Tu as go au school - Did you go to school?
Tu as sleep hier? - Did you sleep well last night?
Tout le monde hate me, wey I no know - Everybody hates me, I don't know why
Je veux go - I want to go
Il est come - He has come
Tu play le damba tous les jours? - Do you play football every day?

The article is interesting, but I'm really puzzled, because unless something has changed recently, it makes a mistake about the most basic point: the name of this way of talking, which is generally known as Camfranglais, not Frananglais!

This morning, Google finds only 103 references to {frananglais} -- and half of them are references to the BBC article, while many others are from Canada, e.g. a comment on a 10/12/2006 article in Voir:

Mais, on sent l'énigmatique personnage, faire exprès, dans un : «FranAnglais», tout à fait harmonieux!

In contrast, {camfranglais} has 11,000 hits.

The hits for camfranglais include a wikipedia article (in French), and several scholarly publications, e.g. Jean-Paul Kouega, "Camfranglais: A novel slang in Cameroon schools", English Today 19(2) 2003; Jean-Paul Kouega, "Word formative processes in Camfranglais", World Englishes 22(4) 2003. The second of those papers explains that

Camfranglais is a term that was coined by Professor Ze Amvela (1989) to differentiate between a new speech form that was developing in Cameroon and what was then known as Franglais, the unconsious transference of English items into French -- including code-mixing and code-switching -- by bilinguals in Canada and France. It is a composite language which resembles a pidgin in that it results from contacts between several languages (Downes, 1984) and has a simplified grammatical structure; it differs from Pidgin, however, n that its speakers are proficient in one of more shared languages (Crystal, 1987). Funcationally, it can be regarded as a slang (Longe, 1999; Görlach, 2000); Lillo, 2001); actually it is spoken by secondary school pupils when they want to freely communicate among themselves in the presence of other members of the community without the latter being capable of making sense of the linguistic interactions going on.

The coining of the term is attributed more specifically to Etienne Ze Amvela, "Reflexions on social implications of bilingualism in the Republic of Cameroon", Annals of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences, University of Yaounde, 1989.

Kouega gives this striking account of the social distribution of Camfranglais:

An impressionistic inspection of the profession of fluent Camfranglais speakers outside school premises reveals that they are peddlers, and labourers, hair stylists and barbers, prostitutes and vagabonds, rank and file soldiers and policemen, thieves and prisoners, gamblers and con men, musicians and comedians, to name just the most popular ones.

R. Kiessling suggests a slightly different perspective on the sociology of Camfranglais in "Bak mwa me do': Camfranglais in Cameroon", Lingua Posnaniensis, 47, 2005:

...Camfranglais [is] a highly hybrid sociolect of the urban youth type in Cameroon's big cities Yaoundé and Douala, This language variety serves its adolescent speakers as an icon of 'resistance identity' (Castells 1997), i.e. they consciously create and constantly transform this sociolect of theirs by manipulating lexical items from various Cameroonian and European sources, in an effort to mark off their identity as a new social group, the modern Cameroonian urban youth, in opposition to established groups such as the older generation, the rural population and the Cameroonian elites who have subscribed to the norms of 'la francophonie'. The linguistic strategies preferably applied in this lexical manipulation, i.e. phonological truncation, morphological hybridization, hyperbolic and dysphemistic extensions, reflect the provocative attitude of its speakers and their jocular disrespect of linguistic norms and purity, clearly revealing its function as an anti-language (Halliday 1978). From a socio-political perspective, the creation of Camfranglais represents the appropriation of an imported language, French, under strong pressure of an exoglossic language policy which excludes the majority of the population from national discourse and upward social mobility. Being born as an anti-language, Camfranglais seems to be growing into an icon of the emerging new 'project identity' (Castells 1997) of modern Cameroonian urbanity.

And on the Camerounian soccer discussion site camfoot.com, there are 80 instances of {camfranglais} and only one of {frananglais}. The term usually comes up, of course, in the context of meta-discussion about whether using Camfranglais is OK; for example: "Le shabbaeur dit thanks à 'Monsieur But' et au Minsep" 9/26/2005, with English words indicated:

Si j’ai décidé de vous tchatte today, c’est qu’il y’a un diblo qui est venu me commot le nyé en travestissant mon kallang et surtout en utilisant le gros french pour essayer de me tchatte que j’étais pire que les plus dangereux des xénophobes (est ce que moi je know ce que ce big word veut dire).

Note that tchatte is a wider French borrowing for instant messaging "chat", spelled so as to distinguish it from the French word for "cat", and commot is a pidgin word from "come out".

Si vous voulez que je commence à write comme un adepte de la mariologie je me ferais un plaisir de respecter vos desideratas. Par contre si vous voulez que votre rubrique demeure le vrai shabba n’est ce pas je vais do comme vous voulez je vais continuer à vous send l’info ultralapante.

(I'm not going to translate these passages -- to paraphrase Roman Jakobson, "read, and try to understand".)

The whole discussion, including the readers' responses, is worth reading. I'll quote just two responses. Eva answered:

Nooooooooooonnnnnnnnnn ! ne nous lâches pas ce gars, c’est trop lapant de te read, ton style est vraiment space !!! n’y change rien, et continues de nous faxer les A1 !!!!

And "Wandaful" gets explicit about the linguistic politics as (s)he sees it: "when we read his posts, we're so proud we get goose bumps, especially when he talks camfranglais, the language of independence and decolonialization":

Le tara qu’on call SHABAEUR là c’est le genre de représentant qu’il nous faut. Les nga ya mò un mollah comme ça mal mauvais ! Nous qui vivons à Mbengue quand on lit ses topos, on est fiers jusqu’à ça nous gui la chair de poule. Surtout quand il tok (le camfranglais) la langue de l’independance et de la décolonisation. Je suis sùr que là où il est là, il a Mboundja le bèlè à une Mbindi à Abidjan. Il fia quoi ? il acolonisé le secto. Les gars ne peuvent rien lui do !Les Mboutoukous qui traitent le sujet de popluliste n’ont rien ya ! c’est ça qui va nous help à bien préparer l’échéance du 8 octobre quand on va NIOXER L’EGYPTE. A propos, Shabaeur, C’est how l’ambiance du Mboa non ? Toli-nous les Afs.

On se ya !

Getting back to that BBC article, how did it go so far wrong with the name of this style of speech? The article is datedlined Douala, which is Cameroon's largest city, and written by someone who name suggests local origin. So I'm at a loss to see why the article got the terminology wrong -- maybe an editor back in England decided that "frananglais" would be a better blend than "camfranglais"?

Of course, maybe I'm the one who's wrong -- along with Jean-Paul Kouega, the wikipedia, and the folks at camfoot.com, among others. I'll check into this with Cameroonian acquantainces, and update this post based on what I learn.

[ Here are a couple of other interesting comments on camfranglais from the discussion forums at camfoot.com. Ntang wrote on 12/17/2003 that "the more I visit, the less I talk", because "this is the best way to bridge the generation gap that separates a dinosaur like me from the homo sapiens sapiens of camfranglais":

Sans condescendance aucune, je me permets de t'appeler "fiston". J'ai décidé de regagner pendant un bon moment la masse invisible mais ô combien paisible des lecteurs anonymes de ce site. On ne se refait pas. Surtout à mon âge.

Il m'a semblé que je devais choisir entre l'anonymat et la critique acerbe de certaines contributions. Mais le silence est d'or. Mon mutisme est inversement proportionnel à ma présence. Plus je visite et moins je cause.

Cela peut susciter la réprobation de certains, mais croyez-moi, c'était le meilleur moyen de combler le fossé des générations qui sépare le dinosaure que je suis désormais des homo sapiens sapiens du camfranglais. Je vous suis en repérage.

To which Pinox responded:

Si tu fuis le Toli parce qu'on utilise le camfranglais que tu dis ne pas connaitre, sache que tu ne seras jamais plus un vrai Kamer.

If you run away from the discussion because we use Camfranglais that you say you don't understand, you should know that you will never again be a true Cameroonian.

And on 10/17/2006, Sipandang Boy observed that "these whites will never stop surprising me -- here I was thinking that among Cameroonians we could speak our Camfranglais without risk of being understood, and now I discover that they're working on that too":

Ces blancs n'en finiront pas de me surprendre, et moi qui pensait qu'entre Kmer on pouvait parler notre Camfranglais sans risque d'etre compris, voila que je decouvre qu'ils s'y sont mis aussi, et de quelle maniere. Ainsi donc, aide du frere BILOA, Edmond (1999) : "Structure phrastique du camfranglais" --FERAL, Carole de (2005) : « Décrire un « parler jeune » : la cas du camfranglais

LABOV, William (1976) : Sociolinguistique, Paris, Editions de Minuit.--SEGUIN, Boris et TEILLARD, Frédéric (1996) : Les Céfrans parlent aux Français, Paris, Calmann-Lévy.

Ces cinq ''Larons'' ont publie Étudier le Camfranglais : recueil des données et transcription (Carole de Féral, juillet 2005), dans lequel ils decryptent notre parler local......

He adds "you should know that you are richer than you thought. It's always the others who show us the value of what we don't use much, like the Saudis' oil, the blacks' diamonds, your wife if you're a cuckold lol ...":

Et vous doutiez de vos richesses ?........Eh bien desormais vous saurez que vous êtes plus riche que vous ne le pensiez.

Comme quoi ce sont toujours les autres qui nous font decouvrir la valeur de ce dont on ne se sert peu pas ou plus. Pour exemple le petrole aux saoudiens, le diamant aux noir, ta femme quant tu es cocu lol........

Rafraîchissant hein.......

And back on on 2/21/2004, Munabangan wrote:

Si tu voudrais parler de l'argo utilisé sur ce Toli et par la plus part des Camer (Du moins ceux qui ont vécu au pays), c'est du CAMFRANGLAIS qu'il te faudrait chercher et pas le Franglais qui est plus tôt canadien. [...]

Pour le reste debrouilles toi, avec un moteur comme Google, tu trouveras certainement des sites pas mal.

If you want to speak of the argot used on this forum and by most of Cameroonians (at least those who have lived in the country), you need to look for CAMFRANGLAIS and not for Franglais, which is more Canadian. [...]

Beyond that, work it out yourself, with an engine like Google, you'll certainly find plenty of sites.

So don't the editors at the BBC News know how to use Google?]

[Update -- David Williams writes:

I'm from a bilingual Montreal family, and used to both Franglais and frequent code switching/mixing and so on. What struck me about your Camfranglais cites is how they incorporate infinitives: in the first quotation, both tchatte and commot are infinitive; in the second, write, do and send are; and in the third there's read, followed later by faxer. Now, faxer is a perfectly acceptable anglicism to me, being a versed Franglais speaker. But the infinitives that do not take the French -er sound completely foreign to me. Appending -er wouldn't be normal for those verbs (except tchatter, I suspect), but it would be regular and recognizably Franglais. Just one of I suspect very many differences between Franglais and Camfranglais. (Why not Cameranglais?)


My favourite Acadien quotation, recorded and often retold by my grandfather, illustrates this. It has to do with the incorporation of "get off" as a regular 1st declension verb: apparently a man is calling to another, on a ladder, saying "j't'ai dit d'guetoffer, mais tu guetoffes pas!"

One of the early Language Log posts was about preposition stranding in Canadian French ("Quoi ce-qu'elle a parlé about?", 10/10/2003), and cited a set of examples from Prince Edward Island where the preposition was not included in the borrowed verb stem -- most but not all of those were intransitive prepositions, though. I suspect that someone has investigated the situation in detail, and if someone tells me who and where, I'll post it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:32 AM

In memoriam Robert Young

Dr. Robert W. Young

We are deeply saddened to report that Dr. Robert W. Young, who devoted his life to the Navajo language and people, passed away peacefully on Tuesday February 20th at the age of 95. Among his many accomplishments was the compilation, together with William Morgan, Sr., of The Navajo Language: a Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary and the Analytical Lexicon of Navajo, which together are widely considered to have made Navajo the best documented of any native American language. He was a great linguist, a fluent speaker of Navajo, and a kind and generous man.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:52 AM

February 21, 2007

Diapers, diapers, and more diapers

My post last week about the word diapers generated far more heated discussion than I would have guessed. (Seems like anyone who's ever had to change diapers has an opinion about them.) I supplemented my post with a number of reader comments I received via email, with further discussion spilling over into Languagehat (along with at least two other linguablogs). And Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe, who had originally directed my attention to the subject, wrote about diapers in her Sunday column, admirably summarizing my long-winded analysis in a few succinct paragraphs. To recap, I argued that diapers has taken on aspects of plural-only forms (a.k.a. pluralia tantum) like pants and trousers, often appearing with the -s ending that ostensibly marks a plural even when the referent is a single garment. The coverage of astronaut Lisa Nowak's long strange trip was full of this usage of diapers. Jan Freeman notes a montage of video clips shown on "The Daily Show" in which a series of newscasters referred to Nowak "wearing diapers" during her trip, with only Jim Lehrer of "NewsHour" saying she wore "a diaper." (You can catch the segment on Comedy Central's website here.)

Now that I've had a chance to digest all of this diaper-talk, I see that there are some significant points that I neglected to address in my original post. I also didn't provide much historical documentation for singularly construed diapers, so I'd like to rectify those oversights in this post.

Bryan Erickson was the first of many commenters to point out that I was incorrect in assuming that Nowak wore only a single diaper during her 900-mile drive to Orlando. As reported at the time, police discovered two soiled diapers in Nowak's car, which means she changed out of them at least twice on her trip. Erickson wrote, "That limits the probative value of Nowak coverage in evincing a continuing shift to plurale tantum status for diapers." It does indeed. But based on historical patterns of usage, I still think that all the talk of Nowak wearing diapers on her trip did not necessarily refer to her multiple diaper changes — or, at the very least, the usage is ambiguous on the point of whether one or more diapers were worn.

In fact, ambiguity is at the heart of much diapers usage, much more so than I had initially realized. Take, for instance, the 1960 quote from A.S. Neill's Summerhill that I provided (cited in the OED's entry for mess), in which Neill imagines a boy's inner thoughts about a younger brother: "If I am like him and mess my trousers the way he dirties his diapers, Mommy will love me again." A few commenters objected to my analysis of this quote, saying that this does not necessarily imply a single instance in which the younger brother is dirtying his diaper(s). The verb phrase "dirties his diapers" here can just as easily be construed to refer to many diapers being dirtied over a long period of time. This is true also of other common collocations with the word diapers, such as "to be in diapers," "to wear diapers," "to change diapers," "to wet (one's) diapers," etc. Without looking at the surrounding context, there's no way of judging whether or not diapers is simply being used to refer to habitual diaper-wearing (or diaper-changing, diaper-wetting, etc.). So we need more explicit contextual information to confirm when diapers signals that a single diaper has been marked morphologically as a plural — or rather as a dual, as I argued in my original post, since when a diaper is worn it can take on the duality of garments with two leg-holes like pants and trousers.

The habitual sense of "wearing diapers" is extremely prevalent and may actually have been another contributing factor to the eventual construal of diapers with a singular sense. For at least a century or two, "being in" or "wearing" diapers has been taken as emblematic of the infant stage of life. This usage has lent itself well to political jabs at a younger opponent's inexperience. For instance, when Massachusetts governor James M. Curley ran for U.S. Senate in 1936, he had this to say about his opponent, Henry Cabot Lodge: "When my youthful rival was still wearing diapers I was serving the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the halls of Congress." Michael Hennesey of the Boston Globe suggested Lodge could use this retort: "When I was still wearing diapers, my opponent was serving a six-month sentence in Charles St. Jail." (According to Jack Beatty's biography of Curley, The Rascal King, Lodge declined to take the bait, and he ended up beating Curley soundly.)

And in 1940, after 38-year-old Thomas E. Dewey announced his candidacy for president, Franklin D. Roosevelt's interior secretary Harold Ickes said that Dewey had "tossed his diapers into the ring." Or at least that's what was reported in the Sept. 15, 1941 edition of Time. When Ickes quoted himself in the next presidential campaign, he used "diaper" instead of "diapers," according to Time's Oct. 2, 1944 edition. ("Four years ago, I observed that Mr. Dewey had thrown his diaper into the ring. At Los Angeles on Friday night, when he upbraided the New Deal for not being New Dealish enough, he threw the sponge after his diaper.") The interchangeability of diaper and diapers in the Ickes quote is, I think, further evidence that singular and plural forms of the noun often shade into each other.

But let's take a look at cases where diapers is more clearly being used for a single piece of fabric. The earliest potential example I've found so far is from 1915, in George D. Lyman's Care & Feeding of the Infant (full text available via Google Books). Twice Lyman refers to a baby being in "dry diapers," in contexts that imply a single moment in time:

All that a baby desires to go to sleep is a full stomach, dry diapers, a warm dry bed, a supply of fresh air and absolute quiet. (p. 34)
Directly before the nursing or feeding time it should be put in dry diapers and properly powdered. (p. 39)

Does a baby need more than one dry diaper in order to go sleep, or before feeding time? Seems to me that in both quotes, a single baby is wearing a single diaper at a single time, but the morphologically plural form is used. (Granted, this is a generalized "baby" rather than a concrete manifestation of one, but I think the point still holds.) As early as 1915, there appears to be some seepage (pardon the term!) from the habitual sense of "being in diapers" to a singular instance of diaper-wearing.

I looked to the funny pages for an unequivocally graphic use of diapers in a singular sense, and I found a fine example in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip published on Dec. 24, 1938 in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers nationwide:

Freddie's father first uses diapers in an apparently habitual sense ("I had to dress my Freddie in spotted diapers"), but Pappy Yokum's reply clearly refers to a single instance of diaper-wearing ("One of 'em lost his diapers in th' crick"). And to drive the point home, Pappy and Mammy each use the word diapers while holding a single piece of cloth. (Whether the cloth is white or spotted is a major plot point.) The usage here is so emphatic that it has been extended to an unworn diaper, unlike the vast majority of examples I've found for diapers referring to a single (worn) item resembling other garments of the "(under)pants" family.

It's possible that Al Capp used singular diapers in "Li'l Abner" in a way that was intended to be understood as part of the Ozark dialect of Dogpatch, as is true of much of the dialect writing in the strip. But by 1955, examples of singularly construed diapers can easily be found in standard prose, as in this quote from Amy Greenwood's Rolling North: "On her lap was a baby in diapers." Also from 1955 are these two newspaper items with eye-catching headlines:

In each article, diapers is used in the headline, even though the text of the story reveals that a single garment is being discussed. In the first ("Narcotics Squad Finds Heroin in Tot's Diapers," Hartford Courant, Mar. 4, 1955, p. 25C), heroin is discovered in a baby's worn diaper, not in a pile of diapers. And in the second ("Desert Hunt on for Boy, 10, in Diapers," Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1955, p. 9), the unfortunate boy could only be in the single diaper that his parents forced him to wear. So in both of these odd stories, we don't have to worry about the ambiguity inherent in Nowak's changing in and out of diapers.

What about the expression "a pair of diapers," which I argued was proof of diapers being understood as a dual form like "a pair of pants," "a pair of suspenders," etc.?  I've found the "pair" usage all the way back to 1930, in explicitly single-use contexts (note, for instance, the first quote, in which the infantile embodiment of the New Year is described as wearing either "a pair of diapers" or not even "a diaper"):

Appleton (Wisc.) Post Crescent, Dec. 26, 1930, p. 6
For the sake of being just plain humane, we wish that when the New Year is welcomed into Wisconsin that they'll give the poor little tyke something besides a pair of diapers. Yeah, every picture you see shows him running around darned near au naturelle — sometimes he isn't wearing even a diaper — just a banner. And who can ward off pneumonia with a banner?

Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 11, 1932, p. 17
"How was the child dressed?" "Wore only a pair of diapers."

Hartford Courant, Jan. 17, 1939, p. 10
An incubator baby, who wore out his last pair of diapers climbing trees, reaped his reward today as the youngest ape man in movie history.

Washington Post, Sep. 6, 1941, p. 15
[Of triplets:] They're so cooperative, in fact, that the swift fingers of Mrs. Sharpe can adjust three pairs of diapers while the mother of a cross infant would be contending with one.

And finally, here's yet another comic strip supplying graphic evidence of diaper-duality ("Moon Mullins," published in the Chicago Tribune and other papers on Feb. 16, 1944):

(Lisa Nowak might have a thing or two to say about how far you can gad around in a pair of diapers.)

[Update: Jan Freeman follows up on the Globe's Brainiac blog.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 11:09 AM

Precision, poetry and paragraphs

On Feburary 7, 2007, Maurice Druon, the honorary perpetual secretary of the Académie Française, explained to the European Parliament in Brussels that

L'italien est la langue des chansons, l'allemand est bon pour la philosophie et l'anglais pour la poésie. Le français est une langue plus précise et rigoureuse.

Italian is the language for songs, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry. French is a language that is more precise and rigorous.

(For context and jokes, see my post "Is French the safest language for legal purposes?", 2/15/2007.) At exactly the same time, give or take a few hours, the Turkish novelist Elif Shafrak was explaining to Julie Bosman in New York City that

Writing in English forces her to rediscover her literary voice, she said. English is inherently mathematical, she noted, arming a writer with the perfectly precise word to match the meaning, while Turkish is an emotional, sentimental tongue, she said, better suited for writing about sorrow and the past. ["Novelist Endangered By Her Book", New York Times, 2/10/2007]

This is all perfectly consistent once we remember that poetry is inherently mathematical.

224 years earlier, Antoine de Rivarol proposed ("L'Universalité de la langue française", 1783) that French syntax is simply the order of thoughts in "la logique naturelle à tous les hommes" ("the natural logic of all men"), so that

Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français ; ce qui n'est pas clair est encore anglais, italien, grec ou latin.

What is not clear is not French; what is not clear is still English, Italian, Greek or Latin.

(See my post "French syntax is (in)corruptible", 10/26/2005, for more context and jokes.)

Expanding on this theme, in 1967 Serge Doubrovsky wrote ( "New critics and old myths", Yale French Studies, No. 38, The Classical Line: Essays in Honor of Henri Peyre, pp. 18-26):

Classicism as everyone knows is typically French; yet, while being typically French, it is at the same time, and by definition, universal. Its universality is due to the twin cardinal virtues of order and clarity. Order ... means the salutary enforcement of an authoritarian government on the body politic and the imposition of a strict set of rules and precepts on literature. Clarity is that unique pellucid quality of the French language once the impurity of concrete reference and the dross of emotional and imaginative outbursts have been removed. Sully ... said that "ploughing and pasturing are the two udders that feed France"; in much the same way, order and clarity are the two founts of classicism and from them every thoroughbred Frenchman must drink.

A fine example of the French neo-classical style, applied to linguistics, can be found in a radio interview with Jacques Lacan from 1970, in which he provided "answers to seven questions submitted by Robert Georgin" (Broadcast in June 1970 by RTB in Belgium and ORTF in France. The text of his responses (which were written out and read rather than improvised) was published as "Radiophonie" in Scilicet 2/3, 1970. Here's a characteristic passage:

La linguistique, avec Saussure et le Cercle de Prague, s’institue d’une coupure qui est la barre posée entre le signifiant et le signifié, pour qu’y prévale la différence dont le signifiant se constitue absolument, mais aussi bien effectivement s’ordonne d’une autonomie qui n’a rien à envier aux effets de cristal : pour le système du phonème par exemple qui en est le premier succès de découverte.

On pense étendre ce succès à tout le réseau du symbolique en n’admettant de sens qu’à ce que le réseau en réponde, et de l’incidence d’un effet, oui, – d’un contenu, non.

C’est la gageure qui se soutient de la coupure inaugurale.

Linguistics, with Saussure and the Prague Circle, establishes itself by a disconnection which is the line placed between the signifying and the signified, so that the difference prevails whereby the signifying is constituted absolutely, but also, in effect, is arranged with an autonomy that rivals the results of crystallization: for the phonemic system, for example, which is its first successful discovery.

We think to extend this success to the whole network of the symbolic, in allowing meaning only to what the network answers for, and of the impact of an effect, yes -- of a content, no.

This is the wager that is sustained by the initial disconnection.

I may have mistranslated parts of this, especially the second sentence, which I am not quite sure how to parse. (I think I can parse the rest of it, though I don't entirely understand it.) If you want to have a shot at it, two of the key questions are:

1) what is the antecedent of en in "le réseau en réponde"?
2) where does the prepositional phrase beginning "de l’incidence..." fit in?

(If you think you have a really good answer to these questions, let me know.)

My failure to understand this passage, if we follow the logic of Rivarol, implies either that Lacan's discourse isn't French, or that I'm not human. I'm worried about this, because if you listen to Lacan reading the passage, you can hardly doubt that it is French, or that its author has drunk deep from the udders of classicism:

I guess you could let both of us off the hook by suggesting that my knowledge of French isn't good enough to understand him. Or you could adopt Noam Chomsky's suggestion that Jacques Lacan was "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan". On that theory, perhaps he cleverly passed off sentences in some other language (or none) as if they were French. Another Lacan quotation, this one from his 11th seminar, may help here:

Cette méthode nous porterait ici à la question sur le possible, et l'impossible n'est pas forcément le contraire du possible, ou bien alors, puisque l'opposé du possible c'est assurément le réel, nous serons amenés à définir le réel comme l'impossible.

This method would bring us here to the question of the possible, and the impossible is not necessarily the contrary of the possible, or indeed, since the opposite of the possible is certainly the real, we will be led to define the real as the impossible.

Whether this stuff is French or not, Lacan was good enough at it to lecture for seventeen years at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he profoundly influenced the generation of French men and women who helped write the current body of European law, as well as the teachers of succeeding generations. Brussels beware.

On a more serious note, I've been puzzled for many years about where the stereotype of French precision, rigor and clarity comes from. I take it as obvious that such qualities could not not be characteristic of one language as opposed to another. These might be the characteristics of a style; but as far as I can tell, French writing over the centuries has displayed about the same mixture of clarity and obscurity, rigor and laxness, precision and carelessness, as writing in English or writing in other languages.

Perhaps, like many other group stereotypes, this one has no basis whatever in reality. But recently I've been wondering whether it might be nothing more than a matter of typography: specifically, paragraph length.

As Antoine de Rivarol's essay indicates, this stereotype was planted during the 18th century. And surely English-language writers of the enlightenment were just as lucid as their counterparts across the channel? I think they were; but their writing seems denser and less accessible, I think, at least in trivial matters like the length of paragraphs.

Here's a quick check of this hypothesis, based on the Author's Advertisement and Section I of Hume's An inquiry concerning the principles of morals (1751), the first chapter of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), the Avertissement de l'auteur and Section I of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des Lois (1748), and the first chapter of Voltaire's Siècle de Louis XIV (1751).

Mean values:

Mean (median) sentence length
in orthographic words
Mean (median) paragraph length
in orthographic words
Hume 40.3 (37) 190.4 (157)
Gibbon 31.8 (29) 231.3 (209)
Montesquieu 28.9 (26) 64.8 (56)
Voltaire 32.1 (28) 90.9 (78)

And here are boxplots for the distribution of sentence and paragraph lengths in these same samples:

I don't know whether this difference would hold up in a wider survey of writers and works from that period. Nor do I know whether the difference in paragraphing reflects a basic difference in the size or complexity of rhetorical structures, or just a superficial difference in typographical style.

One thing I do know: short paragraphs don't guarantee clarity any more than use of the French language does. In Jacques Lacan's bloviation on the history of linguistics, from which the remarkably unclear passage above was taken, the mean paragraph length was 42.8 words, and the median was 35.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:39 AM

More SemFest!

Yes!  More geeky academic stuff!  Real conference abstracts you can share with your friends!

Here's my second Stanford Semantics Festival abstract (again, slightly expanded, but still in abstractese).

All paid-up Language Log subscribers get in FREE to the conference, 9-4 on Friday 16 March, at CSLI on the Stanford campus.  Just show your card at the door.  There's even food.

Extris, extris
Arnold M. Zwicky

For at least 35 years, English speakers have been producing sentences with an occurrence of a form of BE that is not licensed in standard English (SE) and is not a disfluency -- our Extris ("extra is").  There are many subtypes, but we observe that all are based on SE constructions with a specific discourse function and suggest that any SE construction with this function can have an Extris counterpart.

The Isis ("is is", "double is", etc.) subtype has gotten much attention -- from Bolinger through Coppock et al. -- as a variant of SE "thingy"-N-subject or pseudocleft (PC) sentences:

(1)  N-type Isis: The funny thing is is that Lisa was there too.
(2)  PC-type Isis: What's nice is is that it has a sort of other-worldly character.

There are also Singlis (single-"is") examples, where the SE counterparts are not copular.  In one set (Jehn, Ross-Hagebaum), the clauses are deictic or existential -- our Th:

(3)  N-type Th: That's/Here's our suggestion for it is that...
(4)  PC-type Th: That's/This is  what we hear all the time is that...
(5)  There Th: There's one thing I need to do is leave a check.

Then there are McConvell's (2004) FreeBe's, in which initial material is either explicitly cataphoric (as in (1)-(5)) or implicitly so:

(6)  Exp FreeBe: We looked at it this way is that...
(7)  Imp FreeBe: I'd like to say is that...

What unites (1)-(7) is that they are all variants of SE constructions that introduce content by announcing, in an explicitly or implicitly cataphoric expression (SU: "set-up"), that it is about to be introduced, and then supplying it in a following expression (PO: "pay-off",  a.k.a. "counterweight").  The SUs are variously phrasal (8), hypotactic (9), and paratactic (10):

(8)  Simplex: The problem is (that) it's time to leave.  (1)
(9)  Pseudocleft: What I think is that it's time to leave.  (2)
(10)  Paratactic Apposition:
    (a) That's/Here's the problem: it's time to leave.  (3)
    (b) There's one thing I need to do: leave right now.  (5)
    (c) I'm telling you: it's time to leave.  (7)

What the extra form of BE does in the Extris examples is explicitly mark the PO part of the SU+PO construction and so focus on it.

In any case, it seems likely that every sort of SU+PO construction (including some not listed above) has an Extris counterpart for at least a few speakers.

In the other direction, extraneous forms of BE don't seem to occur, except as disfluencies, anywhere but in SU+PO constructions.  You don't find things like

(11) Reading Sherlockian pastiches is is what I do to relax.

Extris versions are potentially available for all SU+PO constructions, but speakers differ as to which ones they use.  Many have none.  Some have fairly high rates of Isis, but no Singlis, and some have moderate rates of Singlis (of certain sub-types), but no Isis.  And there's at least one who seems to be a near-categorical user of Extris, of all types.  The Extris types have a common function, but they are independent constructions.


Andersen, Gisle. 2002. Corpora and the double copula. In Leiv Egil Breivik & Angela Hasselgren (eds.), From the COLT's mouth... and others': Language corpora studies: In honour of Anna-Brita Stenstrom (Amsterdam: Rodopi), 43-58.

Bolinger, Dwight L.  1987.  The remarkable double Is.  English Today 9.39-40.

Brenier, Jason M. & Laura A. Michaelis. 2005. Prosodic optimization via syntactic amalgam: Syntax-prosody mismatch and copula doubling. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1.45-88.

Coppock, Elizabeth; Jason Brenier; Laura Staum; & Laura Michaelis.  To appear.  ISIS: It's not disfluent, but how do we know that?  BLS 32.

Jehn, Richard Douglas.  1979.  That's something that I wouldn't want to account for, is a sentence like this.  Calgary WPL 5.51-62.

Massam, Diane.  1999.  Thing is constructions: the thing is, is what's the right analysis?  English Language and Linguistics 3.2.335-52.

McConvell, Patrick.  1988.  To be or double be?  Current changes in the English copula.  Australian Journal of Linguistics 8.287-305.

McConvell, Patrick.  2004. Catastrophic change in current English: Emergent Double-be's and Free-be's.  Talk at Australian National University.  Slides available here.

Ross-Hagebaum, Sebastian.  2005. "And that's my big area of interest in linguistics is discourse" -- The forms and functions of the English that's X is Y-construction.  BLS 30.403-14.

Shapiro, Michael & Michael C. Haley. 2002. The reduplicative copula is is. American Speech 77.3.305-312.

Tuggy, David.  1996.  The thing is is that people talk that way.  In Eugene Casad (ed.), Cognitive linguistics in the redwoods: The expansion of a new paradigm in linguistics (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter), 713-52.

Net discussions of Isis:

ADS list, May, October, and December 2001
LINGUIST list, 1992: 3.10, 3.18, 3.29, 3.44, 3.56
LINGUIST list, 2001: 12.1904
LINGUIST list, 2004: 15.150, 15.427, 15.518, 15.535, 15.560
Melon Colonie blog, Jackson Ninly, 16 January 2004
sci.lang newsgroup, September-October 2001
Language Log postings:
  Mark Liberman, 27 June 2004. The thing is is people talk this way... (link)
  Mark Liberman, 29 June 2004.  Isis Fest, with emergent free-bees (link)
  Adam Albright, 29 June 2004.  A bird in the hand is, is... (link)
  Arnold Zwicky, 5 July 2004.  Isis bibliography (link)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:30 AM

SemFest is coming!

The annual Stanford Semantics Festival is coming, and I have two papers on the program (making up for last year, when I was on leave and didn't submit a paper).  It's a local tradition, and a very pleasant one: serious, but small, mixing students and faculty, with people from several departments.  Regularly on the last day of classes in Winter Quarter,

This year, both of my papers are connected to things I've been posting about here on Language Log.  Below is a slightly expanded version of one of them.  (My apologies for its being in abstract-speak rather than in more conversational prose.)  The other will follow in, as they say, due course.

Avoid vagueness?  The case of sentence-initial linking however
Arnold M. Zwicky & Douglas W. Kenter

When two items are very similar in meaning, but one (the Special alternative) is in some way more specific than the other (the General alternative), the general maxim Avoid Vagueness (AV) comes into play:

AV: Be specific; avoid vagueness.

The straightforward way to obey AV in the case of Special/General pairings would be to adhere to the guideline Just as Specific as Necessary (JASAN):

JASAN: Use Special when it is appropriate; otherwise, use General.  

If you follow JASAN, Special maintains its meaning, and General picks up some content by implicature.  An example: for the choice between the intensifier very and a more specific alternative like extremely, following JASAN keeps extremely towards the high end of the scale, while very continues to denote something up the scale, but now conveys that it's not at the high end.

Prescriptions about usage rarely suggest JASAN; instead, they routinely advise that AV be satisfied by avoiding General:

ALS: Avoid the Less Specific.

In particular, advice manuals routinely suggest avoiding very.  The consequence of following ALS is to move Special into the space General used to occupy, eventually bleaching it (and General as well).

In at least one case, some manuals actually advise AGAINST Special: from Strunk (1918) to recent works by Garner, we're told not to use sentence-initial linking however, as in:

The roads were impassible.  However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.

Garner recommends using but instead.  (Call this Garner's Rule, GR, since Garner is its most energetic current expositor.  GR, of course, contradicts a widely touted but quite spurious "rule" No Initial Coordinators (NIC), barring sentence-initial coordinating conjunctions; see Zwicky 2006a,b.)  These advisers think of this however and but as equivalent in "meaning", and sense that however somehow weakens the effect of the clause that follows. (In what follows, references to however and but are to these two items as sentence-initial linking elements, unless otherwise noted.)

But however and but aren't equivalent: but is General, and however Special, as observed by Fraser (1998).  There are many circumstances (some of which we survey) where but is fine but however is at best odd -- in protests, for example:

A: It's bedtime.
B: But I haven't had a story yet. / *However, I haven't had a story yet.

In Schiffrin's (1987) terms, but marks a main unit in discourse organization, while however marks a subordinate unit (and so conveys more about information structure than but, which merely expresses contrast).

JASAN would tell us to use however wherever appropriate, but otherwise, and ALS would tell us to avoid but.  Either way, but would be disfavored.  In actual usage, but dwarfs however, though the frequency of however is not negligible, and is even considerable for some practiced writers (we exhibit some statistics).  We suggest that GR might reflect an appreciation of the discourse subordination of the material that however introduces, but we're dubious about GR on two grounds: other sentence-initial discourse connectives (consequently, therefore, nonetheless, nevertheless) that no one seems to complain about, although they are also discourse subordinators; and sentence-internal uses of however ("We at last succeeded, however, in reaching camp."), which are also discourse subordinators, but are often suggested as substitutes for initial however.  The other initial adverbials and the internal uses of however also share with initial however its prosodic weight and formality of style, so there seems to be no external justification for the bias against initial however, which remains a matter of individual taste -- perhaps a reaction to the over-use of initial however by student writers who have been taught NIC.  In any case, GR runs against both the Gricean JASAN and the prescriptivists' usual advice, ALS; there is no good reason not to use sentence-initial linking however on occasion.


Fraser, J. Bruce.  1998.  Contrastive discourse markers in English.  Jucker & Ziv 1998:301-26.

Garner, Bryan A.  1998. A dictionary of modern American usage.  NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

- 2003.  Garner's modern American usage.  [2nd ed. of Garner 1998]  NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

- 2004.  The winning brief: 100 tips for persuasive briefing in trial and appellate courts.  2nd ed.  NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

Jucker, Andreas H. & Yael Ziv (ed.).  1998.  Discourse markers: Descriptions and theory.  Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Schiffrin, Deborah.  1987.  Discourse markers.  Cambridge Univ. Press.

Strunk, William Jr.  1918.  The elements of style.  Ithaca NY: W.P. Humphrey. [Available on-line from 1999 here]

Strunk, William Jr. & E.B. White.  2000.  The elements of style.  4th ed. [1st ed. 1959]  NY: Longman.

Zwicky, Arnold M.  2006a. If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.  (Language Log 10/31/06: link)

- 2006b. However,...  (Language Log 11/1/06: link)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 12:42 AM

February 20, 2007

Guess what?

Men gossip as much as women -- they're just more likely to call it "keeping in touch". That's one of the conclusions of a study commissioned by BT Cellnet, published as Kate Fox, "Evolution, Alienation and Gossip: The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century", Social Issues Research Centre. The study was commissioned and published in 2001, but I guess that it has gotten some recent play on the net, since three different people have sent me the link in the past 24 hours. [Turns out it was featured on AL Daily yesterday...]

The report is long on anecdotes and generalizations, and relatively short on facts -- it was based on a literature review, focus groups and a survey, rather than on any observations of behavior -- but it makes some interesting points about sex and gossip:

Perhaps the most striking finding of research on gossip, including our own on mobile gossip, is the fact that men gossip as much as women. This explodes the popular myth that gossip is something women do – the familiar image of the men discussing 'serious' matters, or sports and cars, while the women indulge in giggly, girly gossip. The etymology of the word 'gossip' may go some way towards explaining this misconception – 'gossip' did originally mean a close female friend, and then the kind of talk characteristic of such friends – but one cannot help wondering why the myth has proved so resilient, despite compelling evidence of its inaccuracy.

It is possible that the sex difference in manner and tone, both in the delivery of gossip and in the verbal 'feedback', may help to account for the persistence of the 'gossip is female' myth. All of the available research shows unequivocally that men gossip just as much as women, but it is clear that male and female gossip-sessions, whether conducted on mobile phones or face-to-face, sound very different. If popular perceptions equate high-pitched, quick, animated speech and frequent use of expressions such as "Guess what, guess what?!", "NO!, really?!" and "Oh my GOD!" with gossip, then male conversations will very rarely sound like gossip, although the content of their conversations will in fact be identifiable as gossip. Gossiping males sound as though they are talking about 'important issues' (or cars, or football), whereas female gossip actually sounds like gossip.

This sounds plausible, though I'm not so sure about the "high-pitched, quick, animated" part -- a group of guys might be called "boisterous" instead of "animated", but I bet that they're likely to be talking just as fast, and to raise their pitch just as much within their (anatomically lower) range of fundamental frequencies.

In more detail, here's Fox's theory about "gossip as entertainment":

While the entertainment function of gossip is important to men, our focus groups indicated that women were more skilled at making their mobile gossip entertaining. Many of the female participants felt that this was the main difference between male and female gossip: that women had the knack of making gossip interesting and exciting.

There seemed to be three principal factors involved in this skill: tone, detail and feedback.

This theory is elaborated with quotes from focus-group discussions. Here's the stuff about "tone":

Women agreed that a particular tone of voice – high and quick, or sometimes a stage whisper, but always highly animated – was important in generating a sense of excitement.

"Gossip's got to start with something like [quick, high-pitched, excited] "Oooh – Guess what? Guess what?" or [quick, urgent, stage whisper] "Hey, listen, listen – you know what I heard?""

"You have to make it sound surprising or scandalous, even when it isn't really. You'll go "well, don't tell anyone, but." even when it's not really that big of a secret."

"Women are more animated than men when they gossip."

The women in our groups complained that men fail to adopt the correct tone of voice, delivering items of gossip in the same flat, unemotional manner as any other piece of information, such that, as one woman put it dismissively, "You can't even tell it's gossip."

This is interesting and plausible as a contribution to the meta-sociology of discourse -- what people think about how people talk -- but in my plodding, masculine way, I'd still like to see some evidence about what idioms different sorts of people really use in gossipy interactions.

Here's the stuff about "detail":

Perhaps even more critical, for our female participants, was men's failure to recognise the importance of detail in the telling of gossip.

"I find men can gossip, but they never know the detail."

"It's like you're telling a story. My boyfriend phones me with information and I turn it into gossip."

"Yeah, it's definitely how you tell it, the detail – some people have the ability to make the smallest thing funny."

"Men just don't do the 'he said, she said' thing – and it's no good unless you know what people actually said."

"My boyfriend gets very impatient when I take twenty minutes to tell him something that happened in thirty seconds. Whereas if he's telling me something I have to spend twenty minutes asking questions to get the detail!"

"Women tend to speculate more.they'll talk about why someone did something. give a history to the situation."

The notion of detailed 'speculation' as a crucial element of gossip was particularly important to the women in our groups. They felt that their mobile gossip conversations were much longer than those of males, not only because they gave more detail but also because each detail could be the subject of speculation about possible motives and causes, which in turn required a detailed raking over of 'history' – what led up to the situation under discussion – and speculation about possible outcomes.

These focus-group claims are not consistent with Fox's survey results:

Men are more likely than women to have somewhat longer gossip sessions of up to 10 minutes (20% vs 15%), but very long chats (over 15 minutes) are slightly more common among females (9%) than among males (6%), although this difference is too small to be significant. Our survey showed that men also gossip more frequently on their mobiles than women, with, for example, 33 percent of men indulging in mobile gossip every day or almost every day, compared with 26 per cent of women.

And the survey results themselves are suspect, in my opinion, since they represent people's presentation to a stranger of how they believe they typically behave. It would be nice to see some real facts about the relevant aspects of mobile phone usage.

As for the "feedback" dimension, here's how Fox summarizes her focus-group results:

It is very difficult to be a 'good gossip', however lively your tone and however detailed your stories, if you do not have a good audience. For women, we found that this means listeners who give plenty of appropriate feedback. This feedback must be at least as animated and enthusiastic as the delivery of the gossip, if not more so. The speaker has gone to the trouble of making the information sound surprising and scandalous, so the least one can do is to reciprocate by sounding suitably shocked.

"Men don't get this, they don't understand that you're supposed to go 'NO! Really?!'"

"Yeah, with women it's always 'Oh My GOD!'"

"That's right. For women, gossip is a two-way thing."

The women agreed, however, that a man who did respond in the approved female manner would sound inappropriately girly, even disturbingly effeminate. Even the gay males in our groups felt that the 'NO! Really?!' type of response would be regarded as 'camp'. It was agreed that the unwritten rules of gossip etiquette allowed men to express shock or surprise on hearing a particularly juicy piece of gossip, but that a suitable expletive would convey such surprise in a more masculine fashion.

There's certainly a consistent ideology about "language and gender" that emerges from all this. One of the interesting subtexts is the extent to which the women in the focus groups -- and Fox as the author -- appear to emphasize the differences more than the men do, and are disdainful of men's alleged lack of verbal (or at least gossip-connected) skill. This way of playing traditional group stereotypes seems to have become our current cultural norm: it's the up-tight white people rather than the fun-loving darkies who are pictured as deficient, and it's often members of the traditionally subordinated group who promote the stereotypes.

A clearer example of this tendency appears in a survey of 350 undergraduates cited in Jackie Guendouzi, `You'll Think We're Always Bitching': The Functions of Cooperativity and Competition in Women's Gossip, Discourse Studies 3(1), 2001:

  Female responses Male responses
"Only women gossip"
"Everybody gossips"

As usual, the relationship of this meta-sociolinguistic ideology to the facts of people's lives remains to be explored in future research.

In the SIRC report, Kate Fox adopts Robin Dunbar's theory of "gossip as grooming". Here's a summary of these ideas, taken from my online lecture notes for Ling001:

In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar proposed that our ancestors evolved language so as to use gossip as a more efficient substitute for the grooming behavior that other primates use to establish and maintain social relationships. In outline, his argument is as follows:

Among primates, "encephalization" (brain size normalized for body size) varies in proportion to social group size. Apparently, the larger the group a primate lives in, the more brain it needs to keep track of social relationships within the group. This is plausible, given the intricate micro-politics of primate society, as documented by ethologists. If we take the step from correlation to causation, and assume that larger brains evolved in primates in order to permit larger social groups (e.g. for better intra-species competition or better defense against predators), we have what has been called the "Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis."

If we look at human brain size from the perspective of this hypothesis, and extrapolate the relationship between brain size and social group size found in other primates, we predict a "natural" group size for humans of about 150.

In primate societies, grooming (picking nits out of fur) is a major factor in establishing and maintaining social bonds. There are interesting hypotheses about why grooming fulfills this function, but for now, we can just note that the bigger the primate group, the more time on average each member spends in grooming others. If we look at human social relations in this perspective, then with a group size of 150, we should have to spend 40% of the day in grooming. This is far too high to be practical -- the highest actual proportion observed among primates is 20% (Gelada baboons).

Dunbar suggests that our ancestors, facing hard times on the African plains, very badly needed to live in larger groups. "Gossiping" (in whatever form it first arose) made it possible to form and maintain social bonds more efficiently than grooming, both because more than two can do it at once, and also because you can actually do some useful work (like gathering or processing food) at the same time. The development of sense and reference -- and especially of proper names for group members -- enabled political maneuvering at a higher level in larger groups.

In other words, rather than bonding by picking nits out of one another's fur, we bond by picking nits in one another's behavior.

Fox spins this in a way that surely pleased her sponsors at BT Cellnet -- and might be true all the same:

In the beginning was the word, and the word, if the evolutionary psychologists are right, tended mainly to be used to form sentences such as "Hey, guess what I heard about Og?!", "Don't tell anyone, but I think Og and Ogga may be splitting up!" and "I shouldn't tell you this, but Og tried to get off with me at the rain-dance last night!" – or even "Ogga is still wearing that deeply uncool bone necklace – soo Lower Paleolithic, don't you think?"

Put like this, the 'gossip' theory of language evolution may sound rather far-fetched, but it is in fact rather more compelling than most other attempts to explain how language evolved, particularly when integrated with other theories emphasising status-indicator and chat-up functions. It is most likely that a variety of these essentially social factors influenced the evolution of language, rather than a single element, but gossip clearly played a central role, and still has a central function in all human societies.

Gossip is, and always has been, good for us – essential to our social, psychological and even physical well-being. The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, is helping us to cope, adapt and survive. This is perhaps the most striking and important finding of this study: that a technological advance is helping to counteract the adverse effects of previous technological advances. Mobile phones are re-creating the more natural, humane communication patterns of pre-industrial times: we are using space-age technology to return to stone-age gossip.

But listen, you know what I heard? Derek Bickerton says it was really all about the dead elephants.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:41 AM

February 19, 2007

The (so-called) Gulf and (so-called) friendly fire

Earlier today Sally Thomason entitled a Language Log post, "Another view of Americans & Arabic in the Gulf." Will Language Log Plaza now face a worldwide boycott over an omitted word?

Let me explain. In today's Guardian, reader's editor Ian Mayes reports the following:

An email I received a few days ago read: "Just so you know, the Iranian community worldwide is about to boycott your newspaper solely because you have decided arbitrarily to use the term 'the Gulf' in place of 'the Persian Gulf' in your articles."

Mayes points to the Guardian's style guide, which explicitly advises, "The Gulf - not the Persian or Arabian Gulf." The thinking here is that usage of "the Gulf" represents a neutral standpoint, staying aloof from the nomenclatural battles between Iranians and Arabs. Mayes writes:

The preference for calling it "the Gulf" is not something that the Guardian has suddenly or arbitrarily introduced. It dates from at least the time of the first Gulf war, which we have referred to as "the Persian Gulf war" at least nine times in the past six years. On even rarer occasions we have referred to "the Persian Gulf states", which for some is also a provocative formation. To the Arab states in the Gulf it is the Arabian Gulf.
A Guardian journalist who was foreign editor for part of the 1990s promoted the term "the Gulf" on his pages because of its neutrality, deliberately avoiding both "the Persian Gulf" and "the Arabian Gulf". It still seems a reasonable course to take and a small matter in the current priorities of the region.

From the perspective of Iranian nationalists, using "The Gulf" is evidently far from a neutral choice, but rather a deliberate slight against Iran and an acquiescence to Arab pressure groups. Similar protests have been lodged recently against The Economist and France's Louvre Museum. Wikipedia provides further background on the naming dispute.

According to Worldpress.org, the United Nations Secretariat has issued two editorial directives insisting on usage of "the Persian Gulf" rather than "the Arabian Gulf" or simply "the Gulf." An addendum to one directive reads, "The full name 'Persian Gulf' should be used in every case instead of the shorter term 'Gulf,' including in repetitions of the term after its initial use in a text." So from the U.N. Secretariat's point of view, use of "(the) Gulf" is off-limits in any circumstances (even after using "Persian Gulf" on first reference). Rather than wading into this minefield, I'd suggest Language Log adopt its own editorial directive. From now on, we should only refer to "The Large Body of Water between the Arvandrud/Shatt al-Arab River Delta and the Straits of Hormuz."

In the same column, Mayes reports on another disputed usage in the pages of the Guardian:

A subject of greater discussion has been the term "friendly fire", arising from the revelation earlier this month of more details of the US air attack in Iraq which killed Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull. The discussion was about the provenance of the term and whether the Guardian was right to use it without any quotation marks.
Dictionary entries seem to suggest a root in the way the word "friendly" was used in the first world war to denote a shell fired by the allied side. "Friendly fire" had certainly emerged as a self-contained term by the time of the first Gulf war. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes from the Independent of February 22 1991: "Since the war began, more American troops are thought to have been killed by 'friendly fire' than by the Iraqis ... " Note the quotes.

Mayes does a better job reading the OED than last time around, but he can rest assured that "friendly fire" emerged as a "self-contained term" long before the first Gulf war. (Wait! I mean "the first Large Body of Water..." Ah, forget it.) It can be found in the New York Times archive back to World War I, without scare quotes:

New York Times, Oct 18, 1918, p. 11
When the infantry was advancing in a position exposed to cross fire he volunteered and carried a message to the advancing troops, informing them that a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements was friendly fire from a unit not in their support and acting without orders to cover their advance.

(I came across this citation five years ago, but the lexicographical wheels move verrrry slowwwwly at the OED. The earliest cite given for the phrase "friendly fire" in the unrevised entry for friendly is from 1976.)

So the idea behind scare-quoting "friendly fire" is to flag its usage as a military euphemism &mdash a "propagandistic" one, at that. Though the quoted style can be found in many news organs, the Guardian opts against it: "The style guide editor believes that 'friendly fire' has entered the language, and he thinks using it without quotes is all right." Given its unquoted use in newspapers all the way back to 1918, along with the established military sense of friendly to mean "of or allied with one's own forces," I think the Guardian chooses well in this case. Now, "collateral damage" is another matter...

[Update #1: The LLP water cooler is abuzz. Roger Shuy wonders:

What next? Immigration opponents from Houston boycotting use of the Gulf of Mexico? Patriotic Chicagoans and Wisconsinites objecting to Lake Michigan? And what about the Indian Ocean?

Funny he should mention the Indian Ocean. One of the nationalist/expansionist gestures made by Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, was a unilateral renaming of the Indian Ocean, officially dubbing it "the Indonesian Ocean" (Lautan Indonesia). I believe it still appears that way on many Indonesian maps.]

[Update #2: Stephen Jones writes from cartographic experience:

You would be fired in most of the Gulf states if you gave out maps with the words "Persian Gulf" written on them. I soon learnt to use graphic programs to drown the offending word in water.
Faced with two competing nationalisms, the use of "The Gulf" seems common-sensical.

And Steven Poole, author of Unspeak, has some useful observations about "friendly fire":

You are of course right to say that "friendly" is established as meaning "of or allied with one's own forces"; yet I can't help feeling that there is a kind of leakage of the sense of "amicable" into the phrase "friendly fire", lending it a certain quota of euphemism when used to mean forces killing their own, ie a fatal balls-up. Moreover, the NYT citation from 1918 that you give does not actually use "friendly fire" in the modern sense in question, does it? It's referring to "a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements", i.e. fire directed by other "friendly" forces at the enemy, not (accidentally) at their comrades.

Excellent point about the 1918 cite. It's possible that the overriding sense of "friendly fire" changed later on, from "(intentional) fire by a friendly at an enemy" to "(accidental) fire by a friendly at a friendly." But even in the 1918 example, the "friendly fire" was unexpected, with the potential to cause damage to allied troops due to lack of coordination. In any case, more research is definitely needed. As for "collateral damage," Poole explores the history of the phrase on pp. 116-9 of Unspeak.]

Note added by Geoff Pullum: the funny thing about objections to not using the P-word when referring to the (sigh) Large-Body-of-Water between-the-Arvandrud/Shatt-al-Arab-River-Delta and-the-Straits-of-Hormuz (henceforth the LBoWbtASaARDatSoH) is that it can't be about ownership: legal control over the territorial waters in question is divided between several nations. It's actually about having international or foreign nations' waters named after an older version (Persia) of the name of one's own country (Iran). Yet no doubt that name was assigned by British or other colonial powers anyway [oops! no, I'm about 2,000 years off in that guess; I really should look stuff up; see Joseph Ruby's comment below]. If only people could see that there is little power or influence in a proper name. It's just a few syllables slung together with a denotation attached, like the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).

[Update #3: Joseph Ruby follows up on Geoff Pullum's suggestion that the "Persian Gulf" label was "no doubt ... assigned by British or other colonial powers anyway."

No doubt, except that it happens to be incorrect. This isn't the Americas or darkest Africa we're talking about. This is the cradle of civilization. Alexander the Great had a fleet in the Persian Gulf, and the ancient Greek sources for our knowledge of Alexander call it "Persian." As for the colonial era, Persia was never a European colony. It has been independent since 1733, when it expelled various Turkish, Afghan and Russian forces. In the late 19th century, the British had considerable influence, but never direct rule of the sort that would have allowed them to impose new geographical names. We got the name either from the ancient Persians to the ancient Greeks to the Romans to us, or later from the medieval Arab geographers to the medieval European geographers to us, or both. If you're looking for British-imposed names for natural features in Asia, you have to go all the way to the Himalayas.
As for the ire of Iranians over the use of the term "the Gulf," don't forget that the bloodiest war since WWII was fought between Persians and Arabs in large part over the control of ports and islands at the north end of the Gulf. Imagine the public reaction if a British paper started to use the term "the Channel" in deference to French sensibilities, and you can get a sense of the issue.

The Wikipedia page on the naming dispute shows a series of maps illustrating the long history of the "Persian Gulf" name.]

[Update #4: Jay Cummings responds to Joseph Ruby:

Joseph Ruby suggests that it would be unusual for a British paper to refer to "The Channel". A news source, or just about anyone, will use the shortest form that conveys the meaning. "The Gulf", despite there being hundreds, maybe thousands, of "The X Gulf" place names in the world, is well-defined _for_the_moment_ as LBoWbtASaARDatSoH. Tomorrow, it could be the Gulf of Tonkin or the Gulf of Mexico again. I wonder which of "The Gulf of X" or "The X Gulf" forms lends itself more to shortening to "The Gulf"?
The British in fact do use "The Channel" rather than "The English Channel" quite frequently. I doubt it is from deference to French sensibilities, but they do use it despite there being an Irish Channel as well. It is hard to google for "The Channel" vs "The English Channel" without getting a lot of television rubbish, but it appears that "The Channel" is actually more common in casual usage. I expect the use is not objectionable because of self-confidence, if anything. The insistence on "Persian Gulf" or whatever just shows the fear that nationalists in the region feel. It seems very unlikely that people in Iran always say [the Farsi equivalent of] "The Persian Gulf", in cases where there is clearly only one gulf they could mean.
The French, of course, refer to the body of water as "la Manche". I don't think the English get all bent up about that. Then there are The Channel Islands, which are neither English nor United Kingdom, technically.

[And one final comment from Joseph Ruby:

Of course the English say "the Channel," just as here in Maryland we say "the Bay" and we don't mean San Francisco. The point is that there's no style-book rule that forbids an English reporter from saying "the English Channel." This is how the Iranians see the studied omission of the word "Persian." They don't mind "the Gulf" as a short form, but if you forbid the use of the historical name "the Persian Gulf" they feel that you're signaling favoritism to the Arab cause. ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 05:19 PM

Another view of Americans & Arabic in the Gulf

After posting comments on the deplorable lack of knowledge of Arabic among American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq, I received an interesting and enlightening response from A Faithful Language Log Reader in Bahrain. His account of Americans & Arabic is rather encouraging. First, here's what he says about the current state of things in the teaching of Arabic:

Please don't assume that things are the same as they were "early in the current war in Iraq." I haven't been to Iraq, but the foreign service civilians and the military services seem to be using better language materials now. As I was preparing to come to Bahrain, where I am now, a friend gave me a two-CD set with a small course, "Basics of Iraqi Arabic", produced by the School of Language Studies of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. The course materials consist of the booklet and accompanying audio files, for aural/oral learning. Attached is the .pdf file for the booklet part of the course. This course is at least three years old, if we are to believe the file's creation date, and is marked "survival/beginning", with an unchecked line that might identify an intermediate/advanced version. Note how little of the course is devoted to military and security terms, especially to imperative commands. Note the tone of the sections on "Security Check and search of personal belongings", "House Search" and "Interrogation".

And his comments on the personal efforts of American soldiers and sailors are even more encouraging (well, except that it would be nice if they didn't have to do all this on their own time):

My personal observation here in Bahrain of hundreds of US naval and military personnel who have used their own off-duty time to take on-base (military as well as university extension) or local Arabic-language classes, has left me pleasantly impressed. These young Americans, many of whom have never studied a "foreign" language, are learning and using Arabic. Admittedly, these folks aren't in the combat zone at the moment, and admittedly they came overseas without Arabic language skills, but many of them ARE occasionally deployed to Iraq.

And finally, in a later message he offers a different perspective on the Iraq Study Group's report about the paucity of Arabic-knowers in the American embassy in Iraq: he points out that the support personnel in an American embassy outnumber the "the American officers and staff who actually need to make contact with local citizens who don't speak English." So although, as he notes, "33 out of 1000 Baghdad embassy employees seems like an abysmally low number", the report may be misleading -- that is, maybe a more respectable proportion of the people who most need to talk to monolingual Arabic speakers are actually able to do so.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 12:56 PM

The chosen people

If you do a Google search on "Jew" (or of course "jew"), you get a "sponsored link" message from Google:

Offensive Search Results

We're disturbed about these results as well.  Please read our note here.

As far as I can tell, "Jew" is the only word that elicits an "offensive search" note and an apology from Google.  There's a history here that I don't think we've talked about before on Language Log.

First, Google's note, in full:

An explanation of our search results.

If you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew," you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you conduct this search.

A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings up one such unexpected result.

If you use Google to search for "Judaism," "Jewish" or "Jewish people," the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for "Jew" different? One reason is that the word "Jew" is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word "Jewish" when talking about members of their faith. The word has become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to Jewish topics such as these:

Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely to enter terms like "Judaism," "Jewish people," or "Jews" than the single word "Jew." In fact, prior to this incident, the word "Jew" only appeared about once in every 10 million search queries. Now it's likely that the great majority of searches on Google for "Jew" are by people who have heard about this issue and want to see the results for themselves.

Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google. Some people concerned about this issue have created online petitions to encourage us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Because of our objective and automated ranking system, Google cannot be influenced by these petitions. The only sites we omit are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results.

We apologize for the upsetting nature of the experience you had using Google and appreciate your taking the time to inform us about it.

The Google Team

p.s. You may be interested in some additional information the Anti-Defamation League has posted about this issue at http://www.adl.org/rumors/google_search_rumors.asp. In addition, we call your attention to Google's search results on this topic.

Apparently the whole thing started back in March 2004 when a Google user noticed that a search on "Jew" brought up as its top item the anti-Semitic site jewwatch.com and started a petition drive (via the site removejewwatch.com) to have Google alter its search results.  The message above was Google's response: Google can't jiggle its algorithm to change the ranking of particular sites (and of course it has no power to remove sites from the net, though it can filter out sites so that they don't appear in searches at all), but it can warn its readers and apologize to them.  [2/20/07: Thanks to several readers for clarifying Google's problem here.]

The anti-Semitic site is still alive, but Google's search algorithm now ranks it fifth in a search on "Jew", after two Wikipedia entries and two links to the Judaism 101 site, all of them using "Jew" to mean 'Jewish person' in a perfectly ordinary and inoffensive way; from the Judaism 101 site:

I do not claim to be a rabbi or an expert on Judaism; I'm just a traditional, observant Jew who has put in a lot of research.

(Note how ridiculous "a traditional, observant Jewish person" or "traditionally, observantly Jewish" would sound.)

A search on "Jews" now gets the site as its fourth hit, and triggers the "offensive search" warning.  The site doesn't come up in the first hundred hits on "Jewish" or "Judaism", and there's no warning for these searches.  Startlingly, a search on "jewwatch" itself gets 34,400 hits and no warning.  Except in its name, the site seems to consistently use "Jewish" rather than "Jew" as a prenominal modifier.  And Google HAS in a sense meddled with the search results to some extent, but only by replacing the site description [2/20/07: several corresondents have now explained that Google doesn't write this stuff itself, but usually gets its descriptions from the Open Directory Project]; the site's self-description

Frank Weltner, M.A. English & Certified Librarian
Presents His Famous Scholarly Library of Factual Links Known Around the World

The Jew Watch Project Is The Internet's Largest Scholarly Collection of Articles on Jewish History
Free Educational Library for Private Study, Scholarship, and Research

has been replaced by the rather more cautious characterization

Archive of essays, articles and online books about a perceived international Jewish conspiracy.

Meanwhile, other words that have uses as offensive epithets, or are used ONLY as offensive epithets, get no warning from Google.  Richard Parker reports from the Philippines that his searches on the following items went through without comment from Google (I give them all here in lower case; the tongue-in-cheek characterizations are from Parker):

coon, frog, homsi ("the stupidest people in Syria"), kike, kraut, kurd ("the second most reviled people in Turkey"), laz ("the most reviled people in Turkey"), mick ("the stupidest people in Europe"), nigger, paddy (see "mick"), pommy, raghead, spic, yank

(The fourth hit for "nigger" is a site offering "nigger jokes, jew jokes, racist jokes, spic jokes".  Not a pleasant site.)

At this point, Parker ran out of racial/ethnic epithets, though he did supply links to collections of Homsi and Paddy/Mick jokes.  I tried a few more items, with similarly negative results:

bohunk, chink, greaser, jap, paki, polack, taffy, wop

A search on "homosexual" pulls up the homophobic Paul Cameron as the fourth hit (and the parody-of-homophobia Betty Bowers site as the eighth), but there's no warning from Google.

Now, the problem with "Jew"/"Jews" and "homosexual" (and, for that matter, "Kurd" and "Laz") isn't really with the words themselves, but with the way some people use them in some contexts; in this respect, they're unlike "kike"and "Jap" and most of the other items above (as applied to people), and more like the use of "French" by some people as an insult.  Nevertheless, we're inclined to blame the word rather than the user of the word.

In certain contexts, these words are pretty much guaranteed to be unfriendly, if not flat-out offensive.  The noun "Jew" as a prenominal modifier, as in "a Jew organization", is not at all Jew-friendly (note the parallel to "Democrat" used as a prenominal modifier, commented on by Mark Liberman here), and "the homosexual agenda" and "the homosexual lifestyle" are probably not gay-friendly (though both have been used mockingly by gay people).  But there are other contexts in which they're neutral, as you can see by looking at the results of Google searches on them.  And there are contexts in which alternatives like "Jewish" are not much better; when you read "Jewish conspiracy" (unhedged) or "Jewish terrorists", you know you're probably not in a Jew-friendly space.  Weltner could have called his site Jewish Watch rather than the obviously in-your-face alternative he chose, but that wouldn't have made the site any less anti-Semitic.  And then Google would probably have felt obliged to issue a warning about the results of searches on "Jewish", with a very different rationale for its warning from the one above.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 12:25 PM

The effect of the internet on language and society

There isn't any wikipedia entry (yet) for "raging kegger", but an explanation of "kegger" is available. The OED was there first

A party or similar event at which beer is served (usually directly from a keg); esp. such an event that is particularly wild, raucous, or large. Occas. with number prefixed, designating the number of kegs provided to denote the (large) size of the party or event, as two-, three-kegger, etc.

but the OED is unfortunately inaccessible to most 13-year-olds. In any case, I'd guess that most English-speaking 13-year-olds can figure out the meaning of the phrase "raging kegger" for themselves, by relying on the meaning of its constituent morphemes and the principles of compositionality. Even so, this cartoon evokes an important aspect of modern adolescence.

For an early expression of concern about the social effects of universal, indexed, networked computing -- written before general-purpose computers or digital networks were invented -- see Murray Leinster's story "A logic named Joe" (originally published in Astounding in March 1946, under Leinster's real name of Will F. Jenkins).

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:22 AM

More political morphology: Democrats, Great British, and geese

In connection with the discussion over whether using a noun as a modifier is "illiterate" ("'Democrat majority': offensive but not ungrammatical", 1/31/2007; "Hatchet job on Hart?", 2/18/2007), Pat Schwieterman wrote to remind us of a class of cases where noun and adjective modifiers often co-exist, with essentially the same meaning, though there's a systematic pattern of preference that correlates with a political feature:

In May of last year, we had an entertaining argument about the phrase "Canadian Goose" over at the Eggcorns Forum. That led me to go do a few Google searches, and it seemed to me that when you're talking about political divisions, the adjective is typically preferred for nations while the attributive noun is preferred for smaller divisions like states and provinces.

Here's a quote from Pat's forum post:

When there’s a choice between an adjectival form of a place on the one hand, and the equivalent attributive noun on the other, the tendency seems to be that the adjective is chosen for nations, while the noun is used for smaller political divisions. For instance, consider the following data from Google searches:

Google hits
Google hits
The Canada Parliament
     The Canadian Parliament
The Alberta Legislature
  The Albertan Legislature
The California Legislature
  The Californian Legislature

The nation demands an adjective rather strongly, while the province and state demand attributive nouns equally strongly.

And the general pattern holds even when you’re not talking about groups of people:

Google hits
Google hits
The Canada wilderness
     The Canadian wilderness
The Alberta wilderness
  The Albertan wilderness
The California wilderness
  The Californian wilderness

For the most part, this applies to bird names, too. We have the California Condor, the Arizona Woodpecker, the Louisiana Waterthrush, the Kentucky Warbler, and the Florida Scrub-Jay. Admittedly, Hawaiian names throw things off a bit – we have the Hawaii Creeper, but also the Hawaiian Goose. These tropical birds remind us we’re talking about language and not mathematics; the “rules” don’t always hold.

Well, let's not abandon the pursuit of regular laws quite so quickly -- Hawaii was an independent country until 1898, after all, and the Hawaiian Goose was given its scientific name, Branta sandvicensis, by Nicholas Aylward Vigors in 1833. And the Hawaii Creeper seems to be a sort of modern nickname for the Hawaiian Honeycreeper.

Pat's note reminds me that W got into morphological hot water almost exactly a year ago, over this same question of whether to use an adjective or a noun as a modifier -- but last time around, his mistake was the illegitimate use of an adjective, in the phrase "a Great British company". For a more extensive discussion of the role of political unit size (including continents and cities as well as countries and states or provinces) see W's conundrum (2/23/2006) and All your base are belong to which lexical category? (5/15/2004).

Pat points out that bird nomenclature also tends to follow the "nation-states as modifiers are adjectives" rule -- thus the Mexican Parrotlet, the American Crow, the Cuban Parakeet, and the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo -- so that we might really have expected the Canadian Goose instead of the (correct) Canada Goose. Perhaps this anomaly is the motivation for the urban legend that the Canada Goose is named not for the country, but for the (I believe mythical) ornithologist John Canada.

Pat observes in closing that "It's a bit surprising that a political scientist in particular would make such a sweeping statement about attributive nouns... As always, thanks again for Language Log. I can't believe it doesn't cost anything."

And don't forget the money-back guarantee!

[Update -- Paul Clapham writes:

I'm a regular reader of Language Log and I noticed today's post on adjectives versus attributive nouns. I did the same research on bird names about a year ago for one of the world bird lists and came up with similar conclusions. However "Hawaiian" versus "Hawaii" is perfectly regular too: "Hawaiian" refers to birds found on more than one island of the archipelago, whereas "Hawaii" refers to species endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii.


Update #2 -- Don Blaheta writes:

I confess that when I was reading this bit you quoted in a recent LL post:

...an entertaining argument about the phrase "Canadian Goose"...

I had no idea what the argument would be about, other than perhaps that the singular form (as given) sounds odder than the plural "Canadian geese". When I got to the punchline (that "Canadian Goose" isn't the correct name, rather "Canada Goose") I was pretty floored---growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we had perennial issues with Canadian geese crapping all over the soccer fields, but I'm pretty sure I never heard the term "Canada geese" (or its singular).

Some quick googling does show a preference of about 5:1 for the "Canada" form, so this appears to be a regional thing. Although, in that form the singular is twice as common as the plural, while the reverse is true for "Canadian" (which may have been the intuitive driving force behind my initial guess on potential objections to "Canadian goose").

Anyway, it sounds like the folks in my neck of the woods have taken the "rule" to heart, and fixed the name of these pests from the Great White North. :)

(Addendum: the wife of a colleague is a biologist who, in no uncertain terms, asserts that "a Canadian goose is a goose that lives in Canada!" So apparently feelings run strong about this sort of thing.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:49 AM

February 18, 2007

McMissiles in Virginia

I have to confess that this story in the Washington Post caught my eye because of the Mc- prefix. Some years ago I worked on a trademark case in which Quality Inns International was ultimately prohibited from calling a new hotel chain McSleep Inns. However dumb Quality Inn's idea was, the case was interesting because it showed the incredible legal power McDonald's has over language use.

Now a woman has been imprisoned in Stafford County Virginia for throwing a McDonald's super-size drink at another car as she drove north from North Carolina on Route 95. The traffic was snarled, tempers were short, and the driver who cut cut this woman off possibly deserved a rebuke of some sort. Who hasn't felt that way in such circumstances? For the court to give the woman a two-year sentence as a felon seems a bit much. But that's how Virginia law enforcement and its courts seem to work.

At the center of this case is the word, "missile." We normally associate it with military force and the wars in the Middle East. But Virginia law calls virtually anything thown by one person to something or someone else a missile. In this case a McDonald's soft drink apparently fits this category. The judge's insructions to the jury were that a missile is "any physical object" that "can be propelled by any force, including throwing." Throwing I understand, since it could have been a baseball, a coconut, or a hammer. But a soft drink in a paper cup seems more like a sandwich, a hat, or a magazine--more a muted physical signal of anger than a weapon.

The broad dictionary definitions of "missile" agree with Virginia law enforcement on this so maybe the police were within their rights, but where does this stop? If contemporary analyses of language tell us anything, they demonstrate that there is huge variability in the way people use it. In contrast, law often seems hell-bent on finding constructions that admit of little or no contextual or definitional variation. If I were to throw a pencil at a student who was acting inappropriately in my Virginia classroom, I could be tossed in jail for two years. It would be stupid of me to throw the pencil but punishment of two years in jail would seem excessive. But then, I'm not black, as the woman in this case is. We can only wonder what might have happened to a white thrower of a super large McDonald's soft drink cup in a community that is known to look less than favorably on black people. Get arrested? Maybe. Get a two year prison sentence? Not likely.

I wonder if community service has ever occurred to them?

[update] The Washington Post updates this story here with a few complications. The judge decided that the woman had been punished enough by her two months in jail.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 06:52 PM

Who Cares what Iraqis Think when You're the One with the Gun?

Last month Bill Poser highlighted the US government's attitude toward communication with Iraqis, as seen in the Iraq Study Group's report that only six (6!) of the 1000 employees of the US embassy in Iraq speak Arabic fluently. Another glimpse of this attitude, from a different perspective, is on p. 7 of the February 2007 issue of Anthropology News. This comes from an interview with an anthropologist, Justin Faulkner, who served with the US Army early in the current war in Iraq:

It's changed now, but our minimal language training focused on learning commands, with no attention to reciprocity or words conveying respect. I took the time to learn a little more Arabic and found the words that worked best were "don't be afraid, everybody's going to be OK."

Faulkner goes on to say that these words were especially useful when soldiers burst into people's homes in the middle of the night on house-to-house searches.

So what this presumably means is that the Army was training soldiers only in Arabic expressions like "Get up!", "Don't move!" and "Leave the house immediately!", and that Faulkner found that people reacted better when someone said something reassuring. Duh. And yet at least one person in the US, our Vice President, still doesn't seem to understand why our soldiers have not been welcomed in Iraq with open arms and bouquets of flowers.

Faulkner doesn't say how language training has changed since the first two years of this war. But it's probably too optimistic to hope for a serious effort to reduce the language barrier between US personnel and Iraqi citizens, given the pervasive and persistent view in our country, at all levels of society right up to and including Congress and the White House, that learning any language other than English is a foolish waste of time. (Yes, yes, I know there are notable exceptions in our government, at least in Congress. But they're a drop in the proverbial bucket. And no, I don't think that President Bush's alleged command of Spanish counts as an exception.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at 12:11 PM

Hatchet job on Hart?

In a post a couple of weeks ago ("Democrat majority": offensive but not ungrammatical, 1/31/2007), I ventured to disagree on a point of grammar with Roderick P. Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Maura Reynolds of the L.A. Times quoted him in support of the view that W's use of "Democrat majority" in the SOTU speech was ungrammatical:

"It sounds illiterate to me," said the University of Texas' Hart. "It's a noun used to modify a noun, and everyone knows you use an adjective to modify a noun."

I pointed out that the use of nouns to modify nouns is a commonplace and well established fact of English grammar; that Prof. Hart's own course descriptions make frequent use of Noun+Noun phrases like "policy sphere" and "movement politics"; and that he surely knows about political parties whose names have the Noun+Noun form, like the "Labour Party". I concluded that "when the dean of the College of Communication at one of America's best universities, a specialist in the language of politics, thinks that nominal modifiers are always ungrammatical or at least substandard, perhaps we've reached a historical low-water mark in the ability of intellectuals to analyze language".

In response, Paul Quirk (who is a professor of political science at UBC) wrote:

I think you did a hatchet job on Hart, a good scholar, who certainly knows that nouns can be used as modifiers, and whose point was--roughly speaking--correct. Nouns can be used as modifiers, as if they were adjectives; but not if there is an adjective form of the noun.

You can do "quality work," but not "speed work," because there is an adjective, "speedy." "He made speed work of it" and "he belongs to the Democrat party" are, in my opinion, both illiterate.

I agree that Prof. Hart is a fine scholar -- that's why his remark, if accurately quoted, is such a telling indictment of my field's fifty years of failure to educate the population in elementary grammatical analysis. I also recognize that his apparent ignorance may well be the journalist's invention: we've certainly documented plenty of examples of that type. But for someone who knows what the words "adjective", "noun" and "modify" mean, a few minute's reflection on the facts of English will make it clear that the claimed fact is false.

What about Prof. Quirk's suggested back-off position: nouns can be used as modifiers, but not if there is a morphologically-related adjective?

This is also clearly false, at least in general. For example, there's nothing ungrammatical about bible study (2,250,000 Google hits), even though biblical study (228,000) is also available. Looking on the index page of this morning's New York Times, I find "Iraq war" (despite the adjective Iraqi), "Gaza rebuilding" (despite the adjective Gazan), "suicide bomber" (despite the adjective suicidal), and so on. I recognize that the Adjective+Noun sequences would have somewhat different meanings in these cases, but the point here is a formal one.

In the particular case of speed and speedy, there are many common phrases in which speed qualifies a noun: speed boat, speed dating, speed reading, speed skating, speed work. Again, the meanings are different: speed work gets 222,000 Google hits in the sense of "athletic training aimed at improving speed", but it doesn't have to be "speedy work" in the sense of being over and done with quickly, or in the sense of being characterized by a uniformly fast pace. On the contrary, I remember "speed work" training in high school as interminable-seeming 45-minute sessions, several days a week, in which sprints alternated with slower stuff. But again, the point here is about form, not meaning.

Now, what about Prof. Quirk's suggestion that the idiomatic frame "He made __ work of it" requires an adjective? My intuitions agree -- and a web search for {"made * work of it"} turns up bad, easy, hard, light, rough, sad, short, swift, quick, most piteous, wretched among many others, but no nouns. (It seems to me that genitive-case forms like "made five minutes' work of it" ought to be possible, but I didn't find any on the web.)

But the claim isn't that English nouns have exactly the same distributional properties as adjectives -- just that nouns can sometimes be attributive modifiers of other nouns. It's easy to find contexts where adjectives occur freely but nouns are highly restricted or impossible. Thus became __ allows adjectives (She became independent) and bare role nouns (She became president) but not bare nouns in general (not *She became monster, but She became a monster).

In contrast, it's easy to find examples showing that President Bush's phrase "the Democrat majority" does not involve a frame from which nouns are systematically excluded: {"the Labour majority"}, for example, is routine in the press discussions of British politics.

The problem with W's wording was not that it was ungrammatical, but that it was insulting. In general, you don't needle someone by using ungrammatical phrases, but by choosing grammatical phrases that are calculated to annoy. For example, it's a traditional schoolboy insult to insist on the female form of another boy's name -- say, "Paula" in place of "Paul" -- as a way to impugn the other's manliness. This usage is not in conflict with the word stock and the grammatical norms of English. It's simply childish and obnoxious, just as W's repeated misuse of "Democrat" is.

But my focus, in any case, was not the rhetoric of subtle political insults, but rather the sorry state of discourse on language among intellectuals today. Even if Prof. Hart was innocent in this case, the L.A Times reporter certainly was not.

This situation is an old concern, not to say hobby-horse, here -- a double handful of earlier posts on the subject:

No hurr in Nellyville? (4/4/2004)
The inner necessity of phonetic metalanguage (4/5/2004)
The passivator (4/6/2004)
No professor left behind (7/5/2004)
Hot features (8/24/2004)
The grammar of bullshit (3/9/2005)
Somewhere back of the teeth in Glasgow (3/14/2005)
Linguistics fails again (5/15/2006)
Thriving on confusion in the Guardian (5/24/2006)
Slurry (11/24/2006)
Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects? (12/19/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:26 AM

Rankled by "ankle"

On Opinion L.A, the daily blog of the Los Angeles Times Opinion Section, Matt Welch sounds seriously peeved by a bit of Hollywood-speak:

This L.A. Observed headline -- LeDuff ankles NYT -- has finally pushed me over the edge. Did I miss the memo? When -- and for God's sake, why -- did "ankles" become a preferred headline verb somehow meaning both "quits" and "fires"?
We know the chief culprit: the mockworthy Hollywood trade-mag Variety. We know that "industry journalists" like to use it, that Kevin Roderick has developed a taste, and that actual humans never even think of saying it out loud in a sentence. All well and good. But what specifically is it referring to???

I don't know where Welch got the idea that the verb ankle could mean 'to fire' — in the parlance of Variety, it means 'to quit (from)' or 'to be fired (from),' as explained in the magazine's glossary of "slanguage":

ankle -- A classic (and enduring) Variety term meaning to quit or be dismissed from a job, without necessarily specifying which; instead, it suggests walking; "Alan Smithee has ankled his post as production prexy at U."

The two senses are also adequately explained by the William Safire "On Language" column from 2005 that Welch quotes:

"Variety was founded in 1905 and used street lingo," says Tim Gray. "It was fun, and easier to say a play 'had legs,' for example, than to say it had a good chance of running a long time."
Why ankle, which has long had a general slang meaning of "to walk?"
"Hollywood is filled with egos. A lot of times, a studio will tell us that they let somebody go, and the exec will say, 'I wasn't fired, I quit!' Both sides claim it was their decision. We need that equivocation," he said.
Why not depart, leave or exit? Gray's answer: "Ankle is more fun."

Welch responds to Safire's column by saying:

Yes yes yes, but if it indeed comes from the UK slang for "to walk," well, you wouldn't really say "LeDuff walks NYT," now would you?

Welch would have been better off consulting a more reliable lexicographical source than Wiktionary, where he hit upon the notion that ankle meaning 'to walk' is "UK slang." If he had checked, say, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, he'd find that this sense of ankle is true-blue (albeit rather dated) American slang. Granted, the OED entry for ankle gives two examples from the works of P.G. Wodehouse (from the 1930 play Baa, Baa, Black Sheep with Ian Hay, and from the 1932 novel Hot Water), but the first cite given in both OED and HDAS is from an American source, the 1926 Wise-Crack Dictionary by George H. Maines and Bruce Grant. (And in any case, Wodehouse, as George Orwell once observed, was fond of inserting Americanisms in his work, having lived in the U.S. for several years.) Cassell's agrees that the sense is "orig. U.S.," and the paper trail of American usage is long and varied. In the journal American Speech it can be found in an eclectic assortment of word-lists from the first half of the 20th century, with attestations of use among undergraduates ("Johns Hopkins Jargon," June 1932), convicts ("Prison Parlance," Feb. 1934), and rural Southerners ("More Tennessee Expressions," Dec. 1940).

The origin of the perambulatory sense of ankle, later extended in show business to quitting or getting fired, is not entirely obvious. We could compare it to other names of body parts that get applied to walking or running by the process of synecdoche, as in the expressions leg it, foot it, and hoof it. Ankles, however, seem like an odd anatomical choice, despite the historical presence of colloquialisms for bipedal motion such as ankle express (in HDAS and DARE) and ankle-cart (in "A Word List From Southeast Arkansas," AmSp, Feb. 1938, in the expression "Hitch up your ankle-cart"). HDAS reasonably suggests that the verb ankle has been influenced by amble and angle. The same 1938 Arkansas word-list that provides ankle-cart also explains that angle can mean 'to walk slowly, without definite purpose,' calling it a "fairly common midwestern" term that "may be a corruption of amble." So the older form amble (ultimately from Latin ambulare) seems to have coexisted with sound-alikes angle and ankle in a number of American dialects.

Digital newspaper databases, as usual, flesh out the history of the verb in much greater detail. On Newspaperarchive, the walking/running sense of ankle first shows up in the comic writing of Gene Ahern — better remembered for his work as a cartoonist, creating such popular characters as Major Hoople, not to mention the timeless phrase "Nov shmoz ka pop." In his column "Ain't Nature Wonderful," Ahern frequently used the verb ankle in jocular contexts as early as 1917. The following examples all appeared in the Fort Wayne Sentinel, one of many papers to print his syndicated column:

The curious infant canine who ankled away from home used up a bushel of nosing around and came downtown. (FWS, May 23, 1917, p. 8)

We may be wrong, but we think if a steak shouldn't listen like a steak, the great architect would have hung a bottle of chili sauce on a cow's flyswatter and have porkers and sheep ankling around with a bottle of chutney, or Worcestershire strap-hanging off their roofs. (FWS, June 1, 1917, p. 7)

Y'know, on the / Streets, when I / Ankle around / And some autos / Just miss by / A whisper / Massaging my / Anatomy, I / Mutter-r-r-r / To myself, words / At the driver, / You don't hear / In church sermons. (FWS, June 26, 1917, p. 10)

F'rinstance waking up in the a. m. and lie in bed and listen to the hoofpats of the other citizens ankling to work. (FWS, July 20, 1917, p. 11)

That's the sixth panhandler ankled by and didn't warble a sob sonata and strike for a shekel to get some lunch. (FWS, Sep. 13, 1917, p. 5)

"Hap" Felsch would rather sit around the hotel than go out with "Buck" Weaver. He says "it costs me too much dough." So Buck has to dig up someone else to ankle out with to put away a nut sundae. (FWS, Sep. 27, 1917, p. 8)

Another comic writer of the time, Bugs Baer, followed Ahern in using the verb ankle. It's not surprising to find Baer using the word, since he enjoyed peppering his newspaper columns with peculiar slang terms like beezark (a variant of bezark, defined by HDAS as "an odd or contemptible man or woman"). Here he uses ankle in 1919 to describe boxing fans leaving an arena:

Jazz rolled over like a hoop and the $60 gents ankled towards the exit with 57 washers of skirmishing still coming to 'em. (Bridgeport Standard Telegram, July 4, 1919, p. 7)

In these early examples, ankle can be followed by a directional prepositional phrase complement ("ankle to work," "ankle towards the exit") or by a directional/locative particle in a verb-particle construction ("ankle around," "ankle away," "ankle by," "ankle out"). In other words, it very quickly assumed the same combinatorial possibilities inherent in the verb class that Beth Levin calls "RUN verbs" — like amble, creep, drift, gallop, hobble, hurry, lope, meander, prance, ramble, rush, saunter, scramble, swagger, traipse, trudge, waddle, wander, and many more (see 51.3.2 here). This would continue to characterize the usage of ankle as it became popularized in print through the middle of the 20th century. The newspaper databases show hundreds of citations, chiefly on the entertainment and sports pages. (In sports reporting, ankle also frequently appeared with an adverbial measure phrase of distance, as in "The running back ankled 30 yards for a touchdown.") For a wide selection of "ankle + PP complement" and "ankle + particle" citations from mid-20th-century American newspapers and magazines, see these examples from Google News Archives.

So how did the verb get extended to the transitive Variety-style usage? Using Levin's terminology, ankle joined the class of "verbs of inherently directed motion" (see 51.1 here). Many of these verbs of motion share the property of "locative preposition drop alternation," where the verb can appear either in an intransitive frame with a PP complement or in a transitive frame. As Levin explains, "the transitive frame appears to be derived from the intransitive frame by 'dropping' the preposition" (Levin 1993: 43). The motion verbs depart, exit, flee, leave, and escape all illustrate this alternation:

The convict departed/exited/fled/left/escaped from the area.
The convict departed/exited/fled/left/escaped the area.

So, once ankle was perceived to be a verb like depart, exit, flee, etc., then the preposition drop alternation allowed it to move from an intransitive frame to a transitive one. Here are three transitional examples where ankle implies departure from a place but still appears as an intransitive with PP complement, all using the preposition off:

It was a tired and broken gray-jerseyed team that ankled off the field when taps were sounded. (Syracuse Herald, Oct. 12, 1927, p. 18)

There should have been a cameraman present Saturday, if only to shoot the picture of Doc Sargeant as he ankled off the field. (New Castle [Pa.] News, Dec. 8, 1930, p. 22)

So Eyla Raines didn't want to work in an Abbott and Costello comedy and ankled off the Universal-International lot. (Kingsport [Tenn.] Times, Jan. 21, 1948, p. 4)

The first two quotes refer to baseball players leaving playing fields, while the third, from Erskine Johnson's syndicated "In Hollywood" column, exemplifies the burgeoning show business usage. Two years later the phrase "ankle the lot," as opposed to "ankle off the lot," was presented as an established idiom in "The Hollywood Beat" by Bob Thomas:

Pat, who previously had a suspension for refusing a loan-out as Gene Autry's leading lady, was offered a contract renewal—at a cut in salary. As the old saying goes, she ankled the lot. (Indiana [Pa.] Evening Gazette, Aug. 21, 1950, p. 9)

The earliest citation I've found so far for transitive ankle appeared a few months before that, written by the notorious columnist Hedda Hopper:

Since Charles Vidor ankled the direction of "Running the Tide," Metro's gone back to the original script, which is excellent, and George Sidney's been asked to direct. (Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1950, p. 10)

Hopper provides a more generalized usage of the verb: rather than the physical departure of someone from a movie lot, she uses ankle to describe a director's abandonment of his work on a film project. This suggests that transitive ankle was already common enough in Hollywood circles by 1950 for this type of figurative extension to be understood by the target audience of show-biz-savvy readers. Searching in Variety and other entertainment industry magazines would no doubt turn up further antedatings.

The newspaper databases contain numerous citations for transitive ankle in entertainment columns throughout the '50s and early '60s, with objects including "the film," "the [television] station," "the starring spot [of a movie]," and "the showing [of a movie]." It was common enough in 1955 that it could be used to refer to Whittaker Chambers defecting from the Communist Party (in Walter Winchell's "New York Confidential" column, guest-written by Lee Mortimer):

The professor is the biggest catch since Chambers ankled the Party and turned state's evidence. (Syracuse Herald Journal, Aug. 19, 1955, p. 25)

But the verb never really developed a life outside of Hollywood, and there were gripes about its unnaturally idiomatic use in Variety-speak long before Matt Welch. From 1952:

Every so often we pick up a copy of Variety, the show-biz magazine, just to tickle our vocabulary.
For, as those of you who read Variety know, this flashy trade magazine lives in a language of its own.
Variety, for example comments that a certain performer "ankled his show." Meaning, he walked out on it. ...
Just imagine yourself going home, having your wife ask how the day passed with you, and having you answer, "Boffo, babe! Except I ankled on the boss."
She would immediately suspect you of being either under the influence of a stimulating beverage or nuts.
And could you blame her?
(Fitchburg [Mass.] Sentinel, Oct. 18, 1952, p. 6)

Like many items of Variety jargon, transitive ankle has persisted long past its sell-by date. I agree with Welch that it sounds downright odd, if not ridiculous, outside of entertainment industry reporting. But at the same time this little verb represents a fascinating time capsule of forgotten American slang from the early to middle 20th century.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:21 AM

February 17, 2007

Spheniscid-American? Polar American?

That old question: What are we to call ourselves?  Here's one penguin's opinion, from the pages of the New Yorker:

But why ARCTIC-American?  Is Antarctic-American just too long?

[Addendum 2/18/07: Several correspondents have suggested that the cartoonist (Glen Le Lievre) just didn't know that penguins are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere, and don't occur in the Arctic at all.  I was hoping that this simple explanation wasn't true, that someone in the chain of people at the New Yorker, from the cartoonist through the cartoon editor (Bob Mankoff) to other editors and the fabled fact-checkers, would have queried Arctic and been reassured that there was some point to it.  But maybe it's just simple ignorance, of the sort that produces cartoons in which penguins disport themselves with (Arctic-only) polar bears.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:08 PM

Gettin' down and country

You wouldn't believe how much literature there is on "g-dropping" in English.  Consider, for example, Kathryn Campbell-Kibler's 2005 Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford, "Listener perceptions of sociolinguistic variables: The case of (ING)", which you can read about here.  This is one of those variables that non-linguists know about, as you can see in this New Yorker cartoon:

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:51 PM


Chris Dlugosz (1/29/07) treats us to a cartoon pixel that's way past the cutting edge of lexical innovation:

Dlugosz explains:


Note restrictive relative which in the yellow pixel's first comment.

(Hat tip to Dave Borowicz, from my senior seminar on linguistic innovations.  "Idiotdom" is Dlugosz's title.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:29 PM

Nashville's mayor standing strong

...against the forces of linguistic jingoism and unreason. As described in this post on Good Reason, and in this article, Nashville mayor Bill Purcell has vetoed an 'English First' city ordinance which would have required that all official city communications be in English. His presentation of the case against such laws is clear, concise, and effective. If only all our lawmakers could think as clearly, and exercise power as ethically.

(I especially wish this for those of my home state, and the 30 other states with 'Official English' laws (including, apparently, Tennessee). Some previous LL posts on this topic are here, here, here, and here.)

Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:58 AM

February 16, 2007

Awwa, meh, feh, heh

Ben Yagoda has a terrific article in Slate today entitled "Pardon the Interjection." The lowly interjection, he argues, has historically been given scant attention by grammarians and lexicographers, chiefly because these expressive elements tend to appear only in speech and function outside of traditional sentence grammar. But now electronically mediated communication has exposed us to a plethora of interjections that were seldom written down in pre-Internet days. Yagoda takes a look at the emergence of written interjections like awwa, meh, feh, and heh. (I discussed meh and feh last year in my post "Meh-ness to society," while Tim Warner of Mother Tongue Annoyances recently expressed his distaste for heh.) I particularly like the artwork accompany the Slate article, in which an anthropomorphic OED looks askance at the word meh with a decidedly meh expression.

[John Lawler writes in to disagree with Yagoda's point about interjections working outside of grammar:

Deborah James (at U Toronto's Scarborough College) wrote her dissertation about them, in 1973. I was on her committee (indeed, I may have been chair, but only as a last-minute replacement for Robin Lakoff, who'd just gone to Berkeley). The dissertation was preceded and followed by two lovely and entertaining CLS papers on the subject. Everybody was amazed at how much syntax was in fact involved in interjections; they even follow Ross Constraints.

Here's the biblio:

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1972 "Some aspects of the syntax and semantics of interjections". CLS 8, pp162-72.

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1973a "Another look at, say, some grammatical constraints on, oh, interjections and hesitations". CLS 9, pp242-51.

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1973b "The syntax and semantics of some English interjections." PhD diss, U of Michigan.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:23 PM

Where oh where is Puget Sound?

This is a longish story of a recent lawsuit (U.S. v Washington, C70-9213, Subproceding 05-03) in which there is confusion about whether there is language ambiguity or vagueness in the case  and some surprising inferences made by the judge.  It's hard enough to figure out what people mean when they write or talk but when we try to determine exactly what a now-deceased judge intended in a text he wrote over three decades ago, the task gets even more complicated. But this is a common problem facing the legal system, as most Constitutional lawyers will probably tell you.

For example, we may think we know the geographical dimensions of Puget Sound, but one Federal Court hasn't found it that easy. The recent legal battle over fishing rights in Puget Sound is a case in point. The problem faced by all the parties in the dispute was how to discover what the late Honorable George H. Boldt meant back in the mid 1970s when he assigned territorial fishing rights in Puget Sound to a number of different Indian tribes.

Recently the Upper Skagit and Swinomish Tribes filed suit in federal court to stop the Suquamish Tribe from taking crab on the eastern side of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. They claimed that Judge Boldt's ruling was ambiguous, adding, however, that his intentions were very clear when he outlined the territory of the Suquamish Tribe's usual and accustomed fishing areas. In several opinions written at that time and shortly afterward, Judge Boldt adoped the description of Puget Sound set forth in the Joint Statement prepared by the Washington Department of Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington Department of Game on May 14, 1973. The relevant part of this description reads as follows:

As used in this report...the term "Puget Sound" includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca and all the saltwater areas inland therefrom, and all terms and discussions which would otherwise have a broader or more general scope -- such as "fishery resource," "anadromous fish," "salmonoids," "total catch," "hatcheries," "freshwater areas," etc. are to be construed as being limited to the aforementioned geographical area and species to which this report is confined.

Seven months later, in the case of  U.S. v Quinalt Tribe et al. Judge Boldt described the usual and accustomed fishing grounds of the Suquamish Tribe in that area by essentially adopting the Joint Statement's definition of "Puget Sound" as follows:''

The usual and accustomed fishing places of the Suquamish Tribe include the marine waters of Puget Sound from the northern tip of Vashon Island to the Fraser River including Haro and Rosario Straits, the streams draining into the western side of this portion of Puget Sound and also Hood Canal. (U.S. v. Washington, 459 F. Supp. 1020, 1049)

So here's the conflict. The Suquamish argued that Judge Boldt's description above embraces all passages and bays along with the rest of the marine waters that then (and now) consitute Puget Sound while the complaining tribes asserted that this language is ambiguous because it doesn't specify certain waters lying on the eastern side of Whidbey Island, known as Saratoga Passage and Skagit Bay.

First of all, we need to deal with the meaning of "ambiguity." Something ambiguous has two or more known and possible meanings, causing the reader to look for other known textual clues to determine which of these clues provides the writer's possible intention. A simple test for ambiguity might ask, "Does the text mean X or Y where both X and Y are possible answers? More immediately the question might be, "Did Judge Boldt's text mean Puget Sound or some other area?"

Ambiguity doesn't seem to be the problem in this dispute. Judge Boldt gave a broad description of the entire Puget Sound area, not mentioning every bay, passage, harbor, strait, or inlet that this definition might include. His  words did not mean Long Island Sound or the Bay of Biscayne. What the complaining tribes really seem to want to say here is that Judge Boldt's description is, to them, vague and incomplete, permitting an unspecified range of possible interpretations. A simple test for vagueness might ask, "Did Judge Boldt's text tell us everything we might need or want to know?" That's not the same thing as ambiguity. Resolving the meaning of a vague description usually requires the reader to find and add new information from outside of the text in order to  clarify or reveal that which was not included or made explicit in the original writing.

The current judge earlier had ruled that Judge Boldt's determination of the Suquamish's fishing areas was a final decision and that it cannot now be "altered or amended," to which he added, "but it can be clarified." The question, therefore, is whether "clarifying" can be done without "altering" or "amending" the original text of Judge Boldt's 1975 decision. The current judge claimed that it can. If that 1975 description of Puget Sound was ambiguous, two or more possible meanings might be fair game for a clarification. But if Judge Boldt was vague, the reader has to add external information to try to clarify it. But doing so sounds a lot like "altering" or "amending" the original decision, something that the current judge had already said would not be permitted.

The difference between ambiguity and vaguenss was not apparent to the tribes or to the judge dealing with the current case. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since the definition of ambiguity that the current judge cited from Black's Law Dictionary also doesn't appear to  distinguish clearly between ambiguity and vagueness. The judge quoted this portion of Black's definition of ambiguity:

Doubleness; doublenss of meaning. Duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty of meaning of an expression used in a written instrument. Want of clearness or definiteness; difficult to comprehend or distinguish; of doubful import ... Ambiguity of language is to be distinguished from unintelligibility and inaccuracy, for words cannot be said to be ambiguous unless their signification seems doubtful and uncertain to persons of  competent skill and knowledge to understand them.

Here Black, like some desk dictionaries, appears to equate "doubleness of meaning" with "indistinctness," "uncertainty," and "want of clearness or definiteness." "Doubleness of meaning" sounds a bit like ambiguity and the latter three senses seem very much like vagueness, while "inaccuracy" seems to have little or nothing to do with ambiguity. Inaccuracy is simply wrong information and nobody in this case had accused Judge Boldt of being wrong. Black's definition here appears to make no distinction between words or expressions that have more than one possible meaning derivable from that text (ambiguity) and something for which the text doesn't say enough about (vagueness). This difference was central to the current dispute.

Even with this apparent confusion, the case had to be settled somehow. And here's where inferences come in. In his 2006 decision, the current judge agreed with the complaining tribes that Judge Boldt used "Puget Sound" ambiguously but he further claimed that under the rules of the Ninth Circuit, the Court must look to the "actual evidence" that was before Judge Boldt to see if that suggests that when Judge Bolt wrote his decision, he "intended something other than the apparent meaning." This leads to the questions: What inferences can be made about Judge Boldt's decision and what is the actual evidence?

The burden of proof on the complaining tribes was to demonstrate (with whatever inferences they could find) that there was no evidence before Judge Boldt in 1975 that the Suquamish ever fished on the east side of Whidbey Island or that the tribe even traveled through these areas on their way to the San Juan Islands and Fraser River areas.

So where could such inferential evidence come from? In his original decision that assigned fishing areas to various Puget Sound tribes, Judge Boldt relied heavily on the 1975 detailed reports and testimony of an anthropologist who had done extensive research on the history of Puget Sound tribes and their usual and accustomed fishing areas. Her reports indicated that historically the Suquamish Tribe had traveled widely by canoe, ranging as far north as the mouth of the Fraser River, also noting that it was common for all Puget Sound Tribes to travel throughout the Puget Sound area to harvest fish, to visit relatives, and to attend social occasions such as potlatches, weddings, and celebrations. She even opined that the Suquamish undoubtedly would have fished the marine waters along the way as they traveled to various places, including Whidbey Island. Although she mentioned various areas where the Suquamish traveled and fished, she did not specifically indicate EVERY area where they fished, even though her report made it clear that the tribe had commonly traveled and fished in those areas.

The current judge stressed that nowhere in this anthropologist's discussion were Skagit Bay and the Saratoga Passage specifically mentioned as places where the Suquamish took fish. He further commented that her statement that the Suquamish traveled to Whidbey Island was "insufficient to support the finding that they fished the eastern side of Whidbey Island" even though the anthropologist had reported how common it was for tribes to fish wherever they traveled. In short, the judge was not willing to accept the inference that the Suquamish had fished in every place where they commonly traveled.

So now we know what inferences the current judge would NOT make. But what inferences did he consider acceptable? Three of them played a crucial role in his decision:

1. Since in 1975 Judge Boldt did not specify the place name of every bay, inlet, strait, harbor, and canal of Puget Sound in his delineation of the usual and accustomed fishing areas assigned to various tribes, the current judge inferred that Judge Boldt did not intend to include these areas when he wrote about Puget Sound. For the purpose of the current case, then, Puget Sound appears to be that body of seawater extending south from the Fraser River to the tip of Vashon Island, bounded in the east by continous land and to the west by the Pacific Ocean -- but NOT including any contiguous seawater areas such as Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage.

2. When the anthropologist included the word, "fished," in some but not all of her descriptions of the areas the Suquamish historically had traveled by water throughout Puget Sound, the current judge inferred that she meant that the Suquamish did NOT fish in those areas where the word, "fished," did not appear in her report.

3. When the current judge found subsequent fishing regulations that excluded tribes from fishing on the east side of Whidby Island, he inferred that the Suquamish "appeared to follow those regulations," enough evidence for him also to infer that the tribe historically had never  fished there. 

These inferences were enough to cause the judge to resolve or clarify or amend or alter Judge Boldt's alleged ambiguity and to rule in favor of the Upper Skagit and Swinomish and against the Suquamish. He then invited the Suquamish to offer some better evidence to overcome the inferences found in his decision. The anthropologist's report, saying that the Puget Sound Tribes fished wherever they traveled was not the inference the current judge was looking for and he would not permit that anthropologist to testify in the current case to clarify or supplement her 1975 report on the grounds that such testimony would be "pure speculation" as to what Judge Boldt might have done with the same testimony.

So where is this Puget Sound that Judge Boldt defined in 1975 and repeated throughout his decisions over the following three years? According to the judge in the current case, Judge Boldt was ambiguous about the geographical dimensions of Puget Sound fishing areas even though he had described the Suquamish fishing grounds clearly, although broadly, as noted above. He did not confuse Puget Sound with some other body of water. What Judge Boldt did NOT specify was every bay, passage, harbor, strait, and inlet that was included in the specified saltwater area called Puget Sound.  One might ask why Judge Boldt would have needed to do this at all, especially since he followed the same description practice (found in the joint statement prepared and adopted by the  state's Department of Fisheries, Department of Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) when he defined the usual and  accustomed fishing areas of various Puget Sound tribes in 1975, including the Lummi, Puyallup, Swinomish, Nooksack, and Suquamish Tribes.

So where oh where is Puget Sound? I strongly suspect that today, if we were to talk with fishermen fishing in Skagit Bay, Saratoga Passage, the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, Rosari Straits, Hood Canal,  Admiralty Inlet, Crescent Harbor, Deception Pass, and other areas, and ask them if they were fishing in Puget Sound, they would agree. Because that's what Puget Sound is, just the way Judge Boldt described it over three decades ago.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:24 PM

Grammatical parables at the Pentagon

In yesterday's Pentagon Roundtable (transcript here), with SecDef Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, the first question that came up was about the Iranian role in supplying EFPs to Iraqi insurgents. Or rather, about apparent differences between an anonymous briefing in Baghdad on Sunday, which blamed the "highest levels" of the Iranian government, and what General Pace was quoted as saying in Jakarta on Tuesday, which was that this ""does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this."

Dr. Gates tried to clear things up with an allusion to scripture: he evoked Strunk and White.

And to the degree I had any involvement it was to say, I want factual statements; I don't want adjectives; I don't want adverbs; I want declarative sentences; and make it exactly clear what we know and what we don't know.

Dr. Gates' opposition to adjectives and adverbs is a reference to rule #4: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." Ironically, three of his next nine words are adjectives and adverbs: "I want declarative sentences; and make it exactly clear what we know ..." And the clause just after his demand for declarative sentences is itself in the imperative rather than the declarative mood.

Tony Snow's press briefing, which took place almost simultaneously at the White House, also relied on adjectives and adverbs from the start:

Q: Have you been able to reconstruct the transcript of the briefing in Baghdad on Sunday?
Mr. Snow: No, but I think the general purpose of the briefing in Baghdad was to outline Iranian activities in terms of supplying weaponry, or weaponry that had made its way from Iran into Iraq that had been used to kill coalition forces, among others.
One of the most prominent parts of the briefing were the EFPs, the explosively formed projectiles, which are a new form of IED. And so that's basically what was laid out at the briefing. I have not been able -- we're still working on trying to come up with some sort of rendering so that we can find out precisely what the briefer said.

And in the presidential news conference the day before, adjectives also appeared in W's first and third sentences addressing the same issue:

Q: Thank you, sir. General Pace says that these bombs found in Iraq do not, by themselves, implicate Iran. What makes you so certain that the highest levels of Tehran's government is responsible? [...] And how can you retaliate against Iran without risking a war?
The President: What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did.

I conjecture that Dr. Gates interpreted the Strunkish injunction as advice about attitude, not grammar. For him, "write with nouns and verbs" means "be strong and clear". "Not with adjectives and adverbs" means "avoid qualification and opinion". And never mind that strong and clear are adjectives, while qualification and opinion are nouns.

Is this a perversion of ancient doctrine by grammatical liberals? Well, as Geoff Pullum explained three years ago ("Those who take the adjectives from the table", 2/18/2004), the original commandment is

... moronic advice, and impossible to follow. ...in the very next sentence they use adjectives themselves, of course. (An indecisive disjunction of adjectives, in fact: "weak or inaccurate". Well which is it? Be clear, they would say to you if you wrote that.)

Thus on a literal or fundamentalist interpretation, Strunk and White were hypocrites, and their followers have all been fools.

In comparison, the liberal exegesis -- that this is just a morphological metaphor for communicative morality, and has never had anything to do with literal grammatical analysis -- is attractive. At least, it allows us to retain a better opinion of our fellow citizens. On this this view, the parts of speech are just characters in a parable, whose logic is dream logic. We shouldn't try to eliminate actual adjectives and adverbs from our sentences, any more than we should look for good Samaritans in Samaria. But meditating abstractly on Strunk's strictures will make us better writers, just as reading bible stories as fiction will make us better people.

A curious theory; but I suppose it's kinder than the hypocrites-and-fools interpretation.

To help you interpret Dr. Gates in context, here's my transcription of the Q & A in question:

Q: Mr. Secretary, you- as a career intelligence professional, how do you feel that the evidence against Iran was presented on Sunday,
and do you feel the way in which it was presented
has harmed the case you were trying to make?
Gates: uh
well all I can say in the latter case is I hope not.
um {cough} I felt- I think that it was-
as the chairman described, it was very important to present
the facts as we know them.
And- and to the degree
*I* had any uh involvement, it was to say,
I want factual statements;
I don't want adjectives;
I don't want adverbs;
I want declarative sentences;
and make it exactly [kir]- clear what we know and what we don't know.
And- and I think in the factual part of the briefing
that was achieved,
in terms of the evidence of-
of the weapons that are being brought into
uh Ir- uh into Iraq.

And audio of the central sentence:

Note that if Dr. Gates had followed his own instructions, he would have said:

I want statements;
I don't want adjectives;
I don't want adverbs;
I want sentences;
and make it what we know and what we don't know.

For your listening pleasure, the edited audio version:

An improvement? We report, you decide.

[This is not the only recent application of grammatical terminology in matters of national security. Less than two months ago, Tony Snow relied on morphosyntactic analysis to clarify the president's degree of lack of disagreement with Colin Powell about the situation in Iraq.]

[John Cowan offers an alternative theology -- White was Paul to Strunk's Jesus, and in any case, these are just the first steps on the gradus ad parnassum, sort of like the old-fashioned exercises in species counterpoint, in which compositional liberty is added one careful step at a time:

Strunk, at least, must be absolved from the charges of hypocrisy and folly, for he was not in any way responsible for the "Write with nouns and verbs" rule.

There is also a deeper point, which I express in my introduction to the Elements of Style Revised:

This book, therefore, is intended as a compendium of helpful advice to novice writers in freshman composition classes, not a code of general laws of writing for all works by all writers in all circumstances. Violations of the rules can be found within the book itself -- this is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical, as The Elements of Style Revised is not a paper written for a composition class.

I'd be more impressed with that argument if S&W were explicitly presented as a set of exercises for novices, as it easily might have been.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:33 AM

Headline wrangler arrested for violating the Direct Object Restriction

Headline tonight from AP: "Woman allegedly 'sprays' out of hospital."

That's terrible! I thought. But what's with that 'allegedly'? Spraying out of a hospital isn't a crime, surely!

But of course, she didn't spray out of the hospital. She sprayed her way out of the hospital. She actually pepper-sprayed her way out of the hospital. I can understand how that might be a crime.

See, thing is, in English you can describe motion events -- something going from point A to point B -- with almost any verb, even ones that don't in and of themselves refer to motion. But there's some peculiar constraints on doing so.

Verbs like 'walk', 'run', 'stroll', etc. are motion verbs in and of themselves. Their subject is the traveller; in John walked out of the hospital, John is the one going from point A to point B.

Now consider verbs like 'whistle', 'sing', 'rattle', 'wriggle', 'twitch', 'smirk', etc. The events denoted by these verbs by themselves don't imply travelling from anywhere to anywhere. With a sentence like Mary whistled, the crucial thing is for Mary to be doing some whistling. Her movement or lack therof is irrelevant.

However, even these verbs can describe motion events in English, with one crucial restriction. When you add the destination location to the sentence (to the house, out, there, whatever), thereby making it a motion event, you have to add some kind of direct object as well. It's not usually a real direct object, more a kind of an ersatz one, involving some pronominal element that refers back to the subject:

1. Mary whistled her way down the lane.
2. John smirked his way out of the room.
3. Bill sang himself to Carnegie Hall

So, what about 'spray'? Spray is a motion verb. You can use it to describe motion from point A to point B, as long as that motion happens in a characteristic spraying manner -- i.e. moving as droplets or particles propelled outward in a spreading fashion. So, e.g., the sentence below is fine:

4. The oil sprayed out of the hose.

That is, the motion itself has to be occurring in a spraying kind of way, when there's no direct object. The same fact obtains with the non-motion verbs above -- the direct object isn't required if the motion itself is occurring in the relevant way. So, famously, The bullet whistled through the window is ok without an object, because it's the bullet's motion itself that is making the whistling noise.

But 'spray' can also occur in a causative construction, where the subject of the verb is not actually spraying per se, but is rather the cause of spraying in others, as in (5) below. The crucial requirement for this sentence to be true is that the subject be the cause of some spraying -- nothing to do with whether they're moving or not moving.

5. Sue sprayed paint on the wall.

What about our headline? In the situation described by the news story, the woman emerged from the hospital in the normal human fashion. At least, she was corporeal enough to subsequently 'flee' the scene. Thus, her motion probably occurred in a normal human fashion, like walking or running or strolling or swaggering or similar. The motion itself didn't occur in a spraying fashion. Rather, the woman was the cause of spraying, which doesn't necessarily involve any motion.

So, the situation is one in which the woman is doing some (non-motion-entailing) spraying, and simultaneously moving out of the hospital. Her motion is itself not accomplished in a spraying manner. This is precisely the situation in which an ersatz direct object, like her way is required. He sprayed out of the wood chipper, yes. (Thank you, Coens!) She sprayed out of the hospital, hopefully, no.

There you go: The headline writer has wantonly violated the Direct Object Restriction on the English manner-of-motion construction. How rude.1

1The Direct Object Restriction observation is due to work by Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav, who know all that there is to know about what kinds of tricks can be played with English verbs. Update! Beth writes to remind me that ACTUALLY this generalization was first formulated by Jane Simpson, in her 1983 paper 'Resultatives' published in L. Levin, M. Rappaport, and A. Zaenan (eds), Papers in Lexical Functional Grammar. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club, 143-157. Many apologies, Jane! Beth and Malka did name it the DOR, though. Ray Jackendoff is still the go-to guy for the way-construction. They're all probably too busy to take calls about it, though, so comment here if you like.

Posted by Heidi Harley at 12:06 AM

February 15, 2007

In (the) future

Included in an example sentence on the midterm I set this week for my class was a (non-crucial) use of the phrase in future. My teaching assistants queried this. It didn't look right to them: singular count nouns are not generally found heading anarthrous NPs, and future seems to be a count noun: We can talk of alternative futures, and we say The future looks rosy, not *Future looks rosy, because it is obligatory to have a determiner (such as the definite article). And a phrase like in the distance (meaning "visible far away") cannot lose its definite article: *in distance is not an alternative form of it. You can't say *in past, either. So was my use of in future (my TAs ventured this suggestion very nervously) an error that I had made, perhaps?

The answer seems to be that it's a (statistical) dialect difference. In future is familiar as an adjunct in British English, and simply means "in the future". But a quick check of the 44,000,000 words of the Wall Street Journal corpus revealed only 3 occurrences of "in future" followed by a comma or period but over 1,100 of "in the future" in that context. That's three orders of magnitude difference in raw hits [earlier I said just two; that was a braino]. It looks like Americans just don't us in future the way British speakers do. I didn't know that. Every day I live, I learn a little.

This is the hardest kind of thing to learn: a phrase that's familiar to me from my upbringing in Britain but not quite grammatical for American speakers around me is invisible to me (since in the future is also perfectly grammatical in British). To learn that something does not sound right to most Americans, though they sort of understand it, demands what acquisition specialists call negative evidence: I need an occasion when someone is moved to actually correct my usage. That doesn't happen much to professors of linguistics. But it's what the proofreading of the midterm happened to provide. Otherwise I might never have known.

Of the three Wall Street Journal occurrences, one looks to me like a typo:

"I don't know when the lines cross, but it's not too far in future." [/wsj/w9_11]

That is not grammatical even in British English (it would need "the"). So we actually have just two uses of in future followed by a punctuation mark in the corpus, namely these:

But this windfall is a sure sign that capital-gains receipts will be lower in future. [w7_123]

"I think it's a good idea because, in future, I may be able to buy and sell stocks," a warehouse supervisor told them. [w9_12]

The fact that they are there (and the contexts suggest that they both reflect usage by Americans) tells us that (as usual) this is not a matter of in future being totally ungrammatical in American English; it's just extremely rare compared to in the future. And in British English, I conjecture (but have not yet verified), that frequency difference does not obtain.

Update: Steve Jones estimates that the British National Corpus has about 1200 hits for in future as an adjunct and 2560 for in the future: much closer to being equitable. But in addition, he and a whole lot of other people have pointed out a subtle meaning difference that I hadn't noticed: in future in British English means "from now on", while in the future means "at some future point in time (perhaps very remote)". So, for example, under the normal reading, Human beings will live on the moon in future (in British English) is false: there are no humans living on the moon today, and it will be the same tomorrow and every day for many years to come. But Human beings will live on the moon in the future might well be true.

And to cite another example, In future I'll do the cooking commits me to cooking our meals from now on, whereas In the future I'll do the cooking says only that some day I'll take over.

Notice, this means what I said above about the synonymy of the two phrases is wrong. It's an empirical business, this study of language. We linguists can be wrong about things, and evidence can be used to show it when we are.

Thanks to the many people who wrote to me saying this or related things: Derry Earnshaw, Bryan Erickson, Jeremy Fitzhardinge, Melissa K. Fox, Ray Girvan, Peter Hendriks, Daniel Ezra Johnson, Stephen Jones, Jonathan Lundell, Mark Paris, Paul Quirk, Mark J. Reed, Lanja Samsdottir, Jeffrey Shallit, plus anyone else who wrote after midnight on February 15th.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 04:30 PM

Astronaut drives 900 miles wearing...

When NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested on Feb. 5 and charged with the attempted murder of her romantic rival, we were treated to nonstop media coverage of the bizarre story. Perhaps the bizarrest detail of all was that, according to the arrest affidavit, Nowak admitted to wearing a diaper on the 900-mile drive from Houston to Orlando so that she wouldn't have to stop along the way. In the wake of this mediathon, an interesting morphological question occurred to Jan Freeman. Sometimes Nowak was described as "wearing a diaper" on her journey, and other times as "wearing diapers." A current search on Google News suggests that "wearing diapers" outnumbers "wearing a diaper" about 3-to-1 in coverage of the Nowak story. But presumably Nowak wore just a single diaper during the trip (or else what would be the point, really?). So what's up with the prevalence of plural diapers for a single item?

The first thing to note is how limited the contexts are in which diapers can refer to a single garment:

She was wearing diapers.
She was in diapers.
She had diapers on.
She put on/took off her diapers.
She dirtied her diapers.

Clearly, the only frames that work are ones where the diaper is being worn by someone — a baby, an astronaut, whoever. Note too that in all of these examples, the morphologically singular "(a) diaper" would also fit, so the plurally marked form is not obligatory. The same also holds for the equivalent British English term: singular nappy and plural nappies are both available for use in these contexts. Well-known diaper brand names also seem to follow this pattern: Pampers, Huggies, and Depends (for adult incontinence — Nowak's brand of choice?) all can take the ostensibly plural -s form even when referring to a single worn diaper. (Pampers and Huggies are already branded in the plural, while the Depend brand name is more often heard with an -s in frames like those above.)

Viewed historically, diaper and nappy were originally construed as singular, but plurally marked diapers and nappies in singular contexts became more frequent by the mid-20th century. An example from 1960 appears in the OED draft entry for mess, taken from A.S. Neill's Summerhill (a popular account of Neill's pioneering Summerhill School). The quote voices a boy's thoughts about his younger brother: "If I am like him and mess my trousers the way he dirties his diapers, Mommy will love me again." (That's from the U.S. edition — the U.K. edition, reprinted here, has nappies instead of diapers.) The parallel structure here is telling: "mess my trousers" vs. "dirties his diapers/nappies." The plurally marked diapers and nappies appear to be influenced by pants and trousers — words that almost always appear in the plural, or pluralia tantum as they're technically known.

Let's take a look at other pluralia tantum in the pants/trousers family:

Outergarments: pants (orig. pantaloons), trousers, slacks, breeches/britches, bloomers, jeans, dungarees, bell bottoms, chinos, tights, shorts, trunks, Bermudas (extended to brand names: Levis, 501s, Wranglers, Calvins)
Undergarments: underpants, long johns, skivvies, drawers, panties, knickers, boxers, briefs, undies, tighty-whities (extended to brand names: BVDs, Fruit of the Looms, Jockeys)

The common theme is that all of these garments have two holes, one for each leg. For that reason, some have argued that the forms are best understood as duals rather than plurals, since the -s indicates duality or "twoness." (Other items exhibiting twoness include: suspenders, scissors, shears, pliers, tongs, forceps, binoculars, bellows, scales.) Thus, when diapers are worn (by babies or astronauts), they easily join the dual pants family, since they have two leg-holes. Considered as an individual piece of cloth, however, diaper remains resolutely singular (as in "Hand me that diaper"), since a diaper in its unworn state has no leg-holes and thus lacks duality.

Further evidence that diapers has taken steps towards the dual pants family can be found in constructions where duality is explicitly marked, as in "a pair of Xs." Here are a few Nowak-related examples:

It just doesn't seem Right Stuff macho to imagine John Glenn or Chuck Yeager in a pair of diapers. (Providence Journal, 2/12/07)

Nowak squeezed 900 miles out of a pair of diapers, exceeding the previous record of 220 miles or "I forgot the little man was still in the back seat." (Bakersfield Californian, 2/8/07)

Manhunting rocket jockey Lisa Marie Nowak may have destroyed her reputation, her ties to NASA, and at least one good pair of diapers, but a quick-acting true crime scribe is already banking on a book deal about Nowak's stellar breakdown. (Radar, 2/8/07)

Like all of us, I continue to shake my head and wonder how a world-class astronaut could don a pair of diapers and bring a steel mallet with her during her trip from Houston to Orlando to confront her romantic rival. (Mike Gallagher, 2/7/07)

Even though diapers and nappies have gone a long way to joining the pants family, they remain something of a special case since they'll never be pluralia tantum. When it's not worn, a diaper is just a diaper: a piece of fabric with no leg-holes. Only when it's worn and transformed into something "pants-like" can all of those -s forms exert their analogical influence, leading to a preference for diapers over diaper. But it remains only a preference, since even when worn a diaper can still be construed singularly. Pants, trousers, and all the rest have much more restrictive possibilities for morphologically singular use (such as in attributive usage like pant/trouser leg, or in specialized registers of the fashion world that allow constructions like "That's a nice pant").

The analogical pressure that makes plurally marked diapers and nappies acceptable in a singular context appears to work in the opposite direction when it comes to popular brand names like Pampers and Huggies. As noted above, these brand names started off as plural, but in common usage they have developed s-less forms on the analogy of diaper. Examples from the Web:

I've never had a Pamper leak poo or pee, and they look oh so comfortable to boot. (link)

I got called on my cell phone last night so I could rush home to change a Pamper. (link)

While you're in there, I need a Huggie for Betsy. (link)

Brian fakes that he has no idea what a Huggie is, and Mike and Debbie remind him, in unison, that it's a diaper. (link)

So the brand names lose their -s to fit situations where they're considered individual pieces of fabric rather than pants-like garments. But both the brand names and the generic terms continue to show a strong family resemblance: a single item can be morphologically specified as either singular or plural, depending on the context of use.

I've tried explaining all this to my six-month-old son Blake while I'm changing his diaper(s), but so far he's more interested in figuring out how to cram both hands in his mouth.

[Update, 2/16: Diaper-related email has been arriving thick and fast. (Hmm, maybe that's not the best idiom to use when talking about diapers.) First, Bryan Erickson points out an element of the Nowak story that I had missed and also speculates about NASA-specific diapers:

Complicating the entertaining plurale tantum analysis, the police report noted that the cops found a garbage bag in her car containing *two* soiled diapers - so she did change her nappy/nappies at least twice (since she had also changed out of the second one) in the course of the twelve-hour trip and subsequent four hours or so before being apprehended. (She also must have stopped to fill up the tank at least a couple times in 900 miles, and she had time to check in to a hotel and take a bus from there to the airport, so it seems like bathroom breaks were hardly a limiting factor on her timing - the diapers seem to have been more of a familiar convenience than a desperate measure.)
That limits the probative value of Nowak coverage in evincing a continuing shift to plurale tantum status for diapers.
Further complicating the picture, NASA has long had its own name for this - I assume the ones she wore were NASA issue, not a commercial brand - it calls it a "Maximum Absorbency Garment", or MAG - in the singular - maybe demonstrating NASA's role as a conservative institution perpetuating the now more old-fashioned singular conception of a diaper.
Which makes me wonder, what do the astronauts actually call them in daily speech - do they combine the larger trend with the bureaucratese acronym and use a plurale tantumization of MAG, "maggies"? Some vital linguistic research remains to be done on this case.

Next we have a couple of informative emails from foreign correspondents, explaining some subtle usage differences between diapers and nappies. From Matthew Hurst:

In your recent language log article about the astro diapers you state that one can say 'she had nappies on', 'she was in nappies', etc. I don't believe this is correct (as a native brit). One can say 'she was in nappies' in the sense that during that period of her life she was in nappies, but one can't say that with the sense that at that point in time she was wearing the thing.
A clearer example might be 'is she still in diapers?' 'is she still wearing nappies?' - these are both ok but, 'is she wearing (a pair of) diapers (right now)?' cannot be replaced with 'is she wearing (..) nappies (..)?'

And from Down Under, here's Lara Hopkins:

Regarding the plural "a pair of nappies", I just wanted to let you know that this doesn't work in AusEng. In four years of nappy chat and advocacy group work, I've never once heard this expression used. A baby may be in a state of being "in nappies" in general - i.e. not toilet trained - but I've never heard of a baby being referred to as wearing "a pair of nappies".

Paul Wilkins questions my reading of the Summerhill quote:

The sentence you printed about the trousers/diapers parallel doesn't ring to me the same as it did to you. I'm sure by now you can figure that the boy's brother soils a number of diapers, and the trousers could be either the ones he's wearing just then or all of them. I don't suppose it matters much, because that ambiguity is built in, although we will probably read it as the trousers he currently has on, if we're even talking about real trousers.

Aaron Dinkin shares some thoughts about pluralia tantum:

A couple of the examples of pluralia tantum (or "dualia tantum"?) that you list in your latest Language Log post have the interesting property of not being etymologically plural at all, but having been reanalyzed as plural, perhaps by analogy with other words in the same semantic class.
"Levi's" is originally a possessive, as the spelling indicates - "Levi's blue jeans". And of course "forceps" is singular in Latin (like "biceps"), but it's treated as a dual like "tongs".

Next, several readers (including Jan Freeman and Brett Reynolds) write in to point out distinctions between cloth diapers and disposable diapers, and between infant diapers and "pullup" diapers for older children and adults. "Eric" (last name unknown) admirably extends the analysis into "diaper cover" and "pullup" territory:

I'd guess that there is more going on with diaper/diapers than the [two leg holes] --> [dual form] implication. I'm not sure *what* is going on, but that's what we pay you professionals for.
As you have a six-month-old, you know that (cloth) diapers are simply a rectangle of cloth. But it's worth noting that some diaper *covers* (for use outside the diapers) are permanently formed with leg holes, and these do *not* behave like pants, at least for me:

She needs a diaper cover.
She needs diapers.
*She needs diaper covers -- unless you are packing for a trip, and she needs many.
More saliently, for me, our 2-1/2-year-old is currently alternating between disposable diapers and disposable pullups. These latter are identical to diapers, except that where diapers have sticky tabs, they are permanently fastened -- so they can be pulled up, like underwear.
She's wearing diapers.
She's wearing a pullup.
She's wearing pullups -- indicates habitual wearing, not a single instance.
I've overthought so can no longer trust my intuitions, but I think that pullups, although more like pants, are only questionably pluralia tantum.

I too feel that I've overthought the diaper issue, so I'm going to stick to changing them rather than analyzing them for a while.]

[Update #2: Discussion continues over at Languagehat. Linguabloggers at Function Words and Language News also chime in.]

[Final update: I tie up some loose ends in this post.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:55 PM

Is French the safest language for legal purposes?

Beth Milton wrote to remind us all of the recent efforts by the Committee for the Language of European Law -- or rather, we should say, le Comité Pour la Langue du Droit Européen (CPLDE) -- to make French the official legal language of Europe. There's a good description at EurActiv.com: "Group pushes to bolster French-language legal supremacy", 2/12/2007. (This article is also available as "Une campagne pour défendre la suprématie du français sur le plan juridique" and "Initiative zur Förderung von Französisch als erste Amtssprache"). Other stories on the same topic: "Campaign to make French sole legal language in EU", IHT, 2/7/2007; "Francophiles seek primacy for language of Montesquieu", EU Observer, 2/8/2007; David Charter, "French wheel out Napoleon to lay down the law", Times Online, 2/9/2007.

My favorite part of the EurActiv story:

CPLDE leader Maurice Druon, well-known author and Academie Française secretary said: "All languages are equal and all the national sensitivities are duly protected. However, as regards the interpretation of texts it is better to be certain what we are writing. The Italian language is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry. French is best at precision, it has a rigour to it. It is the safest language for legal purposes...The language of Montesquieu is unbeatable."

Or, in the language of Montesquieu himself:

Selon le président du CPLDE, Maurice Druon, auteur renommé et secrétaire de l'Académie Française: "Toutes les langues sont égales et toutes les sensibilités nationales sont dûment protégées. Cependant, en ce qui concerne l'intérprétation des textes, il vaut mieux être certain de ce que l'on écrit. L'italien est la langue des chansons, l'allemand est bon pour la philosophie et l'anglais pour la poésie. Le français est une langue plus précise et rigoureuse. C'est la langue la plus sûre pour les questions juridiques... la langue de Montesquieu est imbattable".

Though I'm hesitant to question one of the forty immortals, I believe that M. Druon has remembered the joke incorrectly. At least, the version that I've heard is different:

In Heaven, the cooks are French, the policemen are English, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and it's all organized by the Swiss. But in Hell, the cooks are English, the policemen are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it's all organized by the Italians.

I haven't heard a variant that mentions lawyers and judges, but I suppose that the category of "policemen" might be extended to cover the legal system as a whole. Or perhaps we ought to assign law to the general governance function that's stereotypically handled by the Swiss in heaven and the Italians in Hell.

The CPLDE is mostly backwash from French internal politics, I think -- but let's treat it temporarily as if it were an intellectually serious endeavor. Or rather, I should say, "treat it permanently as if it were serious", by which I should be understood to mean "treat it seriously until I stop doing so".

This emendation is suggested by the last line of Maurice Druon's biography at the French Academy's web site:

Élu secrétaire perpétuel le 7 novembre 1985. Démissionne de cette fonction en octobre 1999. Secrétaire perpétuel honoraire à partir du 1er janvier 2000.

Elected perpetual secretary on 7 November, 1985. Resigns from this post in October 1999. Honorary perpetual secretary since the 1 st of January, 2000.

The Academy's page about "the immortals" explains that

La qualité d’académicien est une dignité inamovible. Nul ne peut démissionner de l’Académie française. Des exclusions peuvent être prononcées par la Compagnie pour de graves motifs entachant l’honneur ; ces exclusions au cours de l’histoire ont été rarissimes.

The position of academician is a never-changing honor. No one can resign from the French Academy. Expulsions can be announced by the Company for serious reasons of sullied honor; these expulsions in the course of history have been extremely rare.

We have here, I think, a truly impressive demonstration of the precise and rigorous nature of the French language. Because the position of academician is in fact perpetual, it it would be inappropriately redundant and even insulting to call it that. Académicien perpétuel? As drone man might say, is there any other kind of academician? You tell me right now! On the other hand, the essentially temporary nature of the post of secretary makes the designation secrétaire perpétuel relevant and even necessary. Similarly, because of the temporary character of my seriousness about the question of French as the best language for the law, we should describe it as permanent.

I hope that's clear.

In any case , in the interests of a serious discussion of the suitability of various European languages for legal discourse, I suggest that we ought to arrange a debate between M. Druon of the CPLDE and Jean-Claude Sergeant, professeur de civilisation britannique at the University of Paris III, who wrote not long ago in the Courrier International:

Dans sa configuration actuelle, l'anglais courant se caractérise d'abord par un extrême souci de cohérence et d'explicitation proche de la redondance.

In its present configuration, everyday English is characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy.

Perhaps this is also what makes it best for poetry, and inappropriate for the law, from a French point of view.

At some point, I'll see if I can find a serious comparison of legal French and legal English. We'd start with the observation that legal English is full of terms borrowed from Norman French, though this was the result of military conquest rather than arguments about superior rigor and precision.

Meanwhile, here is a sample of previous Language Log posts about the politics of the French language:

Clarity and respect (1/5/2005)
France officially adopts the German pronunciation of "blog" (6/3/2005)
She's working from her coffeepot (7/15/2005)
Roll over Bourbaki, and tell Cholesky the news (7/19/2005)
If we look, simply, to the French (7/29/2005)
Paradoxes of the imagination (9/29/2005)
The miserable French language and its inadequacies (9/30/2005)
The truth about French (9/30/2005)
Another overearnest comedy of fact checking (10/1/2005)
Warmth and the French language (10/3/2005)
The discreet charm of French orthography (5/7/2006)
Dietetic phonetics, exposed! (10/15/2006)
French report: It's lucky Copernicus had grammar (12/18/2006)
Cultural specificity and universal values (12/22/2006)

[Updates --

Geoff Nunberg adds to the lore of national stereotyping in the afterlife: "And in hell, one version continues, every summer the American tourists come." But since the fall of the dollar against the euro, not so much.

Steve Treuer draws our attention to the related quotation, attributed to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles I of Spain): "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Or (since at the time he was presumably speaking to a man), "Je parle espagnol a Dieu, italien aux femmes, francais aux hommes at allemand a mon cheval." There's a thread with many other versions in the Humanist archives from 1991. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:34 AM

Old habits die hard

You may recall that just a couple of weeks ago President Bush was congratulating the "Democrat majority" in his State of the Union address — deviating from the text on the teleprompter, which had "Democratic majority." This elicited a great deal of commentary about how the use of Democrat as an adjectival or attributive modifier is a long-standing slur in Republican circles. (Roger Shuy and Mark Liberman blogged about it in this space, as did the mysterious Mr. Verb here and here.) When Juan Williams confronted Bush about this usage in an NPR interview, the President responded by claiming ignorance (something he's quite good at doing):

Yeah. Well, that was an oversight then. I mean, I'm not trying to needle. ... I didn't even know I did it. ... So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just – gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan.

By disingenuously laying the blame on Texan dialectal speech or his own clumsy idiolect, Bush conveniently ignored the long history of this usage of Democrat as a partisan jab. A few days later, Bush again attempted to defuse the issue by opening his speech at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference with a joke about his own disfluency:

The last time I looked at some of your faces, I was at the State of the Union, and I saw kind of a strange expression when I referred to something as the Democrat Party. Now, look, my diction isn't all that good. I have been accused of occasionally mangling the English language. And so I appreciate you inviting the head of the Republic Party.

So now that the President is fully aware of his "oversight," how did he do in his Valentine's Day press conference? Bush showed just how penitent he is by using Democrat as a modifier not once, not twice, but three times.

Ironically enough, in all three cases he was making appeals to bipartisanship:

And I'd like to work with the Democrat leadership, as well as, obviously, my Republican folks, to get it done.

I got a letter the other day from a group of Republican and Democrat senators talking about the desire to work on health care.

And, therefore, I will argue vociferously the No Child Left Behind Act needs to be reauthorized, it's working, it's an important piece of legislation, and will reach out to Democrat members, as well as Republican members, to get this bill reauthorized.

Two possibilities spring to mind here. First, Bush might really be unaware that he's continuing to twist this particular discursive dagger, even with all the fuss over his State of the Union usage (which he himself acknowledged publicly on two occasions). It could be a verbal habit that he just can't shake. The second possibility is that his advisers have told him to continue using Democrat as a modifier whenever possible, perhaps as a dog whistle to members of the conservative base who might be wary about all of this bipartisan talk. The continued usage could bear the fingerprints of Karl Rove, who demonstrated in a recent interview with The Politico that the modifying use of Democrat is just fine with him:

I have, sitting on my desk, a letter to me from a Democrat member asking me to look into a specific issue.

Even if there's nothing particularly nefarious about Bush's inability (or unwillingness) to drop Democrat as a modifier, it's indicative of how deeply engrained this usage is in Republican political discourse. Apparently Bush doesn't see the point in consciously choosing to use Democratic rather than Democrat, even if it would constitute just the kind of bipartisan outreach he professes to desire. Will a reporter call him out on it this time? If so, prepare to hear the old ineptitude defense yet again.

[Mark Liberman notes that Bush did manage to use Democratic as a modifier once:

I was also very grateful for the reception I received at the Democratic retreat that I went to there in Virginia.

Mark writes, "So you could say that he was either 75% insulting, or 25% competent."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:02 AM

February 14, 2007

My prescriptive valentine

My love for you is a love which that will never die.

There is but one woman in my life, and you are she.

When somebody loves you, it's it is no good unless they love he or she loves you all the way.

You are the mate that for whom fate had me created for.

No matter what you do, I only want
I want only to
I want to only be
I want to be only with
I want to be with only you.

Love to all Language Log readers. And remember, when a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 07:18 PM

"Barack" mailbag

My post about the fake controversy surrounding Barack Obama's first name has brought in some thought-provoking email.

Some readers have wondered about other possible cognate forms related to Arabic/Swahili barak(a) besides Hebrew baruch 'blessed.' Joshua Barach (whose surname surely reveals a vested interest) writes:

I do think people will make more out of his name but I often wonder why the pronunciation 'barak' that we grew to understood meant 'lightning,' as in Ehud Barak or Barak Brigade (an Israeli army group). Since I'm not familiar with Hebrew I wouldn't know but those names can mean different things depending on how they are used, as we know. I wonder what else it could mean?

Despite the spelling, Hebrew barak 'lightning' is actually derived from a different Semitic triliteral root: B-R-Q instead of B-R-K. There are cognates in Arabic too: baraqa 'to flash, shine,' barq 'lightning,' burāq 'creature that carried the Prophet Muhammad to the seven heavens.' Things get a little confusing in modern Israeli Hebrew because proto-Semitic /*k/ (a velar stop) and /*q/ (a uvular or pharyngealized stop) are both realized as [k] — as opposed to modern Arabic, which maintains a velar-uvular distinction. The Hebrew spelling (if not the English transliteration) still reveals the historical root because of the orthographic difference between kaf (כ) and quf (ק). Thus Ehud Barak's last name is spelled with a quf (בָּרָק). (Interestingly, Barak didn't always have a name evoking lightning; he was born Ehud Brog and switched to "Barak" when he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.)

And just to confuse matters even further, proto-Semitic /*k/ developed another allophone in Hebrew besides [k]: the velar or uvular fricative [x]. So while the [k] allophone of /*k/ merged with /*q/ into modern Hebrew /k/, the [x] allophone merged with the pharyngeal fricative /*ħ/ into modern Hebrew /x/. This is represented by the letter khaf (ך), which explains how Hebrew baruch (בָּרוּךְ) derives from the Semitic root B-R-K shared by Arabic baraka (برك).

Meanwhile, Shefaly Yogendra wonders about a similar word in Urdu:

I am no linguist but as a person whose mother tongue is rooted in Sanskrit and who grew up with Hindi and Urdu, I recall a word 'barakat' which roughly means 'prosperity'. Does it share the same roots with Arabic 'barak'?

Yes, indeed. The entry for barakat/barkat in John T. Platts' A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English (1884) explains that it entered by way of Persian, true of many Arabic loanwords in Urdu. Similar forms can be found in many languages in the Muslim world besides Swahili, Persian, and Urdu. For instance, in Malay/Indonesian the word for 'blessing' is berkat. If you're wondering where the "t" came from at the end of Persian/Urdu barakat and Malay berkat, that's because the Arabic noun baraka(t) (بركة) 'blessing' has a feminine ending (ﺓ) called a tā' marbūta, which gets pronounced as [t] in many contexts.

Shefaly poses another fine question:

Also is there an associated pronunciation for the name which may be right? Many US and UK newscasters are regularly calling him 'Barrack' as in a soldier's temporary shelter and not 'Baraak' which I think may be the right way to say it. Does his use of a 'C' before 'K' contribute to this confusion?

The BBC Pronunciation Unit recently offered this advice for pronouncing "Barack":

His name should be pronounced buh-RAAK oh-BAA-muh. When he first came to prominence, there was some disagreement about his first name, which was also sometimes pronounced buh-RACK or even BARR-uhk, but our recommendation is based on the pronunciation he uses himself - he can be heard saying his own first name here.

I agree with Shefaly that the spelling of "Barack" with a "c" might encourage many English speakers to think that the pronunciation is like barrack ([ˈbærək]) rather than how Obama himself pronounces it with stress on the second syllable ([bəˈrɑːk]). But I think such an unfamiliar name is bound to engender differing pronunciations. The barrack pronunciation isn't too surprising, given the tendency of some English speakers towards first-syllable stress in pronouncing disyllabic foreign names — recall that George H.W. Bush memorably called Saddam Hussein "SADem" ([ˈsædəm]).

When I was verifying Obama's pronunciation of his first name, I came across an article in the Chicago Sun-Times from last September about the senator's visit to a Darfur refugee camp in Chad:

"Salaam alaikum," Obama told a crowd, using a traditional Arab greeting.
"My name is Barack Obama," saying it with a bit more emphasis on the B, which is how some Kenyans, including his sister, pronounced his name when he visited there last week.

The "emphasis on the B" discerned by the reporter is most likely an attempt to describe the Swahili voiced bilabial stop, which is an implosive [ɓ]. That means that as the consonant is released, air is sucked into the mouth rather than expelled as with English [b]. You can hear it in the pronunciation of baba in the sound file given on the Swahili pronunciation page of the Kamusi Project. Obama must have become familiar with the implosive pronunciation of [ɓ] from Kenyan family members on his father's side (such as his half-sister Auma, who happens to be a linguist) and deployed it to good effect on his Africa trip.

Finally, some readers picked up on Jim Geraghty's silly claim that Obama can "speak a little Hebrew" simply because Arabic/Swahili barak(a) is cognate with Hebrew baruch. Barbara Zimmer was reminded of a story about Colin Powell learning Yiddish as a child from a Jewish man who hired him to help out in a neighborhood store. The blogger "former_pirate" also recalled this story and linked to an analysis on the urban-legend repository Snopes.com. Turns out Powell did learn a bit of Yiddish from working at Sickser's baby equipment store in the Bronx, but not enough to converse (the urban legend has him speaking Yiddish fluently when visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir). I wonder what linguistic urban legends will be spread about Obama. Perhaps that he's fluent in Irish Gaelic, because his name is really O'Bama?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:29 PM

Memory in the courtroom

The ability to remember things seems to be a big thing in the current Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury trial, where alleged forgetting of who said what to whom and when it was said looms large. Some witnesses can't seem to even remember what they meant in their own notes. Let's return to Steven Suyat's perjury case just one more time  (I  promise, this will be the last installment) to see how memory was treated there. In the first episode, if you remember, I discussed the prosecutor's four questions about "organizing contractors" (see here). The second installment described the prosecutor's two trick questions about the meaning of  "scab" (here). Now I turn to the seventh and last count against Suyat, in which he was charged with being inconsistent in his answers in his previous testimony during the trial of his two fellow union business agents. The topic was a past conversation between Mr. Torres and Mr. Kupau, the head of the union. Here's what the prosecutor used as that evidence:

Prosecutor: Do you recall him ever having any conversation with Ralph Torres?
Suyat: Yes.
Prosecutor: Do you recall when those were?
Suyat: No.
Prosecutor: Do you recall what he said to Ralph Torres?
Suyat: No.
Prosecutor: Do you recall what Ralph Torres said to him?
Suyat: No.

It seems pretty clear that Suyat had some memory of the conversation between Kupau and Torres but he can't recall when this happened or what they said to each other. But three hours later, when it came time for the defense attorney to cross-examine Suyat, the following exchange took place:

Defense attorney: Do you recall what Mr. Torres said in response to this?

Suyat: I believe Mr. Torres, I think, told him that he received a letter from Honolulu and everything is respond back (sic) to the Honolulu office, to Mr. Kupau.

It looks like the prosecutor could be right. There is certainly some inconsistency here. But does it amount to perjury? Could Suyat's memory have been stimulated during this three-hour  period? And what are we to make of Suyat's "I believe" and "I think" here? Was Suyat more comfortable venturing what he thought had happened to the friendly defense attorney rather than facing the risk of being tentative, incomplete, or inaccurate to the  oppositional prosecutor?

It seems that when we fear the consequences of being inaccurate, even slightly inaccurate, we prefer to say "I don't know" or "I don't recall." It's often safer to say this than to offer fuzzy memories or sheer  speculation. But was Suyat equally careful and consistent in his answers to the prosecutor's other questions? Here's where looking at the entire testimony is important. Throughout his testimony, Suyat did the following:

requested clarification 25 times

qualified his answers with "I think" or "I believe" 32 times

added specifics to the prosecutor's questions 7 times

corrected the prosecutor's overgeneralization one time.

In the same way that he struggled with "organizing contractors" and defining "scab," Suyat apparently was trying hard to answer questions as accurately as he knew how. Perhaps a clue to his alleged inconsistency in Count 7 may have come from the verbs used by his questioners. In his direct examination, the prosecutor consistently asked Suyat to "recall," whereas the defense attorney's cross-examination questions consistently used the verb, "remember."  It's at least possible that Suyat inferred that "recall" requires a precision of memory that he didn't, or couldn't, manage, while "remember" allowed him to give qualified responses ("I believe" and  "I think"). We don't get much help for this distinction from common dictionary definitions of the two verbs but there may be at least some support in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's synonym section:

REMEMBER implies a keeping in mind that may be effortless or unwilled...RECALL suggests an effort to bring back to mind and often to re-create in speech

In trials, opponents often don't understand each other's uses of word meanings. Suyat's testimony was no exception. For example, the prosecutor had used "accurate" to mean "true" while Suyat's responses showed that he understood it to mean "specific" or "complete." And the prosecutor had used "approve" to mean "knowing about or agreeing with" while Suyat's answer showed thaat he understood it as "officially endorse" and "counter sign." There were other disagreements about word meanings as well. "Recall" and "remember" may have been still another case of trains passing in the semantic night.

Trials have serious problems when words are understood differently by the participants and it's common for such misunderstandings to be converted into points against defendants. As a  result, it's non unheard of for witnesses to sound inconsistent, or even to be inconsistent. At least part of the problem stems from the fact that trials are conducted in a language register that's unfamiliar  to defendants and witnesses. And trials are conducted under a strict set of conversational rules that are well-known to attorneys and judges but can turn out to be a confusing mire of potential tricks for even that mythical reasonable person that many of  our laws talk about.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 10:03 AM

Choice and meaning

Choosing a Valentine card can be hard, as Cathy has been reminding us lately:

Advice on this subject is easier to give than to take:

But in fact, you don't need to be in a store any more, and you don't need drawing skills or good handwriting. A few minutes with an interactive graphics program and a bit of internet search, and you could create a nice-looking card expressing any sentiment you like. For example, you could start with this one from xkcd:


Somehow, that doesn't make it any easier. This is one of those cases, like casual conversation, where it might really be true that constraint is liberating:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:57 AM

No FLoP from Foggo

Over at Talking Points Memo, they've posted a copy of the Wilkes and Foggo indictment. If you've lost track of current Republican scandals, this is a subplot in the Duke Cunningham saga -- Brent Wilkes, a businessman, is accused of bribing Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, once executive director of the CIA, to steer contracts to ADCS Inc. One quoted email fragment, cited in Paul Kiel's summary of the indictment, caught my eye. Here's how it looks in the indictment itself:

The linguistic hook? Let's pass over the misspelling "breath" for "breathe". And never mind the infinitive that's split so wide as to give even Arnold Zwicky pause: "...to as long as I breathe be...". That's not what caught my eye. What I noticed was the apparently ungrammatical coordinate structure. Further analysis, however, led me to the conclusion that Foggo is innocent.

Innocent of ungrammaticality, that is. Foggo's hyphen placement creates the appearance of what Neal Whitman has called a "Friends in Low Places" (FLoP) coordination. But in this case, appearance is not reality.

Here's the analysis.

Let's start with a simple example adapted from one of Neal's posts on the subject -- a normal disjunction of adjectives that share a complement:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions.

You could expand this to the more redundant form:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling to perform the necessary actions or unable to perform the necessary actions.

But now consider the way Neal heard a flight attendent say it:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.

The same expansion produces a nonsensical result:

... if you are unwilling to perform the necessary actions without injury or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.

The "without injury" part is meant only to apply to the second disjunct, not to both of them.

Neal named this "FLoP coordination" because he first noticed it in the lyrics to Garth Brooks' song "Friends in Low Places":

I've got friends in low places,
where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases
my blues away.

This example also involves a phenomenon popularly known as "right node raising", where a constituent at the right edge of a phrase is shared by two left-edge pieces that aren't themselves constituents. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this "Delayed right constituent coordination" (15.4.4, p. 1343), which is a better description but a worse name, and explains:

In this construction the constituent which in basic coordination would appear as the rightmost element of the first coordinate is held back until after the final coordinate:

i.    She knew of my other work but never mentioned it.
[basic coordination]
ii. She knew of but never mentioned my other work.
            [delayed right constituent]

In general, the effect is to heighten the contrast between the coordinates by removing from them material that would be the same in each. But the construction is appreciably more difficult to process than basic coordination, both for the addressee, who has to hold the first coordinates in mind until the sense is completed at the end, and for the speaker, who has to plan ahead to ensure that each coordinate ends in a way that syntactically allows completion by the delayed element [...] Characteristically, there is a prosodic break after the final coordinate, signally that the element that follows relates to the whole coordination, not just to the final coordinate.

In the FLoP cases, part of the delayed element relates to the whole coordination, but another part of it only belongs with the final coordinate. This probably happens because the cognitive load of planning for the delayed right constituent confuses the writer (or speaker) and results in a structually incoherent sentence. The reader or listener is left to sort it all out on the basis of what makes sense in the context.

This happens a lot, and not just in country songs, flight attendant patter, and bureaucratic email -- see my post "Cubist syntax" (6/9/2005) for some examples from the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

[Lance Nathan has called Neal's analysis of the Garth Brooks lyric into question -- but like "Holy Roman Empire", the FLoP name is going to stick (at least around these parts) whether or not the eponymous case is valid.]

Anyhow, Dusty Foggo's email to his buddy Brent Wilkes seems to contain an example of delayed right constituent coordination with a FLoP element. Correcting the spelling, we have:

I am now,
have been in the past,
and will continue to as long as I breathe - be your partner . . .
so what do you want me to do?

If we take that dash to indicate the prosodic break between the conjunction and the delayed right constituent, this expands to

I am now (be your partner),
have been in the past (be your partner),
and will continue to as long as I breathe - be your partner ...

But really, this is a fake FLoP -- an orthographic mirage, caused by misplaced punctuation. Given the combined stress of criminal conspiracy and delayed right constituent coordination, it's easy to understand how this could happen. Move the dash one word to the right, past the "be", and you've got the culpably awkward but grammatical

I am now (your partner),
have been in the past (your partner),
and will continue to as long as I breathe be - your partner ...

All the same , if the quoted email is genuine, it looks bad for Dusty. The indictment accuses him of conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering, not of ungrammatical English. Acting as counsel for the defense, I've argued that his linguistic crimes should be reduced to bad writing and worse punctuation. But whatever the grammatical analysis, his meaning was all too clear.

[Update -- Marc Sarrel points out that Dusty may have been making a classical allusion, to this passage in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:

SPOCK: I have been - and always will be - your friend...Live. Long. And. Prosper.
[ Spock falls. Bones and Scotty react. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:21 AM

A zero tolerance approach to parody

Jan Freeman takes note of a recent article in The Independent about the latest bee in Lynne Truss's bonnet: parodies of her best-selling book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

In an outspoken attack on the wave of imitators who have spoofed the book's quirky title and cover design, Ms Truss said she did not know how publishers of such imitations "live with themselves".

Freeman rightly wonders why the article fails to mention where or when this "outspoken attack" took place. Moreover, Truss's attack appears to be based solely on the fact that other authors have imitated her work's title and cover art, rather than anything about the books' contents. Later in the article, after asserting that one spoof "obviously has no merit whatsoever," she admits that she hasn't actually, you know, read any of the send-ups she's complaining about.

The titles that are irking Truss include Dr Whom: E.T. Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication and Eats, Shites & Leaves: Crap English and How to Use It. (For more on both shite and adjectival crap, see this recent post on Lynne Murphy's "Separated by a Common Language" blog.) The only book mentioned by the Independent that I had already heard of is David Crystal's The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. That's no spoof (besides the subtitle), but rather a serious critique of the "linguistic fundamentalism" encapsulated in Truss's "zero-tolerance approach." Let's hope she finds time to read that one, at least.

[Update: Sounds like Eats, Shites & Leaves really is a piece of shite. From Paul Farrington:

For what little it's worth, I have read this volume — and it is, indeed, dreck. It basically comprises the kinds of jokes that get circulated in email lists, and I suspect that this is in fact the source: 'Colemanballs' (redubbed 'soccer balls' for reasons of copyright); lists of dire spoof sayings ('Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder'); lists of ill-written signs ('We provide the lowest prices and workmanship'); etc. etc. It rarely goes beyond mildly funny, is never original, and does not even have the benefit of witty or insightful commentary such as that which we are used to encountering at LanguageLog. I wouldn't even dignify it with the status of parody: it's pure spoiler, probably gleaned from a couple of hours trawling the Internets for material.
This doesn't make Truss seem any less whiny, but I at least will join her in moaning about this book. It could have been so much better, since the original was so ripe for a decent parody... Who knows, maybe the other title's better.

And from Lynne Murphy:

Just soze you know, Eats, Shites and Leaves is a pretty 'big' book here — the kind of thing 'gracing' the three-for-two table at Borders, etc. We get lots of secondhand copies in the charity shop/thrift store where I volunteer. ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:41 AM

February 13, 2007

NLP in search

A few days ago, the NYT's Miguel Helft had an interesting article on the PARC/Powerset deal ("In a Search Refinement, a Chance to Rival Google", 2/9/2007)

[Xerox] PARC is ... licensing a broad portfolio of patents and technology to a well-financed start-up with an ambitious and potentially lucrative goal: to build a search engine that could some day rival Google.

The start-up, Powerset, is licensing PARC’s “natural language” technology — the art of making computers understand and process languages like English or French. Powerset hopes the technology will be the basis of a new search engine that allows users to type queries in plain English, rather than using keywords.

Helft cast Fernando Pereira in the "yes, but" role:

PARC’s natural-language technology is among the “most comprehensive in existence,” said Fernando Pereira, an expert in natural language and the chairman of the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. But by itself, it will not guarantee Powerset’s success, Mr. Pereira said.

“The question of whether this technology is adequate to any application, whether search or anything else, is an empirical question that has to be tested,” Mr. Pereira added.

In the old days, that would have been the end of the discussion. But now?

As Fernando observed ("searching", 2/9/2007):

Miguel Helft wrote a clear and balanced piece, which was not easy given the complexity of the issues. I talked with him for over half an hour. He chose representative quotes from what I said, but it's of course impossible to go into details within the length limits of the daily press. I wrote about the issues in previous postings, and I'm writing a new posting that works out some of the arguments more fully.

The promised new post came out a bit later the same day: "Powerset in PARC deal".

But from a certain point of view, Helft's NYT article was just a burst of off-stage noise in the on-going blog debate between Fernando and Matt Hurst.

This drama started small, with a brief note by Matt linking to an earlier NYT article about Powerset ("Powerset In the New York Times", 1/1/2007):

A nice little article summarizing the playing field for novel search going in to 2007.

Fernando disagreed with the "nice" part (Fernando: "Powerset In the New York Times", 1/1/2007):

It's good to see Barney and his colleagues in the Times. However, I didn't think much of the article. As is unfortunately common in the MSM, there is no substance in the story, except for who invested and how much. What is "natural language search," (NLS) in terms that would make sense to the average reader of the business section of the Times? If current search engines do not use NLS, it it just because they are too fat and distracted? Or are there technical, let alone scientific reasons for the lack of NLS? The writer missed the opportunity to illustrate the issues and challenges with some concrete examples, for instance some of those that Barney discussed in his blog a while ago.

And he went on to discuss the issues that the NYT article omitted. Matt responded, and a veritable avalanche of interesting posts was underway:

Matt: "Natural Language Search", 1/1/2007
Fernando: "Natural Language Search" (response) , 1/2/2007
Matt: "The Two Faces of Natural Language Search", 1/3/2007
Fernando: "The Two Faces of Natural Language Search" (response), 1/3/2007
Matt: "Ask Innovates Search UI", 2/1/2007
Fernando: "Ask Innovates Search UI" (response), 2/1/2007
Matt: "Why NLP Is A Disruptive Force", 2/1/2007
Fernando: "Why NLP Is A Disruptive Force" (response), 2/3/2007
Matt: "NLP and Search: Free Your Mind", 2/11/2007
Fernando: "NLP and Search: Free Your Mind" (response), 2/11/2007
Matt: "The time to build NLP applications, 2/13/2007.

If you're interested in linguistic technology (or in the rhetorical evolution of that emerging form, the weblog debate), you'll want to spend a leisurely brunch reading the whole series.

Some of Fernando's earlier posts are also relevant, including "Germany quits EU-based search engine project" ( 1/7/2007), and 'The cost of search computations" (1/26/2007).

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:34 AM

24: Conference Submission

Lawrence Saul has obtained a plot summary for the FOX network's new series 24: conference submission, which begins


Midnight - 1:00 am
Paper exists in skeletal form, with preliminary results. All seems well until hero exposes shadowy bugs in implementation of core routines.


1:00 am - 2:00 am
Hero assembles crack team of students and postdocs by email. Suffers moral anguish knowing that one or more will need to be sacrificed for greater good.

and ends

21 8:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Background section cut and pasted from previous papers. Double-column format forces re-typesetting of all equations.
22 9:00 pm - 10:00 pm
Rumor of extended deadline is picked up on Internet chatter. Sources are tracked down and ultimately discredited.
23 10:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Figures and references added to paper, which consequently overflows to ten pages. Frantic pruning. Rough draft submitted at 10:58 pm.
24 11:00 pm - Midnight
Proofreading reveals extensive typos and sign errors. Paper teeters on brink of eight page limit through multiple revisions. In act of ultimate sacrifice, hero removes all self-citations. Final submission: 11:59:59 pm.

Lawrence observes that this story arc is "frighteningly realistic".

Fernando Pereira's comment:

I prefer the art-house version in which the hero is convinced by older, slower colleagues of the futility of conference deadlines and the subtle beauty of carefully baked theorems, and agrees to take the time to write a journal submission and enjoy the warmth of family life.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:36 AM

Whatever happened to the millionth word?

The commemoration of Language Log's ten millionth page view reminds me of another decimalized milestone that was supposed to be forthcoming. Readers might recall the self-publicized claim of one Paul J.J. Payack, which was preposterous enough to earn him runner-up status in the first annual Becky Awards: Payack announced that the lexicon of the English language, as measured by the Global Language Monitor's super-sekrit algorithm, was rapidly approaching one million words!

We first got wind of this tomfoolery a little over a year ago when Payack informed a gullible New York Times reporter that "as of Jan. 26 [2006] at 10:59 a.m. Eastern time, the number of words in the English language was 986,120." When this "news" was dutifully picked up by the Times of London a week later, Payack was predicting that "the one millionth word is likely to be formed this summer." Well, summer rolled around, and we heard nothing about the millionth word. Instead, Payack pushed back the lexical schedule, telling a columnist for the Times of London in August that the million-word mark would come in late November. Then November came and went with nary a peep from the previously vociferous Mr. Payack.

So what the heck happened? Here at Language Log Plaza, the party hats I ordered a year ago are gathering dust down in Storage Room B.

Turns out the English language must have gotten a bit stalled last year. According to Payack's wondrous algorithm, the lexicon is still inching its way to the million mark, but the progress is looking increasingly asymptotic. It takes some sleuthing to chart the increments in the lexicon claimed on Payack's Global Language Monitor site, since that darned algorithm is as shrouded in mystery as the Big Mac special sauce. But with the help of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I was able to piece together these data points:

11/16/03: 816,167
11/28/04: 823,481
3/30/05: 856,435
5/19/05: 866,349
11/3/05: 895,479
1/16/06: 985,955
1/26/06: 986,120
3/21/06: 988,968
4/1/06: 989,614
1/31/07: 991,833

We haven't seen much movement since the addition of a whopping 90,000 words in about two months at the end of 2005 (just in time for Payack's media blitz). The latest figure of 991,833 was retrieved from the Global Language Monitor site's front page on Jan. 31, 2007, and two weeks later the number hasn't budged. Perhaps the algorithm is just building up steam, readying for another burst that will take us over the million-word barrier. Or perhaps we're witnessing the equivalent of what physicists call the quantum Zeno effect (a.k.a. "a watched pot never boils"): in a continuously observed quantum system, an unstable particle will never decay. Ever since Payack's unsupportable claims were exposed to observation in such venues as Slate, NPR's "Fresh Air," and right here on Language Log, the Payackian lexicon has grown at a snail's pace. I think the party hats are going to get mildewy soon.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:14 AM

February 12, 2007

Now that really brings it home to me

For the block-that-analogy file, from a story by Tom Abate in today's San Francisco Chronicle on Intel's new microprocessor:

In an advance briefing last week, [Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin] Rattner used the super-processor to perform more than a trillion mathematical calculations per second. To put that into perspective, it would take light, traveling 186,282 miles per second, 62.1 days to travel a trillion miles.

And to put that into perspective, at the present rates of growth, by the time "Louie, Louie" gets its trillionth i-Tunes download, the federal hourly minimum wage will be $1108.16!

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 06:46 PM

The barrage against "Barack"

Sen. Barack Obama has already faced tiresome media scrutiny about his last name ("Obama" evokes Osama!) and his middle name ("Hussein" evokes Saddam!), so it was only a matter of time before his first name got the once-over. Even though David Wallis of Slate described "Barack" as "unfamiliar but innocuous" and hence the least problematic of his three names, now comes some fresh nonsense claiming that Obama has been somehow duplicitous in explaining the origins of his given name. The charge was aired by Mike Allen, former White House correspondent for Time who was recently snapped up by a new online magazine called The Politico. On Feb. 10, Allen published a piece entitled "Undoing Obama: Inside the Coming Effort to Dismantle A Candidate," which warns Obama that his "free ride is ending" and that he is about to "endure a going-over that would make a proctologist blush." So what's the very first question that Allen says Obama will have to answer?

Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili?

Further down, Allen elaborates on the question:

Even his name offers fodder for the critics. When he was growing up, his family, friends and teachers called him "Barry." Then as a young man, he started insisting on "Barack," explaining in a memoir published in 1995 that his grandfather was a Muslim and that it means "blessed" in Arabic. His dad, who was Kenyan, had gone by "Barry" -- probably trying to fit in when he came to the States, his son figured. On the campaign trail during his 2004 Senate race, Obama told reporters that "Barack" was Swahili for "blessed by God."

Is this really the best that Obama's opponents can do? And shouldn't a seasoned political reporter like Mike Allen have done just a little bit of legwork to investigate this alleged inconsistency? Many voices in the blogosphere, such as Brad DeLong, Matthew Yglesias, and The Poor Man, pounced on Allen's story to make a very simple point: there is no inconsistency in Obama's interpretations, since "Barack" is rooted in both Arabic and Swahili. Swahili has an enormous number of loanwords from Arabic, and "Bara(c)k" is pretty obviously one of them. It's derived from the Arabic triliteral B-R-K (برك), the morphological basis for many words having to do with the act of blessing. Commenting on Crooks and Liars, bulbul (one of the erudite regulars in Languagehat's comment section) provides this helpful background:

I'd venture a guess and say that Obama's name comes from "baaraka" (بارك), a III. form verb which most often crops up in the phrase "baarak(a) Allaah fiik" (بارك الله فيك) meaning "may God bless you" or even "thank you". My Swahili dictionary lists "barak(a)" as a noun meaning "blessing, prosperity, abundance".
The Arabic for "blessed" is "mubaarak" (مبارك), as in the surname of the Egyptian president.
So to recap: Barak Obama's first name is both Swahili (as it is a part of Swahili lexicon) and Arabic (since it is Arabic by origin).

Some of the critics of Allen's piece could stand to do a little linguistic research too. Matt Stoller on MyDD claims that "Swahili and Arabic are extremely similar languages because of millenia of trade between East Africa and the Middle East." Similarly, The Daily Background posits that "Swahili is very similar to Arabic (in fact the former evolved out of the latter)." Swahili and Arabic are in different, unrelated language families, and any similarities derive strictly from Arabic borrowings into the Swahili lexicon. Meanwhile, Media Matters admirably links to the Kamusi Project, a (defunct) Swahili dictionary project at Yale, but misreads the entry for barak(a). Bariki is not the Arabic root, as Media Matters claims, but is rather one of the related Swahili words listed in the entry (kibaraka and tabaruki are also listed).

Journalistic silliness over Obama's first name is nothing new. Back in July 2004, when Obama was first running for Senate, Jim Geraghty of the National Review Online was already depicting him as the Democrats' dream candidate:

Before ducking off from the press scrum, Obama took a moment to explain that his first name is Swahili, and means "one who is blessed by God." It also relates, through Arabic and Semitic roots, to the Hebrew baruch, which means "blessed."
An African-American Senate candidate who can speak a little Hebrew? Could focus groups have come up with a better candidate for a diverse America?

Arabic barak(a) is cognate with Hebrew baruch, so Obama can "speak a little Hebrew"? I'm hoping Geraghty was just joking about that. But if questions linger about the origins of "Barack," I wouldn't be surprised if Obama defuses the doubters by pointing out the shared Semitic root of baruch. Along the same lines, the New York Times recently reported on an imam and a rabbi in Minneapolis who jointly teach lessons on the kinship between Arabic and Hebrew, "using etymology as a symbol of a shared Abrahamic heritage." That sounds like a refreshing application of etymological understanding, and a welcome antidote to divisive arguments about language, culture, and religion.

[Update, 2/14: See this follow-up post for various reader comments and questions.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 02:21 PM

Estimative intelligence language?

The recent report of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq sent me scurrying to try to find out what a "national intelligence estimate" might mean. I think I understand what my auto body shop meant when it gave me a cost estimate to repair the damage to my Toyota after my wife hit a deer on the highway. I also think I understand the mathematical formula that the IRS uses when it asks me to make my quarterly income tax estimates. I admit certain incompetence here but an "intelligence estimate" seemed beyond my understanding.

After some Google and Wikipedia searches, I found out that the National Intelligence Council does this sort of estimating and reports its findings directly to the director of the CIA. But it was still unclear to me what is meant by "estimate" here. Wikipedia says: "estimative intelligence products present what intelligence analysts estimate (not predict) may be the course of future events." Okay, so they don't predict. But the CIA doesn't seem to agree. It says, "Unlike "current intelligence" products, which describe the present, most NIEs forecast future developments..." Already I'm at sea. They don't predict but they do forecast. Is there a language problem here?

A Washington Post article describing the Key Judgments found in the National Intelligence Estimate released Friday, February 2, offered some clues about the special language of intelligence estimating. The Post had the former vice-chairman for evaluation of the National Intelligence Council (the group that writes these reports) annotate these Key Judgments. From the annotations of this 31-year career intelligence officer we can learn some things about this "estimative language" (his own term):

Offers no measurements

Includes long introductory phrases before they get to the main point

Uses estimative generalites that tend to frustrate policymakers

Uses indirection

Uses the favorite estimative adverb, "specifically," to produce a non-quantitative quantity

Uses noun phrases like "significant  population displacement" in an attempt to quantify without being precise

Frequently uses the estimative verb, "judges," to convey a conclusion "based more on analytical tradecraft than on hard intelligence"

Does not give a basis for its positive estimates

Now if only the rest of us  could learn to write like that.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:50 PM

Over 10,000,000 served

Around lunchtime today, Philadelphia time, some lucky Language Log reader will register our ten millionth page view. In appreciation, the Language Log marketing department is offering a special prize not only to that reader, but also to everyone else who reads the weblog today: a free one-year subscription. (Of course, our famous guarantee is included: double your money back in case of less than complete satisfaction.)

But wait, there's more! At amazon.com, by special arrangement with the publisher, you can save $6.28 on Far from the Madding Gerund, a finely printed and bound collection of Language Log posts from the classical era, suitable for your night table or your bathroom bookshelf.

And here's the best part! All Language Log readers will be admitted absolutely free to Geoffrey Pullum's long-awaited lecture, "Who Pays Any Attention to the Syntax of Things", Tuesday, February 13, 8:00 p.m., in the Music Center Recital Hall at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

[FCC blogging regulations don't require us to admit it, but most the statements above are misleading, not to say bald-faced lies. You'll all continue to be able to read Language Log for free, whether you read it today or not, and amazon.com's discount on Far from the Madding Gerund has been available to everyone since a few days after the book was published.

And Geoff Pullum will indeed be giving the 40th annual Faculty Research Lecture at UC Santa Cruz tomorrow, but the event is free and open to the public, even to the benighted few who are not regular Language Log readers.

All the same, it's absolutely true that our page-view counter at sitemeter will tick over past 10,000,000 this morning -- it's at 9,994,678 as I write this at 7:30 a.m., with an average of 23,295 additional pages of crunchy linguistic goodness viewed per day.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:30 AM

Antonio Smith, Forensic Linguist

Over at Narbonic, Director's Cut, Shaenon K. Garrity discusses the adventures of Antonio Smith, Forensic Linguist (adventures continued here , here and here):

As Shaenon's commentary explains,

At last Antonio Smith, forensic linguist, makes his stunning transformation into ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST. He only gets the all-caps treatment when his hat's on.

I submit that this isn't any more ridiculous than a swashbuckling, whip-cracking archeologist. I mean, archeologists. With the little brushes and plaster casts. Or whatever it is they use. All I'm saying is, if an archeologist can do it, surely a linguist can.

Would it be ungrateful to observe that no respectable modern approach to authorship attribution is likely to use a technique whose figure of merit is a correlation? Yes, it would, so I won't follow up on this; but you can, if you want, by checking out the historical survey and the references in Patrick Juola, John Sofko and Patrick Brenna, "A Prototype for Authorship Attribution Studies", Literary and Linguisic Computing, 21(2) 169-178, 2006.

Please also note that Antonio Smith does eventually track the evil genius, Dr. Helen B. Narbon, to her lair. But she's ready for him, with the traditional giant rotating blade and also clean floors:

Not to speak of Mell Kelly, intern:

Of course, by the end of the episode, Mell is interning in forensic linguistics. For a full credit.

As we discussed out last week, the archeologist Indiana Jones was of course also trained in linguistics. And you can read about some real-life forensic linguistics in Roger Shuy's Language Log posts,

Antonio Smith starred in the early days of Narbonic, back in 2000 or so. Narbonic continued to the end of 2006, but unfortunately, the LSA declined to run it in Language (well, more precisely, the LSA was never aware of the opportunity to run it in Language), and so Smith dropped out of the plot.

[Hat tip to Matt Dalen]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:26 AM


The Free Library of Philadelphia panel I was part of with fellow Language Logger Mark Liberman (and the delightful Erin McKean and Ben Yagoda) last week was fun, but all that week and currently I have been quietly stewing over this article in the Wall Street Journal from last Monday.

Apparently, Beijing is wrong in correcting its myriad signs in "funny English" because they are, for we Westerners, "one of the joys of China"!

The article is about how in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, a squadron of "linguistic monitors" will be correcting English-language signs that have long been legion in Beijing, written by people with rudimentary command of "English As She Is Spoke."

Make no mistake, the signs are exquisitely off. A toilet for the handicapped will be marked as for "Deformed Person." A men's restroom is marked "Genitl Men." A warning of a slippery road will read "To take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty."

It reminds me of a priceless book written in 1855 by one Pedro Carolino, "Guide of Conversation in Portuguese and English," (see a modern abridged edition here) in which the poor author clearly has no more acquaintance with English than most of us have with Albanian, filling almost 200 pages with word lists, short dialogues (such as the likes of conversing with someone in hospital titled "For to Visit a Sick") and "familiar phrases" such as "Stone what roll heapeth up not foam" (i.e., in case this is not clear, "A rolling stone gathers no moss").

I have broken out Carolino's book at dinner parties for many a year now, and resort to it whenever I am in need of a good, long, hard laugh.

So, I "get" the joys of "off" English. However, I get itchy when the Wall Street Journal article depicts Westerners bemoaning "the loss of a source of amusement" in the cleaning up of Beijing's funny signs. A certain strain in nominally bien-pensant Westerner thought treats other cultures as diverting dioramas in neglect of remembering that the people in question are human beings with the same needs for dignity as we cherish.

Some years ago I was participating in a documentary for BBC in Bluefields, Nicaragua, a poor town where the locals live in subsistence poverty. We were there to explore the sign language that children there have developed, long a tasty topic among linguists. However, we were spending a week in a place where money was scarce, substance abuse was endemic, and at nightclubs local young women regularly sought paid sex with foreign men as one of the only ways to supplement incomes that were hopelessly inadequate otherwise.

In such a place, unsurprisingly the roads were mostly unpaved, full of thigh-deep potholes that made them trickly to navigate in motor vehicles even on dry days. I will never forget bouncing through such potholes in a car with one of the cameramen for the documentary, with his leather-clad Oxonian accent, regaling us with the sentiment that "I hope they don't pave these roads like they're saying they want to just to make the road smoother to the hotel they want to build -- since then this would start becoming like Jamaica where everybody works at the hotel. It would destroy the way of life here."

I see -- the Third World goings-on were "real," "colorful," "diverse." Unemployment among the men was rampant, but that was better than them having somewhere nearby to take jobs and earn money with few formal skills. And the local women working at the hotel would be "inauthentic" in comparison to their offering their bodies to, as it happened, him when he came to visit.

There is some of this in the idea that Beijingers should preserve their funny English signs to amuse Westerners blowing through. Anyone who sees any sophistication in this, I presume, would have no problem with the notion of signs in hilariously bad Chinese plastered all over New York or San Francisco.

Posted by John McWhorter at 04:22 AM

February 11, 2007

-ic-y matters

Last Tuesday (2/6/07) I noticed, in the NYT Science Times, the following (in William K. Stevens, "On the Climate Change Beat, Doubt Gives Way to Certainty", p. 3):

Politicians are weighing in on the subject as never before, especially with the advent of a Democratic-led Congress.

My first reaction was that with "Democratic-led" the paper was bending over backward in its attempt to avoid things like "the Democrat Party" for "the Democratic Party" (a Republican practice we've commented on a number of times on Language Log, most recently here).  And maybe it is.  But "Democratic-led" actually beats out "Democrat-led" by a fair margin, despite the fact that "X-led" 'led by X(s)' normally requires a noun in the X slot (as do "X-V-ed" 'V-ed by X' compounds in general).  So if this is a formation motivated by political politeness, there's a lot of politeness going around.

The margin of "Democratic-led" over the expected "Democrat-led" is 185,000 to 104,000, in raw Google webhits, a disparity that will become more substantial when we remove occurrences of "Democrat-led" from sources, like Fox News, that avoid "Democratic" systematically.  There are still plenty of hits for "Democrat-led" from sources that are not generally -ic-less, but considerably fewer than for "Democratic-led".

A little review of the system here:  there are three lexical items of interest in connection with political parties: the party name Y, in "Y Party"; the noun denoting an adherent or member of the Y Party; and the related adjective Z, used in expressions like "Z policies".  To keep things simple, I'll restrict myself to party names that are either nouns or adjectives (or ambiguous between the two).  There are three main systems:

Party name Noun Y, e.g. "Labour Party":
  Adherent noun derived from Y as base: "(a) Labourite"
  Adjective identical to the adherent noun: "Labourite (policies)"

Party name Adjective Y, e.g. "Democratic Party":
  Adherent noun serving as base for Y: "(a) Democrat"
  Adjective Y: "Democratic (policies)"

Party name Adjective/Noun Y, e.g. "Republican Party":
  Adherent noun Y: "(a) Republican"
  Adjective Y: "Republican (policies)"

Now, "X-led" wants a noun X (as in "Pelosi-led", "Gingrich-led", "Bush-led", and many others), which it gets from the party name if that's a noun, otherwise from the adherent noun (that is, it uses the more basic noun of the two that are available): "Labour-led", "Democrat-led", "Republican-led".  "Labourite-led" would be possible in the sense 'led by Labourites', but in fact I get no hits at all for it (or for "Labourite-dominated" or "Labourite-ruled").

The use of polite -ic (if that's what it is) extends to other compounds: "Democratic-dominated" alongside "Democrat-dominated"; "Democratic-ruled" alongside "Democrat-ruled", etc.  There are probably interesting patterns to be discovered here, but for now it's enough for me to point out that political concerns seem to have led to an exception to an otherwise firm generalization about English morphology.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:18 PM

The perils of transcribing spoken language

Heidi Harley's recent analysis of why some listeners heard Jimi Hendrix sing "Scuse me while I kiss this guy" when what he apparently sang was "Scuse me while I kiss the sky" reminded me of the many wrong transcriptions of spoken language that pop up in government transcripts of tape recorded undercover conversations and court hearings. Sometimes a local expression is the problem, as when the government transcribed "it's deeper than a post hole toad" as "is steeper than a postal code" in a Texas sting operation some years ago. No, the bad guys weren't plotting to steal post office files. They were simply using a colorful, but not broadly recognized, Texas expression about a totally benign topic.

This week the legal affairs writer for the Associated Press called me  to talk about the problems media and government witnesses were having as they tried to decypher their own notes in the perjury trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Somehow our conversation turned to the problems that court reporters have when they transcribe the proceedings of trials and hearings. The writer then told me about Prosecutor Fitzgerald's statement to the judge when he explained that there would be no deal made in this case. The court reporter's transcript had Fitzgerald saying that he couldn't do this because "it's a thicket of hope." I suppose that if you really worked at it, this version might make some sense but what the prosecutor actually said was "it's a pig in a poke."

It's possible, even likely, that the court reporter had never heard this expression before. But the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) shows that it's used in New England, the Midwest and throughout the South to mean "something one cannot see or evaluate before deciding to actually accept or purchase it." And it's been around for a long time. Even George Washington used it as early as 1788, according to DARE:

I am not fond of buying a Pig in a Poke (as the phraze is)

These misperceptions of "post hole toad" and "pig in a poke" weren't all that crucial but sometimes faulty transcriptions can have  potentially disastrous effects. Some years ago, in a trial of two Nevada brothel commissioners who were indicted on charges of trying to solicit a bribe from a madam who wanted to get a license to set up a trailer for "business purposes," the case boiled down to what the government's transcript reported that one of the two commissioners had said to the other one during their brief conversation with the madam:

Commissioner A: I would take a bribe, wouldn't you?

The tape, badly recorded in a Sparks restaurant and with lots of clanging dishes and blaring music, was very hard for jurors to understand. In fact, it was hard for anyone to understand. After listening to it many times, however, I concluded that what this brothel commissioner actually said was:

Commissioner A: I wouldn't take a bribe, would you?

Now my problem was how to communicate this vitally important difference to linguistically untrained jurors. I finally decided that the best way would be to call on their sense of timing and arithmetic. Most people know what a syllable is and most people can recognize a brief pause and most people can count. So I had them listen with me as I played the sentence several times and asked them to count the syllables before the pause and then count the number of syllables after it.

Together, as the tape was playing, we heard:

___    ___   ___   ___   ___   ___  /pause/ ___   ___
  1         2       3      4       5       6                  7       8

This, of course, corresponded with my version of what was said:

I     would   n't    take    a   bribe /pause/  would  you?
1       2         3       4       5      6                    7         8

The government's transcript had transported the negative contration of "would" from the third syllable to the seventh. It's version had 5 syllables, a pause, and then 3 syllables. In contrast, my transcript had 6 syllables, a pause, then 2 syllables. I played the passage a couple more times and the jury got it. I could see them counting with their fingers and they seemed to be having fun. Language can be fun, even in jury trials. They were now able to overcome the difficult tape and transfer the negative contraction to where it was actually said, which made all the difference in the case.

So what causes people to mishear spoken language? The "post hole toad" transcription problem probably happened because the transcriber had never heard of the quaint expression and did the best that could be done with it. The humorous "pig in a poke" transcription error probably came about because the transcriber was unfamiliar with the expression and tried to make some sense out of the prosecutor's words. But the "I would take a bribe" transcription most likely has a different root cause. Undercover tape transcriptions are usually made by secretarial assistants, then reviewed by law enforcement agents. When agents are predisposed that defendants are guilty, as is common in such cases, it's likely that they hear what they want to hear.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:33 PM

New developments on the brokeback front

It's been ten whole months since we reported on references to the movie Brokeback Mountain, mostly in uses of the word brokeback.  Now comes a very indirect reference to the male-male sex in the movie, from Dave Barry in a column "2006 Year in Review", talking about former Congressman Mark Foley.

I caught it in the Funny Times for February 2007, where on p. 5 Barry has two references to Foley:

[in the September entry]  Speaking of vegetables, the United States Congress is rocked by yet another scandal with publication of e-mails and instant messages sent to male pages by Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, in which he explicitly discusses acts of a sheepherding nature.

[in the October entry]  North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test, which is especially troubling because the ground in question is located in Wyoming.  This goes virtually unnoticed in Washington, where everybody continues to be obsessed with the growing [Barry could have said "mounting" here, but perhaps he thought that would be too heavy-handed] body of instant messages generated by Mark Foley, who, despite his busy schedule as a lawmaker, apparently found time to attempt to become sheepherding buddies with pretty much every young male in North America.

In case you're one of the few people in the Western world who somehow missed the fuss over the movie in 2005-06, Barry is alluding here to the fact that Jack and Ennis's man-on-man relationship begins while they are herding sheep (on Brokeback Mountain).  If you don't know this, then Barry's use of sheepherding will be puzzling, though you can guess its meaning from the context.

Meanwhile, brokeback itself has followed a predictable path, from uses that allude to various aspects of the movie's plot to simply 'gay, homosexual', then to 'of questionable masculinity', and, inevitably, to a generic put-down 'lame, uncool, stupid, worthless, messed up' -- that is, gay in its more recent usage, as on the t-shirt in this photo:

(also available, from several sources, as a bumper sticker)

and in the title of this cartoon:

Entertainingly, some of the definitions for brokeback in the Urban Dictionary (at the moment, there are 36) gloss it via gay, either JUST in its generic put-down sense or in BOTH this sense and the older 'homosexual' sense from which the newer sense developed.

On the Queerty site where you can find a photo showing more of the t-shirt guy (and the escalator he's sitting on), there's a sentence with two features of interest to us here at Language Log Plaza:

Every queen and their mother has been emailing us asking how one can purchase the [t-shirt above].

First, there's the "singular they" (in their mother, with their referring back to the singular every queen), a phenomenon we talk about at LLP every so often (most recently here, with more detail and back-references here).  One of the reasons people go for singular they is for mixed-sex reference, thus avoiding unpalatable alternatives, but in this case the reference is to males only, so every queen and his mother would have been fine.  I suspect that the writer is just one of those people who use singular they very generally, not only as an avoidance tactic.

Then there's the singular verb agreement (has been emailing us), though the subject is conjoined and would therefore be expected to take plural agreement.  But plural agreement is just awful: ??Every queen and his/their mother have been emailing us.  The and his/their mother part seems to be functioning as a kind of parenthetical, as in every queen, and his mother too, in which case the singular every queen gets to determine verb agreement.  It seems to me that when the conjuncts are of equal prominence, singular agreement is impossible (*Every boy and his dog goes on long walks together), though plural agreement is not entirely comfortable for me either (?Every boy and his dog go for long walks together); I'd prefer to avoid the coordination (Every boy goes for long walks together with his dog).  No doubt someone has looked at this quirk in agreement, but I don't recall having noticed it before.  (I see that I started with sheepherder sex and ended up with a puzzle in subject-verb agreement -- so like a linguist!)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu<

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:06 PM

Why do thaw and unthaw mean the same thing?

Click on the link for the (alleged) anagrammatic punch line. As for the question about thawed and unthawed, I believe it's safe to say that Language Log is your world headquarters for information about this issue in its general form:

"A bad 'un", 5/16/2005
"Still unpacked after all these years", 5/17/2005
"'Still unpacked': threat or menace?", 5/17/2005
"The condescension of descriptivism", 5/21/2005
"Still unslacked", 5/30/2005
"'Still un-X-ed' is not yet unspreading", 6/14/2006

See also Language Hat, "Still unpacked", 5/18/2005.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:32 AM

The three words every woman wants to hear

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:11 AM

Pretty actors

From the Guardian's style guide:

male and female; avoid actress except when in name of award (eg Oscar for best actress)
One 27-year-old actor contacted the Guardian to say "actress" has acquired a faintly pejorative tinge and she wants people to call her actor (except for her agent who should call her often)

From the Guardian's Corrections & Clarifications column for January 15, 2007:

A rigid application of the Guardian style guide caused us to say of Carlo Ponti in his obituary, page 34, January 11, that in his early career he was "already a man with a good eye for pretty actors ..." This was one of those occasions when the word "actresses" might have been used.

The phrase {"pretty actors"} is surprisingly (to me) common in news writing. And in all the examples I looked at, it refers to men. But it still get only about one quarter the news-archive search counts of {"pretty actresses"}.

[via Pashmina at Grammar Puss ("She composed herself and a zeugma")]

Somewhat to my suprise, the Guardian's style guide has nothing to say about pretty. The Economist's style guide is interested in whether or not words are pretty ("Proactive. Not a pretty word: try active or energetic."), but has nothing to say about the word pretty itself.

Could Barack Obama safely be called "pretty"? What about Ségolène Royale? The answer is pretty clearly "no". I guess journalists don't need a style guide to tell them that.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:13 AM

February 10, 2007

If you could possibly do without them they must be banned

An assistant professor teaching theoretical syntax somewhere far away (names suppressed to protect the innocent) reports that her class had reached a point where they had collaboratively developed an explicit partial grammar for English which permits attributive adjectives to occur inside the part of the tree diagram of a sentence representing a noun phrase provided they are before the noun (as in those repulsive reptiles), but not after the noun (*those reptiles repulsive). She set the class an exercise: first explain why the grammar so far does not allow a sentence like Many people find reptiles repulsive (correct answer: because it provides no way to position an adjective after a noun), and then work out a way of modifying the grammar so that it will allow that sentence and others like it. And what one student wrote concerning the first part of the problem really took her aback:

Our phrase structure rules do not provide for adjectives in the tree, because they are not necessary parts of speech. You can get your point across, and understood without using adjectives.

What on earth is going on here? The answer to that, of course, lies in the vice-like grip of noxious and misguided little book of which the content was decided roughly a hundred years ago, a book full of recommendatory maxims that have been elevated into fascist edicts.

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs" says E. B. White in the chapter he added in making the new 1957 edition of Strunk's odious booklet The Elements of Style, mostl of which was written some time before the First World War. Ridiculous advice, which nobody follows — not White himself, for example, as I pointed out in my earlier post "Those who take the adjectives from the table." Everybody uses adjectives. Anybody who wants to say they are not useful has a real problem: useful is an adjective, so how are they going to express the claim?

We have already seen something very closely related: the case of the student I met who had been told by a Los Angeles teacher of English that everything that is optional is forbidden: again the basis for this nonsense comes from Strunk and White (and from Strunk's original version, in fact): the "Omit needless words" mantra. The student quoted above appears to think that all adjectives are needless (you can get your point across without them) and that is why they are and ought to be, by Strunk's principles and not just White's, forbidden. For if adjectives are needless, then if you use them you must be using them too much, by a factor of infinity, and as Arnold Zwicky has pointed out, a guiding principle of prescriptivism seems to be that If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all.

This poor student has apparently been told by some other professor to purchase Strunk and White (sometimes parents give their children copies of Strunk and White to take off to college, a practice I believe constitutes child abuse), and she has read it, and has believed the things it says.

Moreover, she has apparently mistaken the task of a grammar of English to provide only the resources that are minimally adequate for getting a point across. That is not the function of grammar. The grammar of English does not limit you to tight little clauses with no useless words like Hemingway is widely reputed to have specialized in (not that I have any idea what the frequency of adjectives in his prose might have been); it allows also for all the gloriously prolix prose of Oscar Wilde, the renownedly adjective-laden atmospheric description of the horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft, the lengthy and gloriously convoluted sentences that Faulkner and Fitzgerald and sometimes Dickens used to write... All of it. Good or bad. With or without copious use of adjectives or adverbs. Grammar tells you how to put together sentences that are English in the manner of their construction. Then whether you write long and luxuriant or tight and snappy is up to you.

And let me just say to any students working on the second half of the problem mentioned above (how can Many people find reptiles repulsive be allowed as grammatical without allowing *Those reptiles repulsive are eating all my mice?) that the answer is that you need to see that not all adjectives are inside noun phrases. You need to modify the grammar to permit the verb find (and certain other verbs) to take two following complements: the first a noun phrase, and the second (not included within it) a predicative complement adjective phrase. Then you can account not only for Many people find [reptiles] [repulsive] but also for I find [your remarks] [insulting] and Napoleon found [the climate of St Helena] [somewhat depressing] and We find [the prisoner] [guilty of murder in the first degree], and indefinitely many others. That's the essence of the solution. Good luck with it — if you don't mind me using the adjective good.

[Thanks to John Cowan for some corrective observations.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 06:02 PM

Speaking good

As a former (very long time ago) secondary English teacher (okay, it was only for four years) I support Sally Thomason's posts here and here about the need to teach students how to survive in this world by acquiring English skills that will help them succeed. Call it patronizing if you will. Or is it just practical? Her points ring true to me because I was once a lot like the kids in Laura Petelle's classes. I grew up in working class northeastern Ohio, habitually saying things like, "I seen  him when he  done it." After I absorbed more standard English features, I tried to live in both the academic and working class worlds. But I have to admit that I had  some difficulties going home again -- in Thomas Wolfe's sense. One of the sad things about switching from one social context to another is that it's hard to be the same person you used to be when you're with your family and other people you love. I don't think my mother ever quite understood what I was talking about, much less what a linguist does  for a living, or how I could be living in Washington DC without  working for the federal government. I had to learn to write letters to her that tried to enter her world as best I could but I don't think I ever did this very well. But Lord knows I tried. I couldn't revert to "I seen him when he  done it" but it wasn't hard for me to use the casual register most of the time and to avoid technical language.

At some point in their English classes most high school teachers get the marvelous opportunity to let their students meet Calpurnia in Harper's Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This can be a great opening to teach the importance of acceptable language variability and the need to code-switch. Although teachers promote using Standard English, Calpurnia, the Black maid, shows us how important it is to hang onto our language roots.  After Scout asks why Calpurnia speaks one way in their home and quite a different way when she is around her family, she explains to her young charge that folks don't like to be talked down to. Doing otherwise would be considered uppity. In short, Calpurnia appears to have developed the kind of bidialectalism that I found so difficult to master.

Now jump to the mid to late 1960s when racial tensions ran high after the US Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Public school teachers suddenly discovered that many African American students didn't talk the same way that most wite kids did. It wasn't long before some educators came up with the silly idea that Black students had cognitive deficits that caused their vernacular speech. This notion encouraged commercial publishers to develop language and cognitive repair programs for Black students. The whole idea was, of course, pretty silly. To combat these materials, sociolinguists went to work, learning about Vernacular Black English (VBE) and eventually proving that the cognitive deficit theory was a crock and that the students were using a different but equally systematic and beautiful language system.

After the structure of this variety of English was discovered, the question became what to do about it in the schools. A number of linguists developed the idea of bidialectalism and, since VBE was systematic and just as cognitively rich as Standard English, contrastive analysis seemed appropriate. The obvious thing to do was to teach VBE speakers how to add Standard English to their repertoires and to use it in socially appropriate and expected contexts but NOT to wipe out their vernacular because, among other reasons, it can be as important to them as it was to Calpurnia, especially with people they love. Bidialectalism was modeled, of course, on bilingualism. Two language systems can be more useful than one.

All was still not well, however, because even some linguists argued that bidialectalism was just another form of racism. James Sledd led this attack in his article, "Bidialectalism," published in The English Journal 58.9 in December, 1969. He argued that if bidialectalism meant anything at all, whites should also learn to speak VBE, which turned out to be a logical but socially unrealistic idea. A number of us had tried this and discovered, much to our embarrassment, that the VBE speaking community thought we were making fun of them. It was okay for them to speak it in contexts they felt appropriate, but whites should not even try. This  was considered insulting. The problem appeared to be in the direction of second dialect acquisition. It's apparently okay for speakers of a socially stigmatized dialect to speak a socially accepted one but not for such learning to go in the opposite direction. I think this lesson has been learned by now.

Another problem with bidialectalism came from the education community itself. Many misunderstood it completely, believing that it was meant to teach Black children how to speak VBE, which, of course, would be utter nonsense, since most of them already spoke it. This misperception arises periodically even today, as illustrated by the Ebonics controversy a few years ago in Oakland. It seems that the notion of acceptable variation  comes hard to many people, especially to educators.

Finally, back to Sally's posts. It's how we teach our students that matters. Teachers (and the rest of us too) can rant about how stupid nonstandard or vernacular English sounds but that seems to accomplish little more than displaying our own preferences or, worse, our sense of superiority.  And maybe we were wrong to use the term, "bidialectalism," in the first place, since "dialect" seems to carry some unfortunate semantic baggage. As Geoff Pullum so eloquently put it, the gotcha game can be deadly. But high school teacher Laura Petelle seems to have it right. Her students need to learn standard forms of English if they expect to be admitted to the  college of their choice, where different language is expected. Or to get a good job for that matter. Or to get promoted in the job they have. That's how it worked for me anyway. But, as teacher Patelle says, Standard English is certainly not "God's Preferred Way of Speaking." That God is far too small.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:13 PM

Birth of a Sentence

My role as facilitator of stage 11 of the Language Anger Management course reminded C.J. Croy of the Something Positive strip for 8/25/2006:

PeeJeeShou's explanation of "grammar nazi" to Cab's kid is missing a relevant generalization: "X nazi" has become a general-purpose term for "fanatic about X", as the OED entry for nazi suggests:

2. a. In extended use: a believer in or sympathizer with the aims or doctrines of Nazism or any similar doctrines. Also more generally: a person holding extreme racist (esp. anti-Semitic) or authoritarian views, or behaving in a brutal and bigoted manner.

b. hyperbolically. A person who is perceived to be authoritarian, autocratic, or inflexible; one who seeks to impose his or her views upon others. Usu. derogatory.

1982 P. J. O'ROURKE in Inquiry 15 Mar. 8/3 The Safety Nazis advocate gun control, vigorous exercise, and health foods.
1995 Independent 3 Nov. (Suppl.) 8/2 According to Hutchins, current fitness theory is peddled by ‘nazis’. Aerobics Nazis.
2000 Minx Aug. 71/2, I learned to be more open and not such a Nazi in the studio.

The wiktionary entry points out something that the OED misses, which is that the usage is not only derogatory but also offensive to some people, on the grounds that it trivializes the crimes of the real-life Nazis:

3. (slang) A person considered unfairly oppressive or needlessly strict. (Considered an offensive usage)

I tried to get into the club, but the door nazi threw me out.

Both the OED and wiktionary seem to me to miss something else, though it's implicit in their examples: this sense of nazi is mostly used as the head of a noun compound, [X nazi] = "fanatic about X".

And if you search the web, you can find examples for just about any value of X you look for. Well, a considerable number of them, anyhow:

sorry that ya didnt get in last night. they are total shoe nazis and theres nada i can swing about the dress code.
If you came to school like that, they'd send you home till it was changed-- hair nazis.
I looked forward to getting that first paragraph past the comma nazis.
Looks like the Food Nazis in New York City are moving to ban trans-fat in the preparation of foods in restaurants.
The world was entirely too full of coffee nazis these days—coffee was about individual taste, and no one should let anyone else tell her what to like.
It turns out (as he explained it to me) there are tea Nazis who look just like you and me, but are very particular about how the ingredients for their cuppa get into implied vessel.
Mispronounce this and incur the ire of pronunciation Nazis everywhere.
Yes, she was a full-on Christmas tree Nazi.
but company of heroes is fucking sick i own that game the only flaw is my mom enters videogame nazi mode sometimes when im actually playing good players
Get a fingernail Nazi to look at your nails, and make sure it's someone whose opinion you respect, and someone you want to please.

I first heard this usage in the form "surf nazis", in California in the mid-1960s. According to the wikipedia entry for the band Surf Punks,

The term "surf punk" was a generational adaptation of the term "surf nazi" which was in wide use in the early days of the sport in the 60s and 70s also used tongue-in-cheek to describe people who were fanatically dedicated to their sport.

I recall some inconclusive arguments among teenagers about whether any of the "surf nazis" actually had any political or cultural affinities with the ideology of the Third Reich. My impression at the time was that the term was mostly a culturally-empty evocation of an available epitome of fanaticism.

Of course, the spread of the Compound-Noun Nazi phenomenon during the past decade was propelled by Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi", who first appeared in 1995.

Anyhow, PeeJee also missed the (very minor) phenomena of grammar communists, spelling anarchists, and language libertarians, among other factions. And the new kids on the fanaticism block, the Noun-Compound Taliban:

It's what works for you, after all, not the Fashion Taliban.
We used to call them the Yellow Jackets, Ski Nazis, Fun Busters, etc. Now, they are the Ski Taliban.

So of course we have the Grammar Taliban:

Get a grip people, we don't need no stinkin' Grammar Taliban 'round here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:35 AM

The Vindolanda Tablets

This evening I stumbled on a fascinating web site that some of you may also find interesting. It is The Vindolanda Tablets Online. The site provides access to the tablets excavated from a Roman fort of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries C.E. in Britain, just south of Hadrians Wall. There is background information about history, geography, and life in the Roman army, but the main content consists of the texts themselves. For each tablet there is a photograph, a transcription of the Latin text, an English translation, and commentary. The tablets are indexed in several ways, so that you can look at the correspondence of a particular individual or the tablets that refer to women or deal with religion or what have you.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:50 AM

February 09, 2007

"Based on"

During the question period after last night's "Abusage and usage" panel at the Philadelphia Free Library, David Cuff expressed concern about sentences like "People shop for a product based on price". According to him, that sentence is confusing, because readers will mistakenly take it to mean "people shop for a product that is based on price", rather than "when people shop for a product, they compare prices". He suggested that in this case we should substitute "People shop for a product on the basis of price".

That example may be unfair, since it's not the example that he gave, but one that I just found on the internet. So here are two longer examples from an email that Prof. Cuff sent me earlier today, with his comments.

  • A story in Time reported " …the Association last year adopted a policy allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions based on ethical, moral or religious grounds". I think we all would suspect such prescriptions.
  • Sen. Bill Frist, after viewing a video of Terri Schiavo, presumed to disagree with the attending doctor’s diagnosis. Paul Krugman wrote, " …I think the American Medical Association disapproves of politicians who second-guess medical diagnoses based on video images…". The reader can be forgiven for thinking the original diagnosis was based on video images.

It's easier to see the ambiguity in his examples than in mine, though I don't think that I would have noticed a problem in the normal course of reading.

But let's step back and look at this in a wider perspective. The general case is a structure of the form Verb Object X, where X might be a participial phrase (like "based on price", "covered with snow" or "owing to her owner's ill health"), a prepositional phrase (like "on the basis of price", "for the Iraq war" or "with a brass key"), or various other things.

(The issues are the same when the verb is replaced by an adjective or noun that takes a complement, as in "the choice of a product based on price", or when the intervening noun comes from a prepositional phrase, e.g. "EMI will decide whether to forge ahead with the strategy based on the size of the offers.")

There's a general problem here for readers -- and therefore for writers. The phase labelled X can have many different functions, and there's no general structural way to distinguish among them.

Thus a gerund-participial clause might be a predicative adjunct modifying the subject:

He answered the phone crying bitterly.

Alternatively, it might be an adverbial adjunct modifying the verb:

We played the game according to the rules.

Or it might be a modifier of the object:

They elected a man lacking integrity.

The same set of options exist for phrases heading by past participles:

He answered the phone overcome with remorse.
We played the game based on the instructions we were given.
They elected a man spoiled by privilege.

And similarly for prepositional phrases:

He answered the phone in a foul mood.
We played the game by the rules.
They elected a man from a wealthy family.

Now, these structural alternatives can certainly be confusing. Sometimes, as in the examples I've just given, the choice of words determines one plausible interpretation to the effective exclusion of the rest. But in other cases, the sentence is amusing, if not confusing -- consider Groucho Marx's line

I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas, I'll never know.

For better or for worse, there's no systematic cure for this kind of ambiguity -- the English language is just like that. And it's been like that for many centuries -- we could find examples from Shakespeare for all of the alternative analytic categories listed above.

OK, back to "based on".

Prof. Cuff's suggestion, as I understand it, goes like this. When X in the frame Verb Object X has the particular form "based on ...", it's usually a modifier of the object (or, perhaps, this was true at some point in the past). But when X has the form "on the basis of ...", it's usually a modifier of the verb. So we should eliminate a source of ambiguity and confusion by establishing a stylistic rule, turning those statistical tendencies into categorical preferences.

(It's possible that Prof. Cuff thinks that English grammar actually requires these choices -- but that would be wrong, and so I'm going to attribute to him a position that's both consistent with the facts and logically coherent.)

The first difficulty with this argument is that it's hard to make people obey such stylistic rules. In this case, it would be impossible, in my opinion, even if all the nation's linguists were to agree that there's really a problem here that needs to be solved, and that Prof. Cuff's proposed solution would be an improvement. As a result, the whole discussion is essentially an academic one -- though at the end of the post, I'll discuss what we can do to address Prof. Cuff's valid concern for clear writing.

A second difficulty is that "based on..." adverbials occur in many structures where something other than a noun phrase precedes. A small sample from today's New York Times:

Based on the contents of his e-mail account, Jeremy was charged with an extra count of possession of child pornography.
Soens contends the lawsuits should be dismissed based on an Iowa law that shields school officials from liability five years after a student leaves the school.
Deadlines vary based on individual plans submitted by the mining companies.
I don't think it's appropriate, based on the content of the film, to be screening it at this time.

Should all adverbial uses of "based on" be banned, or just those that follow a noun and therefore create the potential ambiguity that worries Prof. Cuff? I can't claim to have exact figures, but based on reading through the 50 examples of "based on" in today's New York Times, I'll guess that less than 20% of the uses of adverbial "based on..." are post-nominal. You could substitute "given" or "on the basis of" or other near-synonms for the other 80% -- but why?

A third difficulty is the shakiness of the claim that when post-nominal "based on..." is used as an adverbial adjunct rather than as a nominal modifier, this inevitably (or even usually) causes confusion. The three examples that I found in today's New York Times all seem perfectly clear to me, in context:

The Pentagon informed Pelosi's staff this week that she would get a plane, based on availability, and that nonstop service could not be guaranteed. (link)
One of the unidentified people said EMI would decide whether to forge ahead with the strategy based on the size of the offers. (link)
Revenues from sales of super-premium vodka jumped the most -- more than 43 percent -- a figure sure to catch the attention of distillers because vodka, based on sales, is the most popular spirit in the country. (link)

A fourth difficulty -- but one that points the way to the solution -- is that even the nominal-modifier use of "based on..." is potentially ambiguous, as in this sentence from today's New York Times:

But “The Other Here,” performed at Japan Society on Wednesday, never manages to attain the magic of “Shunkin,” an older work by the company based on the writings of another Japanese writer, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. (link)

Here "based on" needs to skip over the immediately preceding "company" so as to reach its target, the "older work".

Though this sentence is no jewel, it doesn't seem perniciously ambiguous to me. I wouldn't have noticed it if I weren't scanning every instance of "based on" in today's online edition -- but it's surely no better than the earlier sentence about EMI's deciding whether to forge ahead based on the size of the offers.

The fact is, the ambiguous affinities of English words and phrases are always ready to make trouble for writers and readers. There's no magic way to avoid this. You can't eliminate the potential for structural ambiguity by inventing stylistic rules for individual English words and phrases. You need to look at your writing from the reader's point of view, and fix any constructions that are likely to be confusing. There are often good reasons to create and to follow stylistic rules, but in the end, the only way to ensure clear writing is to write clearly.

[Ben Yagoda put it more succinctly, in a response to Prof. Cuff's email (which included a much longer list of allegedly problematic examples):

Based on my reading of the examples, I conclude that the use of "based on" to mean "on the basis of" is harmless, in and of itself, and has a certain degree of economy and forcefulness. However, like many locutions, it can be used ineptly by poor writers and lead to ambiguity or confusion in certain sentence orderings.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:15 PM

More prosecutorial trick questions

In an earlier post I described how a prosecutor's questions helped a Hawaiian union business agent get  convicted of perjury. There I gave only four of the counts used against him. Here I provide two more counts. Remember that Steven Suyat was a high school educated Pidgin English speaker from the island of Molokai who was tried in the urban context of Honolulu. In my earlier post I described how Suyat would not be sucked into agreeing that unions organized contractors. In his way of thinking, unions organized workers, not cntractors. No matter. To the prosecutor this counted as perjury.

Now for counts five and six, both of which required him to define "scab." Again the counts were taken from Suyat's testimony as a witness in the trial of two other union representatives.

Count 5
Prosecutor: What does the word "scab" mean?
Suyat: I have no recollection.

Count 6
Prosecutor: You don't know what the word "scab" means?
Suyat: No.

Now surely Suyat knew and used the word, "scab," the same way that most unions do when they refer to workers who won't join the union, to union members who don't honor picket lines during labor strikes, to non-union workers hired to replace strikers, and to employees who agree to work for less than the union rate. In fact, this is how dictionaries define the word. So why did Suyat say that he didn't know what "scab" means?

When asked the meaning of a word, there are at least three ways to answer:
1. Give a dictionary definition
2. Give a personal definition
3. Give someone else's definition that you've heard

The prosecutor gave no indication that he wanted Suyat's personal definition of "scab." Being a dutiful citizen and desperately trying to comply with what he thought was wanted in the unfamiliar and terrifying context of the courtroom, Suyat answered, essentially, what he thought the question required -- that he couldn't recall any dictionary definitions he might have read. He had "no recollection" of such a definition and he was too frightened about being wrong to venture one of his own. Maybe the prosecutor actually understood this because in his immediately following question he referred to Suyat's notebook and asked him for his personal definition:

Prosecutor: So you don't remember what you meant by it when you put it down here?
Suyat: Well, yeah.
Prosecutor: Thank you. I have no further questions your honor.

The prosecutor illustrates two unfair language tricks here. First, he ignored the positive and negative concord rules of English. If a question is asked using positive words (containing no negatives such as "not" or "never"), a response of agreement is also made with positives. For example, if the question had been, "That happened, didn't it?" and the respondent wanted to agree that it happened, the answer of agreement would be "yes." But if the question was, "That didn't happen, did it?" the response of agreement would be "no." That is, positive questions are agreed to with positive answers and negative questions are ageed to with negative answers. The reverse is true when the respondent wants to disagree.

Here the prosecutor asked the question negatively ("you don't remember"), meaning that agreement with it would have to be couched with a negative, such as "no," meaning "I agree that I don't remember." But Suyat didn't say this here. His positive response, "Well, yeah," indicated that he indeed did remember what he meant when he wrote "scab" in his notebook. In other words, although he was unable to give a dictionary definition of "scab" in counts five and six, he certainly could give a personal definition when the prosecutor finally asked him if he had one. Of course, it would have been beneficial for him if he had answered more completely, "Well, yeah, sure I remember it," but people often don't do this, especially in contexts where every word they speak is subject to sharp scrutiny.

One question here might be whether Suyat really had contol of English negative and positive concord rules. The best evidence comes from his own speech in his testimony. There were many instances when he gave clear evidence that he could use English concord rules appropriately. The following is only one example:

Prosecutor: But that never happened with regard to supplies or anything? He never wanted to put up the picket line just to stop supplies from coming in?
Suyat: No, no, no.

Here the prosecutor asked the question negatively ("He never wanted to put up the picket lines"), meaning that agreement with it would have to be couched with a negative response. What Suyat's "No, no, no" indicated was, "I agree that he never wanted to put up picket lines just to stop supplies from coming in." In this, and in many other examples, the prosecutor just went right on, indicating that he accepted Suyat's ability to use English negative and concord rules appropriately in his answers. All but in Count 6, of course.

The second prosecutorial trick was to end this exchange with a "hit and run" strategy. I describe and illustrate the frequent use of this discourse strategy in my 2006 book, Creating Language Crimes (Oxford University Press). Undercover law enforcement officers who secretly tape record their targets sometimes introduce a topic that is potentially damaging to the target, then change the subject quickly, blocking the target from saying anything about it, especially when the response might include possibly exculpatory statements. In trials, lawyers for both sides frequently use the "hit and run" strategy when they ask their questions to witnesses. Often this gives the jury the impression that the lawyers want them to have, then the lawyer stops abruptly before any further explanation can be made. Since lawyers completely dominate courtroom exchanges, the witness doesn't have a chance to complain or clarify. In this case the prosecutor got what he hoped would convince the jury of the absurd notion that Suyat didn't know what he meant when he wrote "scab" in his own notebook. This was damaging for Suyat.

You might wonder where Suyat's attorney was during all of this. The simple fact was that he didn't have one. In the trial that led up to his charges of perjury, he was called by the prosecution as a hostile witness so he had no lawyer of his own who might have cared to clarify this during cross examination.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 06:15 PM

Thursday night and Friday morning

The event last night at the Free Library of Philadelphia ("Abusage and Usage") was a lot of fun. More than 300 people showed up, despite the cold weather. Carolyn Marvin kicked things off with a set of questions for the panelists (Erin McKean, John McWhorter, Ben Yagoda and me), and then took questions from the audience. I enjoyed it, and I think that most of the other participants (on stage and off) did too.

There were some questions that didn't get an adequate answer on the spot, and I promised to take them up here on Language Log at greater length. I got an interesting follow-up email this afternoon from an audience member, about the use of "based on" as an adverbial adjunct, and I'll post something about it a bit later.

Meanwhile, John McWhorter was interviewed this morning by Marty Moss-Coane on Radio Times this morning, talking about the Biden "articulate" brouhaha:

Sen. Joe Biden created quite a stir last week when he called Barak Obama "articulate" and "clean." What do these comments have to say about politics, stereotypes and racism in America. We talk with linguist JOHN McWHORTER, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and SARAH WILLIE, associate provost and associate professor at Swarthmore.

You can listen to a streaming version here, or download the mp3.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:41 PM

Prescriptivism in the Trenches

My post the other day on why we need to bow to prescriptivism in the classroom in order to do right by our students raised at least a few eyebrows around Language Log Plaza, but I am going to stick my neck out again by posting a response I received from a reader, Laura Petelle. Laura's audience is high-school students, and if there were more teachers like her out there, we linguists might not have so much trouble convincing our college students that "Standard English" does not come to us via divine revelation. (And although Laura says she's not a linguist, her analysis of the semantic distinction "it's broke" and "it's broken" is intriguing -- I've never heard of such a distinction before; does it ring a bell with anyone else out there?)

I was a student rep on admissions committees at both Notre Dame and Duke, and now I'm a small business owner and adjunct professor. I help out a lot of local kids who are applying to the "name" schools and want advice, and I teach some ACT prep on the side.

Particularly in the small towns out in the county, a lot of these kids are the first in their family to go to college -- often the first in their high school to take a shot at Yale or Berkeley. I emphasize every single ACT class I teach (and every single student who gets pointed to me for advice) that while "It's broke" or "It's froze" is a perfectly acceptable and comprehensible method of communication in Central Illinois (it means "it is broken/frozen in such a way that it is impacting my life at this instant." So, "What happened to your car? I noticed you didn't drive it today." "It's broken." But "I'd like a burrito this instant." "It's froze."), but that if they say that in a college interview or, God forbid, write it in a college essay, they will be written off as uneducated hicks. I then relate to them how when I took my Chicago prepositions ("If you go to the mall, can I go with?") to North Carolina, my Southern friends all laughed their asses off and kept saying, "Didn't you ever learn not to end sentences with prepositions? You sound like a backwoods hick!" (This makes them feel better that someone from suburban Chicago also gets accused of language hickism -- many of them have a lot of anxiety about being rural kids competing with suburban kids.)

I always emphasize that it's not so much right and wrong, that people speak differently everywhere, but that there's a certain amount of snobbery in knowing "standard usage" and adhering to it, like it's a password that says, "I know the code, I have learned the secrets of this society of academics/lawyers/receptionists and can be trusted to behave appropriately." I tell them they HAVE to learn it and know when to use it unless they want to shoot themselves in the foot on resumes and applications, but they don't have to believe it's God's Preferred Way of Speaking English.

I've had more than one student come up to me after an ACT class and say, "You're the first English teacher I've had who didn't tell me my mother spoke like an uneducated hick," or "This is the first time anyone's explained why standard usage is important."

It's sad that pointless prescriptivism may keep these kids from top schools. But that's why we absolutely HAVE to teach it to them, so they're not fighting an uphill battle on the language front. They're already at a disadvantage without the money, resources, and connections wealthy suburban Chicago students have in spades. It would be brutal not to teach them the "code" they need to pass the gatekeepers.

Update: David Marjanovic suggests that the midwestern construction in Can I go with? might have arisen as a calque -- a literal translation -- of German Kann ich mitgehen?" "Can I go with?". This may well be correct, especially as the mit element, meaning "with", is separated from the verb in some sentence types, as for instance in Kommen Sie mit? "Are you coming with?" The German construction, unlike the English one, belongs to the standard dialect. And, crucially, there were once quite a few German speakers in the Midwest.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 09:27 AM

Purple haze, all in my brain

Parsing's a bitch, ain't it? At least, that's the hook for a recent Newsweek article about a theory of the brain's mechanism for telling time, which involves tracking signal propogation in neurons following perceptual events, or something; it was a bit hard to tell from the article's description.

The work in question is by UCLA neurobiologist Dean Buonomano,1 and among his webpages there's some nice java animations and sound files illustrating the brain's temporal abillities, suitable for intriguing undergraduates with. One of them shows that timing is important in speech perception. If an [s] sound is followed by a few milliseconds of silence and then by the vowel [i], the listener perceives the [s] as the lone onset consonant in a syllable [si]. If the [s] is separated from the [i] by just a few more milliseconds of silence, on the other hand, the listener perceives the silence as a voiceless stop between the [s] and the [i]. You get the impression of having heard the syllable [sti], instead of [s]...[i].2 The point seems to be that in order to perform this feat, the brain has to have some quite sensitive mechanism for distinguishing small temporal intervals.

The Newsweek article starts off with a famous mondegreen to lure the reader, but then doesn't do anything to explain how that particular misparse is related to the question of timing. Never fear, though, Language Log is here!

So, here's the mondegreen in question:

Jimi sounds like he's saying, "Scuse me, while I kiss this guy", when in fact the lyric is "Scuse me, while I kiss the sky". That is, the listener mishears the sequence

Now, it is a puzzle why this would happen. One doesn't normally mishear /g/ for /k/ or vice versa; you wouldn't mix up 'coat' and 'goat', for example, in the usual case. But in Purple Haze, some particularities of English pronunciation are at work to mislead you.

/k/ and /g/ are usually described as being pronounced exactly alike except for the vibration of the vocal cords: /k/ is voiceless and /g/ is voiced. Otherwise everything about the configuration of the tongue and oral cavity are identical -- they're both velar stops. In fact, however, there's more than one way to skin a /k/ in English, and some /k/s are more like /g/ than others.

English voiceless stops are pronounced in several different ways depending on their position in the syllable. A voiceless stop alone at the beginning of a syllable gets an extra oomph, an extra puff of air, making for a longer, more perceptible period of voicelessness before the vowel sound starts up (a longer "Voice Onset Time"). That extra puff of air is called aspiration, for those of you keeping track at home, and is transcribed with a superscripted 'h' after the consonant: [kh]. In coat, e.g., that initial /k/ is aspirated, so it's not pronounced just [koʊt], but rather [khoʊt], when you really get down to it. That aspiration really makes the voicelessness of the /k/ stand out and sound quite different from the voiced /g/ at the beginning of 'goat', [goʊt]. You'd never get them mixed up.

The trick is, the aspiration doesn't show up everywhere. Voiceless stops are not aspirated when they occur after an /s/ at the beginning of a syllable. (You can feel the difference if you put your hand in front of your face and alternate saying 'pot', [phɑt], and 'spot' [spɑt] -- in the first you should feel the puff on /p/ but not in the second). In such cases, the absence of the little puff of air means that the voiceless period associated with the stop is shorter and less perceptible. The upshot is that the /k/ sound following /s/ in complex syllable onsets sounds a lot more like a /g/ than other /k/s do.

This isn't normally a problem, because there aren't any syllables in English that begin with /sg/ -- that's just not a legal English onset consonant cluster, so it doesn't matter if the /k/ sounds like a /g/, you know it has to be a /k/ in that context. But in connected speech, you might get a word that ends in a vowel (like the) in front of a word that starts /sk/ (like sky)...and in the right circumstances, the listener might think that the /s/ belonged with the preceding word that ended in the vowel, for instance if there's a very frequent alternate word (like this), suitable to the syntactic and semantic context, which sounds just like the vowel-ending word (the) but ending in an /s/.

Imagine the listener got as far as making that mistake, of parsing the /s/ as part of the previous word, hearing this ... rather than the s... Then the next problem they'd have to solve would be to try to identify the next consonant in line in the speech stream. It's definitely a velar stop -- but is it /k/ or /g/? "Well," their perceptual system reasons to itself, "if it were a /k/ at beginning of a word like this, it would be aspirated -- I'd expect a longer period of voicelessness right here. Given that there's not too much voicelessness, I guess it must be a /g/." And presto! 'kiss the sky' turns into 'kiss this guy'.3

So it does all have to do with timing after all -- the brain has to detect the difference between 30ms of voicelessness and 60ms of voicelessness, and the research described in the Newsweek article is about figuring out how it pulls that off.

Oddly enough, just as Prof. Shuy was posting the Newsweek clipping on the bulletin board next to the water cooler, I was reading a blog post all about this exact same thing over at In A Word: It's all about persbective. How would you spell that word of Mary Poppins's?

Update: Dan Everett writes:

However, the parsing shows also how important context is, because no self-respecting acid head from the 60s would have misparsed this. We all knew that Purple Haze was a brand of acid and that it caused you to want to kiss the sky.
Another Everett case for the interdependence of grammar and culture. The man's obsessed!

1Anarthrous, anarthrous, anarthrous. It's just a nifty word.

2The text below the sound file refers to the syllable as a 'phoneme'. Just carelessness, we assume. We're nothing here at LL if not charitable.

3Of course it's not really thinking this. It's just a network of neurons firing away, trying to settle into a pattern that constitutes a sensible linguistic representation for that stream of sound, given all the contextual factors involved. 'Kiss the sky' and 'kiss this guy' are both strongly activated given Jimi's sound waves. In fact, probably '...kiss this guy' gets an activation edge from the semantic context. Kissing usually involves an animate direct object, after all. Those who hear 'kiss this guy' are seriously underestimating the degree to which the narrator in the song is acting funny.


Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:30 AM

February 08, 2007

Word rage -- not!

What's disconcerting about the "pilotless drone" call is that the guy seems genuinely upset. And with all respect to Mark, Geoff, Roger, Heidi, Arnold, and the other LanguageLoggers who have devoted innumerable posts to the phenomenon of language anger, the interesting thing about word rage is that it almost never really is. Those folks who talk about yelling at their radio when they hear someone use less instead of fewer, or who, like Dick Cavett, threaten to "pop" the senator who spoke of his "incredulous" experiences -- they're not really angry at all. It's all a exercise in counterfeit camp. And by the by, it demonstrates just what an irrelevant business language criticism has become.

If you take it literally, the striking thing about the indignation of modern language snobs is how ostentatiously disproportionate it always is. Take the comments that were offered by the members of the usage panel assembled for the Harper Dictionary of English Usage back in 1975 on the use of gift as a verb: "loathesome" (historian Lawrence Lafore), "desipicable" (Harrison Salisbury), "horrible" (Barbara Tuchman), and "barbarous" (Harold Schonberg). "It disgusts me," said Herman Wouk, and the novelist Ben Lucian Berman described it as "one of the reasons why America is in such bad shape today." The use of hopefully as a sentence adverb prompted reactions like "an abomination," "slack-jawed, common, and sleazy" and "one of the most horrible usages of our time" (presumably just nosing out "final solution").

But the very extravagance of those denunciations makes it obvious that they weren't meant to be taken literally. A malaprop or solecism can be irksome, but it's never more than that. Sleazy, loathesome, despicable -- in other areas of life those are words that we use with circumspection, and almost always to describe things a lot worse than saying "Gift her with a new coat" or "Hopefully, we will win." In fact most of us wouldn't even use words that strong for the kinds of linguistic behavior that can make us genuinely angry, like the use of weasel words by politicians or corporate spokespersons. If the panelists really did believe that these matters deserved the same level of public concern as other social and political issues, you can bet they would vent their disapproval a lot more moderately.

Lynne Truss has ridden this shtick to the top of the bestseller lists. To hear her tell it, not a day goes by that a faulty punctuation mark doesn't leave her appalled, gasping, shuddering, gazing in horror, or stopping dead in her tracks with her fingers in her mouth. Of course anybody who is actually walking around in state of shock and outrage over the punctuation of grocery store signs and movie posters should get back on her meds immediately. But if you camp up your pedantry, nobody can accuse you of taking yourself too seriously.

I say "camp" because on the surface, at least, those outbursts bring to mind the stylized, self-mocking horror that people use to ironize other kinds of aesthetic judgments. Let me repeat what I wrote about Truss in a "Fresh Air" piece a couple of years ago:

Truss's book bears a resemblance to another surprise cultural phenomenon, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"Ö Those operatic denunciations of punctuation errors are what you'd expect from the "Queer Eye" bunch if they added a grammar makeover specialist: "Oh... My... God -- Did you hear that pronoun?"

But for pop grammarians like Truss, you can't help feeling that the self-mockery is a cover for self-congratulation. She may make fun of herself as a stickler, but she clearly considers herself to be one of an elect -- someone whose sleep is troubled by a misplaced apostrophe even if it's twenty mattresses down.

That's where the resemblance to "Queer Eye" breaks down. As Susan Sontag pointed out 40 years ago in a famous essay, true camp is always infused with generosity, even when it affects a malicious tone -- it's about relishing, not judging. Hence the crucial last scene of every "Queer Eye" episode, where the team is shown chatting fondly about the zhlubby straight guy they've turned into a swan.

But for all her energetic jollity, generosity isn't Truss's strength. She launches into arias of indignation over what most people would consider pretty venial offenses, like superfluous apostrophes in a pizza ad, the name of a pop group, or a sign over the vegetable bin.

That's the theme I keep hearing in all those outbursts of language rage. The melodramatic tone may be intended to stave off the charge that you take these matters too seriously, but it's also a way of affirming your solidarity with the thin red line of people who pride themselves on taking this stuff very seriously indeed.

As best I can tell, that comic indignation is a new note in language criticism. At least you won't hear anything like it in Fowler, who cut the ordinary speaker a lot more slack, and would have recoiled at the vulgarity of preening over one's superiority to one's greengrocer. In fact those expressions of horror over solecisms would have sounded genuinely appalling back in an age when the inability to get less and fewer right was actually considered an impediment to social advancement.

Then, too, Fowler assumed he was speaking for and to a broad class of educated speakers who cared about usage matters, not a privileged coterie, just as Addison and Matthew Arnold and Orwell did. Whereas contemporary usage writers no longer pretend to be speaking to matters of general concern. Rather, they depict themselves as the members of a beleaguered minority:

As long as there exists an active minority that knows how to distinguish between disinterested and uninterested, it is not too late to fight for such discriminating usage. --John Simon

People who take pains about the language are not just now in danger, through their vast number, of bringing about a population explosion. --Joseph Epstein

It seems harsh to deny guidance to the lonely and diminishing minority who may genuinely need and want it. --Kingsley Amis

You can't imagine Fowler speaking of a "lonely and diminishing minority" of people who care about usage -- if that were the case, why bother? And by any objective measure, that embattled tone is hard to justify. "How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are obliged to take refuge together in caves?" Truss asks in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but "caverns" would be probably be more appropriate as venues for assembling the three million people who bought her book. But despite the large audience that still exists for this sort of writing, the tone is an indication of how usage criticism has been culturally marginalized: cut off from its historical roots in language scholarship and serious social criticism, and enlisted as a kind of copy desk for the cultural right. With a few (very notable) exceptions, it has become the province of garrulous journos, dyspeptic curmudgeons, and the seat-of-the-pants syntacticians who populate the usage listservs and web zines, delivering themselves of the grammatical wisdom they learned in seventh grade at the end of Sister Petra's ruler.

Now I'll grant there's a considerable satisfaction in thinking of yourself as a member of a lonely and diminishing minority, and in our civilian capacities, we linguists can cluck with the best of them over the solecisms in the memos that come down from the dean's office. In fact a certain amount of hyperbole is pretty much inevitable when we're condemning linguistic peccadillos. "It sets my teeth on edge," "it drives me crazy" -- well, no, not actually, but those are the phrases that come with the system disk.

But in an odd way, that satisfaction is inconsistent with getting genuinely angry over the linguistic failings of the common herd. If you really believed that these were grave offenses against the greater moral order, it would be hard to take pleasure in being among the few who avoided them. These days, being a grammar snob is like being a devoté of Phish or Douglas Sirk films -- if everybody were into this stuff, it wouldn't be half as much fun.

Which is what makes the "pilotless drone" guy so weird and disturbing. Can you imagine what his wife has to go through at the breakfast table?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 08:39 PM

Droning on

People who rant about the way their language is used come at things with theories about how the language works that are firmly held, but are not made explicit and not examined.  The problem is, their premises are so often wrong.

With this in mind, let's take a brief look at Drone Man on "pilotless drones".

Drone Man eventually froths himself up to the raving "Is it sinking into your thick skull, you high school drop-out?", over the San Francisco Chronicle's having printed a reference to "pilotless drones".  The idea is that a drone (in the context of aircraft) is by definition pilotless, so that "pilotless drone" is tautologous; "You tell me, is there any other kind of a drone, other than a pilotless drone?", Drone Man demands as he works himself into a frenzy of language rage.

Hidden in this is a theory about how the semantics of modification works:

Intersective modification: the denotation of an Adj N combination is the intersection of the denotations of the Adj and the N.  That is, Adj N has the same denotation as N plus a restrictive relative clause containing Adj: N that/who is/are Adj.

On this theory, "pilotless drones" means 'drones that are pilotless', and that's just stupid, because "pilotless" doesn't restrict the denotation of "drones".

Now, I grant right away that there's plenty of intersective modification around.  My "a brief look" above is understood intersectively, and so for that matter is "intersective modification" itself.  The thing is that there's ALSO a fair amount of non-intersective modification around.

If I tell you, "My supportive friends helped me through tough times", you'll probably understand me to be asserting that my friends are (all) supportive and that they helped me through tough times, not that only my friends who are supportive did so (implicating that I had non-supportive friends, who were of no help), which would be the intersective reading.  In fact, "supportive friends" is ambiguous between an intersective reading ('my friends who are supportive') and this appositive one ('my friends, who are supportive'):

Appositive modification: the denotation of an Adj N combination is the same as that of N plus a non-restrictive (a.k.a. appositive) relative clause containing Adj: N, which/who is/are Adj.

Plenty of Adj N combinations are, out of context, ambiguous between intersective and appositive modification; but context, background information, and reasoning about other people's intentions are usually enough for us to decide which reading is the appropriate one.

Back to Drone Man.  What's his problem (beyond being appallingly short-tempered)?  He's assuming that all Adj N modification is intersective.  But this is just false.  Drone Man's tirade is entertaining, but it's based on a misunderstanding of English grammar.  (Cue Emily Litella: "Never mind!")

Now for the subtlety.  You might think that even the appositive reading of "pilotless drones" would be stupid, since drones are all pilotless.  But look at the explicitly appositive version: "drones, which are pilotless".  This isn't stupid at all; it REMINDS us, in a helpful way, that drones are pilotless.  In general, even when the denotation of Adj is included within the denotation of N, appositive Adj N can do useful discourse work.  As a bonus, since intersective Adj N is stupid in this situation, the potential ambiguity is eliminated in practice, in favor of the appositive reading.

Now whether this is what the Chronicle writer intended is another matter.  "Pilotless drones" could have been an error.  But I understood it, charitably, as having a reading that would make sense -- the appositive reading.

Now an example with appositive Adj N in this inclusion situation, in a context where the writer's intentions are pretty clear.  This is from a comment by "waxwing" on Dave Barry's blog, following up on another poster's report that, omigod, there are earthworms up to 11 feet long:

OK, I must say it...does it bother anyone else that legless earthworms are measured in feet?

Very effective, I think.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:25 AM

"Smite them hip and thigh"

Dan Everett wasn't one of the 573 people who commented on Dick Cavett's It's only language essay, but he definitely has an opinion, which he sent me by email.

It is time to take a stand. So I will, however low the platform I am standing upon.

I love Dick Cavett. He deserves our love and respect if for no other reason than he had John Lennon on on September 08, 1971 to discuss, for the first time on US live tv, the breakup of the Beatles and again on May 05, 1972 to play 'Woman is the nigger of the world', which no other show or network wanted to broadcast. It was extremely controversial. And his wit and criticisms (however subtle) were up there with the Smothers Brothers in providing moral support to those of us males still trying to avoid going to Vietnam (either because we were afraid of getting killed or because we didn't think there was any particular reason to kill Vietnamese).

So he now says that people might profit from thinking more about the words they use. As a linguist I know that it is naive and silly to tell people that. Their words will take on whatever meanings they want them to and our job is just to watch and observe. But I am considering therapy from all the times I hear 'VERB you and I' (which is why I cannot bear to hear Sting's stupid song about kissing his woman in some old barley fields).

Not as a linguist, but as a private citizen, I applaud Cavett and say 'Smite them hip and thigh'.

Tell it, brother!

[John Cowan sent email to point out that Sting's barley-fields song, "Fields of Gold", doesn't actually have any instances of "you and I" in it, in any grammatical position. After some consultation with friends and relations, Dan suggests that he probably have meant "Rock Steady", which does have the couplet

Saw an ad in the newspaper that caught my eye
I said to my baby this sounds like the ticket for you and I

(Dan didn't say so, but he might have some other stylistic reasons for disliking the words to "Fields of Gold", and therefore associated the song emotionally with his bad feelings about "you and I" in object position.)

In any case, all this worry about the actual song lyrics is contrary to essential spirit of Dan's reaction. As Stephen Colbert explained, back on October 17, 2006:

And that brings us to tonight's word: truthiness.

Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, "Hey, that's not a word." Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.

So Dan, stand up to the lyrics police! In your role as a linguist, we know that you care about who actually said what when. But when you react in your role as private citizen, who's John Cowan to tell you that Sting didn't use "you and I" in object position in "Field of Gold"? There's the facts, and then there's the truth. ]

[Update #2 -- Ben Zimmer suggests that the offending song might have been Sting's "I was brought to my senses":

For then without rhyme or reason
The two birds did rise up to fly
And where the two birds were flying
I swear I saw you and I
I swear I saw you and I

And Sim Aberson suggests the Doors' "Touch me":

Now, I'm gonna love you
Till the heavens stop the rain
I'm gonna love you
Till the stars fall from the sky
For you and I


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:09 AM

"If only language could be 'fixed'"

Dick Cavett's maiden "Talk Show" post over at the NYT has now racked up 573 comments. This wouldn't be worth noting at one of the popular political sites like Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs, but for a blog behind the Times Select wall, it's a lot. In comparison, Stanley Fish's long blog essay on presidential signing statements, posted a week earlier and still featured today on the index page at nytimes.com, has a mere 55 comments so far.

This is another sign of the American public's pent-up enthusiasm for the analysis of language, though in this case, we're seeing the peevish rather than the playful side of this passion.

Some of Cavett's commenters are simply a form of applause:

#5 Oh thank you, Mr. Cavett! I love this column.
#10 Thank you! Thank you! This was like manna from heaven.
#28 A wonderful comment on a woeful truth. This should be required reading for everyone.
#30 Amen.
#98 Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

A few comments hint at that understudied pathology, language masochism:

#68 Am eternally grateful when someone corrects me.
#70 Brilliant! I am afraid to write more lest I receive an edited response by the author of this great piece.
#443 Well you have gone and done it, shattering my confidence in my ability to speak English. Thanks because apparently I needed the reminder.
#498 I am so thankful that you are around to protect our language in your inimitable entertaining way. (Boy, I hope I didn’t screw up that sentence).
#516 Please sir, may I have another?

OK, I fabricated #516. Several contributors do hint that their word rage has its roots in abusive family life, e.g. #73:

great article. my favorite movie scene is from the first adams family movie. as they are plumeting to their death in an elevator they decide to correct one anothers grammer. this sums up my childhood quite nicely.

But most of the commenters just want to register their own "pet peeves". Some use exactly that over-used phrase:

#8 Terrific article, but what about my pet peeve: media as a singular noun! Example: Radio = communications medium. TV and newspapers = communications media.
#14 My pet peeves: “I feel badly that he lost his job” or, “There’s three great actors in this film” and, “There’s less soldiers in Baghdad than we need”.
#44 My pet peeve is the confusion of “good” and “well” especially among sports figures.
#101 This is the most unique article I’ve read on language, and now you know one of my pet peeves.
#121 My pet peeve is the much used “less taxes” as applied to reducing the amount of money we pay the government. It’s either “fewer taxes” as in a smaller number of things being taxed by the government, OR “less tax” meaning less money paid as tax(es).
#122 One of my pet peeves is “bacteria” used as a singular, when the singular is bacterium.

Others find somewhat less ritualistic ways to express their irritation:

#2 The flight attendant item reminds me of another favorite: We will be flying into Philadelphia. Ouch. Not even funny anymore, I suppose. Related would be: He turned himself into the police. Presto, change-o.
#6 a mis-usage that I see constantly is confusion between “discreet” and “discrete” — usually the latter word meant to describe the former definition.
#9 And what of “tenent” - almost daily now - for tenet? Does he merely rent a position rather than hold it? “Different than” continues to grate though it has long since passed into the vernacular - or should that now be vernaclear?
#17 Would you please explain, sometime, to your (often learned) compatriots that “this data” should be “these data” if they actually want to sound “learned” ?

There's a sample of touching testimonials from people who see an elevated style as a way to move up socially, but haven't quite gotten it right:

#22 It is only reasonable to expect the language of any area to change when that area has a high influx of immigrates, even if they share the same language. However, one hopes that those persons who claim to have higher educations would put into practice what one assumes they came into contact with while there. But then again, apparently what they came into contact with was less than one would expect from the Ivy League Institutions. Some how I find this self-satisfactory since I lacked both the finances and the bloodline to attend any of those pristine colleges/universities and yet I am less of a ‘Language Slacker’.
#27 By the way, only one of my older relatives even graduated from high school, and only one (who dropped out of high school) graduated from college, which happened to be West Point. Yet all of them valued the English language more highly than our president and his cohorts do.
#34 Thank you sir for making the NYT the source for educational material. From the editors to the beat writers to the opinion makers, the paper’s staff excell in providing readers something worth reading. Keep up the good work. And please keep hammering the unchecked war promoters with your cutting remarks.
#355 First I would like to express how as a young girl your talk show was very much a thing to watch. Now I’m 53 years old and seem I take more a interest now we have the Internet to post comments as such here to your blog.
English is more than just a language to me. And as you express in this blog it is to you too and reading comments to those out there in society too.

Several commenters jumped on Cavett for using quote as a noun in the sentence "A good example is the great but frequently wounded quote of Mark Twain’s on writing, a quote that causes, when done right, my forearms to horripilate."

#53 Surely you distinguish between the verb “[to] quote” and the noun “quotation”. Or are the post-Webster’s Second dictionaries letting us down here as well?
#272 To quote is a verb; the noun is quotation.
#438 Realize that I’m being picky, but I would prefer that even you refer to quotations as “quotations” rather than “quotes.”
#572 Quotation. Quote is the verb, quotation is the noun. I found that error fairly entertaining in an article complaining about abuses of English. That said, I am in complete agreement with the author.

No one objected to the awkward placement of the when-clause or the prissily pretentious "horripilate".

As usual, the valiant defenders of the language are a bit vague about the facts of the language they cherish, which in this case include the fact that quote as a noun has been in the OED for some time, with citations like this one from T.S. Eliot writing to Ezra Pound in 1922:

Do you mean not use the Conrad quote or simply not put Conrad's name to it?

And the Century dictionary of 1891 has

That quote is from Cyril Tourneur's poem "The Author to his Booke", published in 1600, which starts:

1 O were thy margents, cliffes of itching lust;
2 Or quotes to chalke out men the way to sinne;
3 Then were there hope, that multitudes wold thrust
4 To buy thee: but sith that thou dost beginne
5 To pull the curtaines backe, that closde vice in;
6 Expect but flowts: for t'is the haire of crime,
7 To shunne the breath that doth discloude it sinne.

In fairness, Tourneur means quote in the obsolete sense of a marginal reference or note, whence the wonderful image of the margins of a printed page as "cliffs of itching lust". Still, quote, the noun, was around long before Webster's Third was begun.

Moving from careless crankiness to preposterous pseudo-pedantry, #489 is worried about the preposition at the end of Cavett's essay ("It’s only language. It’s only what we live by."):

#489 Very Funny! What I find most intriguing, however, is how he ended the piece with: “It’s only what we live by.” I wonder if he meant to end the sentence with a preposition…? I sure hope so after writing an entire column about the proper use of language!

Some some other comments are even funnier:

#177 the sniveling snools of academentia are surely clucking over this mordant piece. if only language could be “fixed” in both senses of the word — sam’l johnson would be resting easy.

"Fixed" is a word with many senses -- the OED gives 11 -- but I immediately thought of the one that means "desexed". As the Winnipeg Humane Society explains:

After being fixed, your pet will be less aggressive toward other dogs or cats, will be more affectionate towards you and will be less likely to wander.

And you'll avoid those pesky linguistic puppies and kittens as well!

My favorite comment:

#565 My, what a group of curmudgeons and old biddies.

Of course, I aspire to the status of curmudgeon myself.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:11 AM

February 07, 2007

Cavett kvetches

In his first blog post at the NYT ("It's only language", 2/4/2007), Dick Cavett keeps his emotions in check as he recites his catechism of linguistic complaints. He does threaten that "if I ever find myself once again with the senator who spoke of his 'incredulous' experiences, I shall pop him one" -- but has anyone who said "I shall pop him one" ever actually done so?

Though he has better self-control than drone man, Cavett is clearly one of those people that David Foster Wallace calls "snoots", whose focus is on their own emotional reactions to real or imagined errors, rather than on the true history and current state of the language. Cavett's discussion of lie vs. lay is a case in point.

It’s gotten so bad for “lie” and “lay” that if a candidate got the votes of only those who don’t know the difference, it would be a landslide. Upon hearing, “He was outside laying on the lawn,” I remember being glad my dad thought I was worldly enough to get it when he asked, “And who was under him on the lawn?” Wouldn’t anybody just know you wouldn’t “lie it on the table”? Try playing it as it lies. It works just as well.

This is so carelessly written that it's hard to tell what he's trying to say. But I think he's telling us that it's prescriptively "correct" to say "play it as it lays", and wrong to say "play it as it lies" -- which is false, as you can learn from Geoff Pullum's classic post, "Lie or lay? Some disastrously unhelpful guidance" (5/10/2004), and Arnold Zwicky's earlier remarks in "Sometimes you just have to play it as it lays".

Cavett's style of usage demagoguery is obviously popular -- his maiden post has garnered 509 comments so far (though I'm afraid you'll have to sign up for Times Select to read them). Well, when the word rage subsides, we'll be here to provide therapy and rehabilitation for the survivors.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:19 PM

"Is it sinking into your thick skull, you high school drop-out?"

Heidi Harley's note ("Do you recognize this rat... ", 2/7/2007) could not be more timely. She's spreading the news about the "language anger management" curriculum that Roger Shuy has been developing, and there's someone in the bay area who's clearly been in critical need of an intervention for some time:

The original podcast is here, and now there's a dance remix version:

[Update -- Stephen Dubner quotes a reader's argument that the call is a hoax -- perpetrated, according to the hypothesis, by none other than Matt Groening.

Dubner's contribution to the argument seems unconvincing:

In retrospect, it also struck me as odd the podcast was introduced by Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor of the Chronicle (itís a bit like George Bush recording the White House voicemail greeting).

But Bronstein also introduces other items in the same series, for example this one.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:04 PM

Do you recognize this rat...

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....in yourself?

Consider enrolling today in one of LL's excellent "Langer Management" courses. You can select from 12 complete programs of study, detailed in the course catalog. Contact Registrar and Dean Roger Shuy for further information.

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Posted by Heidi Harley at 12:57 PM

Conversion Experience

From a story in today's New York Times:

Forced by a gay sex scandal to resign as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Rev. Ted Haggard now feels that after three weeks of intensive counseling, he is "completely heterosexual," says an overseer of the megachurch Mr. Haggard once led.

That's a bit hard to credit. But he can rest assured he's not gay.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 12:32 PM

Our server

At some point around 2:00 a.m. this morning, Language Log's elderly linux server began to experience some disk problems, which caused apache to fail. I went in this morning and "fixed" it (at the cost of a distressingly large number of fsck repairs, whose exact nature and consequences I don't know -- it's been a while since I wrangled inodes, and I don't have time to check the details anyhow).

As of about 9:00 a.m., the machine was up and running again, and the relevant bits seem to be OK. But I'll take this as a sign that I should make some more stable hosting arrangements. Meanwhile, let's keep our fingers crossed. If we go off the air again, you'll know why.

And while we're on the subject, let me tell you the story of this venerable machine.

It's a Dell Optiplex GX-240, which was purchased almost exactly 5 years ago, in early 2002, as part of a set of eight or ten machines that we bought for the public areas at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at Penn, where I was then director. We bought the machines (for about $1,000 each, as I recall) to replace a variety of really antique computers (some superannuated Suns, for example). We bought inexpensive, compact-format desktop machines from Dell -- as pictured above -- with Windows 2000 installed.

But as a result of reconfiguring our space to make more offices, some of the "public terminal stations" (as they used to be called back in the neolithic era) were eliminated. And as result, a couple of those Dells were not needed.

At about the same time, we started a new research project on biomedical information extraction. It was one of a pair of projects at Penn funded by NSF under the Information Technology Research (ITR) program. One of them was on language modeling of macromolecules, and the other was on information extraction from biomedical text, and so those of us who were involved in both called them ITR-L and ITR-E for short.

The ITR-E project needed a web server, for trying out new kinds of medline searches and the like. We took steps to order and set up a new machine, but there were various delays in the process. So, spying the two unused Dell boxes stacked in the corner, I commandeered one of them, and we plugged it in, installed linux, named it "itre" (after our ITR-E project), and used it until better arrangements were made.

Now fast forward to July of 2003. Geoff Pullum and I decided to give this blogging thing a try. I considered various options. The free weblog sites then available seemed too restrictive to me, and somewhat unreliable (though I might well have been wrong about this). I talked with some sysadmins of existing web servers at Penn, who were politely unenthusiastic about adding to their duties on some faculty member's whim. Paid hosting would cost money, and would require research to select a site, and negotiation to set it up, and all of that seemed like too much trouble for an experiment that we'd probably abandon after a couple of months.

Once again, my eye fell on that old Optiplex GX-240. It was idle again, sitting on an unused desk in a group office at IRCS, since by then the bioie project had found another digital home. This looked like the quickest and easiest path -- and being an inveterate taker of easy paths, I took it. I downloaded and installed Movable Type, picked the first default layout that didn't look unacceptably lame, and tried a few test posts. It worked!

Geoff Pullum, as he had agreed to do, started posting a couple of months later. In October of 2003, we started to get somewhat serious about the enterprise, recruiting Geoff Nunberg and then a series of other colleagues to join us. (Quite a few said "no", or agreed to participate and then didn't, but we've managed to pick up a congenial crew who like the format and have interesting things to say in it.)

In any case, Language Log's server has been running, essentially untouched, since it was set up in the summer of 2003. We've gone off the air a handful of times -- a couple of power outages, a couple of network outages -- but nothing more than a reboot has ever been needed. Before now.

I guess it's time to do something different. I'm not sure just what, but it's time for a change.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:34 AM

February 06, 2007

Language Anger Management

Do you find yourself shouting back to the radio when speakers say "less" when every educated and reasonable citizen knows full well that the right word is "fewer?" Does it drive you to distraction when an older adult tries to use teenage slang? Are you sick and tired of misuses of passives? If these and other language issues make you furious, you may need some help with your anger. You can probably benefit from the Language Log on-line seminars in language anger management.


Because of the complexity of the content, attendance in these sessions may have to be limited. So make your reservation early. Just send in lots of money and do the required readings. At this special price we offer an individualized training program containing useful suggestions to help you avoid blowing your stack every time you come face to face with some common language pressure points, such as:

1. The infuriating issues of determiner constraints, especially those with "less" instead of "fewer"

This problem leads thousands of readers to write angry letters to  editors and to rant about it  in their blogs. You can learn to control your anger about this problem once  the dimensions of the matter are clearly explained by our wise Language Log staff.

* Includes breathing techniques  along with group exercises

facilitator: Prof. Pullum


2.  Using and misusing the teenage register

If your children make you steamed when they spit in your face after they hear you say "cool" or "like" to them, you may need to get with it and learn to stifle your anger.

* Fieldwork using comic strips and round table discussions

facilitator: Prof. Liberman


3. Anger produced by the passive voice

If you are rankled and riled by passives, your nerves will be soothed by this session. You will learn that the passive is not a tense after all and benefit will be received from enlightened discussions about what the concept of voice might mean.

* Includes voice lessons and group activity (and a public burning of your copy of Strunk and White)

facilitator: Prof. Zwicky


4. Sensibly responding to Eskimo snow-word anger

If you are one of the multitudes who use this snowclone, you run the risk of angering those who know better, leading directly to your own serious, defensive and obviously uninformed angry outbursts. Nobody wins when everyone is mad. This is an issue for which the professor's noted snow-removal techniques will be a valuable addition to your speaking and writing skills.

* Helpline support provided if necessary

facilitator: Prof. Zimmer


5. Apology rage

(We regret to have to report that this session is closed to politicians and television actors)

If your own apologies fall flat or if you fume at the ill-formed and badly framed apologies of other people, this session will help you overcome your ineptness at saying how sorry you really are and, at the same time, reduce your anger when someone apologizes to you in a colossally stupid fashion. Either way, you'll learn what goes wrong with apologies and, once you understand this your life will be measurably anger-free.

* Includes live demonstrations

facilitators: Prof. Backovic, Prof. Pullum, Prof. Zimmer


6. Unbridled furor over the way acceptable usage is determined

Many people feel strongly that correct usage should be decided only by those who really know how language ought to be used. If you hate the way dictionaries and usage guides tell you what is okay or not, this session will lead you step by step through the way usage is actually determined. Whether you like it or not, it should help you achieve a calmer and satisfied life.

* Includes virtual fieldtrips through various stratas of society. Notepad required.

facilitators: Prof. Nunberg, Prof. Thomason


7. How to get over feeling dissed by a stripped cleft sluice

If Escher-like sentences with stuff that seems to be left out after wh- words drive you batty, this session will help calm your nerves. It's pretty advanced level material, however, and it may not be suitable for all audiences.

* Contains step by step analysis with slides and occasional role-playing

facilitator: Prof. Beaver


8. Recovering from fear and loathing about unnecessary scientific terminology

(warning: obscure linguistic terminology will not be dealt with in this session)

Do you seethe when you read obscure terms in treatises about chemistry, medicine, and biology? Does your own physician talk to you in lofty and unrecognizable terms? This session is intended to soothe your spirits and help you understand that all may not be lost after all.

* Incudes meditation techniques and complex graphics

facilitator: Prof. Harley


9. Ridding yourself of anger over exasperating inferences

Learn to control your anger when people use inferences instead of specificity and explicitness. You know what that's like. Special attention will be given to courtroom language, where this problem takes on special significance.

* Includes a brief introduction to elementary mind-reading

facilitator: Prof. Shuy


10. Wrath over amelioratives and pejoratives

Not everyone will want to attend this session. Politicians from both parties may find it a bit uncomfortable. It courageously deals with doublespeak items such as "food insecurity," "pro-life," and "detainees" in the far-too-often futile search for lexical reality. Once the true meanings are revealed, however, your anger may (or perhaps may not) subside.

* Dictionary and thesaurus required

facilitator: Prof. Poser


11. Anger over omitted commas in speech

(Sorry. This session is closed to presidential candidates)

This tricky topic is led by a renowned phonetician who will guide you in how to use proper pauses before clauses that otherwise will surely get you in trouble.

* Includes training in pacing, breathing exercises, and you might expect lots of charts, graphs, and statistical analyses.

facilitator: Prof. Liberman


12. Sidestepping the taboo term syndrome, especially the F word, N word, C word, and K word.

Anger over taboo terms works both ways. Unbridled wrath can occur both for users and readers when taboos are avoided. This session leads you through the thicket of taboo usage.

* May contain explicit language and graphic illustrations

facilitator: Prof. Pullum


These are only a few of the language anger issues that can infuriate readers these days. But it's a start. Language Log is here to serve.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 06:53 PM

Tomorrow is Yesterday

Yemba is another language where the one word means tomorrow or yesterday depending on context (cf Bill's example from Hindi). On page 160 of the Yémba-French Dictionary we have:

ezó adv. 1. demain, 2. hier.

Additionally, three tenses in this language — immediate past, present, and immediate future — are distinguished only by tone:

the chief just buried the thieves
the chief buries the thieves
the chief is about to bury the thieves

Click on the transcriptions to hear the audio and laryngograph recordings, from my fieldwork in Dschang, western Cameroon.

Posted by Steven Bird at 06:22 PM

Prisoner of geography

A panel session on "Usage and Abusage" with Ben Yagoda, Erin McKean, and Language Log's Mark Liberman and John McWhorter? That is really quite a lineup. And the Free Library of Philadelphia has booked them for Thursday night at 7 p.m. But America is so wide: here I am in a small seaside town on the Central Coast of California, not even on the same tectonic plate as the bulk of North America, and I have to be on campus here Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There's no way I can be in Philadelphia this week. But you could, if you live anywhere near the middle of the Atlantic seaboard. You could get to the Central Library by 7 p.m. on Thursday, especially (this is the devil tempting you) if you took the day off work. Ben Yagoda is great — very funny, and really quite erudite on language. Erin McKean was called America's lexicographical sweetheart on NPR and is the author of a whole slew of books on weird and wonderful words, including (in time for Valentine's Day) one called That's Amore!: The Language of Love for Lovers of Language. And Mark Liberman and John McWhorter, though colleagues at Language Log, have as far as I know never appeared together on the same stage. Carolyn Marvin of Penn's Annenberg School of Communication will chair the session. Go! Enjoy it! Write and tell me how it went. I wish I could go too.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:13 PM

A Place for Prescriptivism in Linguists' Lives

As a card-carrying linguist, I do of course agree with Geoff Pullum's objections to Grammar Gotcha and other language games that pedants play. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I still urge my students to follow some old prescriptive rules that are on their way to extinction but not yet quite dead. Here, for instance, is the paragraph on singular they from a writing handout that I give my students before they start handing in essays:

In colloquial American English speech, the use of a plural pronoun they or their or them with a singular referent sounds fine to most speakers. But in formal prose, it's still a mistake. So instead of writing A person hates it when you insult them, write either People hate it when you insult them (plural referent people, plural pronoun) or A person hates it when you insult him/her (singular referent person, singular---but clunky-sounding---pronoun him/her).

When I go over the handout in class, I explain what I mean by "mistake" in this context: it means that some people who read what you write will judge you negatively if you use prescriptively-frowned-on things like singular they, and---all other things being equal---this could conceivably tip the balance in favor of another candidate for a job or for a place in a selective graduate program, or in favor of a competitor's product.

Obviously, when there are no longer people in positions of authority who object to prescriptive rules like the prohibition on singular they, there will no longer be a need to warn students against it. Thirty years ago, my writing handout told students to avoid split infinitives; but I deleted that charmingly nutty bit of prescriptivism from the handout when it became clear that it is now dead (in the sense that almost everyone who still objects to split infinitives is now too doddery to be making hiring, admissions, or major purchasing decisions).

But I don't think that the rule against singular they has reached that stage. That's why the pseudo-Churchillian quotation that begins "To each there comes in their lifetime..." strikes me, and I bet others too, as jarringly ugly as well as wildly improbable as a product of Churchill's pen. So although I think that the linguistic case is as clear as Geoff claims, and that self-important pundits fully deserve Geoff's witty grammatical put-downs, I also think we're doing a disservice to our students if we don't alert them to the role of linguistic prescriptivism in real life. Those of us who have a lifetime contract in academia (a.k.a. tenure) can afford to thumb our collective nose at silly dying prescriptive rules; our students are taking a real risk if they do so.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 09:13 AM

Yesterday is Tomorrow

Although the cartoon that Heidi discussed is a joke, there are languages that actually do something very much like what the cartoon describes. In Hindi, the word [kal] कल means "tomorrow" in a future tense clause but "yesterday" in a past tense clause. Similarly, [parsõ] परसों means "the day after tomorrow" in a future tense clause and "the day before yesterday" in a past tense clause.

Posted by Bill Poser at 06:51 AM

Systematic irregularization

According to a story by Laura M. Holson in yesterday's's NYT ("The Director Lines Up a Shot", 2/5/2007), Steven Spielberg "is concerned that the studio he built with the music impresario David Geffen and the movie executive Jeffrey Katzenberg is losing its identity" to its new owner, Paramount Pictures. But Ben Stiller is in a more upbeat mood about the state of DreamWorks:

“In terms of movies getting green-lit,” he said, “it kicked us into a gear that we hadn’t been in before.”

Here at Language Log, we don't have any professional interest in who owns whom in Hollywood. But when it comes to a failure of systematic regularization, we're all over it.

"Systematic regularization" is one of several different terms used to name a familiar phenomenon, long noted in English and some other languages as well. Sometimes, a morphologically-irregular word form becomes regularized when the word is used in a new way:

Factories churn out Barbies, Mickey Mouses (*Mickey Mice) and Ninja Turtles.
Brian Pierce flied out (*flew out) to center to end the inning.

There's been some controversy over what the conditions are for this to happen. It's clearly not enough for the word to be used in an extended or idiomatic sense -- thus we say "straw men" not "straw mans", "caught a cold" not "catched a cold", and so forth. What's going on?

About 25 years ago, some clever linguists suggested an explanation. The linguists were Edwin Williams ("On the notions 'lexically related' and 'head of a word'", Linguistic Inquiry 12, 245-274, 1981 ) and Paul Kiparsky ("Lexical phonology and morphology", in I. S. Yang (Ed.) Linguistics in the morning calm. Seoul: Hansin, pp. 3-91). And their idea, shorn of complexities, is that the crucial difference is in the words' derivational history.

For example, "flied" in the baseball sense involves first making the verb fly into a noun (as in "pop fly" or "fly ball"), and then making that noun back into a verb. In graphical notation, that's something like

Or in the notation of labelled brackets: [V [N fly N] V] .

The phrase "I caught a cold" really involves an inflected form of the verb catch, even though the verb is used in an idiomatic sense. And therefore, according to this argument, the usual irregular past tense form "caught" is used. But the phrase "He flied out to left field" involves a new verb, made from a noun that (at least historically) was in turn derived from the verb -- and so the default, regular past tense form "flied" is used -- as it would be for a borrowed or completely invented word -- instead of the normally-associated irregular form "flew".

In the case of nouns and the regularization of plural forms, the idea is similar. "Mickey Mouse" used as a noun is not a compound form of the noun mouse -- rather, it's a noun formed from a name formed from that noun. A lineman is a kind of man -- which could be explained by saying that it's a compound whose head is the noun man -- and so the plural is "linemen". But walkman is not a kind of man, it's just a brand name that happens to include the noun man; and so the plural is more likely to be "walkmans" than "walkmen". (The Sony Walkman was hot stuff during the period when these points were first being hashed out -- the example dates the discusssion.)

Anyhow, that's why some people have called this kind of regularization "systematic" -- on this account, it's a rule-governed consequence of morphosyntactic structure, not like a sporadic lexical change like the ones that happen now and then with pairs like dreamt/dreamed.

Now, the background of "movies getting green-lit" is pretty much like that of "flied out". A "green light" has been a standard metaphorical (as well as literal) signal for "go ahead" at least since traffic lights were invented, as the OED's citations indicate:

1937 T. RATTIGAN French without Tears III. i. 126 We had a bottle of wine and got pretty gay, and all the time she was giving me the old green light.
1954 WODEHOUSE Jeeves & Feudal Spirit xxii. 216 Carry on, old sport. You have the green light.

And any noun (or nominal phrase) is liable to be verbed, as this one has been in Hollywood, long since. For example, a story in the Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1948, "Warners Lists Large Spring Movie Slate":

With eleven films greenlighted by Jack L. Warner to go before the cameras during May and June, record production activity looks for Warner Bros. for the first half of 1948.

Given the fact that greenlighted is written solid and without quotation marks, this was clearly a well-established usage in 1948.

These days, both "green-lit" and "green-lighted" seem to be in fairly common entertainment-industry use:

It was green lit by Apr. 2 and we started shooting Aug. 8. (Hollywood Reporter, 5/9/2003)
Within six weeks, Lions Gate had green-lit "Diary" as a feature. (New York Post, 3/5/2005)

MTV also green-lighted ''Beat Sweep,'' a hard-core hip-hop series; (Atlanta Constitution, 4/30/1999)
The network has greenlighted a second season of "Idol Tonight," the exclusive preshow for Fox's "Idol," ... (Hollywood Reporter, 1/23/2007)

I don't have the time to investigate in detail whether the distinction between the preterite ("They greenlighted/greenlit it") and the past participle ("It got greenlighted/greenlit") makes any statistical difference; nor whether there's really a significant difference in usage between the entertainment industry and the rest of us. However, from a quick scan of the first few pages of Google News Archive's 2,050 returns for {greenlit} and 1,030 returns for {green-lit}, I reckon that this is mostly an entertainment-industry usage. The 2,180 returns for {greenlighted} and the 3,430 returns for {green-lighted} seem to deal with a wider variety of topics.

OK, so what's going on out there in Hollywood, morphologically speaking? Didn't they get the memo about systematic regularization? And why does it matter?

Well, believe it or not, these issues were a big deal among psycholinguists in the 1980s and 1990s, a period known to students of intellectual history as The Great Past Tense War. (Not really, but it could be.)

And during those Homeric struggles, some other explanations for the flew/flied phenomenon emerged. George Lakoff, in an unpublished (and apparently now unavailable) 1987 paper "Connectionist explanations in linguistics", suggested that the essential generalization was semantic rather than syntactic. His proposal was quoted (and rejected) in one of the central presentations of the syntax-based accounts, J.J. Kim, S. Pinker, A. Prince and S. Prasada, "Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field", Cognitive Science, 15(2) 173-218, 1991. Their quote from Lakoff:

[Pinker and Prince (1988)] cite the well-known fact that certain polysemous lexical items have different past tense forms for different senses of the verb. For example, fly in its central sense, takes the past tense flew, but takes flied in its extended baseball sense. There is a general constraint on such cases: It is always the central senses that have irregular past tenses.

Other versions of the semantics-based theory are discussed in Yasuhiro Shirai, "Is regularization determined by semantics, or grammar, or both?", J. Child Lang. 24 495-501, 1997.

Kim et al. (1994) claim, based on four experiments, that both school-age and pre-school children are sensitive to the grammatical status of verbs and nouns. More specifically, they claim that children avoid using the irregular past form for certain verbs simply because they know these verbs are denominal, and they prefer instead to use a regular past tense form. With respect to nouns, Kim et al. (1994) explain children's preference for `walkmans' over `walkmen' as resulting from this word's exocentric (headless) status. Their explanation depends exclusively on grammatical information -- the derivational status or headedness of the verbs or nouns in question.

However, their findings are perfectly consistent with a completely different explanation, what I will call the Semantics Hypothesis: speakers avoid irregular forms simply because they do not want to convey the meanings associated with those forms. In the 'fly' case above, if one says `The batter flew out to centre field' it may erroneously activate the image of the batter flying through the air. In the case of `walkmen', the irregular plural form men activates the image of human beings, not portable audio-cassette players. Each irregular form is strongly associated with its conventionalized meaning, which may not be the meaning intended by the speaker in a particular situation. On this account, speakers tend not to use the irregular form when its conventionalized meaning conflicts with the meaning the speaker wants to convey, and opt instead for the regular form. This account, proposed in Harris (1992, 1993) and Daugherty, MacDonald, Petersen & Seidenberg (1993), is at least intuitively appealing.

Note that the "semantic" account of these phenomena has an essentially Gricean component -- as Shirai puts it, "speakers avoid irregular forms simply because they do not want to convey the meanings associated with those forms". This predicts that in a context where the "extended" sense of a verb becomes commoner, and thus a priori more likely, the irregular past tense should also become commoner, since its use is less likely to cause misunderstanding. That's exactly the pattern that we see in the case of greenlit/greenlighted -- the irregular form greenlit is widely used in the entertainment industry, where getting or not getting green-lighted is a ubiquitous concern.

And perhaps something similar has been going on with "flew out" as well. To start with, the facts as sometimes asserted need a bit of a reality check. K Daugherty, M MacDonald, A Petersen and M Seidenberg pointed this out in 1993, countering Kim et al.'s clever title "Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field" with their own "Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field, but people often say they do", 15th Annu. Conf. Cogn. Sci. Soc., 1993.

I don't have a copy of that presentation, which doesn't seem to be available on line [Update: here it is...], but I do have access to the Google News Archive, where a search for {"flew out to * field"} yields 1,300 hits like these (the first four hits at the moment):

But Mike Marshall flew out to right field to end the inning.
Piazza simply flew out to right field to end the second inning.
He flew out to right field in the first inning, grounded out on a bunt try in the third, flew out to left in the fifth, and flew out to center in the seventh.
A single by Mark Grace drove in Sandy Martinez, but Rodriguez flew out to left field to end the threat.

And we can even find things like

With Monty Tech ahead, 5-1, and the first batter of the inning having already flown out to center field, it was hard to imagine the drama that was about to [unfold].

It's true that {"flied out to * field"} yields 2,600 hits. So you might think that "flied" beats "flew", if only stochastically. But there's something funny about the "flied" examples -- at least on the first few pages, a large fraction of them are simple recaps, often apparently generated mechanically from the scorecard, e.g.

3rd: Nix flied out to right field. Barajas doubled to right. M.Young flied out to center field. Blalock doubled to right, Barajas scored. ...


Rockies third - Mohr flied out to left field. Helton flied out to left field. ... Taguchi flied out to right field. Cardinals 4, Rockies 4. ...

So it seems that when an actual sportswriter-type human being is writing prose about baseball, at least in the texts indexed by the Google News Archive, more human beings "flew out to center field" than "flied out to center field". Nor is this a linguistic innovation -- thus in the Los Angeles Times for Feb. 14, 1898, on p. 5, we can read that

Tyler then steadied down and struck out the next two men up, and the third one flew out to center field.

So why did a whole series of linguists and psycholinguists put a star (indicating ungrammaticality) on "*flew out to center field" -- and even make this alleged impossibility the theme of a clever title in a major journal article ("Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field")? There's an obvious hypothesis, awaiting empirical test. Perhaps (talk about) baseball is less frequent in the life of linguists than in the life of sportswriters.

Anyhow, whether the true account of the facts is syntactic or semantic, it needs to deal with the fact that "systematic regularization" is in fact rather patchy. And Hollywood's embrace of "greenlit" over "greenlighted" is just another patch in the quilt.

(For more on the background of this discussion, see the tag-team match in Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6(11), 2002, between Steven Pinker and Michael Ullman on one side, and James McClelland and Karalyn Patterson on the other. P&U "The past and future of the past tense"; M&P "'Words or Rules' cannot exploit the regularity in exceptions"; M&P "Rules or connections in past-tense inflections"; P&U "Combination and structure, not gradedness, is the issue".)

[Update -- Lane Greene writes:

Several funny things seem to be going on with your counts of "flied out" and "flew out". First, I can't recall ever hearing a baseball announcer say "flown out", and I watch a lot of baseball, perhaps unlike Pinker et al. I'm sure I've heard it, but I've never noticed it; if I did, I'd giggle at it as an ungrammatical hypercorrection.

In the middle of writing this e-mail I think I figured it out. Sportswriters and announcers are probably a lot more likely to say "flied out to right" than "flied out to right FIELD". "Flied out to right" yields 190,000 hits in plain Google (not news). "Flied out to right field" yields 371. "Flew out to right" yields 684.

So to get a better picture of sportswriter usage (if you have the time, which you may well not) you'd want to add the counts for "flied out to right", "flied out to center" and "flied out to left" and compare them to the counts for "flew out to right..." etc. You'll see on the first page that most "flew out to right" results are baseball-related, and don't involve getting in a plane or using super powers to fly out to right anything, so it's a good comparison without too much non-baseball noise.

If you look, I think you'll see that Pinker is right: "flew out" is a widely attested but definitely idiosyncratic usage. "Flied out" is several orders of magnitude more common.

Well, I accept Lane's intuition, which for that matter I share. But the facts of usage these days seem to be distinctly otherwise. Here are detailed counts from the Google New Archive for left, right and center, with a following field and with the following context unspecified.

  left right center
"flied out to __ field" 732 895 840
"flew out to __ field" 338 453 419
"flied out to __" 18,200 19,300 21,700
"flew out to __" 1,450 1,500 1,750

The results are comparable to what I found earlier with the interpolated asterisk in place of {left, right, center}.

Why the difference? Well, we can get a clue if we look at the first five hits for "flied out to center" (from the Google News Archive search snippets):

TORONTO 5TH: Mondesi flied out to center. C Delgado popped out to third. Fullmer homered to right.
Renteria flied out to center fielder Gathright. Ortiz singled to center. M.Ramirez singled to center, Ortiz to third. Nixon singled to center, Ortiz scored ...
Womack flied out to center fielder Damon. Walker walked. Pujols popped out to second baseman Bellhorn. 0 runs, 0 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on.
TEXAS 2ND: Segui flied out to center. R Mateo lined out to third. Lamb doubled to left. R Clayton singled to center, Lamb scored.
P Reese flied out to center. J Damon walked. M Bellhorn singled to left, J Damon to second. D Ortiz doubled to deep center, J Damon scored, M Bellhorn to ...

In other words, these are not general prose, they're recaps that are mechanically-generated (maybe even computer-generated) from the scorecard.

(And even with that assist, the difference is just about one factor of ten, not "several orders of magnitude".)

As for the 190,000 hits in the regular Google search for {"flied out to right"}, again, every single hit on the first five pages is in a scorecard recap.

So we're left with a psycholinguistic mystery -- why do some literate baseball fans like Lane Greene believe, contrary to the truth, that "flew out" is an "idiosyncratic usage" that is "several orders of magnitude" less common than "flied out" in baseball contexts, including sportswriting? I'll confess that I drank the "systematic regularization" KoolAid on this point for decades myself -- right up until the point last night when I checked the facts.

As for "flown out", I agree that it's rare, but announcers don't have occasion to use the pluperfect very often. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:42 AM

Language cartoon of today

...or is it yesterday? Maybe even tomorrow by the time I hit the 'publish' button. Today's linguistic cartoon theme: deixis, or words with a built-in contextual dependence as a core component of their meaning.

Alice showed that she knew what this was all about when she heard about the jam. It was ok, though; she didn't want any anyways.

Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:36 AM

February 05, 2007

The theme of this year's superbowl ads

I enjoyed the game last night, but I mostly skipped the commercials. That wasn't for lack of interest -- it's just that now that we've got YouTube, we don't need to watch the superbowl anymore to see the superbowl commercials. And internet access to the whole inventory is a better way to see the pattern whole.

As a result, I've got an advantage over Virginia Heffernan, who liveblogged the superbowl commercials over at The Sideshow. She observed that "Dude humor is humor for dudes. It’s the only foolproof thing that works in a Super Bowl ad". And that might be true, but it's not new.

As for her NYT collegue Stuart Elliott, pontificating after the fact ("Superbowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War", 2/5/2007), he thought that "the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials". But I think he was reaching.

Frankly, I think it's obvious to any objective observer with access to an internet connection that the emergent theme of this year's superbowl ads was linguistics.

I don't have time to show you how almost every single one of this year's superbowl ads fits this pattern. But I'll go over a few of them, and leave the rest to you.

Let's start withFedEx Ground's meditation on the nature of names, from which the vidcap up there on the right was taken:

If you think about it, our civilization is out of step with human cultural history on this point -- in most times and places, most people's names were interpretable descriptions.

One of the Doritos "Live the Flavor" ads took the "words and things" theme in a slightly different direction:

And let's not forget the Bud Light "Rock Paper Scissors" ad, designed to illustrate the distinction between use and mention:

Then there was a demonstration of the power of prosody in the Doritos "Check Out Girl" spot:

And practical sociophonetics was the main theme of Bud Light's course in American dialect geography, "Class Mencia":

In a similar vein, the importance (and difficulty!) of getting another language's phonetics right was also a central focus of the ad for Taco Bell's "New Steak Grilled Taquitos":

OK, so was Stuart Elliott justified in saying that "the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials"?

I don't see it, myself. As far as I can tell, what's lingering just below the surface of this year's superbowl ads is Americans' too-long-supressed desire for more linguistics in their life.

[I'll admit that there wasn't a whole lot of syntax in this year's superads -- but could that be a hint of the emergent theme for Superbowl XLII? ]

[Update -- Mark Seidenberg writes:

Your discussion of the fedex names ad brought to mind this classic bit about eponymy.

Right, and the sporadic typo "doucebag" for "douchebag" adds extra flavor. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:11 PM

Analogies can be dangerous

User Friendly has a nice example of the dangers of analogical formations.

User Friendly cartoon http://www.userfriendly.org/cartoons/archives/07feb/uf010004.gif
Posted by Bill Poser at 01:12 PM

I have different determiner constraints so you're awful

Says Mary Ann Sieghart at The Times of London:

A grammar grouch is vindicated

I've become such an old grammar grouch these days that I'm as bad as Lynne Truss. Whenever someone on the radio says "less" instead of "fewer", I find myself shouting "FEWER!" back to the ether. Of course the offender can't hear me, so it's a pointless piece of radio rage.

So imagine how satisfying it was to hear Start the Week on Monday. Claire Fox, director of the Institute for Ideas, was holding forth on why too many people go to university. "I'm not saying that less people should go," she said. "FEWER!" I shouted, impotently, at the radio. "Fewer," echoed one of the other studio guests.

I'm not sure it's very polite to correct someone else's grammar on air. But it left one listener extremely chuffed at home.

No, it's not polite, Ms Sieghart. And it is rather hard to see why an interruption of a radio broadcast by a rude big-mouthed prescriptivist would make you chuffed. But this is how it is with the pointless game of Grammar Gotcha.

As I said in my earlier post on Grammar Gotcha, it is played by people "whose misguided pedantry undermines the very idea that the business of grammar might involve complex patterns of evidence, difficult investigations, subtle distinctions, intricate generalizations."

Mary Ann Sieghart seems actually to be proud of having uncontrollable urges that make her shout lexical replacements at an inanimate object. It is as if she imagines it establishes her as someone who has a firm education in matters of English usage.

I recently commented on the drive some people have toward fetishistic replacement of less by fewer in a slightly different context (cases like less than ten years, where less is followed by than). It seems to me that things are a bit more stacked against less when it functions as a determiner of a plural count noun. Fewer people is more common than less people. As a preliminary rough check, I looked at the Wall Street Journal for 1987-1989, and found 77 occurrences of fewer people but only 6 of less people. Nonetheless, those 6 cases are over 8 percent of the total, in a source that goes through copy editing. And on the web as a whole, it's almost exactly neck and neck: 1.14 million for less people, 1.15 million for fewer people. That couldn't possibly be statistically significant.

Now, for heaven's sake don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that claims about grammaticality rest on or can be justified by statistical facts about what occurs in actual usage (despite the rational assumption that a hell of a lot of the the material written by native English speakers is likely to be the sort of material native English speakers find grammatical). Of course there can be very frequent sporadic errors; I deliberately put one into the preceding sentence just to see if you would notice. No, all I want to say about this is just that it is very strange how people want to control other people's usage so much that they will shout at a radio. If Ms Sieghart stuck firmly to her personal preference for fewer with plural count nouns, there would be nothing strange about that at all. It's the instinctive, visceral urge to punish others for having a very slightly different set of conditions on determiner use that is such a strange human phenomenon.

[Hat tip to Steve Linley.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:12 AM

Parents will never be cool

The parent-child interaction observed by Mark Liberman in the comic strip "Stone Soup" struck me as awfully familiar. After searching my memory banks I realized I had come across a very similar account of a teenage girl cringing at one of her parents using the word "cool." The incident was reported by the columnist Russell Baker... in 1965.

Baker's "Observer" column in the New York Times of Apr. 11, 1965 delved into the faddish "code words" of the time, both among Washington cognoscenti and teenage slang-slingers. He uses second-person narrative to describe what we presume is his own daughter's discomfort with her unhip father:

Your teen-age daughter asks what you think of her "shades," which you are canny enough to know are her sunglasses, and you say, "Cool," and she says, "Oh, Dad, what a spaz!" (Translation: "You're strictly from 23-skidoo.")

I quoted this passage last April in a post about the history of the word spaz. At the time I cited Baker's column as illustrative of the shift in the American usage of spaz, from its original sense of 'spastic or physically uncoordinated person' to something more like 'nerdy, weird or uncool person.' But the daughter's reaction to her dad's uses of cool is also notable. Just as Holly of "Stone Soup" complains that her mother is too "out of it" to use "I'm cool with that," the daughter of Baker's column disdains her dad's attempt to stay au courant by dropping the word cool in conversation. In both cases, maladroit usage of the word cool instantly marks the parent as uncool, from the critical daughter's perspective.

Baker suggests his lack of mastery in the in-group code of teenagers is due to the ephemeral nature of slang:

Adolescents change the teen-age code faster than a cryptologist could possibly crack it. In the Washington adolescent code zone, for example, "neat," "cool" and "tough" — all meaning the same thing — have come and gone over the last twelvemonth.

Even if cool had fallen out of favor among D.C. teens of the mid-'60s, it would, like skinny ties, eventually make a comeback. Certainly by the late '70s and early '80s, cool had reestablished itself as evergreen slang. Neat has done a good job of sticking around, too. Of Baker's three examples of adolescent ephemera, only the approbative use of tough has fallen by the wayside.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:01 AM

February 04, 2007

Cool wit

The sentiments are normal for a 13-year-old, but Holly's slang scholarship is weak. Her mother Valerie is "in her late 30s", according to the author's description, so she would have been in her prime teenage slang-assimilating years about (say) 17 to 22 years ago, or about 1985 to 1990. I'm sure that "I'm cool with that" was current then.

Searching the Google News Archive for {"cool with that"} confirms my guess, yielding "I'm cool with that" from the Fresno Bee on April 8, 1990, and "If he's totally cool with that and not many babies are that's the second test" from the Doylestown Intelligencer on April 17, 1987.

The OED takes us all the way back to 1959, though with a slightly different phrasing (and in more rarefied social circles):

1959 Esquire Nov. 70H in R. L. Gold Jazz Lex. (1964) 66 ‘Do you want to go to the movies?’ ‘It's cool with me (acquiescence).’

And the use of cool "as a general term of approval" is attested all the way back to 1884.

1884 J. A. HARRISON Negro Eng. in Anglia 7 257 Interjections... Dat's cool!

However, it's a false rumor that Chaucer used cool in the same sense:

c1440 Chaucer's L.G.W. (MS. Gg. 4. 27) 258 Thow..thynkist in thyn wit that is ful cole That he nys but a verray propre fole

Maybe from a 13-year-old perspective, it's still cringeworthy for mom to keep using the slang she learned as a teen. But cool is so old that it's even old news that it stays current ("Why cool remains hot", 1/13/2004).

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:36 PM

Keep on truculent

For breakfast this morning, a bit more on Sullivan v. Angelou. A peek at our own archives uncovered a couple of relevant posts from the dim past. And either Ann Althouse needs to read more carefully, or I need to write more carefully, or both.

Here's the background. In a recent WaPo op-ed about Molly Ivins' death, Maya Angelou wrote that

The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse.

Under the heading "Can Maya Angelou Write?", Andrew Sullivan asked "Does she mean reluctance?", and went on to comment that "I can forgive the Washington Post's editors allowing Angelou's pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors into their paper. [...] But I draw the line at patently bad grammar."

I agreed with Sullivan's linguistic analysis ("Lions, satyrs, bears, and pundits", 2/3/2007). It's clearly outside the normal patterns of English usage to say or write something like

*Their truculence to fall . . .

This is not a matter of dialect variation, or of some deprecated but widespread innovation. Nor does it seem to be an instance of poetic license. And I don't think that we can blame Microsoft. Instead, Angelou's use of truculence was apparently an isolated word-substitution error, of the type known as a "malapropism".

As I observed, such errors sometimes involve a basic misunderstanding of a word's meaning; but in other cases, the mistake is a very local one, a slip of the tongue or pen. For example, in one of the published collections of speech errors, someone is recorded as having mentioned "Liszt's second Hungarian restaurant" instead of "Liszt's second Hungarian rhapsody" -- though we can assume that anyone who knows about Liszt also knows the meaning of the word restaurant. In blogging, I type fast and don't look back much, so roughly once a month, some alert reader catches me doing something like this.

This brought me to the question of Sullivan's motivations. It's clear that he dislikes Angelou on many dimensions, political as well as literary. Her style offends him, just as her political positions do. And Sullivan doesn't point out linguistic errors very often, though many are printed every day. In fact, I suggested on the basis of searching his blog that he might never have commented on an error of this type before. And I therefore came to a stunningly obvious conclusion: he was using a linguistic observation to carry his political animus.

This sort of thing makes me uneasy, for the same reason that I've often criticized Jacob Weisberg's relentless pursuit of Bushisms. Weisberg clearly dislikes George W. Bush's personality as well as his politics, and ridicules his (real or imagined) linguistic mistakes in order to attack him both personally and politically. This is on the edge of ad hominem argumentation, especially when it's completely decoupled from any substantive criticism. It also quickly slips into hypocrisy. A significant fraction of Weisberg's Bushisms are examples of things that could surely also be found in Weisberg's own speech, if we scrutinized it the way he and his fans scrutinize W's.

Now, it's a natural human trait to make fun of one's enemies. Molly Ivins was really good at political ridicule, and she wasn't above mentioning personal traits like hair, as in the Texas-oriented ending of a 2001 article on Senator Jim Jeffords' defection ("Shrub flubs his dub", The Nation, 5/31/2001):

Meanwhile, the Texas capitol has just lived through a session-long hangover from the Bush years. [...] Bush was replaced by his exceedingly Lite Guv Rick Perry, who has really good hair. Governor Goodhair, or the Ken Doll (see, all Texans use nicknames--it's not that odd), is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But the chair of a major House committee says, "Goodhair is much more engaged as governor than Bush was." As the refrain of the country song goes, "O Please, Dear God, Not Another One."

But the ellipsis in that quote covers a couple of hundred of words of details about budget problems, health care, and other specific Texas state government issues. In Ivins' political writing, the jokes about style were almost always connected to an argument over content. In this case, she's arguing that Perry and Bush are superficial people, more concerned about appearance than about substance, and therefore destructive as leaders. This might be true or false, but it's a real political argument, not just snarking about someone's hair -- or their word choice.

So I ended my post on Sullivan v. Angelou by suggesting that pundits who set up a sideline in the analysis of linguistic errors ought to be careful to avoid using it as a form of political attack, especially if there's no connection to arguments about issues. Otherwise it gets to be like commenting on pores and pimples and warts -- if you've always been fascinated by dermatology, fine, but people of all political persuasions have got skin blemishes.

And that includes Andrew Sullivan. Checking our archives for {"Andrew Sullivan"}, I found that a few years ago, I blogged about one of his word-substitution errors ("Fasten = grecian?", 5/18/2005). Sullivan (correctly, I think) criticized the NYT for their "Times Select" initiative:

By sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only fasten the decline of op-ed columnists' influence.

I observed that Sullivan's use of "fasten" is clearly a substitution for "hasten", influenced by the same pattern that leads to the famous Simpsons' slogan "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man". My point, though, was not to denigrate Sullivan, but to criticize Weisberg:

I'm not trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan, who is a first-rate writer and needs to make no apologies for his command of the English language. In this case, he generalized a limited morphological pattern to a case where it's not sanctioned by history or current usage. This is something that almost all of us do from time to time. It's a symptom of the fact that we have brains that are capable of learning patterns and applying them in new ways. But when George Bush does it, one of Jacob Weisberg's staffers picks it up and publishes it as the latest Bushism.

Checking the archives also showed that I was wrong about Sullivan never previously mentioning a malapropism. In fact I actually commented ("A classical malapropism and a hypercorrect eggcorn", 7/1/2004) on this item from Sullivan's blog:

EMAIL OF THE DAY II: "I could not resist bringing to your attention this delicious little typo-slash-Freudian-slip, from a reader review of "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the NY Times website (to which I was referred by your blog):

'I was expecting a sloppy, fuzzy, highly manipulated treatment. Instead, Bush Administration damns itself through its own actions, its own words, its own lies...all documented for prosperity.'

Yes, pseudo-proletarian Michael Moore's prosperity -- indeed."

Sullivan's post on the posterity/prosperity swap was also motivated by political animus. But unlike the case of Angelou's truculence, there was a political point implicit in the linguistic observation.

OK, so this brings us at last to Ann Althouse, who posted about this yesterday ("Succulent truculence", 2/3/2007). She makes a helpfully-numbered list of points, most of which I agree with. But not #3:

Speaking of politics, Mark Liberman is himself making a political move of sorts. He's claiming sovereignty over the linguistics field. The implicit argument is that a scholarly domain belongs to the scholars, and that scholars are known by their neutrality. He is nice enough to say he's happy to have company though

Claiming sovereignty? On the contrary.

At the end of my LSA talk on "The future of linguistics", I did suggest that our field could learn from Linus Torvald's 1995 plan for Linux: "World domination. Fast". But the recipe for success, I argued, is inclusiveness. We ought to welcome the participation of anyone interested in speech and language, including Andrew Sullivan and Ann Althouse. (Who had some interesting things to say yesterday about "When one word is funnier than another".)

In Andrew Sullivan's brief posts about Maya Angelou, I diagnosed (maybe falsely) the first signs of Weisbergitis -- a politically-motivated focus on slips of the tongue or pen, decoupled from any revevant political content. I wouldn't raise the same objection to his post about Michael Moore, since in that case, the malapropism neatly captured a political criticism.

Althouse's point #4 also expresses a misunderstanding -- one that's clearly my fault:

Sullivan may be choosing his targets based on politics, but Liberman hasn't proven it. He assumes -- because Sullivan calls himself a conservative? -- that Sullivan doesn't have Bush as a target -- but Sullivan is contemptuous of Bush. If you search for "Bushism" on Sullivan's blog, you can find him quoting a Bushism.

I know very well that Andrew Sullivan has become bitterly contemptuous of Bush, for reasons that (not that it matters) I generally agree with; and I also remember that particular post, in which he ridiculed Bush's apparent failure to understand the concept of "fiscal year". But that "Bushism" was an apparently witless remark -- and a politically relevant one, connected to the same questions of engagement and competence that Molly Ivins raised -- not a malapropism or other linguistic error.

Anyhow, my (overlong and perhaps misguided) critique of Sullivan's brief notes was obviously not clear enough.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:35 AM

O Canada in Cree

Last night in Calgary 13-year old Akina Shirt from Saddle Lake First Nation made history by singing O Canada in Plains Cree. This marks the first time that a National Hockey League game has been opened by the singing of the national anthem in an aboriginal language. Here's an article about her forthcoming performance. I saw it on TV.

Posted by Bill Poser at 02:45 AM

February 03, 2007

Truthiness About Language Skills

User Friendly has some good advice about not misrepresenting one's language skills, or perhaps about choosing truly obscure languages. Afrikaans, after all, does have nearly six million speakers.


Posted by Bill Poser at 06:18 PM

Truculence: lions, satyrs, bears and pundits

Andrew Sullivan obviously didn't like Maya Angelou's farewell to Molly Ivins ( "Molly Ivins Shook the Walls with her Clarion Call", WaPo, 2/2/2007). At 4:34 yesterday afternoon he asked "Can Maya Angelou Write?":

What on earth does this sentence mean:

The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse.

"Truculence" to do so? Does she mean reluctance? Or is there some other meaning to truculence that I'm unaware of?

And a couple of hours later he added ("Angelou again", 2/2/2007 6:21 p.m.):

Yes, I know what truculence means, thank you very much. What I don't understand is how it makes grammatical sense in the sentence Angelou wrote. I think she meant the walls' truculent refusal to fall down. But as written, the sentence is ungrammatical. I can forgive the Washington Post's editors allowing Angelou's pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors into their paper. (Joshua? Please.) But I draw the line at patently bad grammar.

He's right, I think, that the word truculence seems out of place. But there's something else about this that's almost equally unusual.

Let's do the grammar first. It's reasonable for a poet to imagine that the walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty might have "The condition or quality of being truculent; fierceness, savageness", as the OED puts it; or "A disposition or apparent disposition to fight, especially fiercely; Ferociously cruel actions or behavior", in the words of the AHD. But it doesn't seem to make sense -- syntactically or semantically -- to talk about their "fierceness to fall" or their "ferociously cruel actions to fall", as Angelou's sentence implicitly does.

The syntactic strangeness is especially clear: truculent and truculence don't usually take infinitival complements, in the way that words like eager and eagerness do. You don't come across things like "he was truculent to leave" or "his truculence to leave". It might make sense to extend the language this way, though I guess "he was truculent to leave" would mean "he was ready to fight in order to leave", or "he attempted ferociously and belligerently to leave", or something like that, and those meanings would be the opposite of what Angelou was getting at. But anyhow, I've never heard or read any uses like that, and neither has Google, and I'll bet you haven't either.

So it's not a surprise to find that Angelou's sentence is exploring grammatical ground that's new to English literature. The string {"truculence to"} doesn't occur in Literature Online's "more than 350,000 works of poetry, drama and prose in English from the eighth century to the present day".

The string "truculent to" does occur once, but the example involves the other "to" -- not the infinitive+verb one but the preposition+noun one. According to LION, it comes up in Samuel Pordage's long-forgotten poem, "THE EXPLANATION of an Hieroglyphical Figure, SHEWING THE MYSERIES of the External, Internal and Eternal WORLDS", 1661 (emphasis added):

3781 Toads are not venomous to Toads; nor is
3782 The Lion truculent to those of his
3783 Kind; nor are Monsters frightful unto theirs:
3784 Satyrs to Satyrs, nor are Bears to Bears:
3785 So Man whose Soul's drench'd in the Stygian pool;
3786 Thinks not Hel's worst deformed spirits soul.

As I read this, it seemed to me that "soul" in the last line must be a misprint (or a misreading) for "foul" -- an easy mistake, given the possible typographical confusion in that period between f and "long s" (ſ). And a peek at the page image (ain't the internet wonderful?) confirms this guess:

In just the same way, Angelou's "truculence" strikes me as a malapropism for "reluctance". This could mean that she misunderstands what truculence means, or it could be one of those sporadic word-substitution errors that we all make from time to time. When two words are similar in sound and vaguely associated in meaning, like reluctance and truculence (or the blend "truculent reluctance", which would fit well into Angelou's sentence) this is a very easy kind of mistake to make.

If it was Angelou's mistake, I'm surprised that the Post's copy editor didn't catch it. Then again, maybe copy editors are intimidated by poets. On the other hand, if it was the Post's mistake, then Angelou must be steamed.

However, the history of this word-substitution is not the most interesting point here. There are plenty of solecisms printed every day, and we comment on a small sample of them here on Language Log -- but Andrew Sullivan usually doesn't.

In fact, I'm not sure that he's ever commented on a grammatical point before, or indeed on any other question of usage that doesn't involve the interpretation of a politically-charged word like "islamist" (or "christianist", a term that Sullivan has done much to popularize).

At least, the word "ungrammatical" has never previously appeared on his blog, as far as I tell by using its (Google-powered) search box. And the only previous use of the word "grammatical" was in a quote from David Byrne about the innateness of religion ("The Dance That Is Religion", 1/28/2007: "These dances, music, images, metaphors are, I sense, deep-rooted — they are like the neural propensities for grammatical structures that Chomsky goes on about — and are therefore similarly genetically inheritable."). The word "grammar" occurs four times, but three of them are in the phrase "grammar school". The fourth is in a quote from George Orwell about "the grammar of Newspeak" ("Plus Up!", 1/23/2007), with respect to the prefixes un-, plus- and doubleplus-.The words "malaprop", "malapropism", "solecism" also don't occur, as far as a Google search can tell me.

So it's hardly a stretch to guess that Andrew is truculent to Angelou because she is very much not of his political kind.

Some other conservative bloggers have reacted in similar ways. Thus John Derbyshire, apparently without a hint of irony, compared Maya Angelou to William MacGonagall under the title "Voice of the master" (NRO the corner, 2/2/2007).

Come on, you pundits. The analysis of word choice, sentence structure, and meaning is an honorable calling, and we linguists are always happy to have company. But if you're going to pounce on Maya Angelou's malapropism without saying anything about things like the alleged proliferation of Bushisms, or Tony Snow's misuse of "inveigling", or Lawrence Henry's odd use of "slurry", or any of the rest of the daily parade of questionable usage in political discourse, people might get the idea that your linguistics is really politics.

[Update -- Heidi Harley suggests that Angelou might be a victim of the Cupertino effect:

just one other hypothesis about 'truculence' and 'reluctance' -- I think it could actually be a spellcheck substitution error (ie a Cupertino effect): Experimenting with Word, I see that the only suggestion the spellchecker makes for the following string


is 'truculence'; it doesn't come up with 'reluctance'. Similarly for 'rtlucence', though 'rluctence' does trigger a suggestion of 'reluctance'. If there was some garbled typing and unconsidered spellchecking on Angelou's part, and then the Post's copyeditors were too respectful of Angelou to question her usage, there ya go.

This seems less likely to me than the malapropism theory, but both are speculation.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:51 AM

Charm School (and battling logicians)

Alex is a first-year student at MIT, which is just ending its Independent Activities Period. Although her robot was kicked out of the tournament for trash-talking, her IAP was not a total waste:

I have fond memories of IAP, though the only educational residue that I can call to mind is a (by now slightly fuzzy) appreciation of the Banach-Tarski theorem as explained by George Boolos in 1972.

Anyhow, I'm disappointed that Alex missed (what seems to me to have been) the highlight of this year's IAP, the Large Number Competition ("Two competitors. One chalkboard. Largest integer wins.")

Two philosophers (Agustín Rayo and Adam Elga) attempt to top each other in a battle over who can write down the largest finite number. In the course of introducing increasingly powerful notations for large numbers, the duelists will give lightning fast introductions to formal logic, computability theory, and the theory of ordinals. An attempt will be made to set a Guiness record for "Largest finite number ever written on an ordinary-sized chalk board". If this attempt succeeds, all participants will during the lecture name a number greater than any number previously named by a human being.

The poster is especially attractive:

I'm disappointed both because of the missed opportunity to see mathematical logic in the funny papers, and also because I badly want to know how the match came out.

OK, as a consolation, here's the Doonesbury robot-duel sequence:

[Update -- of course, a little web searching turned up a description of the event ("Professors Duke It Out in Big Number Duel", The Tech, 1/31/2007), with a transcription of the winning effort. Which would have fit in a Doonesbury panel, easy. But where's the YouTube video of the match? ]

[Update #2 -- several readers have reminded me that xkcd #207 ("What does xkcd mean?")already went where Doonesbury hasn't dared to go:

(Though this entry would not have made it very far into the competition at MIT.) And Jason Parker-Burlingham points us, via the xkcd blag comments, to a 1999 discussion of large-number competitions by Scott Aaronson. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:25 AM

February 02, 2007

Taboos of the Nation

Oh, the things we staff writers at Language Log have to do as part of earning an honest living as language specialists. My co-worker John McWhorter (who also moonlights at the Manhattan Institute) had to be on the NPR show Talk Of The Nation yesterday to talk about sexually and ethnically offensive taboo words. Which would have been fine, only... host Neil Conan (following policies necessitated by the Federal Communications Commission, of course) had to make everyone go through the entire hour talking about these words and their use and their offensiveness without ever mentioning a single one of them. Talk about painful. You could sense the pain and frustration. I thought John might suddenly crack and start shouting: "What the fuck is the use of talking about the possible subtle sociophonetic differences between nigger and nigga if you assholes won't let me say what fucking word I'm talking about?" John is such a consummate professional that he would never lose it like that (though I almost did when I was on Talk Of The Nation.) He was calm throughout.

So they prattled about two different N-words, two different F-words, two different C-words, and a K-word (yes, K; try to guess it). At one point John had to ask which F-word he was being asked to talk about. Neil Conan made the ridiculous suggestion that they distinguish between "the F-word" and "the F bomb", but couldn't (of course) say which he meant by which. Off went John, and it soon became clear that he was talking about fuck. Neil stopped him, and explained that he meant the other one, you know, about gay men; so they decided they could draw a distinction between the one ending in k and the one ending in t. John backed up and started out again, this time apparently talking about faggot.

There was some mention of the possibility that we are giving these words too much power and influence by suggesting that their mere utterance can hurt people, and some mild criticizing of the idea that they might be actually legally banned, rather than merely despised (which is closer to my idea of the view we should take about such words). But never any possibility of implementing such a policy on National Public Radio. On they went with the guessing game of initials.

Of the two C-words referred to above, the first was cunt: it begins with a C and ends with a T and names a normally concealed part of a non-male person's body, John informed Neil, very subtly mocking the whole coy procedure, and then made the very interesting point that it used to be a respectable technical term in medicine. The second came up later, when a bipolar woman called in, and wondered whether she should just call it the C-word rather than say it out loud: the meant crazy (this is offensive to those who are differently abled as regards their endocranial biochemical endowment, she appeared to think).

When discussing the possible difference in sociophonetic flavor in offense-generating and solidarity-emphasizing uses of the pronunciation usually written nigga or niggah, as opposed to the normal pronunciation of nigger (a caller brought it up, with some struggling to get the point across without violating the agreed taboo), they started talking about the A variant and the ER variant of the N-word. And so the alphabet soupfest of avoidance went on.

I think the K-word might have been kike, since Jewish people had been mentioned by that stage in the conversation.

Don't ever think it's easy being in the language biz. Sure, it seems like we Language Log people must live a glamorous life, with our radio appearances and champagne receptions and foreign travel and everything; and sure, linguistics is enormous fun; but I was listening, and John McWhorter was working for his living out there in radioland.

Thanks to Ned Deily and others for correcting inaccuracies in the first version of this post.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 05:48 PM

Uncle Jesse wants YOU!

Uncle SamlowerThe BBC, recognizing the great appetite that the public has for etymological amusement, is beginning the second year of an actual television series devoted to same, Balderdash and Piffle. That's right, not only is the public interested enough for a TV show about words to get off the table and onto actual film, they are interested enough that it is entering its second season!1

This season features an appeal to the public from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, a plea to help them provide antedated quotes for and determine the origins of 40 words and phrases whose etymologies are currently unclear. The appeal is covered in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education* (temporary public link here; permanent link for subscribers only here), with an interview with editor-at-large (North America) Jesse Sheidlower. 2

Jesse notes in the inteview, "From the very beginnings, the OED has always gone to the public." The original editor of the OED, James A.H. Murray, invented crowdsourcing long before the advent of Wikipedia, the personal computer, or the internal combustion engine. Back when the OED was still mostly just a gleam in his eye, Murray appealed to the literary British public to send him quotes taken from their reading material illustrating the uses of words, particularly their earliest occurrences and meaning variations. The current appeal thus just revives the tradition.

For a truly readable retelling of the amazing story of the inception and early days of the OED, I recommend The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. I used to think it was an remarkable illustration of the modularity of mind. One of the protagonists in the story has a mental disorder so severe that he amputates his own penis. Yet his mind works so well that he can read volumes of complex English prose with such sensitivity and understanding that he contributes thousands of useful entries to the OED quote-collection project, many of which made it into print and are still in use in the second edition.

1People really are clearly pining for a more sophisticated linguistic education than they are currently afforded. Institutions of higher (and lower) education, take note!

2I'm really getting into these anarthrous NPs.

* Thanks to Sara Heitshu for sending me the article!

Update: B.C. highlights the very issue at hand in this cartoon.

Posted by Heidi Harley at 03:38 PM

Snowclone atonement

Sometimes it feels as if our perpetual complaints about the Eskimo snow-word myth — and its attendant snowclones — are nothing more than empty howls echoing across the tundra. So it's gratifying when a major news organization actually pays attention to our kvetching and tries to set the record straight. Earlier this week I noted the umpteenth iteration of the snow-word trope in the Sunday Chicago Tribune's "Cultural Riffs":

It's been said that Eskimos - known as the Inuit these days - have 40 words for snow, reflecting how profoundly connected their lives are with the white stuff.
If so, what does the following huge vocabulary say about us?
Murder; kill; slay; assassinate; dispatch; hit; annihilate;
[etc., etc., etc.]

This was particularly disappointing to see in the same paper that had just recently featured an enlightening column by Nathan Bierma all about Language Log's favorite hobbyhorse. To be fair, as Bierma later pointed out via email, the Tribune's Sunday magazine goes to press about three weeks before it's distributed, so the "40 words for snow" item would have been written before Bierma's column appeared on Jan. 17. Nonetheless, the timing was a tad embarrassing.

Yesterday, however, the Tribune printed the following correction:

An item in the Sunday Magazine referred to a popular but unfounded notion that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, in this case 40. The item failed to note that the assertion has been debunked by linguists and others.

Or, as the media correction blog Regret The Error put it, "How many words do they have for 'oops'?"

(Hat tip, Eli Morris-Heft.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 03:08 PM

The Computational Linguistics Olympiad

[Guest post from Dragomir Radev, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, about an exciting new way to bring computational linguistics to the people, and vice versa.]

As a teenager in Sofia, I spent a lot of my free time in the local "Filmotheque". I always wanted to become a movie director like Truffaut, Wenders, or Angelopoulos. That was until the day I learned about the Linguistics Olympiad. My high school was about to participate in it for the first time so there was still space on the team for those students who did well at the internal tryouts. Knowing a few foreign languages already, I had always been intrigued by their regularities and differences. The contest seemed to fall at the right time. I ended up on the school team and won a couple of awards at the Bulgarian national contests. These were organized at the time by Prof. Ruslan Mitkov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. I enjoyed the problems thoroughly - we had to decipher texts in obscure languages, figure out the Japanese calendar system, and "discover" vowel harmony in Hungarian and Turkish.

Twenty years later, here I am, doing research and teaching Computational Linguistics courses at the University of Michigan. I was very pleased to be asked to become the program chair of the first North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. The program committee prepared a large number of practice problems (see here!) for students interested in participating. You can try them out and learn about language evolution in Ojibwe, why letter tiles in the game of Scrabble (R) have different point values, or parse really convoluted English sentences.

The contest is open to high school students with no prior preparation in computer science and/or linguistics. They can sign up to participate in either one of four live sites (Ithaca, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) or via internet. Check the olympiad web site for registration information. The best four contestants from the US will represent the country at the International Linguistics Olympiad (link) in St. Petersburg, Russia, in August 2007.

It is very encouraging that NSF has agreed to sponsor the contest. The stated goals of NSF are to "increase the size and diversity of the pool of future scientists in Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, and Human Language Technologies", "identify talented high school students and help them get the background that they need for higher education in Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, and Human Language Technologies", and "get the scientific study of language into high school curricula (in cooperation with the LSA's Language in the School Curriculum committee)". In other words, attracting teenagers to a very rewarding future in (Computational) Linguistics. Take that, Hollywood!

- Dragomir R. Radev

Posted by David Beaver at 02:20 PM

Linguist sings the blues

A cartoon from Craig Swanson's Perspicuity notebooks:

[Hat tip: Lance Nathan]

Here's part of Swanson's explanation:

I remember years ago getting quite excited when I heard that Elton John also loved words. I was half listening to the radio when I heard him sing "... and I guess that's why they call it the blues." Cool! I had often wondered how the blues got its name.

Sure, the color blue evokes emotion, but is this merely a result of cultural conditioning? Or is it something that is innate? And even if it is in us, wouldn't someone still have been the first to have observed it? Now, thanks to Mr. John these questions would finally have an answer. All I had to do was wait to hear the song again.

"Time on my hands could be time spent with you" Huh? "Laughing like children, living like lovers" What the...? "Rolling like thunder under the covers" Hey! This isn't the etymology of the word blues. "And I guess that's why they call it the blues." Why this is a stupid love song!

And at that fateful moment in 1984, I made a promise to myself: From that day forward I would never again look to popular culture for word origins.

OK, but I need to point out that in 2005, here on Language Log, we indulged in a small exchange about the phrasal template "that's why they call it X" (starting from Eric Bakovic's "That's why they call it X", 6/3/2005), without discussing the connection to this song (though of course we did notice that one of the possible values of X is "the blues"). The lyrics are attributed to Bernie Taupin, by the way.

Another Craig Swanson mind/body kind of joke:

This one graphically substitutes the environment rather than the person. And turn about is fair play, since Tomb Raider takes off from the Indiana Jones movies, whose main character is a fictionalized anthropologist with some tome-reading chops of his own.

[Update -- John Cowan elaborates the point:

The wikipedia entry lists a number of possible sources, analogues, and influences; in addition to the usual suspects like Roy Chapman Andrews and Percy Harrison Fawcett, the last-named person is our very own Sir William "India" Jones: "sprung from a common source" and all that. It isn't too inappropriate: Indiana, it seems, actually studied philology at the Sorbonne in the early 1920s. It would be interesting to figure out who his professors were.

Almost any anthropologist of Indiana's generation would certainly have been a linguist as well. As for his philology professors at the Sorbonne in the 1920s, they would certainly have included Antoine Meillet; and one of his fellow students would have been Millman Parry, at least if he had stayed through 1924. ]

Turning back to freedom, it seems to me that it's really the philosophers who deserve to be tagged as offering solemn but unattractive alternatives to the Kristofferson/Foster definition of freedom. Thus Engels in Anti-Dühring:

Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity (die Einsicht in die Notwendigheit).

"Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood [begriffen]."

Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves — two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man's judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined; while the uncertainty, founded on ignorance, which seems to make an arbitrary choice among many different and conflicting possible decisions, shows precisely by this that it is not free, that it is controlled by the very object it should itself control.

"Freedom is die Einsicht in die Notwendigheit" is a hard line to set to music; but are there any philosophical slogans that have justified more crimes than this one?

In any case, Hegel was surely not the first to have the paradoxical thought that more freedom means less choice. Thus the Order for Morning Prayer of the 1662 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies...

Or going back to the Dhammapada:

I do not call him a brahmin who is so by natural birth from his mother. He is just a supercilious person if he still has possessions of his own. He who owns nothing of his own, and is without attachment -- that is what I call a brahmin.
He who, having cut off all fetters, does not get himself upset, but is beyond bonds -- that liberated man is what I call a brahmin.

And we won't even mention Orwell's version of the paradox:

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:


I prefer the Kristofferson/Foster version. It's more ambiguous and it scans better:

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing ain't worth nothing but it's free.

In comparison, all that we linguists really have to contribute to this discussion is the controversy over whether there is really ever any free variation (since all communicative choices have consequences)..

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:12 AM

February 01, 2007

We accept cash

Breaking news: apparently an Exxon Mobil-funded thinktank has been offering $10,000 cash incentives for scientists to (as the Guardian puts it) ``emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)''. Hah! Thinktank guys, if you're reading this now, you came to the right place. We're not going to emphasize the shortcomings of the new report until we see the color of your money. But to show you the services that we at Language Log can offer, I randomly selected a previous report, Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis (eds. Houghton, J. T. et al., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2001). I needed to read only as far as the end of the first paragraph of section 1.1.1 before I found a major shortcoming. Here's the offending sentence:

If one wishes to understand, detect and eventually predict the human influence on climate, one needs to understand the system that determines the climate of the Earth and of the processes that lead to climate change.

You see the problem. If the final conjunction is expanded, it becomes clear that the report is claiming one needs to understand the system that determines the climate [...] of the processes that lead to climate change. Complete nonsense. The rhetorical impact of the 2001 report is undermined by the presence of an extra preposition in its first paragraph. And we obviously can't trust the IPCC to prepare a balanced report on climate change when they can't even correctly balance a conjunction, right? As a consequence, we at Language Log feel the evidence for human induced climate change is not, in its current state, acceptable, and will continue to burn copies of Strunk and White, the ultimate fossil fuel, late into the night. Now send us the money.

Posted by David Beaver at 09:42 PM

The Mooninites have landed!

Greetings from the Youth and Popular Culture (YPC) desk, which as of yesterday has merged with the Homeland Security (HS) desk here at Language Log Plaza. (That's YPC-HS now, for those keeping score at home.) The merger was occasioned by the flap reported here (and various other places) concerning an unfortunate ad campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force (#1 in the 'hood, G) in 10 cities around the country. In Boston, where the ad campaign had reportedly been in place for three weeks, "[o]fficials found a slew of blinking electronic signs adorning bridges and other high-profile spots across the city Wednesday, prompting the closing of a highway and part of the Charles River and the deployment of bomb squads." Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of the Cartoon Network on which ATHF airs, had this to say:

"We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger," said Phil Kent, chairman of Turner, a division of Time Warner Inc.

Language Log readers will recognize this as a non-apology. (If you need us to jog your memory, see here, here, and here.)

More from the AP wire:

The 38 signs were part of a promotion for the Cartoon Network TV show ''Aqua Teen Hunger Force,'' a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball. The network's parent is Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc. [...]

The 1-foot tall signs, which were lit up at night, resembled a circuit board, with protruding wires and batteries. Most depicted a boxy, cartoon character giving passersby the finger -- a more obvious sight when darkness fell.

That description can only mean one thing: the Mooninites have landed!

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 12:14 PM

Biden's comma

Vying for political buzz with the president's missing -ic has been Senator Joseph Biden's missing comma. Well, really, the issue is Biden's undiplomatic comments about some of his fellow Democrats (Jason Horowitz, "Biden Unbound: Lays Into Clinton, Obama, Edwards", New York Observer, 2/5/2007). But hang in there, we'll get to the comma before long.

The biggest fuss has been over what the Observer quoted Senator Biden as saying about Senator Barack Obama:

Mr. Biden is equally skeptical—albeit in a slightly more backhanded way—about Mr. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

This prompted Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo to tag Biden as a serial stereotyper, if not an out-and-out bigot:

You've probably already noticed this quote from Sen. Biden (D-DE) in which he manages to call either all previous African-American presidential candidates or possibly all other African-Americans in public life dumb, ugly and corrupt. The actual quote has him calling Sen. Obama (D-IL) "you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

It's only fair to remember that only months ago we had Sen. Biden saying Indian-Americans were a veritable tribe of 7/11 owners. "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent."

The only thing more ridiculous than the 7-Eleven was his subsequent explanation in which he claimed that he was celebrating the fact that Indian-Americans were no longer ghettoized into high-paid, high-education jobs in engineering, computer science and medicine but were expanding into convenience store entrepreneurship. Sort of breaking through the glass floor, you might say.

Later discussion at TPM brought up the suggestion that the Observer's Horowitz had omitted a comma, which would significantly change the meaning (and the degree of offensiveness) of Biden's comment. Josh quotes a note from a reader:

...what if the Observer punctuated casually? That is, what if there is supposed to be a comma before 'who,' making it a non-restrictive relative clause:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Thus he would mean Obama is both

a). the first mainstream African-American candidate for president

b). articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy

but not necessarily that he is the first African-American candidate to have these properties. This would be patronizing and stupid, but not the breathtakingly offensive sentiment suggested when the comma isn't there.

In speech, it's not always clear whether a speaker is using a restrictive or a non-restrictive relative, but in writing you have to decide which was meant, and use a comma or not. What if the Observer chose poorly?

Well, after analyzing the brief audio clips posted by Josh Benson on the Observer's blog here, I'll offer the opinion that the Observer didn't choose poorly, they chose dishonestly. At least, the quote as they printed it, though it reproduced Biden's words in the order in which he said them (ignoring some false starts whose removal was normal and expected), was objectively dishonest as a representation of his meaning. And Josh's reader is right -- in this case, punctuation matters.

Here's the exchange in question (this is as much of the context as the clip provides):

Here's my transcript. After each of Biden's phrases, I've indicated in square brackets the amount of time before his next utterance starts.

Biden: ... real story. [1.278]
Horowitz: Uh huh.
Biden: I mean you got the first [0.756]
sorta [0.688]
mainstream African-American [1.241]
Horowitz: Yeah.
Biden: who is articulate and bright [0.178]
and [0.700]
and- and clean, and a nice lookin guy. [0.560]
Horowitz: Mm.
Biden: I mean, it's- that's a story-board, man!
Horowitz: Yeah.

Between "African-American" and "who", we've got not only one and a quarter seconds of wall clock time (more than twice the amount of time separating what the Observer transcribes as two sentences), but also Horowitz's "yeah", set off cleanly by silence on both sides.

In addition, Biden's rising intonation on "African-American" seems incompatible to me with what Josh's correspondent calls a "restrictive relative clause" as opposed to a "non-restrictive" one. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language prefers the terms "integrated" vs. "supplementary" relative clause, but the intended distinction is clear under whatever description.)

Josh doesn't think this matters, politically:

My sense is that this is only partially exculpating at best. Even with the comma it's really condescending bordering on racist. And it would still probably mean that Biden's mouth presents a clear and present danger to Democratic electoral prospects no matter what he meant. Ending his candidacy wouldn't be preemption, just legitimate self-defense.

I agree with his political point.

But there's also a linguistic and a journalistic point here. Senator Biden's word sequence corresponds to two different sentences with very different meanings, and the Observer misquoted him by omitting the comma.

I don't know whether the Observer misrepresented Biden's statement out of ignorance, carelessness, or malice. Maybe Horowitz and his editors don't know the difference between the two types of relative clauses; maybe they didn't bother to think about the difference in interpretation in this case; or maybe they know the difference in general, thought about it in this case, and decided that it would make a better story to present the wrong version.

Whatever the explanation, this isn't the first time that a reporter has been accused of using sloppy quoting to improve a story. See for example my post "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005. As the links in that post indicate, inaccurate quoting -- sometimes just out of laziness, but often out of a desire to make a better story -- is the journalistic rule, not the exception.

This also isn't the first time that Jason Horowitz's linguistic carelessness has come up. For background, I refer you to "The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO", 3/22/2006. As in the case of Dean Roderick P. Hart of the University of Texas, I'm going to avoid speculation about an individual's history and motivations. But I observed in that case that my profession has apparently failed in its duty to educate the nation's professors -- I'll add today that we haven't done any better with the journalists.

[Update -- Someone at The Economist blogged about this last night, and came to the same conclusion that I did: "Joe Biden: moron racist, or poorly transcribed?", 1/31/2007.

For added value, though, the Econo-blogger addresses the weaker complaint that "that Mr Biden is racist in the mild, unconscious way that causes people to use words like "articulate" and "clean" when describing a black senator, when it would never occur to most people to use them to describe a white senator", and refutes it by finding recent journalism or punditry in which those same words are used to describe white senators.

The E-blogger also observes that the NYT's reaction was to "[amplify] the misquote hugely rather than checking its facts" (Adam Nagourney, " Biden unwraps '08 bid with an Oops!", 1/31/2007).

I'm ashamed to say that I didn't even know that The Economist had a blog -- and it started way back on October 30, 2006! It's called "Democracy in America", and it looks to be well worth reading regularly.

It's slightly odd to combine the informal first-person style of blogging with The Economist's traditional anonymous (not even pseudonymous) authorship, but I guess I'll get used to it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:51 AM

Molly Ivins

One of the world's most reliable sources of mirth is gone -- Molly Ivins died yesterday.

The NYT obit (Katherine Q. Seelye, "Molly Ivins is Dead at 62; Columnist Skewered Politicians", 2/1/2007) listed a few of her better jokes, for example:

After Patrick J. Buchanan, as a conservative candidate for president, declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention that the United States was engaged in a cultural war, she said his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

But both the Grey Lady and the internet failed me on one point. According to the obit,

In 1976, her writing, which she said was often fueled by “truly impressive amounts of beer,” landed her a job at The New York Times. She cut an unusual figure in The Times newsroom, wearing blue jeans, going barefoot and bringing in her dog, whose name was an expletive.

Which expletive was that, I immediately wondered? Searching for {"Molly Ivins" dog "New York Times"}, and similar things, was unenlightening on this point. If you know the answer, please tell me. [Update: mystery solved -- see below.]

I bet that Molly will be having a laugh over that "dog, whose name was an expletive", as she settles down behind her keyboard in heaven. Here's what the obit in the Dallas Morning News has to say about her time at the Times:

She frequently butted heads with what she considered the stuffed shirts at the Times and described her idea of hell as "being edited by the Times copy desk for all eternity."

She liked to say that if she described something that "squawked like a $2 fiddle," the Times copy editors would change it to "an inexpensive instrument."

The grey lady and the red-headed one parted ways after Ms. Ivins covered a New Mexico community chicken festival and wanted to refer to it as "a gang pluck."

The NYT obit primly describes this episode as follows:

Covering an annual chicken slaughter in New Mexico in 1980, she used a sexually suggestive phrase, which her editors deleted from the final article. But her attempt to use it angered the executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, who ordered her back to New York and assigned her to City Hall, where she covered routine matters with little flair.

Some other Molly Ivins quotes, from the Dallas Morning News obit:

Of the Gore-Bush presidential race in 2000 she said, "It's like having Ted Baxter of the old 'Mary Tyler Moore' show running for president: Gore has Ted's manner and Bush has his brain."

Of ultraconservative U.S. Rep. Jim Collins, R-Dallas, in the early 1980s, she said: "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."

"Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that."

The NYT obit cites one Ivins zinger that the Dallas Morning News omits:

She quit The Times in 1982 after The Dallas Times Herald offered to make her a columnist. She took the job even though she loathed Dallas, once describing it as the kind of town "that would have rooted for Goliath to beat David."

And her motto (recorded in several variants) is one of my favorites:

"I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth."

For an inspiring model of grace and courage as well as humor, see her forthright response (in 1995) to a serious accusation of plagiarism.

[Update -- Rob Twin provides the answer, via Rosalind Alexander, "'Who's it screw, and who's doing the screwing?' Jawin' with Molly Ivins, America's funniest hell raiser", Seattle Weekly, 4/22/1998. The lede:

Within a respectful time after her dog Shit died, Molly Ivins began looking for another pet. She hoped to name it Achilles. "Then I'd get to command 'Achilles! Heel!'" she explains in her trademark Texas drawl.

John Cowan adds:

This name was only semi-intentional; its original name was Shitfire or Shitface or something of the sort, which became Shit by hypocoristic truncation. She wrote a sweet and funny piece about the dog after its death.

On general stylistic grounds, I'd put my money on "shitface". More as I learn it. ]

[ (Update 2/3/2007.)  Molly Ivins' obituary for her dog, published in the Texas Observer in February, 1987, and reprinted in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? (pp. 207-210), explains the name:

I never intended to name the dog Shit. Kaye Northcott foisted the little black puppy on me with a heartless ploy -- left her with me "just for the weekend" and then returned Monday threatening to take her to the pound and have her put to sleep. I was going to name her something lovely, like Athena, but reality intervened. She was the only dog I ever saw that could trip on the pattern in the linoleum, so we called her Shitface for a while, and then it got to be Shit for short and then it was too late.

The whole piece is here.

I learned a useful new verb from the opening sentence ("Shit the Dog finally croaked on December 9 after fourteen-and-a-half years of marplotting through life"). According to the OED, a marplot is "A person who or (occas.) a thing which spoils a plot or hinders the success of any undertaking". The verb isn't in the dictionary -- and {marplotting} now nets only six Google hits, with one of them being a quote from Molly's article, and two others being fake text on Taiwanese porn sites. But if we all start using it -- and which of us doesn't have good and frequent reason to do so? -- we should be able to being it into general use. I certainly plan to try. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:58 AM