March 31, 2007

The future of the Eskimo vocabulary hoax

... according to Ted Rall, at least:

[Hat tip to Jon Peltier]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:07 PM

Liberté, égalité, néologie

In France, the latest nouveauté is... political weblogs. These are blogs that are orchestrated by the publishers of newspapers and magazines, bien sur -- at least, that's the aspect of the phenomenon that the newsies themselves are writing about. Walking around Paris last week, I saw these blogs advertised on all the news kiosks. I read a few of them on line during the few minutes a day that I spent on the net during my visit; and then I got a journalistic perspective on these blogs from an article by Macha Séry in Le Monde, ("Les sites Internet des journaux ouvrent leurs blogs aux intellectuels", 3/29/2007), which I read on the plane back to Philly.

The first thing that struck me about this phenomenon was that no one is paying any heed to the decision of La Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie at the French Ministry of Culture, back in the spring of 2005, that the proper French word for blog ought to be "bloc-notes" (i.e. "writing tablet"), or "bloc" for those in a hurry. In all the newspapers, as well as in the blogs themselves, the blogs are just "blogs".

To an outsider, it seems typique that the French government has an official neologism commission, rostered with an all-star cast of academicians, university presidents and the like, and supported by 18 specialized sub-commissions to do the real work. The neologism commission itself is one of the many activities of the délégation générale à la langue française (DGLF), which "élabore la politique linguistique du Gouvernement en liaison avec les autres départements ministériels" ("elaborates the language policy of the government in liaison with the other ministerial departments"), and acts as an "organe de réflexion, d'évaluation et d'action" (an "organ of reflection, of evaluation and of action").

It also seem typique that the neologism commission's website hasn't been updated since 2001, and that (at least some of) their pronouncements are simply ignored by French society at large, as their choice of "bloc-notes/bloc" for "weblog/blog" has been. But I bet the catering at their meetings is to die for.

The second thing that struck me about these new political weblogs is how small their readership is, by American standards. The blog of Michel Onfray is the most popular of those hosted at Le Nouvel Observateur, (, which the article in Le Monde calls "la plus spectaculaire car la plus massive et la plus prestigieuse" ("the most spectacular because the most massive and the most prestigious"). Onfray's name was featured in large type on special news-kiosk posters everywhere I looked. But according to the article in Le Monde, Onfray gets less than half the traffic that Language Log does, and thus less than 5% of the traffic at Instapundit, and less than 1% of the traffic at Daily Kos.

Is this because Séry at Le Monde is joining the Nouvel Obs in trying to create a buzz that hasn't quite happened yet? Or is it because out of the 2.15 million people in Paris, or the 60.7 million people in France as a whole, there are really only a few thousand intellectuals involved in setting the cultural tone, and so an average of 3,115 visitors a day is all that it takes to reach everyone who matters in le tout Paris?

Here are a few quotes from the Le Monde article (Macha Séry, "Les sites Internet des journaux ouvrent leurs blogs aux intellectuels", 3/29/2007), with (untrustworthy) translations by me:

Le papier étant une ressource épuisable et la pagination limitée, quelques journaux ont choisi, en vue de l'élection présidentielle, de faire vivre et prolonger le débat sur leur site. D'une manière classique d'abord, par des forums de discussion thématiques destinés aux lecteurs en ligne et des chats quotidiens ou biquotidiens. Nouveauté, l'apparition d'un canal contributif avec les blogs d'auteurs extérieurs, hébergés par les sites de plusieurs publications.

Paper being an exhaustible resource and page numbers being limited, some newspapers have chosen, with an eye to the presidential election, to bring the debate to life and prolong it on their (web) site. First in a classical way, with forums of thematic discussion intended for on-line readers, and with daily or twice-daily chats. The latest thing is the appearance of a contributed channel with the blogs of outside authors, hosted on the sites of several publications.

La plus spectaculaire car la plus massive et la plus prestigieuse en termes de noms de signataires est l'initiative éditoriale prise par Le Nouvel Obs ( d'inviter, sous la bannière "Elysée 2007", dix intellectuels à tenir leur journal en ligne. Pour l'hebdomadaire, il s'agit de perpétuer la tradition toujours vivace de l'engagement d'intellectuels et chercheurs dans une campagne, sollicités pour expliciter les thèmes et enjeux électoraux mais aussi pour formuler des opinions ou prises de positions argumentées.

The most spectacular because the most massive and the most prestigious in terms of names of contributors is the editorial initiative taken by the Nouvel Obs ( to invite, under the banner "Elysée 2007", ten intellectuals to put their diaries on line. For the weekly, it's a matter of continuing the still-lively tradition of the engagement of intellectuals and researchers in a campaign, asked to specify the themes and stakes of the election, but also to formulate opinions or arguments for positions on the issues.

En complément des carnets rédigés par les journalistes maison, le premier invité du a été le philosophe Michel Onfray, dont le blog a été lancé le 10 février, quelques jours avant la parution en kiosque du numéro du magazine titrant en "une" : "Les intellectuels virent-ils à droite" ?

As a supplement to the notebooks written by house journalists, the first person inviter [to blog] at was the philosopher Michel Onfray, whose blog was launched on February 10, several days before the appearance on kiosks of an issue of the magazine whose cover read "Are the intellectuals turning to the right?"

As I said, last week it seemed that every news kiosk in Paris is plastered with Nouvel Obs placards advertising Onfray's commentary on the campaign. Despite this, the site's traffic is rather small by American standards:

Leurs carnets de notes ont stimulé l'audience du site de l'hebdomadaire, dont le total des blogs enregistre en moyenne 12 000 visites quotidiennes. A lui seul, celui de Michel Onfray a comptabilisé, du 1er au 26 mars, 81 000 visites, dont 47 500 visiteurs uniques, 231 000 pages lues et 4 273 commentaires.

Their notebooks have stimulated the audience on the weekly's site, with the [ten] blogs in total getting an average of 12,000 daily visits. Michel Onfray himself has racked up, from the 1st to the 26th of march, 81,000 visits, with 47,500 unique visitors, 231,000 page views, and 4,273 comments.

A third (and final) observation about these blogs -- or anyhow about Onfray's: they're rather un-blog-like. At least, the half-dozen posts that I've read are all plain-text essays, between 1,000 and 1,500 words each, with no hyperlinks, no quotations, no tables, no pictures. Even when he starts a post with a reference to someone else's writing, he doesn't link to it, and he doesn't even quote it, he just assumes that his readers will have read it and will know what he's talking about. Or maybe he assumes that they won't have read it, but will form an adequate opinion of its content from his discussion, I don't know. Here's an example, from the opening of his most recent post ("Pour Olivier Besancenot", 3/29/2007):

Dans « Libération » ce jeudi 29 mars : « Olivier Besancenot se pose en rassembleur ». Bravo, encore bravo, toujours bravo ! J’ai souhaité ce rassemblement très tôt, dès le résultat noniste au référendum sur l’Europe ; il n’a pas eu lieu. Je l’ai désiré ensuite, à l’approche des présidentielles ; il n’a pas eu lieu. J’y ai aspiré quand il fut question d’une candidature commune avec vote des comités antilibéraux ; il n’a pas eu lieu.

In Libération, this Thursday March 29: "Olivier Besancenot sets himself up as a uniter". Bravo, again bravo, forever bravo! I wanted this uniting very early, after the no result in the referendum on Europe; it didn't happen. I wanted it later, in the run-up to the presidential election: it didn't happen. I hoped for it when it was a question of a common candidacy for the vote of the antiliberal committees; it didn't happen.

This is not just an anglo-saxon attitude about the blogging form. Some English-language blogs are basically a string of op-ed essays in vaguely blogoid format with an unusually large number of first-person pronouns -- many of the blogs hosted by the New York Times are like that. And for an authentically bloggy blog with an unassailably French point of view -- and a great deal of interesting commentary about political discourse -- take a look at Technologies de Langages, by Jean Véronis. And there are real French political blogs as well, not astroturf creations like the Sarkozy blog", and not top-down publishers' co-optations like the But as far as I know, none of them have emerged as a popular political force in the way that American blogs have. And this strikes me as the other side of the same cultural difference that makes it seem perfectly normal to the French to have a neologism commission, with 18 subcommissions, elaborately organized by the central government. (As usual, if I'm wrong, please tell me.)

[Cornelius Puschmann writes from Dusseldorf:

I just wanted to (very briefly) comment on your LL post concerning the French blogosphere. It seems to me that the good people at Le Monde are too focused on the clumsy experiments of the writing establishment with a new publishing technology.

The French blogosphere as such (sans luminaries) is quite vibrant, as a recent study by PR giant Edelman has found:
"Twenty-two percent of the French read blogs, the highest level of reading in the non-English blogosphere outside of Asia." (p. 20)
"Young adults (18-24) in France read blogs more frequently ( 1.4 times per week) than any other age group in all of Europe." (p. 20)
(from: )

It's hardly surprising that the French youth are using blogs in more innovative ways than people like Onfray, who think blogging is really just chic publishing. Blogging from any kind of institutional pulpit seems difficult, because many blog-readers interpret blogging (plus commenting) as a form of direct interpersonal communication. An institution may pretend to have a voice (a phrase that corporate communications people like to use), but in reality that voice isn't capable of actually having a conversation with anyone. Of course you can use Wordpress or Movable Type in whatever way you see fit, but people tend to react quite strongly to perceived violations of genre conventions. And then there are always the cultural specificities (for example, read about of blogging in Japan on page 13 of the study)....

In case you are interested in (much!) more rambling on institutional blogging, read about my PhD project. In... *deep breath* my blog. ;-)

But none of the "influential French blogs" listed on p. 21 of the Edelman white paper are even partly about politics; and if I go to technorati and search for {presidentielle} in "all blogs" in "any language" with "a lot of authority", I get only 18 results. The top three genuine results, in order, seem to be with an average of around 2100 daily visits, and Toute l'actu, which is a journo-blog produced "par la rédaction de l'hebdo des socialistes", and Page 2007, What seems to be a listing of politically-oriented French weblogs is here. The technorati search misses the popular Big Bang Blog, which is partly political; it doesn't seem to have a visit counter, but its linkage is ranked by technorati just behind, with 1,354 links from 564 blogs (compare 3,052 from 1,273 for Language Log, which is a small-scale operation by U.S. standards). What I don't see, so far, is the French equivalent of Daily Kos or Instapundit -- a site run by individuals, not a political party or a newspaper or magazine, whose readership, to be in proportion to the French vs. U.S. population, should be between 20,000 and 100,000 visits a day, with 3,000-5,000 technorati-indexed links.]

[Update 4/12/2007 -- factual correction here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:01 AM

March 30, 2007

More N-word meta-humor

Right after Wednesday night's "Daily Show" featuring Larry Wilmore and John Oliver investigating the N-word, "The Colbert Report" kept the theme going with the invited guest, Washington Post columnist Jabari Asim, author of The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (video here). Unlike Oliver, Stephen Colbert didn't have a proxy who could safely say the word nigger, so instead he pursued a line of questioning that hilariously sent up the verbal somersaults of taboo avoidance.

Colbert: First question. Did you want to name the book The N-Word and they said, "No, you have to call it The N-Word"? Or, did you say, "I want to name this book The N-Word," and they assumed you meant, you know, The N-Word, when in fact you meant The N-Word?

Asim: I think I suggested calling it The N-Word and they thought it was a good idea to play it safe and call it The N-Word.

Colbert: OK, this actually, this raises another interesting subject to me, is that the N-word has become so anonymous [sic] with the N-word, uh, is saying the N-word pretty much like saying the N-word? Because I would never say the N-word, but I don't want somebody to think I'm saying the N-word by saying the N-word. You know what I mean? Because I would never say that word that begins with the letter after M.

It's a testament to the astonishing dynamism of our linguistic faculties that we can listen to this conversation and readily distinguish between the N-word as an avoidance substitute for nigger and the N-word as a meta-descriptor of the substitution. (We can also easily follow Colbert when he malapropistically replaces synonymous with anonymous.) In fact, it's effin' unbelievable.

[Update: I originally rendered Asim's response to Colbert as: "I think I suggested calling it The N-Word and they thought it was a good idea to play it safe and call it The N-Word." A few emailers heard this as "I think I suggested calling it The N-Word...", implying that Asim wanted to call his book Nigger but was overruled by his publisher. Listening to the clip again, I believe I hear enough intonational contrast between the two instances of N-Word to support that construal, so I'll defer to the wisdom of the masses.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 09:56 AM

Wilmore/Oliver Investigates: N-word!

Thanks to the miracle of TiVo, I rarely miss a Daily Show, though sometimes not for several days after the fact. Such is the case with respect to Wednesday's show, which I laughed my head off at tonight. Thanks to the miracle of streaming video, you too will be able to share and enjoy!

To be specific, I was laughing at the segment Wilmore/Oliver Investigates: The N-Word! As you know, the taboo nature of the N-word has come up on Language Log now and then, so I was all ears when I heard the topic of their report, and they did not disappoint.

They really touched basically all the high points of the issues we've hit on over the years. There was a running joke where Oliver, the white British guy, did most of the narrating, and Wilmore, the black American guy, said 'nigger' whenever it needed saying in the narration, sending up the in-group/out-group constraint.

Even Wilmore, though, was really only mentioning the n-word, not using it; another joke involved him filling in mention after mention of the n-word, and then at a pause in Oliver's discussion, filling in with an actual use, which gets Oliver all flustered. Here's a transcript of that exchange, the beginning of an interview with a councilman who wants to ban the n-word:

Oliver: So, Leroy, you want to ban this Larry...(points to him)
Wilmore: "Nigger".
Oliver: Thank you. What he said. Ah. Is the word, um,
Wilmore: "Nigger".
Oliver:...offensive to everyone, or just to...
Wilmore: Niggers.
Oliver: No, nonono, I was just, I was just pointing to ... don't use that term, please!

Later on, there's a whole exchange illustrating the lack of illocutionary force in linguistic example sentences (produced by Wilmore), which incidentally also serves as a basic part-of-speech primer, and plays on the whole "niggardly "flurry, too.

Anyway, the whole thing is just brilliant, really. Check it out!

Posted by Heidi Harley at 03:02 AM


There are no red capes, goggles or hot-air balloons at Language Log Plaza, though there are rumors about chiropteran apparatus in the sub-basement:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:01 AM

March 29, 2007

Joe, this is for you

I just got back from Long Beach, where I did a couple of presentations at the WritersUA conference, a national gathering of technical writers who work on documentation and user-help materials. And the last question I was asked at the final session of the conference came from a woman who simply asked me if I could make a list of some of the anti-prescriptivist warnings I had mentioned in my two talks, and put it on Language Log addressed to her boss, a man named Joe. And I don't see why not. It will perhaps be of some use to lots of people (slip a copy on your boss's desk during the lunch hour), but Joe, this is primarily for you.

1.  Which at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause has never at any time in history been a grammatical error in Standard English, Joe, and company time spent chasing down whiches might as well be devoted to hunting witches. Nobody could believe that phrases like the glimpse which I got are mistakes if they either read widely in English literature (the phrase I just quoted is in the second sentence of Bram Stoker's great novel Dracula) or knew the grammar literature (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage tells the tale starting on page 727, and you really should take a look at it).

2.  The difference between the socket it was removed from and the socket from which it was removed is a slight difference in style: the first sounds somewhat more informal, ordinary, and relaxed, and the second sounds a bit more pompous and distant. Both are fully correct, and both are clear. The former might be the best choice in documentation intended for average users. Never waste energy getting expert writers to avoid prepositions at ends of phrases; it has been normal in English since its earliest history, and has never been grammatically wrong.

3.  The different forms of the pronoun they have been used with singular antecedents throughout the history of English. The established usage is to use it when the antecedent is so indefinite that any choice of gender would be unmotivated: any employee who wants their office repainted, or a customer who finds that their shipment was incomplete. Most writers use this (it is particuarly common in Jane Austen, for example), and almost everyone does in speech. It is not a mistake and never has been. Singular they is an excellent choice in many contexts when choice of a gendered singular pronoun would imply falsely that one sex or the other is being excluded. To say Every writer has his own style implies that all writers are male. If your company is open to hiring women as writers, then Every writer has their own style is preferable. (Older grammars that say he can be used to include females are just factually wrong: notice that the phrase if either your father or your mother breaks his hip is incoherent!)

4.  It has never been ungrammatical to place an adverb (or other such modifier) between to and the verb in an infinitival clause: a phrase like to really understand this technique is fully grammatical. The people who think the "split infinitive" is a mistake are ignorant of what grammar books actually say: ALL English grammars and usage books, even very conservative ones, agree that modifiers are grammatically permitted between to and the verb, and that often this is the best choice among the alternative word orders. For example, We have done this to better reflect engineering practice is grammatically perfect, and shifting better would make it clearly worse (We have done this better sounds as if we're talking about doing it better than someone else; better engineering practice suggests two classes of engineering, the better kind and a worse kind). Expert writers should be left to select a word order appropriate for the meaning they have to express. Bullying them about preverbal modifier placements not only suggests ignorance of grammar and linguistic history, it is actually counter-productive.

I have a series of other even sillier cases I could comment on in similar terms, Joe. But at some point we need to decide when these things have been said enough. Many posts on Language Log have discussed these things (see this page for a list of all my posts, and also look around for discussions of relevant topics by other writers, particularly Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky); quite a few of the posts by Mark and me are gathered together in print in this book; and an authoritative account of all the relevant facts is available (very cheap) in a superb reference work published by Merriam-Webster that should be on the desk of every writer — and every manager who oversees writers.

The bottom line is that you should let your expert writers write, and choose from the full array of presentations that English grammar allows, rather than chasing around trying to eradicate putative errors that actually not errors at all, and never have been. Don't waste time playing Grammar Gotcha against your own highly competent technical writing staff. You know what they say about teaching a pig to sing: there are two arguments against it, because it wastes your time and it annoys the pig. Only in this case you're not teaching anyone anything. You're doing something more like the opposite of teaching — a sort of un-teaching that involves trying to foist rules that are actually mythical on people who basically know how to write perfectly well in the first place.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 02:46 PM

Mea culpa

People have trouble accommodating the Latin expression mea culpa 'my fault' into English.  If you're aware of its use in the prayer the Confiteor ('I confess') in the Latin Mass, then you'll probably treat it simply as a quotation.  But as the expression comes to be seen as just a fancy way of saying "my bad", it's open to reanalysis, nativization, and semantic extension.  Breaking news on the reanalysis-cum-nativization front: Hilary Price's Rhymes With Orange cartoon from 27 March:

I'll get back to his/her aculpa in a moment.  But first, an extension in a different direction.  This was first reported to me last month by Dave Borowitz (in my Innovations seminar), as a possible example of a pleonasm.  Borowitz sent me a link to a blog by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, in which my mea culpa appears.  In context:
A year ago I criticized Hillary Clinton for saying "this (Bush) administration will go down in history as one of the worst."

"She's wrong," I wrote. Then I rated these five presidents, in this order, as the worst: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Hoover and Richard Nixon. "It's very unlikely Bush can crack that list," I added.

I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top.

Some quick googling on the web pulls up more hits for possessive pronouns + mea culpa: his 23,200; my 17,800; your  394; their 293; her 255; our 228.  They're definitely out there, and some from respectable sources.

On to the dictionaries.  AHD4 and NOAD2 list mea culpa as a noun, and begin their definitions with "an acknowledgement", which turns out to be ambiguous: does the expression serve to acknowledge guilt, or does it denote an act of acknowledging guilt?  These are separated in the OED, which has two senses:

A int. Used as an exclamation or statement acknowledging one's guilt or responsibility for an error

B n. An utterance of 'mea culpa' as an acknowledgement of one's guilt or responsibility for an error

The OED's B examples mostly have mea culpa in italics: "a public mea culpa", "Auden's mea culpa".  But the italicization has largely disappeared in the recent web examples; the expression has developed a use as an ordinary English noun referring to an act of admitting fault (often, now, rather minor faults -- we're far from the Confiteor), with the syntax of any such English noun (including a plural, mea culpas).  Neuharth's "my mea culpa" is just an instance of this extended usage.  (The OED's first examples, from 1818 and 1948, are more literal, referring to the act of uttering "mea culpa", but from 1958 on there are cites with the extended meaning 'admission of fault'.)

Now to more exciting stuff.  At some point, people began to nativize mea culpa in a different direction, with the Latin possessive replaced by an English one, and culpa treated as an English noun.  (The OED has an entry for culpa, but only in legal contexts.)  There are small Google web numbers for possessive pronoun + culpa: his 100; my 52; their 38; her 27; our 13; your 7.  Some of these are in religious or legal contexts, but then there are things like the following, about Michael Richards:

If he was filled with such huge remorse, he should've offered his culpa Saturday night at the club or on any of the local TV stations. ...

[Addendum: Another possibility is to reanalyze the me part of mea as the English pronoun me, in which case things like you-a culpa, youa culpa, and even your-a culpa or youra culpa become possible.  As Ben Zimmer has pointed out to me, these are attested; they were discussed back in 2005 on the ADS-L list.]

Still another possibility is to re-cut mea culpa as me aculpa, and there are modest numbers of hits for this one, for example:

P.S. aculpa: my cyber-pollution record is now 731!

The next step would be to finish nativizing me aculpa as my aculpa.  I don't get any hits for this one, or for your, our, their, or her, and only one hit for his aculpa, in a poem by Sheila Dalton where it's pretty clearly a deliberate play on mea culpa in a religious context:

... God is wearing sunglasses
and tanning Himself on a beach in Hawaii
While I wear nails in my hands
and dodge crosses.

... I have forgotten Him
Mea culpa, mea culpa
But His aculpa, too
for preferring autographs
to virgins
and passing his days on Waikiki beach ...

Hilary Price's couples counselor, on the other hand, with his his aculpa and her aculpa, is on the path to my aculpa.  Look for it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:52 PM

Saussure v. Oppenheimer

In odd minutes during my recent travels, I've been working my way through Stephen Oppenheimer's "The Origins of the British". A few weeks ago, Sally Thomason unloaded on Nicholas Wade's account of Oppenheimer's account of Peter Forster's notion that "English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, [which] was spoken in England before the Roman invasion" ("Nutty journalists' (and others') language theories", 3/6/2007). And a bit later, I quoted from a post and a comment on the blog Gene Expressions which called into question some of Oppenheimer's historical population genetics ("Not just bad linguistics, but shoddy historical genetics too?", 3/12/2007).

I promised to report back after reading some of Oppenheimer's books and consulting with experts in computational biology. This is not such a report -- I'm still reading "The Origins of the British". But along the way, several things have struck me as worthy of note.

Let me start by observing that I've enjoyed the book. Oppenheimer's method of laying out his "genetic detective story" is mostly to lay out the (mutually contradictory) arguments and conclusions of others, which means that the book is not really so much about the pre-history of British isles as about the intellectual history of the pre-history of the British isles. And this winding path is littered with interesting facts and factoids. All in all, the book is sort of like a one-person, uneditable slice from some of the more idiosyncratic layers of the Wikipedia -- full of fascinating stuff, and well worth reading, as long as you don't put much credence in it.

In the areas where I already know something, it's clear that Oppenheimer misunderstands some key concepts, so his assembly even of true pieces of the puzzle is likely to be logically flawed. Since I have a couple of minutes free this morning, I thought I'd give one example: his strange misunderstanding of the comparative method as practiced in historical linguistics.

Here's a representative passage, starting on p. 79:

Although in previous decades linguists made confident dates deep splits in languages [sic], based on the evidence of word sharing, some have had their fingers burnt, and rather than try again they have tended to avoid the practice. Others have simply never strayed from the tight confines of the last couple of thousand years, for which period the written word in documents and inscriptions is the ultimate test of time and place.

Scholars studying celtic languages have shared this reluctance. For the British Isles, they do have the advantage that the large body of extant inscriptions and other texts provides a tremendous opportunity to look in detail at sound changes over the past 1,600 years. They can cross-check their dates against those determined by the archaeologists. While this makes possible a microscopic in-depth exploration using the core tool of their craft (known as the comparative method), the evidence on which it based [sic] needs to be rigorously determined and of high quality, which means that this approach cannot be extended back any further than the first celtic inscriptions, around 2,500 years ago. Celtic linguists are therefore content for the big questions of European Celtic homeland origins and dates, first posed so long ago, to remain on the shelf. [emphasis added]

The context of this passage, and others in the book, suggest that Oppenheimer really thinks that the historical-comparative method is unable to offer any insights into linguistic history at times earlier than the earliest available texts.

But for a full century and a half, historical linguists have been using the comparative method to reconstruct proto-languages, and to argue for tree-structured theories of development through thousands of years of history before the earliest attested evidence. And there are several famous examples where daring hypotheses about proto-language features were later confirmed by discoveries of earlier text and even new languages -- one notable case is Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the Indo-European laryngeals, which was later confirmed by the discovery of Hittite.

This bizarre misunderstanding, on the part of someone who is obviously obsessed with the investigation of pre-history, is an extraordinary indictment of my profession's failure to educate contemporary intellectuals, even about the linguistic theories and results of 150 years ago, much less those of more recent times. I described a similarly spectacular display of ignorance two years ("Gall in the family", 11/7/2003). Greg Ross, the managing editor of the American Scientist magazine wrote:

Ever since Darwin proposed an evolutionary tree to describe the descent of species, linguists have sought to apply the concept in their own field. ... Now historical linguists may stand to benefit by borrowing a second idea from evolutionary biology.

This was Ross's way of introducing a review of Forster and Toth's lexico-statistical reconstruction of the Indo-European family tree (which Oppenheimer, in the passage above, is about to invoke with respect to celtic origins). As I explained at the time, Ross "gets the direction of intellectual influence exactly backwards. The well-known fact of the matter is that Darwin modeled his idea of 'descent with modification' in biological evolution explicitly on what he took to be the obvious prior success of philologists in establishing 'descent with modification' as the basis of the the history of languages". I also pointed out that algorithmic creation of hypothetical phylogenetic trees for linguistic histories was pioneered by lexicostatisticians in the 1950s, before anyone tried such a thing in biology.

I'd like to correct one point in Sally Thomason's earlier post. She calls Stephen Oppenheimer "an Oxford geneticist". But in fact, as the Wikipedia explains,

Stephen Oppenheimer is a member of Green College, Oxford and an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. From 1972 he worked as a clinical paediatrician in countries including Sarawak (Malaysia), Nepal and Papua New Guinea. From 1979 he moved into medical research and teaching, with positions at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Oxford University, the research centre in Kilifi in Kenya, and the University Sains of Malaysia. From 1990-1994 he was University Professor, Chairman and Chief of Clinical Service in the Department of Paediatrics in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and from 1994-1997 Senior specialist paediatrician in Brunei.

Professor Oppenheimer returned to England in 1996, and began a second career as researcher and popular science writer in prehistory. His books synthesize human genetics with archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and folklore.

In other words, he's as much an amateur in genetics, computational-historical or otherwise, as he is in linguistics. I see nothing wrong with that at all -- significant advances in many fields have been made by people without the intellectual union cards that are too often required as the price of entry into serious discussions. But on the other hand, there's no reason to defer to him as an authority in genetics or computational biology.

[Sally has pointed out to me that she got the description of Oppenheimer from Nicholas Ward, who calls him "a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford". Sally observed that this casts a further shadow on Ward's reporting, already rather dimly lit.]

[John Cowan wrote in with a quote from Carl Sagan about Immanuel Velikovsky:

Velikovsky has called attention to a wide range of stories and legends, held by diverse peoples, separated by great distances, which stories show remarkable similarities and concordances. I am not expert in the cultures or languages of any of these peoples, but I find the concatenation of legends Velikovsky has accumulated stunning. It is true that some experts in these cultures are less impressed. I can remember vividly discussing Worlds in Collision with a distinguished professor of Semitics at a leading university. He said something like "The Assyriology, Egyptology, Biblical scholarship and all of that Talmudic and Midrashic pilpul is, of course, nonsense; but I was impressed by the astronomy." (Broca's Brain, ch. 7)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:37 AM

Playing in handkerchiefs

The fun thing about reading the news in a foreign language is that the tired and overused metaphors seem new and strange. In an interview published on Wednesday, Nicolas Sarkozy said of the French presidential election that

"Ça se jouera de toute façon dans un mouchoir de poche."

"It will play itself out in any case in a pocket handkerchief."

"Dans un mouchoir de poche" is a cliche that I didn't know, although it has 62,800 Google hits. Looking over some examples, I gather that users are focusing on the small space rather than the insalubrious residues. In any case, the things that can generally be found in the pocket handkerchiefs of La Francophonie are elections and sports events.

Over in Quebec, Le Devoir recently wrote that

Un mouchoir de poche. Voilà l'expression qu'a utilisée l'Agence France-Presse pour décrire la situation dans laquelle se retrouvent les principaux partis politiques du Québec à 48 heures d'un scrutin général qui s'annonce comme le plus serré depuis la Confédération.

A pocket handkerchief. That's the expression that Agence France Presse used to describe the situation in which the main political parties of Quebec find themselves, 48 hours before a general election that promises to be the tightest since the Confederation.

And in Francophone Africa, according to Le Monde,

Les Mauritaniens en sont fiers. Jamais, à les entendre, un pays arabe n'a connu un tel suspense pour une élection présidentielle. Alors qu'ils s'apprêtent à clore près de deux années de junte militaire et à élire, dimanche 25 mars, un nouveau président de la République, personne ne sait en effet qui va l'emporter. L'élection se jouera dans un mouchoir de poche.

The Mauritanians are proud. Never, you hear them say, has an arab country known such suspense in a presidential election. As they get ready to end nearly two years of military junta and to elect, Saturday March 25, a new president of the republic, no one really knowns who will win. The election will play itself out in a pocket handkerchief.

Turning to sports, a story in

Grégory Tafforeau, le capitaine lillois, attend, lui, une réaction. "Tout se joue dans un mouchoir de poche, sachant que nous avons gaspillé pas mal de points en route. Nous avons sans doute également grillé notre dernier joker face au Mans.

As for Gregory Tafforeau, Lille's captain, he expects a response. "It all plays itself out in a pocket handkerchief, considering that we've wasted plenty of points along the way. We surely also burnt our last joker against Mans."

I gather, by the way, that burning (cooking? roasting?) a joker is something like wasting a trump card, given other sports-figure quotes like

On perd à la maison, ce qui veut dire que l'on grille notre dernier joker.

We lose at home, that means that we burn our last joker.

Jokers aside, individual as well as team sports can be played in pocket handkerchiefs:

Cinq filles (Seebohm, Manaudou, Ito, Coughlin et Nakamura) peuvent viser l’or : « Ça va se jouer dans un mouchoir de poche », prédit Lucas.

Five girls (Seebohm, Manudou, Ito, Coughlin and Nakamura) can aim at the gold: "It's going to play itself out in a pocket handkerchief", predicts Lucas.

I don't think that English has any current clichés for close contests that are this silly. (Though "decided by a nose" has an ironically close association, even if horses' noses are the wrong kind to put into handkerchiefs.) But I'm probably just failing to remember all the silly English-language metaphors for close contests, since the literal meaning of familiar expressions gets pretty well bleached out.

[By the way, Radio France Internationale undertook in 2006 to explain "dans un mouchoir de poche" to a puzzled African reader, in the context of the last World Cup, where apparently many matches were played in handkerchiefs.]

[Update -- Martyn Cornell wrote to explain that

There is a rule in the European-wide televised "silly games" contest Jeux Sans Frontieres that each team has a Joker card which they can play at the start of the game in which they believe they will do best, and which will double whatever points they score in that game - since you could only use your joker once, doubtless this gave the idea to the French that once played it was "grille", though I don't recall an equivalent expression in English, we would just say "used".

and in French


[And Mark McConville sent a response to my rash assertion that "I don't think that English has any current clichés for close contests that are this silly":

A popular one here in the UK over the past few years is "squeaky bum time", used first by Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in 2003 to describe the culmination of a closely run football season. It's even in the dictionary now:

And this metaphor has already moved into the political arena too:

OK, I guess I should have known that in the silly expression area, the British take second place to no one.]

[And Bruce Rusk pointed out another one, which is so obvious that I didn't think of it:

Among the "silly English-language metaphors for close contexts" (lovely Freudian slip!): "dead heat." How strange that must seem the first time one hears it (even taking "heat" as a race).

(Oops, I've corrected "contexts" to "contests" in the body of the post...]

[Kenny Easwaran writes:

I was just catching up on my New Yorker reading, and finished reading an article from a few weeks ago about the history of dueling. Anyway, having already read your recent post about funny French slang for a close match, I was surprised to notice that the phrase may have originated from dueling. The relevant sentence is "[pistols] inspired such quaint variations as the duel au mouchoir, in which duellists stood close enough to hold opposite corners of a handkerchief."

The sense here doesn't seem to convey anything about a really close match, but perhaps there are some intermediate usages that make the transition.

I've added a current French political cartoon that provides a sort of cultural bridge to the handkerchief-duel image...

But Michael McWilliams writes to suggest that the origins of the phrase are in the concept of many contestants finishing a race together within a very small space:

according to the "Dictionnaire des expressions et locutions" : "dans un mouchoir de poche" was first used in 1909 in commenting the finish of a cycling race (quite possibly the Tour de France, something of a national institution) noting as its purpose : "d´veloppe l'image d'un groupe homogène massé sur une surface réduite".

Finally, Jim Gordon writes that

I don't think that in 50-odd years, I've ever seen a Français(e) blow his/her nose in a pocket handkerchief, which is usually decorative. I DO remember seeing folks folding things up in them, or using one to help someone remove a lash from her eye. The French use a mouchoir de papier or a finger on the opposite nostril. In the context, you may be amused that having a stuffy nose in Spanish is to be constipado.

Remembering Brit understatement, squeaky bums come from being in a situation where, as US military persons commonly say, there is a high pucker factor. Fear leads some folks to lose control, and some to clench the procto muscles. Flatulence then moves from the bass register to a soprano squeak. ManU's Alex Ferguson is notorious for hyperbolic pronouncements, and thus, a tense season becomes dangerous.

I had planned to leave the proctological details to the reader's imagination, but there is a socio-lexicographical point here, I guess: Americans are unlikely to be tempted to think of the "pucker factor" in the context of an election, no matter how close.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:04 AM

March 28, 2007

Reasonable doubt vs. firmly convinced

In my earlier post about reasonable doubt, I briefly discussed the jury instructions given by judges in the "Scooter" Libby and O.J. Simpson trials. This important information is usually given in the formal language of the courtroom often, as Peter Tiersma points out in his book, Legal Language, to preserve the judge's distance and sense of objectivity (p. 194). Tiersma, a linguist who became a lawyer and now teaches in a law school, adds that the obscurity of many jury instructions results from the fact that they are composed in written text, which is more dense and syntactically complex than speech. And when something is written down, it tends to resist any change, especially when it becomes authoritative.

The meaning of "reasonable doubt" now emerges in the Chicago case of Conrad Black, who is accused of looting his Hollinger International empire (here). His lawyers are said to be trying to exploit the "reasonable doubt" concept to convince jurors of Black's innocence -- the same way that Johnnie Cochran did in the O.J. Simpson trial. It's too early in this case  for the judge to prepare his jury instructions but the defense lawyers may wish to read this recent Time article that quotes Larry Solan, another linguist turned lawyer, who also now teaches in a law school and is the current president of the International Association of Forensic Linguists. Solan has some interesting things to say about "reasonable doubt."

Solan says that the abstract word, "doubt," is at least part of the problem:

... we can process an abstract word like doubt only by contrasting two mental images. In a criminal case, the first image would be the prosecutor's version of events, showing the defendant guilty. The second would portray the defendant as innocent. Only if the second were plausible ... would the jury have "doubt" about the first. Jurors might be able to conjure the image of the defendant's innocence, but most need help from his lawyers. Since the defendant isn't required to offer any scenario at all, the very use of the word "doubt" may put an unfair burden on  him ... What's more ... we tend to make sense of things by fitting them into stereotypical models, or "prototypes." We have prototypes for the guilty as well as the innocent. In practice, this means a defendant who looks more guilty than innocent may be convicted, whether or not the prosecutor proves the elements of the crime.

Based on this, Solan says that jurors need to be "firmly convinced" of a defendant's guilt. Doing so focuses the attention on the prosecutor's need to persuade rather than the defendant's need to create doubt. So rather than a jury instruction that stresses "reasonable doubt," the wording might better be something like, "the jury must be firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty."

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:46 PM

March 27, 2007

Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens

It's a favorite rhetorical device of public figures across the political spectrum, from Al Gore to Condoleezza Rice: the Chinese word for "crisis" (we are told again and again) consists of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Victor Mair has labeled this a "widespread public misperception," though Gary Feng has recently taken issue with Mair, arguing that "the urban myth has some kernel of truth in it." Mair says that the element of wēijī is semantically neutral and better understood as "incipient moment," while Feng counters that usage of is "generally more positive than negative" and thus not too far from "opportunity." Even if this is true, I take Mair's larger point to be that reading wēijī according to its constituent characters is little more than the Sinitic equivalent of the etymological fallacy.

Beyond the arguable nature of the "danger + opportunity" gloss, an equally intriguing aspect is the trope's malleability, as it has been cropping up in a seemingly endless variety of contexts for several decades now. So who is responsible for circulating it in the first place? In our last go-round, I referred to Fred Shapiro's exceptional Yale Book of Quotations, which offers a first cite from John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund on April 12, 1959. Kennedy may indeed have done a great deal to popularize the "crisis" meme, as he continued to use it in speeches leading up to the 1960 presidential election (for instance, in remarks to the United States-India Conference on May 20, 1959 and at a campaign stop in Valley Forge, Pa. on Oct. 29, 1960). But JFK was hardly the originator of the tale: further research reveals that it was in use among Christian missionaries in China as early as 1938 and creeping into American public discourse by 1940.

The earliest citations I've found so far appear in the Chinese Recorder, a long-standing English-language journal for missionaries in China.* In the January 1938 issue, an unsigned editorial appeared under the title "The Challenge of Unusual Times." The editorialist wrote:

The Chinese term for crisis is "danger-opportunity" (危機). Without the danger there cannot arise the opportunity. It is very fitting then that in this time of "danger-opportunity" there should go forth a call to a Forward Movement in the Christian Church in China. (Chinese Recorder, Jan. 1938, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, p. 2)

A month later, the anonymous writer returned to this theme in an editorial entitled "The Westward Trek":

This is truly a time of crisis for the Christian church in interior and west China. As we pointed out last month the word crisis in Chinese means danger-opportunity. (Chinese Recorder, Feb. 1938, Vol. LXIX, No. 2, p. 54)

The observation about wēijī might have remained in missionary circles were it not for a June 17, 1940 Washington Post column by the noted journalist Dorothy Thompson. Thompson's piece, "Opportunity in Crisis: Thoughts After the Fall of Paris," used the wēijī device to contemplate how Hitler's expansionism could be curbed:

The Chinese write with symbols, with what they call "ideagrams" [sic]. And the Chinese word for "crisis" is "danger plus opportunity." (Washington Post, June, 17, 1940, p. 7)

I don't know how Thompson picked up the wēijī story, but it made enough of an impression on her that she even included in the Post column a large visual representation of the two component characters, glossed as "danger plus opportunity" in the caption (see image to the right).

A big write-up in the Washington Post by a leading pundit — complete with graphic accompaniment — represents a pretty powerful vector, as urban folklorists would say. So it's no surprise that the "crisis" meme could be found spreading in a variety of directions in the World War II years. Here's a sampling culled from JSTOR:

The Chinese word for crisis, "wei chi" translated literally means "dangerous opportunity." The plight of the family in our war-torn world is exactly that. (Katharine Whiteside Taylor, "The Pacific Northwest Conference," Marriage and Family Living, Aug., 1943, p. 65)

The Chinese pictograph for crisis is made up of two characters, one standing for opportunity, the other for danger. In the Chinese meaning of the word, American education is certainly in crisis. (Frank Baker, "Danger and Opportunity," Peabody Journal of Education, Nov. 1943, p. 162)

For a definition of crisis I turn to the Chinese. They, of all people, should know its full meaning. Their word for crisis is composed of two characters, the first signifying danger; the second opportunity. The crisis of liberalism we may then state as the dangers and the opportunities that result from belief in and support of liberal ideals as universal truths and guides to action in the world today. (Pendleton Herring, "Liberalism in Crisis," Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Aug. 1944, p. 287)

It is this confusion, it is this crisis, in the familiar Chinese sense of danger and opportunity combined, that highlights today's "riddle of the Sphinx." Let us call it "Powers or Peoples?" (Leland Rex Robinson, "Powers or Peoples: The Issue of the Peace," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, July 1945, p. 20)

And as we might expect from memetic transmission, a number of variants also developed. One such variant equates "crisis" with "opportunity," skipping over the messy "danger" part:

In conclusion, it is helpful to recall the Chinese proverb: "Crisis is opportunity." ("Dostoevsky, Novelist of Crisis," Journal of Bible and Religion, Nov. 1943, p. 248)

A notable iteration of the danger-less "crisis = opportunity" variant occurred half a century later in the 1994 "Simpsons" episode "Fear of Flying":

Lisa:  Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use
the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
: Yes! Cris-atunity.

As the above history indicates, JFK shouldn't be accorded all the credit/blame for spreading the wēijī device. When Dorothy Thompson wrote her 1940 column, Kennedy was finishing up his honors thesis at Harvard, later published as Why England Slept. Given his internationalist interests, he might very well have seen Thompson's column, or else he might have picked up the trope from another high-profile source, such as this usage by John Foster Dulles in 1952 soon before serving as Eisenhower's secretary of state:

Christian missions understand crisis in terms of the Chinese character for the word, which is a combination of two characters — one meaning danger and the other meaning opportunity. (Dulles speaking to the National Council of Churches, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1952, p. 12)

It's interesting that Dulles, a respected lay leader in Protestant circles, brought the trope back to its roots in Christian missionary work. But the device has persisted because it is adaptable to any perceived crisis: from the tenuous grip of missionaries in China, to Nazi encroachment in Europe, to Cold War anxieties over the Soviet Union, to instability in the Middle East, to the perils of global warming. At the same time, I would argue that the flexibility of this figure of speech also blanches it of any substantive meaning. It's the type of rhetorical flourish that seems to lend instant profundity via an exotic linguistic observation, and yet it contributes very little beyond a generic call to action to take advantage of the "opportunity" inherent in a crisis. After nearly seven decades of increasingly hackneyed use, isn't it time to retire poor overworked wēijī?

* A side note about the Chinese Recorder cites from 1938. I tracked them down thanks to Google Book Search, but the hunt pointed up some of the serious limitations currently plaguing Google's growing database of library sources. Searching on the key terms initially led me to the second citation above as well as another one from the Chinese Recorder, both showing a publication year of 1938. From previous experience I knew that the dates given to serials on Google Book Search can be extremely misleading. So I located the bound volumes of the Chinese Recorder at the New York Public Library and confirmed the date of the Feb. 1938 cite, but the other passage dated by Google as 1938 actually appeared a few years later. As for the Jan. 1938 cite above, I only knew about it because of the reference to "last month" in the second cite. It eluded my initial searching, perhaps due to poor OCR, but once I found it in the print edition I was able to pinpoint it on GBS using different search terms (here). Of course, all of these problems are exacerbated by Google's lamentable "snippet view," which severely limits one's ability to see the immediate context of the search results and makes it nearly impossible to determine accurate bibliographic information for serials like the Chinese Recorder. I remain hopeful that Google will straighten out this mess in the not-too-distant future, perhaps when its legal woes begin to be resolved (or at least begin to be more clearly delineated).

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 04:09 PM

A reflexive too far

Stewart Nicol wrote me yesterday to ask if I could decipher the italicized sentence below, from the Wikipedia entry on the sigmoid function:

A reason for its popularity in neural networks is because the sigmoid function satisfies this property:

d/dt sig(t) = sig(t) (1 - sig(t))

This simple polynomial relationship between the derivative and itself is computationally easy to perform.

Call this the "sigmoid sentence".  Its most problematic part is the reflexive pronoun, which I have bold-faced; I have a small (though growing) collection of notable reflexives, but this one goes beyond anything I've seen so far.

I'll start by interpreting the sigmoid sentence: as I said to Nicol, it looks like sig(t) was so firmly in the writer's mind as the discourse topic that the writer found no need to actually mention it in the sentence.  Putting it in gives:

This simple polynomial relationship between the derivative of sig(t) and sig(t) itself is computationally easy to perform.

Now it makes sense; it says that the derivative of sig(t) is a simple polynomial function of sig(t) -- it's sig(t) - sig(t)2, a quadratic function.

Three side comments.  First, there's a smaller problem with the sigmoid sentence, the odd word choice "perform".  Actually, "computationally easy to perform" strikes me as just an over-elaborate way of saying "easy to compute".  All in all, the sigmoid sentence is not a bright moment in technical writing.

[Addendum: Wikipedia moves fast.  Mark Mandel reports that, in response to my Language Log posting, the sentence has been improved to: "This simple polynomial relationship between the sigmoid function and its derivative gives a computationally easy way to obtain the latter from the former."]

Second side comment: from the history of the Wikipedia entry, it seems that the sigmoid sentence was added to the neural-nets section of the entry on 27 July 2005 by a very active Wikipedian who goes by the name HappyCamper, and has been carried along ever since.  I haven't been able to find out anything about the writer personally, though HappyCamper strikes me as a native speaker of English.  If the sentence had come from a non-native speaker (like Jorge Stolfi, the originator of the entry back in 2004, who's a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese), the astonishing reflexive might have been attributable to reflexive use in the writer's native language; it's well known that reflexives in many other languages are less tightly constrained than in English.

Third side comment: the entry doesn't mention it, but the sigmoid function comes up in linguistics.  It's graphed by the S-shaped curve that tracks the spread of one variant as against a competitor (in some context) over time, from the innovation of the variant, through an essentially exponential spread when the variant catches on, and then to the completion of the change in the triumph of the innovation.  Not all changes run to completion, of course, but sigmoidal spread is the typical course of the ones that do.  See, for example, Tony Kroch's account of the rise and spread of do-support in English, in "Reflexes of grammar in patterns of language change", Language Variation and Change 1.199-244 (1989).  In addition, the sigmoid function is the inverse of the logit function, which plays a big role in quantitative sociolinguistics; it's the basis for the VARBRUL program for analyzing variation.

Back to the reflexive pronoun itself in the sigmoid sentence.  To start with, it has no antecedent in its clause.  English usually requires reflexives to have such antecedents; see my earlier posting on reflexives for a brief account of this condition.  But there are circumstances in which reflexives can occur without such antecedents; these "override reflexives" are nicely treated in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (section 3.1.4 of chapter 17, pp. 1494-6).

First, there are various circumstances in which first- and second-person reflexives can occur without antecedents in their clause, or even in their sentence, or even anywhere in the preceding discourse, as in CGEL's example [39iii]:

They had invited Tim as well as myself.

(CGEL notes that the use of such reflexives "has been the target of a good deal of prescriptive criticism" -- in fact, it's on list after list of "worst errors in English" -- but maintain that "there can be no doubt... that it is well established".  It's certainly easy to collect examples from careful writers and speakers.)

But the reflexive in the sigmoid sentence is third person, not first or second.

As I pointed out in my earlier posting, third-person override reflexives are acceptable (for some speakers) in "logophoric contexts", in complements of verbs of saying or thinking, where they refer to the person responsible for the words or thoughts.  CGEL's example [39ii] is of this sort:

Ann suggested that the reporter pay both the victim and herself for their time.

But the sigmoid sentence is not a report of speech or thought.

Paul Kay has suggested to me that some of the first- and second-person override reflexives could "be thought of as, in an extended sense, logophoric.  The idea would be that the speaker can always assume the position of being in his or her own thought world, or that of the interlocutor."  Kay notes that this account could apply to a sentence from George W. Bush that Geoff Pullum has deplored here on Language Log:

And so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm.

As for third-person logophoric reflexives, Paul Postal has reported to me that even people who find them unacceptable will accept them if the reflexive is extracted.  He reports contrasts between the i example, which he finds absolutely unacceptable, and the two following, which he finds much better:

i. *Victor imagines that you will praise himself.

ii. Himself, Victor imagines that you will praise.

iii. Victor may imagine that you will praise, and he certainly imagines that you will not unduly criticize, HIMSELF.

CGEL provides an example, [48], of this sort, involving the cleft construction:

i. ?She had wanted him to marry herself.

ii.  It was herself she had wanted him to marry.

CGEL attributes the increase in acceptability to contrastiveness, which is also a factor in Postal's extraction examples. 

But all these examples have reflexives with human antecedents, while the antecedent of the reflexive in the sigmoid sentence is inanimate.  And the sigmoid sentence involves neither extraction nor, in my judgment, contrast.

Now I leave clearly logophoric examples behind.  In line with Kay's observation, "Overrides with 3rd person reflexives characteristically occur in contexts where the antecedent refers to the person whose perspective is being taken in the discourse" (CGEL, p. 1495) -- for example, in free indirect style ("which can be seen as an extension of the central 1st person case"), as in this example from my collection:

Mma Makutsi looked at her watch.  Mma Ramotswe and Mr Polopetsi were away on their trip to Mokolodi -- she had felt slightly irritated that Mma Ramotswe should have chosen him to accompany her rather than herself  (Alexander McCall Smith, Blue Shoes and Happiness, p. 128)

We can see this as a representation of Mma Makutsi's thought, "I'm irritated that she should have chosen him to accompany her rather than myself."

Once again, the sigmoid sentence is not a report, even an indirect report, of thought.

There are third-person perspectival examples that are not in free indirect style (or logophoric).  The writer or speaker simply assumes the viewpoint of someone mentioned in the preceding context who is highly topical at this point in the discourse.  This mention can be in the same sentence as the reflexive:

Yet on June 26th Warren Buffett pledged to donate the bulk of his estimated $44 billion fortune to the charitable foundation created by the only man richer than himself, Bill Gates.  ("The new powers in giving", The Economist 7/1/06, p. 63)

or it can be earlier in the discourse:

Informed of her meeting with the British diplomat, Stalin accused Akhmatova of receiving "foreign spies."  It was the height of the cold war -- a conflict which Akhmatova believed was brought about by her meeting with the Englishman [Isaiah Berlin] (she "saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict," Berlin wrote).  Feinstein dismisses her belief as "megalomania," but in some ways it was bound up with her poetic myth, her image of herself as part of history.

    Certainly, the meeting had dire consequences for herself.  In August 1946 Akhmatova was attacked in a decree by the Central Committee.  (Orlando Figes, review of Elaine Feinstein's Anna of All the Russians, New York Review of Books 6/22/06, p. 42)

Even itself can occur in perspectival examples, so long as the antecedent is understood metonymically as an entity capable of having a viewpoint:

Now, however, the Homeland Security Department has proposed regulations that would give itself the authority to pre-empt state and local laws.  ("Chemical Insecurity", New York Times editorial, 1/23/07, p. A18)

The reflexive in the sigmoid sentence has an antecedent in the preceding context ("the sigmoid function"), and the sigmoid function is certainly topical, but it is NOT an entity capable of having a viewpoint.

I conclude that HappyCamper has extended override reflexives to new territory, requiring only topicality to license them.  This is well outside my zone of tolerance, and clearly outside Stewart Nicol's, since he couldn't even figure out what the sigmoid sentence was supposed to convey (and appealed to me, as a reflexives guy, for help).  I wonder how many people have made this extension; the sigmoid sentence is the first example I've come across.

[Addendum: readers are now telling me that there are huge numbers of examples of "between X and itself".  Well, of course there are.  But in all of these, "itself" is understood as referring to the denotation of X.  This is not the case with the sigmoid sentence, where "itself" refers to something, associated in some way with X, that has been mentioned in the preceding context and is highly topical at this point in the discourse.  That's the surprise.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:28 PM

Labels for linguists

The water cooler at Language Log Plaza has been abuzz lately about labels used for disciplines, sub-disciplines, and miscellaneous related terms and perspectives on language (here). Other posts have discussed warning labels (here) and Arnold Zwicky has provided a very nice general principle: labels are not definitions (here). His point seems to fit the efforts of people to assign labels to the areas of linguistics. We think we know what a linguist is but after that things can go downhill very fast. For example, exactly what is a prescriptivist or a descriptivist or a sociolinguist or a forensic linguist? I've never cared for labels because they seem to be too limiting, even when they're well intended and carefully articulated, but the academic world seems to require us to find one to describe ourselves, then to stick with it somehow. Our lively discussions at the water cooler have caused me to recall the labels that have been used to describe my own work.

Over the years I've been assigned a wide range of labels about what I do, none of which seem to fit me very well and few of which have endured very long. I can't speak for my colleagues but here are the labels I've had to live with throughout my checkered career -- in case anyone might want to know this. In a more-or-less historical order, here's how I got labeled and relabeled.

From Dialectologist to Descriptivist to Linguist

My PhD linguistic studies focused largely on American dialectology, so I began my academic career as one. That label didn't seem to matter when I was hired for my first academic position in a small liberal arts college English department, which probably thought it was getting a philologist. My job there was to teach undergrads Old English literature (mostly in translation) along with another course called The Structure of English, a subject thought to help prepare students to become secondary English teachers. Both courses were very marginal to what that English department considered its main work -- teaching literature. There I wore the outsider's label, descriptivist, in contrast with prescriptivist, which characterized the rest of my colleagues in that department. Descriptivist was a pretty negative label to them and they thought my kind of training reeked of cultural relativism, a serious no-no to those people. Quickly I discovered that I could gain no status (like promotion, for example) in that department. The following year the chair filled my schedule with freshman writing courses, since he couldn't figure out what else to do with this descriptivist. By the next year it became clear that he didn't really want to entrust this job to a descriptivist, so he "loaned" me half-time to the anthropology department, where I finally got to teach phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax to some of its majors. In that depatment I was finally called a linguist and the descriptivist label was dropped.

From Linguist to Sociolinguist

Academic existence in those days didn't come easy for faculty members who split their appointments between two different departments. Neither English nor anthropology took responsibility for my promotion or tenure and, sensing this, I moved to a much larger university, where research in linguistics was valued.  There I was called a linguist from the very start. It was at about this time  (the mid 1960s) that linguists began to get interested in language variability that went beyond my traditional training in dialectology. It was time for me to re-tool, this time under a new label, as a sociolinguist. I didn't much like the term, for I agreed with Bill Labov that sociolinguists simply did linguistics on the actual language of a meaningful representation of real people in real-life contexts. But finding a  new label is often practical and useful when it comes to developing new courses, even at large universities. So I was called a sociolinguist.

Subtract Dialectologist

Little did I know that by re-labeling myself in this way I would antagonize the dialectologists I had formerly hung around with. Sociolinguists seemed to reject some of the ways dialectologists did their work and I suddenly became a pariah to my former collegues in regional dialect studies. I found this curious because regional variation still played an important role in sociolinguistics. But they didn't see it that way. It was "us vs. them" in those days, although I'm happy to report that these tensions have eased a bit over time.

My label as sociolinguist endured during my time at this large university and it continued when I left it and accepted a new position at the Center For Applied Linguistics, where I headed a new program in sociolinguistic research. Then, after a couple of years, Georgetown University offered me a full professorship to head a newly created graduate program in sociolinguistics as part of its linguistics major. By now I had become firmly labeled as a sociolinguist. The four linguistics PhD programs at Georgetown were Theoretical, Applied, Computational, and now Sociolinguistics. There was an uncomfortable separation across the four programs and faculty members were labeled by the programs in which they taught. This got a bit dicey when pragmatics developed, since it doesn't fit easily under any of these labels. Same for applied sociolinguistics courses, which were not considered applied linguistics -- for reasons that I still don't understand. Then along came the developing area of discourse analysis, which is also hard to nail to a field label. Several of us sociolinguists were, at the same time, discourse analysts.

Subtract Applied Linguist

Much of my work in sociolinguistics was to apply it to other areas of life in which language variability was important, such as classroom interaction, counseling, medical communication, and law.  I actually believed I was an applied linguist, although nobody else in my department viewed me that way. The field of applied linguistics then (and now, as far as I can tell) was (and still is) dominated by  topics of language learning, teaching, and testing. I didn't do this work, so I was not considered an applied linguist. To me, that's kind of sad because I've actually spent most of my career doing applied linguistics.

Subtract Sociolinguist; Add Forensic Linguist

Eventually I began to turn most of my attention to the way the tool areas of linguistics can be used to help resolve language issues in the legal arena. In fact, I've been doing this for the past 25 years or so. Again, the label problem emerged. As far as I'm concerned, this work relates the whole bag of linguistic tools, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse, variation, language change, lexicography, etc. to whatever legal issues arise. I thought of myself as a linguist who just happened to be working in the context of law. Nevertheless, the term, forensic linguist, began to be used widely to describe this work. I rejected it at first but then, after it became widely used, I reluctantly began to accept this label. So now some people label me as a forensic linguist, although when I testify at trials, I still call myself a linguist.


I suppose labels can be useful but they've given me problems throughout my career. The way I look at it, you start with the core tools of your field, keep them as sharp as possible, and take them where they are needed. The Language Log staff may be a good illustration of this. Those who specialize in syntax, semantics, or phonetics, for example, are certainly not limited to those areas. Because they are primarily linguists, they're perfectly entitled to comment on matters of usage or any other area of language use. Although my own posts are mostly about language where it intersects with law, I can feel free to use my linguistics on other topics as well. Sometimes I act like a sociolinguist, a dialectologist, or a discourse analyst.

I've worked under many labels in this field but above all, I much prefer the broader label, linguist. It allows me freedom to change directions, use my core knowledge, and lets me be creative. Arnold is quite right: labels are not descriptions but linguist seems to be a better description than any of the more restrictive labels I've known.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:43 PM

Macaronic Maraka

The funniest moments on "Saturday Night Live" these days are very often the satirical cartoons featured on Robert Smigel's "TV Funhouse," and last Saturday's episode was no exception. This time it was "Maraka," a withering parody of that favorite of the preschool set, "Dora the Explorer." If you missed it you can watch "Maraka" on YouTube, at least until NBC's next copyright crackdown. [Update: NBC also hosts the clip on the SNL site here.]

"Maraka" exquisitely spoofs the peculiar discursive structure of "Dora" (and its spinoff, "Go, Diego, Go!"), in which the viewing child is expected to assume the role of interlocutor, taking part in a "conversation" with the cartoon characters in order to solve a particular task. (The show's creators discuss the rationale for this interactive style here.) The pauses in the dialogue that allow the child at home to respond to Dora and friends can be a bit unnerving for adult onlookers, and "Maraka" nails the pseudo-conversational format perfectly, with the title character posing increasingly bizarre and inappropriate questions.

The other linguistic aspect parodied by "Maraka" is the zealous bilingualism of "Dora" and "Diego," wherein the Latino protagonists teach children Spanish words and phrases by juxtaposing English and Spanish translation equivalents (e.g., "Look! ¡Mira!"). Maraka introduces herself in the typical didactic style:

¡Hola! Hello! I'm Maraka! ¡Soy Maraka!

But pretty soon this code-switching starts to take on absurd proportions as Maraka injects other languages besides Spanish. When she spots a hot-air balloon that will take her and her cat Mittens to Penguin Island, she exclaims in English, Spanish, German, and Russian:

It's a balloon! ¡Es un globo! Luftballon! Vozdúšnyj!

Later on there are two long macaronic utterances from Maraka that I'd love to see transcribed. (The closed captioning unhelpfully subtitles these sections as "gibberish.") The Wikipedia page on "Dora" already mentions the "Maraka" spoof and says that the languages in the cartoon include "Chinese, German, and Swahili." There are even some clicks thrown in, just to drive home the multilingual mockery. Some might object to the ridicule leveled at well-meaning attempts to teach children foreign languages, but "Maraka" never descends into xenophobia, instead directing its satire at the heavy-handedness of children's educational programming. I for one will never look at "Dora" quite the same way again.

[Update: A couple of emailers (Michèle Sharik and Ray Girvan) wondered about Maraka's pronunciation of "Mittens" with a glottal stop: [ˈmɪʔənz]. I didn't take that as dialectally significant, but merely something the voice actor threw in to make Maraka sound more child-like. Ben Sadock has his own theory:

While glottalized /t/s in place of flaps are indeed a dialectologically interesting feature (endemic, I think, to the Northeast), I think that a subtext of this video is a discomfort with flapping in English. Contrast the glottal stop in 'mittens' to the downright aspirated /t/ in 'mountain.' I think the way this operates is that the latter is meant to parody the self-consciously 'correct' pronunciation you find on children's TV, while the former is meant to sound childish, like the exaggeratedly 'childish' pronunciation also often used on children's TV. Either way, it betrays a real anxiety with flapping.

Meanwhile, the pseudo-interactive style of "Dora"/"Maraka" reminds Annette Teffeteller of the creepy "What do you think, Linda?" scene in Fahrenheit 451.]

[Update, 4/11/07: The SNL Transcripts site has the "Maraka" sketch now, but they're no help with the two macaronic passages (one is labeled "a mixture of Spanish, Swahili, and a host of other languages" and the other simply "Spanish"). Meanwhile on Wikipedia, the page for "Dora the Explorer" now expands Maraka's linguistic repertoire to "Chinese, German, Portuguese, Hebrew, Swahili, Xhosa, Korean and Russian."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:10 AM

March 26, 2007

The International Democrat Union

Here in Paris, my youngest son and I have been trying to understand the news in French, which these days requires understanding the complicated ecology of French political parties. So we began looking things up on Wikipedia, and right away, we learned something amazing. We started with the article on Nicholas Sarkozy's UMP, and in the right-hand summary panel we saw the UMP's International Affiliation is the International Democrat Union. So we clicked on that link, and learned that:

The International Democrat Union (IDU) is an international grouping of conservative, neoliberal and Christian democratic political parties.

Formed in 1983, the IDU provides a forum in which political parties holding similar beliefs can come together and exchange views on matters of policy and organizational interest, in order that they might act cooperatively, establish contacts, and present a unified voice toward the promotion of centre-right policies across the globe. The group was founded by several prominent heads of state and government, including Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher, [then] Vice President of the United States George H.W. Bush, Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl and then-Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac.

At present, the group, headquartered in London, England, and comprising 45 full or associate members, is chaired by Prime Minister of Australia John Howard. [emphasis added]

Among the 36 full members are the UMP in France, the Conservative Party in the UK -- and the Republican Party in the U.S.!

Maybe that's why George W. Bush keeps referring to the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party" -- his own party is a member of the International Democrat Union, co-founded by his father. (As you'll learn by following the link in the last sentence, I know very well that the IDU has nothing to do with the political taunting involved in mis-naming the (American) Democrats -- but the IDU's name does underline the fact that there's nothing intrinsically ungrammatical about using a noun like democrat as a modifier. Though curiously, the French name of the IDU is Union démocratique internationale.)

In case you don't trust Wikipedia to give the organization's morphology accurately, here is the IDU's official website.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:45 AM

Everyone are spared no mercy

While Mark was flying from San Francisco to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Paris, I was doing San Francisco to London and Edinburgh and back (yes, linguists lead exciting globe-trotting lives; you didn't know that already?), and in the British Airlines magazine High Life on the flight to London I saw this remarkably ungrammatical and semantically botched sentence at the end of a plot blurb about the Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration:

Everyone, from screenwriters to studio execs, are spared no mercy.

First, that's a subject-verb agreement error: it's Everyone is spared, not *Everyone are spared. (The whole reason the prescriptivists grumble about sentences like Everyone held their breath is that everyone is morphosyntactically singular but they is morphosyntactically plural. They're right about that, though wrong to conclude that therefore a sentence like Everyone thinks they are going to win must be ungrammatical.)

But second, there's a tacit overnegation in there. To be spared something is to not have it (with a conventional implicature that not having it is fortunate); and to be shown mercy is to have something cruel not happen to you. So there are three negations in there, and they reduce logically to one, which does not yield the intended truth conditions: "spared no mercy" = "not given no mercy" "given some mercy".

So the literal meaning of Everyone is spared no mercy is that mercy is shown to everyone. But in Christopher Guest's hilarious film mercy is not shown to everyone — it really does ridicule Hollywood types mercilessly and across the board, from screenwriters to agents to studio executives to actors to directors to publicists to TV entertainment reporters. It is obvious that the writer of the blurb meant to say either Everyone is shown no mercy (i.e., no one is shown any mercy) or less plausibly Everyone is spared mercy (same thing, i.e., everyone escapes receiving mercy), but instead says the exact opposite.

Such amazing errors pass by all of us every day, but somehow we screen them out and achieve understanding despite the content of our linguistic input. In fact hardly anyone but highly trained Language Log reporters ever notices the errors that occur. And even we probably miss a few when we're as jetlagged as Mark and I are right now.

Update: Natan Cliffer points out to me that there is a different sense of spare that is closer to meaning "give". I was thinking of sentences like I will spare you the details, which entails that you will not get the details (and that it's lucky for you). Natan points out sentences like Can you spare me some change?, which asks you if you can deprive yourself of some change and give it to me. Analogously, I suppose Can you spare me some mercy? could mean that I want you to hand over some of your mercy to me so that I have it. The trouble is, this sense seems to me to be one of those strange items like afford that only work in the scope of a modal of possibility, typically can. It seems to me, at least, that it doesn't work in simple clauses with no modal: I can't give a bum a quarter and describe my generosity by saying "I spared him a quarter," though I could say "I gave him a quarter because I thought I could spare it." We use spare on its own in a different way: Let me spare you the trouble means "Let me make it so that you do not have the trouble." And in the example I discuss above, there is no can.

That said, it is possible that I am wrong. Several people have mailed me attested examples of things like Spare them no mercy!, meaning "Show them no mercy" rather than "Cause them not to have no mercy, i.e., be merciful. Spare certainly is a confusing verb. What seems to have happened is that over the centuries it has evolved two antonymous meanings: "be merciful in causing not to have" (the sense I assumed was relevant, as in Spare me the sorrowful looks) and the meaning "be merciful in causing to have" (as with Brother, can you spare [me] a dime?). (Homework exercise: after a thorough study of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the verb spare, write an essay explaining how this all happened.) If the writer of the piece I quoted did intend the second sense, then there is only one error: subject-verb agreement with everyone as subject. But that is certainly a doozy of an error on its own.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:04 AM

March 25, 2007

Dangling in Paris

It's linguistic synchronicity in action. After crossing nine time zones via two red-eye flights within 48 hours -- San Francisco to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Paris -- I logged onto the hotel's wireless internet to read Arnold Zwicky's analysis of a dangling modifier in a recent Bizarro cartoon, and then went out to walk the streets of Paris, where I found a large fraction of the available vertical surfaces plastered with posters presenting the face of Nicholas Sarkozy and his presidential campaign slogan "Ensemble tout devient possible" ("Together everything becomes possible").

If you think that clause-initial predicative adjuncts should always connect to the subject of their clause, or at least some accessible consituent in it, then you may think that this choice of slogan shows just how acute the need for improved grammar teaching in France really is. After all, the slogan-initial modifier ensemble "together" must be connected with an implicit reference to the French people as a whole, or at least the 30.5% who plan to vote for Sarkozy , not the slogan's subject (which is tout "everything"), or any other explicit consitutent. On this theory, the UMP's four-word slogan, replicated on 179,000 web pages and innumerable affiches, is ungrammatical.

But I haven't been able to find any indication that the principle against dangling predicative adjuncts is part of French prescriptivist ideology. I'm sure that Maurice Druon and the other immortals believe that the "précise et rigoureuse" French language ought to guarantee clarity of modification, on the grounds that "Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français". But apparently no particular principle about how to ensure such clarity, in the case of clause-initial adjuncts, has been promulgated by authoritative sources. (If you know better, tell me).

Of course, the interpretation of ensemble in Sarkozy's slogan is clear enough -- I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't just read Arnold's Bizarro post. So the slogan passes muster for people like Geoff Pullum (and me), who think that dangling modifiers are bad manners, not bad grammar.

[In the course of searching for a digital picture of Sarko's ubiquitous posters, I learned that his slogan was apparently already in use by the Société Générale Marocaine de Banques.]

[Update -- somewhat to my surprise, no one has written in to tell me that Sarko's slogan is really a manifesto of technocratic holism (suggesting that society's problems can only be solved by treating them all together, in an integrated way), not an assertion of the power of popular unity (suggesting that if we all work together, we can do anything we like). But I did get quite a few responses about (the ideology of) French grammar.

Michael McWilliams wrote:

I'll set down my credentials !
An Irishman who has lived in Paris for many years, with a keen interest in the language (not professionally).
So onto the dangling modifiers.
I see...deux lignes de défense !
First : ellipsis.
"Ensemble" being the reduction of "Quand nous sommes ensemble" or some such equivalent phrase.
Common procedure in French.
Second :
Have just consulted Grévisse's "Le Bon Usage" (one of the twin pillars alongside "Le Petit Robert" on matters of language, use and meaning to be found on many's a shelf).
My old 1980 edition has this to say at para 250 :

Il y a en effet un rapport étroit entre l'expression grammaticale de la proposition et l'expressivité (tension émotionnelle quelconque) : si dans la formule "expression grammaticale + expressivité = 1", on fait tendre l'expressivité vers zéro, l'expression grammaticale tend vers l'entier, c'est à dire que la structure de la proposition tend vers la parfaite régularité selon les lois d'analyse. Mais plus on fait croître l'expressivité, plus l'expression grammaticale se libère de la régularité : à la limite, cette expression grammaticale se réduit à la simple interjection.

There is in effect a close link between the grammatical expression of the proposition and its expressivity (whatever emotional tension): if in the formula "grammar + expressivity = 1" we make expressivity tend towards zero, grammar tends towards the whole, so that the structure of the proposition tends towards perfect regularity according to the laws of analysis. But the more we increase the expressivity, the more the grammatical expression frees itself from regularity: in the limit, this grammatical expression reduces itself to a simple interjection.

So you see, pure mathematics explains it all : Sarkozy is full of emotion. Who would have believed it.

Meanwhile, Jesse Tseng cites chapter and verse on dangling participles, gerundives and infinitives in French from some other sources. This is not strictly relevant here, since ensemble is an adverb, but the issues are analogous:

In reponse to your latest LL post "Dangling in Paris":

You didn't really believe that French grammarians would pass up this opportunity to establish a rule, did you? Especially one that is relatively sensible, after all. The official rule is the same as for English (but I don't know of any punchy French term corresponding to "dangling modifier"), and probably just as often ignored as in English.

The two references I have found are actually quite understanding and lenient. I don't know if/how the rule is taught in schools.

1. M. Riegel et al., Grammaire méthodique du français, 3rd edition. PUF, 2004 (p. 341-342):

Le gérondif et le participe présent [...] subissent une même contrainte syntaxique: lorsqu'ils sont placés en tête de phrase, leur sujet doit être le même que celui du verbe principal. Dans l'usage ancien, le sujet pouvait être un autre terme de la phrase (L'appétit vient en mangeant); cette règle, introduite au XVIIe siècle pour éviter toute équivoque, n'est pas toujours strictement observée (En traversant la chaussée, une voiture a renversé le piéton).

2. R. Lagane, Difficultés grammaticales, Larousse 1995. (p. 109, article "participe"):

Le participe (présent ou passé) s'emploie parfois en position détachée, en tête de proposition. Dans ce cas, il doit en principe se rapporter au sujet du verbe principal, ce qui est une façon d'éviter tout risque d'ambiguïté ou de cocasserie.

En vertu de ce principe, une phrase telle que Ayant égaré mes clefs, le gardien a appelé un serrurier présente le gardien comme responsable de la perte des clefs. [...]

Le plus souvent, le sens est clair même si ce principe n'est pas observé.

Toutefois on évite, dans l'usage surveillé, une phrase comme Espérant que cette réponse vous satisfera, veuillez agréer mes salutations distinguées, car le sujet non exprimé du verbe principal à l'impératif veuillez est vous, et le participe présent se rapporte à un je non exprimé [...]

Un principe analogue s'applique au gérondif et à l'infinitif (voir ces mots).

(p. 74, article "gérondif"):

[...] une règle de principe veut qu'on n'emploie le gérondif que s'il y a identité entre le sujet du verbe de la proposition et le "sujet" du gérondif, c'est-à-dire le nom ou le pronom auquel il se rapporte: Je l'ai informé en arrivant signifie "quand je suis arrivé" et non "quand il est arrivé".

C'est surtout quand le gérondif est en tête de phrase qu'on s'expose à manquer à cette règle en risquant de ce fait soit une ambiguïté, soit une maladresse. [...] Toutefois, dans de nombreux cas, le manquement à cette règle n'entraîne aucune hésitation réelle sur le sens, par exemple dans une phrase comme:

"En regardant plus attentivement, un détail m'est apparu." [...] Souvent le gérondif se rapporte en fait à un on qui n'apparaît dans la phrase ni comme sujet, ni sous la forme d'un pronom complément ou d'un possessif:

"En réfléchissant bien, tout cela est très logique (= si on réfléchit bien). L'appétit vient en mangeant (= quand on mange)."

(p. 80, article "infinitif"):

[...] l'infinitif peut s'employer comme complément circonstanciel d'un verbe, mais en principe à condition d'avoir comme sujet (non exprimé) celui du verbe complété. [...]

Toutefois, quand aucune ambiguïté ni aucune cocasserie n'est à craindre, l'emploi de l'infinitif avec un sujet implicite autre que celui du verbe ne choque pas:

"Je vous ai appelés pour m'aider. Les bottes sont faites pour marcher."

I hope this restores your wavering faith in French prescriptivism. Welcome to France!

Thank you! But for my faith to be fully restored, I would need to see some popular usage maven complaining about the slogan in print. I suspect that if an American politician had adopted the slogan "Together everything becomes possible", some usage maven would have taken him to task by now.]

[Linda Seebach pointed out that I originally wrote about the posters being on all the "available horizontal surfaces". No, things are not that different in France -- chalk it up to sleep debt.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:39 PM

Drive the fun

On the back of a Hertz rental car reservation documents jacket I saw a slogan that offers one more reason for not thinking that there is (as so many linguistic theories have implied) some tight syntactic definition of which kinds of noun phrase can go with which kinds of verb:

The fun you reserve is the fun you'll drive.

Fun just doesn't go with these verbs normally. In older periods of linguistics, syntacticians would unhesitatingly put asterisks (to indicate ungrammaticality) in front of strings like these:

*I've reserved fun.
*Why don't you reserve the fun.
*Personally, I prefer to drive fun.
*Tomorrow I plan to drive the fun to Fresno.

These examples simply don't look like well-formed English. (Technically, they would be described as having violations of verb-object selection restrictions, and most linguists today take selection restrictions to involve semantic anomaly rather than purely syntactic deviance.)

Somehow we penetrate the apparent nonsense without trouble, and understand the slogan above almost instantly (at least I did: Hertz is guaranteeing that you will not reserve a dazzling white 2008 Porsche with five-on-the-floor shift only to find on arrival that all they have is a dented green Ford Focus with automatic transmission).

How do we get from apparent linguistic impossibilities to intended metonymical meanings with such astonishing ease and speed? (I ask these questions merely rhetorically, of course. Some people, notably my UCSC colleague Ray Gibbs, have devoted significant amounts of research in psycholinguistics to serious attempts at finding out the answers.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 04:00 PM

Field Methods and the FBI

It doesn't require a linguist to know that many people, whether accidentally or deliberately, often mishear or misunderstand what is being said to them. One good way to resolve such matters is to get evidence that can be rechecked and documented as accurate. Linguists who carry out research on various languages, dialects, registers, styles and other projects often begin by doing fieldwork, using electronic recording equipment so that their claims can be checked by themselves for accuracy or by others who may want to replicate or dispute their results. The process is open and transparent.

Not so at the FBI, which seems to have no qualms about surreptitiously tape-recording conversations of suspects to use at trial against them but, at the same time, seems unwilling to record its own agents as they interrogate and elicit confessions of suspected criminals. The best and most accurate evidence for law enforcement and prosecutors, like the best and most accurate evidence used by linguistic fieldworkers, is the language that accurately memorializes this on tape. A 2004 study published by a former US Attorney, Thomas P. Sullivan, points out that the policy of tape-recording interrogations and confessions has been adopted by Great Britain, Australia, and 238 law enforcement agencies in 37 US states. Such electronic recording is mandated by law in Illinois and the District of Columbia and by case law opinions in Alaska and Minnesota.

But not by the FBI. Despite urging by some district court judges and US District Attorneys, there is no federal law requiring federal agents to electronically record custodial interviews and no federal agency, including the FBI, mandates it. In fact, as the recent discussion of the firing of eight US District Attorneys indicates (here), the FBI's policy is just the opposite (I'm grateful to Ryan Miller for sending me this link).

Some of the reasons for the FBI's vigorous opposition to tape-recording custodial interviews include the following:

1. Their interrogation techniques may be unsettling for some jurors.

2. Their failure to make such recordings never has been challenged successfully  only on rare  occasions.

3. Perfectly lawful interrogation techniques do  not always come across as proper to lay persons, such as jurors.

4. If recorded, the suspect may play  to the camera or withhold information.

5. It would be expensive and  time-consuming to set such procedures in place in the FBI's 56 field offices and 400 resident agencies.

6. The act of taping undermines the successful rapport-building interviewing technique practices of the agents.

7. Tapes would create unneccesary obstacles to the admissibility of lawfully obtained statements that, through inadvertance or circumstances beyond the control of agents, could not be recorded.

It is reasonably clear that the federal agencies do not want to permit their procedures to be scrutinized closely. Viewed from the perspective of linguistic fieldwork, this would  be like publishing a research paper that does not describe the actual research procedures that lead to the conclusions it reaches. Following such a practice, if the paper were published (and it's not very likely that it would be), its readers could not successfully challenge its findings. Like all sciences, linguistics frowns on such a practice.

As I noted in an earlier post (here), Senior Justice Department official, William Moschella testified that DA Paul Charlton of Arizona was fired because he tape recorded confession statements in violation of DOJ's policy. So it would be helpful to see how that policy reads (here):

Under current policy, agents may not electronically record confessions or interviews, openly or surreptitiously, unless authorized by the SAC or his or her designee. See MIOG, Part II, Section 10-10.10 (2).  Consultation with an attorney (AUSA, CDC, or OGC) may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but it is not required. In a March 17, 2006 memo from the FBI's Office of General Counsel to all Field Offices, Headquarters Divisions and Legats, this policy was reaffirmed.

So what did DA Charlton do that was so wrong here? It is now being revealed that earlier he had actually reequested permission to carry out a "pilot project" of recording interviews and confessions on Arizona's 21 Indian reservations, something that the FBI had never done before. Citing several jury acquittals of people he believed to be guilty, Charlton suggested that recordings would help convince juries that the suspects were not innocent. In contrast to the seven defensive reasons for not tape recording suspects, noted above, Charlton believed that such recordings would work positively for the prosecution. In a letter to the Acting Deputy Attorney General over a year ago, Charlon said (you can find this in the above link):

Because of the FBI's failure to tape confessions, jurors acquit or we must plead down cases that would otherwise be won, or result in more severe sentences, had the FBI recorded the confessions ... Police agencies in the State of Arizona, from the smallest town to the largest city tape confessions. Thus, a murder or rape committed in Phoenix, and investigated by the Phoenix Police Department will include a video taped confession where the defendant has made a statement. On the other hand, a case involving a confessed murderer or rapist on Navajo, the nation's largest reservation, will only have a summarized report written by an FBI agent. This juxtaposition of policies can lead to the conclusion that both Native American defendants and victims are denied a quality of justice that those off the reservation routinely receive.

Charlton's reason for wanting to electronically record custodial interviews and confessions on Indian reservations was to make his case against suspects even stronger, to say nothing about distributing justice equally.

There's a great deal of irony in all this.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 03:35 PM

March 24, 2007

Dangling in court

Don Piraro's Bizarro cartoon of 3/23/07 depicts a scene in "Physics Court": the judge is pronouncing his decision in the case of a defendant who is dangling in front of him in mid-air, about a foot off the floor:

Yes, that's a dangling modifier.  The subject of the participial modifier is supplied by the direct object in the main clause, not by the subject; it is the defendant, not the judge, who has gone up and not come down.  The question is: who's responsible for the dangler?

Piraro presented us with a similar puzzle about a year ago, in a cartoon depicting a wedding ceremony, with the minister pronouncing:

And now, having each recited the vows they have written themselves, we all realize the importance of education.

Back then, Mark Liberman offered three hypotheses about the source of that dangler, and the readers voted:

The cartoonist intended us to think that the minister dangled the modifier unwittingly while sincerely praising the bride and groom: 21%

The cartoonist intended us to think that the minister dangled the modifier on purpose as an ironic way to criticize the bride and groom: 15%

The cartoonist didn't understand that there is a linguistic problem in the caption: 60%

(Other interpretation: 5%)

By a wide margin, the voters thought that Piraro just didn't see any linguistic problem.

The corresponding options for the "Physics Court" cartoon are:

The cartoonist intended us to think the judge dangled the modifier unwittingly while pronouncing his decision; this is just the way the judge talks.

The cartoonist intended us to think the judge dangled the modifier on purpose as a play on the verb dangle.

The cartoonist didn't understand that there is a linguistic problem in the caption.

For the first option, the cartoonist himself might have been joking, or maybe he made no (conscious) connection between dangling modifiers and dangling in the air.

I'm inclined to go with the voters on the wedding cartoon and say that Piraro simply saw no issue with the participial modifier: the sentence is about the defendant, and the "I hereby find" is just part of a legal formula, not a shift to the judge himself as topic, so that "having gone up and refused to go down" is to be understood as being predicated of the defendant, not the judge.

Still, the judge's pronouncement gave me pause, maybe because so many danglers involve predications about the speaker or writer; we're forever talking about ourselves.  Here are a few first-person examples from my collection, all with having (as in the two Bizarro cartoons):

(Z3.24) ... it is the Quirk grammar which (having compiled its index) has occupied a worryingly large proportion of my own life... (linguist David Crystal, in a review of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language; example supplied to me by Rodney Huddleston)

(Z3.125) Never before has an article hit so close to home.  Was it the timing, having lost my mother to lung cancer three months ago? (letter to the NYT Magazine, 8/21/05, p. 8, from Dorothy Coffey of New Brunswick NJ)

(Z3.198) Having been away from postcard preparation for some three weeks, a huge backlog had accumulated.  (from my own pen, 3/19/07.  There was no preceding linguistic context; this was the first sentence in a postcard message.  I DID notice it right away.)

In contrast, the wedding cartoon has a third-person modifier, and the court cartoon a second-person one -- while in both cartoons the subject of the main clause is a first-person pronoun.  So we're doubly inclined to interpret these modifiers, on first reading, as first-person: we generally look to the subject, and (if we read generously) we should always be prepared for a first-person interpretation.  That turns out to be clearly not the intended interpretation, but it will take a lot of us a moment to work it all out.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:17 AM

March 23, 2007

Which witch?

Today's language cartoon comes courtesy of UA undergrad Marissa Kuhn:

Exercise for the reader: Which syntactic categories does 'witch' have with which affixes in which panels?

(Full-size cartoon visible next page...)

Here 'tis. Thanks, Penny Arcade!

Posted by Heidi Harley at 10:05 PM

Linguistically Ignorant 419 Scammers

Going through my morning email I found what looks like a 419 scam message with an extra giveaway of its illegitimate status. It purports to come from a Japanese company but gives the following address:

Man Tech Company Ltd.
No.2, Lane 70, Ming Chu Road,
Sec.1,Tung Pao, Japan

If you know what Japanese addresses look like, this is obviously ill-formed. With the exception of a few cities like Sapporo, which are only partial exceptions, Japanese addresses are based on a hierarchy of successively smaller regions. Adresses usually start with the prefecture, then name the city, then the ku 区 "ward", then the cho 町 "town", then the chome 丁目"district", then the banchi 番地 "block", and finally the ban 番 "lot". For example, I once lived in Tokyo at: 東京都 目黒区 中目黒 5-12-8 "Tokyo-to Meguro-ku, Nakameguro 5-12-8", which is to say at lot number 8 of block number 12 of district number 5 of Nakameguro town of Meguro ward of Tokyo. Lot numbers are not like street numbers - their order is not the order along the block but depends on the date at which the lot was developed. There are often maps on signboards by the side of the road showing the nearby streets and the division of the blocks into lots. When writing addresses in English this larger to smaller order is generally broken, so this address would be given as "5-12-8 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo-to".

It is thus immediately apparent that the above address is not a Japanese address. The words "Ming Chu" and "Tung Pao" add to this conclusion since they are not phonologically possible in Japanese. This is a typical Chinese address as written in English, the absence of a province or district component suggestive of Taiwan. Addresses in Taiwan as in Japan are written in larger-to-smaller order when written in Chinese, though the hierarchy is different from the Japanese one and involves roads of various sizes. For example, here's an address in Taichung: 406台中市北屯區 東山路一段333 巷99弄44號2樓 It reads: 406, Taichung City, Beitun Ward, Dongshan Road, Section 1, Lane 333, Alley 99, Lot 44, Second floor. The initial 406 is the postal code. This address could also indicate that the location is in Taichung County but that is normally omitted since everybody knows where Taichung City is (it is the third largest city in Taiwan) and the postal code in any case supplies information that makes the county superfluous.

As we have sometimes remarked before here at Language Log, 419 scammers need to hire some linguists...

Update. The URL mentioned in this email exists and appears at least superficially to be for a real company, Man Tech Industries, "specializing in precision machining". The page is however missing several images. Readers John Cowan and Rob Perez have tracked down the address and indicate that there is an apparently legitimate company called Chung Yang Industries, at No.2, Lane 70, Ming Chu Road, Sec.1, Tung Pao Village, Tantze Hsiang, Taichung Hsien, Taiwan, R.O.C. Its hard to know what to make of this. Presumably the Chung Yang company knows that it is located in Taiwan, not Japan. (The address indicates that it is located in Taichung County, in the same area as the city of 台中 Taichung in West-Central Taiwan.) It looks like the scammers just borrowed part of this company's address and plunked it down in Japan.

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:53 PM

College-age Carrier Speakers!

I'm so happy I just can't resist letting everybody know: Today I had a telephone conversation with a university student who is a fluent native speaker of Carrier! His roommate is also a speaker, and they make a point of speaking to each other in Carrier. Most speakers of Carrier are elderly, and even in the areas where the language is better off, speakers under late middle age are few and far between, so it is exciting to encounter exceptions like these. I had thought that the youngest speakers from their village were twenty years older.

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:36 AM

March 22, 2007

Stop him before he tropes again

Al Gore hauled out one of his favorite factoids while testifying about global warming before two different congressional committees yesterday. His first stop on Capitol Hill was before the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee, where his prepared comments read as follows (text, PDF):

As many know, the Chinese expression for "crisis" consists of two characters side by side. The first symbol means "danger." The second symbol means "opportunity." I would like to discuss both the danger and the opportunity here today.

Gore has been using this rhetorical flourish for a while now: the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair featured a piece by Gore somewhat ironically entitled "The Moment of Truth," in which he peddled the same linguistic canard. As Mark Liberman noted at the time, the "crisis = opportunity + danger" myth has been thoroughly debunked by Victor Mair in an essay posted on the website (There's even a helpful Wikipedia page on the topic now.) But in Gore's oral testimony yesterday, he diverged from his written statement and injected even further misinformation.

Before the House committee, he said:

As many of you know, the way that the Chinese and the Japanese, both of whom use the so-called kanji characters, express the concept of "crisis," they use two symbols together. And the first one means "danger" and the second means "opportunity."
(C-SPAN video, beginning around 1:01:25)

Then when he headed over to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, he gave a slightly rephrased version:

As many of you know, the Chinese and Japanese way of expressing the concept "crisis" in kanji characters uses two symbols. The first means "danger" and the second means "opportunity."
(C-SPAN video, beginning around 0:49:40)

Gore manages to compound the original error by using the term kanji to refer to Chinese and Japanese writing systems, when it properly denotes only the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters. It would be nice if Gore could get his linguistic facts straight, but I wouldn't count on him abandoning the "crisis = opportunity + danger" device any time soon. I don't think any amount of debunkage would stop him or other public figures — such as Condoleezza Rice — from using this handy trope, as it has been kicking around American political discourse since John F. Kennedy's time.

The excellent new Yale Book of Quotations (edited by Fred Shapiro) traces the "crisis = opportunity + danger" myth back to a speech that Kennedy gave to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959, when he was still a senator with presidential ambitions. (The JFK Library's website has a transcript of the speech along with scans of three working drafts.) Kennedy said:

When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters — one represents danger and one represents opportunity.

The "dangers" Kennedy spoke of mainly consisted of Cold War concerns, from the military and economic growth of the Soviet Union to the launching of Sputnik. The "opportunities" had to do with advances in space exploration, atomic energy and automation, as well as the possibility for "poverty to be abolished everywhere in the world" thanks to "modern science and technology." And there was the hope that "new developments in means of transportation and communication offer the opportunity to extend the principles on which we based our republic to all mankind." (Sounds vaguely neoconservative.)

Though the geopolitical context of Kennedy's usage was quite different from Gore's, the trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action. You can see why no one from Kennedy to Rice to Gore would want the messy actualities of the Chinese writing system to get in the way of such a handy discursive device.

[Update, 3/25/07: Zev Handel emails with some good points about kanji in English usage:

I enjoyed reading your most recent post on Al Gore's use of the old "Chinese word for 'crisis' trope". But you made one statement that I'm not sure I agree with:
"Gore manages to compound the original error by using the term kanji to refer to Chinese and Japanese writing systems, when it properly denotes only the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters."
"Kanji" is of course the Japanese term for Chinese characters. In the Japanese language, it can be used to refer to either the Chinese characters as they are used within the multi-script Japanese writing system, or to Chinese characters in general, as used in Chinese, Korean, or elsewhere.
Specialists who use the term in English tend to reserve it to designate Chinese characters as used in Japanese writing, as you say. After all, it's a Japanese word. However, it seems to me that "kanji" is now, at least in some parts of the US, a genuine English word, having been borrowed and assimilated into English. What exactly does "kanji" mean in its lay usage in English? In my experience, it is used to refer to Chinese characters, without distinguishing the writing system they are employed in. Indeed, the term seems to be most widely used in English in the context of individual characters as tattoos -- a context in which the language being written is unclear. In this usage the meaning of the English term is actually pretty congruent to its meaning in Japanese.
So maybe Gore wasn't wrong in his usage of "kanji" after all. Unless I'm wrong in my impression of the semantics of this word as an English word.

For more on "kanji tattoos" see the links (like this one) on Hanzi Smatter, a website dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters.]

[Update, 3/27/07: JFK was not the first to use the trope, as it can be documented for more than two decades before his usage. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:44 PM

The Burmese story

Yesterday's excerpt from J Milton Cowan's "American Linguistics in Peace and at War" was "The Chinese episode". Today, for your historical pleasure, we have the Burmese story.

It is difficult today to visualize some of the obstacles we had to overcome. To illustrate I will tell the Burmese story because it has multiple punch lines. In the lottery of languages William S. Cornyn drew the Burmese straw. This frightened him a bit but Leonard Bloomfield promised to hold his hand. Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who'd jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn't caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our offices the same afternoon, saying tht he had over a hundred names and he'd call back as soon as he could have them decoded. Next morning he phoned to say there was something funny, there were Abernathys, Browns, Davenports, Fitzgeralds and so on down through the Youngs. It turned out that the Roster listed those foreigners residing in the U.S. who had been born in Burma, regardless of their current nationality. These were the names of children born to business people and missionaries while living in Burma. There were only two names that sounded exotic enough to be possible Burmans.

We zeroed in on the first, Alamon, Tung. He was shown to be in New York, unemployed, on relief. That was a solid lead so Cornyn, Bloomfield and I met at the Biltmore. They waited at the hotel while I went off looking for Mr. Alamon. His place was on the lower East Side and I was viewed with suspicion by everyone I met, especially by the 'super(visor)' of the tenement whom I found in a basement apartment. He and his wife listened a long time to my story until they were convinced I wasn't from the police. Then they led me to Alamon. He listened patiently to my story and to my offer of employment and agreed to meet with my colleagues to talk over details. While he was changing his shirt I went out to telephone Cornyn and Bloomfield to meet us in the hotel lobby within the hour.

The meeting was interesting. Neither of my colleagues knew any Burmese or had ever heard any. Leonard did the initial interrogation and decided that, though Alamon's Burmese was rusty because of long disuse, it would come back enough to get started on an analysis. I had already offered Alamon a salary of $400 a month for the duration of the work which was expected to take at least a year. Then they got down to details on where the work would be done. Alamon didn't mind going to New Haven if his rent in New York was maintained, but Spotty would have to go with him. Suddenly I remembered the large bibdool-type dog in Alamon's apartment and told them who Spotty was. It ended by their agreeing that Spotty and Alamon would live together in a Yale dorm, the first time that those quarters had ever had a canine occupant.

Things went well for about a month then one day Franklin Edgerton turned up n our office looking very embarrassed. He said that Alamon had not been entirely frank about his sources of income, and although he rather enjoyed the atmosphere at Yale and Spotty was happy and well-adjusted, he was losing money on the deal. It seems he had been running a little numbers racket in lower Manhattan. Our work was so far along and the problem of getting a replacement so great that we finally settled for doubling his salary. The unwritten history of Burmese linguistics is loaded. Alamon's successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster, gave rise to an embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University which was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved. But enough for Burmese.

No, I'm sorry, that's NOT enough for Burmese -- we need to know more about the "embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University" than that it "was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved"! I mean, like, what happened? Alas, "Uncle Miltie" Cowan is dead and gone, so I can't write to him and expect an answer. So if you know, please tell me. And one more question -- what is a "bibdool-type dog"? I'm shocked to find that {bibdool} is unknown to Google.

[And let me point out in passing that $800/month was a considerable amount of money in 1941. Even without adjusting for inflation, it's more than I was making when I got out of the army in 1972. According to an online inflation calculator, the corresponding inflation-adjusted monthly salary in 2006 would be $11,112.91. It's a tribute to the flexibility and bureaucratic inventiveness of Graves and Cowan that they were able to manage this.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:07 AM

March 21, 2007

Spice Names

Yesterday, Carl Manaster wrote to Geoff Nunberg:

I've noticed a few times just how over-represented the letter "C" is as the initial letter of spice names. Something like 1/4 of the spices in my rack start with "C" and of course there are 25 other perfectly good letters they could start with. And I got to wondering why, and I googled, and came up with bupkis. This strikes me as something you may already know the answer to, or, if you don't, something you would enjoy tracking down. If you have or come up with an answer, I'd be really interested to hear it.

And Geoff forwarded the note to the rest of us Language Loggers, and Arnold Zwicky suggested that I try to make this the basis of a little statistics lesson. So here goes.

First, what proportion of spice names start with the letter 'c'? I don't know what's in Carl's spice rack, but there's a list of 40 "Herbs & Spices" on the McCormick company's web site: Allspice, Ancho Chile, Anise, Basil, Bay Leaves, Black Pepper, Caraway Seed, Cardamom, Celery Seed, Chervil, Chipotle Chile, Chives, Cilantro, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Dill, Fennel, Ginger, Mace, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Poppy Seed, Red Pepper, Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Savory, Sesame Seed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric, Vanilla, White Pepper.

Of these, I reckon that 22 (Allspice, Anise, Black Pepper, Caraway Seed, Cardamom, Celery Seed, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Ginger, Mace, Mustard, Nutmeg, Paprika, Poppy Seed, Red Pepper, Saffron, Sesame Seed, Turmeric, Vanilla and White Pepper) are spices rather than herbs. 7 out of 22 start with the letter 'c', or 31.8%.

How likely is this to happen by chance? Well, suppose that we were picking English nouns at random as spice names. Out of 26,003 nouns in the CELEX2 English lexicon, there are 2,713 whose spelling starts with the letter 'c', or 10.4%. If we picked 22 nouns at random, how likely is it that 7 or more of them would start with 'c'?

These days, the most straightforward way to answer a question like this is to do a Monte Carlo simulation. This is easy to do, e.g. in the (free software) statistics language R:

Nitems <- 22
Frac <- 2713/26003
Num <- 100000
counts <- mat.or.vec(23,1)
for (i in 1:Num) {
  n <- sum(runif(Nitems)<Frac)+1
  counts[n] <- counts[n]+1
propgreq <- rev(cumsum(rev(counts)))/Num 

The proportion of runs with 7 or more C-initial words (propgreq[8] after running the code above) is about .005, i.e. one time in 200.

Here's a couple of relevant plots:

png(filename="SpiceNames%d.png", width=700, height=700)
plot(0:10, counts[1:11],
     xlab="Number of C-initial words (out of 22 words)",
     ylab="Count (out of 100,000)",
     main="Random selection of 22 nouns from English CELEX2", type="b")
plot(0:10, propgreq[1:11],
     xlab="X or more (of 22) C-initial words",
     ylab="Proportion of trials",
     main="Random selection of 22 nouns from English CELEX2", type="b")

So, we can be pretty sure that spice names are richer in initial 'c' than expected on the basis of the English noun vocabulary as a whole.

In conversation around the virtual water cooler at Language Log Plaza, Dan Jurafsky observed:

Assuming that c is indeed statistically over-represented compared to its distribution in english, i assume it's because spice names pass through multiple languages, and

a) the distribution is different in those languages
b) the borrowing process accidentally funneled through some many-to-one-mappings that may increase the proportion of c's (some of this just from a quick check of the dictionary, probably some errors here):

- lots of spice names come from arabic/semitic, especially the "c" ones (cumin, cinnamon, caraway). perhaps this is relevant because "q" and "k" both got borrowed as "k" in greek -> latin "c"
- english c happens to be used to spell both /c/ and /ch/ phonemes,
- words that started with kappa in greek -> latin "c", (caper, cardamom, coriander, etc etc)
- words pronounced "s" spelled "c" through french (celery).
- greek kh -> english c (chervil)

Might be worth a fun post about interesting travels of spice names.

It might well.

[Since a "spice rack" generally contains herbs as well as spices, and since Dan Jurafsky included some herbs (e.g. chervil) as well as spices in his note, maybe I should have worked with the original 40-item list, with 11 c-initial names. But now you've got the R scripts, so you can do it for yourself.]

[Update -- Guy Srinivasan writes:

Any lesson in statistics should include the odds of getting 7+ out of 22 randomly chosen words that start with the same letter, since you would have been just as surprised if 7+ 'B' words came up. Yes?

Well, actually, I would have been more surprised, since 'b' is quite a bit less frequent as an initial letter than 'c' is. But, OK, it's true that we're at risk of the kind of false positive that Carlo Emilio Bonferroni warned us about. Luckily, though, the Monte Carlo approach adapts very easily to this more complex situation:here's another Monte Carlo simulation in R that looks at the maximum number of same-letter nouns in 10,000 sets of 22, chosen at random from the 26,003 nouns in the CELEX2. About 2.6% of the time, 7 or more of the 22 words begin with the same letter. This corresponds to about 1 in 39 trials, which (for obvious reasons) is more often than the 1 in 200 trials where we'd expect 7 or more c-initial words -- but still less often than the 1 in 20 trials corresponding to the usual p < .05 criterion for statistical significance. Here are some relevant plots:

For the few übernerds who are still reading this, here is the list of CELEX2 noun initial-letter frequencies that I used, sorted in order of decreasing frequency. Each line has the letter, the count of nouns starting with that letter, and the proportion (out of 26,003):

   s 3322 0.127754
   c 2713 0.104334
   p 2398 0.0922201
   b 1619 0.062262
   t 1495 0.0574934
   m 1466 0.0563781
   d 1425 0.0548014
   a 1323 0.0508787
   r 1262 0.0485329
   f 1195 0.0459562
   h 973 0.0374188
   l 949 0.0364958
   g 901 0.0346498
   e 834 0.0320732
   i 833 0.0320348
   w 783 0.0301119
   n 561 0.0215744
   o 546 0.0209976
   v 402 0.0154598
   j 267 0.010268
   k 232 0.00892205
   u 225 0.00865285
   q 140 0.00538399
   y 81 0.00311503
   z 52 0.00199977
   x 6 0.000230743


[Update -- Rosie Redfield writes:

The high frequency of spice names beginning with C may just reflect the larger phenomenon of food words beginning with C.

If you check the index of a big practical cookbook (Fanny Farmer, Joy of Cooking), you'll find that a surprisingly large fraction of it is words beginning with C.

My preferred diet consists mainly of foods whose names begin with C: cake, candy, chocolate, coffee, cream, cookies, crackers, cheese , custard, casseroles...

Not to speak of cheese, creme caramel, couscous, calzone, and coconut cream pie. And chicken.]

[And Jason Wright wants to take it another step:

I don't think you've avoided the statistical fallacy mentioned by Guy Srinivasan.

So the chances of 7+ out of 22 random nouns starting with the same letter is 1/39. This doesn't mean something interesting is going on with spice names, though. Surely you would have also been surprised if 7 out of the 22 largest cities in your state started with "W"? Or if 7 out of the 22 unique brand names in your cupboard started with "K"? How many other sets of 22 nouns are in your kitchen? Your home? Your office? As soon as you count 20 such sets you might regularly encounter, the spices don't seem so unusual.

The problem with noticing something that seems unusual is that we so rarely notice the usual, so quantifying the unusual-ness is difficult.

Well, as Jason indicates, this line of reasoning suggests that no inductive generalization could ever be interesting, since there are indefinitely many features whose distribution can be examined relative to indefinitely many conditioning factors. Nevertheless, we do sometimes conclude that salient patterns are meaningful, and sometimes we turn out to be right about this, in the sense that we find a causal explanation for the pattern. Is the tendency of spice names to start with C one of the genuinely meaningful patterns, or is it one of the many accidental clusters of facts that lead to superstitions and the like? Beats me.

I guess you could ask a broader linguistic question: is there a general tendency for semantic classes of words to share initial sounds (and/or letters) more often than chance would predict? Phonetic symbolism is one reason that this might happen, and common cultural history might be another, but maybe there's an overall tendency towards quasi-regularization of this kind, simply because of rich-get-richer selective pressures in the psychodynamics of vocabulary development. I bet that some psycholinguists have looked into this. But this joke has gotten much deeper into the c-initial spice-name problem than I planned to go, so I'll ask a different question: why you hatin on C, man?]

[Update -- under the subject line "Spicing it up (for R aficionados only)", Ed Carney sent this:

Mulling your code, it occurred to me that you could model the samples using multinomial sampling (with "rmultinom()" in R). Each selection of 22 nouns could go into 26 different bins with probabilities associated with the CELEX2 lexicon. This method gives you the potential to construct the simulation for all of the letters at once, should such be your desire.

The relevant line "simul = rmultinom(Num,22,CELEX2)" performs 100,000 multinomial samples of 22 things in 26 bins using the probabilities calculated from the CELEX2 lexicon. This is returned as a two-dimensional matrix with 26 rows and 100,000 columns. Each row corresponding to a letter in the list you provided ('s', 'c', etc.). So, row 2 corresponds to letter 'c'. (This has the additional virtue of running a bit faster than the high-level "for" loop. It probably has an upper limit because of memory constraints, but I've run it as high as half a million samples on a laptop with 2Gbytes of RAM.)

Edward's script is here. This is the same thing that my second script does -- though rather than use the rmultinom() function, I did it the hard way, by running N trials, each of which chooses 22 numbers between 1 and 26,0003 and assigns the choice to one of the 26 letters of the alphabet, in proportion to the number of nouns in CELEX2 starting with that letter. Being impatient, I used only 10,000 trials, but re-running it with 100,000 took about 30 seconds on my laptop, whereas Edward's script only took 2 or 3 seconds. The result is the same, though.

Frankly, I did it the hard way because I didn't know about the rmultinom() function -- so I'll take that knowledge as my reward for going through the exercise.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:52 PM

The Social Life of Prescriptivism

The recent discussions of language gripes and prescriptivism on Language Log (links below) tell an important part of the story, but the sociolinguistic angle is largely lacking, probably because Language Log, alas, has no card-carrying sociolinguists who post here regularly. So when Lauren Squires sent me some comments about these issues, I thought they were worth a wider audience: the result is below.

Sally Thomason has allowed me to hijack her Language Log access to post an addition to some recent LL discussions. There have been several posts lately regarding linguistic prescriptivism and its public manifestation, namely in the form of "abusage" forums and online griping. Coming from the sociolinguistics side of the field, I wanted to share with interested readers some relevant corners of linguisticky research around prescriptivist issues. You might not find this stuff by doing a search on prescriptivism per se, but it seems as if prescriptivism is a cluster concept pointing to several related terms, among them language attitudes, language ideologies, folk linguistics, linguistic awareness and metalanguage, language correctness, and language standardization. In fact, maybe one way to look at prescriptivism is as an outcome of the social processes these terms describe. From this perspective, sociolinguists have learned a good deal about griping and what drives it.

Sociolinguistics is concerned with the question not only of how people speak, but of how they think about how they and others speak. You thus have people studying language attitudes, seeking to identify and understand what people think about linguistic variation: Why do Michiganders think they speak the most "correct" form of English in the United States? Why do people judge speakers with certain non-English-accented English as less socially desirable, less intelligent, or less agreeable than speakers without a discernible accent? How many Detroiters fail to recognize "Canadian" phonological features within their own speech community? (For excellent references on this topic, see Harold Schiffman's page of bibliographies on Language Attitudes.)

Then there's the language ideologies work, which goes beyond what people think about language to ask what social processes underlie the attitudes, often by appealing to political systems, historical influences, socioeconomic structure, and semiotic processes that turn language into a carrier of social meaning in various ways. Language ideologies are often defined as sets of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how people use language (by imposing some sort of schema about what is "right," "appropriate," or whatever), and they also serve as speakers' means of rationalizing or otherwise explaining the language that they or someone else uses.

In the case of the United States, one can make a pretty good argument that our dominant language ideologies include ideas about there being one standard style that is considered "correct," that language can be something subject to judgments of "correctness" to begin with, and that nation-states are best off when their citizens speak one unified language. Studies on standardization, and particularly with regard to English, point out that in literate societies, ideas of "standard" become even more salient and powerful because of the tendency of print to "freeze" language or at least impose stratification on its use, elevating some formal or allegedly generic style above more colloquial or regional ones.

You can also argue that the written form serves as a trigger for linguistic awareness, on which there seems to be less research but which is of no less importance (if you ask me!). In order to make a usage gripe, you have to be aware of the linguistic feature you're griping about. You may be more aware because you were taught something about it, or you may notice it because it varies a lot among your acquaintances, or there may be something that makes it especially salient because of the kind of linguistic thing it is (phoneme, morpheme, word, spelling, etc.). You may also be more aware of it because it's been culturally packaged: invoking a term from Dennis Preston's work, a linguistic feature or language variety can become a folk linguistic artifact that circulates through the culture, picking up different social connotations along the way. Standard English is most certainly one of these, and so are "Ebonics," "Spanglish," "Southern drawl," and "Netspeak."

In public discourse (and educational settings), these are framed as distinct varieties to be either aspired to or avoided, having either high or low mainstream social prestige. We can pinpoint some contents of the artifacts, too, in media reports: about change in language as language decay, about linguistic "revolution" as socially harmful, about how no one sends thank-you notes any more, about how multilingualism is a threat to the health of English and Americans, about how emoticons are rampant in school essays, about how you'd better understand your teenagers' online lingo fast, before it's too late and they're pregnant or in rehab or, worse, cavorting with a sexual predator.

So, the gripers. You have people who believe that there's a correct way of speaking and writing, and who impose that belief on others. For them, what they are doing is fighting for the truth, tradition, and the Natural Order of Language. While lots of them may have some interest in language and its inner workings, for most, language is simply a material/symbolic system that gets roped into social Othering. Language is accessible, convenient, and flexible for use in doing so: it's always there, it's always changing, and it's always going to be socially differentiated. With linguistic variation, it seems that the grass is always greener on the other side, if you're talking about a usage associated with an appealing group of people (swoon those Aussies with their exotic diphthongs!), or it's greener on your side, if you're talking about a usage associated with a somehow undesirable group (shakes fist those Mexicans/teens/rednecks and their bad English!).

When you give gripers an outlet for their opinions, they're going to feel validated, and they're going to enjoy the feeling that their comments are helping to preserve the Natural Order. Maybe they see it as their duty, or maybe it's just a playful pastime. Either way, it's not (entirely) their fault, and it reflects issues beyond what people are taught about language. It's the reality of the social divisions we are constantly reproducing — every day, all the time, each of us. While I agree that it would be nice to get some teachable moments out of the gripes, I'm not certain that it would ultimately change anything until some deeper cultural issues were addressed.

Perhaps what Mark Liberman is asking for in terms of "serious social science of prescriptivism" is yet a different line of research; maybe we also need a quantitative, demographic breakdown of what kinds of people are bothered by split infinitives and who is likely to pooh-pooh the use of singular generic they. But we already have a pretty rich set of sociolinguistic analyses that show us something about why people have the gripes about language in the first place, why they probably feel compelled to publicize them, and what social effects this activity has.

I suggest that even if we had the numbers on who hates what where when, we'd still be left asking that why.

Thanks to Sally for letting me post this, and thanks to Language Log for continuing to bring interesting linguistic questions to the public. I welcome feedback, requests for specific references, or corrections. You can reach me either through the comments section of this cross-post at my blog, or via email: lsquires at umich dot edu

Posted by Sally Thomason at 04:29 PM

The Chinese episode

Yesterday I posted an excerpt from J Milton Cowan's brief memoir, "American Linguistics in Peace and at War" ("The Intensive Language Program"). Here's another sample, about a Chinese course that was as intensive for the instructors as it was for the students.

No account of this period should omit our best success story, the Chinese Episode. In the autumn of 1942 one of Mortimer's friends in G-2 came to him and said, "We've got to send 205 ordnance officers to China to train the Chinese in the use of our equipment. How can we teach 'em some Chinese?" Mortimer: "How much time have we got?" -- "Two weeks." Mortimer reflected a few moments and then told him that he thought it could be done if the Army was willing to take a chance. There was a PFC linguist (Charles Francis Hockett) raking leaves at Vint Hill Farms in Virginia just waiting for such an assignment. Of course, he didn't know any Chinese, but he could learn it faster than his students and could go along on the trip using travel time for organized instruction. Having no other choice and probably thinking that Mortimer was crazy, his friend accepted. Buttons were pushed, wheels began to turn.

Hockett was called to Washington for a briefing. The two weeks leadtime was used to send him to Yale, where he conferred with George Kennedy and picked up such materials as George had prepared under Council auspices, and in lining up six Mandarin speakers from the OWI [Office of War Information] in New York and San Francisco to go along on the trip as native informants-teachers. The instruction was conducted on board ship on a full-time intensive basis and without regard to military rank. It would otherwise have been too embarrassing to have a non-com ordering Lieutenants, Majors and Colonels around. The group went half-way around the world by slow boat taking 35 days and then over the hump to China with Hockett managing their Chinese instruction all the way. When they finally arrived the officers were using a respectable amount of colloquial Mandarin and were able to carry out their training assignment.

At the end to the mission, on recommendation of the commanding officer, Hockett was commissioned as First Lieutenant, the only instance that has ever come to my attention of such a reward by the military for a professional job well done. He returned to become Haxie Smith's right-hand man and converted his recent experience into the text Spoken Chinese, one in the Spoken Language Series being prepared and published by the ILP.

But that's not the end of the Chinese Episode. We rushed Spoken Chinese into print. I took the first copies over to the Pentagon the very day General Clayton L. Bissell, freshly returned from China, was giving the arm-chair warriors an account of what real war was like. He had them spellbound with sotries of his rampling in the hinterlands where there was disorganized fighting between the Japanese and Chinese guerrilla detachments. He described how one day his reconnaissance group came up over a small rise in the ground to find themselves looking down the muzzles of a long line of nasty looking rifles. They didn't know whether they were up against Japanese of Chinese guerrillas. Realizing that [if] they were Japanese they wouldn't understand anyway, one of the boys called "wö-men shi-'mey-gwo-'bing", whereupon the rifles were lowered and the Chinese came out for a happy and relieved exchange of greetings.

When General Bissell was given a copy of Spoken Chinese he leafed through it and explaimed, "This is what we need! Send 60,000 copies to the field." So we did.

A couple of years ago , Bill Poser posted a friend-of-a-friend story about a different application of intensive Chinese during WW II ("Language and the war effort", 4/11/2004):

I heard another story from the late Professor Edward Wagner, who learned Japanese in the Army. A friend of his was in the Chinese program, which finished earlier. The utility of Japanese was clear, but since the United States was not sending troops to China, they wondered to what use the Army would put a Chinese-speaking soldier. Professor Wagner soon received a letter from his friend, who was now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He reported that his assignment was to train mules to respond to commands in Chinese, so that they could be sent to the Chinese forces.

I imagine that the ordnance officers were better motivated than the mules.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:29 AM

March 20, 2007

Apostrophe placement sophistication

Never mind Arkansas's issues with apostrophes, the issue arises everywhere. Below the signature line in an email from a staff member at my university in California I read this address:

University of California Santa Cruz
Humanities Deans Office
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95064 USA

Language Log readers will know whether or not that second line is correct. In fact they will be able to say instantly which of the following 18 alternatives is the correct one, without being confused for an instant:

(1)Humanities Deans Office (10)Humanities Deans' Office
(2)Humanities Dean's Office (11)Humanitie's Deans Office
(3)Humanitie's Dean's Office (12)Humanitie's Deans' Office
(4)Humanities' Dean's Office (13)Humanities' Deans Office
(5)Humanities' Deans' Office (14)Humanity's Dean's Office
(6)Humanity's Deans Office (15)Humanity's Deans' Office
(7)Humanitys Dean's Office (16)Humanitys Deans Office
(8)Humanitys Deans' Office (17)Humanitys' Dean's Office
(9)Humanitys' Deans Office (18)Humanitys' Deans' Office

That is what I like about Language Log readers. They are sophisticated; they know their apostrophes placements (or apostrophes placement's or apostrophes placements' or apostrophes' placements or apostrophes' placement's or apostrophes' placements' or apostrophe's placements or apostrophe's placement's or apostrophe's placements' — you know which one is correct). One hates to sound elitist, but... I like the company of the linguistically sophisticated. It feels so good to be with one's own kind.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 06:14 PM

Getting better McJobs

The BBC reports the UK arm of McDonald's is starting a campaign that will lead to a more favorable definition of "McJob" than is currently found the The Oxford English Dictionary, which reads:

An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.

McDonald's believes this definition is out of date, inaccurate, and insulting, saying that it's time the dictionary changed its definition. The fast-food giant disagrees with the "few prospects" part of this definition and tries to rebut it with this slogan:

McProspects - over half of our executive team started in our restaurants.

I suppose it's possible that this slogan might be able to help change the public's perception about employment opportunities at McDonald's but it's likely that it will take considerably more than a slogan to do this. Employment at McDonald's suggests a low paying, starter position for students and unskilled laborers. But even a catchy slogan (if this is one) doesn't change the nature of the job of preparing and serving mass-produced hamburgers. That's still a pretty low-level slot in the scheme of things.

And it's not clear what the slogan means by McDonald's "executive team." One might suspect that it refers to any other jobs besides the ones most visible to McDonald's patrons. Even if some service people at some time and in some place indeed rise to an "executive" level (assuming "executive" means what I think it means), it would seem to require a considerable amount of education and experience to ever reach it. Or it could mean that six of the ten "executives" they cite once worked the counter when they were in high school. Or maybe "executive team" means something else entirely.

Nor is it exactly clear what McDonald's means by a "public petition campaign," but since the company cited the dictionary definition as at least part of the problem, it would be prudent for the company to consider how good lexicographers do their work. Sydney Landau, in his book, Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge U Press, 2001) says that the lexicographer "cannot allow any special-interest group to determine what gets in his dictionary or how it is represented" (page 407). That would seem to discourage McDonald's from being too pushy with lexicographers, who have their own methods of detmining meaning and who don't much cater to external pressures from industry.

McDonald's has also made noises about this in the US (here). The company sent an open letter to Merriam-Webster that claims its dictionary definition of "McJob,"

low paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advacement,

is a slap in the face of the 12 million men and women who work in the restaurant industry. In the US it appears that the McDonald's "public petition campaign" is directed at dictionaries rather than the general public, but who knows what is coming next. Merriam Webster and McDonald's have been going around on this for a couple of years now.

Thus the saga of the Mc- prefix continues, only this time not as a trademark dispute. In a way, the McJobs matter is a self-inflicted wound. At the 1987 trial in which McDonald's prevented Quality Inns International from naming a new hotel chain McSleep Inns, a corporate representative related how the company's icon, Ronald McDonald, had traveled around the country and actually taught children how to add the Mc- prefix before many different words, such as "McFries," "McShakes," and "McBest." Then McDonald's vice-president for advertising testified that the purpose of this campaign was to create a "McLanguage" that was specifically associated with McDonald's. The campaign worked. Suddenly hundreds of new Mc- words appeared in the press, including "McHospital," "McStory," "McTelevision," "McArt," "McLawyers," and, you guessed it, "McJobs." The meaning conveyed by Mc- was pretty clear in all the newly created words.

Now McDonald's wants to upgrade the very meaning it created all by itself. That may take some doing.

[UPDATE] NPR's producer of the program, "On the Media," reports that the show is doing a brief commentary this weekend about a certain subset of proprietary eponyms, specifically those that are used in an unflattering way, such as Spam, Muzak or McJob. If anyone has other examples of such terms, he asks that you send them the NPR website,

[UPDATE 2] Bill Poser points out that the CNN article says that of the 400,000 employees of McDonald's some 1,000 now own and operate stores. That's at most a 1 in 200 rate at which employees rise to managment, hardly a promising career path.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 04:27 PM

Another word for homophobia

From Cole Paulson (in my Innovations seminar winter quarter): gaycism used as a parallel to racism and a competitor to homophobia (a word that some object to as suggesting, via its -phobia portion, too narrow a meaning).  It's two syllables shorter than homophobia and fits well with some of the other -ism words (sexism and antisemitism, in particular), and of course there's that rhyme with racism, which can be exploited to emphasize parallels between the two types of prejudice, as in this report on the Queerty blog about a recent interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

He went on to use the lessons of apartheid to make the controversial correlation between racism and gaycism

I get a modest number of Google webhits, most of them clearly treating the word as novel, some taking credit for coining it.

If gaycism catches on, -cism might become available as a new suffix.  Re-cutting, anyone?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:42 AM

Snowclones for Jesus

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether it was OK for an Alaskan high-school administrator to tear down a student's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner (Linda Greenhouse, "Court Hears Whether a Drug Statement is Protected Free Speech for Students", NYT, 3/20/2007). Meanwhile, over at Polysyllabic, Karl Hagen has been collecting "Snowclones for Jesus".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:54 AM

Z scorez

I wonder exactly how and when the fashion for spelling plural -s as 'z' got started, and how it spread. The common examples come partly from hip-hop and partly from hacker culture: boyz, niggaz, skillz, warez. I've always assumed that the hackers copied it from the rappers (who were certainly using it in the mid 1980s), but I don't have much evidence. Anyhow, Andy Capp's vicar is just catching up:

This fits the American stereotype of the British upper middle classes as concerned with form rather than content. Here's a more extensive survey of American (male) stereotypes of British (male) culture:

When did the American stereotype of British male speech as effeminate begin? Was it a side-effect of a more general cultural clash ("we don't like them so they must be sissies"), or is it because of the associations of particular characteristics of some British dialects (e.g. lack of flapping/voicing of /t/)?

If you've got answers to these questions, let me know.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:07 AM

The Intensive Language Program

In a couple of earlier posts ("A tale of two societies", 3/1/2007; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007), I discussed the mobilization of linguists during the second world war, and wondered who organized it and how it happened. There's a lot of information about this process in J Milton Cowan, "American Linguistics in Peace and at War", pp.67-82 in K Koerner, ed., First person singular II: autobiographies by American scholars in the language sciences. I've now gotten a copy, and I thought it was interesting enough to pass some of it on to you.

Here's the first installment -- pages 71-73, presented under the heading "The Intensive Language Program (ILP)":

It began in 1939 and what follows is largely an account of the development of ideas generated by Mortimer Graves, the Executive Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies. Graves reasoned simply and directly that if those linguists he'd been giving grants to could analyze unwritten American Indian languages, they could certainly do other languages and why not some likely to be of strategic importance in the world-wide conflict he was convinced was inevitable? He set up a committee to explore the founding of a National School of Modern Oriental Languages and Civilizations (on the model of the London School) and one on Intensive Language Instruction (primarily Chinese, Japanese and Russian). These were staffed by professional linguists and others interested in improving language instruction in the widest sense. He secured funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and had an impressive on-going operation almost a year before the actual outbreak of hostilities. At the January 1941 meeting of the ACLS secretaries he was urging me to get a release from my University to go to Washington and take over the detailed operation of what had hten come to be called the Intensive Language Program.

Graves liked simplicity. One example will serve to show his directness. Mary Haas was doing research in indigenous Indian languages at the University of Michigan. There happened to be a group of Thai students there. Mortimer asked Mary to shelve the Indian for the time being and make an analysis of Thai. He provided fees for the Thai students who participated and who were known as informants (following the then current anthropological practice; we all lived to regret that term). When she was well along with the analysis he asked her to run a class in which the students would work directly with Mary, observing her analytic techniques, learning what Thai they could in this process but also learning how to analyze a language. Meanwhile she converted what knowledge she had gained into teaching materials to be used in class. This was the genesis of the 'linguistic method' of language teaching, later known as the 'Army Method' of which more later. Mortimer sent subsidized students to participate in this bootstrap operation.

After we entered the War, things went fast. I moved to the ACLS in Washington and left my wife in Iowa to conduct the regular business of the Society's Treasurer. Our family was not finally reunited in Silver Springs, Maryland, until a year and a half later.

The first act of the Intensive Language Program (ILP) was to corral the practicing linguists. Those who had not already been drafted were protected so that they would work for the Program. Those who had been inducted were retrieved through the military system and put to work on linguistic projects of held in cold storage. We didn't lose a single linguist! much of this was due to Mortimer's knowing whom to talk to, most of it resulted from persuasive argument stressing the national need which was pretty well recognized in the higher circles of government, and some to sheer luck. [...]

The stage was then set for a fabulous civilian-military operation covering the production and publication of language teaching materials in dozens of languages and full-time intensive instruction in those languages on a scale not only never realized before, but hardly ever dreamed of. Before we get to a description of these, let us note that some pretty impressive experience had been piled up in the civilian sector by the ILP.

On this core the Summer Program for 1942 speaks for itself: fifty-six courses, in twenty-six languages, in eighteen universities, involving some seven hundred students in by far the most impressive array of intensive language instruction ever presented in American academic life. (Graves & Cowan 1942:3)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:06 AM

March 19, 2007

Conspiracy theorists blame linguists for 9/11

Increased rumors and speculation are surfacing, encouraged by disgruntled leaders of what has come to be known as "The Only English Movement" (OEM), that American linguists are involved in a wide-spread plot to convince US citizens that the world needs other languages besides English. "Everyone knows that English is the dominant world language," said a Peoria, Illinois proud monolingual, gesturing to a full-color photo displayed on his living room wall showing the President flying in Air Force 1 over hurricane-ravished New Orleans. "He's doing a heck of a job spreading English throughout the world in spite of those free-thinking linguists who claim that we should be learning Arabic, Yoruba, and God only knows what other gibberish languages," he added.

Although most conspiracy theorists agree that linguists are responsible for the schools teaching more and more foreign languages, including Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and Persian, the linguists' motives for doing this continue to be disputed. Some say linguists are incorrigible troublemakers. Others believe that the depressed job market for linguists has emboldened college professors to create more language teaching jobs for their graduates, since many of them are currently forced to seek employment as truck drivers and computer repair technicians. Still others say that it's part of a linguistic plot to destroy the very fabric of a correct and beautiful language with immutable rules that should never be broken.

But one group of conspiracy theorists has taken the criticism much further, blaming linguists for the series of recent setbacks experienced by our troops, beginning with 9/11. "We know one thing for sure," said one critic. "Those planes were piloted by speakers of a foreign language. If they had been speaking English, we would have stopped them in their tracks." Another conspiracy theorist complained that millions of messages intercepted by Homeland Security are undecipherable because they were not sent in English. According to one source who requested anonymity, the real reason why André Boisclair, leader of the Parti Québéois, so frequently denies being a linguist (see here), is to distance himself from blame for the war in Iraq.

Since these rumors began circulating, some conspiracy theorists are now saying that our continuing failures in the Middle East are the direct result of linguists allowing Arabic to exist. One returned US Army captain explained that he had spent several weeks trying to teach Iraqi Army officers the best military stragegy for defeating the insurgents: "They only looked at me stupidly when I spoke," he explained, adding that his English is "completely unaccented and very easy to understand." The general feeling of OEM is that US linguists are at fault for failing to see to it that English is the universal language in that part of the world "the same way it is in Europe."

Posted by Roger Shuy at 03:58 PM

An epicanthic fold by any other name

André Boisclair, who is the leader of the Parti Québécois, has been defending himself by claiming not to be a linguist. The defense is certainly true, but its effectiveness in mitigating his (alleged) offense is less clear. Here's the story.

It starts with a reference to the "yeux bridés" ("slanted eyes") of Asians, in Boisclair's campaign oratory for the current parliamentary elections in Quebec. According to Philip Authier, "‘Slanting eyes’ comment lost in translation: Boisclair", CanWest News Service, 3/15/2007:

It pops up in his standard stump speech when he gets to the section on education where he says Quebec students need to improve themselves because Asian students are becoming hot competitors in the employment marketplace.

"The reality is these countries are not just working to create jobs in sweatshops,” he said Wednesday to students in Trois Rivières. "When I was in Boston, where I spent a year, I was surprised to see that on campus about one-third of the students doing their bachelor's degrees had slanting eyes.

"These are not people going to work in sweatshops. They are people who will later become engineers and managers who create richness. There is a ferocious competition happening in the world today. What I would like to do it equip you and equip Quebec to face [the challenge]."

Fo Niemi, from the "Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations" (CRARR), asked Boisclair and the PQ for an apology, and got a brush-off. According to "André Boisclair ne présentera pas d'excuses à la communauté asiatique",, 3/19/2007:

"Il est hors de question que je m'excuse, d'aucune façon je n'ai l'intention de m'excuser, a martelé le chef du PQ à la meute de journalistes après s'être adressé à des militants conviés un dîner de la Chambre de commerce de Québec. Ces étudiants sont une source d'émerveillement."

"It's out of the question for me to apologize, in no way do I intend to apologize", hammered the head of the PQ to the pack of journalists after talking to the activists inviting to a Quebec Chamber of Commerce dinner. "These students are a source of amazement."

Le leader péquiste ne voit aucune raison de s'amender, lui qui avoue utiliser fréquemment l'expression "yeux bridés" pour parler des citoyens d'extrême-orient. Si l'image a une connotation péjorative en anglais - 'slanting eyes' - ce n'est pas le cas dans la langue de Molière, a tenu à préciser M. Boisclair.

The PQ leader sees no reason to correct himself, since he admits to using the expression "yeux bridés" frequently when speaking about far-eastern citizens. If the image has a pejorative connotation in English -- "slanting eyes" -- this is not the case in the language of Molière, he went on to state.

De toute façon, les nuances langagières ne sont pas la tasse de thé du chef péquiste.

In any case, linguistic nuances are not the PQ chief's cup of tea.

"Je fais de la politique et non de la linguistique", a-t-il fait remarquer, manifestement empressé de mettre fin au débat.

"I do politics and not linguistics", he observed, clearly eager to put an end to the discussion.

Other descriptions of Boisclair's adamant non-apology make his use of the "language card" even clearer -- Mathieu Boivin, "Boisclair refuse de s'excuser", Le Journal de Montréal, 3/16/2007:

«J'ai fréquemment utilisé cette expression et je n'ai aucune intention de m'excuser, a-t-il martelé. Cette expression a un sens différent en anglais, mais je l'ai employée en français et je sais que les Québécois vont me suivre là-dessus. Je fais de la politique, pas de la linguistique.»

"I've often used this expression and I have no intention of apologizing", he hammered. "This expression has a different sensein English, but I used it in French and I know that the Quebecois are going to follow me on this. I do politics, not linguistics."

M. Boisclair a estimé que M. Niemi tentait de lui faire une job de bras en raison d'un conflit personnel de longue date. Ministre des Relations avec les citoyens et de l'Immigration dans le gouvernement Bouchard, André Boisclair avait en effet réduit de 80 % la subvention du gouvernement québécois au CRARR, en 1997.

Mr. Boisclair has suggested that Mr. Niemi tried to strong-arm him because of a personal conflict of long standing. As Minister of Citizen Relations and Immigration in the Bouchard government, André Boisclair in effect reduced by 80% the Quebec government's subsidy to CRARR, in 1997.

And Mario Girard, "«Yeux bridés»: affaire classée, dit Boisclair", La Presse, 3/18/2007:

L'utilisation de l'expression «yeux bridés» par André Boisclair pour décrire les asiatiques est une affaire classée, selon le chef. Même si sa déclaration continue de scandaliser certains membres de la communauté chinoise et de la presse anglophone, le chef péquiste n'a pas l'intention de présenter ses excuses.

The use of the expression "yeux bridés" by André Boisclair for describing Asians is a closed affair, according to the chief. Even if his statement continues to offend certain members of the Chinese community and the anglophone press, the PQ chief does not intend to apologize.

«J'ai fermé ce dossier, a dit André Boisclair lors d'un point de presse hier. Je comprends qu'il y a une différence entre l'utilisation en français et en anglais et que l'expression en anglais est plus péjorative, mais je ne suis pas en linguistique, je suis en politique.»

"I've closed this file", said André Boisclair at a press conference yesterday. "I understand that there is a difference between the usage in French and in English and that the expression in English is more pejorative, but I'm not in linguistics, I'm in politics."

According to Sean Gordon, "Liberals, PQ get rough ride", Toronto Star, 3/16/2007:

PQ officials pointed out the French-language expression "yeux bridés" is frequently used in major newspapers in the same way one would say a person has blue eyes.

It does seem to be true that the frequency of "yeux bridés" relative to "yeux", in French news sources, is about 70% greater than the frequency in English news sources of "slanted eyes" or "slanting eyes" relative to "eyes":

  Google French news archive Google English news archive
yeux | eyes
"yeux bridés" | "slanted|slanting eyes"

But it's not clear that this is really a difference in language.

Lysiane Gangon ("Les mots, les mots", La Presse, 3/17/2007) thinks that it's just a difference in national culture:

Les mots sont comme les médicaments. Même ceux qui ont l'air inoffensifs comportent des contre-indications et des effets indésirables. Hélas!, il n'existe pas de notice universelle pour s'en prémunir. C'est une question de contexte, de jugement personnel, de culture nationale.

Words are like medicines. Even those that seem harmless have contra-indications and side effects. Alas! there is no universal warning for your protection. It's a question of context, of personal judgment, of national culture.

André Boisclair vient d'en faire l'expérience, pour avoir parlé des étudiants aux «yeux bridés» qu'il a côtoyés lors de son année d'études à Boston. La presse anglophone lui fait tout un procès parce qu'elle est plus pointilleuse en la matière, non pas parce que la version anglaise serait plus insultante que l'expression française («slanted eyes» veut dire exactement la même chose).

André Boisclair has just experienced this, for having spoken of students with "yeux bridés" that he encountered during his year of studies in Boston. The anglophone press has made a big deal about this because it is more fastidious in this area, not because the English version is more insulting than the French expression ("slanted eyes" means exactly the same thing).

C'est l'habitude culturelle qui diffère, dans la mesure où les francophones sont moins portés à s'autocensurer quand il s'agit de parler des minorités visibles.

It's the cultural pattern that's different, to the extent that francophones are less prone to censor themselves when it's a question of talking about visible minorities.

Sur le fond, M. Boisclair n'a certainement rien à se reprocher. Il ne tarissait pas d'éloges sur les étudiants asiatiques quand l'expression lui a échappé. Mais il y a la forme. Techniquement, qualifier un Asiatique d'«yeux bridés» équivaut à désigner un Noir par le terme «grosses lèvres» ou un Occidental comme «un visage pâle».

At bottom , Mr. Boisclair certainly has nothing to be sorry about. He hastened to praise asiatic students when the expression escaped from him. But there is the form. Technically, referring to an Asian's "slanted eyes" is the same as referring to a Black by the term "big lips" or an Occidental as a "pale face".

In my opinion, the most interesting thing about the whole brouhaha is the failure of the press -- both Anglophone and Francophone -- to observe that Mr. Boisclair apparently made a quantitative (and common) factual error, compounding an even more serious error in logic. His year in Boston was spent at Harvard, and he asserted that «Quand j'étais à Boston, où j'ai passé un an, j'ai été surpris de voir que sur le campus, à peu près le tiers des étudiants qui étaient au bac avaient les yeux bridés.» ("When I was in Boston, where I spent a year, I was surprised to see that on the campus, about a third of the undergraduates had slanted eyes.")

The Wikipedia article on Boisclair, which picked up the point that the press missed, observes that "2005, only 13.1% of Harvard students were of Asian descent", citing the Harvard University Fact Book for 2005-2006.

In fact, the ethnic category involved is "Asian/Pacific Islander", which includes many students with family backgrounds from countries in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and Oceania, who are unlikely to have epicanthic folds. And the 13.1% figure is for the campus as a whole -- at the Kennedy School of Government, where Boisclair spent his year, the Asian/Pacific Islander proportion was just 8%, while for the college, the figure is given as 18%. If 2/3 of those are from epicanthic-fold ethnicities, that might be 12% of the college with "slanted eyes". On the other hand, "International Students" is considered a separate "ethnicity", and amounts to 9% of of the college. If a third of those are east Asian, then the epicanthic-fold percentage for the college might be as high as 15% -- though it's probably somewhat less than that.

But there's a logical problem here that is more important than the factual problem (and also more important than calibrating the degree of offensiveness of eyelid-descriptions in French and English). A large proportion of the Asian-background students at (schools like) Harvard are in fact American citizens, often born and raised in the U.S. -- probably all of the group listed as "Asian/Pacific Islander" are in that category. So the relevance of their eyelid morphology to the global labor market is nil -- unless you think that the competition is a racial rather than a national one.

The French-language press may use "yeux bridés" 70% more often than the English-language press uses "slanted|slanting eyes". But Boisclair exaggerated the proportion of east Asian students at Harvard by at least 100%, chose to use a racial characteristic ("yeux bridés") rather than a geographical or national term ("Asian" or "Chinese"), and invoked the ethnic background of (mainly American-born) undergraduates at an American university as if this were relevant to Quebec's economic competition with Asian countries. Putting it all together, this is evocative of a century of yellow peril rhetoric. The fact that Boisclair's party is based on French-Canadian ethnicity makes such an interpretation even more plausible.

[Hat tip to Jacqueline Peters]

[Update -- David Williams writes:

Thank you for posting on the comments of André Boisclair. I think that in any other context M. Boisclair might have been persuaded to alter his language, and maybe even issue an apology for it. But in the current context in Quebec, where for the first time the separatist voter base is being eaten into by the right (by the ADQ, a party that is soft on separatism but tough on immigration and "accommodements raisonnables", the recently mooted philosophy that cultural allowances should be made for people from other places), refusing to apologize for "un-PC" language is politically expedient, especially if, as AB claims, the wording is only offensive in English. To many he now appears both commonsensical and bravely resistant to English-media attempts to paint him as a racist, using their own criteria. I think this echoes strongly with many Quebeckers who feel unjustly portrayed as xenophobic for their attitudes towards immigration, while also confirming their belief that English Canada doesn't really understand them at all.

You may be interested in the following background:

An interview with a councilor of Hérouxville, ground zero for backlash against "Accommodements raisonnables". (And here.)

And a southparkesque send up of said municipality.

Some background on the Hérouxville business can be found here -- Dene Moore, "Hérouxville wants immigrants that fit in with its citizens", The National Post, 1/29/2007. Moore's article makes Hérouxville's list of requirements sound pretty reasonable, though perhaps it's a bit confrontational to post them at the borders of the town. ]

[Laiya at Metroblogging Montréal saw this about the same way I did ("Oui, M. Boisclair, c'est raciste", 2/16/2007):

Tant que le Parti Québecois continue à avoir cette mentalité de "nous" (les vrais Québecois blancs pur laines de souches) et les "autres", le Parti Québecois n'atteindra jamais son but de bâtir une nation Québecoise. There is no room in André Boisclair's vision of Quebec for "others". Pour ma part, peu importe mes efforts, je ne me sentirai jamais acceptée comme étant Québecoise. Je m'identifie comme Montréalaise certainement, cosmopolitaine, mais malheureusement, pas Québecoise.

André Boisclair can claim to have many asian friends and be fascinated by asian culture but that doesn't make him any less of a moron than those men who approach me with lines like "ni hao", assuming that my being asian automatically makes me Chinese and madarin-speaking. After all, we all look the same and we must all be the same right? Tous les asiatiques sont les mêmes n'est-ce pas? André Boisclair's vision of Quebec will never be able to compete with the global economy if he persists in his tunnel vision.


[Update -- Alexandre Enkerli writes:

Disclaimer: I'm a French-speaking linguistic anthropologist from Montreal. I don't plan to vote for Boisclair's PQ but I have grown up in a PQ-friendly environment, like many a French-speaking academic in Quebec. Just read your LL entry about Boisclair. I agree with the comments you have received about both the political expediency and the racial undertones of Boisclair's comments.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the belief in the existence of "races" among human beings (which we could call "racialism") is different from discrimination based on "racial categories" (which would correspond more specifically to common usage of "racism" in journalism-driven conversation). My hunch is that Boisclair does think in terms of "race" or race-like categories and might even be using the term "nation" (an essential term in Quebec politics) in this sense. But I doubt that Boisclair is himself using race-related labels as a basis for discrimination and, therefore, could hardly be called "racist."

What I find quite interesting is that the controversy is another example of "terminological determinism" in public discourse. Instead of taking a holistic view of a cultural context, people blame specific terms for all sorts of evils.

As an aside, "reasonable accommodations" have become almost a code word for a very tense political debate, with associated name-calling. What's funny, to an anthropologist, is that many Québécois are portraying "Quebec culture" as open minded *by opposition to* the religious background of some members of Quebec society. Easy to relate this to the official rejection of Catholic religion during the Quiet Revolution, which hides the fact that, as Québécoises and Québécois, we are still overwhelmingly Catholic by association with cultural themes.

Thanks for an interesting blog entry.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:19 AM

March 18, 2007

It fell off the truck truck truck!

My yearly round-up of linguistic humor sightings in the Simpsons is now up over at HeiDeas. Thank you, TiVo!

Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:35 PM

Wild slogs held in the deep

From my colleague Jim McCloskey comes this deliciously baffling passage from the BBC's account of the cricket match in Jamaica on St Patrick's Day, in which Ireland scored a stunning upset victory over Pakistan. It will very largely seem like gibberish to most American readers:

Wicket-keeper O'Brien, axed by Kent in 2006 because they rate Geraint Jones above him, hit a brilliant 72, easily the best effort by any of the batsmen on a green wicket which Ireland's seamer loved. But when he tried to hit off-spinner Shoaib Malik for six with 21 needed and six wickets still in hand, he was stumped.

Panic set in as Andrew White was caught at short leg and Kyle McCallan edged to slip in the next over, off Rao Iftikhar. But O'Brien's brother Kevin stayed to the end as he and skipper Trent Johnston scrambled the remaining runs needed.

Their only failing was a generous offering of 23 wides, but still Pakistan came up short.

The first opportunity for Irish celebration came when Dave Langford-Smith bowled a peach of a delivery at Mohammad Hafeez in the first over, which the batsman edged behind. When Boyd Rankin then had Younis Khan caught in the slips for a duck, the Test nation had to rebuild from 15-2.

Imran Nazir (24) and Mohammad Yousuf (15) added 41, but when Rankin and Langford-Smith were replaced by Johnston and Andre Botha, the two big wickets fell.

Yousuf drove a wide ball from Johnston straight to point before Inzamam edged his third ball to the solitary slip. Given obvious confidence by that strike, Botha (2-5 from eight overs) began to extract huge inswing and made life intolerable for Nazir.

Eventually, the opener departed for 24, Eoin Morgan taking his second catch in the slips. Wickets continued to tumble, despite the best efforts of Kamran Akmal (27), and Johnston's captaincy was spot on as he brought back Boyd for some extra pace.

The bowler dug a couple in, and both Akmal and Azhar Mahmood spooned catches to Johnston at mid-wicket.

After Mohammad Sami and Iftikhar had added a gutsy 25 for the ninth wicket, spinner McCallan took the last two wickets as wild slogs were held in the deep. Pakistan had been bowled out for 132 in the 46th over.

The wicket was still providing assistance for the bowlers when Ireland batted. Jeremy Bray, the hero against Zimbabwe, was ajudged lbw to Sami, who also trapped Morgan the same way to make it 15-2.

Then Hafeez's arm ball produced the third wicket, Porterfield playing on to his stumps. But O'Brien took a liking to the off-spinner, cutting and driving for precious boundaries and Pakistan were toiling again. Suddenly, Inzamam's men were given a lift when umpire Brian Jerling, who had already made some strange decisions, elected to give Botha out caught at short leg.

At this stage, the overs were not an issue, but the ever-decreasing light was. Kevin O'Brien and skipper Johnston eked out the singles, before a Johnston square cut for four and some Pakistan wides finally eased the tension. Finally, Johnston freed his arms and slammed Mahmood into the stands at long-on. The party could begin.

Catching in the slips for a duck, wild slogs held in the deep, wickets assisting bowlers, playing on to stumps, giving out at short leg, a Johnston square cut for four and some Pakistan wides... Even I (who was forced to play cricket and learn some of this gobbledegook as a schoolboy) see it as like something out of Lewis Carroll's Alice books.

The take-home linguistic point, for me, is that recognition that a text is in English and is grammatically correct cannot possibly be based on either understanding its meaning or knowing the words of which it is composed. You'd be surprised just how many linguistic theories, when strictly construed, are just blown out of the water by that simple observation, which the above text illustrates so well.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 09:34 AM

A moment that never we going to lost

A strip by Carla Ventresca, from the Six Chix rotation:

Ventresca's retired teacher obviously feels that the role of linguistic sheepdog, keeping the flock in order, requires constant vigilance. Left to themselves, people fling apostrophes and plurals and parts of speech right and left with reckless abandon, perhaps even reverting to the orthographic and linguistic anarchy of Elizabethan times.

Of course, our linguistic sheepdogs are not really a different species from the sheep. There are some socially sanctioned sheepdog roles, like "English Teacher" and "copy editor", but sometimes retired English teachers, the children of English teachers, and random socially-minded individuals feel the call to start rounding up strays.

And unfortunately, many of the sheepdogs, whether officially licensed or self-appointed, are confused about where the flock's boundaries really should be: corrections are often incorrections. Ventresca's retired English teacher corrects five words, two of which were fine to start with. That's three right out of five, for a numerical grade of 60% and a letter grade of D-.

Three of the corrections, all connected with possessives and apostrophes, fix things that really needed to be fixed: "Today's" replacing "Todays"; "their" in place of "they're"; "yours" in place of "your's". (I'll bet that Ventresca owns a copy of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.)

But the rightmost of the five corrections -- "Hurry in quickly" replacing "Hurry in fast" -- is wrong, at least if it's based on the notion that fast is an adjective being used inappropriately where an adverb is needed. Like slow and hard, fast is one of those monosyllables that's been used as an adverb since Chaucer's time or before. And I don't see a strong stylistic reason to prefer quickly over fast in this case -- both might be accused of redundancy after "hurry in". So this is probably an incorrection, based on the ignorant misconception that fast is an adjective sometimes misused as an adverb.

[This sort of thing doesn't just happen in the funny papers -- see comment #12 in this discussion from the WordReference Forums, which quotes The 80/20 Style Guide for Professional Quality Business Writing, by Stephen Kunkel, Ph.D., to the effect that "Fast is an adjective. Quickly is the adverb form of this descriptive word."]

And another of the five corrections -- the collective singular "shrimp" in place of the normal plural "shrimps" -- is also wrong. The OED has regular plurals for shrimp going back to 1327, and lists more recent examples by the likes of Charles Dickens:

1848 DICKENS Dombey vi, She partook of shrimps and porter.

In this morning's New York Times, the Diner's Guide has a review of a restaurant named Spicy & Tasty, where the reviewer's enthusiasm is expressed in plural shrimps:

As for the other side of the ampersand, there are juicy little shrimps with black bean paste, shredded bean curd with an irresistibly bouncy texture and a scallion and egg fried rice whose fluffiness is a revelation.

In a frame like "Today's Special: Grilled __", the collective singular is the more popular choice these days: {"grilled shrimp"} has 525,000 Google hits compared to 13,000 for {"grilled shrimps"}. But many of those 13,000 hits are in high-status contexts, like the recipe for "Adriatic Grilled Shrimps" on the site of NPR's The Splendid Table. So again, we're being told to subsitute a correct form for another form that was correct to start with.

But even if Ventresca's retired English teacher is prone to incorrections, we need her back in the classroom.

The most emailed article in today's NYT is Elissa Gootman's "For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills". It's mostly about teachers' difficulties in dealing with the behavioral effects of pubescent hormone surges, but near the end, Gootman quotes from a seventh-grader's essay:

“I’m writing about one day my dog got sick,” the student wrote. “This a moment that never I going to lost. Because my dog it like my baby okay.”

This is apparently a mixture of vernacular usage ("my dog (,) it ('s) like my baby (,) okay (?) ") and non-native English, or a confused attempt to write in a formal style ("a moment that never I going to lost"). But whatever the explanation, this student has a lot to learn about writing an essay in standard English. If he or she comes out of the process believing a few falsehoods about adverbs and shrimps, that's a small price to pay.

On the other hand, if 40% of the teacher's corrections are applied to things that were OK to start with, that's a waste of time at best, and perhaps a source of confusion as well.

[Note -- the current edition of Dr. Kunkel's 80/20 Guide to Top Quality Business Writing uses slow/slowly (rather than the quoted fast/quickly) as its contrastive example for section 2.15 "Actions described by verbs should be modified by adverbs, not adjectives":

Original: New companies should go slow when developing their business plans.
Revision: New companies should go slowly when developing their business plans.

I'm not sure about top quality business writing in general, but the NYT business section has used "go slow" several times over the past few months, e.g.:

Japanese industrial production logged its biggest month-on-month decline in three years in January, casting doubt on the strength of the nation's corporate sector and reinforcing views that the Bank of Japan will go slow on any future rate increases.

So it is no surprise that Shell, Chevron and Mr. Vawter's EGL Resources, the three companies that won the 160-acre leases, say they are going to go slow with their experiments before they begin considering commercial production of synthetic fuel. The initial outlays are small, in the millions or tens of millions.

That has caused some analysts to caution its investors to go slow on the company.

This continues the long tradition in top-quality non-business writing of using slow as an adverb (these from the OED):

1590 SHAKES. Mids. N. I. i. 3 But oh, me thinkes, how slow This old Moon wanes.
1632 MILTON Penseroso 76, I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,..Swinging slow with sullen roar.
1812 BYRON Ch. Har. II. xli, As the stately vessel glided slow Beneath the shadow.
1848 THACKERAY Van. Fair viii, We drove very slow for the last two stages on the road.

And of course the famous lines from Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism":

366 'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
367 The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
368 Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
369 And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
370 But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
371 The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
372 When Ajax strives, some rock's vast weight to throw,
373 The line too labours, and the words move slow;
374 Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
375 Flies o'er th'unbending corn, and skims along the main.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:35 AM

March 17, 2007

St. Patrick, a linguist?

It's St.Patrick's Day and no matter whether you're Irish or not, the legends surrounding this beloved saint are all around us. What you may not have known, however,  is that he was actually one of our first linguists. Okay, maybe he wasn't even Irish (some say he was Welsh), he didn't really rid Ireland of reptiles, and he had nothing to do with the symbol of the shamrock. But there is at least some evidence that he was probably a linguist.

The lack of known facts about St. Patrick's life to the contrary (and since when do missing facts hinder progress?), there are many things that seem to reveal his linguistic bent. And if the Fox Family Channel can say what it says about him in its 2000 made-for-TV movie, St.Patrick: Irish Legend, then so can we. So here goes:

1. He preceded the efforts of current cognitive linguists with his profound ability to convince the world that he minimized the alleged snakes in Ireland even though Ireland didn't really have any snakes to get rid of.  Now that's a powerful linguistic act, preceding the modern minimalist theories by several centuries.

2. He developed and mastered the speech act of promising when his negotiations with God ultimately insured that Ireland would forever remain essentially Catholic (well, pretty much so anyway). His promises must have been felicitous since Ireland remains Catholic to this day.

3.He must have invented the recency principle, way ahead of Grice... 500 years, in fact. His adoption of Druid symbols in order to undermine the rival religion seems pretty evident of this.

4. Perhaps his most obvious contribution of all is reflected in the familiar mantra frequently chanted by modern-day linguists: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Ask yourself, just where did these "green ideas" come from anyway? And we haven't even mentioned his legacy of green beer.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:01 PM

Those who cannot afford to know, and what we (don't) know about them

There are a lot of people who like to discuss (what they see as) the abuse of language -- mispronunciations, word substitutions, grammatical errors, buzzwords, clichés, mixed metaphors, and so on. In several recent posts, I've suggested that this popularity of usage complaints indicates an interest in speech and language that doesn't have any other outlet.

Yesterday, I tried to respond to a skeptical note from Peter Gerdes, who argued that "Maybe these anxieties and the desire to correct others provide an opening for language education but I don't think it shows a particular interest in language apart from simplistic corrections. In fact if my experience in math is any guide these individuals are often resistant to really learning about the subject because it undercuts the importance of those simple rules which make them feel safe and intelligent."

My response to Peter isn't winning anyone over, at least according to some of the email I've gotten.

Anatol Stefanowitsch wrote:

I really would like to agree with you rather than with Peter Gedes, but I'm not sure how much longer I can keep up the illusion...

At German universities, linguistics is largely taught as a part of modern language programs (German Studies, French Studies, etc.). This means that each year in our introductory classes we are faced with large groups of students who want to study literature or "media" and who have no initial interest whatsoever in linguistics. We have to recruit our linguistics majors from these groups. One of my recruitment techniques has always been to take up usage gripes from the media and show students how a linguist would approach the same issues. This technique works very well -- but only with those students who are already uncomfortable with language policing and who are delighted to discover that there is an alternative way of thinking about language. In contrast, those students who agree with the griping and who have plenty of gripes of their own remain entirely unconvinced. What is worse, their reaction is very often a strong and very vocal disappointment in those nutty linguists who refuse to look at language the way any rational person would.

So if "the desire to correct others" provides "an opening for language education", I have not found that opening yet. But I will certainly keep looking.

And Suzette Haden Elgin wrote:

In my experience, a large percentage of Usage Gripers are people who have a huge emotional investment in the things they're griping about. They went through bloody hell and torment learning that you're not allowed to split infinitives in English (or whatever); it took them forever to learn it, and the experience was miserable; they finally passed a test over it; and they would rather become people everybody runs from on sight than give up one tiniest fraction of "Only the ignorant and unwashed split infinitives in English." The more they suffered to learn the "rule" in question, the more passionately they treasure it and are prepared to defend it.

I have not done a double-blind controlled research study about this, but could provide a foot-high stack of anecdotal support for my claim.

And then there was the student in "Just Plain Grammar" course for teachers who stood up halfway through my first lecture, said "I cannot afford to know these things!" and walked out... I've always admired her honesty.

I mean, if you've been taught that a preposition is "one of the very short words on this list," and that's what your principal expects you to teach your students, and suddenly someone explains to you what prepositions really are, how do you deal with the ethical quandaries that poses?

All I can say is that my own experience with usage gripers is somewhat different, and generally more positive.

But the main thing that strikes me here is that we don't really know what's going on. Suzette's remark underlines the apparent lack of any serious social science of prescriptivism. How are prescriptivist attitudes really distributed by age, sex, class, educational level, and so on? What's the relationship among disdain for vernacular or regional variants, dislike of jargon and clichés, concern for usage-maven shibboleths like stranded prepositions, and inverted-prestige dislike of fancy talk? To what extent do people really confuse communicative effectiveness, the norms of various formal registers, and language-maven superstitions? Why the contrast between the pleasant nostalgia of French clubs d'orthographe and the campy mock rage of English-language usage forums, or the cartoon fantasies about violent responses to spelling reform in English and Dutch? Are negative reactions to linguistic variation really so much more common than positive ones, or do people just express negative reactions more often?

As far as I know, there are no anthropological participant-observers in the usage forums, no sociologists examining stratified samples for attitudes towards buzzwords, etc. (I'm familiar with the standard texts in sociolinguistics, and with things like Woolard and Shieffelin's 1994 survey "Language Ideology" in the Annual Review of Anthropology. If you can recommend some other work of this kind, let me know.)

Whether or not it's being studied, there's something happening here on a large scale.

The Telegraph's February speakers' corner archive includes 48 questions posed for readers to answer, with a median of 141 responses per question. The question that got the fewest responses was February 12's "Is there any need for the high street travel agent?" with 18. The question that got the most responses was February 19th's "Pay-as-you-drive: sign our petition", with 7693:

Government plans to introduce pay-as-you-drive road pricing have provoked an online insurrection, with 1.7 million people signing a Downing Street e-petition opposed to the scheme.

The proposal, which could make drivers pay as much as £1.28 a mile, is an attempt to make motorists pay the "environmental cost" of their journey.

The Downing Street petition closed last night (February 20); but if you would like to sign our own petition against the charges please put your name and where you are from in the comment box below. You can leave a short comment on the proposals as well, if you wish.

In second place was February 23's "What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?", with 3003 responses. Compare 212 for February 22's "Should Prince Harry be sent to Iraq?", and 44 for February 26/s "Who were the real winners - and losers - at the Oscars?"

The 52 questions in the January archive got a median of 107 responses each. The question with the most responses was January 3's "Is pay-as-you-drive road pricing fair?", with 1167. Second place went to January 17's "Should Celebrity Big Brother be taken off the air?", with 1030.

So among the 94 questions asked during those two months, the question that invited readers to submit usage gripes got about 25 times the median number of responses, and almost three times as many as any other question except for the pay-as-you-drive petition, which the editors characterize as an "online insurrection". What kinds of people responded? What motivated them to respond? Are there really more people interested in this than in (almost) any other topic, or is their interest just more intense or more likely to be expressed in writing?

[More mail on the subject -- from Claire Bowern:

Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis Preston's Folk Linguistics (Mouton, 2000) has quite a bit about the sort of thing you talk about.

Jay Cummings:

Maybe the outpouring of opinions on correct usage is the opposite end of the phenomenon I notice often: People saying, "I was never any good at Physics." I mean, anyone who can catch a ball or jump a gap is an expert at empirical classical mechanics, but very few feel they know anything about about it. But anyone who can speak a language thinks they are an expert linguist. And they're sort of right, in the same sense. Everyone except autistic people are expert psychiatrists too, and usually have a middle opinion of their expertise on that subject.

People want to be an expert at something, apparently, but feel much more confident on some subjects. Maybe there just aren't enough linguists to form a high priesthood the way there has been in physics. I think maybe that while there is a priesthood in psychiatry, their methods haven't been so spectacularly successful as to impress people with the exclusivity of the discipline.

Physicists these days both lament and internally revel in the exclusivity. But though the results seem to differ, the consensus is much the same as you frequently mention about linguistics: We have not effectively communicated what our field is about.

Charlie Clingen:

As I follow your ongoing analysis of language complaints, it occurs to me that this is a special case of a general phenomenon that we all are familiar with:

- The things that most interest us are those things which occupy most of our time and energy: communicating with each other, work, play and entertainment, food, sex and, I suppose, sleep – listed in approximately in order of time spent per day (except, I suppose, sleep). (Some would add more abstract topics, like love, religion, politics, etc.) So these are the things at which all of us must excel, be proficient, be knowledgeable, in order to “succeed” in life, or even just survive.

- Communication is right up there at the top of the list. Most of us do it all the time. So naturally,  we all consider ourselves experts at communication. After all, how could we not be experts? We do it all day long, day in and day out, with hardly a second thought. In fact, we are experts. We know how to do it, but we really don’t know why we do it the way we do it. However, that is true of everything on the list, so that’s a “normal” state of ignorance that all but a few true experts live with.

- If we are asked to comment on any of the items in this list, most of us can give detailed, strongly held personal (as opposed to professional) opinions about each of them. And we talk and argue endlessly with each other about all of them.

- But it is easier to  criticize than to create or explain, so much of our time is spent expressing our strong opinions about these topics by criticizing and complaining. And if we are given some handy forum, such as a nice, convenient blog, in which to show how well we excel in these areas by flaming passionately about how sensible we are and how stupid those who disagree with us are, well, how can we resist?!

So while this fascinating behavior can be dismaying and disappointing at times, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

IMHO, there is a great deal of confusion (and damage) done in this world by confusing personal opinion with professional opinion. We seldom  distinguish between the two, often at great cost ( I can not begin to count the ways!). And in those areas where the two greatly overlap, chaos reigns. But that’s one of the things that makes life interesting – especially for those of us who live our lives on the ever-shifting border between the two, as you do. J

Please keep up the good work. Your professional opinion informs my personal opinion every day.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:04 AM

Calendar Conversion

In another comment at Language Hat on my post on The Ides of March, John Emerson suggests the development of a universal calendar converter as a generalization of the Kalendae program that I mentioned. That would be a neat project, but I suspect that it would be harder than he thinks.

The problem is that in some traditions there is apparently a tremendous amount of variation in detail. In India, for example, there are evidently many different calendars still in use, for which see the very interesting senior thesis [PDF file] by Leow Choon-Lian. She has an associated Mathematica package. Her advisor, Helmer Aslaksen, has a lot of information about various calendars here

The Muslim calendar appears from a distance to be universal within Islam, but it seems that there is considerable local variation in how the time of first visibility of the lunar crescent is determined, which can create disparities of as many as two days in when one month changes to the next. Robert Harry van Gent has an Islamic calendar converter together with information on the problems of conversion as well as a discussion (in Dutch) of Islamic chronology. It's an interesting subject, and probably would make a good open source project, but I fear not an easy one.

[A major collection of calendrical information is the book Calendrical Calculations by Edward M. Reingold and Nachum Dershowitz and the associated web site.]

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:09 AM

More on Caesar's Last Words

In a comment over at Language Hat on my post on The Ides of March, Marie-Lucie Tarpent wonders about the use of the Greek word τέκνον /teknon/ where the Latin has Brute, the vocative singular of the name Brutus. She is quite right that teknon is not a name. It's literal meaning is "child", but it was also used by one adult to another, younger adult of intimate acquaintance. In the New Testament it is used by teachers toward their pupils and disciples and by patriarchs toward other men (e.g. Luke 16:25). This means, incidentally, that Caesar's words, if historical, offer no support for the rumor that he was Brutus' biological father.

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:44 AM

Learning to Read in Dulkw'ahke

It is widely believed in English speaking countries that learning to read and write is necessarily a difficult and prolonged process. Parents are disturbed, but not surprised, when their children exhibit difficulty in reading. English speaking countries are almost alone in having spelling bees. In many countries the idea of having spelling competitions beyond the first year or two of primary school would be absurd. It is important for policy makers in English-speaking countries to realize that the agony of learning to read and write in English is not inherent but is the result of the combination of a complex and irregular writing system, poor teaching methods, and poorly trained teachers.

As an unusual example of how easy it can be to learn to read and write with a sane writing system and adequate teaching, I offer the case of Carrier, the Athabaskan language of much of the central interior of British Columbia where I live. Carrier was first written in 1885 in a writing system usually known by the misnomer "Carrier syllabics", developed by Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice. In Carrier it is known as ᑐᑊᘁᗕᑋᗸ dulkw'ahke /dʌlk'wahke/ "frog's feet'.

The writing system that Father Morice developed was inspired by the "Cree Syllabics" but is almost entirely different in detail. The characters are shown in the chart below.


The characters in the first six columns represent a consonant followed by a vowel. The first column, for example, begins /ba/, /ta/, /da/, /t'a/. These characters all consist of two parts: the shape, which represents the consonant, and the orientation and presence or absence of the dot or bar, which represent the vowel. The characters in the last column are used when the consonant is not immediately followed by a vowel within the same syllable. For example, /k'an/ "now" is written ᘀᐣ, that is, /k'a/ - /n/, and /ske/ "my feet", is written ᔆᗸ, that is, /s/ - /ke/.

This writing system is a nearly perfect fit to the sound system of Carrier. It reflects all of the segmental contrasts of Carrier with the exception of the moribund distinction between lamino-dental and apico-alveolar affricates and fricatives in onset position. There are no irregular or historical spellings and no cases in which the interpretation of one character depends on a non-adjacent character. If you know how to pronounce a word, you can write it, and if you see it written, you can pronounce it, save for the location of the pitch accent.

The writing system spread rapidly after its introduction in Fort Saint James. The earliest surviving text in Carrier was written on the wall of the Barkerville jail, 360 kilometres from Fort Saint James by the current road, within a few months of the introduction of the writing system. It appears that mass literacy developed in this writing system. A newspaper published every two months from 1891 to 1894 was widely subscribed. The Roman Catholic prayerbook was issued in this writing system and evidently widely used. People cut blazes on trees and wrote in them to leave messages for others in the bush, kept the accounts of stores, wrote letters and diaries, and inscribed gravestones in it. Use of this writing system eventually declined to the point that it is now known only to a few people, but it was extensively used for several decades.

This writing system was passed on almost entirely by informal instruction within the Carrier community. Father Morice gave only three or four brief lessons on it. Thereafter it spread from one person to another. There was a brief period during which it was taught at Lejac Residential School so that the students could read the Prayerbook (at the same time, students were whipped for speaking Carrier) but that is not how most people learned it. One of the last people to learn this writing system as a child was the late Mac Squinas. When I asked him how he learned it, he answered: "My auntie taught me, out on the trap line.". He learned to read and write in a week of half-hour to hour-long sessions from someone with no formal education.

If you have a straightforward phonological writing system and teach children to make use of that structure, most children will learn to read and write without great difficulty. The idea that learning to read and write is a lengthy and painful process is a pathology of our writing system and educational system, not a universal truth.

[For further information about the Carrier "syllabics" see this article.]

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:02 AM

March 16, 2007

Usage gripes as display of social capital

In response to my recent series of posts on mass usage griping in the media ("The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming"; "The WaPo opens an abusage forum"; "An opportunity missed"), Peter Gerdes wrote:

I've noticed you keep attributing a great interest in speech and language to the usage gripers. This has certainly not been my experience. One doesn't have to have any wider interest in language, e.g., enjoy reading the sort of interesting posts about it on language log, to feel the righteous indignation of knowing you are RIGHT and they are WRONG.

I TA math and I see the same phenomena there. Unfortunately many students don't have the slightest interest in the subject (squeezed out by rote teaching before college). However, it is often those students who are most uninterested in hearing why things work or learning more who seem to most enjoy kibitzing about dropping a negative sign or demanding the answer be put in the 'right' form.

I admire your optimism but I'm afraid that usage gripes reveal more about the griper' psychological need to prove they are educated and smart. (For some reason people assume things like doing addition, spelling correctly and following simple prescriptivist rules correctly are signs of intelligence.) Maybe these anxieties and the desire to correct others provide an opening for language education but I don't think it shows a particular interest in language apart from simplistic corrections. In fact if my experience in math is any guide these individuals are often resistant to really learning about the subject because it undercuts the importance of those simple rules which make them feel safe and intelligent.

Whether or not my psychological analysis is correct I think you ought to consider the possibility that usage gripes fulfill a purpose that has nothing to do with any wider interest in language.

There's certainly some truth in this. Usage griping rarely seems to result in real curiosity about usage, which is why it's so often wrong about the facts. And usage gripers often seem to be engaged in creating and displaying social capital, as Language Hat suggested in his post entitled "Pride and Prejudice".

All the same, those who make fun of how others dress are still giving evidence of an interest in clothes, even if it's a mean-spirited one, and even if the mockers don't bother to learn about the history, economics and technology of fashion. And on the positive side, we can also find the linguistic analogue of best-dressed lists, in the form of books and articles about weird and wonderful words, neologism competitions, usage columns about interesting new constructions, and so on.

Furthermore, I don't think it's true that usage griping (or the more positive interest in linguistic best-dressed lists) is limited to ignorant or insecure people. I've known plenty of successful intellectuals, apparently secure in their status and identity, well read and genuinely interested in English prose style if not in linguistics, whose refrigerator or office door was regularly festooned with red-penciled newspaper clippings exhibiting dangling predicative adjuncts, or the misuse of infer for imply, or amusingly mixed metaphors.

For that matter, you could classify our own harvests of eggcorns and snowclones as behavior of the same sort.

So I continue to believe that the popularity of linguistic group-gripes is evidence of widespread interest in speech and language, even if the specific complaints are often misguided and sometimes mean-spirited. And I suspect that this does "provide an opening for language education". At least, better education in linguistic analysis would result in higher-quality gripes -- which gripers should appreciate even on the worst interpretation of their motives -- and better education in sociolinguistics and historical linguistics might channel this energy into more productive and more personally satisfying forms of social capital formation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:06 AM

March 15, 2007

The Ides of March

screenshot of the kalendae program

Today, in the Roman calendar, is the Ides of March. For those who have difficulty keeping track of the Roman date, there is a nifty little program called Kalendae by Roberto Ugoccioni that converts between modern and Roman dates. I've shown it above with its Latin interface, but if you prefer you can select another of the nine available languages.

The famous event that occurred on the Ides of March is of course the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the linguistic event associated with this is the utterance of Caesar's final words:

Et tu, Brute!

"You too, Brutus!". In fact, it may well be that Caesar never uttered these words. As I mentioned in my discussion of The Passion, upper class Romans all knew Greek well. Speeches in the Senate were made in Latin, but ordinary conversation, especially among intimates such as Caesar and Brutus, is believed often to have been in Greek. If Caesar actually said what is attributed to him, the words he used may well have been:

καὶ σὺ τέκνον

[kai sy, teknon].

Here is the passage from the historian Suetonius' biography of Caesar in which he describes Caesar's death:

Assidentem conspirati specie officii circumsteterunt, ilicoque Cimber Tillius, qui primas partes susceperat, quasi aliquid rogaturus propius accessit renuentique et gestu in aliud tempus differenti ab utroque umero togam adprehendit; deinde clamantem: "Ista quidem vis est!" alter e Cascis aversum vulnerat paulum infra iugulum. Caesar Cascae brachium arreptum graphio traiecit conatusque prosilire alio vulnere tardatus est; utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvolvit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata. Atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον; Exanimis diffugientibus cunctis aliquamdiu iacuit, donec lecticae impositum, dependente brachio, tres servoli domum rettulerunt. Nec in tot vulneribus, ut Antistius medicus existimabat, letale ullum repertum est, nisi quod secundo loco in pectore acceperat.

In English :

As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders; then as Caesar cried, "Why, this is violence!" one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat.Caesar caught Casca's arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, "You too, my child?" All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. And of so many wounds none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast.

Note that Suetonius, writing in Latin, quotes Caesar as speaking in Greek.

[Update: I've modified the above a bit because I have learned that the view that upper-class Romans routinely spoke Greek with each other, which is what I learned throughout my education, is not as firmly established as I had understood it to be. There is no question that they knew Greek well and could converse in it, but it is apparently not so clear that they did so as a matter of routine. Input from social historians is invited.]

Posted by Bill Poser at 02:30 PM

More on reading instruction

Ken DeRosa at D-Ed Reckoning has more on Diane Jean Schemo's 3/9/2007 NYT article about Reading First, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash". He's got an email response from Schemo, with his rebuttal; and he's got a collection of links to articles and letters by others criticizing her piece.

This is complicated stuff, but you should take the time to read it and think about it. It might be the most important public policy issue in the U.S. today -- it's certainly the most important issue having to do with speech and language.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:03 PM

The Language of Stargate

Arnold's post on The Language of First Contact reminded me of something that has been bugging me for a long time. When I first heard about the forthcoming movie Stargate I was thrilled. I've been fascinated by Ancient Egypt since I was a little boy. In fact, the first language that I studied in a serious way, when I was ten, was Middle Egyptian, from Sir Alan Gardiner's classic Egyptian Grammar. I actually read the book before the movie came out. Here, I thought, would be a movie that not only had the usual ingredients of an enjoyable adventure movie: exotic locations, neat costumes, a suitable amount of violence, scantily clad beautiful women, etc., but involved decipherment and a modified version of the Egyptian language.

Of course I was disappointed. The movie did have some of the expected ingredients, but it did not have nearly the focus on language that I had hoped for. The subsequent television series departed even more from the Egyptian theme. However, the movie did actually use a bit of Egyptian, but in a way that puzzles me.

The story is that archaeologists have discovered in Egypt a disused portal to a sort of intergalactic subway system. Through a combination of reverse engineering and decipherment of the associated inscriptions, they learn how to use it, and eventually send a team of commandos and scientists, including Dr. Daniel Jackson, a linguist and expert in decipherment, through the portal to a distant planet. This planet turns out, not surprisingly given all the hints of an Egyptian context, to have a civilization similar to that of Ancient Egypt.

Soon after the team arrives on the planet, they climb up over a sand dune and are met by a bunch of the inhabitants, who prostrate themselves and cry out [natʃuru]. I understood this immediately, as would, I think, anyone who has ever learned Egyptian. One of the first and most common words that one learns is nt̠r [ntʃr] "god". (Egyptian writing did not represent most of the vowels.) The masculine plural is formed by adding [u]. That the people were crying out "gods!" seemed pretty obvious to me. Yet Daniel Jackson doesn't understand this at first. It seems very odd that the makers of the film would set up such an obviously Egyptian context, characterise a character as a genius at linguistics and decipherment, use a word that is just what we would expect in a relative of Egyptian, and then have that character fail to understand it.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:51 PM

An opportunity missed

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the Washington Post had opened up an abusage forum, under the heading "wordplay". One puzzling thing: the Telegraph's recent forum for linguistic naming and shaming collected thousands of linguistic complaints (2993 as of this morning); and Dick Cavett's compendium of kvetches at the NYT got 764 comments, despite being behind the Times Select wall; but the WaPo's group gripe was cut off after only three readers had sedately unburdened their souls. Today (3/15/2007) "wordplay" is back, sort of:

We cautioned you last week that Wordplay would have a limited run before this space returns to subjects more local than debate over English usage. Nevertheless, it has been fun to see the passion with which an astonishing number of you embrace the subject. Even more delightful is that every one of you thinks that you're absolutely correct and surrounded by illiterates.

Out of that "astonishing number" of responses, they chose only four examples, and apparently slashed those selections mercilessly. Jay Cummings, one of the chosen few, explained in email to me:

They went and published my letter in the column, or rather, fragments of it. I should have tried to word it better, knowing that length would be important. Better yet, I should have restrained myself and not have written, or at least added "not for publication". As it was, editing it "for length" made me sound as dogmatic and silly as everyone else sounds. Which leads me to suppose, of course, that everyone else isn't quite as silly as they appear in the sliced and diced versions. I guess making people seem silly fits the purposes of the writers.

Seeing [some of] my words in print makes me appreciate more how gutsy it is of you to publish daily. Of course, you and the other contributors write better than I do. Anyway, thanks for doing it.

It didn't take long, as I predicted, for someone to say that "on line", as New Yorkers say it, is wrong. That item appears in the same column.

I guess that this WaPo feature is constrained by the traditional limitations of print.

But let's look at the situation in a larger frame. Newspapers are worried about their future, as readers desert them for other media. Judging by these recent examples, English usage gets 10 or 100 times more reader participation than just about any other topic. So the WaPo's response to this outpouring of interest is the obvious one -- shut it down! You certainly wouldn't want those pesky readers cluttering the place up with their delightful passions.

The question here is not whether the people who complain about usage are right or wrong on the linguistic facts -- they're often wrong, as we spend far too much time pointing out. Nor am I endorsing the "pride and prejudice" that often underlies such complaints, though I think that the role of explicit discussion in establishing and maintaining (cultural attitudes about) linguistic norms deserves careful and respectful study. But facts aside, and ideology aside, our culture is failing the millions of people who are passionately interested in speech and language. What the schools give them is less and less and worse and worse. What the mass media and the big-time publishers give them is mostly cranky, ignorant and careless. And when a social space opens up for them, by accident, its owners seems to be suprised and confused about what to do.

The WaPo's treatment of the "wordplay" feature has been pathetic. The NYT response was a bit better, but accidentally so, it seems -- Dick Cavett was invited to do a few blog entries, and chose to do one on usage, and got hundreds of responses, and that seems to be the end of it. The Telegraph has been the most open and interested -- Christopher Howse and Ceri Radford have kept the discussion going with a succession of blog entries there, and it'll be interesting to see how things develop there.

Something seems to be missing from our culture. Not a single, simple thing, but a whole dimension of intellectual life.

[The intensity of readers' interest in usage is not a new phenomenon. Mark Halpern's article "The War that Never Ends" (The Atlantic, March 1997), opens with this observation:

FOURTEEN years ago Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, published in this magazine a piece called "The Decline of Grammar," which dealt with the conflict between the judgmental and nonjudgmental approaches to questions of correctness in language usage -- the war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. His article drew one of the greatest volumes of reader response that the editors of The Atlantic Monthly had seen in years.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:39 AM

Grice in the ladies' room

When you're in a stall in a public bathroom and someone rattles the handle, what do you say to make them go away? There are several options -- "Occupied!" or "Just a minute!" are popular, in my door-rattling experience -- but when a rattlee, I have always favored the following:

"Somebody's in here!"

An aunt of mine (who apparently uses this same phrasal deterrent) once came back from the ladies' room mulling it over. Why, she wondered, would you say Somebody? You know perfectly well who's in there! It's you! Why wouldn't you say, "I'm in here!"? I giggled all night.

I recently had occasion to say it again, and it suddenly occurred to me it's because of Grice's Maxim of Quantity:

(i) Be as informative as necessary.
(ii) Don't be more informative than necessary

To your interlocutor, rattling away on the other side of the door, it doesn't make any difference whether it's you in particular or somebody else. From her perspective, what matters is whether the stall is occupied or not. Knowing that, it would be pretty self-centered of you to mention that it's you, specifically, who's in there. Really, all you want to communicate is the presence of a warm (and articulate) body in the stall, hence the indefinite.1

1 I keep having the feeling that I've blogged about this before, but a search doesn't turn anything up. Recent posts by Geoff Pullum and the follow-up over on An Individual's Concepts reminded me of the idea. Sorry if it's a repeat!


March 14, 2007

Beware of sleeping idioms

As part of its "offbeat" news offerings, the Associated Press reports on a cigarette ad campaign in Indonesia that has angered the national police force, so much so that the manufacturer PT Djarum now faces possible legal action. Here is how the AP describes the offending ad, which has appeared on billboards, on television, and in magazines:

The ad is a visual and linguistic pun on the phrase "sleeping policemen," which in Indonesia is a term used for speed bumps. It features a road sign warning motorists of bumps, amended to read "Be careful, the police are snoozing."

Indonesian wordplay is one of my favorite topics, so I tracked down a copy of one of these ads on a local blog. It turns out the linguistic trick used in the ad campaign isn't so much a pun as it is the literalization of an old idiom that spans many languages.

The ad shows a car passing over a series of speed bumps, as they're known in US English. Speakers of British English more commonly refer to these artificial ridges as "road humps," or more colloquially "sleeping policemen."  In Indonesian, the idiom "sleeping policeman" has been calqued into polisi tidur, as indicated by the caution sign depicted in the ad:

hati-hati polisi tidur
(be) careful police sleep(ing)
'Beware of sleeping policemen.'

The grafittoed insertion between polisi and tidur is lagi, a progressive aspect marker. In Indonesian, tense and aspect are not marked on the verb but are rather indicated by free-standing lexical items in the predicate. Perfective aspect is marked by words like sudah or telah ('already'), while progressive aspect is marked by sedang, or more colloquially, lagi. Thus the interpolation of lagi transforms the idiomatic noun phrase polisi tidur into a phrase that must be interpreted as a full clause with tidur ('sleep, asleep') in the predicate: '(the) police officer is sleeping' or '(the) police are sleeping,' depending on whether polisi is construed as singular or plural:

hati-hati polisi lagi
(be) careful police PROG
'Beware, the police are sleeping.'         

The jaunty use of colloquial lagi to undercut the message of the caution sign is reinforced by the appended exhortation Enjoy aja! 'Just enjoy (it)!', where aja is a clipped form of saja ('just') common in urban centers like Jakarta, and enjoy is of course a loanword from English. This tag-line is used throughout PT Djarum's advertising for its L.A. Lights brand, a mild variety of the company's popular clove cigarettes. The ads are a transparent appeal to hip, young urbanites (or those who aspire to their ranks), the types who might pepper their speech with Jakarta-style colloquialisms and borrowings from (American) English. The advertisers are also trying to connect to their target demographic through the wordplay of polisi lagi tidur, which is a rather obvious joke about the laziness of law enforcement (on par with American jokes about cops and doughnuts), exploiting the humor already lying dormant in the old "sleeping policeman" idiom.

But even mild linguistic subversion is a potentially dangerous practice in Indonesia, even after the fall of Soeharto's oppressive New Order regime nearly a decade ago. The police remain one institution that does not tolerate derision of any sort, under penalty of law. As the AP article notes, members of a Balinese alternative rock band are currently standing trial for performing a song with lyrics supposedly comparing police to dogs. The case against the rockers relies on an uncharitable reading of the line, Anjing! Kukira preman. Anjing! Ternyata polisi. ('Dog! I thought it was a gangster. Dog! Turned out it was a cop.') Anjing 'dog' is a derogatory insult in Indonesian, but it also can be used as an interjection expressing annoyance or anger. The lyrics seem to use the latter sense, but the prosecutor in the case says that "language experts" have determined that the song contains "language insulting the police force." (More details here.)

Back to the sleeping policemen. Before spreading to languages like Indonesian via loan-translation, the "sleeping policeman" idiom seems to have originated as a variation on an earlier expression, "silent cop" or "silent policeman," used originally to refer to a structure placed in the middle of an intersection to direct traffic.  The OED has a 1934 cite for "silent cop" from Australia and a 1965 cite for "silent policeman" from New Zealand.  But the newspaper databases show US cites for "silent cop/policeman" as early as 1914, in cities from Fitchburg, Massachusetts to Racine, Wisconsin:

Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel, July 14, 1914, p. 5
The sign works out satisfactorily when the traffic is not heavy, but when there is a rush at this busy corner four vehicles are sometimes circling the silent cop at the same time, and others are coming from all points of the compass.

Hartford (Conn.) Courant, July 26, 1915, p. 7
Danbury has a "silent cop." At least, that is what Danbury calls it, not recognizing the contradiction contained in the two words. The silent cop consists of a post about five feet high surmounted by a box on each side of which is painted the words "Keep to the Right" and bearing aloft a lantern.

Racine (Wisc.) Journal-News, Aug. 20, 1915, p. 12
Chief Baker stated at that time that he had purchased six silent policemen, in other words, signs to be placed at the intersection of busy street corners directing vehicles to turn to the left or right and that it would possibly stop, to a great extent, violation of the rules of the road.

By the late 1920s, "silent policemen" had evolved into the forerunners of automatic traffic lights, and variants could be found around the globe. (In Australia, the "silent cop" was evidently never more than a small metal protrusion around which traffic flowed.) "Sleeping policemen," on the other hand, wouldn't emerge for another several decades. I don't know where in the English-speaking world the expression originated, though the UK seems likely. The earliest British cite for the term currently given by the OED is from 1973, but this can no doubt be antedated, perhaps by a decade or so. The earliest US cite I've found so far is from Bennington, Vermont in 1967:

Bennington (Vt.) Banner, May 11, 1967, p. 4
Building big bumps -- known as sleeping policemen -- in the streets of Old Bennington as a deterrent to speeders would indeed be an effective way to discourage motorists from stomping too hard on their accelerators.

The term was used in various other American municipalities in the late '60s. To the right is a photo that appeared in the May 4, 1969 Chicago Tribune showing a "sleeping policeman" on a park road in Decatur, Illinois, complete with a warning sign very much like the one in the L.A. Lights advertisement. 

The expression didn't seem to have much staying power in the US, but it caught on in many other parts of the world with more of a British influence, such as Jamaica and Belize. A Jan. 30, 1968 letter to the editor in the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner explained that "many private roads in Kingston have installed 'Sleeping Policemen'" and urged the local authorities to install more. A year or two later "sleeping policemen" had indeed become more prevalent in Jamaica. A Dec. 7, 1969 UPI wire story in the Oakland Tribune explained: "When you hear a Jamaican talk about his country's 'sleeping policemen,' he isn't implying that Jamaican lawmen aren't wide awake. The term 'sleeping policeman' is used to describe the hump built across streets to slow down speeders."

While "sleeping policeman" was making its way around the Anglosphere, equivalents in other languages began popping up. Mexico has policia durmiendo, while France and Switzerland have gendarme couché. There's an entry for gendarme couché in the Dictionnaire Suisse Romand, with some discussion of "sleeping policeman" as well. The entry implies that there isn't enough information to determine which expression is a calque of the other, but "sleeping policeman" appears to win out, unless someone can find citations for gendarme couché earlier than those above. It's also notable that couché means 'lying down, resting, recumbent,' a slightly different sense from "sleeping." Equivalents in some eastern European languages seem to have been calqued from the French expression, such as Hungarian (fekvőrendőr), Estonian (lamav politseinik), and Latvian (guļošais policists).

Perhaps if Indonesian had borrowed the more benign French version, with the figurative image of a police officer lying down rather than sleeping, then the cigarette manufacturers wouldn't be threatened with legal action now. Then again, I doubt the police force would want to be accused of lying down on the job, regardless of whether there's any snoozing going on.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 04:42 PM

More important, think different

Recent email from a reader brought to mind Ginsberg's Theorem (the generalized three laws of thermodynamics):

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't even get out of the game.

The reader's email quoted a sentence from my post "Reading corruption?" (3/9/2007):

"More important, I couldn't tell whether the broader implications of Grunwald's article were the result of valid whistle-blowing, or just intellectual politics presented as anti-corruption activism."

and commented on the first two words:

That threw me for a loop, and I landed back around Apple's "Think different" ad controversy. While I never took the "different" as an adverb (it's a noun, just like the Pink Panther's "Think pink"), yours is inescapably an adverb. Now I'm being sucked into CGEL and LGSWE looking for mentions of usages like this, but haven't found anything so far.

Can you really do that? Or did you run your post through the Ly Detector first? : )

The reader is alluding to Geoff Pullum's post "Automated adverb hunting and why you don't need it" (3/5/2007), and suggesting -- tongue in cheek -- that I might have removed the -ly from "more importantly" in order to lower my adverb count, thereby creating a sentence that seems ungrammatical to him.

This is deliciously ironic.

In fact, I started to write "More importantly", and then decided to change it to "More important" in order to avoid annoying (and thus distracting) those readers who take seriously the prescription of usage mavens like Paul Brians, who advises:

When speakers are trying to impress audiences with their rhetoric, they often seem to feel that the extra syllable in “importantly” lends weight to their remarks: “and more importantly, I have an abiding love for the American people.” However, these pompous speakers are wrong. It is rarely correct to use this form of the phrase because it is seldom adverbial in intention. Say “more important” instead. The same applies to “most importantly”; it should be “most important.”

I recognized at the time that this was a self-incorrection of the first type ("to replace a correct variant that is falsely believed to be incorrect by another, also correct, variant"), but after a few seconds' thought, I decided that it was the right thing to do. I subscribe to the AHD's usage note for important:

Some critics have objected to the use of the phrase more importantly in place of more important when one introduces an assertion, as in More importantly, no one is ready to step into the vacuum left by the retiring senator. But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other.

I said to myself: "Both forms are equally good, and 'more importantly' will annoy some readers, so why not choose the other option and avoid unnecessary trouble?" (This was not a purely hypothetical matter, since other readers have taken the time to incorrect me in the past for using more importantly.) I don't always react this way -- sometimes I say to myself "I'm going to write it the way I please, and to hell with the idiots well-meaning but misguided people who think it's wrong". But this time I let the idiots that inner voice of incorrection get to me.

Here as always, of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and my reward in this case was that an innocent, earnest and sensible reader was taken aback by my choice, and went wandering off into the grammar books to try to figure out how important can possibly be used in this context.

According to MWCDEU, no one ever seems to have worried about this question, one way or the other, until 11 July 1968, when Winners & Sinners ("A bulletin of second guessing issued occasionally from the southeast corner of the Times News Room") promulgated this item, attributed to Theodore M. Bernstein:

"More importantly, Shafer will be trying to take the first of the uncommitted power blocs into the Rockefeller camp. . ." (June 13). The adverbial phrase "more importantly" modifies nothing in this sentence. What is wanted in constructions of this kind is "more important," an ellipsis of the phrase "what is more important."

MWCDEU comments that

The subject gained momentum only slowly, reaching its peak in the 1980s. But Bernstein changed his mind in 1977, concluding that neither important nor importantly was wrong. Safire 1984 agreed.

American commentators have tended to object to the adverb and to recommend the adjective. Objections are made primarily on grammatical grounds. Many repeat Bernstein's original statement that more importantly modifies nothing in the sentence. But from the same point of view, neither does more important. [...] The OED Supplement simplifies the grammar by calling more important "a kind of sentence adjective" and more importantly "a kind of sentence adverb." [...]

Proponents of the adjective also assert -- as Newman 1974 does -- that the adjective construction is much older. This assertion cannot be proved with the information now available. The OED Supplement shows more important from 1964 and more importantly from 1938. [...]

I appreciate that dry comment "This assertion cannot be proved with the information now available", a remark that applies to much of Edwin Newman's writings on usage, and might be rendered in more technical philosophical terminology as "This assertion appears to be complete bullshit."

These are the OED citations:

1938 C. WILLIAMS He came down from Heaven ii. 22 The main point is..the first outrage against pietas, and (more importantly) the first imagined proclamation of pietas from the heavens.
1964 N. SPINRAD in D. Knight 100 Yrs. Sci. Fiction (1969) 270 What were these quasi-stellar objects and, perhaps even more important, how were they giving off so much energy?

M-W's own citation slips contain an adverb example from H.L. Mencken in 1919, and an adjective from T.S. Eliot in 1932. Looking the NYT historical archive, I find an example of more importantly from Nov. 17, 1897: "Bishop Doane's Address":

"The outcome of it was, and it was reached not only with the entire approval, but to a great degree upon the suggestion of the present Archbishop, that hereafter instead of the oath of personal obedience, colonial Bishops consecrated by him in England are to make 'a solemn declaration of all due honor and deference to him,' so that the personal obligation is lessened in its force, while at the same time, and far more importantly, the conference suggests what is the real bond of unity among all parts of the communion, not obedience to a single head, but the promise 'to respect and to maintain the spiritual rights and privileges of the Church of England and the churches in communion with her.'"

The prohibition of more importantly is a perfect example of incorrection. It was originally a stylistic whim that struck Theodore Bernstein, one July morning in 1968. There was a lot of craziness around then, and this was his contribution. Through the medium of the Winners & Sinners newsletter, Bernstein's little eruption of grammatical psychedelia percolated out into the maven community, and eventually seeped into my own consciousness, despite my best efforts to avoid exposure to such nonsense.

And now we come full circle: one of our readers ran aground on my more important. Like the third law says, you can't even get out of the game. And just think: if Bernstein's random grammatical neurons had sparked in 1968 the way my correspondent's did in 2007, the prescriptive recipe on this question might have gone entirely the other way.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:08 AM

March 13, 2007

"What? How?" -- "Wikipedia."

A few days ago, Barbara Partee started up an email discussion about an effort by Yuri Koryakov to "[get] linguists organized to fill in the many gaps in linguistics coverage in the Russian-language wikipedia, both in biographies of linguists and in content articles", suggesting that a comparable effort for the English-language wikipedia would be a Good Thing. (If you read Linguist List, you'll probably be hearing more about this before long.) This morning, Chris Potts contributed an encouraging anecdote:

In my large intro course yesterday, there was an unfamiliar hand in the air a lot of the time, and the student's questions and insights were the best I've had all semester. It was puzzling, because I didn't recognize him, and he seemed to know much more about syntax than one would expect. (It was our first official day on the topic.)

After class, he came to the front and introduced himself as a prospective student, just out of high school. He said linguistics was his passion in high school. I said, "What? How?" And he replied, "Wikipedia".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:22 AM

Mark Seidenberg on the Reading First controversy

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a story about how school administrators in Madison, Wisconsin, turned down $2M in federal Reading First funds rather than change their approach to the teaching of reading (Diana Jean Schemo, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash"). Considering the importance of the topic, it's remarkable how poorly (or misleadingly) reported this article was. The story's key claim:

Madison officials say that a year after Wisconsin joined Reading First, in 2004, contractors pressured them to drop their approach, which blends some phonics with whole language in a program called Balanced Literacy. Instead, they gave up the money — about $2 million, according to officials here, who say their program raised reading scores.

One set of problems with the article is discussed by Ken DeRosa here. Apparently the Madison program "raised reading scores" only because the reading test was changed. Once apples are compared to apples, the test results show that "Madison's Balanced Literacy reading program [...] failed to increase student performance in Madison and actually caused a relative decline in the schools that were supposed to get Reading First funding."

Last night, Mark Seidenberg sent me a note in which he lays out some additional background, and identifies what he calls the "big lie" in Schemo's story:

The school administration (superintendent and others) stated that the RF funds came with unacceptable conditions attached, namely that the district would have to change its reading curriculum. This was false. How the RF money was spent (at 5 low-achieving schools) had no bearing on the curriculum in the rest of the district. None. The evaluation letter, which became the justification for giving back the money, asked for more explicit documentation of how the money was being used but did not question the methods.

Nonetheless the story that accepting this money would require the school district as a whole to change its curriculum from its preferred "balanced literacy" approach was repeated by school administrators, and indeed comes across now, almost 3 years later, in the NY Times article.

In other words, every essential premise and implication of Schemo's article was false. Mark also sent a file of stories and letters from the local papers, which document that all the main elements of this story were published and debated two and a half years ago, so that Schemo's failure to invest a few extra hours of reporting was not the result of any deadline imposed by the timing of real-world events.

The whole of Mark's letter to me is reproduced below.

The Reading First controversy has been going on in Madison for a couple of years. A lot of it is summarized here.

There are links to some letters that I wrote back in 2004-2005 buried in there. I wrote another letter today (to the NY Times) that's on my office computer and I'll send it to you in the a.m.

I'm attaching some of the exchanges that occurred in the local newspapers with the assistant school superintendent, Belmore [archived here -- myl]. Her comments make it clear why they really turned down the RF money: it was perceived as a defense against ceding control over the schools to the feds. A slippery slope argument.

The short story:

The RF funds were being used in schools that have low income kids who are at risk for reading failure. Some of the money was being used for "direct instruction" in phonics. (Aside: Most people distinguish between direct instruction (highly scripted phonics based curriculum like open court) and "explicit instruction," which is less scripted and merely requires explicitly teaching spelling-sound correspondences. But this terminology is not universal and I am not clear which the schools in question were using).

The local school district did not like this, insofar as it was perceived as inconsistent with their "balanced literacy" approach. too much phonics. Note however that the children in question were poor readers, who are most likely to benefit from phonics instruction.

Balanced literacy, as you know, is the term that was adopted in response to criticisms of "whole language". These were based on both scientific concerns (arising from the work of researchers outside the educational establishment who study reading, e.g., psychologists and more recently cognitive neuroscientists) and political concerns (arising from parental complaints about reading achievement in states like CA and MA). Balanced literacy is supposed to combine the best components of phonics and whole language approaches; the problem is that the balance between the two is not specified or monitored closely. Balanced literacy mainly ends up being business as usual, i.e. whole language. See Louisa Moats' article on this ("Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Reading Instruction").

Madison's "balanced literacy" curriculum has just this character: how much phonics gets taught depends on the teacher. Since most of them were trained in the whole language approach, not much phonics gets taught. This was true of my own children's reading education (they are now 7 and 11): almost no phonics. This is OK for some children (who will figure out how to read regardless of what happens in the classroom) but not others. In our research we identify a category of children termed "instructional dyslexics". They meet standard diagnostic criteria for dyslexia (e.g., major discrepancy between IQ and reading ability) but there's nothing wrong with them except the way they were taught. Many of these kids will eventually catch up, but at a cost. Given the way painful way they learned to read, they don't enjoy it. Many hate it.

OK: the district applied for and got RF funds and spent the first year of them. There was an evaluation afterward. The evaluation was done by this group in Oregon who the NCLB people contracted with to run RF. I think they are the same people involved in the corruption scandal arising around RF but I haven't checked this myself. The point is that there was an evaluation written in horrible educationese which basically raised procedural questions about how the money was being spent. I.e., it wasn't documented thoroughly enough at the level of "scope and sequence". I describe this in one of letters. I read the evaluation in question. It was horrible but it did not require the school district to adopt any particular curriculum, in the RF schools or the rest of the district.

This is the main big lie in the whole story. The school administration (supt and others) stated that the RF funds came with unacceptable conditions attached, namely that the district would have to change its reading curriculum. This was false. How the RF money was spent (at 5 low-achieving schools) had no bearing on the curriculum in the rest of the district. None. The evaluation letter, which became the justification for giving back the money, asked for more explicit documentation of how the money was being used but did not question the methods.

Nonetheless the story that accepting this money would require the school district as a whole to change its curriculum from its preferred "balanced literacy" approach was repeated by school administrators, and indeed comes across now, almost 3 years later, in the NY Times article.

What really happened? The school superintendent is riding two currents here:

(a) Resistance to federal control over local schools, via NCLB [No Child Left Behind] of which Reading First is a part. Education has traditionally been controlled by the states and school districts within them; NCLB has put the federal government in every public elementary school room in America. This is being resisted.

(b) Resistance to the 20-30 years of research demonstrating unequivocally that skilled reading typically involves developing detailed knowledge of the relations between spelling and sound. (I say "typically" only because there are some unusual readers who do things differently.) Whole language and now balanced literacy advocates reject this research for various reasons that I won't get into; basically educational theorists in the US are not scientists; they rely heavily on insight and intuition about how children learn, and they have relied heavily on gurus who sold them a plausible story. Educators from ed schools to educational administrators are very well insulated from the findings of psychologists and neuroscientists who have studied reading.

The letters in today's New York Times (which were phonics-hostile) accurately reflect the fact that educators cannot or will not grasp the difference between "phonics as an element in a multicomponent instructional program" (as recommended by the National Reading Panel) and "phonics all the way down", i.e., don't teach anything else. Unfortunately, some people on the far right do advocate the latter approach in a punitive, back to basics, "phonics fundamentalist" way, but that is not an implication of our research.

Thus, the MMSD [Madison Metropolitan School District] is using the Reading First program as a stick with which to beat phonics. There is a ready audience for this: people who want NCLB to go away; teachers who were taught that phonics is evil, the path to lifelong poor reading; school administrators who advocate balanced literacy approach because it is laissez faire and allows teachers to do as little phonics as they want.

My main conclusion is that, when people look at problems such as why some children have difficulty learning to read or learning math, they assume they are educational problems with educational solutions. But, to a significant extent, these problems were created by educators themselves, via innovations such as whole language and whole math. These are actually problems about how learning, thinking, reasoning; brain development and plasticity; and language: phonology, writing systems, grammar and so on. In other words, problems we study as psychologists, psycholinguists, and cognitive neuroscientists. So I think we should be looking for scientific solutions, not educational ones.

The people at the MMSD, who actually exert control over what happens in classrooms, feel differently.

Recent Language Log posts about reading instruction:

"The globalization of educational fads and fallacies" 3/2/2007
"The teaching of reading", 3/2/2007
"Reading corruption?", 3/9/2007
"Ken DeRosa on the Reading First controversy", 3/13/2007

[Update -- here's the text of the letter that Mark Seidenberg sent to the New York Times:

Madison WI school officials state that they decided to forgo $2 million of "Reading First" funds because this would have threatened the integrity of Madison's successful "balanced literacy" program.

This account does not hold water. The Reading First program requires that funds be used for instructional activities that conform to the recommendations of the National Reading Panel. That panel recommended a multicomponent balanced literacy approach. The programs that would be funded in this way therefore posed no threat to Madison's existing "balanced literacy" approach. Nor would accepting these funds (which were to be used in 5 low-achieving schools) have any bearing on the curricula used in other schools. Thus the asserted threat to current practices did not exist.

"Balanced literacy" programs raise other questions, however. The term refers to programs that mix elements of phonics and whole language approaches. However, in Madison, as in other districts, the balance between the two is not specified or monitored. When asked why her first grader had not been taught any phonics, one Madison parent was told, "your daughter was absent that day." My own experience as the parent of two young readers is that the amount of phonics is up to the discretion of the teacher, most of whom were schooled in the Whole Language method. The needed phonics instruction is then out-sourced, to parents, commercial "learning centers," and private tutors.

Why would a school district decline to accept federal funding for remedial reading programs? There are two main reasons. First, there is resistance to federal control over local education via legislation such as NCLB, of which Reading First is a part. Reading First is seen as the slippery slope toward greater federal interference with local decision making. Madison school officials acknowledged this in articles published in our local newspapers.

Second, there is resistance to two decades of research in psychology and neuroscience about how children learn to read and the importance of phonics in early reading education. The anti-phonics ideology among these educators runs so deep that they would deny funding for children who are at high risk of educational failure. This in a cash-strapped district that announced increases in classroom size and significant program cutbacks the same day your article appeared.

In declining these funds, the Madison school district put its educational ideology ahead of the needs of its students.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:18 AM

Ken DeRosa on the Reading First controversy

The most important public policy issue relating to language, in my opinion, is the worldwide controversy about how to teach kids to read. A two-year-old skirmish in this war was reported in last Friday's NYT by Diana Jean Schemo, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash", dealing with the decision of the Madison WI school district to forego $2M in federal Reading First funds, rather than to give up their preferred approach to reading instruction.

Schemo's article spun the story as plucky little David against nasty corrupt Goliath -- at least that was the impression I took away from it ("Reading Corruption", 3/9/2007). Schemo mentioned "a string of blistering reports" from the U.S. Education Department's Office of the Inspector General about conflicts of interest and inappropriate attempts to force schools to use specific curricula, and she featured the Madison school system's claims that they're sticking with their system because it works so well.

But when I looked into the "string of blistering reports", they seemed pretty mild to me. And Liz Ditz pointed me to some posts by Ken DeRosa at D-Ed Reckoning, arguing (in my opinion convincingly) that in fact, Madison's system has badly failed the kids that Reading First is designed to help ("Schemo gets pwned", 3/9/2007; "Madison Cooks Books", 3/12/2007).

DeRosa's conclusion was that the Madison administrators fooled Schemo. It seems just as likely to me that the NYT is taking sides in this controversy -- the wrong side, unfortunately -- and that their reporter and editors were looking for numbers to show good results from an anti-Reading First school system. Certainly no one at the NYT checked out Madison's numbers the way that serious reporters would routinely check out the Pentagon's budget or politician's reports of campaign contributions -- and there was no event that made it crucial to get this story out a few days earlier, without hearing from critics of Madison's program.

As for the broader controversy about the implementation of the Reading First program, Ken DeRosa sent me a sketch of the legal and political issues involved, which I found very helpful. It's reproduced below.

Here’s what you need to know to make sense of the Reading First (RF) scandal (at least in my view):

Let’s start with the statute. In order to get RF funding “an eligible local educational agency … shall use the funds provided under the subgrant to … Select[] and implement[] a learning system or program of reading instruction based on scientifically based reading research that … includes the essential components of reading instruction.” Section 1202(C)(7)(A) (p. 114).

So, to get RF funding an eligible school must adopt a reading program that 1) is based on SBRR and includes 2) the ECRI. In the statute these are defined terms. Section 1208(3) defines the essential components of reading instruction as: explicit and systematic instruction in (A) phonemic awareness; (B) phonics; (C) vocabulary development; (D) reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and (E) reading comprehension strategies.

Basically, the ECRI come from the National Reading Panel’s (NRP) meta-analysis. In particular, ECRI must include instruction in phonics that is “explicit and systematic.” This clearly knocked out whole language programs. And, according to DOE’s reading of the statute, also knocked out any program based on implicit or embedded phonics, i.e., balanced literacy.

Section 1208(6) basically defines scientifically based reading research as research that is scientific. Here’s the verbiage: “research that (A) applies rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain valid knowledge relevant to reading development, reading instruction, and reading difficulties; and (B) includes research that (i) employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment; (ii) involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn; (iii) relies on measurements or observational methods that provide valid data across evaluators and observers and across multiple measurements and observations; and (iv) has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.”

The intent of this provision is to clear out all the bad research that clutters the files of education research. Here is where things start getting interesting. Note how section 1202 permits reading programs that are “based on [SBRR]” as opposed to reading programs that have their own SBRR base. This is the camel’s nose under the tent.

There are only three reading programs that have a SBRR base.

1. Success for All (SfA)
2. Open Court published by SRA (OC)
3. Direct Instruction, i.e., Reading Mastery, also by published bySRA (DI)

In actuality, the SBRR for OC is for a program that is no longer in print. And, the SBRR for DI is about twice as large as the SBRR for SfA and OC for at-risk kids. By this I mean that DI has larger effect sizes and a larger number level 3 research studies and replicated level 2 research studies. Let’s call these programs the only programs with validated SBRR.

All the other publishers vying for a piece of the RF pie set out to make their programs look like they contained the ECRI and then tried to pass themselves off as SBRR programs, as permitted under the RF statute.

DOE basically permitted any program to get RF funding if it contained the ECRI and, in particular, taught phonics in as systematic explicit manner as phonics is taught in SfA, OC, and DI. This meant that whole language and balanced literacy programs would be excluded and that most programs receiving RF funding would have no real SBRR base. Arguably, they would be based on SBRR which is all law requires, however misguided.

I have yet to see any evidence in any of the released OIG reports that shows that DOE excluded any reading program that was permitted under the statute or permitted any program that was excluded under the statute. DOE rightly excluded any reading program based on whole language and balanced literacy and they seem to be the only programs that were excluded by DOE.

However, many reading programs were excluded by state DOE’s. This is were the exclusion of SfA comes in. SfA wasn’t excluded by the federal DOE, it was simply not included by many state level DOE in their grant applications. This is a critical distinction missing from most analyses. The exclusion of SfA occurred at the state level, not the federal level. By the same token so did DI get excluded at the state level. Together SfA and DI account for about 3% of the reading programs getting RF funding, even though they are the only reading programs having validated SBRR.

Also, bear in mind that most state DOE’s and whole language/balanced lit programs were trying their hardest to get funding for their programs by alleging that their programs had ECRI and were also based on SBRR.

For more info see Bob Sweet’s letter to WaPo editor.

I have a few posts up related to the first OIG report and the subsequent media coverage collected here.

I didn’t rehash the latest OIG report, but basically concur with your analysis. Merely showcasing 2 of the 3 reading programs with validated SBRR does not amount to mandating, controlling, or directing curriculum.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:09 AM

March 12, 2007

Surely not an eggcorn in The Economist!

"FOR nine months a torrent of scolding slurry has gushed out of the ground near Sidoarjo in eastern Java", said the first sentence of an article on argillaceous vulcanism in the science and technology section of the most recent Economist (link here, at least for now). But surely not! The mud is not chiding anyone or offering angry reproof. It is boiling hot, that's the problem. It is scalding slurry that is gushing out of Lusi the mud volcano. The OED leaves no doubt about that. An easy slip to make, I'm sure (to be nerdy about the phonetics: rounded and unrounded non-high back vowels are not easy to distinguish before a velarized lateral approximant like final /l/ in English). But it's the first time I recall seeing an eggcorn in The Economist. And this one is not in the eggcorn database.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 06:43 PM

Tape recording in the news

Last week a U.S. House subcommittee held hearings about the abrupt firing of seven U.S. attorneys. The Legal Times reports it here. Senior Justice Department official, William Moschella, had a lot of explaining to do and even Theodore Olson, who served as the Justice Deparment's solicitor general from 2001-2004, agreed that the event looked like "a circular firing squad."

What captured my attention most, though, was the reason Moschella gave for the firing of U.S. attorney Paul Charlton of Arizona. The article says this:

...Charlton's problems were "more in the policy category" -- taping confessions in contravention of department policy...

So now we know. Moschella reported that the Department of Justice has a policy against law enforcement officers tape recording the confessions of their suspects. This policy exists despite the growing understanding by police departments that obtaining such  unimpeachable  practices actually protects the officers from being accused of unfair interrogation techniques, to say nothing about fairness (see here). Fifteen years ago, the National Institute of Justice commissioned William A. Geller to research this issue. His 219-page report, Police Videotaping of Suspect Interrogations and Confessions (August 7, 1992) revealed how police departments benefit from such practice not only by protecting themselves from criticism, but also by teaching officers how to interrogate suspects fairly and successfully.

It's hard to imagine how any data-gathering agency, institution, or field of study can have a policy of not collecting evidence openly and in a way that can stand up to criticism.  Today, even in some jurisdictions where confessions ARE tape recorded, often it's only the final minutes of recapitulation that are preserved, leaving unaswered the question about how the officers got to that point. Apparently the Justice Department isn't even willing to go that far. To have a national policy forbidding the tape recording confessions (and whole interrogations, for that matter), is mind boggling.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 03:30 PM

Not just bad linguistics, but shoddy historical genetics too?

Last week, Sally Thomason posted about the bad historical linguistics in Stephen Oppenheimer's work, at least as reported by Nicholas Wade ("Nutty journalists' (and others') language theories", 3/6/2007). At the same time, she conceded to his authority in genetics ("I have no expertise whatsoever in genetics and I therefore have no comment on Dr. Oppenheimer's proposals in this highly technical and well-developed field of inquiry."). But Razib at Gene Expression does have expertise in genetics, and his comment ("Bad historical population genetics?", 2/6/2007) was:

I've haven't read Oppenheimer's book, but I have read his The Real Eve. He's not one to be modest, and he's trying to make another splash. I've stated earlier that I thought the Etruscan studies were historical population genetics done right, and I think here Oppenheimer in particular is all about the discipline done wrong. From a Popperian perspective I suppose one could say that Oppenheimer is making bold claims which demand to be tested, but, his idea that Germanic speech predates the Anglo-Saxons, and that the Celts brought agriculture to England, rest upon revisionst and extreme minority positions within history, archaeology and linguistics. It would be one thing if the genetics was rock solid, but it isn't. The whole model seems an intellectual mess, more ego than experiment. The populations of northwestern Europe may simply be genetically too close to use uniparental phylogenies to definitively decide between historical hypotheses, other fields need to offer concurrent evidence, and that just isn't happening here.

And one of his commenters adds another complaint about allegedly "shoddy dating techniques" in another piece of work on historical population genetics:

I completely agree with you here, Oppenheimer's got a rigid view of prehistory that he's dreamed up, and he's sticking to it.

For example, his genetics papers that I'm familiar with (Austronesian) use shoddy dating techniques (one molecular clock calibration point, _rho_, at orders of magnitudes greater than the history he's trying to date) to get a huge range of age estimates (6,000 - 50,000 years ago). Despite this, they apparently still support his "revolutionary" view of Pacific prehistory which dates the spread of these people to circa 13,000 BP. This is completely in contradiction of all the linguistic and archaeological evidence.

I've ordered Oppenheimer's book, and I'll report back after I read it and go over it with some experts in relevant areas of computational biology.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:00 AM

Interlingual taboos

One of the lesser fruits of Mary Haas's work on Thai, which she undertook for national security reasons during the second world war, was an excellent (though subtle) joke about the Thai word for chili pepper. In order to understand the story, you may need to learn just a bit of phonetic lingo, and a few characters in the International Phonetic Alphabet -- but trust me, the joke is worth the trouble. As an extra benefit, you'll also learn about a new kind of linguistic taboo. Actually, you probably already know what this is, but not what it's called: an interlingual word taboo.

Mary Haas explains the concept with an example("Interlingual Word Taboos", American Anthropologist, 53(3) 338-344, 1951):

Some years ago, a Creek Indian informant in Oklahoma stated that the Indians tended to avoid the use of certain words of their own language when white people were around. It turned out that the avoided words were those which bear some phonetic similarity to the "four-letter" words of English. These words were avoided even though it is doubtful that a white person not knowing Creek would, when overhearing Creek utterances delivered at a normal rate of speed for that language, be likely to catch these words and attach any special significance to them [...]

Among the words pointed out as being avoided are the following: fákki "soil, earth, clay," apíswa "mean, flesh," and apíssi· "fat (adj.)." [...] [C]composite words containing the words quoted above may also be avoided, and in such cases the accent has generally shifted to another ayllable, e.g. fakkitalá·swa "clay," fakkinú·la "brick,", and apisnihá· "meat fat."

All you need for the Creek part of the story is the use of acute accent to mark the "key syllable" or word accent, and half-high dots to mark long vowels -- this is not standard IPA usage, actually, but it's simple enough. Haas gives the phonological background for the Thai part of the paper in a footnote on p. 339:

The Thai consonants are: voiced stops b, d, -g; voiceless unaspirated stops p, t, c (palatal stop), k, ʔ; voiceless aspirated stops ph, th, ch, kh; voiceless spirants f, s, h; voiced semivowels j [y], w; voiced nasals m, n, ŋ; voiced liquids l, r. The vowels are front unrounded i, e, ɛ [æ]; central unrounded y, ə, a; back rounded u, o, ɔ. All nine of these voewls may occur doubled (phonetically lengthened), e.g. ii, ee, ɛɛ, etc., and the heterophonous vowel clusters ia, ya, and ua also occur. There are five tones: middle (unmarked), low (`), falling (ˆ), high (´), and rising (ˇ). The final stops b, d, and g are briefly voiced but unreleased; they therefore resemble the English final stops p, t, and k.

OK, got that? The crucial parts, so far: voiceless aspirated stops (roughly like english p, t, k) are written ph, th, kh; high tone is marked with an acute accent ´, and rising tone with a caron ˇ; and Thai syllable-final b, d, g sound like English p, t, k. That's all you need to get the next bit of background:

A few years later it became apparent that Thai students studying in this country also tend to avoid certain words of their own language which bear a phonetic resemblance to English obscene words. Here again they avoid the words only when English speakers are about, but the reason for the avoidance appears to stem from their own uncertainty about the propriety of using the words because of their knowledge of English. The tradition of avoidance in a continuous one. Thai students already residing in this country teach each succeeding group of newly arrived students about the taboo [...]

These secondarily tabooed words of Thai include the following: fàg "sheath, (bean-)pod," fág (1) "to hatch," (2) "a kind of pumpkin or squash," phríg "(chili) pepper," and khán "to crush, squeeze out". In connection with the last word, it is to noted that there are other words having the same sequence of sounds except for the tone, e.g. khan (1) "to itch," (2) classifier for vehicles and other objects, and khǎn () "to be funny," (2) "to crow," (3) "water-bowl," but it is only the word having the high tone that bears, to the Thai ear, a strong resemblance to the English tabooed word. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) English words with final stop consonants are borrowed into Thai with a high tone, e.g. kɛ́b "(gun-) cap,", kɔ́k "(ater-) tap," and (2) the high tone on a syllable lacking a final stop is accompanied by glottal stricture when spoken in isolation or when occurring in phrase-final position. The Thai ear equates the final stop of the English word with the glottal stricture of the Thai word; hence the English word, as pronounced in English, sounds like the Thai word khán, whereas khan and khǎn do not.

A little more phonetic background -- remember that in IPA a velar nasal (like the sound at the end of English "hung") is written with a right-tailed n ŋ, and that y is used to symbolize a high central unrounded vowel, roughly like Californian 'u' in dude. And now we get to the joke:

The word phríg "(chili) pepper" (also used as an abbreviation for phrígthaj "ground pepper, esp. black pepper") caused one group of students to be faced with a dilemma, since, when eating out, it was necessary to use this word frequently. In order to observe their self-imposed taboo and at the same time provide themselves with a substitute term, this group adopted the device of translating the obscene connotation of the word (if interpreted as English) into the elegant Thai term of the same meaning, namely lyŋ "the lingam" (derived from the Sanskrit term).

I said that you may already be familiar with the concept of interlingual word taboos, or at least with the effects of the concept. One example is the anglicization of final -ch in German names. In standard German pronunciation, 'ch' after a back vowel would be a voiceless velar fricative [x], which doesn't exist in English (except as a borrowed phoneme for some speakers in words like loch and Bach). Most German names with syllable-final -ch are anglicized with a final [k]: Brach, Weinreich, Bruchner. However, the former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, pronounced his name to rhyme with scotch.

A historical example that you may not know involves a nautical term for certain kinds of sails found near the bow of boats, or for associated masts, spars and rigging. Several northwest European languages share a term whose origin (according to the OED) is to be found in Old Norse fok "action of driving", from the root of fiúka "to drive": French foc "jib"; Dutch fok (MDu. fokke) "foremast"; German fock(e), Swedish fock, Danish fok "foresail". English originally had its own reflex of this word, as these citations attest:

1465 Mann. & Househ. Exp. (Roxb.) 200 Item, my mastyr paid for a ffukke maste, iiij.s. iiij.d.
1535 STEWART Cron. Scot. (1858) I. 20 Tha salit fast..befoir the wynd With fuksaill, topsaill, manesall, musall, and blynd.
Ibid. 100 It is..Sax houris saling bayth with fuk and blind.
1568 Satir. Poems Reform. xlvi. 30 Plum weill the grund quhat evir ʒe doo, Haill on the fukscheit and the blind.
1598 W. PHILLIPS tr. Linschoten I. 165 The chiefe Boteson hath..gouernement ouer the Fouke mast, and the fore sayles.
1500-20 DUNBAR Poems xiv. 74 So mony fillok with fuck sailis Within this land was nevir hard nor sene.
a1529 SKELTON Col. Cloute 399 Set up theyr fucke sayles To catch wynde.

However, at some point in the middle of the 16th century, this word vanished from the language. Perhaps it vanished due to a developing taboo, or perhaps it vanished because sailors found it confusing to distinguish between this word as a nautical term of art and the growing use of a homophonous emphatic particle. If the term had been in common use in 1600, it's hard to believe that the Elizabethans could have resisted the temptation to use it in puns. (Though perhaps some reader will find an example.)

A bit more about Thai interlingual taboos from Haas:

Other instances of avoidance also occur in Thai. These are particularly interesting in that they are far less likely to be misinterpreted as obscenities by speakers of English than are the words quoted above. Thai has no phoneme š (English sh), the nearest equivalent sound being the phoneme ch, an aspirated palatal stop. Another sound bearing a certain resemblance to English š, from the Thai pointof view, is c, an unaspirated palatal stop. In pronouncing English words the normal substitution for English š is Thai ch, but avoidance taboos, of the type mentioned above, extend also to Thai words beginning in c. As a consequence of this, the following words also often come into the tabooed category: chíd "to be close, near" and cìd "heart, mind" (< Pali-Sankrit citta). The latter word occasionally occurs as component of given names in Thai, and at least one man whose name was sǒmcìd, literaly "suiting the heart" (a very pleasing name in Thai), was so embarrased by this fact that he avoided the use of his Thai name wherever possible while residing in this country and adopted an English nickname instead. [...]

The examples of avoided words quoted in the immediately preceding paragraphs range all the way from words whose phonetic resemblance to English tabooed words is very close to others whose resemblance is so slight as to escape detection by the average speaker of English. Therefore the careful avoidance of these words in the presence of speakers of English arises from an exceptionally acute anxiety about the proprieties and niceties of speech. This anxiety is very well reflected in the Thai language itself, for one of its most prominent characteristics is the existence of a very large number of synonymous sets of words differentiated ony by the varying degrees of vulgarity and politeness associated with their use.

And some of her remarks about interlingual taboos in ESL:

The problem of tabooed words also exists in reverse. That is, certain perfectly harmless English words may bear a phonetic resemblance to tabooed or obscene words in other languages. A striking example of this is found in the Nootka Indian language of Vancouver Island. The English word such bears so close a resemblance to Nootka sač "vāgīna ūmens" that teachers entrusted with the training of young Indians find it virtually impossible to persuade their girl students to utter the English word under any circumstances.

Other examples occur in Thai. The English word yet closely resembles the Thai word jéd "to have intercourse" (vulgar and impolite). The resemblance is heightened by the fact that the Thai word has a high tone. [...] Most of the [Thai tabooed] words are at least considered printable in certain situations, for example, in dictionaries, or in textbooks designed to instruct students concerning words which must be avoided in the presence of royalty. The word under consideration here, however, is an exception -- it has not been found listed in any Thai dictionary, nor in a textbook. Even so, the word is not one which would be avoided among intmates (i.e., persons of the same sex- and age-group). Nevertheless, the English word yet is very often a source of embarrassment to the Thai, particularly girls studying English in school, since the Thai word is definitely one of several which would be avoided in the classroom.

[Philip Resnik writes:

You might be interested in another example that seems to fit. A traditional song connected with the Jewish holiday of Tu B'shevat -- the new year for trees, roughly like Arbor Day -- is "Atse Zetim Omdim", which means "Olive Trees are Standing". I was told recently (by a director of a Jewish Studies program, hence presumably a reliable source), that the original version of the song was "Atse Shittim Omdim", where "shittim" is the plural for "shitta", the acacia tree. Apparently when Jews immigrated to the U.S., the similarity of "shittim" to another word in English was considered something best avoided. So "acacia" got, um... shittim-canned? :-)


[Brad Skaggs writes:

Your post made me laugh and remember back to my five years living in Thailand before graduating from high school.  In my school's cafeteria, I remember the joy I felt the first time I found out that the soup of the day was Fuck soup.

My father worked for an American oil company there.  He was present when one of his new American co-workers introduced himself to his Thai colleagues.  "Hello, my name is Ron Keyes."  Laughter filled in the room.  This is when my father learned that Ron's name meant "hot shit" (ร้อน - raawn, hot; ขี้ - khee, shit).

Fortunately, it never snows in Thailand, so as long as you avoid artificial snow, you never have to make the mistake of confusing the words for "snow" (of which there is only one, alas, in Thai) and "genitals of a female horse"; หิมะ - he (low) ma(high) versus หีม้า - hee (rising) maa(high).


[Martyn Cornell writes:

There is at least one interlingual taboo that seems to have had an impact on English: the aristocratic title count, brought over by the Normans, who used the Old French conte, was dropped because of its similarity to "the c-word". The Old English equivalent title for someone in charge of a county, earl (from the Norse jarl), is used instead. However, the female title never changed, so that an earl's wife is still a countess, from the female version oif count, rather than an earless ... (whether countess is used because because earless looks like ear-less ...)

Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English (pub Blackwell, 1991), says: "it is a likely speculation that the Norman French title "Count" was abandoned in England in favor of the Germanic "Earl" ...precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt, which in Middle English could be spelt counte." A similar thing happened, of course, to coney (pronounced cunny), for which "rabbit" became the only acceptable word ...


[Chandan Narayan writes:

The slang term for penis (especially for little kids) in my variety of Tamil is "malka" (Ta. malak- "black pepper; cf. mulligatawney < Ta. malag-tanni "pepper water"). Interestingly, the term for black pepper was extended to the chili pepper (from the new world), whose shape contributed to the slang term--gives a whole new meaning to malagatawney!


[Several readers have written to remind me that nam prik is now discussed in English-language contexts all over the internet, not to speak of tens of thousands of Thai restaurant menus around the Anglosphere. I guess that times have changed since the 1940s, when Haas observed the taboo avoidance behavior of Thai students at Michigan and Berkeley.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:38 AM

March 11, 2007

Linguistics in 1940

A couple of weeks ago ("A tale of two societies", 3/1/2007), I quoted a passage from Mary Haas's obituary:

For Haas, as for most of the other linguists of her generation, the watershed of her career was the onset of the Second World War. In 1940-41, as the United States moved toward entering the war, a cadre of field linguists was recruited to learn and teach the lesser-known languages of the European and Pacific theatres.[...] Recruited to study Far Eastern languages -- and ordered to produce practical handbooks, teaching grammars and vocabularies -- were such scholars as William S. Cornyn, who was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau, who was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas, who got Thai.

I wondered at the time how this process came about, and who organized it. Geoff Nathan sent some additional information from memory ("Bloomfield 'got' Tagalog, Swadesh 'got' Chinese"), and after returning home from some travel, he added more from two books. I also followed up some leads on my own, as detailed below.

Here's Geoff's note (with some interpolation by me in square brackets):

There's not much more in Seuren's book [that's Pieter Seuren, Western Linguistics, 1998] -- the project was coordinated by the ACLS [the American Council of Learned Societies], which contracted out to the LSA [the Linguistic Society of America].

However, in Martin Joos's idiosyncratic book Notes on the Development of the Linguistic Society of America 1924 to 1950, there's a couple of pages, including a reproduction of the "Report of the First Year's Operation of the Intensive Language Program of the American Council of Learned Societies", written by Mortimer Graves, Chairman of the National School of Modern Oriental Languages and Civilizations, and J. M. Cowan, Director, Intensive Language Program. Cowan seems to have been the leader.

It includes all the people who were working on the project, and what languages they were assigned. Interestingly, there are a number of Arabic names for the various Arabic 'dialects'. Didn't recognize any of them, although I certainly recognized most of the others--Frank Edgerton, Kemp Malone, Zellig Harris, Carleton Hodge, Fergie [that would be Charles Ferguson], etc.

The book was assembled by Hodge and Hockett in 1986, and I can't seem to find an ISBN number. I think LSA published it. It doesn't seem to be available any more [actually, has it here] -- anyway, it's not listed on the LSA site. If you need more info, or want to borrow our copy, you're welcome to, and we'll be good to your firstborn while it's here...

It's typeset in Joos's inimitable style--did you ever meet him? He was chair of Linguistics at Toronto when I was an undergraduate, and mighty weird then, although he was also in early stages of Alzheimer's, as we now know.

I never met Martin Joos, as far as I know, and I don't think I've even knowingly encountered his typesetting style. However, I've ordered the book, and will put up a scan of the relevant couple of pages after I get it.

Here's what Seuren says about the "Wartime foreign languages programme" (pp. 194):

Even before the United States got involved in the second world war the Administration started, for strategic reasons, a programme to promote the knowledge of foreign languages. In 1941 the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) sought contact with the LSA to set up an Intensive Language Program (ILP). When the US did step into the war, in December 1941, the ILP was greatly intensified and soon merged with the army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which commissioned the writing of materials and crash courses in a number of languages that were considered strategically important, notably Russian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Burmese. (This was the beginning of a period of collaboration between the American armed forces and the linguitic world, which would last for over twenty years, the former playing Dutch uncle to the latter.) Bloomfield took part in the ASTP and produced his Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages (1942), and two books on Dutch (1943, 1944-1945) (besides reluctantly putting his name to a Russian course to which he did not actually contribute).

I also located some "Discussion Notes" on "The Bloomfield-Jakobson Correspondence" (Morris Halle, Language 64(4) 737-754, 1988), which includes this passage:

During the war years, the American Council of Learned Societies had obtained a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the training of teachers and the preparation of teaching material for foreign languages needed by the military. Bloomfield was a major participant in these activities. He wrote one of the two main manuals on methodology, the Outline guide for the practical study of foreign languages; he wrote both volumes of the Spoken Dutch course and co-authored (with Luba Petrova) the text of Spoken Russian as well as the grammatical introduction for the War Department's Russian Dictionary.

Morris references J. Milton Cowan, "Peace and War", LSA Bulletin 64 28-34 as a source. Cowan's obituary in Language (71(2) 341-348, 1995) contains some additional information, starting with this interesting background:

At the university [of Iowa], Milt's affiliations were with the departments of psychology, dramatic art, and German. The records are sketchy, but in 1934 he was apparently a research assistant in dramatic art, which at that time was the appropriate department for the study of experimental phonetics; in 1936 he was an assistant research associate in the same department, with the same focus; and from 1938 through June 1940 he was assistant professor of German. Meanwhile he had earned his doctorate, with a thesis, "Pitch, intensity, and rhythmic movements in American dramatic speech" ...

In 1934 Milt had joined the Modern Language Association, in 1936 the Acoustical Society of America, and in 1937, as already noted, our own Society [i.e. the LSA]. In 1941 he was chairman of the experimental phonetics section of the Modern Language Association; in 1941-42, a member of the advisory board to the journal American Speech.

On July 13 [1937, at the LSA Linguistic Institute] he gave a luncheon-conference talk on intonation in English, French, and German; later, on Wednesdsay, August 11, he and Bernard Bloch gave back-to-back talks on the movements of the vocal organs during speech as revealed by special kinds of motion pictures ... A year and half later, at the 1938 annual meeting, the record shows a new pair of papers from the two of them, this time on phrasing and syntax.

In December 1940, Cowan became Secretary-Treasurer of the LSA, and in 1941 he became the "roving overseer" of the ACLS program in strategic languages:

As early as the mid 1930, F. Mortimer Graves, the secretary of the ACLS, had recognized that the United States was badly in need of people with competence in "strategic languages", including many not tuaght at any institution in the country. In 1941 he obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, with which he established the ILP and began to sponsor a series of pilot courses in some of those languages. The courses were built on a triad of premises well known to us linguists but still unfamiliar to a distressingly large proportion of the general educated public: (1) the primacy of speech over writing, which means the learner must hear, imitate, and understand native (or near-native) speakers of the target language; (2) intensive concentration -- as many hours per day as possible; and (3) guidance by someone trained in linguistic analysis, in order to focus on the real differences between the learner's native language and that being acquired and to avoid the multitudinous time-wasting traps that arise from popular misconceptions about the nature of language. ...

Milt's role in the ACLS was as roving overseer of this enterprise, a project intitially small but very shortly expanded by the military authorities into the large-scale Army Specialized Training Program, involving thousands of soldier-students and many universities.

This obituary indicates that an expanded version of Cowan 1975 was published as "American linguistics in peace and war", pp. 67-82 in Konrad Koerner, ed., First person singular II, 1991.

The humanities certainly have changed since 1940. Aside from the different attitude towards cooperation with the government and the military, I'm surprised to learn that the MLA had an "experimental phonetics section", and that in the late 1930s, the "department of dramatic art" at the University of Iowa "was the appropriate department for the study of experimental phonetics". Back to the future!

[Roger Shuy writes:

Back in the late fifties up to the mid sixties, I belonged to MLA and went to the annual meetings between Christmas and New Years, alternating between Chicago and New York. I remember that there were sections on experimental phonetics at that time but they were very poorly attended.

I also recall the time that Cowan advised me, later verified by others, that he didn't like to have a period after his first initial. And at LSA, which was then housed at CAL, everyone called him Uncle Miltie.

I still have on my books shelves copy of a 1957 book called Applied Phonetics, by Claude Merton Wise, chairman of LSU's Department of Speech. His admitted audience included "actors,play directors, interpretive readers, radio and television speakers."

Too bad about the "poorly attended" part. That was the heyday of the Acoustical Society as the center of phonetics research, but there should have been plenty of reason to continue phonetics (and other aspects of linguistics) in the mix at the MLA.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:07 PM

Singular friends?

It's orthogonal to the point of Mark's post, but in thinking about the expression, 'be friends with', a few questions sprang into my head, and having (I think) introspectively answered them to my satisfaction, I decided to inflict the whole train of thought on the rest of the world.

First, note that the expression 'be friends with' is one of them there symmetric predicates, related to the 'essentially plural' predicate 'be friends', which requires a plural subject:

(1) X and Y are friends

(2) a. X is friends with Y
b.Y is friends with X

It's like the way 'be married to' is related to the essentially plural predicate 'be married':

(3) X and Y are married

(4) a. X is married to Y
b. Y is married to X

"(Be) married" in this case is an adjectival passive, and "(be) friends" here looks like a predicate nominal. In their singular-subject forms, both involve idiosyncratically selecting a preposition to introduce the non-subject argument (to or with, respectively).

However, with respect to 'be friends', I think it's likely that an interesting process of idiomatization involving category change has occurred. In (5),

(5) X and Y are friends

the plural nominal predicate 'friends' is appropriate because the subject is plural. It's behaving like the straightforward nominal predicate in (6) below: plural subject, plural predicate. Singular predicates are not possible with plural subjects, and vice versa; nominal predicates must agree in number with their subjects:

(6) a. X and Y are doctors
b. *X and Y are a doctor.
c. *X is doctors.
d. X is a doctor.

Originally, X and Y are friends would have been symmetrical with the following singular and truly nominal predicate constructions, entailment-wise:

(7) a. X is a friend to Y
b. Y is a friend to X

These are behaving appropriately: nominal predicates with singular subjects take singular predicates, as in (6). Note that a plural predicate here sounds bizarre:

(8) *X is friends to Y

So why is "X is friends with Y" grammatical? If 'be friends with' is a real nominal predicate, it shouldn't be able to take a singular subject.

I think "X and Y are friends" must have undergone reanalysis, to become an idiomatic predicate adjective construction where the plural -s isn't really doing its plural job. That is, in the minds of speakers, [[friend]N -s]Pl changed to [friends]A .

A predicate adjective isn't marked for number with respect to its subject in English, the way nominal predicates are, so that the faux-plural form 'friends', now a predicate adjective, became acceptable with a singular subject. Hence, X is friends with Y is grammatical.

The proof that 'friends' is not the same nominal as 'friend' here is that as a predicate, it takes a different preposition than 'friend', namely 'with', rather than 'to' (though the change in preposition in itself doesn't confirm that friends is now an adjective in this expression -- but it does confirm that it's a different friend than the one in be a friend to).

If you're interested in the subtler semantic issues with symmetric predicates, you might check out the following, which I found with a quick Google: an abstract from Martin Hackl about these and other similar but not-the-same plural-subject predicates (from which I got the term 'essentially plural').

So a linguist's Sunday morning goes.

PS. What does it mean that 'be friends with' can be modified by 'best' without invoking a uniqueness presupposition?

John and Mary are best friends/Mary is best friends with John.

You can't do that with normal nominal predicates: John and Mary are *(the) best doctors.

And, of course, 'best' can't modify adjectives, being the superlative form of one itself. That's kind of problematic for my friends-as-adjective hypothesis.

"Be best friends (with)" is related, semantically, to the following real predicate nominal expressions, which do require the the:

John is the best friend of Mary.
Mary is the best friend of John.

Maybe it's just that 'be best friends' is also an idiom.


Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:17 PM

Is he friends of a copy editor?

Jim Gordon wrote to point out an odd construction in this morning's NYT (Tracie Rozhon, "To Have, Hold and Cherish, Until Bedtime", 3/11/2007):

Fred Tobin, a builder in North Canton, Ohio, is friends of a prominent couple in Columbus whose house was remodeled with two master bedrooms. The wife sleeps on one side of the house, the husband on the other. “It’s a hush-hush thing,” Mr. Tobin said. “The husband travels a lot, all the time, and he comes home late, and he wants to be able to check his e-mail and go to bed without waking her up.” [emphasis added]

Google turns up about 28,000 instances of {"is friends of"}, but at least the first few hundred examples are almost all FAQs of the form "What is Friends of NRA?", "What is Friends of Fiber Art International?", "What is Friends of the Dog Park, Inc.?", etc., with a sprinkling of other uses of the Friends of X construction as a singular proper noun (e.g. "One of the groups opposed to the Potter Valley Project is Friends of the Eel River"). I couldn't find any other examples of the form "X is friends of Y", where X is a person and Y is one or more people -- so it's not surprising that Jim was surprised by this usage.

However, there's a closely related pattern, "X is friends with Y", which is very common indeed: {"is friends with"} gets 322,000 hits. A shocking number of the high-page-rank hits are math or computer-science problems, e.g. this one or this one, and some are discussions of social networking friends lists, but there are plenty of old-fashioned examples like "What's really hard to figure out about Nick, though, is that he is friends with Ramona.", or "The whole time I was friends with those girls it never occurred to me that they were not really friends with me."

Though I'm not sure I can prove it by the pattern of web hits, I have the impression that "be friends with" is an informal construction. Searching Google News for {"is friends with"}, I find that out of the first 30 hits, 13 involve sports or entertainment figures. This is relevant because sports and entertainment stories are generally written in a more informal register. Of course, it might be that 43% of all people referenced in news stories are sports or entertainment figures, I don't know.

In any case, I wonder if the phrase in the NYT article didn't start out as "... is friends with a prominent couple in Columbus ...", and then get edited (by the author or by a copy editor) to change with to of. This would make it an incorrection or a self-incorrection, of the type where someone tries to eliminate a usage that is perceived to be informal, and creates a real clunker as a result.

Some additional evidence: this story went out on the NYT wire, and was republished elsewhere (e.g. in the Seattle Times under the headline "New homes, separate his-and-her bedrooms", 3/11/2007) with with rather than of:

Fred Tobin, a builder in North Canton, Ohio, is friends with a prominent couple in Columbus whose house was remodeled with two master bedrooms. The wife sleeps on one side of the house, the husband on the other. "It's a hush-hush thing," Tobin said. "The husband travels a lot, all the time, and he comes home late, and he wants to be able to check his e-mail and go to bed without waking her up."

I don't know whether the story went out on the wire with of, and was corrected to with in Seattle, or went out with with, and was incorrected to of in New York; but my money's on the second option.

[For a discussion of an incorrection nipped in the bud by curiosity and access to the OED, see To revivify or condemn", posted on 3/10/2007 at English, Jack.]

[Update -- the plot thickens. The version of the story that ran at the Chicago Tribune, under the headline "Couples find wedded bliss more blissful in separate bedrooms", had "Fred Tobin, a builder in North Canton, Ohio, is friends of a prominent couple in Columbus whose house was remodeled with two master bedrooms." But according to someone in a position to know, the Orlando Sentinel ran the phrase as is a friend of a prominent couple in Columbus. So maybe it ran on the wire as is friends of, and editors in Seattle and Orlando corrected it in two different ways.

And Chas Belov wrote to observe that the is friends of wording also ran in the Rutland Herald and the Houston Chronicle, and that the Rutland Herald version includes editing schmutz ("(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)" and "(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)"), which strongly suggests they ran the article without looking at it. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:38 AM

March 10, 2007

Arkansas apostrophism

Despite my deep lack of interest in punctuation -- I'm disinterested, uninterested, and even anti-interested -- I've joined the rest of the English-speaking world in following the Great Arkansas Apostrophe Debate ever since it hit the AP wires at the end of last month (Jon Gambrell, "Arkansas House to Argue Over Apostrophes", AP, 2/27/2007):

Call it Arkansas' apostrophe act -- or, as Rep. Steve Harrelson would have it, "Arkansas's apostrophe act."

Harrelson filed a resolution Tuesday to declare the correct possessive form of the state as "Arkansas's." The resolution carries no legal weight, Harrelson acknowledged, but said a family friend who works as a historian asked him to carry the grammar fight to the floor.

The legislator who filed the resolution has a blog -- an impressive one, I'd vote for him if I lived in his district -- and he discussed the question back on January 23 ("Arkansas's Grammar Lesson"):

For years, Parker Westbrook (click for bio) has been educating Arkansans about the appropriate spelling and usage of the possessive case of Arkansas. Westbrook, who worked with my grandfather Boyd Tackett (D-Arkansas) on his congressional staff back in the 40s, has asked me to introduce a resolution to amend the 1881 Arkansas General Assembly resolution recognizing the state's pronunciation (Ark-an-saw rather than ar-KAN-sas) to include appropriate usage of the word in the possessive case.

I have noticed that prominent politicians and businessmen in the state now use the spelling Arkansas's rather than Arkansas' when using the word in the possessive case. The Arkansas Times is known (and refers to itself) as "Arkansas's Newspaper of Politics and Culture." I once referred a Times column to a national publication, who in turn replied with the old aloof [sic] brackets after Arkansas's.

The style manual published by the New York Times even uses Arkansas's as an example using the apostophe and an "s" when a name ends with a sibilant letter that is silent. Parker Westbrook is "sticking to the word of the law," and he wants to make sure all Arkansans know the correct spelling of our state in the possessive case. Next time a yankee tells you that you're wrong when you use Arkansas's, send 'em to Parker.

After Harrelson's resolution passed the Arkansas house unanimously, the reaction was not only local (Jim Williamson, "S, we're paying attention", Texarkana Gazette, 3/8/2007), but also national, and even the Guardian picked up the AP story (Andrew DeMillo, "Arkansas House Backs Apostrophe Act", 3/6/2007).

Over at the Arkansas Times ("Arkansas's newspaper of politics and culture"), they've also got a blog, where the post on the bill's passage netted some entertaining comments. As you'd expect, the entertaining parts are mostly not about punctuation:

People that know Parker know that he is an effective lobbyist. He knows how to press the flesh. I hear he had to buttonhole every member of the House to get this one passed. Some he had to buttonhole two or three times. Viciously. Right there outside the House chamber. We're talking take-no-prisoners buttonholing. I mean, I've seen some serious lobbyist buttonholers in my time, but Parker Westbrook is truly Arkansas's King of the Buttonholers. He has been engaged in flagrant buttonholery since his days with David Pryor. Having buttonholed the hell out of the House, Parker will be heading to the Senate to buttonhole those guys. Every damn one better assume the position, cuz Parker's coming, and you're gonna get buttonholed. Hard.

The Daily Headlines at the University of Arkansas led with a skeptical headline "Arkansas'? Arkansas's? Who's to Say?" (3/7/2007), and attributed to Patrick Slattery ("associate professor of English who instructs the graduate students who teach English composition to first-year students") an even more skeptical prediction: "Slattery predicted the gradual abandonment of the apostrophe altogether". Slattery had better mind his buttonhole if Lynne Truss ever comes through Fayetteville.

One angle that none of the commentators seem to have checked out yet: what would Antonin Scalia do?

[Jan Freeman offers a quick survey of style-book and language-maven variation on this point ("Possessed by punctuation", The Boston Globe, 3/4/2007):

If you follow AP style, you'll always use just the apostrophe to make a singular noun possessive: Arkansas' voters, the boss' temper, Jesus' words. But other usage guides prefer the apostrophe plus s -- with just enough exceptions to keep us on our toes.

For Strunk & White, it's Arkansas's and the boss's, but Jesus' and Achilles' (thanks to a great-grandfather clause). The New York Times and the Globe also like Arkansas's, but their possessive rule has a sibilant-overload circuit breaker. So you write Arkansas's weather but Kansas' crops (and Jesus' words).

The Chicago Manual of Style says it's Kansas's and boss's, but when a final sibilant is silent, you can switch to apostrophe-only style: Camus' depression, Francois' flirtation, Arkansas' solons.

And older stylebooks -- including the original Chicago, a century ago -- sometimes add the s to one-syllable words only, regardless of sound: the boss's hat, the princess' tiara, Arkansas' grammarians.

There are other "rules" out there as well.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:43 AM

March 09, 2007

The new p-word

We've talked a lot about taboo words in our Language Log posts. To refresh your memory, Arnold Zwicky has a nice list of them here. Public censorship apparently is on the march, forbidding newspapers, television, and even libraries to use certain words relating to ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, body functions and even anatomically correct body parts.

Now it's polar bears, at least for U.S. scientists attending meetings abroad (see here). The plight of polar bears associates  naturally with global climate change these days. But recently these scientists got a memo from the Fish and Wildlife Service telling them to can it. MSNBC reports some of what the memo said:

Listed as a "new requirement" for foreign travelers on U.S. government business, the memo says that requests for foreign travel "involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears" require special handling, including notice of who will be the official spokesman for the trip. The Fish and Wildlife Service top officials need assurance that the spokesman, "the one responding to questions on these issues, particlularly polar bears" understands the administration's position on these topics.

You get the connection. Polar bears are being considered under the Endangered Species Act because scientific reports say their icy habitat is being melted by global warming. And the plight of these white-furred behemoths (I'm practicing not using the p-word here) may be an indicator of our need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Now we wouldn't want that, would we?

So, you mad scientists, don't mention polar bears!

Posted by Roger Shuy at 05:48 PM

Writers, journalists and poets are also not above board

I don't know any Telugu, but this review of a Telugu usage manual makes me uneasy (Ambika Abanth, "Usage in Telugu language", The Hindu, 3/6/2007 -- review of T. Sanjeevarao, Teleugu Ghashalo Melakuvalu):

TO THE author of this book, working with zeal to instill in students clarity and flawlessness while writing and speaking Telugu the prescribed textbooks in schools came as a shock. Misspellings and grammatical errors are in plenty. Further he also observed erroneous usage of the language in newspapers, magazines and the electronic media. Writers, journalists and poets are also not above board. A serious study of this resulted in a series of essays and this volume is a compilation of those articles. The errors are classified as those of ignorance, of carelessness and those arising due to misconceived notions. By repeated usage in print and in day-to-day speech some of the bloomers gained general approval.

Everyone makes mistakes, it's true. But could the Telegu of textbooks, newspapers, magazines, novels, poems -- every writer in every genre -- really be nothing but one "bloomer" after another? Or could this be a compilation of Telegu incorrections?

The review continues:

Most common and basic of these are analysed under various meaningful sub-headings, pointing out the correct forms of these words with grammatical explanations. One feels surprised at the predominance of Sanskrit grammar over Telugu.

One does, does one?

[via AmyP at omnivorous, "Attack of the Language Cranks"]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:52 PM

Reading corruption?

When I recently posted about wordwide arguments over how to teach reading ("The globalization of educational fads and fallacies", 3/2/2007), I noted with sadness that the issue has become politicized. Reading instruction has been adopted by partisans in broader culture wars, and also has become the focus of alleged influence-peddling and patronage in the context of struggles over the federal Reading First program.

A story in today's NYT (Diana Jean Schemo, "In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash") seems to endorse, at least by implication, the idea that pressuring schools to use phonics is a conspiracy on the part of educational publishers and contractors, abetted by corrupt federal bureaucrats.

In my earlier post, I quoted the invocation of this theme in an article by Stephen Metcalf in the Nation almost five years ago ("Reading Between the Lines", 1/10/2002): teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher.

I also quoted in response a letter by David Pesetsky:

The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many.

Reading instruction one of the most important public policy issues of our time, and it's all too easily seen as a mythic struggle: tradition vs. innovation; science vs. stupidity; central vs. local; coercion vs. freedom; honesty vs. corruption. The trouble is, all sides of the debate see in themselves the positive aspects of every one of these oppositions, and cast the opponents in the corresponding negative roles.

I'm not straddling the fence on the pedagogical issues here: I strongly agree with the anti-whole-language position of K. Rayner et al., "How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading", Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2(2) 31-74, 2001 (published in a popular version as K. Rayner et al., "How Should Reading be Taught?" Scientific American, 2002). But that makes it all the more important to give serious consideration to the charges in Schemo's article.

Here's the article's core:

According to interviews with school officials and a string of federal audits and e-mail messages made public in recent months, federal officials and contractors used the program to pressure schools to adopt approaches that emphasize phonics, focusing on the mechanics of sounding out syllables, and to discard methods drawn from whole language that play down these mechanics and use cues like pictures or context to teach.

Federal officials who ran Reading First maintain that only curriculums including regular and systematic phonics lessons had the backing of “scientifically based reading research” required by the program.

But in a string of blistering reports, the Education Department’s inspector general has found that federal officials may have violated prohibitions in the law against mandating, or even endorsing, specific curriculums. The reports also found that federal officials overlooked conflicts of interest among the contractors that advised states applying for grants, and that in some instances, these contractors wrote reading programs competing for the money, and stood to collect royalties if their programs were chosen.

After spending a couple of hours looking into these charges, I couldn't find a great deal of fire behind the smoke. Schemo's article highlights the case of the school system in Madison WI, which decided to pass up $2M in federal Reading First money because of difficulties in getting its preferred curriculum approved. But I couldn't figure out whether this was because the curriculum genuinely didn't meet the criteria, or because of bureaucratic bungling and obfuscation at one level or another, or (as the article implies) because the Education Department is really trying to push certain particular commercial programs for corrupt reasons.

Many people -- including me -- think that the American tradition of state and local control of curriculum is in general a good thing; and so the Reading First law contained the expected tightrope-walking provisions to respect local educational autonomy while mandating "evidence-based reading policy". If the issues with the Education Department's implementation were just somewhat heavy-handed attempts to counter decades of Whole Language political entrenchment at the state and local level, I'd be inclined to file the complaints under "turn about is fair play". But an article by Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post last October ("Billions for an Inside Game on Reading", 10/1/2006) made the problem seem more like conventional graft and patronage, decoupled from support for any particular pedagogical approach:

But it wasn't just about phonics.

Success for All is the phonics program with the strongest record of scientifically proved results, backed by 31 studies rated "conclusive" by the American Institutes for Research. And it has been shut out of Reading First. The nonprofit Success for All Foundation has shed 60 percent of its staff since Reading First began; the program had been growing rapidly, but now 300 schools have dropped it. Betsy Ammons, a principal in North Carolina, watched Success for All improve reading scores at her school, but state officials made her switch to traditional textbooks to qualify for the new grants.

"You can't afford to turn down the federal money," Ammons said. "But why should we have to give up on something that works?"

The Success for All website asserts that their program "meets and exceeds all of the requirements for Reading First", and offers a set of "resource documents that may help you in writing your Reading First grant", along with a promise of "assistance with writing grants for Reading First or other federal grants". I don't know why SFA was "shut out of Reading First", or whether this has continued. More important, I couldn't tell whether the broader implications of Grunwald's article were the result of valid whistle-blowing, or just intellectual politics presented as anti-corruption activism.

No matter which educational theories are implemented, grade-school textbooks are big business. Although in principle local school districts usually make the choice, there are complex constraints and influences at every level, especially in the form of state-government mandates -- that's what the infamous Kansas evolution-teaching fuss was about. In the U.S., the national government plays an unusually small role in such matters, and the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (ED-OIG) is assiduous in guarding the boundaries of its influence. That seems to be mainly what's behind what Schemo called "a string of blistering reports" from ED-OIG about the implementation of Reading First.

ED-OIG reports and resources are available here. Looking through them, I'm not sure that "blistering" is the word I would have chosen. For example, "The Department's Administration of Selected Aspects of the Reading First Program", ED-OIG/A03G006, February 2007, says that

As part of the U.S. Department of Education's (Department) efforts to equip states with the information and resources needed to implement the Reading First provision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB Act), the Department and the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) sponsored three major reading academies, the Secretary’s Reading Leadership Academies (RLAs). The RLAs were held in Washington, D.C., in January and February 2002, and hosted policymakers and key education leaders from every state and territory in the nation. The academies were designed to help state leaders gear up for the implementation of Reading First, the Department’s program to improve the quality of reading instruction in kindergarten through third grade. The Department also provided support to states and districts in their Reading First program implementation by funding the National Center for Reading First Technical Assistance (NCRFTA) contract.

The objective of our audit was to determine whether the Department carried out its role in accordance with applicable laws and regulations in administering the RLAs and related meetings and conferences, the NCRFTA contract award process, and its website and guidance for the Reading First program.

Our audit disclosed that the Department generally administered its Reading First website, and its Guidance for the Reading First Program, dated April 2002, in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. With regard to the RLAs, we concluded that the Department did not have controls in place to ensure compliance with the Department of Education Organization Act (DEOA) and NCLB Act curriculum provisions. Specifically, we found that: 1) the “Theory to Practice” sessions at the RLAs focused on a select number of reading programs; and 2) the RLA Handbook and Guidebook appeared to promote the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Assessment Test. With regard to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) technical proposal for the NCRFTA contract, we concluded that the Department did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity when approving individuals to be technical assistance providers before and after the NCRFTA contract was awarded.

One way to translate this might be: "The Reading Leadership Academies were not vague enough".

The RMC Research Corporation's role is addressed in more detail in "RMC Research Corporation’s Administration of the Reading First Program Contracts", ED-OIG/A03F0022, March 2007; but again, the report seems to me to be far from "blistering":

Our audit disclosed that RMC did not adequately address COI issues. As a result, we identified two instances in which RMC may have provided inappropriate assistance to the SEAs while providing TA during the first two contracts. We also found that RMC did not include the required COI clause in its subcontracts and consulting agreements, did not adequately vet TA providers for reading product relationships and affiliations, and did not have formal COI policies and procedures (including the subcontractors). Except as noted above, our audit disclosed that RMC generally provided appropriate guidance and information to the TACs during the third RF contract.

In addition, we found that the referral of states to the Oregon Reading First Center (ORFC) and the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) reading program reviews, and the lack of TAC websites may have led to some states’ perception that there was an approved list of reading programs for use in the Reading First program. We also found that consultant agreements were not obtained from all consultants and some agreements were not signed.

Again, the impression is that there were some irregularities, some of them technical and some of them substantive, but no evidence of big-time corruption.

I'll freely confess that I don't know much about the byzantine world of U.S. federal, state and local education bureaucracies, either in general or with respect to the issue of reading instruction. If you do, and have some personal experience or recommended reading to offer, tell me.

For a survey of the political history as well as the intellectual issues, I recommend G. Reid Lyon, Sally E. Shaywitz, Bennett A. Shaywitz, and Vinita Chhabra, "Evidence-Based Reading Policy in the United States: How Scientific Research Informs Instructional Practices", Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2005.

Liz Ditz has an interesting collection of posts and links here, from the point of view of a parent.

[And Ken DeRosa at d-edreckoning makes a persuasive case for the title of his post, "Schemo gets pwned":

...the Madison school district has the audacity to claim that their reading program is actually boosting student performance.


It should have taken Diana Jean Schemo, this article's author, about half an hour on the internet to figure out that the "Madison officials" were spinning the "reading scores."

DeRosa argues that the test results show that Wisconsin state-wide reading scores remained basically unchanged, and that kids in the Madison school system slipped back slightly relative to the state as a whole.

The argument is a bit complicated, since Wisconsin changed its tests and its reporting procedures during the crucial period. But DeRosa's argument seems pretty persuasive to me. If he's right, then I'd consider a different evaluation -- was Schemo bamboozled by the Madison school authorities, or did she pick Madison, and spin the story as she did, in order to make an essentially dishonest point, suggesting that the mean old federal bureaucrats are trying to stop the dedicated local educators from continuing to use the methods that are helping their children so much? ]

[Update 3/11/2007 -- EW writes:

I've been going to school in the Madison Metropolitan School District for almost 12 years now, and I can affirm that the reading instruction is at best mediocre. My memories of early elementary school are, to say the least, a bit fuzzy; however, I was recently discussing that article with my mom, and she remembers being unsatisfied with reading instruction in schools -- she basically taught me and my brother to read herself, so in elementary school we were both reading at ridiculously high levels, but she did used to volunteer in the classrooms, and she says she was definitely told not to tell kids to sound words out when they had help reading them. And even in high school, a lot of pople don't have very high reading levels, and kind of freeze when they're reading aloud and come across an unknown word. Of course, this is all anecdotal, and I don't have a lot of examples off the top of my head. However, as has been said several times, a kid who guesses "pumpkin" for "pea" in the third grade has not recieved adequate reading instruction.

(And on a snider note, I'm surprised that Madison didn't change the policy to get the money -- they've made quite a lot of changes for the worse to get grants, and this change looks like it might actually be for the better . . . Madison, WI: We don't teach abstinence-only or phonics, but other than that, we'll bend over backwards to get your money. Although school funding in Wisconsin pretty much sucks, so it's rather excusable.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:06 AM

March 08, 2007


As they say: funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?  Or something more ominous?  Here's a Get Fuzzy take on it.

(Thanks to my customary Get Fuzzy source, Alex Martin.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 05:57 PM

The language of first contact

... is, apparently, Glaxitian, according to this Bizarro cartoon:

[People are writing in to say that this cartoon might have been influenced by an episode of the television show The Simpsons.  In the second season, the "Treehouse of Horror" episode (for Halloween 1990) has a segment in which the family is abducted by space aliens, Kang and Kodos.  Memorable exchange: Marge: "You speak English?"  Kang: "I am actually speaking Rigellian. By an astonishing coincidence, both of our languages are exactly the same."

Of course, as Steve McKinney points out, the cartoon might be an independent parody of the familiar trope in television science fiction that aliens speak English, or whatever the language of the show's audience is.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 05:18 PM


In my recent posting on generic pronouns, I looked at the following sentence from Elsa Dixler:

(1) Every artist "becomes" herself as she matures...

(with forms of feminine singular she used for generic reference) and contemplated various alternatives, including one with "singular they":

(2) Every artist "becomes" themselves as they mature...

which I found grotesque.  My mailbox is now filling up with suggestions that I should have gone for "singular themself":

(3) Every artist "becomes" themself as they mature...

I omitted this possibility in the hope that I could achieve a brief and quick posting, without going into an assortment of side issues.  But, once again, that is not to be.

The very short response to my correspondents is that singular themself is not standard.  As MWDEU (1989) puts it (p. 898):

This use of themself is similar to the use of they, their, and them in reference to singular terms...  Such use of they, their, and them is old and well established, but this use is not.

Wilson's Columbia Guide (1993) is stern on the matter (p. 435):

Theirselves and themself for themselves are limited to Vulgar English or imitations of it; both are shibboleths.

adding that

Themself can also occur as an unfortunate result of trying to avoid using a gender-explicit reflexive pronoun by using a blend of the plural them with the singular self.  The choices are themselves or himself or herself or both the last two...

(Wilson is perfectly happy with singular they.  In fact, he recommends it, in all but the most formal writing.)

Burchfield's Fowler's (1996, rev. 1998) is more moderate.  Noting that themself had an earlier history, but largely disappeared from sight after the 16th century, Burchfield reports (p. 777):

A remarkable by-product of the search for gender-neutral pronouns, themself re-emerged in the 1980s.  It is a minority form, but one that turns up from time to time...  This new pronominal form can hardly be viewed as standard--yet.

(On p. 779, Burchfield accepts singular they, though with a hint of reluctance.)

Here on Language Log, references to singular themself have been few, mostly in passing, though there is one use of it by Geoff Pullum in a defense of generic they (it's in Geoff's second example):

The commonest way to get around the gender problem here is to use singular they: Was it your father or your mother who broke their leg on a ski trip?; Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself. Shakespeare used it; Jane Austen used it; loads of fine authors use it. Get used to it. And if you have a usage book like Strunk and White that declares singular they to be an error, throw that book away.

Shakespeare and Austen certainly used singular they, but so far as I know neither of them used singular themself.

The linguistic literature on singular themself is pretty sparse.  The most extensive study I know of is a Stanford honors thesis by Joel Wallenberg, written under my direction in 2003 and unfortunately not generally available.  He used both corpus searches and informant judgments, collected by e-mail, to map out the variation in singular themself (themself-I, I for "individual", as in (3) above); themselves with singular reference (themselves-I, as in (2) above); and two non-standard reflexives you might not have suspected were out there, themself and ourself with PLURAL reference (themself-N and ourself-N, N for "numerous"), as in The kids hurt themself and We hurt ourself.  (In this notation, the standard reflexives are themselves-N and ourselves-N.)

His 33 informants sorted themselves into groups on several dimensions.  People in the two largest groups accepted both themselves-I and themself-I.  The next largest group accepted themself-I but NOT the prescribed standard themselves-I.  In fact, only 4 of the 33 did not accept themself-I, suggesting that Burchfield is probably right in thinking that themself-I is the wave of the future.

Back to the New York Times.  Would it countenance themself-I?  Well, yes, but not often, and mostly in material quoted from speech, plus occasionally in "light" contexts (sports, feature stories, and the like).  A search through the archives pulled up only 38 occurrences since 1981, which is less than two per year.  Some of these are duplicates, one is from a Safire column deprecating the usage, and most of the rest are in material quoted from speech.  I suspect that if Dixler had used (3) above, it would have been altered to (2).

[More mail, now suggesting the variant theirself.  This is a double loser: possessive instead of accusative first element, and singular instead of plural second element.  Raw Google web statistics bear this out:

themselves (both parts standard) 138,000,000

  themself (first part standard) 1,230,000

theirselves (second part standard) 211,000

  theirself (neither part standard) 74,800]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 05:03 PM

English words for snow

A news bulletin on NPR's Morning Edition (3/6/07) about Juneau, Alaska, discussed snow there and ended with:

Four to six inches were expected before turning to rain.

I sent this on to the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct as being perfectly clear, but nevertheless very troubling, and noted that it was not improved by supplying an overt antecedent snow for the missing subject in before turning to rain:

Four to six inches of snow were expected to fall before turning to rain.

You still keep reading it as saying that the inches of fallen snow would turn to rain.  So something more than simple modifier-dangling is going on here.

Let me shift to a somewhat simpler example:

(1) Four inches of snow had accumulated before turning to rain.

Awful.  We can fix things by restoring the missing subject:

(2) Four inches of snow had accumulated before (the) snow turned to rain.

Now notice that the two occurrences of snow in (2) have somewhat different senses: the first occurrence refers to snow on the ground, fallen snow, while the second refers to snow in the air, falling snow.  I'll call these the APUT sense and the QANIK sense, respectively, using the corresponding West Greenlandic Eskimo roots as labels.  (Surely after all those years of our talking about the Eskimo words for snow here on Language Log, everybody will recall the two West Greenlandic roots.)  The problem with (1) is that we're trying to use APUT snow as an antecedent for an omitted element that must be understood as referring to QANIK snow.

This problem is parallel to the problem with

(3) The chicken looked delicious in the stew, despite having been raised in inhumane conditions.

where we have an occurrence of chicken 'chicken meat' being used to supply the meaning of the missing subject in despite having been raised in inhumane conditions, which involves a kind of domestic fowl, rather than the meat of these birds.  As Jerry Sadock and I, building on observations by George Lakoff, noted three decades ago -- the paper is now available here -- both explicit anaphors and omitted elements understood anaphorically (as in the predicative adjuncts above) can be used to detect ambiguities in expressions. I conclude from the problematic (3) that there are (at least) two different, but homophonous, words chicken; one of them can't stand in for the other.  And from the problematic (1) that there are (at least) two different, but homophonous, words snow; one can't be used to supply the meaning of the other.

In other (looser) words: English, like West Greenlandic, has two basic words for snow.  It just happens that in English the words are homophones, while in West Greenlandic they're not at all similar phonologically.

A little complicating twist: using APUT snow as an antecedent for an omitted element that must be understood as referring to QANIK snow gets you in trouble, but the opposite use isn't nearly so bad:

(4)  The snow reduced visibility to only a few feet, before accumulating to almost three feet in our driveway.

What's going on here, I think, is that a reference to QANIK snow permits an inference to APUT snow, since falling snow results, very quickly, in fallen snow.  Snow in the air is just a moment away from being snow on the ground.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:46 PM

When and when not to lie

Before, during, and after the "Scooter" Libby trial, lying was much on the minds of press writers. Here at Language Log Plaza we've been mildly interested in the topic too -- see here, here, and here.  Well, I guess I should say that I've been interested in it, since these links are all to my own posts. I suppose everyone tells a whopper once in a while but we have to be pretty careful about who we tell our lies to. Just in case you may be planning to tell a lie, the Washington Post here offers some helpful advice. Here's (more or less) the Post's sometimes light-hearted take on this, along with some telling bits of evidence.

You CAN NOT lie to:

A grand jury or the FBI:  evidence -- the outcome of the "Scotter" Libby trial.

The Securities Exchange Commission:  evidence -- the outcome of the Martha Stewart trial.

Oprah's talk show:  evidence -- James Frey's confession about the lies he told in his autobiography. She got him to come clean. Avoid Oprah. She's tough.

The Internal Revenue Service: evidence -- the IRS says it catches 50% of liars. Unless you're a gambler, it's probably not a good idea to try it.

Readers of your résumé:  evidence -- about half the writers include whoppers somewhere but, as the Post puts it, they're "just waiting to be truth-squaded."

New York Times editors:  evidence -- the NY Times reporter, Jayson Blair, who got caught making stuff up.

Your own children and spouse:  evidence -- Santa Claus, sex, etc. The doghouse looms large here.

Yourself:  (unless you can manage to believe your own lies, a dismal prospect at best)

But, apparently, you CAN lie to:

The American people: evidence -- Bill Clinton's sex adventures, to which one might add many political campaingn promises as well as a lot of commercial advertisements.

Congress: evidence -- the  tobacco companies that got away with a great deal despite possessing evidence that their product was harmful.

The United Nations: evidence -- well, this one is pretty obvious, isn't it?

Readers of some books: evidence --apparent falsification of references and facts (see here).

There seems to be a pattern here. To smaller audiences, such as individual government agencies, television talk show hosts, potential employers, editors, family members, and oneself, telling a lie is usually a very bad strategy. But on the grander scale of things, such as lying to entire countries, to Congress, to the United Nations, and to readers of best-seller books, lying  must seem worth a try..... but one would certainly hope not.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:15 PM

Journalistic dreamtime

Bill Decker drew my attention to the third of Rolf Potts' dispatches in Slate about outback tourism in Australia ("A Visit to the Artistic Hillbillies of Utopia", 3/7/2007), which includes a lovely specimen of the "No Word for X" snowclone:

For 40,000 years, the accumulation of possessions was considered an impediment to a lifestyle that required constant mobility within a harsh climate. Surplus food was used or destroyed, and refusal to share resources with the community (a cautionary motif in many aboriginal dreamtime stories) could result in violent punishment. Life was lived in the mythic moment; aboriginal languages had no words for "yesterday" or "tomorrow." [emphasis added]

Bill explained that "As a LL reader, I have become sensitized to certain phrases, especially those used in such an offhand manner". And his bullshit detector is well tuned: the sentence in boldface might be true in journalistic dreamtime, but it's bunk as real-world fact.

I asked Claire Bowern, and she responded:

Plenty of Australian languages have separate adverbs for yesterday and tomorrow (e.g. Bardi ngoorriji "tomorrow" and bardi "yesterday"; Yan-nhangu gordarr' "tomorrow" and gathara "yesterday".

In some languages "yesterday" and "tomorrow" are the same word (I think some South Indian languages have this too - I've heard of it elsewhere). Most languages in Australia have a tense/aspect system that distinguishes past from present from future (although not all do).

Elsewhere in his article, Potts mentions two languages spoken in the area he's writing about, which is called "Utopia":

Nearly the size of Luxembourg, this area includes more than a dozen remote communities, where the primary languages are Anmatyerr and Alyawarr, dialects vaguely similar to the Arrernte spoken in the Alice Springs area.

David Nash observed that

... a casual look at a Learners Guide for these languages shows the usual tense-marking by verb suffix, and lexical items for 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow'.

David adds

And writing as I am from Wiradjuri country, I can't let the opportunity pass to mention the exuberant slicing of time reference (etc) in the verb here, as recently mentioned in Peter Austin's paper 'The Aboriginal languages of south-eastern Australia' last year at the 2006 Kobe-Oxford conference on "The Linguistics of Endangered Languages". From Peter's draft, which I quote without his permission:

Contrasts found widely and only in south eastern Australian languages include encoding the time of day of an event as a suffix placed between the verb root and the tense inflection. Note: Hale (1846:494) who notes 'hodiernal past', 'hesternal past' and 'crastinal future' in Awabakal (which he confusingly calls "Kamilarai") and Wiradjuri.

That's Horatio Hale, "Ethnology and Philology", pp. 479-531 in Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, Volume 1 by Charles Wilkes. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1846. And on p. 494, Hale gives examples of the 8 "tenses" of Kamilarai and the 15 "tenses" of Wiradjuri. Linguists today would call these combinations of tense and aspect, I suspect, perhaps with incorporation of certain time-adverbials as well -- but under any description, they indicate a conceptual life with a clear sense of the passage of time and its division by the motions of the sun:

David started his note to me with an interesting observation about Potts' article and the journalistic process in general:

Well, I am grateful for being pointed to the three Potts pieces; I don't think I had heard of him.

Some clangers, and some fresh observations in there too (notably "I realize that his very strength as a tour guide is that he doesn't really give a crap about tourists.").

The irritating bits are mostly the genuine hearsay -- a presumably accurate report of tendentious stuff some guide told him repeated as accurate.

David pointed out that there's another major clanger among Potts' linguistic assertions (this one is from Potts' second dispatch, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Arrernte Country", 2/6/2007):

Before the arrival of European interlopers, indigenous Australian societies spoke around 250 languages and 700 dialects. Though all these aboriginal subcultures shared a land-based nomadic lifestyle, similar religious practices, and some forms of intertribal trade, they never developed a collective sense of "aboriginal" identity, and broad cultural variations existed across relatively short distances. British settlers in the late 18th century, for example, noted that Aborigines on the north side of Sydney Harbor spoke a different language from those living on the south side. To this day, most indigenous Australians identify more with their historical kinship group than a general "aboriginal" identity, and the closest thing to a cultural lingua franca is English (which is usually pidginized, since its vocabulary isn't well suited to expressing the nature-based indigenous worldview). [emphasis added]

The ideas implicit in the bold-faced phrase deserve a separate post. For the moment, let's just say that this is a novel and original theory of the origins of pidgins. No, actually, let's say that it's complete nonsense, yet another indication of how badly my profession has failed in preparing today's intellectual classes to think coherently about anything having to do with language and communication.

Among the dozens of Language Log posts on the "no word for X" fallacy, there are a few on the specific "no notion of time", "life in the mythic moment" variant:

"'60 Minutes' doomed to repeat itself" (12/24/2005)
"No word for 'lazy hack parroting drivel'?" (4/1/2005)
"No concept of the future, no yuccas either" (5/11/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:47 AM

March 07, 2007

Gendered generics

Sunday's New York Times Book Review (3/4/07) had two pieces with singular generic pronouns in them.  In each case, the reviewer was a woman, the author of the book was a woman, and the subject of the book was a woman.  But the reviews made two different choices of anaphors for a singular indefinite antecedent.

Here's Elsa Dixler reviewing Gail Levin's book on Judy Chicago (p. 22; anaphoric pronouns are bold-faced):

Every artist "becomes" herself as she matures, but for Judith Sylvia Cohen [Judy Chicago], the process was political as well as artistic.

The choice of feminine pronouns puts things from a woman's perspective, and possibly conveys some identification with the artist.  It's not surprising in this context, and I might not have taken note of it if I hadn't read, a few pages before:

The real pleasure of reading a memoir lies not in the consumption of confessions, but in watching a writer grapple with the reality that shaped him.

This is the beginning of Danielle Trussoni's review of Heather Byer's memoir Sweet (p. 17).  It uses the masculine pronoun, which some writers (but only, apparently, since Lindley Murray in 1795) insist is the only "correct" singular generic, but is famous for suggesting masculine referents rather than referents of either sex.  I found it especially jarring in this context. 

would have worked for me.  In this case, I'd be happy with "singular" them (but themselves... they would be grotesque in Dixler's sentence).  I could, I suppose, tolerate him or her (but himself or herself... he or she would be impossibly awkward in Dixler's sentence).  Re-working the whole thing into the plural -- "The real pleasure of reading memoirs lies not in the consumption of confessions, but in watching writers grapple with the reality that shaped them" -- strikes me as something of an improvement, since it is so clearly generalizing, while Trussoni's singular version invites you to focus on the particular writer under discussion.  (Dixler's sentence could be similarly re-worked -- "All artists 'become' themselves as they mature..." -- though here I rather like the focus on this particular artist.)

It's not hard to construct examples where the masculine pronoun suggests a masculine referent very strongly, for instance:

Someone is knocking at the door, but I can't tell who it is.  He's knocking very loudly.

Someone is an indefinite with specific reference, and anaphoric he appears to identify this person as male.  In the NYTBR examples, the generic pronouns are anaphoric to a NP with non-specific (in fact, universal) reference, and the gender-identification effect is less strong.  But not absent; a masculine generic pronoun is likely to be somewhat misleading.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 06:09 PM

Wars of political gayness

Now it's Moustafa Kemal Ataturk being teased with playground insults. When Ann Coulter taunted John Edwards, the Washington Post primly refused to print the word "faggot" (Howard Kurtz, "The Long Fuse on Ann Coulter's Bomb", 3/6/2007):

At the end of her speech Friday, Coulter said: "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word [expletive], so I'm kind of at an impasse.

But a Turkish court is so freaked out over a net-based back-and-forth between childish nationalists of various types over (as far as I know invented) assertions on youtube that Ataturk was gay (or, alternatively, that Ataturk was a great leader while Greeks are gay; or, alternatively...), that it has ordered a ban on access to youtube. Meanwhile, youtube seems to have removed most of the "Ataturk is gay" clips, while leaving a couple of hundred "Ataturk is not gay" responses in place, which would presumably be somewhat unsatisfying for offended Turks, if they could access youtube.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:42 PM

L'amour à la Franglaise

We Americans mostly don't care or even notice, but European excitement is building for the annual Eurovision song contest. And this year, the French are taking a new approach: the French entry L'amour à la française is half in English and half in (fractured) French, with the French lyrics sung in a fake English accent. According to

Ce sont donc les Fatals Picards qui ont été sélectionnés pour représenter la France à l'Eurovision, en mai.

Se définissant eux-mêmes comme de la "punk pour les nuls", les cinq membres du groupe ne manquent pas d'humour - leur nom donne déjà le ton. Ils chantent leur chanson L'amour à la française avec un faux accent anglais et leurs paroles veulent pas toujours dire grand chose. On est bien loin des mièvreries qu'on a l'habitude d'envoyer au concours.

So it's the Fatals Picards who've been chosen to represent France at the Eurovision song contest in May.

Defining themselves as "punk for dummies", the five members of the group don't lack humor -- their name already gives the tone. They sing their song L'amour à la française with a false English accent and their words don't always mean much. We're far away from the vapidities that we're used to sending to the competition.

You should reserve judgment about that last sentence until you've heard the song: how far away from vapidity is an ironic send-up of vapidity? As for the words not meaning much, they seem at least as comprehensible as your average pop lyrics, except for being partly in French and partly in English ("... sur le pont de la Seine, let's do it again...").

Of course, the Fatals Picards have a videoblog, where they explain (entry of January 21) that:

30 années d’échecs ont sali l’image de la France à travers le monde. Il est temps que cela cesse. La France ne peut plus être la risée de la chanson européenne une minute de plus. Votez pour les Fatals Picards lors l’émission du 6 mars sur France 3.

30 years of failure have soiled the image of France across the world. It's time for this to end. France cannot continue to be the laughing-stock of the Eurovision song content one minute longer. Vote for the Fatal Picards during the March 6 broadcast on France 3.

They offer a video of L'amour à la française, so you can judge for yourself. (I think the official entry is here if you want the full early-Beatles video styling; and another version of the video is here):

The subtext here seems to be, "Hey, Europe, this is what you expect from French culture? OK, here you go." It reminds me of the discovery, a couple of years ago, by Libération's Washington correspondent that all the Washington Post cared to hear from him was a comment on food.

Some more bilingual (non-)vapidity:

Et je cours, je cours, je cours,
I've lost l'amour, l'amour, l'amour,
Je suis perdu
Here without you
And I'm crazy,
Seul à Paris !
Je tu le manque [sic?],
Sans toi I can't.
Et sous la pluie, I feel sorry!

Here's a clip that illustrates the song's fractured French:

Je le cherchais à toi, dans les rues.
Je ne suis pas venir car tu ne l'es plus.
Je le regarde partout, where are you.
My heart is bleeding, oh I miss you.

With repect to pronunciation, focus on the vowels of "rues" and "plus" (IPA [u] instead of [y]), the heavily aspirated [p] in "plus", and the r's throughout, among other characteristics of caricatured English approximations to French. (And maybe it should be "chercher" instead of "cherchais"? I'm not sure just what sort of mistake they're trying to imitate here.)

Before becoming a "punk for dummies" band, the Fatal Picards were French university students, and there's apparently something wierd going on in the relationship between this generation of French students and the monde anglo-saxon. The world of the Fatals Picards is full of little clues to this. Let's start with the American flag in the group's picture at the top of this post. Then there's the fake English accent and the mixed English-French words of L'amour à la française. And on their bio page, the group's founder (Ivan) explains:

Quelle est ta date de naissance secrète ? : pour des raisons de secrétisme je ne peux malheureusement pas le dire mais c'est proche d'une date qui revient tous les ans
Si tu étais un animal secret tu serais : un chewing gum vivant
Si tu étais un personnage célèbre secret tu serais : François Valéry
Si tu étais une femme secrète tu serais : Maggie (Margaret Tatcher bien sûr, pas la série!!, Elle existe pas en vrai)

What is your secret date of birth? For reasons of secretism I unfortunately can't say, but it's near a date that recurs every year.
If you were a secret animal you would be: a living chewing gum.
If you were a secret famous person you would be: François Valéry.
If you were a secret woman you would be: Maggie (Margaret Tatcher [sic] of course, not the [TV] series!! She doesn't really exist)

Is this sort of like the post-cold-war fad for Soviet regalia among among some American youth? If you think you understand it, please clue me in.

[Hat tip: Ana Stulic]

[Update -- Julien Quint wrote to help me with some French linguistic and cultural translations. First, "... pour les nuls" is how the "... for dummies" series is translated into French. I didn't know that, and guessed incorrectly that given glosses in other contexts such as "void", "crappy", "trashy", "les nuls" would be a social category rather than an intellectual one. The rest of Julien's explanations:

* "secrétisme" is not an actual word, but a neologism which could recall French presidency candidate Ségolène Royal's neologisms such as "bravitude" or Chirac's older ones (e.g. "abracadabrantesque", which was stolen from Rimbaud (!) although it made a lot of noise at the time...)
* François Valéry is a cheesy singer who was popular about 20 years ago.

I knew cheese would come into it somewhere! But Julien saved the best for last:

* "Maguy" (mispelled as "Maggy") was a popular TV show on Antenne 2 (now France 2) in the eighties. Wikipedia says that it is a French adaptation of a US TV show called "Maude".

That's amazing. And it shows that there's still no substitute for human insight -- my net search skilz are pretty good, but I don't think I could have made the connection from "Maggie" to "Maguy" to "Maude". ]

[Ella writes:

I don't have any clues for you really, just more to add to the mystery - one of my favourite musical acts right now is a French group called Nouvelle Vague, who do Bossa Nova style covers of classic 80's New Wave hits and other classics from the same era. All sung by breathy francophone girls dripping classic French sex-appeal.

Well, it was more than 40 years ago that Jean-Philippe Smet changed his name to Johnny Hallyday, so learning that a French girl group is doing inspired covers of old Joy Division, Depeche Mode and Dead Kennedys songs doesn't surprise me as much as learning that this year's French Eurovision entry is a "punk for dummies" band pretending to be Brits singing in a mixture of English and bad French.

In a completely different vein, Alexander Kranjec wonders if there might be some resonance here with the anti-Germans, (wikipedia article here), a left-wing group in Germany (in fact a faction of the communist left), who support the American intervention in Iraq in the mode of a popular front against fascism. Surely there's no real connection here with the Fatals Picards, except that the increasingly strong anti-Americanism of Europe's elites apparently creates a space for a variety of strange cultural developments. Specifically, in France, the cultural hegemony of anti-liberal, anti-Anglo-Saxon attitudes has apparently made it amusingly daring for a punk rocker to say that if he were a woman, he'd be Maggie Thatcher. (Though songs like this one suggest that Ivan's attitude towards Thatcherism might be more than irony.)]

[And just to bring everything together, someone claiming to be Ann Coulter wrote in to comment on the preponderance of lavender hues in the Fatals Picards' music video. ]

[Hannah Levine suggests that

If you're looking for the influences behind the Fatal Picards' pidgin-pop, you have to look at the hugely popular Manu Chao, who, in the words of his Wikipedia entry "sings in French, Spanish, Arabic, Galician, Portuguese, English, and Wolof, often mixing them in the same song."

True enough, he's been singing mixed-language songs, including English and French, for years. Hannah also reminds us of another mixed-language entry (English, French and Hebrew), which may be banned by Eurovision for being too political. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:47 AM

March 06, 2007

Calling people faggot

"Best-selling right-wing author Ann Coulter, speaking to a conservative audience in Washington Friday, called former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a ‘faggot’", says the UPI news service. No she didn't! Let's get straight on the difference between calling someone something and using conversational implicature to get people to think it for themselves.

As UPI immediately goes on to say:

Coulter was a featured speaker at the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Following her prepared remarks, televised on C-Span, Coulter was asked to talk about Edwards.

"It turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I'm kind of at an impasse — I can't really talk about Edwards," she said.

She stated that use of a certain word (which she mentions but does not use) is now so destructive of one's place in society that entering a rehabilitation facility is required afterwards (the reference is to Isiah Washington), and therefore ("so") she can't discuss Edwards. The remark is clever, funny, and highly indirect, and it conversationally implicates that Edwards is a faggot but does not call him that. (With regard to the law of libel, this is still defamatory — in defamation law conversational implicature is called "innuendo"; but it doesn't matter, because it was long ago established in American law [New York Times vs. Sullivan] that public figures simply can't win a lawsuit over such things, even when the defamatory allegation was false and irresponsible.) I'll bet the line got a huge laugh. (I haven't viewed the video record. If you think I'm going to spend my evenings viewing videos of the Conservative Political Action Conference, then you have absolutely no idea of what my life is like.)

Let's not fall into careless talk about Coulter's language, then. She never called John Edwards a faggot. Not that she wouldn't: UPI notes that she is famous for having stated or implied that all sorts of Democrats are homosexuals — "including former Vice President Al Gore, former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton..." But keep in mind that Coulter is not a serious commentator or writer. She is a performance artist specializing in scurrilous allegations, slanderous insults, wild exaggerations. Her stage act stresses the portrayal of Democrats as irrational, treasonous, blasphemous, Arab-loving, America-hating, chardonnay-swilling, cock-sucking faggots.

And "faggot" is purely an insulting term for her, like "sissy" or "nutcase"; such words do carry certain lexical entailments ("homosexual" for faggot, "effete, feminine, and cowardly" for sissy, "mentally ill" for nutcase), they are typically not used as descriptive terms. Just as people call a bossy doctor's receptionist a fascist, without meaning that she operates a totalitarian militarized corporate state under a charismatic political leader, Coulter does not seriously think she could maintain the truth of the descriptive claim that Edwards' sexual desire is aroused exclusively by men. She's just implying that if she talked about him she would talk about him as a pansy, and she did it with a recently newsworthy taboo word just to be annoying and outrageous.

Coulter is quite a clever operator in her chosen sleazy profession of playing the role for the Christian right that Nancy Spungen played for the Sex Pistols. To object to what she does suggests a tendency to confuse showbiz with the business of government. Think of Coulter in a class with Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern, Sacha Baron Cohen, Andrew Dice Clay. Their job is outrageous shock humor, not presentation of news analysis concerning the sexual lives of married Democratic politicians. Get real. She's playing a game. And it's a game that anyone can play, of course.

By the way, a woman friend of mine in DC whose favorite color is lavender told me some really interesting things about Coulter, but I can't say a lot more. I really can't risk using the phrase "pussy-licking wildcat" in the same sentence as her name without having to go into rehab. Don't ask, I can't tell.

Added later: I hear CPAC has come out denying that they "condone or endorse the use of hate speech", but not exactly condemning Coulter. This is perfectly reasonable. She didn't in any way indulge in hate speech (there is hate speech against gays on the web, and it's not hard to find, but she ain't it), so the disavowal is pointless; and of course they aren't going to insult her after her appearance brought them so much visibility in the media. Heck, it even got them a mention on Language Log. They have hit the big time. Ann Coulter isn't going to be invited to write for Language Log, though, because her writing is not only obnoxious but also obscure, and she thinks which is grammatically forbidden at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause, the silly bimbo. (Oops. Is bimbo hate speech?)

Last update 10:45am March 7th.
Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 02:55 PM

Nutty Journalists' (and Others') Language Theories

Today's New York Times has another entry in the sweepstakes for least appealing claims about language. Nicholas Wade, the Times reporter who never heard a dumb claim about language that he didn't like, reports that Stephen Oppenheimer, an Oxford geneticist, claims in a new book that "the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque."

Oh, really? Did they bring along papyri or pots containing Basque writing that has survived until modern times, to be somehow discovered by a medical geneticist in his Oxford lab? Or has Oppenheimer perhaps found genetic links between Basque and some people in Britain and Ireland? Or is he just guessing? Or -- something that must be considered, with Nicholas Wade reporting -- is the Basque theory not Oppenheimer's but Wade's? Even genetic links wouldn't provide terrific evidence that prehistoric non-Celtic, non-Germanic, non-Italic speakers in the British Isles were speaking Basque: language shift is a fact of life throughout the world, at all periods of history (reported for instance by Herodotus), and genes and language often don't match.

The article gets even weirder when Wade turns to another geneticist, Peter Forster, whose name may be recognized by faithful Language Log readers as the proponent of a linguistically untenable theory of the origins of Celtic . According to Wade, Oppenheimer

"has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist..., to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed....He also adopts Dr. Forster's argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.

"English is usually assumed to have developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. But Dr. Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because English, in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom Julius Caesar describes as being present on both sides of the Channel."

And so it continues. Wade reports Forster's claim that English is not West Germanic but an independent fourth branch of Germanic -- which (of course, given his enthusiasm for pushing splits in branches of Indo-European back into the more distant past) means that Proto-Germanic must have "split into its four branches some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago".

Oops. There are a lot of things wrong with this picture. First, about those 2,000 years: English is attested, as Old English, from about 800 C.E.; Gothic, the only East Germanic language, is attested from the 4th century C.E.; Old Norse (North Germanic, the language of the real Vikings) is attested starting in 700 C.E.; and Old High German, like English a West Germanic language, is attested from the 8th century C.E. All these attestations are much too early to leave time for differentiation (as Forster claims) starting a mere few hundred years earlier. Forster would presumably prefer his 6,000-year estimate, but the 2,000-year estimate shows how little he knows, or understands, about Germanic languages.

Second, the idea that 150 years of careful research in Germanic languages can be overthrown by a statistical analysis of vocabulary (which is Forster's sole technique) makes no sense: it might be relevant if languages were all vocabulary and if Forster understood enough about language to construct a useful sample, but the linkage of English with West Germanic -- through its closest relation, Frisian, and then the also closely-related Dutch and Low German -- is absolutely solid. These languages, together with (High) German, share significant innovations in phonology and morphology as well as in the lexicon; it is those innovations that provide the evidence for the usually accepted -- not "assumed"! -- subgrouping of the Germanic branch of Indo-European.

I have no expertise whatsoever in genetics and I therefore have no comment on Dr. Oppenheimer's proposals in this highly technical and well-developed field of inquiry. It would be nice if geneticists like Forster (and reporters like Wade) would reciprocate -- if they would somehow manage to arrive at an understanding of the fact that historical linguistics is a highly technical and well-developed field of inquiry in which expert knowledge is needed to support hypotheses.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 09:48 AM

Munroe's Law

At xkcd, a graphical sketch of the classical psychodynamics of pet communication:

Through failures and successes, science marches on.

Though there's no connection except common authorship, this might be a good place to link to Randall Monroe's "Washington’s Farewell Address Translated into Everyday Speech". Here's how Randall explains himself:

I’ve often heard that Washington’s ‘Farewell Address’ — the speech he sent out (in written form) to a bunch of papers at the end of his second term — is important. Apparently he lays down a lot of good ideas for America. But the common style of writing and vocabulary has changed since then. Maybe people have gotten dumber, too. Either way, the result is that it’s kind of a pain to read sometimes. Particularly tricky are the odd compound sentence structures, where it’s hard to keep track of what the subject is.

I'll note at this point that I once sketched a quantitative analysis of changes in sentence and paragraph length ("Complexity", 9/7/2005), and depth of embedding ("Inaugural embedding", 9/9/2005), across the inaugural addresses of U.S. presidents.

Here's Washington's first sentence and Randall's translation:

The period for a new election of a citizen, to administer the executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed designating the person, who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprize you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.

Elections are coming up, and it’s time to figure out who we wanna give the keys to. I figure it might clear things up if I take a sec to explain why I’m not running.

It's worth following the whole translation, paragraph by paragraph, from Washington's original. As Randall says, it's "fun, depressing, inspiring, and a little bit spooky". The comments too.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:29 AM

March 05, 2007

Reasonable doubt about reasonable doubt

On March 2, during jury deliberation in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial, the jury sent the judge a note, asking him to clarify the meaning of "reasonable doubt." They asked whether the prosecution had to provide evidence proving "it is not humanly possible for someone not to recall an event" beyond reasonable doubt. The judge sent back a note asking the jury what it meant by "humanly possible." This kind of dance is not new in jury trials. At least part of the problem comes from language that is more familiar to the courts than jurors and part of it comes from judges trying desparately to avoid having cases overturned. Many judges are reluctant to explain any aspect of the instructions. Many simply repeat them verbatim. Many don't answer at all.

David Mellinkoff, in his classic book, The Language of the Law, calls "reasonable doubt" one of those "flexible expressions" that law uses however it wants:

But the law doesn't deal with unattached reasonable's. And when reasonable in one form or another is hitched onto another word, sound men grow giddy with the excitement. It is assumed that the attachment can work a reformation, and that a word wild and amorphous can suddenly become tame and purposeful. Take for example, reasonable doubt and beyond a reasonable doubt. Because they are so often repeated -- it is assumed that they must have some definite meaning, that in the context reasonable is precise. Few have had the  courage to say with England's Chief Justice Goddard: "I have never yet heard any court give a real definition of what is reasonable doubt, and it would be much better if that expression was not used." (Mellinkoff, 302-303)

Thus the Libby jury joins legions of juries that can't quite figure out the meaning of one of law's favorite flexible words.

So where did this expression come from? The Oxford Companion to American Law (2002, page 70) says that it all began with the Boston Massacre trial in 1770. A stenographic report of that trial has survived and it contains the first recorded use of "reasonable doubt" by an American judge as a standard of proof.

This practice lives on. We can read the jury instructions relevant to "reasonable doubt" given by Judge Walton here:

Your function is to determine whether the government has proven the charges against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. To do this, you must determine the facts based on the evidence presented at this trial ... The government has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, it is only necessary to prove that a fact is more likely true than not, or, in some cases, that its truth is highly probable. In criminal cases such as this one, the government's proof must be more powerful than that. It must be beyond a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt, as the name implies, is a doubt based on reason -- a doubt for which you have a reason based upon the evidence or lack of evidence in the case. If, after careful, honest, and impartial consideration of all the evidence, you cannot say that you are firmly convinced of the defendant's guilt, then you have a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is the kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person, after careful and thoughtful reflection, to hesitate to act in the graver or more important matters of life. However, it is not imaginary doubt, nor a doubt based on speculation or guesswork; it is a doubt based on reason. The government is not required to prove guilt beyond all doubt, or to a mathematical or scientific certainty. Its burden is to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (pages 3-4, 26-28)

Oddly enough, Judge Walton's instructions are better than many, including the ones on "reasonable doubt" given by Judge Ito in the O.J.Simpson trial:

It is not a mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all evidence, leaves the mind of the jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge.

As Peter Tiersma points out in his book, Legal Language (U Chicago, 1999), Judge Ito's explanation never addresses the jurors as you, is phrased in the negative, and uses the obscure expression, "abiding conviction," in  which "conviction" offers a perhaps unwanted suggestion (195).

So the expression,"reasonable doubt," lives on, and on, and on.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 07:15 PM


A footnote to Geoff Pullum's posting on the Ly Detector (yes, that's what it's called)...

Geoff says:

Poor Gina Trapani has been duped into thinking that a tool for hunting for adverbs would be a valuable addition to the writer's toolbox. As a result she wasted some valuable programming time. It's not her fault; it's [E. B.] White's fault.

Erin McKean, who first pointed me to Trapani's program (via the enthusiastic hackzine site), provided the wry slogan: "Anything that's not worth doing is worth automating."  Stanley Peters hedged this: "Some things that aren't worth doing are worth automating."  Geoff's position is that not everything that can be automated is worth doing.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 05:16 PM

Microsoft Hacked By France?

Users of Microsoft's Outlook Express 6.0 mail program who upgrade from Microsoft Office 2006 to Office 2007 are finding that they are able to spell check only in French, according to this report in the Register, confirmed by Microsoft support. The problem apparently is that the Office upgrade replaces old spell check files with a new set that are incompatible with Outlook Express. At this time Microsoft has no fix available. France has not taken credit for the situation, but much behind-the-scene giggling is reported at the DGSE.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:48 PM

Automated adverb hunting and why you don't need it

After the dumbest story of the year so far about adjectives, I now have for you, if you can bear it, the dumbest story of the year so far about adverbs. It is also the story of the dumbest piece of hard work in the software field I have seen for some time. Gina Trapani has kindly written for us all, and made available for free, a little script that will yellow-highlight all words ending in -ly in your Firefox browser window. The idea is that those who publish on the web can use this feature to hunt for adverbs and then alter their posts to obey E. B. White's absurd dictum (from the fifth chapter that he added to William Strunk's The Elements of Style in the 1950s) that you should "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

Why is this dumb? Let me count the ways.

  1. Not all adverbs end in -ly.
  2. Not all words that end in -ly are adverbs.
  3. There is no reason to avoid adverbs anyway. This is just another manifestation of the madness that leads to usage advice saying that if you could possibly do without them they must be banned, and that if students tend to do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.
  4. Fine writers of the past did not avoid adverbs; there has probably never been a great piece of literature that lacked them except perhaps for a few poems so short that they never got to the first one.
  5. Strunk never avoided them in his writing: the first adverb in his original Chapter 1 of The Elements of Style, "Elementary Rules of Usage", is in the first paragraph.
  6. White did not avoid them in his writing either: the first adverb in his Introduction to the revised edition of The Elements of Style is in the first paragraph.

Strunk and White were a pair of hypocritical old grousers whose inaccurate grammar and usage edicts dated not from the last century but the one before that. Yet people not only treat them as if their words came from God and had been chiseled into granite slabs during an encounter up a mountain; they also fail to read those words to see if the old fools practice what they preach. Of course they don't. Nobody writes only with nouns and verbs and never with adjectives and adverbs, and you will not improve your prose by any mechanical hunt for adverbs to delete. In fact you are likely to ruin it. Poor Gina Trapani has been duped into thinking that a tool for hunting for adverbs would be a valuable addition to the writer's toolbox. As a result she wasted some valuable programming time. It's not her fault; it's White's fault. (Though it is Gina's fault that the tool, which I have downloaded and tested, doesn't actually work very well: it neither highlights all the adverbs nor highlights only adverbs.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 01:37 PM

Adjectives banned in Baltimore

Here's a story that surprised even the most jaded veterans of Language Log Plaza's watch on educated Americans' descent into linguistic asininity. People were hanging around the water cooler still talking about it hours later. It comes from Lydia Joyce. She says:

I was in the Children's Museum in Baltimore when I overheard this conversation between a mother and a young son, concerning a bizarre "fun house" installation, which had sloping ceilings, "wrong" furniture, odd colors, and all sorts of other things meant to delight children with its absurdity:

SON:  I want to go in that silly house again!

MOTHER:  Don't you remember? We do NOT use ADJECTIVES!

SON:  Sorry, mommy!

If I'd been able to scrape my chin off the floor in time, I would have asked, "You don't let you child learn colors?"

What she meant, of course, which wasn't any less ludicrous, was that her child shouldn't "judge" anything because "judging" is bad, and adjectives imply some level of judgment. Not "judging," of course, is not only a ridiculous expectation but would result in a nonfunctional adult. There is no rational point of view in which her position makes any sense.

But, you know, I'm "judging."

Comment is almost superfluous. But yes, the mother clearly meant that adjectives are sometimes used to express evaluative predications — to say that something is naughty or nice, or good or evil, or cheap or expensive . . . and she didn't want her little man growing up to be one of those people who are always making academic judgments or expert evaluations of things. The kid might grow up to be an art dealer or a business ethics specialist or a literature professor or a high court justice or a forensics expert or a minister of religion or a fashion designer or a film director or . . . a senior staff writer at Language Log (where on the door of Geoff Nunberg's office there is a sign saying "If you can't say anything nice — come on in and sit down!"). The child might grow up to have an interesting job.

What can one possibly add? One is tempted to say that some people shouldn't be allowed to raise children. But she was probably a good mother, trying to raise her kids not to be demanding, selfish, hypercritical little monsters who call everything crap all the time. (By the way, crap is not an adjective in the most typical varieties of Standard English, and the same is true of shit — though several readers have pointed out to me that a younger-generation change in progress does convert these two words into adjectives. My point survives: banning adjectives is not going to do the job that Baltimore mother wants done, because you can express your negative and hostile judgments with nouns like junk or dog poop, or nonsense or hogwash, or a dog's breakfast.)

What the story really shows, once again, is that most people have no grasp of syntactic terms like ‘noun’ or ‘verb’ or ‘adjective’ other than three traditional but utterly hazy semantically-driven ideas: that nouns are things that you can touch, and verbs are actions that you undertake, and adjectives are qualities that you can judge. These three ideas are a disaster for assigning words to their correct lexical categories, but they are just about the only ideas about grammar that are firmly ingrained in the consciousness of everyone with a high school education, other than about a dozen woefully inappropriate prescriptive rules for diagnosing stuff that is "wrong". As Mark keeps saying, we have a lot of work to do to get public understanding of elementary linguistic issues up to where it ought to be — to make it so that most educated people know a few things about language that are broadly correct.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:20 PM

Scalar failure

The volatility in foreign stock markets seems to have rattled the reporters and editors at the New York Times. Consider this passage from Heather Timmons and Wayne Arnold, "Asia Stocks Extend Losses", 3/5/2007:

Analysts in Europe said that the sale of risky assets will continue for some days but do not see this sell-off being the beginning of a recession.

There is still enough liquidity in the market and companies are still reporting higher profits for this to be more than a market correction, said one fund manager.

Unless I'm undercaffeinated this morning, what they wrote is the opposite of what the anonymous fund manager meant.

What they wrote (focusing on the first conjunct only) is that there's still enough liquidity in the market for this to be more than a market correction. That's backwards. What they should have written is that there's still too much liquidity in the market for this to be more than a market correction. Or, less hopefully, that there's still enough liquidity in the market for this to be less than a recession.

The logic here, as I understand it, goes like this: investors borrow investment funds by using their securities as collateral; when the prices of those securities fall, the collateral value is reduced, which reduces the amount of money available for investment and forces further sales; this may spiral into a negative feedback loop if it leads to further market decline and calls for higher lending margins, so that there's not enough money available to buy the securities offered for sale. The fund manager was trying to reassure us that this process isn't underway.

I expect that Timmons and Arnold know this better than I do. I certainly hope they do, given that I'm learning what little I know about the world's markets from people like them.

The amazing thing, I guess, is that hairless apes can even frame complicated distinctions like this one, and manage to express them correctly much of the time. We've often discussed the failures that involve overnegation. This morning's example doesn't involve any overt negatives, but it's an example of another kind of braino often also involved in over- and under-negations: misdirection in the interplay of scalar predications.

[Yes, there's another problem with the second conjunct -- extracted from the original, it says that "companies are still reporting higher profits for this to be more than a market correction". This obviously is supposed to mean something like "reported profits are still too high" (or maybe "too many companies are reported increased profits") for the market activity to be a recession rather than a correction. This isn't backwards, but it's ungrammatical as written, suggesting that the whole sentence was somehow mangled in the editing process.]

[Update -- either someone at the NYT read Language Log, or (more likely) re-read the article, because the cited sentence now reads:

There is still enough liquidity in the market, and companies are still reporting higher profits, so the stock slump is not likely to be more than a market correction, one fund manager said.

And just to keep things clear here, the point was not to play "grammar gotcha" with the NYT, but to add an example to the category of sentences involving confused relationships among scalar predicates.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:54 AM

March 04, 2007

Foolish hobgoblins

In response to my recent posting on spelling rage, in which differences between American and Canadian spelling figured prominently, Stephen Jones writes to propose that we should "accept both the British and American forms indiscriminately".  I think this is an excellent idea, but it's unlikely to gain wide support, since it's going to look to a lot of people like advocating INCONSISTENCY, and consistency is widely believed to be a good thing in itself.

As a linguist, I have to point out that inconsistency is just another name for variability, and variability is not some pesky defect of languages, but a central feature of them (along with, at least, opposition, compositionality, redundancy, ambiguity, synonymy/paraphrase, and hierarchical structure -- plus, of course, shared norms).  Language (both spoken and written) varies from person to person, from social group to social group, from occasion to occasion, and even for a single person on a single occasion, from moment to moment.  And this is a very good thing.  It would be insane to try to enforce a single choice between variants, on all occasions, for everyone.

So the question is: when is regulation (in favor of consistency) appropriate, and when should variability flourish?  This is far too big a question for me to answer here, but I will talk about some cases -- mostly from the mechanics of written English -- where it seems to me a case can be made for letting people do whatever they feel like doing at the moment.  You could always choose one variant, or always choose another (in either case recognizing that other people make different choices, and that's ok), or choose between them in some systematic way, or choose between them at your whim (in which case there might be a system in some of your choices, but not one that you're aware of -- and some of your choices will be made at random).

This last possibility -- true free variation within an individual -- certainly occurs.  The production of segments in speech shows a good bit of variation, even for a single speaker, even within a single word.  My /o/ (as in rose and coat and no) ranges over a considerable territory phonetically.  Some of this variation is in fact conditioned by the phonetic context, and some of it has to do with factors like speed of speech, emphasis, accommodation to (or distancing from) other people's speech, and so on.  But there remains a good bit of variation that has no apparent conditioning.

Similarly in writing.  I write the capital letter A sometimes in its cursive form, sometimes in its printed form.  Both variants can occur within a single sentence, and I don't even write my first name the same way every time (though I stick to the cursive form for official signatures).  Mostly I have no idea why I've chosen one of these variants.  So far as I know, no one has ever had a problem with this; in fact, so far as I know, no one has even noticed the variation.  I have no plans to reform my handwriting practice so as to be consistent in my As.

Now, back to British and American spelling.  Jones is proudly defiant:

When I set work for my Saudi students, or even when I write an internal memo to staff, I deliberately mix the spellings; I'll write 'color' one minute and 'colour' the next. A plague on both your purities!

He's opted here for true free variation.  The options he's rejected include three versions of the injunction to Be Consistent:

Strict Global Consistency: always choose one particular variant.  That means everybody.

Strict Local Consistency:

By Group: Everyone in some group must use just one variant, consistently, but different groups (say, Canadians and Americans) are allowed different choices.

By Individual: Each person must use just one variant, consistently, but different people are allowed different choices.

By Context: choose variants systematically, by context; but be consistent in your choices.  (Say, use British or American spellings exclusively, according to the practice of the person you're writing to; use quot-punc order, with periods and commas inside quotation marks only if they were in the quoted material, if you're writing for Language, but punc-quot order if you're writing for Oxford University Press.)  Consistency by Context can, of course, be recommended for everyone, for groups, or for individuals.

Consistency with Variances: always choose X unless you can defend Y in specific circumstances.  (Often recommended by the usage manuals.  For instance: Avoid Passive in general, unless you can argue that there's a good reason for it in this specific case; always use restrictive relative that, unless you can defend the choice of which in particular circumstances.)

I go into such detail here mostly to highlight Strict Local Consistency by Individual, a recommendation I find baffling.  Here's an instance reported by Jones in his e-mail to me:

About thirty years ago the London examination board, responsible for O and A level exams, announced that students could use American spelling but would have to use it consistently. This is idiotic.

No American student will be taking a British examination unless he has spent part of his time in the British education system and thus got his spelling mixed up between the two varieties.

What's important here is that these students deal on a regular basis with two slightly different sets of practices and are likely to have trouble differentiating them; in reading, they are likely to treat the variants as equivalent (a point I'll return to below), and that view might well carry over into their writing.  I can understand, up to a point, that British examiners might want to insist that people in the U.K. do as the British do -- Strict Local Consistency by Group and Context -- though I don't fully understand why they should care so much about minutiae of spelling that are known to vary in the English-speaking world, to the point of treating non-local variants as errors to count against exam-takers.  But requiring Strict Local Consistency by Individual -- do graders actually search through essays to check consistency? -- strikes me as a foolish insistence on consistency for its own sake.

I replied with a story of my own:

I've had dealings with an editor at a major academic press who will, if pressed very hard, allow an author to use restrictive relative which -- but only if they use it CONSISTENTLY, and never use restrictive that.  This is lunacy.

Or, in other terms, a foolish consistency.  Of course, what people who object to Fowler's Rule are asking for is not the right to use which as THE restrictive relativizer -- that would be silly, because there are syntactic contexts in which which is decidedly inferior to that, to the point of being sometimes unacceptable -- but the right to have BOTH which and that available to them.  (I'm even prepared to argue that the two relativizers are subtly different in meaning, a difference related to the fact that relativizer that is a complementizer and relativizer which a (definite and anaphoric) pronoun.)

On to further cases in the mechanics of written English.  The treatment of the two parts of compound words, for instance: written solid, hyphenated, or separated by a space?  Many are fixed, but others show variation, and I can't see why people should insist that only one version be allowed.  I myself sometimes write diningroom table, sometimes dining-room table, sometimes dining room table (although it's always, I think, dining room on its own), and I can't see the point in fixing on one of these versions to the exclusion of the others. 

I use OK as, I think, the only spelling of this word, but I don't care whether other people spell it ok or O.K. or o.k. or okay or sometimes one of these and sometimes another.  (Oh dear, I now discover that I in fact use ok sometimes -- not really a surprise in someone who's generally sparing with upper case.  See above.)  Why should anyone care?

Now, a few words on apostrophes.  Mark Liberman has already explored this territory, in a posting that takes up Jonathan Starble's considering (in the Legal Times)

the deep divide that exists among the nation's intellectual elite regarding one of society's most troubling issues -- namely, whether the possessive form of a singular noun ending with the letter s requires an additional s after the apostrophe.

and goes on to examine the practice of Justice Antonin Scalia in this regard, which is variable (Kansas's, Ramos's, witness's; but Stevens', Adams', Tibbs'), and his own, concluding, puckishly:

On this question, I agree with Associate Justice Scalia. At least, I'm rarely certain what the spelling should be in such cases, and so I add s or not, as the spirit moves me. If this is the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge, so be it -- Antonin and I stand together, behind the right to follow the dictates of conscience in each individual s+possessive circumstance.

I'm astonished that Mark was not besieged by people screaming THERE OUGHT TO BE A RULE.  Mark is, after all, advocating punctuation by whim: "as the spirit moves me".  He even throws out a mischievous reference to "the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge", alluding to the many people who believe that making linguistic choices is a moral issue, so that tolerating (or, worse, advocating) variability is moral relativism of the most deplorable sort.

This is one of many cases where each of the variants has something going for it: the s variant represents (most people's)  pronunciation clearly; but the zero variant is shorter and more pleasing to the eye (or at least to the eyes of people who find s's ugly), and conforms to the punctuation of possessive plurals (where, however, no possessive s is pronounced).  Either practice makes sense.  Either is defensible.  As a result, some people do it one way, and some people do it the other way, and even if there weren't people like Mark, who vary from occasion to occasion, everybody (no matter what they do in practice) will be acquainted with both versions.  So we all cope with both variants, and consequently treat them as equivalent.  If there weren't authorities claiming that one system or the other is God's Truth, probably no one would notice the variation or care about it.

It turns out that the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed., pp. 283-4) does supply a rule.  Well, it supplies two: one for the s variant, with a number of subclauses; and one for the zero variant, concluding:

Those uncomfortable with the rules, exceptions, and options outlined above [for the s variant] may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s...

Though easy to apply, that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many.

No doubt this flexibility in the CMS offends the grammatical moralists (though it isn't grammar that's at issue here).  I would be cheering it, except for the fact that CMS is not recommending Do As You Will, it's telling you to choose one system or the other and stick to it.  It's advocating Strict Consistency by Individual, presumably because the authors believe in consistency for its own sake.

A few more cases.  Not long ago I touched on another burning issue in punctuation, whether or not to use the serial comma in coordination: Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne or Patty, Maxine and LaVerne.  Again, each variant has something (small) going for it -- the serial variant is clearer in some contexts, the non-serial variant saves a character -- but everybody is used to seeing both variants, and probably only people who have been made sensitive to the issue notice the variation, so it seems pointless to invest a lot of energy in enforcing one variant over the other.  Yet editors and publishers insist on Strict Consistency by Context: you write for one publication, you must always use the serial comma; you write for another, you must never use it.

Then there's quot-punc vs. punc-quot order, mentioned above.  Again, each variant has something (small) going for it -- quot-punc makes more sense (things inside quotation marks should belong to the quoted material), but punc-quot has a long tradition (having to do with typesetters' preferences, I believe) in its favor -- but everybody is used to seeing both variants, etc. (as above).  Yet once again editors and publishers insist on Strict Consistency by Context.

In fact, in many quarters quot-punc is viewed as a vulgar error, an especially egregious mistake.  Joanne Feierman's Action Grammar: Fast, No-Hassle Answers on Everday Usage and Punctuation (1995) features a list of ten "mistakes your boss minds most", five from speech and five from writing (the ones she says were most often mentioned in her interviews with executives).  Sally Thomason, who's posted here about useful prescriptivism, will probably find this list disheartening: emphatic myself ("It was done by Carol, Barbara, and myself") is on the list twice, once in speech and once in writing, while singular they ("Everyone has their own idea about this") isn't on the Ten Worst list, though it eventually gets an honorable mention in the section on nouns and pronouns (on pp. 145-7).  But quot-punc order is there, at #6, the top of the sublist of errors in writing.

Feierman notes that not everyone adheres to punc-quot order, but insists on consistency (Strict Local Consistency by Group and Context), even in the face of logic.  Rules are rules:

In the United States, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.  That's our rule, and it is followed scrupulously by all professional writers. (p. 17)

Do I hear an objection?  Did you say our rule makes no sense?... Well, I agree with you, but that is not the rule. (p. 18)

This is the American system.  The rest of the English-speaking world uses the more logical system, as do publications of international bodies such as the United Nations.  The only Americans who do not follow the American style in this matter are lawyers.   [What is the Linguistic Society of America?  Chopped liver?] (p. 18)

Just to remind you: this is supposed to be a mistake that bosses really care about -- presumably one that could torpedo your chances of getting hired.  I truly hope not.  (Though I've had a businessman tell me -- when he discovered I was a linguist, in fact one specializing in English syntax -- that he would never hire someone who, as he put it, used which for that.  So maybe nothing should surprise me any more in the world of popular attitudes about grammar and usage.)

One more case, involving an even more minute point of punctuation (if that is possible).  Back in November, Barbara Wallraff fielded the following query in her "Word Court" column in the Atlantic Monthly (p. 152):

Adam Gordon, of Los Gatos, Calif., writes, "At the advertising and marketing agency where I work, we have an ongoing debate about the number of spaces between a terminating period and the first letter of a new sentence.  We writers were all taught to use two; my artists insist than one is the current rule.  Would you be so kind as to adjudicate?"

Wallraff allows free variation in many contexts, but maintains a One-Space Rule, requiring consistency, for publications:

Do anything you like in letters, e-mail, business memos, and other writing that's an end in itself, but put one space between sentences in writing that's going to be published, whether in print or on the Web.  It's standard.

And indeed, the Microsoft Word grammar-checker on my Mac marks every use of two spaces as an error in grammar.  This is enormously annoying to me, because, like Adam Gordon, I was taught (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people used typewriters) that I MUST use two spaces between sentences in typewritten work; using only one was a mistake, one that cost you some (small) fraction of a grade.  Now I've come to view that extra space as attractive and the use of only one space as squinchy -- but that's just a personal aesthetic judgment, based entirely on my experience.

Wallraff explains that the One-Space Rule wasn't always in force: "You can find extra space between sentences in books from as late as the 1960s."  (Hell, you can find them right now, in my Language Log postings.)  She suspects that the extra space came from the days of typesetting -- a  letter by John Bowers, of Bend, Ore., in the March 2007 issue (p. 19), disputes this, maintaining that "conscientious printers" used only one space and that the extra space "arose with stenography" -- but was, in any case, eliminated some time ago.  Both Wallraff and Bowers find a single space more aesthetically appealing than two (almost surely a case of liking what you're most familiar with).  And of course the One-Space Rule saves a character.  Omit Needless Characters.

But I can't for the life of me see why people should be regulating the number of spaces between sentences.  Why should consistency be required here?

Just to remind you: I'm not recommending Do As You Will in general; there are plenty of usages that are non-standard, regional, conversational, informal, hyperformal, etc. and so aren't appropriate in all contexts.  But there's also a huge territory of variability where, it seems to me, no regulation is necessary, and where efforts at enforcing consistency merely waste a lot of people's time and draw attention away from more important matters.  Certainly, the idea that Whatever Can Be Regulated Should Be -- Why regulate?  Because we can! -- is a spectacularly bad idea, at least on rational grounds.

Somewhat gloomily, I note that many writers have claimed that a major force in the spread of public schooling in modern times was the need for tractable and obedient workers, people who would conform to arbitrary rules and would perform tasks and follow procedures that didn't necessarily make sense to them.  The official rhetoric of public schooling has focused instead on the spread of learning for its own sake and the teaching of useful skills, for the advancement of individuals -- for "getting ahead" in life -- but I think it would be hard to deny the interests of industry and business in the enterprise.  Regulating grammar and usage and the mechanics of writing and insisting on consistency on even minute and arbitrary points fit right into this program.  And then the ideas of regulation and consistency become part of the folk understanding of the world and how it works.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 04:07 PM

March 03, 2007

Liberal bias is so un-American

Bill's post on Conservapedia succeeded, albeit unintentionally, in making me curious about this thing. The main page of Conservapedia claims that the most-viewed of its "over 3,800 entries" (commas make 4-digit numbers look bigger) is Examples of Bias in Wikipedia. Readers of Language Log may be most intrigued by #7, especially given Arnold's post on spelling rage:

Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling [sic] of words, even though most English-speaking users are American. Look up "Most Favored Nation" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling "Most Favoured Nation." Look up "Division of labor" on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling "Division of labour," then insists on the British spelling for "specialization" also. Enter "Hapsburg" (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been "Hapsburg". Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

I'm confused by this. This is supposedly an "example of bias in Wikipedia", the idea being that bias is A Bad Thing. But the final sentence of this example is an open admission that Conservapedia is (also) biased, favoring "American spellings of words". One might try to explain this hypocrisy away by saying that these are meant to be examples of liberal bias in Wikipedia. But in what sense is using any particular spelling convention a liberal bias?

It's useful to take a look at the national varieties of English section of Wikipedia's extensive manual of style:

Cultural clashes over grammar, spelling, and capitalisation/capitalization are a common experience on Wikipedia. Remember that millions of people have been taught to use a form of English different from yours, including different spellings, grammatical constructions, and punctuation. For the English Wikipedia, while a nationally predominant form should be used, there is no preference among the major national varieties of English; none is more "correct" than any other. However, there is certain etiquette generally accepted on Wikipedia, as listed here. These guidelines are given roughly in order of importance; those earlier in the list will usually take precedence over later ones:

  • Articles should use the same spelling system and grammatical conventions throughout. [...]
  • If there is a strong tie to a specific region/dialect, use that dialect. [...]
  • Try to find words that are common to all. [...]
  • Stay with established spelling [...]
  • Follow the dialect of the first contributor. [...]
  • Note the second of these in particular: contrary to what Conservapedia's example-of-bias-#7 implies, there are Wikipedia entries that are more likely to follow American spelling conventions (e.g., the entry for the American Civil War) and others that are more likely to follow British spelling conventions (e.g., the entry for Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). (I checked the American Civil War entry, by the way, for 'color/colour' and 'labor/labour'; both words can be found and are spelled the American way with 'o', not 'ou'.)

    Wikipedia's spelling guidelines are by themselves more detailed than the Conservapedia counterpart to the entire Wikipedia manual of style, The Conservapedia Commandments. (Boy, do I ever wish I were making this stuff up.)

    The Conservapedia Commandments

    1. Everything you post must be true and verifiable.
    2. Always cite and give credit to your sources, even if in the public domain.
    3. Edits/new pages must be family-friendly, clean, concise, and without gossip or foul language.
    4. When referencing dates based on the approximate birth of Jesus, give appropriate credit for the basis of the date (B.C. or A.D.). "BCE" and "CE" are unacceptable substitutes because they deny the historical basis. See CE.
    5. As much as is possible, American spelling of words must be used.[1]
    6. Do not post personal opinion on an encyclopedia entry. Opinions can be posted on Talk:pages or on debate or discussion pages.

    One of only six commandments, #5, specifically states that Conservapedia favors American spelling conventions. (I imagine that the "as much as is possible" bit is there to allow for things like example-of-bias-#7, where labour and the like must be spelled the un-American way to make the point that it's an example of bias in Wikipedia, and perhaps also for direct quotations from British sources.) Interestingly, this is the only one of the six commandments that has a clarificatory footnote:

    You will only be blocked for violating command 5 if you repeatedly change words from American spelling to another spelling.

    These Conservapedia folks seem to really care about their spelling conventions! Lest you think that violation of any one of the other five commandments is not worthy of censure, note the page's closing sentence:

    Edits which violate these rules will be deleted. Users who violate the rules repeatedly will be blocked. A blatantly inappropriate entry, such as vandalism or obscenity, can result in immediate blocking without warning.

    Compare this fire-and-brimstone approach to Wikipedia's more sensible words on the subject:

    This Manual of Style has the simple purpose of making the encyclopedia easy to read, by establishing agreed principles for its format. It is a style guide. The following rules do not claim to be the last word on Wikipedia style. One way is often as good as another, but if everyone does things the same way, Wikipedia will be easier to read and use, and easier to write and edit. These are not rigid laws: they are principles that many editors have found to work well in most circumstances, but which should be applied with flexibility. In this vein, editors should strive to have their articles follow these guidelines.

    While quality of writing may be more important than presentation and formatting, these elements also have their place in clear and unbiased delivery of information. One of the joys of wiki editing is that Wikipedia does not demand perfection. Wikipedia does not require writers to follow all or any of these rules, but their efforts will be more appreciated when they are guided by them.

    [ I'm sure I'll live to regret this but ... comments? ]

    Posted by Eric Bakovic at 03:39 PM


    Mark Liberman has just written about "incorrections" -- corrections that are themselves incorrect (in Bill Safire's phrasing).  In the simplest cases, the advice is to replace a correct variant that is falsely believed to be incorrect by another, also correct, variant; Mark's example was the advice to replace entitled by titled in examples like "a column entitled 'Incorrections'".  In more advanced cases, the advice is to avoid a correct variant, which can lead to self-editing in which the end product is a variant that is awkward, unfortunately ambiguous in a way the original was not, etc.  In the worst cases, the advice can lead to self-editing in favor of things that are just flat unacceptable in the intended sense (or even in any sense at all). 

    Today's example of truly unfortunate self-incorrection comes from a news bulletin on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, about people whose HIV status was revealed

    (1) because of a likely clerical error.

    This is almost surely the result of avoiding using likely as an adverb, as in

    (2) likely because of a clerical error 'probably because of a clerical error'.

    You might not be entirely happy with (2), but (1) won't do at all in the intended sense.

    I'll get back to (1) in a little while, but first some background examples.

    People have been observing for around a century that avoiding stranded prepositions and split infinitives can lead people into rocky terrain.  Here's a case of simple self-incorrection: avoiding a correct stranded preposition, in a work-around I reported on the ADS-L back on 9/17/01:

    ... heard on a local show ("Minds Over Matter") on the San Francisco radio station KALW.  Talking about a city street, one of the panelists asked, "Who is it named after?  I mean, for whom is it named?"

    What makes the example nice is that the speaker didn't just shift from a stranded preposition to its pied-piped [i.e. fronted] equivalent ("After whom is it named?" -- which to my ear is just awful, though perhaps not so bad as "After which parent does Kim take?" as a substitute for "Which parent does Kim take after?", or "For what did you eat that fish?" as a substitute for "What did you eat that fish for?"), but seems to have unconsciously perceived where that strategy would lead her and shifted the preposition as well, to one that's more acceptable in pied piping.

    Whew!  Good save!  But there was nothing wrong with "Who is it named after?" in the first place.

    Other times you end up with stuff that's flat unacceptable, as in this passage in LaTeX/dvips documentation (reported to me by Geoff Pullum, 8/28/02):

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

    Pied piping is awful with what in an embedded interrogative.  It's also awful in exclamatives, as in the second examples in the following pairs

    What a curvy road we are driving on!
    On what a curvy road we are driving!

    What a dirty room the children are playing in!
    In what a dirty room the children are playing!

    (These are from a net discussion of preposition stranding I posted on some time ago.  The point there was that some people found preposition stranding so offensive that they couldn't accept either of the alternatives above, even the perfectly correct first alternatives.)

    On other occasions, people try to fix stranded prepositions by just omitting them, as Mark noted in connection with this dreadful example, where the (believed to be) offending final to or in has been deleted:

    Designed to think the way you do, the technology is smart, simple and invisible. A fresh new contemporary space that takes luxury into the wireless modern world it belongs.

    For split infinitives, you don't usually get gross unacceptability through self-incorrection.  Instead, the problem is that moving an adverb out of an infinitival VP (to avoid a split infinitive) can cause it to be parsed, unfortunately, with the higher verb, as in these two examples:

    Mr. Blackburn added that the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force failed adequately to supervise the agent, Tom Coleman, in its eagerness to win battles in the war on drugs. (NYT 3/11/04, p. A14)

    Losses widened on Wall Street after Secretary of State Colin Powell failed totally to account for its weapons of mass destruction. (wire-service article during the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, as reported by Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style (2004), p. 64)

    Sometimes, however, infinitives are obligatorily split, and moving an adverbial out will result in unacceptability, though the occasional example occurs, via self-incorrection of the worst sort.

    It is rubbing salt into the wound more than to double the charges at such short notice. I appeal to the Minister and to his right hon. and hon. ... (parliamentary debate, from my 2004 posting)

    Now to return to likely as an adverb.  The perceived problem here might be that likely is an adjective and so should not be used as an adverb; according to this view, that would be as bad as writing "I feel real sorry" for "I feel really sorry".  As MWDEU reports in its entry for likely, things like "He will likely be elected" have been disparaged for a century now, though the usage is old, dating back to the 14th century.  The matter is complex: many usage writers accept modified likely ("He will most likely be elected") but not unmodified likely, and unmodified likely does seem to have gone out of fashion in British formal writing, though not in American.  MWDEU judges it to be standard usage in the U.S.

    Despite this, many people avoid the adverb likely and move it into a position where it's available as an adjective, as in (1) -- which, unfortunately, means that the clerical error is likely, not that the cause was likely to have been a clerical error.  This is the worst sort of self-incorrection.

    You can see why the writer of the news bulletin might have wanted likely rather than its closest alternative, probably: likely is stronger than probably.  But then you're stuck -- either go with adverbial likely, or settle for second-best probably, or re-cast the whole business with it is likely that.  Moving likely into adjectival position just won't do.

    Another wretched alternative would be to take seriously the idea that likely is only an adjective, so that its related derived adverb, likelily, is what you want.  No, you really don't want likelily, or any other -ly adverb derived from an adjective ending in the suffix -ly (princelily, courtlily, etc.).  They're tremendously awkward, as that famous linguist James Thurber observed wryly in the "Ladies' and gentlemen's guide to modern English usage" section of his 1931 The Owl in the Attic (p. 151):

    Another adverbial construction which gives considerable trouble, or will if you let it, is the adverb ending in "-lily."  The best thing to do with the adverb in "-lily" is to let it alone.  "Lovelily" is an example.  You can say "he plays lovelily," but even though the word is perfectly proper, it won't get you anywhere.  You might just get by with it at a concert; but try shouting it at a ball game.  There isn't one person in ten who will go ahead with a friendship in which the "-lily" adverbs are likely to occur.  The possible endings of this sort are numberless: you can even say, and be right, "heavenlily" and "ruffianlily."  It is especially advisable to avoid this construction because of its "Thematic Potentiality."  Thematic Potentiality is the quality which certain words and phrases have of suggesting a theme song--that is, some such thing as "Heaven Lily O'Mine," "Ruffian Lily, Come Back to Me," "Love Vo-deo-do Lily," and so on.  Think of something else.

    In a word, the -lily adverbs are ridiculous.  You will likelily want to avoid them.

    (Card-carrying linguists have looked at -lily words.  See, for example, Lise Menn & Brian MacWhinney, "The repeated morph constraint", Language, 1984. )

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:46 PM

    The history of linguistic annoyance

    Craig Brown has taken a historical look at the storm surge of usage gripes that has overtopped the Telegraph's digital levees in reponse to the question "What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?" (2863 comments and counting!). His essay ("Today's cliché is tomorrow's proverb") starts like this:

    Hi kids! Hiya guys! Bear with me. Quick question, hopefully. First up, can you see where I'm coming from? Cheers! Phew! Then we're up and running! Absolutely!

    It sometimes seems that the only way to gain the undivided attention of Telegraph readers is to employ an indecently modish word or expression.

    Dr Johnson would have been the first to sit bolt upright. He deplored the use of ghastly new Americanisms such as jeopardy and smoulder and glee, little realising that, like gotten and trash and quit, they were in fact ancient words which had fallen out of use in England but had somehow been preserved intact in America. He also hated yobbish abbreviations. Why use the horrible new slang word mob? What on earth was wrong with good old mobile vulgus?

    Brown cites some other historical offenses against linguistic decency:

    Today's Telegraph readers hate new words and expressions such as stakeholder and no problem and tasking, just as the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge was driven mad ("vile and barbarous!") by a horrible new word which had just come on to the scene. That word was talented. In many cases, it is not the word itself that is hated, but what it represents: in 1982, Prince Philip contributed a list of his 14 "most ugsome" words to the magazine Logophile.

    His list included nihilism, macho, upcoming, avant-garde, camp, obscene and gay.

    Let me note in passing the irony of flagging hated innovations with the cutesy coinage "ugsome", which raises my own hackles almost as much as shall and shan't do. As I've observed before, this "I can innovate but you can't" attitude is typical of self-appointed guardians of the language. (Craig Brown has more to say about Prince Philip's love/hate relationship with neologisms in an earlier article, "Gadzooks, what a schonk!", 5/1/2004.)

    Here's a last blast of historical context:

    In 1949, The Daily Mail published a list of new American words it irritably judged to be "positively incomprehensible" to the average Englishman.

    The list included commuter, seafood, living room and rare (in the sense of underdone). Who worries about them nowadays? We simply wouldn't have the time, what with cashback and gobsmacked and oven-baked hammering at the door.

    [Hat tip to Mark Etherington]

    [Update -- Qnavry Pheevr writes:

    "Ugsome" may well be cutesy, but it seems to be an atavistic affectation rather than an innovative one. The OED says that the word was "common down to the latter part of the 16th cent.," and blames Sir Walter Scott for its re-emergence in the 19th century. Its long history doesn't necessarily make "ugsome" any less self-descriptive, but I do think it sounds nicer in the context of a line like "Of þe orible oxin, vgsome to see" (from the Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy, quoted in the OED s.v. ugsome) than it does in a 1982 rant about disliked words. (At least Prince Philip didn't go so far as to spell it with a v.)

    I stand corrected. Orible oxin it is. It's always a mistake not to check the OED. ]

    Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:27 AM

    Why are so many linguistic corrections incorrect?

    Commenting on Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's spelling stalker (discussed by Arnold Zwicky here), Toni K. wrote:

    I can't imagine (in)correcting (this isn't really a word, but I also like ((())) someone's spelling on a blog.

    A closely related neologism appeared on nwu.general back in 1998:

    On 24 Apr 1998, Marek Lugowski wrote:
    > Webster Collegiate. Try our own client, webster:
    I _did_ use webster, but I used it to be sure I wasn't making an ass out of myself by correcting you with an 'incorrection.' (hmm, I just made that up - incorrection. I think I like it... :)

    And William Safire closed out 2006 with a column entitled "Incorrections", in which he defines incorrection as "a correction that is itself incorrect".

    It's hard not to be affected by incorrections. Thus whenever I use entitled as I did in the previous paragraph, it reminds me of a friend who feels that the only legitimate sense of entitled is "having a rightful claim (to)". When she first incorrected me on this point, I thought that she might be right -- maybe this is one of those malaprop-like substitutions that we all discover from time to time in our own version of English. But a quick check of news archives showed that entitled meaning "titled" is widespread. And the OED gives with citations from Chaucer forward, e.g.

    c1381 CHAUCER Parl. Foules 30 This booke..Entitled was right thus..Tullius of the dreame of Scipion.
    1888 H. MORLEY Eng. Writers III. 179 A book entitled ‘De Nugis Curialium’.

    It's true that in some contexts, the "rightful claim" sense is much commoner these days -- it's more than 10-to-1 in the recent New York Times, for example -- but I don't think that my friend generalized incorrectly from her experience. Instead, I bet that a teacher or parent once incorrected her on the same point. And the entry in MWCDEU says:

    Sources as diverse as Emily Post 1927 and Bremner 1980 have expressed disapproval of using entitled to mean "titled." However, this well-established usage has been common for over 500 years and is the older of the two senses.

    So I concluded my friend's objection was an incorrection, and I can continue with a clear conscience to use entitled to mean "titled" -- though now I know that some people will disapprove. But how often can an eager-to-please youth resist an incorrection from a confident and respected elder?

    One of the fascinating things about linguistic corrections is that so many of them are in fact incorrect. A few historic examples from our earlier posts:

    "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)
    "Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3" (6/8/2006)

    It may not surprise you to find that Bob the blogger (as documented in that last post) can't be trusted to red-pencil the writing of his political enemies. But it should surprise you that eminent sages -- the likes of Cullen Murphy and Sidney Goldberg -- should so carelessly embarrass themselves in public by complaining erroneously about things that are easy to check. And it should be even more surprising that the editors of The Atlantic, the Boston Globe and The New York Times were willing to publish such embarrassments without checking. (Oh, wait -- Cullen Murphy was managing editor of The Atlantic at the time his article was published. But still.) Can you imagine some august curmudgeon submitting a screed about all those geographical illiterates who think that Mexico is in North America, or all those historical illiterates who think that Napoleon was actually Corsican? Can you imagine The Atlantic or The New York Times publishing it?

    But the real surprise, it seems to me, is not that complaints of this kind are wrong from time to time. It's that they're so often wrong. The people embarrassing themselves are intelligent, well educated, and well read. They're excellent writers, with a fine command of the English language. I'm sure that their basic intuitions about usage are at least as good as mine, and probably better. So how do they manage to be wrong in print such a large proportion of the time?

    That's not a rhetorical question. I really don't know the answer, though I've speculated about this before. Here are some additional speculations, which apply even more strongly to most incorrectionists, who are far less well informed than the eminences whose puzzling errors are in the spotlight above.

    Perhaps in this area, people respect authority so much that they never question and never forget an incorrection from an authority figure who awed them in their youth. Thus an incorrection, once authoritatively initiated, can never be ended by mere observation of usage, and will never be checked in a reference work. And since the "rules" that incorrections enforce are invented ones, without any basis in the genuine norms of the language, they're likely to be violated frequently. Therefore, for someone who has accepted a large number of such invented prescriptions, a significant fraction of perceived linguistic faults will be false. Un-errors, if you will.

    There's a less innocent factor that may also encourage incorrections. Only a minority can be elite, and so a rule that almost everyone almost always follows is worthless as a badge of eminence. The only way to claim high linguistic status is to cite a rule that is frequently violated; and of course, such rules are likely to be the invented ones that give rise to incorrections.

    And there's one more factor whose importance is probably increasing. These days, most people -- including many intellectuals -- are untrained and deeply confused about the analysis of language. They believe that terror is "an adjective ... or an adverb"; that -ing ends in a "hard g"; that a "passive" is any sentence whose subject is not an agent. Imagine what happens when you take this level of analytic confusion, and set it to work interpreting and generalizing a prescriptive rule of any kind -- a historical pattern under threat from a vernacular innovation, or a high-status innovation trying to suppress an older vernacular form, or a personal stylistic preference elevated to the status of a principle of grammar. The result is likely to be a chaotic jumble of puzzling assertions about linguistic right and wrong, many of which are incorrections. Which is roughly what we see.

    Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:44 AM

    March 02, 2007

    The Teaching of Reading

    To pick up on Mark's discussion of the teaching of reading, let me mention a couple of points that tend to confuse the issue, in addition to the spurious association that he mentioned between whole language and progressive politics and phonics and reaction.

    One is the idea that whole language reading instruction allows children to read material of interest to them while phonics consists of day after day of dull drilling. That isn't really true. There certainly are dull phonics programs, but they don't have to be, nor are whole language programs necessarily interesting. A good example of this is the infamous series of Sally, Dick, and Jane books that many of us suffered through. They were insanely boring, about a suburban American family of the 1940s and 1950s in which the father wore a suit to work and mother wore a hat to go shopping. They were full of such fascinating material as: "Look! See Spot run!" (Spot was the dog.) I refused to read them as a six year old. Many people seem to think of these as examples of how deadly dull phonics was, but the fact is that this series of books was intended for use in the "look and say" approach, a forerunner of "whole language" in which children were expected to learn whole words without analyzing them. Rudolf Flesch's seminal book Why Johnny Can't Read (1955), which advocated phonics, characterized the Sally, Dick, and Jane books as "horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers".

    The other point is that if we want children to learn to read well, teachers have to be taught how to teach reading. You might think that this would be obvious, but the fact is that teachers generally receive little instruction in how to teach reading in spite of the fact that this is the single most important thing that primary school teachers do and the one in which instruction is most needed. This is in part because of the dominance of whole language, a system in which there is nothing much for the teacher to know. However, even in states and provinces where phonics is used, teachers are generally not given the training necessary to teach it. Here in British Columbia, for example, students training to be teachers read a little bit about approaches to the teaching of reading and discuss them, but they are never taught what the sounds of English are, what the letter-to-sound rules of English are, or how to bring about phonemic awareness. Teachers who lack this knowledge are hard put to do a good job of teaching phonics. Moreover, this means that studies comparing the effectiveness of phonics and whole language instruction have to be evaluated carefully: if the teachers have not been trained properly to teach phonics, the study does not constitute a fair evaluation of the technique.

    Posted by Bill Poser at 07:39 PM

    Spelling rage

    Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, who writes a blog mostly about knitting (under the name "yarn harlot"), has been subjected to a series of abusive e-mail messages about... her spelling.  From someone with an e-mail address that can't be replied to.  So she has finally taken it upon herself to respond in public, on the blog.

    Why should we here at Language Log Plaza be interested in this exchange?  Well, we have a professional concern with, as Mark Liberman put it recently, "the social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", especially when rage is directed at minute points.  And in this case, we're inclined to feel sympathetic to someone who refers to her "trusty Oxford Concise" dictionary at the beginning of her posting and says, parenthetically, "(I love that book so much)".  But our interest was really piqued when we got to the list of reviled spellings:

    colour (vs color)
    fibre (vs fiber)
    cancelled (vs canceled)
    woollen (vs woolen)
    labour (vs labor)
    cheque (vs check)
    centre (vs center)
    draught (vs draft)
    doughnut (vs donut)
    behaviour (vs behavior)
    off side (vs incorrect)

    (I know, the last one is lexical choice rather than spelling, but that's not Pearl-McPhee's doing.)

    So, class, what's going on here?

    (Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

    It's hard to believe that there are Americans on the net who don't know that people in many other parts of the English-speaking world have somewhat different spellings from the ones that are standard in the U.S.  British spellings, specifically (the details vary from country to country, but the influence of British spelling is clear).  Maybe the spelling critic just thinks that people in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, etc. should spell like all right-thinking people do, namely according to the American Way.  Anything else is just WRONG.

    So the critic rages at Pearl-McPhee, telling her that she should take her head out of her ass and get a clue.  (The spelling was ass, not arse, of course.  Could anyone doubt that we're dealing with an American here?)  She replies:

    I am responding to this string of emails, the ones in which the correspondent whips out the red pen (they use a red font, actually. It's very engaging) and corrects my spelling...because it is so wildly inaccurate that I can't even stand it and I can't email them back but I have to say something.

    There is, my tenacious little emender, a whole wide world outside of the one you live in, and the country I occupy has different spellings than in the country you occupy. Now, as much as I would like very much to be able to, what was it? Oh yes... "Take my head out of my ass and get a clue", I just can't, decorous and rectifying reader, you are just plain wrong.

    Oh, yes, she's Canadian, and it should take only a moment to figure that out.  Even if you don't notice the very many local references (to Toronto), there's the url, with "" right in the middle of it.

    Pearl-McPhee got piles of supportive comments from readers, both American and Canadian.

    There's some interesting history here.  Painting the picture in the broadest terms: British spellings spread with the British Empire, to North America as well as other continents (with variations from place to place); U.S. spellings were later altered in small ways, largely through the efforts of Noah Webster, as a symbol of U.S. independence from the mother country; Canadians tend to preserve a number of British spellings both as a symbol of their historical connection to England and as a symbol of their resistance to the influence of their much larger neighbor -- or, as they would write, neighbour -- to the south.  (In some of their comments, Canadian readers of the blog talk about treasuring their spellings.)

    So there's no world standard for the spelling of English.  People often argue for standardization on the grounds that common forms are necessary for communication, for understanding one another.  In this case, that's an extraordinarily weak argument.  Anyone who can't accommodate to the minute differences between British and American spellings just isn't trying.  (Pearl-McPhee's mean critic evidently has no problem understanding, since he knows which words to "correct" and in which ways.)

    There are a lot of loonies out there, of many different types.  This was a new variety for me.  [Added 3/3: I wish I could take credit for using loonies in a posting referring to Canada -- Language Hat has asked me if the reference to the loonie, the Canadian one-dollar coin bearing the image of a loon on one side, was deliberate, or merely felicitous -- but I must confess that any punning on my part was entirely subconscious.]

    The red font is a nice touch, I have to admit.

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 05:51 PM

    The globalization of educational fads and fallacies

    This morning, Fabrice Nauze sent a link to an Op-Ed piece from yesterday's Le Figaro about educational policy in France: Dr. Lucien Israel, "À quand une vraie réhabilitation de l'enseignement primaire?" ("When will there be a real rehabilitation of primary education?"). Fabrice was amused by this article's Gallic version of the Eskimo snow-words myth :

    Le registre lexical est pauvre et, par conséquent, la compréhension du monde, de soi-même et des autres bien moindre. Je prendrai l'exemple concret des Esquimaux : leur langue comporte une soixantaine de mots différents pour évoquer la neige : ils perçoivent, par conséquent, une foule de nuances que nous-mêmes ne voyons pas.

    The lexicon is poor, and as a result, understanding of the world, of oneself and of others is even less. I will take the specific example of the Eskimo: their language includes about sixty different words for referring to snow: they therefore perceive a host of nuances that we do not see.

    But I was more interested in something else. The article revealed to me that there is also a Gallic version of the "whole language" approach to reading instruction, known in France as "la méthode globale". I guess that I should have realized that globalization spreads educational fads just as efficiently as other aspects of culture.

    [I need to note that "la méthode globale" is a general pedagogical philosophy, most of which has nothing to do with methods of reading instruction, and that it has a long tradition of independent development in France. The role of international influence in the spread of wholistic, anti-analytic reading-instruction methods during the last decades of the 20th century is not clear to me, though it seems unlikely to be an accident that such methods became widely adopted in the U.S. and in France during the same period. See the bottom of this post for some additional notes and links. ]

    "Whole language" is the idea that children can and should learn to read text in the same easy, natural way that they learn to understand speech -- by being exposed to meaningful communications in everyday situations. On this view, you shouldn't try to teach children to sound out words, or even teach them what the letters of the alphabet are. In cartoon form, it works like this:

    Or rather, it doesn't work. As I understand the situation, "Whole language" instruction has been a disaster in practice, ameliorated somewhat by the fact that many teachers don't really apply it, and some children get reading instruction from other sources.

    There are few linguistic topics on which scientific opinion -- outside of some unfortunately influential corners of the education-research establishment -- is so unanimous. When David Pesetsky and Mark Seidenberg can join as co-authors of an influential report (republished in Scientific American as K. Rayner, B. Foorman, C. Perfetti, D. Pesetsky and M. Seidenberg, "How Should Reading be Taught?"), you know that something interesting is going on.

    For those of you who aren't familiar with the intellectual politics of linguistics, this is roughly like a policy statement on governmental organization co-authored by Friedrich Engels and Otto von Bismarck. David Pesetsky is a staunch supporter of "innate ideas", and Mark Seidenberg is, well, not. Here's what Mark says about the innate-ideas debate in his Overview of Current Research:

    ... since Chomsky's early work, knowledge of language has been equated with knowing a grammar. Many consequences followed from this initial assumption. For example, if the child's problem is to converge on the grammar of a language, then the problem does seem intractable unless there are innate constraints on the possible forms of grammar. What if we abandon the assumption that knowledge of language is represented as a grammar in favor of, say, neural networks, a more recently developed way of thinking about knowledge representation, learning, and processing? Do the same conclusions about the innateness of linguistic knowledge follow? The answer is: not at all.

    The innateness debate is historically relevant here, since as the Wikipedia article on Whole Language explains,

    The whole language approach ... grew out of Noam Chomsky's conception of linguistic development. Chomsky believed that humans have a natural language capacity, that we are built to communicate through words. This idea developed a large following in the 1960s. In 1967, Ken Goodman wrote a widely-cited article calling reading a "psycholinguistic guessing game" and chiding educators for attempting to apply unnecessary orthographic order to a process that relied on holistic examination of words.

    Though Goodman may have been inspired by Chomsky, most Chomskians have never accepted his views. David Pesetsky's case against the Whole Language approach, as laid out in the handout for a talk he gave in 2000, "The Battle for Language: from Syntax to Phonics", also starts by making the argument that "language is special", with special evolved mechanisms for primary (spoken) language learning. However, the next step in his reasoning is completely different: because no such evolved mechanisms exist for learning written language, children can't rely on any innate "reading acquisition device", and must learn to read by different (and more general-purpose) methods.

    Another version of Pesetsky's arguments was presented in 1997 to the ASNE Literacy Committee: "If Language Is Instinctual, How Should We Write and Teach?"

    Mark Seidenberg's arguments against the Whole Language approach, as laid out in a 2004 paper (Harm, M. W., & Seidenberg, M. S. Computing the Meanings of Words in Reading: Cooperative Division of Labor Between Visual and Phonological Processes, Psychological Review 111, 662-720), start from the assumption that language is not special at all. On his theory, most knowledge and skills are learned by general methods -- but for reading, this empiricist epistemology converges with Pesetsky's nativist one. And when Seidenberg and Harm trained a neural net model to "read", it learned better and faster when taught using writing-to-sound-to-meaning and writing-to-meaning correspondences than it did when trained by either route alone. Here's a graph from that paper:

    I've added colored highlighting, so that the progress of the "Orthography→Semantics" (i.e. writing-to-meaning) system is shown in pink, and the "Orthography→Phonology→Semantics" (i.e. writing-to-sound-to-meaning) system is shown in turquoise, compared to the system with both, which is highlighted in pale green. A popular-press presentation of this research can be found in Emily Carlson, "New study shows phonics is critical for skilled reading", Wisconsin Week, 7/14/04.

    My own view is that there is some truth in both the Pesetsky and Seidenberg arguments -- and also in the large volume of other research on the subject, almost entirely antithetical to Whole Language in its conclusions. (See here and here for additional background.)

    The most curious -- and perhaps the saddest -- part of this story has been the politicization of the debate. As a blog post at I Speak of Dreams explains ("Whole Language Reading Instruction Is a Continuing Educational Disaster", 12/17/2003):

    If you believe in whole language, you are likely to be on the liberal-to-socialist spectrum; if you believe in direct phonics instruction, you have to march in the same parade as Phyllis Schafly, the Eagle Forum, and Dr. Blumenfeld.

    An extreme form of this is on display in a 2002 article by Stephen Metcalf ("Reading Between the Lines", The Nation, 1/10/2002):

    Why is the same conservative constituency that loves testing even more moonstruck by phonics? For starters, phonics is traditional and rote--the pupil begins by sounding out letters, then works through vocabulary drills, then short passages using the learned vocabulary. Furthermore, to teach phonics you need a textbook and usually a series of items--worksheets, tests, teacher's editions--that constitute an elaborate purchase for a school district and a profitable product line for a publisher. In addition, heavily scripted phonics programs are routinely marketed as compensation for bad teachers. (What's not mentioned is that they often repel, and even drive out, good teachers.) Finally, as Gerald Coles, author of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy, points out, "Phonics is a way of thinking about illiteracy that doesn't involve thinking about larger social injustices. To cure illiteracy, presumably all children need is a new set of textbooks."

    David Pesetsky responded (letter to The Nation 3/7/2002):

    The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many. Although whole language should have been a nonstarter, it had a significant impact because of its political marketing. Whole language wrapped itself in liberation rhetoric, promising such things as "the empowerment of learners and teachers." The right wing was jubilant. Here was a left-wing conspiracy that could imperil children's literacy! A flurry of newsletters and websites appeared attacking the left-wing menace of whole language and vigorously promoting phonics.

    and poignantly adds:

    The war against phonics was a Lysenkoist aberration. It is time to put it to rest. There is no connection between politics and how we should teach children to read, and there never was.

    For those of you who aren't familiar with the history of Stalinist science, Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who claimed to be able to demonstrate the inheritance of acquired characteristics -- which pleased Stalin because it suggested that selfishness and other unsoviet attitudes would disappear from the descendents of people living under socialism. Lysenko's style was congenial to Stalin in other ways -- he came from a peasant family, he supposedly made rapid progress by ignoring the bourgeois formalist skeptics and elevating practice over theory, etc. Stalin put Lysenko in charge of Soviet biology, and thereby destroyed it.

    So David is implicitly making a very strong point. Lysenkoism was a politically correct but scientifically mistaken theory of genetics, whose imposition by the Soviet state destroyed Soviet biology for almost 40 years. By analogy, Whole Language is a politically correct but scientifically mistaken theory of reading instruction, whose adoption by the educational establishment has ...

    Well, you finish the sentence.

    Anyhow, I'm truly sorry to learn that France has been infected by la méthode globale.

    And since Dr. Israel is trying to cure this infection, I'm also sorry to tell you that inclusion of the Eskimo snow-words myth is far from the only fault of fact or logic in his article: it offers one misconception after another about language, the brain and reading. This post is already too long, and I've run out of time, so I'll pick the thread up again in a couple of days.

    Since I agree with his prescriptions, it's a shame to have to disagree with his arguments. But the misuse of neuroscientific arguments is also becoming an epidemic, perhaps not as fatal as ineffective methods of reading instruction, but still debilitating to the body politic. And it would be a mistake to avoid treating the symptoms because of the politics of the patient.

    [Yes, yes, I know, the PartiallyClips cartoon is unfair. But it's funny, and they deserve it.]

    [Update -- David Fried writes:

    Just a thought. . . is it merely an accident that "whole language" teaching of reading has infected France and not some other country? I'm not referring to the French love of theory, either. It seems inconceivable that whole-language could catch on as a method of teaching reading in any country where the writing system corresponds closely to the phonemic system. I'd be surprised if this particular fad holds any appeal in Spain or Korea. Using phonics to teach reading is certainly tougher when you're contending with the vagaries of English or French spelling, especially considering how the commonest words often have the most peculiar spellings, like "night" and "enough" and "l'oignon" and "fils" and "ville." Does whole language appeal to teachers of Irish Gaelic? It should, if my theory is right . . .

    In the case of Irish, there's an additional complicating factor, because most teaching of Irish (even to elementary-school children) is second-language teaching.

    And David's general point seems logical, but I'm not sure it's right. For example, the school system in Finland (where the orthography is as rigorously phonemic as it is anywhere) is said to be based on the general pedagogical ideas of Célestin Freinet, who appears to be a patron saint of "la méthode globale". Freinet's ideas were mostly not about reading instruction -- he was more a French John Dewey or a French Maria Montessori than a French Ken Goodman -- but there's clearly some affinity, as suggested by Charles Temple et al., "The 'Global Method' of Celestin Freinet: Whole Language in a European Setting?", Reading Teacher, 48(1) 86-89, 1994. However, according to Marit Korkman et al. "Effects of Age and Duration of Reading Instruction on the Development of Phonological Awareness, Rapid Naming, and Verbal Memory Span", Developmental Neuropsychology, 16(3) 415-431 1999:

    Finnish children start school in the autumn of the year they turn 7, and letters or reading-related skills are not taught at all before that. Reading instruction is intense in Grades 1 and 2, and is uniformly based on teaching phonemic analysis and phoneme-grapheme conversions.

    It's interesting that the Finns seem to have adopted Freinet's ideas in general, while entirely rejecting (what is said to be) his approach to teaching reading and writing. This emphasizes the need to disentangle general pedagogical (and political) philosophies from the specifics of reading instruction, both in theory and in practice. That is likely to be very difficult to do, I'm afraid. ]

    [Bill Poser has more on the history and future of reading instruction here.]

    Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:21 PM

    In the tradition of truthiness and faminess

    ... comes a word we have long needed here at Language Log Plaza: referenciness.

    From Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site:


    Paul Farrington and I both spotted this word in an article in the Guardian on Monday, about a British TV presenter who has agreed to stop using the title "Doctor" from a non-accredited college in the US, after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.  (This link will get you the full story.)  The writer, Dr Ben Goldacre, used this word to suggest a supposed scholarly reference that wasn't a real one: "The scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of 'referenciness' ... but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it's shocking how often they aren't what she claimed them to be."  Mr Farrington and I both wondered if he has borrowed the ending from Stephen Colbert's "truthiness", which describes things that a person claims to know, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts.  Dr Goldacre confirms that this was his inspiration.

    (Hat tip to Paul Farrington, who sent me the item in e-mail with the header "Anotheriness".)

    I was, of course, immediately reminded of the winner of the first Gropius Becanus Prize (the "Becky"), awarded by the Language Log to people or organizations who have made outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation: Louann Brizendine.  For an account of the achievements that made Brizendine the unanimous choice for the Becky, see Geoff Nunberg's "Fresh Air" piece on the prize.

    Brizendine is a virtuoso of referenciness -- references that don't support the claims made in the text (or, in fact, run counter to these claims), references that aren't even relevant to them.  She displays truthiness backed up by referenciness, which together have garnered her a certain amount of faminess.

    The new, and obviously spreading, suffix -iness (the Colbert Suffix) is actually a sequence of two suffixes, the -y of (disparaging) approximation (similar in import to the hedging -ish), forming adjectives from nouns, and the -ness forming abstract nouns from adjectives.  Truthiness is the quality of being truthy rather than true; faminess the quality of being fame-y rather than famous; and referenciness the quality of being reference-y rather than providing actual references.  No doubt there will be more.  I could certainly see a place for justiciness (though it is, I believe, not yet attested).

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:31 PM

    Eskimo Words for Sunburn

    The CTV news just had a story about the effects of global warming on northern Canada, and wouldn't you know it, they had to mention Eskimo words for snow. The reporter said: "Eskimos have a dozen words for snow. Now they have a new one for sunburn." I'm not sure whether the moderate exaggeration — only a dozen rather than hundreds — was a feint at accuracy or just Canadian modesty. Mark has discussed the claim that "sunburn" is a new word for the Eskimo before.

    Posted by Bill Poser at 02:26 AM


    Ed Brayton's post at Dispatches From the Culture Wars alerted me to the existence of Conservapedia, an attempt by right-wing fundamentalist Christians to produce their own version of Wikipedia, one without what they consider "liberal bias". His post and various others provide entertaining critiques of the site, but I thought I'd see how it is doing on linguistics, which unlike biology and American history is not a point of contention for right-wing Christians.

    I couldn't find anything on linguistics per se: there is no article on "syntax" or "historical linguistics" or "phonetics" or "phoneme" or anything like that. Indeed, somewhat to my surprise, there isn't even an article on "grammar" or "spelling" (though they have an axe to grind about British spellings on Wikipedia). The closest I could find is information about various languages.

    The funniest thing I found is about Mycenean:

    The Mycenaean language existed in the eastern Mediterranean region among the Mycenae people, from about 1400 to 100 B.C. (during the Bronze Age). The language has been lost and is no longer spoken, except in certain regions of southeastern France. Franco-Mycenaean irrendentism was a somewhat notable political and ideological force during parts of the 18th century.

    The edit history shows that the last sentence and the second half of the previous sentence were added to the original article, in two stages, probably by pranksters, so we shouldn't count this one against Conservapedia. The end date of 100 B.C.E. though is way too late and is in the original article.

    The Akkadian Language was the language developed and used by the people of Akkad. It is unusual because it has no tense forms. The verbs expressed the manner of action rather than its time.

    I suspect that what they mean by "manner of action" is what linguists call "aspect". Lots of languages lack tense systems. This isn't that remarkable.

    The Egyptian language is a member of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages and is related to Berber and Semitic. Egyptian has been spoken since 2600B.C. and still survives today as Egyptian Arabic.

    Actually, Egyptian, in its latest form of Coptic, was replaced as the dominant language shortly after the Arab conquest in 639 C.E. and came to be restricted to the Christian minority. Although it is still used for liturgical purposes, it ceased to be spoken in the 16th century. Egyptian Arabic is not a descendant of Egyptian. It is a variety of Arabic and is only distantly related to Egyptian.

    Egyptian's basic word order is "Subject, Noun, Object."

    Hunh? Actually, it is "Verb, Subject, Object".

    While Archaic, Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian were written with hieroglyphs, Demotic was written with an alphabet similar to modern Arabic script.

    The article confuses "Demotic" as a term for the Egyptian language in the stage transitional between Late Egyptian and Coptic and "Demotic" as a term for a writing system descended from hieratic. Egyptian at all stages could be written in either of two related writing systems, hieroglyphic and hieratic. Demotic script came into existence in the late 25th dynatasy, c. 650 B.C.E. It has no particular similarity to Arabic script and is no more alphabetic than hieroglyphic or hieratic. All three writing systems are alphabetic in that, insofar as they are phonological writing systems, they are based on an analysis of the speech into segments, but all three also make use of non-phonological characters representing words or morphemes.

    Egypt's complex, picture-based language probably hindered its growth. The picture-based language was not as easy to use as the alphabet-based Phoenician language later adopted by the Greeks and Romans. How would one express Christian concepts like salvation, faith, hope and redemption? It seems impossible.

    This confuses language and writing. Even if the writing system could not express something, there is no reason to believe that the language could not. In any case, it is simply not true that Egyptians could not write about abstract concepts. Not only is it possible to create symbols for abstract concepts, but Egyptian writing had a phonological component, so words could be written phonologically if there was no suitable logogram. The author of this article has obviously never bothered to read even an elementary presentation of the Egyptian writing system or looked at a dictionary or textbook of Egyptian to see whether words denoting abstracting concepts were written.

    Although Egyptian is one of the oldest languages, it is certainly not obsolete. Egyptian has been spoken for more than four thousand years, outlasting the majority of languages. It is a piece of history, to be preserved for years to come.

    A language not spoken for four hundred years can reasonably be described as obsolete. In any case, what is meant by "oldest language" here? And how can Egyptian be said to have outlasted the majority of languages if the great majority of languages known to us are still spoken and nearly all of them go indefinitely far back into the past?

    "[The Mayans'] use of their own pictographic language."

    Languages aren't pictographic. Writing systems may be.

    The Hittites were a northern Indo-European people...

    I'm not sure if this is intended to mean that they belonged to a putative Northern branch of the Indo-European language family or that they lived in Northern Europe or in the northern part of the area occupied by Indo-Europeans, but no matter how you cut it, its wrong. There is no Northern branch of Indo-European to which Hittite belonged, and the Hittites lived in Anatolia, which is not in Europe at all and is in the southern part of the range of Indo-European languages.

    I don't think I'll be referring anybody to Conservapedia, much less consulting it myself.

    Posted by Bill Poser at 02:19 AM

    March 01, 2007

    Pixelated linguistics

    Chris Dlugosz's pixels are at it again (2/21/07), now cutting edges with scythes:

    The artist's caption:

    277 - SCYTHTZ


    I'm just reporting it.  Don't ask me to explain it.

    (Hat tip, once again, to Dave Borowitz.)

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 10:11 PM

    The WaPo opens an abusage forum

    Forums for linguistic naming and shaming seem to be springing up all over. Today, The Washington Post started its own group-gripe feature, Wordplay:

    Have you noticed that use of the word "organic," which once was confined to gnarly but expensive vegetables, now is all the rage? It has replaced paradigm and synergy as the word du jour for the pseudo-savants, and, frankly, we're loath to use it. But there is something organic about Page Three. The "Random Acts" of kindness feature grew out of responses to one reader's contribution. Someone's counterpoint to a random act drew a flood of reaction that grew into the "What Bugs Me" feature. Now a "What Bugs Me" piece on Monday, by Gordin Loftin of Annapolis, has sparked a lively response that gives birth to "Wordplay."

    Gordon Loftin's "What Bugs Me" contribution was a list of "five of my beefs with misuse of the English language". But so far, only three WaPo readers have had their gripes posted, in comparison to the 2,610 complaints now posted in response to the Telegraph's 2/23/2007 question "What is the most annoying phrase in the English Language?", or the 761 comments on Dick Cavett's 2/4/2007 NYT blog post "It's only language".

    I'm not sure why Wordplay's list of posted gripes is growing so slowly. Perhaps the WaPo employs an editor to winnow the submissions, and occasionally to comment. There's some evidence that this is true -- thus one of Mr. Loftin's original complaints was

    "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." Don't exist and can lead to confusion. It is 12 noon or12 midnight.

    Gary Jacobsen submitted a correction:

    Mr. Loftin misses the mark with his criticism of "12 a.m." and "12 p.m." Writers must remember that meridian means "middle of the day," or noon. The term a.m. means "ante meridian," or "before noon." The abbreviation p.m. means "post meridian," or "after noon." See? It's really easy.

    The editor adds "(Thanks to Rick Ripley of Silver Spring, Susanne Lazanov of Fredericksburg and Dorothy Flood of Vienna, all of whom wrote in to make the same point about noon and midnight that Gary Jacobsen presents above.)" Rob Perez points out that the editor did not correct Mr. Jacobsen's Latin -- it should be ante meridiem, not ante meridian. (And Jay Cummings points out that the Latin background, even when corrected, might help with the "don't exist" part but not with the "can lead to confusion part".)

    Richard Holtz ends his list of complaints with a question: "Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. (Where did that phrase come from, anyway?)"

    And Wordplay responds:

    Meg Smith, Washington Post researcher, spent a good while trying to answer your question, Mr. Holtz, but she's not very satisfied with the results.

    "According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'chest' has been used to mean 'the seat of emotions and passions' since at least 1590. In some literary journals, people are linking 'getting something off one's chest' to the Latin word and meaning for 'expectorate.' Which is just gross, but intriguing."

    Not to worry, somebody out there has the answer, and we bet you can read it right here next week.

    Thus we know that the WaPo has access to the OED. So far, though, the only editorial intervention is to suppress duplicate information and to answer questions. Obvious mis-prescriptions are not corrected -- for example, Judy E. complains:

    What bugs me: Using the term "over" when "more than" is the correct term. "Over" is a spatial-relations term. "More than" is used to express in excess of. He was "over" 90 years of age is incorrect. He was "more than" 90 years of age is correct.

    But the OED gives sense 13 for over, "In excess of, above, more than (a stated amount or number)", with citations going back to Old English:

    OE BYRHTFERÐ Enchiridion (Ashm.) I. ii. 34 Gyf þær byð an ofer þa seofon.

    and continuing through the usual range of classic authors, including Jane Austen:

    1816 J. AUSTEN Emma (1926) II. iii. 177 It had not been over five minutes, when in came Harriet.

    For a slightly different numerical sense "In a position of having exceeded (a numerical limit)",Thomas Jefferson is cited:

    1802 T. JEFFERSON Let. 20 Feb. in P. L. Ford Writings (1897) VIII. 133 Virginia is greatly over her due proportion of appointments in the general government.

    I recognize that introducing facts into the discussion might spoil the mood -- but a sensible evaluation of such complaints, sort of like an etiquette column, might turn out to be surprisingly popular.

    Part of the appeal of a forum like this is the general good feeling that people get from sharing their gripes, whether they're gripes about language or gripes about manners and morals and hairstyles. But there's another factor, I think: millions of people are intensely interested in speech and language, but have no outlet for their interest except for prescriptivist complaints, and no model for linguistic analysis other than the display of invented "rules" by popular language mavens.

    [Hat tip: Jay Cummings]

    Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:48 PM

    More Get Fuzzy

    We continue the Get Fuzzy language cartoon parade with two more strips from February.

    (As before, my thanks to Alex Martin for pointing me to these strips.  The comments on the strips are in part from her, in part from me.  Yes, Alex is yet another student in my innovations seminar.)

    First, a reflection on the syntax of the verb eat:

    We expect transitive eat, especially since it looks like we're getting the formula "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse".  But no, we're being offered intransitive eat.

    I am reminded of a friend whose young son complained to him, "Daddy, I want." 

    "What do you want, Robbie?"

    "I just WANT", the kid replied, plaintively and pathetically.

    On to the second strip, in which a protesting Bucky runs through languages and language varieties in quick succession:

    Bucky goes through Spanish and French (in frame 1) and ends up (in frame 3) in what I take to be a particularly stiff, starchy, and old-fashioned British English, all of them seeming more than faintly ridiculous.  (There's then a fourth frame, in which other characters comment on Bucky, quoting from Hamlet.)

    [Added 3/2: Lisa Brandt Heckman suggests a source for Bucky's last protestation:

    ... my Wonkdar tells me that Bucky's "Good day, Sir!" is not meant to sound British, but is an homage to the scene in the (original) Willy Wonka film wherein Wonka vehemently rattles off this explanation to Uncle Joe as to why poor Charlie doesn't get his lifetime supply of chocolate:

    "Wrong, sir! WRONG!! Under section 37B of the contract signed by him, it states quite clearly that all offers shall become null and void if - and you can read it for yourself in this photostatic copy - 'I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained,' et cetera, et cetera...'Fax mentis incendium gloria cultum,' et cetera, et cetera...'Memo bis punitor delicatum'! It's ALL there, BLACK and white, CLEAR as crystal! You STOLE fizzy lifting drinks! You both hit the ceiling which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get NOTHING! You LOSE!! GOOD DAY, sir!!'

    It's the indignation followed by the intonation implied by the bolding of 'day' that tells me so.

    Source of dialogue here.]

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:45 PM

    Get Fuzzy gets playful

    The comic strip Get Fuzzy has touched on language-related matters at least four times in February.  Here are two on English morphology: a new-sounding (though not actually new) -ity word and a -dar word.

    (Thanks to Alex Martin for finding these strips and passing them on to me.)

    Item the first: seriosity.

    It looks like Bucky is inventing the word on the spot, on the model of curiosity (and generosity and virtuosity and viscosity).  He's not the first to do so.  The OED has seriosity 'seriousness' with four cites, beginning in 1673, all of them possibly jokey.  There's one entry in the Urban Dictionary, and lots of Google webhits for it, mostly because of the Silicon Valley start-up company named Seriosity, but some of them are for seriosity 'seriousness', for example:

    women seem to feel they must dress like men to achieve and maintain seriosity ... as though men are intrinsically serious. (link)

    To counterbalance the seriosity of the previous entry, I want to share an extremely funny video I first watched today. (link)

    And there are a few in novel related senses, for example:

    Seriosity (another one of my terms) is defined as 'how much you take yourself seriously' (and has a related theory based on it: the Seriosity Viscosity ... (link)

    The suffix -ity isn't really productive.  Some abstract nouns in -ity (like curiosity) are established and reasonably frequent, but outside of this set, such nouns are conspicuous.  They stand out as fresh creations, and are likely to be seen as special in meaning or use: choosing a noun in -ity instead of using an existing abstract noun (furiosity instead of fury) or forming a noun with -ness, the all-purpose suffix deriving abstract nouns from adjectives (fabulosity instead of fabulousness), will suggest that you intend to convey something other than mere abstraction.  Maybe you're conveying something more than mere abstraction (fabulosity is especially fabulous), or something less (seriosity is hedged seriousness), or you're ostentatiously playing with the language.

    We've looked at ostentatious -ity before on Language Log, in particular in connection with the Snickers coining nougatocity (and other coinings in -ocity) and with the word bogosity

    The first of these postings also looked at the Snickers coining substantialiscious (also spelled substantialicious) and other -alicious words -- crunchalicious, crispalicious, yummalicious -- with a follow-up on "-Vlicious invention".  Most of the inventions in the first posting are (like the -ity coinings) adjective-based, but those in the second are noun-based, and noun-based -licious coinings are now all over the place, as in this report (of 2/18) from Eric Lee in my innovations seminar:

    One of my roommates has been obsessed with Fergie's song "Fergalicious" for a while now.  I like the song too, so now when my roommate sees an activity or person characterized by X, he will say it's X-licious.  Examples include cookielicious, tequilalicious, Cherylicious, etc.   All playful.

    As for -ness, it can be used with special effect on an adjective base that normally takes a different suffix: stupidness instead of stupidity (recall the special effect of using -ity when another formation would have been expected).  Eric Lee (1/27) wrote that "Jade on America's Next Top Model has interesting and productive uses of certain morphemes, especially ADJ+ness", with a link to an entertaining YouTube video that has now, alas, been removed (and I didn't transcribe it). 

    In any case, Mark Liberman reported here three years ago on -ness being used in all sorts of innovative ways, with links to two blog entries by Rachel Shallit that have lots of examples:

    N + -ness = N: mathness, schoolness, paperness, ...

    V + -ness = N: studyness, typeness, swimness, ...

    V + -ness = V: not much time to writeness; while i studyness all the time

    Adj + -ness = Adj: It's the wonderfulness poem; that is very coolness

    Cole Paulson, from my innovations seminar, supplied (2/11) more examples of the N > N type (by far the most frequent, I believe), plus a report of the liberation of the suffix and its elevation to a noun in its own right (like ism and ology):

    "He's trying to absorb your ness."

    The suffix -ness has long been applied freely to any number of words: "He's channeling some Cole-ness," "I don't like this class's HumBio-ness." But in this sentence, heard in my dorm the other day, ness becomes its own word, meaning something like 'aura' or even 'personality.'

    [Added 3/1: Ran Ari-Gur writes: "I think ness as its own word might have been popularized by the 2006 film You, Me, and Dupree; the character of Dupree uses the concept of a person's ness (e.g. for the character Carl, his Carlness) in motivational speeches."]

    And now, of course, we have truthiness and faminess (originally, on 2/17, fame-iness), hedged versions of truth and fame.

    But back to Get Fuzzy, with item the second: foodar.

    I'd guess (but see below) that the original model was gaydar, a portmanteau of gay and radar (note the shared vowel /e/, which would facilitate the combination), referring to the ability to detect whether another person is gay.  But the -dar component got pulled out as a suffix some time ago.  Back in October 2004, in an ADS-L discussion of -dar words (precipitated by Hindu-dar), I noted that "just sticking to the exciting world of sexualities", I'd found dykedar, straightdar, fagdar, queerdar, and homodar (but no sissydar, maybe because sissies are just too easy to detect, or maybe the problem is phonological -- see below), to which i can now add lezdar, butchdar, and femmedar/femdar (all applied to women), plus bidar and beardar.  And, moving away from sexuality: nerddar/nerdar, jerkdar, geekdar, idiotdar, plus detection abilities for various social identities, mostly using insult labels: niggerdar, niggdar, yup-dar, redneckdar, Yankee-dar, frogdar, mick-dar, Canuckdar, spic-dar, chinkdar (and jewdar/Jewdar and blackdar, below).  Plus   the entertaining nun-dar, detecting ex-nuns, or nuns not in religious garb.

    [Added 3/1: Ben Zimmer writes to say that "there's really no end to these in Web discourse" and provides a big list from from Mark Peters's "Wordlustitude" entry for dogdar.

    Please note: I'm not aiming to list all, or even most, of the -dar words that are out there; as Ben said, there's no end to them, so I really don't need fresh sightings.  I will point out that a high percentage of them are about the detection of particular kinds of human beings.]

    Back in November, Language Log finally got around to the -dar words, in a posting by Mark Liberman titled "Morphemedar".  Mark passed on a report of sarcasmdar and grammardar, noting that there were tons of examples of the formation, citing jewdar, blackdar, sexdar, and fishdar (to which Barbara Zimmer added humordar), and saying that his guess was "that there has been a low-frequency process of spontaneous neologism-formation going on here for some time."  Mark also surmises that the -dar suffix came directly from radar, rather than spreading via gaydar:

    The fact that radar -- though originally coined as an acronym for "radio detection and ranging" -- can be re-analysed as ra(dio)+dar means that the new morpheme -dar probably sprung into fitful existence soon after radar came into general use.

    Well, gaydar is the only one of these that has made it into the OED (March 2005 draft, with a first cite from 1982, though that seems late to me).  I'd guess that jewdar (not yet in the OED) is by far the next most frequent -dar word.  In any case, the fact that so many occurrences of -dar words seem to refer to despised identities of one kind or another suggests to me that gaydar was the mediating item.  (If so, there's a certain irony here, since gaydar was first used by gay people about themselves, in a neutral way, though it now has uses outside the gay world, to refer to outsiders' abilities to sniff out who is gay.)

    Either story about the origins of -dar would predict one striking fact about the -dar words, namely the very heavy predominance of monosyllabic first elements, especially in the ones that seem to have been around for a while and are reasonably frequent; things like sarcasmdar, grammardar, and humordar stand out phonologically (as well as semantically, since the first elements don't refer to human beings).  Perhaps that's why I didn't find any occurrences of sissydar or lezziedar.
    Get Fuzzy's character Foodar is ok on the phonology, though notable on the semantics.  The spelling, with one d instead of two, is interesting; I'm inclined to read it as foo+dar.  Despite that, I get only one webhit for fooddar, and more for foodar (in the relevant sense, and not with reference to the cartoon character).  Nerdar also beats out nerddar handily, so the orthographic simplification might well be preferred to maintaining the visual identity of the parts.

    Get Fuzzy didn't get there first with foodar, but from the Google hits, it looks like the strip might become the agent of its spread.

    zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

    Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:08 PM

    A tale of two societies

    Looking for some information on Thai "elaborate words", I stumbled over the obituary for Mary Haas in Language (Victor Golla and James A. Matisoff, "Mary R. Haas", Language, Vol. 73, No. 4. (Dec., 1997), pp. 826-837). The opening sentence frames her life nicely:

    Mary Haas, one of Edward Sapir's last surviving students, the guiding spirit of linguistics at the University of California, Berkley, for nearly three decades, and the thirty-ninth president of the Linguistic Society of America (1963), died at her home in Berkeley on May 17, 1996.

    She began as an anthropological linguist in the mode of the 1930s:

    ... she soon found herself caught up in the exciting company of Sapir's graduate students in anthropology and linguistics, most of whom were already doing serious work on American Indian languages. Prominent in this cohort were Harry Hoijier, Stanley Newman, Walter Dyk, and Morris Swadesh, the last a brilliant and charming young Chicagoan, only a year older than Haas, with whom she fell in love. They were married in the spring of 1931, and spent their honeymoon on Vancouver Island, he doing fieldwork on Nootka and Nitinat, she recording Nitinat songs and trying her hand at phonetic dictation.

    But what really caught my attention was a passage about the 1940s.

    For Haas, as for most of the other linguists of her generation, the watershed of her career was the onset of the Second World War. In 1940-41, as the United States moved toward entering the war, a cadre of field linguists was recruited to learn and teach the lesser-known languages of the European and Pacific theatres. Before World War II Southeast Asia had been virtually the exclusive domain of scholars from the European countries that had colonized it politically -- Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Hardly a soul in the United States knew anything about the rich profusion of language and cultures of Indochina, Thailand, Burma, or the Indonesian archipelago. Recruited to study Far Eastern languages -- and ordered to produce practical handbooks, teaching grammars and vocabularies -- were such scholars as William S. Cornyn, who was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau, who was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas, who got Thai. Given the near total lack of teaching materials on Thai in those days, Haas, like Cornyn and Emeneau, had to learn her language from scratch, through direct elicitation from native speakers. This was no big problem for her, since she had merely to apply the classic fieldwork techniques honed to such perfection in her Amerindian work to this new language of utterly different phonological and grammatical structure -- an effortless intellectual leap.

    Haas spent 1941-43 at the University of Michigan acquiring a knowledge of Thai phonology and syntax through intensive fieldwork with Thai speakers, one of whom, Heng R. Subhanka, became her second husband. ... in 1943 she went to Berkeley where the Army Specialized Training Program had been set up, under the direction of A. L. Kroeber, to teach strategic languages to servicemen.

    (Kroeber, by the way, was Ursula K. Le Guin's father.)

    By 1942, Haas had produced course materials distributed in mimeographed form under the title Beginning Thai -- and had also begun to publish scholarly papers on Thai, starting with "Types of reduplication in Thai", Studies in Linguistics 1:4 1-6, 1942. She continued to publish both pedagogical and scholarly works on Thai for the next 20 years.

    I certainly knew that American linguists and anthropologists had done war-related work during WW II, just as physical scientists did. And it's logical that someone organized this: "William S. Cornyn ... was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau ... was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas ... got Thai". But it never occurred to me before to wonder how this happened and who the organizer was. Was it Kroeber who handed out languages? If you know, tell me.

    It was normal for those days that the response was not simply to train people for the war effort, but to take up a completely new area of study in order to do so. Contrast this with the response 60 years later, described by Anne Marie Borrego, "Scholars Revive Boycott of U.S. Grants to Promote Language Training", Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/16/2002.

    Times have changed.

    [Update -- more here.]

    Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:37 AM