January 31, 2008

Nanoblahblah in The New Scientist

The latest issue of The New Scientist includes an article by Jim Giles entitled "Word nerds capture fleeting online English" (PDF here [Removed at the request of The New Scientist]). I'm quoted alongside such word buffs as Grant Barrett (of Double-Tongued Dictionary fame) and Mark Peters (Mr. Wordlustitude) on the subject of amateur lexicography in the digital age. The "amateur" versus "professional" dichotomy made in the article is a bit of an exaggeration, and it's certainly unfair to conflate carefully edited sites like Grant's and Mark's with the free-for-all of Urban Dictionary. (Grant, after all, has worked as a professional lexicographer, for instance in his capacity as project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang.) Still, the article offers an enjoyable look at some of the fringe vocabulary lying outside the realm of traditional lexicography — often of the one-off variety catalogued on Wordlustitude, such as nanoblahblah, henchgoon, and celebufreak. (And for the record, I wrote on Language Log about Mark's "in-the-wild discoveries," not his "wild discoveries"! Wild, wacky stuff.)

[Update: Grant Barrett's take on the article is here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:16 AM

January 30, 2008

Olla Podrida

The New York Times contains a brief article entitled One Pot describing the Spanish dish known variously as cocido or olla podrida literally "rotten pot" According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, podrida may have an admiring connotation, similar to the use of "filthy rich" in English. Curiously, instead of the correct olla podrida, the article gives the name of the dish as olla poderida, which it explains as a derivative of poder "strength", because it gives you strength.

Reader Jim Gordon wondered about this and emailed the author of the article. Her response: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology. It seems clear that they were not trying to deceive anyone with evil intent, but I am still taken aback that a respectable newspaper would make up a fake name and etymology.

I also wonder how many readers would really be put off by the use of the word "rotten" in the name of the dish, especially if informed that in this context it really means something like "really rich". If you think about it, we eat many foods that are "rotten". Some of them are, admittedly, rather exotic for most people. Here in Carrier country we have ʔʌk'undʒʌt "rotten fish eggs", which by other names is eaten by other native groups as well. To make it, you just let the eggs sit until they have a slippery feel and squeak a little when you rub them between your fingers. There is some risk in eating ʔʌk'undʒʌt because you never know which bacteria will take root. Now and then somebody gets sick or even dies from eating bad ʔʌk'undʒʌt.

Another "rotten" food from this part of the world is what in Carrier is called sleɣe (except in the Southwestern part of the territory, where it is called tl'inaɣe), in English usually just "grease". It is made from the eulachon fish Thaleicthys pacificus, an anadromous fish similar to smelt. Eulachon are also known as candlefish because they are so oily that when dried they can be lit like candles. I am partial to smoked eulachon. Grease is made by digging a pit, pouring in a lot of fish, and leaving them to rot for a couple of months. Then you pour in boiling water and skim off the oil that rises to the top. The oil is extremely nutritious and has just the right fatty acids. It is used as a condiment: people dip bread or dried fish into it. Grease is made by the coastal people who live along the rivers where the fish run, such as the Coast Tsimshian and Nisga'a, but for hundreds of years has been traded into the interior along the routes collectively known as "Grease Trails".

In China people eat pickled tofu 豆腐乳 made by air-drying cubes of bean curd under hay and then letting them ferment due to the action of airborne bacteria. I always have some in my pantry. A cube or two adds a nice flavour, somewhat like that of Limburger cheese, to fried rice. I don't think I've ever seen it in a restaurant, but it is often on the table in Chinese homes. Another "rotten" bean curd product is stinky tofu 臭豆腐, which is fermented in a kind of brine.

In Japan nattoo 納豆 is made by steaming soybeans and then fermenting them under the action of Bacillus subtilis natto.

There are some exotic "rotten" foods even in Europe. One Icelandic delicacy is hákarl, produced by burying a shark in the gravel for a few months in order to get rid of the uremic acid. I've never had this, but apparently even Icelanders consider the consumption of hákarl a sign of machismo, so it must be pretty bad. In the Faroe Islands they eat ræst kjøt, half dried mutton that is then allowed to rot, and ræstur fiskur rotten half dried fish. I am told that these too are an acquired taste.

In England pheasant is hung for some time to age before it is eaten. True connoisseurs reportedly hang it for several weeks, until the body separates from the head. This is the result of a combination of bacterial and enzymatic action.

It isn't necessary to look for exotic foods to find examples of "rotten" food. Sour cream is made from cream by the action of bacteria that produce lactic acid. This is also how most cheeses are made. Some cheeses are then allowed to rot after they are formed. This is how blue cheeses such as Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola, are made, as well as such soft cheeses as Camembert, Brie, Limburger, and my beloved Liederkranz, which is no longer made.

If you drink alcohol, you are consuming something "rotten". Most alcoholic beverages are produced by fermentation with yeast, a fungus. By the same token, you consume "rotten" food if you eat leavened bread. What makes bread rise is the growth of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The resulting alcohol is baked out, but the carbon dioxide generated as a waste product inflates the dough.

In fact, then, unless you are a strict vegan and teetotaler who never eats leavened bread, you almost certainly consume "rotten" foods.

Posted by Bill Poser at 11:34 PM

Linguification is alive and well

I hate to break it to Geoff, but linguification ain't dead yet (at least, not as I understand the term). Earlier today on Morning Edition, Robert Smith commented on Rudy Giuliani's likely exit from the run for the Republican presidential nomination. (The following is from the audio of the story; the text is slightly different.)

It didn't take long before the crowd started to notice that Giuliani was speaking about his campaign in the past tense, and with a sense of nostalgia. "The responsiblity of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign. If you believe in a cause, it goes on, and you continue to fight for it, and we will."

For your convenience, I've highlighted the verbs in the Giuliani quotation. Any of them in the past tense?

By my count, there are four verbs in the present tense (The responsibility of leadership does, you believe, it goes, and you continue), one in the future tense (we will [continue to fight]), and two untensed (bare) verbs (to fight, doesn't end). The only reference in the quotation to the campaign being over (that is, in the past -- not the past tense) is the use of the verb end in the first sentence.

[ Update: Thanks to the folks (Arnold Zwicky being the first) who wrote to point out that I had mistakenly -- and in retrospect, quite stupidly -- classified end as a noun in my original post. I honestly don't know what came over me. Thanks also to everyone who noticed this and actively resisted commenting on it publically. I am grateful, but still guilty. ]

Does Smith (or the NPR production team) not know what a past tense is? Was there a longer quotation that they clipped such that it no longer included any verbs in the past tense, but then they forgot to go back and change the quotation's introduction? I doubt that either is true. It's just that linguification is too easy a trap to fall into -- and, probably, one that most folks wouldn't even pause to think about. Its use is metaphorical, clearly, and like some metaphors and unlike others, it's alive and well.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 02:02 PM

January 29, 2008

"It appears to be an obscenity and we will be in touch"

According to Stephanie Farr and William Bender, "Fed up with jet noise, couple raise the roof" (Philadelphia Daily News, 1/24/2008):

Armed with white roof sealant and three choice words, a Ridley Township couple has bypassed bureaucracy and taken their grievances straight to the top - of their roof - in letters 7 feet tall:

"F_ck U F.A.A."

Mark Twain once said: "When angry, count to four, when very angry swear." Michael Hall said he tried the counting. He even counted past four to 20 - the number of times he said he called the Federal Aviation Administration's noise-complaint hotline. But each call, he said, was met with the same response - an automated message telling him the complaint mailbox was full and could no longer accept new calls.

Apparently the actual roof sign did omit the 'u', though it's hard to be sure from the coverage that I've seen so far. In any case, the photo on the right was photoshopped by the newspaper to remove the 'c' and the 'k'.

The best part of the story, for me at least, is the reaction of the Ridley Township manager:

Hall's mother, Anne, who lives two houses down from her son, wasn't as concerned with the picture of the plane as she was with her son's use of one of the most controversial and universal words in the English language.

"It is freedom of speech; I guess you can say what you want to say," she said.

But Anne E. Howanski, Ridley Township manager, isn't so sure Hall has the right to invoke that particular word on his own house, even if it isn't visible from the street.

"I will have to check our ordinance on this," she said. "It appears to be an obscenity and we will be in touch."

Courtesy of the internets, I was able to find the Ridley Township web page, which directs me in turn to www.e-codes.generalcode.com, which allows me to select "Township of Ridley, PA", turn on Fuzzy Logic, Root Word, Phonic and Natural Language (who knew?), and enter the search term "obscenity".

There's extensive discussion under Chapter 62, "adult uses", but this seems to target only "commercial exploitation" of various sorts, not complaints to federal agencies painted on rooftops and visible only from passing aircraft:

The Board of Commissioners find that the commercial exploitation of explicit sexual conduct through the sale, rental and showing of obscene films, videotapes, videodiscs, records, magazines, books, pamphlets, photographs, drawings and devices and the use of massage parlors and model studios for the purpose of lewdness, assignation or prostitution constitutes a debasement and distortion of a sensitive and key relationship of human existence, central to family life, community welfare and the development of human personality, is indecent and offensive to the senses and to public morals and interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property, in that such interferes with the interest of the public in the quality of life and community environment, the tone of commerce in the Township, property values and public safety, and the continued operation of such facilities in a commercial manner is detrimental to the health, safety, convenience, good morals and general welfare of the Township of Ridley and of the residents, citizens, inhabitants and businesses thereof. Accordingly, the Board of Commissioners hereby declares such activities to be illegal as hereinafter set forth and, further, that such activities are hereby declared to be and constitute a public nuisance.

IANAL, but I think that the Halls are off the hook as far as Ridley Township obscenity ordinances are concerned. On the other hand, they might be in trouble on signage issues in general. Chapter 249 on "Signs and Billboards" defines a "sign" as

Any permanent or temporary structure, surface, fabric, device, or display or part thereof or any device attached, painted, or represented on a structure or other surface that displays or includes any letter, word, insignia, flag, or representation used as or in the nature of any advertisement, announcement, visual communication, direction, or is designed to attract the eye or bring the subject to the attention of the public.

and asserts that

No owner or occupier of any land, structure or building shall erect, alter, repair, enlarge remove or maintain any sign as defined herein within the Township of Ridley unless a sign license is obtained from the Township of Ridley.

Perhaps they could claim that the signage ordinance violates freedom of speech -- it does seem to prohibit standard political posters, for example -- and I guess there might be some question about whether riders in passing aircraft constitute "the public". But the Halls do seem to have succeeded in attracting the eyes of a certain number of people -- including, most likely, someone at the FAA. For all the good it will do them, alas.

[Update -- Tom McGrenery writes:

You've probably already had scads of emails about this, but the father of an acquaintance of mine once did something pretty similar in Wales some years ago... tired of low-flying RAF training runs, he painted "Piss off, Biggles" on his barn roof. (Story and photo here.)

It actually seemed to go down pretty well, particularly with the pilots, who ended up referring to 'Biggles' as a waypoint marker for their flights, but at least having the decency to fly higher over the farm.

Alas, the sign is apparently no longer there. More to the point, though, I wondered who or what "Biggles" is. And the Wikipedia tells me:

James Bigglesworth, better known in flying circles as "Biggles", is a fictional pilot and adventurer created by W. E. Johns.

He first appeared in the story "The White Fokker", published in the first issue of Popular Flying magazine, in 1932. The first collection of Biggles stories, The Camels are Coming, was published that same year.


[Chris Mackay, among others, has pointed out to me that Biggles features in a Monty Python skit, available here

Chris observes that there is an extensive discussion of the language/meta-language distinction at the beginning of the skit, deserving a post all its own.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:00 PM

The world in a grain of sand

Andrew Gelman (at the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science blog) recently posted "A message for the graduate students out there"

Research is fun. Just about any problem has subtleties when you study it in depth (God is in every leaf of every tree), and it's so satisfying to abstract a generalizable method out of a solution to a particular problem.

which references a post of his from 2005:

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson quotes Richard Feyman:

No problem is too small or too trivial if we really do something about it.

This reminds me of the saying, "God is in every leaf of every tree," which I think applies to statistics in that, whenever I work on any serious problem in a serious way, I find myself quickly thrust to the boundaries of what existing statistical methods can do.

That's certainly what happens in every area of linguistic research that I've ever worked on. Except that the terra incognita around us is not only methodological, but also descriptive and conceptual.

Andrew draws a cheerful -- and true -- conclusion, which also applies in the various areas of linguistics:

[This] is good news for statistical researchers, in that we can just try to work on interesting problems and the new theory/methods will be motivated as needed.

Last week at dinner after my talk at the University of Chicago, several of us were reminiscing about our grad-school experiences. John Goldsmith and I contributed a number of stories about Morris Halle, who taught this lesson so intensely and effectively.

As Andrew says, the initial effect of looking carefully at an arbitrary problem is generally additional complexity:

I could give a zillion examples of times when I've thought, hey, a simple logistic regression (or whatever) will do the trick, and before I know it, I realize that nothing off-the-shelf will work. Not that I can always come up with a clean solution (see here for something pretty messy). But that's the point--doing even a simple problem right is just about never simple.

Occasionally -- more often if you're smart or lucky -- you run across a simple problem for which the standard treatment is complicated and not very good, where you can find a better, simpler and generalizable solution.

It's commoner to find a better solution that's just as complicated, if not more so. But Morris taught us to have faith that if you keep at it, glimpses of the truth will be revealed.

One of my favorite examples comes from a rather different area of speech and language research. In the 1920s and 30s, Harvey Fletcher made basic discoveries about auditory physiology and the nature of speech perception, as a consequence of looking carefully at a mundane-seeming problem: how to predict the intelligibility of nonsense syllables as a function of the frequency response of a telephone circuit.

For an accessible and entertaining discussion, see Jont Allen, "Harvey Fletcher's role in the creation of communication acoustics", J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 99(4), 1996. And for an entirely different perspective on the "articulation index" research, see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's fictionalized account (in The First Circle) of Gleb Nerzhin's doomed attempts to apply and extend the same ideas.

Yakonov wants Nerzhin to give up his work on the acoustics of perception, and to focus instead on hacking the circuitry of the vocoder that Stalin demanded to compete with SIGSALY, which Fletcher's group at Bell Labs had built during WW II (with the participation of Alan Turing on the British side).

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:22 PM

More on misplaced spellings

I'm just a humble collector of Cupertino curiosities, but Thierry Fontenelle of the Microsoft Natural Language Group is deep in the orthographic trenches, tinkering with the algorithms used by the Microsoft Office spellchecker so that users get the spelling suggestions they deserve. (Whether they choose to take those suggestions is of course another matter.) Below is Thierry's response to my latest Cupertino foray, "Cupertino, Part Deux: I read it on misplace."

Ben Zimmer’s recent post on “MySpace”, “Misplace” and spell-checkers is very interesting. As noted in his post, the word MySpace is now in the lexicon of the Office 2007 spellchecker. I guess nobody will complain about that addition (that shows that the tools evolve as well, like our vocabulary, and solving the Cupertino issues he regularly describes on Language Log is an algorithmic problem, but also a problem related to the coverage of the dictionary).

As you know, a spell-checker has two main functions: it should spot mistakes, but it should also try to suggest the most likely word form to replace the erroneous input. Computing the suggestions is usually an algorithmic process based upon the concept of “edit distance”, which measures the number of character manipulations that were necessary to turn a correct word into an incorrectly spelled one: deleting, adding, transposing or replacing a character are the most common manipulations. Here are examples of such manipulations (the word to the right of the arrow is flagged with a red squiggle):

Deleting a character: information infomation
Adding a character: developing developping
Transposing 2 characters: believe beleive
Substitution: independent independant

When a word is not found in the speller dictionary, the speller tries to find the nearest candidate in terms of edit distance. This algorithmic process is used to compute the order of the suggestions. In addition to “edit distance”, which is a general, language-independent concept, some language-specific knowledge may also be used to fine-tune the order of suggestions. There can be a specific rule saying for instance that some users have problems with the letters “gh” which they sometimes mix up with “f”: if you write “rouf”, you will therefore see that the application of the edit distance mechanism is responsible for the suggestion “roof” appearing in the first position, but you will also see “rough” in the list of suggestions offered by the speller, even though, in terms of edit distance, there are more manipulations to delete “gh” and add “f”: this is based upon an English-specific typology of errors which enables us to take into account frequent mistakes.

Ben cites one of his readers who points out that the latest Word spellchecker gives misplace as the first suggestion for Mysplace. That is true and is in fact expected, since going from Misplace to Mysplace is done by substituting the “i” and the “y” (one-character change only).

The distance is longer to transform MySpace into Mysplace (turning the capital “S” into a lower-case “s” and adding “l”). This is why MySpace appears as the 2nd suggestion.

Note that MySpace is listed as the first suggestion when you type Mispace in Office 2007, and not as the second one, as suggested by Ben’s reader (see screenshot below):

Of course, it will always be up to the writer to decide whether they really meant MySpace or something else. In any case, I don’t think this is a “Cupertino” issue, since there is no automatic replacement (as you know, the Cupertino issue affected the Word speller in the 1997 version, over 10 years ago, and was due to the AutoReplace function – many things have changed since then and the Office proofing tools have improved a lot, for instance with the introduction in Office 2007 of a contextual speller). The speller does its job when it flags the mistake in Mispace and also does its job when it suggests the most likely corrections. I would argue that if the user unfortunately clicks on “Misplace” in this list when they meant “MySpace” and had written “Mispace”, the tool cannot really be blamed, can it? ;-). 

[guest post by Thierry Fontenelle, Microsoft Natural Language Group]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 09:53 AM

Shake, rattle and roll

It is extremely common to find non-linguists espousing a kind of naive semanticism about syntax: they think everything about syntax springs from meaning, i.e., that where you can use a certain word just follows in an obvious way from what that word means. There are plenty of cases that I take to be clear counterexamples; for example, one pointed out by Richard Hudson of University College London in the 1970s is that likely seems to mean exactly what probable means, and in many contexts they are interchangeable, but I'm likely to be late is grammatical while *I'm probable to be late is not. But the layperson is often not easy to convince: they just assert that the latter sounds bad because "it doesn't mean anything" (which of course was supposed to be the datum, not the explanation!). It may be that you simply agree with them.

When reflecting on this I have often thought about the case of verbs expressing sharp or erratic movements. Deirdre Wilson (also of UCL) pointed out to me a long time ago that shaking and quaking are basically exactly the same thing — if it quaked then it shook, and conversely — but one is transitive (takes a direct object) and the other is not (Try shaking it is grammatical but *Try quaking it isn't). Below is a list of fifty verbs of shaking, rattling, rolling, juddering, twitching, jerking, oscillating, lurching, and similar movements. The question I put before you is simply whether you could truly have told in advance from knowing the semantic facts — what it means for something to shake, rattle, roll, judder, twitch, etc. — whether each of these verbs would be transitive or not. A plus sign in the intransitive column for shake means I think that It shook is clearly grammatical, and a plus sign in the transitive column means I think that Someone shook it is clearly grammatical. The intransitive mark for jog is for The road jogs left at the end of that block, and the transitive one is for You jogged my elbow. Flutter is shown as transitive because you can flutter your eyelashes. And so on. I'm sure I have missed some cases; the tabulation below is based on a quick rough-and-ready assessment, not detailed corpus searching (that is perhaps a task for the future). But see what you think. Could you predict the verbs that can take a direct object, just from the sense? Because if not, naive semanticism is wrong, and linguists' almost universal belief that meaning does not predict all syntactic properties is justified.

   Intransitive   Transitive
agitate +
brandish +
jar +
jostle +

[Update for specialists: I am not unaware of semantic distinctions like that between internal and external causation, which do have some influence on the possibility of transitive uses (see Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav, Unaccusativity (MIT Press, 1995), pp. 90ff). I am not suggesting that my own position is (to use a term that Andew Koontz-Garboden mischievously suggested) naive syntacticism. I'm just saying this is going to be some complex function of both syntax and semantics.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 07:31 AM

Racial abuse not cricket (and vice versa)

The Harbhajan Singh story is surely a free-speech dispute that holds almost no satisfaction for anybody. American readers may not have heard about it, because it concerns (a) India, (b) Australia, and (c) cricket. For Americans who are not international news junkies, the quantity of news encountered about any of these three topics in a week will typically amount to zero. Harbhajan Singh is a spin bowler (the analog of a pitcher in baseball) who plays on the Indian national team. Andrew Symonds is a member of the Australian cricket team, a batsman from Queensland. Symonds is black (not because of Australian Aboriginal heritage, incidentally, but because one of his birth parents was West Indian; he was adopted by English parents who moved to Australia when he was a baby). During an argument on the pitch during a test match (a major international game), Harbhajan is alleged to have called Symonds a "big monkey".

When the Australian captain complained, charges were immediately brought under international cricketing regulations, since they forbid use of language which "offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that person's race, religion, gender, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin." Harbhajan was found guilty, and barred from playing for three games. India immediately threatened to pull its team out of the series and go home. Harbhajan appealed, and a New Zealand judge, John Hansen, was appointed by the International Cricket Council as an appeals commissioner to hear the appeal in Adelaide's Federal court. He announced his decision yesterday: the charge is downgraded to one of using abusive language, and Harbhajan has been fined 50 per cent of his match fee, but can continue playing. No racism, no continuing dispute, and cricket can go on. Everything is peachy. Unless of course you care about any of the underlying issues.

  • First Amendment radicals will be disturbed that the charge should never have been brought. People should be free to speak their minds in their own ways. On a sports field tempers will run high, and those who have racist tendencies will reveal themselves by using racist language (if we assume that is what "monkey" is), and they will forfeit the respect of those of us who despise racism.

  • Those who favor regulations and laws to control racist speech will find it a scandal that Harbhajan basically escaped the original charge. Symonds is said to have suffered racial abuse before, at three cricket grounds in India in October 2007 (see Wikipedia); this is becoming a pattern.

  • India fans will insist that there is no evidence that Harbhajan did anything at all; otherwise such evidence would have been presented. The microphone that the Nine Network had placed near the batsman's area did not pick up the insult (though what it did pick up was pretty damning: see the transcript here, and note that Harbhajan does not attempt to deny what he's being accused of). So it is an outrage, they will say, that he was fined a large sum of money for an angry word that no one can prove he uttered.

  • Australia fans will be disgusted that what really appears to have been operative here was (surprise, surprise) money. India is now the biggest financial powerhouse in the cricket world: there is simply more money to be made by televising cricket for the billion-strong population of India than for anything else on earth. The Australian market is trivial by comparison. For India to pack up its gear and go home would have been a financial disaster for world cricket. So what the business side of the cricket industry really needed was for Harbhajan to be cleared of any alleged simian conversational references so that business could continue, never mind what he had done. And that is what has just occurred. Play on.

A nasty judgment call, I think, for anyone with radical free-speech inclinations who also cares about sport. On the one hand, in a free society you should be free to call an opponent a monkey in a disputewithout ending up in the High Court, if you want to sink that low rhetorically. (According to this cricket blog the India captain Chetan Chauhan agrees that Harbhajan said "monkey", but that in India that's not an insult. I don't know about that; but when Ravana called Nandi a monkey in Indian mythology, Ravana was then cursed for it.) But on the other hand, sport is increasingly being disrupted by racism: British soccer fans, in particular, used to be notorious for appalling racist abuse of black players. Soccer followers tell me that in England the problems (crowds of young men booing and gibbering and shouting abuse and jump up and down scratching their armpits when an African player on the other side takes the field) have largely abated in the last few years; but on the continent of Europe, in Spain particularly, there are still reports of racist fan behavior; and buses in Edinburgh still carry posters inside warning people that they can be placed on a police list of people banned from attending any soccer game for periods of many years if they engage in racist abuse.

Free speech for all? Or safe and sane working conditions for hard-working African sportsmen? There is a basic clash here between freedom of expression and reasonable standards of public behavior. It certainly is not a simple open-and-shut issue.

One little further linguistic point: as I wrote about India's new financial muscle above, naturally the metaphor of the 800-pound gorilla in the old joke ("Where does he sleep? Anywhere he wants!") occurred to me as a vivid way to talk about the undeniable force India has become; but then I suddenly saw that in the context a gorilla metaphor might not be the right figure of speech to choose...

[Update: Vinay P. Jain has told me an extremely interesting fact. It turns out that there is some doubt about what language the insult was delivered in. It is thought that Harbhajan (who is from Delhi, and thus speaks Hindi) may have uttered the widespread north Indian abusive phrase तेरी माँ की (terii mãã kii), literally "your mother 's" — an almost exact equivalent of the familiar American you mama!. (Your mother's what? It is left unspecified lest the insult become too extreme.) The combination of the noun mãã "mother" (in which the tildes over the long vowel [aa] denotes nasalization) and the genitive postposition kii sounds extremely similar to the English word monkey. So Harbhajan may have just been muttering the equivalent of "yo mama!" to Symonds, mainly for the benefit of his (Hindi-speaking) team-mates. In which case the judge was right, this was abuse, but not racist abuse. On the other hand, some discussion in the press has cast doubt on the Hindi story; for one thing, there is video of cricket fans actually calling Symonds a monkey in India a few months ago in terms that left no doubt about it. Then again, one of my Australian correspondents points out that there has long been concern about the abusive language used on the pitch by the Australian team. Michael Jeffery, the Governor-General of Australia (i.e., the Queen's representative in the country, of which she is still the official head of state) has commented on his perception of graceless behavior of Australian cricketers. (And there are certainly some tales to tell; you can read one or two here.) The Australians are not blameless. Things are always more complicated than one at first thinks, aren't they?]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 03:34 AM

January 28, 2008

"Love" as an Act of Hostility

[This is a guest post by Jane Acheson]

Geoffrey K. Pullum's post the other day ("Yale Sluts and Princeton Philosophers" , 1/23/2008) ham-handedly tried to assert that calling women sluts, while potentially insulting, could not possibly amount to sexual harassment:

Insane over-interpretation of laws against such things as "hate speech", sexually harassing speech, and defamation will not be disappearing any time soon, it seems.

The context is as follows: a photo appeared on Facebook, of a group of Zeta Psi pledges with a poster saying WE LOVE YALE SLUTS posed in front of the Yale Women's center. Pullum is convinced that the reaction within the Yale community, which involved threat of lawsuit, a brouhaha, and instant contrition on the part of the men involved, could not have sprung from sane, serious law, and must be the result of some kind of legal hysteria. But that "insane over-interpretation" is actually just a straight-up, legally-recognized form of sexual harassment, according to the applicable policies of Yale, the state of Connecticut, and federal law. It is called "hostile environment," and Yale's policy (PDF) describes it thusly:

"Hostile environment" harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment and has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with the victim's work or study. Hostile environment sexual harassment can include sexual advances, repeated taunts regarding sexual preferences, taunting jokes directed at a person or persons by reason of their sex, obscene posters with sexual connotations and sexual favoritism in work assignments.

If "slut" is a term of abuse -- a taunt -- directed at women for reasons of their sex, then the incident in question appears to be pretty straightforward sexual harassment. Is "slut" a term of abuse? Try calling a female colleague a slut, and the black eye you get back will be your proof. Is it directed at women purely because they're female? In this case, the taunt was directed so generally that the perpetrators, a group of frat pledges, took their WE LOVE YALE SLUTS poster across campus and posed with it in front of the Yale Women's Center. They couldn't be bothered to taunt a specific woman on the campus; or even a specific group of women, like a sorority counterpart: they taunted all the women of Yale.

These frat pledges may not understand themselves to be participating in a social pattern of hostility and intimidation; indeed, Pullum's defense of their speech rests in part on his certainty that the men were expressing adoration of, and idealized (likely vain) wishing to obtain, the women of Yale. And I'll agree: I'm sure those frat pledges think they love women. They love women as receptacles for sexual mythology, as things to conquer or obtain or enjoy, and not as people.

WE LOVE YALE SLUTS. As Livejournal blogger Cija opined sarcastically: "There can't be anything wrong with an affirmation of a man's love, can there? Come on, sluts, accept my love."

That's what we're talking about here, isn't it? "Love" as a thinly-disguised codeword for "fuck". Name-calling meant to reduce all women to sexual targets. A photograph posted on Facebook as a trophy of the frat boys' "triumph" over the dignity and safe space of the Yale Women's Center. Posters and patterns of public behavior intended to squash the variety and vibrancy of half the human species into a male-defined fantasy object of constant sexual availability.

Sounds pretty hostile to me. Should women have to endure worse behavior in their work and study settings than men, simply because of their sex? The law says they shouldn't. If that's insane, then go ahead and call me crazy.

[Above is a guest post by Jane Acheson.

Note that while Jane was composing her reply, Geoff added an update to his post that brings his position closer to hers.

A bit more about the context, from the Yale Daily News (Zachary Abrahamson, "Misogyny claim leveled at frat", 1/22/2008):

Former Women's Center Public Relations Coordinator Jessica Svendsen '09 said she found a group of men chanting "Dick! Dick! Dick!" in front of the Elm Street entrance to the Center, which is located in Durfee Hall, shortly before midnight last Tuesday. Frightened, she decided to take a detour through the Center's Old Campus entrance, she said.

"I stopped even before I got to Durfee, because I recognized that as a single woman facing 20 to 25 frat boys, I wasn't going to be able to enter the Women's Center," Svendsen said. "This was my first experience knowing that misogyny does happen at Yale -- and right in front of the Women's Center door."

The photo appeared on Facebook the next day.

Other sources claim that the Zeta Psi pledges were actually chanting "DKE! DKE!" (pronounced "deek"), the name of another fraternity, perhaps in an attempt to shift the blame for the action. Whatever they actually did, it's worth observing that these pledges were almost certain being hazed, i.e. performing a demeaning or dangerous task specifically assigned by the full members of the frat they were trying to join.

The EEOC's page on sexual harrassment is here. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:48 AM

January 26, 2008

Linguistic Incompetence at the FCC

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to fine ABC $1.4 million for airing in 2003 between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. an NYPD Blue episode showing a woman's buttocks. The details are in this Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture¹. According to the FCC, the episode violated its decency regulations because it depicts "sexual or excretory organs or activities". In response to ABC's argument that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, the ruling states:

Although ABC argues, without citing any authority, that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, we reject this argument, which runs counter to both case law²³ and common sense.

This is the entirety of the FCC's discussion of this point.

I am shocked that the FCC has erred on such a simple linguistic point.² The buttocks are not used for sexual reproduction so they are not a sexual organ. Indeed, they are not an organ of any sort, which is defined by Wordnet as: "a fully differentiated structural and functional unit in an animal that is specialized for some particular function". Unlike the heart or the kidneys, the buttocks are not "specialized for some particular function".

The FCC's claim that case law shows that the butocks are, for legal purposes, a "sexual organ", is contained in footnote 23:

²³ See, e.g., City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277 (2000) (Supreme Court did not disturb a city’s indecency ordinance prohibiting public nudity, where the buttocks was listed among other sexual organs/body parts subject to the ordinance’s ban on nudity); Loce v. Time Warner Entertainment Advance/Newhouse Partnership, 191 F.3d 256, 269 (2d. Cir. 1999) (upholding state district court’s determination that Time Warner’s decision to not transmit certain cable programming that it reasonably believed indecent (some of which included “close-up shots of unclothed breasts and buttocks”) did not run afoul of the Constitution).

The two cases cited merely establish that the display of the buttocks may be considered indecent. In both cases, the buttocks are included in lists of body parts whose display is prohibited, but nothing in either case justifies the equation of the set of prohibited body parts with the sexual organs. Indeed, one can make the opposite argument. The relevant City of Erie ordinance is Ordinance 75-1994, codified as Article 711 of the Codified Ordinances of the city of Erie (cited in the opinion of the Supreme Court above). It includes the definition:

"Nudity" means the showing of the human male or female genital [sic], pubic hair or buttocks …

The ordinance lists the buttocks in addition to the genitalia, which is to say, the reproductive organs. This would be quite unnecessary if the buttocks were reproductive organs.

The problem for the FCC is that it wants to enforce a broad notion of indecency that includes display of the buttocks but that its own regulations contain a narrower definition. Both in its ruling generally and in its mis-citation of the case law in footnote 23, the FCC appears to believe that it can expand the definition of indecency from what it is to what it would like it to be by fiat.

I trust that the courts will overturn this idiotic ruling if it does not die of embarrassment first.

¹ Linguistic analysis at the FCC may be lacking, but somebody there has taste in machine names. The server on which this document is located is called hraunfoss, the name of one of Iceland's many scenic waterfalls. This set of photographs of waterfalls by Icelandic photographer Thomas Skov includes a nice photograph of Hraunfoss.

² Do you think that the FCC has been taken over by some of those Hispanic immigrants that we so often hear about, the ones that refuse to learn English? ¡Comisionados! ¿Pensan ustedes que las nalgas sean órganos sexuales? Según la Wikipedia: "Los órganos sexuales son las estructuras especializadas para la formación de los gametos o células reproductoras." Pienso que no incluyan las nalgas.

Posted by Bill Poser at 08:32 PM

The media gap

In the latest New York Review of Books, Sarah Boxer ("Blogs", NYRB 55(2) 2/14/2008) reviews ten spectacularly, um, diverse books. There's Cass Sunstein's Republic.com 2.0 and Hugh Hewitt's Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World. There's Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Daniel Solove's The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. There's ... well, you get the idea. 

After some preliminary lexicography -- perhaps there are NYRB readers who don't know what those "blog" things actually are  --Boxer disposes of her ten books in one sentence, and gets to the question she really wants to explore:

A growing stack of books has pondered the effects of blogs and bloggers on culture (We've Got Blog and Against the Machine), on democracy (Republic .com 2.0), on politics (Blogwars), on privacy (The Future of Reputation), on media (Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation and We're All Journalists Now), on professionalism (The Cult of the Amateur), on business (Naked Conversations), and on all of the above (Blog!). But what about the effect of blogs on language?

Are they a new literary genre? Do they have their own conceits, forms, and rules? Do they have an essence?

Since none of the ten books being reviewed engages this question,  she naturally turns to Language Log:

Bloggers assume that if you're reading them, you're one of their friends, or at least in on the gossip, the joke, or the names they drop. They often begin their posts mid-thought or mid-rant—in medias craze. They don't care if they leave you in the dust. They're not responsible for your education. Bloggers, as Mark Liberman, one of the founders of the blog called Language Log, once noted, are like Plato. :-) The unspoken message is: Hey, I'm here talking with my buddies. Keep up with me or don't. It's up to you. Here is the beginning of Plato's Republic:

I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, to pay my devotions to the Goddess, and also because I wished to see how they would conduct the festival since this was its inauguration.

Wait a second! Who is Ariston? What Goddess? What festival?

And here, for comparison's sake, is a passage from Julia {Here Be Hippogriffs}, a blog about motherhood and infertility:

Having left Steve to his own devices for the past three days I am being heavily pressured to abandon the internet (you! he wants me to abandon you!) and come downstairs to watch SG-1 with him....

So this will have to be quick. Vite! Aprisa aprisa!

I went to Blogher. It was rather fun and rather ridiculous and I am quite glad I went although I do not know if I would ever go again. One thing of note for my infertile blogging friends: DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. Do not go. Do not ever ever go to Blogher.

Huh? Who's Steve? What's Blogher? A blog? (No.) A mothers' club? (No.) A blogging conference? (Yes.)

(The LL link is "Weblogs were invented by... Plato!", 11/3/2003.)

After a couple of thousand interesting words about blogging styles, Boxer brackets the discussion with another LL reference:

Writing like this might seem easy, but just try it. Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford who writes for newspapers and radio and sometimes contributes to the blog Language Log, admitted on NPR back in 2004, "I don't quite have the hang of the form." And, he added, many journalists who get called upon by their editors to keep blogs are similarly stumped: "They fashion engaging ledes, they develop their arguments methodically, they give context and background, and tack helpful IDs onto the names they introduce." Guess what? They read like journalists, not bloggers.

(The link is "Blogging in the global lunchroom", commentary broadcast on "Fresh Air," 4/20/2004.)

Vanity aside,  Boxer's article is entertaining and intelligent and funny. But there's one aspect of the situation that she misses, something that's always puzzled me: a sort of "media gap". There's not much "virtual click-through", so to speak, from traditional media to the web; and perhaps as a result, there's often a lot less commentary back the other way than you might expect.

Over the years, Language Log has been mentioned or even featured from time to time in fairly high-traffic places. When the source is  a  web site of some sort, I see a bump in our readership -- but the effect is much smaller, in proportion, when readers need to do anything beyond clicking on a link in order to find us. And exposure on broadcast media, such as Geoff Nunberg's pieces on "Fresh Air", has barely any effect at all. (For an example of the click-through effect, see  "The Gray Lady goes up against fark.com", 6/20/2006.)

Although the NYRB has a paid circulation of around 140,000 -- and some online readership as well -- Boxer's mentions of LL haven't had any detectable effect on our visit and hit counts:

Nor has her NYRB article gotten much uptake so far elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Blogpulse has registered two reactions so far, on Jan. 24 and 25. (And one more that doesn't mention the author's name.)

The peak in the Blogpulse graph just after Christmas represents two posts (counted by Blogpulse as four) noting that NPR's Morning Edition had a story featuring selections from Boxer's new book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. According to Wikipedia, Arbitron estimates that 13 million people listen to Morning Edition every week. It's "the second most-listened-to national radio show, after The Rush Limbaugh Show". Millions of people, and thousands of bloggers, must have heard that segment -- but only two bloggers linked to it.

I'm not sure what this media gap means, beyond the obvious: the more memory and effort that goes into following up on a reference, the less likely people are to do it. But this is surely part of the reason for the success of new media (including, obviously, open-access scholarly and scientific publishing). Is it also part of the reason for the decline of the old?

[Update -- Ben Zimmer writes:

Just thought I should mention that Sarah Boxer solicited a few of my Language Log posts for her forthcoming blog anthology, Ultimate Blogs, on the topics of truthiness, diapers, Googlefreude, and Chinese menus. I haven't seen it yet (the publication date is Feb. 12), but Publishers Weekly said my contributions make Language Log read like "a wonderfully expansive and more self-aware William Safire column."


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:48 AM

January 25, 2008

Political Correctness and the Use/Mention Distinction

Professor Donald Hindley was recently found guilty of racial harassment by Brandeis University for statements that he made in his Fall 2007 Latin American Studies course. The case is discussed in this report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and in a number of blog posts, including this one by Margaret Soltan and this one by Eugene Volokh. Criticism of Brandeis is based in part on what appears to have been an egregiously unfair process, and in part on the nature of the charges against him.

Brandeis has apparently refused to disclose publicly exactly what Hindley said that it considers "racial harassment"¹, but according to FIRE, which in my experience has a record of accuracy in such matters, the complaint is that he said:

Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'.

His offense is described as having used the word 'wetback'. This is false. He did not use the word 'wetback'; he mentioned it. That is, he did not choose the word 'wetback' for his own communicative purposes. Rather, he referred to its use by others. This is not a mere distinction of terminology: there is a vast difference between the two. When someone uses a word, he or she is responsible for what it conveys, but when one mentions a word, one assumes no such responsibility.

If someone says "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", he or she has asserted a proposition with which other people are entitled to take issue, and one can validly infer that the speaker does not like Indians. If, however, someone says "General Sheridan said: 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian'", the only proposition asserted is that General Sheridan said a certain thing. Nothing is asserted about Indians, and in the absence of additional information, no valid inference can be drawn regarding the speaker's attitude toward Indians. There is no way to tell whether the speaker agrees with General Sheridan or disagrees with him.

Speaking generally:

In the absence of other information, one is not entitled to draw any inference as to the speaker's attitudes and beliefs from mentions.

The use-mention distinction is not some recent and esoteric discovery known only to linguists - it is an old idea, well known to philosophers, one that should be familiar to anyone to whom it falls to interpret language. Nonetheless, failure to recognize it is distressingly common. A prominent incident in which a speaker was improperly condemned for a mention was the speech that the Pope gave at Regensburg, in which he quoted a statement by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II about Islam. You can read the full text of his speech, in the original German, on the Vatican web site here. The Vatican has an English version here.

The Pope's speech is a subtle and academic discussion of the relationship between faith and reason. At one point, he discusses a series of conversations that took place circa 1391 between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and "an educated Persian". He then draws attention to a portion of one conversation. I will quote him at length so as to provide the full context.

The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably - is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

If you read carefully, the Pope nowhere endorses the Emperor's characterization of Islam. The closest he comes is to mention briefly what the Emperor must have known. Moreover, he describes the Emperor as addressing his interlocuter "with startling brusqueness", which suggests that he has no intention of baiting Muslims himself. What he picks up on is the theme of the Emperor's critique of what he (that is, the Emperor) took to be the Muslim view, namely that faith is bound up with reason. The Pope briefly contrasts Catholic and Muslim views of the role of reason, and then carries on with a more general discussion of the relationship between faith and reason that has nothing in particular to do with Islam.

In sum, whatever the correct view of the Muslim stance (or stances) on forcible conversion and jihad may be, the Pope actually took no position on the question. He merely used an argument made by the Emperor Manuel II against what he took the Muslim position to be as the basis for his own discussion of faith and reason. Having made no assertion about forcible conversion in Islam, the Pope is immune to criticism on these grounds and owes no one an apology.

This is not to say that there are no circumstances in which a mention may be improper. In some circumstances, bringing up a certain topic will be hurtful to someone, regardless of what one has to say about it. Similarly, some people may in some circumstances be hurt or offended by certain words. Some people, for example are upset even by seeing the word "fuck" in a context such as this, where it is not used to communicate anything at all. It may be, therefore, that there are situations in which we should condemn mentions as well as uses.

It is nonetheless important to distinguish between offensive uses and offensive mentions, for two reasons. First, while there are arguably no circumstances in which some offensive uses are acceptable, there are many socially valuable situations in which offensive things must be mentioned. Surely it is not wrong to explain to a foreigner who has learned the word from a book or a child who has overheard it that "nigger" is not an acceptable way to refer to black people, yet this may be difficult or impossible without mentioning the offending word. Teachers must be able to assign and discuss texts containing offensive expressions. Scholars must be able to discuss historical usage and the way it has changed, or why a term is offensive.

Second, while it is generally straightforward to determine that a use is intentionally offensive, it is much harder to determine whether a mention is intentionally offensive. When someone asserts that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, it is clear that he or she hates Indians and fair to condemn the statement. When someone merely quotes such a statement, a process of inference is required to determine his or her intention. Occasionally, the inference may be certain, as when the speaker adds "and I agree", but more often the inference will be uncertain or even impossible. If mentions are conflated with uses, there is a serious risk of condemning innocent people.

In sum, failure to distinguish between uses and mentions poses a danger to freedom of speech and rational enquiry as well as the danger of falsely accusing and condemning innocent people.

¹ The idea that "people who enter the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande" constitute a race is of course absurd. Indeed, negative attitudes toward 'wetbacks' are not necessarily even ethnically-based. Such attitudes may be class-based, since it is mostly poor people who enter illegally, or they may be based on disapproval of illegal immigration.

Posted by Bill Poser at 10:31 PM

Cupertino, Part Deux: I read it on misplace

Continuing the Cupertino theme... Michael Covarrubias and Mike Pope both noted a fine example of spellchecker miscorrection from the Associated Press last week. As the AP reports, a Washington State trooper made the unorthodox decision of putting Oregon plates on his unmarked car in order to catch a speeder unawares:

That's how the article continues to appear on the AP's own website, as well as on hosted versions from Google News, Yahoo News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Boston Globe, and many other news sites. As the two Michaels observe, this appears to be a case of a spellchecker unable to recognize Myspace, or at least a misspelled version of it. Covarrubias writes:

It looks like a clear example of the Cupertino effect turning myspace into misplace. But most spell checkers are pretty good at recognizing conjoined words. And the only suggestions I get for "myspace" are "my space" and "MySpace". So the networking sight site has made it into the Word 2007 spell check dictionary.
Where did 'misplace' come from? Perhaps the writer put an <l> in there: 'mysplace'. 'Place' seems like a much more common string than 'pace' so a slip like that makes sense. Especially if the writer's ear was contaminated by the old line: 'my place or yours?'
But no one really says that anymore do they?

If misplace is indeed the result of misspelling Myspace as Mysplace, we'd expect it to show up in texts with Myspace also spelled correctly (since the misspelling wouldn't affect the recognition of correctly spelled instances of the word). Sure enough, here is just such an example, from a transcript of a panel discussion at the 2006 Web 2.0 Summit (oh, the irony):

Safa: Let me see, one of you, Ryan, you describe Misplace as...
Myspace is like on Christmas morning when you go downstairs and there’s the presents under the tree, because when I sign on I see I have a new message or new friend request or comment, it’s like “ta-da!” I’m so happy I can’t wait to see who it is or what it is.
Safa: Everyone but Sheena and Pamela has a
Myspace page.
Bernadette: I recently started because my son told me I wasn’t with it so he showed me how to get a page. I also realized my 14 year old son is 17 on
Remy: My mom tells me to get off because it’s so time consuming and fixing it up so you have the background and pictures so all your friends will be like “I like your
Myspace, it’s nice.” It's not an everyday thing, but I spend two to three hours on Misplace when I do get on.

So there we see Myspace spelled correctly four times and "incorrected" twice, possibly from Mysplace. In other cases, misplace shows up as a replacement for Myspace but not myspace.com, as in this transcript from WMAZ Eyewitness News in Macon, GA (yet another report of police officers finding tips online):


And here's a music review with links to myspace.com where we find misplace along with two bonus Cupertinos, Sounder Lerche for Sondre Lerche and Elvis Costless for Elvis Costello:

Apparently Sounder Lerche toured with Elvis Costless and was influenced greatly because of it. The experience pushed him to “write songs with his band in mind”. “Say it All”, “Phantom Punch”,” Airport Taxi Reception”, and “The Tape”, can be heard on his misplace page.

Another review on that page has Alines Modiste for Alanis Morrisette and Tore Amos for Tori Amos. Stop the Cupertino madness, people!

[Update #1: Stephen Jones points out that not only does the latest Word spellchecker give misplace as the first suggestion for Mysplace, it also gives it for Mispace. (Myspace is included in the spellchecker dictionary but is only suggested second.) So that gives two potential sources for the misplace Cupertino.]

[Update #2: Thierry Fontenelle of the Microsoft Natural Language Group weighs in here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 10:42 AM

Lower-cased initialisms

It is a small but not insignificant recent change in written English that in Britain the newspapers have started spelling acronyms in lower case with capital initial instead of all in caps. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are not UCEA and DEFRA, but (at least fairly often) Ucea and Defra. And in Times Higher Education magazine, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now Hefce. This only applies to one of the two subclasses of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language chapter on lexical word formation (chapter 19) calls initialisms: it applies to the acronyms, not the abbreviations. Nobody calls the Science and Technology Facilities Council "Sftc", because you don't say "sftc" (could anyone?), you say "S F T C". Acronyms are more like words than abbreviations are, and the developing convention recognizes that.

By the way, as a couple of people have now pointed out to me, I ought to explain that as far as my judgments of what is a "recent" change in British English, your mileage may differ. I left Britain in July 1980 for a visit to the West Coast of the USA, and found it so enchanting that I refused to come back. From 1980 to 1994 I never even visited Britain. I worked as a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, learned plenty of American vocabulary and acquired post-vocalic [r], and saw very few British newspapers. I then moved to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and am still dealing with the language issues (there are words like chav in the newspapers now that I never knew at all). So when I say "recent" about British English, there is a strong probability that the recency illusion is in play. Recent for me is any time since 1980, because I've only just noticed it. For heaven's sake don't think I'm unaware of this: when I give my impression that something has recently been shifting or emerging in British English, you should take it with a large grain of salt and be prepared to give up to about 25 years of inaccuracy about dating of changes. Jesse Sheidlower tells me that British newspapers were at least sometimes spelling AIDS as Aids (notice, not aids, though — it's still an initialism in origin) before the end of the Reagan administration.

The blog Testy Copy Editors has discussed the issue. There zythophile notes the interesting example of VOIP: it looks like a word, but people say "V.O.I.P.", not "voip", so it is never Voip in British newspapers, always VOIP. It's an abbreviation, not an acronym.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:38 AM

Depending on the kindness of spellcheckers

From the Cupertino mailbag comes a note from Charles Belov, who writes in with a spellchecker-induced slipup that made its way into a work of literary criticism from a major American publisher. The following appears in Still Acting Gay by John M. Clum (St. Martin's Press, 2000), page 122:

(Image from Google Book Search.)

I don't think there's any way to read this passage charitably — as opposed to this blog post where "A Stretcher Named Desire" is used as a playful reference to the artist Frank Stella's stretcher-shaped creations, or this satirical piece from the University of Oregon newspaper in the late '70s reviewing a performance of "Kafka's only humorous play" entitled "Over the Roar of the Greasepaint, I Heard the One Who Flew Over the Loon's Nest Call Me Jean Brodie On a Stretcher Named Desire." There's nothing jocular about the use of Stretcher for Streetcar in Clum's book, so it does seem to be, as Belov puts it, an "obvious Cupertino" (and "one more item of proof that proofreading in commercial book publishing has gone downhill in the last 10-15 years").

Streetcar appears properly elsewhere in the text (even later in the same paragraph), so this isn't a case of a spellchecker not recognizing a correctly spelled word, leading to the wholesale substitution of one word with another. Rather, this appears to be that subspecies of Cupertino wherein a single misspelling is "incorrected" thanks to a spellchecker suggestion. (Compare, for instance, the recent case of "GOP cell phones" from the Associated Press.) Stretcar is the most obvious suspect for a typo that could be changed to Stretcher, though the few spellcheckers I tried either give no suggestions for Stretcar or correctly suggest Streetcar.

Feel free to send your own Cupertino discoveries to bgzimmer at ling dot upenn dot edu.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 08:41 AM

Bowlingual education, Critical Pet Studies, and human-poultry interaction

Are European researchers copying Japanese innovation in cross-species communication? This question arises in connection with our posts on Csaba Molnár et al. ("Classification of dog barks: a machine learning approach", Animal Cognition, published online 1/15/2008; see "It's a dog's life -- 0.3 bits at a time", 1/19/2008; "Dog language mailbag", 1/21/2008; "Not Prof. Milton, but Prof. Schwartzman", 1/21/2008). The issue was raised by Rob Troyer, who wrote:

Not to beat a dead dog, but a quick Google search of "dog translation" pulled up this Reuter article from 24 March 2003, "Dog translation device coming to U.S.", published at CNN.com/technology.

It discusses the "Bowlingual" a device "cited as one of the coolest inventions of 2002 by Time magazine" and developed with a cost of "hundreds of million of yen" by Tokyo-based Takara Company Ltd.

"The console classifies each woof, yip or whine into six emotional categories -- happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, assertion and desire" much like the computer program in the recent paper by the Hungarian researchers.

According to the article some 300,000 of these devices were sold in Japan in 2002-3, and the company was hoping to meet great success with its English version in the US which "is home to about 67 million dogs, more than six times the number in Japan."

The Wikipedia article  on the Bowlingual links to an inspiring Takara press release about the potential impact of interspecies communiation on world peace("Bowlingual Presented to Russian President Putin by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi", 5/30/2003):

The devices were prototypes of the U.S. version, currently in the final phase of testing, and included prototype English packaging and English user manual. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Division, also assisted in the preparation of a summary of the user manual in Russian. Although the prototypes were available only in Red, they were adjusted to two different frequencies and labeled accordingly so that they could be used together with President Putin's two dogs--a standard feature when using two different-colored off-the-shelf Bowlingual units. The units' Set Up menus were also set to match the breeds of the President's dogs, which were said to be a standard Poodle and a Labrador Retriever.

It with great pride and satisfaction that Takara has been able to help facilitate the bonds of friendship between two leaders, Prime Minister Koizumi and President Putin, as well as promote peace and strong international relations between Japan and Russia.

Alas, Wikipedia's reference to the Bowlingual web page links via the Wayback Machine -- suggesting that this is an ex-product. There's a 2003 SF Chronicle article that suggests why (Sophia Lin, "Gadget's bark is bigger than its hype: Vet puts 'bark translator' to the test. Verdict: nothing more than $120 curiosity", 8/16/2003).

Dr. Lin describes some informal tests, in which the Bowlingual seems to perform non-randomly but also uninformatively, and concludes:

My final ruling? The Bowlingual is fun to play with for a while if you got it for free, but it's not very useful because the translations aren't trustworthy and most don't make sense. The toy is marketed as being backed by strong science carried out by respected researchers but somehow, despite their accolades, they produced a dud.

I haven't been able to figure out who the "respected researchers" were, or where their "strong science" was published. In particular, I was unable to find any references to the Bowlingual in the machine-learning or animal-communication literature. Google Scholar does turn up some published discussion by literary scholars, including B. Lennon, "Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation", Criticism, 2005; H.J. Nast, "Loving ... Whatever; Alienation, Neoliberalism and Pet-Love in the 21st Century", ACME; H.J. Nast, "Critical Pet Studies", Antipode 38(5):894-906. Unfortunately, none of these offer any information about the device beyond quotations from the popular press.

There is also at least one paper in the computer-science literature that mentions the Bowlingual, and it's a doozy: Shang Ping Lee, Adrian David Cheok, Teh Keng Soon James, Goh Pae Lyn Debra, Chio En Jie, Wang Chuang and Farzam Farbiz, , "A mobile pet wearable computer and mixed reality system for human-poultry interaction through the internet", Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 10(5) 301-317, 2006. The abstract is fascinating:

Poultry are one of the most badly treated animals in the modern world. It has been shown that they have high levels of both cognition and feelings and as a result there has been a recent trend of promoting poultry welfare. There is also a tradition of keeping poultry as pets in some parts of the world. However, in modern cities and societies, it is often difficult to maintain contact with pets, particularly for office workers. We propose and describe a novel cybernetics system to use mobile and Internet technology to improve human-pet interaction. It can also be used for people who are allergic to touching animals and thus cannot stroke them directly. This interaction encompasses both visualization and tactile sensation of real objects.

However, the paper's only information about the Bowlingual is this:

The growing importance of human-pet communication can also be seen in recent related company products. Recently, an entertainment toy company [12] has produced a Bowlingual dog language translator device. It displays some words on its LCD panel when the dog barks.

The reference is "12. TT Company http://www.takaratoys.co.jp/bowlingual", which is a dead link, suggesting again that this is an ex-product.

So, to sum up, it's hard to tell whether there is any connection between the pioneering but under-documented (and perhaps useless) Bowlingual, and the serious research described in detail by Molnár et al., demonstrated to derive 0.3 bits of information per doggie utterance. The idea of translating dog barks into six categories is similar, but the mapping between the Bowlingual six categories ("happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, assertion and desire") and the Hungarian researchers' six categories ("Stranger, Fight, Walk, Alone, Ball, Play") is not transparent. Neither Bowlingual nor Takara is mentioned in the Molnár et al. paper.

[On a related topic, I wonder how many patents on pet communication devices are out there...]

[Update -- at some point, Vodaphone released a Bowlingual-equipped cell phone, according to the Guardian's technology section (" Pet practice", 2/12/2004):

'Woof!" It might sound like a meaningless bark but, in fact, the dog is saying "Ya ne! Soba ni konai de!" (Hey! Don't come near me!). And while a European might make the mistake of approaching the diffident hound, Japanese dog owners would know to steer clear. Why? Because their phones would translate for them.

Bowlingual, a mobile application available to Vodafone subscribers in Japan, has a repertoire of about 200 dog phrases. It's just one of the many strange but innovative mobile products available in the Far East - and another reminder of how far ahead the Japanese are in non-voice applications.

It's not clear whether the upgrade from 6 to "200 dog phrases" represents a genuine research breakthrough, or a simple hack (e.g. choosing randomly among multiple "translations" for each of 6 categories), or just a random journalistic misunderstanding.]

[Update #2 -- a lead! The 2002 "Ig Nobel Peace Prize "

... went to Keita Sato, President of Takara a major Japanese-based toy company, Dr. Matsumi Suzuki, President of Japan Acoustic Lab and Dr. Norio, Kogure Executive Director of Kogure Veterinary Hospital for Bowlingual, their dog-to-human translation device in "promoting peace between the species."

Unfortunately, neither Suzuki nor Kogure seems to have published anything on a relevant topic, at least in English. And the recent Molnár et al. paper does not appear to reference any work by Japanese researchers of any name.]

[Update #3 -- a bit of searching turns up some patents. One is " Apparatus for determining dog's emotions by vocal analysis of barking, which tells us that

emotions represented by the reference voice patterns include "loneliness", "frustration", "aggressiveness", "assertiveness", "happiness", and "wistfulness"

The author is Matsumi Suzuki. I'm glad to say that the patent contains quite a bit of detail about the features and their claimed meanings.

Another is " Device and Method for Judging Dog's Feeling form Cry Vocal Character Analysis", for which Suzuki is also the inventor. In this case,

The reference voice patterns by feelings correspond to the feelings of 'loneliness', 'frustration', 'threating', 'self−expression', 'delight' and 'demand'.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:11 AM

Linguification extinct?

Just a word to thank the journalistic community at large for apparently giving up the practice of linguification, which used to puzzle me so much. I did catch someone on NPR saying in November 2006 that "when you say recount you know the word Florida can't be far behind" (totally false, of course: recount gets 4.8 million Google hits, while {recount Florida} gets only 166,000, so that means over 96% of the time a page with recount on it does not have Florida on it anywhere [but see below]). Then 2006 ended, and 2007 was blissfully free of linguifications as far as my recollections are concerned. Language Log apparently did not have to mention the word at all during last year. The term bloomed in July 2006, and flourished, and then like a fragile flower it was gone before that year ended, and with it the phenomenon to which it referred. No more occurrences of this strange trope — writing a demonstrably false claim about linguistic occurrences as a perverted way of expressing a (possibly true) claim about non-linguistic matters — were ever seen again. We have vanquished the practice.

Unless... Why do I have a sinking feeling that people are now going to start mailing my Gmail account with new sightings, and thus disappoint me in this matter? I should keep my big mouth shut (if that metaphor is appropriate for a blogger; maybe it would be better to say, I should keep my big paws off the keyboard).

I'm not actually serious about the above Google figures showing anything. For one thing, the counts should have been done in 2006, or better still between November 2000 and the end of 2001. But in addition, couple of correspondents point out that Google counts on this topic are mathematically incoherent to an unusual degree. Steve Hansen, trying to distinguish the noun meaning "repeat of tabulation" from the verb meaning "narrate", found that "a recount" gets 669,000 g-hits and {"a recount" Florida} gets 215,000, and notes that this means {"a recount" Florida} get more g-hits than {recount Florida}, which simply cannot be right (every page with "a recount" on it should be a page with "recount" on it). I have replicated that result. And Tim McKenzie, thinking that the verb would not be spelled with a hyphen but the noun sometimes would be, did Google searches for {re-count} and {re-count Florida}. The former got 803,000 hits, but the latter got 1,290,000. Tim remarks:

So, the astonishing claim on NPR seems to have been an understatement; 160% of pages that mention the word "re-count" also mention the word "Florida".

None of this makes any numerical sense. There really is a lot we don't know about the Google search and tabulation algorithms.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 07:03 AM

January 24, 2008

The last blondes, or the blonde?

Just to add one indisputably linguistic point to make Mark's post about the blonde extinction legend eligible for our site (for this is indeed, let me remind you, Language Log, not a hairdressing industry magazine or the newsletter of the Board of Governors of the BBC), let me point out that the BBC also badly miswrote the opening line of its ridiculous story. "The last natural blondes will die out within 200 years, scientists believe" is what they wrote. But of course the death of the last few natural blondes is not the point.

It is true that they used die out rather than die, and that is a relevant difference; but that is really the point I am making: we speak of people, or random groups of people considered as arbitrary collections individuals, dying, and we speak of genetically defined classes like breeds or races or species dying out. (Languages are rather like species. Notice the sad news in Sally Thomason's post: Marie Smith Jones died; but Eyak died out.) Now, "the last few natural blondes", whoever they might ultimately turn out to be, would be a contingent, arbitrary group of individuals, not a genetically defined group.

Of course those individuals — the last few natural blondes — will die within 200 years, in a sense. All the blondes alive now — and at the moment they are the last ones we have — will be dead in 200 years. That won't matter at all in the long term, because some of them will have had blonde babies by then. The point was supposed to be about the fair hair gene.

I know it is true that if a group of people really were the last of their kind, and they died, then their kind would have died out. But I still think the BBC's writing betrays a certain carelessness about the individual/species distinction. The way they put it confuses individuals with blonde hair dying, which happens every day and has no implications for the disappearance of their genes, with the entire genetically defined class of humans becoming extinct.

They could have written "Within 200 years there will be no more natural blondes", using a quantifier; or "Blondes will be extinct within 200 years", using the generic plural for the group; or "The natural blonde will be extinct within 200 years", using the definite singular generic; but they sort of blundered about in the stylistic wilderness in between. It's ill-expressed. Which raises the question of whether BBC stories not only go without fact-checking, they don't even get read by a literate editor before they are popped on the web to mislead people forever (and provide Mark with opportunities for volunteer work as an unpaid public science journalism inspector).

And I find another question is raised in my mind as well. Can it really be that no one at the BBC reads Language Log?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 03:46 AM

January 23, 2008

The Last Speaker of Eyak Has Died

I just heard on NPR that Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak, has died at 89. There's an AP article about her here: she was the last full-blooded Eyak; none of her numerous children learned Eyak because, as one of her daughters put it, they "grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English." Michael Krauss, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the world's most prominent expert on Native Alaskan languages, worked some years ago with her and two of her relatives to compile a dictionary and grammar of her language, as well as a collection of Eyak stories. But for the past fifteen years, the AP quotes Krauss as saying, Jones was "the last of her kind...With her death, the Eyak language becomes extinct."

I first heard of Marie Smith Jones in 1998, in a Newsweek article by Joan Raymond, "Say What? Preserving Endangered Languages" (14 September 1998). Raymond included Jones's comments about the non-transmission of Eyak to younger generations -- comments that could be echoed by many elderly Native Americans, including some of the Salish and Pend d'Oreille elders I work with in Montana. Jones was so eloquent that I used her words as part of the introduction to a chapter on endangered languages in my 2001 textbook on language contact:

Sometimes I could just kick myself for not teaching my children the language...When I was in school, we were beaten for speaking our language. They wanted to make us ashamed...I have 17- and 18-year-old kids coming to me crying because the elders in their tribes will not teach them their own language.

Krauss has also been eloquent on the subject of language loss. The AP story about Marie Smith Jones ends with his words:

This is the beginning of the end unless we do something. Alaska Native languages are the intellectual heritage of this part of the world. It is unique to us and if we lose them we lose what is unique to Alaska.
Posted by Sally Thomason at 08:23 PM

Clueless credulity at the BBC: the stuff of legend

After giving a talk yesterday at the University of Chicago, I flew back to Philadelphia this morning, and at an airport newstand I bought a copy of Michael Crichton's 2006 novel Next to read on the plane. I don't recommend the book, but there was one high point for me -- between chapter 15 and chapter 16, there's a fake (?) news story under the headline "Blondes becoming extinct". It starts like this:

According to the BBC, "a study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202." Researchers predicted that the last truly natural blonde would be born in Finland...

Then between chapters 33 and 34, there's another fake (?) news story, under the headline "No blonde extinction, after all", and the subhead "BBC Reported False Story Absent Fact Check; No WHO Study; No German Study; A Bad Blonde Joke for 150 Years". The story includes this true-to-life paragraph:

The story would never have run, said Georgetown media professor Len Euler, if even minimal fact-checking had been done by BBC editors. Some media observers noted that news organizations no longer check anything. "We just publish the press release and move on," one reporter observed. Another reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Let's face it, it's a good story. Accuracy would kill it."

As far as I can tell, these "news stories" were written by Crichton for dramatic effect -- the manipulation of the media by mendacious businessmen and scientists is one of this novel's messages. But the business about the BBC running a transparently fake story about the forthcoming extinction of blondes is completely true: see "Blondes to die out in 200 years'", BBC News World Edition, 9/27/2002.

And the Washington Post really did a debunking story, ("Extinction of Blondes Vastly Overreported: Media Fail to Check Root of 'Study'", 10/2/2002), and Snopes really does trace the Blonde Extinction factoid back to 1865.

The most amazing thing is that more than six years later, the BBC still hasn't corrected the story on its "News" site. Nor, as far as I can tell, has the organization done anything to change the role of its "news" division as an uncritical echo for even the most transparently misleading press releases (see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section", 8/26/2006, for a small sample of more recent examples). The BBC is not by any means the only "old media" organization that acts this way, but given its history and reputation, it's suprising to see again and again that its standards are among the lowest in the industry.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:30 PM

Yale sluts and Princeton philosophers

Insane over-interpretation of laws against such things as "hate speech", sexually harassing speech, and defamation will not be disappearing any time soon, it seems. Recently there appeared on Facebook a picture of a group of Zeta Psi fraternity pledges in front of the Yale Women's Center with a big sign saying WE LOVE YALE SLUTS.

And the Women's Center immediately threatened to sue.

Rolling over immediately, the president of the Yale chapter of Zeta Psi has issued an apology and expressed a willingness to meet and discuss; and the Facebook entry has disappeared. Legal authorities do not think there was much hope of success in a legal action anyway. The amazing thing to me is that any educated person would have dreamed, even for a second or two, that there might be.

The word slut received some discussion on various blogs in 2004. There is a sensitive rumination on it in this post by Mark Liberman. Says Mark, "I wouldn't use the word myself, not so much because it's offensive as because it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don't endorse"; but he also notes that in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word "bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century." It is not an obscene word, and has often been used with some affection down the years (note the perceptive analysis by Maureen Dowd in this NYT article). It is an extraordinary poor word to pick as a casus belli for that reason if no other. The OED entry stresses that it often occurs in a "playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities".

(Consider, for example, Eugene Volokh's remark about himself: "I like to talk to the media, both print reporters and radio and TV, and do a good bit of it; so a friend of mine told me that I was a media whore. And then it dawned on me: I, and most of my academic colleagues who do these things, are not media whores. We're media sluts -- whores get paid.")

It is ludicrous to think that legal action might be taken when a group of college boys (probably on a dare, to show they are brave enough to be worthy of being Zeta Psi men) hold up a sign saying that they love the sluts of Yale. Legal authorities lost no time in stating that to the Yale Daily News today, and I'm sure no suit will ever even be filed.

The fact is that the young Zeta Psi pledges in question are fantasizing: I'm sure they would love to find a few promiscuously inclined babes hanging around the Women's Center, but they probably couldn't get a Yale woman to have sex with them if they got down on their knees and wept for it. So they will fantasize about meeting some of the more sexually active of the 5700 women students at Yale (many of whom will doubtless outshine them academically; it's tough life), and at night they will masturbate in their dorm rooms as normal, and by day they will sometimes find ways to be casually offensive to girls in standard college-boy manner, and the First Amendment will protect them if they announce their fantasies on Facebook.com, and the world will go on turning, and the sky will not fall, and I really don't think anyone needs to go to court about such things. Surely Yale women can find more important lawsuits to work on than this.

Just to add one indisputably linguistic point to make this randomly opinionated post eligible for its illustrious site (for this is indeed, let me remind you, Language Log, not the Zeta Psi national organization newsletter or a libertarian broadsheet): one thoroughly intimidated would-be frat boy told the Yale Daily News remorsefully: "We're all terribly sorry, and at that moment we didn't actually think that Yale girls are sluts." But methinks he protesteth too much. Part of what makes this whole incident so non-serious is that (irrelevant though it would be to the plausibility of any lawsuit) nobody could think that We love Yale sluts entails or implies that Yale girls in general are sluts. It merely affirms a love of those Yale girls that are. Compare with We love Princeton philosophers. It doesn't imply that Princetonians are all philosophers, or typically philosophers, does it?

[Update, a few hours later: Perhaps that last linguistic point is invalid. Breffni O'Rourke makes the excellent point that things are different with Princeton bastards, which does tend to imply that all Princetonians are bastards. Terms of abuse do not behave exactly the way descriptive terms do. Nice observation, Breffni.]

[Further update, several days later: I got a certain amount of critical mail on the post above, naturally enough, but what I wish someone had done was just to send me a picture of the scene. In due course I did find one. And if ever there was a case where the non-linguistic context changed just about everything, this was it. Take a look at the picture:

Not quite the witty, good-natured, non-threatening poster disply one might have imagined, is it? A dozen unsavory-looking guys looking roughly like street gang members blocking the door of a building in which rape counseling takes place. If you were a young woman who did not want to be physically roughed up, would you have taken the risk of trying to enter through that gang after dark?

All of my remarks above about how the message on the sign couldn't possibly be a cause for action still apply (except that I originally said that what they did was "erect" a sign; apparently all they did was hold up a symbolically limp piece of paper). The lawsuit talk just caused people like a commenter at to ask, quite reasonably, "what would you sue them for? Being assholes? Misogynists?: in America, and you have a right to be a misogynist asshole, and express your views. But my contempt for the young men involved just went up a substantial amount, and I no longer think that it was silly of the Women's Center to see this event as deserving of disciplinary charges — but relating to the apparently threatening behavior, not the sign.

Among the long list of comments at IvyGate, many were obscene and threatening misogynist garbage ("You broads need to chill the fuck out", "silly cunts, they should shut the fuck up and go make me dinner", that sort of thing — good examples to look at if you ever wonder why Language Log has no open comments feature). But one from a commenter called Englishman seemed to me to hit the nail on the head very nicely:

Wow, i am truly amazed at the bravery of the free speech activists/men of america, standing outside a rape victim help centre with a little bit of paper saying yale girls are sluts. Kinda shows everything that is wrong with your pathetic, penis envy driven society.

These are your most "intelligent" minds?

no wonder you're still in iraq...

One of the unpleasant things about First Amendment rights, which we must never forget, is that we are forced to extend them to the wankers of Zeta Psi. But one of the nice things about First Amendment rights is that they extend to those on the opposite side too.

They also extend to those readers who are invited to submit guest posts; curiously, the new (January 28) post by Jane Acheson was posted by Mark Liberman while this update was being written. There is some overlap, including the picture, but I did not see her post until a couple of hours after I wrote the foregoing remarks. The way things look to me right now, I'd say she has it all just about right. Except about me writing "ham-handedly", of course.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:09 AM

Oh, his aching skull

Just had the good fortune to have a fairly hilarious short play by David Ives read/performed for me, "Variations on the Death of Trotsky." One joke hinges on a fun linguistic distinction, and would be ineffably untranslatable in many languages, so I thought it might be of interest to you Log linguaphiles. No sooner thought than posted...

Rather than give you an extended background spiel, I'll just reproduce Variation 2 in its entirety, courtesy of GoogleBooks. The main thing you need to know is that Trotsky is sitting at his desk writing the day after he's been attacked by a (mountain-) axe-wielding Spanish communist. The evidence of the attack is visible in the form of an axe-handle protruding from the back of his head. The key, variously translatable joke appears in the last 20 lines. Its intranslatability hinges on the fact that alienable possession and inalienable possession are ambiguous in most English contexts, but indicated with different morphemes in many languages.

There's lots else linguistic going on too, of course, but I was especially tickled by the alienability funny. Geek-o-rama!

Update: Not one but two erudite readers, Jeremy Cherfas and John V. Burke, write in to note an allusion to Waugh's "Scoop". In Burke's words:

In "Scoop," a semi-literate but enormously powerful newspaper publisher, probably based on Lord Beaverbrook, presides at editorial conferences where his preposterous assertions ("Of course, everyone knows Mussolini is in the pay of the Jews") are answered by underlings--who know he's intolerant of contradiction--with the formula "Up to a point, Lord Copper." This seems to be Mrs. Trotsky's tactic as well.

Posted by Heidi Harley at 01:19 AM

January 22, 2008

One-legged lesbians and police stupidity

Here is one for the annals of free speech, a topic on which Language Log has often commented. In 2002, Robin Page, a British TV presenter, made a speech in Frampton-upon-Severn, Gloucestershire, to a group supporting fox-hunting with hounds (which the government was planning to outlaw). As part of his jokey introduction he suggested a human rights issue was involved for fox-hunters, and protested:

If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you.

To his surprise, police later drove from Gloucestershire to where he lives in Cambridgeshire (a drive of many hours) and arrested him for this remark.

Someone had made a complaint about him under hate speech legislation. (The story as told by the Daily Mail is here.) He was locked in a cell and questioned for a long time.

After a struggle lasting over five years, just a few days ago Mr Page was finally offered about $4,000 compensation, and took it, so there is something of a happy ending to this tale of incompetence and overreach. But it tells us a lot about the disastrous failure to get hate speech legislation right and teach police how to work with it.

I assume it is as clear to you as it is to me that asking to have the same civil rights as any ordinary black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian trucker couldn't by any possible stretch of the imagination be taken as a declaration of hatred for that group of people (almost certainly the empty set, by the way: who on earth was the complainant?). I'm not suggesting for a moment that it is a good idea to try and legislate against expressing hatred; I don't think it is. But suppose for the sake of argument that expressing hatred of or hostility to some group like blacks or lesbians is illegal in Gloucestershire. The quoted remark simply cannot be parlayed into a hostile attack on any of the groups involved: the remark could not possibly be judged to express hatred of blacks or lesbians (let alone threats against them such as might legitimately forbidden under laws against threatening or provoking assault). Indeed, suggesting that some group such as gays deserves the same sort of civil rights protection as blacks has been a familiar move in (leftist and liberal) political discourse since the 1960s.

The reaction of the police to the letter should have been first to just fall about laughing, and then to pin the complaint to the bulletin board in the station and send a polite note of reply explaining that this is not what the hate-speech legislation was supposed to forbid, and that no action would or could be taken. The decision-makers in the Gloucestershire constabulary must be utter morons. [Note to the fuzz: Please do not set off for Language Log Plaza to arrest me. I am not expressing threats against you.]

At the very worst, the quoted sentence (admittedly silly, and slightly distasteful in its sophomoric reactionariness) would be taken by those in the audience to conversationally imply that groups such as blacks, Muslims, asylum-seekers, the physically handicapped, and homosexuals (and adding vegetarians and truck-drivers just signaled that Mr Page was not expecting to be taken very seriously) are now the recipients too much care and attention from liberals and from the government, rather than too little: that they have too many rights compared to the rest of us. But whether true or false, this is of course a view that anyone should be entitled to hold and express, and it has surely been expressed hundreds of times in the British press and broadcast media.

I don't agree with those in the right-wing protest press who say that leftist thought control threatens British society. (Or even society in Canada, where some law students recently brought a loony human rights case against Mark Steyn for arguing in a book and an article that the future belongs to Muslims rather than non-Muslim Europeans because of the higher birthrates in Islamic communities: read all about it.)

But I certainly would agree that when excess of zeal is combined with low intelligence levels among police and judicial authorities there is plenty of reason to worry. My agent is not currently scheduling me for any talks on controversial talks about race or religion in the county of Gloucester.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:48 AM

January 21, 2008

The Linguists at Sundance

Ben Zimmer is more on the ball than I am this MLK holiday weekend (as he has been in the past): he couldn't even wait until the water cooler tomorrow to tell me about this Reuters article, which begins like this:

Indiana Jones' spirit certainly infects the intrepid heroes of "The Linguists." These are bold academics who plunge into the jungles and backwater villages of the world to rescue living tongues about to go extinct.

I'd been hoping to follow up on my last post with a tie-in to the two Stanley Fish posts discussed by Mark last week, but work and life have gotten in the way and I need more time. More to come.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 10:35 PM

Not Prof. Milton, but Prof. Schwartzman

Or maybe it was both of them, at different times. Anyhow, thanks to some excellent Google Fu by Josh Millard, here's the critical scholarly reference:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:36 PM

Dog language mailbag

In response to "It's a dog's life -- 0.3 bits at a time", several people sent me links to this video clip of a Siberian Husky vocalizing "at his own barking and his playdate's barking". (I guess the sounds he's responding to are being played back from a recording.)

(If that's not enough for you, there's more...)

At the end of my earlier post, I added a note from Laurence Sheldon Jr., which I repeat below:

We have just one dog, and I have no notion of just how a study involving more than one individual would turn out, but there is no doubt in my mind that we (wife and I) can correctly differentiate among "I'm bored and going out sounds like something to do.", "Squirrel in the bird feeder!", "I gotta go!", "Car! You going somewhere in the car?!", "I think I heard the garage door open and I want to go [greet Pat|greet Larry|get into the car before [Pat|Larry] notice.]!", and "[Pat|Larry] has been gone quite a while, I want to check the garage for them.".

Some of these we think we can identify without seeing the dog ("Squirrel!") or knowing which of four doors she is at.

I asked whether all of these vocalizations just barks, as opposed to whines or growls or yips or howls or other sorts of canine sounds. Larry's response:

In the case of our dog I would say "inflected barks" as if I knew what the word "inflected" meant. (I am by no means a linguist.)

To me the "word" that means "Squirrel!" is an excited-sounding short bark repeated, while the one that means "I gotta go!" is similar but lacks a joyful quality that I am not bright enough to describe.

Similarly she has a bark when on the outside of the door seems to mean "I'm still here, but I don't want to come in." (she runs loose in our yard when she is out.) and a very different sound that means "Let me IN!" with a noticeable increase in urgency as it gets colder or we don't react as fast as she would like.

She rarely growls, and she whines only when she wants us to get up during the night to let her out. (If the whine is not responded-to, she follows up with the "I gotta go!" bark.)

There are lots of dogs in the neighborhood and most are vocal a lot of the time, but only the boxer next door seems to use different "words" for different situations. Or the rest are really boring conversationalists.

With Proxmire dead and gone, why can't somebody get funding for a serious study here?

Melissa Bollbach sent a long note -- I'll divide it up and respond to the pieces.

I think you're right, it's unlikely that all the dog vocalizations in the study were barks. I volunteer at a shelter and have taken some behavior classes, and I don't know many dogs who would offer a single well-defined bark in the "fight" and "stranger" situations. Fight in particular seems to require a stream of growling/snapping more than barking, which is why it's easy to recognize. Notice that the play/walk/ball situations were harder.

She asked about the various situations involved:

I wonder how careful they were about the difference between play and ball. For a lot of dogs ball is a subset of play (unless play specifically involves more than one dog), and depending on whether the ball is accessible or just shown to the dog, ball and walk could be a similar excited/anticipation bark. Also, what did they use for "alone"? If my dog is alone, he doesn't bark unless hears a stranger, while my ex-boyfriend's dog's alone bark is a pitiful "why can't I come on the walk?" (I'm not cruel, I just walked them separately because the pitiful dog pulls on leash.)

The authors of the cited paper are quite explicit about this:

"Stranger" (N = 1802): The experimenter (male, age 23 years) was the stranger for all the dogs, and appeared in the garden of the owner or at the front door of his/her apartment in the absence of the owner. The experimenter recorded the barking of the dog during his appearance for 2–3 minutes.

"Fight" (N = 1118): For dogs to perform in this situation, the trainer encourages the dog to bark aggressively and to bite the glove on the trainer’s arm. Meanwhile the owner keeps the dog on leash.

"Walk" (N = 1231): The owner was asked to behave as if he/she was preparing to go for a walk with the dog. For example, the owner took the leash of the dog in her/his hand and told the dog "We are leaving now".

"Alone" (N = 752): The owner tied the dog to a tree with a leash in a park and walked away, out of sight of the dog.

"Ball" (N = 1001): The owner held a ball (or some favorite toy of the dog) at a height of approximately 1.5 m in front of the dog.

"Play" (N = 742): The owner was asked to play with the dog a usual game, such as tug-of-war, chasing or wrestling. The experimenter recorded the barks emitted during this interaction.

Melissa goes on:

As a bachelor of arts in linguistics I think this is crap, and as a dog owner and amateur behaviorist I think this is crap. Your writing on science journalism has been in my thoughts lately as I've been trying to find recent peer-reviewed research on whether dogs can learn by true imitation (long-held scientific belief is no, but most owners believe yes, and some studies suggest maybe). Dog behavior is like linguistics in that many layperson dog owners consider themselves experts and don't care about scientific research.

I don't think that the Molnár et al. paper is crap by any means, though the Springer press release about it, and the resulting media coverage, certainly had a high organic nitrogen content, not speak of phosphorous and potassium. Melissa concludes:

I am now an engineer, enjoying a profession where expert opinion does tend to be respected by the public, in spite of the fact that language and animal behavior are really a lot more complicated and mysterious than engineering. And therefore more fun, but unfortunately lower-paying.

Dan Melamed sent the Far Side cartoon reproduced below. The most relevant Far Side cartoon, as I mentioned in the last post, is the one where where Professor Milton invents a device that translates from Dog to English, and goes down a street full of barking dogs, only to discover that they are all saying "Hey hey hey hey hey hey..." But that one doesn't seem to be on the internet, and this one, about translation the other way, is also good:

And Geoff Nathan wrote about "a great Nicole Hollander cartoon, which unfortunately I can't find a copy of online at the moment", where

A scientist is being interviewed about the fact that he has decoded the language of cats. Unfortunately, he says, they only say two things:

'Feed me, you fool'


'Everything here is mine.'

[Update -- James Russell writes:

I remember that Far Side cartoon, but it had a second half which made it much funnier.

There was "What we say to cats", with a scolding of Fluffy for something or other, and then there was "What they hear", which had an empty dialogue balloon.

And courtesy of Karen Davis, here it is:


Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:36 PM

More books with non-constituent titles

The new non-constituent book titles I have gathered since my previous post are listed below, with acknowledgments to the people who sent them. I am grateful to them all.

I removed from the list below a suggestion that Faith Jones made, about Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It might perhaps be parsed as two separate adjuncts, an intransitive preposition and a subjectless gerund-participial clause; but William Ockham pointed out to me that a question like "Where's Jenny?" could be answered by "Out dancing." Mostly, normal well-formed answers to questions are syntactic constituents. So I decided that Out Stealing Horses is not a clear case. I also removed, after a rethink, a science fiction book called The Stars My Destination (Topher Cooper found textual evidence that it is a gapped clause, the same kind of constituent as "The stars are my destination"). For a list (still being updated) of the ones I currently think are clear cases, read on.

  1. Corinne Goss notes Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas Basbanes, a title which is also the terse and cryptic wording of one of Ranganathan's five laws of library science); I take it to be alluding to phrases like "we must find/give/assign every book its reader", where we have an indirect object followed by a direct object (not a constituent except perhaps for Kayne).
  2. Gabriel J. Michael notes the title of Philip K. Dick's novel (source of a recent movie and graphic novel) A Scanner Darkly (which is definitely not a constituent for anybody: it is a noun phrase followed by an adverb functioning as a manner adjunct; Gabriel notes that it is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13, verse 12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly").
  3. Simon Cauchi reminds me of Alan Duff's novel about violence among the Maori, Once Were Warriors (obviously suggested by sentences like "We Maori once were warriors").
  4. Levana Taylor notes a novel by Ford Maddox Ford entitled Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (noun followed by just the wh-phrase of a relative clause modifying it).
  5. Bob Ladd reports on a faux Kerouac-style novel by Peter S. Beagle called I See By My Outfit, which appears to be a clause minus an obligatory subconstituent (in the idiom ‘see by [NP] that [Clause]’ the complement clause seems obligatory). Joseph Ruby points out that the allusion is to a Smothers Brothers rewording of "The Streets of Laredo" which goes "I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy / I see by my outfit that I am one too".
  6. Peter Hendriks tells me that there is a 1909 Japanese novel by Natsume Soseki, Sore Kara in Japanese, translated into English as And Then. The story is that when Soseki was asked what he was going to call the novel he was working on, he just opened it and picked a couple of words at random. (Another case of a rather studied and deliberate choice of a non-constituent sequence: coordinator + adverb.)
  7. Mary Kuhner submitted Michael Bishop's And Strange At Ecbatan The Trees, noting that it is from a piece of poetry: "And strange at Ecbatan the trees / Take leaf by leaf the evening strange / The flooding dark about their knees / The mountains over Persia change". Excellent example.
  8. Mary Kuhner also found Michael Shea's fantasy In Yana, the Touch of Undying, which is from a part of the book's text: "In Yana, the touch of undying is given to all who ask for it" (this is the prophecy that gets the plot rolling). Double kudos to Mary.
  9. Richard Sabey points to David Bailey's If We Shadows (three words snatched from a line in the last speech of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream).
  10. John Baker proposes a particularly clear case: Property Of, by Alice Hoffman.

Still well under twenty case so far in all, adding in my previously collected cases If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (if + temporal modifier + subject), The Fire Next Time (NP + NP, though this is questionable, since it could be construed as a reduced clause — the meaning is "It'll be the fire next time"), Sometimes a Great Notion (temporal modifier + subject), Dancer from the Dance (NP + PP), and for good measure the play title Suddenly Last Summer (Adv + temporal modifier NP). This is out of hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of books published. As a percentage: roughly zero.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 01:28 PM

January 20, 2008

Non-constituent titles

Mark mentions (in the previous post) a cellphone novel called If You (in transliterated Japanese, moshimo kimi-ga). As an English title this enters the ranks of the extremely few books ever published with titles that are not syntactic constituents.

A constituent is a syntactic unit: a single word, or a phrase or clause consisting of one or more words that belong together and act as a unit syntactically. Take an example like the first two lines of Route 66:

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best

(This line turns out to vary a lot between different recordings and different transcriptions; I've taken a sort of average.) Here the sequence to motor west is a constituent (a subjectless infinitival clause, the complement of the verb plan, which is also a constituent). So is the highway (it's a noun phrase). Likewise the whole conditional adjunct if you ever plan to motor west. Most linguists but not quite all would say that plan to motor west is a constituent: a verb phrase — though there can be controversy about such matters. But no one would claim that highway that's the is a constituent. And similarly, no linguist would claim that if you is a constituent.

In "Some lists of things about books" (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 6 [1988], 283-290; reprinted in my collection The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, University of Chicago Press, 1991, 190-200) I gave a few examples of books that clearly have non-constituent titles, and commented on their rarity. The ones I still think are definitely valid examples are Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (conditional if + preposition phrase adjunct + subject NP; note, though, that this book is overtly a literary experiment); James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (predicative complement NP + temporal modifier NP — though this one is doubtful, since as Topher Cooper points out to me, it comes from the lines "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water ... the fire next time", and in that context it could perhaps be regarded as a clause with something like "it'll be" left implicit); Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion; and Andrew Holleran's Dancer From the Dance.

You might wonder how we know whether a title was intended as a constituent or not. Quite often we can clearly identify the source of such titles in familiar or previously attested phrases or clauses of which the titles are intended to be recognized as echoes. For example, the title of Holleran's Dancer From the Dance, a novel about gay men in New York, is well known to be a deliberate echo of William Butler Yeats's line: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?": the verb know takes a direct object, the dancer, which is followed by a preposition-phrase complement, from the dance. Hardly any syntacticians would say that these combine to form a constituent of the clause (but again, there can be disagreement: I believe the NYU syntactician Richard Kayne would defend the view that the two do form a constituent, at least at a certain transformational level of abstraction — don't ask, I could explain more about this but I won't).

I think things are freer, and there is more experimentation, in pop music song titles. Charles Ulrich recently pointed out to me that Frank Zappa gave non-constituent titles to at least two instrumental pieces, and we can identify them as definitely non-constituents in a similar way: "Watermelon In Easter Hay" (on Joe's Garage) was titled for Zappa's own remark, "Playing a guitar solo with this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay" (where absolutely no one would try to argue that the direct object a watermelon forms a constituent with the locative adjunct in Easter hay), and "Hands With A Hammer", a drum solo by Terry Bozzio (on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 3), is named after Bozzio's complaint "I feel like I've been hittin' my goddamn hands with a hammer!" (same syntactic comment: absolutely no syntactician one would say that the direct object my goddam hands forms a constituent with the instrumental adjunct with a hammer).

But even for musical or poetic compositions, such titles are extremely rare. And I am most interested in collecting new instances of book titles. I expect to have a whole shipload of people mailing my gmail account to suggest new cases (the username is pullum; use the Subject line "non-constituent titles"), enough that I will probably not be able to respond personally. Already my Language Log colleague Ben Zimmer has pointed out that Justin Timberlake's song "SexyBack" (spelled without a space) comes from its first line "I'm bringin' sexy back" (see Semantic Compositions for an ill-tempered critique that hovers on the edge of rant). Zimmer also noted here on Language Log that the film Love Actually is named for the dialog line "If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around", and also that the play (and film) Suddenly Last Summer has a non-constituent title formed of two clause-modifying adjuncts.

But I don't actually expect to be deluged with examples, because it is overwhelmingly clear that for every odd case of a non-constituent title of a work of literature or music or theater or film, there are thousands and thousands of titles that are plain old constituents:

  • noun phrases (The Bourne Identity), or
  • nominals (NPs without the determiner, as in Handbook of Amazonian Languages or single noun cases like Enigma), or
  • preposition phrases (On the Beach), or
  • adjective phrases (Dead Certain), or
  • coordinations of constituents (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), or
  • independent declarative clauses (I Am Charlotte Simmons), or
  • independent interrogative clauses (How Should I Live?), or
  • interrogative subordinate clauses (Why I write), or
  • imperative clauses (Dial M for Murder)
  • Gerund-participial clauses (Growing Marijuana Under Lights)...

and so on. It is only extraordinarily few that are non-constituents, and to my ear most of those are quite easily recognized as odd, as straining for some special effect.

This is such a plangent and demonstrable fact that two things occur to me as I reflect upon it again.

First, one might regard it as prima facie evidence in favor of the constituency of a class of word sequences that sequences of that sort turn up frequently as titles.

And second, I see no reason why the statistical fact of the huge preponderance of titles that are constituents should not be counted part of the external evidence in favor of the reality of syntactic structure. That is, I see it as potential evidence against the linguists and psycholinguists (I think they are a minority, but they exist) who suggest that there really is no such thing as syntax, there are just words and the clues to communicated meanings that they carry.

Ordinary authors and songwriters are typically unacquainted with any theoretical notions of syntactic constituency. Even just the syntactic argumentation and terminology contained in this post, which I have addressed to a general audience, goes beyond the consciously articulable knowledge of syntax possessed by the typical novelist or songsmith. How would they (even when aided and abetted by their editors and publishers) know enough to maintain the overwhelming statistical preponderance if the distinction between constituent and non-constituent word sequences were not a real part of the structure of linguistic expressions, ingrained in our tacit knowledge of them?

[Update last revised Mon Jan 21 16:26:47 GMT 2008 and will be further revised soon: A few of the new non-constituent titles collected in the first few hours were from song titles. I have decided that these are rather like poems and ancient texts in that their titles are fairly often just shortened versions of the first line, or some significant line. But certainly, there are genuine non-constituent song titles out there: Dan Bruno notes that Phish closed out their last show with a song titled "The Curtain With" (I take it to be an allusion to grammatical phrases like "a song to bring down the curtain with", and very obviously a non-constituent), and John Beavers reminded me of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith's "Because The Night" (a clausally-complemented preposition plus the subject NP of the complement clause). Let me also point out that the title of the Australian film One Night the Moon (brought to my attention by linguist David Nash) has exactly the same non-constituent structure, and so does Suddenly Susan, the 90s Brooke Shields sitcom (as pointed out by Grant Hutchins). .

Furthermore, Chris Kern reports that the cellphone novel title Mark mentioned is from a Japanese pop song: "Moshimo kimi-ga" by Woody Sato. (Some people have suggested that in very informal Japanese it could be a constituent, meaning "if you are" or "if you will". In English it is certainly not.)

It was book titles that originally interested me in this connection, and I am pleased to have collected several more from the correspondence that resulted from this post. I have now moved the list to a separate post, q.v. Thanks to all.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 08:02 AM

January 19, 2008

A million cellphone novels

Back in 2004, when I learned about Senju Mariko, the Japanese violinist and novelist who did all her writing on a cell phone ("More on meiru", 3/9/2004), I thought she was a strange outlier in the world of the Japanese infatuation with texting. But according to today's NYT, the Japanese best-seller list for 2007 was dominated by cellphone novels republished in book form (Norimitsu Onishi, "Broken Hearts, Sore Thumbs: Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular", 1/20/2008):

Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.

One such star, a 21-year-old woman named Rin, wrote "If You" over a six-month stretch during her senior year in high school. While commuting to her part-time job or whenever she found a free moment, she tapped out passages on her cellphone and uploaded them on a popular Web site for would-be authors.

After cellphone readers voted her novel No. 1 in one ranking, her story of the tragic love between two childhood friends was turned into a 142-page hardcover book last year. It sold 400,000 copies and became the No. 5 best-selling novel of 2007, according to a closely watched list by Tohan, a major book distributor.

The scale of the phenomenon in the background is, well, phenomenal:

The cellphone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making Web site, Maho no i-rando, realized that many users were writing novels on their blogs; it tinkered with its software to allow users to upload works in progress and readers to comment, creating the serialized cellphone novel. But the number of users uploading novels began booming only two to three years ago, and the number of novels listed on the site reached one million last month, according to Maho no i-rando.

Like blogging, this seems to be a case where the medium invites the message:

"It's not that they had a desire to write and that the cellphone happened to be there," said Chiaki Ishihara, an expert in Japanese literature at Waseda University who has studied cellphone novels. "Instead, in the course of exchanging e-mail, this tool called the cellphone instilled in them a desire to write."

Indeed, many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before, according to publishers.

More on the phenomenon of keitai shousetsu can be found in an earlier story from Australia: Justin Norrie, "In Japan, cellular storytelling is all the rage", Sidney Morning Herald, 12/3/2007.

[By the way, the Japanese title of Rin's novel (in romaji) is moshimo kimiga. Moshimo means "if", -ga is a subject marker, and kimi is (according to Bill Poser) "one of the many 2nd person pronouns, intimate but not pejorative, what you would use toward your lover or an intimate friend". Bill explains further that in addition to being used between lovers, kimi is also used "by men to other men with whom they have been friendly since childhood". The EDICT entry for kimi glosses it as "(used colloquially by young females) (male) (fam) you; buddy; pal;". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:37 PM

It's a dog's life -- 0.3 bits at a time

After reading Geoff Pullum's note on "Parsing dog talk", I heaved a sigh and faced my duty to Language Log's Reading the Original Paper and Thinking About the Actual Numbers department.

The original paper is Csaba Molnár, Frédéric Kaplan, Pierre Roy, François Pachet, Péter Pongrácz, Antal Dóka and Ádám Miklósi, "Classification of dog barks: a machine learning approach", Animal Cognition, published online 1/15/2008 (a .pdf is here).

And the actual numbers are pretty simple. The researchers collected 6,646 barks from 14 dogs (4 male, 10 female), in six situations, whose nature is suggested by their one-word descriptions: "Stranger" (N=1802),  "Fight" (N=1118),  "Walk" (N=1231),  "Alone" (N=752),  "Ball" (N=1001),  "Play" (N=742). If you guessed the situation at random, you'd expect to be right 1/6 = 17% of the time. If you always guessed "Stranger", you'd expect (in a sample from this dataset) to be right 1802/6646 = 27% of the time. Human listeners guessed right 40% of the time. A automated classifier made 43% correct classifications. No one asked the dogs.

We can deduce that Colin Barras wrote "Computer decodes dog communication" (New Scientist, 1/17/2008) from the press release, without reading the original paper, because he serves up this quote:

"The idea sounds totally cool," says Brian Hare at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, US. "This is animal behaviour research at its best. You see a pattern that no one else knew was there because we can't hear the difference ourselves."

If Brian Hare had read the paper before getting the phone call, and noted the 43% vs. 40% performance, he wouldn't have said such a silly thing; and if Colin Barras had done his duty as a journalist, he would never have embarrassed his source (as well as himself) by printing the quote.

In fact, I wonder whether Hare said any such thing at all, since anybody who's ever had a dog knows that (for example) the "Walk" scenario

The owner was asked to behave as if he/she was preparing to go for a walk with the dog. For example, the owner took the leash of the dog in her/his hand and told the dog „We are leaving now”.

and the "Fight" scenario

For dogs to perform in this situation, the trainer encourages the dog to bark aggressively and to bite the glove on the trainer’s arm. Meanwhile the owner keeps the dog on leash.

are likely to produce rather different-sounding vocalizations, and we probably don't need a machine-learning algorithm to discover this.

[I should note in passing that in the original paper, the authors explicitly decline to interpret the quantitative comparison between the human and automatic classification performance, since the test methodologies were so different: the human subjects made their judgments after listening to a series of barks from the same context, whereas the computer classified just one bark; on the other hand, the computer algorithm was based on extensive feature selection and parameter setting for the same collection of recordings, whereas the humans were given no training at all. As a result, there's no point in trying to decide whether the human 40% is "significantly" lower than the computer's 43%, and to their credit, the authors don't try to do it. Alas, the author of Springer-Verlag's press release was not so restrained.]

OK, time for a bit of fiddling with the numbers. Here's the authors' Table 4, a confusion matrix showing the relationship between the true situation (row labels) and the program's guess (column labels):

Table 4: Confusion matrix

[A small technical note. The approach had three phases: (1) "Generation of a large number of [signal-processing] descriptors adapted to a specific classification problem", using a genetic algorithm with fitness defined by nearest-neighbor classification, to select from a very large number of possible compositions of a large set of signal-processing primitives; (2) "Creation of an optimal subset of descriptors", using a greedy stepwise feature selection method for a Naive Bayes classifier; (3) "Complete evaluation of recognition performance", using a Naive Bayes classifier trained on the descriptors from (2), testing on each of the 10 dogs after training on the other 9. While each of the three phases used a (different) train/test division to avoid over-fitting, the same dataset was used over again in each of the phases. This makes it likely that the final performance is higher than would have been achieved if a test set had been kept aside from the beginning, or if new data were collected.]

How much information is being conveyed here? One way to quantify this would be in terms of mutual information: how much does hearing the dog's bark reduce our uncertainty about the situation in which the bark was recorded?  (And the answer is going to be about the same for the human listeners and for the computer algorithm, since their performance was about the same.)

The maximum possible, in this case, would be log2(6) = 2.58 bits. The actual answer, by my calculation from the counts given in Molnár et al.'s Table 3, is 0.337 bits. In other words, the researchers' automated classifier is getting about a third of a bit of information from each bark. The human listeners were getting about the same.

So this is not quite the situation described in Gary Larson's Far Side cartoon, where Professor Milton invents a device that translates from Dog to English, and goes down a street full of barking dogs, only to discover that they are all saying "Hey hey hey hey hey hey..." But neither is it the situation implied by the headlines (and the associated stories) about this work: "Computer Decodes Dog Communication" (ABC News); "Scientists decode dogspeak" (MSNBC); "Computer Translates Dog Barks" (FOXNews); "Comuter Learns Dogspeak: Programs Can Classify Dog Barks Better Than Humans, Study Shows" (Science Daily); "Computer can help your dog communicate" (Reuters); "Yap-lication unlocks canine moods" (BBC News); " Computer communicates with dogs" (Telegraph), etc. etc.

More important, though, it's not obvious that this is research on communication at all, at least as most people understand the term.

To see why, let's imagine the response to a superficially very different piece of research. We record 6,000 sound clips from the engine compartments of 10 different cars in 6 different situations: "Stopping at a red light"; "Cruising on the interstate"; "Pulling out to pass"; "Idling"; "Accelerating from a standing start"; "Revving the engine while stopped". We calculate a bunch of acoustic features, and use machine-learning algorithms to generate and select feature-combinations that are good at classifying the basic situations, and then we train a classifier that is able to guess correctly, a little less than half the time, which of the six situations the car was in when a recording was made.

Would newspapers all over the world tell us about it, under headlines like "Computer Decodes the Language of Cars" or "Computer can help your car communicate"? I don't think so. (Well, maybe the BBC would...)

I'm not (just) being perverse here. The point is that the dogs in these six situations are probably doing rather different things with their bodies, and are also probably in rather different physiological states (of overall arousal, among other things), and these differences are likely to affect their vocalizations. Compare, for example, lunging at a trainer while being restrained on a leash (the "fight" situation), vs. trotting around happily while preparing to go out (the "walk" situation).

I realize that dogs are social animals, with considerable vocal skills, who make extensive use of vocalizations in their social interactions. And I think that using machine learning techniques to explore animal vocalizations is indeed an excellent idea, and this is a very worthwhile study -- Brian Hare was right to be enthusiastic, even he managed to get quoted saying something that seems rather silly given the facts of the case. But ... well, you fill in the rest.

If you want to follow along at home, the equation for mutual information is here:

And here's a little R script that applies the equation to the dog data.

[Update -- Laurence Sheldon Jr. writes:

We have just one dog, and I have no notion of just how a study involving more than one individual would turn out, but there is no doubt in my mind that we (wife and I) can correctly differentiate among "I'm bored and going out sounds like something to do.", "Squirrel in the bird feeder!", "I gotta go!", "Car! You going somewhere in the car?!", "I think I heard the garage door open and I want to go [greet Pat|greet Larry|get into the car before [Pat|Larry] notice.]!", and "[Pat|Larry] has been gone quite a while, I want to check the garage for them.".

Some of these we think we can identify without seeing the dog ("Squirrel!") or knowing which of four doors she is at.

I think that most dog owners have a similar sort of impression. But are all of these vocalizations just barks, or are some of them (at least half-way) whines or growls? Molnár et al. don't specify whether they excluded such mixed-type sounds or not. I should think that if you allowed them in, you could get more than a third of a bit of information out of each vocalization.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:36 AM

January 18, 2008

A further note on deeming

A further note on deem (following up this post about an ill-judged use of the verb): A number of lawyers and readers with law-related interests have been writing to me to note that they see a distinct tinge of counterfactuality to the semantics of this lexeme. When a legal text like a statute says that things of type A will be deemed to belong to class B for the purpose of the legislation, they strongly implicate that things of type A are not members of class B, they will merely be included thus for the purpose of the legislation and not because it is true. Thus they can say that any reference to a man injuring himself will be deemed to cover also the case of a woman injuring herself (which of course is not correct: men are from Mars and women are from Venus and himself can only refer to a male).

Thus lawyers perceive a slight difference in meaning between judge X to be Y or consider X to be Y on the one hand and deem X to be Y on the other: people who judge or consider X to be Y typically think it really is, whereas people who deem X to be Y typically think it isn't. In the context of elections, apparently, the act of deeming someone to be elected is undertaken by those who report the count to the returning officer, and only the returning officer can declare someone elected. The job of the returning officer, in fact, is to stand in front of the microphones and declare elected the person who the officials supervising the count have deemed to be elected. Just thought you'd like to know about this. I neither consider nor deem it all to be true; just reporting what friends in the legal profession have been saying.

[By the way: Thomas Thurman sent me the following quote from the Oxford Union rules, which rather charmingly links this post thematically to the rather anti-dog one that immediately preceded it:

Rule 51: Dogs
Any Member introducing or causing to be introduced a dog into the Society's premises shall be liable to a fine of £5 inflicted by the Treasurer. Any animal leading a blind person shall be deemed to be a cat. Any animal entering on Police business shall be deemed to be a wombat.

(From page 54 of this document.)

Pretty clearly some counterfactual deeming going on there.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 11:56 AM

Parsing dog talk

It gives me no pleasure to record — though I must in light of my duties on the Stupid Animal Communication Stories desk here at Language Log — that a Hungarian scientist has created some software that is claimed to be able to actually understand the barking of dogs of the Hungarian Mudi breed. The barks can be decoded to discern the dogs' emotional state: "when a dog has seen a ball, when it is fighting, playing, meeting a stranger or when it wants a walk." This was accomplished through the analysis of 6,000 barks by 14 dogs. And if you truly have nothing the slightest bit valuable to do today, you can read about it here.

The scientist involved, Csaba Molnar, "told the BBC it may have applications for analysis of human communication", and of course the BBC immediately believed them. He told Reuters that "A possible commercial application could be a device for dog-human communication." I'm sure that if you are the sort of person to whom this has any appeal, you already believe that your dog understands every word you say. Now you can understand every word your dog says back. Just don't bother to report any of its opinions to me, OK? Oh, and I am fully aware that on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; so to all our canine readers, let me just say: arf arf arf, woof woof. Thank you.

Hat tip: Sam Tucker.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 08:47 AM

January 17, 2008

We called each other Yo

Following up on our discussion of Stotko & Troyer on yo in Baltimore ("Yo", 1/7/2008; "OK, you wireistas, listen up", 1/14/2008), Scott Hildebrandt wrote to point out that back in 1951, in On The Road, Jack Kerouac used yo as something like an anaphor. Then again, maybe it's more like an epithet or nickname. Or an interjection playfully misinterpreted as a nickname. Here's the context:

Tim Gray shot his hand up in the air and said, "So you're leaving, Yo." We called each other Yo. "Yep," I said. The next few days I wandered around Denver.

Here's a larger context, courtesy of the Google Books presentation:

They might have called each other Yo, but that's the only place in the book where Kerouac records them doing it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:41 PM

The Name Nixzaliz

An appalling case that has been in the news recently concerns a little girl named Nixzmary who was apparently killed by one or both of her parents. News accounts reveal that her name is a blend of her grandmother's name Maria and her mother's name Nixzaliz, but where does Nixzaliz come from? My initial hypothesis was that this name came from some indigenous language of Latin America, but it turns out that the parents are Puerto Rican, which makes this unlikely. It might just be a nonce name, but I wonder if it has some interesting origin. Can any of our readers inform me as to the origin of this name?

Posted by Bill Poser at 02:05 PM | Comments (46)

January 16, 2008

The stir-fry/BBQ index

David Brooks on last night's Democratic presidential debate in Michigan ("Republicans Brawl, Democrats Yawn", NYT, 1/15/2008):

The Democratic debate has been a love fest. The candidates have all (for very good reasons) decided to pull back from the mutual kamikaze tone of the past few days. Their discussion constituted a repudiation of the old Boss Daley of Chicago, who famously said that politics ain't beanbag. Apparently politics is beanbag, because that's all the Democrats threw at each other tonight. I've seen more conflict at a pacifists' stir-fry. [emphasis added]

I've never been at a pacifists' stir-fry, myself, and frankly, I doubt that David Brooks has either. In any case, my general experience with pacifists has been that they're more argumentative than average, not less.

All the same, Brooks' little rhetorical gesture made me wonder about the nature of the conventional association that he's evoking, which I guess depends on ideas like pacifists tend to be vegetarians, and a stir-fry is a characteristic dish for a party of vegetarians; pacifists tend to be cosmopolitan, and stir-frying is outside the bounds of traditional American cooking. But here's a bit of independent evidence from Google web-search counts:

  stir-fry BBQ BBQ/stir-fry ratio
154 .4

However, linguists and lawyers are even lower than pacifists on the BBQ/stir-fry scale, and no one who has ever spent much time with members of either group is likely to accuse them of conversational disarmament:

  stir-fry BBQ BBQ/stir-fry ratio

So score one for Brooks on skillful choice of stereotypical associations (his strong point in general), but deduct points for factual accuracy and logical argumentation (areas where he is traditionally weaker).

In fact, Brooks has a history of making stuff up about the sociology of food in order to create effective rhetoric. Sasha Issenberg, "Boo-Boos in Paradise", Philadelphia Magazine, April 2004, documented some interesting examples in detail. The thread of her argument in one case:

To see the vast nation whose condition he diagnosed, Brooks compared two counties: Maryland's Montgomery (Blue), where he himself lives, and Pennsylvania's Franklin (a Red county in a Blue state). "I went to Franklin County because I wanted to get a sense of how deep the divide really is," Brooks wrote of his leisurely northward drive to see the other America across "the Meatloaf Line; from here on there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters." [...]

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called "status detail," those telling symbols -- the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles -- that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. [...]

There's just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. [...]

As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. "On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu -- steak au jus, 'slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever -- I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's," he wrote. "I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and 'seafood delight' trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it."

Taking Brooks's cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The "Steak and Lobster" combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. "Most of our checks are over $20," said Becka, my waitress. "There are a lot of ways to spend over $20."

The easiest way to spend over $20 on a meal in Franklin County is to visit the Mercersburg Inn, which boasts "turn-of-the-century elegance." I had a $50 prix-fixe dinner, with an entrée of veal medallions, served with a lump-crab and artichoke tower, wild-rice pilaf and a sage-caper-cream sauce.

Read the whole thing -- food isn't the only area where Brooks' pop-anthropology "status details" turn out to have been invented, or perhaps I should say, chosen skillfully from among the available stereotypes.

My own stereotype is that a remarkable percentage of what I read in newspapers and magazines is the result of a similar style of "research". This may be false, but it turns out to be true often enough to make me suspicious of the rest -- and I'm not the only one.

[Update -- Empty Pockets writes:

I enjoyed your post this morning. I'd like to add that along with inventing facts, Brooks may have invented a concept: the stir-fry as social gathering.

I can find plenty of google hits for "at a barbecue," meaning at a social gathering where food is being barbecued, but none for "at a stir-fry" in that sense.

Even broadening the search using "at a * stir-fry" doesn't pull in anything like Brooks's sense in the top few pages of hits.

Disparage Brooks as you like, but clearly he's aware of an entire category of parties that the rest of us are not getting invited to!

This excellent point hadn't occurred to me. Besides BBQs, there are a number of other conventional gatherings named for comestibles and/or food preparation methods: clambakes, pig roasts, fish fries, ice-cream socials, cocktail parties, and so on. But I've never seen an invitation to a stir-fry, nor a report about one after the fact. ]

[Matthew Hoberg comes to David Brooks' rescue, at least with respect to the question of stir-fry-related social occasions:

A bit of Google sleuthing revealed that "stir fry" is not so different from barbecue, cocktail party, etc- though it is uncommon in that sense. The expression in favor seems to be "stir fry party." That term is found on a bunch of restaurant sites, in the sense of "come pick out your ingredients, our chef stir fries it for you"-- but it is also used to describe social stir fray gatherings at people's homes, at camps, etc. I found these sites by googling "stir fry party." You get less than a hundred hits with that phrase in quotes, so perhaps these parties are uncommon-- but they are out there.

For the first sense:
"It's a stir fry party, as they call it, where you get to pick from 2 different kinds of rice or 3 different kinds of noodles, vegetables, meats...."

For the second sense (which David Brooks uses):
"It's fun to have a stir-fry party and get friends together," she added. "Everybody's in the kitchen playing a role in that, the chopping and the dicing."
"For those of you who like holding dinner parties, why not hold a stir-fry party."
"When I worked with a bunch of people who got together frequently to socialize, we would do stir-fry parties."
"cape cod June 8th Annual stir fry party"
"Try a new meal out on company. Perhaps a stir-fry party, where every one can help."

OK. But Brooks didn't write about "a pacificists' stir-fry party", it was "a pacifists' stir-fry".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:59 AM

Some linguists weigh in on D.C. v. Heller

A few days ago, Ben Winograd at the Scotus Blog listed and linked the amicus briefs filed on January 11 in support of the petitioner in District of Columbia v. Heller ("Amicus briefs for D.C. available in guns case", 1/12/2008). There are 19 of them, in alphabetical order from American Academy of Pediatrics to Violence Policy Center And Various Police Chiefs, and one is labelled "Professors of Linguistics", or at greater length "Brief for Professors of Linguistics and English Dennis E. Baron, Ph.D., Richard W. Bailey, Ph.D. and Jeffrey P. Kaplan, Ph.D.".

The brief speaks for itself, which is a good thing, because I don't have time for any further commentary today. But you can compare its arguments to those discussed in "The right to keep and bear adjuncts", 12/17/2007.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:32 AM

January 15, 2008

Après Fish, le déluge?

Professor Stanley Fish, at the end of a distinguished career, is trying earnestly to pull the academic edifice of the humanities down on the heads of his professional successors. He recently asked "Will the Humanities Save Us?" (NYT, 1/6/2008), and discussed the question at greater length in "The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two" (NYT, 1/13/2008). These essays, structured as conversations with commenters on his blog, are a lucid exploration of a complex and important topic. His conclusion:

To the question "of what use are the humanities?", the only honest answer is none whatsoever.

Prof. Fish doesn't bring up the logically related question "how many faculty positions should be devoted to the humanities?" But I will. And as he frames the issues, at least, the only honest answer is roughly one tenth of the current number.

Fish considers, and eloquently rejects, the standard arguments about "well rounded citizens", the enobling powers of classic texts, and so on. And he ends his second column this way:

Nguyen Chau Giao asks, "Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?" To tell the truth, I can't remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I've read a poem (like Herbert's "Matins") and said "Wow!" or "Isn't that just great?" That's more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.

Given his sketch of the nature of the humanities in academia today, any honest and dispassionate observer is likely to agree with him. And some would paint a much darker picture of this part of the intellectual landscape.

Then why has the world been persuaded to subsidize Prof. Fish's wonderment? The answer, as he suggests but doesn't say, is that the deal went down a century ago, when both academia and the wider world still shared a conceptual framework that Fish explicitly and persuasively rejects:

You can talk ... about "well rounded citizens," but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

And in any case, as he might have added, many if not most academic humanists deny that the traditional cultural canon should be taught, or that any another body of canonized culture ought to replace it.

So why does the MLA -- to name just one of the professional associations of academic humanists -- still have 30,000 members? There are two obvious reasons: externally, many influential people still accept the "ideal [that] belongs to an earlier period"; and internally, academia is one of the most conservative cultures in the world. Adding new things is possible there, given money; but removing old things is very hard. This is partly because of the tenure system, but mostly, I think, it's just a deeply ingrained cultural conservatism, compared to which your typical Saudi salafist is homo economicus.

Prof. Fish's question "of what use are the humanities?" used to have a set of very specific answers.  The details, and certainly the emphasis, varied over time and space. But broadly speaking, academic humanists were expected to teach grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, ethics, and theology; to give their students the concepts and skills needed to  read and interpret important texts, both sacred and profane; to that end, to improve and transmit the knowledge of classical languages and literatures; to investigate the languages and literatures of other ancient civilizations; to document modern languages and cultures, especially the dominant language of each nation-state; to keep the past alive through historical narrative, and to extend those narratives into the advancing present.

There were disagreements and debates about ancient vs. modern languages, about the role of religion and of nationalism, about the place of engineering and science in the academy, about the balance between research and teaching, about access for women and for less wealthy citizens, and so on. But details aside, there was broad agreement among the elites of Western societies that the academic humanities were useful, as a critical component of the machinery of cultural transmission that made those societies what they were. Perhaps only a few percent attended the colleges and universities, but these in turn supplied tutors, teachers, priests and ministers who directly or indirectly reached the rest of the population.

This is the deal that was in place when the current structure of the college and university system was established, which (at least in the U.S.) was during the decades around the start of the 20th century. In that context, it made sense for the majority of faculty positions to be allocated to humanities departments. Over the past century, the proportion has been eroded -- though (I believe) that this is because new things have been added, mostly in science and engineering, and not because the size of humanities departments has been reduced.

My own view is that the answer to the question "of what use are colleges and universities?" is pretty much the same as it always was. We academics are part of the machinery that creates and maintains the society that we live in. These days, that machinery is much more democratic than it was in 1900, and science and engineering play a bigger role, and there have been many other changes -- but the basic structure of the situation is the same.

Most of the changes since 1900 have been positive ones, but not all of them. And in particular, most of the changes in the humanities -- and the humanistic end of the social sciences - strike me as very problematic for the academic future of the disciplines involved. As Prof. Fish eloquently explains, the social contract that established the humanities in academia is now void. At least, the most of the academic humanists think that it is. Most of them would vigorously reject the idea that they might be part of a system for creating and sustaining their society's culture. Many of them see their role as actively opposing any such system.

As a result, if someone were to take a rational, zero-based-budgeting look at the modern university, I suspect that very little of what now goes on in humanities departments would survive. My estimate of 10% is crude and subjective, but perhaps it will do to stimulate discussion.

To avoid misunderstanding:

1) I'm not really suggesting that a rationally reconstructed modern college or university should cut the humanities by a factor of 10. It might be that the humanities would be even larger than they are now, though not on Stanley Fish's definition of what humanists do. The issue is content, not size.

2) I'm not suggesting that the omitted content is without value or interest, including to me, just that a rationally-organized university would probably not decide to pay someone to work on it. I include some of my own active interests in this category.

4) I'm not proposing that higher education should be organized on narrowly utilitarian or trade-school lines. On the contrary.

5) Most academics that I know, including the physicists and computer scientists and biologists, do what they do because they love it, and are as grateful -- and sometimes as perplexed -- as Stanley Fish is that someone is willing to pay them to do it. This is a good thing all around, for obvious reasons. So I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone start assigning socially-useful topics in order to reform unwilling humanists.

5)  I recognize that attempts at wholesale rational reorganizations of complex institutions are usually anything but rational and anything but successful. I participated in a series of more or less catastrophic events of that sort at AT&T, between the 1984 consent decree and 1990, when I gratefully moved to academia. So I understand that the cultural conservatism of the academy has many positive aspects -- it prevents shallow and arrogant spreadsheet-mongers from rapidly destroying institutions that, all in all, still work very well.

But slower and more diffuse forces of the same sort will still have their way, eventually, if Fish's perspective continues to dominate. Sooner or later, the Antarctic icecap of academic humanities departments will melt -- perhaps rather abruptly, by the geological standards of academic politics.

6) Finally, my own discipline of linguistics is sometimes counted among the humanities, sometimes among the social sciences, and sometimes among the natural sciences. Often it's not counted at all -- most American colleges and universities don't have linguistics departments. The humanistic side of linguistics tends to be much more like the old-fashioned humanities of the 18th and 19th centuries: philology and lexicography and dialectology and so on. This may explain my own nostalgia for the days before the advent of what my colleagues in literary studies call "theory".

[If you have a short observation, or a link to your own or someone else's longer discussion of related issues, let me know and I'll post it. I may not have time to answer all email, so let me apologize in advance to those I don't get back to.]

[William Benzon writes:

Over at The Valve we have several discussions of Fish's blogs. I've set up basic links to his posts without really commenting on them myself, though others have in comments to my links: Fish 1, Fish 2.

My colleague Joseph Kugelmass has written a considered reply to the first piece, and that has generated quite a bit of commentary. He has also commented on Fish's second piece.

Bill also noted that Stanley Fish

...wrote a few very influential essays in the early 70s that dampened lit crit interest in linguistics. While I think his essays were valid - he was criticizing stylistics experts & linguists who oversold their wares -- the dampening effects were unfortunate. Literary study would be in much better shape if more people had been imaginative enough to pay attention to the so-called cognitive revolution.

Well, in 2005 Fish published a NYT Op-Ed arguing that the best way to teach freshman writing -- or at least the way that he choses to do it -- is to divide students into groups and make each group "[create] its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students". (See "Stanley Fish moves into linguistics", 5/31/2005, for discussion.)  I guess that this illustrates Fish's reputation for unweaving by night what he weaves by day.

And Bill also sent a link to "Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker", The Valve, 9/19/2007 (which includes a response from Pinker).]

[Commenting on Bill Benzon's post at The Valve, John Emerson got in a zinger:

Fish certainly does well represent the corruption of those who hold long-established but now functionless sinecures.

I like to think that my own position is functional, in the sense that I give good value to the students, contributors and grant funders who pay my salary. I bet that Stanley Fish feels the same way about his own contributions, when he isn't trying to make a point pour épater les bourgeois. If not, wouldn't he quit and earn his way as a freelance writer and lecturer?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:51 PM

Fighting over words

I am not sure that's it is appropriate for Loggers to flack their own books, but I am willing to stick my neck way out anyway and announce that Oxford University Press has just published my newest one, called Fighting Over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases. It deals with the way language analysis interacts with law suits involving corporations, including business contract disputes, deceptive trade practices, product liability, copyright infringement, discrimination, trademarks, and false representations. I discuss 18 different lawsuits that I have worked on in the past, explaining what I did in each of them.

My intended readers are linguists who work on such cases, civil lawyers who do not already know how linguistic analysis can help them, and students who are beginning to learn that linguistics has an important role to play in other fields, such as law. For practical classroom practice I have included the relevant data used as evidence in each case so that students can do their own analyses of it if they want to. In fact, I even encourage them to disagree with what I did. How is that for sticking my neck way out?

On this topic I should say, perhaps in self-defense, that working with lawyers on law cases sometimes puts linguistics and other experts in an uncomfortable time bind. When we do our research or write our academic papers and books, we can proceed at our own pace, taking months or even years sometimes.  But in law cases, it is the judge who controls the clock. If there is not enough time for us to do everything we want to do, that is just too bad.   

Posted by Roger Shuy at 10:39 AM

January 14, 2008

No dogs or Canadians?

Sometimes language change amazes even us linguists. I just learned that "Canadian" is the new American cryptoracist term for "black person"! Apparently it is the very incongruity of this choice that motivates it.

Americans think of Canada as the Great White North, not only meteorologically but ethnically, and they're right: there are significant non-white minorities, but they are mostly East and Southeast Asian (6.0%), aboriginal (4.6%), and South Asian (3.1%). Black people constitute only 2.3% of the population as compared with 12.4% in the United States. Since the stereotypical Canadian is white (with a red serge uniform) you'd never expect "Canadian" to mean "black". That makes it a good choice as a covert racist term.

Update: Ben Zimmer points to some discussion of this development on the American Dialect Society mailing list, and a reader in the food industry has written to say that a new term is beginning to turn up: shuda, as in "it shuda been fried chicken".

Posted by Bill Poser at 08:11 PM

OK, you wireistas, listen up

Cosma Shalizi says "I'm pretty sure that some of the dialogue in The Wire uses 'yo' as, precisely, a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Of course I'd have to re-watch the previous seasons to be sure... "

If you don't understand what he's talking about, read this. If you know a specific reference, tell me.

[Karen Kay writes:

I don't have an example of Yo as 3rd person sg pronoun, but I did notice "shorty" being used for "girl"--it's in one of the last two or three episodes of the first season. That was my first exposure to that--I'd previously understood shorty to mean "kid". In this case, it was clearly about a woman working as an exotic dancer. I had to hear it several times (in different contexts) before I understood it.

Brad Skaggs sent in two references from urbandictionary.com -- definitions #47 and #62 for yo:

#47 (by Al, Jan 17, 2003): A noun of reference to someone, usauly refering to males. Also meaning "he", "his", or "him".

Yo, come hear for a second.
Yo said he got banked yesterday.

#62 (by Dominique Sep 7, 2004): substitution for pronouns he and she

It is only used when speaking of that person to someone else.

Originates in the Maryland,DC, and Virginia area.

"Yo said he was comin and yo still ain't here!"

And I found a piece of wireology online that suggests a hypothesis. Mandel Maven's nest on The Wire says that

The actors say that their scripts came with a glossary of the Baltimore slang, so that is probably where The Wall Street Journal got this "Talk the Talk: A Wire insider's guide to the show's street slang." 12/29/2007

and reprints the WSJ's list, which includes

A CORNER BOY/YO/LITTLE HOPPER: A young kid on the street who's aware of the street (but not necessarily a dealer). A corner boy is one on a corner, working a package with a crew. A yo or yo boy is a derogative term for such, popularized by Baltimore cops. A corner boy would never refer to himself as a yo or yo boy.

As I mentioned in the earlier post on pronominal yo, there's an old and general practice of using bare descriptive adjectives or nouns -- especially derogatory ones -- as referring expressions. The use of shorty is exactly of that kind. Other words I've often heard used that way are "slim", "skinny", "heavy", "fats", "young'un", "pops", and so on.

Here's a personal example from many years ago that struck me at the time. When I was in the army, I played in an intramural basketball league. During my team's first game, I hit a hook shot, and the guy who was guarding me turned to one of his teammates and said "hey look, college got a move". (Pronounced "collitch", of course).

So if yo is a somewhat derogatory term for "corner boy" or "gofer", it would be available as one the words that could be used as a quasi-anaphor.

That's not enough by itself to explain the phenomenon that Stotko and Troyer described. (For example, they report that 10 of 51 students used referential yo in writing a conversation where two kids talk about a third --for those students, yo is apparently more than just one of a long list of possible referential epithets.) Still, this might explain how the usage got started.]

[From Matthew Stein:

In David Simon's 1991 book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the police refer to inner-city youth as "yos" and "yoettes." (Derived from their habit of ending sentences with "yo.")

Some examples (from Amazon's search inside feature):

(p. 27) Who the fuck is this guy Worden? Is he really gonna go after a police on this Monroe Street thing? He's gonna try and fuck over another police because of some dead yo?

(p. 43)  Nicest guy in the world. Pretty long fuse. But let some yo with an attitude ride him too far, those eyeballs would roll up like an Atlantic City slot. It was a sure sign to every other cop that negoatiations had ended and nightsticks were in order.

(p. 307) At this moment, Clayvon Jones is simply a dead yo with a quality weapon he never got to use.

(p. 315) "Dead yo in a low-rise courtyard. When we rolled him, he still had his own gun in his pants."

(p. 554) And whatever else two decades in the department have done to Landsman, they have at least taught him that different between a killing and a murder. It's one thing, after all, for a detective to cut up with the uniforms when they're gathered around some dead yo; it's another entirely to behave that way when the case involves a young wife with her blouse pulled up, her throat slit open and her husband waiting in the company lot.

(p. 180) Alcoholics, dopers, welfare mothers, borderline mental cases, adolescent yos and yoettes in designer sweatsuits -- with only a handful of exceptions, those who claim a place on Baltimore's murderers row aren't the most visually threatening crew ever assembled.

(p. 332) Thick drum track, def rhythm and some sweet-voiced yoette wailing out the same two-line lyric. East side west side, and all around the town, the corner boys of Baltimore are fighting and dying to the same soundtrack.

(p. 444) Edgerton maintains his own string of informants, and more often than not they are eighteen-year-old yoettes whose boyfriends are out in the streets shooting one another for drugs and gold chains.

All of these are in quotes from cops, or free indirect style keyed to a cop's viewpoint. And none of them are close to the Stotko and Troyer pattern, or even the approach to it suggested above. But maybe the nominal usage has spread to the yos and yoettes themselves. ]

[Josh Kamensky writes:

Novelist Richard Price also writes on The Wire; his 1992 book "Clockers", though set in New York, has extensive use of the word "yo". I couldn't find it used third-person in a quick search-inside, but in the movie, a detective played by Harvey Keitel dismissively refers to the drug-runners as "yos".


[Max Heiman writes:

I don't have examples of "yo" to contribute, but it reminds me of the regional dialect in the school system in Newton, MA where I grew up. Words like "mush," "jivel," "divia," and "quisture" have been in use there mainly by high-school-age kids for a couple decades at least, yet remain mostly age-specific and extremely region-specific.

To my surprise, I found a fairly extensive commentary on the dialect here http://www.boston-online.com/glossary/lake_the.html. See especially the "dictionary" provided in a comment by "Anto" on June 20, 2006 12:48 PM.

"Mush," the most widely used idiom, is used more like "dude" than like "yo," though (e.g., "Hey, that mush got a new skateboard" and "Hey, mush got a new skateboard" both sound ok to my ear).

Here's Anto's glossary:

Mush: (not what a dogsledder shouts, rhymes with "push") n. Dude, buddy.
Ex: Hey, mush! Come here for a minute.
Ex: He's a good mush.

Divia: (alt spelling divya) - adj. crazy.
Ex: You are a divia mush.
n. crazy person
Ex: Hey, divia! Watch where you're going!
Ex: Mush, my boss went divia on me yesterday just because I was 5 minutes late!

Overchey: - v. lie, fabrication
Ex: Don't overchey me. I know you were there.
N. lie, fabrication
Ex: He's a good mush. Overchey! (i.e., he's not a good mush)

Jivel: - n. Woman
Ex: Mush, who's that jivel think she is?
Alt: Jivella

Quisture: (sounds like kwishtya) - adj. Awesome
Spelling explanation: Think "posture" with a Boston accent.
Ex: Mush, I don't know who that jivel is, but she's got a quisture rack.

Coy the moy - shut up
Ex: Mush, coy the moy, that jivel with the quisture rack is my girlfriend.

Avray: Over there
Ex: Mush, see the quisture jivel avray?

Joll: V. Steal
Ex: I just jolled a pack of gum from Fox's.

Cory: Male genitalia
Etymology: I suspect this comes from the word "Quarry"
Ex: Ow, my cory! (After getting hit by a ball)
Ex: Mush, that jivel jolled my cory last weekend. (Note, it is unclear why joll is used here. It just is.)

And speaking of gender-neutrality, there's the famous 1987 Aerosmith song "Dude look like a lady", which is another example of the use of a bare noun as an anaphoric expression.]

[Katy Catlin writes:

I grew up in the Baltimore/Annapolis suburbs of Anne Arundel County in the 80s and 90s, and this usage of "yo" as a third-person pronoun seemed completely new and strange to me when I read your posts about it on LanguageLog.

Then I talked to my sister about it, and she reminded me that about the time we were in middle school -- the early 90s -- the kids at our school divided themselves up into "bangers" and "yos" -- my sister specifically remembers getting teased for being a "yo" if she wore a hooded sweatshirt. I was rather oblivious at the time, but once she jogged my memory, it clicked. (She also remembers "pitched battles in mosh pits" between the factions, but *that* I cannot confirm!) I'd assumed that "bangers" was short for "headbangers," and therefore that "yos" would be "people who like rap music." "Yo" was probably derived from, as one of your correspondents noted, the habit of ending sentences with "yo" among youth/rap culture, but in this case it seems to have been a self (or peer)-identification, not a label imposed by the cops. Another friend of mine who grew up in the same area but at a different school also remembers bangers and moshpit wars - and she actually has noticed "yo" as a third-person-singular gender-neutral pronoun as you describe, and assumed it was standard Ebonics vernacular.

It seems possible that this kind of group identity could easily evolve into use of the word as a third-person pronoun, from "That yo stood me up!" to "Yo stood me up!", etc. If it's derived from an exclusive cultural identity among young people, that would also explain the perception that authority figures and teachers are *not* yos. I'm not sure where to send you for independent confirmation, though - maybe some other readers from the same place and time have similar memories!

For what it's worth, my sister now substitute teaches (mostly middle school) in Anne Arundel, and reports that she hasn't observed much usage of "yo" as a pronoun among schoolkids there. Possibly it's confined to Baltimore City and hasn't made it to the suburbs. The banger/yo wars seem to have been left in the 90s. "Yo" as an attention-getter ("Yo! Wait up!") or for emphasis ("'Yo' as a pronoun? That's the weirdest thing I've heard today, yo.") is still very prevalent among most people in the region.


[Martyn Cornell writes:

"Hey, mush" sounds remarkably like the London/Cockney expression "moosh", normally found in the expression "Oi, moosh", a slightly more aggressive way of drawing a stranger's attention than, for example, "I say, you over there ...", and in existence for many decades - here's an example dating to 1975.

Wikipedia claims claims "moosh" is "an affectionate word used in Dorset (UK) given to a friend/work colleague/partner whom you consider a friend".

Curiously there is also a British slang word "divvy" meaning fool or idiot, rather than crazy ...

Peter Trudgill's The Dialects of England (Blackwell, 1999) said (p. 121) about Cockney that

Other words have been borrowed from the Gypsy language Romany, such as pal = 'friend' (= 'brother' in Romany), ... and mush, which is a term of address in Cockney but is actually from the Anglo-Romany word moosh = 'man'.

And Rosalind Fergusson & Eric Partridge's Shorter Slang Dictionary (Routledge, 1994) has (p. 65)

divvy, adj. daft, stupid, eccentric, odd. Possibly from the Romany divio, mad.

This accords with several of the comments at the www.boston-online.com page on The Lake:

Any of you divia mushes or bree know where mandi-ki can get a history of Lake language? I was born there and was told that it came from "carny talk". That might have been an overchay because I was just a chabby then. Now I have a quistia little givel and I want her to get the right education.

[Larold on May 8, 2004 03:02 PM.]

Anglo-Romani (sp?) is the actual language, and in the early 20th century, it seeped into the neighborhood (maybe the Carnies in Hawthorn Park every July brought it?).

[wicked pissah on on January 30, 2005 08:26 PM.]

I am also from a family that came directly to Newton from Italy and settled in Thompsonville to continue farming along Florence St and Dudley Rd. There were at least two Irish Traveller colonies in Newton at the turn of the last century. One in Nonantum (The Lake) and one in Newton Centre (Thompsonville.) They must have spoken in a version of the Patrin/Romany language where you can find the words mush, divja, etc.

[T on March 17, 2006 01:22 PM.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:06 AM

January 13, 2008

Quickly, before they're gone, or else...?

At the water cooler earlier, Ben Zimmer told me about this NYT A&E article on the documentary The Linguists, which I mentioned last month. The focus of the NYT article is on documentary filmmaker Jeremy Newberger, but the urgency suggested by the article's title ("Racing to Capture Vanishing Languages") requires some explanation:

"We're trying to capture a story in a limited amount of time, and the linguists are trying to recover a language before it dies, which might even happen while we are there," Mr. Miller said. "Everyone was on edge."

Dr. Anderson and Dr. Harrison worked on a report issued in September indicating that out of the world's 7,000 languages, one is lost every few weeks. It is a human rights issue, Dr. Anderson said, as many native languages are silenced because of colonialism. Dying languages could also hold the key to finding native treatments for disease.

And then there are the less tangible reasons. "Language is essentially a historical library of information about a people and a culture," Dr. Anderson said. "There are a lot of people who intrinsically value the search for knowledge."

This summarizes much of K. David Harrison's argument in his book When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (which I announced here), though of course I think it's still worth reading the book for more details (and seeing the documentary whenever it's distributed).

Coincidentally, there is an interestingly relevant book review in the most recent issue of Language (Vol. 83, No. 4; Dec. 2007), the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The review (pp. 883-886) is by Ron Butters, Professor of English and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, and the book under review is Language in the USA: Themes for the twenty-first century, edited by Edward Finegan and John Rickford, with a foreword by Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg.

I was eager to read the review because I used a few chapters of this book last year as background reading for a large, lower-division undergraduate course at UCSD called Languages and Cultures of America, and I'm currently considering requiring the entire book when I next teach the course. Overall, the review is not very positive -- you can get a sense from the concluding, single-sentence paragraph: "In the end, the virtues of this book as 'textbook' may outweigh the lapses." Many of the criticisms either do not apply to my reasons for using the book in my class, or are things I think I can make up for with other readings or in class discussion. But the severest (and most extensive) criticism that Butters offers concerns the book's overall take on the kind of topic addressed by Harrison and Anderson in their work. I quote most of it here, leaving out some specifics where I feel it's appropriate:

This is [an] important aspect of this book that students [...] will find perplexing: the muddied, contradictory, and sometimes seemingly arrogant political center of parts of the book with respect to the complex issues surrounding linguistic discrimination, multiculturalism, language death, and the hegemony of English (particularly those varieties spoken and written by the rich and powerful). [There is an] all-too-characteristic polemical approach to political issues involving language: the linguistic cognoscenti know what is right and wrong when it comes to language issues, and the public is blind and ignorant and selfish, and they'd better shape up. The linguists in this book for the most part take it as unquestionable and in need of no rational argument that [quoting Nunberg's preface] 'ongoing efforts to preserve Native American languages' are always a simple social good; that 'a drift towards bilingualism' is not at all 'dangerous' in any important way; that 'common sense' notions about language 'usually amount to no more than myths and folklore ... hardly the grounds that you would want to rely on for making policy'.

Linguists have now hammered many generations of American students with our contrary opinions about normal people's linguistic beliefs, without notable success. The most pliant undergraduates may parrot such ideas in response to exam questions because they know their grades depnd on pleasing the linguist. For the most part, though, they go right on believing what the general culture and 'common sense' leads them to believe. Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves why this is the case.

Much of the problem is apparent in the rhetorical stances of many of the authors in this volume. They are preaching to the choir in a church full of dull-witted pagans from another, very wicked planet. [...] Apart from a few asides about the necessity for Americans to know second languages in the global village, [one author] nowhere explains to his readers WHY the USA would be a better place if the primacy of English were less than it is today, or WHY the apparent gradual death of Yiddish (his example) is such a great national loss [...] Students--and liberal humanities professors, for that matter--know in their hearts that the linguistic melting pot has always been the great American tradition, and that it has been viewed almost totally positively by everybody but linguists, and that there are powerful common-sense arguments in its favor. Dismissive scolding has little effect against such engrained ideologies.

[Another pair of authors] note with alarm that the number of speakers of the indigenous [Native American] languages is decreasing, and that many are 'in extreme danger of extinction' [...]. What they do not really explain is why this is necessarily anything other than a rather good thing. Shouldn't we WANT to 'integrate'--read 'absorb'--these worthy people into mainstream economic and cultural life? Isn't it just inevitable? [The authors'] answer [...], to someone who believes in the prevalent American linguistic ideologies, seems both effetely romantic and hideously self-serving: (a) 'When we lose a language, it means a "tremendous loss to the cultural richness and distinctness of the native communities" (Goddard 1996:3)'; and (b) 'the loss of linguistic diversity is a loss to scholarship and science'. [Note the parallel with the quoted passage from the NYT article above--EB.] Most of the students and other naifs who may be forced to read this book come from families who wear nice clothes and live in nice houses with numerous electronic appliances and good foreign cars in the driveway; most of the rest come from families who are struggling to find the means to live that way. Should people really be forced to 'preserve' languages if to do so might stand in their way of achieving middle-class comforts--even if they get some vague additional promise of 'cultural richness'--simply because linguists want to be able to study the living languages? As the two young men from Jalisco who have been doing my landscaping might put it, 'distinctness of the native community' won't buy me no iPod.

This is emphatically NOT to say that the public myths are simply 'right' nor even that all the authors in the volume are thus lacking in nuance and tact. [...]

Don't know about you, but this has certainly made me think hard about how I will approach these 'complex issues' in my future courses.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 08:50 PM

A new way of 寫ing Mandarin

From Pinyin News: "Mandarin borrow-ing English grammatical forms", 1/4/2008 :

Putting English words in Mandarin sentences is of course extremely common in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, generally because this is thought to look cool and modern. But last month I was surprised to see Mandarin sentences with just English’s -ing added — and not one but two examples of this.

The image here is from a poster for the DPP’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, that came out in March but which I didn’t see until a few days ago. It reads 台灣維新ing (”Táiwān wéixīn-ing“): “Taiwan is modernizing.” (Click the image to see the whole poster.)

The other example I noticed was in a newspaper headline about the Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong: 明年拚老三 天后暫不復出 李亞鵬王菲 積極做人ING (Míngnián pīn lǎosān — tiān hòu zàn bù fùchū — Lǐ Yàpéng, Wáng Fěi jījí zuòrén-ing. “Next year work hard to produce third child — superstar temporarily not appearing — Li Yapeng and Faye Wong are energetically working on making a baby.”)

No, that's not Frank Hsieh with the pistol, or Faye Wong either -- that's (a piece of) the cover of  Mystery and Thriller magazine, showing another use of -ing in Chinese text. Here's Mr. Hsieh and his slogan:

You can see the whole 台灣維新ing political poster on the Pinyin News site.

One of the commenters at Pinyin News notes some scholarship on the topic: Jia Lou, "From English morpheme to symbol of Chinese netizenship: Exploring -ing in Chinese blogs", NWAV 34, 2005. The link leads to an abstract -- unfortunately there does not appear to be fuller version of this presentation available.

Among the other comments:

It’s certainly not uncommon. For example, the Mystery and Thrillers magazine cover here has a cover line reading “《天机》第二季火热连载ing ” (and I think they’ve used the same wording ever since the magazine launched mid-year). My guess is that it started online (or close to it, like in cutesy IM language), similar to other grammatical borrowings (的说 being another prominent example).

Students are doing it on-line all the time, I’m only surprised that this is somehow “official” use now.

Here is a music video for the song “戀愛ing” which my friend pointed out to me on Twitter. Interestingly they spell out “I … N… G…” rather than saying “ing” as in English.

I’ve seen it too. A long while back a Chinese friend of mine sent me an SMS about an event coming up: “期待ing”, or “looking forward to it”. I’ve never heard it spoken, though, either, but after seeing that message, I’ve said it a few times, and my Chinese friends take it in stride.

Based on a bigger version of the Hsieh poster here,Victor Mair wrote:

The enlarged photo allowed me, with the aid of a small magnifying glass, to see that the same -ing ending was used for a different verb (BIAN4CHENG2 ["to change"]) than the verb of the slogan of Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh: WEI2XIN1-ing ("reforming, modernizing"). The links on the right side of the poster contain lots of what I call Sino-English, such as "party" and "from." If you check out the "from" links and the pages they lead to, you'll see plenty of Sino-English all over the place.

Incidentally, it seems that "change" is going to be the political catchword of the day, not just in Taiwan. Of course, Obama is capitalizing on this magic word with a look to the future, Hillary is declaring that she's been for CHANGE for more than a quarter of a century, and -- most impressive of all -- our new mayor in Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, is proclaiming that he's for "transformative change." I guess that means that Nutter is for CHANGE that really CHANGES things, and that he's not advocating an advanced type of linguistic modification.

Well, Mandarin doesn't have very many grammatical morphemes, so this may be one area where the balance of trade remains for a while in favor of the Anglophone countries -- though we'll have to ship whole boat-loads of participial endings in order to make up for the Chinese-character tattoos documented at Hanzi smatter.

[Update -- John Cowan writes:

Well, I dunno, by my count (in Li & Thompson's reference grammar) there are a few more grammatical bound morphemes in Mandarin (I mean, not counting things like the nominal suffix -zi, which is bound but lexical) than in English. So trade is not so very unbalanced after all

I'm not about to get into an argument on this topic, about which I know almost nothing. But Jerome L. Packard, The Morphology of Chinese, Cambridge University Press, 2000 (p. 71), lists six "grammatical affixes" ("the verbal aspect markers -le, -zhe and -guo; the resultative potential 'infixes' -de and bu- and the human noun plural suffix -men"). It's true that this is roughly the same number of grammatical affixes as English -- perhaps it's even one more -- but the basis of my feeble attempt at humor was the idea that Chinese is not an especially rich area for would-be importers of grammatical affixes.

And Bob Ladd wrote to remind us that both French and Italian have been prone for some time to borrowing -ing -- or rather, adopting English words in -ing, often in meanings that are unexpected for English speakers. Examples in French include shampooing (meaning "shampoo", as a noun) and camping (meaning "campground"). Italian has lifting to mean "facelift"; both mobbing and pressing to mean something like "political pressure [on a person]"; and zapping to mean "channel surfing". Of course, as Bob observed, this apparently the derivational noun-forming -ing, not the inflectional gerund-participle -ing -- though it's hard to tell, in the cases where the words have no real English counterpart.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:55 AM

The Decline of Classical Languages

On the way back from the LSA meeting, having finished the light reading that I had brought with me, I bought Steve Berry's The Alexandria Link. At pp. 418-419 we read:

These words were chiseled into the granite below.
"Prudence is the guardian of things," he said, translating, but his Greek was good enough to know that the first word could also be read as "wisdom". Either way, the message seemed clear.

Now, I don't expect very many people actually to understand Greek, or even Latin, but is it asking too much for at least one of the people involved in the production of a book, if not the author perhaps an editor or proofreader, to know the difference?

Actually, there are quite a few linguistic oddities in this book. The author thinks that the original text of the Old Testament was in a language he calls "Old Hebrew", which was so different from the Hebrew familiar to the scholars who produced the Greek translation known as the Septuagint that there was much that they did not understand. Actually, the Hebrew of the time of the Septuagint scholars, who worked from the third century through the first century BCE, is considered to be merely the latter stage, sometimes called the "Silver Age", of Biblical Hebrew, characterized largely by influence from Aramaic, which would eventually replace Hebrew as the spoken language. I am unaware of any evidence that the Hebrew of the two periods was so different as to produce serious difficulties of comprehension.

The author also has the idea that St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote at the end of the 4th century CE, wrote in "Old Latin" an alternative term for "Archaic Latin", which refers to Latin prior to 75 BCE. Augustine's Latin is actually of the late Classical variety and has none of the characteristics of Archaic Latin.

Perhaps even odder is the idea (p. 370), that Augustine's Confessions is required reading in most universities. That is surely false. It may be required reading in a few seminaries and other religious schools, but I doubt that it is required in many other universities. Not only do most universities have no reading that is required of all students, but the Confessions is of importance only for students of the history of Christianity, hardly the sort of fundamental subject that finds its way into core requirements.

Update: I've modified the last paragraph slightly to reflect the fact that a few schools with fairly intensive Western Civilization core courses do require Augustine's Confessions; it isn't entirely restricted to seminaries. Even so, the percentage of universities that require the book is quite small. Also, I'm told that it is read in some courses not for its religious content but as an autobiography.

For those completely unfamiliar with Latin and Greek, the words "CVSTOS RERVM PRVDENTIA" are in Latin, not Greek.

Further update: 2008-01-14: Reader Quodlibet points out that there is a further problem with Berry's description of the word that could also be read as "wisdom" as the "first". It is, of course, actually the third word that means "prudence" but could possibly be translated "wisdom". The first word, CVSTOS, means "guardian". I initially gave Berry the benefit of the doubt, thinking that he was referring to the English translation, but on reflection, it doesn't make any sense to do so since the reference is to a word that might have more than one English translation, which is necessarily a word in the Latin text, not the English translation. This suggests that Berry and his editors do not know the meanings of the individual Latin words, the order of which is: guardian - of.things - prudence.

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:56 AM

January 12, 2008

A Richardson relative clause

Then-Presidential candidate Bill Richardson, in the immediate aftermath of the New Hampshire primary voting, announced:

I want to apologize to all the New Hampshire voters who I interrupted their meals the last few days.

(Widely reported, for instance in the Las Cruces Sun-News, in Richardson's home state, on 8 January.  I heard it on NPR's Morning Edition the next morning.)

This sentence is (a) completely comprehensible (I don't think that any well-intentioned person who speaks English could mistake its intended meaning), (b) thoroughly ungrammatical in standard English, and (c) entirely unsurprising as a fix for problems in production.

If you're going to produce an English relative clause, here's the simplest way to do it is: [Note added 1/13: right here I'm in the middle of an Extris construction; I wrote that extra is and then realized what I'd done but decided to leave it in anyway, just for fun.] start with the head NP that you want to modify, and then compose the relative clause from

(1) a single-word relative marker -- a WH word or that -- that explicitly announces that a subordinate clause is to follow: the people who/that I met (there's also the option of an "unmarked" or "zero" relative, as in the people I met, where there's no explicit marker), and

(2) a clause with a gap in the position where the head NP is to be interpreted (who/that I met ___); this clause then either restricts the referent of the head or adds information about that referent.

Richardson led off with the relative marker who, and then went on to put together the rest of the relative clause, which was to be about his interrupting the meals of lots of New Hampshire voters.  Unfortunately, he chose to make the clause about him: he began the clause with the subject I.  He was then committed to an active-voice clause, and he was in grammatical hot water -- because when he got to referring to the interrupted meals, the natural position for the gap was as a determiner, and that's not an acceptable location for a gap:

*all the New Hampshire voters who I interrupted ____ meals the last few days

Now, he could have opted for a passive-voice clause, with the voters as the referent of the subject:

who had their meals interrupted by me ... 

This is a more complex option than the active-voice version, however.  And to realize that you might want a passive clause, you need to think ahead to possible problems with the active-voice version.

Or he could have opted for an of-possessive rather than a determiner possessive:

who I interrupted the meals of ... 

This is grammatical but awkward, and it requires planning for the postnominal of-possessive ahead of time.

Finally, he could have opted for a more complex kind of relative clause, with an initial multi-word WH expression:

whose meals I interrupted ...

This requires considerable planning ahead -- formulating the rest of the relative clause in some detail before even beginning it.

Remember that Richardson was composing the sentence in real time, as he went along, not just reeling out some rehearsed material.  Partway through the clause he came to the point where he needed to refer to the meals, and, recognizing that a determiner gap wouldn't fly, he did the next best thing, namely, use a pronoun determiner (their) instead.  So he produced a gapless relative, of a fairly routine sort.

Not that Richardson did any of this consciously, of course.

[Added 1/13: Several correspondents have pointed out that Richardson speaks Spanish as well as English, so that interference from Spanish might have contributed to the form of the relative clause.  Still, the gapless relative he produced is of a familiar type in the speech of monolinguals.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:06 PM

Type and token, use and mention

From the book description on amazon.com for Simon Bronner, Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities:

Take this test. You think today's sensitive, caring man is: (a) a myth, (b) an oxymoron, or (c) a moron. No matter whether you laugh at this bit of folk humor, its wide circulation bespeaks a modern predicament for American men.

Here we have a triple pun on

(1) today's sensitive, caring man

It's in construction with three coordinated predicate nominals -- a myth, an oxymoron, a moron -- and has a different sense in each case.  So this is a species of syllepsis, a phenomenon we return to on Language Log every so often (search on syllepsis for the history).

First, there's a sense in which (1) refers to a type, as in

(2) Today's sensitive, caring man is a myth.

parallel to

The politician who accepts criticism gracefully is a myth.

versus the sense of (1) in which it refers to a token or instance, as in

(3) Today's sensitive, caring man is a moron.

conveying that any sensitive, caring man is a moron.  These two senses are not really compatible -- that's part of the humorous effect -- since it follows from (2) that there are no sensitive, caring men, while (3) implicates (but does not entail) that there are some sensitive, caring men (who are all morons).

On top of this, there's the sort of use-mention pun I referred to in an earlier Language Log posting.  In

(4) Today's sensitive caring man is an oxymoron.

the expression in (1) is mentioned rather than used: (4) makes a claim about a linguistic expression, not about men (while (2) and (3) are about men).

The humor is improved some by the alliteration in myth (2) and moron (3) and by the relationship between oxymoron (4) and moron (3).

A bonus: the book description has an instance of the "truncated concessive" (without or not) that I talked about a little while ago:

No matter whether you laugh at this bit of folk humor, its wide circulation bespeaks a modern predicament for American men.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:01 PM

Political physiology

Today's Cathy illustrates our cultures' obsession with the physiology of emotional states, and the associated propensity to magnify out of all proportion every outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual feeling:

Remember the NYT's venture into the phrenology of political perception? Now imagine if the political candidates themselves were wired up for real-time physiological monitoring...

That isn't going to happen -- outside of science fiction -- so the herds roaming the media savannahs have to make do with interpreting small changes in voice quality and facial appearance. The latest amazing example: Google News returns 2,746 news stories, from all over the world, in response to a search for {Hillary tears}.

A tiny sample: Newsweek, "The Politics of Tears"; BBC News, "Hillary's tears"; Washington Post, "Crying Likeable Tears"; Seattle Post Intelligencer, "Clinton rebrands herself by display of emotion"; Financial Times, "Tears for ballot-box fears"; The Guardian, "For crying out loud!"; Bangor Daily News, "The Politics of Weeping has Evolved". The big-time "new media" have been playing variations on pretty much the same tune: Salon, "Hillary without tears"; Huffington Post, "There's No Crying in Baseball -- Or the Race to be President";

And then there was Rush Limbaugh's "Why Mrs. Clinton's Tears Worked",

"This comes under the umbrella of Rush knows women, and I do, I know what makes 'em tick. ... I mean I know women as much as possible, which is not really very much, but I got it figured out I think as much as anybody can, let's put it that way. ... [and] the fastest way to a woman's heart is cry, the emotional, it's a magnet."

And last but not least, the egregious Maureen Dowd's contribution, "Can Hillary Cry her Way Back to the White House?"

The blog Feminist Philosophers asks "Have You Actually Seen It?", and embeds John Stewart's commentary, which uses his trademark silent pause to perfection:

FP also presents this well-aimed cartoon by Tom Toles.

The great thing about stereotypes is that they're so remarkably resistant to the influence of mere facts.

Since the Hillary's-tears story is mostly about individual and group stereotypes, it's ironic that the most sensible mass-media commentary on this issue comes from a comedian and a cartoonist, who normally trade in caricatures for a living.

In any case, it certainly is lucky that the transformation bemoaned in Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur is incomplete. Imagine how this story might have been handled if we didn't have a quorum of journalistic professionals to set the tone!

[Speaking of professionalism -- now that Hillary has been rebranded in a softer style, I'm waiting for the resurrection of the old Jean Houston story, so spectacularly misreported by Bob Woodward in his 1996 book The Choice ...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:47 AM

More campaign cupertinos: Mike Hackable, John Moccasin, Rot Paul, Chris Dodo ...

Cody Boisclair writes:

After reading the "Mike Hoecake vs. Barrack Boatman" post on Language Log from a few days ago, I decided to run the presidential candidates' names through Mac OS X's built-in spell checker and then Google for the results, just for the fun of it.

In the Democratic corner, we have Barrack Abeam. All the rest of the Dem candidates are either recognized by OS X, or in the case of Kucinich, not close enough to any dictionary words to produce a replacement.

The Republican side, however, is far more interesting, with candidates such as Mitt Romany, Rudy Gillian, and Mike Hackable.

And last, but definitely not least, John Moccasin.

Alas, that last one turns up too many *legitimate* Google hits and not enough Cupertinos...

But "Senator John Moccasin" does get one hit. And there are Cupertino-rich lists like this one, which includes Bark Baa and Dennis Puccini as well as Mike Huckabuck, John Moccasin, Mitt Romany and (my favorite) Tom Accrued:

You can support Ron Paul, a smaller government and promote self-responsibility, or you can wallow in huge tax increases by voting for the members of the Status Quo. That list includes Joe Bidden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Al Gore, Mike Gravel, Dennis Puccini, Bark Baa, Bill Richardson, Sam Blowback, Jim Gilmore, Newt Ginger, Rudy Gillian, Chuck Hegel, Mike Huckaback, Duncan Hunter, John Moccasin, George Attack, Mitt Romany, Tom Accrued and Tommy Thompson.

Searching for {john moccasin mitt romany} also turns up a column by Steve Bouser, "Overly Helpful Spellcheck Strikes Again", The Pilot, 11/27/2007, which documents the preferences of the "the Spellcheck program in [his] newsroom computer system, NewsEditPro".

Nationally, it's a hot political year for both parties. On the Republican side, to hear Spellcheck tell it, Rude Giuliani is trying to maintain his lead against challengers like Mitt Romany, John Moccasin, Joe Bidet and Rot Paul. Dunce Hunter has dropped out. It's a wide-open field since Vice President Dick Cheyenne -- who, oddly hails from Wyoming -- is not in the running.

In the Democratic primary race, Spellcheck-immune John Edwards is joined by Barracks Abeam, Dents Kucinich and Chris Dodo in challenging front-runner Hillary Clifton. (Don't ask me why Spellcheck has heard of the name Clifton but not Clinton.)

NewsEditPro seems to have left traces of its curious preferences here and there on the web, such as Dr. Rot Paul in this letter to the editor at the Moultrie Observer:

There is only one candidate who I can trust to enforce our constitution. That is Dr. Rot Paul. His voting record will show him to be a true patriot. He makes no promises of welfare or health care. No promises of amnesty or free welfare to the illegal aliens. The only thing he has promised is to enforce the constitution.

Or Sen. Chris Dodo in this CNN transcript:

SEN. CHRIS DODO, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're not getting the full story, hence the reason why there should be an investigation.

Considering the propensity of spellcheckers to revise the names of the current crop of candidates, it's surprising that there aren't more campaign cupertinos on the web.

[Update from Cody:

I just realized that I forgot to spell-check Chris Dodd, who comes out of Apple's spelling checker as "Chris Odd".


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:52 AM

January 11, 2008

Are libertarians incapable of being a racist?

I guess that Ron Paul is rattled. In a CNN interview responding to the many stories about the nasty stuff published over the years in his newsletters, he focused on his libertarian commitment to individual identity, apparently to the point of losing control of the singular/plural distinction entirely:

Libertarians are incapable
of being a racist, because uh racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in group,
a- a civil libertarian like myself see everybody is a core in- individual.

Or maybe it's "everybody is a important individual". In any event, that would be everybody except for those groups that he (or his paid ghostwriters) see as "animals" -- according to the Ron Paul Political Report for Oct. 1992:

Later in the CNN interview, Representative Paul became radically confused about percentages:

Now when ah- ah-
wh- when the-
if you want to look for discrimination, it's it- in the judicial system,
fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime,
sixty seven percent of blacks are in prison.
That's discrimination
that's the judicial cro- code that I am attacking,
and that is not racism ...

There are surely race problems in the American criminal-justice system, but the idea that "67% of blacks are in prison" is preposterous on the face of it. According to a Human Rights Watch web page,

Blacks are incarcerated nationally at a rate of 1,547 per 100,000 black residents.

That covers jail as well as prison, and it's 1.5%, not 67%.

Thus Representative Paul was wrong by a factor of almost 50. This is not as great an exaggeration as Louann Brizendine's claim about relative how often guys think about sex, but it's getting up there. How could he have gone so far wrong? It's possible that he's just fond of pulling imaginary numbers out of the air -- he wouldn't be the first politician to do that. But my guess is that he meant to quote a statistic about the proportion of people incarcerated for drug crimes.

Another HRW page says:

Blacks have also been disproportionately affected by the national "war on drugs", carried out primarily through the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of street level drug offenders from inner city communities. In 1996, for example, blacks constituted 62.6 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons.

Thus the current proportion might well be 67%. I'm still puzzled about what Ron Paul's 14% was all about ("fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime") -- was he trying to say that blacks commit 14% of the crimes but get 67% of the jail time? I'm not sure.

In any case, he got things so tangled up that he expressed what might have been a valid point (that 2/3 of drug offenders in prison are black) as a presposterous falsehood (that 2/3 of all blacks are in prison). Those who think that his newsletters reflect his core beliefs might see this as a Freudian slip. But probably he was just confused.

[If you want to see the quotes in context, here's the whole interview:


[Update -- Benjamin Zimmer points out that there are quite a few other strange race-related percentages in the old Ron Paul newsletters, as documented by Matt Welch in the Hit & Run blog at the libertarian online magazine Reason:

"95 percent of the black males in that city [Washington D.C.] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."
"Complex embezzling ... is 100 percent white and Asian."
"Only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions."


[Haukur Þorgeirsson sent a link to a Ron Paul interview that presents the argument about race and drug-crime incarceration in a coherent way:

Today, I think inner-city folks and minorities are punished unfairly in the war on drugs. For instance, Blacks make up 14% of those who use drugs, yet 36 percent of those arrested are Blacks and it ends up that 63% of those who finally end up in prison are Blacks.

Compare again what Representative Paul said to CNN:

if you want to look for discrimination, it's it- in the judicial system,
fourteen percent of the inner city blacks commit drug crime,
sixty seven percent of blacks are in prison.

Like I said, he was rattled. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:58 PM

1 men are interested in you!

1 men are interested in you!

Stupid date.com ... every time a man signals ‘interest’ in me, this is the message that arrives in my Inbox.

That's from a lovely blog I just learned about via the NYTimes (I forget where the chain of links I was happily following started), "Sexagenarian and the City".

Well, at least it will make a following "singular they" seem right at home!

Posted by Barbara Partee at 11:36 AM

Fighting against (fighting against) women

Hot on the heels of last month's "GOP cell phones," here's another shocking Associated Press headline hosted by Google News:

This headline was apparently sent out by the AP itself, since it originally showed up on other news sites when I first ran a search. It has been quickly corrected by most of these sites, using the new AP headline, "Alba, Holmes Fight Violence Vs. Women." (At the moment Examiner.com, Fredericksburg.com, Philly.com, Forbes.com, Guardian Unlimited, and a number of other sites join Google in continuing to reproduce the uncorrected headline.) I suspect that other media outlets have actual people checking for errors on the AP feed, while the hosting on Google News is completely automated. Good to know that human beings are still needed in the brave new world of online journalism!

Unlike the "GOP cell phones" (which were actually GPS cell phones), this type of error can't be blamed on an errant spellchecker. In this case I assume a kind of sentential compression went on in the headline writer's mind: from the A-list actresses fighting against violence against women to simply fighting against women. Given that headline writers and their editors are paid to compress sentences into terse distillations, this type of slip isn't all that surprising. I'd put it in the same class as undernegations like the LA Times reporting that Howard Stern is "not surprisingly optimistic about the future of broadcast radio" when "not surprisingly not optimistic" was intended. Writers and editors are always on the lookout for redundancies, and sometimes they can trim a little too far. Every now and then our linguistic instincts can unwittingly fight against the fight against redundancy.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 08:52 AM

In the funny papers

Today's XKCD uses Google Psycholinguistics to show us that in the deathwish dimension, blogging still lags behind knitting and gardening:

I note in passing that the "died in a ___ accident" frame is apparently not used in some cases where its literal meaning would seem to apply. Thus the phrase "died in a science accident" has apparently not yet occurred anywhere in the billions of pages on the web, although many people over the years have certainly died in accidents connected to scientific research activities.

But my research in this area has turned up some extraordinary google-bait, in the ambulance-chaser division: a page on the site of the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg P.C., offering "Free Legal Services" from a "National Academy Of Science Accident Lawyer". I can only imagine that this page was automatically generated from a list of organizations, some of which someone might conceivably want to sue. (The same firm apparently offers the services of a "National Academy of Science Medical Malpractice Lawyer".)

I briefly considered contacting Weitz and Luxenberg to suggest a class action suit over PNAS embargo policies, on the grounds of negligence causing pain and suffering to bloggers and damage to the body politic. Not.

The Weitz & Luxenberg page, and similar nests of automatically-generated material attempting to connect a firm's services to every imaginable instance of some category of problems, might be considered special cases of what yesterday's Dilbert called "Leadership by Words":

[Update -- Jonathan Weinberg writes:

I think, based on the look of the page and based on the other pages I can get Google to generate for the firm, that the argument before "accident lawyer" is not activity, but location. So, for example, they'll serve a page called "Fort Shaw Accident Lawyer," but not "Elevator [or Skydiving] Accident Lawyer". (Someone else does have a page for "elevator accident lawyer," but that's another matter.) It appears that the NAS has its own zip code (20418), so it's not crazy that it should show up in a list of locations.

Indeed, the first half-dozen American place names that I try in the frame "___ accident lawyer" do turn up pages at www.weitzlux.com. So it's indeed an example of automated "leadership by words", but with respect to locations rather than organizations.]

[Update #2 -- Michael Davies writes:

Using {"died in a lab accident"} gives a much more respectable 488 results, putting scientists squarely between surfers and skateboarders in the high-risk stakes!

A glance at the first couple of pages suggests that the most popular lab-accident victims -- at least in terms of page rank -- are in comic books and similar works of fiction. All the same, it's the concept that counts, I guess.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:48 AM

January 10, 2008

Not deemed

I was marking examination papers this morning when I found that a student (who had in fact identified only 5 of the 6 noun phrases that were supposed to be identified in a certain exercise) had written that the other phrases in the given example sentence "were not deemed noun phrases." And it's funny how this can happen, but although that statement is 100% grammatical and was also meaningful in context and true (the student had indeed made that incorrect judgment), I knew that it raised my hackles.

"You," I found myself saying haughtily in an imaginary conversation, "do not deem, OK? You are the student; I am the examiner. You say what you think is true; I do the deeming around here!"

The verb merely means "judge" or "consider". X deems Y (to be) Z if and only if in X's opinion Y has the property of being Z. But the verb lends the sentence a flavor of pomposity and authority. A flavor that was enhanced in this case by the use of the passive voice (who it was doing this authoritative deeming was syntactically concealed).

The closest echo of this that I can immediately think of from popular culture was in Lenny Henry's portrayal of the always exasperated master chef Gareth Blackstock (a sort of fictional black Gordon Ramsay) in an episode of the 1990s TV comedy show Chef!. An apprentice had been practicing an excellent pigeon pie in secret, and Chef Blackstock learned that he was referring to it as his "signature dish". Blackstock went into a volcanic fury over it. An apprentice chef just doesn't have a signature dish, you see. It's presumptuous.

No marks will be deducted for the student's unintendedly arrogant choice of construction and lexeme. Unlike the awful Chef Gareth Blackstock, I am kind and merciful and easy to get along with.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 07:33 AM

Dog whistle lexicography

Hearkening to the higher frequencies of certain Language Log posts, Grant Barrett at Double-tongued Dictionary has an entry for dog-whistle politics, including a 1997 sighting from New Zealand:

1997 The Dominion (New Zealand) (Dec. 16) "Election Fight On Race Issue" p. 8: Labor's spokesman on aboriginal affairs has already accused Mr Howard of "dog-whistle politics"—in rejecting a race election, he actually sent a high-pitched signal to those attuned to hear it.

Grant has found a 1988 U.S. example of a somewhat different sense, the "Dog Whistle Effect" in polling:

1988 Richard Morin Washington Post (Oct. 16) "Behind the Numbers: Confessions Of a Pollster" p. C1: About 15 percent more people were "very happy" when the alternative was being merely "fairly happy." Maybe they were really that happy, or maybe the pollsters offered them unacceptable choices. Anyway, researchers call this the "Dog Whistle Effect": Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.

And he gives a 1989 example from advertising:

1989 Russell Smith Dallas Morning News (Apr. 9) "Has Mtv Sharpened Its Edge?" p. 1C: The spot, which has no obvious reason to exist, is like a secret signal, a dog whistle blown on the thirtysomething frequency. Come back, MTV beckons, in a language it hasn't spoken in years.

A quick LION search suggests that in the 19th century, dog-whistles (then presumably not the silent type) were sometimes stereotypic exemplars for inconsequential sounds. For example, this from the 1877 edition of Philip James Bailey's 40,000-line epic poem Festus:

20485 Now therefore would I wager, and I might
20486 The great archangel's trump to a dog-whistle
20487 That whatsoever happens, worse ensues.
20488 Even the unwise may prophesy, now and then.

And Sir Henry Taylor's Philip van Artevelde:

126 On my soul,
127 If there be justice I can render him
128 He should receive it from my ready hands
129 Although his voice in Council were as small
130 As a dog-whistle.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:00 AM

January 09, 2008

Who is the crazy uncle of American politics?

This morning, David Kurtz called Chris Matthews "The Crazy Uncle of American Politics" for offering the opinion that Hillary Clinton is "only competitive because Bill 'messed around'".

This surprised me, because I'm used to seeing "the crazy uncle" designation applied to Ron Paul: as evidence that I'm not alone in this, the Google search {"crazy uncle" "Ron Paul"} yields 13,600 hits.

But Representative Paul has some significant competition: {"crazy uncle" "Dick Cheney"} yields 2,550 hits, including most famously Barack Obama's comment on the discovery that Dick Cheney is his (distant) cousin:

We had been trying to hide that cousin thing for a long time. Everybody's got a black sheep in the family. A crazy uncle in the attic.

Other common associations with this phrase include Rudy Giuliani (2,210), John McCain (2,080), Dennis Kucinich (1,160), Pat Robertson (794), Howard Dean (752), and Mike Gravel (673). (Some of these numbers come from being mentioned often in article that discuss Ron Paul, but still...)

The current popularity of the term seems to be connected with Matt Stoller's "crazy uncle theory":

A few years ago, I had what's called a 'crazy uncle' theory of internet politics. I noticed that the figures who did well online all seemed like a crazy uncle saying things that are true but extremely uncomfortable, that power and authority was built on silly illusions. You know, it's like when you're a kid at Thanksgiving and your uncle starts telling you about how much pot your parents smoked, which you had never really known about. It's uncomfortable but kind of awesome.

But the metaphor is certainly broader than politics, and older than Matt Stoller's use. We can find a 2006 reference at Valleywag to "The crazy uncles of New Media":

If it wasn't for Marc Canter screaming, it would have been a total nappy time.

Just don't get your arms and legs too close to Uncle Marc... he's been known to bite. Him, Dave Winer, Steve Gillmor... All like your crazy uncle the grown-ups found embarassing but the kids loved cause it made Thanksgiving all the more enjoyable.

In 1992, Sam Howe Verhovek wrote in the NYT about Senator Alfonse D'Amato:

And one man here laughingly -- but favorably -- likened Mr. D'Amato's bombastic tenure to "getting to watch your crazy uncle go to the Senate."

In a 1996 NYT article, Richard L. Berke wrote about Ross Perot:

For some voters, fascination over Mr. Perot has turned to embarrassment. Mr. Perot likes to harp on the deficit as the crazy aunt locked in the attic; to his detractors, the Texas billionaire is the crazy uncle who broke out.

Also in the 1996 NYT, Bernard Weinraub wrote about Michael Ovitz at Disney that:

The executive who spoke on the condition that he not be named said, ''Three months into it people said, 'This is just not working.' '' It reached a point, the executive added, where at top management meetings ''he was like the crazy uncle at a family reunion, and nobody ever talks to him.''

It's possible that David Kurtz may have applied this phrase to Chris Matthews because Matthews is fond of using it himself:

("Dissecting the new Bush ads", 3/4/2004) Matthews: I'm going to point out the crazy uncle in the attic or aunt in the attic they don't talk about in these ads. The things don't discuss certain things: No mention of Cheney, no mention of Iraq, no mention of tax cuts.

("The Wounded-Courier", 6/25/2007) Hardball host Chris Matthews took a somewhat different view but also seemed unconcerned about Cheney's new power grab. Speaking with Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman on Monday night’s program, Matthews said, "The thing is, you gotta love Dick Cheney. You may not agree with him on this, or anything, but he's everyone's crazy uncle -- you know, one part Jed Clampett, Uncle Fester fiddling around in that dungeon, a little Foster Brooks tossing a few back, Fred Sanford with the ticker, kind of a speedball of Mr. Potter and Chuck Manson and the cop who hunts that guy for stealing a loaf of bread in Les Miserable...he’s got this whole C.H.U.D., Death of a Salesman, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, corporate Boo Radley, late-career Orson Welles 'We sell no wine before its time' quality...I mean he's just fascinating to watch, this guy. People plunk down ten bucks every day to see horror movies but this guy's free and he's there all the time...well, he’s somewhere, in a bunker, hanging upside down from a ceiling, sleeping one off in a coffin during a day pass, in the war room sticking pins in voodoo dolls, singing 'Raise High the Flag'...”

But really, I think it just reflects Kurtz's opinion that Matthews is an out-of-control loudmouth crank. Or at least, that he plays one on T.V.

[A politically irrelevant observation, which may offer a clue about how Google's indexing works: {"crazy uncle" "Ron Paul"} get 13,600 hits, but {"Ron Paul" "crazy uncle"} get only 6,680...]

[Update -- Andy Hollandbeck writes:

After reading your Language Log post about the "crazy uncle" metaphor used in politics, I wondered how often Hillary Clinton, by extension, had been referred to as a "crazy aunt." So I googled "crazy aunt" "hillary clinton". I don't know how to interpret what I found.

There seem to be very few references to Hillary as a crazy aunt, but there are quite a number of other uses in the political arena. What is strange is that -- except for at least one reference to Ann Coulter as a crazy aunt -- most "crazy aunt" references are to men. I found a few references to Mike Gravel and California representative Pete Stark as "crazy aunts," but a great many references (some of them direct quotes from the same single source) to Rudy Giuliani as "the crazy aunt of the GOP."

It makes me wonder about gender choices and what they imply here. What makes Rudy Giuliani a crazy aunt instead of a crazy uncle? Are crazy aunts somehow even crazier than crazy uncles? If so, does that imply some inherent sexism?

I don't know. Perhaps there is some connection to Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, though the eponymous madwoman in that case was not an aunt, but Rochester's wife Bertha in Jane Eyre, and the relationship to contemporary male American politicians would be obscure to say the least.

Then again...


Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:49 PM

That would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob

[What follows is a guest post by Larry Horn. It refers to a presentation at the recent LSA meeting by Elisa Sneed German and various others, including Gregory Ward, entitled "The effect of semantic modality on the assessment of speaker certainty".]

Gregory Ward's LSA presentation last Thursday afternoon prompted some discussion afterward over baby octopus and salt and pepper shrimp during our dinner that night in Chinatown. I was chiding Gregory for not mentioning the most famous exemplar of the "that would be ..." construction, the contestant's fabled response (below) on The Newlywed Game. But a little post-hoc research raises the question of why this response never actually occurred, and why so many people think it did.

If you search on {"That would be in the butt"}, Google returns 146,000 raw hits, most of them citing the full utterance on The Newlywed Game (in response to "What was the strangest place you and your spouse made whoopee?") as "That would be in the butt, Bob", generally attributed to the wife. But if you read the first hit (http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/newlywed.asp), you'll find that alas, the story appears (at first blush) to be apocryphal or urban-legendary, as the eponymous Bob Eubanks conceded (although he claimed to have considered entitling his autobiography That Would Be In the Book). But then, when you read on, you find that a tape showing a variant of the response *did* later surface (from a 1977 episode of the show). You can sort of hear and/or see the relevant exchange by clicking on the links provided by snopes, although the crucial sequence is available only by inference.

What's especially interesting is that the original version was *not* of the "That would be..." form, but "Is it [in the ass]?" Yet the urban legend embellishment does provide the "That would be..." preamble, and is really much funnier because of it. It would interesting to try to explain why. (The urban legend version also depicts the contestant as African-American, which Olga in the relevant clip clearly was not. But the embellishment in this case is more of a research question for sociologists than for linguists.)

At the very least, there's something to the fact that we somehow prefer to remember it that way. We remember Richard M. Nixon, after his defeat in the gubernatorial race to Pat Brown in 1962, promising "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore", thereby setting the model for the dissociative third person so famously practiced by his political mentee Bob Dole; but tapes of his speech show that what he actually said was "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore". The Dickless (and present-tense) version was altered in our collective memory to conform to the general tendency of politicians and athletes referring to themselves in the form of their name by which they're generally known (that's why they're Bobdolisms, rather than Dolisms or RobertDolisms; cf. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004762.html for relevant discussion.

"That would be in the butt, Bob" is a similar collective edit, although it still remains to explain why the edited version makes for a funnier story.

[Guest post by Larry Horn]

[Update -- John Caldwell writes:

I believe that the difference lies in the delivery of the answer. The addition of "That would be..." shows a certain haughty self-assurance that the answer is correct- and to see it attached to something so risqué as "in the butt" makes it even more amusing. Some time ago I saw a less-censored clip from the 1977 episode, viewable here. It's clear from this video that the contestant is much more reticent to answer. While it is still a funny clip, I believe it's much more amusing to imagine a confident answer delivered with bravado.

And Larry Horn responds:

That does seem to be the most plausible factor; "haughty self-assurance" is a good way to put it. Thanks *very* much for the crystal clear YouTube clip, which I had looked for without success before posting. It does raise the question of how Bob Eubanks was later to deny that the exchange ever occurred...


Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:14 AM

January 08, 2008

Europa Polyglotta

Yesterday's Strange Maps ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Dictionary") shows a map "published in 1730 by Gottfried Hensel" under the title Europa Polyglotta, Linguarum Genealogiam exhibens, una cum Literis, Scribendique modis, Omnium Gentium.

[click on the map for a larger image]

The Strange Maps post notes "the Arabic (or Berber) portion of Iberia" and wonders about it: "the Spanish completed their Reconquista in 1492, was 'Mauritanian' still spoken there almost 250 years later?"

But the map shows "Anglo-Saxon" in England, also not the situation current in the 18th century:

[Hat tip: Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:23 AM

The next president and their pronoun gender

BBC Radio 4 had an upcoming-program announcement the other day that said Madeleine Albright would be on the program talking about "the situation that will face the next president of the United States when they take office just over a year from now." Do you see what that is? It's a singular they, a form of the anaphoric pronoun they with an antecedent that is singular for verb-agreement purposes. And it's the first one that I happen to have noted with the next president of the United States as antecedent. And it occurred for two reasons. First, although the phrase is a definite NP it does not have a definite referent in the sense that we know right now who it will actually be. It is attributive, not referential, in the Donnellan terminology. But second, this is, it seems, the first moment in history when there is genuinely a non-trivial amount of doubt about whether the next president will be male or female. It is in just such tiny but intriguing (and often unnoticed) ways that the grammar of English connects with culture, history, and politics.

Just because this was the first case I noticed doesn't mean it was the first case. And it wasn't. A few weeks ago Ben Zimmer noticed an example from an American speaker, and wrote about it in this post on OUPblog. The sentence was Americans will pick the next president based on their ability to lead, and the speaker was Anthony Carbonetti, senior adviser to Rudy Giuliani: New York Times, Feb. 16, 2007.

It's happening, it's here. Uncertainty about the correct pronoun gender for the next president will be with us for (at the very most) the next ten months. The suspense will be over by some time in November, or some time in December if there are recounts and Supreme Court appeals.

And of course singular they will be with us forever, regardless of Supreme Court appeals, and in defiance of a century of prescriptivist blowhards like the Fowler brothers. Deal with it.

And if you'd like a T-shirt reading "Whoever I hate least '08 + whoever's running with them", they are on sale here.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 04:34 AM

January 07, 2008

More on spatial orientations in religion and politics

Following up on Saturday's post about whether Mike Huckabee's theme of vertical vs. horizontal politics is a coded "dog-whistle" message to evangelical Christians ("Vertical", 1/5/2008), several readers have sent in links to discussions on both sides of the argument.

Kevin Drum quoted Josh Marshall, and then added this:

David Domke, co-author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America, says "vertical" is unquestionably an example of dog whistle politics: "Conservative evangelicals often talk about the need to prioritize their vertical relationships with God first and foremost before worrying about horizontal relationships among people. It's the individualized 'get right with God' approach of conservative Protestantism....I've been present a number of times when "vertical" rhetoric — the exact word — has been used in evangelical circles. It's indeed a way of speaking one hears in many churches, part of the faith vocabulary of the evangelical and fundamentalist subculture."

On the other hand, Mark Kleiman wrote:

Really, the quotation doesn't seem like much of a puzzle to me, in light of this passage from Huckabee's victory speech last night:

Americans are looking for a change. But what they want is a change that starts with a challenge to those of us who were given this sacred trust of office so that we recognize that our challenge is to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans, to be more concerned about going up instead of just going to the left or to the right.

And he added this specifically with respect to the dog-whistle idea:

Josh and his readers claim to hear in Huckabee's "vertical" reference a "dog-whistle" appeal to evangelicals, for whom "vertical thinking" means thinking oriented toward God. But this hardly fits the canonical "dog-whistle" episode where some coded meaning is hidden in an otherwise incomprehensible expression (e.g., references the Dred Scott decision as a coded way of signaling a desire to bring fetuses under the protection of the 5th and 14th Amendments).

If you worship any of the versions of the Sky-God from Ouranos onward, "up" means, among other things, toward Heaven. But the root metaphor is even more universal than that; "higher = better" is among Lakoff's "embodied metaphors," built into the way our bodies confront the world. When Ezra Klein says that Obama's rhetoric is designed to "elevate" the listener — or for that matter when a property appraiser inquires into a parcel's "best and highest use" or an organization chart puts the CEO at the top of the page — they're not reciting secret code-words; they're just employing a universally comprehensible image.

If there's anything more dangerous than treating your opponents as boobs, it's imagining them as engaged in dark rituals.

David Kuo, "Getting 'vertical' with Jesus and Huck", 1/7/2008, ridicules the dog-whistle theory from the evangelical side:

I'm sitting here in my office with two other evangelicals and we are racking our evangelicals brains and consulting our evangelical dictionary and playing our Amy Grant music backwards and we have no idea how "vertical" could be a call out to evangelicals.

Vertical? Huh?

Heaven is a shout out. Faith is good. Rapture works. City on a hill. Get saved. Born again. But vertical?


It really is Huckabee trying to define a new way of talking about politics.

James Joyner agrees in rejecting the "dog whistle" interpretation ("Mike Huckabee's Vertical Politics", 1/5/2008), arguing instead that "This is classic Third Way politics, à la Bill Clinton and Tony Blair". He quote Karl at Protein Wisdom ("Fear and Loathing at TPM", 1/5/2008):

Huckabee is a candidate who put the phrase “CHRISTIAN LEADER” in capital letters in his campaign ad as he talks about how his faith “defines me.” It does not seem as though Huckabee is trying to reach fundamentalist Christians under the radar with dog whistles or subliminal crosses. His appeals are quite blatant, yet a segment of the Left has some need to look for some secret plan.

Karl also observes that Barack Obama uses similar metaphors, e.g.

... the TPM crowd seems to be missing that Barack Obama talks about ending “the political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition” and says his Iowa win was “the moment when we finally beat back the policies of fear and doubts and cynicism, the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up.”

The person who has not missed it is Mike Huckabee, who noted the similarity of their rhetoric on The Tonight Show before the Iowa caucuses.

On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan ("'You Obey The Orders'", 1/7/2008) cites a sermon that Huckabee preached yesterday in New Hampshire (Perry Bacon Jr., "Huckabee Steps Back Into the Pulpit at Evangelical Church in N.H.", Washington Post, 1/7/2008) as evidence for the dog-whistle interpretation:

Huckabee relates the key prudential principle of Christianism. Yes: it's vertical. When addressing what a polity needs, you just need to ask God. And then we obey. At least now no one will hide it. This dog whistle is loud and public and audible by anyone:

"When we become believers, it's as if we have signed up to be part of God's Army, to be soldiers for Christ... When you give yourself to Christ, some relationships have to go. It's no longer your life; you've signed it over."

In fairness, though, there's no evidence in Bacon's story that Huckabee used the word "vertical" in his sermon, just that he thinks of religion in military terms.

A Huckabee supporter blogging at Just Crazy Politics! wrote that

In the same way the use of sugar was a useful method of getting children to swallow polio vaccine, I think Mike Huckabee is being very shrewd when he talks about what he calls "Vertical Politics." One such recent quote comes from his appearance on Jay Leno's Tonight Show:
"Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who's vertical, who's thinking, let's take America up and not down. And people will forgive you for being left or right"
[emphasis original]

It's clear that there are several different metaphors available here.

In political space, there's the traditional dimension of left-to-right -- onto which a considerable number of independent and distinct dimensions are traditionally projected -- and then there's the idea of ignoring the left-right axis and thinking about a new dimension, call it "up" vs. "down". "Up" then is taken to mean towards a better economy and a better society. This is very much in tune with the "third way" metaphor of recent center-left politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

In religious space -- among other spatial-dimension metaphors -- there's the idea that relations to other people are "horizontal", and so therefore are human concerns in general, while relations to God are "vertical". These specific terms seem to be fairly widespread among certain American Christian denominations, as represented by the magazine Vertical Thought.

All of the Huckabee verticalities that I've seen have explicitly been of the political sort. Since he doesn't shy away from directly expressing the religious aspects of his views, I have to agree with Mark Kleiman and others that explaining Huckabee's verticality theme as a coded religious message seems unnecessary. However, the notion that vertical politics is God-oriented politics certainly resonates with Huckabee's own beliefs, and it's clear that some of his supporters interpret the message in that way.

When I look at the many instances of "vertical" the mikehuckabee.com web site, I see that the candidate and his team are consistent in using the word to mean "orthogonal to left vs. right, and in a positive direction". For example, his post on "Vertical Politics":

Everywhere I go on the campaign trail, I meet voters with a real thirst for a healthy discussion of the issues. Ultimately, people don't care whether an issue comes from the left or the right. What they want to talk about are ideas that lift America up and make us better. It's what I call "Vertical Politics" and it is why we felt it was so important to set a "Vertical Day" aside to focus on the issues.

And "About vertical day":

Ultimately, people don't care about whether an issue comes from the left or the right, what they want to hear about is an idea that lifts America up and makes us better. It's what I call Vertical Politics.

Some of supporters' comment echo this perspective:

I'm so very glad to hear you speak about "vertical politics"! Americans really need to be looking at the whole picture and not just left and right or conservative and liberal...Our country seems so separated, and it's good to hear a candidate talk about bringing us together, instead of pulling us further apart.

But there are also many comments from supporters on the site that construe "vertical" as "oriented toward God". Here are a couple:

May you be blessed mightily as you continue your firm vertical stance of being a man under God as is this one nation.


In the late 1940's the Nuremberg Trials took place. These trials put the hench men from Germany's reich on trial. During that trial the former judges were tried and thier aurgument consistanly mentioned that they were "just following the law of the land" and that is why these terrible judges allowed terrible acts to take place during the killings of its own people... THEN the prosecuting attorney hammered back at these ruthless judges whom allowed these terrible acts with a wonderful "TRUTH" when he shocked them with: "IS THERE NOT A LAW ABOVE OUR LAWS?" (reffering to God's Law) To which they were silenced. Your VERTICAL POLITICS DAY is a wonderful idea lest we foget the mistakes other have made by only looking horizontally.

Others are ambiguous on whether vertical means "oriented towards God", or "orthogonal to left-vs.-right", or both:

Maybe they really do fear Mike as an opponent more than others because they know he is an anointed leader and the people are hungry for vertical politics. I believe 2008 will be a turning point for this nation that will change the course of history for the world. Praise God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!


Thank you for reminding us of the kind of optimism and faith that makes our country great. Thank you for your vertical politics....I am ready for someone to take us up as a nation before God.

Underlining how flexible the metaphor of horizontal/vertical politcs can be, a quick web search for the French translation politique verticale turns up two radically different interpretations (neither of which has any connection with the current American presidential campaign):

(link) ... le développement d'une politique verticale visant à encourager la participation des jeunes, la liberté de création, la divulgation de l'information ...

... the development of a vertical politics aiming to encourage the participation of young people, the freedom to create, the release of information  ...

(link) ... l'idée d'un mouvement plus grand, plus à l'écoute et moins sectaire qui peut séduire au-delà du cercle restreint des partisans habituels.
Et c'est exactement ce que propose Ségolène, en refusant une politique verticale où l'élu déciderait de tout. ...

... the idea of a larger movement, more attentive and less sectarian, which can appeal beyond the limited circle of usual partisans. And this is exactly what Segolene [Royal] proposes, in rejecting a vertical politics where the elected officials decide everything. ...


[Hat tip: Victor Steinbok, Robert James Hargrave, anonymous others]

[Note: I originally translated l'élu ("the chosen ones") as "the elite", but a reader pointed out that it should be "the elected [officials]". I believe that élu is also used in a religious sense, both for "chosen people" and for "elect" (in the sense of elect vs. preterite).]

[Update -- Daniel Radosh (" What Huckabee's Music Sounds Like When You Play It Backwards"):

The phrase is Christianese. And while it's used in a variety of contexts, it's most commonly applied to distinguish one type of contemporary Christian music -- the type that Huckabee plays -- from others. As the Lyrical Theology blog put it, "Christian lyrics can generally divided into two categories. 1. Lyrics that are horizontal, or directed towards people, and 2. Lyrics that are vertical, or directed towards God." A few years ago, the top A&R guy at Word, a major Christian record label, explained what this means as a practical matter: "Overt, or vertical, lyrics are lyrics that are not afraid to say 'Jesus' or 'God' in them. 'Vertical' meaning: I am speaking to God, or God is speaking to me, or this is a prayerful song. The lyrics are out in the open--overt--about the Christian faith, praise and worship or the like." Horizontal lyrics, on the other hand, "are the type that could often be love songs, but the You is with a capital 'Y.'" Snarky young Christians call these "God-is-my-girlfriend songs." The vertical language is so commonplace that Christian entertainment sites like Crossmap use it frequently without any explanation. There's a Christian record label named Vertical Music.

Radosh also cites this from Governor Huckabee's recent book, Character Makes a Difference:

The Ten Commandments are divided into two sections -- the vertical laws dealing with man's relationship with God and the horizontal laws dealing with man's relationship with others.


[Update 1/17/2008 -- Grace Reynolds writes:

In reading your regarding Huckabee's vertical politics, something else came to mind that I thought I'd share. While the evangelical connections drawn in the article you posted certainly seem to make sense, I've noticed the use of the word vertical in other places lately. For example, a winery may host a "vertical Cabernet tasting," which basically just means that if you attend you'll taste and compare Cabernets from many different vintages. Before a few years ago, I don't remember hearing the word "vertical" used to describe wines made in successive years (time is usually talked about as linear, isn't it?). I've noticed this used in wine and culinary terms as well beginning about 5 years ago or so. I think "vertical" may be a new buzzword. It does sound kind of cool, after all.

Well, there's also "vertical integration", "vertical markets", and "vertical blinds"...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:19 PM

Will it be Mike Hoecake vs. Barrack Boatman in November?

If Microsoft has its way -- via the Cupertino effect -- maybe so. The spell-check options suggested by Microsoft Word 2003 for "Huckabee" include "Chickadee", "Checkable", "Chickoree", "Hoecake", and "Huskies". And web search turns up things like this:

... in 2005 he appeared on "The Jane Pauley Show," in a spot on obesity, where he met, Arkansas Gov. Mike Chickadee, who lost 100 pounds through diet and exercise ...

Proposed substitutions for "Barack" include "Barrack" and "Barracks"; and for "Obama", suggestions are "Bema", "Bam", "Boatman", "Abeam", "Ocala".  It's out there:

Barrack Bema (D-IL) I'm thinking about how Barrack Bema supported Condoleezza Rice's nomination for Secretary of State.

[Actually, though it spoils the joke a bit, there are very few Governor Chickadees and Senator Bemas out there.]

[Also see "Surging Candidates Have Spell-Check Issues", which is based on the spell-check facilities of (some version of) Outlook. (Hat tip: Victor Steinbok)]

[Update -- Thierry Fontenelle (from the Microsoft Natural Language Group) writes:

The latest versions of the Office speller include the word "Obama"and users can freely download an update from the following sites, depending on their version of Office:

1) Office 2007: the Service Pack 1 (SP1) update includes the fix: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/downloads/default.aspx

2) Office 2003 users can request the fix following the steps described on http://support.microsoft.com/kb/935305/

3) Two KB articles from the Microsoft Knowledge Base were posted in Spring 2007 and address this topic:
a. For Office 2003: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/935305/
b. For Office 2007: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/933699

4) Individual users who have not installed these updates can also right-click the flagged word, and then click Add to Dictionary.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:16 PM

Permission to reincarnate, sir?

In the current issue (17 January 2008) of the New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra writes about dissenters in Tibet.  In "The Quiet Heroes of Tibet", the Dalai Lama plays a big role, especially with respect to "the extreme Chinese distrust of the Dalai Lama".  Mishra tells us (p. 40) that:

In August this year, the officially atheist Chinese regime passed legislation effectively banning Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.

The larger story:

... Chinese authorities are trying hard, if often clumsily, to undermine the Dalai Lama's authority.  In 1995, Chinese authorities kidnapped the boy--called Gendrun Choekyi Nyima--whom the Dalai Lama had identified as the eleventh Panchen Lama, and installed their own child candidate in this important position in Tibetan Buddhism.  (The whereabouts of the kidnapped boy remain unknown.)  In an attempt to forestall the Chinese regime from usurping his position, the Dalai Lama announced that he will be reincarnated outside Tibet, guaranteeing that his successor will be born in the Tibetan community in exile.  In August this year, the officially atheist Chinese regime passed legislation effectively banning Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.  According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which stipulates the procedures for rebirth, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation."

I hadn't realized that you could pick how and where you would be reincarnated -- or, of course, that reincarnation could be subject to government regulation.

[Added 8 January: Tom Vinson explains, "Tibetan Buddhists believe that certain highly-developed lamas can choose their form of rebirth. See this site for more information" and adds wryly, "As far as I know, government regulation is not part of this tradition."]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:58 PM


In response to this morning's post on the use of "yo" among Baltimore schoolchildren as a gender-neutral third-person singular human pronoun, Oliver Burkeman writes:

Not *every* media outlet got it right, however. I particularly liked the way the London Metro newspaper misinterpreted this story:

"...the phrase 'yo' has made a crossover from slang and has a new meaning — to describe a person who seems neither man nor woman."

The story in question is "Yo! The word we've needed for 200 years", Metro.co.uk, 1/2/2008, which begins:

Perhaps George Bush's off-the-cuff way to get his pal Tony Blair's attention had more meaning than first thought.

Because the phrase 'yo' has made a crossover from slang and has a new meaning — to describe a person who seems neither man nor woman.

It is a better pronoun than the offensive 'it', according to academics, and could even replace the correct — but awkward — 'his or her' in phrases such as: 'Everyone has his or her own opinion.'

The year is young, but I think this might turn out to be the stupidest piece of journalism committed in 2008. For sheer density of careless misunderstanding, it's going to be hard to beat those first three sentences.

But let the record show that I'm trying to implement my New Year's Resolutions, for 2006 as well as 2008. My original post described an interesting and relevant piece of linguistic research, with links to the published paper. And I went out of my way to say something positive about journalism: "the media, new and old, have gotten it just about right".

[For Americans and others who (like me) are not familiar with the Metro daily newspaper, it may be interesting to check out the Wikipedia article.]

[Fev from HeadsUp: The Blog writes:

Bit of a gamble, suggesting a candidate for Stupidest Story in the first week of an election year, but "The word we've need for 200 years" certainly does make an impressive case. Ack.

Well, I'll admit that my nomination was more of a rhetorical expression of astonishment than a sincere prediction. But we're talking about a monument of moronic genius here. First, the Metro writer and editor misunderstood lack of gender in a pronoun as lack of sexuality in the pronoun's referent. Then they decided to apply this misunderstanding to all uses of the interjection from which the curious pronominal yo seems to have derived; and to use this overapplication of a misunderstanding to insinuate that George Bush thinks that Tony Blair is sexless or perhaps effeminate. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:48 AM


There's been a flurry of news articles and weblog posts over the past few days about the development of a new gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore. In chronological order of dateline, there was "'Yo' Being Used As 'Gender-Neutral Pronoun'", BigNewsDay, 1/3/2008;  "A self-generated gender neutral pronoun", blueheron (LiveJournal); "Is 'Yo' Emerging as a Gender-Neutral Pronoun?", Alas a Blog 1/5/2008; Mark Peters, "'Yo' is the word when 'he' or 'she' won't do", New Scientist, 1/5/2008; "One size fits all", Baltimore Sun, 1/6/2008; "Yo", 1/6/2008, Andrew Sullivan's blog. (Datelines aside, I believe that the New Scientist article may have appeared first and prompted the others.)

This is a case where the media, new and old, have gotten it just about right. The source is a paper in last fall's issue of American Speech, the quarterly publication of the American Dialect Society. (You can join the society and subscribe to the journal for $50 a year -- $25 if you're a student.) The paper is Elaine M. Stotko and Margaret Troyer, "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study", American Speech 82(3):262-279, Fall 2007. (A pdf is available on the journal's website here).

If you're interested, you should read the paper for yourself -- just follow the link -- but here are some selections.

The abstract:

This article presents data collected on the use of yo in schools in Baltimore as a new third-person singular pronoun, as in Yo handin' out papers `She (the teacher) is handing out papers' and Peep yo `Look at him'. In the spring of 2004, a number of middle and high school teachers enrolled in a graduate linguistics class for teachers noted that their students at certain city schools were using yo in place of he or she. The authors collected spontaneous occurrences of the pronoun and then designed several writing activities and sentence judgment tasks. The tasks were administered to more than 200 students in two unrelated schools in Baltimore. It was clear from the results that students in these two schools use yo as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, primarily in subject position. Limited follow-up was conducted in the spring of 2007.

Other spontaneous examples cited in the paper:

Yo was tuckin' in his shirt!
Yo threw a thumbtack at me.
Yo been runnin' the halls.
Yo put his foot up.
Yo wearin' a jacket. A coat!
You acting like I said what yo said.
She ain't really go with yo.
Yo look like a sack ass gump.
Yo is a clown.
Yo sucks at magic tricks.
Yo needs to pull his pants down.
Yo looks like a freak.
Yo is a straight clown.
Yo goin to put that chicken in his mouth.
Yo, looka that dude pants. Yo is a clown.

In many of these cases, you might wonder whether yo is really a third person pronoun. The authors' argument seems persuasive:

In collecting usages of yo, it was also clear to us that yo had other, more common, uses in the speech of the students at these schools. It is used as a greeting: Yo, wassup? It is used as an attention-focusing device, as in the sentence Yo, get away from my locker! Yo is also sometimes used as a substitute for 'you' or 'your' (as in Yo Momma . . .). All three of these uses are documented in Smitherman (2000). However, in the sentences collected in Baltimore above, it was clear to the recorder from the context of the utterance that yo referred to a third person. For example, in the sentence Yo wearin' a jacket, the speaker was looking through the window and pointing at another student who was wearing a jacket even though the weather (in June) was quite warm. In the last two sentences, the person being discussed was not present in the room. Notice also the use of his in these sentences: Yo was tuckin' in his shirt; Yo put his foot up. The question arises as to whether the yo form being observed here is actually a newly created pronoun or whether the focusing yo has shifted to pronominal use.

They also note a possible issue of politeness levels:

While at times a teacher might be referred to as yo (as in Yo handin' out papers), other students sometimes saw this use of yo to refer to adults as disrespectful and would comment That's not a yo to a fellow student who used yo in this manner. Interestingly, several teachers in Baltimore have also commented on hearing parents correct their children when the children refer to a teacher as he or she. The comment "She gave us homework" when made to a parent might elicit the response "That's not a she; that's Ms. Smith." A topic for further investigation might be whether it is the use of yo for an adult (teacher) that is being objected to or simply the use of any pronoun.

The authors report the results of an experiment with 115 students. One of the items:

... students were asked to write a conversation of their own in response to the following

Tynisha and Antoine are in class. Tyreek jumps up and starts singing a rap song
and dancing. Write a conversation:

Tynisha: ________________________________________

Antoine: ________________________________________

Of the 51 students who wrote a conversation, 10 included the pronoun yo in their conversation. Some examples of the use of yo in these student-generated conversations include the following:

Yo started rapping.
Yo singing a rap song. Yo is dancing
Yo is junping up and down singing.
Yo can really rap, yo should be a rapper.
Yo can't dance or sing, just like D.H.
Did you see that? Yeah, yo jumped up.
Yo was singing a rap song.
Ha, ha, ha, yo stupit [sic].
Yo gave me a stuip [sic] part.

Since the conversation indicates that it is Tyreek who jumps up and starts singing, with the possible exception of the final two sentences, it seems clear that yo should be interpreted as referring to Tyreek.

The usage seems to be mostly if not entirely local to Baltimore:

A search of the lyrics from several thousand rap songs at Web sites such as http://lyrics.astraweb.com, which produced 35,100 instances of yo, turned up no songs with third-person pronominal yo. In an attempt to determine whether the pronoun is being widely used beyond the Baltimore area, the authors contacted a number of teachers in other cities (Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Dayton, New York, San Jose, and Long Beach, California) to see if they had heard the form used. The teachers who responded indicated that they had heard yo used as a greeting or as an attention-focusing device, but not as a pronoun. A teacher in Milwaukee indicated that she had heard yo used as a pronoun but very seldom and was able to provide a few examples similar to the ones we had collected in Baltimore; 54 students at the school completed 2 cartoons each, with no instances of pronominal yo being used (and only one instance of attention-getting yo). Fifty of them also completed the task in appendix C, with no student-written conversations containing yo.

Since their original work was done in 2004, the authors followed up in 2007 to see whether the usage was still current -- a quarter of 20 Baltimore teachers reported hearing the form, the others not.

Following our class discussion, one teacher had several conversations with his current Baltimore middle-school students about yo as a pronoun, to be told that yo is used for boys, but that shorty is used for girls: Yo is over there and Yo trippin' (boy); Shorty is over there and Shorty's lookin' good (girl).

The use of shorty seems like an instance of the general vernacular practice of using descriptive adjectives -- especially those that are used as nicknames or vocative epithets -- in a quasi-pronominal way.

[Update -- Steve at Language Hat writes:

I blogged your "yo" post ("Yo in Baltimore") and there have already been a couple of comments by people familiar with it, one by a young Baltimorean who uses it and "didn't know it wasn't universal" and one by someone who recently "taught 7th grade English for a year in Kansas City, KS" and was familiar with the usage from there. Kansas City! This thing definitely needs detailed investigation.

Absolutely! Let me point out that the Stotko and Troyer paper has an appendix with the materials that they used to check on yo usage in Baltimore schools. Getting (at least some of) the same tests run in other places would be great. It would also be nice to see some free recorded conversation among potential yo users.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:11 AM

January 06, 2008

That'll teach me ...

... to try to post brief, quick things to Language Log.  Either I have to do it up brown or I have to pepper the posting with qualifications, provisos, and warnings.  So I seriously messed up on the teach you to posting, in at least two ways, and now I have a pile of e-mail messages about the details.

The two things: (1) by not contextualizing and elaborating on my observation that I had noticed the undernegation in

teach X to VP

I gave the impression that I was claiming the idiom was new to me and that it was in fact recent; (2) by giving the shorthand gloss 'teach X not to VP', I gave the impression that I thought this was a full analysis of how the idiom is used.

I got lots of e-mail messages (astonished or corrective) on each of these points, and on a couple of others.  Here's the history ...

Item (1).  Linguists are forever "noticing" familiar things -- that is, noticing that some familiar phenomenon has an interesting twist to it.  What are the regularities connecting the form and meaning of these expressions?  How might they have come about?  And so on.  That's what happened to me with

That'll teach you to blow your quarters on the arcade.

Yeah, sure, I was familiar with this way of talking, and had been for a long time.  But I was moved to reflect on the fact that such expressions, which lack any negative elements, are nevertheless understood as having negative import: they are indeed about teaching and learning, but the lesson to be learned is NOT to VP.  (Yes, there's more.  I'm saying only that this is PART of the story, not that it's the whole story.)

So we have an idiom (which I'll call Teach To), in which the meaning of the whole cannot be read off from the meanings of the parts using regular compositional principles of meaning.  And Teach To is undernegated: no negative in the syntax, negative import in the semantics/pragmatics.  (Undernegation comes up every so often here on Language Log, since it was first mentioned under that name by Ben Zimmer in December 2005; search on "undernegation" for the full set of postings.)

In my first version of the posting, I said that we hadn't mentioned Teach To before, but that was wrong.  Somehow my search on the site failed to pick up the 2004 Chris Potts piece in which Teach To got a brief mention, but Mark Liberman quickly set me straight, and I revised my posting.

Still, I failed to include the boilerplate:

My interest here is not in tracing uses of this expression historically, but merely in noting that it's frequent in current use.

And I failed to state EXPLICITLY that the usage was familiar to me and had (as far as I knew) been around for some considerable time.  Very bad step.  (Students of implicature might want to look at what went wrong here.)  So I got tons of e-mail, some from old friends, expressing disappointed bewilderment about how dense I was about English usage.

My mail did include some cites:

[from Robert Coren]  Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908): Toad says "I'll learn 'em to steal my house!", in response to which Rat objects to his use of "learn" for "teach", but there's no suggestion that the inversion of the lesson is an issue.

[from Thomas Thurman]  ... as a child I had a joke book which contained this entry:

ANGRY HOUSEHOLDER: I'll teach YOU to throw stones at my greenhouse!
SCHOOLBOY: I wish you would! I've had five tries and haven't hit it yet!

which seems to show that undernegative "teach" has been around a while. (Actually, on a whim, I tried putting it into Google Books, which shows examples from as far back as 1884. Some of the results are actually about teaching people to throw stones, but some of them are clearly threats.

[from Andrew McGuinness, the same joke]  In England, the undernegated form is certainly the common form.  I remember in a joke book (probably "The Crack-a-Joke book", Puffin books, something like 1977) the following:

Angry Man:  I'll teach you to throw stones at my greenhouse!
Boy:  I wish you would - I've had five shots and haven't hit it yet.

So the form being used by the angry man is so normal that there's no immediate ambiguity, or else the joke wouldn't work.

[from Simon Cauchi, in New Zealand]  This "colloquial" or "informal" use is already in the dictionaries. For example:

New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005): teach, sense 3:

(foll. by to + infin.)

a induce (a person) by example or punishment to do or not to do a thing (that will teach you to sit still; that will teach you not to laugh)

b colloq. make (a person) disinclined to do a thing (I will teach you to interfere).

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998): teach, fifth and sixth bulleted subsenses, the sixth being labelled "informal":

induce (someone) by example or punishment to do or not to do something: my upbringing taught me never to be disrespectful to elders

make (someone) less inclined to do something: 'I'll teach you to forget my tea,' he said, and gave me six with his cane.

(I don't believe corporal punishment for such lapses is any longer permitted in New Zealand schools.)

NOAD2 has much the same entries as the Oxford dictionaries Cauchi cites, but with (of course) a different illustration for the "informal" Teach To: I'll teach you to mess with young girls!

In fact, it turns out that the OED has the relevant sense, not marked as colloquial or informal:

 6. d. Used by way of threat: To let one know the cost or penalty of something. Also without direct object.

1575 Gamm. Gurton III. iii. Ciijb, And I get once on foote..ile teach the what longs to it.
a1619 FLETCHER Mad Lover III. ii, I'll teach you to be treacherous!
1697 DRYDEN Virg. Past. III. 76 I'll teach you how to brag another time.
1778 F. BURNEY Evelina (1791) I. xxxvi. 191 She will..teach you to know who she is.
c1863 T. TAYLOR Ticket-of-Leave Man II. 33 Sam! is it? Confound him! I'll teach him.
1889 A. LANG Pr. Prigio ii. 10 I'll teach you to be too clever, my lad.

Moral: always check out the dictionaries.  (It's not in AHD4, by the way.)

Item 2
.  Another pile of e-mail came in about how the point of Teach To us to encourage the addressee to AVOID VPing by alluding to the unfortunate consequences of VPing.  That's certainly what Teach To conveys.  When I say

That'll teach me to try to post brief, quick things to Language Log.

I convey that I should avoid VPing (posting brief, quick things to Language Log) because doing so leads -- in fact, has led -- to unfortunate consequences (in this case, being widely misunderstood).

When someone says

I'll teach you to talk back to me!

they (probably) convey that the addressee should avoid VPing (talking back to them) because doing so will lead to unfortunate circumstances (there is a threat of forthcoming punishment for the recent action of VPing).

This is still far from the full story, but it's better than my offhand gloss.

For more turns and twists, see the Linguist List discussion from 4 October through 3 November 1993, initiated by a query from Laurie Bauer: postings 4.795. 4.822, 4.844, 4.859. 4.873, 4.874, 4.884, 4.898, 4.909.  (Thanks to David Denison for pointing me to these exchanges.)  Like most mailing list discussions, this one wanders a good bit, but many good points are made.

Item 3 (not previously announced): odds and ends.  Here in passing are a few topics from my mail.

3.1.  Learn.  Lots of readers pointed out that they allow, or prefer, learn instead of teach in the Teach To idiom (as in the Wind in the Willows quote above).  This is just what you'd expect in varieties that have learn 'teach'.  But there may be people who don't generally use learn 'teach' but nevertheless have learn as part of a package with undernegation, in a kind of importation of elements from vernacular speech.

3.2.  Frequency.  Many readers wrote to tell me that Teach To is enormously frequent, much more frequent than any explicitly negative counterpart (note Andrew McGuinness's comment above).  I'm sympathetic.  But: I no longer trust ANYONE's off-hand estimates (even my own) of the frequencies of variants; your/my impressions are so biased by expectations, beliefs, selective attention, etc. that they can't be trusted.  Ya gotta do the numbers.

That is, I suspect my correspondents are right, but that has to be demonstrated.

Also, in this case, it's hard to know how to factor in the enormous number of occurrences of will teach X to VP that are entirely literal (an offer: "I'll teach you to factor polynomials").

3.3.  Sarcasm.  Some readers wrote to say that Teach To is sarcastic: it has a characteristic intonation and a characteristic import, it is claimed.

Well, as with could care less, Teach To CAN have such an intonation and/or such an import, but it very often doesn't have either.  That is, the idiom isn't intrinsically sarcastic.  Like all sorts of other expressions, it can have sarcasm attached to it.

(David Eddyshaw attempted to connect the absence of negation to sarcastic intonation, in much the way that Steve Pinker proposed for could care less.  The idea is that the intonation marks the speaker's intent, so an explicit negative isn't necessary.  I refer you to the Language Log discussions of could care less for a critical treatment of this idea; an archive of postings is here.)

3.4.  Will.  In the Linguist List discussion, John Lawler noted that the will is part of the idiom.  As with the could of could care less or the would of would rather, a modal is part of the idiom.

3.5.  Negative polarity.  In the same Linguist List discussion, John Lawler pointed out that though Teach To is implicitly negative, it doesn't license negative polarity items (like anyone and anywhere):

??I'll teach you to talk to anyone suspicious.
??That'll teach you to go anywhere in Alabama.

Contrast the implicitly negative deny:

I denied that I had talked to anyone suspicious.
I denied that I had gone anywhere in Alabama.

So there are several different flavors of implicit negation.

Final note: this has been a quick pass through some of the complexities of Teach To -- more adequate than my unfortunately brief original posting, but still far from the whole story.  Still, I think it's useful to say some things on the topic, without trying to say everything that could be said.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:21 PM


I've noticed a recently-renewed fad for political neologisms constructed by analogy to Schadenfreude "malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others" (from German schaden "harm" + freude "joy"). Ben Zimmer blogged about Bushenfreude, Deanenfreude, and Frankenfreude just about a year ago ("Googlefreude, googleschaden, Schadengoogle", 1/2/2007). The recent politicianfreude surge started with Huckenfreude , defined by Russ Douthat as "Pleasure derived from the outrage of prominent conservative pundits over the rising poll numbers of Mike Huckabee".

Not far behind was Mittenfreude, which seems to mean "Malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of Mitt Romney"; and a commenter at TPM recently wrote that

It's almost getting to the point where my Mittenfreude is as powerful as my Giulianenfreude...

Given the emotional tone of the current race, it's probably not an accident that in the case of Huckenfreude, the pleasant misfortune is not Governor Huckabee's, but rather belongs to the conservative pundits who are annoyed at their evangelical base for venturing out of the servants quarters into the drawing room, whereas with the words built on the names of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, the misfortune being enjoyed is that of the referenced politicians themselves.

I haven't found any similar formation based on the names of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but I predict we'll see them soon, and I think it's clear what the semantics will be like.

[Update -- a bit more web searching turns up an example of Obamenfreude, which (as I expected) works like Huckenfreude rather than like Mittenfreude:

Huckenfreude and Obamenfreude! What fun to watch the Establishment in both parties take a beating! Lady Macbeth get the message that the coronation may not be a sure thing and the GOP suits who never meant for those God Con weirdos to do anything other than shut up and rubber stamp their plans are all in a tizzy. Very fun!


[Update #2 -- Whether your guilty pleasure comes from certain candidates' failures (Mittenfreude, Giulianenfreude), or from the effect on established pundits and politicos of other candidates' successes (Huckenfreude, Obamenfreude), you'll want to celebrate with a nice piece of Schadenfreude Pie.

(Hat tip: Amy Forsyth) ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:07 AM

January 05, 2008

Rejecting innovations

The 2007 Banished Words list from Lake Superior State University is (like its predecessors) hostile to innovations, especially those having to do with the Internet.  For instance:

WEBINAR -- A seminar on the web about any number of topics.

"Ouch! It hurts my brain. It should be crushed immediately before it spreads." -- Carol, Lams, Michigan.

"Yet another non-word trying to worm its way into the English language due to the Internet. It belongs in the same school of non-thought that brought us e-anything and i-anything." -- Scott Lassiter, Houston, Texas.

Today's Unshelved comic strip echoes this hostility to webinar:

(Hat tip to Mark Mandel on ADS-L.)

Why not just call it "a seminar (held) on the web"?  Because that's a whole complex expression describing the event, when people would like something compact, for brief reference.  Web seminar would do (though it could be understood as 'seminar about the web', parallel to syntax seminar), but the telescoped version webinar is even more compact, and also more colorful.  In fact, in his discussion of the Banished Words list on ADS-L on 2 January, John Baker picked webinar out as one of several genuinely useful items on the list (the others: waterboarding, surge, Black Friday).  If you have reason to talk about the referents, it's good to have short expressions for the purpose.

What we get from the commenters on the LSSU list (and the characters in Unshelved) is visceral cringe reactions, hostility towards inventiveness and playfulness, disdain for the Internet (as the enemy of thought), and cries to make it all go away.  As blogger Grammdaemonium puts it,

Once more Lake Superior State University has released its annual list of words to be banished, and once more it is written in the same drab, condescending tone we find so common among our inferiors.

But it gets publicity for LSSU.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:06 PM


Josh Marshall, "WTF?", Talking Points Memo 1/5/2008:

TPMer Eric Kleefeld and I were chatting this evening about whether everyone's underestimating Huckabee's chances in this race. And I think Eric may be on to something. But then I go over to Huck's site and I see his pitch to supporters, which you can see in this screen capture.

Can anyone explain what the hell that means? Vertical? I guess if you're main opponent was Fred Thompson you might push the fact that you spend most of your time standing up. But seriously, is there something I'm missing here? Or is this the weirdest campaign I've ever heard?

Josh's readers clued him in: "Apparently this is a big buzzword for Huckabee. He wants to end the horizontal politics and get back to vertical politics." A YouTube clip of Governor Huckabee talking about horizontal and vertical politics on Meet the Press is here.

Other readers suggested to Josh that "there's some crypto-evangelical code wording going on with it too". The evidence includes a page entitled "Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking", which contrasts the "vertical logic" of the "devout Christian" for whom "everything emanates from God", with the "horizontal logic of the freethinker". And then there's vertical thought ("a magazine of understanding for tomorrow's leaders"), with this table of contents for its January-March 2008 issue:

- Editorial: Vive la Différence!
- Did God Intend a Difference?
- The Honorable Role of Men
- The Honorable Role of Women
- Where Have All the Young Men Gone?
- Feminism's Fatal Flaw
- Careers and Motherhood: Maximizing Your Options
- What Guys Need to Know Before Marriage
- What Girls Need to Know Before Marriage
- Are You Up for the Challenge?
- Where Do the Dinosaurs Fit?

(If you're curious to learn where dinosaurs in fact do fit into the divine plan for modern marriage, you may be as disappointed as I was to find that the last article is not actually connected to the sex-role theme of the rest of the issue. Instead it describes the Reese Chronological Bible, in which the Genesis six-day creation story is reinterpreted as a re-creation story. "Satan's rebellion apparently happened after the earth had passed through the dinosaur age", and made everything "chaotic and in confusion", so that God needed to undertake a "six-day renewal of the earth" that included the creation of Adam and Eve. The challenges of marriage are not mentioned.)

Anyhow, Josh concludes that

The more I look at this I don't think there's any question this is a clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God's politics.

The verticalthought magazine is published by the United Church of God, not Huckabee's denomination, the Southern Baptists, and it's not clear to me how widely among evangelicals "vertical" is used to mean "God-oriented" -- but the connection is certainly out there, and it seems plausible that it's at least part of the background for Huckabee's decision to choose this metaphor.

Josh's phrase dog whistle is itself a piece of political-operative jargon, discussed at some length in an earlier Language Log post ("The comma really was a dog whistle", 9/26/2006). The first place that I ever saw this phrase was in a weblog post by Ian Welch ("Just a Comma: Dog Whistle Politics",  The Agonist, 9/25/2006):

The other name for this is dog whistle politics. When you blow a dog whistle humans can't hear it, but the dogs sure can. It's a pitch higher than humans can hear. When you speak in code like this, most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population. So it allows you to send out two messages at once - one pitched for the majority of Americans, the other pitched for a subgroup. This goes on all the time, and usually it isn't caught - most people don't hear it, and the media is made up of people who can't make the connections because they don't belong to these subgroups. So they can't point out the subtext either.

It's very effective, and it's one reason why Bush still has his hard core of support - he's constantly reassuring them, at a pitch the rest of us can't hear.

The "dog whistle" in that case was supposed to be President Bush's comment that the Iraq war is "just a comma". As discussed in the cited Language Log post, that particular argument turned out to be an extremely weak one, since the relevant use of comma was found mainly in the (left-wing) United Church of Christ, and was apparently unknown to the conservative evangelicals who were the alleged dog-whistle target.

The argument for vertical may be stronger -- it does seem plausible that Governor Huckabee's use of this word comes from his evangelical roots. But I would still question whether this case fits the definition of a "political dog whistle", since Huckabee's use of the word is not unheard by non-evangelicals like Josh Marshall, but rather strikes them as so weird that they conclude that Huckabee is presenting an inept and incoherent message, or look into the matter further and discover the underlying religious metaphor. So it's less like a dog whistle and more like a buffet table furnished with platters of dog food.

Meanwhile, what linguists want to know is whether the ADS Word Of The Year for 2008 will be vertical. Only time will tell: stay tuned.

[Although I first saw "dog whistle politics" in Ian Welch's weblog post in 2006, this use of dog whistle was featured in a 10/17/2004 NYT Week in Review piece:

The potential double meaning rekindled speculation among Mr. Bush's critics that he communicates with his conservative Christian base with a dog-whistle of code words and symbols, deliberately incomprehensible to secular liberals.

The phrase was used, in a slightly different sense, with reference to British politics by Alan Cowell, "Britian's Tory Candidate Running as Mr. Congeniality", NYT 4/18/2005:

Mr. Howard has reached for simplicity, possibly at the urging of Lynton Crosby, a publicity-shy Australian adviser who is credited with introducing to Britain what is called dog-whistle politics - the notion that elections can be won on the handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle. Mr. Howard's slender party manifesto listed cleaner hospitals, safer schools, lower taxes, more police and controlled immigration among the party's targets.

And the phrase was featured in a William Safire column "Dog Whistle", 4/24/2005:

Issue-ism has a new entry: the dog-whistle issue is upon us, brought about -- possibly from Down Under -- by the rise of dog-whistle politics.

The general dog-whistle metaphor -- a way of talking about signals that summon some and are ignored by others -- is much older. I expect that it's been around roughly as long as the use of whistles above the range of human hearing to signal dogs, though I don't know when that practice was invented. Thus Julie V. Iovine in the NYT 6/10/1999:

... William Wegman, the conceptual artist and dog-theme merchandiser, whose fans respond to his outpouring of videos, PBS programs, books, commercials, posters and kitchen magnets as if answering the siren call of a high-pitched dog whistle.

There have been some very different uses of the dog-whistle metaphor in political discourse, e.g. C. L. Sulzberger, "Two Letters That Marshal Tito Didn't Like", 10/20/1956:

In Yugoslav eyes long incubation in despotism has induced in the Russians habits of thought and action unsuited to the European mind. It is, they say, sometimes as if Moscow sought to play a Wagner melody upon the sonic range of a dog whistle.


[David Barry writes:

The Internet doesn't seem to have a clear idea of the origin of "dog-whistle politics". Wikipedia says that it originated in Australia in the mid-1990's. I am Australian, and I certainly thought it was here well before your examples from 2004 and 2005. I think the mid-90's is too early, and the Factiva database's earliest result is an article in The Age from 8 April 2000. But the journalist (Tony Wright) says that it was an American term!

One of Howard's Liberal colleagues says the Prime Minister is clever in his ability to sound reasonable on most subjects, and has such mastery of the language that he can frame sentences that appear to say one thing while allowing the listener to interpret the words in
another way.

"It is often very difficult to nail him because of his ability to sound reasonable,'' the MP says. ``He is so very persuasive.''

The Americans call this "dog-whistle politics''. Blow a dog whistle, and you won't hear much to get excited about. But the target of the whistle -the dogs - will detect a sound beyond the audible range of the rest of us, and will react to it. Two quite different messages are contained within the one action of blowing the whistle: the one benign, the other designed to be heard and heeded only by the ears tuned to it.

The beauty of this approach is that if your critics claim they have detected a secret message, you can deny it, and accuse your accusers of deliberately and mischievously seeking the non-existent.

Anyway, it's a bit strange for me to read explanations of dog whistles on the Language Log, since I've been hearing the term for years. It is reasonably common in newspapers and in political blogs in Australia, mostly from critics of the now former Howard government.

Well, the phrase was apparently both common enough and new enough in the U.S. for William Safire to write a column about it in 2005 -- though I obviously wasn't paying attention -- but it might well have been common political-operative jargon in the 1990s, I don't know. As I said, I'd expect to see the "summoning some, silent to others" metaphor arising soon after the introduction of the silent dog whistle itself. The OED's first citation for "silent dog whistle" is 1961, but the object is clearly quite a bit older, as indicated by the Sulzberger quote above.

The Wikipedia entry says that the kind of whistle in question was invented by Francis Galton, who died in 1911. There's a picture of one here, and this page dates the invention to 1876. However, Galton's goal was to find the upper frequency limit of human hearing, not to train or call dogs, and I don't know (yet) when such whistles were first used in dog-training. ]

[Mike McMahon writes:

US Patent 2,245,484, filed Nov 1, 1940, quite surprisingly late, looks like the one we’re used to.

The inventor was Theodore Leavens, who seems also to have been the inventor of Captain Midnight's code ring and the like, according to "Frenzied Flashes", Time Magazine, 6/9/1947. The same article also mentions "the Orphan Annie dog whistle" (shown here) as one of the offerings of Leavens' company. According to Jim Harmon, "Radio Mystery and Adventure, p. 102, this was indeed a "silent dog whistle".]

[John Brewer writes:

I have no idea whether or not "vertical" really has a special connotation in some Evangelical circles, but I saw a news story a few days ago in which Gov. Huckabee was making this pitch and it was, in context, a perfectly transparent and secular metaphor. Visualize a cartesian grid. The old, tired zero-sum politics of left v. right is movement back and forth along the x-axis that never really gets anywhere. Let's transcend that unproductive back and forth and move up the y-axis to a brighter future instead. (Implicit minor premise: the relative preferability of left v. right may be an intractable dispute, but pretty much everyone prefers "up" to "down".)

Of course, talking about traditional left v. right distinctions as something to be transcended is one of the things that makes many conservative Republicans nervous about Huckabee.

There's a separate religious use of vertical/horizontal metaphors I'm more familiar with that are current in some circles to discuss liturgy and worship. For example, those Roman Catholics unhappy with aspects of the post-Vatican 2 Mass as commonly celebrated might say that the status quo has overemphasized the "horizontal" dimension at the expense of the "vertical" (whereas those pleased with the current status quo might say it has simply struck the right balance between the dimensions). But the marriage-and-the-dinosaurs stuff seems at first glance to be probably unrelated (except in the sense that both usages treat God as being located "up" from where we are), rather than an extension of that usage.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:47 AM

January 04, 2008

ADS Word of the Year: Subprime

Greetings from Chicago, where the American Dialect Society has just held its annual Word of the Year voting. And the winner for 2007 is... subprime, an adjective much in the news this past year to describe risky loans to unqualified borrowers. It has already been used in an extended sense to refer to the "subprime crisis" in the housing sector, and it could very well spawn other extensions as the crisis worsens. (One recent article claims that it is being used as a fanciful verb, as in "I subprimed my algebra test," but I haven't come across any evidence of that in the wild.)

Among the winners in other categories: the prefix and combining form green- (as in greenwashing) won for both "most useful" and "most likely to succeed," Googlegänger won for "most creative," toe-tapper won for "most outrageous," and human terrain team won for "most euphemistic." Read all about it on the ADS website here.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 08:49 PM

Report of Malaysian Reversion to Sanity Premature

My report that Malaysia had backed down on its insistence that Allah be used in Malay in reference only to the Muslim deity turns out to have been premature. The government has now issued a clarification to the effect that even though it has renewed the publication license of The Herald without a pledge on the part of The Herald to abide by this rule, the rule still stands. The clarification was issued by the Prime Minister's office, ending speculation that this restriction might be the idiosyncratic action of a rogue bureaucrat.

Ironically, the clarification is described as including the following:

The use of the word "Allah" shall not be made a public debate that may give the impression as if there is no freedom of religion in the country, he added.

Golly gee, its hard to imagine how anyone might have got the idea that there is an absence of freedom of religion in Malaysia.

Posted by Bill Poser at 11:49 AM

January 03, 2008

Scripts, scriptures and scribes

Following up on earlier posts ("Language in Pakistan", 12/28/2007; "Camp language", 12/31/2007), here's some more on the complex linguistic situation in South Asia, and especially Pakistan. Today's post is about the cultural and historical resonances of a difference in writing systems.

I should stress that this is an area where I have no expertise at all -- I've learned about it by reading the works of others, especially Bob King -- so this post is basically a string of extended quotations. I do have a small amount of relevant personal history, however. When I started grad school, my oldest son was just learning to speak, and while I was in class, he stayed with the wife and children of a Pakistani business-school student. For a few months at least, he was bilingual in English and Urdu, and we went to some events organized by the local Pakistani students' association.

I've already quoted from King's 2001 paper "The poisonous potency of script: Hindi and Urdu", International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150:43-49. The abstract:

Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest -- and therefore most artificial -- forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.

King observes that the difference in scripts symbolizes geographical, cultural -- and scriptural -- differences:

There is a prodigal visual difference between the Devanagari script (also called Nagari) used to write Hindi and the Perso-Arabic script ordinarily used to write Urdu. The Devanagari script of Hindi is"squarish,'' "chunky,'' "has edges'' -- conventional characterizations all -- written left to right, with words set off from each other by an overhead horizontal line connected to the graphemes and running from the beginning of the word to its end. The Perso-Arabic script of Urdu is "graceful,'' "flowing,'' "has curves,'' written right to left, with word boundaries marked as much by final forms of consonants as by spaces. The immediate visually iconic associations are: Hindi script = India, South Asia, Hinduism; Urdu script = Middle East, Islam. The graphemic difference between Hindi and Urdu is far more dramatic, for example, than the difference between the Cyrillic script of Serbian and the Roman script of Croatian.

The relationship has not been friendly or even tolerant:

One can easily imagine a condition of pacific digraphia: people who speak more or less the same language choose for perfectly benevolent reasons to write their language differently; but these people otherwise like each other, get on with one another, live together as amiable neighbors. It is a homey picture, and one wishes it were the norm. It is not. Digraphia is regularly an outer and visible sign of ethnic or religious hatred. Script tolerance, alas, is no more common than tolerance itself. In this too Hindi-Urdu is lamentably all too typical. People have died in India for the Devanagari script of Hindi or the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu. It is rare, except for scholars, for Hindi speakers to learn to read Urdu script or for Urdu speakers to learn to read Devanagari.

If you don't think that the choice of a script matters very much, you should try writing and reading English in (say) Devanagari, or for that matter in IPA. You can learn to do this -- painfully and slowly -- in a few hours; but it would take years of practice to match the facility that you have with our current orthographic system, as bizarre and badly designed as it is. King concludes:

It would be going too far to blame Hindi-Urdu digraphia for the partition of British India into the separate nations India and Pakistan; but it would not be going too far in the least to reify Hindi-Urdu digraphia as a metaphor for communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent.

But on the analysis of Hamza Alavi ("Pakistan and Islam: Ethnicity and Ideology", in Halliday and Alavi, eds., State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan, 1988), the difference in scripts might have been even more important as a cause of partition than the difference in scriptures was.

Alavi points to "a cascade of major contradictions that underlie any suggestion that the creation of Pakistan was the result of a struggle by Muslims of India to create an 'Islamic State'":

We have to face up to the glaring fact that the Pakistan movement was vigorously opposed by virtually the entire Muslim religious establishment in India. [...]

The men of power in Pakistan, the bureaucrats, military leaders and politicians generally, all in truth have an essentially secular intellectual make up and few are devout practitioners of their religion. [...]

What then was Pakistan movement all about, if it was not a religious movement for creating an 'Islamic State' ? The answer, in a nutshell, could be that the Pakistan movement was a movement of Muslims i.e. an ethnic movement, rather than a movement of 'Islam' i.e. a religious movement. Even that formulation needs to be qualified, for the Pakistan movement, paradoxically, failed (until the very eve of the Partition) to draw any substantial support in the Muslim majority provinces which were later to constitute the State of Pakistan. The solid base of support for the Muslim League (for most of its history i.e. until 1946, as we shall examine) lay in the Muslim minority Provinces of India, notably the UP and Bihar. [...]

For nearly four decades the Muslim League failed to make any significant impact in the Muslim majority areas which were dominated by feudal landed magnates (indeed by a coalition of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landlords). The main political support of the Muslim League, it will be argued here, derived mainly from the job-seeking educated urban middle classes and professionals ...

For a better understanding of this background, consider the life and work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Bahadur (1817-1898):

The onset of the Hindi-Urdu controversy of 1867 saw the emergence of Sir Syed as a political leader of the Muslim community. He became a leading Muslim voice opposing the adoption of Hindi as a second official language of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Sir Syed perceived Urdu as the lingua franca of Muslims. Having been developed by Muslim rulers of India, Urdu was used as a secondary language to Persian, the official language of the Mughal court. Since the decline of the Mughal dynasty, Sir Syed promoted the use of Urdu through his own writings. Under Sir Syed, the Scientific Society translated Western works only into Urdu. The schools established by Sir Syed imparted education in the Urdu medium. The demand for Hindi, led largely by Hindus, was to Sir Syed an erosion of the centuries-old Muslim cultural domination of India. Testifying before the British-appointed education commission, Sir Syed controversially exclaimed that "Urdu was the language of gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar." His remarks provoked a hostile response from Hindu leaders, who unified across the nation to demand the recognition of Hindi.

The success of the Hindi movement led Sir Syed to further advocate Urdu as the symbol of Muslim heritage and as the language of all Indian Muslims. His educational and political work grew increasingly centred around and exclusively for Muslim interests. He also sought to persuade the British to give Urdu extensive official use and patronage. His colleagues and protégés such as Mohsin-ul-Mulk and Maulvi Abdul Haq developed organisations such as the Urdu Defence Association and the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu, committed to the perpetuation of Urdu. Sir Syed's protégé Shibli Nomani led efforts that resulted in the adoption of Urdu as the official language of the Hyderabad State and as the medium of instruction in the Osmania University. To Muslims in northern and western India, Urdu had became an integral part of political and cultural identity.

Note that despite his cultural commitment to Muslim identity, Sir Syed was anything but orthodox in religion:

Sir Syed felt that the socio-economic future of Muslims was threatened by their orthodox aversions to modern science and technology. He published many writings promoting liberal, rational interpretations of Islamic scriptures. However, his view of Islam was rejected by Muslim clergy as contrary to traditional views on issues like jihad, polygamy and animal slaughtering. Clerics of the Deobandi and Wahhabi schools condemned him harshly as a kaffir. In face of pressure from religious Muslims, Sir Syed avoided discussing religious subjects in his writings, focusing instead on promoting education.

Continuing with quotes from Hamza Alavi, we can see that the opposition between Sir Syed and the Muslim religious establishment in 19th-century India was echoed by the differences between the Pakistan movement -- headed by secularly-oriented ethnic Muslim intellectuals -- and the religious establishment of their time:

The irony of the argument that Pakistan was founded on religious ideology lies, if we may repeat the point, in the fact that every group and organisation in the Sub-continent of India that was specifically religious, was hostile to Jinnah and the Muslim League and had strongly opposed the Pakistan movement. Foremost amongst them was the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind, the leading organisation of the so-called 'Deobandi' Ulema, whom we might categorise as Islamic Traditionalists.

According to Hamza Alavi, the Pakistan movement was led by secular intellectuals aiming to protect their cultural capital, especially the role of Urdu:

My contention is that the Pakistan movement was neither a millenarian ideological movement devoted to the realisation of an Islamic state nor was it a movement of feudal landlords nor yet again a movement of an emergent Muslim national bourgeoisie, although it is true that by 1946 the Muslim League reached an accommodation with the landed magnates who ruled over Sind and Punjab, but on their terms. [...]

I will argue here that there was one particular social group for whom, more than any other, the conception of Muslim' nationhood (and not religious ideology) was particularly meaningful. That class was the product of the colonial transformation of Indian social structure in the 19th century and it comprised those who had received an education that would equip them for employment in the expanding colonial state apparatus as scribes and functionaries, the men ( for few women were so employed ) whose instrument of production was the pen. For the want of a better term I have referred to them as the salariat. The term 'middle class' is too wide and 'petty bourgeoisie' has connotations, especially in Marxist political discourse, that would not refer to this class.

Specifically, Alavi identifies "the urban educated classes who qualify for employment in the colonial state. With them we may take the new professionals, especially lawyers, journalists and urban intellectuals generally who share many of the problems and aspirations of the salariat."

The 'salariat' looms large in colonial societies because there the bulk of the population is rural and agricultural. In the absence of a significant number of people clustered around urban industrial activities, and leaving aside a small number of people engaged in petty trading or in the relatively tiny sector of export trade and finance, the urban society revolves mainly around functionaries of the state, and the educated look primarily to the Government for employment and advancement. [...]

Jinnah's 'Two Nations' theory expressed the ideology of the weaker Muslim 'salariat' vis-a-vis the dominant high caste Hindu salariat groups. The Muslim salariat was central to the Pakistan movement. However, in a society in which the rural votes predominate and are controlled by landed magnates, the Muslim salariat could make little progress in elections until it reached an accommodation with the rural magnates by the late 1940s. That was a fragile alliance, founded on temporary calculations of mutual interests.

A fragile alliance indeed, especially when crossed with the other complex geographic, ethnic, linguistic, religious and social oppositions in Pakistan.

It should be stressed that the differences between Hindi and Urdu, in some registers, can be much more than a matter of script (though that is a big deal in itself). According to Kelkar 1968, as quoted by King:

[A]s a linguistic system Hindi-Urdu has no marked dialect variations; but it has the full gamut of styles ...: formalized highbrow (poetry, learned discourse, oratory, religious sermons and the like in the ``great tradition'' of urban centers of power, commerce, and religion); formalized middlebrow (popular printed literature, songs, and films; mass propaganda); casual middlebrow (everyday educated talk especially in linguistically mixed groups and within the regionally uprooted upper or middle class family; private letter writing and newspapers waver between this and the previous styles; out of the four styles this is the most receptive to borrowings from English); and casual lowbrow (this is definitely substandard and outside the "Great Tradition''; everyday talk in lower-class, uneducated, urban milieus; this style, often called "Bazaar Hindustani'' [bazaru hindustani], is sometimes resorted to even by educated speakers and even in printed literature destined for the uneducated lower classes) ... [The] polarization between "Hindi'' and "Urdu'' reaches its maximum in the formalized highbrow style.

Some specific examples:

Common words like chai 'tea', milna 'to meet', and mashin 'machine' are the same in either Hindi or Urdu. Vocabulary diverges sharply as we move from Low to High. The Hindi words for 'south' and 'temperature' (as in weather) are dakshin and tapman, the Urdu words junub and darja-e-hararat. The sentence "Who is the prime minister at the moment?'' is ajkal pradhan mantri kaun hai? in Hindi, ajkal vazir-e azam kaun hai? in Urdu.

An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with di€erent

You can see this difference very clearly in the selection from the United Nations , given on the Omniglot Hindi and Urdu pages. The romanizations and the audio clips show the differences plainly.

According to Richard Powell ("Language Planning and the British Empire", Current Issues in Language Planning, 2002), Nehru proposed to create a unifying "Basic Hindustani" (which was "inspired by reading Ogden's Basic English while in gaol in 1934"). This attempt to put Gandhi's views into practice had no effect. King again:

In speech after speech, editorial after editorial, from 1917 onward Gandhi hammered on the theme relentlessly, dismissing as trivial or unworthy the difficulties that enforcing Hindustani on the country as a whole might entail, riding roughshod over every iconic, emotional, or patriotic association speakers of other Indian languages might have. As for the script in which the Hindustani as national language should be written, he wavered between Devanagari and no choice at all.

Gandhi's tendency overall was to minimize the role of script. In a 1918 speech he laid out his thinking:

Hind[ustani] is that language which is spoken in the north by both Hindus and
Muslims and which is written either in the Nagari or the Persian script. [It] is
neither too Sanskritized nor too Persianized .... The distinction made between
Hindus and Muslims is unreal. The same unreality is found in the distinction
between Hindi and Urdu ... . There is no doubt or difficulty in regard to script.
As things are, Muslims will patronize the Arabic script while Hindus will
mostly use the Nagari script. Both scripts will therefore have to be accorded their
due place. Officials must know both scripts.

Surprisingly often, Gandhi was able to turn his ideals into reality. But not this time.

[Update -- Cosma Shalizi suggests that this ties in well with Ernest Gellner's theory of nationalism.]

[Update 3/9/2008 -- Priyanka Chauhan writes:

I noticed a very minor point in the paragraph where you quote King quoting Kelkar.

"An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with di€erent

Of the phrases in bold above, only mukti-ki sacci sarak and nájat-ki haqq rah would be correct with ki, as sarak and rah are feminine nouns. However, in mukti-ki satya upay and salweshan-ki tru path, the correct phrase would be with ka as in mukti-ka satya upay and salweshan-ka tru path as both upay and path are masculine nouns and would have to use ka (masculine) and not ki (feminine). In fact, no Hindi user, and certainly not a high-brow one, would ever say mukti-ki satya upay. It would always, always be mukti-ka satya upay.

I'm surprised to see Bob King making -- or transmitting -- a gender-agreement error in a Hindi example. (Assuming, of course, that I didn't introduce the error myself in copying the passage.) But in any case, this supports rather than diminishes the larger point about the diversity of styles and levels in Hindi/Urdu. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 03:25 PM

Papua New Guinea, the Linguistic Superpower

Today's offering at strange maps:

The Ethnologue page for Language of Papua New Guinea is here. The fascinating linguistic anthropology of this situation is worth a longer entry, but I need to go catch a plane for Chicago.

[Hat tip: Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:45 AM

January 02, 2008

Moron phishing

One of the most stupidly illiterate attempts at phishing I have yet seen arrived on servers at the University of Edinburgh with the logo at right (served from Abbey National's server at http://abbeynational.co.uk) and text reading thus:

Document sans nom

Customer Service: New Security Standard

Dear Abbey member:

Abbey Bank has the last days updated all user account with better security
to avoid unwanted access and to reduce the instance fraud to keep our
users information secure, Some user accounts lost there information while
new security update was complete, we are realy sorry about this problem.

Can you take 5-10 minutes of your time to make sure your account
information is correct so we can continue our service for you.

Press the link below to update your personal Abbey account

The grammatically clueless sneak thief who wrote this attempt at getting gullible people to cough up their bank account details manages to commit plangent errors at a rate of more than one every five words. I hope no one was dumb enough to click on his link. The visible text said https://myonlineaccounts2.abbeynational.co.uk, but the link actually goes to a site at http://www.ifrance.com/update-bank.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 05:57 PM

A straw in the wind?

I'm not sure. Robert Chametzky writes:

Something you don't see every day: a professor of literature advocating -- in print -- that students of literature study linguistics. Robin J. Sowards, "Why Everyone Should Study Linguistics", The Minnesota Review, Spring 2007.

I might have hoped for more compelling examples of the benefits, but it's a welcome sign to see the argument being made.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:19 PM

Why I Don't Love the International Phonetic Alphabet

Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of an international phonetic alphabet, and most of the IPA symbols are the same as the phonetic symbols used by linguists all over the world, including me. But some of them are different, and some of those differences make the IPA non-ideal for me, and I suspect for a lot of other fieldworkers out there too. Some of my reasons are fairly trivial, but one of them is a serious problem. I'll save that one for last.

The IPA doesn't go in for diacritics much, notably hacheks. So, for instance, the "sh" sound is an elongated letter [ʃ], as opposed to an ordinary [s]. For linguists who got A's in penmanship in grade school (if there's anyone still alive who ever got grades in penmanship), this might work just fine when they're transcribing data from speakers or from tape recordings. But I'm not one of those people, and there'd be a real risk that my [ʃ]'s would turn out looking like [s]'s and vice versa, and that's a bad thing when you're trying to figure out a language's phonological system. If you use a hachek for "sh", it's [š], much harder to confuse with [s]. So I use hacheks, and so do most other fieldworkers I know.

For a few sounds, different transcription practices have developed for the use of ordinary roman letters that aren't needed for the sounds they spell in Western alphabets. The most common of these letters is c: we have [s] for transcribing the c in cell and [k] for the c as in cat, so c itself is available for use as a phonetic symbol for another sound. In the IPA, [c] is a voiceless palatal stop. This is actually a pretty common sound in the world's languages, but it's rare as a separate phoneme -- often, where it occurs, it's an allophone of /k/, and it's commonly transcribed with k plus some diacritic indicating palatalization. When I studied Sanskrit in graduate school, the letter c was used to transliterate a "ch" sound, and as a phonemic symbol for the "ch" -- an affricate that many other linguists (including me) transcribe as [č], using the same hachek diacritic as for [š]. No need for a palatal stop in transliterating (or phonemicizing) Sanskrit; lots of need for a [č], and why bother with the diacritic when everyone understands the c as [č]? Years later, when I morphed into a specialist in American Indian languages, I adopted the typical Americanist practice of using c to transcribe a "ts" affricate: lots of need for that in New World languages, little or no need for a palatal stop. (Actually, in the Pacific Northwest, /k/ often represents a prevelar or even a palatal stop, contrasting with /q/, which is a "back k" or uvular stop. But there too c is reserved for the affricate.) In transliterating or transcribing Sanskrit, it's very convenient to have an easy way to represent the common phoneme "ch", and ditto for the common affricate "ts" in American Indian languages. Using the letter c is a handy solution in each case. But strict adherence to the IPA closes off this convenient use of c, which seems a shame, because as long as linguists are always careful to say what symbols stand for what, no confusion can result.

But if the IPA uses c for a palatal stop, how do you transcribe affricates in IPA symbols? Answer: you use digraphs. So [tʃ] represents "ch" and [ts] represents "ts". Because the IPA isn't enthusiastic about diacritics, you don't get any ligature in standard IPA (though the TexTipa phonetic fonts that I use in LaTeX documents do have the t and the fricative symbol sort of smooshed together so that you can tell it's an affricate and not a consonant cluster). When I wrote a paper on Montana Salish phonetics with the late great Peter Ladefoged and Edward Flemming -- a somewhat misleading author listing; Flemming did almost all the analysis and writing, Ladefoged collected the data when I took him to the Flathead Reservation in the mid-1990s, and I was third author -- we had a problem with the IPA system: Montana Salish has a contrast between syllable-initial affricates and syllable-initial stop + fricative clusters. The word for `be soft', for instance, is /čep/ (in Americanist transcription for "ch"), and the word for `bull elk' is /tšec'/ (also using the Americanist transcription for [ts']). There's no doubt about the contrast, because stops in stop + fricative clusters are released before the fricative and are thus clearly differentiated phonetically from a corresponding affricate. So, as we worked on the paper, I kept insisting that using IPA [tʃ] for the affricate was unacceptable, because it concealed the phonetic and phonemic distinction between affricate and cluster. Peter was a dedicated proponent of strict IPA transcription, though, and I won the battle (the distinction had to be made) but lost the war: the paper -- to appear, possibly even fairly soon, in the Journal of Phonetics -- ended up transcribing `be soft' as [tʃep] and `bull elk' as [t.ʃets'].

So the IPA is problematic for people transcribing linguistic data in the field -- where you need to write fast to avoid wasting your consultant's time, so that super-careful writing isn't an option -- and it doesn't allow for variation in symbol choices to facilitate the transcription of sounds that are especially common in different parts of the world. And it also doesn't make it easy to distinguish affricates in the admittedly rare languages where they contrast with stop + fricative clusters. But the worst problem I've come across is in the IPA vowel chart. I only realized this last month, when a student in my historical linguistics class objected to my complaint, in a problem set, that he hadn't generalized enough in stating a certain sound change. I wanted the students to say that the change happened "before all front vowels", but he protested that his "before non-low front vowels" had a necessary constraint because the change did not happen before /a/. I tend to deviate from IPA norms more in vowels than in consonants -- some of the IPA vowel symbols are hard to draw, and life is short, so I use diacritics quite a lot in transcribing vowel distinctions. But I keep forgetting that the IPA insists that the letter "a" represents a low front vowel. Like many other linguists, I use the symbol known as ash, [æ], for the low front unrounded vowel. (In the IPA this symbol represents a not-quite-so-low front unrounded vowel; I won't bore you with the details of how I make that distinction in transcribing.) Also like many other linguists, I use the letter "a" for a low central vowel.

The IPA does of course have a symbol for a low(ish) central vowel: it is an upside-down "a", namely, [ɐ]. And for a low back unrounded vowel, the IPA uses a symbol that looks just like the letter a that I, and a whole lot of other linguists and non-linguists, use in printing by hand. There are two problems here with the IPA system. First, the IPA symbol for the low central vowel is hard to draw, and it's all too easy to draw in a way that makes it very hard to interpret afterward. This vowel sound is so common as to be near-universal in the world's languages, so it's particularly unfortunate that the IPA transcribes it with such a user-unfriendly symbol. The lower-than-æ front vowel, by contrast, is absent from many, many languages. Second, and worse, everyone who hand-prints an a with something that looks like the IPA low back unrounded vowel symbol [a] has a life-long habit of equating that hand-printed vowel with the printed letter "a". The habit is hard to break, which makes confusion all too predictable when (for instance) one is typing up fieldnotes.

Geoff Pullum and Bill Ladusaw, in their wonderful little fat book Phonetic Symbol Guide, observe that `The IPA's effort to establish [a] and [a] as separate symbols "has not met with the success originally hoped for" (Principles, p. 19).' Surprise, surprise. But it's worse than that plaintive comment by the International Phonetic Association suggests. After my student pointed out that my use of the symbol "a" for the low central unrounded vowel is not sanctioned by the IPA, I did a quick check of the language grammars closest to my desk and found an overwhelming majority of authors using the symbol "a" for a low central vowel, not for a low front vowel. This was a rough count of a non-random set of languages, and I omitted grammars whose authors did not describe the language's sounds or show the symbols in a chart or otherwise indicate what sounds the symbols represented (a sign of extreme wickedness in any linguist-author of a grammar of any language). Here are the results. All the authors who clearly indicated the pronunciation of the vowels treated [a] as a low vowel. In the Americas, 28 grammars had [a] as a central (or at least non-front) vowel and not one grammar had it as a front vowel. In Australia, 35 grammars had [a] as non-front and 4 had [a] as front, and in New Guinea, 18 grammars had [a] as non-front and 2 had it as front. A spot-check of a few languages elsewhere in the world turned up seven languages with [a] as non-front (Finnish, Hungarian, Hausa, Gimira, Yemsa, Turkish, and Uighur) and one (Evenki) with [a] as a front vowel. All of these grammars were written by modern linguists, so I think it's reasonable to conclude that on this point it's the IPA, not me, that's out of step with the world.

In any case, being a stubborn type, I'll stick to my Americanist practice of using hacheks and a user-friendly low central vowel symbol, and even the less obviously defensible non-IPA transcriptions that I'm used to and happy with. I do routinely warn my students that there is no sacred phonetic alphabet and that there is a lot of variation among linguists who do phonetic transcription, and I tell them they can use any system they want as long as it's reasonably standard, and as long as they stick to a single symbol for each sound they're transcribing. I freely acknowledge that the IPA may be absolutely ideal for people who do their phonetics in laboratories rather than in the field, and even that there are probably quite a few fieldworkers who don't share my reservations about it. I also realize that no single transcription system is likely to be ideal for all linguists and/or all purposes. So I'm not dogmatic (at least not about this). I hope, though, that the IPA enthusiasts out there won't try too hard to convert us IPA dissidents.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 10:50 AM

Linguistic diversity: the postmodern theology

My recent series of posts on Genesis 11 are the result of an unusual amount of email on the topic, much of it too long to add to the tail of earlier posts, but too interesting to ignore. I've been hard pressed to keep up, and offer my apologies to those whose messages are still in the queue. Here's one more post, based on email from Kimberly Belcher.

She wrote:

I thought I'd note that among non-Biblical-inerrantists, there is also considerable interest in interpreting the Babel myth. For example, postmodern interpreters classically want to reinterpret the story such that the diversification of languages is a gift rather than a punishment.

Her first reference is to Walter Brueggemann's Genesis: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 1982, p. 97ff . [A limited preview is available from Google Books here.] I should note that she qualifies her reference by writing "I don't have any generalized experience with Brueggemann, having just found him in a few footnotes, but his interpretation is an interesting one". Here's a short passage suggesting Brueggemann's argument on this point:

The well-being of all peoples is assured (a) by God's resolve never again to destroy (8:21-22; 9:8-17) and (b) by God's unqualified covenant with "all flesh" (9:8-11). Because of the post-flood promises, we expect well-being for all creation. In such a context, this narrative of the tower is a surprise. [...]

At some point, the narrative was no doubt an etiology for the diversity of languages. At some other point, it served as a polemical etiology for the city of Babylon, even though the etymology claimed in verse 9 is false. [...]

The story appears to be a polemic against the growth of urban culture as an expression of pride. But as we shall see, the narrative requires a more dialectical treatment. [,,,]

The common element of the human proposal (v. 4), of Yahweh's action (v. 8), and the conclusion (v. 9), is the use of the verb "scatter" (puṣ). Humankind fears scattering and takes action to prevent it. Then, against their will, Yahweh scatters. Now there is no doubt that in some contexts "scatter" refers to exile and is a negative term (Ezek. 11:17; 20:34; 41; 28:25). But here another denotation must be considered. Especially in chapter 10, we have seen that "spreading abroad" (v. 32) is blessed, sanctioned, and willed by Yahweh. It is part of God's plan for creation and the fulfillment of the mandate of 1:28. [...] It can be argued that in this context (10:18) the intent of creation finally comes to fulfillment (1:28).

This would roughly parallel a sociobiological account of the role of cultural diversification in human history, and the less sceintistic ideas about the value of intellectual and cultural diversity that happen by chance to have been featured a few days ago in the New York Times (Janet Rae-Dupree, "Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike", 12/30/2007).

Kimberly Belcher continues:

A book that uses the story as a paradigm for Biblical interpretation generally is The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age by John Joseph Collins [Google Books link here]. Unfortunately this book is at home in my library and I am on vacation, but here's the intriguing jacket blurb, which seems to take for granted that Babel (and various historical-critical interpretations) is a divine gift:

Biblical scholars today often sound as if they are caught in the aftermath of Babel — a clamor of voices unable to reach common agreement. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Many postmodern critics hear the confusion of critical languages as a welcome opportunity for diverse new approaches. In The Bible After Babel, noted biblical scholar John J. Collins considers the effect of the postmodern situation on biblical, primarily Old Testament, criticism over the last three decades. Engaging and even-handed, Collins begins by examining the quest of historical criticism to objectively establish a text's basic meaning. He goes on to deftly review the alternative methods of postmodern criticism, the disputed history of ancient Israel, and the ways in which postcolonial and feminist scholarship has called into question the moral authority of the Bible. At the same time, as more diverse practitioners — including Jews, women, and ethnic minorities — have entered the field of biblical studies, many of the accepted conclusions of previous scholarship have crumbled. Accepting that the Bible may no longer provide secure foundations for faith, Collins still highlights its ethical challenge to be concerned for the other — a challenge central both to Old Testament ethics and to the teaching of Jesus.

Based on these two examples, theological explicitation of linguistic diversity, in postmodern circles, would certainly be expected to come out full in favor of linguistic preservation. For such interpreters, as Marc van Oostendorp notes, the Pentecost story would be a nearer and less convoluted text to draw on.

I also discovered an article by a journalist named David Klinghoffer which apparently is using the Babel story to defend the (then impending) Iraq war. His reading is interesting, both for some traditional sources he is apparently drawing on and for a modern example of a reinterpretation of the story:

. . . As a revered 19th-century scholar of Biblical tradition explained, when the Bible records that in Babel they "spoke a single language," this means that the populace, terrified by their leader, all voiced the same party line. Says Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the tower was a technology of social control, allowing the regime to spy on its citizens . . . .

The world's superpower, God, grew alarmed and initiated an inspection process. As the Bible puts it, He "descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built." Though the Midrash recounts that Nimrod was given a chance to "repent," the tyrant refused . . . .

So the Tower is destroyed, the "single language" of its builders scrambled into a "Babel" of tongues. While this may appear to be a defeat for the people of Babel, what's really being described here, I think, is the birth of democracy. Suddenly a variety of ideas are allowed to compete for the citizens' allegiance, rather than one ideology, one "language," being forced upon them from above — a victory indeed . . . .

This reading of God's intentions could be used pretty directly to support linguistic preservation, I think. I haven't found any examples online though; most of the Babel allusions in linguistic preservation discussions (for or against) seem to be just cultural allusions rather than theological-type arguments.

The Klinghoffer piece in question seems to be "Saddam's Babel", National Review Online, 3/17/2003, which takes off from the name of a pre-invasion newspaper:

Surfing the Internet recently I came across the website of the Iraqi daily newspaper Babel. Owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, Babel isn't exactly a hard-hitting news source.

This newspaper is now, of course, defunct. The link in the text now takes us to iraq2000.com, which InterNIC says now belongs to Ozymandias Ltd. No, seriously, it belongs to INNERWISE, INC. D/B/A ITSYOURDOMAIN.COM, which seems to located in Toronto. You could certainly preach a sermon on that text.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:27 AM

January 01, 2008

More on the theology of linguistic diversity

Following up on several recent posts ("The science and theology of global language change", 12/30/2007; "Mailbag: the comparative theology of linguistic diversity", 12/31/2007; "The origin of speeches: wrathful dispersion for real?", 12/31/2007), Rob Malouf has written to point out that Mark Baker 's 1996 book, The Polysynthesis Parameter (Oxford University Press), ends with a serious discussion of.the "theology of linguistic diversity".

The body of this book is devoted the presentation of an interesting linguistic hypothesis, along with a great deal of supporting evidence. From the preface:

Among the most fascinating questions about language to both specialists and non-specialists is: How different are languages and what do those differences mean? This book represents an effort to come to grips with the first part of this question by looking in detail at a type of language that has had relatively little impact on the formulation and development of contemporary linguistic theory. These are the polysynthetic languages, informally defined as those languages in which verbs are built up of many parts, such that a single verb often performs the same expressive function as a whole sentence in more familiar languages. [...]

On a a descriptive level, the book presents many details facts about the syntax and syntax-related morphology of the Mohawk language, a paradigm example of polysynthesis. [...]

On the theoretical level, this book is concerned with discovering a conception of Universal Grammar that is valid for both polysynthetic languages and nonpolysynthetic languages. ... This book explares a strong and interesting position [...], namely, that the characteristic constructions of polysynthetic languages share a common property. [...] In other words, there is a single, well-defined "Polysynthesis parameter." Thus, while the system of syntactic principles in, say, Mohawk is virtually identical to that of, say, English, the syntactic structure of most sentences is quite different because of the need to conform to this special condition. [...]

The comparative level of this book emerges from its descriptive and theoretical concerns. If it is true that the various structures of Mohawk have the character they do because they must all satisfy a single general condition, then these structures or something like them should coexist in other polysynthetic languages as well. [...] To show that this is true, the structure of Mohawk is compared with that of six other languages historically and geographically distant from it; Wichita, Southern Tiwa, Nahuatl, Mayali (and other Gunwingjguan languages), Chukchee, and Ainu.

(Those who want more details of the argument should check out the book in their local library, or buy a copy; but more details of the argument can be seen in a 2002 chapter available on Mark's web site, "On zero agreement and Polysynthesis". If the MSWord format is problematic for you, a .pdf is here.).

The theological discussion is in the conclusion, starting on p. 512:

If biological and sociological categories are ill-equipped to explain the possiblity of syntactic diversity, are there any other candidates? Are there other forces at work that might play a role in shaping human language capacities?

In fact, many cultures and historical periods have believed that language is not just a biological phenomenon or a social institution; rather it also has an important spiritual component. ...

In the Judeo-Christian scriptures language is, then, a property of humankind by virtue of the fact that God creates humans "in his own image" (Gen. 1:27). All other animals are called forth out of the ground, implying that they have a physical nature and are subject to the same physical principles as inanimate matter 9Gen. 1:24). The creation of humanity, however, has a second step: 'The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). In other words, humanity is given a spiritual nature that is specifically said to be parallel in many respects to God's. Among other things, this means that since God is a linguistic being, so are humans.


Suppose that these traditions are either more insightful or have better memories, or both, than the dominant modern academic tradition in this respect. Then one might expect spiritual forces to give some insight into the particular shape of language. Thus, we can ask whether there is a theological explanation of syntactic diversity.

Strikingly, the problem of syntactic diversity is the one aspect of language for which the Judeo-Christian scriptures provide an explanation. The origins of language itself are only revealed indirectly, as a corollary of creation in the divine nature. Linguistic diversity, however, merits a story of its own -- the account of the Tower of Babel (Gen . 11:1, 5-9).

Here's Mark's account of God's purpose, in a screen capture from Google books:

And his concluding theodicy:

The theological approach also fits well with the fact ... that linguistic diversity seems to decrease rather than increase human chances for survival. From the evolutionary standpoint, this is a potential embarrassment. However, Genesis presents the creation of linguistic diversity as an act of judgment and limitation, meant to afflict humanity and prevent it from reaching certain goals, rather than as an act of blessing. And so we often find it to be.

This is a serious argument, and one that could form the theme of a moving sermon.

But with respect, I think that Mark's evaluation of the evolutionary perspective is simplistic. The genetic propensity for linguistic innovation would still prosper in darwinian terms, even if it sometimes causes group slaughter, as long as it usually favors the differential reproduction of individuals. And it's easy to tell stories with this moral, starting with sexual selection for innovative virtuosity in pre-linguistic vocal display. The same sort of darwinian engine that drives shared innovation in the songs of humpbacked whales could well have driven shared innovation in human linguistic history.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:47 PM

Secret Annual Cabal 2008

This year's Secret Annual Cabal starts Thursday in Chicago at the Michigan Avenue Hilton. Information is available at the LSA website. Various other organizations, including the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas meet in conjunction with the LSA.

Posted by Bill Poser at 07:24 PM

Malaysia Backs Down

It is reported that the Malaysian government has backed down from its demand that only the Muslim god be referred to in Malay as Allah and has informed the Roman Catholic newspaper The Herald that its license to publish will be renewed without any such conditions.

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:10 PM

Alphabetic Numerals

In pointing out that English letters and numbers resemble each other to an unfortunate degree, Geoff mentions that some systems are even worse. The very worst in this respect are the writing systems that do not distinguish letters from numbers at all.

This unfortunate idea begins, I'm afraid, with us Jews. In pre-modern Hebrew the letters of the alphabet were assigned numerical values according to their position in the alphabet. Thus, aleph א, the first letter of the alphabet, represents 1, bet ב, the second letter, represents 2, gimel ג, the third letter, represents 3, and so forth. The system is not place-based: 10 is represented by yod י ‭, 20 by kaf   כ ‭, and so forth. 312 is shin yod bet   ניב ‭= 300 + 10 + 2. This system is still used for some purposes in modern Hebrew but for the most part has been replaced by the "Arabic" numerals (which actually come from India) used as in English.

The ancient Greeks used a similar system, with alpha α representing 1, beta β 2, and so on. 312 in ancient Greek was written τιβ. From Greek this system spread to the two writing systems used by the Slavs, Cyrillic (312 = ТБІ), and Glagolitic (312 = ⰕⰁⰉ), and to Armenian (312 = ՅԺԲ). In Cyrillic when letters were used as numerals they were usually written with a sort of zigzag line over the top known as a titlo. This was not, however, a reliable indicator that the letters in question represented a number as the titlo was also used to mark abbreviations.

A somewhat different approach was introduced in the early sixth century CE by the Indian mathematician Āryabhata (आर्यभट), who assigned a numerical value to each CV syllable formed by taking the Cartesian product of the Sanskrit consonants and vowels (including syllabic l and r) in their usual order. Thus, the first vowel letter /a/ अ represents 1, the second /i/ इ 100, the third /u/ उ 10,000, and so on through the isolated vowels. The first consonant letter /k/ क represents the coefficient 1, the second /kh/ ख 2, the third /g/ ग 3. Thus, the syllable /ku/ कु represents 3 * 10,000 = 30,000, and the syllable /ghi/ घि represents 4 * 100 = 400. This never became the usual way of writing numbers in India.

Alphabetic numeral systems are problematic not only because letters may be confused with numbers and because, not being place-based, it can only represent a limited range of numbers, but because it is not well suited to doing arithmetic. As a result, these systems have all been replaced for most purposes by the "Arabic" numerals, although sometimes retained for limited purposes, such as printing page numbers in books.

Roman numerals (312 = cccxii) in the form in which most of us are familiar with them are a system of the same type, but they actually have a different origin. The Romans borrowed their numerals, like many other things, from the Etruscans, whose numerals were not, in general, the same as their letters. In Etruscan 1 was I and 10 was X as in Latin, but 5 was Λ, 50 was ⋔, 100 was 8, and 1000 was ⊕. Only gradually did the Romans modify this system into the version we still occasionally use today in which the numerals are all the same as letters.

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:03 PM

The miserable English alphanumeric system and its inadequacies

My current task — and my first New Year's resolution is to get on with it — is evaluating a few dozen handwritten examination scripts from the final exam in my course last semester. And (may I take five minutes to blog this without violating my resolution?) it has reminded me of the terrible design errors in the Latin alphabet, and even more so in the Arabic numeral shapes used along with it. I don't mean the spellings (they are a total mess too, but that is a totally different and much more complex issue); I am talking about the actual character shapes.

In handwriting, and also in many ill-designed fonts and LED displays, 0 looks like O and sometimes like D, 1 looks like l and also like I, 2 looks like Z, 5 looks like S, 6 looks like b, 7 is a bit too similar to 1, and 8 looks too much like B. More than half a dozen serious possibilities for error, at the very least. (One could say there are more: sometimes 9 looks too much like certain handwritten tokens of a or q.)

This is utterly unnecessary. We need only a small number of distinct shapes here. It would not be hard to select from among the nondenumerable infinity of available planar shapes a suite of 62 glyphs that are easy to write yet very unlikely to be confused with each other under ordinary visual conditions. Instead, for the 62 alphanumerics (our 26 capital letters, 26 lower-case letters, and 10 digits) we have only 46 clearly distinct shapes: A, a, B, b, c, D, d, E, e, F, f, G, g, H, h, I, i, J, j, K, k, L, l, M, m, N, n, o, p, Q, q, R, r, s, T, t, u, v, w, x, Y, y, z, 3, 4, and 9. (I grant you that one might say I have been too generous on allowing that K and k have different shapes.)

The capital letters not in the above list (C, O, P, S, U, V, W, X, Z) are distinguished from their lower-case counterparts almost entirely on size,which does not permit accurate identification from many people's non-cursive handwriting (the discipline of respecting x-heights and placing ascenders and descenders outside the x-height is a subtlety only dimly remembered). Taking this together with the digits that are confusable with letter shapes, the overall evaluation must be that the system is disgraceful.

And there are contexts (URLs, login names, passwords, filenames, student ID numbers, bank codes, mathematical and logical formulae, brand names, street addresses and proper names in foreign languages) where such matters are absolutely vital and the confusions can really cause trouble.

Some writing systems (I will not provoke jealousies or ethnic rivalries by citing examples) do much better. And others do even worse, of course.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 12:50 PM

Happy New Year!

As this strip suggests, we often put less effort into carrying out our New Year's Resolutions than into making creative excuses for failure. We make a cheerier rhetorical frame for failure by referring to our resolutions only on those occasions, however rare, when we make an effort to uphold them. Add irony, and this approach becomes even more usefully upbeat.

I was reduced to using this method on my Language Log New Year's Resolution for 2006, because my choice of resolution was, let's say, out of tune with reality:

"The brave new world of computational neurolinguistics" (12/27/2005): ...I've made a New Year's resolution to look on the bright side...
"The inscrutable Chinese language" (7/11/2006): ... I'm still working on my New Year's Resolution to take a positive attitude towards treatments of linguistic matters in the popular press ...
"We feel sad because we say ü" (7/21/2006): ... You'll note that I'm working hard on my New Year's resolution to take a positive attitude towards science reporting ...

Another approach is to choose resolutions that front-end the irony. My LL Resolution for 2007 was a successful example of that genre, and I'm proud to say that I haven't backslid even once:

"An early New Year's Resolution" (11/28/2006): ... when talking to the press, never mention Eskimos and their words for snow ,,,

But for 2008, I've decided to make a resolution that's serious, positive and possible. Once a week, I'll post about some interesting and relevant piece of linguistic research, with links to a preprint, a published paper, a book chapter, or something similar. This has almost been true in past years, and with a little bit of effort...

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:25 AM