April 30, 2007


I'm afraid that I don't get it. Maybe the idea is that old-tyme slang involved new meanings for old words, like "cool", while "LOL" is an altogether new word? But there are plenty of antique terms made from initialisms, like AWOL or FUBAR. So it's not that, but what?

[Please, don't write to explain to me what LOL means, or how it's one of many recent initialisms associated with keyboarded communication, or even that this particular one originally comes from usenet if not before, rather than from the IM and texting cultures that have adopted it. I already know that. What I don't get is why someone would think that this is a new linguistic development, more like a new language than like just another example of the well-established phenomenon that gave us SNAFU and many others.]

[John Cowan wrote:

I think it's just the same old same old "degenerate youth" business. No special explanation needed.

And by way of elaboration, John sent a link to this comic:

Well, I know that "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people", as H.L. Mencken said, but "unshelved" is a comic strip. An internet comic strip about librarians, for cripes sake, which I expect to be at least a bastion of common sense, if not a beacon of intellect. I'm disappointed.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:52 PM

April 29, 2007


I was doing some reading the other night. In this case the book was Hesiod's Theogony. Okay, I admit that I'd already finished my nightly crossword puzzle to help ward off Alzheimers, but Hesiod used a term that seemed really odd. I'm sure you're all familiar with Hesiod but this part had to do with Prometheus, who had just deceived his father, Zeus,  by playing a trick on him.  As Hessiod records the story, Prometheus:

stole the far-seen light of untiring fire in  a hollow narthex.

Playing tricks on Zeus, such as stealing his private stash of fire, was a serious no-no in those days so Zeus decided to deal harshly with his naughty son (the obvious lesson: don't mess with God). So what  was this punishment? He created woman. I suspect you already know that at this point in mythical history the world was populated entirely with males, so Zeus's punishment had serious implications for...well, we won't get into that. But the Genesis account of man's fall suggests pretty much the same thing.

My point here is that I always thought a narthex was the anteroom of a church and it seemed odd that Zeus would hide his fire in such a place. But according to the translator's notes, a "narthex is a giant fennel." I know that fennel is a herb of the carrot family that's cultivated for its foliage and aromatic seeds and that it's used in soups and salads for flavoring but, just the same, I checked my handy OED definition of "narthex." Lo and behold, the OED defines "narthex" as:

a small case or casket for unguents and used in the sense of a vestibule or portico stretching across the western end of some early Christian churches or basilicas, divided from the nave by a wall, screen, or railing, and set apart for the use of women, catechumens or penitents.

Sounds good so far but the OED went on to call a "narthex" a yellow flowered umbelliferous plant with leaves and stalks used in salads and soups with the seeds used as flavoring, derived from the Latin "feniculum," meaning hay.

So how did this word, dervived from Latin "feniculum," meaning hay, ever shift from being a hollow container with a hard and apprently fire-proof outer cover that was appropriate for Zeus to use to  carry and conceal fire? I enjoy reading Hesiod and I'm perfectly willing to accept what he says about ancient mythology, but it still seems strange that a plant of the carrot family, or hay, or a small case used to hold unguents, or a herb used to flavor soups and salads, also could once have been a giant-sized, hollow, rock-hard, fire-containing structure. More interestingly perhaps, how did "narthex" then make that long and mysterious semantic journey, eventually becoming today's church vestibule?

Language is a truly wonderful thing. No wonder so many people study it.

[Update: Whenever I stick my neck out and express my ignorance, I can be sure that there is an alert Language Log reader out there to straighten me out. And sure enough, Greek scholar Craig Russell informs me that "narthex" is an Ancient Greek word for a giant fennel, different from a regular fennel. It has a long, straight and sturdy hollow stalk, perhaps like bamboo. It was used as a walking stick and was likely familiar to the people of that time. Since it was hollow, it could be used to store things. Russell tells me that Alexander the Great is said to have brought over the papyrus text of Homer inside a narthex stem. So other than the flammable properties of the plant, Hesiod must have been on to something. Russell opines that this hollow stalk could have been used for carrying small things, like powder or liquids and maybe even the unguents used in church ceremonies and it may be that unguents were stored in the church vestibule, leading us to the modern meaning. Thanks, Craig.]

Posted by Roger Shuy at 01:44 PM

Asterisking and other orthographic rituals

Kerim Friedman and Omri Ceren wrote to draw my attention to the proposal by David at Ironic Sans to "Uncensor the Internet with Greasemonkey" (4/27/2007) by removing certain cases of typographical bleeping:

Is there a way for us to avoid all this f****ng unnecessary self-censorship littering the internet?
There is now. I've created the "Uncensor the Internet" script for Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in that lets you add all sorts of useful functionality to your web browser, available here). If you're running Firefox with the Greasemonkey plug-in, just install this script, and see all the foul language that people are pretending they don't use.

But as David points out, those people aren't really "pretending they don't use" the words in question. Instead, they're performing a curious sort of ritual acknowledgment of a social consensus that the words are in some way dangerous, or at least problematic:

There's an article on-line from Money Magazine called "50 Bulls**t Jobs." That's right. Bulls**t. With those two asterisks in there. Come on. We know what word they mean. So why not just say it? If they think we're adult enough to be reminded of the word, why don't they think we're adult enough to see the actual word? (The article is based on a book by the same name, but without the asterisks)
Oh, I know. It's the kids. They might be reading. Sh*t. I didn't f*cking think of that. It would be terrible if they would see the word "Bulls**t" in print, but it's okay for them to see it with the asterisks, right? They'll have no idea what that means.

As David ironically demonstrates, all the writers and readers involved in this enterprise know exactly what words are being written. Are the asterisks just an attempt to obey the letter of a prohibition while violating its spirit? This is certainly true of the verbal gymnastics that the FCC requires on the radio, and it's also how I used to see the asterisks that David's script removes. But recently, I've come to the conclusion that they're really a kind of ritual orthographic gesture, which is often not required by any formal policy, but still serves a social purpose. When you put in an asterisk or two, while leaving the identity of the word obvious in context, you're using (or mentioning) the word, while at the same time saying to your readers "yes, I acknowledge that this word has a special status".

That's how I interpret the quoted remarks of Lisa Dale, the principal of Benson High School in Omaha, Nebraska, who got in trouble for green-lighting a section of the student paper that discussed usage of the word "nigger":

"I probably wouldn't, however, looking back -- we'd use the asterisk," Dale said of the paper's decision to spell out the N-word.

The whole point of the published discussion was that the word is problematic; but failing to asterisk or otherwise disguise the word itself still shocked or offended some readers. The offense seems to be a symbolic one, like failing to salute the flag, or to cover or uncover your head at certain times and places, or stand or sit at certain points in a ritual. Or, perhaps, this is like the risk of magical damage that some people believe is created by praising someone or remarking on good fortune, which then must be mitigated by the gesture of "knocking on wood" or making the mano cornuta. Many people who are not really superstitious, in any serious sense, may still perform these rituals half-ironically.

Taboo avoidance or mitigation comes in several other flavors as well . In between the notes from Kerim and the note from Omri came this compact and efficient communiqué from Justin Mansfield, under the Subject heading "Typographical bleeping":

2 things:

1) aposiopesis
2) gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk

Aposiopesis is the traditional name for "the rhetorical device by which the speaker or writer deliberately stops short and leaves something unexpressed, but yet obvious, to be supplied by the imagination, giving the impression that she is unwilling or unable to continue. It often portrays being overcome with passion (fear, anger, excitement) or modesty." The "something unexpressed" can be a more-or-less obvious obscene epithet -- "why, you son of a ..." -- and in such cases, the ellipsis can accomplish a sort of taboo avoidance.

A more complex and aesthetically satisfying type of taboo-avoiding aposiopesis is the Miss Susie/Lucy rhyme. Here the performer and the audience share knowledge of taboo words, which are contextually determined, sometimes even performed, and then transformed into harmless alternatives, generating much group glee on grade-school playgrounds:

Miss Lucy had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Lucy went to heaven
and the steamboat went to

Hello operator
Get me number nine
If you disconnect me
I will kick your fat

Behind the refrigerator ...

As for gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk, this famous phrase is discussed in the American Heritage Dictionary as follows:

The obscenity fuck is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, "Flen flyys," from the first words of its opening line, "Flen, flyys, and freris," that is, "fleas, flies, and friars." The line that contains fuck reads "Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk." The Latin words "Non sunt in coeli, quia," mean "they [the friars] are not in heaven, since." The code "gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk" is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields "fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli." The whole thus reads in translation: "They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge]."

This is a sort of 15th-century version of the usenet-era rot13 convention. The idea in both cases seems to have been that the cipher is transparent and easy to decode -- many news readers used to have a rot13-function accessible via a single keystroke, as I recall, and "one letter back" is easy to calculate in your head -- but still, it isn't readable without a modest bit of explicit effort, so that no one can complain of having been offended unless they took the trouble to put themselves in the way of it to start with.

The typographical bleeping business (e.g. by substituted asterisks for one or two letters) is not like this, since recognition of the intended word is effortless and automatic. Instead, it seems to be a less elitist and more lexically-specific version of the practice described by Herbert Halpert in "Folklore and Obscenity: Definitions and Problems", The Journal of American Folklore, 75(297), 1962:

Earlier in this century when anthropologists were busy collecting American Indian myths and tales in text, they usually published them in a museum or university anthropological series, with English translations. Invariably, when you get to the lustful doings of Coyote or some other trickster figure, or to version of the toothed-vagina motif, the English translation suddenly lapses into Latin.

The practice is older than that, I think -- I've seen it in 19th-century documents as well. In any case, it doesn't actually hide the content of the passage from anyone likely to be reading it (though it has no doubt sent some teenagers to look things up in Lewis & Short). Among those who have learned what words like paedicare meant, using a shared alternative language is like adding asterisks: a ritual way of acknowledging that the material has a special status. The tradition of rendering phrases in Latin dealt mainly with taboo concepts, however, where merely switching to a more formal register or even using English euphemisms wouldn't be enough, while asterisking focuses on taboos associated with particular words.

[A list of other LL posts on vocabulary taboos is here.]

[Peter Sattler writes:

I, too, do not know when the "dirty stuff in Latin" technique began, but I did immediately recall some passages from William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation." Take, for example, this 1642 discussion of criminal sexual activities:

Qest: What sodmiticall acts are to be punished with death, & what very facte (ipso facto) is worthy of death, or, if ye fact it selfe be not capitall, what circomstances concurring may make it capitall?

Ans: In ye judiciall law (ye moralitie wherof concerneth us) it is manyfest yt carnall knowledg of man, or lying wth man, as with woman, cum penetratione corporis, was sodomie, to be punished with death; what els can be understood by Levit: 18. 22. & 20. 13. & Gen: 19. 5? 2ly. It seems allso yt this foule sine might be capitall, though ther was not penitratio corporis, but only contactus & fricatio usq ad effusionem seminis....

Of course, this shift to Latin may have as much to do with the nature of legal discussions as sexual discussions.

A more amusing example emerges repeated in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who discusses his amorous adventures in an odd mishmash of Spanish, French, and Latin — yet in a fashion that seems just as determined to leave the "hidden" material clearly visible. Here are two examples from 1668, pulled off the Net:

[I] Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle, to whom I confess je sum demasiado kind, nuper ponendo saepe mes mains in sus dos choses de son breast. Mais il faut que je leave it lest it bring me to alguno major inconvenience.

[A]nd there she came into the coach to me, and yo did besar her and tocar her thing, but ella was against it and labored with much earnestness...at last did yo did make her tener mi cosa in her mano, while mi mano was sobra her pectus, and so did hazer with grand delight

I wish I had the Pepys here (I almost typed "in hand"), because I seem to remember that, in parts, the diarist would reserve Latin for the dirtiest passages. But these passages don't seem to support that memory.


[Andrew Gray comments:

What we read of Pepys is decoded *already* - he wrote in a cryptic shorthand to ensure privacy, and therefore he didn't really need to obfuscate anything to protect the casual reader. He "encoded" both normal English and the mishmashed passages alike, I believe. The mismash was probably just intended to confuse his wife if she stumbled across it - it's immediately apparent to an educated cosmopolitan reader (or, even, an educated Cosmopolitan reader), but quite possibly would have been meaningless to her. (Or perhaps she would have managed it perfectly well and he was just cocky about his cleverness - either is plausible!)

As to the Latin, Pepys has been reissued in about a dozen versions, each purporting to be "full" and each just omitting slightly less material than the previous one, as people grew a little more accepting of the dirty bits. (There's a good discussion of this in 'Dr Bowdler's Legacy', to digress slightly). It strikes me as entirely possible that one otherwise expunged edition kept a lot of the obfuscated Italian/French/Spanish bits, but just rewrote them in Latin in order to have the desired effect... and, of course, it would look perfectly normal when you encountered one of these Latinised passages.


[Another reader adds:

I am far, far, from a Pepys scholar. But what I understand from the preface to the Latham and Matthews edition of his diary is that he used one of the existing systems of shorthand in his day -- like writing in Gregg or Pitman in 1925: obscure to the common reader, but hardly a cipher.

Is there any indication whether the shorthand was merely a time- or effort-saving convenience, or was also used with the purpose of foiling casual readers? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:33 AM

Arabs and camel words: go ahead, just make stuff up

Saudi tribe holds camel beauty pageant’ says the headline over a Reuters news story by Andrew Hammond (filed Friday, April 27, 9:23 AM ET). It begins thus:

GUWEI'IYYA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The legs are long, the eyes are big, the bodies curvaceous.

Contestants in this Saudi-style beauty pageant have all the features you might expect anywhere else in the world, but with one crucial difference — the competitors are camels.

And so attuned am I to the ways of the journalistic world and its snowclones that when Marilyn Martin sent me this story I found that I could actually predict the drift of what would come up in the following paragraph before I even looked. Sure enough — I never doubted it for one moment that it would be there (though I would not have been able to guess the number):

The camels are divided into four categories according to breed -- the black majaheem, white maghateer, dark brown shi'l and the sufur, which are beige with black shoulders. Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel.

Of course it does, of course it does. And I for my part have over 57 different words for lazy journalists who repeat snowclones about vocabulary size in languages they know absolutely nothing about and cite warrantless lexeme-count figures taken from sources they cannot name or even vaguely recall.

What gets up my nose is not so much that lexical traveler's tales of this sort are so often false. Some seem to be sort of true. At least for Somali (not too far away from where Arabs live) Mark Liberman actually listed 46 genuine camel words, earning only sarcasm from me, but winning the enormous gratitude of the blogosphere, which has joyously repeated the figure many times.

And it's not even that these unsubstantiated myths about lexical counts mostly float around without backing — unsourced and undefended because journalists know that no one (except me on Language Log) will call them on claims about languages, regardless of how ridiculous the claims are.

No, what gets me most about these lexeme-count claims is that they are presented as if they were profound and significant and clearly supportive of exoticizing claims about far-away nomadic peoples like Arabs and Eskimos, when in fact even if they were true they would be utterly unsurprising.

Think how many names for breeds of dogs you could list. Why? Because we (in the West) have been domesticating and breeding types of dog for thousands of years and they mean something to us. Think how many names of paint colors you've seen on paint shop color charts. Think how many makes and models of cars you could name. It is totally boring and obvious that one will have a variety of specialized terms for things that one's culture has taken a long-term interest in.

The difference is, your knowledge of 40 different words for automobile models is not passed around as a gem of wisdom about the English language and worldview. For the Arabs and their camel terms or the Eskimos and their snow words, things are very different: the lexical count becomes a putative nugget of insight into their mysterious nature as a people.

And with numbers made up entirely at random, that's the other thing that drives me up the wall. Among those appearing on the web before such phrases as "words for camel in Arabic" (as you can easily verify) are: 9; 20; 40; 160 (this one is quite common); 400; 1,000; 3,000; 5,000; "a gajillion"; and of course various different quantifiers like "several", "numerous", "many", and "a whole bunch".

One of the most strangely specific is by P. L. Heath in Philosophical Quarterly, 1955 (in a review of Ernst Cassirer's The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1, JSTOR link here). Heath says (and he may be paraphrasing Cassirer): "Arabic, for instance, has 5744 words for different kinds of camel and none for camels in general."

Of course it does, of course it does. Exactly five thousand seven hundred and forty-four. Or perhaps nine; or forty; or four hundred; or a thousand; whatever. Don't stop to figure out a defensible number, just babble on about it as if the random number you picked was important and well backed up by linguistic research.

Maybe if you write some kinds of stuff for Reuters they may want to do fact-checking; maybe some of what you write for Philosophical Quarterly will be subjected to refereeing; but not if it's about size of subsets of the nouns in a randomly chosen language spoken in an area of the world where they still have "tribes". On that topic you will never be queried; so go ahead, just make stuff up.

[Update: Lane Greene has pointed out to me that although one can imagine someone being unable to evaluate a claim he read somewhere about 5,744 words for camel in a language he could not read, it is easy to answer the question of whether there is a single general word for camel. Just pick up an etymological dictionary. German Kamel and English camel come from Arabic jamal and Hebrew gamal via Greek kamelos, meaning of course "camel". To encounter the 5,744 figure and swallow it may be regarded as a misfortune; to overlook the existence of jamal in Arabic looks like carelessness.

It could perhaps be argued that jamal only refers to male camels, so it isn't fully general. But in that case, what about ’ibil, which is general as regards sex (though it can only be used in the plural). For a more informed discussion of the story about camel words in Arabic, see Lameen Souag's excellent blog post on the topic, which makes the point that we shouldn't equate "Arab" with "highly expert Arab camel breeder who knows all the relevant technical vocabulary associated with that trade". That's what I feel people are so often doing when they tell these many-words-for-X tales.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:36 AM

April 28, 2007

Singular they on Facebook

Greetings yet again from the Youth and Popular Culture desk at Language Log Plaza. The singular they phenomenon is usually Geoff Pullum's beat (his most recent report is here), but we've just come across another set of examples that we thought we'd report directly.

When you login to Facebook, you're presented with a "News Feed" that lets you know what your Facebook friends are up to: what groups they've joined, what they've got planned for the weekend, who else they've become friends with -- anything they want to let you know. Facebook users can leave their sex unspecified if they like, and if they do so, singular they is used to refer to that user. So, for example, a news item from a specified-male Facebook friend will show up on my news feed like this:

John Doe added "fried chicken" to his favorite foods.

An item from a specified-female Facebook friend will show up like this:

Jane Doe added "pizza" to her favorite foods.

And an item from an unspecified-sex Facebook friend will show up like this:

Kim Doe added "burgers" to their favorite foods.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 09:50 PM

Everybody are doing it

Another example for the collective collection (verb agreement division) -- Alec Baldwin, as quoted by Alessandra Stanley, "Under Fire, an Actor Lashes Back With a Plan", NYT, 4/28/2007:

"Everybody who works in tabloid media are people who are filled with self-hatred and shame," he said. "And the way that they manage those feelings is that they destroy the lives of other people and reveal your secrets."

To complicate matters further, when he says "your" he means "my". It's the inclusive your. Or something like that.

[Update -- Peter Metcalfe writes:

He's referring to himself in the second person. My previous experience with this phenomenon was a politician who had a billboard with the legend "Your country needs you".

Nice, but not quite the pattern I had in mind, though I guess you could interpret it that way. What Baldwin did was to use the generic second person in order to make his own position more appealing, by putting the hearer, at least pronominally, into Baldwin's situation. The odd thing about this particular example is that the group that "your" refers to is the same as the group referred to by the immediately preceding phrase "other people" -- and both are really attempts to raise to generic status what Baldwin thinks happened to him.

Here's another recent (but more conventional) example of blame-shifting with generic "you". The quote is from a college student facing felony charges after he and some others allegedly forced their way into an apartment in order to avenge a friend who had been punched (Pete Bosak, "6 PSU players face felony charges; 20 more may face questioning", Centre Daily, 4/28/2007):

Dozens of teammates answered Scirrotto's call for help, according to court documents.

Hayes said the contingent of football players went to the Meridian II thinking they were going to Scirrotto's aid when, police said, his scuffle with the three victims had been over for almost 45 minutes.

"You got to do what you got to do," Hayes allegedly told police when asked whether they went to the apartment to seek revenge for Scirrotto being roughed up earlier. "We went down to protect."

Police said six of them forced their way into the apartment and at least two of them attacked Imle and anyone who tried to stop them. Almost 20 other football players were outside, police said.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:08 AM

Garfield's interpreter

The Garfield strip from 4/23/2007:

I wonder how lolcats has affected the Garfield industries? Does the competition lower sales, or is this a product like addictive drugs, where increased supply (I assume) just leads to increased demand?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:53 AM

April 27, 2007

Contingency-table literacy: no biomedical researcher left behind?

According to Anne Underwood, "It's Almost Too Good for Us to Believe", Newsweek, 4/26/2007

Prostate cancer is the second leading cancer killer among men, after lung cancer. The American Cancer Society projects that in 2007 there will be 219,000 new cases and 27,000 deaths. Yet detecting the disease early has always been problematic. The only blood test available now—a test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA)—is not good at distinguishing malignancies from benign prostate enlargement (BPH). And it's useless for separating aggressive cancers from others that are so slow-growing they will likely never cause problems.

But a new blood test, described this week in the journal Urology, could change all that. In a study of 385 men, the new test was able to distinguish BPH from prostate cancer, and it pinpointed men who were healthy, even when their PSA levels were higher than normal. It also did the reverse—singling out men with cancer, even when their PSA levels were low. It may also distinguish cancer confined to the prostate from cancer that has spread beyond the gland. And it has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of biopsies performed every year.

The body of this Newsweek article is an interview with Dr. Robert Getzenberg, the head of the lab at Johns Hopkins where the test was developed. As a guy entering the prostate-cancer time of life, I'm glad to see diagnostic progress. But as a teacher of pattern-classification algorithms, I was less happy to see a spectacular scientific misstatement in the interview as published:

How reliable is the test? Did you get any false positives?
About 3 percent of the time, when the test was positive, there was no prostate cancer there.

This was too good for me to believe. So I checked, and from Table 2 of the paper (Eddy S. Leman et al., "EPCA-2: A Highly Specific Serum Marker for Prostate Cancer", Urology 69(4), April 2007, Pages 714-720), I learned that the result was actually this: among 232 control samples from people without prostate cancer, 7 (or about 3%) tested positive. So a better way to answer the question would have been: "About 3 percent of the time, when there was no prostate cancer there, the test was positive".

Is this just a quibble, or does it matter? Well, a reasonable conclusion from Dr. Getzenberg's statement would be that a positive result from his group's test means that you have prostate cancer, 97 times out of 100. But as we'll see below, the true probability that you have prostate cancer given a positive test result (and assuming that the test's specificity really is 97%) is something more like 1.5%. (Given the 92% specificity actually claimed by the published paper, it would be about 0.6%).

The reason for that spectacular difference -- not 97%, but 1.5% or 0.6% or thereabouts -- is that the great majority of men don't have prostate cancer . Therefore, even a small false-positive rate will produce many more false positives than true positives. So a brutally honest answer to the interviewer's question might have been: "If our results hold up in larger trials, we anticipate that about 1.5% of men who test positive would actually have prostate cancer."

I guess it's possible that Dr. Getzenberg lost track of this elementary statistical point. It's also conceivable that Newsweek garbled his interview transcript. I'd hate to think that Dr. Getzenberg misspoke on purpose, influenced by the fact that "Johns Hopkins Hospital is working with Onconome Inc., a biomedical company based in Seattle, to bring the test to market within the next 18 months" ("Test improves prostate cancer diagnosis", Science Daily, 4/26/2007), and the royalties from a test that might be given every year to every man over 40 in the developed world would be stupendous.

Why was the published false positive rate really 8% rather than 3%?. Leman et al. (Table 2) give two different numbers for the "specificity in selected population[s]" of the new test. ["Specificity" is defined as TrueNegatives / (FalsePositives + TrueNegatives) -- if there are no false positives, then the specificity is 100%.]

The second of these "selected populations" is the set I just cited -- 232 people without prostate cancer, among whom there were 7 false positives, for a specificity of 225/232 = .9698. This set is described as "control groups that included normal women, as well as various benign and cancer serum samples". It's a bit odd to calculate the specifity of a prostate-cancer test on a sample including women, who don't have a prostate to start with. And so for a comparison to the traditional PSA test for prostate cancer, the "selected population" was different -- 98 men without prostate cancer, among whom there were 8 false positives, for a specificity of 90/98 = .9183.

This was still a lot better than the results of the PSA test, which gave 34 false positives in the same sample, for a specificity of 64/98 = .6531. But 92% isn't 97%, and 92% is the number that Dr. Getzenberg's group gives in the Urology paper:

Using a cutoff of 30 ng/mL, the EPCA-2.22 assay had a 92% specificity (95% confidence interval 85% to 96%) for healthy men and men with benign prostatic hyperplasia and 94% sensitivity (95% confidence interval [CI] 93% to 99%) for overall prostate cancer. The specificity for PSA in these selected groups of patients was 65% (95% CI 55% to 75%).

What's much more important is that the specificity (whether it's 97% or 92% or whatever) can be a very misleading number. It's the proportion of people without the disease who get a negative test result. But if you get a positive test result from your doctor, what you really want to know is the "positive predictive value", i.e. the proportion of people with positive test results who really have the disease. In this case, 97% specificity probably translates to a positive predictive value of 1.5%, whereas 92% specificity translates to a positive predictive value of about 0.58%.

In order to think about such things, people need to learn to analyze contingency tables. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the American educational system, it might be this one.

Here's an example of a 2x2 contingency table for binary classification (adapted from the wikipedia article on "sensitivity"), set up to interpret the results of a medical test:

The Truth
Disease No Disease
The Test
Positive True Positive False Positive
(Type I error)
→ TP/(TP+FP)
Positive predictive value
 Negative  False Negative
(Type II error)
True Negative → TN/(FN+TN)
Negative predictive value



In filling out a table like this, it's not enough to know what the test does on selected samples -- we need to know what the overall frequency of the condition in the population is. Leman et al. dealt with a test sample of 100 men with prostate cancer, and two control samples without prostate cancer: one of 232 men and women, and another of 98 men. But those sample sizes were chosen for their convenience, to include roughly equal numbers of positive and negative instances. What would the numbers look like in a random sample of men?

I'm not sure, but these plots from M. Quinn and P. Babb, "Patterns and trends in prostate cancer incidence, survival, prevalence and mortality. Part I: international comparisons", BJU International, 90 (2002), 162-174, suggests that the rate of prostate cancer is somewhere between 50 and 100 per 100,000:

[Plot a is prostate cancer incidence, and plot b is prostate cancer mortality, both "age-standardized using the World standard population". I assume that the large difference in incidence between the U.S. and the next three countries, with much smaller differences in mortality, suggests that either the U.S. over-diagnoses, or Sweden, Australia and the Netherlands under-diagnose, or both.]

Remembering that "sensitivity" is the proportion of the genuine disease cases that the test correctly identifies as positive, i.e. the ratio of true positives to the sum of true positives and false negatives; and "specificity" is the proportion of disease-free people that the test correctly identifies as negative, i.e. the ratio of true negatives to the sum of true negatives and false positives; then:

Given a disease rate of 50 per 100,000, and a test with sensitivity of 94% and specificity of 92%, out of a random sample of 100,000 men, we'll have

Men with the disease = TruePositives + FalseNegatives = 50
Men without the disease = TrueNegatives + FalsePositives = 99,950

Sensitivity = TP/(TP+FN) = 0.94, so TP = 0.94*50 = 47
Specificity = TN/(FP+TN) = 0.92, so TN = 0.92*99,950 = 91,954

FN = 50-47 = 3
FP = 99,950 - 91,954 = 7,996

Now we can fill the table out with counts and percentages:

The Truth
Disease No Disease
The Test
Positive True Positive
False Positive
(Type I error)
→ TP/(TP+FP)
Positive predictive value
 Negative  False Negative
(Type II error)
True Negative
→ TN/(FN+TN)
Negative predictive value



Given these assumptions, if you get a positive test result, the probability that you actually have cancer (the "positive predictive value") is 47/(47+7996), or 0.005843591 , or a bit less than 6 chances in 1,000. If the background rate is 50 per 100,000, the fact that you're now at 584 chances per 100,000 is worth worrying about -- your odds are more than 10 times worse -- but it's not as bad as 92,000 or 97,000 chances per 100,000.

If you get a negative test result, the probability that you don't actually have cancer is 91954/(91954+3), or 0.9999674. That's comforting, but if you don't take the test at all, your chances of being cancer-free are 99950/100000 =0.9995.

(You can redo the analysis for yourself, assuming other population rates for the disease. For example, if the incidence is 100 per 100,000, then the positive predictive value of the test would be .94*100/(.94*100+.08*99900), or about 1.2%.)

Similar analyses of the similar contingency tables are come up in information retrieval (where "precision" is used in place of "positive predictive value", and "recall" is used in place of "sensitivity"), in signal detection theory (see also the discussion of ROC curves and DET curves), and in general, in all branches of modern pattern recognition, AI, computational linguistics, and other fields where algorithmic classification is an issue.

Algorithmic classification is playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives -- and medical tests, though important, are only part of the picture.There's spam detection. There's biometric identification, both for identity verification and in forensic or intelligence applications. There are those programs that flag suspicious financial transactions, or suspicious air travelers. There's the integration of "intelligent" safety features into cars and other machines. And many others.

Details aside, this process is essentially inevitable. It's driven by ubiquitous networked computers, cheap networked digital sensors, more and more storage of more and more digital data, and advances in -omic knowledge and analysis.

The science and technology behind algorithmic classification techniques are varied and complex, but in the end, interpreting the results always comes down to analyzing contingency tables. And some of the relevant mathematics can get complicated, but the basic analysis of error types and error rates doesn't require anything beyond 6th-grade math and a willingness to learn some jargon like "specificity". To make informed personal and political choices in the 21st century, you'll need at least that much.

It's pretty clear that the Newsweek editors aren't there yet, or they would have corrected this portion of the interview. If Dr. Getzenberg wasn't misquoted, his command of basic contingency-table concepts is also shaky. I can testify that this stuff is generally news to American undergraduates, and even to most graduate students entering programs in psychology, biology, linguistics and computer science.

I don't expect that any of our presidential candidates will make contingency-table literacy part of their campaign platform. But maybe they should.

[Fernando Pereira writes:

To add insult to injury, the bio community is divided on the meaning of the term "specificity". Biostats use the meaning you give, but in bioinformatics, especially in gene prediction, "specificity" = TP/(FP+TP)

In other words, exactly what others refer to as "precision" or "positive predictive value". All the more reason to be sure that readers are clear about what the proportions (and counts) in the contingency table are really like.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:15 PM

The Problem With Today's Youth

People are always going on about the problem with today's youth. The headline this morning in our local newspaper is "Bad Behaviour up in Schools". A hint is to be found in the same newspaper, which contains an advertising supplement from Canadian Tire, an institution which here in Canada may well rank above the Queen in public esteem. In 2006 it ranked first in reputation among Canadian companies (report.) On the front page is an advertisement for a mountain bike. The model? "The Hooligan". What a great message for the kids. Next I suppose we'll have "The Vandal", "The Looter", and "The Rapist". What planet do marketing people come from?

Posted by Bill Poser at 11:09 AM

April 26, 2007

The N-Word in Omaha

Benson High School, a public high school founded in 1904, was recently designated by the Omaha [Nebraska] Public Schools as "a Magnet Center for Academic Research and Innovation". However, its first appearance in the national news didn't work out in a way that pleased OPS officials. The trigger was the March 2007 issue of the school newspaper, the Benson Gazette, which included a four-page section on The N-Word.

The issue was distributed on April 10, and higher-level school bureaucrats quickly intervened to denounce the newspaper, to withdraw it from distribution, and to put the school's principal on administrative leave (Lynn Safranek, "Students' frankness sets of OPS uproar", Omaha World-Herald, Saturday 4/14/2007):

The Omaha Public Schools on Friday condemned a four-page section in the Benson Gazette, distributed Tuesday, that tackled students' use of the word "nigger." The section presented the viewpoints of black and white students and staff, including the school's dean of students and athletic director.

The school's principal, Lisa Dale, was put on administrative leave Friday. OPS officials declined to say why.

Calls came into OPS offices this week expressing concerns about the content of the section, said Luanne Nelson, an OPS spokeswoman. Some staff members from throughout the district, plus some Benson community members and students, were offended, she said.

On Friday, the newspaper was removed from Benson High's Web site as OPS announced an investigation into the matter. The district will take "appropriate action" when the investigation is completed, according to a statement.
"The Omaha Public Schools has never condoned and cannot support the actions which recently resulted in the inappropriate articles published in the Benson High Gazette," the statement read. "Unacceptable decision-making by staff has violated the standards set forth by the Omaha Public Schools to appropriately guide and educate our students."

Nelson said Dale's status is pending the results of an investigation by OPS's human resources department. Dale could not be reached for comment.

Benson students and parents reacted with shock and disappointment to the news that Dale had been placed on leave and that OPS disapproved of the articles.

I haven't seen the "standards set forth by the Omaha Public Schools to appropriately guide and educate our students", so it may well be true that permitting this newspaper to be published was a straightforward violation of those standards. If so, it seems to me that the standards ought to be modified, because the section strikes me as a responsible attempt to explore a difficult subject, one that clearly comes up many times every day at a school like Benson.

And I can't easily come up with a better short document to recommend for outsiders to read, to help them understand this curious aspect of the linguistic anthropology of contemporary America. Reading about the OPS reaction helps to understand other dimensions of the situation, which is why I've decided to post about it.

The World-Herald article continues:

The four-page section included news stories and a transcript of a round-table classroom discussion. An editorial and two editorial cartoons produced by the newspaper staff poked fun at the dual meanings of the word and criticized the ability of one race, but not others, to use the word without repercussion.

Nelson, the OPS spokeswoman, said, "There is no question that the students had a valid, spirited discussion regarding this topic." She said, however, that a high school newspaper may not be an appropriate forum, "because, as a printed piece, it can be misinterpreted."

Benson senior Sarah Swift, the paper's editor in chief, disagreed.

"I think a newspaper is the perfect forum," said Swift, who is white. "Why would we have newspapers at all? It may make people uncomfortable, but you can't talk about things that people are always OK with. We can't just ignore the bad things and hope they go away."

Perhaps because of the national attention ("Student paper's use of epithet sets off uproar", AP, reprinted in JournalStar of Lincoln, Nebraska), or perhaps because there wasn't really any violation of policies, it didn't take long for the school authorities to back off, at least with respect to the principal's job status (Susan Szalewski, "Principal reinstated at Benson after flap", Omaha World-Herald, Monday 4/16/2007):

Lisa Dale, the principal of Benson High School who was placed on administrative leave after the school's student newspaper published a racially charged special report, has been reinstated.

Dale will return to work today.

Reached at her home Sunday, Dale said Omaha Public Schools officials determined that she could better serve the school and community by returning to her post. She did not elaborate.

Whatever may have happened since, it's been going on below the journalistic radar. In possibly-related news, however, the Omaha Reader recently announced that

Declaring they’re fed up with concealed weapons laws and early bar closing times, Benson business owners have declared Benson its own nation-state with plans to secede from the larger Omaha metropolitan area. The group, armed with toy rifles, funny hats, musical instruments and loads of spirit have even set a date.

“We declare April 1 as Benson Independence Day,” said J. Asintheletter, whose family has been in Benson since before it was cool. “We want everyone to know that they can be themselves here.”

I infer that the rebels are against both concealed weapons and early bar closings -- the concealed-carry business apparently refers to passage of a new state law and repeal of a city ordinance, (Nancy Hicks, "Concealed weapons will be legal in Omaha", JournalStar, 7/18/2006); Nebraska's legal bar hours are 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., though perhaps Omaha has some local regulations as well.

There's nothing about alcohol in the March issue of the Benson Gazette, but an editorial on p. 8 discusses the fact that 52% of students don't feel safe in school, although the concealed-carry law doesn't apply there:

After being released from first block on the morning of Monday, March 5, students trudged on to their second class of the day - not quite ready to be back at school after a four day weekend. It was at approximately 9:27 a.m that a large gang related fight erupted in the east wing of Benson, stirring the curiosity of onlookers and preventing others from getting to class on time.

As if this was not enough ammunition for “water cooler” talk between students (and even staff), a student was suspended for bringing a gun to school. News stations covered the story, there was a brief moment of shock and awe which passed as fast as it came, but life went on as usual the next day.

The truth is, the student who brought the gun was not the first, nor was he the last person to enter Benson with a firearm. The only difference in this instance is that he was caught.

In general, both the school newspaper and the school's web site leave me very favorably impressed with the school and its students -- the OPS central office should be proud.

[Update -- Here is a report of a school board meeting about the issue: "School Board Meeting Packed With Opinions: 'N' Word At Center of Controversy", KETV-7, Wednesday 4/18/2007. And an earlier article ("Benson Principal Returns To Work", KETV-7, 4/16/2007) that ]

that indicates considerable support for Lisa Dale:

Students crowded around Dale at lunch on Monday. Student Nick George and fellow classmates said they were prepared to protest if Dale was fired. "It says, 'Support Ms. Dale. Free Press,'" said George, showing off a T-shirt that was made. "The back says, 'Ms D and newspaper are No. 1.'"

KETV.com's online discussion of the newspaper saw overwhelming support for the principal and the students, too.

In fact, as far as I can see, all of the 60 or so comments seem to support the students and the principal. The 4/16/2007 article quotes the principle as accepting responsibility"

Dale said on Monday it was a tumultuous few days for her.

"Not be here in the place that I love -- that, for me, is my heart and soul. The thought of that has been very difficult," Dale said. "The big question was: Did I see the articles before they went into print? And I did and so I take full responsibility."

but also as offering an interesting olive branch (fig leaf?) to the school board:

Dale said some good did come of the newspaper.

"It created conversations that allowed us to say, 'You know, even when it's casual, even when it's friendly, it's not appropriate,'" the principal said.

Dale said she learned a lesson.

"I probably wouldn't, however, looking back -- we'd use the asterick," Dale said of the paper's decision to spell out the N-word.

(I'm guessing that the non-standard spelling of asterisk was contributed by the reporter.)]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:48 AM

Virginia, who said they would come

Another remarkable singular they example collected by Nick Reynolds (he also collected this beautiful case). His yoga teacher was waiting for some students to show up for an informal jujitsu class, and so far only one, Steve, had shown up, so the teacher said to Steve:

Virginia isn't here, who said they would come; Chris isn't here, who said they would come; and Devin isn't here, who said they would come.

Virginia was the only female involved, and the teacher knew that. So the use of singular they (for it is singular: the teacher was not talking about Virginia having claimed that some group of other people would come) was not motivated by any possible lack of knowledge about gender, or by the neutrality of an indefinite antecedent like anyone. The speaker (going a bit beyond my usage — I don't find the above example fully grammatical) was using the supplementary relative clause who said they would comeas the way to express the property "x said x would come" regardless of the antecedent to which it is attached — even if that antecedent is a proper name (which I personally do not find grammatical, but keep in mind this kind of case, which seems different). Interesting further evidence of the aggressive spread of singular they in modern colloquial American English (and and English in other parts of the globe too, I'm told).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 09:57 AM

April 25, 2007

Kitty Pidgin and asymmetrical tail-wags

Anil Dash has a fun post arguing that "Cats Can Has Grammar" (4/23/2007). Surveying lolcats and related phenomena, he quickly passes over the snowclone "I'm in UR X Ying your Z" and the whole Invisible X phenomenon, and focuses on "the newly dominant lolcats, of the family 'I Can Has Cheezeburger?'". He observes that

The rise of these new subspecies of lolcats are particularly interesting to me because "I can has cheezeburger?" has a fairly consistent grammar. I wasn't sure this was true until I realized that it's possible to get cat-speak wrong.

Incorrect kitty pidgin jumped to my attention the first time I saw a reference to Dune being used with a lolcat image. The caption on the linked version of the image, "The spice must flow." is fine, if not particularly cat-like. But the caption on the version I saw first was much more verbose: "I are dunecat. I controls the spice, I controls the universe." Besides being an awkward attempt at overexplaining the punchline (I've never read Dune or seen the film, but the joke is obvious) this was just all wrong. The fact that we can tell no cat would talk like this shows that kitty pidgin is actually quite consistent

I feel really out of it, having no experience with lolcat and no intuitions about its captional norms. After a bit of investigation, though, I've decided that I don't feel badly enough about this to undergo the lolcat immersion required to change it.

Anil continues:

... I suggested this consistent grammar for lolcats could be a "cweeole". Knowing a bit more about such things now, I realize this isn't a creole but more likely a pidgin language, used to help cats talk to humans. And since "pidgin" is already a cutesy spelling of a mispronunciation, there doesn't seem to be any really cute way to rename it to reflect its uniqueness. "Kitty pidgin" might be the closest thing we have to a name for this new language.

Isn't this more like kitty baby-talk, long used for cutesy interactions with cats and small dogs, most memorably by certain P.G. Wodehouse characters? This 1922 passage illustrates the same type of "idiosyncratic conjugation" that Anil has identified in lolcats (of course minus the 4chan and l33t-speak overlays):

Vincent Jopp flushed darkly. Even the strongest and most silent of us have our weaknesses, and my employer's was the rooted idea that he looked well in knickerbockers. It was not my place to try to dissuade him, but there was no doubt that they did not suit him. Nature, in bestowing upon him a massive head and a jutting chin, had forgotten to finish him off at the other end. Vincent Jopp's legs were skinny.

"You poor dear man!" went on Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp. "What practical joker ever lured you into appearing in public in knickerbockers?"

"I don't object to the knickerbockers," said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, "but when he foolishly comes out in quite a strong east wind without his liver-pad----"

"Little Tinky-Ting don't need no liver-pad, he don't," said Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp, addressing the animal in her arms, "because he was his muzzer's pet, he was."

I was standing quite near to Vincent Jopp, and at this moment I saw a bead of perspiration spring out on his forehead, and into his steely eyes there came a positively hunted look. I could understand and sympathize. Napoleon himself would have wilted if he had found himself in the midst of a trio of females, one talking baby-talk, another fussing about his health, and the third making derogatory observations on his lower limbs. Vincent Jopp was becoming unstrung.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee reports on some research on the interpretability of tail wagging in dogs: "If You Want to Know if Spot Loves You, It's in His Tail", 4/24/2007. The message is not the old news that tail-wagging expresses feelings, or that more vigorous wagging expresses stronger feelings, but the new information that the feelings' nature determines which side of the dog gets more of the wag. This has been discovered by a team of Italian veterinarians, and reported in Giorgio Vallortigara et al., "Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli", Current Biology, 17(6), 20 March 2007, pp R199-R201. They found

... some unexpected and striking asymmetries in the control of tail movements by dogs: differential amplitudes of tail wagging to the left or to the right side associated with the type of visual stimulus the animals were looking at.

Here's a graphical summary of their results:

And their interpretation goes like this:

Davidson [3] suggested that the anterior regions of the left and right hemispheres are specialised for approach and withdrawal processes, respectively. Although Davidson's hypothesis was developed in the context of human neuropsychology, approach and withdrawal are fundamental motivational dimensions which may be found at any level of phylogeny [4].

In our experiment, stimuli that could be expected to elicit approach tendencies, such as seeing a dog's owner, were associated with higher amplitude of tail wagging movements to the right side (left brain activation) and stimuli that could be expected to elicit withdrawal tendencies, such as seeing a dominant unfamiliar dog, were associated with higher amplitude of tail wagging movements to the left side (right brain activation). (As to the cross-over of descending motor pathways, in dogs the rubrospinal tract is the predominantly volitional pathway from the brain to the spinal cord; the pathway decussates just caudal on the red nucleus and descends in the controlateral lateral funiculus; fibres of the rubrospinal tract terminate on interneurons at all levels of the spinal cord; see [5].)

Reference [3] is R.J. Davidson, Well-being and affective style: neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359 (2004), pp. 1395–1411.

So if you really want to know what your dogs are feeling, anyhow on the approach/avoidance dimension, watch what side they wag on. Translation into babytalk is strictly optional, as far as I'm concerned. What I want to know it, do dogs themselves pay attention to this potentially-informative aspect of their fellows' signaling?

And, of course, how about cats' tail-lashing?

[Nancy Wright writes:

Yesterday, one of the regular inmates over at www.icanhascheezburger.com was posting a tutorial on how to speak it: "LOL-Kitteh as a Second Language".

Actually, now that I think of it, that may have been the investigation you did that made you decide you didn't want "to undergo the lolcat immersion required to change [your lack of experience]."

It was one of the steps on the path, certainly. Though I suspect the author may be the Pedro Carolino of the ICHC idiom.]

More Language Log posts on lolcats:

"Kitty Pidgin and asymmetrical tail-wags", 4/25/2007
"Lolbrarians", 5/5/2007
"L337 KATZ0RZ", 5/12/2007
"Linguist macros?", 5/18/2007
"Lol-lexicography", 5/18/2007
"Lol Vincit Omnia", 5/27/2007
"Loop until kthxbye", 5/30/2007
"Accelerando molto con micino", 5/31/2007
"Amplifying 'faint signals' from the alpha geeks who are creating the future", 6/2/2007
"Lolxicographers", 6/7/2007


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:46 AM

April 24, 2007

They call it stormy Lundi

Among the funniest responses to the results of last weekend's French presidential election, this clever snowclone -- or perhaps we should say, o-clone -- comes from the cartoonist Barrigue, published by Le Matin in Lausanne:

Fabio Montermini, who sent in the link as a follow-up to my earlier post about "Political hypocoristics" (4/18/2007), explains that the expression "Métro, boulot, dodo", meaning "subway, work, sleep", is a common way for Parisians to express the tediousness of modern urban life. Presumably, "Métro Sarko Ségo" is a way of expressing disappointment that the centrist François Bayrou didn't make it to the second round; in any case, it frames the run-off as political same-old same-old, unimpressed by the fact that the winner this time will be the first French president born after WWII, etc., etc.

The response "Comme un lundi" means "Like a (typical) Monday".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:45 AM

1595 is available, but 1975 isn't

You can blame Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, or Kahle v. Gonzales, or Murphy v. Everybody. But whoever or whatever is responsible, it's bizarre.

In yesterday's post on Ezra Pound at PENNsound ("God's own Englishman with a tube up his nose", 4/23/2007), I mentioned Derek Attridge's 258-page monograph "Well-Weighed Syllables: Elizabethan Verse in Classical Metres", Cambridge University Press, 1975. I bought it for $22.50 in 1975, and remembered it well enough to cite it in my post. Looking it up on line, I discovered that it's out of print, but amazon.com offers us four used copies for between $175 and $179.98, while at alibris.com, there's one copy for $179.93. AbeBooks.com comes up with nothing.

Here's the dust-jacket blurb, copied by hand from my copy:

Sidney's statement in his Apology for Poetry that quantitative verse on the Latin model is more suitable than the accentual verse of the English tradition 'lively to expresss divers passions, by the low and lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable', is only one of numerous assertions of the superiority of classical over native metres made by English scholars and poets during the Renaissance, stretching from Roger Ascham some twenty years earlier to Ben Jonson some fifty years later. Yet this widely-held view appears to modern eyes a perverse eccentricity, and the substantial body of English verse in classical metres produced in this period by a host of writers has long baffled commentators by its apparent disregard of elementary metrical principles.

Dr. Attridge argues that the impulse to write vernacular poetry in classical metres was not an aberration, but a natural outcome of the way in which Latin was read and taught during the Renaissance, giving rise to a conception of metre very different from that which we take for granted today. This enables us to understand not only the low estimate of English accentual verse held by many educated Elizabethans, but also the particular forms which the experiments in English classical verse took.

Dr. Attridge also relates the quantitative movement to broader trends in Elizabethan taste (of which it is a particularly illuminating manifestation), and shows how the sudden decline of the movement was part of a more general change in sensibility at the end of the sixteenth century.

Apparently market forces don't apply to university presses. Given that the marketplace sets the value of used copies of this work at $175 or so, you'd think that Cambridge University Press would sell digital copies for some lesser sum, perhaps making their whole backlist available on a subscription basis to libraries, as EEBO does with works much longer out of print; or perhaps they could turn their out-of-print works over to a just-in-time publisher, as MIT Press has done.

Ironically, Sir Philip Sidney's views on English metrics, originally published in 1595, are easily available to us via Early English Books Online:

And from the OCR'ed version we can even snarf the passage from which Attridge took his title:

Vndoubtedly, (at least to my opinion vndoubtedly,) I haue found in diuers smally learned Courtiers, a more sounde stile, then in some professors of learning: of which I can gesse no other cause, but that the Courtier following that which by practise hee findeth fittest to nature, therein, (though he know it not,) doth according to Art, though not by Art: where the other, vsing Art to shew Art, and not to hide Art, (as in these cases he should doe) flyeth from nature, and indeede abuseth Art.

But what? me thinks I deserue to be pounded, for straying from Poetry to Oratorie: but both haue such an affinity in this wordish consideration, that I thinke this digression, will make my meaning receiue the fuller vnderstanding: which is not to take vpon me to teach Poets hovve they should doe, but onely finding my selfe sick among the rest, to shewe some one or two spots of the common infection, growne among the most part of VVriters: that acknowledging our selues somwhat awry, we may bend to the right vse both of matter and manner; whereto our language gyueth vs great occasion, beeing indeed capable of any excellent exercising of it. I know, some will say it is a mingled language. And why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say it wanteth Grammer. Nay truly, it hath that prayse, that it wanteth not Grammer: for Grammer it might haue, but it needes it not; beeing so easie of it selfe, & so voyd of those cumbersome differences of Cases, Genders, Moodes, and Tenses, which I thinke was a peece of the Tower of Babilons curse, that a man should be put to schoole to learne his mother-tongue. But for the vttering sweetly, and properly the conceits of the minde, which is the end of speech, that hath it equally with any other tongue in the world: and is particulerly happy, in compositions of two or three words together, neere the Greek, far beyond the Latine: which is one of the greatest beauties can be in a language.

Now, of versifying there are two sorts, the one Auncient, the other Moderne: the Auncient marked the quantitie of each silable, and according to that, framed his verse: the Moderne, obseruing onely number, (with some regarde of the accent,) the chiefe life of it, standeth in that lyke sounding of the words, which wee call Ryme. VVhether of these be the most excellent, would beare many speeches. The Auncient, (no doubt) more fit for Musick, both words and tune obseruing quantity, and more fit liuely to expresse diuers passions, by the low and lofty sounde of the well-weyed silable. The latter likewise, with hys Ryme, striketh a certaine musick to the eare: and in fine, sith it dooth delight, though by another way, it obtaines the same purpose: there beeing in eyther sweetnes, and wanting in neither maiestie. Truely the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts: for, for the Ancient, the Italian is so full of Vowels, that it must euer be cumbred with Elisions. The Dutch, so of the other side with Consonants, that they cannot yeeld the svveet slyding, fit for a Verse. The French, in his whole language, hath not one word, that hath his accent in the last silable, sauing two, called Antepenultima, and little more hath the Spanish: and therefore, very gracelesly may they vse Dactiles. The English is subiect to none of these defects.

Too bad we can't resurrect Henry Olney and put him to work monetizing the CUP backlist. Or perhaps we need to resurrect Thomas Jefferson and put him to work refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of copyright lawyers.

[It should go without saying that this would be purely intellectual blood, and no lawyers (who are as likely to be fine human beings as anyone else is) are to be harmed in the process.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:57 AM

April 23, 2007

Stupid prophylactic public statement blather

I would just like to say that I deny any wrongdoing in this matter. Although I am sorry about what has occurred, and I am sorry that some people feel the way that they do, I continue to maintain that I have done nothing wrong. When all the relevant facts are fully disclosed, I believe my innocence will be clear. I fully believe that I can continue to be effective in this office, in which I am proud to serve. I am determined to fight these allegations and have no plans to resign. Those who for political reasons have sought to damage my reputation, and that of a blameless young woman with whom my relationship has at no time been improper, must bear responsibility for the hurt they have caused to me and my family. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further this time, as I have been advised me not to discuss this matter further in public until the facts can be fully presented. But I believe that ultimately I will be fully vindicated. We plan, at the proper time, to refute all of the disgraceful allegations about us that have been spread by the more irresponsible sectors of the media. In conclusion, let me just say that I am most grateful for the love and support of my family at this difficult time. Thank you.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 06:14 PM

Hurting people loved here

No, this isn't an example created by the Church Sign Generator -- it's the sign outside my neighborhood Baptist church (and polling place) in North Park.

In introductory linguistics courses we linguists often use the tired old "visiting relatives can be tedious" (or "boring", or "a pain", or what have you) as an example of a certain kind of ambiguity: are we talking about visiting our relatives, or are we taking about the relatives who visit us? I like the example on this church sign better: do my neighborhood Baptists love people who experience pain, or do they love people who cause others to experience pain? (Or: do they love acts that cause others to experience pain?)

All of God's children are presumably loved equally, but I'm fairly certain that the ambiguity of this example was not intentional. If it were, I'd expect to find more about it on the church's website -- it would be too clever to pass up.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 01:01 PM

Comments on "The Interpreter"

[Guest post by Vera da Silva Sinha and Chris Sinha]

Below is a letter sent to The New Yorker in response to an article entitled “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto which appeared in The New Yorker of April 16 2007. The article is a lengthy and interesting account of Dan Everett's work on the Pirahã language of Amazonia. Our letter draws on our own visit to the Pirahã and on our fieldwork with another Amazonian indigenous community. We do not know if, our how much of, the letter will be published, but we think readers of this site might be interested. The work on time in Amondawa discussed below is reported in an article which will imminently be submitted for publication.

We are an anthropologist and a psychologist who visited the Pirahã in January 2006, at the behest of FUNAI (the Brazilian Indian Agency) and the municipality of Humaitá, in the State of Amazonas (Brazil). We were asked to do so because (we were informed) the Pirahã community had requested the provision of schooling. Our visit (by boat) took place in the company of FUNAI, FUNASA (health agency) and municipal officials, and an interpreter. The request for our visit was issued because one of us (Vera) has experience of establishing an indigenous language school in another Amazonian community, the Amondawa, who speak a Tupi Kawahib language unrelated to Pirahã. We communicated with Dan Everett about our visit, and during our stay we experienced at first hand the cultural patterns described by John Colapinto, and by Everett in his article in Current Anthropology. Not having knowledge of the Pirahã language, and not being confident in attempting to understand it via an interpreter, we made no attempt to confirm or disconfirm Everett’s linguistic analysis. Everett’s data and arguments are compelling, and they are fully consistent with the activities, dwellings, speech, songs and dance that we observed. The Pirahã language and culture seemed very distinctive in comparison to other indigenous Amazonian communities of which we (notably Vera) had prior experience. Nevertheless, we question the extent to which the Pirahã are quite as spectacularly unique and “different” as is suggested in your article.

To begin with, there exists, as well as so far uncontacted indigenous groups in Rondônia State (Brazil), at least one other monolingual Amazonian community, the Zuruhuã, who resist interaction with strangers. Many other indigenous groups have older community members who are monolingual. Monolingual speakers of other Amazonian languages are reluctant in just the same way as the Pirahã to engage in culturally “alien” tasks designed by linguists and psychologists and administered by strangers. So the first point we would make is that Tecumseh Fitch’s experiments may well be intrinsically, and not merely circumstantially, inconclusive. This critical point regarding what psychologists call cultural and ecological validity is not new, and is not confined to Amazonian cultures, but it bears reiterating.

Secondly, several of the characteristics described for Pirahã are common to other Amazonian (and other) languages, in particular the fusion of color terms with substance terms, the absence of quantifiers, a highly restricted numeral system, and the absence of grammatical tense. The last of these is particularly instructive. As long ago as the 16th century, Father José de Anchieta noted the absence of verbal tense in the Tupi languages of South America (unrelated to Pirahã).We have been researching, together with our colleagues Dr Wany Sampaio of the Federal University of Rondônia and Dr Jörg Zinken of our Department, the linguistic organization of time concepts in Amondawa. Our conclusion, in brief, is that this is radically different from that displayed in the languages most studied by linguists. It is not just a matter of a restricted number of terms, or of a lack of grammatical marking, but of a system based not on countable units, but on social activity, kinship and ecological regularity, that does not permit conventional “time-reckoning”. This is all the more striking when seen against the fact that the Kawahib system for space and motion, which we have also analyzed, displays a high degree of complexity. Space and motion terms are often “recruited” by languages to organize time, but not, it seems, by Amondawa, and we would hypothesize the same to be the case for Pirahã, as well as other Amazonian languages and their speakers. This does not mean that speakers of such languages have no time awareness, or that they are unable to talk about events and activities occurring in time. But they do not talk about time, or frame relations between events in terms of a notion of time separate from the events and activities.

These findings are very much in line with Dan Everett’s proposal that cultural practices and cultural norms influence both language structure and conceptual organization * and with his rejection of a one-way, Whorfian direction of influence from language to cognition. Cultures, however, change over time, often as a consequence of contact with other cultures, and we noted a particularly interesting instance of such change in the Pirahã. We had been asked to evaluate the plausibility of establishing an indigenous language school, and we had noted that Everett had written that the Pirahã saw no point in, and therefore were unable to, engage in basic literacy practices such as practising the writing of alphabetical characters. During our visit, we provided young Pirahã men with the wherewithal to do this, and at their request instructed them in how to do it. They did so readily and with a high level of competence, and we have audio-video recordings of them doing so. This occurred only after extensive discussions amongst the community members about whether or not they wanted a school (we have recordings of these discussions too).

This should remind us that cultures are not fixed entities, but dynamically changing ways of living together in changing circumstances. We do not mean to suggest that similarities between Pirahã culture and other Amazonian cultures make the Pirahã merely one among an undifferentiated mass of indigenous groups. All human cultures are unique, even if we can discern common patterns holding across different groups, and even though they are all products of our common humanity. Still less do we wish to downplay the distinctiveness, carefully documented by Dan Everett, of the Pirahã language. But to view just one group as the epitome of an exotic “otherness” is to fail to do justice to all the dimensions of the variation which still, today, can be encountered in the languages and cultures of the world. As Franz Boas maintained, the study of language is part of the psychology of the peoples of the world, and through comparative linguistics we can make progress in understanding both variation, and the limits on variation, of the human mind. For this reason we would find it regrettable either to treat Pirahã as just an isolated case study, or to reduce the significance of comparative language studies to the single issue of recursion.

Despite our general sympathy for Everett’s cultural approach to linguistics, there remains, to our mind, a problematic aspect to his account of Pirahã language and culture, namely his wide-reaching attribution of “gaps” in the linguistic system to “absences” in the culture. Our research on Amondawa conceptualizations of time leads us to the speculative conclusion that the absence -- as true of this Kawahib group as for the Pirahã -- of a cultural norm of accumulation (of food, seeds, money and goods in general) is related to the Amondawa notion of time as embedded in activity, kinship and seasonality. This is not the same, however, as saying that there is no domain of common, collective imagination of a time extending “outside” the present that is psychologically real for members of the Amondawa culture.

Whether or not we choose to call them “creation myths”, the Amondawa have narratives which both relate them to other groups and lend their own community a history and an identity. These narratives link the present day Amondawa to a time before “contact”, and in turn to the narratives that were told in those times. Everett maintains that such narratives simply do not exist for the Pirahã, but it may be that, in focussing on language structure, he has not “heard” the narratives; or that, faced with the competing narratives of Christianity, the Pirahã have chosen not to recount their own narratives to him. The Pirahã, it seems, both from Everett’s account and from our own observations, place little value on artefacts, or on the cultural transmission of the making of artefacts. Their material culture is, indeed, of an extreme simplicity. Yet the Pirahã could not survive without reproducing their culture. Could it be that in their art, in their language, and in their cultural identity, the Pirahã place more value on performance than on product? If so, they would not be dramatically different from many other human groups, merely at an extreme end of a continuum from material production to performative mimesis. If this, admittedly speculative, hypothesis has any truth, it might lead us to the conclusion that Dan Everett’s cultural linguistic analysis is not as far removed from Keren Everett’s observations about practices of cultural learning and teaching as he himself seems to think.

Finally, we should not forget that the Pirahã, like most minority indigenous groups, are very poor, and almost completely powerless in relation to the encroaching outside world. During our visit the people were hungry. Not just their way of life, but its foundation in their natural environment, is threatened. It would be good if a renewed interest in what we can learn from peoples like the Pirahã about the human mind were to be accompanied by an equal concern for helping them to acquire the resources necessary not just for survival, but for shaping their own future.

Vera da Silva Sinha, MA, MSc
Chris Sinha, PhD
University of Portsmouth
Department of Psychology

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:09 AM

God's own Englishman with a tube up his nose

The extraordinary PENNsound site has recently added an extraordinary trove of Ezra Pound recordings, along with an essay by Richard Sieburth, "The Sound of Pound: A Listerner's Guide". One of the most interesting aspects of Sieburth's essay, to me, was his description of Pound's encounter with the L'abbé Jean-Pierre Rousselot.

In the spring of 1913, Pound crossed the Channel to prepare a series of seven articles on modern French poetry, published later that fall in the New Age as “The Approach to Paris.” While in Paris he met the poets André Spire and Robert de Souza, both of whom were ardent proponents of the new vers libre—whose central principle had already been incorporated into Pound’s initial Imagist manifesto (“As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”). Both Spire and de Souza had been attracted to the work of the abbé Pierre-Jean Rousselot (1846-1924), the founder of experimental phonetics in France, who occasionally invited poets to his laboratories at the Collège de France to conduct experiments on the phonological analysis of poetic diction. The ardent vers libristes were presumably eager to find out whether Rousselot’s modern recording devices (which produced what look like intricate seismographs of vowels, consonants, pitch, and tempo) could provide scientific proof that free verse was, in its own way, just as “regular” or “formal” (in terms of the patternings of accents or quantities) as, say, the traditional alexandrine.

Rousselot was one of the founders of phonetics as a branch of natural science -- John Ohala wrote that he "is widely regarded as the 'father of experimental phonetics'", who "with Rosapelly (1876) ... pioneered and refined the use of the kymograph for study of speech articulations". The kymograph was basically a recording oscilloscope, the ancestor of the polygraph, which used lamp-blacked paper wrapped around a revolving drum to preserve for later study the motions of a vibrating stylus. Several styli were typically recorded at once, and their motions might record the beating of the heart, the volume or pressure of air in the lungs, or the more rapid variation in air pressure that corresponds to sound. A clockwork time base was also recorded, so that exact durations (and therefore frequencies) could be measured with a ruler.

Sieburth quotes Pound's description from a 1935 essay:

There was in those days [1912-1913] still a Parisian research for technique. Spire wrangled as if vers libre were a political doctrine. De Souza had what the old Abbé called une oreille très fine, but he, the Abbé, wrapped up De Souza’s poems and asked me to do likewise in returning them lest his servante should see what I was carrying. The Abbé was M. Rousselot who had made a machine for measuring the duration of verbal components. A quill or tube held in the nostril, a less shaved quill or other tube in the mouth, and your consonants signed as you spoke them. They return, One and by one, With fear, As half awakened, each letter with a double registration of quavering.

And another discussion from 1920:

I admit that many people did "dismiss" l'Abbé Rousselot; it is, for example, impossible to imagine God's own Englishman with one tube pushed up his nose, reciting verse down another, and God's own Parisian, and God's own supporter of the traditional alexandrine made a good deal of fun of the phonoscope. . . [T] his little machine with its two fine horn-point recording needles, and the scrolls for registering the belles vibrations offers a very interesting field of research for professors of phonetics, and, I think, considerable support, for those simple discriminations which the better poets have made, without being able to support them by much more than "feel" and "intuition." For example, the "laws" of Greek quantitative prosody do not correspond with an English reality. No one has succeeded in writing satisfactory English quantitative verse, according to these "rules," though, on the other hand, no English poet has seriously tried to write quantitative verse without by this effort improving his cadence.

Given the phonoscope one finds definitely a reason why one cannot hear the in the in a phrase like in the wind, as a "long." It isn't long. Whatever the Greeks may have done, one does not hear the beginning consonants of a word as musically part of the syllable of the last vowel in the word preceding; neither does the phonoscope so record them. All of which with many other finer distinctions can now be examined with great saving of breath and paper, whenever the questions are considered of sufficient interest, either by professors, or by neophytes in the arts of versification.

L'abbé Rousselot was one of the first to attempt systematic measurement of the physical facts of speech in relation to their linguistic function. For example, he was the first to describe the (universal) phenomenon now known as "pre-boundary lengthening". As a result, he was also one of the first to encounter the central paradox of perceptual psychology in its application to speech. The relationship between our subjective impressions and the objective facts of sound -- between what we hear and what we measure -- is a complex and subtle one. The colors we perceive in a scene are determined by the distribution in space and time of wavelengths of light, but the mapping is not a simple one, and a flux of photons that seems bright white in one context can appear deep black in another. The same can be said for pitches and vowel qualities and what Pound called "the duration of verbal components".

There is still considerable debate about how much effect the language of color might have on color perception. (For some discussion in earlier LL posts, see "Sapir-Whorf alert", 3/25/2004; "What would Whorf say?", 1/3/2006; "What Whorf would have said", 1/15/2006.) But in the case of speech, there's no debate -- how we hear speech sounds is profoundly and systematically influenced by the language(s) we know, and the sounds' linguistic context. And the principles of poetic rhythm, whether in metered verse or free, are about the linguistic patterning of physical sounds, not about the physical sounds alone.

Pound's discussion implies a simple parallelism of subjective and objective realities -- "one does not hear the beginning consonants of a word as musically part of the syllable of the last vowel in the word preceding; neither does the phonoscope so record them." He's talking about the principle of length by position, which in Greek and Latin metrics causes short vowels followed by two consonants (even across a word boundary) to be scanned as long. But I very much doubt that a recording of Sappho or Horace would have shown "the beginning consonants of a word as musically part of the syllable of the last vowel in the word preceding" in any simple way that is different from recordings of modern English speakers.

The basic distinction here is between short vowels in closed syllables (scanned as two moras) and short vowels in open syllables (scanned as one mora) -- in Greek, and in Latin poetry based on Greek models, this distinction was metrically fundamental. In English, the fundamental metrical dimension has always been stress, not syllable weight.

As for the re-syllabification of connected speech, English shows much the same sort of indirect evidence that we know from classical Greek. Thus many American speakers will flap and voice the final [t] of "at" in "at every opportunity", but will produce the same [t] as a glottal stop in "at yesterday's meeting". This allophonic variation is determined by syllable structure, and word-initial and word-final consonants are often syllabically adopted by neighboring words, in English as in classical Greek. But English metered verse is based on stress, not syllable weight (well, if we leave out the curious experiments of Sidney, Spenser, Campion and others from time to time in the history of English poetry...).

I don't mean to suggest that experimental phonetics is irrelevant to poetry. There's a lot to be learned, both about poetic form and about poetic performance. And the instrumentation these days is much more sophisticated than it was in 1913, and much more available -- instead of the precision instruments that Charles Verdin built for Rousselot, all you need is a microphone (or internet access to PENNsound) and a laptop. But now as in 1913, the topic needs serious engagement by people who understand both poetry and phonetics. Pound with a quill up his nose for an afternoon at the Collège de France is a striking image, but not a serious basis for rational investigation.

Unfortunately, things have not changed a great deal since Rousselot wrote Principes de phonétique expérimentale (1897), at least if we substitute "humanists" for "linguists":

… les procédés des sciences expérimentale sont assez étrangers aux linguists. Une sorte de terreur superstitieuse s’empare d’eux dès qu’il s’agit de toucher au méchanisme le plus simple. Il fallait donc leur montrer que la difficulté est moindre qu’ils ne se la figurant et leur faire entrevoir le champ immense que l’expérimentation ouvre devant eux.

... the procedures of experimental science are rather foreign to linguists. A sort of superstitious terror takes hold of them as soon as the question comes up of touching the simplest mechanism. It is thus necessary to show them that the difficulty is smaller than they perceive it to be, and to make them see the enormous world that experimentation opens before them.

The current holder of the chair of phonetics at the Sorbonne, which I believe was originally created for Rousselot, is Jacqueline Vaissière, who was a postdoc in Ken Stevens' lab at MIT while I was a grad student, and who also spent some time at Bell Labs while I worked there. When she took up her current position, she told me that there is a real, physical chair involved, arranged in a ceremonial room of some sort among the physical chairs corresponding to the other professorial chairs in the same institution, and a brass plaque on each one is inscribed with the names of those who have held the position over time. (At least, that's what I remember from our conversation at the time -- apologies if my memory is wrong.) This sort of correspondence between conceptual and physical realities, though charming, is as unusual for professorships as it is for phonemes.

[Tip of the hat to Sam Hughes, who wrote so entertainingly about Pound's school days in Philadelphia with William Carlos Williams, in the innocent time before Yeats, Eliot, Vorticism, Paris, Italy and Fascism. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:25 AM

April 22, 2007

Stiff upper lip, everybody...

So, I guess we have to offer up today's For Better Or For Worse for your contemplation (click for full size):

This cartoon evoked a wide range of reactions as I showed it around the Plaza, from howls and caterwauling to your basic resigned grimace. As has been noted by Sally Thomason and Roger Shuy, there is a sound sociological reason for warning students about disparaged features of nonstandard dialects, which the cartoon touches on in its third panel. And the "grammar" lesson isn't totally bad.

Our FBOFW teacher here shows a good awareness that the acceptability of "double negation" varies from language to language, for example, mentioning Spanish. But she reveals her fundamental ignorance when she goes on with "In English, we say...", as if negative-concord Englishes don't exist. Overall, the lesson is a prescriptivist nightmare, framed in the normative language of correctness and error, perpetuating the notion that there is such a thing as 'good grammar' that is 'difficult to learn'. If it had been presented just slightly differently--for example, as a description of some of the salient features of the dialect of English favored in professional or academic life--it would have been much more acceptable to me qua linguist, albeit still pretty sad.

But the thing that bothers me the most about the cartoon is not its depiction of blunt-weapon prescriptivism, which is surely unremarkable in a world of Strunk-and-White-educated English teachers. What kills me is the idea that, for 99.99% of the educated American public, this is what "grammar" is: a laundry list of half-remembered strictures against certain forms and usages, understood as commandments from on high about How To Do Right, not even dignified with a discussion of what the proscribed forms and usages actually are, grammatically speaking. Nonstandard irregular verb forms in the English perfect? Accusative (or 'object') pronouns appearing in nominative (or 'subject') position? The structural properties of negative polarity items like anything? The teachers don't know this stuff, let alone the students. All anyone knows is that He should have did it is "bad grammar", and must be avoided and looked down on, like pointing, farting, or scratching yourself in public. This stuff is not "English Grammar". At best, it's lessons in (Standard American) English Deportment and Etiquette. It is really, really demoralizing that almost nobody out there knows the difference.

Update:Alex Baumans writes in with the following observation:

I sympathise with your complaint on Language Log. In Dutch, such subjects aren't called grammar (or at least, they weren't when I studied them, but 'taalbeheersing', which translates loosely as 'language mastery'. Perhaps renaming them to 'language etiquette' or 'linguistic elegance' would put matters into perspective.

...and then with this further comment:

I don't know whether you're familiar with the sociolinguistics of Dutch in Belgium. To simplify broadly, up until the 1950s the vast majority of Dutch speakers only spoke their dialect, French being the language of culture. So in the Flemish emancipation movement, much stress was laid on having people acquire 'Standard Dutch', which was at the time called 'Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands' of Standard Civilized Dutch. Civilised, (or 'cultured' being the operative word. This led to a very presciptivist approach, in which the stigma wasn't so much grammatical as social. If you used the wrong word or accent, you weren't accused of being ungrammatical, but of being uncouth and rural. On the other hand, acquiring the right sounds was seen as way towards social progress. All very professor Higgings and Eliza Doolittle.

I trained as a teacher of Dutch in the 80s, and by then there was a lot of debate about the prescriptivist approach. But this debate was only partly in terms of 'right & pure' vs 'wrong & debased' language (there was and is some of that). The main faultlines were sociological: the language of the people vs the language of the elite, regional authenticity vs cosmopolitan culture, centralised uniformity vs individual variety.

So the idea that you teach certain varieties of language because they are socially desirable, rather because it is inherently 'right' comes natural. In fact, that is the case for most Europeans, as we are very aware of the social implications of language.

I don't think that Americans are any less aware of the social implications of language than Europeans (otherwise people wouldn't care at all about 'He should have did it'). They've just conflated that notion with the notion of what 'grammar' is -- they use the word 'grammar' to refer to instruction in how to conform to the normal usage patterns of the prestige dialect, rather than to the study of the structure of language. Maybe it's a polysemy thing, and the word 'grammar' has come to have two meanings, one about getting standard usage right and one about studying the structure of language. But seems to me that in fact, a lot of Americans think that when they're learning about how to get usage right, they ARE studying the structure of language. And that is just a mistake.

Posted by Heidi Harley at 06:56 PM

More Problems with Crosses

A while back we noted the objection on the part of some Muslims to the letter X and that of some Jews to the plus sign as too closely resembling the Christian cross. Well, it turns out that there is yet another such controversy.

The government of India recently issued a new design for the two rupee coin. The previous version, which to my eye is more attractive, featured a map of India on the reverse. The new version has a sort of irregularly spaced tic-tac-toe board with four dots in the corners as you can see here.

Photographs of the obverse and reverse of the new Indian 2-rupee coin

According to the Reserve Bank of India, the design represents:

people from all four parts of the country coming together under one banner and identifying with one nation

Some Hindus, especially the "Hindu nationalists" of the Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh parties and the somewhat more moderate Bharatiya Janata party, are objecting to the new design on the grounds that it depicts a Christian cross and thereby promotes Christianity. There is a petition to withdraw the coin. I can't say that the Reserve Bank of India's interpretation leaps out at me, but the resemblence to the Christian cross seems to me to be quite remote. Christian crosses in my experience, do not have two parallel lines in each direction. Nothing like the design on the coin appears in this rather comprehensive list of crosses. The objectors compare the design to the cross on a denier of Louis le Pieux (814-840 C.E.) Indeed, RSS member Ram Madhav is quoted as describing the cross on the 2-rupee coin as an "exact replica" of that on the denier. Actually, the cross on the denier lacks the distinctive double lines of the Indian coin.

Photograph of a denier of Louis le Pieux

The problem with symbols like this that do not form part of a well-defined system is that people will see what they want to see. Interestingly, there appear to be no objections to the new coin from Indian Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Jews, or atheists, all of whom we would expect to be displeased by official support for Christianity.

Posted by Bill Poser at 04:30 PM

Cavett's comforting cavils

Dick Cavett titled his NYT quasi-blog piece for April 19 "Too Much News". Overwhelmed by the events of the week ("I am up to my ankles in bunches of scribbled notes, supposedly for today’s column (some legible) from watching endless, endless hours of television and hopelessly loading (and failing to label) cassettes. I’m defeated by it."), he sought consolation in grammatical pecksniffery:

Could someone please inform our lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Attorney General Gonzales is not a general? Was it sixth or was it seventh grade when we all learned that “general” is the adjective? He is a general attorney, Senator Grassley (even the inspector general has no stars on his shoulders), and every time you call him “General Gonzales” you embarrass your home state of Iowa. And all of us.

You might also remind your colleagues that, as with “films noir,” the plural is “attorneys general.” Thanks.

According to Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, the plural of attorney general depends on geography:

attorney general, made plural, forms attorneys general in AmE, attorney-generals in BrE.

In his section on plurals, Garner explains the theory further:

Plurals of compound nouns made up of a noun and a POSTPOSITIVE ADJECTIVE are formed by adding -s to the noun: courts martial, heirs presumptive. The British and Americans differ on the method of pluralizing attorney general, q.v. Those words in which the noun is now disguised add -s at the end of the word, as with all compounds ending in -ful: lungfuls, spoonfuls, handfuls.

This helps us to understand Cavett's apparently gratuitous "films noir" remark. The form that he recommends would clearly be a mistake in French, where adjectives usually follow nouns, and both adjective and noun get plural inflection. Several of his commenters pick this up, starting with #6:

What style book are you using when you say the plural of “film noir” is “films noir”? In French, the correct plural is “films noirs,” and indeed that’s the plural I’ve always seen in English film criticism.

This is a phenomenally petty point to raise when, as you say, the week’s news is so troubling, but perhaps taking refuge in linguistic niceties is a means of coping with the enormities of life.

However, web search (153,000 for {"films noirs"} vs. 47,200 for {"films noir"}) suggests that Cavett is not the only one who has apparently adapted this French phrase to the English pattern of pluralizing only the head non in a NOUN+ADJECTIVE structure, as in heirs presumptive.

But it's odd to present a distinctly non-standard anglicization of the plural of "film noir", a recent borrowing from French, as if it were the only correct usage. And it's even odder to use this to justify rejecting the British plural of "attorney general", as if it were simply an ignorant error.

What about Cavett's first complaint, about addressing Mr. Gonzales as "general"? Several of Cavett's commenters call this cavil into question as well:

#2: “General Gonzales” is often used in official Washington as an honorific for Attorneys General, Solicitors General, Inspectors General, etc. The Supreme Court justices often refer, during oral arguments, to General So-and-So (whoever happens to be the Solicitor General at the time). If Mr. Cavett watched (or, as I was, a part of) more C-Span coverage, he wouldn’t be so taken back by the usage.

#38: As someone who was told long ago to address the Attorney General of my state as General So-and-So, I really cannot be certain whether that usage is correct. However, as a veteran French teacher, I am quite certain that the plural of “film noir” is “films noirs.”

#40: You are wrong about the correct mode of address for an Attorney General. The senators who addressed him as General Gonzalez were using the proper title. State attorneys general are also properly addressed as “General.” This may strike you as ungrammatical, but it is justified by a long tradition of usage. Calling a judge “Your Honor” (in a trial court) is pretty weird grammatically, too, but also justified by usage.

The current Solicitor General is Paul D. Clement, and at the Supreme Court, he is indeed commonly addressed as "General Clement", as this search of oral arguments indicates.

Dave Wilton discussed the form of address for attorneys general last year on wordorigins.org ("General Knowledge", 3/31/2006), asserting that "[t]he addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration".

However, the transcript of the Scopes trial makes it clear that a judge in Tennessee in 1925 addressed his state's attorney general routinely as "General Stewart" (and, curiously, addressed the other lawyers by courtesy as "Colonel"). Without looking into it further, it seems to me that usage of the title "General" for attorneys general may have been common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time. In any case, Cavett can feel embarrassment for Senator Grassley if he wants to, but it's not clear at all that Senator Grassley needs to feel ashamed for this usage on his own behalf.

In all three instances of incorrection, we can be sure that Mr. Cavett didn't bother to check the facts -- which underlines the true nature of this particular variety of intervention. It's not about the facts of contemporary usage, even among the best writers and speakers. Nor is it about the history of the language and the protection of tradition. Instead, it's a pure expression of ego, asserting the right to be one of those who separate the linguistic sheep from the goats.

Still, we should be grateful that so many people can soothe themselves by complaining, even ignorantly, about the ignorance of others. And their preferred method of solace is one of several forces creating the large market for popularizations of grammatical knowledge and analysis, now almost empty of competent suppliers.

[Update -- Steven Tripp reminds us that the military rank of "general" also began as an adjective, not only in the phrase "general officer" that is still in use, but also (and earlier) as a modifier of captain in the form of what Garner called a "postpositive adjective". The OED:

Captain General, captain-general: Chief commander of a force: commander-in-chief of an army (obs. in Eng. use). Also the governor of a Spanish province or colony.

1514 Summ. Terouane in Rel. Ant. I. 317 The Lord Pont Deremy, capeteyn generall.
1606 SHAKES. Tr. & Cr. II. iii. 279 Honour'd Captaine Generall of the Grecian Armie, Agamemnon.
1708 Proclam. 30 Dec. in Lond. Gaz. No. 4503/1 John Duke of Marlborough, Captain General of our Forces.

The prepositive use dates from more than 60 years later:

General: 9. a. Mil. Prefixed to the designation of an officer to indicate superior rank and extended command. general officer, one above the rank of colonel.

1576 J. SANDFORD Gard. Pleas. 164 When Paulus Aemilius was generall Capytayne in Greece for the Romans.
1601 HOLLAND Pliny II. 483 Fabricius..forbad expressly, that any warriours and Generall captains should haue in plate more than one drinking boll or goblet, and a saltsellar.
1626 in Rushw. Hist. Coll. (1659) I. 303 General-Governor of the Seas and Ships of the said Kingdom.
1681 NEVILE Plato Rediv. 259 Chancellor, Judges, General Officers of an Army, and the like.

The use of General as a military title prefixed to a name is much more recent, though the on-line version of the OED gives (as far as I can see on a quick read) no citations at all for this, simply referring to it as "[i]n mod. use":

7. a. Mil. A general officer (see A9); originally, the commander of the whole army, subsequently applied also to commanders of divisions. In mod. use, designating an officer as holding definite military rank, in which application it is also used as a title prefixed to the name (often written Gen.).

So the process leading to an "attorney general" or a "solicitor general" being called "general" is exactly the same, from a grammatical point of view, as the process that led to the more familiar military title. Neither development may have been strictly logical,

...quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus ademptum
Vergilio Varioque?

... But why
should the Romans grant to Plautus and Caecilius a privilege denied
to Virgil and Varius?

Or, for that matter, to Grassley? (If the interpretation is not obvious, look here.)]

[Uh oh -- fact alert! Stephen Jones writes:

On web searches for .uk domains. A lot of the latter may well be possessives since Google doesn't distinguish between "attorney generals" and "attorney general's".

At the BYU the score is 1:0 in favour of attorneys general.

So I don't think you can say the form "attorneys general" is the favoured British form.

Could Bryan Garner be, um, wrong? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:06 AM

Vice versa and the latter

A surprisingly complex anaphora resolution task in an article (about the relation between the Virginia Tech shootings and the issue of gun control) in this week's issue of The Economist, pointed out to me by Barbara Scholz:

The academic debate about whether guns save more innocent lives than they cut short, or vice versa, may never end. Most Americans are inclined to believe the latter.

How, in detail, do we understand the latter? I can explain; but it is by no means trivial.

The anaphoric phrases the former and the latter are used to refer back to, respectively, the first and the second of a pair of entities or propositions mentioned in the immediately preceding discourse. But here the use of the latter refers back to a proposition that superficially isn't there in the immediately preceding discourse. To find that proposition, you have to unpack the meaning of vice versa to get a second proposition.

The phrase vice versa denotes a proposition that is obtained by taking some proposition in the immediately preceding discourse that involves some binary relation, and constructing another that has the arguments of the relation the other way round. That is, you have to find a proposition (stated or implied) that says aRb, and then read vice versa as bRa.

In the quoted passage the obvious candidate is to be found in the clause whether guns save more innocent lives than they cut short, where we can take as our relation R the relation > (greater than) on the natural numbers. To say that guns save more innocent lives than they cut short is to say that where guns save i innocent lives and guns cut short j innocent lives, i > j.

So the vice versa operation on "where guns save i innocent lives and guns cut short j innocent lives, i > j" yields "where guns save i innocent lives and guns cut short j innocent lives, j > i". Or to put it more simply in plain prose, from the meaning "guns save more innocent lives than they cut short", the vice versa operation yields the meaning "guns cut short more innocent lives than they save".

What the latter picks up on is the second of two parts of the prior discourse. In this case, assuming the vice versa operation to be already done, the two parts are (1) the clause guns save more innocent lives than they cut short and (2) the clause whose meaning the interpretation of vice versa provides. So The Economist is claiming that most Americans believe guns cut short more innocent lives than they save.

Do you ever find yourself marveling at the fact that we can do this kind of computation — that there is anyone at all who can understand the kind of prose found in articles in The Economist? I often marvel at it. It's something no chicken can do, I can tell you that much.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:04 AM

April 21, 2007

Keep the cucumbers away from the tomatoes

From an AP story by Todd Pitman, 4/20/07, printed in the Houston Chronicle under the head "Iraqi insurgents now fighting each other":

American commanders cite al-Qaida's severe brand of Islam, which is so extreme that in Baqouba, al-Qaida has warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders, Col. David Sutherland said.

Ok, it's a bit dubious, but on the other hand, I've had to confront some pretty strange ideas, and this one is not even close to the edge; it looks like a more-or-less standard confusion of sex and grammatical gender.

(Original tip from Ron Hardin on sci.lang, who heard about it here.)

Here's the idea: ordinary people learn something about the conventional grammatical terminology for their language, and they assume it maps pretty directly onto the real world.  If the terminology includes grammatical genders labeled "feminine" and "masculine", they figure those labels pick out females and males, respectively (and, of course, sometimes they do). 

Now in Arabic, as various Language Log informants tell me, the ordinary words are (in transliteration):

Modern Standard Tuma:Ta / Iraqi Tama:Ta  'tomato'  (fem.)
khiya:r  '(smooth salad) cucumber'  (masc.)

so that juxtaposing the two vegetables in public would be an indecent mixing of the sexes, if you believe in that "grammatical gender = sex" idea.  The fact that, chopped up, tomatoes and cucumbers mingle in salads all the time throughout the Arab world -- and even in Palo Alto, where my local Jordanian restaurant serves some delicious combinations of the two vegetables -- suggests that something is going on other than simple identification of grammatical gender with sex, plus an enforced separation of the sexes.  The simplest theory is that somebody is having somebody on here, but as I say, weird things happen.  Maybe what's relevant is the difference between the whole vegetables, the obviously (metaphorically) female tomatoes and the obviously (metaphorically) male cucumbers, and those vegetables chopped up so as to lose their identities as sexualized entities.

Lila Gleitman suggests (but very much does not advocate) a heavy-Whorfian interpretation, in which even people who know nothing about the grammatical terminology would connect the grammatical categories with categorizations in the real world, and would use those connections in understanding the world around them.  That is, they would "see" tomatoes as female and cucumbers as male.

My own inclination is to see something less complex: either crude identification of grammatical gender with sex, or media embroidery on a slow news day (if it's not true, it makes a good story).

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 09:06 PM

Automotive naming (and more)

The Lancer Evolution is, according to the Wikipedia page, "Mitsubishi's flagship sports car", in production since 1992 and now up to 2007 model X (that's a Roman numeral, not an unknown quantity).  The name "Evolution" was probably chosen to suggest progress, but it occurred to Swarthmore biologist Colin Purrington a little while back to wonder whether the name might be a drawback in parts of the U.S. where creationist, rather than Darwinian evolutionist, ideas have considerable currency -- places where, you might say, "evolution" is a dirty word.  Being a scientist, Purrington collected some data (from Mitsubishi) and assembled a nifty graph, headed "'Evolution' car dissed by Red States":

Purrington's comments:

The quote is from the official marketing web site. There are no plans to release a "Lancer Creation" version, as far as I know. Las Vegas is probably driving the odd sales data for Nevada (it was a filming location for the Evolution-featurin' flick, "Too Fast Too Furious", I think). Not sure what is up for Maine. I probably need to rerun the statistics using "18-44 males" to get a more accurate estimate of the underlying car-buying population that favors Rally and NASCAR models. And, to be fair, I should include a control car (e.g., Galant) from Mitsubishi, just in case the red states have a tendency of "buying American", which probably plays a part in these data.

(Ah, not "2 Fast 2 Furious" (2003), which was set in Miami and filmed in various Floridian locations, but "Redline" (2007); both movies destroyed a lot of cars and were not well received by critics, so it would be easy to confuse them.)

Some statistical tests wouldn't be a bad idea, either.  But this is a beginning.

(Purrington's website has some neat stuff on it, though nothing obviously relevant to linguistics.  But if you want information about the horrifying parasitic plant dodder (Cuscuta), with photos, this would be a good place to go.)

How did I get involved in all of this?  About a month ago, Purrington wrote to me to say that he had come across my "page on the Lancer" and wondered if I could help him find sales data for the Evolution.  I was baffled for a moment, until I realized that a web search on "Lancer Evolution" (or something similar) had pulled up my Language Log posting "Mitsubushi?" of last spring -- which quoted a newspaper article in which the Lancer Evolution happened to be mentioned.  Ah, the wonders of the web.  In any case, the staff here at LLP had nothing to offer him, but he eventually got data straight from the company.

(For bibliographically inclined readers: there is a dissertation (abstract here) based on a large corpus of American car names:  Ingrid Piller, American Automobile Names, Ph.D. dissertation (1996), Department of English and American Studies, Dresden University of Technology. And let's not forget Mark Aronoff's 1981 article "Automobile semantics", in, of all places, Linguistic Inquiry (12.329-47).)

Every so often, automobile names get media attention, usually because they're claimed to be offensive or unfortunate, even more unfortunate than "Evolution" might be in creationist households.  Back in 2003 we had the "LaCrosse" story:

Strange News - AP
GM Drops Risque-Named Buick Car in Quebec
Thu Oct 23, 4:53 PM ET

NEW YORK -  It's all in the name. General Motors Corp. has scrapped plans to replace the Buick Regal with the Buick LaCrosse in Canada because in the French-speaking province of Quebec "lacrosse" means to masturbate. Among other things. 

 GM Canada spokesman Stew Low told the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin last Friday that in Quebec youth culture the word is a new slang term

 "(It) means a couple of things, either to masturbate or 'I just got screwed,' or 'I just got taken'" Low told the newspaper in Saturday's copyright editions. "People of our age wouldn't even think twice about (the word.)" 

 He told the paper he first learned of the new slang usage about six weeks ago. In organized focus groups in Quebec, young participants giggled when they heard the named of the new car, Low said. 

 La Crosse Mayor John Medinger said Friday was not aware of the slang in Canada until the Tribune told him. 

 "These slang phrases come and go, and hopefully this one won't stick around too long," Medinger was quoted in the paper. 

 GM has not said when the Buick LaCrosse will debut. The company said plans to replace the Buick Regal with the Buick LaCrosse in the U.S. will continue, but will give the new car a different name in Canada.

At the time, I thought the whole business was rather silly, and said so on the newsgroup sci.lang (10/26/03):

Notice the "among other things", and the information that this meaning is recent youth slang.  A word used to refer to a stick, club, etc. is always open to taking on a penis-related slang meaning.  I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that somewhere in the French-speaking world, the name of the Buick LeSabre causes some people to giggle.  Undoubtedly there are plenty of other examples.  (Surely "Volvo" is  problematic SOMEWHERE.  "Hummer" gives ME a little giggle, as a matter of fact.  "BMW" has "BM" in it.  And so on.)

Given that, you can scarcely fault the naming folks at Buick, who were probably trying to evoke the image of lacrosse the sport and perhaps the lakes and forests of Wisconsin.  If they understood the extended meanings of "cross(e)" as stick or club, they would probably have viewed them as an extra advantage, a subliminal suggestion of masculine power (a very highly desirable message in automobiles, apparently).  They could hardly be expected to have surveyed slang usages throughout the world; almost anything would be edgy someplace.

But of course this became a story, so now they have to be circumspect.

The topic then shifted on sci.lang to another case, the Mitsubishi Pajero (called Montero in Spain), "pajero" having the slang sense 'masturbator, wanker, jack-off' in Spain and significant parts of Latin America.  Miguel Carrasquer Vidal pointed out that the usage was not new and was pretty widespread, so this one was much more serious than "lacrosse", and I pointed out that "pajero" seemed to have no widespread use in any other sense; so Mitsubishi should have caught it.

Some people collect what they see as bad car names -- Bill Casselman on the "auto-neo-kako-nymia" page of his blog, for example.  He's contemptuous of car companies in general, lambasting them for (among other things) failing to catch names that might work badly for some people in some places, which I think is an impossible standard to expect.  So he treats cases like the LaCrosse, the Ford Pinto ("in the Portuguese slang of Brazil, pinto means 'penis'"), the Ford Probe ("an automobile or a proctological procedure?"), the Mazda LaPuta ("'the whore' in Spanish"), the Toyota Fiera ("in Puerto Rico, fiera means 'ugly old woman"), the Rolls Royce Mist ("in German, Mist means 'dung, manure, or pile of shit'"), the Opel Ascona ("means 'female genitalia' in parts of Spain and Portugal"), and the Honda Fitta ("means 'cunt' in Swedish" -- it was renamed the Honda Jazz) as on a par with the Pajero.  He does at least dismiss as myth the claim that the Chevy Nova couldn't be sold in Latin America because Spanish "no va" means 'it doesn't go'.

Beyond what I see as an impracticable goal here, there's a subtler point: all of this discussion seems to assume that people can't cope with homophones (or homographs), so that identity in sound (or spelling) to a problematic item is enough to condemn a word.  Things are much more complicated than that in the real world.  Some homophones are just too obtrusive, but many pass by without a problem, with the intended item clear from context and the problematic item out of consciousness: in non-sexual contexts, we can use words like the following without tripping over a potential 'penis' meaning:

bishop, ferret, gun, hose, member, monkey, organ, rod, sausage, shaft, snake, stick, tool; the names Dick, Johnson, Peter, Willy

French Canadians can refer to Canada's national summer sport as "lacrosse" without embarrassment; how else would they talk about it?  And so on.  Teenaged boys might sometimes snicker, but the rest of us shouldn't be held hostage to the sexual preoccupations of teenaged boys ("She said tool!").

Enough of cars.  Other product names have come in for criticism.  For instance, last July, when Microsoft confirmed rumors that it was going to release a rival to the iPod/iTunes, and announced that its product was named "Zune", critics jumped on it.  One blogger called it the "worst product name since Windows Vista", and a great many people played with puns on the name.  In addition, very early on, bloggers began reporting that  "Zune" sounded just like the Hebrew word for 'fuck', and the story was picked up in the media.  By the time Evan Bradley had alerted us at LLP to this flap, in October, the blogosphere was full of people noting that [zu:n] was close to the Hebrew taboo word, but quite distinct from it, and we voted not to blog about this silliness.  But now I'm inflicting it on you.

Also released last year was Nintendo's Wii, pronounced [wi:], intended to evoke "we", but suggesting childish urination to many (and, no doubt, smallness to many people in Scotland).  The BBC reported that "a long list of puerile jokes, based on the name" appeared immediately after the launch.  The product seems to have survived the grade-school humor handily, beating out its rivals in sales.

I don't want to turn this posting into a survey of product names and their difficulties; there's a considerable literature about this kind of naming, and though I know people who do this sort of thing, it's not something I know a lot about.  Instead, I'm looking at people's responses to names, suggesting that these might sometimes guide their behavior ("Evolution"), and that they sometimes can make names very problematic indeed ("Pajero"), but also that objections to names can be out of proportion to their potential offense ("Wii").

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:22 PM

3-D heart rendering

In the Columbia Guide to Standard English, originally published in 1993, Ken Wilson observed in connection with heartrending, heart-rendering (adjs) that

The real adjective is heartrending, meaning “heart-tearing” or “heartbreaking” and hence “grief-causing.” Heart-rendering is a nonce word, possibly a malapropism, but more likely a deliberate jocularity.

In Merriam-Webster's Concise Guide to English Usage, E. Ward Gilman expressed doubt that any guidance is really necessary on this matter:

A few commentators (Shaw 1987, Copperud 1980, and Garner 1998) recommend heartrending -- to be found in almost every dictionary -- over heart-rendering -- not to be found in any dictionary that we know of. Heartrendering does exist, but it is of such low frequency that we do not think you will ever be much tempted to use it.

But this morning, listening to the radio, I heard some evidence that we may have passed that tricky boundary between the time when advice is unnecessary and the time when it's too late.

The NPR program "Living on Earth" reprised a segment originally aired in 1996 on toxins in breast milk, and added "an update on what’s in mother’s milk today" by having Steve Curwood interview Dr. Linda Birnbaum, head of the Experimental Toxicology Division at the EPA ("Mother's Milk: A Modern Dilemma"). Steve's last question for Dr. Birnbaum, according to the show's on-line transcript:

CURWOOD: You know this is such a heart-rendering story. I mean here you have a mother looking at her child, wondering if she's doing the right thing doing what mother's [sic] have done, you know, for thousands upon thousands of years. Is there any good news in this story?

Since the transcript has at least one typo (mother's for mothers), here's the audio to verify the rendering part:

And Google finds that more than 70,000 other people have succumbed to the temptation to use {heart-rendering}.

It's not entirely clear that this is really an eggcorn, which is typically a lexical reshaping (like "eggcorn" for "acorn") that makes more sense to its user than the original did. I'm not sure that the people who use heart-rendering are thinking of one of the relevant senses of render, such as "To surrender or relinquish; yield", or "To reduce, convert, or melt down (fat) by heating", as opposed to rend, "To tear or split apart or into pieces violently". The meanings "surrender" or "melt" are arguably a better fit to what heartrending has come to mean than "tear or split apart" is -- but render and rend are both pretty rare these days, in the relevant senses.

The association of render with the process of melting animal fat to produce lard is what made Ken Wilson think that heart-rendering must usually be a "deliberate jocularity". But I suspect that most current users are not thinking of the component morphemes at all, though they may be influenced by a sort of phonological resonance with surrendering.

In particular, I doubt very much that modern heart-rendering users are thinking of rendering in its commonest modern sense, "the process of generating an image from a model" in computer graphics. But maybe they should. An image is directly accessible to our senses, in a way that a conceptual model is not; so perhaps a heart-rendering story is one that makes us viscerally aware of how we feel about an idea. After all, Sony's name for the chip that generates lists of rendering commands in the PS 2 was the Emotion Engine.

[Yes, I know that the Emotion Engine was designed by Toshiba, and that the "emotion" part really refers to the background of the behavioral synthesis that precedes the geometry calculations that precede the generation of graphics rendering commands. But still, it's the graphical rendering that eventually makes an emotional connection with the user. And anyhow, the joke requires us to identify the realization of emotion with the rendering process...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:51 AM

April 20, 2007

Next animal-fancier story: parrot nomenclature

No sooner does one point out one insane piece of glottobabble about animals with language behaviors than another one springs up. From Evan Bradley comes a reference to an article about parrots giving unique names to their chicks. (He came upon it within ten minutes of reading my post about chick talk, and remarks that "it's clear our future avian overlords are planning something.") I will say very little about this (though I cannot forebear to point out that the researcher cited is named "Dr Rolf Wanker"; exactly the name I would have chosen for him if I were writing a rich comic novel). I'll say just this much: Suppose parrots do indeed develop unique calls for bringing each of their individual chicks to their side, which is perfectly possible. Names are different. When I use a name like "Elvis", I am not trying to make Elvis come to my side. We humans give names to our kids, names that can be used when talking about them. We don't just use uniquely targeted calls to summon them. Do you see the difference?

No, of course you don't; you're all going to send me emails about how wonderful and intelligent your parrots are and what a horrid meanie I am for not acknowledging their wonderfulness and their beautiful language and literature. (I wish I were clever enough to think of a good joke at this point about juvenile birds creating a genre called chick lit; but I'm not clever enough. Anyway, I'm very busy right now deleting emails from vegetarians.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 05:29 PM

The postmodern web

This post is brought to you courtesy of the free wifi at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where I'm waiting for my flight back to Philadelphia after the end of the NSF/JISC Repositories Workshop. The wifi here at the airport is not only free, it's also pretty fast -- and both dimensions are a stark contrast to the wifi at the Hyatt Regency where the workshop was held, which cost $12.27 a day and was painfully slooow -- though not as totally molassified as the wifi at the Westin hotel at SFO, where the DARPA GALE P.I. meeting was held back in March. Anyhow, props to PHX.

One of the more interesting features of the Repositories workshop was a paper by Malcolm Hyman and Jürgen Renn, "From Research Challenges of the Humanities to the Epistemic Web". Perhaps as a reminder of the cultural norms of the past, Jürgen chose to pass the paper out in actual paper form, and then to read all 14 single-spaced pages out loud from beginning to end. Round about page five, a passage caught my attention:

If the Web only knew what it is talking about, it would understand itself much better -- but who is going to teach it? Evidently, the potential of the Web as a universal representation of human knowledge and communication would be greatly enhanced if its sites could "speak" to each other in the sense of recognizing if two figures refer to the same date whatever the format or if two texts refer, say, to soccer whether the word occurs or not. The Web's semiotic connectivity would thus be transformed into a semantic connectivity. One of the strategies of adding meaning to data is using metadata establishing the data's significance, for instance by referring to ontologies offering common frames of semantic reference. Historically, attempts of creating such a second world of meaning with a claim to universal validity are familiar from the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union. They typically involve a great deal of central planning and are characterized by the rule of technocrats as well as the incapacity to cope with developmental dynamics. Providing meaning to the Web with the help of metadata created by expert groups and committees ultimately amounts to an Orwellian vision of the Web in which adopting Newspeak is obligatory for being part of the accepted community. Natural language works differently in that meaning emerges rather than being predefined -- as dangerous as that may be for any classificatory order. It would thus be better to learn from natural language: One of the reasons for the power of natural language in representing and furthering human thinking is its inbuilt reflexivity: natural language is its own metalanguage. The separation of language and metalanguage makes it to a certain degree possible to fix the semantics clarifying communication and avoiding paradoxes but severely limits the potential of creating new meaning.

But wait, you're thinking, ontologies are so 2001 -- the real solution is folksonomies! Well, Malcolm and Jürgen are right there with you:

Web 2.0 is the protestant vision of the Semantic Web: where central authorities have failed in mediating between the real world of data and the transcendental world of meaning, smaller, self-organized groups feel that they are called upon to open direct access to this trancendental world in terms of their own interpretations of the Great Hypertext. The traditional separation between providers/priests and clients/laymen is thus modified in favor of a new social network in which meaning is actually created bottom up. The unrealistic idea of taxonomies inaugurated by top-down meausres is being replaced by the more feasible enterprise of "folksonomies" spread by special interest groups. As their scope remains, however, rather limited and the separation between data and metadata essentially unchallenged, the chances for developing such a social network into a knowledge network fulling [sic] coping with the real world of data are slim.

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

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

Ecumenical fairness also raises obvious questions about other approaches to finding meaning in web data -- the Islamic view, the Hindu view, the Buddhist view, and so on. In any case, I hope that their paper finds its way onto the web -- even the old-fashioned (pagan?) html web without any sort of cultic overlay -- so that you can learn about the creed that Malcolm and Jürgen are evangelizing, the "Epistemic Web", which they (perhaps optimistically?) call "Web 3.0". I'd explain it to you, but I will need further theological study or a special revelation to understand it fully myself. Here are the bullet points from the two key sections of the outline that Jürgen put on the workshop web site:

Creating a universe of knowledge on the Web that parallels human knowledge
Turning (private) reading into the (public) creation of information
Allowing all data to be metadata and all documents to be windows into the universe of knowledge

Moving from servers and browsers to interagents that allow people to interact with information
Replacing browsing and searching with projecting and federating information
Enabling automated federation through an extensible service architecture
Extending current hypertext architecture with granular addressing and enriched links

The trouble is, I believe that I understand what they're saying, but I don't think I know what it means.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:49 AM

Research and empoldering

Here's more evidence that some Chinese-English dictionaries need the attention of a good editor. According to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged (3rd edition), polder (from the Dutch) is "a tract of low land reclaimed from the sea or other body of water (as by dikes or dams)", and thus it's not surprising that to empolder means "to make (land that is underwater or periodically flooded) cultivable by the erection of banks of levees to prevent or control inundation and by adequate drainage".

But if we look up empolder on the Chinese dictionary site Dict.cn, we get

v. (=impolder)开发

And plugging those two characters back into Dict.cn yields:

Define 开发: [ kāi fā ]    
1. open up (for development)
2. exploit
3. to develop

You can see the connection -- empoldering land opens it up for development or exploitation -- but empoldering applies to a very specific sort of development, and kāi fā is a more general term. But somehow, this has led to the idea that the right way to translate 开发 (or perhaps some similar words?) is often "empoldering", in contexts where no land reclamation by dikes is in sight:

Tangshan Renshi Packaging Equipment Co.,Ltd. Ren’s development benefits from self strong research and empoldering predominance, honest marketing sales tactics and benefits more from invisible force of Ren’s civilization. Ren’s spirit of “dealing with concrete work, innovating , demanding nicety and forthcoming ” needs to be carried forward by total staff.

Note that "development" also occurs in this passage.

I haven't yet found the Chinese-English dictionary entries (or perhaps the Chinese-English translation software errors?) that lead people to use empoldering in such cases. But such entries must be out there:

LUFENG CHENGS LACQUER CRAFT FACTORY was founded in 1986. As an integrative artwork enterprise combines designing, empoldering, producing and selling, it locates at Jiazi town of Lufeng City in the east of Guangdong. The town is very famous for its culture, history, seafood industry as well as the lacquer art and the shell carving art. Besides, the town has convenient transportation and perfect artwork manufacture procedure.

For years of development, the company has established scientific enterprise management system quality control system, and set up some departments like designating department, purchasing department, the first producing department, the second producing department, sales department and finance department. Cultivates lots of technical staffs good at lacquer art and shell carving art, the company also collocates excellent artwork producing equipments. The good empoldering and producing ability will ensure the high quality and distinctive artwork for the customers on time.


Shantou Xirong Industry Ltd. (China) : Shantou Xirong Industry Ltd. Established in 1995, licence No. in Industry and Commerce is 4405822000575. They are specialized in empoldering and manufacture products for female. They have a sub-company in Hongkong named KAIXI INTERNATIONAL (H.K.) CO. LTD. which taking charge in empoldering new products and international business. Their main products: T-Shirt Bra Adhesive invisible Silicone bra, Adhesive invisible Super light bra, Silicone bra inserts, Silicone bra pad, Adhesive nipple silicone pad, One-off paster invisible bra, hidden Straps, TPU invisible Bra, Vibrator for breast pad, Lingerie bra.


Guangzhou Brighthome Co., Ltd Our company is running family living production gathering designing, empoldering and producing. The factory locates in Foshan, Guangdong. We deal with furnishings long before, and our main product is wove furnishings by rattan.Artificial rattan series are weaved with steel, aluminum, plastic mainly. The style is elegant, vogue and novel, and hundreds of product all designed by known artificer.

A Baidu search for {empoldering} confirms that this usage, whatever its exact source, is pretty common in English-language descriptions of Chinese enterprises that have nothing to do with land reclamation by dikes, or even with a slow, consensus-oriented process of decision making.

"Empoldering" is certainly not the only infelicity of translation in these passages, but it's the most spectacular one. For some similarly spectacular mistranslations in the other direction, check out Hanzi Smatter.

[Update -- Ken Brown writes:

Not really on topic, but I was reminded that the word "polder" has a specialised use in the literary criticism of fantasy and science fiction, referring to a strictly demarcated part of an imagined world that is also in some way part of another reality, an enclave whose borders have to be maintained against the encroachments of the universe around it. (The best-known examples probably being in the Lord of the Rings which has heaps of them, such as Rivendell and Lothlorien and most noticeably the Shire - a piece of early modern England unaccountably surrounded by ancient horrors from which it is actively defended without the knowledge of most of its inhabitants)

"Polder" in this sense is one of a couple of dozen or so terms coined or appropriated or redefined by the writers of "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" (ed John Clute & Peter Nichols, 1993) and "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" (Clute and John Grant, 1997) to head short articles on common tropes and themes in fantasy and science fiction. It was probably thought up by Roz Kaveney but has become associated with Clute and was used as the title of a book: "Polder: A Festschrift For John Clute and Judith Clute" (ed Farah Mendlesohn, 2006)

Clute even used the word "empoldering" in a review of "Lousiana Breakdown" by Lucius Shephard, describing a fictional township within the story:

"Grail itself is an epiphany of Grail. Being utterly true, being utterly there, it is a kind of manifestation, within the polder of itself, of Reality made manifest, without veils, worshippable. But it is more than that: The actual inhabitants of Grail are themselves utterly themselves, beyond role. And they know who they are (some of them have returned from elsewhere to become wholly who they are), and they say who they are. And they do not lie. They tell the truth about themselves, and about others. The truth does not kill. Grail is an empoldering of the inner grace and gravitas of an America normally despised. Grail is a magical retention of the heart of that America. Grail is paradise on earth."

(online at http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue309/excess.html)


[Update 4/28/2007 -- Haidong Chi writes:

You said that you hadn't yet found the Chinese-English dictionary entries leading people to use empoldering in error. I just have a e-dictionary (Kingsoft Powerword 2003, a very popular e-dictionary in China) installed on my desktop, so I look up the word "开发" and get this:

empolder, exploitation, exploiter, open out, open up, tap.

It is said that this entry is quoted from Concise Chinese-English Dictionary (简明汉英词典) that is also one of the most popular C-E dictionaries in China. Unfortunately I don't have a hardcopy so can't verify it. I think this might be the source which as you said leads many people to translate "开发" into empolder.

Kingsoft also seems to have been responsible for the infamous "dark brown" = "nigger brown" scandal.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:23 AM

Chick talk

Regular readers will know what I think of reports of linguistic behavior among our arboreal, quadrupedal, avian, and cetacean friends — monkeys, dogs, parrots, dolphins, and so on. But you're not going to believe this next example of loopy barnyard empathy, which Stephen Jones came across in The Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper. Check this out. It's now chickens that have a language. You heard me. I said chickens.

Fowl linguist

Scientist Dr. Erich Baeumer of Wiedenau, Germany, who has been studying chickens since 1954, says that he has made a list of 30 sentences which are part of a spoken international chicken language, be it an Indian Jungle fowl, a Russian Orloff rooster, an Italian Leghorn, a Cornish cock or a New Hampshire Red. Baeumer was only eight when he realised that he could understand the chickens around his house.

"It was an intuitive understanding, I could actually tell what they were saying. I began to spend hours with them; they became brothers and sisters to me," he says. He learned to imitate their sounds so well that he was accepted as a full-fledged member of the flock. Only when his voice changed did the chickens break off communication with him.

In 1954, he started working with Professor Erich von Hoist at the Institute of Behaviour Physiology near Munich. Chickens were photographed and recorded repeatedly . After recording hours of chicken talk, Dr. Baeumer selected examples of clear-cut chicken "sentences" that could be related to records or photographs of specific actions.

Dr. Baeumer’s chick-talk tapes have been played at universities in many countries. He knows the loneliness cries of young chicks separated from their mother ("Pieep-pieep-pieep") and their terror trills, a high-pitched "Trr-trr."

Both sexes make "frightened" cackles when first they sense danger. After the danger passes, their cackling is full-throated and rhythmical, as if they had triumphed. Hens make a cackle when they have laid an egg, but Dr. Baeumer does not think they are boasting or saying, "Thank heaven that’s over." He believes that it all goes back to the days when wild hens laid eggs in hidden nests. After each delivery, the hen gave a loud cackle to regain contact with the rest of the flock.

Chickens make screams of distress; they have battle cries and calls for privacy. Hens lead their chicks to food with a gentle "Tuck-tuck-tuck," and roosters entice pretty young hens with soft cooing. "Chicken behaviour is not too different from human behaviour," says Dr. Baeumer, "Nor is the chicken language."

The chicken language, not too different from human language. Can you see why I get a little bit short-tempered around these gullible animal sentimentalists and the dim-wittedly credulous journalists who write up their stories? Can you?

I wish I thought this had been published on April 1, but I don't think so. I think Dr Baeumer — his chick-talk tapes have been played at universities in many countries, you know — actually believes chickens have sentences and — although they have understandably broken off communication with him now that his voice is so deep ("What's wrong with Erich? His voice sounds like a foghorn now! Let's refuse to speak to him!") — they can say things like "Could I have some privacy, please, so I can do my cooing thing with this pretty young chick?".

Steve says you can see the article here, but it's a pay site — $1 a month or $10 a year. I've decided to hold on to my dollar, actually.

Next week: learn how cockroaches actually have a language with subjunctive subordinate clauses, and they can say "Let us swiftly return to underneath the refrigerator lest he see us now that the light is on."

Footnote: I don't know if it seemed odd to you that this German chicken linguist had been at it since 1954. It did strike me as odd. That is 53 years ago, so if he started as a first-year graduate student he would be at least 75 now, which would make it remarkable that he is still busily putting out press releases for gullible journalists to reproduce. Well, Language Log readers have been busy during the (California) night. James Byers, Philip Spaelti, and Michael Mann (to name but three) have found out some more. Says Byers:

The article about chicken language you quoted in a recent Language Log post appears to have been lifted almost verbatim from this article which was apparently printed in TIME magazine in 1964.

Do the press releases take a bit longer to reach Sri Lanka? About forty years longer? It turns out the answer is no. Stephen Jones has found out a bit more overnight:

I've found the source the Indian lady used for her Lanka article, and it's free and no less an authority than "Time" itself, from 1964! "Dr. Baeumer's chick-talk tapes, which are considered classics in animal-behavior circles, have been played at universities in many countries and broadcast over BBC." http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,875688-1,00.html.

It appears that Dr. Bauemer has long left this mortal barnyard and has now substituted woo--woo, for cluck-cluck. It might be fun to dig out more about this long-forgotten researcher who has rerisen, in true avian fashion, like the phoenix.

Does say something for animal rights activists that they are prepared to quote sixties research verbatim. The writer in the Island was not a journalist but an animal rights campaigner, one Ms. Gandhi, opposed to the increase in meat-eating in once vegetarian countries. The following statement is at the end of The Island article: Anyone desirous of joining the Animal Welfare Movement can contact Smt Gandhi at 14 Ashoka Road, New Delhi 110001 or gandhim@parlis.nic.in

Now we're getting closer to the real story. It's not science journalists at all. It's vegetarians!

The BBC science news section will probably pick it up and give it another spin, though; these tales of birds talking and cow dialects and so on die hard. Scientific results have a lifespan of a few days in the media, but myths live on forever.

By the way, I am of course being deluged with mail from people who insist that chickens can communicate. Some of them even point me to sites featuring the work of serious scientists on this point, such as Chris Evans in Australia. Of course birds communicate fear, solidarity, warning, lust, etc. What I'm trying (utterly in vain) to draw people's attention to is the fact that there is a common misconception that this means they have language in the sense that humans have it — i.e., that humans are not much more than chickens with ballpoint pens. The really deep offense here is not so much the pathetic gullibility of the sentimentalists who anthropomorphize the animals they love, and over-attribute intelligence and verbality to them, but rather the insult to humans. See my Starlings, darlings for some brief comments about double standards in judging two sorts of animal, namely songbirds and Harvard undergraduates.

Toenote: Some marine biologists who read this site seem to think that the word "pinnipedal" was mistakenly used in the first paragraph above instead of "cetacean". Not so. Look back and you'll see. A qualified language specialist such as I would never confuse the adjective meaning "of or pertaining to seals and sealions" with the adjective meaning "of or pertaining to whales and dolphins". I am astonished that anyone would even imagine me capable of such a lexical slip. I wish I knew how these rumors get started.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 02:10 AM

April 19, 2007

More figures of speech: hyperbole

Now that we've done syllepsis, it's on to hyperbole, in another Jen Sorensen cartoon:

Still to come: hypallage.

[Added 4/20/07: Just in! "Amazing New Hyperbolic Chamber Greatest Invention In The History Of Mankind Ever", in The Onion (hat tip to Dave Kathman).]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:42 PM

Giving offense

Cartoonist Jen Sorensen looks at what would happen if the tables were turned:

Let's apply this to the Don Imus flap.

I've been trying to formulate something for the Language Log about Imus's fall from grace.  There's been such an avalanche of commentary in the media that it's hard to know where to start.  Our own Geoff Nunberg has now done a "Fresh Air" piece about some of this commentary, noting that much of it is about the complex details of the context in which offensive speech occurs, but focusing on the charge of hypocrisy leveled against those who "silenced" Imus.  I'm going to pick out one other theme: the claim that Imus has always been an equal-opportunity offender.

From Frank Rich, in an op-ed piece "Everybody Hates Don Imus", NYT Week in Review 4/15/07, p. 14:

... I was aware of many of his obnoxious comments about minority groups, including my own, Jews.  I wasn't seriously bothered by much of it, even when it was unfunny or made me wince, because I saw him as equally offensive to everyone.

Yeah, sure.  It just happened that the groups he chose to mention in his spectacles of ritualized offense were those that bear some stigma in our society, those for which there is a widely known slur vocabulary (some of which Imus was willing to use).  I'm not willing to search through his broadcasts, but I'd be astonished if there was any heterophobic humor (like Sorensen's above) in there, or any slurs on men in general, or white people in general, or Christians as a group, or city-dwellers, etc.  The targeted groups were surely the conventional ones, the usual suspects.

A few days earlier, on 4/11/07, a letter to the NYT (p. A22) from Charles R. Cooper of New York made a similar claim, but with an odd word choice:

Don Imus is a brash, outspoken, over-the-top radio host.  But he is not a racist.  He criticizes anyone and everyone with equal vigor.

Imus's performances are CRITICISM?  "Nappy-headed ho's" is a CRITIQUE of black women?  In what world?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:25 PM

Adjectival stereotyping

I missed something in reading John Colapinto's New Yorker piece on Dan Everett and the Pirahã, and apparently the magazine's editors missed it too. Here's the passage in question, which deals with the background of Peter Gordon's research on counting in Amazonia:

During a two-month stay with the Pirahã in 1992, Gordon ran several experiments with tribe members. In one, he sat across from a Pirahã subject and placed in front of himself an array of object—nuts, AA batteries—and had the Pirahã match the array. The Pirahã could perform the task accurately when the array consisted of two or three items, but their performance with larger groupings was, Gordon later wrote, “remarkably poor.” Gordon also showed subjects nuts, placed them in a can, and withdrew them one at a time. Each time he removed a nut, he asked the subject whether there were any left in the can. The Pirahã answered correctly only with quantities of three or fewer. Through these and other tests, Gordon concluded that Everett was right: the people could not perform tasks involving quantities greater than three. Gordon ruled out mass retardation. Though the Pirahã do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their gene pool refreshed by permitting women to sleep with outsiders. “Besides,” Gordon said, “if there was some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you’d see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds over. They don’t show any of that.

There's a serious slur-by-presupposition in there: "Appalachian inbreeding". They all marry their cousins, y'know. Or rather, not.

Needless to say, the folks affected by the implicit slur didn't miss it, as Lee Mueller in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader explains ("Slur against Appalachians stirs furor; Columbia university professor spoke of 'inbreeding'", 4/17/2007):

In the wake of insults to Rutgers University women that cost the CBS Radio talk-show host his job, sensitivity to political correctness reached a point where a well-regarded Columbia University linguist was apologizing for a quote about "Appalachian inbreeding" in The New Yorker magazine.

Interviewed by writer John Colapinto for an article titled The Interpreter, Columbia assistant professor Peter Gordon defended the intelligence of an Amazonian tribe he had been studying: "Besides ... if there is some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you'd see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds all over. They [the Piraha] don't show any of that."

The quote splattered against academic computer screens in Appalachia this week like a large cud of chewing tobacco.

"Shame on you and on the institution you represent for perpetuating such ugly and untrue stereotypes," wrote Penny Messinger, a history teacher at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. "I eagerly await your 'evidence' documenting the tradition of Appalachian inbreeding/incest."


At Ohio University, Jack Wright dug out a letter he wrote to The New Yorker a few years ago after it ran a cartoon depicting the breakup of a rustic couple with a caption, "Can we still be cousins?"

"Appalachia has long been fair game as the nation's whipping boy and, unfortunately, The New Yorker has jumped to the head of the line," he wrote. "In Appalachia, we call this cultural strip-mining."

Judy Hensley, a Harlan County teacher, observed: "If ignorance, prejudice, and social ineptitude were physical characteristics, this guy would be the poster child."

Gordon, 50, who left the University of Pittsburgh six years ago to teach at Columbia, said in a telephone interview that he did not intend to offend anyone. His wife's family lives in Northern Kentucky, he said, although he realized it is not considered part of Appalachia.

"It was just a reference," he said. "I'm really sorry. I really was just talking about a tribe in Brazil."

Would that be the Hatfield tribe, or the McCoys?

[Update -- Eric Bakovic writes:

My wife Karen and I read the Pirahã article together last week. I recall specifically pointing out the 'Appalachian inbreeding' slur to Karen, who's from Louisville, KY. But Karen is also a feminist theorist, and she (only) recalls being struck by the 'permitting women to sleep with outsiders' bit.

Louisville's not technically in Appalachia, but of course people from anywhere in KY face the stereotype every time they tell someone they're from KY. Karen tells a story about how a Rutgers polisci prof once singled her out as someone who was likely to know what a 'goiter' is. (She did know, but because she's a word-geek and read the dictionary as a child.)

I was also struck by the "permitting their women" part. I decided to reserve judgment about how to interpret it: does "they" mean the men of the tribe, indicating both male (belief in) control over female sexuality, and more general identification of the men as representing the decision-making powers of the group; or does "they" mean the tribe as a whole, both men and women, indicating general social sanction for this particular kind of exogamy? ]

[Update #2: I want to underline that there is no reason to think that Peter Gordon intended a slur against residents of Appalachia, even by presupposition. In the first place, it's not clear how exactly Colapinto's quotation tracks what Peter said, or the context in which he said it. And even if the quote is exact and the surrounding discussion not relevant, people sometimes make such presuppositional references to stereotypical characteristics, especially in a counterfactual hypothetical contexts like this one ("if there were some kind of Appalachian inbreeding..."), without in any way endorsing them.

For example, a quick web search turns up this quote from a letter to jewishjournal.com:

Goremberg's failure to provide this narrative robs his explanation of the "accidental empire" of true historical context, transforming a dream which is thousands of years old into a mere land grab, driven by Jewish acquisitiveness and nationalistic imperialism.

The letter-writer, who is defending the Jewish residents of West Bank settlements, clearly does not endorse the apparently-presupposed implications of the phrase "Jewish acquisitiveness", which he is attributing to a point of view that he rejects.

I should have made this clear in the original post. On the other hand, the possibility for misinterpretation would also have made it prudent for Peter Gordon -- if indeed he was quoted accurately here -- to provide an explicit disclaimer, or to avoid the phrase in the first place.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:42 AM

Truthiness in the funny papers

I guess that cartoonists don't get in trouble for making up numbers, but still:

Actually, you get 92,400 from a search on Google, 119,000 from a search on Yahoo, and 12,963 from a search on MSN. These happen to be similar to the numbers you get from a search for {Doonesbury bullshit} -- well, at least the 108,000 hits from Google is a comparable number, though the 56,600 from Yahoo and 7,191 from MSN are considerably lower. Not that I'm implying anything about Garry Trudeau's veracity in general, you understand.

I'm in Phoenix for the NSF/JISC Repositories Workshop, and one of the meeting's themes is "data-driven science and scholarship", and especially the impact of easily-accessible digital data. As the workshop's website says:

Some academic leaders are beginning to recognize that data-driven science is becoming a new scientific paradigm – ranking with theory, experimentation, and computational science. Fewer people appreciate that the combination of large-scale digitization of books, scholarly journals online, and huge data sets provides opportunities for new methodologies for scholarship and research in all academic disciplines. Is this really a fourth paradigm of science or is it new wine in old bottles? Can we articulate the importance of this area, so that university presidents (in the US) and vice-chancellors (in Britain) understand the potential and challenges?

Easy access to published data makes makes replication and new research much more efficient for the pros, but it also opens things up to interested citizens in general. Since the barriers to communication are also lowered, this radically democratizes the whole social process of rational inquiry. One result is the WCFCYA effect. And if it's fair to fact-check scientists, journalists and politicians, I guess it's also fair to fact-check cartoonists. Especially when it's as easy as this.

In a panel discussion yesterday on the role of individuals in this new process, David Rosenthal brought up a much more interesting and consequential case: a recent post on The Oil Drum by Stuart Staniford, "The Status of North Ghawar", 4/7/2007. Staniford, who was originally trained as a physicist, spent most of his career working on computer security, but he's recently gotten interested in energy issues. In the blog post in question, he makes a complex argument based on a detailed cross-comparison of information from plots extracted from several different papers in the technical literature, pulling things out of them that the papers' authors never intended to reveal.

David cited in particular a comment by Staniford about half way down the (long) list of comments on that post:

As I said in private email the other day, I have some experience of scientific publication in my own field, and I guesstimate that I am 2-3 times as productive doing this kind of "blog-science" as in the traditional mode. The ability for anyone in the world, with who knows what skill set and knowledge base, to suddenly show up and decide to be part of the collaboration in real time is just an amazing thing.

That said, it's scarier, because one is much more likely to make errors (in public) when operating at this tempo. The only cure for that is a willingness to admit them and move on. And a recognition on all our parts that this kind of work will have more errors in any given piece of writing, and it's the collaborative debate process that converges towards the truth. And of course there's a lot of noise along with the signal.

I'm not sure the problem of clashing egos is any less severe amongst Oil Drum editors, contributors and commenters than in traditional academia, though :-)

[Steve, aka Language Hat, writes:

Dude, it's a comic strip! It's humor! You're reminding me of Charles Babbage, who once wrote to Tennyson: "Sir: In your otherwise beautiful poem The Vision of Sin there is a verse which reads: 'Every moment dies a man / Every moment one is born.' It must be manifest that, if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill... I would suggest you have it read: 'Every moment dies a man / Every moment one and one sixteenth is born.' I am, Sir, yours etc, Charles Babbage."

I am, Sir, yours etc,


Well, I thought I was being humorous as well, but I guess I need to use a special font, or something.

More seriously, Doonesbury is a funny (both meanings) case -- the series on Romney's flip-flops was full of (specific and true) facts about the history of his position changes, so a naive reader might be pardoned for thinking that the web search number was also true, though it was so large that it was pretty clearly made up.

And generally, I do think that it's a Good Thing for people to get into the habit of thinking about the evidentiary basis of stuff they read, especially quantitative claims that conflict with common sense or with easily accessible evidence. Doing this to jokes and comic strips is a joke, sure enough, but the joke is a reflex application of a good habit, even if it verges on Babbagery.

In this particular case, I'd planned to blog about David Rosenthal's pointer to Stuart Staniford's post at The Oil Drum, and a joke about the made-up number in this morning's Doonesbury strip seemed like a good lead-in. ]

[A comment from Andrew Clegg:

I read with interest your Language Log post on fact-checking.

Given your comments at the end, I can't help but wonder if Babbage was using a special font.

I am, Sir, yours etc,


Later on, Andrew sent this additional Babbage quotation:

"On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament!], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:36 AM

April 18, 2007

Poignant snowclone of the week

"Today, we are all Hokies."

[More on the "We are all X (now)" snowclone here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 04:54 PM

Never tell the Queen you're pleased to meet her

Want your daughter to marry an heir to the British throne? Make sure you never utter the word "toilet" or "pardon?" and for heaven's sake don't say "Pleased to meet you" to the Queen. At least that's the take-home message imparted by the British tabloids after Prince William's recent breakup with Kate Middleton. The problem, according to the tabloids, was Kate's decidedly un-posh mother Carole. She was found guilty of such crimes as public gum-chewing, though it was really her language use that raised eyebrows.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Carole Middleton, who runs a party supply business with her husband and made enough to buy a $2-million house in Berkshire and send her daughter to prestigious Marlborough College, said "toilet" instead of "lavatory." She said "pardon" when she couldn't hear what someone had just said. ("What?" is more posh.)
When she met Queen Elizabeth II, William's grandmother, she said, "Pleased to meet you." Well, columnists wanted to know, who wasn't happy to meet the queen? "Hello, ma'am," was what was called for.
Within days, the tabloids, which by and large sympathized with the deposed princess-to-be, had rendered their anguished verdicts: "Kate was too middle class," the Mail on Sunday pronounced sadly. "Not posh enough for royals," fumed the Mirror. By Tuesday, the papers were publishing "cut-and-keep" guides on "how to be posh," and the Telegraph had a take-at-home quiz on "what class are you?"

The Guardian and the Independent provide further insight into the persistence of class-based shibboleths in British society, more than a half century after the famous exegeses of U and non-U English usage by the philologist Alan Ross and the novelist Nancy Mitford. As Mark Liberman observed last year, such matters are, to most Americans, "roughly as familiar as the interpretation of West African scarification patterns."

[Update: Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe already blogged about this on the Ideas Section's Brainiac blog, linking to relevant posts on Lynne Murphy's Separated by a Common Language.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 02:37 PM

Political hypocoristics

There are many political differences between the French and American presidential election campaigns now underway, but I was struck recently by a linguistic difference. The two leading candidates in France, Nicholas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both have nicknames -- what linguists sometimes call hypocoristics -- that are in common use, for example in newspaper headlines. The current hit count on news.google.fr for Sarko is 1,041, and for Ségo, 325. Even François Bayrou, whose last name is already a two-syllable form similar to those typical of French hypocoristics -- shows up as "Bayro" from time to time. In contrast, I can't think of any common nicknames created from the last names of any of the American front-runners: Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, Romney, etc. (Giuliani has always gone by "Rudy" more than "Rudolph", but that's a completely different sort of thing.)

Anyhow, I wondered about the extent and the history of political nicknames in France, so I asked Jean Véronis. Here's a slightly edited form of my questions and his answers.

I see that in the current election, some of the candidates have two-syllable nicknames ending in /o/ (Ségo, Sarko), and even Bayrou, whose name is already two syllables, has an analogous formation "Bayro".

Is this new? I don't remember similar nicknames for Chirac (oh, wait, was he sometimes "Jacquot"?) or Mitterand or De Gaulle (oops, I guess he was "le grand Charlot").

I don't think that nicknames are new in French politics. I remember a few : Nikita Kroutchev = Kroukrou, Georges Pompidou = Pompon, Raymond Barre = Babar, Pierre Bérégovoy = Béré, etc.

Chirac → Chichi, or le Chi
Mitterrand → Tonton
de Gaulle → le grand Charles, le grand Charlot, "qui vous savez" (Canard Enchaîné pretending that they feared censorship)

But what about Le Pen, Bové, etc.?

None that I know of.

How far back does this go? Where does it come from? Does everyone in France have a secret two-syllable nickname in -/o/? Is this related to the informal quasi-abbreviations like "bachot" for "baccalauréat"?

Suffixation is very old in proper names. It goes back to the Middle Ages, and is actually one of the major mechanism for patronyms. Typically, people would keep the last syllable of a name, and add –o (-eau, -aud, -ault), - in, -eu(x), -et, -ou (x, d…), -ard (or –art) (-/o/ is only one mechanism). Raymond would become Mondet, Mondon, Thibauld would become Baudet, baudin, Baudon, Baudart, etc. These are still common family names.

Suffixation to form nicknames is still very common these days, although it seems that people tend to keep the whole orginal name instead of truncting to the last syllable :

Jean → Jeannot
Paul → Paulo
Marc → Marco
Jacques → Jacquot

Funny to realize that what we call "diminutifs" (the French word for nick name) sometimes lengthen the word (as in Jeannot, Paulo, Marco).

It is only one of the mechanisms. I've seen

* Duplication of one of the name syllables :

André → Dédé
Gérard → Gégé
Monique → Momo
Lucien → Lulu
Louis → Loulou
Gisèle → Gigi
Joël → Jojo

* Truncation (possibly with change of vowel)

Marguerite → Margot
Marjorie → Marjo
Raphaelle → Raphie
Danielle → Dany
Véronique → Véro

Obviously, there is a strong tendancy to aim at two-syllable nicknames, ending with a vowel. However, I think that there is a recent growing trend for one-syllable nicknames, ending with a consonnant :

Sébastien → Seb
Delphine → Delph
Fabrice → Fab
Camille → Cam
Xavier → Xav

I don't think that we were doing these when we were kids. Influence of English though movies, celebrities, etc.?

There's quite a bit of linguistic literature on this sort of thing -- e.g. Nicole Nelson, "Mixed Anchoring in French Hypocoristic Formation", RuLing I, 1998 -- but I remain curious about the socio-political aspect, and in particular why American political nicknames seem to be relatively rare, and mostly first-name forms (e.g. "Abe") or initials ("FDR", "JFK") rather than last-name forms (like "Ike").

[John Cowan writes:

English isn't big on diminutives (unlike the Romance languages, or for that matter Scots); and in any case, shortening of political names in American English is chiefly driven by the needs of headline writers: thus we had JFK, LBJ, HHH, but never RMN, because "Nixon" has a headline width of 2+0.5+1+1+1 = 5.5, whereas "RMN" has a headline width of 2+2+2 = 6.

My favorite French hypocoristics are Didi and Gogo for Vladimir and Estragon in _Waiting for Godot_ (although I wish that when Beckett translated the play he had made them Vladdie and Tarrie instead).


[Fabio Montermini writes:

I read with interest your recent post about the fashionable way of referring to French politicians through hypochoristics. Living in France, being a morphologist, and having myself studied hypocoristics and clippings in some languages, I may give you some impressions on the matter. Certainly, Sarko and Ségo are the most popular of the nicknames politicians have had in French history. I feel this is due to the fact that both names are quite long and their second syllable is open and ends in a /o/. Bisyllabicity and the (pseudo?)-suffix -o are in fact the two optimal features such nicknames should have in French. Moreover, these two nicknames often form a rhyming couple. That's the reason, I guess, why you find sometimes Bayro. In fact, on Google, the first occurrences of Bayro you find are all ones in which this nickname is associated to the two previous. Coming to semantico-pragmatic factors, the clipping plus the -o suffix usually express connivance, closeness, and sometimes diminution of the nominee. You may find it also with common nouns (proprio = propriétaire 'owner', dirlo = directeur). That's why you largely find them in political ads, common speech or satirical journals, as Le Canard Enchaîné, but rarely on Le Monde or Le Figaro (except in quotations). I signal you that the same connivance may be expressed with an acronym, as in the English JFK: e.g. DSH is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and MHM is Michelle Alliot Marie (this is especially true for people who have double first names, and on Google you find some JMLP for Jean-Marie Le Pen).

As to the fact that Romance languages are much more incline to diminutives, as an Italian, I may do a comparison between Italian and French habits on the matter. Italian has lots of nicknames, but the only nickname for a politician I can think of is Berlusca (which has a typical Milanese ending) for Berlusconi. In Italian newspapers the same connivance which is expressed by Sarko and Ségo is expressed by referring to politicians just through their first name, so Silvio is Berlusconi, Romano is Prodi, Massimo is D'Alema and so on...I guess this habit was first applied to politicians who have or had quite rare first names, such as Bettino Craxi or Ciriaco De Mita, but has nowadays been quite largely extended to all politicians, if they are known enough. The difference with France is that also high level newspapers, as La Repubblica or Il Corriere della Sera systematically recur to this strategy.


[Fev from Headsup: theblog writes:

Most US papers don't clip pols' names, but both the New York tabloids refer to Eliot Spitzer as "Spitz" in heds. Does Le Monde do Sego/Sarko, or is that restricted to the lower-prestige fishwraps?

A search of Le Monde's site turns up several examples of "Sarko" in headlines, but always in quotes: "Sarko mot à mot" : un documentaire inédit sur Internet"; "Le Petit prince du raï baba devant « Sarko »; etc.; and likewise for Sego: « Je me bouche les oreilles, j'éteins la télé, et je vote Ségo ».

I only see the tabs on line anymore, but it looks like first names are a more common way of shortening names there: "COULD BE A HIL, RUDY DUSTUP ON AIR AT WTC."

Unrelatedly, I think John Cowan and I learned to write heds from different eds:

English isn't big on diminutives (unlike the Romance languages, or for that matter Scots); and in any case, shortening of political names in American English is chiefly driven by the needs of headline writers: thus we had JFK, LBJ, HHH, but never RMN, because "Nixon" has a headline width of 2+0.5+1+1+1 = 5.5, whereas "RMN" has a headline width of 2+2+2 = 6

I get 5 counts for both:
Nixon = 1.5+0.5+1+1+1
RMN = 2+1.5+1.5

What's at issue with the sums is a traditional way of approximating the width of strings in proportional-width fonts, discussed for example here, where the cited rules do match Fev's sums rather than John's. ]

[On the subject of nicknames that are longer than their original, Karen Davis writes:

I vividly remember to this day my first introduction to that concept, back when I was a child. The actor Alejandro Rey was on some TV game show, possibly Password? -- at any rate, the host made some comment about how long a name Alejandro was and jokingly asked him what nickname his mother called him. His reply? "Alejandrito."


[Jay Livingston writes:

When I read "Sarko," I immediately thought: New York Post.

The New York tabloids seem to have a limit of about five letters for names. If the surname isn't amenable to shortening, they'll use the first name. That's why it's RUDY and not Giuliani. When Bill Clinton was president, he was PREZ. The current candidate Clinton is often HILL. Jesse Jackson is JAX, Michael Jackson is JACKO. When (or if) Romney becomes better known (I'm not sure he's ever been in a Post or News front page headline) he'll most likely be MITT. Obama is only five letters, albeit wide ones, so that may be a problem, maybe not.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:31 PM

Racist Park

I am not sure what would win a competition for funniest attempted translation of Chinese into English ever to appear on a sign or other public printed document; as modern Beijing prepares for the Olympics and tries to fix some of the most embarrassing items, "Dongda Anus Hospital", a favorite photo op for tourists, looks like a relatively mild example (it is replaced now by one saying "Dondga Proctology Hospital"). There are menus featuring "sexually inexperienced chicken" (better translation: "pullet"). But I think my favorite among the cases mentioned in this article from yesterday's New York Times is probably the park dedicated to the theme of providing education about China's rich array of ethnic minority populations. The signs (still, so Tom McGrenery tells me) say: "Racist Park".

Hat tip: John Wadsworth.

Let me add that Tom McGrenery also says this:

Good grief. Can we please stop the "hahaha, look at the Chinese, their English isn't very good, it it?" line of comedy web postings. This is the juvenile sort of thing one expects from tourists' LiveJournals, not Language Log. What's next, photos of menus with badly translated names of dishes?

A somewhat more fruitful line of inquiry might be why China's various institutions don't get in proper advice on what constitutes English people won't laugh at. Every time you set off in a taxi in Beijing, a little voice greets you with "welcome to take Beijing taxi". There's a problem at the heart of all translation when you don't speak the language yourself in that at some point you just have to trust someone when they say "yeah, I speak Tagalog" (for example) and this is pretty emblematic of it.

It works the other way round too. Back in the 70s, the Australian navy managed to offend the Chinese delegation at a function by stupidly giving their personnel name tags in full-form characters rather than simplified - the kind of faux pas that anyone acquainted with Chinese would spot.

For what it's worth, the signs still say "racist park" in Beijing. But I'm slightly disappointed by the orientalism at work in your post, although I realise the intent was not to be patronising. I'm just not convinced that "comical" translations, without looking at how they happen, are really worth the time.

Don't think it didn't cross my mind that there is an awful lot of laughing at the Chinese for the strange mistranslations associated with the term "Chinglish". And I wondered whether I should even deign to pass on a pointer to the Times article. But then I thought, for heaven's sake, these are just mistranslations that happen to be funny. When we chuckle at them, we are not implying that the Chinese are dumb (the language is very different from English, and if they translate from it poorly, the plain fact is that I couldn't translate from it at all, so they're infinitely smarter than me in this domain).

And when we comment on Chinglish we're not implying (as his reference to "Orientalism" seems to suggest) that there is something essentially Chinese about mangling translations — I saw a hilarious, disastrously bad translation from Italian in front of the cathedral in Turin, and I regret I didn't have a camera to take a picture of it. And of course I have mocked right here on Language Log a wonderfully goofy translation from Spanish ("Memories of qualities: armed structure and crystals"), for which I hope I won't get damned as an anti-Hispanite.

Sure, the post above is trivial if considered as a comment about the Chinese language or translation or anything else. But we're not always in grim-jawed serious mode here at Language Log Plaza. Sometimes we see funny stuff and we just relax and kick back and laugh a little. I'm sorry that Tom McGrenery is a bit tired of hearing giggling in the back row from people who couldn't translate a single character of Chinese to save their sorry asses. But there we are, I'm not always profound or appropriately respectful of other languages and cultures; sometimes, with all due respect and affection for the linguistic brotherhood of man, I just sit back and giggle. Try to forgive me, OK?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 01:23 PM

Archaic Latin on Jeopardy

On Jeopardy just now the question asked for the Latin term meaning "father of the family". Contestant Tricia correctly answered "paterfamilias". This is an interesting term - if you've ever studied Latin you may notice that it looks wrong. The citation form of "family" is familia, and as a first declension noun, its genitive singular should be familiae, just as "the girl's father" is pater puellae. So why is "father of the family" not paterfamiliae?

The answer is that in ordinary Latin the genitive singular of familia is indeed familiae. paterfamilias is a fixed expression not only in English but in Latin itself. It is a legal term, designating the legal head of the household. In Roman Law the paterfamilias had enormous power over his household. In theory he had power of life and death not only over his slaves but over his children, and he was legally responsible for the actions of members of his household. A slave might be a father and have a family, but that did not make him paterfamilias.

The reason for the peculiar genitive singular is that as a legal term it was carried down unchanged from Archaic Latin, a language different in significant respects from the Classical Latin that one usually learns. One of the innovations of Latin with respect to Proto-Indo-European is the development of a nominal declension based upon that of the pronouns. familias is the form that we would expect, with genitive singular suffix /s/. The regular form familiae reflects the innovation by which the genitive singular suffix /s/ was replaced by /i/ (with /a/ + /i/ spelled <ae> in Latin).

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:11 AM

April 17, 2007

Total undernegation

We often remark here on instances of OVERNEGATION, in which there are two places where negation could be marked in a sentence, and the speaker or writer chooses them both: for instance, in "It's hard not to read this and not shout 'Guilty as hell'", commented on by Ben Zimmer here.  But there are also cases of UNDERNEGATION, in which there are two places negation could be marked in a sentence, and the speaker or writer chooses neither; Ben gave some examples of a distinct but related sort (where two negative elements are called for but only one is produced) in a posting here.   Here's a lovely negation-free example, from a flyer for a talk by Stephen Palmer (Psychology, Berkeley) at Stanford last Thursday, under the auspices of the Stanford Humanities Fellows Program:

Aesthetic Science: Oxymoron or a New Branch of Cognitive Science?

Artists of all stripes continually face the problem of how to compose their works in aesthetically pleasing ways.  Despite its importance and generality, the perceptual basis of aesthetic response has received adequate empirical attention.  Prof. Palmer will report the results of a series of experiments that investigate people's aesthetic responses to spatial and color composition.

This is what happens if you have a choice between negation with not (or n't) --

... the perceptual basis of aesthetic response  has not/hasn't  received adequate empirical attention.

and affixal negation --

... the perceptual basis of aesthetic response has received inadequate empirical attention.

and fail to notice that you've picked neither one.  The sentence-initial modifier with despite will clue readers in to the writer's intentions, but it might take a bit of time for them to work that out.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:38 PM

What a lawyer means by "fact", "conclusion" and "opinion"

Most of us are pretty good at "audience design": fitting how we express ourselves to what others are ready to hear. We notice when someone else is especially bad at this; but everyone's image of other people's minds has some blind spots. Cross-cultural communication often runs aground on such misperceptions, or at least we're told this by those who aim to teach us how to interpret the table manners and negotiating ploys of other cultures. And one of the deeper cultural divisions within our own society appears to be the one that separates lawyers from everybody else.

A few days ago, when Senator Arlen Specter was asked about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' statement on the U.S. Attorney firings, he dismissed it as "conclusory". This usage puzzled me; it's missing from the standard (non-legal) dictionaries; and it was also news to Steve of the Language Hat blog, who must surely be in the top thousandth of a percentile or so in knowledge of English vocabulary. So why would Senator Specter, a savvy and experienced politician, use a word that probably baffled the great majority of his consitutents? Well, he's a lawyer by background, and conclusory has apparently become part of a cognitive system that is central to the lawyer culture, at least in America -- so central that it's apparently hard for members of that culture to remember that outsiders don't care as much about the distinctions involved, don't use some of the words in the same way, and don't know some of the words at all.

The comments from readers appended to my earlier post give some insight into this cultural complex. A long email that arrived this morning offers additional reflections.

I've been an [American] lawyer for 31 years now, and I was startled by your article--startled because "conclusory" in the legal sense you give is so perfectly unremarkable to me, and always has been. In fact, I think of it, in at least one of its uses, as an unremarkable synonym for "question-begging," in the older sense. I therefore assumed that lawyers, at least, have been using it since time immemorial, or as lawyers used to say " since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary." It never occurred to me that its status as a word might be open to dispute, or that it has any other meaning, or that it is an Americanism. For lawyers, in fact, it is absolutely essential, because we constantly contrast "facts" and "conclusions" in a way unfamiliar to laymen. For example, the statement by a witness that a person was "drunk" is commonly said to be inadmissible because it is not a statement of fact based on personal observation, but a mere conclusion--i.e., it is "conclusory." This sounds bizarre to the layman, but the point is that the witness must testify to the specific observations--staggering, glassy eyes, slurred speech--that led him to the conclusion that the person observed was intoxicated. And that conclusion is ultimately for the jury, not the witness, to draw.

To give an everyday example from my practice as an employment lawyer: the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination must decide whether there is "probable cause" to believe that an employee has been discriminated against. If so, there is ultimately a hearing--a trial. "Probable cause" depends on the existence of "a triable issue of fact." If a female employee says that on certain occasions she was sexually harassed by particular words and actions, and her manager denies it, there is a triable issue of fact, even if there is no external evidence to corroborate the employee's story. If she says, however, that she was ostensibly terminated for lateness, but her termination was actually motivated by a "discriminatory animus"--an inward prejudice--she has not raised a "triable issue of fact," as the allegation that someone has a certain attitude or inward state is a "mere conclusion" in the absence of specific evidence--like the telling of racist jokes--to support it. Obviously one's mental state is, in some sense, a fact like any other, but since it must be inferred from outward circumstances lawyers call assertions about it "merely conclusory" unless the circumstances are also alleged.

Lawyers then make matters worse by using the word "fact" half the time in a purely procedural sense. A "fact" is something to be determined by the jury from the evidence; the legal consequences are to be determined by the judge. Thus lawyers will deny that something is a question of fact, to the bafflement of laymen, when they are actually making a purely procedural statement about where in the system decision-making authority resides.

Then again, just as they contrast "facts" and "conclusions," lawyers also contrast "facts" and "opinions," where "opinions" simply means a certain kind of factual assertion that may be made only by a witness "qualified"--i.e., accepted by the judge--as an "expert." Thus to the lawyer, the statement "he died of a myocardial infarction" is not a statement of fact, but an "opinion," because it may be made only by a qualified medical expert who has clearly stated the factual grounds that he has assumed as a basis for his opinion. And "assumed" is the right word, because the statement that "the victim was a 76-year-old obese male with obviously occluded coronary arteries" is not a "fact" until the jury concludes that it is so. In other words, it is not yet a "fact" at the moment that the witness relies upon it for his conclusion!

Sorry to go on so long, but I love this stuff. I think lawyers constantly get in trouble because they have never clearly articulated to themselves the different senses in which they use the words "fact," "conclusion" and "opinion."

[Update -- Alexandre Enkerli at Linguistic Anthropology suggests a comparison to the lingo of classical deconstruction, as rationally reconstructed by Chip Morningstar in " How to Deconstruct Almost Anything. My question is, would the lawyers or the literary theorists be more outraged by the comparison? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:04 AM

April 16, 2007

"Sorry" Spectacles

Listening to the latest in high-profile public apologies -- from Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz, and Don Imus -- took me back to an incident that happened in my undergraduate days at Columbia about a million years ago. A bunch of my friends and I used to spend long afternoons and evenings at the movie theaters along West 42d Street, where for less than a buck you could see a double or triple feature of gangster movies, war movies or westerns. That was well before the area was sanitized and Disneyfied, and the theaters were -- well, "seedy" hardly begins to say it. The seats and carpeting were shabby and permanently saturated with a mixture of fluids, processed and unprocessed. The balconies were sharply raked, the rows so close together as to make even the economy section of a United Airlines flight seem positively spacious. And the clientele was a mix of movie buffs, lonely guys, and down-and-outers who considered 99 cents a stone bargain for a warm place to sleep off a bender. So it was that a friend and I found ourselves in the balcony of a largely empty theater one rainy weekday evening watching an Anthony Mann western when we heard a middle-class male voice behind us saying in a loud, indignant tone: "Sorry? You piss on my date and you're SORRY?"

I didn't actually see the malefactor, and it occurs to me only now (a little sadly) that the remark might have been simply a prank. But suppose we take it at face value. At the risk of belaboring the obvious (but that's what pragmatics is all about, isn't it?), let me ask what makes that incident so risibly absurd.

For starters, recall the notion of a performative utterance, which was introduced by J. L. Austin in his 1955 William James lectures (later published as How to Do Things With Words). Unlike what Austin called "constative" utterances -- statements and the like -- performative utterances do, rather than merely report. "I now pronounce you husband and wife"; "I hereby dub you Sir Nigel"; "I bet you ten dollars it will rain tomorrow" -- when utterances like those are produced in the appropriate circumstances, they don't simply describe the world, but change it, creating contracts, bestowing names, and so forth. (Somewhat more controversially, Austin also claimed that performative utterances don't have truth-values, but leave that be for now.)

But while the effects of acts of betting, christening, marrying, pronouncing a verdict and such are obvious, Austin also gave some examples that are a little more puzzling -- or always have been to me, anyway. "I apologize," for example. Austin described that as a performative utterance, as opposed to a constative utterance like "I repent." That certainly feels right, and the linguistic facts support it: used in this way, apologize occurs in the simple present tense, like other performative verbs, and can be prefaced by the adverb hereby, for example.

But what exactly does an apology do? Austin didn't say, nor do most other writers who talk about the subject. You can find no end of lists of conditions that an utterance has to satisfy to count as a true apology: the speaker has to regret the act and its consequences, feel sorry about it, accept responsibility for it, vow not to repeat it, and so on. But few of them explain how an apology actually makes the world different, unlike mere expressions of regret, remorse or penitence.

The most enlightening discussion of this that I know of comes (not surprisingly) from Erving Goffman, in his books Interaction Ritual and particularly Relations in Public. (Goffman's account has since been built on by others, but his story will do for here). Apologies, Goffman said, are remediation rituals that "represent a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with them, and by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold." As a ritual, Goffman insisted, the apology is independent of the substantive penalties that may be attached to an offense:

After an offense has occurred, the job of the offender is to show. . . that whatever happened before, he now has a right relationship -- a pious attitude -- to the rule in question, and this is a matter of indicating a relationship, not compensating a loss.

Seen in that way, an apology can fail when the offender is insincere in splitting himself, not really accepting that the acts of his offending self merit censure -- that his acts were shameful, I'd put it, though "shame" is a notion that Goffman didn't seem to have much use for. Or it can fail when it's offered chiefly in the hope it will count as substantive remediation that compensates for the offense. In practice, the two generally go together -- when people apologize insincerely, it's almost always in the hope of mitigating the penalties for their offense. In the case of the movie micturator, for example, it's absurd to suppose that somebody who was capable of the act in the first place could undergo a sudden change of heart and revile the self who had committed it a moment before, and equally absurd to imagine that he could seriously believe that an apology would spare him the consequences of his act.

The apologies from Gonzales, Wolfowitz, and Imus aren't quite in a class with that one (though Imus falls short only in virtue of being able to claim that his pissing on women was purely figurative). It's fair to assume that all three accept responsibility for their actions, that they regret and feel rueful about what they did, and that they're sincerely resolved to avoid doing anything of the sort in the future. But it's also fair to assume that none of them really feels any deep sense of shame over his action or is suffering from a remorse of conscience that would lead him to welcome, in the persona of his new, pious self, the full application to his old, offending self of the penalties that are condign to what he did. Nobody doubts that each offered his apology in the hope it would help him to keep his job, or failing that, at least make it easier to get the next one.

Still, I don't mean to suggest that these were actually "nonapologies" (a term that first entered the language in 1971 but didn't really become common until the late 90's, when public contrition became a popular spectacle). Gonzales' "mistakes were made" probably falls into that category, but Wolfowitz and Imus made most of the requisite noises. And I don't feel indignant at the thought that none of them actually feels that he shamed himself by his actions. If their remarks failed as sincere apologies, they still satisfied a social purpose. In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic public apologies isn't to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation (or in Goffman's terms, self-splitting) that's inherent in a formal apology. As I put this in a "Fresh Air" piece a couple of months ago:

Does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely remorseful about suggesting that Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, or whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees? Sometimes, the more insincere and grudging a nonapology is, the better it makes the point: it doesn't matter whether you're really sorry -- if you say this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out there and take it back.

Or for that matter, take the movie micturator (if there really was one, anyway). Of course he wasn't sincerely sorry. But I mean, what else was he going to say?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 06:35 PM

It's Sofa King uncensored!

Greetings once again from the Youth and Popular Culture desk at Language Log Plaza. If you missed Saturday Night Live this past weekend, then you missed a sketch that has had us all laughing around the water cooler today. Luckily, you can catch it (again) here: the "Sofa King" sketch. (Or catch it on youtube while it's still up.)

The form of the sketch is simple enough. It's an ad for a furniture store called "Sofa King", and the tag line is that everything that the store does is not just x, it's "Sofa King x" -- where x is some adjective. The examples used in the sketch are as follows:

  1. It's Sofa King great!
  2. It's Sofa King comfortable!
  3. It's Sofa King comfortable, I could sit here all day!
  4. Because it's ... Sofa King cheap!
  5. Sofa King cheap, man. You won't believe it.
  6. Sofa King easy!
  7. It's Sofa King easy! You could do it with your eyes closed.
  8. And as always, our delivery is Sofa King quick! It will make your head spin.

The play, of course, is on how "Sofa King" sounds like "so fucking", and it works because "Sofa King great" can mean something like "great in the way that only Sofa King can make it" (kind of like "Army strong", as discussed here) while "so fucking great" means something like "(so) amazingly great".

I should mention that the good folks at SNL weren't the first to figure this one out. According to Wikipedia, there was a song in 2005, itself based on an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (also mentioned in the last report from the YPC desk). There's a website dating from 2003 dedicated to the ATHF joke, and an Urban Dictionary entry also dating from 2003. (No doubt this goes back even further, and I'm sure the joke was "discovered" independently many times.)

At least three devices are used in the sketch both to make the joke more effective and (presumably) to get past censorship issues:

  • Every time "Sofa King" is mentioned in the sketch, a "Sofa King" logo appears on the screen.
  • "Sofa King" is always pronounced "Sófa Kíng" -- that is, with the first and third syllables distinctly stressed -- as opposed to "so fúcking", where the second syllable is the stressed one.
  • The characters in the sketch all speak with a discernible (but not explicitly identified) foreign accent.

The second and third of these devices go hand in hand, I think. The fact that the characters speak with an accent invites us (the audience) to "forgive" certain mispronunciations; this makes "Sófa Kíng" sound more like "so fúcking". (This combination of devices has been used in at least one similar SNL sketch before: the Colonel Angus, in which a stereotypical southern American English accent is used to make "Colonel Angus" sound like "cunnilingus" -- hat-tip to Ben Zimmer.)

I wonder, though, whether the accent device hides the fact that some of the examples cited above don't quite work. For example, consider example #3:

It's Sofa King comfortable, I could sit here all day!

The intonation in this example was such that there's really only one way to interpret it: as an answer to the question, "How comfortable is it?" ("It's so fucking comfortable, I could sit here all day!") It's just not possible (for me) to figure out how "It's Sofa King comfortable" would be interpreted in this example. (Examples 5, 7, and 8 are similar, but these were said in such a way that they were arguably meant to be two separate sentences.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 05:46 PM

X's X

The latest issue of the Stanford Chaparral (the student humor magazine) -- vol. CVIII no. 3 -- has a piece (by Neil Mukhopadhyay) on page 11 entitled "Thing's Things", listing new instances of the X's X snowclone (taking off from man's man), which we seem not to have in our inventory here at Language Log Plaza.


A Man's Man uses his stubble to sand off difficult-to-open foodstuff jars.  A Man's Man settles minor arguments with a hammer.  He can build an internal combustion engine out of bacon that runs on gravy.

it goes on to Boss's Boss, Car's Car, Robot's Robot ("designed and built by superior robots"), Hot Sauce's Hot Sauce ("so spicy, it deafens babies when used near them"), Towel's Towel (touch it to your tongue and "you will instantly be dehydrated"), Needle's Needle, and Ice's Ice (which never melts).

The Chappie has a website, but it seems to be about a year behind, so you can't (yet) find the whole thing on-line.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:40 PM

But is it a recursive combination?

In yesterday's Dilbert, a company lawyer explains to the pointy-haired boss:

I did a trademark search on all of the excellent product names you suggested.
Every one of them is taken.
So I did a search on the names that weren't so great.
Those are taken too.
Then I checked on the names iCrud, iPuke, EatDirtAndDie, and DefectiveProduct.
All taken.

has pioneered the unspeakable brand, but I don't think I've ever encountered an unprintable brand, so Dilbert is pushing the envelope here. Perhaps this is why some branding firms are eager to hire linguists these days.

[Update 4/17/2007 -- Peter B. writes:

I'm a lawyer in Philadelphia who occasionally gets involved with intellectual property issues though this has not been a big part of my practice for years. I read Language Log pretty regularly and saw your entry about Dilbert yesterday. You might be interested to know that Harley-Davidson famously (at least in the IP realm) tried in the 1990s to obtain a U.S. trademark on their exhaust sound, though they eventually withdrew the application in the face of opposition by competitors. See, for example, here and here; the second link has a little discussion of precedents for trademarks in sounds (think of the N-B-C jingle, as the article notes). The trademark application is supposedly reproduced at http://www.lectlaw.com/files/inp14.htm. Some other types of trademark subject-matter are briefly described at http://www.bitlaw.com/trademark/devices.html.

I love the blog. I read the New Yorker article on the Pirahã the other day and was very happy to see the blog provide links to the Dan Everett articles and the intervening response (though I could not print the response; some kind of font problem). I do not have professional linguistic training, so you will understand that it will be a struggle for me to get through these articles. It will ultimately be an imperfect effort on my part, but the outside reading I do -- a lot in recent years in evolutionary biology -- makes this stuff completely absorbing for me. I'm traveling this week, and packed those three articles, as well as the Pullum & Rogers piece on Animal Pattern-Learning Experiments (which has a hilarious opening sentence!), for some relaxing bedtime reading. We'll see how much I actually read . . . . A long time ago I did a Ph.D. in Music Theory, and I have to say that my reading in recent years is in some ways causing me to rethink, and find a richness, in some musical-cognitive issues that I never really appreciated before.

Now that you mention it, I dimly recall reading something about the Harley-Davidson exhaust-sound case; and it makes sense that if tunes and even musical motifs can be intellectual property, so in principle could be a "combination of grunts and squeaks"...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:18 AM

"Dr. Maxtor" and Anti-Semitism

Some time ago I wrote about an argument often used to defend Arabs charged with anti-Semitism: pretending to think that "anti-Semitic" refers, as its etymology suggests, to hatred of Semitic people in general and that therefore Arabs, as Semites themselves, cannot be anti-Semitic. I say "pretending" because much of the time one can reasonably infer from the speaker's education and experience that he or she knows perfectly well that "anti-Semitic" refers specifically to hatred of Jews, but we generally can't be certain that it is a rhetorical ploy rather than ignorance. I just chanced upon a case in which there is no question that the writer knows the true meaning of "anti-Semitic".

In this post a blogger who goes by the name "Dr. Maxtor" makes the familiar fake argument. When a commenter points out that:

The word "anti-Semitism" was coined in Germany to mean "hatred of Jews". Sure, Arabs are the most numerous Semitic race, but the term "anti-Semitism" is too firmly established to redefine as "hatred of Arabs".

"Dr. Maxtor" responds (emphasis mine):

I'm aware of that George, but its time the word was redefined to include all semites.

This is an admission of dishonesty: he knew that the argument he made was invalid but made it anyway. Ironically, his post is entitled "Detoxing the lies of Mona Eltahawy" and is devoted to the theme that Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy:

is known for writing some very dishonest and unintelligent articles.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black...

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:04 AM

April 15, 2007

Fear of Friday the 13th

Friday was a Friday the 13th. I am not superstitious about Friday the 13th - in fact, I had the qualifying exam for my Ph.D. on a Friday the 13th. What was notable was that I stumbled on a word that I hadn't seen before, paraskevidekatriaphobia, which turns out be the term for "fear of Friday the 13th". It gets 48,000 hits on Google, including a number of medical advice sites and reference sites, so it seems to have some currency. According to Skepdic, the term was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychologist who specializes in phobias. Here is his web site's page on holiday superstitions.

The word seemed strange to me, and after a little reflection I realized that that was because I had trouble analyzing it. It obviously contains Greek φοβία "fear", but where are the "Friday" and "13" components? dekatria has to be "13", so "Friday" must be paraskevi. However, these are not the familiar Greek words. Compare the more familiar triskaidekaphobia "fear of 13", in which "13" is triskaideka.

It turns out that this word was coined from Modern Greek components. In Modern Greek the teens are formed differently from the way they were in Ancient Greek, with "13" consisting of "10" followed by "3" rather than "3 and 10" as in Ancient Greek. The days of the week have different names too as when the Greeks became Christian they rejected the old names which honored pagan gods. In Ancient Greek, "Friday" is ἡμέρα Ἀφροδίτης "the day of (the goddess) Aphrodite". Παρασκευή "preparation (for the Sabbath)" is Modern Greek. No doubt we'll soon see conservative pundits insisting that it be replaced by the classical hemeraäphroditestriskaidekaphobia.

That this word seemed so unfamiliar reflects the fact, no doubt irritating to modern Greeks, that although English has many words borrowed from Greek or composed of components borrowed from Greek, the variety of Greek that is of cultural importance outside of Greece is Ancient Greek, especially Classical Attic. This is a rare example of an English word derived from Modern Greek.

Posted by Bill Poser at 09:58 PM

Conclusive = good; Conclusory = bad

According to Fox News, my U.S. senator is skeptical of what Alberto Gonzales has said so far about the U.S. Attorney purges ("Attorney General Gonzales Insists U.S. Attorney Firings Were Not Improper", 4/15/2007):

"He's got a steep hill to climb," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He's going to be successful only if he deals with the facts."

Specter said none of Gonzales' public statements so far has convinced him that the department's ouster of eight U.S. attorneys was justified.

"Those statements are very conclusory," he said. [emphasis added, here and throughout]

Though Senator Specter's skepticism is clear, the way he expressed it didn't make any sense to me. I wasn't familiar with the word conclusory, but it seems like a variant of conclusive, and I should have thought that if the Attorney General's statements were conclusive, that would be a good thing, not a bad thing. I wondered whether there might have been an editing error, with something left out or misplaced. However, the Associated Press has the same phrases in a different order ("Gonzales: 'I have nothing to hide'", reprinted in USA Today, 4/15/2007), and the re-ordering didn't help me a bit:

"Those statements are very conclusory," said Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He's got a steep hill to climb. He's going to be successful only if he deals with the facts."

Neither did looking the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which calls conclusory "rare" and defines it as "Relating or tending to a conclusion; conclusive". This is what I had already guessed, and exactly what puzzled me.

The Encarta dictionary, which I turned to next since it's the most recent one available on line, has

1. convincing, but not definitive: convincing, but not to the extent that it cannot be contradicted
2. Same as conclusive

This is not a big help -- it hardly seems likely that Senator Specter meant "Those statements are very convincing, but not to the extent that they cannot be contradicted".

The American Heritage Dictionary has

1. Conclusive. 2. Law Convincing, but not so much so that contradiction is impossible; not justified or supported by all the facts: “Perfunctory and conclusory findings of the magistrate . . . did not comport with requirements of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” (National Law Journal).

This is something of a step forward -- but I still don't think that Specter meant "Those statements are very not justified or supported by all the facts", exactly.

Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (3rd edition, 1961) has

relating to, based on, or consisting of a conclusion (sense 8) We agree plaintiff's petition is conclusory and does not adequately state the factual basis for its assertion — Lavergne v. Western Company of North America

This is better -- the idea emerges that Gonzales' statements give conclusions but "[do] not adequately state the factual basis for [their] assertion". The entry in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law (1996) encourages this view:

consisting of or relating to a conclusion or assertion for which no supporting evidence is offered
Example: conclusory allegations

A quick web search turns up plenty of examples of this meaning, though almost always in a legal context:

These claims are conclusory and universally unsupported by any specific allegations.
they are conclusory allegations based on conjecture and speculation
Clay's complaint sets out only conclusory allegations with no facts alleged in support
Lett's claim (2) was dismissed by the magistrate because it was vague and conclusory.
conclusory allegations unsupported by factual data are insufficient ...
Appellant's premise is too conclusory to support a finding
the complaint is convoluted, rambling, conclusory, and voluminous.
Also conclusory, and therefore not warranting a hearing, was Defendant's claim that ...

My favorite ("Let's Sue", Amherst Times, 4/9/2007:

I think it's a shame that a reproduction of a historical commercial area in what is now weeds and gravel is the subject of such vehement, practically knee-jerk opposition. No rational discussion needed. Just conclusory bitching and some orders to show cause.

(The phrase "conclusory bitching" has real promise as a description for a certain style of unconsidered linguistic snootery.) The same search also turned up some evidence that this meaning of conclusory is a relatively recent one, or at least has spread in recent decades. According to an AP wire service story "A Proper Word in Court", published in the New York Times, 8/13/1987:

The word ''conclusory'' is not in Webster's New World Dictionary, but the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled it fit for courtroom use.

''After painstaking deliberation, we have decided that we like the word 'conclusory,' and we are distressed by its omission from the English language,'' Judge Walter Urbigkit said in a footnote to an opinion issued Tuesday in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

''We now proclaim that henceforth 'conclusory' is appropriately used in the opinions of this court,'' the judge wrote. ''Furthermore, its usage is welcomed in briefs submitted for this court's review. Webster's, take heed!''

Some Webster's had, in fact, already taken heed. Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2d edition, recognizes the word conclusory as an adjective meaning conclusive but notes that its use is rare.

While some people feel that the legal world is already too cumbersome because of the unwieldy language in court documents, Judge Urbigkit says the word conclusory is needed because of his court's desire to be concise.

''It means the message is not justified by supported facts, which it assumes but doesn't state,'' Judge Urbigkit said.

Judge Urbigkit said the word, and its Wyoming definition, was proposed by his law clerk, whom he described as a linguist of sorts.

I'm afraid, however, that Judge Urbigkit and his linguist law clerk don't deserve credit for this useful innovation. There is an example of essentially the same usage in the New York Times archive almost 60 years earlier, on June 8, 1930, in a story with the headline "FORECLOSURE FRAUD PLEA STRICKEN OUT", and the subhead "Appellate Division Finds That Leon Bleecker's Answer Was Too Conclusory", which began:

A defense of a conspiracy to defraud in a foreclosure action has been ruled out by a decision of the Appellate Division in the case of the Monica Realty Corporation again Leon Bleecker and others involving a second mortgage on premises on which Bleecker holds a third mortgage.

and ended like this:

This semantic development seems to have started from a legal habit of complaining that a claim or argument is merely or only or excessively or (especially) too conclusory, in the sense of giving conclusions without providing adequate supporting evidence. Over time, the word conclusory alone, without "too" or any other modifier, came to mean "asserting conclusions without evidence".

Before 1900, the OED's description of the word as "rare" and meaning ""Relating or tending to a conclusion" seems valid. For example, there are only four hits in the ProQuest American Periodicals Series Online 1740-1900. The earliest one is in "Ancient Sea-Margins", The North American Review, July 1849, Vol. LXIX, No. CXLIV, p. 256:

Who wrote the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation? The question has excited a good deal of curiosity, and has not yet received any answer except from vague and uncertain rumor. The author certainly intended to remain incognito, and seems even to have taken considerable precaution that he might not be unmasked. In his "note conclusory," he says that his book was "composed in solitude, and almost without the cognizance of a single human being;" and that "for reasons which need not be specified, the author's name is retained in its original obscurity, and, in all probability, will never be generally known."

Another is a letter responding to the same article, and the other two are equally un-Specter-like:

A.M. Fairbairn, "Some Thoughts on American Universities", Outlook, Aug. 17, 1895.

This latter brings the universities and the secondary schools into something like organic relations. They mutually depend on each other; the universities are the normal goal of the schools, the schools the normal soruces of supply for the universities; and so the education has some chance of being continuous, preparatory in the one case, conclusory in the other.

A Literary Study of the Book of Job, The Methodist Review, Nov. 1900.

It is not within our province to consider the much-mooted questions respecting the authenticity of these prose passages introductory and conclusory to the story.

In contrast, a search of the Google News Archive for {conclusory} turns up 42,600 hits, nearly all examples of the "conclusions without evidence" meaning, and among them some evidence that Senator Specter is a regular user ( "Transcript: Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector on 'FNS'", 3/19/2007):

WALLACE: This week, you said that New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer -- that his role leading the investigation into the U.S. attorneys at the same time that he's running the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee --is a conflict of interest. Has he crossed a line here?
SPECTER: I think he has. And I confronted Senator Schumer on it eyeball-to-eyeball on Thursday in the Judiciary Committee meeting.
But let's look at what the facts are: Senator Schumer is leading the inquiry, and the day after we have testimony about Senator Domenici, he puts his name up on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, criticizing --or really making the argument-- that he ought not to be re-elected.
Now, I think that the inquiry by the Judiciary Committee ought to have at least a modicum of objectivity, and if Mr. Schumer is doing a job to defeat Senator Domenici, which he is now — that's his job as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee — that he puts it up on their Web site the very next day, and then he has made very conclusory and judgmental statements all along.
And I challenged him on that a week ago in the Judiciary Committee, and he calls it a purge, and he's taken a very political stance. Now, he's got a right to do that. He's a politician and I'm a politician.
But I don't think he can do both things at the same time without having a conflict of interest, but that's up for him to decide.

[Roger Shuy writes:

Bryan A. Gardner's Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Oxford U Press, 1995, (pp. 191-192) says that conclusive means authoritative and decisive and that most general English dictionaries fail to list conclusory as a main entry and that the few that do misdefine it:

"Yet the word is now quite common in American legal writing--and is increasingly in British legal writing-- and it does not coincide in meaning with conclusive...Conclusory = expressing a factual inference without expressing the fundamental facts on which the inference is based. The word often describes evidence that is not specific enough to be competent to prove what it addresses. For example, the statement "She is an illegal alien" is conclusory, whereas "She told me that she is an illegal alien" is not."

First appeared in 1920, Ringler v. Jetter, 201 N.Y.S. 525, 525 (App.Div. 1923).

Those who are bothered about using it sometimes use "conclusory" or "conclusional" or "conclusionary."

Steve Treuer writes:

I did a Westlaw search for conclusory and the earliest case I could find (in the US) was a 1908 New York decision, which is attached. The case seems to use the word in the modern sense of unsupported by facts. I'm surprised that is the earliest use I could find, and I suspect that if I kept looking in other sources like text books there would be earlier uses.

Conclusory is a common legal term, and I did not find Spector's use of the word unusual. (I'm a lawyer.) It comes up a lot in decisions about whether pleadings are adequate. Some jurisdictions require complaints to be pleaded with allegations of facts that show that the plaintiff has a valid claim or cause of action. Those jurisdictions have fact pleading rules and do not allow merely conclusory allegations. Other jurisdictions, like the federal courts, have notice pleading rules and allow conclusory allegations. The idea is that the conclusory allegations put the defendant on notice of the nature of the claim and the defendant can find out the facts through discovery. In fact pleading jursidictions by contrast, the defendant can object to a complaint by demurrer if it does not plead facts that constitute a claim or cause of action. Those facts are sometimes called "ultimate facts" to distinguish them from "evidentiary facts." Even in fact pleading jurisdictions, the plaintiff does not have to plead the evidence that he would use to prove the claim.

The case that he sent is Supreme Court, Appellate Term, New York, In re CANAKOS, June 30, 1908, and contains this passage:

Thereafter he moved, even a second time, for his discharge under section 2286 of the Code of Civil Procedure, upon his own uncorroborated affidavit, uncorroborated even by a conclusory affidavit of his attorney, that he is unable to pay the amount of his fine, and was discharged ...

David Seidman writes:

To this lawyer, Senator Specter's use of "conclusory" was unremarkable -- lawyers use it in that sense all the time. For example, in ruling on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court is required to treat all factual allegations in the complaint as true. But it is generally said that a court is free to disregard mere "conclusory allegations." The US Supreme Court will soon be ruling in a case raising issues about conclusory allegations, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly -- the Court heard oral argument in the case in late November, so the opinion should be out very soon.)

If you search for "conclusory" in Findlaw's database of US Supreme Court opinions, you find one hit from 1943. It is in footnote 40 of SCHNEIDERMAN v. UNITED STATES, 320 U.S. 118 (1943).

The footnote in question begins:

Since the district court did not specify upon what evidence its conclusory findings rested, it is well to mention the remaining documents published before 1927 which were introduced into evidence and excerpts from which were read into the record, but upon which the Government does not specifically rely with respect to the issue of force and violence.

I'm not convinced that this is a clear example of the (apparently new) meaning -- "conclusory findings" here might simply mean "the findings reached in the court's conclusion", though it's true that the lack of specified evidence is also mentioned.

So for the new meaning, we have examples from New York state starting in 1908, reaching the newspapers by 1930, with a possible SCOTUS mention in 1943, and a Wyoming judge still finding it necessary to justify the term in 1987. It's clear that lawyers -- including Senator Specter -- generally find it "unremarkable" today, but this seems to be the result of a process that has taken place in U.S. legal discourse over the past century.

And this process has left some English-speaking non-lawyers behind, including (until now) me. ]

[ Jonathan Mitchell writes:

A fine article by a Texan lawyer, Bryan Garner, at page 235 of ‘The State of The Language: 1990s Edition’, ed. Ricks and Michaels, Faber and Faber 1990, gives this word as the prime example of “legal neologisms that… remain nonwords …”, with copious references. I recommend it! The word has also recently emerged in English (but not, unfortunately, Scottish) legal usage; the primary UK caselaw database, Justis, shows nine examples of its use of which only two are pre-1994 (these by the same judge, Lord Wilberforce, in 1972 and 1981).

I wonder if that "Bryan Garner" could be the same as the "Bryan Gardner" who was cited by Roger Shuy as the author of a "Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage"? Apparently yes -- a quick check at amazon.com verifies that the dictionary in question was written by Bryan Garner, without a 'd'. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:38 PM

Gingrich as Grinch

A couple of weeks ago Benjamin Zimmer wrote about Newt Gringrich's very negative opinion of bilingual education (see Gingrich's "Ghetto" Talk). That happened to be the day after I gave an exam (in my class Ling. 115, `Language in a Multicultural World', on language situations in countries around the world), and I read the following passage in an exam essay written by one of my students, Trevor Sponseller, in response to a question about political motives and consequences of language-related educational policies:

"When education was being developed...in Papua New Guinea, British colonizers felt that they were educating the native people to hold lower positions in society....Sir Hubert Murray spearheaded this movement, declaring English as the only language of instruction. This way, the indigenous people would not be able to learn too much, and they would learn enough English to be able to obey the British colonizers. Education, in this case, was the means by which Murray `put the indigenous people in their place'."

Papua New Guinea, needless to say, had no bilingual education program.

Trevor and his research-group teammates had reported earlier in the term that, frustrated by their inability to understand their teachers and schoolbooks, many indigenous children in New Guinea simply dropped out of school. This is hardly a unique situation: the same thing has happened in many countries to countless numbers of children, sometimes (but not always) as a result of deliberate governmental policy. The Newt Gingriches of this world, or at least of the U.S., will of course ask why the children failed to learn English, often adding that their own grandparents didn't have any trouble with the language when they immigrated to the U.S. as children and were thrown into English-only classrooms.

Good question, but it raises other questions. First, how do they know that their grandparents had no difficulty learning English? (I suspect that they're often just wrong about this, but I admit that I have no evidence to support this guess.) Second, are their grandparents a truly representative sample of the immigrant population? Articulate people like Newt Gingrich who claim that all children should do just fine in a monolingual school setting, regardless of their previous exposure or lack of exposure to the school's language of instruction, tend to be highly-educated, high-achieving, financially comfortable types. If their grandparents were similarly prepared, culturally, to do well in school, it isn't surprising if they succeeded in overcoming the language barrier. But any country that designs its school system to serve only the high-achievers is unlikely to end up with a well-educated population.

Anti-bilingual-education folks might point out, correctly, that there's a huge difference between English in New Guinea, where there are almost a thousand indigenous languages and not many native speakers of English, and English in the U.S., where most people already speak it; it ought to be easier, therefore, for immigrant children in the U.S. to learn English. And so it is, for some children -- especially those who live and learn in a neighborhood with lots of English-speaking children, and whose parents speak English reasonably well. But not all children have these linguistic advantages. In Life with Two Languages (Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 168ff.), François Grosjean describes the experiences of Dieudonné, a young Haitian boy who immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was five, at which time he spoke only Haitian Creole. In the U.S. his family settled in a Haitian neighborhood, most of his friends were Haitian, and English was not used in his home. By the time he went to school, he knew some English, but he was far from fluent. His first school had no bilingual education program; the sole language of instruction was English. Dieudonné was lost. After three months he had fallen behind, his English had not improved, and other children in his school teased him about his bad English. He had `become withdrawn and very unsure of himself'. At first his mother opposed her parish priest's recommendation that she enroll Dieudonné in a city school that did have a bilingual education program, insisting that her children `had to learn English and would not do so if they were taught in Creole'. But eventually she changed her mind, and Dieudonné changed schools. His new teacher was bilingual in Haitian Creole and English, the other children spoke Creole to him, and his educational life improved dramatically. At first he was taught in Creole, but the use of English was gradually increased until, two years later, he was able to transfer back into a mainstream English-only program. By this time he was fluent in English and no longer sad and withdrawn: he had become a successful bilingual, and a successful student.

Dieudonné's educational experience highlights the difference between a stressful introduction to a new language in school and a stress-free introduction. Of course not every child will react the same way -- in particular, some will thrive in a mainstream program even if they start out with as little English as Dieudonné. But condemning the many Dieudonnés in our school system to a life of educational disadvantage, with the resulting attitudinal and socioeconomic problems, is cruel. Newt Gingrich and the many Americans who share his views about the worthlessness of bilingual education surely do not understand what their depressingly successful efforts to dismantle bilingual education are doing to these children: they are in effect stealing the children's education, because you can't learn reading or math or history or any other subjects when you don't understand your teacher.

Luckily, there are people who do understand the consequences of Gingrich's Grinch approach to the problems of non-English-speaking schoolchildren, and who are working diligently and with some success to remedy the situation: see, for instance, this description of the goals and activities of the "English Plus" movement.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 12:18 PM

Human and Non-Human Languages in Greater L.A.

If you're one of the thirteen million people in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, this would be a good time to plan your route to the Smith Campus Center at 170 East Sixth Street in Claremont, where tomorrow (4/16/2007) at 7:00 p.m., Geoff Pullum will be giving the Robert Efron Lecture in Linguistics and Cognitive Science, on the topic "Modeling Human and Non-Human Languages". If you live further away, say in one of the regions of the central and eastern U.S. where the current weather patterns have not gotten the message about global warming or even the normal advent of spring, you could check the forecast for Claremont tomorrow (69 and sunny) and go for one of those last-minute travel bargains on the internet, even though the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Pomona College, which is sponsoring the lecture, is not offering any special travel packages.

If your schedule doesn't permit a trip to Claremont, you can try to predict what Geoff might say tomorrow, by extrapolating from a talk that he gave last year at Penn under the title Monkey Syntax, the handout for a presentation that he gave in Marc Hauser's lab at Harvard shortly thereafter, and papers such as Geoffrey K. Pullum and Barbara C. Scholz, "Contrasting applications of logic in natural language syntactic description" in Petr Hájek, Luis Valdés-Villanueva, and Dag Westerståhl (eds.), Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science: Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress (KCL Publications, ISBN 1-904987-21-4), 481-503, and Geoffrey K. Pullum and James Rogers, "Animal Pattern-Learning Experiments: Some Mathematical Background", ms., 2006.

But really, wouldn't a trip to Claremont be easier and (even) more enjoyable?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:58 AM

A linguist with Erdős number 2

My friend András Kornai, a fine mathematical and computational linguist who is just finishing up a very interesting advanced text in mathematical linguistics, has informed me of something that I did not know: that his Erdős number is 2. András co-authored a paper with the Hungarian mathematician Zsolt Tuza (the paper is "Narrowness, pathwidth, and their application in natural language processing", Discrete Applied Mathematics 36 (1992) 87-92; downloadable from here), and Tuza had several joint papers with Erdős (for example, Paul Erdos and Zsolt Tuza, "Rainbow Hamiltonian paths and canonically colored subgraphs in infinite complete graphs", Mathematica Pannonica 1 (1990) 5-13). This changes things with regard to what I previously said here. First, we now know there is a linguist with an Erdős number lower than Mark Liberman's. Second, this means there is a linguist with an irreducible Erdős number (András can never collaborate on a paper with Paul Erdős, who is now dead, so 2 is as low as he can go). Third, since András and I have published a joint paper ("The X-bar theory of phrase structure", Language 66 (1990) 24-50), I now know I have an Erdős number not greater than 3 (and a properly respectable one established by refereed research papers all the way through — in fact by two-author papers all the way through). And fourth, all of the roughly fifty people I have co-authored with therefore have an Erdős number not greater than 4. Who knew.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 01:35 AM

April 14, 2007

The Whore of Mensa

Arnold's two posts about academic arousal over Chomsky reminded me of this passage from Woody Allen's short story "The Whore of Mensa" (from Without Feathers, p. 35):

"Suppose I wanted to--have a party?" I said.
"Like, what kind of a party?"
"Suppose I wanted Noam Chomsky explained to me by two girls?"
"Oh, wow."
"If you'd rather forget it..."
"You'd have to speak with Flossie," she said. "It'd cost you."

A transcript of the story is here, but there are some typos (or OCR-induced errors) -- e.g. "It'd cost you" comes out as "It's cost you".

Part of this exchange was quoted in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, p. 119 (you can search for it here).

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 04:45 PM

WTF small clauses

Mark Liberman, following up a tip from Barbara Partee, has just posted about a stunning coordination from today's New York Times:

While Mr. Umarov has kept a low profile and his business running, thousands of immigrant market workers have closed their stalls across Russia.

What we have here is a noun phrase (a low profile) coordinated with a "small clause" (his business running, with a subject and a predicate, but no finite verb) -- that is, an instance of coordination of unlikes -- and also an example, as Mark points out, of syllepsis:

Syllepsis...--use of a word understood differently in relation to two or more other words... (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed., p. 399)

(In the Umarov sentence, kept is understood one way in kept a low profile and another way in kept his business running.)

The usual examples of coordination of unlikes (as in my last posting on the subject) involve only a mismatch of syntactic categories, with no semantic hang-ups.  The Umarov sentence takes things to a new level.  You don't come across WTF small clauses very often, but I have a small collection of them.

First, from right here in Language Log, there's the racy headline (with the conjunction and omitted) that Ben Zimmer reported on a while back:

Teacher who starred in porn movie a decade ago wants forgiveness, it harder, faster...

Unlike the Umarov sentence (which I take to be an inadvertent error), this one was surely committed deliberately, for humorous effect.  But they're both NP + SC; the Umarov sentence has a (present) participial predicate, Zimmer's headline an adjectival predicate.

Next, three from my non-parallelism collection:

... you'll get the [traffic] ticket and your car searched. (Ruth Wajnryb, Expletive Deleted, p. 234)

Probably a deliberate play on words.  NP + SC, with a (past) participial predicate in the SC.

I better get some clothes folded and off to bed.  Morning comes early! (on a blog; contributed by Tyler Schnoebelen)

This one has SC + an adverbial complement (rather than a NP), with the order of the conjuncts reflecting the order of the events.  Might be deliberate.

While Foley had a vote in Congress and President Bush on speed dial, disgraced evangelical minister Ted Haggard had more direct influence on how conservative Americans viewed gays... (Frank Mok, "A 2006 Outspoken", The Advocate 1/16/07, p. 28)

Back to NP + SC, but now with a PP predicate in the SC.

Finally, one unearthed by Chris Potts:

But when he pictured it -- as he would a dozen times a day in the ensuing weeks -- he did not visualize them standing on a blackened wall throwing flowers where once there'd been a long veranda and Festa sleeping. (David Crace, Being Dead, p. 166)

NP + SC, with a (present) participial predicate in the SC, the whole thing in an existential clause.

Slowly the examples come in, with maybe half of them deliberate.  I suspect that I miss a fair number of routine coordinations of unlikes, but these SC cases really stand out for me.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:30 PM

Syllepsis, aka WTF Coordination

Barbara Partee sent in a quotation from Andrew E. Kramer, "Markets Suffer After Russia Bans Immigrant Vendors", NYT, 4/13/2007:

Under the decree, seen as one of the more draconian anti-immigrant measures in Europe, only Russian citizens can sell vegetables.

“They are happy to buy my spices, but in the street there is hate for immigrants,” Mr. Umarov said, spooning dried mint leaves into a bag with practiced care.

While Mr. Umarov has kept a low profile and his business running, thousands of immigrant market workers have closed their stalls across Russia. [emphasis added]

(If it's not obvious to you why this phrase caught Barbara's eye, consider the analogous case "He made a mess and his mother angry".)

People (including us here at Language Log) often use "zeugma" as a term for this kind of non-parallel parallelism. But as the wikipedia explains, we should really call this "syllepsis", which

... is a particular type of zeugma in which the clauses are not parallel either in meaning or grammar. The governing word may change meaning with respect to the other words it modifies. This creates a semantic incongruity which is often humorous. Alternatively, a syllepsis may contain a governing word or phrase which does not agree grammatically with one or more of its distributed terms. This is an intentional construction bending the rules of grammar for stylistic effect.

Among its examples of syllepsis, the same article quotes from the Flanders and Swan lyric Madeira M'Dear, which features this figure of speech prominently, if not obsessively:

He had slyly enveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
The wine, his cigar and the lamps
"Have some Madeira, m'Dear!
You really have nothing to fear.
Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass
And the fate of the maiden who topes,
She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.
She let go her glass with a shrill little cry.
Crash! Tinkle! It fell to the floor.
When he asked "what in Heaven?" she made no reply,
Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

Here at Language Log Plaza, we've taken to describing similar cases with one of our own contributions to rhetorical terminology, "WTF Coordination":

WTF Grammar (3/8/2005)
More WTF Coordinations (3/11/2005)
Still more WTF Coordinations (4/11/2005)
A recipe for WTF Coordination (6/21/2005)
Still more declaration of independence (7/10/2005)
WTF Coordination in the bullpen (4/7/2006)
A racy WTF Coordination (5/10/2006)
Billions for X-ray machines and we're not any safer (8/14/2006)
Risky RNR (9/13/2006)

Syllepsis, like the other figures of speech in the glossary of classical rhetoric, originally described cases where writers like Flanders and Swann have chosen to to use a non-parallel conjunction as a joke or for some other calculated effect. In contrast, our classical examples of WTF Coordination are mostly cases in which a writer produces a jarring or distracting non-parallel conjunction without meaning to do so. (A couple of examples: "If you have an older Mac and upgraded the processor, don't expect it to work or support from Apple." "She lets the 'pops' freeze partway before placing a Popsicle stick in the middle, and freezes them till firm and someone wants a quick snack.")

But often, it's hard to tell which of these descriptions applies. When Andrew Kramer wrote that "Mr. Umarov has kept a low profile and his business running", was he choosing a clever turn of phrase, like Alanis Morisette's "You held your breath and the door for me"? Or did he simply fail to notice, due to deadline pressures or a high tolerance for conjunctive non-parallelism?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:37 AM

April 13, 2007

More academic arousal

First, it was Noam Chomsky as an object of desire in the NYT Science Times.  Now he's in the cartoons, in Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

(Hat tip to the Siliconopolitan.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:35 PM

Pirahã color terms

My copy of the latest New Yorker arrived yesterday, containing John Colapinto's article on Dan Everrett's work with the Pirahã, which Mark reported on admiringly several days ago. I agree with Mark's overall evaluation of this piece of linguistic journalism, but I should point out two factual errors in the small part of the content about which I am independently in possession of the facts.

The point at issue is Everett's claim that the Pirahã don't have any consistently employed color terms and the conflicting evidence from the data gathered by Steve Sheldon for the World Color Survey that they do. Colapinto reports that Sheldon's data were "duly enshrined in Berlin and Kay's book ‘Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution’ (1969)." Colapinto also reports that Sheldon gathered these data "in the late sixties." The World Color Survey was only begun in the mid-seventies, largely in reaction to published challenges to the conclusions of Basic Color Terms, so Sheldon's data could not have appeared in Basic Color Terms and in fact did not. Nor could they have been gathered in the late sixties, which they weren't. (Moreover, they have never been published anywhere, although they have been made availalable privately to several scholars, including Dan Everett.)

Colapinto is doubtless correct on the main issue, though, that now, after recent conversations with Everett, Sheldon distrusts the validity of his data, fearing that they display spurious homogeneity because he did not succeed in his efforts to interview each participant in isolation. Colapinto accurately reports this recent change in Sheldon's evaluation of his own data.

The way things stand now on the issue of whether the Pirahã have true color terms is that we don't know. Everett is going to carefully run the WCS data-gathering procedure on his next trip to the Pirahã, being certain that each participant is interviewed out of the presence of others. When that work is done, we'll know whether the Pirahã have true color terms.

Colapinto also fails to mention an observation I made regarding the significance of Dan's claim, assuming it is in fact correct. Of course, Colapinto was under no obligation to do so, but since I think it's relevant to the issue of Pirahã having, or not having color terms, I'll summarize it briefly. Everett argues that lack of color terms is one aspect of Pirahã culture's rejection of all abstraction and insistence on only considering worthy of cogitation or communication the here-and-now. I think a strong case can be made, however, that color terms are not at all abstract, but in fact quite concrete. First, color is the only visual modality for which we have dedicated peripheral (specifically retinal) receptors, the cones. Secondly, there is strong evidence that human color discrimination and color matching are common properties of all Old World primates, and the sparse evidence we have on cross-species color categorization uniformly indicates pan-catarrhine homogenity here as well. Everett presents no argument WHY we should consider color terms to be abstract, so it could turn out ironically that finding the Pirahã really have color terms could bolster his argument about strictly here-and-now thought, culture and language among the Pirahã.

[Update: The principal reference for the claim "that human color discrimination and color matching are common properties of all Old World primates," is De Valois, Russell L., H.C. Morgan, M.C. Polson, W.R. Mead and E.M. Hull (1974) Psychophysical studies of monkey vision-I. Macaque luminosity and color vision tests. Vision Research 14: 53-67. For cross-catarrhine homogeneity in color categorization, see Essok, S. M. (1977) Color perception and color classification. In D.M. Rumbaugh, Ed., Language Learning by a Chimpanzee. New York, San Francisco, London: Academic Press; Matsuzawa, T. (1985) Colour naming and classification in a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Human Evolution 14: 283-291; and Sandell, J.H., Gross, C.G., and Bornstein, M.H. (1979) Color categories in macaques. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 93: 626-635.

Hat tip to Edith Maxwell for pointing out that "catarrhine" was mispelled "caterrhine." She was courteous enough to suppose it was a "simple typo," but it wasn't. A minor cautionary tale for bloggers: I had checked my guesswork mispelling "caterrhine" by googling it. The result was a page of official-looking sources with that spelling, preceded by the query, "Did you mean: Catherine?" I concluded that "caterrhine" was ok. What I failed to notice was that this search received only seven hits, whereas the search I did for "catarrhine" after reading Edith's email yielded over 100k. ]

[Dan Everett writes:

Paul is absolutely correct in what he says about Pirahã color terms. He very kindly provided me with a new set of experimental materials, sitting on my dining room table at present, and I will be re-running the experiments. I am not sure where the NYr got the dates on Sheldon's work.

I think that the experience of color is concrete but that the labeling of it is not, following some work by John Lyons and others. However, if Pirahã turns out to have color terms, I shall certainly let people know and maybe be convinced that Paul is correct that this bolsters my case. In any case, Paul and Brent Berlin discussed all of this with me for hours and have been extremely helpful in improving my understanding of the issues.


Posted by Paul Kay at 08:32 AM

Needed: good editor for Chinese-English dictionaries

Never mind what the shrimp did to the cabbage -- look at what another bad Chinese-English dictionary entry did to a sofa! Joel Martinsen has drawn my attention to a blog post by Jeff Keller ("A reeeeaaally bad translation", 4/10/2007) which in turn points to a newspaper article (Jim Wilkes, "Racial slur on sofa label stuns family", Toronto Star, 4/6/2007) that starts this way:

When the new chocolate-coloured sofa set was delivered to her Brampton home, Doris Moore was stunned to see packing labels describing the shade as "Nigger-brown."

Apparently the sofa (or at least enough of it to provide the label) was imported from China, and according to Jeff Keller's blog entry, the translation provided for 深棕色 "dark brown" in many Chinese-English glossaries is "nigger-brown".

A quick Baidu search for that offensive adjective showed [that it's] mentioned all over the place as an acceptable translation of 深棕色, otherwise known as “dark brown.” Four people on this Baidu forum give n-brown as the most preferred translation! They even give a link to a dictionary entry that supports this translation! I only saw one search result that cautioned against using that translation. Other companies come up on the search that officially use this word as well.

A google search turns up an old [1959] prospectus for a school at Oxford that describes the school uniforms as being n-brown. I can only guess that this used to be a widely used term, which carried over into China back in the day, and during all those years of separation from the west the dictionaries kept giving that as the proper translation. I suppose as a good netizen I should register on all those forums and try to make sure no one else makes that mistake again. But then again, when something gets ingrained in the Chinese system it can be damn near impossible to get people to change.

Perhaps the economic damage from angry overseas customers will have an effect that complaints from linguists don't.

It's easy to see how this offensive term got into Chinese dictionaries -- the OED's entry for nigger includes this section:

3. Forming nouns and adjectives denoting or designating a dark shade of a specified colour, as nigger-brown, -grey, -pink, etc. Cf. sense A. 11. Now rare (offensive).

1915 Home Chat 2 Jan. 11/1 Nigger-brown cloth.
1922 D. H. LAWRENCE England, my England 116 She was wearing a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet.
1930 J. DOS PASSOS 42nd Parallel I. 124 On each table there were niggerpink and vermilion paper flowers.
1960 V. WILLIAMS Walk Egypt 89 A dry-goods store showed a dress of ‘nigger-pink’.
1983 Listener 21 July 4/1 ‘It's a common phrase that is used throughout the land,’ he said. ‘And what about the colour nigger brown?’

Joel's email noted that

Kingsoft's popular Ciba defines it this way (online version here), and their data set is widely used (pirated?) by other online dictionaries. This definition is then mechanically applied by people unaware of the connotations of the word.

In comparison, the Kingsoft definition for 守财奴 "moneygrubber" at somewhat more measured - it provides a number of other options in addition to "Jew". The online version appears to have revised, but an older version of the entry is still available at Dict.cn.

[Sarah McEvoy writes:

I was born in England in 1964, and when I was a young girl I remember seeing references to "nigger black" without any suggestion from surrounding adults that this might be offensive (I think these references were in the context of artists' materials, particularly blocks of watercolour paint, which my mother used). My parents also owned a book by Agatha Christie called "Ten Little Niggers"; I understand the title has since been changed to "Ten Little Indians". However, as far as I recall they never used the word in conversation.

The first time I was told that the word was offensive was at some point in the early 1970s, although unfortunately I can't remember which year. I do recall concluding at the time, with all the seriousness of a primary-school child, that Agatha Christie obviously could not have realised this and somebody really ought to have told her before she published the book.

And Peter Howard writes:

My mother (b. 1927, Nottingham, UK) used to use this term. She last did so in about 1965 in London, to describe the colour of a shirt she wanted to buy. The stall-holder carefully selected one the exact colour of his own skin, deftly making the point that an expression used in all innocence might no longer be acceptable.

Growing up in the northeastern U.S. in the 1950s, I believe that I always understood that nigger was a deeply offensive word. I guess that attitudes evolved more gradually in Britain, at least in some parts.

Martyn Cornell writes:

It was still perfectly acceptable in 1954 Britain for the film The Dam Busters to have the hero, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, call his dog (as it was called in real life) Nigger, although Gibson's dog was dubbed into "Trigger" for the US release of the film (as The Dambusters, one word).

However, a scene where the dog's name was used as one of the codewords radioed back from the raid apparently survived unamended. The scenes where the dog is killed were cut from the last British TV showing of the film, which PC revision caused fewer complaints than came in when the film was shown uncut ...


[Elissa Flagg writes:

The story of the (inexcusably, today) poorly translated couch label is still an item here in Toronto. I wish that the reporter for this story had read the Language Log entry on this beforehand, given that the translation issue wasn't dealt with very clearly in the televised segment. (By the way, the woman who bought the couch has an interesting way of rendering the N-word in speech that I haven't heard beore -- she calls it the "n-i-g-g-e-r word," spelling out the word completely, letter-by-letter, in what seems to be a novel avoidance strategy.)


[Update 4/14/2007 -- John Wells writes:

When I was a boy in England in the 1950s (or, as we jocularly say in England, when I were a lad), "nigger-brown" or just "nigger" was in common use as a colour term for fabrics, paint etc.

No one would use that term nowadays, of course, though I have the impression that our dropping the word owed more to imported American influence than to objections from our own black people. (I'm not sure if British people would know what you meant if you used the expression "the N-word".)


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:18 AM

April 12, 2007

Academic arousal

Provided here without comment...  Natalie Angier, "Birds Do It.  Bees Do It.  People Seek The Keys to It.", NYT Science Times 4/10/07, p. D1, about sexual desire:

Ask an assortment of men and women, "What is sexual desire, and how do you know you're feeling it?" and after some initial embarrassed mutterings and demands for anonymity, they answer as follows:

[three answers, and then...]

"Listening to Noam Chomsky," said a psychologist in her 50s, "always turns me on."

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:17 AM

Watch out for accents

This is a small correction, but an important one, so I'll make it in a separate post in addition to adding it to the end of the original post. On March 31, in "Liberté, égalité, néologie", I took a look at the French political blogosphere. I was inspired by an article in Le Monde that focused somewhat breathlessly on the blogs hosted by newspapers and magazines. "The most spectacular because the most massive and the most prestigious" was said to be the initiative of Le Novel Obs, where the most popular blogger is Michel Onfray, whose work was said (in the Le Monde article) to have averaged about 3,115 visitors a days during the month of March. This seemed to me to be surprisingly few readers, for a site that is advertised on every news kiosk in Paris -- the larger American political weblogs, like Instapundit or Daily Kos or Talking Points Memo, are in the range of 100,000-500,000 visitors a day.

But I thought maybe Le Monde's focus on Onfray was due to Old Media self-involvement, so I went out looking for the "real" French political blogs. And I found some, but not a lot, and not at the level of popularity that I would expect given the hotly contested presidential election. In particular, I searched technorati for {presidentielle} in "all blogs" in "any language" with "a lot of authority", and got only 18 results. But I assumed without checking that technorati has a property that I knew to be true of Google and most other web search engines: ignoring accents. And it turns out that I was wrong.

Jean Véronis wrote to me yesterday:

I just read your post-scriptum on your "Liberté, égalité, néologie" post (thanks for citing me, by the way).

Just a small remark about Technorati. You say:

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.

However, Technorati is (unfortunately) accent-sensitive. If you type "présidentielle", you get 1,015 results. In addition, some people tend to put an "s" at the end of "présidentielles", which returns 179 results. Altogether (if we can trust boolean queries ;-) "presidentielle OR presidentielles OR présidentielle OR présidentielles" returns 1,188 results with "a lot of authority" (and 102,607 with "any authority").

And he's right. Here's a link to the {présidentielle} search with "a lot of authority".

(By the way, technorati's idea of "authority" is the number of incoming links that it knows about, though I'm not sure what the numerical thresholds of the categories are.)

It was sloppy on my part not to have tested this.

This doesn't affect my original point, namely that the Le Monde writer was enthusing about the transformative popular importance of a political weblog with about 1/100 the readership of the large American political blogs (and less than half the readership of Language Log, for that matter). And there is still a difference in the size and density of the Anglophone and Francophone political blogospheres, even in proportion to population -- a crude indication of this is that a technorati search for {presidential} in blogs with "a lot of authority" returns 28,659 results, or about 25 times more.

Still, the French political blogosphere is clearly much broader and deeper than my careless search suggested. And Jean Véronis, in addition to his extensive investigations of search engines and other topics in computational linguistics (here is a recent example), is also right in the middle of "Les Politiques mis au Net".

[Anatol from Bremen writes:

I can't believe I'm defending French bloggers (when they have never done anything for me), but I think you're somewhat downplaying the relevance of French political blogs. The figures you mention have to be put into proportion. First, in the U.S., there are 50.5 million households with Internet access compared to only 3 million in France ; a relation of roughly 17 to 1. This means that a French blog with 3,000 readers per day corresponds to a U.S.-based blog with a bit more than 50,000 readers -- not quite the 100,000 to 500,000 you mention, but much more in the same ballpark. Second, there are between 900 million and 1.5 billion L1 and L2 speakers of English worldwide, compared with only 250 million of French. If we take a mid-range estimate of 1.2 billion, this is a relation of roughly 5/1. Assuming that many people read U.S. and French blogs even though they are neither American nor French (I, for example, read both), the visits per day have to be seen relative to the number of people who speak the respective language. Again, by itself this would mean that a French blog with 3000 readers corresponds to an English blog with roughly 15,000 readers. Clearly, the two proportions would have to be combined such that the number of English speakers with Internet access is set in proportion to the number of French speakers with Internet access. I don't know where to find this piece of information, but if anyone does, that would be nice. Anyway, relatively speaking, French blogs seem to be much more important than you make them sound. Let's take U.S. blogs as a standard and define a unit "standard blog reader" (sbr), which corresponds to one reader of an American blog seen in proportion to the number of English speakers or the number of Americans with Internet access, or both. We can the provisionally take the two figures as the lower and upper bound of a confidence interval and say that French blogs have between 15,000 and 50,000 sbr, roughly 1/10 of American blogs, not 1/100, as you suggest. Whether these blogs are anything to enthuse about in Le Monde is, of course, an entirely different matter...

Perhaps the main point here is that the proportion of people on the net in France seems to be 2 or 3 times lower than the proportion in the U.S.

[Update 4/15/2007 -- However, Rod Tye refers us to internetworldstats.com, which says that in 2006 in France, about 50.3% of the population, or 30.8 million people, had internet access, compared to 69.6% of the population, or 210.1 million people, in the U.S.. That's 6.8 to 1, not 17 to 1.]

I wonder, also, what fraction of the readership of U.S. politically-oriented blogs (e.g. Talking Points Memo) comes from outside the U.S.? I guess I'd be surprised if it were anything close to being in proportion to the number of L1+L2 English speakers worldwide.

However, Tako Schotanus testifies that in the Netherlands, at least, many people are interested in U.S. politics:

I just wanted to ask if you had thought about other possible factors that could affect the discrepancy that you have observed. One of the things that came to my mind for example is the fact that the political systems of the US and France are quite different, I have always had the feeling that the US is very much focused on the actual person that is to become president while this seems to be less the case in France (and I imagine this to be even less in those countries where the person for the highest office is appointed instead of elected). So it could be possible that the word "présidentielle" is just used less in political articles in France, couldn't it?

Also, you didn't restrict your search of the word "presidential" to the countries where English is the official language (not usre if that's even possible), so you are bound to pick up a lot more "noise" in your searches (for all those non-native english bloggers, I doubt there are many non-native french bloggers in the world). The same holds true of course when counting the number of hits for a website, there might be many foreign hits on english websites, while I would expect this to be much less so for french websites. (Trivia: the last presidential elections in the US where almost as closely followed in The Netherlands as were our own elections. Probably because people saw the influence Bush was having on foreign relations all over the world. It's unlikely that the french elections will have the same effect).

I wouldn't be surprised if there was actually a significant difference, but maybe the only way to be sure is to take some kind of sample of blog entries containing either the words "présidentielle" or "presidential" to see what they're actually about. Accounting for population differences and "noise" I think you would need to see much more than 10x as much english blog entries than french blog entries to be sure.

Ah well, no doubt you thought of all this yourself , I just wondered if you could draw too many conclusions from a couple of simple searches.

I continue to think that French political blogging remains rather different from its counterpart in America, in nature as well as in scale. As for what the differences really are, where they come from, and how they will develop in the future, I'm not sure -- stay tuned for more as both countries work through their presidential elections and the consequences.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:13 AM

April 11, 2007

Quantifying certainty and uncertainty

Recently we've seen reports about the United Nations' blue-ribbon international panel of climatologists noting that this august body described the existence and effects of global warming with words rather than statistics. The U.N. panel says that global warming is an unequivocal fact "very likely" caused by human activity. The word, "very," is an upgrade from its 2001 report, which said it was "likely" that humans were the cause of this.

Climate-change scientists often rely on words to describe the likelihood of danger to the world but six years ago they began to use numerical expressions in order to convince skeptics that they weren't being subjective or just making stuff up. This reminded me of the problems expert witnesses often face when they report the results of their analyses at trial.

In one case I worked on  the major evidence against a Louisiana youth named Michael Carter was a  confession statement that he had signed. In it he admitted shooting and killing a policeman in a botched burglary attempt. Fortunately for Michael, the police made a tape-recording of the interrogation leading up to the confession statement. Several times on the tape Michael denied killing the cop, all the while crying and  finally becoming so ill that the police had to shut the tape off. But they typed up a confession statement and got him to sign it. We can never know what happened during the time the tape wasn't running.

Things looked bad for Michael. But since one detective testified that the confession statement simply reported exactly what Michael had said, using his own  words and sentences, this opened the door for me to compare the language of the detective with the language in the statement that Michael had signed. I found huge differences. I also tape recorded Michael's speech while he was incarcerated and waiting for trial in order to get another speech sample to compare with the written statement. I won't describe here all the differences but if you're interested you can read about this case in my book, The Language of Confession, Interrogation, and Deception (Sage, 1998).

The point I'm slowly getting to is what happened when I took the witness stand. My direct examination concerned my methodology, the data I used, and my comparison of Michaels language with that of the detective. When I finished with this, the defense attorney asked me:

Q: Does the sentence structure that appears on the written confession statement resemble the sentence structure used by Michael Carter when Michael Carter speaks?

A: Not at all.

Q: Whose sentence structure does it resemble in this scenario involving these people?

A: Well, I don't mean to pick on the detective, but since he said he wrote down what Michael Carter said, it's closer to his sentence structure than it is to Michael Carter's.

Later, at the end of my direct testimony, the defense attorney asked me:

Q: Just generally based on everything you've said, Dr. Shuy, and based on your examination of all these items and documents, how likely is it that the words that appear on that written statement are the words of Michael Carter?

A: It's very unlikely that these were Michael Carter's words.

Q: How likely is it that the words that appear on the written statement are instead the words of the detective?

A: It is much more likely that these were his words, especially in light of the fact that he said that he was the one who wrote them down.

Instead of using terms like "a lot," "very unlikely," and "much more likely," it would have been very nice to be able to say something more quantitatively representative. In my analysis I had used percentages to compare sentence types of Michael and the detective but I could not quantify the likelihood of authorship in the way that the defense attorney wanted. Like the climate-change scientists, for that I had to resort to a non-statistical assessment that used words.

Today the quantification of certainty or doubt is beginning to be used by climate-change scientists. They believe that using words for  the language of uncertainty is easy to misrepresent and that politicians seem to want something more specific --  numbers. This change began when researchers Richard Moss and Stephen Schneider urged the U.N. panel of climate scientists to strengthen their report language with hard numbers (here). Now if a report says something is "virtually certain," it means 99 percent certain. If it's "very likely," it's between 90 percent and 99 percent. "More likely than not" refers to 50 percent and "unlikely" means somewhere between 10 and 33 percent. To review other verbal expressions that  have been assigned numeric values, see this chart.

I wish I had heard of this back in 1989 when I testified in Michael Carter's case but, as it turns out, I didn't really need it. After the prosecutor heard my testimony, he dropped all the charges.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 11:04 AM

Logic-puzzle guards as a philosophical resource

In response to my recent post on the xkcd labyrinth guards, Jon Ferro pointed me to another cartoon where a version of the lying/truthful guards puzzle is combined with pointed weapons. This is the neoconservative (or at least neo-Alexandrian) version of the interaction, though.

Notice (in the last panel) that the lying guard interprets "lying" to mean that metaphorical commands should be negated: "Don't bite me."

This seems like bad philosophy of language -- but one of the premises of these puzzles is that the guards always know what to do in order to "tell the truth" or "tell a lie". This suggests that access to such guards would be a valuable philosophical resource -- especially if there's no way out of the labyrinth anyhow, or we can get the needed navigational information with an arrow, so that we're ritually entitled to ask a question that isn't urgently needed to help us find our way in the world.

There's no assumption that the guards are all-knowing with respect to the facts of the world, so we presumably won't get anywhere with direct questions about scientific or theological issues. The truthful guard could just say "I don't know", or give an opinion that has no more value than anyone else's opinion; the lying guard could simply lie about his (her?) opinion.

But if both guards are perfectly able to determine whether arbitrary statements are true or false with respect to their own beliefs, questioning them should allow us to settle questions like whether a sentence with a false presupposition ("The present king of France is bald") is false or indeterminate. Though perhaps we would just transform these questions into questions about the precise definition of "tell the truth" and "lie", and also the nature of the guards' compulsions. Suppose we ask a lying guard whether the present king of France is bald. If he answers "yes", this might mean that that sentences with failing presuppositions are indeed false. But perhaps the sentence has no truth value, and the guard interprets his mandate to lie merely as never saying anything that is true...

Still, it would bring some new facts (or at least some new comic strips) into an old discussion.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:39 AM

April 10, 2007

The Labyrinth Guards

A possible solution: introduce the xkcd labyrinth guards to the PartiallyClips paradox dragon.

But I'm puzzled about one thing: do the guards control the way into the labyrinth, or the way out?

[Update -- I was in too much of a hurry to read this cartoon's title text, which is "And the whole setup is just a trap to capture escaping logicians. None of the doors actually lead out." Or in? (In the movie Labyrinth, the traditional pair of paradoxical guards are stationed in front of two doors, one of which leads out, and one of which leads to (ba ba ba bum!) Certain Death. Sarah solves the problem in one of the traditional ways.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:15 AM

Diagnosis: GADHD

In his 4/5/2007 NYT opinion piece, "What Was He Thinking?", Dick Cavett wrote:

And then there’s, “If we announce a departure date, the enemy will just hunker down until we leave.” Isn’t that what most of Iraq’s “army” also will do? (They’re referred to by our troops as the “Keystone Kops.” Except the Kops showed up for work.)

Doesn’t never announcing a date allow them to return to their hammocks and let G.I. Joe continue to absorb the bullets?

Commenter #96 takes Cavett to task for "using the double negative":

For one so usually careful about English usage, I am surprised to see Mr. Cavett using the double negative in the third paragraph of the press conference/gutsy reporter portion of his article.

Shouldn’t it have read “Never announcing a date allows them to return . .” rather than the awkward “Doesn’t never announcing . . .”, equivalent to saying “Does not never”?

Can Cavett really defend using “Doesn’t never”?

It's no surprise that commenter #96 falls victim to Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation (more properly known as the Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law). First, he identifies himself as "Donald A. Mollloy", with three l's. Second, his leading "For one so usually careful..." connects awkwardly with his following main clause, which forces the reader to puzzle over whether the usually-careful one is Mr. Mollloy or Mr. Cavett.

But the key point is that Mr. Mollloy's correction is really an incorrection.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the two negatives in Mr. Cavett's sentence, even by the most standard of Standard English standards. In particular, his "doesn't never" has nothing do with the vernacular-language phenomenon popularly known as "the double negative", and sometimes known to linguists as "negative concord", which involves sentences like "we don't need no thought control" in place of the standard "we don't need any thought control", or "I didn't see nothing" in place of the standard "I didn't see anything".

In fact, as commenter #117 explains, this isn't even a standard-English case like "he never couldn't sleep at night", where the two negatives cancel to yield the same truth conditions as "he always could sleep at night". Instead, the doesn't is part of a framing rhetorical question ("doesn't __ allow them to ... ?"), while the never is part of an embedded phrase serving as the subject of allow ("never announcing a date").

Perhaps we can make the structure clearer this way:

Is is not the case that never announcing a date allows thus-and-such to happen?

Since this is a yes/no question, we ask essentially the same question whether or not the question is negated:

Is it the case that never announcing a date allows thus-and-such to happen?

The difference, in examples like this, lies in the answer that the writer or speaker wants us to give. A quick peek at phrase-initial uses of doesn't in the recent news will give you the flavor of this rhetorical device. In each case, I've given the answer that the writer obviously wants us to infer:

...doesn't the PGA Tour owe the "world" something a little more? [yes, it does...]
Doesn't the activity we call economics ... need some rethinking? [yes, it does...]
Doesn't she look just like a little devil leaning over his shoulder, whispering in his ear? [yes, she does...]

Cavett believes that the answer to his question should be "Yes, Mr. Cavett, never announcing a date allows them to return to their hammocks, etc." He invites us to join him in his belief, by expressing it framed in a negative yes/no question, just as these other writers did. It happens that the embedded belief has a subject-phrase whose verb announcing is modified by the negative adverb never -- but the result has nothing in common with any of the normal meanings of the phrase "double negative".

But we shouldn't blame Mr. Mollloy for getting this wrong. Thought I hesitate to offer a diagnosis without examining the patient in person, I strongly suspect that his problem is a disease, not a moral or intellectual flaw. If I'm right, Mr. Mollloy suffers from grammatical attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or GADHD, "which is characterized by difficulty in focusing on linguistic structure, paradoxically combined with obsessive and affectively intense delusions about widespread violations of 'rules of grammar'". Clinical trials are underway to compare the efficacy of SSRIs and cognitive therapy in ameliorating the effects of this crippling disorder.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:52 AM

April 09, 2007

Eggcorn news flashes

It's only Monday and it's already been a good week for eggcorns, media-attention-wise. On Sunday, Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe devoted her weekly language column to "Wanton Eggcorns." The column was inspired by a post by the enigmatic Mr. Verb about an NHL announcer saying "as they are wanton to do" instead of "as they are wont to do." After discussing this substitution along with provenance for province and pot marks for pock marks, Freeman asks readers to send in eggcorns from their own personal collections.

And today, the BBC Radio 4 program "Word of Mouth" features an interview with Michael Quinion and me on the subject of eggcorns on both sides of the Atlantic. You can hear the segment on the show's website, at least for the next week. (Click on "Listen to the latest edition" — the segment starts about 21 minutes in.) In the original interview I made sure to plug Chris Waigl's indispensable Eggcorn Database (and the lively forum), but that part sadly remained on the cutting room floor. Anyone searching for further eggcornological enlightenment should head over there pronto.

[Update: I've archived the "Word of Mouth" interview here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 09:34 PM

Speaking on behalf...

Some close partners and friends say that they know each other so well that when one of them starts a sentence, the other one can finish it. I don't know about you but this strikes me as dangerous. Even though in some ways it can be considered cooperative behavior, it always irritates me when it happens to me. Even more dangerous, though, is when one person speaks on behalf of another, as though they represent that person fully.

This "speaking on behalf" phenomenon has been around a long time and it has been noticed by discourse analysts. Deborah Schiffrin calls it "speaking for another" and Deborah Tannen's term for it is "ventriloquizing." Erving Goffman pointed out that when one person speaks on behalf of another, that person becomes the "animator"for the other person and  seizes that person's conversational role. A more common term for this might be "butting in." Whatever we call it, it's so common that we often don't even notice as it happens. Depending on the context and circumstances,we often don't even correct it when it's slightly off -- sometimes even when it's way off. And when "speaking on behalf" happens in covertly tape-recorded conversations in criminal cases, targets who don't bother to correct the undercover agents who highjack their turns of talk can find themselves in a heap of trouble. Institutionally sanctioned rules of conversation sometimes permit "speaking on behalf," as when a parents speak on behalf of their children or when translators speak on behalf of non-native speakers. But in most conversations participant alignments are related to the way the participants position themselves relative to each other, as Goffman put it.

A classic example of "speaking on behalf" occurred in the Abscam case of a New Jersey gaming commissioner, Kenneth McDonald. In this case that took place in the early 1980s, an undercover FBI agent had already co-opted a New Jersey mayor in a bribery plot. The mayor then told the agent that he knew how he could bribe a gaming commissioner to get his favorable vote on a new casino project that the mayor and the agent were planning. One evening the mayor invited McDonald to go to dinner with him at a downtown restaurant. McDonald's wife had recently died and he thought  some company might do him some good, so he agreed. On their way the mayor said he had to stop and pick something up at an office and he asked McDonald to come in with him. That "something" the mayor was to pick up turned out to be a briefcase full of cash. The FBI agent, who was unaware that the mayor had neglected to tell McDonald anything about the bribery scheme, tried hard to involve McDonald in the video-taped conversation.

The video shows McDonald standing on the far side of the room, looking out the window and reviewing his appointment book while most of the conversation between the mayor and the agent took place a few yards away at the agent's desk, where McDonald couldn't see the contents of the briefcase. The agent seemed perplexed by McDonald's distancing himself physically if, as the mayor told him, he was actually in on the scheme. So he tried to bring McDonald into the conversation, which had been vague, unspecific, and guarded. Finally, the agent turned directly to McDonald (still on the far side of the room) and the following exchange took place:

Agent:I hope, Ken, that there won't be any problem with you---

Mayor (interrupting and speaking on behalf of McDonald): No, there's no problem.

Agent (finishing his interrupted turn of talk): --- licensing or anything in, uh, Atlantic City as a result of this.

Mayor (answering on behalf ofMcDonald): Okeydokey, in regards to licensing, if I may just bring that point out, just recently I talked to him on the phone, so there's no question about that. You're in first place.

The mayor's indexicals, "him" and "that," apparently were not specific enough to attract McDonald's attention. It should also be noted that McDonald could have interpreted the mayor's "him" to refer to someone else. One might have expected the mayor to use McDonald's name here. When it was time to leave, the agent tried to involve McDonald once more:

Agent:Thank you very much, Ken.

McDonald: Good to see you and I'm sure---

Mayor (interrupting and speaking on behalf of McDonald): I'm sure we'll do alright, huh?

Agent: I don't---

Mayor (interrupting the agent this time): Won't be any problems.

Agent: No problems?

Mayor: No problems.

McDonald: I'm, I have nothing to do with that.

Throughout this conversation, McDonald tried politely to disalign himself from them physically by staying out of their conversation and enduring the mayor's speaking on his behalf. But, even though he denied having anything to do with whatever they were talking about, he was indicted and was facing bribery charges when he suddenly died a few weeks before his trial was to begin.

I like to think that this would have been a winnable case for McDonald. Besides being an example of the "speaking on behalf" conversational strategy, this event suggests that people, including prosecutors, should pay attention to blocking strategies like this one as they evaluate the evidence in cases like this.

Postscript: More information about several other powerful conversational strategies used by undercover agents and cooperating witnesses can be found in my book, Creating Language Crimes, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 08:29 PM

Suicide Clause

In a column in today's Los Angeles Times, George Skelton tries to evenhandedly weigh the arguments for and against the "California Compassionate Choices Act" (AB 374) that was introduced recently in the state assembly. The law permits mentally competent people in the final stages of a terminal illness to obtain a doctor's prescription for lethal drugs that they can administer themselves. The law doesn't actually mention the word suicide. In part, that's because the use of word tends to have a huge effect on people's opinions about this issue. In a 2005 Gallup survey, 75% of respondents agreed that doctors should be allowed by law to "end the lives" of patients suffering from incurable diseases if the patient and his or her family requested it. But when the question was worded as permitting doctors to "assist the patient to commit suicide," only 58% of the respondents agreed.

But as I argued in an op-ed in the LA Times in February, suicide probably isn't the mot juste here anyway. Among other things, the word suggests mental imbalance, fanaticism, or desperation, which doesn't seem to describe the state of terminally ill people who decide to avail themselves of the option.

So I was a little surprised to see Skelton defending the use of "assisted suicide" by appealing to a dictionary definition that seems to restrict suicide to those of sound mind:

Sponsors can call it what they want, but the most descriptive term is what we're talking about: "assisted suicide." My Webster's describes "suicide" as "the act of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally, especially by a person. . . of sound mind." Sounds like AB 374 to me.

That is indeed how Merriam Webster's Eleventh Collegiate puts it. But why?

The relevant definition in the Collegiate reads in full:

the act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Now as a description of actual usage, that "especially" clause is plainly wrong. People have no hesitation about using suicide to describe the acts of people who are deranged, imbalanced, or clinically depressed -- in fact a certain irrationality is more-or-less implicit in the meaning of suicidal. And by the same token, people are often reluctant to speak of suicide when the choice to die seems defensible or at least rational, in the same way we don't use "homicide" to describe soldiers who kill in wartime. (The New York City medical examiner's office didn't list suicide as the cause of death for any of the people who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11; they recorded the deaths as homicides.)

Notably, there's no reference to the mental state of an actor in the definitions of suicide in other dictionaries. The OED gives simply "The or an act of taking one's own life, self-murder." The American Heritage defines the word as "The act or an instance of intentionally killing oneself." And the Eleventh Britannica gives "the act of intentionally destroying one's own life."

So how did that "sound mind" clause make its way into Merriam's definition? It originated in the definition of suicide that appeared in the 1909 Webster's New International:

The act of taking one's own life voluntary and intentionally; self-murder; specifically (Law), the felonious killing of one's self; the deliberate and intentional destruction of one's own life by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Now you can see why courts would want to define suicide in this way if it is to count as a felony (I mean, leaving aside the question of whether suicide ought to count as a crime at all). In the same vein, Black's Law Dictionary (4th ed.) defines the word as:

Self-destruction; the deliberate termination of one's existence, while in the possession and enjoyment of his mental faculties.

It's common enough for courts to give special or narrowed meanings to ordinary English words, which may be further restricted to particular purposes or contexts. In fact Black's goes on to note that:

The term "suicide," as used in insurance policies, has been held to mean death by one's own hand, irrespective of mental condition.

But for some reason, the field label "law" was left out of the definition when it was revised for the 1961 Third International, which defined suicide as:

1a. The act or an instance of taking one's life voluntarily or intentionally : SELF-DESTRUCTION 1b. The deliberate and intentional destruction of his own life by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

Those two sub-definitions were later conflated into the single definition given in the Collegiate, with the result that a clause that was originally intended to apply only to the legal definition of the term was made part of its general meaning.

That sort of thing happens more often than you would expect: in the course of dictionary revision or abridgement, the archaic meanings of terms are carried over from one edition to the next, or specialized definitions are incorporated into the general definition with no indication that they apply only in certain contexts. Another reason -- not that we needed one -- why "the dictionary" doesn't always get things right.

Added 3/11: Joseph Ruby writes to note another reason why people have tried to narrow suicide to those of sound mind:

Christian churches do not permit a suicide a Christian burial. Coroners historically made every effort to find that persons who killed themselves were not of sound mind and therefore were not suicides, so that the families could have the solace of a decent funeral.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 05:19 PM

Ducky identity

When is a duck a dog?  When it's one of the chimeric Dog Rubber Duckies on the Oriental Trading Company site:

(There are also Cat Rubber Duckies in the catalogue, but they're not at the moment available on-line.)

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, who sent me this link, suggests that we see here an extension of the word ducky.  Certainly, the expression rubber duck(y) is even less semantically transparent here than in ordinary usage.

And then there's a spelling issue: ducky or duckie, duckys or duckies?

But first, the identity issue: are these things (simulacra of) dogs, with the shape of ducks, or are they (simulacra of) ducks that look like dogs?  Or both?  The OTC site has it both ways:

Dog Rubber Duckies. No bones about it, these vinyl duckies resemble playful puppies! A thoughtful gift for any dog lover, each adorable hound wears a colorful collar.

OTC's claim -- not that anyone thought these things through -- seems to be that they are duckies that RESEMBLE puppies, and they also ARE (adorable) hounds (in the generic 'dog' sense of hound). 

I'd say that they are dog rubber duckies 'rubber duckies that are dogs', and they are duckies only by virtue of having the overall shape of ducks, not by being (simulacra of) ducks.  This is one step beyond the usual duckies, which are clearly simulacra of ducks, though sometimes in non-duck outfits.

With this in mind, consider the four other types of rubber duckies illustrated on the site:

Unicorn Rubber Duckys
Fairy Tale Rubber Duckys
Ninja Rubber Duckies
Devil Rubber Duckys

(Notice the variation in the spelling of the plural.  I'll get to this later.)

You could argue that these are duckies dressed up as unicorns, fairy tale characters, ninjas, and devils, respectively -- duckies in costumes.  That is, they could be seen as X rubber duckies 'rubber duckies that are Xs', where being X is understood as an accidental rather than essential property; they're things that are, in their essence, duck-simulacra, though they are Xs for the moment, in the same way that my granddaughter was a lion last Halloween.  I just can't take that view of the dog rubber duckies above; they are way too doggy.

To sum up: the expression rubber duck(ie) is, in its ordinary use, not fully transparent semantically: duck(ie) denotes not actual ducks, but merely duck-simulacra.  The expression is then available as the second element in a larger noun-noun compound X rubber duck(ie), where X denotes an accidental identity of the rubber duckie ('a rubber duck(ie) that is an X for the moment').  However, the duck(ie) in rubber duck(ie) can be extended to cover things that are imperfect even as duck-simulacra, in that they merely have the overall shape of a (conventional representation of a) duck.  Then X rubber duck(ie) can denote things that are essentially X-like rather than just accidentally X-like.

In fact, rubber duck(ie) is somewhat opaque semantically in both of its parts.  As the Wikipedia page -- yes, there's a rubber duck Wikipedia page -- says, a rubber duck(ie)

... is made of rubber or rubber-like material such as vinyl plastic.  Almost all modern rubber ducks are made out of vinyl plastic rather than rubber.

And if you go back and look at the OTC's description of its dog rubber duckies, you'll see that they're referred to as "vinyl duckies", duckies made of vinyl.  They are, in fact, vinyl rubber duckies, with rubber duckie treated as a fixed expression that just happens to contain the word rubber, but with vinyl understood literally.  Sort of like plastic glasses.

The Wikipedia page also recognizes variability in the world of rubber duckies:

Rubber ducks can be found in various colors, sizes, shapes, and outfits.

[Caption for an illustration] Some variations on the standard rubber duck.  Clockwise from left: a miniature rubber duck, a purple devil rubber duck, a rubber duck dressed as a reindeer for Christmas, a rubber duck in sunglasses, and a black "dead" rubber duck that floats upside down

[Addendum: Mae Sander points out a hilarious CelebriDucks site, with all sorts of rubber duckies that have the barest resemblance to ducks: "collectible celebrity rubber ducks of the greatest icons of film, music, history, and athletics."]

Finally, the Wikipedia page tackles the spelling question:

The rubber duck can be referred to informally as a rubber duckie or a rubber ducky.  Amongst collectors of rubber ducks, the spelling rubber duckie has achieved prominence, but both spellings are considered acceptable.

(I'm impressed by the serious tone of the rubber duck Wikipedia page in general, but this passage is especially wonderful.)

In some places, you can see what looks like free variation in spelling.  On one site that gives the words and music to the Sesame Street song -- warning: if you go there, the music starts playing right away -- the title is "Rubber Duckie", but the lyrics have "Rubber Ducky" throughout.  (The song was written by Jeff Moss, who was at Princeton with me and went on to be the founding head writer and composer-lyricist on the show, a job he absolutely adored.  Unfortunately, Jeff died in 1998, so I can't go and ask him which spelling he preferred.)

That's not the end of the spelling issue, though.  Recall that the OTC site has both duckies and duckys.  The first of these could be either the plural of duckie, with plural -s, or the plural of ducky, with final -y (following a consonant) pluralized as -ies.  The second has to be the plural of ducky, with suppression of the usual convention for spelling the plural of a noun in -y (following a consonant).  Why would that happen?

Let's look at a place where this convention is (sometimes) suspended: in the plurals of proper names.  There's only one Germany now, but there used to be two of them.  So you're going to write: "There used to be two ___."  What fills in the blank?  There are three answers, all attested:

(1) Germanies
(2) Germanys
(3) Germany's

Answer (1) follows the usual spelling convention.  It is well-formed according to usual spelling conventions for English.

Answers (2) and (3) preserve the name Germany.  They are faithful to the original.  (I'm borrowing the terminology of well-formedness vs. faithfulness from Optimality Theory, of course.  I've discussed some other conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness here before, and hope to eventually post a good deal more on the topic; these conflicts arise all over the place.  Please note that the terms are not themselves value judgments; they merely label two values -- two things that are both good to have -- that are often in conflict with one another.)

Version (2) reverts to the default spelling rule for plurals in English, "add -s", but has the disadvantage that the result doesn't LOOK LIKE a plural, because of the final -ys (following a consonant).  Version (3) is an attempt to set off the plural element visually, with an apostrophe, as in plurals like q's (as the plural of q).  Its disadvantage is that the apostrophe looks like a spurious "greengrocer's apostrophe" (apple's for sale) -- a drawback that makes it by far the least frequent variant.  Versions (1) and (2) occur with roughly equal frequency, in raw Google webhits.

A couple of years ago, this very question arose in the newsgroup sci.lang, where a heated argument sprung up over whether the well-formed (1) or the faithful (2) was the "correct" plural.  Now, conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness are sometimes resolved in favor of well-formedness, sometimes resolved in favor of faithfulness, and sometimes result in variation, between individuals or within individuals.  It appears that there is considerable between-individuals variation on Germanies vs. Germanys, and I suspect that there is also significant within-individuals variation for pluralization of proper names in general, with different treatments for different names (nobody's going to pluralize Mary as Maries, even people who consistently pluralize Germany as Germanies).  I'm lenient about Germanies, but adamant that the plural of my family name is Zwickys, not Zwickies; a plural Zwickys is unambiguously the plural of Zwicky, while a plural Zwickies is ambiguous between that and the plural of Zwickie (which is also an attested family name).

Which brings us back to the rubber duckies (or duckys).  The OTC site seems to be treating rubber ducky as a kind of proper name (for the type Rubber Ducky, I suppose) and then varying between the two treatments of the plural, the well-formed duckies or the faithful duckys; or it's varying between singular duckie and ducky, and consistently using the faithful duckys for the latter.  Either way, faithfulness enters into it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:36 PM

Dan Everett and the Pirahã in the New Yorker

The April 16 edition of The New Yorker, on newstands now, has an excellent article by John Colapinto, "The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?" Here's how it starts:

One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people— short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.

(The article is not available on line, though a slide show is.) There are some further details on Pirahã sung, hummed and whistled speech in a previous Language Log post, "Pirahã channels" (5/21/2006). A set of links to other posts on Pirahã is here.

Dan's most important paper on this general topic is "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language", Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Number 4, August-October 2005.

There's an interesting response by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues,"Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment", ms, March 2007; and Dan has responded to the response: "Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007)".

Colapinto's article goes over the history of Dan's research, the process that led him to his current ideas, and the controversy that has ensued, including the exchange with Nevins et al. Since we often complain here about the poor quality of scientific journalism in general, and stories about language and linguistics in particular, I'm glad to say that this article is extremely well done. Colapinto makes the choice to avoid all details about the facts of Pirahã: a bare handful of Pirahã words and phrases are quoted in the piece, using Dan's orthography, but for none of them is even the simplest sort of morphosyntactic analysis given. Therefore, the discussion of issues like recursion is a fairly abstract one. But Colapinto probably had no real choice on this point, given the grammatical illiteracy of even the most intellectual classes today, and he manages all the same to bring the basic issues out clearly and (I think) fairly, while also telling a good story.

[There's also a segment from Sunday's NPR Weekend Edition here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:16 AM

Wombat words for rock

Global warming should not affect this version of the "cultural preoccupation → many words" meme, brought to us by Ursula Vernon's Digger:

It's the lowest form of hating to refute a comic strip, but I can't resist pointing out that the number of words for types of rock, in English or any other language that has invented or borrowed the vocabulary of modern geology, mineralogy, gemology, soil science, etc., is certainly well over a thousand.

And while I'm over-intellectualizing a joke, I'll take the opportunity to point out that the "cultural preoccupation → many words" meme is generally true, though not everyone agrees that it's interesting; and that the inverse idea "no words → no concepts" is clearly false; and that most people who write about these ideas use them only as rhetorical devices in the service of some other argument, and don't bother to get the linguistic facts anywhere close to correct.

[Hat tip to Amy de Buitleir]

[Update -- under the Subject line "prescriptive nit-picking on top of over-intellectualizing a joke", Paul Kay writes:

Did you notice that the first speech in the comic strip you blog about today is: "The number of words in Wombat for types of rock HAVE never been adequately counted, but IS known to exceed several thousand." I'm not sure I've ever before seen a case where a singular subject (number) containing a plural complement ([of] types of rock) is followed by a conjoined VP, the first conjunct of which sports a plural verb (sure, OK, familiar enough), but the second contains a SINGULAR verb.

No, I missed that. Another casualty of breakfast speed-blogging... ]

[But John Atkinson thinks that the mixed number-agreement in the conjoined verb phrases is OK:

But note that it does make logical sense. It's the _words_ (plural) that have never been counted (you can't count a number!), while it's the _number_ (singular) that exceeds several thousand. No doubt that's why you (and I) didn't notice the apparent discrepency when we first read it.

I'm pretty sure that if I wrote that sentence I'd do the same thing. Though if I stopped to think about it, I'd realise that there was something wrong with it, and eventually decide that the only way to fix it was to reword it -- perhaps by changing "adequately counted" to "precisely determined" (and then using "has").

I don't know . If you simplify the sentence so as to put first verb closer to the subject -- say, "The number of wombat rock words have never been counted" -- I have a problem with the first conjunct all by itself. It seems to be an example of "agreement with nearest". Adding the second conjunct -- "The number of wombat rock words have never been counted, but is greater than 1,000" -- makes it worse, not better. But in this area, it's clear that your milage may vary. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:10 AM

April 08, 2007

Help me, I'm trapped in an Iranian news agency

Was it an April Fool's joke? A simple translator's mistake? A subtle attempt at sabotage? A call for help? I'm baffled, frankly, but under the headline "Iranian Jews ready to defend national interests", the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) ran a story about the Association of Iranian Jews' renewal of "its commitment to defend the national interests of Iranians" at the time of "the remarkable coincidence of the Passover festival with the advent of the Iranian new year". So far so good, but the reported statement opens with a prepositional phrase whose logical connection to the rest of the statement is beyond bizarre:

"In obedience to the instructions of Jesus, in the new Iranian year, which has been declared year of national unity and Islamic solidarity, Iranian Jews voice their readiness to defend all national interests of Iranians and to observe the guidelines set by Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei) for the sake of strengthening national unity and solidarity in the fight against present-day pharaohs," the message said.

[Hat tip to A. Lipsitz]

[On reflection, I suppose that the "instructions of Jesus" in question might be those in Matthew 5:

[39] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
[40] And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
[41] And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
[42] Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
[43] Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
[44] But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
[45] That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Do you think?]

[Update -- Lameen Souag writes in with the information that it's probably a translator's mistake:

About "Help me, I'm trapped in an Iranian news agency': the Arabic version of the same press release,
http://www2.irna.com/ar/news/view/line-26/0704013097175636.htm , has "Moses" instead of Jesus:

و ورد في هذا البيان بان اليهود في ايران عبر اتباعهم لارشادات النبي
موسي "ع" يوكدون استعدادهم في الدفاع عن كافه المصالح الوطنيه الايرانيه
في "عام الوحده الوطنيه"...

And it was mentioned in this statement that the Jews of Iran, through their following of the guidances of the Prophet Moses (PBUH), express their readiness to defend all Iranian national interests in the "Year of National Unity"...

Unfortunately, the archives don't allow full search in Persian yet, so I have no idea what the original said.


[Lameen added an afterthought:

It occurs to me that the mistake might actually be visual. موسى (Moses) and عيسى (Jesus), in Persian or Arabic, end with the same two letters and start with similar-looking letters. A careless or hurried translator (or one working from a handwritten copy) might simply misread the word.

That makes more sense than anything else I've come up with. It suggests that the translator is culturally uninformed in a way that seems unexpected for someone who knows both Persian and English. But that's less unexpected than someone in the same position sending an April Fool's prank or a subversive joke out on the IRNA wire.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:57 PM

Low Erdős-number linguists

Sally has been musing on how many linguists have low Erdős numbers. There are somewhat more than one might think, because there is a certain amount of crossover in fields like mathematical linguistics, computational linguistics, logic, and so on. Mark Liberman is actually a 3 because of a piece of work he did on a mathematical topic, and thus I am under one construal a (tenuous) 4 like Sally, and the fairly large number of people in my circle of immediate collaborators therefore have Erdős numbers no higher than 5. The details follow.

By convention, Paul Erdős is regarded as having the Erdős number 0. All of his many collaborators on publications have 1 as their Erdős number, and that is irreducible, since they can never become Erdős. Their collaborators have an Erdős number of 2, and that is irreducible: they can never co-author with Erdős, because he is now dead, so 2 is the lowest they will ever have. Persons with the Erdős number 3, however, could in principle lower their number: they have 3 in virtue of having collaborated with someone whose number is 2, but if in the future they co-write a paper with someone whose number is 1, they can acquire the number 2. That is why my friend Phokion Kolaitis likes to point out that he has the lowest Erdős number that is capable of being further reduced (he is a 3).

Now, I am not aware of any linguist with a lower Erdős number than 3, and Mark does have that distinction. Back in the 1980s when he worked at Bell Laboratories, Mark once co-authored a paper with the mathematician J. B. Kruskal (J. B. Kruskal and M. Y. Liberman, 1983: "The symmetric time-warping problem: From continuous to discrete", in D. Sanko and J.B. Kruskal (eds.), Time Warps, String Edits and Macromolecules, Addison-Wesley). Kruskal had previously published a paper with A. J. Hoffman (A. J. Hoffman and J. B. Kruskal, 1956: "Integral boundary points of convex polyhedra", Annals of Mathematics Study 38:223-241); and long after that Hoffman became a co-author of a paper with Erdős (P. Erdős, S. Fajtlowicz and A. J. Hoffman, 1980: "Maximum degree in graphs of diameter 2", Networks 10:87-96). So Hoffman is a 1, which makes Kruskal a 2, and thus Liberman is a 3.

A consequence of this is that because Mark and I published a joint collection of some of our early Language Log posts entitled Far From the Madding Gerund, I am now a 4 like Sally, and the fairly large number of people in my circle of immediate collaborators therefore have an Erdős number no higher than 5. Also like Sally, I would regard my 4 as only a rather tenuous 4, because I don't really equate my name on a collection of blog posts that Mark and I wrote almost entirely separately as comparable to a real collaboration on a piece of scientific research. I am actually a 5 via a different route that involves collaboration on scholarly papers all the way up. The chain goes via Paul Postal, David E. Johnson, Larry Moss, and Jon Barwise to an Erdős collaborator.

But hey, I have my whole future ahead of me (which is where I like to keep it). My Erdős number could one day reduce. So, almost certainly, could yours, if you have one. Get collaborating. Collaboration is good for you. It teaches cooperation, tolerance, a critical attitude, and patience. (Dear God, I pray you will grant me a larger share of your precious blessing of patience with my fellow human beings. And if it's all right, I'd like it right now.)

Update: Jordan Boyd-Graber of Princeton claims to be an aspiring computational linguist (and that counts as a linguist under the usual big-tent view we maintain here), and he reports an Erdős number of 2, in virtue of a publication ("Participatory design: Participatory design with proxies: developing a desktop-PDA system to support people with aphasia", by Jordan L. Boyd-Graber, Sonya S. Nikolova, Karyn A. Moffatt, Kenrick C. Kin, Joshua Y. Lee, Lester W. Mackey, Marilyn M. Tremaine, and Maria M. Klawe, April 2006, Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems (CHI '06), ACM Press) with Maria Klawe, whose Erdős number is 1 in virtue of a 1978 publication with Erdős and Frank Harary. Jordan has co-authored with computational linguists Christiane Fellbaum and Alexander Geyken, so their Erdős numbers are not greater than 3.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 07:40 PM

What's Your Erdős Number?

Musing on a Sunday morning when I don't feel quite ready to buckle down to work yet:

If we relax the requirement that you get to have an Erdős number only if you've published a mathematical paper, I bet there are quite a few linguists out there with impressively low Erdős numbers. My own is low, but it's not impressive, because it's mainly the result of pure dumb luck -- I have it because I married a logician with a low Erdős number, and our interests overlap enough that we once did a bit of joint research. Rich's Erdős number is 3, through two short chains of co-authors (one via Dana Scott and Alfred Tarski, the other via Nuel Belnap and an Erdős co-author whose name I forget at the moment); so mine is 4. A tenuous 4, admittedly, because although we presented our research at a conference (which counts as publication under some definitions of "publication", though it wouldn't appear on a CV under Publications), we never got around to publishing it formally, in print. So what other linguists have low Erdős numbers, tenuous or otherwise?

A low Erdős number ought to be a great pick-up line in a bar full of mathematicians, given appropriate age and circumstances. Might not work so well in a bar full of linguists.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 08:53 AM

My flight was delayed because of cussing?

According to Reuters ("U.S. flight cancelled after pilot's foul language", 4/8/2007):

Northwest Airlines cancelled a flight set to leave from Las Vegas to Detroit after the captain cursed on a cell phone in a bathroom, then swore at one of the 180 passengers on the plane, officials said on Saturday.

I was visiting Michigan to give a couple of talks at MSU, and my Northwest flight from Detroit to Philly on Friday left almost two hours late. I think the explanation had something to do with a "federally mandated" crew something-or-another. Or maybe that was one of the delays on the way out.

Anyhow, I'm used to delays due to bad weather. But delays due to bad language are a whole new concept.

Since I'm a positive-thinking kind of person, and since the main reason for my trip to Michigan was to repeat a talk I gave on "The Future of Linguistics" at the January LSA meeting, I'm naturally looking for the disciplinary upside of this development. Perhaps the NOAA's National Weather Service will see the need to establish a branch for forecasting sociolinguistic disturbances, in keeping with their broader mission to "[save] lives by providing immediate alerts of severe weather warnings and civil emergency messages and giving critical lead time to respond and remain safe":

[I don't have any evidence that the delay in my Detroit-Philly flight had anything to do with the cussing pilot on the Las Vegas-Detroit flight. The odds are that my delay was just one of the many ordinary non-cussing-pilot delays to be expected these days. But still...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:32 AM

National Academy of Sciences report on "International Education and Foreign Languages"

This report was produced in response to a congressional mandate to review the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs. I'll have more to say about it later. For now, if you want to look the report over for yourself, they charge $36 to download the .pdf, but you can read the it online(a page at a time) for free here. And there's a webcast discussion here.

There's a significant political aspect, discussed from various perspectives here, here and here.

I'm more interested in the language-teaching aspects. For some background on how similar problems were addressed in a very different time, see these recent LL posts: "A tale of two societies" (3/1/2007), "Linguistics in 1940" (3/11/2007), "The Intensive Language Program" (3/20/2007), 'The Chinese Episode" (3/21/2007), "The Burmese Story" (3/22/2007).

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:27 AM

Hed, dek, lede, graf, tk: live with it

What do you call an apology for future behavior? Whatever the expression is, this post is an example. But it's also an educational experience, I hope, for those of you who don't know the meta-journalistic terms of art in the title.

I've never worked as a journalist, but in the unremembered mysterious way that we learn most words, I somehow learned these terms and their idiosyncratic spellings. "Hed" is head, as in headline. "Dek" is deck, which is a sort of sub-headline, a phrase or two between the headline and the body of the article that explains what the story is about. "Lede" is lead, as in leading paragraph, the way a piece starts. "Graf" is graph, as in paragraph, often used in combinations like nut graf, which comes just after the lede, and summarizes the story's content. "Tk" should be "tc", I guess, because it's short for "to come", i.e. not yet written.

That's what I think these terms mean, at least -- they aren't in most dictionaries under the non-standard spellings. In some cases (e.g. deck), dictionaries are missing the journalistic sense under any spelling at all. For example, I can't find the journalistic meaning of deck in the OED [but see below...], the AHD, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, or Encarta. Until I just checked, though, I didn't know about this lack of representation in dictionaries, because I never had any reason to check on this sense of deck/dek, any more than I normally look up any other word that I think I know and expect that others will know as well.

The legend is that the strange spellings of these words were developed in order to help distinguish meta-journalistic comments in copy (e.g. "dek tk") from the stuff that's meant to be printed. I have no idea whether that's true. But several of these terms are useful, however spelled. In particular, dek/deck and lede/lead don't really have any good alternatives; and graf and hed are conveniently reduced forms of paragraph and headline; and tk is a lot more succinct than "to be supplied at some point in the future", or whatever.

But there's a problem. Or rather, there are two problems, one old and one new.

Whenever I've used one of these terms in a Language Log post, using the idiosyncratic spelling, I've gotten email politely pointing out the spelling error, or asking me less politely what the heck I think I'm talking about. That's the old problem. It hasn't come up very much recently, because I've learned from experience and generally stopped using terms like hed, dek, lede, graf and tk, even in meta-journalistic commentary where these terms would be culturally appropriate.

But in my April 6 post "All X and no Y", I slipped up. The lede was:

"All mouth and no trousers" was the headline on a story in the 3/31-4/6 edition of the Economist. This is apparently a UK expression that I've somehow managed to miss. The deck ("Are foreign firms as keen on Asia as they claim to be?") and the rest of the story make it clear that the meaning is same as "all hat and no cattle", "all sizzle and no steak", "all bark and no bite", etc.

So I used "headline" in place of "hed", and no one complained about that. I considered using "sub-headline" or "sub-head", but after a brief struggle with my conscience, I decided to refer to the dek as "the deck", spelled in the normal rather than the journalistic way.

Well, no one has written in (yet) to complain that about the lack of ships, playing cards or outdoor furniture in the neighborhood of that deck. But Jim Lewis politely corrected my spelling. In the journalistic sense, he explained, it should be "dek".

OK, everybody, fair warning. No more pangs of conscience. From now on, as the fancy strikes me, I'm going to use hed, dek, lede, graf, tk and similar bits of journalistic jargon, spelled as seems appropriate to the occasion. Letters of complaint will be answered with a link to this post, my apology (or self-justification) in advance.

[OK, that's what I get for trying to whip out three posts over breakfast -- Jim Lewis writes:

Allow me, with all due respect and politesse, and at the risk of nitpickery, to adjust your course again. You wrote: "I can't find the journalistic meaning of deck in the OED". I use Version 1.10 of the electronic edition of the OED2, which lists, under 'Deck n1':

6. a. A pile of things laid flat upon each other.

1625 F. Markham Bk. Hon. ii. vi. §5 Any whose Pedigree lyes so deepe in the decke, that few or none will labour to find it.
1631 Celestina xix. 185 Subtill words, whereof such as shee are never to seeke, but have them still ready in the deck.
1634 Sanderson Serm. II. 287 So long as these things should hang upon the file, or lie in the deck, he might perhaps be safe.
1673 Marvell Reh. Transp. II. 394 A certain Declaration..which you have kept in deck until this season.

b. Part of a newspaper, periodical, etc., headline containing more than one line of type, esp. the part printed beneath the main headline. Also attrib.

1935 H. Straumann Newspaper Headlines i. 28 These are first decks (and streamers) only.
Ibid. iii. 87 The first three lines or 'decks' as they would be called in present-day journalism.
1965 L. H. Whitten Progeny of Adder (1966) 127 The eight-column headline told him of Pantelein's body being found. But it was the 'deck' headline that held him: county coroner cites 'vampirism'.

No entry for 'dek', though.

It's a cold and gloomy day out here in West Texas. Good day for dictionary-skimming.

It's a bit chill and gloomy here in Philly as well, but I spent the morning at the King Tut exhibit with a couple of 11-year-olds and assorted parents. No deks in sight, though there was a spectacular figurine of Ptah, whom the wikipedia describes as "the deification of the primordial mound", and whose staff is topped by a stack of hieroglyphs.]

[On the other hand, Jan Freeman (who ought to know) writes:

I have to disagree with Jim Lewis on dek vs. deck, and with you on adopting abbreviations.

At the Globe, where I was an editor for 20 years, we didn't actually use "dek" but "subhed" or sometimes "drophed/drop." So "dek" looks as funny to me as it would to any nonjournalist. (This is often a problem with workplace slang; local usage can differ dramatically.)

But even if I knew "dek," I would not use it in my own writing: There I say headline (or head, sometimes), subhead, capital letters or uppercase (not "all caps" or "up"), lowercase (not "down"), italics (not itals/italix), paragraph. I don't see why the journalistic spellings would be more appropriate just because the source is journalism; almost every subject has its in-group vocabulary, but reporters and commentators are supposed to paraphrase or translate it, not adopt it.

But while we're having this discussion, let's not forget the mysterious CQ. Some say it means "copy as quoted" -- an implausible locution, to my ear -- and it means "I have checked the spelling of this name/word and vouch for its accuracy." (Of course, an editor soon learns that some writers' CQs, like other sorts of promises, are not to be trusted.) I checked this a few years ago but the evidence was inconclusive:

(From "The Word," March 4, 2001)

The search for the meaning of cq - that mysterious abbreviation that means, to copy editors, "this is correct" - may not be over, but readers have come up with some good leads. "My first copy chief taught me the origin of this initialism," writes Jon Skillings, an editor at CNET.com. "Cq stands for cadit quaestio, Latin for 'the question drops' - or, more loosely, don't even think about bothering me with a question about the way this word is spelled."

Lorna Garey, an editor at Network Computing, also learned cadit quaestio in her early days of copy editing. Though the term has to be bent rather sharply to make it mean "this is correct," it does appear often in legal and philosophical texts, meaning "there's no more argument," more or less.

And cq is indeed an abbreviation for cadit quaestio (among other things). But I haven't found proof that this cq is the same as the editors' cq, so if you're partial to a different theory, there's still hope for your candidate.

I'm open to cadit quaestio, but I also liked the suggestion, put forth by Christopher Kenneally and Barbara McLean, that cq could be a phonetic version of sic - which means exactly the same thing. (Why not use sic? Because it's meant to be printed, to show that the writer knows he's reproducing a mistake. Editors need a code word obviously not meant for publication, like the TK abbreviation for "to come"). (End of Word quote.)

Best CQ story, from a former Globe copy editor: The green writer who, it was revealed some months into her career, thought that CQ was an instruction to the copy desk meaning "Please check"!

I wouldn't be surprised if some LL reader knew more about CQ than I could find out six years ago; perhaps you could pose the question, if it interests you.



Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:26 AM

April 07, 2007

BCCI in the news again

Every once in a while a law case I worked on years earlier reappears in the news. This time it's about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (here) and (here). The current news article suggests that in the old days the CIA used the bank to run guns to Saddam Hussein, to finance Osama bin Laden, to move money in the Iran-Contra operation, and to carry out other black ops. I am not competent to comment on these suggestions, but just seeing BCCI in the news again brought back some old memories.

Back in 1988 BCCI was clearly in trouble and by 1991 New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau indicted the bank, charging it with money laudering and a number of other crimes. Linguists love to have lots of data to work with so, when BCCI's Washington DC based attorneys, Lawrence Barcella and Lawrence Wechsler, called me to help analyze over a thousand tape recorded conversations gathered by the government against their client, BCCI, I took a deep breath and eagerly dived in.

The recorded conversations were of many BCCI banking officials from many different countries and with different degrees of competence in speaking English. As is common with undercover tapes, many were badly recorded and hard to hear. This meant that I had to listen to them over and over again but even then I found many parts that were inaudible. Today, I can't recall the exact number of hours I spent trying to figure out what was being said, but it was a lot.

The lawyers and I decided to meet twice a month about whatever I found on the tapes during that period. The government had provided its own version of transcripts of the tapes but, as usual, when I checked the transcripts with the tapes, I found many, many errors in them. Unfortunately for the defense, the clear parts of the tapes seemed to make any viable defense of the bankers difficult, if not impossible. In our first meeting after I began my work, I could show them my corrections to the transcripts but there was nothing that was helpful to Barcella and Wechsler.

After about ten weeks of analyzing these conversations, I was still only about a third of the way through the mass of data and I continued to find little that might be supportive to the bank. The lawyers were getting worried, of course. Finally, my advice was for the bank to take the best plea bargain it could get. Somewhat reluctantly, Barcella and Wechsler took my suggestion and negotiated a plea for BCCI that eventually caused the bank to  forfeit twelve million dollars. This seemed like a very stiff penalty at the time but months later, when the individual bankers went on trial and were convicted, the twelve million dollars seemed like a pretty good deal for the bank.

Postscript: For those who may wonder how a linguist can stand to work with a dirty client like BCCI, I  have this to say. Linguists working in the legal arena are not advocates. That's the job of attorneys. All linguists do is analyze the evidence data objectively and honestly. They should be able to come up with the same analysis if they were working for the prosecution. If the result turns out to be helpful to the defendants, so be it. If it shows how guilty they really are, defense lawyers are often grateful, because knowing this helps them plan their defense strategy -- if they can think of one.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:29 PM

Vitally worst: "Chinese" sounds like "to tear you to die"

[This is a guest post by Victor Mair about English transcribed in Chinese characters.]

Tuesday's Washington Post, page A3 has a barely comprehensible bilingual ad in Chinese and English, appearing over the name of Mr. Yen Pei Ai of Fuvillage Industry Co., Ltd. The English-language segment begins like this:

(An image of the entire ad can be found here.)

I do not intend to enter into a discussion of the cultural assertiveness that pervades the ad (e.g., “the Chinese people stand out among all”). Nor do I wish to correct the historical, phonological, and other errors perpetuated in the ad (e.g., “the original sound of the words spoken from our ancestors for thousands of years to the foreigners”). I simply want to point out that Mr. Yen’s basic modus operandi in this ad is premised upon a linguistic fallacy. Namely, he takes literally the meanings of Chinese characters that are used for the purpose of transcription.

It seems that Mr. Yen, who sponsored the ad, wants us to say “Zhong Guo” (i.e., “Zhongguo” [“Central Kingdom”]) in English because "Vitally worst, 'China' sounds like 'To tear-na' in Mandarin," and "'China's' sounds like 'To tear-na to die,' " and so forth. You can find a host of similar proposals from Mr. Yen at these websites:

http://www.seasunshine.com/ and http://www.longtime.us/.

One of his favorites is “Long Time”®, which he is so fond of that he has marked it with an “R” inside of a circle, just as I have here. He translates “Long Time”® into Mandarin as LONG2 DE SHI2DAI4 (“Time of the Dragon” or “Dragon Time”), and that also rates an ®. Supposedly, he has legally registered these expressions and no one else may use them without his permission. (I wonder about that, though.)

This is all really pathetic. Let us take Mr. Yen’s explanation of his transcription of the word “China”: CHAI1 (= "Chi-") means "tear" in Mandarin. If Mr. Yen wanted to be really clever, he could have added that NA4 (= "-na[-]) means "that" in Mandarin. As for his "to die" component, it's because SI3 ("-'s"), to him, means "to die" in Mandarin.

My wife’s maternal great-uncle used to record English expressions in Chinese characters. One that I remember vividly is GOU3TOU2 MAO1LING2 (“dog’s-head cat’s-bell”) for “good morning.” (He meant to say NING2 for the last syllable, but apparently his variety of Shandong speech does not distinguish between N and L [this is quite common in Sinitic topolects].)

One of my most prized possessions is a little handbook of some 240 pages that was published in Xi’an, Shaanxi in 1993. The contents of the book are made up of commonly used expressions and sentences written, first, in Chinese characters. The next line is an English translation of the Mandarin expression or sentence. The third line is a transcription in Chinese characters of the English translation. As an example, please look at the bottom sentence on page 64: “Would you please speak slowlier [sic] (faster)?”. I will now render the Chinese transcription in pinyin and, in the manner of Mr. Yen, translate the individual characters into English (I give only one English meaning per character, whereas most of them are highly polysemous):


WU1		crow
DE 		possessive signifier

YOU2 	oil

PU3		universal
LI4		advantage
SI1		this

SI1		this
PI1		comment
KE4		overcome

SI1		this
LOU2		storied building
LEI2		heap
ER2		child

FA1		emit
SI1		this
TE4		special
ER2		child

It is obvious that one should not attempt to make sense of the haphazard concatenation of meanings of the characters used to transcribe the English sentence. I should also note that Mr. Yen is being perverse when he chooses SI3 (“die”) to render the “–‘s” of “China’s,” since there are scores of other characters pronounced SI in one or another tone. And, as a matter of fact, SI1 (“this”) functions informally as a widespread transcriptional form of English “s.” It certainly has the advantage of being semantically more neutral (or innocuous) than SI3 (“die”). Similarly, Mr. Yen is being froward when he insists on rendering the “Chi-“ of as CHAI1 (“tear”). He could have chosen other characters pronounced CHAI (in one or another of the four tones) that mean “hairpin,” “errand,” “fellows,” “firewood,” “jackal,” “the root of Dahurian angelica,” “ground beans or maize,” “a kind of scorpion,” “recover (from an illness),” and so on and so forth. In any event, when one transcribes English with Chinese characters, one shouldn’t be thinking overly much about their meanings, since it is the sounds that one wants to get across.

As for why we shouldn’t feel bad about calling China “China,” the name in all likelihood derives from Qin (pronounced roughly as “chin”), the first dynasty (221-206 BC) to unify the East Asian Heartland as a bureaucratic state. In contrast, no political entity in East Asia was ever referred to as ZHONGGUO until modern (post-imperial) times.

Incidentally, most speakers of Sinitic languages – under the influence of the two characters used to write the name – automatically think of Taiwan as meaning “Terrace Bay.” In actuality, “Taiwan” is but the distorted pronunciation of the name of one of the aboriginal tribes encountered by mainlanders who started visiting there sometime around the middle of the last millennium.

Anyway, before Mr. Yen goes on in this fashion much longer, he ought to be asked to deconstruct the tens of thousands of Mandarin names for foreign persons, places, and things that are nonsensical or offensive when translated into English.

N.B.: I wish to thank Dan Milton for calling my attention to the WaPo ad.

[Guest post by Victor Mair.]

[Note by myl: I see that the inverse of Mr. Yen's thinking, namely concern about the associations evoked by the Chinese characters used to transliterate foreign (brand) names, is common. The novelty here is a sort of virtualized version of this idea -- worrying about what might happen if ordinary English words (like Chinese) were transliterated back into Putonghua, with the most perverse possible choice of characters to implement the transliteration.]

[Randy Alexander wrote from Changchun in China to suggest that if negative cross-language sound associations must be avoided, some very basic parts of the Chinese vocabulary might need replacement:

For example:

Yes = shi4 (sounds like "shit")
No = bu2 shi4 (sounds like "bullshit")

I had never thought about those words like that until I was on a tour bus (in China in 1993) with some non-Chinese doctors, and one of them said to me that she thought her ten-year-old son should study Chinese. I told her I thought it was a great idea, having started studying it myself. She asked me how to say "yes" and "no", and then quickly changed her mind.

For other concerns of this kind, see " Interlingual taboos", 3/12/2007.]

[RP, who is a patent lawyer, wrote:

I am so glad someone wrote about that ad. I found it fascinating and was wondering if LL would address it and the odd linguistic claims. I know just enough Chinese to have seen that it was pretty bogus, but I was glad to see a more nuanced explanation of how bogus.

I notice that Prof.. Mair questions the trademark status of LONG TIME (as did I when reading the ad). It turns out that Fuvilliage Industry of Taiwan does indeed have a registration for LONG TIME in conjunction with the characters long de shi dai. The registration is for clocks, watches, etc. and also for clothing. Unfortunately, links to the USPTO trademark database don't work due to the nature of the search interface, so I can't point you to it directly. If you would like to confirm, the search facility is fairly easy to use (www.uspto.gov; select "Trademarks", then "Search Trademarks" and I think the searching will be intuitive from there). Fuvilliage also has SEA SUNSHINE for eyeglass lenses by the way.

Further on the subject of the Washington Post, we corresponded before on the page three Wordplay letters. I think I mentioned at the time that the Post also had an outlet for grammar hammers in the Free For All section every Saturday. You might have already seen this week's complaints on page three that included this funny letter (excerpted) "Finally, please, please, please keep those annoying English language psychopaths confined in their cage on the Free For All page of the Saturday edition. They'll ruin Page Three. Keep it warm and fuzzy all the way. Goodness knows -- especially here in D.C. -- we need all we can get."


Posted by Mark Liberman at 12:40 PM

News at 11

Who can resist making a joke about the effect of global warming on Eskimo snow vocabulary? Not Ted Rall, and not the Onion:

(The "Still ahead this hour" promo is flashed briefly at the end of the linked segment, if you want to see it in context.)

[Hat tip to Steve Wiley]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:09 AM

April 06, 2007

The battle of the artificial sweeteners

I'm not involved in the current artificial sweetener battle between Equal and Splenda, so I guess I can say what I want about it. Equal claims that Splenda is misleading the public with its tag line, "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." The issue seems to hinge on "made from" here. Equal says this is a big fib and that Splenda, made of sucralose, approved by the FDA in 1998, is not as natural as it claims.

The judge overseeing the case wrote an opinion that says "made from sugar" excludes the interpretation that Splenda is sugar or that it is made with sugar. The ingredients listed on the Splenda package do not include sugar.  So Equal wonders how a consumer would interpret Splenda's  tag line, "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar" if there is no sugar in it.

There are at least two skirmishes going on here. One is the matter of "tastes like," which I gleefully leave to the chemists who are likely to be called as expert witnesses by both sides. About this, for example, Bryn Mawr chemist Michelle Francl says:

Sucralose is made by chlorinating sugar, that is replacing 3 of the 8 hydroxyl (OH) groups with chlorine atoms ... Such a substitution can utterly change the properties of the molecule, including the taste. For example, replacing the OH group on ethanol (the alcohol we drink) produces an effective refrigerant (it's used as a local anesthetic, in fact), but not a good drink! An even smaller change, the inverting of two groups on the molecule that makes up spearmint oil, changes it into caraway oil (and you would never say that mint tea tastes like rye bread). Bottom line, there is no reason that any given derivative sugar will taste anything like sugar!

Of more interest at Language Log Plaza is the expression, "made from sugar." We first need to know that Splenda manufactures sucralose in its laboratories. Splenda says that the process starts with sugar, then adds three chlorine atoms found in foods like salt and lettuce to a molecule of sucrose. Voila! The sucrose disappears and they get something different -- sucralose. Splenda then mixes it with bulking agents to get the product we find on the grocery store shelves. So it starts out being sugar and ends up being  something else and, for the record, my wife maintains that it tastes like sugar. I wouldn't know. My taste buds are not strong.

So it starts as sugar and ends up being transformed into something else. Does this justify Splenda saying it is "made from" sugar? In the hope that current usage might help, I checked Google and  got the following results:

"made from" 1,770,000,000

"made of" 1,770,000,000 (oddly enough, the same number of hits as "made from")

"made with" 1,670,000,000

"made out of" 1,350,000,000

"made from sugar" 35,500,000

I couldn't check out all of these but my quick survey showed me that the hits are what they suggest. Sounds like divided usage, doesn't it? So let's see what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has to say about "from." "From" can operate as a location prepostion, as in "Kim walked from the post-office to the supermarket," indicating a change in location from the initial place to the new one, called "source" and "goal." From" marks the source and "to" marks the goal (p. 648). But "from" can also indicate duration in time, as in "it lasted from Sunday to Friday."  And, more relevant to this case perhaps, "from" can also indicate a change of state, as in "it went from bad to worse"(p. 656).

Apparently Splenda's tag line uses "from" to indicate a change of state. What was once in the state of being sugar is now in the state of being sucralose. Whether or not this will be convincing to the court is another matter. But it's hard to imagine how Splenda could have said this better without describing the chemical changes involved in the process. And that wouldn't make a very catchy tag line, would it?

Update: John Cowan writes that he believes the tag line is deceptive because of its use of "so," which indicates that the reason Splenda tastes like sugar is because it is made from sugar, which technically at least, it isn't.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 08:49 PM

All X and no Y

"All mouth and no trousers" was the headline on a story in the 3/31-4/6 edition of the Economist. This is apparently a UK expression that I've somehow managed to miss. The deck ("Are foreign firms as keen on Asia as they claim to be?") and the rest of the story make it clear that the meaning is same as "all hat and no cattle", "all sizzle and no steak", "all bark and no bite", etc.

But the mouth v. trousers variant is puzzling. The X in "all X and no Y" (hat, sizzle, bark) represents pretense, and "mouth" is fine for that. But the Y (cattle, steak, bite) stands for the corresponding reality -- and what's so real about trousers, especially in correspondence with mouth? None of the obvious answers belongs in an Economist headline.

A bit of web search demonstrates that the expression is a fairly common one, with variants like "all talk and no trousers", "all hype and no trousers", "all puff and no pants", etc., but doesn't explain where it comes from.

There's some evidence on the web that others are puzzled about this as well -- one reviewer on amazon.com says that the (rock band) Crimea is "posturing, all trousers and no action". So apparently there's a stage of substance even beyond stereotypically male garments.

[Kate Joester writes:

Yes, I think this is an occasion where the obvious answer is the one to go for - i.e., talks about his sexual prowess, but the action never happens in his trousers. Or out of them, presumably. It's really a very common British expression, to the extent that it doesn't carry the metaphor with it - I've heard it used in very respectable environments. More so than the Economist, anyway.

What? There are more respectable environments than the Economist?

Slavomír Čéplö writes:

In response to your post entitled "All X and no Y" on Language Log concerning the phrase above, I would like to direct your attentiont to this blog: http://mouthandtrousers.blogspot.com

and especially its "mission statement": http://mouthandtrousers.blogspot.com/2006/10/mission-statement.html

The phrase was also discussed in this post on languagehat: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001381.php.

The mission statement in question quotes a rational explanation by Michael Quinion:

This strange expression ["all mouth and trousers"] comes from the north of England and is used, mainly by women in my experience, as a sharp-tongued and effective putdown of a certain kind of pushy, over-confident male. Proverbial expressions like this are notoriously hard to pin down: we have no idea exactly where it comes from nor when it first appeared, although it is recorded from the latter part of the 19th century onwards. However, we're fairly sure that it is a pairing of "mouth", meaning insolence or cheekiness, with "trousers", a pushy sexual bravado. It's a wonderful example of metonymy ("a container for the thing contained").

The phrase seems to have become known, and surprisingly popular, among southern English writers in the last decades of the 20th century, perhaps as a result of the airing of a series of television comedies based in the North, such as the BBC's Last of the Summer Wine. What is interesting about the saying from a folk etymological point of view is that its opaqueness has led its modern users to reinterpret it as "all mouth and no trousers".

Aha! Wow! etc. We should return the favor and re-metonymize some of the "all X and no Y" expressions to remove the negative: "He's all hat and cattle. She's all bark and bite." It works even better, I think.

And David Denison points out that I was wrong to look this up in the OED under "trousers", I should have tried "mouth":

Yes, it's quite a common phrase over here. Did you see this in OED, s.v. mouth n.20m?

m. colloq. to be all mouth (also to be all mouth and (no) trousers [cf. (all) gas and gaiters s.v. GAS n.1 5b]): to engage (habitually) in empty or boastful talk, to bluster. mouth and trousers: an instance of such talk or behaviour.

1955 A. SIMPSON & R. GALTON Television Set (1987) 47 Smarmy he is. Look at him. All teeth and trousers.
a1961 Time in Webster's 3rd New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. (1961) s.v., He is not all mouth..he gets results.
1966 T. FRISBY There's Girl in my Soup I. 15, I can't stand her. All mouth and trousers.
1986 T. BARLING Smoke ix. 174 `You'll cough,´ said Quill. `You've got more chance of growing a second navel,´ Vinnie hissed. `Mouth and trousers,´ Quill said and made fists.
1986 City Limits 12 June 10 You're mouth man. All mouth.
1987 Sunday Times 23 Aug. 7/1 Nor does it have a lot to say, unlike the lady herself, who as every film critic knows, is all mouth and no trousers.
1999 S. PERERA Haven't stopped dancing Yet xii. 161 Martin thinks he's got investors in Bahrain who're gagging for property, but Luxy's all mouth.

As you say, the all mouth bit is clear enough. Could the no trousers be a humorous glance at the emperor's new clothes? [But he wrote back with another opinion: My wife had a different take on the phrase. For her the obvious association was with " ... wears the trousers" (as in, "She's the one who wears the trousers in that house"). You can find some loose semantic associations from that too: no trousers => no power => can't deliver.]

By the way, I greatly enjoyed your April Fool spoof on GADHD, especially the authors' names, which I missed on first reading.

And Marilyn Martin points out that "all mouth and (no) trousers" belongs in the exclusive club of expressions that mean the same thing with and without negation: "still (un)packed", "could(n't) care less", "that'll teach you (not) to tease the alligators", etc. ]

[Cameron Majidi writes:

There's an unusual expression like that in one of Wodehouse's early stories. The book in question is Mike, which is set, like most of the early Wodehouse stories, in a public school.

The following exchange occurs between two students:

"If you must tell anybody, tell the Gazeka. He's head of Wain's, and
has got far more chance of keeping an eye on Jackson than Bob has."

"The Gazeka is a fool."

"All front teeth and side. Still, he's on the spot. But what's the
good of worrying. It's nothing to do with us, anyhow. Let's stagger
out, shall we?"

"All front teeth and side" is a nice humourous variant of the formula. "Side" in the sense of swagger or arrogance is now obsolete, of course, but I think we can trust Wodehouse as to whether it would have been known to an English public school boy in the late 19th or very early 20th century.

And I love that the one kid has the nickname "The Gazeka". A little light googling soon turns up the reference . . .

The phrasal template "all X and Y", as a way of indicating someone's essence in terms of a pair of salient characteristics, has lots of instantiations. Sometimes X and Y are both body parts or articles of clothing: "all knees and elbows", "all cheeks and dimples", "all flounces and ruffles", etc. And sometimes the Y is attitudinal: "all chin and courage", "all eyebrows and irony ", etc. In "all mouth and trousers", Y is both an article of clothing and an attitude.

Then there's the whole "anything/nothing but X and Y" pattern -- one memorable version is the remark "I don't want to see nothing but assholes and elbows", which is the traditional U.S. military accompaniment to an order to do something like scrubbing a floor or policing up trash.]

[Stewart Nicol points out that "All X and no Y" itself is a literal description of the sex chromosomes of mammalian females; and that a classic repository of pretense vs. reality metonyms can be found in Randy Newman's song "Big hat, no cattle".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:44 AM

April 05, 2007

The jagged, dash-strewn syntax of Robert Fisk

Breathlessly urgent syntax from Robert Fisk in The Independent the other day:

Oh how pleased the Iranians must have been to hear Messers [sic] Blair and Bush shout for the "immediate" release of the luckless 15 — this Blair-Bush insistence has assuredly locked them up for weeks — because it is a demand that can be so easily ignored. And will be.

That first dash is the kind that introduces a new clause with a sense of its being too urgent for the writer to wait until after a period for a new sentence to begin — the extra clause must be added right now. And then, unusually, he does it again, with a second dash of the same sort to introduce the because phrase, also an expansion of the original thought tossed in as if there were only seconds to spare to get his point spewed onto the paper. And finally there is a third expansion, an afterthought in the form of an extra coordinate verb phrase with omitted VP complement (will be, meaning "will be ignored").

Well, if Fisk wrote like he was frantic and didn't have time for organized prose, he was certainly right: he posted the above at 12:05 p.m. on April 2, but contrary to his doom-laden prediction President Ahmadinejad announced on April 4 that he would free the luckless 15 as a "gift" to the British people. He did so, and all 15 landed in Britain almost exactly 72 hours after Fisk's prediction that it would be "weeks". One takes risks when one tosses words like will and assuredly around in the volatile domain of Middle Eastern geopolitical posturing. If Fisk had toyed with the draft for a couple of days, he would have missed his chance to make a prediction. Tony Blair's diplomacy seems to have smoothly extracted the 15 service personnel at least an order of magnitude faster than Fisk's anxious, jagged prose suggested. No matter. As Mark Liberman said of Fisk a few months ago, "His writings are pure attitude, and the things in them that look like facts are actually examples of a completely different rhetorical category..." Whether the things he says are true does not matter to Fisk. He will soon be hammering out more dash-strewn prose, expressing other anxious but confident predictions — he assuredly will make further such predictions &mdash because they can be so easily invented. And will be.

[Update: Let me admit, as I have fun mocking Fisk's rhetoric, that I may be in error about his syntax. Jonathan Lundell has convinced me that the second dash can be read as just closing off the parenthetical opened by the first. That is, the because might be intended as an adjunct explaining why Messrs. Blair and Bush would be pleased, rather than explaining why the Blair-Bush insistence has assuredly locked them up for weeks. At first I didn't see that reading, but I do now, and it does fit the dashes into a more familiar syntactic pattern. The double switch of thought-track that I first believed I was seeing is barely even grammatical to me (roughly comparable in unacceptability to clause coordinations of the form P1, but P2, but P3. What we're left with under the analysis with the stuff between the two dashes as an ordinary parenthetical is still jagged, but not that jagged.]

[Afterthought, Friday morning, April 6: I notice that this morning both Mark Liberman and I are struggling with problems in the analysis of British English — mine syntactic, his lexical. We may not be doing well, but you've got to admit, we are struggling gamely to improve our linguistic knowledge by analyzing texts in foreign languages.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:45 PM

April 04, 2007

Stanford spell check

Today's Stanford Daily has an entertaining piece (p. 2) on the spelling of Stanford proper names.  Kelley Fong did an admittedly unscientific survey of students, testing them on their ability to spell five of the more challenging names on campus; they did not do at all well.  The piece was illustrated with campus signs and flyers in which two of these names, Tresidder Memorial Union and Cubberley Auditorium, were misspelled -- as Tressider and Cubberly, respectively.

Tresidder is especially challenging, given that its first vowel is lax and that the word is stressed on the first syllable, so that Tressider would be the expected, regular spelling. 

(and, for that matter, Kelley as in Kelley Fong, and Waverley as in Scott's Waverley novels) presents an -ey vs. -y problem, in particular -ley vs. -ly.  Both are possible spellings, though -ly has an edge if you're trying to turn a pronunciation into spelling: it's shorter; it's also the spelling for the -ly suffixes of English (in particular, adjective-forming -ly in princely, adverb-forming -ly in quickly); and I believe it's by far the more frequent English spelling of the common Irish family name (and now, also, personal name) -- Kelly over Kelley

Faced with spelling the name of a downtown Palo Alto street, you'd similarly come up with Waverly rather than Waverley.  Only inside knowledge can fix that.  In this case, you need to know two things: one, that the W street is one of Palo Alto's "literary" streets (we have a whole bunch of them); and two, that Scott was the author of Waverley, not Waverly .  The parallel streets on either side of Waverley are Bryant and Cowper, and the street before Byant is the street I live on, Ramona.  These streets are named either after authors (Bryant, Cowper) or after literary works (Waverley, Ramona).   "Ramona?", I hear you asking.  Well, yes, the novel of that name by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Jackson's friend Harriet Beecher Stowe.  It's a love story set in old (southern) California, and even in California it never achieved the fame of Stowe's novel, so you shouldn't feel bad if you've never heard of.

Back to the Stanford campus.  There's one more -ey/-y problem in Fong's list: the family name of the university's current president.  This time things go the other way: it's John Hennessy.  Still, I have e-mail from distinguished professors at Stanford who spelled it Hennessey, and you can google up a fair number of Stanford web pages with this spelling.  Locals spent all that time learning to put an e in Cubberley and Waverley, and then Gerhard Caspar (with a name that presents its own spelling challenges) steps down as president and they have to learn that there are only two e's in Hennessy.  (Just remember: Zwicky, with no e before the y.  Same thing with Hennessy.  Omit needless letters.)

Two more.  The next one is a bilingual challenge: Arrillaga (pronounced, as in Spanish, with a glide [j] rather than a liquid [l]), of the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation, the Arrillaga Family Sports Center (both named for Stanford donor John Arrillaga), and the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center (named for his wife).  The students Fong interviewed did fairly well on the Spanish ll thing, but almost half of them missed the double rr.  Not surprising: the doubling serves no function in the English sound-spelling correspondence for this name.

Finally, Mirrielees, the name of an upperclass student resident hall.  Best quote from Fong:

One student realized my survey was a spelling test and tried writing out "Mirrielees" three different ways on the back of her test.  (She still spelled it wrong.)

Fong's pocket guide to Stanford spelling:

Tresidder: Two D's, One S
Arrillaga: Two R's, Two L's
Hennessy: Without the E Before the Y
Cubberley: With the E Before the Y
Mirrielees: Just Memorize It

As for Waverley/Waverly, recall Cubberley Auditorium when you think of Sir Walter Scott, and otherwise use the rule of thumb that place names in the U.S. are mostly Waverly (as in the cities in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Ohio) and pretty thoroughly Waverley in the U.K. (Surrey), Canada (Nova Scotia), New Zealand, and Australia.  Think Scots, and remember that the main train station in Edinburgh is Waverley Station.

[Addendum 4/5/07: John Cowan notes that "Ironically, Waverley is an English name; the title character of Waverley, the first of the Waverley novels, is an Englishman who gets mixed up in the Scottish rebellion of 1745."]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 09:08 PM

Syntax on the teeth and tongue

Found poetry from Nottingham, evoking a new kind of synesthesia:

"It's used as a punctuating term, the answer to everything," says Ralph Surman, a deputy head teacher at a primary school in Nottingham and a member of a government task force on school behaviour. "It's like a toddler saying 'no'. They don't mean 'no' but say it to everything because it feels nice. The syntax feels nice on the teeth and the tongue."

He's talking about "whatever", and according to the BBC article that this came from, it's all Vicky Pollard's fault. But can we blame her for today's teachers' innovative ideas about what "syntax" means?

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:54 AM

Using word counts to sex robots

Jim Cameron wrote in with a link to today's Freefall cartoon, whose last two panels are relevant to the Female Brain words-per-day meme:

Jim also sent a link to a forum post by the cartoonist, Mark Stanley, who explains:

This is based on one of those lovely little stories that gains a lot of press without evidence. It’s documented in Sex on the Brain. [...]

I’ve heard variants of "Women use more words per day than men" at least a dozen times. Seemed to be an easy thing to turn it on its head with the robots. Instead of sex determining number of words, number of words determine sex.

Hopefully, I'm not the only cartoonist out there who researches his jokes.

Alas, it seems that he researches his jokes better than some people research their science writing.

Here's the strip with the first panel restored:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:39 AM

The Female Brain is out in Britain

Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain came out in the UK on April 2, in paperback. This time, the cover represents a woman's brain as a purse jam-packed with cell phone, mirror, cosmetics, photos and so on, in place of the (oddly 1970-ish) image of a brain-shaped tangled curly phone cord that adorned the dust jacket of the U.S. hardcover edition.

I haven't seen a copy of the U.K. paperback, and so I don't know to what extent the various sexual urban legends in the U.S. edition have been modified or backed up with relevant scientific sources. But based on the new quotations in Deirdre Ferdinand's April 1 article in the Sunday Times, "Two sexes divided by a single brain", it looks like Dr. Brizendine is continuing to show that she deserved to win the coveted Goropius Becanus Award for 2006.

In particular, the quantitative assertions about alleged female talkativeness apparently still stand, although the old numbers may be given a new rationale. Pending a look at the new version of the book, there have been four perspectives from Dr. Brizendine on this point available in print:

  1. In the U.S. edition of her book: "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000"
  2. Quoted in the Guardian (11/27/2006): "I understand Mark Liberman's point and I am grateful to him. He felt I was passing on data that was not nailed down, and thus perpetuating a myth, so it will be taken out in future editions."
  3. Quoted in the New York Times (12/10/2006): "The real phraseology of that should have been that a woman has many more communication events a day — gestures, words, raising of your eyebrows."
  4. In the Sunday Times (4/1/2007): "That’s merely in a social setting. In a boardroom women often say very little."

Not being a member of any boards of directors, I can't evaluate the boardroom point from personal experience -- and I rather doubt that there are any systematic recordings and transcripts available to test the question empirically. (Dr. Brizendine's home page doesn't list any board memberships either, though perhaps they were simply left out. It does tell us, though, that The Male Brain is due out in 2008...)

However, there is quite a bit of evidence from different sorts of "social setting" -- including a study, recently submitted for publication, that gives daily word counts for several hundred subjects in two countries who wore recording devices for several days each -- and the results are consistent: the average differences in talkativeness between males and females are small, relative to the within-sex variation, and show the average male as more talkative than the average female at least as often as the other way around.

Here are some further details on the history of Dr. Brizendine's statements on this point:

From the phone interview with Stephen Moss from the Guardian:

When I reach Brizendine, just as she is crossing the Golden Gate bridge, she tells me that she has accepted the criticism of the numbers quoted in the book - on both volume of words and rate of speech - and will be deleting them from future editions. Nor will they appear in the UK edition, to be published by Bantam in April. "I understand Mark Liberman's point and I am grateful to him," she says. "He felt I was passing on data that was not nailed down, and thus perpetuating a myth, so it will be taken out in future editions." She admits language is not her specialism, and she had been reliant on the advice of others.

From an interview with Deborah Solomon in the NYT:

Q: Your book cites a study claiming that women use about 20,000 words a day, while men use about 7,000.
A: The real phraseology of that should have been that a woman has many more communication events a day — gestures, words, raising of your eyebrows.

And most recently, quoted by Deirdre Ferdinand in the Sunday Times:

Brizendine, who studied neurobiology at Berkeley, medicine at Yale and psychiatry at Harvard, has an impeccable pedigree to help her defend some of her most controversial claims.

One of them, for instance, which suggests that women use 20,000 words a day compared with 7,000 for men, has been hotly disputed. As ever, context and interpretation of data are key. “That’s merely in a social setting,” she counters. “In a boardroom women often say very little.”

If you happen to be in Great Britain and see a copy of the book, please let me know what it says on this topic (and the related topic of speaking rate). For comparison, the relevant parts of the U.S. edition were discussed in these previous Language Log posts:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
"Open-access sex stereotypes" (9/10/2006)
"Gabby guys: the effect size" (9/25/2006)
" Word counts" (11/28/2006)
"Sex differences in "communication events" per day?" (12/11/2006)

Judging from the Sunday Times quotes, some of the other quantitative inventions in The Female Brain are also intact:

"It’s true that the female brain shrinks by about 8% during pregnancy. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that it recovers about six to 12 months afterwards to create large maternal circuits."

Last year, when I looked up Dr. Brizendine's reference for this assertion ("The spread of bogus numbers in the meme pool", 10/16/2006), I found that the 8% number is not entirely made up, like the words-per-day numbers -- but it was based on one small study, whose results were substantially below the cited value:

There were two women in the study, number 6 and 8, who were measured both before pregnancy and at term. Over that period, their brains shrank 4.06% and 6.6% respectively, for an average of 5.3%. There were eight women in the normal group whose brains were measured at term and 24 week (i.e. six months) after delivery. Their brains increased in size during that time by 4.0%, 3.0%, 5.5%, 3.2%, 4.8%, 5.6% and 5.1% respectively, for an average of 4.3%, with a 95-percent confidence interval of 3.4% to 5.2%.

(And there's no scientific support for the view that circuits of any particular kind are being either destroyed or created. The study simply measured overall brain volume, without distinguishing among gray matter, white matter, blood vessels or whatever else, and without providing any evidence about the relationship of the changes in overall size to any changes in number of neurons, number or type or strength of synaptic connections, or any other functionally-relevant parameters. It seems unlikely that such rapid changes in overall size could be due to the death and birth of neuronal cell bodies, or to atrophy and re-creation of a large fraction of the dendritic arborization.)

But that exaggeration is a tiny one compared to those referenced in this paragraph from Ferdinand's review:

Testosterone in the male foetus, for instance, will shrink the brain’s communication centre, reduce the hearing cortex and make the part of the brain that processes sex twice as large as that of the female. Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain perhaps once a day, but in a man every time he sees an attractive woman.

For discussion, see these earlier posts:

"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
""Every 52 seconds": wrong by 23,736 percent?" (10/13/2006)

A catalogue of other relevant LL posts can be found here.

And for a general evaluation of the book's endocrinology, pharmacology, and neurobiology, take a look at the review by Rebecca M. Young and Evan Balaban from Nature, October 2006: "Psychoneuroindoctrinology".

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:49 AM

April 03, 2007

Who's your linguistics hero?

Holy convergence, Language Log readers. The following three events from my day today may at first seem completely unrelated, but I explain how they all clicked together for me below the fold.

Back in August of 2005, I blogged about a couple of how-I-got-into-linguistics memoirs that I'd recently read: one by Barbara Partee and another by Bill Labov. A few months later, soon after Peter Ladefoged passed away, I noted that Peter had also written his own such memoir.

These memoirs make for great linguistics-geek reading, and I was thinking at the time that it would be great to solicit/collect more of them. It appears that the folks over at LINGUIST List were thinking the same thing: so far, their Linguist of the Day feature includes (relatively brief) how-I-got-into-linguistics memoirs from Language Log's own Geoff Pullum, historical linguist Robert Blust, linguistic typologist Bernard Comrie, theoretical linguist Noam Chomsky, sociolinguist Walt Wolfram, and Africanist Raymond Boyd. (On the insufficiency of the labels I've casually assigned to these linguists here, see Roger Shuy's post from a week ago today.)

(Note: at the end of each of these Linguist of the Day entries is a note explaining which LINGUIST List editor nominated that linguist and why, with a link to the editor's personal page on LINGUIST List -- where it is sometimes explained how that person got into linguistics. Pretty cool.)

So there's the connection between the first two events of my day listed above. What about Arnold's post? Read it (again) and you'll see.

[ Update, 4/4: Around the water cooler this morning, Arnold informed me that there are not one, not two, but three volumes of "Autobiographies by North American Scholars in the Language Sciences" published by Benjamins (in 1980, 1991, and 1998, respectively). Good to know! Still, I could wish that the cheapest of these three volumes weren't $132 ... ]

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 11:16 PM

LibraryThing for linguists

The LibraryThing site provides a way for people to catalogue their books and share information about their libraries with other people on the site.  The site provides for interest groups, among them I Survived the Great Vowel Shift, described as:

A group for linguists, armchair linguists, would-be linguists, budding linguists, linguists-in-training, linguistic anthropologists, and/or anybody interested in the scientific study of languages. If Noam Chomsky is your hero... you can join, too. :)

There's a list of the top ten books shared by the 288 members of the group.  And Language Log has a presence on that list.

The IStGVS top ten picks (with number of members sharing each book):

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (86)
The Odyssey by Homer (78)
The name of the rose by Umberto Eco (77)
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (72)
The complete works by William Shakespeare (72)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies by Jared Diamond (69)
The language instinct by Steven Pinker (49)
A course in phonetics by Peter Ladefoged (25)
The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, and other irreverent essays... by Geoffrey K. Pullum (23)
The World's major languages (23)

(capitalization as in the original).  Tolkien and Pinker are no surprise to me; when I talk with young linguists about what got them into linguistics, Tolkien's invented languages and Pinker's Language Instinct figure prominently in their stories.  Homer and Shakespeare are general intellectual background for Western culture.  The Ladefoged and the Comrie certainly belong on the list for their scholarship, though neither is an easy read.  I suppose the Eco does so well because of its combination of scholastic logic and modern semiotics, not to mention the murder mystery.  The Diamond is one of the current Big Idea Books, with a vast scope.  That leaves Our GKP's entertaining (and informative) essays.

It's an entertainingly mixed bag, all the more interesting because it was assembled from empirical data about behavior (what books people buy) rather than by collecting people's explicit opinions and judgments.  And four works that deal with technical questions in linguistics made it into the ten.  Granted, Homer and Shakespeare beat them handily, but that's not a bad showing.

(Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 08:10 PM

Third time's a charm

And now the latest chapter in the saga of President Bush's "Democrat(ic)" problem. (Previous installments here: 1, 2, 3, 4.) In his remarks in the Rose Garden this morning on the emergency supplemental appropriations bill, Bush finally saw fit to correct himself on his use of "Democrat" (rather than "Democratic") as a modifier — and it only took him three tries to do it.

Let's go to the transcript. Opportunity #1:

Democrat leaders in Congress seem more interested in fighting political battles in Washington than in providing our troops what they need to fight the battles in Iraq.

Nope. Opportunity #2:

If Democrat leaders in Congress are bent on making a political statement, then they need to send me this unacceptable bill as quickly as possible when they come back.

Still no dice. Opportunity #3:

In a time of war, it's irresponsible for the Democrat leadership — Democratic leadership in Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds.

Jackpot! Sure, it's the kind of clumsy self-repair we've come to expect from Dubya, and he made the self-repair in the context of suggesting that Democrats are letting down our troops, but hey, at least it's something.

(Hat tip to the ever-vigilant Mr. Verb.)

[Update: Here's the audio. You can hear that Bush actually gets to the beginning of the word "Congress" before going back to correct "Democrat."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 02:22 PM

One more F-word

The guys in Zits (3/30/07) are on to yet another F-word:

In my October posting on F-words, I moved from the primary F-words -- the Big F, fuck, and its sidekick fag(got) -- to two items that are fairly frequently alluded to by the expression "the F-word" (or one of its spelling variants), fascism/fascist and feminism/feminist, and then to a few items that have been occasionally alluded to by the expression: fat, finesse, fossils, forgiveness, folk [music], food.  In January I added Frankenstein (with reference to embryonic stem cell research).   Two of these, fascism and Frankenstein, came from the pages of the Economist, which seems to have a thing about "the f-word".  In fact, back in October, Michael Andresen wrote to point out that in the same issue (10/14/06) of the magazine that brought us the f-word fascism (with reference to Russia), there was an article with another f-word (with reference to Canada).  Prime minister Stephen Harper, an evangelical Christian, was opposing same-sex marriage:

In revisiting the question, Mr Harper launches his first big battle as prime minister with religion at its core. "It's the first time the f-word (faith) has snuck into the discourse," says Andrew Grenville of Ipsos-Reid, a pollster. (p. 42)

And now we have family [time].  No doubt the emotional content of the primary F-words makes the expression especially attractive to people and makes it especially easy to play with.  (Note: I am NOT collecting examples of the usage, just pointing out that there are lots of them, in all sorts of places.)

In a fresh twist on the topic, John Cowan wrote, back in January, to nominate farrago as the BEST F-word; see his blog.   It does have a nice sound, though my personal favorite is fandango.  But no, I'm not soliciting favorite F-words; talk amongst yourselves.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:27 PM

Linguistic nationalism and the political spectrum

A note from Fabio Montermini in Toulouse:

In reading the recent Language Log post "Gingrich's 'ghetto' talk", I was struck by a coincidence. The Italian Government recently adopted (on March 28) a modification to the Constitution, stating that "Italian is the official language of the Republic". Though Italian was de facto the official language of Italy since its reunification, this fact curiously was not inscribed into its fundamental charter in 1947. The adoption of the modification was related by some Italian newspapers (e.g. Gian Luigi Beccaria, "È ufficiale parliamo l'italiano", La Stampa), and also in the article in the Italian Wikipedia (but not so far in the English one).

The modification failed to be adopted last December, because of the opposal by two extremist parties (one left, one right). The leftist Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation) feared the inscription of Italian as the official language of the Republic would make an obstacle to those immigrants who don't speak the language. The right and advocate of regional autonomies Lega Nord (Northern League, Berlusconi's ally) claimed this modification to be a violation of dialect speakers' and linguistic minorities' rights. As you see, curiously enough, a left Government has just adopted a law which in the US is supported by conservative groups. It seems to me however, that this need to explicitly affirm linguistic identity in European countries is strictly related to immigration issues, and in particular to the proposals which have been made in various countries (e.g. Italy, France and the UK are those which I am aware of) that candidate immigrants should pass a linguistic test before they get official papers. I wrote a post on the topic on my blog, which unfortunately is in Italian ("Una d'arme, di lingua...", 4/3/2007).

Well, I always enjoy an opportunity to make some small improvement in my feeble command of Italian -- so apologies in advance for mistranslations in this short excerpt from Fabio's post:

In pochi giorni, infatti, ho scoperto che, più o meno lo stesso dibattito si sta svolgendo in diversi paesi. In Francia, ad esempio, la campagna per le elezioni presidenziali si sta concentrando, da qualche tempo, sul tema dell'immigrazione e dell'identità nazionale. Pochi giorni prima di proporre il suo "Ministero dell'immigrazione e dell'identità nazionale" che fa tanto discutere, il candidato Sarkozy ha proposto un test di ingresso per i candidati al ricongiungimento familiare in Francia che dimostrasse una "conoscenza sommaria della lingua francese" acquisita già nel paese di origine. [...] Sono stato sorpreso, poi, di scoprire, proprio ieri, che la stessa condizione fa parte dei provvedimenti di controllo dell'immigrazione varati dal governo laburista di Blair in Gran Bretana. Ma sono stato ancora più sorpreso quando questa mattina, da un post su Language Log scoprivo che anche negli Stati Uniti è in corso un vero dibattito sull'opportunità di rendere l'inglese lingua ufficiale, e che esistono diverse associazioni, perlopiù legate al partito Repubblicano (come U.S.English o ProEnglish) che fanno lobby in tal senso.

Within a few days, in fact, I've discovered that more or less the same debate has taken place in different countries. In France, for example, the presidential election campaign has been focused, for some time, on the theme of immigration and of national identity. A few days before proposing his "ministry of immigration and national identity" that created so much debate, the candidate Sarkozy proposed an entry test for [immigration on the basis of] family reunion in France to demonstrate a "basic knowledge of the French language" already acquired in the country of origin. [...] I was surprised, later, to discover, just yesterday, that the same condition was part of the measures for control of immigration launched by the Labour government of Blair in Great Britain. But I was again suprised when this morning, in a post on Language Log, I discovered that again in the U.S. there is a debate in progress on the idea of making English the official language, and that there are various associations, generally linked to the Republican party (like U.S. English or ProEnglish) that lobby for this goal.

Some background for Fabio's note: the current Italian government, since the April 2006 election, is a precarious center-left coalition called L'Unione ("the Union"), led by prime minister Romano Prodi, and including some twenty political parties, some of which are regional in nature (Liga Fronte Veneto, Südtiroler Volkspartei, Lega Alleanza Lombarda) while others have a more universal agenda (Federazione dei Verdi, Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, Democratici di Sinistra). The coalition is precarious both in terms of the divergent goals of the participants and in terms of its majority in parliament.

I know very little about the political history in Italy of the promotion of the national language at the expense of regional or minority languages, immigrant languages, and so on -- though I do know that because of the relatively recent formation of Italy as a nation-state, the local languages in Italy remain much stronger than their counterparts in France.

But in general, it should not be any sort of surprise that a left-of-center government might be associated with promotion of a national standard language. This has been a dominant pattern in Europe for the past two centuries. [Actually, I guess that Fabio may be expressing surprise that this position in the U.S. has come to be associated with right-of-center groups. That also should not be a surprise, though for different reasons...]

Thus the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote ("Language, culture and national identity", Social Research, 1996):

The original case for a standard language was entirely democratic, not cultural. How could citizens understand, let alone take part in, the government of their country if it was conducted in an incomprehensible language -- for example, in Latin, as in the Hungarian parliament before 1840? Would this not guarantee government by an elite minority? This was the argument of the Abbe Gregoire in 1794 (Hobsbawm, 1990, p. 103 n). Education in French was, therefore, essential for French citizens, whatever the language they spoke at home. This remained essentially the position in the United States, another product of the same age of democratic revolution. To be a citizen, an immigrant had to pass a test in English, and readers of The Education of Hyman Kaplan will be familiar with this process of linguistic homogenization. I need not add that Mr. Kaplan's struggles with the English language were not intended to stop him from talking Yiddish with his wife at home, which he certainly did; nor did they affect his children, who obviously went to English-speaking public schools. What people spoke or wrote among themselves was nobody's business but their own, like their religion. You will remember that even in 1970 -- that is to say before the onset of the present wave of mass immigration -- 33 million Americans, plus an unknown percentage of another 9 million who did not answer the relevant question, said that English was not their mother-tongue. Over three quarters of them were second generation or older American-born (Thernstrom et al., 1980, p. 632).

Earlier in the same article, Hobsbawm points out that

At the time of the French Revolution, only half the inhabitants of France could speak French, and only 12-13 percent spoke it "correctly"; and the extreme case is Italy, where at the moment it became a state only 2 or 3 Italians out of a hundred actually used the Italian language at home.

The French -- originally from a democratic and revolutionary perspective, and later from a more purely nationalistic one -- relentlessly and ruthlessly promoted linguistic homogeneity for two hundred years. It's only recently, and (I think) only as a result of implicit or explicit pressure from EU pieties about the treatment of linguistic and cultural minorities, that France has relaxed the official suppression of Breton, Occitan, Basque and so on.

As right-wing versions of popular nationalism arose in Europe, in the form of fascism and nazism, I suppose that they took over the idea of using a national language to forge a national identity (though in fact I don't know anything about the history of fascist language policies). And the communist governments in the east -- the (late, unlamented) Soviet Union and China -- certainly promoted the use of a dominant national language as strongly as any other governments in history.

Hobsbawm observes that globalization has changed the underlying situation for linguistic nationalists:

In Europe, national standard languages were usually based on a combination of dialects spoken by the main state people which was transformed into a literary idiom. In the postcolonial states, this is rarely possible, and when it is, as in Sri Lanka, the results of giving Sinhalese exclusive official status have been disastrous. In fact, the most convenient "national languages" are either lingua francas or pidgins developed purely for intercommunication between peoples who do not talk each others' languages, like Swahili, Pilipino, or Bahasa Indonesia, or former imperial languages like English in India and Pakistan. Their advantages are that they are neutral between the languages actually spoken and put no one group at a particular advantage or disadvantage. Except, of course, the elite. The price India pays for conducting its affairs in English as an insurance against language-based civil wars such as that in Sri Lanka is that people who have not had the several years full-time education which make a person fluent in a foreign written language will never make it above a relatively modest level in public affairs or -- today -- in business. That price is worth paying, I think. Nevertheless, imagine the effect on Europe if Hindi were the only language of general communication in the European parliament, and the London Times, Le Monde, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung could be read only by those literate in Hindi.

All this is changing, or will profoundly change, the relation of languages to each other in multinational societies. The ambition of all languages in the past which aspired to the status of national languages and to be the basis of national education and culture was to be all-purpose languages at all levels, that is, interchangeable with the major culture-languages. Especially, of course, with the dominant language against which they tried to establish themselves. Thus, in Finland, Finnish was to be capable of replacing Swedish for all purposes, in Belgium Flemish of replacing French. Hence, the real triumph of linguistic emancipation was to set up a vernacular university: in the history of Finland, Wales, and the Flemish movement, the date when such a university was established is a major date in nationalist history. A lot of smaller languages have tried to do this over the past centuries, starting, I suppose, with Dutch in the seventeenth century and ending, so far, with Catalan. Some are still trying to do it, like Basque.

Now in practice this is ceasing to be the case operationally, although small-nation nationalism does what it can to resist the trend. Languages once again have niches and are used in different situations and for different purposes. Therefore, they do not need to cover the same ground. This is partly because for international purposes only a few languages are actually used. Though the administration of the European Union spends one-third of its income on translation from and into all the eleven languages in it which have official status, it is a safe bet that the overwhelming bulk of its actual work is conducted in not more than three languages. Again, while it is perfectly possible to devise a vocabulary for writing papers in molecular biology in Estonian, and for all I know this has been done, nobody who wishes to be read -- except by the other Estonian molecular biologists -- will write such papers. They will need to write them in internationally current languages, as even the French and the Germans have to do in such fields as economics. Only if the number of students coming into higher education is so large and if they are recruited from monoglot families is there a sound educational reason for a full vernacular scientific vocabulary -- and then only for introductory textbooks; for all more advanced purposes, students will have to learn enough of an international language to read the literature, and probably they also will have to learn enough of the kind of English which is today for intellectuals what Latin was in the Middle Ages. It would be realistic to give all university education in certain subjects in English today, as is partly done in countries like the Netherlands and Finland which once were the pioneers of turning local vernaculars into all-purpose languages. There is no other way. Officially, nineteenth-century Hungary succeeded in making Magyar into such an all-purpose language for everything from poetry to nuclear physics. In practice, since only 10 million out of the world's 6000 million speak it, every educated Hungarian has to be, and is, plurilingual.

I like the idea of having all the newspapers, laws and contracts of Europe written in Hindi. That would certainly solve the EU's translation problems -- or at least, it would transform them. Turn about is fair play.

Of course, the French would complain that the new European continental language should instead be taken from one of their former colonies, say Wolof or Vietnamese...

[By the way, the title of Fabio's post is a quotation from an ode on the Piedmontese revolution by Alessandro Manzoni, entitled "Marzo 1821", which contains these lines [apologies again for my very uncertain translation]:

una gente che libera tutta
o sia serva tra l’Alpe ed il mare;
una d’arme, di lingua, d’altare,
di memorie, di sangue e di cor.

One people who will all be free
or enslaved between the alps and the sea;
one in arms, in language, in religion,
in memory, in blood and in heart.


[Update -- David G.D. Hecht writes:

I cannot speak for Italy or any of the other facist or protofascist states of the Mediterranean littoral or the Balkan massif and Danube basin, but in Germany, the "purification" of the German language, in the form of replacement of foreign "loan-words" by more "authentic" germanic constructions, seems to have been driven by a post-WW1 nationalist and anti-French reaction. Examples that are commonly referred to are "Fernsprecher" ("Far-Speaker") to replace "Telefon", and "Personen-Kraftwagen" ("Personal-Power-Vehicle") and "Last-Kraftwagen" ("Goods-Power-Vehicle") to replace "Automobil" and "Kamion" (truck). Doubtless there are many others. There is also a reference to this process being endorsed by the Hitlerite regime in 1936 in the Time Magazine archive (http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,805288,00.html).

The concern with linguistic "purity" is another dimension of linguistic nationalism -- certainly the recent balkanization of Serbo-Croatian into separate Serbian and Croatian "language" seems to have had a large component of eliminating different strata of borrowings, depending on the historical affinities of the nationalisms involved. But in principle at least, this is different from the promotion of a shared national standard at the expense of regional variants or other languages. So I wonder whether the fascists in Germany, Italy etc. also promoted the standard language at the expense of local alternatives.]

[And Steve (Language Hat) writes:

I'm enjoying your long piece on linguistic nationalism, but I have to take issue with this:

"And the communist governments in the east -- the (late, unlamented) Soviet Union and China -- certainly promoted the use of a dominant national language as strongly as any other governments in history."

I'm not sure about the history of Chinese language policy, but the Soviet Union explicitly and enthusiastically supported local languages, going so far as to establish writing systems and print dictionaries, newspapers, poetry anthologies, etc. for previously little-written languages like Kabardian. Unless by "national language" you mean the primary language within each Soviet republic? But I don't think that's what you meant. The Soviet Union was a terrible place in many respects, but they did not repress minority languages.

Steve, who knows much more about this than I do, is right to correct me -- or mostly so. I was thinking not about languages like Kabardian, but about the situation in the Baltic Republics, in Ukraine, etc., where as the wikipedia says in its article about the Baltic Republics

The Soviet Union conducted a policy of russification by encouraging Russians and other Russian-speaking ethnic groups of USSR to settle in the Baltic Republics. Today, over one-quarter of the population of Estonia are Russian-speakers. In Latvia the figure is closer to one-third and in its capital (Riga) ethnic Russians now outnumber ethnic Latvians.

According to Soviet law, the three local languages (Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian) had the status of official languages in the three respective "Republics" and they were used in schools and local administrative apparatus in parallel with Russian (which was the official language of whole USSR in all but name). However, as the Russian-speaking settlers from USSR formed an ever larger part of the population and typically were neither encouraged nor motivated to learn the local language, almost everybody had to learn Russian to some extent and use it whenever communicating with Russian-speakers in daily life.

As I understand it, this was pretty much a continuation of the policies of the Russian empire before 1917. My maternal grandmother was the principal of a Russian-language school in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils) before 1917, and emigated to the U.S. in 1921 (during the period of Latvian independence between 1918 and 1940), because the Latvian government made education in Russian illegal.

Anyhow, Steve is right that the discussion of pressures towards Russian-language uniformity during Soviet times sound mild, compared (for example) to the standard practice of the French towards linguistic minorities during the past couple of centuries.

Cory Lubliner sent in some information about mid-20th-century fascist language policy:

When you write that "the local languages in Italy remain much stronger than their counterparts in France," do you mean "languages" such as French in the Aosta Valley, German in the South Tyrol and Slovene in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, or do you mean "dialects" such as Venetian and Neapolitan?

When you "wonder whether the fascists in Germany, Italy etc. also promoted the standard language at the expense of local alternatives," this is true when the "local alternatives" were ones that the people who spoke them regarded as their "languages" such as the ones that I mentioned above for Italy, or Basque, Catalan and Galician in Spain, but not when they were "mere dialects" used to express local color. Dialect movies (Austrian-Bavarian in Germany, Neapolitan in Italy) were very popular during the Hitler-Mussolini era.

Cory also corrects my assertions about the Soviet Union and China:

When you write that "the communist governments in the east -- the (late, unlamented) Soviet Union and China -- certainly promoted the use of a dominant national language as strongly as any other governments in history" you are simply mistaken. The promotion of regional languages was a hallmark of Stalinist policy (perhaps because of Stalin's Georgian background), and it was followed by Tito (who was the first to make Macedonian official, and to institute schooling in Romany) and the PRC as well. The last time I saw a Chinese banknote, it was printed not only in Chinese but also in Uighur, Tibetan and a couple of other languages.

Point taken. But banknotes aside, the Chinese government certainly seems to have the aim of ensuring that everyone can speak, read and write Putonghua. And for some discussion of differences between language-policy theory and language policy reality, see this 2005 U.S. Congress report, which claims (for example) that

The government continued its campaign to restrict the use of the Uighur language in favor of Mandarin Chinese, despite provisions in the REAL protecting the right of minorities to use and promote their own languages. Government efforts to limit Uighur language use began in the 1980s, but have intensified since 2001 and throughout the past year. In May 2002, the Xinjiang government announced that Xinjiang University would change the medium of its instruction to Mandarin Chinese. A March 2004 directive ordered ethnic minority schools to merge with Chinese-language schools and offer classes in Mandarin. Despite a severe shortage of teachers in Xinjiang, the government is forcing teachers with inadequate Mandarin Chinese out of the classroom. Party Secretary Wang Lequan noted in April 2005 that Xinjiang authorities are "resolutely determined" to promote Mandarin language use, which he found "an extremely serious political issue."


[Tilman Stieve sends enough observations and questions to serve as the seeds of several additional posts -- but for now, I'll just add his note to the end of this one:

Re. Hobsbawm's claim that only 2 or 3 per cent of Italians spoke Italian at the time it became a state and also the one about only half the French populations being able to speak French at the time of the Revolution: I've seen similar claims about German, but it does seem to be rather a big exaggeration that does tend to create a somewhat false impression. So by the time of unification only 2 or 3 out of hundred spoke "standard" Italian (which, from what I've been told by my Italian teachers, is basically the Tuscan dialect), but does that mean that the dialects spoken in other parts of Italy then were not Italian or that they were completely unintelligible to other Italians (note that at the time Italy became a nation-state, it did not include many of the regions where minority languages such as German or Friulian are spoken these days). So what if only a small percentage of the population conforms to some prescriptivist ideal. The impression I got was that Italian as a literary language goes back to the late middle ages at least, and it is not all that different in Germany (where a standard based on a Saxon dialect of High German was established not least due to Luther's translation of the Bible way back in the 16th century, and gradually even took over those parts where Low German was spoken).

BTW, doesn't the French effort towards linguistic homogeneity predate the Revolution? I thought that from its inception one of the main jobs of the Académie Francaise has been to oversee the standards and purity of the French language.

Your correspondent G. D. Hecht's is off by at least a century. Efforts to "purify" German date back at least to the wars against Napoleon, and even some statements of the medieval poet Wolfram of Eschenbach (ca. 1200 AD) have been interpreted as abrasive reactions to unfavorable comments on his extensive use of words borrowed from the French. In the 19th century, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852), an early radical German nationalist and chauvinist (also a pioneer of athletics) wrote some of the first well-known texts on purging the German language of foreign influences. Although at the time he only had few followers (with, not insignificantly, strengths among the academic youth) and was regarded as a bit of a crank by many, many of the new German words he invented to replace "loan-words" did in fact gain general acceptance. Others, on the other hand, failed, e.g. Jahn's coinage "Haemling" (derived from "Hammel" = neutered ram) which did not replace "Kastrat" and "Eunuch". The German language of gymnastics and athletics still is to a large extent dominated by the terms "Turnvater" Jahn invented for the exercises and equipment he came up with. Interestingly enough, the technical terms of football ("soccer" to some of you) were quickly replaced by German ones in Germany, even before World War 1, even though football players were shunned by the Turnvereine and regarded themselves as more cosmopolitan. (Also interestingly, German-speakers in Austria-Hungary and Switzerland continued to use the English terms by preference for much longer).

Quite a lot of these efforts at "purifying" German seem to have been arrived at more by general consensus than by governmental policy, although one obviously should take into account the disproportionate effect of linguistic purists among academics. The effect can be seen well in certain specialized fields, e.g. science and medicine (while the specialized language of the military continued to be dominated by words taken from foreign languages, especially French and Italian).

The fate of some of G.D. Hecht's examples is interesting in this respect. "Fernsprecher" really remained an officialese word not used as much as "Telephon/Telefon"; the derivations "Ferngespraech" and "Telefonat" have different meanings, by the way, a "Ferngespraech" is a long-distance call, while a "Telefonat" is a conversation on the telephone irrespective of distance. (A local call would be an "Ortsgepraech"). Similarly, "Personenkraftwagen" ("power-wagon for persons") and "Lastkraftwagen" ("power-wagon for loads") are also primarily used for official texts and, due to their length, frequently shortened to "PKW" and "LKW" (when spoken, these acronyms have three syllables each in German). But "Automobil" is also quite a long word, so in general usage it is normally shortened to "Auto" (which for most German-speakers would mean "automobile for persons", but for professionals involved in goods transport can also mean "freight truck"). However, "Wagen" (wagon) has since become a wide-spread word for "automobile for persons" (even though that word can also be applied to animal-drawn vehicles and railway and tramway coaches/carriages) and trucks are usually referred to as "Lastwagen" or "Laster". As a historian I have worked quite a bit with early-20th century texts, but this must be the first time I've seen "Kamion" (certainly with that spelling) as a German word. It can't have been very common even before World War 1.

The Nazis support for linguistic purism was half-hearted at best, one only has to recall that the movement did not ever feel it necessary to change its name of "Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei", even thought three of its five elements are "foreign". The philologist Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) in his seminal 1946 study "LTI" (= Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich) noted that that although the National Socialists tried to revive a number of Germanic words and coin a few new ones, they also had a tendency towards the inflationary use of certain "foreign" words.

Finally, let's not forget linguistic regionalism. A few years back, a pressure group for the purity of the Bavarian dialect issued a list of words a true Bavarian should not use, mostly "invaders" from other parts of the German-speaking word. Among them was the North German words "Tschuess" ("bye", a corruption of the French word "adieu") and "Trecker" (tractor, derived from the Low German verb "trecken" = to pull). The words Bavarians should use instead? "Ade" (from Latin "ad Deum") and "Bulldog" (from "Lanz Bulldog", the name of an early German-produced tractor), respectively.


[Update 4/6/2007 -- David Marjanovic send in a long, helpful comment, given below. At some point, I really should arrange all these comments on the political history of language policies into a coherent overall framework...

I'd like to comment on your blog post "Linguistic nationalism and the political spectrum", specifically on Soviet language policy. The goal of Soviet language policy was "sliyaniye", the merger of all cultures and languages into one, which was equated by Marxism-Leninism(-Stalinism) with the creation of a Soviet nation -- and it was supposed to be implemented in the long run, not immediately, just like the building of Communism had to wait till Socialism would be reached. On the one hand, thus, standard languages and alphabets were created for many previously unwritten languages, and an impressive campaign brought literacy rates close to 100 % in a very short time; on the other, teaching in some languages was discontinued when all of their speakers had learned Russian (this includes cases like the interesting isolate Nivkh/Gilyak).

Googling for "sliyaniye" (in this transcription) brings up many informative results, such as your own post http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001499.html (which explains a case of divide-and-conquer) and Bill Dickens' treatise which you have cited http://www.oxuscom.com/lang-policy.htm. From a bit below the middle of that page (in "The crucial role of bilingualism"): "As mentioned above, Russian was the obvious choice for the unofficial "official" language of the Soviet state. It takes little insight to see that it is also the projected super-language which is ultimately intended to absorb all the other languages in the Soviet Union, although Soviet statements to that effect have hinted at this more than stating it outright: [...] Not only is Russian "the language of the Union's most developed nation, which guided the country through its revolutionary transformations and have [sic] won itself the love and respect of all peoples"(Isayev 1977:299-300), it also offers "unlimited opportunity to join the most progressive human culture, and to gain a deep and lasting knowledge in all the fields of science"(cited in Rakowska-Harmstone 1970:248)."

Interesting aspects of the divide-and-conquer approach include how the same sound was often written with different letters in different (but sometimes closely related) languages (not only in the Cyrillic but also in the preceding Latin alphabets), and how some languages -- apparently often those with more speakers -- were given new letters for sounds absent from Russian while others had to make do with digraphs. (The alphabets of the literary languages of the Russian part of the Caucasus especially consist mostly of di- and trigraphs and the occasional tetragraph.)

My impression, like Dickens', is that Chinese language policy is similar, except for the major difference of the writing system -- you can't impose Chinese-characters-only on anything even if you try. Clearly, Mandarin is greatly preferred by the Party over all other languages. I have been to the southeastern corner of Inner Mongolia; there are a few signs that bear columns in Mongolian script next to every Chinese character, but that's it; I only heard Chinese (small sample), and most writing I saw (small sample again) was in Chinese only.

The Nazis went so far as to forbid societies because of "Deutschtümelei" (fooling around with "Germandom"). I guess that was because of the mentality expressed in Göring's famous sayer "Wer Jude ist, bestimme ich" -- "I'm the one who gets to decide who is a Jew".

Modern German officialese still includes several words that are not used elsewhere. A typical example is "Lichtbildausweis", meaning "any ID document with a photo" -- nobody says or writes "Lichtbild" instead of "Foto".

Linguistic regionalism? In Austria, the word for "tractor" is, wait for it, "Traktor". I'm not aware of anyone using "ade", which I used to think has been obsolete for a century or two; what the Bavarian-Austrian dialects normally use is a corruption of "may God protect you".

Incidentally, in your earlier post "Liberté, Égalité, Néologie" you mention "Dusseldorf". That would mean something like "nincompoop village". It's Düsseldorf, after the river Düssel which sounds silly but doesn't have an etymology I'm aware of.

Apologies to both Düsseldorfers and Dusseldorfers for the confusion.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:56 AM

Gingrich's "ghetto" talk

A Mar. 31 AP article about a speech by Newt Gingrich before the the National Federation of Republican Women has circulated widely over the past few days. The opening paragraph reads:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich equated bilingual education Saturday with "the language of living in a ghetto" and mocked requirements that ballots be printed in multiple languages.

The article ran in newspapers under such headlines as "Gingrich likens bilingual ed to 'ghetto'-speak" (Houston Chronicle) and "Gingrich: Bilingual Classes Teach 'Ghetto' Language" (Washington Post). Hispanic Education Coalition co-chair Peter Zamora is quoted by the AP as saying, "The tone of his comments were very hateful. Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto." Bloggers followed suit, from political news blogs like The Swamp ("Gingrich: Spanish a 'ghetto' language") to linguablogs like Polyglot Conspiracy ("Spanish is indeed spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto"). I'm no fan of Gingrich or his alarmist views on American bilingualism, but I think he might be getting a bad rap for his admittedly unfortunate use of the word ghetto.

Here's the full quote as it appears in the AP article:

"The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto." [Video available here.]

Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the English-only movement ought to recognize that Gingrich is referring to the linguistic ghettos that bilingual education supposedly helps to perpetuate. In fact, Gingrich spoke more extensively about such ghettos last January in a press conference sponsored by the lobbying group ProEnglish:

"Immigrant parents want their children to compete in the core American economic system and to have the highest possible income. That inherently requires mastering English. Those people who would trap immigrants into linguistic ghettos ... are in fact denying them the opportunity to pursue happiness." (Cox News Service, Jan. 25, 2007)

This is a common talking point in the English-only crowd. The ProEnglish website elaborates on the theme, raising the spectre of new linguistic ghettos that would mirror the immigrant ghettos of the early 20th century:

This multilingualism is causing a growing underclass, which is segregated and walled off into linguistic ghettos. A century ago such immigrant ghettos were marked by extreme poverty, 80-hour workweeks and child labor. As the industrial revolution matured, immigrants discovered that language skills were the key to entering the emerging "middle class." This, coupled with mandatory public education and reduced immigration, resulted in the successful assimilation of ethnic communities into American society.

The "linguistic ghetto" argument against government-sponsored bilingualism goes back at least a few decades. The earliest relevant citation I've found actually relates to bilingual policies in Canada, not the U.S. The Dec. 28, 1969 New York Times quotes conservative leader Robert L. Stanfield warning of the "linguistic ghettos" that would be created by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's language policy. Stanfield was specifically complaining about plans for French-only military units. Trudeau responded, "Certainly, it would be a false description to call these units ghettos."

In the United States, talk of "linguistic ghettos" gathered steam in the mid-'80s, when Congress was considering "official English" legislation (a lobbying effort that finally saw some success last year). Sen. Steven Symms (R-Id.) was one major supporter:

"Diversity without a common language is separatism," [Symms] said. He pointed to the rapid growth of people speaking a minority language, which is expected to double the rate of growth of English-speaking people over the next 15 years.
"This could create vast linguistic ghettos in many U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, where English is virtually unknown in some areas. Without a common tongue, the United States faces the prospect of Balkanization and linguistic separatism." (Globe and Mail, June 13, 1984)

Two years later, the "ghettoization" drum was beaten by S.I. Hayakawa, who had recently retired from the U.S. Senate and was serving as honorary chairman of the group U.S. English:

Q. You see the spread of languages other than English as a threat to the social cohesiveness of the country?
A. Yes, I must say I do. That is, this encouragement of linguistic ghettos of one kind or another. Actually, the tendency of immigrants is within one or two generations to cease isolating themselves in ghettos because they speak English well enough. But if the tendency to cluster in isolated groups continues, then you're going to have not only the children of immigrants but the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants continuing in another language and therefore denying themselves the full opportunities of American life. (New York Times, Oct. 26, 1986)

Gingrich's comments are clearly of a piece with these earlier proponents of English-only policies. You may or may not agree with this line of argumentation (I certainly don't), but it's a tad unfair to accuse Gingrich of equating bilingual education, or Spanish in particular, with "ghetto language." The problem is really of Gingrich's own creation, however, since he couched the old "linguistic ghetto" argument in the infelicitous phrase, "the language of living in a ghetto." That encouraged a reading of ghetto in the specific sense (OED: "a quarter in a city, esp. a thickly populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usu. as a result of economic or social pressures") rather than the generic sense (OED: "an isolated or segregated group, community, or area"). Thus, Gingrich's "language of living in a ghetto" ended up (mis)paraphrased as "the language of the ghetto," with the language presumed to be Spanish.

I'm not particularly eager to rally to Gingrich's defense, because I still feel that the use of the term "(linguistic) ghetto" by English-only advocates is intended to evoke the 'urban slum' sense, at least implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, as in the quote from the ProEnglish site above). It's part of an arsenal of scare tactics with little or no empirical basis in the social realities of bilingualism. Still, that's a far cry from calling Spanish "the language of the ghetto," which Gingrich clearly did not do.

[Update, 4/4/07: As reported by Mr. Verb, Gingrich now claims that he was making an allusion to the original Jewish ghettos of Europe. ThinkProgress has his not terribly convincing explanation, and Jeffrey Feldman points out Gingrich's historical inaccuracies.]

[Update, 4/5/07: Gingrich admits — in Spanish and English — to having used a poor choice of words.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:20 AM

April 02, 2007

The EU and "Islamic terrorism": other voices

Bill Poser's post earlier today, "Political Correctness, Linguistic Incorrectness," has sparked some trenchant critiques elsewhere in the linguablogosphere. For differing points of view, check out Jabal al-Lughat and Bulbul.

[Update: One of the commenters on Jabal al-Lughat is Steven Poole, author of Unspeak. Poole wrote an interesting blog entry on EU objections to the term "Islamic terrorism" back in May 2006.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 11:37 PM

De-Baath(i)fication and spendthrift

For a minute this afternoon, I thought that someone at the NYT has decided that the word for removal of Baathists should be "de-Baathfication" (Edward Wong, "Shiite Cleric Opposes Return of Baathists in Iraq", 4/2/2007). The subtitle on the online front page, and the third sentence of the article, both use that version of the word:

The Americans say a partial reversal of the strict “de-Baathfication” process is one of the most crucial steps the Iraqi government can take in wooing back disenfranchised Sunni Arabs and draining the Sunni-led insurgency of its fervor.

But the other two uses of the term in the same article have the more usual version de-Baathification, so I guess it was just a typo:

The comments from the ayatollah’s office came a day after Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite and head of the de-Baathification commission, met with the cleric in Najaf.
Mr. Allawi said in an interview last month that the religious Shiites were using the de-Baathification process to unjustly purge members of his party from public office.

[The subhead on the index page should be de-de-Baath(i)fication, anyhow -- or OK, maybe re-Baathification -- but never mind that...]

The Google News Archive has 2,860 hists for {de-baathification} vs. only 6 for {de-baathfication}. There are also 211 hits for {debaathification} and 1 for {debaathfication}, so -ification is a clear winner, by almost 500 to 1. A pretty strong consensus, considering that we don't even have even one neologism commission! Instead, this is the effect of implicit understanding of an emergent principle of English morphology, which the OED expresses this way in its entry on -ification:

comb. form of suffix -FICATION, q.v.
The -i- is always present, either as the L. stem-vowel or its representative, as in glori-(a)-fication, molli-fication, fruct-i-fication, or as connecting vowel, as in oss-i-fication.

In other news, a survey in New Zealand has uncovered the fact that people (anyhow those participating in the survey) are about equally split as to whether spendthrift means "(1) A person who doesn't like to spend money (= miser, skinflint, penny pincher), or (2) A person who spends money freely".

There's a sense in which this loss of speech-community coherence comes from the same psycho-social process that maintains the coherence of de-Baat(i)ification. Just as users of English have learned to expect a linking -i- in -fication words, even if there is no Latin stem to provide one, so many New Zealanders clearly have a touching faith in the compositionality of English compound words, even if this faith takes them to a meaning opposite to the normal one.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:47 PM

Linguistic intervention in Iran

It's not quite as bad as the spammers' "I need of your assistance" or "within the nearest time", but L/S Faye Turney's most recent letter of "confession", released by the Iranian embassy in London on March 30, really doesn't read like something that a native speaker of English would write. Some of its infelicities might be attributed to stress, lack of practice in writing, or Shropshire vernacular, but it seems much more likely that the text of the letter was largely dictated by Turney's Iranian captors.

Let's take a look at this theory as it applies to the letter's first two out-of-tune phrases -- the salutation and the first sentence.

The first problem is between the first and second words in the salutation, "To British People". This feels wrong -- L/S Turney ought to be addressing herself "To the British People". As a syntactician of slavic origin is said to have explained, "in English, is sometimes necessary to use article". Persian lacks definite articles, and so the subtleties of their use in English are likely to be difficult for native speakers of Persian to master. For example, in the International Bulletin of the Tudeh Party of Iran for May 2006, we find:

Unlike some of the political forces in Iran, Tudeh Party of Iran does not believe that the external intervention in Iran is the way to achieve freedom and democratic rights for Iranian people.

This is missing two instances of the that idiomatic English would deploy in the phrases "the Tudeh Party" and "for the Iranian people". And it has an inappropriate the as well: "...does not believe that the external intervention in Iran is the way...".

A second plausibly captor-influenced infelicity in Thurney's letter follows quickly, in the first sentence:

I am writing to you as a British service person who has been sent to Iraq, sacrificed due to the intervening policies of the Bush and Blair governments. [emphasis added, here and throughout]

The usual phrase for the clearly-intended meaning here is {"interventionist policies"}, which is commonly used to criticize military meddling in the affairs of other countries, and turns up 1,440 hits in the Google News Archive. A search for {"intervening policies"} in the Google News Archive (restricted in date to eliminate the many quotations of Turney's letter) turns up exactly three hits, all of them BBC quotes from Iranian sources. The first one is from the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran external service, Tehran, March 15, 2002; and the snip that's available for free is:

Analysts believe that should the present protest of world's community to US warmongering and intervening policies continue, Washington would certainly ...

The second and third hits both quote the same item from Keyhan International, Tehran, November 16, 2005, "Iranian daily says Asia to disallow Bush's 'human rights hypocrisy'"; the free snippet is

... burst into loud laughter, for they feel that Washington's undemocratic and intervening policies are the cause of tension and divisions In East Asia. ...

And a general Google search for general Google search for {"intervening policies" -serviceperson -Faye} turns up that same Tudeh News bulletin quoted earlier, which also contains the sentence:

Once again, we raise our concerns about the current trends of developments, and express our strict opposition to interfering and intervening policies of Imperialist states.

(The Tudeh Party is the Iranian Communist Party, once an ally of the current regime in Tehran but now operating from exile in London.)

This search also yields quite a few uses of "intervening policies" in economic contexts, e.g.:

Private and social prices are equal only in the absence of intervening policies.
Growth differences related to productivity & intervening policies.
These institutions could cover the framework necessary to constitute competitive markets as constitutional rules or be part of directly intervening policies.
The presence of some intervening policies notwithstanding, these changes directly affected wages and employment.

But the only other example of "intervening policies" in the international-relations sense that I saw was also from a passage apparently also written by a non-native speaker:

These privileged members of Cuban society, along with the rest of the population, rebelled from the United States and its intervening policies by supporting the Revolution, at least initially.

I don't imagine that L/S Turney would have come up with the phrase "interventionist policies" on her own either. But her alleged use use of "intervening policies" is the fingerprint of intervention by a non-native speaker steeped in the traditional rhetoric of the third-world left.

[Many others have noted the non-native coloration of the letters attributed to Turney. Niall Ferguson put it especially pungently in yesterday's Telegraph ("Iran targeted the Security Council's weakest link: us", 4/1/2007): "Delighted by their coup, Ahmadinejad and his lackeys have been amusing themselves by forcing Leading Seaman Faye Turney to sign bogus letters dictated to her in Borat-ese."

One thing that puzzles me -- doesn't the Iranian government have some trustworthy employees with a better command of English? Or do they just not care, because the intended audience for the letters doesn't speak English either?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:40 AM

Political Correctness, Linguistic Incorrectness

The Telegraph reports that the European Union "has drawn up guidelines advising government spokesmen to refrain from linking Islam and terrorism in their statements." The EU suggests that in place of "Islamic terrorism" one should say "terrorists who abusively invoke Islam".

You probably thought that this was an April Fool's post, but it isn't. This is a real story. The EU really thinks that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. This is, of course, a completely untenable position. Dozens of terrorists have explicitly said that they are Muslims and that their motivation was Islam. Moreover, there is clearly widespread support among Muslims for terrorism.

To take but one example, here are the results of a 2006 poll of Muslims as to whether they agreed that suicide bombings against civilians are sometimes or often justified:

Great Britain21

A poll of Palestinian Arabs found that 73% supported suicide attacks against American interests, a finding confirmed by the widely televised celebration of 9/11 in the West Bank and Lebanon. The EU may like to think that those who espouse terrorism are not true Muslims. but even if that is true, the fact remains that a substantial percentage of Muslims do not adhere to this view. Can you imagine the EU deciding that Roman Catholics and evangelicals who oppose abortion are not true Christians and insisting that one say "oppressors of women who abusively invoke Christianity" rather than "Christian anti-abortionists"?

The same figures, of course, show that most Muslims in the countries surveyed do not support terrorism, but to claim that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism is ridiculous. The EU's ostrich-like approach is stupid and dangerous for the way it ignores the very real fact of Islamic terrorism, but it is also linguistically ignorant since the phrase "Islamic terrorism" carries no implication that all Muslims support terrorism or that Islam is particularly associated with terrorism. By the same token, "Christian opposition to gay marriage" does not imply that all Christians are opposed to gay marriage or that Christians are particularly associated with opposition to gay marriage. If one must be politically correct, one should start from a correct understanding of the language at issue.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:17 AM

April 01, 2007

Rarely missing a chance to overanalyze

A few days ago, I wrote the following sentence:

1. I rarely miss a Daily Show, though sometimes not for several days after the fact.

As I read it over at the time, I had a sensation of overnegation bizarrity, but after thinking about it for awhile, I decided that it did say what I wanted it to say, although in a fairly obscure way, which I thought might be amusing, so I left it. Almost immediately after I posted it, though, alert reader Sridhar Ramesh wrote in with a description of having gone through the same boggle, pause, click of comprehension, pause, but it's still weird! that I did, and I decided I'd go back and think about it some more.

I don't think there's an overnegation in the sentence--it has just the right amount of negation -- but it does pose a weird ellipsis-reconstruction problem: the understood verb phrase inside the though-clause has to mean something that does not correspond to a syntactic constituent in the antecedent main clause.

Here's the way the problem goes, I think. "I rarely miss a Daily Show" is interpretively equivalent to "I usually watch the Daily Show." Informally, one could say that "miss" = "not watch"1, and "rarely" = "not usually", and the two negations cancel each other out, interpretively, like this:

2. a. I [rarely [miss a Daily Show]] -->
2. b. I do[n't [usually [not [watch the Daily Show]]]] -->
2. c. I [usually [watch the Daily Show]].

Now, consider what happens if I replace "rarely miss" with "usually watch" in my weird sentence above:

3. I usually watch a Daily Show, though sometimes not for several days after the fact.

This has a totally unobjectionable interpretation, derived by filling in an elided "I watch it" in the though clause, modified by the not in the though clause.2 This is shown in (4) below. I have colored the filled-in material red and put it in brackets so you don't lose track of it. The antecedent of the filled-in material is underlined.3

4. I usually watch a Daily Showi, though sometimes (I) don't (watch iti) for several days after the fact.

That is, as Sridhar notes, my not watching it can extend for several days before ending with my watching it. Note that it's not my usually not watching it that extends for several days -- the usually is not part of the filled-in material, just the VP watch the Daily Show.

In order to get this reading out of my actual sentence in (1), one has to dissect "miss" into "not watch". If you don't do this, and reconstruct the elision with the actually present VP miss a Daily Show, you get the overnegation problem:

5. I rarely miss a Daily Showi, though sometimes (I) don't (miss iti) for several days after the fact.

The though-clause here is saying there are several days of my not missing a given Daily Show followed by my missing it. That is, it sounds like I watch it repeatedly for several days and then begin to miss it.

The 'good' reading for the sentence that I and Sridhar were getting is based on decomposing 'miss a Daily Show' into 'not watch a Daily Show', as in (2b) above:

6. a. I rarely [miss a Daily Show]
6. b. I rarely do[n't [watch a Daily Show]]

After filling in the elided bit, this would give the right interpretation, namely, one in which [watch it] is the reconstructed constituent:4

7. I rarely don't watch a Daily Showi, but sometimes (I) don't (watch iti) for several days after the fact.

The key thing about (7), of course, is that it involves reconstructing a subpart of the decomposed "miss a Daily Show". This is what's making the sentence in (1) feel so bizarre. That subpart is not present in the syntax of the antecedent clause; if it's present at all, it's only in the sentence's 'logical form'.

One approach to ellipsis phenomena says that the whole understood sentence, repeated material and all, is actually present in the speaker's mental syntactic representation, but because some bit of it is identical to some other bit of it, the second instance of the identical bit is simply not pronounced. The hearer fills in the syntax of the heard bit for the syntax of the elided bit to arrive at the intended meaning. If this is how ellipsis works, we can understand the bizarre feeling: Ellipsis involves non-pronunciation of material that is syntactically identical with its antecedent, so the deleted phrase would have to be exactly the same as the whole actual pronounced verb phrase miss a Daily Show, not some deconstructed semantic subpart of it which isn't present in the real syntax. (See, e.g., Jason Merchant's work.)

Another approach to ellipsis says that the speaker doesn't bother constructing the syntax for the elided bit. Rather, the speaker recognizes that the intended interpretation is clear, and the syntactic structure of the elided bit is just not present at all. The hearer then has to reconstruct the intended meaning from the semantic interpretation of the antecedent clause. (see, e.g., Ray Jackendoff and Peter Culicover's work). Under that approach, the bizarre feeling might show that miss is not decomposable, semantically; although the lexical meaning crucially involves a negative implication of some kind, the negative part of the meaning can't be prised apart from the rest of the meaning during the interpretive process.

Either way, the bizarre feeling Sridhar and I get from (1) shows that in some important way, watch the Daily Show is not a subpart of miss the Daily Show.

1Actually, the imagined negated verb probably shouldn't be 'watch' here -- it'd be safer to posit a more general negated verb like 'not experience'. That would cover things like 'I missed the dance', where you don't mean 'I didn't watch the dance', but rather 'I didn't attend the dance'; 'I didn't experience the dance' would cover that scenario), or 'I missed what you just said', where you don't mean 'I didn't watch what you just said', but rather, 'I didn't hear what you just said' -- 'I didn't experence what you just said' would cover that too. Nonetheless I'm going to go with watch rather than experience just coz the problem is already complicated enough; it doesn't change anything about the reasoning undertaken below, though.

2I represent the filled-in-bit as 'I watch it' rather than 'I watch a Daily Show' because using the latter to elucidate the filled-in-bit wouldn't give the necessary bound-variable reading of the object of 'watch' in the elided bit; 'it', however, does. Just consider it a slight fictionalization that allows me to gloss over a discussion of why an overt repeated 'a Daily Show' wouldn't give the right bound variable reading and the mechanics of how some syntacticians think an invisible, elided 'a Daily Show' can give such a reading.

3 For another LL discussion of ellipsis phenomena see this post of David Beaver's.

4Note that the n't in the though-clause is not the same as the n't in the main clause. It's crucial to leave that main clause negation behind, otherwise you end up with the bad interpretation in (5), where it's my not watching it, i.e. my missing it, that starts several days after the initial air date.)


Posted by Heidi Harley at 07:21 PM

Forester hired in linguistics department


In a desperate effort to make linguistic tree drawings more understandable to the linguistically unwashed, North Orizen Junior Technical University yesterday proposed hiring an experienced forester, Kari "Woody" Leohtenen, as a tenured full professor in its newly created linguistics department. "Mr. Leohtenen has no background whatsoever in linguistics, which makes him the ideal candidate," said the dean, "but I'm sure that my brother-in-law's many years of experience in the timber industry will prove invaluable to our linguists as they try to prune what they call language tree diagrams. I'm told that right and left branching leads to semantic confusion--and we have a lot of this in our faculty meetings. We're also hoping that Woody can teach one of those critical languages that Homeland Security keeps harping about, like Finnish."

Mr. Leohtenen took his B.S. in Forestry at the University of Montana, a state known historically for wiping out its ponderosa pines to stoke the smelters of the state's now-defunct copper mines. Recent years have seen a glut of foresters on the job market and so North Orizen's experiment in cross-disciplinary cooperation is being heralded as a boon for otherwise unemployed specialists in the rapidly declining timber industry.

"It doesn't matter that I'll have to take a 50% cut in pay," said Leohtenen. "The chance to be a big-time, highfalutin university professor is worth it. Anyways, foresters don't have much to do these days and I was probably about to get laid off." Despite the dean's hearty endorsement, somewhat muted concerns about Leohtenen's lack of qualifications were voiced by a few apparently disgruntled faculty members. "I doubt he knows a stripling from a stripped cleft sluice," gruffed the newly hired syntactician. And the new phoneticican added, "He probably thinks the alveolar ridge is somewhere in the Rocky Mountains."

University administrators say that they don't intend to stop here. Their next step in their "Hiring-Across-Disciplines" strategy is to locate a forester who will specialize in the poetry of Joyce Kilmer for the English department. "After that," said one top-level official who asked that he not be identified, "we may examine the possibility of using foresters to teach math logarithms."

This reporter's efforts to get Language Log's response to this development have been unsuccessful.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 08:42 AM

Abnormalities of brain structure and function in GADHD

One of my former students has sent me a preprint of an important paper, due to be published next week, which uses modern brain imaging methods to provide a fascinating new perspective on metagrammatical ideation. In particular, this research helps us to understand why some people feel so strongly about perceived grammatical faults which they nevertheless understand so badly. The paper is J.C. Brother, Dewey, F.X., Cheatham, M., and Howe, C., "Volumetric Analysis and Glucose Metabolic Mapping of the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus in Patients with Grammatical Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder", Psychiatric Neurobiology, [forthcoming].

I'm late submitting a paper of my own for an upcoming workshop, and behind on a dozen other commitments, so I don't have time to go over this research in detail today . Anyhow, I should wait until you can read the Brother et al. paper for yourself, and it wouldn't be right for me to put the whole thing on line before its formal release. But I don't think the authors will mind if I give you an advance peek at the abstract:

Pullum et al. [1] have identified a behavioral syndrome, grammatical attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (GADHD), which is characterized by difficulty in focusing on linguistic structure, paradoxically combined with obsessive and affectively intense delusions about widespread violations of "rules of grammar". In this study, we compared 30 patients diagnosed with GADHD to 30 age- and sex-matched controls, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) to measure volumes and metabolic activity throughout the cortex. The volumetric analysis found that patients with GADHD had significant bilateral atrophy of parts of the anterior cingulate gyrus, with Brodmann areas 24 and 32 reduced in volume compared to the control subjects (634 ± 232 vs. 399 ± 170 mm3 and 6837 ± 1114 vs. 4171 ± 1572 mm3, respectively) while the metabolic analysis showed that the same areas nevertheless had significantly higher glucose metabolic rates per unit volume (CMRgl of 6.17 ± 1.23 ml per 100 g of tissue mass per minute in the GADHD patients vs. 4.66 ± 0.97 in the controls). These results are interepreted in terms of current theories of attention, reasoning and emotion.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:29 AM

The bubbled-in president

Matthew Dowd, President Bush's chief strategist during the 2004 campaign, has some not-so-nice things to say about his former boss in today's New York Times:

"I really like him, which is probably why I’m so disappointed in things," he said. He added, "I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in."

Bubbled in struck me as a peculiar verb-particle construction, but it turns out Dowd isn't the first Republican critic of the administration to use it with reference to Bush. Bob Woodward's State of Denial (published last October) recounts a June 2005 luncheon where Sen. Chuck Hagel had this to say to the President:

"I believe that you are getting really bubbled in here in the White House on Iraq. Do you ever reach outside your inner circle of people, outside your National Security Council?"

Woodward paraphrased Hagel's line in several interviews after the publication of the book, even telling Newsweek that Bush himself acknowledged being "bubbled in after 9/11." There have also been scattered attestations for bubbled-in as a nominal premodifier, such as a July 26, 2006 entry on My Left Wing referring to "the spineless conventional wisdom of bubbled-in D.C. Democrats," and a Nov. 2006 article in The Republic of East Vancouver on "the bubbled-in Bush administration" (implicitly referencing Hagel's criticism). Dowd's latest usage may help popularize the construction further, particularly as it applies to the current presidency.

The figure of a reality-deprived "president in a bubble" goes at least as far back as the 1992 campaign season, when it was directed against the elder Bush. William Safire noted the bubbling-up of the presidential bubble in his Nov. 29, 1992 "On Language" column, comparing the term to earlier uses of cocoon. Ross Perot told Larry King late in the '92 campaign, "Everybody out there except the White House knows the recession is here, and if you lived in that insulated bubble they've created for the President, you wouldn't know it either." Similarly, Bill Clinton was reported as wanting to "burst out of the bubble" surrounding the presidency.

Safire surmised that the metaphor was derived from "the transparent shield used to protect Presidents riding in open cars." I suspect an equally important source is the pop-cultural image of "the boy in the bubble," used to refer to children like David Vetter and Ted DeVita forced to live in sterile plastic bubbles due to immune deficiencies. (A young John Travolta gave a performance inspired by Vetter and DeVita in the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Satirical iterations include the 1992 Seinfeld episode "The Bubble Boy" and the 2001 film Bubble Boy.)

With the figurative usage of "bubble" established, a verbing of the noun sense was a rather predictable development. "Bubble" joined what Beth Levin classifies as the "POCKET verbs":

These verbs all have zero-related nominals; the related nouns refer to a location where things can be put. The meaning of these verbs can be paraphrased as "put (something) on/in X," where X is the noun that the verb takes its name from... The process of forming verbs of this type is productive, so that this class is likely to grow in size. (Levin, English Verb Classes and Alternations, p. 122)

Verbs in this class often take locative prepositional phrases such as "in (a place)": thus we see "an administration bubbled in its own reality" (June 18, 2006 comment on Kevin Drum's Washington Monthly blog) and "Bush and Cheney still bubbled in unreality" (May 21, 2006 headline for the EITB news service, paraphrasing Al Gore's comment that "the United States has been in a bubble of unreality where global warming is concerned"). A number of the "POCKET verbs" can also be found in verb-particle constructions using in, particularly in the passive, where X-ed in is equivalent to put/kept in X. Examples where the related noun is a type of container include boxed in, caged in, cooped in, and penned in. (Somewhat akin to these are constructions where the related noun is an enclosing barrier: fenced in, walled in, hedged in, hemmed in.) Bubbled in joins right into this family.

I think bubbled in sounds a bit stranger than these other constructions because we're not accustomed to hearing the verb bubble used to convey insularity. Contrast this with more established (intransitive) verb-particle combinations like bubble up and bubble over, where the associated image is that of gaseous bubbles rising up from boiling liquid. The protective plastic bubble encasing a boy or a president is a much newer concept, so it may take a bit longer for the figurative extension of being bubbled in to catch on.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:15 AM

Ban the harmless gerund?

I recently encountered a new prescriptive prohibition, even madder than the rest, and hitherto quite unknown to me. This one says (if you can believe this): don't use gerunds. Said Robert J. Robinson on the Writing Program Administration listserve on February 27:

I have been content witht the classic (and quite basic) definition of a gerund as a noun form of a verb. I normally caution writers to avoid certain things regarding gerunds. Most specifically not using them at the beginning of a sentence and using the proper possessive case. In my full time career as a copywriter, I have suddenly run across a boss who is adamantly opposed to any gerund. I would like to present a brief argument for the effective use of gerunds...any suggestions?

What the hell is going on here? A boss who is just opposed to any gerund on principle? This has taught me that some people suffer under even more stupid and incompetent bosses than Dilbert's. What can one do to help poor Mr Robinson? We are merely Language Log, not the cosa nostra; we cannot arrange for this insane gerund-hating boss to be offed. We can but provide some facts and helpful pointers he might draw to his boss's attention.

1. English has no gerund form per se; what it has is a single form of the paradigm that does something like the work of the Latin present participle and something like the work of the Latin gerund. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language Rodney Huddleston and I call that form the gerund-participle.

2. The gerund-participle has the distinction of being completely regular in its inflectional form for every verb that has participles at all: even for the weird copular verb be, the formation is perfectly predictable: add -ing to the plain form of the verb.

3. The gerund-participle is so extraordinarily profligate in its multiple uses that Arnold Zwicky and I once listed (in addition to eight different uses of -ing suffixing in lexical word formation) 25 distinguishable syntactic constructions in which the gerund-participle is used. The chances of a writer being able to complete a page without using any of these 25 constructions are just about zero.

4. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using gerunds in good writing, there never has been, and no respectable book known to me has ever even hinted at such a thing.

5. They are common at the beginnings of sentences, too.

What on earth the boss could have been concerned about is still quite unclear to me. One can only guess. (It probably isn't worth trying to contact him and ask; people just get all shirty and defensive, can't provide examples or justifications, and finally get angry at linguists; we find it's best not to tangle with the real wild-eyed grammar grouches.) One well known worry about the gerund-participle is that a subjectless gerund-participial clause can be used as an adjunct, and when it is thus used by an inexpert writer we are often left hanging in space without an understood subject (this is known as the dangling participle). This example occurred in in The Economist (October 11th, 2003, page 85), in a book review about a biography of John Clare, a poet who was the untutored son of an agricultural laborer:

Being desperately poor, paper was always scarce — as was ink.

There's no subject for being here, and that gives us a moment of double-take as we try to figure out the interpretation (only human beings can be financially underprivileged, so we need a reference to a person, but instead we get a reference to writing materials).

However, this dangling participle problem is not what got discussed on the WPA reading list. It was gerund-participial clauses as subjects they were talking about. Even Joseph Williams, author of the excellent Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press), feels obliged to say this:

About the only thing to say against gerunds at the beginning of a sentence is that such a sentence opens with an abstract nominalization. Often (though not always) a bad start.

Abstract? Let's get clear about just how abstract this is. The sentence Shopping is fun! has a gerund-participial clause (albeit only one word long) as its main clause subject, and even Barbie could understand that.

It sometimes seems to me that Americans, though they are the citizens of what is in some ways the freest and most democratic country the world has ever seen, simply cannot grasp the idea of free choice and personal discretion. They leap immediately to bans, blocks, prohibitions, and punitive edicts. Garrison Keillor reports having his radio show banned because the word breast was once uttered on it; an engaging book for young people is all but killed by school librarians because (in a way integral to the plot) it contains the word scrotum; the New York City council has enacted a ban on the word nigger (I already gave my views on the topic here); and in general, as Arnold Zwicky points out, the response to anyone doing anything a bit too much is to decree that they should be stopped from ever doing it at all. I have encountered several students now who were taught in the Los Angeles school system that it is an error if they do not erase from their writing every word that is grammatically optional (that is, that every word not required is forbidden). So grammar, the vast complex of subtle and delicate constraints on what makes sentences properly formed in a language, is reduced to a set of don'ts. Not dos, mark you; just don'ts. Don't split infinitives, don't use the passive, and don't use adjectives or adverbs. And now, because some boss saw a couple of sentences that may have begun with gerund-participial clauses he did not like, we have the newest prohibition: ban the gerund-participle, or ban it at the beginning of clauses. Madness.

And if the boss himself doesn't sometimes begin clauses with gerund-participial clauses himself, I'll eat a live adverb. Using gerund-participial clauses as subjects is something that people do every day, even in conversation. You just saw it done, in the previous sentence.

[Thanks to Elizabeth Abrams for the reference.]
Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:37 AM