September 30, 2006

Gender myths: letting science mislead

Last night's edition of ABC's 20/20 included several segments ( "The Truth Behind Women's Brains" and "Gender Myths: Let Science Decide") that show the growing influence of pseudo-scientific neuro-biologism in American public discourse about sex roles. The "Truth Behind Women's Brains" segment featured an interview with Louann Brizendine, which presented pretty much all of the material from her book that's been discussed in earlier Language Log posts. I won't repeat myself here.

But some striking fragments of misinterpreted science also made it into the "Let Science Decide" segment, for example this one:

"The male brain … actually has a harder time processing the female voice versus the male voice, which is a possible explanation to why we don't listen when our wives call us," Dr. Billy Goldberg said on "20/20."

Goldberg and Mark Leyner are co-authors of "Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?"

They said it was true that men listened less because of biology.

Right. I believe that this is a reference to some research that got a great deal of (spectacularly misleading) media exposure about a year ago: Dilraj S. Sokhi, Michael D. Hunter, Iain D. Wilkinson and Peter W.R. Woodruff, "Male and female voices activate distinct regions in the male brain", NeuroImage 27(3) 572-578, 2005.

I blogged about this research at mind-numbing length in an earlier post ("Rorschach science", 8/12/2005). Here's the executive summary:

  1. They recorded some male and female voices.
  2. They speeded up the male voices until the pitch was like the female voices, and slowed down the female voices until the pitch was like the male voices. As a side effect, this also made the male recordings about 1.5 times faster (and shorter), and the female voices a comparable fraction slower (and longer).
  3. This gives four categories of sounds: original male, original female, hacked male, hacked female.
  4. They played the results to subjects in an fMRI brain-imaging experiment.
  5. The subject were 12 males. (And zero females).

They then determined which brain regions showed various boolean combinations of statistically-significant effects, e.g.

  1. (original female > original male) AND (hacked female > hacked male). (which they called "female versus male")
  2. (original male > original female) AND (hacked male > hacked female). ( which they called "male versus female")

The purpose of hacking the voices was to eliminate the obvious possibility that the subjects' brains were just responding to the differences in pitch. The researchers' goal was to find where and how the men's brains were responding to the identification of femaleness or maleness in the voices -- though this is curiously at variance with their assertion that the pitch-adjusted voices were perceived as "gender-neutral". (I suspect that they were probably perceived as species-neutral as well...)

Anyhow, I pointed out that there are lots of alternative ways to describe the effects as they defined them -- e.g. lower-pitch-and-shorter-phrases-vs.-higher-pitch-and-longer-phrases rather than male-vs-female. More to the point, though, the researchers only used men as subjects -- for all they (and we) know, female subjects would have responded in exactly the same way.

However, my objection was not to the research itself. I would have preferred to see more appropriate methods of signal processing applied to the voices, and it seems important to see a comparison with female subjects, but those are issues that could be addressed in follow-up experiments.

What I objected to was the media reaction. Here's how I quoted it, back in August of 2005:

Some headlines: "Er, you what, luv?" -- "Man Leaves Wife, Realizes Six Hours Later" -- "Female Voices are Easier to Hear" -- "What We Have is Failure to Communicate" -- "Men do Have Trouble Hearing Women" -- "Why Imaginary Voices are Male" -- "It's official! Listening to women pays off" -- "Men do have trouble hearing women, scientists find".

The blogospheric reactions are just as creative: "I can't hear you,'re just too difficult to listen to" -- "What to tell your wife when you didn't hear her" -- "Men who are accused of never listening by women now have an excuse -- women's voices are more difficult for men to listen to than other men's, a report said" -- "I've been waiting for this for a long time. I'm often accused of 'selective hearing' in which certain statements just disappear from my consciousness - often statements made by Mrs. HolyCoast. It usually occurs when I'm multi-tasking, such as watching TV or blogging while listening to my better half..." -- "Science explains patriarchal monotheism!" ...

My conclusion?

[A]s for the rorschach-blot reactions in the popular press and the blogs, about how this explains why men have a hard time paying attention to women, or why women's speech is more valuable, or why men and women often fail to communicate... Well, what's responsible for these responses is not the STG or the precuneus, it's the limbic system. When people have strong and complex feelings about a topic, research results become a screen for them to project their preconceptions onto.

And now the writers of pop neuro-psychology books like "Why do men fall asleep after sex?" take it as scientifically established that "men listen less because of biology", and that "The male brain … actually has a harder time processing the female voice versus the male voice".

I keep reminding myself that this is all still a step up from the infamous BBC cow-dialects story, in that at least there is an actual published study behind it, even if the underlying research lends no credence at all to the interpretations it's being given. But then again, maybe it's worse. The only social consequence of belief in cow dialects is to help spread the appellation d'origine controllée concept to cheese, and who can really object that?

In any case, for ABC 20/20 to call this "letting science decide" is splendidly ironic.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:25 PM

Stop agglutinating, you devious dog!

I'm working on a post (on musical intervals in speech) that's going to take at least one more breakfast-time to complete, so this morning I'll just send you over to TstT, where the Tensor has a terrific summary of one of my favorite stories, Robert Sheckley's "Shall we have a little talk?"

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:07 AM

September 29, 2006

Secrets of the BBC sexes

I should have known that there would be a BBC science angle to this words-per-day business. David Beaver writes:

At there's a six part test to see whether you're more female or male (I'm... male). One of the later tests concerns verbal ability, and along with your result on this part of the test is the following text:

Did you know that, on average, women use 15,000 words a day while men use 7,000?

Reader, did you know that, on average, there are 23 different versions of this phony comparison published every day in the world's media? Well, that's not true either -- but I think this is the 11th different pair of values that I've come across recently, ranging from a high of 50,000 vs. 25,000 to a low of 5,000 vs. 2,500. (And in case you're coming late to this discussion, all of these numbers seem to have been made up or copied from someone who made them up -- the many studies that actually count words and correlate the counts with sex find no group difference, or a relatively small difference. When a difference is found, it's usually in the direction of more words from men.)

David reports that the BBC sex-test message continues:

Women took about twice as long as men to end their online instant messenging conversations in a 2003 study of US university students. The study, which was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, also found that women were much more likely to use emoticons (representations of emotions using punctuation marks).

The most popular emoticon was the smiley face :- )

(He observes that "it really said 'messenging', a nice combination of 'messenger' and 'messaging'". This is a fairly common blend -- 432,000 ghits -- but it seems to be a sporadic error rather than an up-and-coming variant.)

The "2003 study of US university students" seems to be Naomi Baron, "See you online", Journal of Language and Social Psychology 23(4) 397-423, 2004. This paper describes its raw materials as follows:

An IM corpus was collected in April 2003 from 22 college-aged students who were attending school or had graduated the semester before the study was undertaken. [...]

The corpus consisted of 23 distinct IM conversations. A total of 9 conversations took place between females (FF) and 9 between males (MM). An additional 5 conversations involved female/male dyads (FM). In a number of the FF and FM conversations, a single student experimenter had conversations with several people on his or her Buddy List. Because several student experimenters withdrew from the project and could not be replaced, most of the MM conversations were between the same two interlocutors.

Taken collectively, the 23 IM conversations contained a total of 2,185 conversational turns, made up of 11,718 words.

The first ironic statistic of the day: the paper reporting on this corpus is 27 printed pages, comprising roughly 11,000 words, so that the paper is about the same size as the corpus it's based on.

The comparison of conversation length and ending length involved only the 9 FF and 9 MM conversations, with the numbers provided in the table below. The second ironic statistic of the day: since "most of the MM conversations were between the same two interlocutors", the BBC science journalists (or their advisors, if any) are making general statements about "women" and "men" based mostly on a sample of two male college students. OK, I admit, it's a step up from the cows in terms of sampling methodology.

Anyhow, here's the data:

Baron's footnote indicates that the difference in conversation length were "not significant":

Large variances associated with the means on turns per conversations (female to female [FF] M = 121.89, SD = 82.68; male to male [MM] M = 85.22, SD = 88.96) and on minutes per conversation (FF M = 31.33, SD = 25.57; MM M = 18.89, SD = 17.27) rendered no statistically significant differences between gender pairs.

But I have to say that this is beside the point. Even if the observed differences had been statistically "significant", they could not have been scientifically meaningful. The male part of the sample was mostly derived from conversations between just two males (and there were not a whole lot of females)! If you could prove beyond a shadow of a statistical doubt that those particular two male college students had shorter IM conversations than the dozen or so (geographically and socially uniform) female college students in the sample, then what?

The business about turns and time "to close" is about the semi-ritualized exchanges at the very end of conversations. Baron's example:

Gale: hey I gotta run
Sally: Okay.
Sally: I’ll ttyl?
Gale: gotta do errands.
Gale: yep!!
Sally: Okay.
Sally: :)
Gale: talk to you soon
Sally: Alrighty.

I guess it's plausible that American women generally spend more turns and time in closing conversations than American men do, whether in face-to-face interactions, in telephone conversations, or in IM exchanges. However, I don't know whether this is true or not, in fact, and Baron's article doesn't really help us get closer to an answer. It's true that in her corpus, there was a "statistically significant" difference in closings:

For instant message (IM) closings, however, FF/MM differences were significant both for number of turns per closing (FFM= 9.78,SD = 5.12;MMM= 4.29,SD = 1.13), t (14) = 2.77, p = .015; as well as seconds taken to close (FF M = 41.00, SD = 20.12; MM M = 16.29, SD = 15.48), t (14) = 2.68, p = .018.

And from this we can conclude that Baron's two college males used more abrupt IM closings -- at least in messaging each other -- than her dozen college females did. But generalizing from a sample of two guys to American males college students in general is... well, let's say we shouldn't do it. Using this method, we could easily prove a large number of pretty surprising things about any group you care to name.

OK, enough. I'll just point out that the BBC science writers use this (in my opinion meaningless) result in a highly misleading way. Consider again what they wrote:

Did you know that, on average, women use 15,000 words a day while men use 7,000? Women took about twice as long as men to end their online instant messenging conversations in a 2003 study of US university students. The study, which was published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, also found that women were much more likely to use emoticons (representations of emotions using punctuation marks).

I believe that most readers will interpret that passage to mean that women's IM conversations were found to be twice as long as men's. But the fact of the cited study, you'll recall, was that there was no significant difference in conversation length. The only difference was in the length of closings -- and the data, again, came mostly from two men.

Science journalism is pretty bad overall, but I wonder, is there is any corner of it that is worse than reporting on sex differences? Perhaps reporting on animal communication is also in the running for the booby prize.

[Update -- one good result of the sad Foley scandal (aside from a marginal reduction in the proportion of hypocrites on Capitol Hill) will apparently be a doubling (or more) of Baron's sample size...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:57 AM

September 28, 2006

Teaching: cheaper than therapy

Most of the linguists I know have day jobs as teachers at universities and colleges to support their habits of  research and writing. I spent a little over forty years in the classroom, first as a junior high English teacher, then six years teaching linguistics to undergrads, and the rest of the years struggling to help grad students become linguists. Shifting briefly into the Rumsfeldian mode, was it satisfying? Certainly. Was I successful? Hardly. Do I feel good now that it's over? You bet, although it's never really "over." Teaching  goes on and on, as illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times (see here).

This article tells us about a CCNY political scientist, Stanley Feingold, now 80 and long since retired, who keeps on keeping on. He doesn't teach in the classroom anymore but his former students still seek his counsel. Well, five times a year anyway at their luncheons in New York, when they get him to fly from his home in Seattle to hold still more seminars with their honored professor. Really neat, huh?

Looking back now, I find that I absorbed most of my own learning from professors in whose classrooms I never had the opportunity to sit. Their books and articles, papers given at conferences, correspondence, and informal discussions did the job for me. Often it wasn't the linguistic content that mattered most. It was their attitude, their excitement, their advice, and their ways of expressing ideas. I've never met Professor Feingold but I'll bet that he must have been one of those who could communicate these qualities exceptionally well.

In today's world we honor publication and research (as we should, of course) but we don't usually  think about the other kind of teaching we got, which is often the major cause of how we got where we are. Information sources are now abounding but attitude, advice, and encouragement comes from good teachers, giving hope for the importance of teaching and the continuing future of the classroom setting. I can list my own examples  of linguistics teachers who made right-angle turns in my life. Most of us can, if we take the time to think about it.

I disagree, however, with Professor Feingold's regrets about choosing teaching as his career. He says that his decision to be a teacher was a mistake because, in his words, "I know of no other profession where your on-the-job performance counts so little." Maybe that's because we do an inadequate job of measuring on-the-job performance in our universities. It does count, but it's not always recognizable in the standard course evaluation forms collected at the end of a term.

On-the-job performance might be better measured by the way students' lives are changed. And as for what the teacher gets out of it, as  Professor Feingold puts it, "teaching is cheaper than therapy."

Posted by Roger Shuy at 01:53 PM

Demographic Prediction

David Palfrey has drawn my attention to Microsoft adCenter Labs' "Demographic Prediction" tool, which allows you to "use adCenter technology to predict a customer’s age, gender, and other demographic information according to his or her online behavior—that is, from search queries and webpage views."

OK, let's see if it works with basic stereotypes:

So far, so good. What about Language Log?

As I interpret what the adCenter Labs page says about this, they're predicting that the people who search for and/or read Language Log are youthful, and evenly balanced as to sex:

General Distribution is the breakdown by age of MSN Search users—based on a one-month MSN Search log—regardless of search query used.

Predicted Distribution is the predicted breakdown by age of MSN Search users for a single search query, based on the adLabs predictive model.

Well, if this is true, it's good news for the future of the field of linguistics.

But guess what? It turns out that interest in math is strongest among mature females:

This is clearly due to the role of differential equations in fending off attacks from ticked-off cavemen.

[Update -- Theo Vosse offers the results of some further explorations:

A few tries in the reliability of the adLab tool (Male - Female percentages): 43 - 57 failed to predict for URL 61 - 39

Is Google female and the BBC male? And CNN neuter?

Simple morphological variation:

sister: 52 - 48
sisters: 28 - 72

Synonyms and plurals:
struggle: 67 - 33 struggles: 42 - 58
battle: 61 - 39 battles: 57 - 43
fight: 59 - 41 fights: 62 - 38
competition: 57 - 43 competitions: 30 - 70
match: 50 - 50 matches: 48 - 52
conflict: 50 - 50 conflicts: 30 - 70
contest: 44 - 56 contests: 32 - 68

Class variations:
cherry: 52 - 48
pear: 45 - 55
banana: 41 - 59
strawberry: 27 - 83
fruit: 35 - 65

Named entities:
travolta john: 56 - 44
travolta j: 53 - 47
j travolta: 51 - 49
travolta: 45 - 55
john travolta: 36 - 64

I wonder how you should interpret that...

So "competitions" is 30-70 female, while "struggle" is 67-33 male. Found poetry, or random noise? We report, you decide.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:52 AM

If it's a whistle, the dogs aren't hearing it

A couple of days ago, in response to my post "The comma was really a dog whistle" (9/26/2006), Josh Jensen wrote:

A very conservative evangelical, I would never have associated Bush's 'comma' reference with the period/comma saying, though I don't doubt that one of his speech writers got the idea there. Perhaps I'll take the quotation to a seminary class tomorrow (a Greek class, likely to have generally well-educated Evangelicals in it) and then to work (a Christian adoption agency) to find out whether anyone hears the whistle. (The experiment may only prove that we're all the wrong kind of Evangelical, though I suspect that we all voted for Bush.)

(Look at the bottom of the earlier dog-whistle post to see the rest of Josh's comments, including a link to an interesting G.K. Chesterton essay "On the Cryptic and the Elliptic".)

Today, Josh wrote back with a report on what he found.

I talked with 12 people today, all conservative Evangelical (Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and independent Baptist).

I read Bush's statement and made sure that the person understood the context. Then I asked, "Does the comma reference bring to mind any well-known sayings or images?"

No one came up with any version of "Our periods are God's commas," and no one felt that they would have come up with that on their own.

Some other numbers:

The group was evenly divided by sex (6 female, 6 male).
3 have Ph.D.s (O.T. Interpretation, N.T. Interpretation, Psychology).
1 has a master's degree (MPH).
3 are working on master's degrees.
2 never graduated from college but work as professionals.

Half indicated that they recognized the saying once I revealed the secret code.

Three listened to the Bush quotation and then said, "Like a blip [on the screen]?" (Perhaps Bush is sending coded messages to radar operators.)

A bit later, Josh sent in some additional results:

Perhaps I've run this into the ground, but a few more observations from the very conservative:

One person said that Bush's comment was the most idiotic thing she'd ever heard (she wasn't objecting to using a comma as a metaphor, but to Bush's minimizing the current situation in Iraq<

One person called Wolf Blitzer a bully and suggested that Bush needs a speaking coach.

One person objected to Bush's goal of spreading democracy.

At least three people thought it would be cool if Bush were sending them secret messages, but they didn't indicate that they'd ever received any.

By occupation: two work for a Christian mission board; three are students in seminary classes; two are seminary professors; four are adoption professionals; and one is an accountant.

The fact that President Bush said

I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma... [emphasis added]

suggests that the "comma" metaphor was (perhaps a slightly garbled version of) one of the president's talking points on Iraq. And whether he came up with it himself, or got it from a speechwriter or other spinmeister, there's a good chance that Gracie Allen's proverb and its spread by the UCC played some role in evoking the idea. But the "political dog whistle" theory is looking about as plausible as Leonard Sax's story about why girls think their fathers are yelling.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 01:05 AM

September 27, 2006

On getting to know the secretary

Mark's posts (here and also here) about exchanges between males and females in law offices prompts me to report that informal conversation also works well between outside male consultants and the lawyer's female secretaries or administrative assistants. In my some 30 years of working (long distance most of the time) with various law firms around the country, I've learned to get to know the secretaries well enough for us to call each other by our first names and to engage in some small talk before they put me on the phone with their bosses. This really pays off when I need to get the lawyer's (male or female) attention about something important but, perhaps most of all, when I want to get my bills paid. Some lawyers neglect invoices until reminded several times. Don't bother calling or even writing them. It's practical to get to know the secretary. Anyway, small talk can be kinda fun.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 04:44 PM

Sex, status and law-office culture

A reader from the midwest has responded to an earlier post ("Stereotypes and facts"), where I asked whether keeping up with colleagues' personal lives is something that comes more naturally to women than to men:

My father, husband, and I are all attorneys. My father and husband both work in offices with a fairly equal division between male and female attorneys, both at junior and senior levels, but in both offices all the secretaries are female. They both have discovered there's a certain advantage to the female attorneys who more easily discuss personal lives with the secretaries; the secretaries are more willing to save your ass if you remember their birthdays or talk about their kid starting kindergarten ... or if they know your spouse is sick and you want to get home. They also, of course, have a gatekeeping function and some ability to control who gets through to you on the phone, and who talks to new clients. I don't think any of this is malicious or manipulative; just that if Stacy Secretary knows that Annie Attorney is having a rough week because her husband has pneumonia, she'll be more likely to not put through the client from hell, whereas she might put through such a client to Arnold Attorney who is also having a bad week, but Stacy doesn't know about it.

I'm sure a great deal of this is cultural (I know that in real life, my husband is waaaaaaay better than me at this kind of social small talk and remembering people's birthdays and children and pets and things) and that women are often simply more comfortable chatting with other women.

But both my father and my husband make a concerted effort to engage in small talk with the secretarial staff at their respective offices, and some of the other male attorneys wonder why husband and father's secretaries are willing to stay late to help finish a filing, while their own secretaries are off at the dot of five. There's a definite career advantage to learning to navigate the "other side of the gender divide" in their offices.

On the other hand, my brother, also an attorney, practices in an office where at least 3/4 of the attorneys are male, and chatting with the female secretaries is seen as unprofessional and unimportant. In that office, the bigger advantage is to women attorneys who hold themselves aloof from the secretaries.

I'm in solo practice, so I don't have a secretary at present, but I also find that if when I drop by my husband's office, if I stop to chat with his secretary and mention that I heard her kid is playing soccer this year ... he gets a bump from that, too. And when I DID work in offices with secretarial staff, the attorneys who were social with the secretaries DEFINITELY got their documents done faster and the "intelligence" from the secretarial staff passed on to them. ("Bill Boss is having surgery next week, so he's really touchy. Just FYI.")

Might be an interesting study, to look at lawyers or doctors (where the gender numbers are equalizing) and their relationships with their staffs, which are still largely or exclusively female. (And potentially removing the science/humanities divide you might find in an engineering office; in a non-patent law office, most of the lawyers and secretaries typically majored in the liberal arts.) Also because in the highest levels of both professions, you'll still have male-heavy leadership (even male-exclusive leadership), so you could get some really interesting comparisons between male/female equalized offices and male-dominated offices.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:40 PM

I missed it

A striking example of synchronicity -- September 24th was National Punctuation Day.

Roger Shuy pointed out that the NPD web site includes the punctuation of the expression, "do's and do'nts."

And David Beaver theorized that this is to avoid any potential for confusion of "does 'n don'ts" with "dozen donuts."

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:52 AM

September 26, 2006

Commas biomedical, theological and poetical

From the midwest, Jonathan Lundell offers a new take on comma/period semiotics:

I'm in Minneapolis today visiting family, and just saw a billboard promoting the cardiac care department of a local hospital:

    heart attack.  or  heart attack,

From the middle of the 17th century, Samuel Sheppard's Epigram 31, "Disorder the fore-runner of Ruine" [from Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick (1651)] attributes periods as well as commas to the divine plan, though not in a way that will provide any comfort to those concerned about the situation in Iraq:

Both bodies Politick, and Naturall,
By this ill-shaped enemy doe fall:
Christendomes whip, who now doth soare so high,
By this in her own ruine low shall lie,
Factions those Comma's are, ordain'd by God,
When he'l bring Kingdomes to their period.

And in Aram Saroyan's 1998 "How to be an American poet", commas set off brain-storms:

Moreover, you have a select group who see the comma
As the way in, and out, of all poetic reality. Such
Poems, hunched with the determination to forge an
Electric pattern through plain talk, sometimes de-
Light the mind into déjà-vus, or cause electric storms
In the living rooms of the brain. The heart's telephone
Goes on ringing though, and there is no one to answer
The call. Not the baby nor the kids nor the Mommy
Nor the Daddy nor the neighbors nor the whole town
In the full moon of Grandfather Night. But the next
Morning the birds begin on time, and this is what we
Must remember, what we must hold on to in the terrible
Disorder of our century, the madnesses and absolutes---
Those birds are simple. And being simple, they are
Naturally excellent poets.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:54 PM

The comma was really a dog whistle

That's the theory of Ian Welch at The Agonist. According to him, when President Bush said that the Iraq war would "look just like a comma" to future historians, he wasn't using a creative and unexpected metaphor-- he was evoking a well-known proverb that urges steadfastness, "Never put a period where God has put a comma."

This being Language Log, of course we're going to check the numbers. And there are 440,000 Google hits for {period God comma}, mostly indeed variants of this expression:

Don't put a period where God has put a comma.
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
If we stop there we are placing a period where God has placed a comma.
Never put a period, where God has put a comma.
Don't put a period where God puts a comma.
Don't put a period where God put a comma.
Don't place a period where God intended a comma.
God’s period is what allows our lives to have commas.
...we must be alert to the caution Gracie Allen left us not to put periods where God has put commas.
Today’s Bible stories are both about God putting a commas where humans might be tempted to put periods

Ian Lynch "on behalf of the Commission on Communication, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ" has developed a version of this phrase into a "series of Lenten litanies", under the title "Ellipses and Commas; A Punctuated Lenten Journey":

The comma as a symbol of this campaign comes from the quote by Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” The concept of this series is to slowly build this complete sentence through the seven Sundays of Lent and Easter.

And this sermon by Larry Reimer, dated May 7, 2006, reviews the whole story:

About five years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, was looking for a phrase to define itself. They found the perfect words from Gracie Allen, the wife and comic partner of comedian George Burns.

Gracie Allen was a brilliant and perceptive woman. She left a message in her papers to be discovered by her husband after her death that has become the motto for the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

Gracie was encouraging George to remember that life had many chapters. George was 68 when Gracie died. Rather than place a period after his career, Burns went on to star in a number of movies, including playing God, twice. He even headlined at Gator Growl in the 1970’s. He died at age 100, having lived the life of the comma.

Way back when the Pilgrims sailed from Holland to the new world on the Mayflower, their pastor John Robinson, who was forbidden to go with them, sent them off with another momentous phrase, “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word,” a forerunner of the comma.

The Pilgrims became the Congregational Church. The Congregational Church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 to become the United Church of Christ. Today, we in the United Church of Christ believe that God is still speaking. We gather as a church as our compact says, “to learn from our religious heritage, yet to grow by seeking new dimensions of truth.” William Sloane Coffin, Jr. said “Hell is truth seen too late.”

In grammar, a period is a place where a thought stops dead. A comma is a pause to take a breath and then pick up the thought again.

We pride ourselves here at UCG on being people of the comma. We love our own motto, “It’s not like this every Sunday!” which we say every Sunday. But pride, as they say, goeth before the fall. We can become a little full of ourselves about our wonderful comma-ness.

Wise words. Except for the part about thought stopping dead. I mean, that's going to make it hard to compose a coherent paragraph, not to speak of a whole sermon.

Anyhow, Ian Welch is obviously right about the source of President Bush's comma, and Ken Layne was wrong. It was religion, not drugs.

But why is this allusion a "dog whistle"? Welch argues that President Bush

is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don't hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren't evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right wants to hear.

For example, one of the most famous episodes of this was Bush's reference in the 2004 debates to the Dred Scott decision. Most people couldn't figure out what the heck he was talking about - it seemed like a non-sequitur. But, as Paperwight pointed out at the time, anti-abortion activists see themselves as similar to anti-slavery activists. And they take heart that eventually Dred Scott v. Sandford was overthrown. [...]

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.

It seems to me that this is true on one level, and profoundly unfair on another. We all "constantly litter" our speech and writing with messages that will be fully received only by those who share our verbal and conceptual associations. But we don't usually do this in order to create a Straussian double message, an esoteric wolf in an exoteric sheepskin. We do this because we can't help it, it's how language works, and also how thought works.

New ideas and new discourses are built out of fragments of old ones. As a result, almost everything that we say or write is a "dog whistle": even if the basic meaning is clear to everyone, some people will pick up on implications that are lost to others. And that's just as true for Hilary Clinton -- and for Ian Welch, and for Ken Layne, and for me -- as it is for George W. Bush. At least once a week, I get an email from someone who has seriously misunderstood something that I wrote, not because I expressed it badly (well, that happens a lot, too), but because they missed an association or an allusion, or because they made an association or saw an allusion that I never intended.

The lesson to draw from this episode is not that our president is using his word choices to send coded messages, but that that people with different life experiences sometimes receive very different messages from the same text. In the context of the president's answer to Wolf Blitzer's question about Iraq, "comma" was either a reassuringly familiar cliché for steadfastness, or an unexpected, bizarre and inappropriate metaphor -- depending on how you've been spending your Sundays over the past five years.

[Comma tip from Edward Wilford]

[Update -- Rob Sears writes:

Interesting post -- but there is much more to dog whistle politics. The point is that Bush knows that explicitly religious references will cause a fuss among certain audiences (us Europeans will think he is even less rational than we already do, for instance), and so he or his advisors deliberately find ways to get across implications to their base, that will be lost on others. The basis of the charge is that it cannot be coincidence that so many of Bush's religious reference are shrouded. If he spoke naturally, the ratio of explicit to hidden religious invocations would be much higher. (Obviously, it would be a big job to prove this.) So when you say:

"As a result, almost everything that we say or write is a "dog whistle": even if the basic meaning is clear to everyone, some people will pick up on implications that are lost to others. And that's just as true for Hilary Clinton -- and for Ian Welch, and for Ken Layne, and for me -- as it is for George W. Bush. " is missing the point, at least for you, I'm sure, and maybe for the others. You are not deliberately concealing your meaning from a particular group of readers, as Bush is doing from Godless types. If a particular group doesn't get something, that is not because you were deliberately trying to keep something secret from them. You are trying to be clear, not to sneak something past readers.

I hope this distinction is clear, even if the charge against Bush remains unproven.

But if you believe that President Bush chose the word "comma" in this case in order to send a coded message to evangelical Christians, you're giving him credit for a degree of linguistic subtlety that is, let's say, in conflict with the current stereotype. And Kenny Easwaran observes that "religious" doesn't mean ""right(-wing)":

It seems to me very improbable that Bush was referring to the phrase "Never put a period where God has put a comma" as a secret reference for the religious right. This is primarily because that phrase is associated with the United Church of Christ, which as far as I can tell is part of the religious left. We've got their churches all around Berkeley (or at least, one very big one right near campus), and I always took their motto to mean that the Bible is not the complete source of divine law, but that it changes to reflect changing sensibilities over time. I've always imagined this is one of the reasons the UCC supports gay marriage. A very unlikely audience for Bush to be targeting indeed.

I agree that this makes it seem even less likely that the word was consciously intended as "dog whistle" message. But Google provides some reason to the think that the "comma" meme has spread beyond the UCC, and it does seem plausible that some version of this saying was in the president's mind when he chose this phrasing, instead of calling Iraq a "bump in the road" or any of the other commonplace phrases for a temporary problem.]

[John Brewer adds some depth to the discussion:

I was intrigued by your post on the possible religious subtext of the "comma" remark, but am left a bit uncertain as to who the dog-whistle-detectors might think the President was signaling to. I would think if you asked most scholars of the contemporary American religious scene to name the major Christian denomination that had the least in common with the so-called Religious Right, the United Church of Christ would probably be the consensus pick, at least if the Unitarians were excluded due to lack of self-identification as Christian. (The UCC's most recent walk-on role in national politics is as the group Howard Dean joined after he left the Episcopal Church due to a dispute over a bicycle path.) Indeed, the UCC seems to use the comma slogan as a way of distinguishing itself in the marketplace from more traditional Christians, who actually believe they are in possession of the capital-T Truth followed by a full-stop period. Like the sequence of periods in God said it. I believe it. That settles it. By contrast, the UCC approach might be caricatured by its opponents, if they were given to linguification, as having lots of commas: God is said to have said it, but it strikes me as outdated, embarrassing, and in conflict with the teachings of the New York Times, so I'm eager to hear a rationale for why it's not applicable to me. Others might phrase that less pejoratively, but the point is not a point about steadfastness, but about continuing revelation, or at least an ecclesiastical analogue to a Whiggish and/or Hegelian theory of history.

Now it's certainly possible that the comma/period contrast is also used in an entirely different way in evangelical circles which might be more appropriately linked to the Religious Right. I haven't looked into the context of your other Google results. Like the American political right, the American RR is subject to caricature as an interesting melange of doom-and-gloom condemnation of sin and decadence, on the one hand, and upbeat motivational-speaker hokum, on the other, and this could be an example of the latter. But from that perspective (to beat the metaphor into the ground), the hope that we're still in the middle of the sentence and the difficult present circumstances may improve before the sentence ends would be based on the faith that God's previously uttered Word has been punctuated with a definitive period guaranteeing that it will not be contradicted by a subsequent clause. "God's period is what allows our life to have commas," from your search results, makes that point. But that's not the UCC's point.


[And Ben Zimmer adds some historical perspective:

The Youth's Companion, July 31, 1919, p. 412:
Don't get to thinking in ultimate terms too quickly about life, my dear. There are not so many finalities in life as you young folks think. Remember the old saying, "Man's periods are God's commas."


[Josh Jensen writes:

I enjoyed the comma and dog whistle post -- and the post-scripts. My own observations:

A very conservative evangelical, I would never have associated Bush's 'comma' reference with the period/comma saying, though I don't doubt that one of his speech writers got the idea there. Perhaps I'll take the quotation to a seminary class tomorrow (a Greek class, likely to have generally well-educated Evangelicals in it) and then to work (a Christian adoption agency) to find out whether anyone hears the whistle. (The experiment may only prove that we're all the wrong kind of Evangelical, though I suspect that we all voted for Bush.)

So I think you're right to be reluctant in accepting the dog whistle theory. No doubt Bush talks in certain ways because of his Evangelical roots (and his speechwriters'), and no doubt he's at least sometimes careful to restrain himself from making specifically Christian references. But there have to be limits to the value of judging an author's or speaker's secret agenda based on his coded allusions (one thinks of the ink spilled to prove that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic trying to give courage to fellow Catholics). My hunch is that very few people -- even committed and well-educated ideologues -- pick up on subtle allusions in speeches, and only journalists (and politicians' ideological opponents) actually read political speeches after they've been transcribed. (Arguably, journalists don't read the speeches either, but only search the texts for striking metaphors and shocking claims that can be excerpted for article leads.)

(Josh reports back on what he found here.)]

[Jack Collins points out that God dictated or inspired little or no punctuation in the original biblical texts:

From the perspective of a religion student, I always found the "where God put a comma" slogan curious, since, of course, in the original Hebrew and Greek, the Bible texts had no punctuation to speak of, and that the current versification and punctuation, if in the critical editions of the original language texts, are the result of later traditions. Indeed, the idea of commas and periods is kind of alien to Biblical Hebrew, where verbless clauses often stand on their own and the boundaries between sentences are blurred. Even the Masoretic pointing (which is medieval in origin) doesn't have a clear equivalent to commas and periods, instead using a system of accents, pauses and vowel changes to indicate conjunction and disjunction between words and clauses.

But Daphna Shezaf observes that things are different in modern Hebrew usage:

I thought you would like to know that for modern Hebrew speaker, there's nothing odd about Bush comma metaphor. We use comma quite a lot to designate small things, or things of no or little significance. My dictionary dates this use back to the 1950's literature, which is almost ancient history for modern Hebrew. Specifically, some form of "all this will just be a comma in history books", is a rather common idiom (Googling it gave about 100 results, which is a lot considering the number of Hebrew web pages and the difficulties that Hebrew morphology and spelling pose on searching).

In fact, this meaning of "comma" is so natural for me, that I was not sure there wasn't some of "double pun" I was missing in all your posts on the subject. But now I have consulted a friend who is native English speaker. He suggested this is either a very spooky coincidence, or Bush has linguistically blew his cover: he must indeed be an undercover Mossad operative, after all.

The plot thickens.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:53 AM

September 25, 2006

The comma has legs, but the dagger is silent

The best riff on Iraq-as-a-comma was by Ken Layne at Wonkette, who displayed this map, along with the suggestion "How about hitting the bong after the interview?"

Ken added that "Meanwhile, some retired top guns from the Pentagon are on the Hill today demanding Rumsfeld be considered an asterisk … er, 'sent packing.'"

In second place, I guess, was Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher, who suggested that

[O]ne can think of other punctuation that might be apt, including "?" for the 140,000 Americans still deployed there, "!" for the cries of the gravely injured, and "$" for Haliburton and other contractors.
Or perhaps, as in the comics pages, when an angry character really wants to curse: "!@#%^&*()#*"
But I'd like to offer one more, the simple period, to replace the hopeful comma. Below you will find some 2,700 periods, each standing for an American life lost in Iraq.

By chance, I read that just before this:

[Update: the comma comes from Gracie Allen! Never mind how the future histories of our time will be worded, it's becoming increasing clear to me that the script for current events is being written by a team that includes Dorothy Parker, Thomas Pynchon and Christopher Buckley.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:06 PM

Avoiding passive for dummies

Diane Steele, publisher of the Dummies series (over a thousand titles beginning with DOS for Dummies in 1991), explains to Rachel Donadio ("Dumbing Up" in the NYT Book Review, 9/24/06, p. 31) how the books are put together:

The editorial team, based in Indianapolis, gives authors a kind of "Dummies for Dummies" manual and a computer template.  "Copy editors do the line editing and Dummifying," Steele said.  "It's a word we use to talk about how to make text comply with our style guide."  The approach is strict.  "We address the reader as you -- you can, next you do this -- we don't talk about we," she said.  "We try to be funny, or at least lighthearted."  Furthermore, Steele said: "We don't use future tense, we don't use passive voice, we don't have long chapters.  A 26-page chapter is getting pretty long."

Yes, Avoid Passive.  (Also Avoid We and Avoid Future, which we haven't discussed here.)  But sometimes you really want a passive.

According to Steele, Dr. Alan Rubin, author of Diabetes for Dummies

said he had some friendly discussions with his editors about the passive-voice rule.  "Sometimes I'll write something like 'the patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone,' and they'll change that to 'the patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone,' " Rubin said.  "I have to tell them these are extremely sick patients, they can't take care of themselves, they have to be passive whether Wiley likes it or not."

Ok, the patient was passive (comatose, in fact), but does the sentence have to be?  (Yet another demonstration of why the technical term passive is not such a great choice.)  Of course not.  It could be recast as something like "the patient was comatose, so the doctor gave her/him thyroid hormone", though that's longer and also introduces the doctor as an important participant in the story.  There are ways we -- oh, sorry, you -- can avoid passive and keep the sentence short: "the patient was comatose and got thyroid hormone".  The VP "got thyroid hormone" in this version is not passive in form, true, but it also takes subjects denoting a recipient, rather than an agent, so if you dislike the passive because you want agentive subjects, this version won't really make you happy.  But then "was comatose" doesn't take agentive subjects either, and it's hard to see how you could convey the coma information with a VP that takes agentive subjects; you can devise non-copular VPs -- "lapsed/fell into a coma", for instance -- but their subjects denote affected persons rather than agents.  (Deliciously, a fairly standard technical term for an affected participant in an event is patient.  Yes, "lapsed into unconsciousness" and "fell sick" are VPs taking patient subjects.)

This would be a good time to remind readers that the advice literature is inclined to confuse syntactic functions (like subject and direct object) and participant roles (like agent and patient).  Granted, the world would be simpler if you could get right from syntax to meaning -- if, say, subjects always denoted agents in events -- but this is very much not the world we live in, and we just have to get used to working with two different sets of concepts and separate sets of terminology.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:01 AM


On CNN's The Situation Room, aired 9/20/2006, Wolf Blitzer interviewed President George W. Bush:

BLITZER: We see these horrible...
BUSH: Of course you do.
BLITZER: ... bodies showing up, torture, mutilation.
BUSH: Yes.
BLITZER: The Shia and the Sunni, the Iranians apparently having a negative role. Of course, Al Qaeda in Iraq still operating.
BUSH: Yes, you see it on TV. And that's the -- that's the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there is also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people.
Twelve million people voted last December. Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma, because there is -- my point is, there is a strong will for democracy.
[emphasis added]

In the comments at the Huffington Post, "zave" observed:

For more on commas, see: "Eats, Shoots & Leaves Iraq"

I was going to say that most of the people who get that joke are probably in favor of leaving, but on reflection, that's probably wrong. Neo-conservatives are just as likely to be interested in militant fussiness about punctuation as realists and isolationists are, I suppose. And the joke is equally good (or bad) from just about any political perspective.

Back in 2003, I heard an informal talk by a political scientist on the prospects for the American occupation of Iraq. His central point was that the rebuilding and transformation of Iraqi society was likely to take a long time, cost a lot of money, and go through some difficult stretches. Given that prospect, he expressed skepticism about whether the American public and the American government would be willing to stick it out, and suggested that the aftermath of American intervention could be pretty ugly if they weren't. I was more optimistic at the time, but (outside of Iraqi Kurdistan) it's certainly starting to look as though "eats, shoots and leaves" might be all too appropriate a context for that "comma".

[Hat tip: David Donnell]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:23 AM

September 24, 2006

Stereotypes and facts

"Many women find biological comfort in one another's company, and language is the glue that connects one female to another." That's what Louann Brizendine wrote in The Female Brain, and this idea resonates with many people, including me. At least, I think I recognize the corollary illustrated in this Dilbert strip (9/21/2006):

Perfect, right? Dilbert was focused entirely on the job -- on the numbers! Tina immediately thinks -- and asks! -- about the striking events of Yvonne's personal life. Maybe Dilbert didn't even know about the sextuplets, the fire, and the surgery, or maybe he knew and didn't ask for an update. Either way, he's a poster child for what Simon Baron-Cohen identifies as the "systematizing" tendencies of the male brain, while Tina represents the "empathizing" tendencies of the female brain.

I've recently devoted some effort to debunking exaggerated or outright false characterizations of sex differences. For example, the "biological comfort" quote from The Female Brain was followed by a series of striking overgeneralizations, unsupported by the references given in Brizendine's end-notes, as discussed in mind-numbing detail in "The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006). A list of other Language Log posts debunking brain-sex claims can be found here. And in today's Boston Globe Ideas section, I have a short piece fact-checking a couple of specific speech-related claims from The Female Brain ("Sex on the brain", 9/24/2006).

But that Dilbert strip has a particular resonance for me, because I worked for 15 years in an industrial research lab where most of the engineers were male, and all of the secretaries were female. News about people's lives generally reached me through the secretaries. I left that job 16 years ago, but I still feel that keeping up with colleagues' personal lives is something that comes more naturally to women than to men.

Is that feeling a valid one? In the lab where I worked, sex was largely conflated with job description. And in Dilbert's department, Tina is the female technical writer in a culture of mostly-male engineers, so sex is also conflated with humanities-vs.-engineering educational background. When I reflect on it, I can certainly think of many individual women who are all business in the workplace, and many individual men who are endlessly curious about everyone else's lives, but the gender stereotype implied by the exchange between Dilbert and Tina still rings true.

I don't know any studies specifically bearing on how likely men and women are to know or to ask about the personal lives of co-workers. But you could make some inferences about this from Baron-Cohen's idea of an "empathizing quotient" and a "systemizing quotient", and the results of research measuring these values (operationalized in terms of scores on a self-rating questionnaire with scalar answers).

You can go to the EQSQ site and take the tests to place yourself on these scales. You probably won't be surprised to learn that the results of giving the tests to various groups of subjects show a difference between the average scores of women and the average scores of men -- along with a great deal of overlap between the groups. One graphical representation of the data is this scatter plot from Simon Baron-Cohen, Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, and Matthew K. Belmonte, "Sex Differences in the Brain: Implications for Explaining Autism", Science 310 (5749) 819-823, 2005:

Fig. 3. SQ scores versus EQ scores for all participants, with the boundaries for the different brain types

(The red diamonds are individual females, the blue triangles are individual males, and the green squares are individuals in a group diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome or High Functioning Autism.)

There's more to say about S-E theory, but for now, let's just observe that as usual, the actual distributions for men and women overlap quite a bit. Here's a plot of the overlap in SQ-R distributions, from S. Wheelwright, S. Baron-Cohen, N. Goldenfeld, J. Delaney, D. Fine, R. Smith, L. Weia and A. Wakabayashi, "Predicting Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) from the Systemizing Quotient-Revised (SQ-R) and Empathy Quotient (EQ)", Brain Research 1079(1) 47-56, 2006:

(The "R" in SQ-R stands for "revised" -- the authors modified the original SQ test items "to provide a greater coverage of social systems and domestic systems, not just mechanical or abstract systems", "because items in the original SQ were drawn primarily from traditionally male domains", rendering the prediction of greater male systemizing a circular one.)

The same article gives EQ and SQ means and standard deviations for various populations, from which we can calculate effect sizes:

On the EQ, females in the general population score 47.2 (SD = 10.2), which is significantly higher than the male mean of 41.8 (SD = 11.2), while people with ASC score significantly lower than typical males, with a mean score of 20.4 (SD = 11.6). On the SQ, typical males score a mean of 30.3 (SD = 11.5), which is significantly higher than the mean for typical females of 24.1 (SD = 9.5). People with an ASC score significantly higher than typical males with a mean of 35.7 (SD = 15.3). Finally, on the AQ, not surprisingly, people with ASC have the highest AQ scores (mean 35.8, SD = 6.5), but consistent with predictions, typical males score higher (mean = 17.8, SD = 6.8) than typical females (mean = 15.4, SD = 5.7).

In the case of the EQ (empathizing quotient) that's an effect size of d=0.50 for the difference between women and men; for the SQ (systematizing quotient) we get an effect size of d= 0.59. So these are moderately large effects -- but they are by no means categorical properties of women and men.

Another way to look at the meaning of these numbers is to ask how a randomly selected female and a randomly selected male will compare in terms of scores on these questionnaires. With respect to the empathizing test, the woman will score higher about 64% of the time, while the male will score higher about 36% of the time. For the systematizing test, the random man will score higher about 67% of the time, while the random woman will score higher about 33% of the time. (I believe that this gap is narrowed if the the "revised" SQ test is used.)

This paper also provides some experimental support for my guess that the difference between Dilbert and Tina might have something to do with their educational and job choices as well as with their X and Y chromosomes. In Table 1, we learn that people with different college degrees differ on average almost as much in EQ (and SQ) as women and men do:

Physical scienceMale294Mean65.419.435.9
Biological scienceMale125Mean62.016.741.6
Social scienceMale115Mean61.916.241.4

So Dilbert and Tina have a double dose of group difference: male vs. female, engineering vs. humanities. And the result, it seems to me, is a common situation: a stereotype with a basis in fact.

Remember, though, that those female-vs.-male distributions in EQ and SQ still overlap quite a bit. And I'll bet that effects of similar size, on the same questionnaire results, can result from differences in cultural background and life experience -- or even from the short-term influence of interventions to shift perceived group norms and values. So we need to be careful in drawing conclusions from such results, whether about individuals or about groups.

But the most important lesson, in my opinion, is that the facts matter. Where the facts turn out to support consequential cognitive differences between human females and males, let's try to look clearly at what those differences are, where they come from, and what individual, social and political conclusions we should draw. But let's not let popularizers of brain-sex differences bring overgeneralizations and outright fallacies into the discussion as if they were scientific results. The lamentably low factual and logical standards of self-help books should be just as out of place in a public-policy debate are they are in a scientific journal article.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 09:05 AM

September 23, 2006

The Path to Poincaré

The article was presented under the heading of "The New Yorker: Fact". The authors were Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber, the category was "Annals of Mathematics" and the title was "Manifold Destiny: A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it" (New Yorker, 8/28/2006):

But according to a 12-page letter from Todd & Weld LLP, dated 9/18/2006, this gripping morality play, starring the saintly, reclusive genius Grigory Perelman and the pushy, over-the-hill careerist Shing-Tung Yau, was mostly fiction. Or at least, the damning "facts" and "quotes" dealing with Shing-Tung Yau were mostly fabricated, selected from unreliable sources, or presented as uncontested truth despite substantial contrary evidence.

In other words, despite the New Yorker's reputation for diligent fact-checking, it's claimed that this piece of reportage is roughly as accurate as ABC's much-contested mockumentary The Path to 9/11.

I won't review the whole Yau story here -- it's complicated, you can read about it for yourself, and like it or not, I expect that we're going to hear a lot more about this over the next few months and years. But there was one particular passage in the Todd & Weld letter that definitely rang my bell:

... [Y]ou offered purported "facts" in supposed support for your stated conclusion. The centerpiece of this effort was your inclusion of quotes set forth at page 56, which you attributed to Dr. Yau and the "acting director" of his Beijing mathematics institute from a June 3, 2006 press conference held by Dr. Yau in China which you claimed had taken place in order "to explain the relative contributions of the different mathematicians who had worked on the Poincare[.]" Based on the quotes, you represented to reader that Dr. Yau had claimed that he, Professor Zhu and Professor Cao were entitled to "thirty percent" of the credit. To add insult to injury, you pointed out that the numbers supposedly used by the "acting director" did not add up to 100% (e.g., "Evidently, even simple addition can sometimes trip up a mathematician").

The problem is that Dr. Yau did not utter the words you attributed to him and you were so informed prior to the publication of your article. Likewise, there was no "acting director" of Dr. Yau's mathematics institute in Beijing in June of 2006 (or at any other time) who spoke the words you placed in his mouth. (There was a deputy director, Yang Le, but he apparenty did not even attend the June 3rd press conference).

Here's what Nasar and Gruber's Manifold Destiny said about the news conference:

By early June, Yau had begun to promote the proof publicly. On June 3rd, at his mathematics institute in Beijing, he held a press conference. The acting director of the mathematics institute, attempting to explain the relative contributions of the different mathematicians who had worked on the Poincaré, said, “Hamilton contributed over fifty per cent; the Russian, Perelman, about twenty-five per cent; and the Chinese, Yau, Zhu, and Cao et al., about thirty per cent.” (Evidently, simple addition can sometimes trip up even a mathematician.) Yau added, “Given the significance of the Poincaré, that Chinese mathematicians played a thirty-per-cent role is by no means easy. It is a very important contribution.”

A note dated 9/7/2006 in the New Yorker Forums, from the husband of a Science Times reporter who covered the Beijing news conference, supports the Todd & Weld picture of what happened:

About the contrversy around the credit for solving the Ponicare Conjecture.
The Xinhua News Agency first reported on June 4 that Professor Yang Le told the reporter a division of 50%+25%+30% credit between Hmilton, Perelman and Chinese Scienctits. The news is here: (in Chinese)
However, on June 9, the same reporter of the Xinhua News Agency
wrote another news in which Yang Le specificly emphasized that he was not an expert in the field to make such judgment and that he was against any attempt to make such judgment. The news is here: (in Chinese)
Why there were such two completely opposite reports by the same reporter from the Xinhua?
The truth is that before the first news was wrote, Professor Yang Le was not interviewed by the reporter. And after Professor Yang Le’s protest about report to the XinHua reporter, the Xinhua reporter offered in order not to retract the first report he was willing to make a real interview with him in exchange. Believe or not, such unprofessional practice sounds strange, but it does really happen in China. I do not know how such strange number was reached at the beginning, but the truth was that Professor Yang Le was not intviewed by the Xinhua reporter before the interview for the second report.

And the same note indicates that there is a recording:

From the recording of the press conference, where 8 reporters from five Chinese media, including the reporter from the XinHua News agency, were pesented, some reporter asked Professor Yau whether Cao-Zhu’s paper can claim all the credit, and Professor Yau specificly said that Hamilton and Perelman’s contributions were the most important, Cao-Zhu’s paper just presented the complete proof and closed the case, and the proof of the Poincare Conjecture was a group effort. There was no mentioning of the division of credit in the press conference. Professor Yang Le was not present at the press conference.

After the press coference, my wife and one of her colleague at the Sciencetimes had an exclusive interview face to face with Professor Yang Le in the same day. There was no such mentioning of percentage in that interview.

The author of that note says that

I then spent some time a few days ago on the inernet to do my own research on the 30% credit story. Such research should have been done by Ms. Nasar and her associates. I have to say after going through all this materials, I learned how wrong and the New Yorker article was.

I have aways been telling my wife how unprofessional many of the reporters in China are, and how unfortunate that I have to live with this fact. But I have never expected that people like Professor Nasar can be so unprofessinal in writng the article in the New Yorker magazine.

But as regular readers of this and other weblogs know, the effective standards for accuracy in quoting sources in print these days are so low that they're nearly non-existent -- see this post for a list of some of the examples we've documented over the years. It's a small step from these leading questions and misleadingly selective or approximate answers to the alleged Chinese pattern of just making up something that the source might plausibly have said, if they'd ever been asked. (And of course, the Chinese might claim to have learned the technique from high-profile U.S. journalists such as Jason Blair and Stephen Glass -- except that no one needs to be taught laziness, ambition and fakery.) Similarly, doctored and staged photographs are ubiquitous (Tom Glocer, Reuters CEO, speaking on CNN: "I would think it's extremely uh likely that there are incidents all around us of manipulated images and um staged images").

So here's a modest proposal, which might help abate the flow of falsehood by at least a small percentage. When news agencies interview sources on the record, or at least when they cover news conferences, how about recording everything and putting it up on the web? You could fake the recordings, I guess, but that's a lot more work than just using accurate quotes would be.

[This case also reminds me of an earlier episode of allegedy faked quotations at the New Yorker -- the case of Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Masson. Malcolm interviewed Masson extensively for the New Yorker articles that became her book In the Freud Archives; Masson claimed that Malcolm fabricated many quotations that put him in a bad light, and the legal case dragged on for many years. One of the most curious aspects of this curious affair was the resonance with Malcolm's next project, The journalist and the murderer, a case study of a journalist's relation to his sources in a murder trial, whose theme was that "every journalist knows that what he does is morally indefensible".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 04:15 PM

Gabby guys: the effect size

Are women really more talkative than men? A few minutes ago, I did a quick experiment that bears on the question, and the answer turned out to be "no".

The experiment was quick and easy, but it wasn't small, because I didn't need to collect any data: I used a published speech corpus. Specifically, I ran a couple of perl scripts over the transcripts and speaker demographics from the Fisher English Corpus Part 1 (FECP1), a collection of 5,850 telephone conversations lasting up to 10 minutes each, recorded in 2003. Speakers were from all over the U.S., ranged in age from teenagers to people in their 80s, and had educational levels from high-school to post-graduate degrees. Participants were assigned conversational partners at random, and asked to talk for up to ten minutes on one of forty topics like"What do each of you think is the most important thing to look for in a life partner?", or "Do either of you think that you would commit perjury for a close friend or family member?". Calls were routed through a computer in Philadelphia, which recorded them with the knowledge and consent of both parties.

If you don't have much patience for numbers and graphs, here's the summary: in conversations between the sexes, the men used about 6% more words on average than the women did; and in about 55% of such conversations, the male participant talked more than the female participant did. In single-sex conversations, two guys exchanged about 3.2% more words, on average, than two gals did. For more details, read on -- and as a bonus, you'll learn, in exact quantitative terms, whether size really matters. Effect size, that is...

FECP1 includes 1,910 mixed-sex conversations. In 1048 of them (54.9%) the male participant produced more words than the female participant did, while in 862 of them (45.1%) the female participant produced more words than the male participant did. The average number of words produced by a male participant in a mixed-sex conversation was 925.9, while the average number of words produced by a female participant was 866.6, or about 6.4% fewer.

In 2,368 FECP1 conversations where two women were talking, each participant on average produced 901.5 words. This is about 4% more than the average number of words produced by women talking with men. In 1,572 conversations where two males were talking, each participant on average produced 930.4 words. This is about half a percent more than the average number of words produced by men talking with women. So there's a small indication that women might be more talkative when talking with women -- and a smaller indication that men talk more with other men -- but the amount of change is not very large.

This graph of the distribution of word counts for all participants, female and male, shows how similar the distributions for the two sexes were:

And for completeness, the very similar graph of the similar distributions of word counts for male and female participants in mixed-sex conversations:

One way to measure the size of such group differences is to scale the difference between the group averages according to the amount of variation within each group's distribution. More technically, this is the difference between the means divided by the pooled standard deviation. Or in the form of an equation,

This measure of "effect size" is known as Cohen's d. According to the Wikipedia, Cohen (1992) suggested that d of "0.2 is indicative of a small effect, 0.5 a medium and 0.8 a large effect size". For the mixed-sex FECP1 conversations, the effect size of the diference between the number of words used by men and the number of words used by women (expressed in terms of Cohen's d) is 0.203. For all the conversations, the effect size is 0.128.

In other words, these are small to extra-small effects. But they're in the opposite direction from the predictions of Louann Brizendine's (unsubstantiated) claim that women normally produce almost three times more words per day than men, due to crucial biological differences allegedly laid down in the eighth week of fetal life:

A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex [fetal] brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers. If the testosterone surge doesn't happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. The fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion. How does this fetal fork in the road affect us? For one thing, because of her larger communication center, this girl will grow up to be more talkative than her brother. Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand. For another, it defines our innate biological destiny, coloring the lens through which each of us views and engages the world. [From The Female Brain, p. 14 -- emphasis added]

However, these small-or-extra-small word-count effects are actually a bit larger than the effects that are generally found for differences in measure of verbal performance between males and females (though most measures show a small performance advantage for females). According to Janet Shibley Hyde and Marcia C. Linn, "Gender Differences in Verbal Ability: A Meta-Analysis", Psychological Bulletin, 104:1 53-69 (1988):  

Many regard gender differences in verbal ability to be one of the well-established findings in psychology. To reassess this belief, we located 165 studies that reported data on gender differences in verbal ability. The weighted mean effect size (d) was +0.11, indicating a slight female superiority in performance. The difference is so small that we argue that gender differences in verbal ability no longer exist. Analyses of effect sizes for different measures of verbal ability showed almost all to be small in magnitude: for vocabulary, d = 0.02; for analogies, d = −0.16 (slight male superiority in performance); for reading comprehension, d = 0.03; for speech production, d = 0.33 (the largest effect size); for essay writing, d = 0.09; for anagrams, d = 0.22; and for tests of general verbal ability, d = 0.20. For the 1985 administration of the Scholastic Aptitude Test-Verbal, d = −0.11, indicating superior male performance. Analysis of tests requiring different cognitive processes involved in verbal ability yielded no evidence of substantial gender differences in any aspect of processing. Similarly, an analysis by age indicated no striking changes in the magnitude of gender differences at different ages, countering Maccoby and Jacklin's (1974) conclusion that gender differences in verbal ability emerge around age 11. For studies published in 1973 or earlier, d = 0.23 and for studies published after 1973, d = 0.10, indicating a slight decline in the magnitude of the gender difference in recent years.

Whatever the size of these effects, are they the direct result of genetic and hormonal effects on brain wiring during embryological (or later) development, as opposed to being a more indirect result of the different life experiences of females and males? (Of course such environmental effects would also be mediated by brain differences, unless we believe that life experiences affect us by modifying our immaterial souls.) The first answer to this question is that no one has a clue. The second answer to this question is that the effects are so small, and so variable according to circumstance, that the question becomes an academic one, in the exact sense of that term -- the answer is of interest to scientists, but it should have no public policy implications at all, except to make us suspicious of people like David Brooks and Leonard Sax.

Here are some comparisons that may help to put these effects and their sizes in perspective. One comparison involves group differences that are mostly genetic, and another involves differences that are mostly environmental. .

1. Some secondary sex differences do involve medium-to-large effect sizes. For example, according to Table 5 of the National Center for Health Statistics' Anthropometric Reference Data for Children and Adults: U.S. Population 1999-2002, the average height of 19-year-old American males is 176.7 cm, with s.d. = 10.6, while the average height of 19-year-old females is 162.9 cm, with s.d. = 11.0. This is an effect size of d=1.32. For the same comparision of 19-year-old males and females, the effect size for the average difference in weight was only d=0.51 (because the standard deviations are much larger relative to the means).

2. Some environmental effects on cognitive performance involve medium-to-large effect sizes. Martha J. Farah, et al., ("Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development", Brain Research 1110(1) 166-174, September 2006) "administered a battery of tasks designed to tax specific neurocognitive systems to healthy low and middle SES [socio-economic status] children screened for medical history and matched for age, gender and ethnicity".

Fig. 1. Effect sizes, measured in standard deviations of separation between low and middle SES group performance, on the composite measures of the seven different neurocognitive systems assessed in this study. Black bars represent effect sizes for statistically significant effects; gray bars represent effect sizes for nonsignificant effects.

All the participants in this study were African-American girls between the ages of 10 and 13. As the graph above indicates, the difference in performance on the "Language" part of the test battery between middle SES and low SES girls represented an effect size of about 0.95.

There were two language-related tasks:

Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT)
This is a standardized vocabulary test for children between the ages of 2.5 and 18. On each trial, the child hears a word and must select the corresponding picture from among four choices.
Test of Reception of Grammar (TROG)
In this sentence–picture matching task designed by Bishop (1982), the child hears a sentence and must choose the picture, from a set of four, which depicts the sentence. Its lexical–semantic demands are negligible as the vocabulary is simple and a pre-test ensures that subjects know the meanings of the small set of words that occur in the test.

Note that in terms of effect size, this finding is several times the largest difference found in the Hyde and Linn meta-analysis of sex differences in verbal ability.


[A note about the overall numbers of participants of each sex in the Fisher English Part 1 corpus is in order. In this phase of the data collection, there were 5850 conversations, and therefore 11,700 conversational sides. Of those, 6,646 (or 56.8%) were female, and 5,054 (or 43.2%) were male. This imbalance was caused by the fact that participants needed to be callable at a particular phone number during a particular time period. Thus people who don't work outside the home, or who are retired, are likely to be over-represented in the collection; and women in turn are over-represented in these two groups. In fact, we had to work hard to keep the imbalance of sexes in the collection from being larger.]

[A list of links to other relevant Language Log posts can be found here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:26 AM

September 22, 2006

Macaca-watch continues

The uproar over Sen. George Allen's use of the peculiar word macaca last month to refer to a young Democratic campaign worker of South Asian descent just won't go away. (See here and here for previous Language Log coverage.) Some have claimed that macaca, as a variant of macaque, has been used as a French racial epithet in North Africa. And since Allen's mother is French Tunisian, the argument goes, Allen himself must have picked it up from her. But the senator's mother, Henrietta "Etty" Allen, put the kibosh on that claim in a Washington Post interview:

Etty Allen said Wednesday that she had never used the word "macaca" before and had to go to a dictionary to look it up when she heard of the controversy. She said the word did not exist in her dictionary.
"I swear to you, I have never used that word," she said. "I must have used a lot of bad words, but not that word."

That seems like a reasonable disavowal, particularly since it has never been proven, to my knowledge, that macaca really has ever been a racial slur in common use in North Africa, despite many bloggers and reporters treating this claim as fact. (Josh Marshall, for instance, wrote that "in Colonial-era North Africa, particularly the Francophone areas, 'Macaca' is a rough equivalent of 'N-ger'." Sez who? So far the only evidence I've seen is for macaque as a slur for dark-skinned people, not macaca.) Etty Allen's profession of ignorance would seem to support her son's recently proffered excuse for using macaca, which is that it was a completely meaningless word he made up on the spot — this despite earlier explanations that it was somehow a blend of Mohawk and caca.

But now comes yet another rationale. As reported on Wonkette, George Allen told World Magazine about a different provenance for macaca:

Allen actually had a pretty credible defense for what he said. No one — including The Washington Post, which featured the story repeatedly for several weeks — ever demonstrated that "macaca" really has such murky racial connotations in any language. But in northern Italy, where Allen's mother had close family connections, "macaca" does seem to mean "clown" or "buffoon." Allen says now that's what he was trying to communicate.

I don't know if this latest explanation will hold any more water than previous ones, especially given the fact that Etty Allen is on record as saying she had never heard of macaca before. But does macaca actually mean 'clown' or 'buffoon' in some northern Italian dialect? I checked out the reasonably comprehensive Dizionario della Lingua Italiana and found this "figurative" definition for macàca (listed after the zoological sense of the monkey genus):

fig., donna goffamente brutta e sciocca

If I'm translating the Italian correctly, this means that monkeyish macàca gets extended in some varieties of Italian to mean "a clumsily ugly and foolish woman." That's the feminine form of macàco, glossed as "uomo goffamente brutto e sciocco" ('a clumsily ugly and foolish man'). So if Allen is sticking by the Italian motivation, he'll next have to explain why he was referring to S.R. Sidarth, the (male) campaign worker, as a female buffoon. Doesn't look like Allen is getting out of this morass of macaca any time soon.

[Update: As for French derogatory uses of macaque, Chris Waigl provides a link to the word's entry in Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, where one definition is "personne trés laide" ('very ugly person'). Still no firm evidence for the Francophone use of macaca, though.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 07:57 PM

Counting Out Al Gore

A search engine is a tool, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything. A search engine is as good or as bad as the man using it.

Or was it "a gun is a tool"? My memory's shaky on that one, but whatever it was I know for sure that Alan Ladd said it to Jean Arthur in Shane. And with no waiting period and everybody packing, it's a good idea to keep your head beneath the parapet when the hit counts start to fly.

Take the exchange that recently surfaced on the letters pages of The American Prospect. It began with a sentence in Todd Gitlin's July 5 review of Eric Boehlert's book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. In the course of describing how media reporting is skewed, Gitlin reported Boehlert as saying:

Outside The Boston Globe. . . the total number of media accounts that mentioned both [Bush's National Guard] absenteeism and Texas pol Ben Barnes' acknowledgment that he tried to sneak young Bush into the Guard: two. The number of accounts of the phony charge that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet: more than 4,800.

No way, said Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley Professor of political science at Emory, who was impelled to write a letter to the editor to say that his own researches showed that the Gitlin/Boehlert claim was clearly wrong:

A Lexis-Nexis search reveals only 19 mentions of the "Gore-invented-the-Internet" charge in major American newspapers between January 1, 2000, and Election Day. Moreover, the point of several of these articles was that Gore had never made such a claim but that he had been a strong supporter of the development of the Internet. . . Gitlin's (and Boehlert's) claim that the media frequently and uncritically reported this accusation, like the accusation itself, appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Needless to say, that's an wildly and patently incorrect result. In a response to Abramowitz's letter, Gitlin replied:

My source for the "more-than-4,800" claim was Boehlert's Lapdogs (p. 160). Maybe I should have checked earlier. Strangely, when I did so just now, Lexis-Nexis turned up neither 4,800-plus entries, nor the 19 that Professor Abramowitz found, but 445.

Actually, Gitlin's result isn't inconsistent with Boehlert's claim. Lexis-Nexis major papers includes only a small -- if influential -- portion of the American press (and around half the papers in the database are foreign ones). When you search severally in each of Nexis's four regional US News files, you come up with 973 hits for the period in question -- add the previous nine months (since the story hardly began at the beginning of 2000) and you come up with over 2000. In a more careful search at the Prospect's Tapped blog, Paul Waldman notes that the story gets a total of 4349 hits on Nexis's Allnews database over the 18 months prior to the 2000 election. And even that database doesn't include most local TV or AM radio talk shows, not to mention major blogs and Internet sites (the string "gore 'invented the internet'" gets 90 hits on alone). In short, Boehler's "4800 media stories" is unquestionably a considerable understatement . And even if a good number of those stories involve refutations of the charge that Gore claimed to have invented the internet, the very need for them suggests that the damage was done. As Gitlin observed:

. . . lest we succumb to the fog of dueling Nexises, I submit that we recall Karl Rove's principle: When you're explaining, you're losing. Insofar as newspapers were saying that Gore was defending himself against a deceitful charge, he sounded, to some undecided population of voters, like an evasive braggart. That was bad enough.

Of course counts of media stories are only a rough indication of how widely diffused a story is, but even if we restrict ourselves to print, the contrast between Abramowitz's 19 stories and the actual figure of several thousand is pretty striking. But then anybody who lived through this period knows without having to check that the story was all over the place. Which leads me to ask, How could Abramowitz possibly have believed the number his search returned?

there's no way to tell exactly how Abramowitz managed to come up with the figure of 19. Waldman suggests that he must have searched only on the specific string "Gore invented the internet" in the Nexis Major Papers files, which is what I assumed too, but it turns out that even that very sentence gets 24 hits in that database for the first 9 months of 2000. Did he maybe use some other search string but leave the pulldown menu at the default "headline, Lead Paragraph(s), Terms" value rather than doing a full-text search? Did he enter the dates wrong? Did he screw up the search syntax, or enter a string that presumed that Nexis was using Google's search syntax, as a lot of people do these days?

Who knows -- there are an awful lot of ways to get this stuff wrong, and man and boy I've personally explored every one of them -- after 20 years of using Nexis, Dialog, and other news databases, I'm still doing searches and getting results that are implausible on their face, so that I have to give my processor a whack and try again with some other search terms.

From Abramowitz's failure to do just this, it's clear both that he's a newbie to Nexis and that he has an inordinate, or at least unwarranted confidence in his ability to find his way around with the technology. If that's especially odd in his case, it's only because he does quantitative research in voter behavior, so that you'd figure he'd have to have had the same experience using stat packages: getting some completely implausible result and having to go back and correct some setting -- or more likely, at this stage of his career, making a caustic remark and sending his graduate assistant to run the data again. I mean, who hasn't had this happen to him?

Abramowitz isn't alone in this -- people are always trotting out search results in the service of this or that point that are absurd on their face, even if not a whole lot of them are the holders of named chairs in quantitative disciplines. Blame the googlization of the Web, which gives us all the illusion of search-engine expertise. Or blame people's tendency to believe quantitative results and claims even when they fly in the face of plausibility.

Whatever the cause, you can put it down as one more example that makes the case for universal instruction in information literacy -- even if it probably comes too late for the tenured classes.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 04:31 PM

Ineffability again

Several readers sent in complaints about my treatment of Nick Piombino in a recent post on "Ineffability". The longest and most eloquent complaint, from a philosopher, is given in full past the jump.

I'm a long-time reader of language log, but I've never felt compelled to write in. I love your posts in general, but I thought you were too harsh to Nick Piombino in "Ineffability"; in fact, his sentiment seems closer to the truth than you give him credit for.

I take it that Nick-- and others who have similarly expressed this feeling of ineffibility-- meant that sentences in English, regardless of their complexity, literally cannot (completely) convey much of the contents of our attitudes and the subtleties of our emotions. This is the case in spite of the fact (as linguists are so fond of pointing out) that natural language is recursive and we therefore have an infinite number of propositions we could assert. 'Infinite' does not mean all. Some conceptual distinctions cannot be got at by logical operations on concepts we already have-- e.g. philosophers argue that the concepts of folk psychology or counterfactuals, though supervenient on the physical, cannot be translated into lower-level vocabulary, not because there aren't an infinite number of things to be said in the vocabulary of neuroscience or particle physics, but because that infinitude of thought doesn't cover every cut in possibility space.

Surely there are things we think and feel that cannot be expressed in words. Part of the problem with assigning truth-conditions to attitude ascriptions is that the meaning of the content-clause only roughly maps on to our actual attitude state. This is not because we speak sloppily, but rather because there are distinctions we cannot draw with words (likely because a word for the right concept would be for the most part useless). Granny's folk psychology only draws so many distinctions to begin with, many of them muddled or hopelessly confused. Would this be remedied if we had a thousand times the words in the dictionary, all concerning human psychological states that previously could not be referred to with our existing vocabulary, however combined? Perhaps. But we would need at least that number.

I think some lingusists (and I genuinely don't mean 'some linguists' to be a referential indefinite, picking out you) are afraid to admit that our lexicon + a compositional semantics doesn't get us everything, because this seems like inviting the Whorfians to have a field day. But this need not be so: we can think things we cannot (given our lexicon) say, and we *could* think things we cannot (given our current conceptual repertoire) think now. All Nick seems to be saying, if I read him right, is that it would be very difficult to say most of the things we think, even given a language with a greater vocabulary in all its compositional glory.

I hope this email is clear and not too argumentative. They stop feeding you in philosophy grad school so you'll be more vicious in the ring. I just wanted to defend Nick's side-- what I take to be a common side, perhaps touching, but not stupid.

I agree, mostly.

Certainly my post was hurried and careless. In particular, Nick Piombino said that more words wouldn't solve the problem, and I agreed with him, but I complained in a misleading way about the way he put it. People too often equate a language with its vocabulary, and talk as if you can't express a concept if your language lacks a single word that denotes it. But Piombino didn't say that, and I shouldn't have attributed to him an argument he didn't make.

I also agreed with Jonathan Mayhew's point that it was distracting for Piombino even to bring up the question of vocabulary size, since the expressivity of poetry doesn't increase monotonically with the size of the vocabulary that the poet draws on. I didn't like Jonathan's child:toys::writer:words analogy, but I didn't explain my problems with it in a coherent way.

The philosopher's letter objects that my analogy sentences:concepts::digit-sequences:numbers is a false one, because "there are distinctions we cannot draw with words". On the other hand, there are numbers (e.g. pi) that we cannot express with (finite) digit sequences in a positional number system. My point was not that digit sequences can express all numbers, but that increasing the base of the number system to a larger integer doesn't change its expressivity.

Something similar, though less clear, happens with words. Sometimes adding new words is just a way to save space and time, because the new word is just a convenient short reference to a longer explanation. But other new words are not reducible in this way to definitions in terms of existing words, and how people learn their meaning is more mysterious.

You could try to reconstruct the analogy between numbers and concepts by reference to the fact that given a finite number of axioms, there are an infinite number of mathematical truths that you can't prove. If words are like mathematical axioms rather than like digits in a positional number system, and expressing a concept is like proving a theorem, then vocabulary size is relevant to the problem of ineffability (because adding axioms increases the set of provable truths) but doesn't solve it (because infinitely many unprovable truths will always remain). Perhaps that's what Piombino meant, at some level. Certainly it's a kinder construal, and therefore to be preferred.

One comment about "Granny's folk psychology", and its limited, "muddled or hopelessly confused" distinctions: after a few weeks of reading the oeuvre of Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., and Louann Brizendine, M.D., I find that Granny is looking smarter all the time.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:05 AM

September 21, 2006

Dan McGrew and topic marking

Phil Jensen, who recently discovered Language Log and is working his way through it systematically (in the past week, two people have reported to me that they're doing this!), writes that he followed a link from 2005 back to "the earlier long post on prosody" -- Mark Liberman's "An internet pilgrim's guide to accentual-syllabic verse" of 7/6/04 -- and then moved on to my 10/24/05 posting on topic-marking in terms of, so that he experienced the juxtaposition of fair chunks of "Dangerous Dan McGrew" with my example of topic-marking Left Dislocation:

Office hours, they're from two to four.

Ah, he thought, here we want something like

said the T.A. we all called Sue

to follow.

And now I have a wretched earworm.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:56 PM


Jonathan Mayhew at Bemsha Swing takes Nick Piombino to task for writing that

You could multiply the dictionary by a thousand and still not have enough words to describe what most people think and feel in a single day.

Jonathan's comment:

Learning new words, after a certain point, doesn't allow for more expression. It just multiplies the number of choices; like giving a bored child more toys it does not address the real problem; and in fact aggravates the problem. Boredom is not a function of the lack of toys.

My sympathies are with Jonathan. But I wonder if the analogy to children's toys is a fair one. We could also say that giving a restless intellect more books does not address the real problem; and in fact it aggravates the problem. Or that giving a well-dressed person more clothes does not address the real problem. The different analogies evoke different emotions, and none of them are quite right for this case.

Isn't the "real problem" that describing what someone thinks and feels takes more than a one-word message? We often make a game from multiple toys, or read one book in the context of others, or coordinate items of clothing, but words are combinatoric on a whole different scale.

If you can't express what you feel, the problem is probably not too few word choices, and it's probably not too many word choices either. Maybe your real problem is getting in touch with your feelings, or connecting your amygdala to your cerebral cortex, or finding the right metaphor, or coming to terms with the essential ineffability of experience. But as a practical matter, whatever you can do to express yourself will comes down to choosing a sequence of words. And no matter how big your vocabulary is, it's dwarfed by the exponential explosion of combinatoric possibilities when you combine words into phrases.

Jonathan expressed a similar idea this way:

Even a *small* vocabulary of 10,000 words is susceptible to a number of combinations that I am too lazy to calculate right now, but it's a big, big number.

The simple form of the calculation doesn't take much work: there are 10,000^2 = 10^8 = a hundred million two-word sequences; 10,000^3 = 10^12 = one trillion three-word sequences, and so on. Syntactic constraints lower the effective base somewhat -- there aren't really 10,000 choices at every step -- but what the base is, as you add more words, the total keeps on growing exponentially.

So Nick Piombino's lament might be parodied like this:

You could use base 10,000 and still not have enough numbers to count the ways that I love you.

Touching, but stupid. There's no number you can express in base 10,000 that you can't also express in base 10, or in base 2 for that matter. That's the genius of a positional number system.

Words are different from numbers, and sometimes a new word is a real help in thinking as well as in communicating. We humans are not cognitively adapted to working in binary -- base 10,000 or base 100,000 is more like it, if you think of different words as crudely analogous to different digits. Still, once your vocabulary gets to a reasonable size, the need for more words is probably not your key conceptual or communicative problem.

As Jonathan suggested in email to me, Piombino's lament is a common kind of linguification, based on the idea that the set of things a language can express is equivalent to the set of definitions in its dictionary. This is the same fallacy that lies behind the "no word for X" and "N words for X" syndromes. But it's also a case where adding one new term to the dictionary does help express what some of us think and feel.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:32 AM

Linguistics Helps the Noongar Reclaim Perth

Justice Murray Wilcox of the Federal Court of Australia has just ruled in Bennell v State of Western Australia [2006] FCA 1243 that an aboriginal people, the Noongar, hold 'native title' to portions of the Perth Metropolitan Area. This appears to be roughly equivalent to usufruct in Anglo-American law. Linguistic evidence provided by Nick Thieberger played a significant role in the case. Jane Simpson comments on the decision at the Transient Languages & Cultures blog.

Posted by Bill Poser at 12:54 AM


According to an AP report today, an unusually complete skeleton of a "Lucy"-like Australopithecus Afarensis child from 3.3M years ago has been found.

The AP article is strangely sensible on the issue of language, citing Fred Spoor, Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at UCL, without converting the quote into anything silly:

The fossil revealed just the second hyoid bone to be recovered from any human ancestor. This tiny bone, which attaches to the tongue muscles, is very chimp-like in the new specimen, Spoor said.
While that doesn't directly reveal anything about language, it does suggest that whatever sounds the creature made ``would appeal more to a chimpanzee mother than a human mother,'' Spoor said.

However, where the press fails, Language Log can step in. Based on the vocal possibilities resulting from a mis-shapen hyoid, hyper-rhoticity could be indicated. It follows that Prof. Spoor has overlooked a class of human mother to whom the kid would have been strangely attractive, and, as the final commemorative act of a linguistically important day, I offer the following reconstruction...

Pirate skull

Posted by David Beaver at 12:31 AM

September 20, 2006

"Talking" Elephants, "Signing" Robots

Bill Poser comments on an article about a "talking" pachyderm, in which a journalist wisely remembered to mention "the difference between making word-like sounds and associating sounds with meanings". I wish the folks at Wired Magazine would be that careful.

Wired is otherwise wonderful; my whole family looks forward to its arrival each month. But every now and then they go a bit over the top when it comes to language technology. The most recent tooth-grinder: a blurb about a robotics display at their upcoming NextFest, concerning a robotic hand from the University of Tsukuba. The blurb says it "learns movement as an infant might, by watching and mimicking human behavior", and can "talk in sign language".

Robotic hand

Now, as far as I can tell, the researchers themselves are nowhere near as unrestrained. They say their goal is to "understand the dexterity of the human hand and imitate that with robot hands". After browsing around their publications a bit, I don't see any references to "talking" or to claims about emulating infant learning. I'm at a loss to understand why the hype was added -- isn't really cool robotics cool enough? (Ok, yes, there may also be an element of sour grapes in my writing this: we natural language processing folks always have a hard time convincing people that what we work on is "sexy", compared to our brethren in robotics, computer graphics, etc.!)

A word to the wise: if someone says a computer system reads/talks/understands language or processes language "the way people do", you should assume either that they're being sloppy, or that they're trying a little too hard to sell you something.

Posted by Philip Resnik at 11:41 AM

Powarrr law

BZ at Mah Rabu takes a mathematical look at the distribution of (the number of) Rs in textual renditions of AR+ on the internets:

Language Log welcomes this addition to a specialized but fascinating literature, where we're pround of our small but pioneering contributions:

"Helpful Google" (11/29/2003)
"The memetic phylogency of 'our new * overlords'" (1/30/2004)
"Conservation of (orthographic) gemination" (3/29/2004)
"The perils of degemination" (3/29/2004)
"Jeniffer afficionados" (3/30/2004)
"Orthographic metathesis?" (4/1/2004)
"The mysteries of ... what's his name?" (4/21/2004)
"Lamkin Perbeck, pretender" (4/22/2004)
"AW+" (4/29/2004)
"AW++" (5/8/2004)
"(Mis)spelling Gandhi" (6/2/2004)
"Conservation of gemination: another example" (6/7/2004)
"Liberal gemination" (6/8/2004)

One comment on the "future directions" part of BZ's post:

One unexplained phenomenon is the dearth of Google hits for 16 to 19 R's, only to return to the regular pattern with 20 and above. This provides new and exciting directions for further research in the field.

What do you want to bet that it tells us something about Google's indexing, search and count-approximation algorithms, rather than something about the behavior of piratical writers out there on the internets?

[Hat tip: Josh Rosenberg]

[Update -- Bill Poser suggests:

The dearth of strings of 16-19 Rs is no doubt due to the fact that this is a neighborhood of 17, well known for its randomness. Obviously there is no information to be gained from a random phenomenon.


[And Cosma Shalizi cites Dennis Chao and Patrik D'haeseleer, "The Distribution of Variable-length Phatic Interjectives on the World Wide Web", UNM Computer Science Department Tech Report TR-CS-2001-23.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:17 AM

Pirate R as in I-r-eland?

In response to Talk Like a Pirate Day and my post about the origins of piratical r-fulness, Joel Wallenberg wrote to suggest that the source might have been Munster rather than Dorset and Devon:

I was reading the language logs about pirates and r-fulness, and I wanted to mention another source for it: Ireland, and particularly southwest Ireland was a launching area for many pirate crews and voyages during the early 17th century, according to Peter Earle's book "The Pirate Wars." Apparently it was a good area for keeping a low profile with Dublin/London authorities, and for hiding ships along the coast. According to Earle, the southwest coast of Ireland was also one of the locations that helped give birth to "pirate fleets" and "pirate admirals", engaging in longer term deep-sea piracy than their predecessors. He also claims that piracy became an important part of Munster's economy, before the government eventually cracked down. Unfortunately, what I don't know is exactly how Anglophone that part of Ireland was during the most piratical centuries, but I'll see if I can find out.

I don't know -- in the West Country of England, not only Robert Newton, but also even the cows are r-ful! Can Munster compete with that?

Seriously, based on reading a bit of Earle's book (The Pirate Wars) via amazon's Search Inside™ feature, it seems that there were plenty of English speakers on Munster's pirate coast in those days -- but on the other hand, the central role of southwest Ireland in pirate life ended in 1616, which seems a little early for it to have introduced the r-fulness of Irish English into the modern stereotype of pirate speech. A long quote follows, starting on p. 32 of The Pirate Wars. (Typing this in is all I have time for this morning. But let me just add that this is a case where the Search Inside™ feature led me to order a book that I would not otherwise have bought -- and this post might sell a few more copies -- and if the Search Inside™ feature allowed cut-and-paste, I'd do this more often!)

The pirates paid well for food, drink and equipment for their vessels and what could not be supplied locally was brought in by Englishmen, some who had settled there 'with the express purpose of commercing with the pirates', others pretending to be fishermen but in reality supplying the pirates and trading with them. 'Such men allso furnish them with voluntary persons from time to time,' wrote the Lord deputy of Ireland, and there was indeed no shortage of recruits to this pirate fastness. Many of the pirates 'have their wives and children in these parts', it was reported in 1611, but for those who did not there was no shortage of women. 'They have also good store of English, Scottish, and Irish wenches which resort unto them, and these are strong attractors to draw the common sort of men thither.' South-west Ireland was, in short, a paradise for pirates, a place of almost complete safety patrolled by only one King's ship and that so slow that all pirates could outsail her and so small that most could outgun her, a place where ships could be fitted out and maintained and loot spent on drink, women and all the other delights of the shore. It comes as no surprise to find Lord Danvers, the President of Munster, describing the coast of his province as 'like Barbary, common and free for all pirates'.

Munster may have been a delight for pirates, but most of them were only there in the summer for, like other migratory birds, they sailed south to avoid the Irish winter. 'Against the winter [they] do adventure southward towards Spain and Barbary where they become expert and hard to be dealt withall afterwards.' The pirate fleet normally sailed south in August or September, plundering along the coasts of Spain and Portugal and taking their prizes to a second winter base which they had established in the fairly free and safe port of Mamora [Mehdia or Mahadya] on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where as many as thirty or forty pirate ships and two thousand men might be seen on occasion. Their presence here was condoned by the Emperor of Morocco who welcomed the wealth they brought in as they sold their loot to merchants attracted from all over the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean by the bargains on offer. Meanwhile, the pirates squandered the proceeds of their plunder in the African winter sun.

Come the spring it was time to set sail again, as danger threatened in the form of Spanish galleys and Dutch warships coming out of their winter hibernation. Some sailed back to Ireland 'when the heat of the sun and the gallyes there do threaten to prosecute them', but many sailed out into the ocean, to Madeira, the Canaries and Azores and further afield. One major summer raiding area, as it was to be for the pirates of the Golden Age, was the Newfoundland Banks where huge fleets of fishermen spent the summer catching, splitting, drying and salting cod for the Catholic tables of the Mediterranean. The main attraction for the pirates, however, was not the fish but the fishermen, some of the hardiest seamen in the world who, willingly or not, were added to the pirate crews. Peter Easton raided the Banks in 1612 and came away with five hundred British fishermen. Mainwaring was to follow him there is June 1614 and 'some of the company of many ships did run away unto them', piracy being an attractive alternative to the 'too toilsom' labour of the fishery. In all he sailed away with four hundred mariners and fishermen, 'many volunteers, many compelled'. And so the pirate round continued, Ireland in the summer, Morocco in the winter and much mayhem on the ocean in between.

These deep-sea pirates only prospered for ten years or so, from about 1606 to 1616, but they provide an interesting link in the history of piracy. Many were men who had served as privateers or pirates in Elizabethan times and they shared many of their characteristics, but they also foreshadowed the more democratic and individualistic pirates of the later seventeenth century. Most ships seem to have been hierarchically organised, often with gentlemen or near gentlemen captains and officers, but there are also some instances of captains being elected by the men, as they were to be later. One finds, too, the use of unpleasant tortures which were to remain standard priate usages, such as placing lighted matches under a captive's fingernails or tightening knotted cords about their heads, a torment which the buccaneers were to call 'woolding'. One hears some of the later pirates' language, the braggadocio and boasting, 'they would not leave the gates of hell unripped in search of gain', the euphemistic description of their occupation as 'going on the account', calling their vessels 'men-of-war' and replying to a hail from another ship with the challenging piratical response 'we are of the sea'.

[Update -- Tae Jensen suggests:

Regarding the possible Irish origins of the piratical "Arrr," you might also mention Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood (1922), in which Irish-accented Peter Blood ends up a pirate captain, with the usual pirate speech tics.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:21 AM

September 19, 2006

Sex, drugs and Language Log

Found in our referral logs, evidence that Language Log has really arrived. Where have we arrived? Well, you be the judge:

I've been sitting around for almost two months waiting for my phone to ring, reading the Language Log, working through Paper Mario, and accomplishing roughly goose egg. However, while that may sound dandy for some 23-year-old, I've turned 24 today and that shit no longer flies.

This would be a great opening for a hot new bildungsroman, but so far, it's just the start of a LiveJournal entry by an aspiring screenwriter in California. Who is sure to make it big -- the rest of a script that starts this way pretty much writes itself, don't you think?

To become emblematic of enjoyable distraction is an ambition that I never realized I had. Linked to an obsolete video game, true, but even so...

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:25 AM

A Journalist Wise as an Elephant

The Associated Press reports that an elephant named Kosik, who resides at an amusement park near Seoul, "can make sounds imitating up to eight Korean words". The article goes on to explain that it isn't clear whether Kosik is merely imitating sounds that he has heard or understands the meaning of the words. You can hear Kosik on this video, brought to my attention by Kyungjoon Lee.

The amazing thing about this article is that it doesn't claim that Kosik can speak. Its author actually understands the difference between making word-like sounds and associating sounds with meanings. Unfortunately, the article isn't signed, so we have to applaud him or her anonymously.

This also shows that at least some of the time it is the editor, not the writer, who is at fault. The article on the AP newswire is headed "South Korean Park Showcases 16-Year-Old Male Asian Elephant Capable of Humanlike Sounds". The same article on Live Science is headed "Elephant Said to Speak". The AP headline is quite accurate; the Live Science headline is wrong. Similarly, the San Jose Mercury News gets it wrong with "S.Korean park features talking pachyderm".

Posted by Bill Poser at 01:10 AM

September 18, 2006

From Russia to Wales, with Llove

The latest from the annals of linguistic silliness, a Western Mail (of Wales) article (of 9/16/06) reproduced on the ic wales site: "Welsh language traced - to Russia!"  Tryst Williams wrote:

VODKA, furry hats, gymnastic dancing, the setting for one of the greatest Bond movies - Russia has given us a lot.

But research has discovered that it also gave Wales the Welsh language - from Russia With Llove, as it were...

Researchers documenting the history of Welsh have traced it back to the plains of Russia 6,000 years ago.

Clever reader, do you get it?

[The spelling <Llove> is a little orthographic joke, though not a very impressive one, since I doubt very much that anyone in Wales pronounces English love with an initial voiceless lateral fricative.  In any case, thanks to Thomas Thurman for the pointer.]

I realize this is a huge anti-climax, but Williams is talking about Proto Indo-European:

But while today's local population might not travel far, the language that flourished there in about 4,000BC between the Caspian and Black Seas certainly has.

It is there that linguistic historians believe the so-called "Indo-European" group of languages first developed among a tribe of nomadic farmers. This common language would eventually spread and give rise to such diverse tongues as Welsh, German and Sanskrit.

Not to mention, umm, Russian.  And Greek and Latin.

But it's all about Welsh.  It's the Local Hook.  There's a tragic plane crash in Baluchistan, and the Fresno Bee manages to find a local resident whose brother went to college with one of the victims.  (I'm making this up, but real examples are only too easy to find.)

And of course it's historically confused.  In 4,000 B.C. there was no geographical or political entity Russia.  No Russian people.  No Russian language.  (Furry hats, probably.  Gymnastic dancing, maybe.  Vodka, no.)   Russia didn't give anything to Wales, or to Italy and Scandinavia and the Balkans, or to Persia and India.

But it makes a cute story -- which, by the way, is about a new TV series tracing the history of the Welsh language, from the Eurasian heartland to Scotland and finally to Wales.  (Brittany, Cornwall, and Ireland are not mentioned in the story.  The point is to get to Wales.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 08:02 PM

How safer is America today?

Yes, that's the headline on a UPI story (of 8/31/06) by Claude Salhani, UPI's International Editor, on the current terrorist threat.  I think that question deserves an asterisk of ungrammaticality: "How safe is America today?", ok; "How much safer is America today?", ok; "How safer is America today?", no.  Comparative adjectives like "safer" just don't take the same degree modifiers as plain adjectives like "safe" -- in standard English.  But it turns out that there's a fairly widespread non-standard English out there in which comparatives can work just like plain adjectives.

Cornelius Puschmann, who alerted me to the headline (after checking with a native speaker of English and eliciting an "ick" response much like mine), speculated that "how safer" was either a typo or a piece of non-native English.  Either thing might be possible in this particular case -- though we probably can't blame Salhani, because he almost surely didn't write the headline, and the odd comparative doesn't occur in the article -- but you can find plenty of examples of modified comparatives like "how safer", apparently from native speakers, on the web.  I don't know how long this has been going on, or what the social distribution of the non-standard comparatives is, or even whether the non-standard comparatives coexist with standard ones or (more likely) supplant them.  But they're out there.

Now some background about the system of standard English...

1.  English has two schemes for comparing adjectives (and adverbs, though I'm going to focus on adjectives here): a morphological scheme, for "inflected comparatives" in -er, like safer and handsomer; and a syntactic scheme, for "periphrastic comparatives" with more (or less), like more comfortable and more handsome.  There's a lot to be said about which adjectives use which scheme, but that's (fortunately) beside the point here.  The first big generalization is

Same Syntax: Inflected comparatives and periphrastic comparatives have almost entirely the same syntax.

This is no great surprise, since comparison by inflection and comparison by periphrasis have the same semantics.  But notice the hedge "almost entirely"; alternative expressions virtually never have EXACTLY the same syntax.  The differences between the distribution of inflected and periphrastic comparatives are (again, fortunately) beside the point here; it's a similarity we're interested in, a similarity in the kinds of modifiers they can take.

2.  To get at this, I'm going to introduce a piece of terminology: the MODIFIER SET for a word is the set of all expressions that can combine as an adjunct with this word as head; and the modifier set for a word class is the union of the modifier sets for all the words of that class.  To illustrate: the modifier set for the class of (plain) adjectives is the set of degree expressions, among them very, pretty, how, so, and more.  And the modifier set for the class of nouns comprises both adjectival expressions (safe, handsome, comfortable) and determiner expressions, both determinatives (words especially devoted to serving as determiners, like the, a, much, many, more, and this) and expressions of other types, like the noun lot of a lot of and possessive NPs like the doctor's

An important complexity: the determiners in the modifier set for nouns are different for different types of nouns.  In particular, (singular) mass nouns, singular count nouns, and plural count nouns take somewhat different determiners; much goes only with mass nouns (much shrubbery), a only with singular count nouns (a bush), many only with plural count nouns (many bushes), while more and lot go with "extended" nouns (mass or plural count: more shrubbery, a lot of shrubbery; more bushes, a lot of bushes).  Hang on; we're going to need these facts in a little while.

In any case, we can now state the relevant special case of Same Syntax:

Inflected comparatives and periphrastic comparatives have the same modifier sets.

Examples (from standard English): much/a lot handsomer, much/a lot more handsome, *very/so handsomer, *very/so more handsome.

Put another way:

Same Modifier Set: The modifier set for inflected comparatives is the same as the modifier set for the degree word more.

3.  And the modifier set for the degree word more (a quantity modifier) is something of a surprise.  To start with, it's nothing like the modifier sets for other degree words.  Many degree words don't allow any modifiers, but some do, and these are themselves familiar degree words: so very big, with so modifying very; very surprisingly big, with very modifying surprisingly.  But, as we've just seen, very and so can't modify degree more.

In case you were trying to think of the degree word more as just an adjective, you'll now see that that can't be right, since the modifier set for adjectives is just the familiar degree words, and none of these can modify degree more.

Instead, the modifiers of degree more (and less) are quantity modifiers: much, no, any, a lot, lots, a bit, a great/good deal.  Where else do we see these?  Astonishingly, they also function as DETERMINERS, in the modifier set for nouns -- specifically, for mass nouns: much shrubbery, any confusion, no information, a lot of trouble, lots of rice, a bit of grass, a great/good deal of wine, parallel to much more handsome, no more satisfactory, any more intelligent, a lot more complicated, lots more ridiculous, a bit less convincing, a great/good deal less tasty.  Not all mass determiners of quantity can also modify degree more -- some and all can't -- but the relationship is very close.

At this point, it looks like degree more is acting like a noun.  But that can't be right, either, because the nominal determiners lot, lots, bit, deal don't get the of that's required when they combine with a noun.

4.  However, there's one more place where we see essentially the modifier set much, a lot, etc.: as the modifier set for DETERMINER more with mass nouns: much more shrubbery, no more information, any more confusion, a lot more trouble, lots more rice, a bit more grass, a great/good deal more wine.  We even pick up at least one more modifier that degree more shares with determiner more, namely somewhat (somewhat more handsome, somewhat more lettuce, but *somewhat lettuce).  In other words:

DetDeg: The modifier set for degree more is almost identical to the modifier set for mass determiner more.

(We have to specify the MASS determiner more here, because determiner more can also be used with plural count nouns, in which case its modifier set reflects the properties of the plural count noun: many more bushes vs. much more shrubbery.)

Another way of thinking about these facts is:

One More: There is only one lexical item more here, but it gets used in in two different constructions, in two different syntactic functions, degree modifier and determiner; the facts about the modifier sets are (virtually) identical because they are facts about a single lexical item.

(There's now a question about what the CATEGORY of this lexical item is -- a fascinating question, but one that would take us even further afield.)

5.  These connections between different constructions have long been known -- the early monument of the literature on English comparatives is Joan Bresnan's 1973 monograph "Syntax of the comparative clause construction in English", published as a 70-page article in Linguistic Inquiry -- but I've always thought of them as one of the coolest facts about English, not at all something that you'd be likely to predict from first principles.

In any case, the standard English system hangs together in a remarkable way: Same Modifier Set and One More, together with a stipulation of the modifier set for this item more, do the job.

6.  So what's happened with the non-standard degree modification, as in "How safer is America?" and other examples like those below (involving both inflectional and periphrastic comparatives)?

Computer Newbies- it should show them why to switch and how safer and easier it is than other browsers. (link) just how healthier are we going to be when volatile climates have wiped out half the world's wheat crop one of these years? (link)

... and above all this the products are very, very safer for both myself and family and the environment. (link)

And nobody knew what will happen if we reach communism so it was pretty safer for the party to say we're just on the way. (link)

But how more efficient is this system when compared to current ones? (link)

And, if you're embarrassed about it, think of how more comfortable sucking your thumb is when you have one. (link)

I would feel very more comfortable if there was a Carepaq style support mechanism. (link)

I can tell a story that would get you to a place like this.  You extend the modifier sets for plain adjectives to comparative adjectives, thus eliminating the oddity of modification for comparatives.  And somewhere along the way, you stop treating the periphrastic comparatives as involving degree modification in the syntax; instead, you treat more plus adjective as a kind of compound adjective, the whole thing having the comparative property, just like an inflected comparative word.

By the way, the result is briefer comparatives; you don't need that much any more.

This development would make One More dispensable, though you'd still have stipulated oddities for determiner more.

On the other hand, you could stick to One More, in which case determiner more would have its syntax altered as well.  And there are a few hits suggesting that this has happened for some people:

General good security practices will suffice for web based access since if done right, there will be very more information available than is available on ... (link)

Here I break out in asterisks.

[Addendum: I left out the Shakespeare -- "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child!" (King Lear), one of my favorite quotations -- but now Russell Borogove (and the Mome Raths?) has written to remind me.  The quotation suggests the possibility that the current modified comparatives, or at least some of them, are survivals rather than (re)inventions.  I don't know a damn thing about the history; as I keep telling people, I don't do REAL historical linguistics (or REAL phonetics or REAL formal semantics), but just appeal, whimpering, to the specialists.  In any case, I hope to post soon about yet another case where survival and (re)invention are both live possibilities.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:31 PM

Apologize already

My blogospheric friend argotnaut had an interesting post yesterday about the pope's "apology" to the world's Muslims. She quotes the following from this Yahoo! News article:

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address ... which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," the pope said during the traditional Angelus blessing from the balcony of his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.

To which argotnaut fairly responds:

"I'm sorry YOU went bonkers over what I said" is far, far, far from any kind of real apology, such as "I'm sorry I said that."

(In case you missed these here on Language Log before, here are two posts on the art of the (non-)apology.)

That'll teach me to trust the headlines and summary sentences in the RSS feed I subscribe to from the New York Times. Until I read argotnaut's post, I had assumed that the pope had initially issued a non-apology and then an actual apology.

This assumption was based on the following headlines and summary sentences for three articles by Ian Fisher. (Note: the third article is more or less a reworking of the second, hence the same summary sentence.)

  1. Sept. 16: Vatican Says Pope Benedict Regrets Offending Muslims
    The Vatican statement stopped short of the direct personal apology from Benedict that many Muslims have been demanding.
  2. Sept. 17: Pope Apologizes for Remarks About Islam
    Church experts said it appeared to be first time a pope has made such a direct apology.
  3. Sept. 17: In a Rare Step, Pope Expresses Personal Regret
    Church experts said it appeared to be first time a pope has made such a direct apology.

Just based on the headlines and summary sentences, doesn't it sound like the pope first tried to "express regret" and then actually apologized? It sure did to me, but I was wrong. From what I gather from the articles, the only difference between the pope's two (sets of) statements is that he was a little more clear the second time around about whether or not he agrees with the sentiment of the quotation that has (rightly) upset Muslims the world over. In the first story we find:

Cardinal Bertone, named the second-in-command at the Vatican on Friday, said that the pope's comments had been interpreted in a way that "absolutely did not correspond to his intentions." [...] While making clear that he was quoting someone else, Benedict did not say whether he agreed or not.

By contrast, the second story says:

"These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought," the pope, 79, said in Italian, according to the official English translation.

That's certainly an improvement, but still not the "direct apology" that many seek from the pope in this case.

And it's a good thing I've learned to be skeptical of the headlines and summary sentences on my NYT RSS feed. This morning, I read the following:

But then I read the article, where it says (emphasis added):

The astronauts first reported smoke, but Mr. Williams later said that what they were detecting was a chemical smell. Potassium hydroxide itself is odorless, but the smell was probably associated with whatever caused the leak, such as a gasket in the Elektron that may have overheated.

I guess consistency between headline/summary and article is too much to expect from the NYT.

[ Update --

See now Ian Fisher's Sept. 18 article, Many Muslims Say Pope's Apology Is Inadequate. (Summary sentence: "The pope had only said he was 'sorry' for the 'reaction' to a speech discussing Islam last week, noted some Muslims.")

Many Muslims -- and some Catholics -- noted that the pope had only said he was "sorry" for the "reaction" that fanned out across the Muslim world and among Muslims in Europe. He did not say that he had made a mistake in using the quotations.

"You either have to say 'I'm sorry' in a proper way or don't say it at all," said Mehmet Aydin, a state minister in Turkey, where Benedict is scheduled to visit in November in his first trip to a Muslim country. "Are you sorry for saying such a thing or because of the consequences?"

-- end update ]

[ Update 2 --

Note now the new title for the first Sept. 17 article: Pope Apologizes for Uproar Over His Remarks. That just says it all right there.

-- end update 2 ]

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 11:33 AM

No, Really, Oldest Writing Isn't Oldest Known Language

I've been hearing from Language Log readers who make good points and make me realize that I neglected to dot a few crucial i's and cross a couple of vital t's in my recent post Oldest Writing System vs. Oldest Language.

Here's Rob Perez:

While we can presume that there are Mesoamerican languages older than the oldest known written language, is there actual evidence of such a language such that it could be said to be known? The reporter didn't make the claim that it was the oldest language (according to your quote) but that it was the oldest known language. Seems to me that those could be different.
And then Robin Shannon:

The reporter only claimed that it could yield the key to "the oldest known language in the Americas". Known language rather than actual language. Surely this is a fair enough call since we can not know of any languages without any physical evidence from the language. Of course there were languages before this but they are not known languages.

Fair enough, indeed. But I'd still disagree. That argument goes through only if it's reasonable to link "age of language" with "age of earliest attestation [written record] of language". But that's the whole problem: it isn't. There are lots of known languages in the Americas that have to be older than 3000 years -- admittedly, by the roughest of estimates, but still, these are not wild guesses. The Salishan language family of the Pacific Northwest provides one example: the estimated time depth for the whole 24-language family is about 4000 years, which means that the parent language of the family was last spoken ca. 4000 years ago. The parent language (a.k.a. proto-language) is not attested; few parent languages are. Latin, the parent of the Romance languages, is an exception; Ancient Greek, the parent of Modern Greek, is another. So, probably, is whatever language the newly-discovered Olmec inscriptions are written in -- if it has one or more descendants, it's the parent of the family. It's certain that any language recorded 3000 years ago is not still spoken; languages change much too fast for that to be possible. Another example: the time depth of the Algonquian language family of North America (28 languages) is ca. 2500-3000 years; and it has two distant relatives in California, which pushes the date back at least another 2000 years. So the total time depth is at least 5000 years, which means that the parent language of that family is both known (though not attested) and considerably older than 3000 years. Those are just two of numerous examples.

I guess I should say why I claim that these proto-languages are known: historical linguists have a powerful comparative method that permits, with impressive reliability, the reconstruction of sizable chunks of a proto-language's vocabulary, sound system, and word structure. The method involves systematic comparison of the structures of the daughter languages, which are attested and in most cases still spoken, and it's one of the major success stories in the historical sciences. The point is that the existence of the proto-language of a well-established language family is not a matter of guesswork: it is the only viable hypothesis that can account for the systematic correspondences found throughout the vocabulary and structure of all of the proto-language's daughter languages. [Please note: I am not responsible for the sexist terminology of historical linguistics. Languages have sisters, proto-languages have daughters, and there's also the popular term Mother Tongue; no brothers, no sons, no fathers. Makes sense, I guess, since sister languages have just one parent.]

Posted by Sally Thomason at 08:31 AM

Type Like a Pirate Day

Tomorrow is Talk Like a Pirate Day, and an instructional video about how to speak Pirate is now available on YouTube:

But it's even easier to learn to type Pirate than to talk Pirate, especially if you have the right equipment:

Here's how we marked Type Like a Pirate Day in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The 2005 edition includes some useful information about the history of view that movie pirates are R-ful. The 2004 edition includes some even more useful information about how Thomas Jefferson dealt with real pirates.

[Video tip from Daniel Drucker]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:24 AM

September 17, 2006

Wut? Wen? Wich?

Gene Weingarten's column in today's  The Washington Post (already mentioned by Ben Zimmer on the American Dialect Society's mailing list), discusses his confusion about how to pronounce the  word, "what." This reminded me of my first teaching experience with seventh graders in Akron, Ohio some  fifty years ago. One of my students caught me before class and informed me that his mother told him that he should always pronounce this word with a puff of air on the "w" and that I, his English teacher, didn't follow that rule. What was I thinking of, anyway? Then he pulled out our Language Arts textbook and proved to me that his mother was absolutely right. I was totally off-base the way I talked.

This "nyah-nyah" technique is common among students who are always on the alert for flaws, if not hypocrisy, in their teachers. But, as it turns out, I had just finished a graduate school class in Dialect Geography and I was ready for him. I told him that this would make a good class project. I gave the class enough phonetics to help them distinguish between the  /w/ and /hw/ sounds in word initial position, then gave them a list of words, including "what," "when," and "which," and sent them home to do some fieldwork. They were to observe and record the way their friends, relatives, and anyone else pronounced these words. Even public figures speaking on the local radio station were fair game. My young fieldworkers were to then count up the number of times they heard their subjects say either /w/ or /hw/ and come back to class with the results.

Together we discovered that /w/, as in "wut," won hands down over /hw/, as in "hwut." Even the mayor and many local clerics used it. Although Akron is in northern Ohio, where the Northern dialect might be expected, its settlement history (which we also studied briefly) puts it in the North Midland dialect area, where the findings of my students could be predicted.

But we didn't stop there. For those who found some /hw/ pronunciations, I asked them where these speakers grew up. In cases for which this information could be discovered, we found that they all came from areas where the Northern dialect was spoken. So I drew a rough isogloss on a map of the country, showing the Northern-Midland distinction. But even that wasn't all. Next I had them look at the title page of their  textbook to discover where it was published. Boston. "And what dialect area might that be?" I asked them. They got the point.

We had some great discussions about the pronunciation of English in the US, leading us to examine other pronunciation and vocabulary variables. More important, I think, was that my young students learned, perhaps for the first time, that there are many acceptable ways to speak their language, one of which involves perfectly acceptable regional variation. You can imagine where this led us next. We didn't do much with that textbook, which was full of  archaic grammatical commandments and false claims about usage. Instead, we did  fieldwork about these topics, which got me into considerable hot water with the prinicpal.

As can be imagined, I didn't last very long as a junior high school English teacher. But I have a fond hope that at least some of my young students ended their school year with a very different view of how their language really works. And maybe they learned a little about research and history as well.

PS: Gene Weigarten claims that he pronounces "what" to rhyme with "squat." Hmm. I don't think I ever heard anyone say it that way and he couldn't seem to find anyone else to agree with him either.  Personally, I still say my native "wut" with no embarrassment "wutsoever." And I hope my seventh grade students, now in their early sixties, still do too.

UPDATE: Thanks to all the people who have straightened me out about "what" ryhming with "squat." I'll have to get my hearing aids checked.
Posted by Roger Shuy at 06:22 PM

On Prescriptivism

Although we linguists often lament our inability to influence what most people think about language, there is one area in which I fear that we may have been too successful. In the past few years I have encountered a surprising number of examples of people mistakenly condemning an observation or complaint about language use as prescriptivism. In some circles those alleged to be guilty of this sin are known as "grammar nazis". I think that it is therefore worth spending some time clarifying what prescriptivism is and why and when it is bad.

So, what is prescriptivism? The term can actually be used in two senses, only one of which carries any value judgment. At one level, we can distinguish between descriptive linguistics, whose goal is to describe as accurately as possible what people actually do, and prescriptive linguistics, whose goal is to tell people what do. As I point out below, there are circumstances in which linguistic prescription is perfectly appropriate, but most of the time the term prescriptivism is used in a second sense, one that carries with it a negative value judgment.

In this second sense, prescriptivism is criticism of deviation from an arbitrary standard merely because it is deviation. Why is it it bad? In part, it is bad because it falsely assumes the existence of a uniform and unchanging standard and thereby fails to recognize the naturalness of linguistic variation and change. Another reason it is bad is because it is frequently, though not always, based on bad descriptive linguistics. That is, the standard to which it appeals is frequently unreal. The putative standard may be an incorrect description of some previous stage of the language or even a mere figment of the imagination of the pundit, who has evidently not given much thought to the matter. Frequently, but again not always, prescriptive claims are based on unfounded claims for the superiority of the standard usage, e.g. that only the standard usage is "logical".

Perhaps the worst thing about prescriptivism is that it is frequently a device for demonstrating the superiority of the pundit and his or her favorite class of people over everyone else. It feeds discrimination, particularly classism. The standards to which pundits appeal are invariably those of a socioeconomic elite. The standard tends to combine their natural speech with details that one can only acquire by means of extensive education.

There are some things that look superficially like prescriptivism but aren't. One of these is lamenting the loss of a useful distinction. For example, a pet peeve of mine is the incorrect use of abbreviations in footnotes in scholarly writing. All too often nowadays I see v., cf., and viz used as if they all meant "see". Traditionally, these have three distinct meanings. The only one that means "see" is v., an abbreviation for vide. cf. stands for confer "compare". It is appropriately used when you want to point the reader to a contrasting view or approach. viz is properly used to indicate that the following items constitute an exhaustive list. People seem either to think that it is an alternative way of saying "see" or that it is an alternative to e.g.. (Note, by the way, that there is no period after viz. That is because it stands for videlicet and the z itself is taken to show that it is an abbreviation.)

Now, why is my dislike for the conflation of these three abbreviations not prescriptivism? It is because what I decry is not deviation from a standard merely because it is deviation but because it results in the loss of a useful distinction. When I encounter cf. in a recent paper, I can no longer assume that the author is pointing me at a view differing from his own or a study using another methodology. If that is what I am looking for, I may waste a trip to the library. Furthermore, the loss of this distinction is not really a natural linguistic change. After all, the whole system of scholarly apparatus is specialized and artificial. The reason that this distinction is being lost is that those responsible for training scholars have largely ceased to teach it. Students are expected to pick it up, and all too often they fail to pick up on some of the details.

That my distaste for the incorrect usage of cf. is not mere conservatism can be seen in its contrast with my attitude toward another traditional aspect of scholarly appartus, namely the use of citation elements like op. cit. and ibid., which I am glad to see the back of. In the system of which these are a part, which younger readers may not be familiar with, a full reference to a cited work is given in the first note that refers to it. The first footnote might contain a full reference like this:

Chao, Yuen-Ren (1934) "The Non-Uniqueness of Phonemic Solutions of Phonetic Systems" Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica 4.4.363-97.

The next footnote to refer to this paper might read:

Chao, op. cit., p. 393.

In order to interpret this reference, we have to know that op. cit. means "the work (already) cited" and scan back through the footnotes until we find the first mention of this work of Chao's. If the previous note was also a reference to the same work of Chao's, we would write:

Ibid., p. 393.

where ibid. "the same" tells us to look at the previous note containing a citation. In a sparsely footnoted paper, the previous note may be pages back and in any case notes not containing citations may intervene. In a densely footnoted paper, the first reference to a particular work may be pages back. This system therefore imposes on the reader a lot of flipping back and forth looking for the note that actually contains the information desired. It's a real pain in the neck. It probably made some sense when books were written by hand so that cross-referencing was difficult, but there is no excuse for it now. It is much easier to collect all of the references at the end and refer to them in notes as "Chao (1934)" or "[12]". Then the reader knows exactly where to go to get the information.

Of these two aspects of the traditional system of scholarly apparatus, there is one that I would like to preserve and another that I would like to get rid of, because the one is useful and the other is time-consuming and irritating.

Another case that looks like prescriptivism but isn't is lamenting deviation from common usage because it is misleading, as in my tweak of Microsoft over its "Microsoft Genuine Software Initiative". Here the deviation from common usage is not the result of natural variation and change but a conscious decision on the part of marketers to reframe an argument. A similar case would be the critique of anti-abortion activists' self-description as "pro-life" when many, perhaps most of them also hold views that may be regarded as anti-life, such as favoring the death penalty, opposing gun control, favoring the invasion of Iraq and other wars that are not unequivocally self-defensive in nature, or opposing contraception in the face of evidence that contraception is a major tool in reducing the incidence of AIDS. On the other side of the political spectrum a similar case is the critique of the pretense that the goal of university admissions programs is "diversity", the argument being that such programs are not constructed in such a way as to produce true diversity. In both cases, the point of the critique is not to condemn deviation from standard usage merely because it is deviation but to condemn what is arguably misleading propaganda based on linguistic slight of hand.

Finally, let me point out that there are situations in which prescription of language use is entirely appropriate. One is where it is very important that the intended audience fully understand the material and there is significant risk of misunderstanding. An example arises in the airline industry. Large commercial aircraft are complex machines with thousands of parts that are in constant use. They require regular and careful maintenance. The consequences of doing something wrong can be devastating. As a result, manufacturers such as Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Airbus and Embraer produce voluminous, detailed service manuals.

The problem is, these manuals must be comprehensible to mechanics who are not native speakers of English. Such aircraft are serviced in too many countries for it to be economical to translate the manuals into all of the languages that the mechanics may speak. Furthermore, even a mechanic reading a manual in his or her own first language may be confused if the language is excessively complex or uses unfamiliar vocabulary. Boeing addresses this problem by requiring all of its manuals to be written in a precisely specified subset of English, one that allows only certain words and certain constructions to be used. (Other manufacturers may well do this too. I happen to know about Boeing because I once visited their natural language processing group.) This ensures that mechanics with a certain level of proficiency in reading English will be able to understand the manuals without confusion. It also makes it easier to automate the translation of manuals into other languages if so desired.

Posted by Bill Poser at 04:50 PM

The sexy British press

I've been travelling in Europe sans laptop, and thus not having opportunities to blog. But here before me is a machine with a primitive word processor and dialup connection capabilities, so let me just briefly observe that a stop in England (where I am right now) reminded me, as has happened on previous visits, that there is a new linguistic contrast between the UK and the USA, and it's a slightly surprising one. The British have newspapers that are dramatically more sexy and coarse-languaged than anything that could be imagined for a daily news source in the USA.

Two examples from copies of The Independent that I saw in my first couple of days here:

  • a reference (September 6) to how a wine critic once, "notoriously" (meaning this has been much quoted already), described a certain wine as "long and full in the mouth, like a penis."

  • a column by Catherine Townsend called "Sleeping Around" (and yes, it is devoted entirely to the sexual life and underwear of the bylined writer) in which she says (September 7): "I'm really looking forward to a date with someone who will hopefully stimulate my cerebrum as well as my clitoris."

It is not unknown for American newspapers to mention appendages with sexual pleasure as their most salient use; but I think it would be hard to find an American daily (as opposed to a free weekly alternative paper) talking casually in the features pages about oral stimulation thereof. This is surprising given the general background of the culture in Britain, which used to have an official acting for the Crown (the Lord Chamberlain) censoring theater productions, and has never permitted hard-core porn in cinemas (Linda Lovelace visited England to promote Deep Throat in the 1970s, but it was never legally shown to the public in the UK, and still isn't), and so on. Against this backdrop it seems slightly incongruous that now you can openly talk about cocksucking in the food section of a family newspaper in Britain when across the USA you cannot even print the word c*** unless it is firmly au vin.

Grammatical P.S.: I did notice the placement of hopefully in the second quote, so don't write to me about it. Remarkably inept. The old controversy about hopefully concerned whether it should be used as a speech act-related adjunct (meaning "it is to be hoped") at all. That debate was over long ago. It now has that use in addition to functioning as a manner adjunct (meaning "in a hopeful manner"). There is nothing wrong with either use. But to disambiguate the two, it is standard to put the adverb inside the verb phrase when it's a manner adjunct and outside (e.g., before the auxiliary, or at the front of the clause) when it's speech act-related. That may not be quite obligatory, but it's a very straightforward way of disambiguating the new ambiguity. So had Ms Townsend turned to me for syntactic advice, I would have recommended someone who hopefully will stimulate my cerebrum as well as my clitoris, rather than what appeared in the newspaper. Assuming, of course, that there isn't any such thing as hopeful clitoral stimulation. Which I suppose, now that I come to think about it, there just might be... We should probably get off this topic, with its mouthwatering possibilities for double entendres, before I get dug in any deeper...

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 10:58 AM

David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist

Having digested Leonard Sax on "the emerging science of sex differences", David Brooks has been continuing his education in neuroscience by reading Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain ("Is Chemistry Destiny?" 9/17/2006):

These sorts of stark sex differences were once highly controversial, and not fit for polite conversation. And some feminists still argue that talking about biological differences between the sexes is akin to talking about biological differences between the races. But Brizendine’s feminist bona fides are unquestionable. And in my mostly liberal urban circle — and among this book’s reviewers — almost everybody takes big biological differences as a matter of course.

Without too much debate or even awareness, there has been a gigantic shift in how people think human behavior is formed.
... In the 1950’s, the common view was that humans begin as nearly blank slates and that behavior is learned through stimulus and response. ...

But now the prevailing view is that brain patterns were established during the millenniums when humans were hunters and gatherers, and we live with the consequences.

This is all true, as a picture of social trends in scientific (and popular) attitudes. But maintaining the 1950s "blank slate" orthodoxy required true believers to ignore mountains of contrary evidence, and the emerging "hard-wired" creed has exactly the same problem.

In my opinion, the most important insight in this area right now is Deena Skolnick's demonstration of the power of neuroscience to cloud people's minds. She took explanations of psychological phenomena that had been crafted to be "awful", and which (in their plain form) were recognized as bad both by novices and by experts, and added some (totally irrelevant) sentences about brain anatomy and physiology. With the added neuroscientific distraction, the bad explanations were perceived as satisfactory ones. [Update 6/6/2007: the paper has now been published, and is discussed here. ]

Brooks' conclusion:

Consciousness has come to be seen as this relatively weak driver, riding atop an organ, the brain, it scarcely understands. ...

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

Again, this is true as a description of an intellectual trend. But let's be careful to keep the political agendas and the scientific evidence from getting tangled. The science in this area is complex and equivocal (or more exactly, it offers unequivocal evidence for a complex interaction of genetic and environmental effects), and there's a long tradition of overinterpretation and misrepresentation on all sides of the issue, which recent works have maintained to a high degree. In addition, the connections between what is "natural" and what is "moral" -- between what comes easy to our species and how we decide we should live -- are not simple ones for any of us, and especially not for cultural conservatives like David Brooks and me. (Well, at least I'm a member of one of the most conservative cultures in the history of the planet, contemporary American academics.)

Other posts on Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The superior cunning of women" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
"Open-access sex stereotypes" (9/10/2006)
"Gabby guys: the effect size" (9/25/2006)
""Every 52 seconds": wrong by 23,736 percent?" (10/13/2006)
"Guys are a bit gabbier in Dutch, too" (10/16/2006)
"Two new reviews of Brizendine" (10/30/2006)
" Word counts" (11/28/2006)
"Sex differences in "communication events" per day?" (12/11/2006)
" The first time?" (7/5/2007)
" Female talkativeness: 'Knowledge protected against induction'" (7/6/2007)

More on the spread of these ideas in the media:

Regression to the mean in British journalism(11/28/2006)
Censorship at the Daily Mail(11/29/2006)
Contagious misinformation(12/1/2006)
Femail again(12/2/2006)
Bible Science stories(12/2/2006)
Fabricated but true?(12/3/2006)
The spread of bogus numbers in the meme pool (12/16/2006)
Busy tongues (12/31/2006)
The silence of the men (12/29/2006)
Cerebro de El País (1/28/2007)
The Female Brain is out in Britain(4/4/2007)
The New York Times slyly abets a lie (7/6/2007)

And on Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters, and Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens' The Minds of Boys:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2005)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)
"The emerging science of gendered yelling" (9/5/2006)
"The vast arctic tundra of the male brain" (9/6/2006)
"Girls and boys and classroom noise" (9/9/2006)

See also:

"He bold as a hawk, she soft as the dawn" (9/14/2006)
"Stereotypes and facts" (9/24/2006)
"Gender myths: letting science mislead" (9/30/2006)
"Political correctness, biology and culture" (10/31/2006)
"When stereotypes hang out" (11/16/2006)
"Dueling stereotypes" (11/18/2006)
" The neuroendocrinologist formerly known as Prince", 11/28/2006
" Guess what?", 2/20/2007
" Women and men again, you know?", 5/13/2007

[Note that Brooks' title is not only a rhetorical question of the foxoidal variety, it's also an instance of the "X is destiny" snowclone, which began with Heraclitus' "Character is destiny" and Sigmund Freud's "Anatomy is destiny" (often misquoted as "biology is destiny"), and continued with Wittgenstein's "Etymology is destiny", and many other riffs on the same phrasal theme. The first few pages of a Google search for "is destiny" finds X = {geology, culture, turnout, demography, strategy, intelligence, identity, communication, poetry ...} ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:23 AM

Rhetorical questions: threat or menace?

Rhetorical questions have been in the fake news at least twice in the past week. And these treatments have not been just any old mentions of the phenomenon, they've commented on the distinct functions of fine distinctions among subtypes of rhetorical questions.

On the left is a bit from the Daily Show from 9/13/2006, and on the right, Doonesbury from 9/17/2006. Trudeau's strip satirizes Donald Rumsfeld's penchant for structuring his discourse as a series of self-addressed questions and audience-directed answers. Stewart observes that CNN uses question-marked story captions as a way to establish "existential" topics -- roughly Rumsfeld's method, though sometimes applied to flag outlandish subjects like "End Times" -- whereas Fox News uses rhetorical questions as a sneaky way to insinuate things that it doesn't dare assert. Stewart parodies this by ending the segment with the title "The Question Mark: A Prophylactic Protecting Fox News from Anything it might Contract During its Extensive GOP C**ksucking?"

Fox is not the inventor of the technique that Stewart complains about, obviously -- Fev at Headsup has been complaining for some time the use of questions in headlines (e.g. here, here, here), focusing especially on cases where the question mark is used as a form of attribution (headline "Was grudge factor in death?", subhead "Suspect in patient's death said victim stole her boyfriend, woman says detective told her").

Scanning the internets for other commentary, I stumbled over something called Davis's Law: If a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is "no". I interpret this to mean "if a headline seems to ask a yes/no question, the headline writer wants you to think 'yes' at least long enough to read the story, but the true answer will probably be 'no' or at least least 'no one has a clue'". However, looking over uses of the technique in the annals of Language Log (we're not afraid to examine our own practices here -- and if rhetorical questions are outlawed, only Fox News will have rhetorical questions), the intended answer often seems to be "well, sort of": "Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God?"; "An editorial conflict of interest at Slate?"; "Can Derrida be even wrong?"

Anyhow, this all suggests a set of non-rhetorical questions about rhetorical questions, and Google Scholar indicates that there are 89,200 answers out there. The Daily Show needs a staff linguist, don't you think?

[Daily Show tips from David Donnell and Jake Tolbert]

[By the way, there seems to be a completely unrelated Davis's Law dealing with muscle physiology, variously quoted on the internets as "Soft tissue models along the line of stress" or "Muscles which are held in a shortened position will increase in tonus" or "The contraction of a muscle will also set off a contraction of the adjacent muscles".]

[Update -- Don Porges writes:

Winston thought for a moment, then pulled the speakwrite towards him and began dictating in Big Brother's familiar style: a style at once military and pedantic, and, because of a trick of asking questions and then promptly answering them ('What lessons do we learn from this fact, comrades? The lesson -- which is also one of the fundamental principles of Ingsoc -- that,' etc., etc.), easy to imitate.

Rumsfeld's characteristic use of the self-answered question is different, at least according to my memory. The questions that he asks are his version of (some of) the hard and even hostile questions that he expects his audience to want answers to. The fact that he asks them himself is disarming, but of course it also allows him to choose the terms of both sides of the debate.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:57 AM

September 15, 2006

Spreading the faith by the sword, and vice versa

Pope Benedict XVI has incited a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world by relying on an obscure medieval polemic to illustrate a point about religion and violence. In the speech, given at Regensburg University in Germany, the Pope turned to a dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and "an educated Persian," dated to 1391. The Emperor is quoted as 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.

Though the Pope made it clear that he was only quoting this viewpoint, he didn't do much to disavow it in the immediate context of his speech. (And his portrayal of the Prophet's teachings in the Qur'an is erroneous in other ways, as Juan Cole and others have pointed out.) As if that wasn't inflammatory enough, the New York Times managed to bollix the money quote in its original article on the speech.

Here is the correction currently running at the bottom of the Times story:

Because of a transcription error, an article on Wednesday about a speech by Pope Benedict XVI in Germany, in which he addressed the concept of Muslim holy war, rendered incorrectly a phrase from a quotation by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. The correct quotation reads, "Show me just what Muhammad 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." — not "to spread the sword by the faith he preached."

It's easy to see how a transcriber could get tripped up on the English translation of the Pope's phrasing, since it places the prepositional phrase "by the sword" before "the faith he preached" (the object of the verb "to spread"). Not that there's any real preferable alternative, since putting the prepositional phrase at the end — "to spread the faith he preached by the sword" — makes it ambiguous whether "by the sword" modifies "spread" or "preached". So the stilted phrasing got switched around by moving the "by" forward, treating the NP closest to the verb ("the sword") as a direct object and the more distant NP ("the faith he preached") as the object of the preposition. Unfortunately, that drastically alters the sense, with the sword spread by the faith rather than vice versa.

It's possible that the Pope's distinctive phrasing is due to the Vatican's translation of the original German text, where the quote reads:

Zeig mir doch, was Mohammed Neues gebracht hat, und da wirst du nur Schlechtes und Inhumanes finden wie dies, daß er vorgeschrieben hat, den Glauben, den er predigte, durch das Schwert zu verbreiten.

If I'm not mistaken, a word-for-word translation of the relevant part ("den Glauben, den er predigte, durch das Schwert zu verbreiten") would be "the faith, which he preached, by the sword to spread." German's verb-final word order makes it a bit easier to put the prepositional phrase nearby ("durch das Schwert"/"by the sword") without causing any ambiguity with what it should modify.

Pope Benedict's German phrasing was in turn likely based on French, since he is quoting Theodore Khoury's Entretiens avec un musulman, 7e Controverse (1966). And who knows what linguistic material Khoury used as the basis for his French work (Ottoman Turkish? Latin?). Whatever the provenance, this arcane bit of cross-linguistic polemics is turning out to have enormous repercussions.

[Update, 9/18: Curtis Booth helpfully points out that Khoury would have relied on the original Greek manuscript for his translation. Booth wonders why Pope Benedict depended on Khoury, since Erich Trapp's German translation (Manuel II palaiologos: Dialoge mit einem 'Perser') was also published in 1966. ("Maybe the pope was just brushing up on his French," Booth suggests.)

For more on the polemics of Manuel II, see this article on "De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors." There it's argued that the "Dialogues with a Persian" are actually "a mixture of fact and fiction." And Jean Jacques Waardenburg's Muslims and Others (available on Google Book Search) notes that the Emperor's interlocutor is actually Turkish, but is "abusively called 'Persian.'']

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 03:37 PM

Oldest Writing System vs. Oldest Language

This morning NPR reported on an exciting find in Veracruz, Mexico: the discovery of fragments with apparent writing dating back to the Olmec civilization, nearly 3000 years ago. This would, the NPR introducer of the segment said, be "the oldest writing found in the Americas". She then handed over to a reporter who gave some details, including brief interviews with archaeologists (not linguists -- presumably the expert decipherers of Epi-Olmec haven't yet gotten into the act). This reporter closed with the dramatic statement that further finds could yield the key to "the oldest known language in the Americas".

Too bad: up to that point it was a great piece. But then the reporter fell into the common trap of equating the oldest known writing system with the oldest language. It reminded me of a story from my undergraduate days, the oldest academic horror story in my repertoire (well, except for the one about the geography teacher who took roll every day and then read a chapter of the textbook, which he had written): The Oldest Romance Language.

The professor was teaching the second linguistics course I ever took, at Stanford, long before the university had a linguistics department. The course was worthless in every way, partly because he chose the textbook -- by Mario Pei -- as a prime example of an academic fooling the system into thinking he was doing good academic work, and partly because he never actually talked about linguistics, instead devoting class periods to complaining about parking problems, his dog, and other ultimately uninteresting things. (Some dogs are interesting. Mine, for instance: just take a look at my home page. His wasn't.)

One day he told us how he had thwarted an evil colleague who was trying to gain an advantage over him. My professor, whose academic home was the Romance Languages Department, was a specialist in Italian. His hated colleague specialized in Portuguese. At an upcoming doctoral defense (on a completely unrelated topic), my prof said, he knew that his colleague would ask the student what the oldest Romance language was. And if the student didn't answer that Portuguese is the oldest Romance language, the colleague would fail him in the defense. BUT, my prof said proudly, I am not going to let him get away with that! If the student does say Portuguese, I will fail her in the defense!

This story impressed me deeply, even more deeply than his story about almost slapping a postal clerk who, noticing that the prof was sending a letter to Italy, tried out some broken Italian on him and...used the familiar form of address! Heinous. The experience in this class did not sour me on linguistics (since I never heard anything about it in the class anyway, I couldn't blame the field for this course), but it did make me suspect -- no doubt unfairly -- that I would not find a happy home in a Romance Languages department. To this day I still don't know for sure whether the argument about Portuguese was based solely on the purported or actual relative ages of the earliest writings in Romance languages. But I bet it was.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 09:18 AM

"Singular they" mailbag

My post "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it" has brought in quite a bit of email. I've added updates to the original post, citing the notes that added specifically to the content. But there were some more general comments as well, which I've posted below.

The incoming mail is in red, my comments are in black, and quotes from others are in blue.

You might want to re-read the original post before venturing past the jump -- and if the topic of "singular they" bores you, please feel free to return to our usual run of comic strips and astronomical observations.

This note comes from David Meadows:

You're citing a source that includes such spelling variants as "bee", "vaine", "minde", "esteeme", "then" (for "than") and "themselues", and claiming it as an authoritative proof of a point of English grammar?

Was your post intended sarcastically or am I missing some deeper linguistic point?

(This is a serious question. I am not a linguist by training and I usually find your Language Log articles extremely enlightening, but I'm struggling to understand how the KJV can possibly be relevant to your argument.)

Well, it was more of a joke than an argument. (For foreign readers, or those who don't get out much, the context of the joke includes a saying often seen these days on "bumper stickers and other Christian products".)

The argument was settled long ago: singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers, until certain subcases were artificially turned into "errors" by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language.

It's true that English spelling wasn't codified until the 18th and 19th centuries. And it's true that there's an analogy between the process of regularizing spelling and the process of deciding to forbid "singular they" and split infinitives and so on. But it's a false analogy.

Spelling is an essentially artificial intellectual construct, requiring many arbitrary choices, both large and small. Consistency is intrinsically valuable (though this value is often over-estimated) because it helps readers to cope with their difficult and artificial task; and communities of writers don't naturally converge on consistent practices. In terms of the large choices, we could write English using a system derived from Chinese logograms, or Greek letters, or Arabic letters, or Sanskritic devanagari characters, or the International Phonetic Alphabet, or something completely different. It's important for all of us to make more or less the same basic choice. Even then, there are lots of possibilities for variation, as Tudor and Elizabethan spelling practices demonstrate. This variation causes fewer problems for readers than the difference between cuneiform and the Latin alphabet would, but it's still plausible that it's easier for readers (though harder for writers) to agree on a consistent way to spell each wordform.

Thus the codification of English spelling was basically a Good Thing, and one which required the intervention of a small number of self-appointed authorities. Alas, they botched the task, leaving us with a mess that causes billions of dollars a year in on-going damages. But the result is now OUR botch, and it's too hard to change it, so we need to learn it, and we might as well try to enjoy it.

In contrast, the choice among he, she, it and they is part of a natural order, developed spontaneously by millions of speakers, hearers, writers and readers. Languages with no writing system also develop systems of this kind -- and with or without writing, no experts are needed in order to create the set of shared assumptions that foster communication. Eugene Volokh, following Friedrich Hayek, made a distinction that is useful here:

Language defined by changing usage is what some call a "grown order" -- a judgment formed by millions of people, based on their senses of what is convenient and comfortable for them. (Free market economic decisions are another classic example of something that's mostly a grown order.) Linguistic prescriptivism (dictionarymakers recording what they think should be the usage, not what is the usage), is a "made order" -- a judgment of a small group of people selected for the purpose of rendering their judgment. Made orders are sometimes useful, for instance in the setting of technical standards. But as to language, I think the grown order approach is far more likely to yield a language that is genuinely responsive to users' needs than the made order approach.

(Note that Eugene understands that dictionary-makers actually do try to record usage rather than dictating it -- he's responding to a correspondent who argued that "without the 'Language Police' standing athwart language liberalization, every usage would slip into the dictionary". Eugene answered that "every common usage should be in the dictionary", and went on to explain why.)

Glen Whitman responded to Eugene by arguing that self-appointed language experts should also be free to peddle their wares:

Yes, grown orders (also known as spontaneous orders) are generally more responsive than made orders. But does any form of linguistic prescriptivism necessarily fall in the latter category? Unless the prescriptivists actually attempt to enforce their standards on the rest of us in the manner of the French Academy, the power of the prescriptivists to influence the language is dependent on the willingness of other speakers to follow their lead. In other words, the prescriptivists' admonitions have their place within the grown order of language.

In the marketplace of usage, the prohibition of "singular they" has not exactly prospered. Like many similar prescriptions, it ekes out a meager and marginal existence as a sort of niche product, appealing to ... Well, that's enough, I don't want to be rude.

The next note is from John Brewer:

I appreciated the posts on this, but I wonder if Prof. Liberman could offer any insight on the issue that Mr. Leman notes but then disposes of perhaps too quickly.  Unlike Prof. Liberman's prior Language Log example of the KJV rendering of Deut. 17:5, which seems like a "pure" singular they (in that presumably only one individual at a time is being stoned to death in the most common application of the provision), most of Mr. Leman's examples fit that category only if one accepts that "every one," "everyone," and "every man" are indeed semantically as well as syntactically singular in the relevant contexts.  It's not clear to me that this is necessarily the case.  Rather, they seem at least loosely analogous to those collective nouns like Congress, Parliament, Israel & Judah in the Scriptures (when referring to the nations rather then their namesake patriarchs), etc., since with "every one" etc. there is necessarily a plurality of individuals doing the same thing at the same time.  While right now the U.S. preference seems to be to treat Congress etc. as syntactically singular for purposes of verb agreement while the British are more willing to treat them as syntactically plural (Congress is considering legislation, but Parliament are considering legislation), it seems widely accepted in the U.S. to use they/them with such nouns as the antecedent, even in the same sentence in which a singular verb is used.  "Congress is going to raise our taxes again unless we tell them to knock it off."   "If Citibank calls back, tell them we need to stop payment on that check."  Note that the use of they/them in this latter context is not driven by contemporary feminism, egalitarianism, or (more cynically) fear of giving offense to the thin-skinned, since the potential alternative pronoun in modern usage would usually be "it" rather than generic he/him.

I agree with Mr. Brewer's assessment of current American practice. But the prescription against "singular their" has come to apply to all the various sub-cases -- simple indefinite nouns, nouns universally quantified with each or every, collective nouns like committee, and so on. (See "The SAT fails a grammar test" for an example where committee ... their was characterized as an error by the Educational Testing Service.)

Mr. Leman's examples with "each" also seem potentially susceptible to being understood as semantically plural.  As with the "every" examples, they could generally be paraphrased using a construction such as "all of the children of Israel" which would be syntactically plural.  It's much harder, for me at least, to get a semantically plural reading of "anyone" in the TNIV rendering of Rev. 3:20, so I'm not convinced that the KJV etc. precedents he cites directly justify that, even leaving aside the fact that the TNIV translators have rejected the KJV as an authoritative or even persuasive model in any number of other ways.  But anyone who is willing to accept the general TNIV approach to translating texts raising gender/sex issues but then gets hung up on that sort of "singular they" seems to me to be straining at a gnat after swallowing the camel.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we should follow the linguistic norms of the KJV -- among other things, they're 400 years out of date. My point was only to add to the list of examples showing that (variable but common) use of "singular they", in all its forms, has been part of standard English for a long time. (Well, that and to make a little joke about divine sanction, leading to a hypothetical bumper sticker or at least a coffee cup.)

Finally, there's an interesting KJV text I noticed after reading Prof. Liberman's earlier post on Deut 17:5 in which both singular and plural pronouns are used for the same antecedent in the same sentence.  It's Numbers 24:2:  "And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him."  (I assume Israel isn't/aren't abiding in Balaam's tents!) 

Wow. Yes, it's clear that those aren't Balaam's tents:

[1] And when Balaam sawe that it pleased the Lord to blesse Israel, hee went not, as at other times to seeke for inchantments, but hee set his face toward the wildernesse.
[2] And Balaam lift vp his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents, according to their Tribes: and the Spirit of God came vpon him.
[3]And he tooke vp his parable, and said, Balaam the sonne of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
[4] Hee hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almightie, falling into a trance, but hauing his eyes open:
[5] How goodly are thy tents, O Iacob, and thy Tabernacles, O Israel!
[6] As the valleyes are they spread forth, as gardens by the riuer side, as the trees of Lign-Aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as Cedar trees beside the waters.
[7] He shall powre the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his King shall be higher then Agag, and his Kingdome shall be exalted.

I wonder what the original pronouns are?

And last in chronological order, but by no means least in interest, is a note from David Russinoff:

Following a link from Sally Thomason's recent post on "singular 'they'", I was led to an earlier one by you ("All Lockers ..."), which in turn refers to two other articles on the subject, with the suggestion that they represent two sides of the issue. In fact, both articles embrace the usage in question, one more enthusiastically than the other. I suspect that you are aware that there actually is an opposing view but are convinced that no expression of it could be worthy of consideration. In case I'm wrong about this, I refer you to the entry on "their, etc." at <>.

The link takes us to a page on which Mr. Russinoff explains that

Occasionally ... in the spirit of Kingsley Amis's dictum, "The defence of the language is too large a matter to be left to the properly qualified", I offer my own observations. It is my hope that arrogance, pedantry, and dogmatism can compensate for what I lack in other credentials.

A link in the left margin then leads us to a spirited attack on "the use of a plural third person pronoun with an indefinite singular antecedent such as anyone, everybody, no one, a person, or each party".

I invite you to read it for yourself. To my mind, the best part is the end:

I cannot deny a certain admiration for [Churchyard's] scholarship, but ... I was reminded of Fowler's reaction to a similar argument posed by Otto Jespersen:

I confess to attaching more importance to my instinctive repugnance for [such nonsense] than to Professor Jesperson's demonstration that it has been said by more respectable authors than I had supposed.

Bravo, Mr. Russinoff! It's inspiring to see a man stand up for his convictions, even in the face of the Word of God. The "grown order" of language emerges from the competing and cooperating instincts of its users, embodied in their speech and writing, not from the pronouncements of religious or cultural authorities. So keep it up, and may the best repugnance win!

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:50 AM

The latest astronomenclature: Eris and Dysnomia

Say good-bye to Xena. The large object discovered by Mike Brown in the Kuiper Belt out beyond Neptune has an official name, replacing the jocular moniker Brown and his team used in honor of the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess. It's now called Eris, according to a ruling by the executive committee of the International Astronomical Union. Eris is the Greek goddess of discord, so it's a fitting name for an object whose discovery led to chaos in the astronomical community, ultimately resulting in the sad demotion of Pluto to nothing more than a "dwarf planet." Pluto is supposed to be the "prototype" for the new category of dwarf planets, but it's actually smaller than Eris. Adding insult to injury, the dwarf planets will all have official names prefixed by unwieldy numbers (since they're now jockeying for position with an abundance of asteroids and other minor objects), so Eris is actually (136199) Eris, while Pluto is, ignominiously enough, (134340) Pluto.

The moon of Eris (formerly nicknamed Gabrielle, companion of Xena) is now called Dysnomia, after the goddess of lawlessness, a daughter of Eris. Fans of the Xena series will spot an inside joke there, since Xena was portrayed by Lucy Lawless. Brown has stated that this is no coincidence, but rather a covert tribute to the actress. And the name Dysnomia carries another hidden message. Pluto's moon was named Charon, which just so happens to share the first syllable [*] of Charlene, wife of Charon's discoverer Jim Christy. Similarly, Mike Brown's wife is named (surprise) Diane, and news reports say that Dysnomia will be "affectionately known by Brown's team as Di."

If the IAU wants to give discordant names to other dwarf planets discovered in the future, they'll have plenty to choose from. Hesiod's Theogony lists a number of other daughters of Eris, collectively known as the Kakodaimones (evil spirits plaguing humanity):

But abhorred Eris (Strife) bare painful Ponos (Toil), and Lethe (Forgetfulness), and Limos (Starvation), and the Algea (Pains), full of weeping, the Hysminai (Fightings) and the Makhai (Battles), the Phonoi (Murders) and the Androktasiai (Man-slaughters), the Neikea (Quarrels), the Pseudo-Logoi (Lies), the Amphilogiai (Disputes), and Dysnomia (Lawlessness) and Ate (Ruin), who share one another's natures, and Horkos (Oath) who does more damage than any other to earthly men, when anyone, of his knowledge, swears to a false oath.

Let's hope that our discordant astronomers are spared further ill effects of the Kakodaimones.

[* Steve of Languagehat points out that Charon is typically pronounced like Karen. So let's say Charon and Charlene share a graphemic opening, if not a phonemic one.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:16 AM

September 14, 2006

All-embracing linguification

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), p. 6, cites an all-embracing linguification:

"The whole of nature," wrote the English author William Ralph Inge, "is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive."

I eat.  You eat. ...  I ate.  You ate. ... ...  I am eaten [aiee!].  You are eaten. ...  I was eaten.  You were eaten. ... ... I have been being eaten. ... ...

The lyrics need work, dude.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 08:45 PM

Taxonation without representation

Arriving a bit late to the Pluto pity party is Bill Amend's nerdy comic strip "FoxTrot" (Sep. 14):

Taxonation doesn't seem especially well-formed to me. It appends -ation, a suffix for nouns of action, to taxon-, which is presumably back-formed from taxonomy. But wouldn't taxonomization be the more felicitous form? The verb taxonomize is well-attested (with citations in the OED back to 1971), and taxonomization yields a healthy 600 or so Googlehits, as opposed to the handful of hits for taxonation, none in the relevant sense. But perhaps Amend rejected taxonomization since it wouldn't resonate quite as closely with the word he was punning off of, taxation.

Then again, this sort of back-formation from taxonomy isn't exactly unprecedented. Biologists use the word taxon to refer to taxonomic categories such as phylum, order, family, genus, and species. The OED says taxon first appeared in German in 1926 and filtered into English by 1929. And more recently, the word taxonomy has been morphologically dissected in another fashion, serving as a blend component for folksonomy (folk + taxonomy), a portmanteau coined by Thomas Van der Wal in 2004 to describe the sort of "social tagging" that goes on at websites like Furl, Flickr and

(Hat tip to Joel Berson.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:40 PM

He bold as a hawk, she soft as the dawn

Last Sunday, Dilbert defined success:

It's true that Alice often punctures the illusions of her co-workers with sharp little barbs of realism. But any regular reader of Scott Adams' strip will know that Dilbert himself often deflates his boss in exactly the same way. So why was Dilbert's take-away message "wasn't that just like a woman" rather than "wasn't that just like me"?

Well, the simple answer is that the alternative wouldn't have been funny. The punchline needs some kind of group connection to get a laugh. Apparently, we get a little jolt of pleasure from recognizing individual behavior as consistent with a group stereotype. And not all groups work equally well. Here Scott Adams might have satirized engineers rather than women -- "Success is the happy feeling you get between the time you do something and the time you tell an engineer what you did" -- but that wouldn't have had nearly as much impact. This is mainly because female stereotypes pack more emotional punch for more people than geek stereotypes do. But I think it's also because the pleasure of humorous stereotyping is especially piquant when it involves a sort of anti-stereotype, a subgroup that's antithetical to a group norm.

This may help explain why hostile and socially aggressive women are stock characters in the literatures of many places and times. There's a stereotype of femininity whose recent neuro-biological variant is represented by Louann Brizendine's view that "[m]aintaining the relationship at all costs is the female brain's goal", because females are "motivated -- on a molecular and a neurological level -- to ease and even prevent social conflict". But there's a corresponding anti-stereotype as well.

According to Yenna Wu ( "The Inversion of Marital Hierarchy: Shrewish Wives and Henpecked Husbands in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 48(2), 363-382, Dec., 1988:

Shrewish wives and henpecked husbands, familiar figures in world literature, make frequent appearance in many periods of Chinese literature and in various literary genres, including classical tales, biji anecdotes, folk songs, jokebooks, vernacular stories, novels and plays.

Wu describes the 17th-century Chinese theories of henpecking in ways that echo today's controversies about sex roles. Shen Defu (1578-1642) saw henpecking as created by the psychodynamics of individuals' power and status:

[He] observed that since the medieval period most officials, even emperors and ministers, had tended to be henpecked husbands. He explains that it is because these high-ranking officials do not wish to lose face by having their wives speak against them in public.

In contrast, Xie Zhaozhe (1567-1624) argued that henpecking is the current residue of interactions in the distant past, just like today's genetic explanations from evolutionary psychologists:

[He] attributed henpecking to predestination ... karmic retribution to punish men for sins they had committed in a previous existence. In his opinion, this is the worst of all punishments, for it is easier to flee from cruel parents, vicious brothers, tyrants or violent friends than from the wife to whom one is tied day and night.

Whatever explanation is given, these nested boxes of stereotype/anti-stereotype pairs are a boon to cartoonists (and neurobiologists), since no matter what someone does, you can say to yourself, "wasn't that just like a <whatever>".

Having started with Dilbert, let's close with some of the great cartoons of James Thurber, the poet laureate of sex-role inversion. In many of his panels, the joke is mostly just the fact that a woman is unexpectedly assertive or hostile:

Those two cartoons would not have been considered funny at all if two men were involved. I'm not sure about two women.

Sometimes the caption is intrinsically amusing, but takes on a special meaning in the context of sex-role inversion:

Thurber echoes Shen Defu in relating women's power to the threat of social embarrassment:

Women's aggression towards men is sometimes open and overt, as in the first two examples above, but Thurber often sees it as covert or sneaky:

And female hostility, for Thurber, usually seems to take the verbal form of gossip rather than direct confrontation when it's aimed at other women (though such gossipy asides are sometimes directed at men as well):

Thurber sometimes does depict women as seductive conversational facilitators -- but in incongruent situations:

The thread that runs through all of these cartoons, it seems to me, is the ironic distance between individuals and the stereotypes they evoke:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:40 AM

Another Portent of the End

I just read a thriller called Map of Bones. It probably won't go down in the history of literature, but it was entertaining enough. From a linguistic perspective, though, it was a bit of a disaster. The Magi, the wise men of legend who visited the baby Jesus, figure largely in the book. Unfortunately, the author thinks that magi is the singular as well as the plural (p. 233). The mention of secret arcana (p. 302) is a bit annoying too. And the Greek word for electricity was not elecktrikus (p. 340). The phrase bellissimo bambini "very beautiful children" occurs several times, e.g. p. 176, invariably incorrect. It should, of course, be bellissimi bambini - in Italian the adjective agrees in number and gender with the noun that it modifies. bambini is masculine plural so the adjective must also be masculine plural.

I guess we shouldn't expect the quotation in Greek on p. 342 to be spelled correctly. The one that really got me is near the beginning (p. 44-45). An archaeologist takes a military police officer into an excavation. As they enter, the latter quotes the inscription above the gates of Hell from Dante's Inferno: "Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate" ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter"). The archaeologist then expresses surprise that a military police officer should have "such fluency in Latin"! Latin!?!? Have we reached the point where neither the author of a thriller nor the editor know the difference between Latin and Italian, or know that one of Dante's claims to fame is that he wrote in Italian rather than Latin, thereby initiating the move from Latin to the European vernaculars?

Addendum: Mark Liberman points out that the book

was published by William Morrow (hard cover) and Avon (paperback), which are imprints of HarperCollins, itself owned by Rupert Murdoch. This is not a fly-by-night outfit.

which means that there is not much excuse for not catching such errors. Surely HarperCollins can afford editors. My question is, have the publishers relaxed their standards and replaced people with humanistic knowledge with marketers, or is it that literary types of comparable standard no longer know any Latin or Italian or history of European literature?

Posted by Bill Poser at 03:42 AM

September 13, 2006

The tyranny of the majority, and other reasons for choosing a variant

Suppose you've come into a substantial amount of money and want to spend it founding an institution of higher learning in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.  What will you call it?

Well, you start by making a list of ingredients for the name.  The two essentials are a head noun X denoting an institution type (University, College, etc.) and a modifier, which is most often a proper name N, either a place name (Lake Wobegon) or a personal name (Garrison Keillor), though there are other possibilities, and several more ingredients are possible.  Let's keep it simple: just these two.

Then you have to package them into a name, via premodification (N X: Lake Wobegon University) or prepositional postmodification (X of N: University of Lake Wobegon).  How to choose?

One way is to look at the way other people have made their choices, and let their decisions guide you.  You might look at the numbers, which say that:

(1) If X is anything other than University, N X is strongly preferred: Lake Wobegon College, Garrison Keillor Institute.

(2) If X is University, then:

    (2.1) If N is a place name, X of N is strongly preferred: University of Lake Wobegon.

    (2.2) If N is a personal name, N X is very strongly preferred: Garrison Keillor University.

Now these are statistical generalizations, and there are plenty of counterexamples that no one views as ill-formed: College of Wooster, Boston University, University of René Descartes (ok, the last one is a bit dodgy, maybe too Frenchy, but the other two are not an issue).  In the case of U.K. usage when place names are involved, both forms are usually acceptable, but official naming practices favor University of N; in the U.S., there is virtually no choice.  Still, you could say: let's go with it, choices as above.

When we came into this discussion, some postings ago, Shen Hong was quoted as advocating that the choice in (2.1) was a RULE: PlaceName University is just wrong (at least in formal contexts), according to him.  What's going on here is that a statistical preference is being bumped up to, elevated to, a rule of grammar, by a kind of majority rule: instead of seeing two constructions in competition, with one much more frequent than the other, the facts are conceptualized as a general rule plus a scattering of individual exceptions, each of which is a kind of idiom (syntactically ill-formed, but nevertheless occurring, so having to be memorized one by one). 

You can see this sort of majority rule reasoning elsewhere -- in discussions of restrictive relative which, for example, where it's sometimes pointed out that that is now the preferred variant, so why not go all the way and use that all the time?  Recently, Stanford student Doug Kenter and I have been looking at (and talking in public about) sentence-initial linking however vs. but --

I expected a multitude.  However, the audience was minute.
I expected a multitude.  But the audience was minute.

and examining Bryan Garner's advice (in many places) that however should not be used here, but should be replaced by an alternative construction, preferably sentence-initial but.  Now, we found a strong preference for but over however in writing (extraordinarily strong for some writers: in my Language Log postings through July of this year, I used but 72 times and however not a single time -- I wasn't counting as I went along; Doug extracted the counts after the fact), and one response we've gotten to these findings is that writers should take Garner's advice.  That way, their writing is bound to be ok.

This reasoning assumes, first of all, that the variants really do not differ in meaning or discourse function (in many cases, this assumption is dubious at best, but in the university naming world, at least, it seems to be correct); and then treats free variation as something in need of a fix, with one variant either confined to informal style (as has sometimes suggested for PlaceName University) or barred entirely.  There must be One Right Way.  Garner himself picks the but variant on grounds of taste -- more on this in a later posting -- rather than on the numbers, but he still thinks a choice needs to be made.

Well, I don't think variation is in need of a fix when we're talking about choices within the standard language.  There's nothing wrong with minority variants.

(Some of you may be thinking that I'm being inconsistent, by rejecting the tyranny of the majority in this case, but accepting a kind of majority rule with respect to the spread of variants into general use, in particular general use in formal contexts -- what some people think of as the laxness of descriptivists.  I don't think the two situations are at all comparable; in the interests of saving space, though, I'll postpone that discussion to another posting.)

And in fact, when you look at particular contexts of language and groups of people, you see very significant differences in usage among practiced writers.  On Language Log, for instance, the but/however ratio for sentence-initial linkers ranges from Mark Liberman at 3.28 to Ben Zimmer at 15.00 to Geoff Pullum at 24.25 to me, with no however at all.  (To put this in a larger context, the ratios for ALL uses of but to ALL uses of however in the British National Corpus is 7.95, in the Brown corpus 7.94 -- that is to say, roughly 8.)  Mark turns out to be exceptionally fond of sentence-initial linking however, Ben to be somewhat averse to it, and Geoff and I to be strongly averse to it.  However (there! I've broken the run), all of us defend this use of however, as something available to anyone, in formal writing and elsewhere.

Back to naming educational institutions.  I reject the tyranny of the majority, and move on to more interesting and subtle things.  Even when variants do not differ in meaning or discourse function, they may be perceived to differ in other ways.  Look at Name University vs. University of Name.  Some differences that might be relevant to a choice between them:

(3) Name University has the advantage of brevity (though only by one or two words, depending on whether you count the the in the University of Name).

(4) But Name University can be uncomfortably left-heavy, which would favor the prepositional form.  Still, that hasn't held back Northern Arizona University, Southern Illinois University, Western Reserve University (one of the ancestors of Case Western Reserve), or even Northeastern Illinois University.  (Or, for personal names, George Mason University, George Washington University, and many others.)

(5) The two forms differ in where they assign prominence: in the premodifying form, the primary accent is on University, while in the prepositional form, the primary accent is on N, suggesting that  the denotation of N is particularly significant.  As a result, University of Kutztown would sound rather silly, since Kutztown is a really small town, and University of Garrison Keillor might suggest that the university is all about him.

(6) For more complex names, in particular those incorporating subject-matter in the name, the prepositional names might introduce a potential confusion with the names of other institutions.  So, Beijing University of Language and Culture and Language and Culture University of Beijing might suggest (incorrectly) a connection to Beijing University/University of Beijing.

Similarly, in the U.K. some of the newer universities have to be distinguished from older universities in the same places.  One strategy is to add a personal name to the place name.  But PersonalName PlaceName University (Ruskin Anglia University) or PersonalName University of PlaceName (Ruskin University of Anglia) would invite confusion with PlaceName University (Anglia University) or University of PlaceName (University of Anglia), respectively, so there are now names of the (to me) odd form PlaceName PersonalName University: Anglia Ruskin University, Liverpool John Moores University, Oxford Brookes University.  (Thanks to Andrew Gray.)

In addition to these formal considerations, it's also possible for the choice between variants (here as elsewhere) to pick up, construct, or convey social meanings.  Different people can even have divergent connotations for the same variants.  So it is with university names.

(7) Given the traditional official practice of U.K. universities, in favor of University of PlaceName, this variant is now seen by many (on both sides of the Atlantic) as formal, with PlaceName University viewed as an informal abbreviation.

(8) Again given the official practice of most U.K. universities, the University of PlaceName version is seen by some as traditional, as against the modern PlaceName University.  What values you then attach to the different forms depends on your attitudes towards tradition and modernity.

(9) Some in the U.S. associate premodifying PlaceName University with private institutions, prepositional University of PlaceName with public institutions.  (These connotations will then frequently contradict the ones in (7) and (8).)  This is an especially interesting case, illustrating the very frequent phenomenon of conflict between fact and cultural construction, with cultural construction aligned with social meanings.

The facts are that PlaceName University is not mostly private, though University of PlaceName is mostly public -- but this latter fact is a consequence of other things, not a direct association.

Background observations:

(10) Combinations of University with a personal name, IN EITHER VERSION, tend to name private institutions.  Private institutions are very frequently named to honor people.

(11) Combinations of University with a place name, IN EITHER VERSION, tend to name public institutions.

From observation (10) and observation (2.2) above, favoring premodification for universities with personal names in them, it follows that PersonalName University will be mostly private: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford.  This is, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the nature of PlaceName University institutions, but when you think of Name University examples, you're going to pull up personal name examples, and the premodifying form might then become associated in your mind with private status (and prestige).  It's also true that there are a few highly salient (famous, etc.) PlaceName University cases like BU and NYU -- you're not likely to think of Kutztown U or NAU or NEIU when you're dredging for examples -- so your attention will be drawn to private PlaceName University, reinforcing the effect from the personal name cases.

From observation (11) and observation (2.1) above, favoring prepositional versions for universities with place names in them, it follows that University of PlaceName will in fact be mostly public.

This brings us to the University of Rochester, a private institution with a prepositional name.  Frank Townsend (a U of R alumnus) reports a rumor that an outgoing president a while back wanted to change the name to Rochester University, which to him sounded private, like Boston University and New York University and unlike University of Buffalo (oh dear, I see that SUNY Buffalo now bills itself as "University at Buffalo", with "at") or University of Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, on ADS-L Larry Horn has described the situation at an earlier time:

My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Rochester, first spent decades zealously correcting anyone who dared misrepresent its brand as Rochester University (on the assumption that the correct version put it in the category of the University of Chicago, while the latter might mislead prospective applicants and their parents into inferring that it was just another big city school like (perish the thought) Syracuse University (and would then cause them to wonder why our tuition was so much higher).  Then, having decided that the difference between "the U of R" and "R U" wasn't sufficiently robust, the powers that be began contemplating changing the name completely, but presumably no sufficiently classy alternative was found, since it still seems to be the University of Rochester.

To wrap all this up, Bob O'Hara vaguely remembers "an edu-linguistic meme that used to circulate on the net years ago", a list of "rules", each of them illustrated by a counterexample: "Schools called 'University of Placename' are always public (e.g. University of Southern California)"; "Schools called 'X College' have no graduate programs (e.g. Dartmouth College)".  The point was, apparently, that there wasn't much pattern to this stuff.  (Anybody have a line on this list?)  But in fact there are patterns here, generalizations like (1), (2), (10), and (11), but generalizations with a significant number of exceptions.  No inviolable rules, true, and plenty of complexity, but it's not just chaos.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 07:55 PM

Microsoft Redefines "Genuine"

Microsoft has a new advertising campaign focussing on their efforts to reduce "piracy" of their software, that is, the sale of their software in violation of license agreements. You can read about it here. They call this campaign the "Microsoft Genuine Software Initiative" and use the term "genuine" in contexts such as this:

In the month of May, 38,000 customers purchased genuine Windows software after being notified that they had been sold non-genuine software. Customers recognize that the value of genuine is greater than ever.

I find this use of "genuine" to be most peculiar. An unlicensed copy of Microsoft Windows is perfectly genuine. It has exactly the same functionality as a licensed copy and was made by the same company. In contrast, if you buy a "Rorex" watch, it is not genuine because it is not made by the Rolex company and does not have the aesthetics, functionality, and resale value of a real Rolex. What Microsoft is concerned about is the software equivalent of buying a refrigerator that fell off the truck. The problem is not that you are not getting the real thing - the problem is that the transaction is not legal.

I suspect that Microsoft is attempting to redefine "genuine" because it has had a hard time getting sympathy for its actual complaint, namely unlicensed distribution. Rightly or wrongly, many people consider Microsoft's software overpriced, or dislike its license conditions or business practices, or are just cheap and dishonest. Whatever the reasons may be, a great many people have little sympathy for a campaign based on Microsoft's legal or moral rights. I suspect that Microsoft is trying to reframe the issue in terms of genuiness in the hope of persuading consumers that Microsoft is looking after their interests rather than its own.

P.S. Some reader will likely respond that a licensed copy has greater functionality than an unlicensed copy because the user may be unable to install or use the unlicensed copy. That is true to some extent, but it is true only by virtue of Microsoft's efforts to block the use of unlicensed software, not due to any intrinsic property of the software. It is therefore not an argument for the superiority of the genuine article of the same sort as Rolex might make for its watches.

Addendum 2006-09-16 20:22 PST. A note to Slashdot readers. Quite a few people seem to think that I am lamenting how the language is going to the dogs because Microsoft is using the word "genuine" in a way that deviates from what I consider to be the correct meaning. Relax, that is not the point. All of us here at Language Log think that linguistic variation and change is normal and nothing to get upset about. (Some of us do occasionally pretend to complain about it, but it is always tongue-in-cheek.) The point I am making here is that rather that Microsoft is using "genuine" in a way that deviates from the way it is commnly used and that this evidently for the purpose of putting a deceptive slant on things.

Posted by Bill Poser at 03:53 PM

Risky RNR

From Daily News and Analysis (of India), 9/10/06, the beginning of a story on the interrogation of an Osama bin Ladin aide:

[1] NEW YORK: CIA interrogators stripped naked and played earsplitting music to Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, according to a media report.

Several things have gone entertainingly wrong in the bolded coordination: the constituents aren't parallel in their syntax, since the shared object NP "Abu Zubaydah" is factored out of the middle of "stripped ___ naked" but from the end of "played earsplitting music to ___" (this is a kind of WTF coordination, a topic last discussed in these pages here); partly as a result, the first conjunct is most easily interpretable as intransitive (rather than the intended transitive), with the interrogators themselves stripping naked; and partly as a result of the reduced coordination (in this case, the construction traditionally called Right Node Raising, or RNR for short), the reader is invited to see the stripping and music playing as part of a single event, with the stripping as prelude to the music.  Melissa Bollbach, who sent me the quotation, was moved to wonder "whether they gave him a lap dance too", adding that she guessed "it depends where they draw the secret line of approval for torture methods."

You can see how the writer got into this mess.  And it turns out that simple fixes won't do; fairly major reformulation is called for.

It's important that this is the very beginning of the story.  The writer has to identify the newsworthy event -- CIA interrogators stripped Abu Zubaydah naked and (also) played earsplitting music to him -- and the principal participant(s) in it: Abu Zubaydah was the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago.  Just saying these two things in two sentences doesn't really work, no matter which order you put them in; the identification of Abu Zubaydah is subsidiary material, and should be in some kind of subordinate structure.

So we try to slot the identification in after the first mention of the man:

[2] CIA interrogators stripped Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, naked and played earsplitting music to him.

This is prosodically rotten, with the very short constituent "naked" marooned after the very long parenthetical.

How about putting "Abu Zubaydah" (with its accompanying parenthetical) after "naked"?  This is marginally possible, because English allows long, complex, and heavy direct objects to be located later in their VP, rather than immediately after their verb; the construction is sometimes called Heavy NP Shift.  There are two problems.  One, parentheticals don't usually count much towards heaviness for the purposes of Heavy NP Shift, so [3] is only as good as "CIA interrogators stripped naked Abu Zubaydah", which is not very good at all.  And two, we now have "naked Abu Zubaydah" as a possible constituent in [3] (even a plausible one, given the fact that Heavy NP Shift is a pretty rare phenomenon, even in the formal writing that is its natural home); this is a nasty potential ambiguity.  So [3] is worse than [2].

[3] CIA interrogators stripped naked Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, and played earsplitting music to him

Better idea: let's hold the long parenthetical off to the end.  But this gives a personal pronoun with a parenthetical attached to it, a very awkward construction: the pronoun wants to be unaccented because it's anaphoric, but it also wants to be accented, to serve as the host for the parenthetical:

[4] CIA interrogators stripped Abu Zubaydah naked and played earsplitting music to him, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago.

Ok, let's also hold "Abu Zubaydah" off, and use a pronoun with "stripped naked": cataphora.  Cataphora within a clause is marginal at best; the smoothest examples of cataphora have the pronoun in a subordinate clause ("While he was in school, Albert was not a stellar student").  In the CIA sentence, the reader is likely to be puzzled by the "him": just who is this person?

[5] CIA interrogators stripped him naked and played earsplitting music to Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago.

What other ways are there to hold "Abu Zubaydah" off to the end of the clause?  Well, instead of a pronoun object we could have an omitted object: reduced coordination (of the RNR type, specifically).  Doing this mechanically, merely omitting the object, gives us the disaster that is [1].

The easiest fix for the WTF problem in [1] would be to replace "stripped naked" with a simple verb, like "stripped" or "undressed".  Aside from the fact that these aren't nearly as vivid as "stripped naked", they have the same spurious intransitive reading as [1]:

[6] CIA interrogators stripped/undressed and played earsplitting music to Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago.

Another lexical fix would be to supply a verb construction that's parallel in form to "played earsplitting music to"; the choices aren't as vivid as "strip naked", but maybe we can live with that.  While we're at it, we could fix the one-event implicature of [1] by adding a clarifying adverb:

[7] CIA interrogators removed the clothes from and also played earsplitting music to Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago.

Now, finally, we have something that's grammatical and introduces no problematic ambiguity or unintended implicature.  Still, it's scarcely splendid.  RNR just isn't an easy construction to process; [7] is mighty clunky.

A relatively minimal fix is to re-cast the sentence as a passive, with "Abu Zubaydah" as subject:

[8] Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, was stripped naked by CIA interrogators and also had earsplitting music played to him.

I know, I know, you're saying Avoid Passive, and in this case that makes sense, because [8] suggests that the article is going to be about Abu Zubaydah (because "Abu Zubaydah" is the subject of [8]), whereas in fact it's about the actions of the CIA interrogators; Abu Zubaydah just happens to be the guy they got to practice their methods on.

Another tack: get "Abu Zubaydah" into a subordinate structure, as in something like:

[9]  CIA operatives/agents interrogating Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, stripped him naked and also played earsplitting music to him.

This one's pretty good.  Good enough that we can now see a defect in all the versions so far: stripping him naked and playing earsplitting music to him are merely presented as two actions, without any indication of what connects them.  In fact, the headline that eventually got attached to the article makes the connection explicit: "CIA used harsh questioning methods on Osamu aide".  Stripping him naked and playing earsplitting music to him are two instances of harsh questioning methods.  Let's bring that out in the text:

[10] CIA interrogators used harsh questioning methods on Abu Zubaydah, the first henchman of Osama bin Laden captured by (the) US after the September 11 attacks there five years ago, stripping him naked and also playing earsplitting music to him.

There are other possible variants, but at least we're now in pretty good territory, grammatically, stylistically, and rhetorically.

One final reflection: all this discussion has been about one sentence, and then only certain aspects of it.  Getting this first sentence formulated involved vast numbers of decisions and choices on the writer's part: what to focus the article on, what information to put in and what to leave out, what words to use, what syntactic constructions to use, and on and on.  As soon as you realize the magnitude of the task, you see that almost all of this performance has to be unconscious, even automatic.  No one could possibly weigh all of the alternatives at each point, much less consider them in all possible combinations.  Instead, for the most part the writing just happens (if you're a practiced writer, of course).

It's a lot like speaking, in fact, even though you have more time to reflect on your productions in writing than in speaking.  Nobody has enough time to reflect on more than a tiny part of the task.

Which is part of the reason why usage advisers so frequently violate their own (explicitly formulated) rules.  When they're writing, they're mostly on automatic pilot, just like the rest of us, and their internalized grammars get to do their stuff.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:59 PM

Hope for the press?

You may have noticed that we here at Language Log have been wringing our hands for several months about our inability to communicate language science effectively to laypersons, especially to journalists. On the positive and hopeful side, some really good columns are being written by Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe, Linda Seebach, and Michael Erard (independent journalist), as well as a few others. We can take this as a sign of progess. And now comes a recent column in the Washington Post, by Eugene Robinson. It offers some more hope, albeit indirectly, that linguists may be having some effect on the world.

Robinson is critical of some of the current political lexicon. For example, he questions the implicatures of recently used words, like "homeland," about which he says: accident or design, (homeland) has the effect of clouding our view of our enemies and ourselves... an infelicitous choice that makes us sound as if we had quaint harvest rituals and a colorful national costume. It strikes an odd note, with its vague connotations of ethnic solidarity and ancient nationalism, and it gives off more than a whiff of us-vs. them.

Us-them? Who would have thought?

Robinson also questions the definitions of other recently used political coinages, such as "the war on terrorism," which he defines as "police work," not military.  He says that the use of this expression "has come to define  our era as entirely suspect" because it redefined a law enforcement task as one suitable for invasion, ostensibly removing the principles of habeas corpus and due process.

He defines terrorism as "a tactic, not an enemy" and he has little good to say about the way the government defines current expressions like "terrorist surveillance program," "civil war," and words like "detainees," and, or course, "torture."

Maybe we're gaining on it a little.

Posted by Roger Shuy at 12:53 PM

"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it

Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog has posted a substantial list of "singular they" examples from the long history of English-language bible translation, starting with Tyndale in 1526 and continuing up to versions from the past decade. His examples from the 1611 King James Version:

Matt. 18:35: So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses.
Phl. 2:3: Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.
Numbers 2:34: And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.
Numbers 15:12: According to the number that yee shall prepare, so shall yee doe to euery one, according to their number.
2 Kings 14:12: And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tents.

A few weeks ago, we took a look at Deuteronomy 17:5, where it seems that the use of "singular they" is sanctioned by the Masoretic Hebrew text, and by the Greek of the Septuagint as well ("Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God?", 8/21/2006):

Then shalt thou bring forth that man, or that woman (which haue committed that wicked thing) vnto thy gates, euen that man, or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones till they die.

I'm not sure about the original-language versions of the five verses cited in Wayne's post, but it seems that there is solid divine sanction for "singular they" in English. So would it be blasphemous to turn this into the obvious slogan, suitable for bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee cups?

"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Yes, I'm sorry. It's tempting, the irony is delicious, but it would be wrong. In fact, for a linguist to invoke divine authority to prescribe the use of any linguistic pattern, even one forbidden by ignorant earthly tyrants, is tantamount to apostasy.

But maybe a discreet little coffee-cup slogan could be considered merely a venial sin, escaping a fatwa from the LSA executive committee...

[Update -- Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin writes:

Looked them up. Numbers 15:12 in Hebrew uses the third-person plural possessive for 'their number', but Numbers 2:34 and 2 Kings 14:12 use the singular.

Divine variation.]

[Update #2 -- Rob Groves writes:

Interestingly, while three of the examples of singular "they" cited are translated plurals in the Greek, (Phl, and both Numbers passsages), The 2Kings passage actually translates a Greek singular "his" (autou) to "their." In the Matthew passage, the words, "their trespasses," represent nothing in the Greek of this verse, (nor anything in the Vulgate Latin, incidentally).

Rob added in a later note:

After a little bit more research, Some traditions of the Greek version of Matthew do appear to have the words translated as "their trespasses; " Assuming the text used for translation was one of these, the English does correspond to the plural in Greek here as well.

More divine variation. I feel that there's the basis for a Ph.D. dissertation here. Or at least a sermon.]

[Update #3 -- Gabriel Nivasch points out that in Numbers 15:12, where the KJV has

" shall yee doe to euery one, according to THEIR number."

the original Hebrew also has "their number" -- but means "the number of the animals that each brings in for sacrifice", so that the referent of the pronoun is actually plural. Given the rest of the context in English, this interpretation seems sensible, since the chapter is giving a sort of recipe for how much flour, oil and wine should be offered per bullock or ram or lamb or kid. This "recipe" interpretation is even clearer in Numbers 29:

[1] And in the seuenth moneth, on the first day of the moneth, ye shall haue an holy conuocation, yee shall doe no seruile worke: it is a day of blowing the trumpets vnto you.
[2] And ye shall offer a burnt offering for a sweet sauour vnto the Lord, one yong bullocke, one ramme, and seuen lambes of the first yeere without blemish.
[3] And their meat offering shall be of floure mingled with oyle, three tenth deales for a bullocke, and two tenth deales for a ramme:
[4] And one tenth deale for one lambe thorowout the seuen lambes:
[5] And one kidde of the goats for a sinne offering to make an atonement for you:

So Numbers 15:12 is simply not relevant to the theology of "singular they". Apologies to any readers who may have been led astray.

[Update #4 -- Ben Sadock wrote:

Since you asked about the original pronouns of Numbers 24:2, I got down my Hebrew Bible and found, to my surprise, that there ain't no tents. The key phrase is "yisrael shochen lishvatav" - Israel dwelling by his tribes, clearly meaning something like 'living separated by tribe.' The KJV is not alone in assuming that this passage refers to the arrangement of tents; the Talmud (BB 60a) amplifies on this line, saying that what Balaam really saw that impressed him so much was that the openings of the tents faced away from each for privacy. Of course, three verses later in Numbers, Balaam mentions tents himself. In short, "Israel abiding in his tents, according to their tribes" isn't an inaccurate translation, even if the surprising pronouns (and the mention of tents) aren't a reflection of the original Hebrew.

And Aaron Dinkin agrees:

This is a weird one: 'his tents' doesn't appear in the Hebrew at all, and 'tribes' has the singular possessive. Thus:

...wayyar 'eth Yisra'el shokhen li-shvatay-w
   he saw  ACC Israel   abiding by-tribes-3SG.POSS

(Please forgive the ad-hoc transliteration; I'm not really up on ancient Hebrew phonology, and didn't attempt to distinguish between open and closed E or open O and A.)


[Update #5: more mail on the subject here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:58 AM

September 12, 2006

Linguists on the radio

As the new semester gets going here , my blogging time is getting squeezed out -- today's real life events start at 8:00 a.m. and end around 10:30 p.m. But in addition to what other LL contributors may post today, you can supplement your daily ration of crunchy linguistic goodness by listening to yesterday's Worldview show from Chicago Public Radio. I haven't had a chance to listen myself yet, but there are interviews with Nick Ostler, David Crystal, and Vivian de Klerk. If you're already familiar with them and their work, you'll want to hear them -- and if you don't know who they are, you should.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:58 AM

September 11, 2006

News and entertainment

If you're still happily unaware of the controversy over ABC's mockumentary The Path to 9/11, you haven't been reading the newspapers or the political blogs, and you haven't been listening to talk radio or watching the news on TV. ABC and its corporate parent Disney have been getting hammered from the left for making stuff up that's unflattering to Democrats, and hammered from the right for re-editing the show in response to the complaints.

Political allegiance aside, journalists in general are taking the opportunity to sneer at the entertainment industry for its lack of commitment to actual facts and factual quotes. A Houston Chronicle editorial ("Fabricating history", 9/7/2006) says that "It's unfortunate that ABC would trust the depiction of a still painful and politically volatile subject such as 9/11 to a writer best known for fantastical storytelling". (The writer is Cyrus Nowrasteh, no stranger to docudrama controversy, and a sort of libertarian-conservative counterpart to Michael Moore). In the LA Times, Tim Rutten ascribed to network television executives "the sort of ad hoc ethics that would make a streetwalker blush" ("ABC follows a path to shame", 9/9/2006) and asked

... did the people who run ABC Entertainment ... really believe that Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger would watch themselves on television doing and saying thing they never did or said and not object? ... Did they really expect anyone to accept the preposterous notion that — as some at the network argued this week — the film's facts were wrong, but its "essence" was true? These people really need to get out more.

Like, they could do lunch with the folks who used to run CBS News.

My take on The Path to 9/11 is that it's at the bottom of a slippery slope that many of today's journalists have been skiing happily down for some time. They often think they know what the story is, or at least what it should be, before looking at any facts. For them, the role of the real world is to provide the illustrations that will help them tell their story.

I'm most sensitive to the linguistic aspect of this: every newspaper and every broadcast news outlet, every day, is full of the results of leading questions, answers presented out of context, misleadingly selective or just plain careless quotations, and other devices used to present the writer's point of view through what seem to be newsmakers' words. But it appears that staged and even faked photos are increasingly common. When "ABC defended its $40 million production as a dramatization, not a documentary, that presented the essence of events despite fictionalized elements added for narrative purposes", were they doing anything different in principle from what (nearly) all the world's news organizations were doing when they published those posed pictures of children's toys amid the rubble in Lebanon, or the apparently faked pictures of a bombed ambulance?

Some earlier language log posts on related issues:

"Typography, truth and politics" 9/15/2004
"What did Rasheed say?" 6/23/2005
"Ipsissima vox Rasheedi" 6/24/2006
"Ritual questions, ritual answers" 6/25/2005
"Bringing journalism into the 21st century" 6/30/2005
"Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed" 7/9/2005
"Down with journalists!"
"'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more" 7/30/2005
"This time it matters" 8/13/2005
"'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times" 8/27/2005
"Ritual interviews" 9/18/2005

And then there's the decision of one of the world's great news organizations to treat its science reporting as a source of comic relief: see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section".

[Update -- Victor Steinbok points out that I've over-simplified the political reaction to ABC's docudrama:

Although this does not affect the substance of your post on the ABC mock-u-drama (the "X-a-drama" alone should have generated a linguistic thread!), your initial paragraph is a bit off. A number of prominent conservatives have sided WITH the Clinton people, including Pat Buchanan, who unconditionally called for ABC to pull the series, and Bill Bennett. In addition, although it's hard to pin him as a straight conservative, Chris Wallace, a part-time anchor for FoxNews, also came out against ABC. As Stephanie Miller remarked this morning, he might have had his own issues with film-makers portraying historical facts inaccurately.

But, as I said, your larger point is on the money.


Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:06 AM

R.I.P. King Tupou IV, Tongan language reformer

Today's New York Times carries an obituary for the King of Tonga, Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, who died at the age of 88 after serving as his nation's powerful leader (and heir to the last remaining Polynesian monarchy) for 41 years. A good deal of the obituary focuses on the king's weight fluctuations — he tipped the scales at 460 pounds before losing almost 200 pounds — but it also includes this biographical nugget:

As king, he commissioned the first dictionary and grammar of Tongan, a Polynesian language, while promoting changes in written Tongan, notably to have the letter "b" replaced with "p" and the symbol "g" with "ng."

This isn't entirely accurate. First of all, the reform of Tongan spelling occurred long before Tupou became king, though he was indeed instrumental in making the changes. In 1943, when the future king was known as Crown Prince Tupoutoʻa, his mother Queen Sālote appointed him Minister of Education. With the Tongan Privy Council he approved a number of changes to reform the old orthography instituted by Wesleyan Methodist missionaries. The Tongan voiceless labial stop, previously written as b, was changed to p. (Since Tongan /p/ is unaspirated, Anglophones often perceive it as a voiced stop /b/ and hence write it that way. The same is roughly true for Korean, though that language has both aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops in its phonemic repertoire.)

The other change noted by the Times is the use of ng to represent the velar nasal /ŋ/. The Wesleyan missionaries were apparently not big fans of digraphs, so they had simply used the letter g for this phoneme. The nearby Polynesian languages Fijian and Samoan still stand by g for /ŋ/ — which explains why, for instance, the Samoan town of Pago Pago is actually pronounced /ˈpɑŋo ˈpɑŋo/. Various other tweaks were made by the Privy Council, such as the standardized representation of the glottal stop (fakauʻa) with a reversed apostrophe, much like the Hawaiʻian ʻokina.

As for the dictionary and grammar mentioned in the obituary, that presumably refers to Clark Maxwell Churchward's Tongan Grammar (1953) and Tongan Dictionary (1959), both of which used the reformed orthography. Again, the man who would be Tupou IV was not yet king when those works were written. During that time he served as the nation's prime minister, and would remain in that position until Queen Sālote died in 1965. I'm not aware of any major linguistic initatives, be they orthographic, grammatical, or lexicographic, carried out by Tupou while reigning as king. Perhaps he was too busy gaining and losing all that weight.

(I'm no Tonganist, so much of the above is based on Elizabeth Wood-Ellen's Queen Sālote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900-1965.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:35 AM

The shrimp did what to the cabbage?

Welcome, BoingBoing readers. A few Language Log posts have been linked in a recent BoingBoing discussion about the mysterious appearance of the word fuck in Chinese menus seeking a translation-equivalent for GAN 'dry' (干). The issue first came up here in "Engrish Explained," and then again in two guest posts by Victor Mair, "A Less Grand Chinglish" and "GAN: Whodunnit, and how, and why?" The Language Log links were provided by a reader responding to a Flickr photo showing a sign at a buffet reading, "The shrimp fucks the cabbage." Once again, the polysemy of GAN (translatable as either 'to dry' or 'to do,' with the latter sense used as a colloquialism for 'to fuck') leads to a very unfortunate English rendering. (A proper translation would be "stir-fried dried shrimp with bok choy.")

Based on an update to Victor Mair's second post, Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing speculates that "a possible source for all these misplaced F-words on Chinese menus" is "a bug in a popular translation software app, perhaps intentionally placed by a mischievous person." The more likely story, as given by a Sinologist going by the handle "xiaolongnu" in this guest post, is the reliance in China on dictionaries claiming to provide "real idiomatic American English." The more slipshod of these dictionaries may give fuck — a true-blue American idiom — as the only translation-equivalent for GAN.

(An earlier BoingBoing entry links to a 2002 article from the London Telegraph reporting that authorities in Beijing were cracking down on incomprehensible Chinglish signage, with the objective of achieving "linguistic perfection" in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. I wonder how that campaign is going!)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 01:00 AM

September 10, 2006

Second-class products

I also find myself wondering what business people must be thinking when they name some of their products, but I think Bill's examples of fresh croissant vs. multi-grain croissant and Canadian class vs. first class are related to other head-shakers like pre-owned vs. new: the idea seems to be that changing the name (to something more positive-sounding) will change people's perception of the product (making them more positively inclined toward it). I go back and forth between thinking that this strategy is simply doomed to failure and wondering whether more people than I care to admit are suckered by it.

The interesting thing about Bill's examples, as he points out, is the implicature raised by the contrast with the other product's name: fresh croissant seems to be saying that the multi-grain crossaint is not fresh, and Canadian class seems to be saying that Canadians aren't good enough for first class. I'm sure that what was intended, though, was something like the following:

  • Folks who want to be/seem health-conscious but who scoff at the idea of a multi-grain croissant may feel better about their choice of a plain croissant because it's "fresh".

  • Folks who want to fly comfortably but who can't afford to fly first class may feel better about their choice of second class (more commonly called "coach", at least in the U.S.) because it's "Canadian", presumably because this makes it sound like it's the airline's signature class.

Note that this latter case is parallel with the pre-owned vs. new case: folks who want a good car but who can't afford to buy a new one may feel better about their choice of a used car because it's just "pre-owned", which makes it sound like it was well-cared for.

Another interesting example of this sort of thing is the use of the word vintage for clothing. I may be wrong about this, but it seems that this word was first applied to certain older styles of used clothing (and possibly also jewelry, furniture, etc.) that one would most likely find at a thrift store or garage sale. But then these styles became popular with a certain demographic, and were then co-opted by department stores where you can now buy "vintage" new clothing -- that is, brand-new clothes with a "vintage look" (e.g., pre-washed or even pre-torn) or in a "vintage style" (i.e., replicating an older style of clothing). So "vintage" has gone from being a substitute for "used/old" to being a substitute for "used/old-looking".

Right around the corner from my satellite office of Language Log Plaza, a store is opening next month called Vintage Religion, "Art, Antiques, Gifts, Home Accessories, Jewelry and Apparel Inspired by World Religions and Cultures". It's not clear what "vintage" substitutes for in this case. My guess it's now just a word that attracts a certain demographic with disposable income in my neighborhood.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 12:53 PM

Sex & Language Stereotypes through the Ages

Mark Liberman's recent posts on earnest but unsupported modern-day claims of profound gender-specific language differences keep reminding me of the unintentionally hilarious remarks by the great early 20th-century linguist Otto Jespersen on the subject, in his 1922 book Language: Its Nature, Development & Origin. At least I found Jespersen's analysis hilarious, when I first read it while giving a tutorial course to one of Yale's first women undergraduate students, back in 1971 or so. My student was unamused: she was currently suffering under the burden of being, all too often, the only woman in a class -- Yale was too cautious to admit a lot of women in that first group -- and having unreconstructed male professors demand that she provide "the woman's viewpoint" on some issue under discussion. Understandably, her sense of humor was impaired on the subject of discrimination against women.

Jespersen has a whole chapter entitled "The Woman". It begins with sections on things like the famous cultures in which men and women are reported to speak different languages and on gender-specific verbal taboos, but then he goes on to consider general differences in men's and women's speech. At one point (p. 252) he discusses a reading experiment in which

the same paragraph was presented to various well-educated persons, who were asked to read it as rapidly as they could, ten seconds being allowed for twenty lines. As soon as the time was up the paragraph was removed, and the reader immediately wrote down all that he or she could remember of it. It was found that women were usually more successful than men in this test. Not only were they able to read more quickly than the men, but they were able give a better account of the paragraph as a whole....But it was found that this rapidity was no proof of intellectual power, and some of the slowest readers were highly distinguished men. Ellis (Man and W. 195) explains this in this way: with the quick reader it is as though every statement were admitted immediately and without inspection to till the vacant chambers of the mind, while with the slow reader every statement undergoes an instinctive process of cross-examination; every new fact seems to stir up the accumulated stores of facts among which it intrudes, and so impedes rapidity of mental action."

So the women did better at the reading task because their empty heads permitted the quick absorption of facts, while the men's reading progress was slowed because their heads were stuffed with great thoughts and facts! I love it.

I can't find it right now, but I'm pretty sure there's another gem along these lines in Jespersen's book. It's connected with his belief that women's sentence construction is much simpler than men's (pp. 251-252):

In learned terminology we may say that men are fond of hypotaxis and women of parataxis. Or we may use the simile that a male period is often like a set of Chinese boxes, one within another, while a feminine period is like a set of pearls joined together on a string of ands and similar words.
Elsewhere (I think), while discussing children's acquisition of their first language, he says that it's a good thing that children learn their language mainly from their mothers and other women, because women speak so much more simply than men and their speech is therefore a better model for the child's learning task.

At this point some readers might be wondering why I began this post by calling Jespersen a great linguist. He was, he was. He was also a man of his era, and it shows in his view of gender differences in language use.

For some of Mark's recent posts on the general issue, see his Open-Access Sex Stereotypes and the links given there, or his Vast Arctic Tundra of the Male Brain.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 11:07 AM

Open-access sex stereotypes

More precisely, open access to scientific articles cited in support of genetically-determined sex roles. That's what Robin Marantz Henig needed, in preparing her review of Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain ("How Women Think", New York Times Book Review, 9/10/2006).

With better access to the references, Henig might not have so easily accepted things that she should have questioned:

The hard-wiring occurs during fetal development, when brains are exposed to either male or female hormones beginning in about the eighth week of pregnancy. Testosterone prunes away the connections in the communication centers of the brain, while estrogen enhances these connections, as well as the regions of the brain responsible for language and for expressing emotion and observing it in others. These differences, Brizendine writes, make women better negotiators and conciliators, and men better fighters and lone wolves. (They also account for some of the author’s favorite factoids: for example, that men use 7,000 words per day and women use 20,000.)

As discussed at tedious length in earlier Language Log posts (e.g. "The laconic rapist in the womb", 9/4/2006), it's not clear that any of this neuro-sexual stereotyping is really true -- at least, Brizendine's references to the scientific literature don't actually provide support for it, and there are reasons to think that much of it is false or at least misleading. Later in the review, Henig complains about the difficulty of finding the connections between Brizendine's rhetoric and her science, and hints that the connections might sometimes be weak or absent:

If you want data to support some of Brizendine’s more controversial claims, you have to work hard to find it. Take, for instance, the statement that “studies indicate that girls are motivated — on a molecular and a neurological level — to ease and even prevent social conflict.” The endnote lists nine scholarly articles, with no further explanation given. From the titles (which the reader has to look for in the bibliography), we can surmise that one study was on female mice, one on male and female rats, one (apparently) on female rhesus monkeys, and the other six on humans. But only one of those human studies explicitly mentions “sex differences” in the title. What about the others? And are the studies based on M.R.I.’s, electroencephalograms, conjecture? If Brizendine had chosen to describe more of these experiments, preferably in the text itself, she might have made a real contribution to our understanding of how scientists know that male and female brains are different, and how these differences manifest themselves in everyday life. As it is, we’re unable to judge the evidence for ourselves. After all, if we’re going to engage in debates about female scientists (and female presidents), we need all the objective ammunition we can get.

I agree 100% with Henig's observation that "if we’re going to engage in debates about female scientists (and female presidents), we need all the objective ammunition we can get". So to further such debate, I've placed copies of eight of the nine of the cited papers on my own website, and linked to those open-access copies from a list given below, so that you can read them and check the summaries that I provide. (One of the nine is missing, because Penn lacks a subscription to the journal where it was published -- in that case, I've provided a link to the abstract on the publisher's site, and you can buy the 8-page article for $30 if you really want to.)

The point is not that these particular papers are crucial to the debate. As we'll see, alas, they're all irrelevant to the points that Brizendine cites them to support. However, you can't have a fair debate if one side gets to invoke the authority of science by reference to articles that the other side can't access. And every one of these articles represents research paid for by public funds. (At least, that's where funding for most published science of this sort comes from. I didn't check these cases in detail, and it's possible that some foundation money was also involved.)

The passage that Henig quotes is on p. 40, under the heading "Fear of Conflict", and it starts like this:

Studies indicate that girls are motivated -- on a molecular and a neurological level -- to ease and even prevent social conflict. Maintaining the relationship at all costs is the female brain's goal. This may be especially true in the teenage female brain.

The end-note for this on page 196, and cites nine references, just as Henig says:

Jasnow 2006; Bertolino 2005; Hamann 2005; Huber 2005; Pezawas 2005; Sabatinelli 2005; Viau 2005; Wilson 2005; Phelps 2004.

Working through a second level of indirection in Brizendine's bibliography, we can resolve these to:

1. Jasnow, A.M. et al. (2006), "Estrogen facilitates fear conditioning and increases corticotropin-releasing hormone mRNA expression in the central amygdala in female mice", Horm Behav 49(2):277-86.
2. Bertolino et al. (2005), "Variation of human amygdala response during threatening stimuli as a function of 5'HTTLPR genotype and personality style", Biol Psychiatry 57(12): 1516-25.
3. Hamann (2005), "Sex differences in the responses of the human amygdala", Neuroscientist 11(4):288-93.
4. Huber et al. (2005), "Vasopressin and oxytocin excite distinct neuronal populations in the central amygdala", Science 308(5719): 245-48.
5. Pezawas et al. (2005), "5-HTTLPR polymorphism impacts human cingulate-amygdala interactions: A genetic susceptibility mechanism for depression", Nat Neurosci 8(6): 828-34.
6. Sabatinelli et al. (2005), "Parallel amygdala and inferotemporal activation reflect emotional intensity and fear relevance", Neuroimage 24(4): 1265-70.
7. Viau et al. (2005), "Gender and puberty interact on the stress-induced activation of parvocellular neuroscretory neurons and corticotropin-releasing hormone messenger ribonucleic acid expression in the rat", Endocrinology 146(1): 137-46.
8. Wilson et al. (2005), "Gonadal steroid modulation of the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (LHPA) axis is influenced by social status in female rhesus monkeys", Endocrine 26(2): 89-97. (journal link)
9. Phelps (2004), "Human emotion and memory: Interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex". Curr Opin Neurobiol 14(2): 198-202.

My summaries of these articles, in the context of Brizendine's claims:

1. Jasnow 2006: shows that "long-term estrogen treatment in ovariectomized female mice via Silastic capsule implantation [faciliated] both contextual and cued fear conditioning". By "fear conditioning" they mean teaching individual mice to "freeze" in anticipation of electric shocks delivered via a test cage shock floor. Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships or humans of any sex.

2. Bertolino 2005: fMRI of 14 phobic-prone subjects and 14 eating-disorder-prone subjects showed that "phobic prone subjects selectively recruit the amygdala to a larger extent than eating disorders prone subjects". The level of amygdala activity "was also independently predicted by personality style and genotype of the serotonin transporter". In each group of 14, 9 were female and 5 were male, and the results are not differentiated by sex. Nothing here about social conflict or preserving relationships or teenagers of any sex.

3. Hamann 2005: A review article on sex differences in amygdala response. Connects the amygdala to women's "stronger and more vivid memories for emotional events" and to "the greater role that visual stimuli play in male sexual behavior". Male amydala is bigger. Abnormal amygdala response has been observed in depression. Speculates about relation to sex differences in rates of PTSD and voyeurism. Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships or teenagers.

4. Huber 2005: After determining "the distribution of vasopressin and oxytocin receptors in the CeA [central amygdala] using autoradiography on horizontal rat brain sections", they used intracellular recording to "find that vasopressin and oxytocin modulate activity in CeM neurons in opposite ways through the activation of distinct elements of an inhibitory network" and that "can differently affect the integration of distinct afferents to the CeA into a common output to the autonomic nervous system, thus providing a neurophysiological mechanism for their opposite effects on anxiety and fear behavior". Nothing here about sex differences, about social conflict avoidance, about preserving relationships, or about humans of any age or sex.

5. Pezawas 2005: They used "used multimodal neuroimaging in a large sample of healthy human subjects" to explore the basis of "increased anxiety-related temperamental traits, increased amygdala reactivity and elevated risk of depression" in "carriers of the short allele of a functional 5' promoter polymorphism of the serotonin transporter gene". They found "reduced gray matter volume in short-allele carriers in limbic regions critical for processing of negative emotion, particularly perigenual cingulate and amygdala". There were 114 subjects. They don't break their data down by sex, although they correlate genotyping and structural imaging with functional imaging results and also with personality-assessment questionnaires. Nothing here about sex differences, about social conflict avoidance, about preserving relationships, or about teenage girls.

6. Sabatinelli 2005: Looked at "functional activity in the visual cortex and amygdala with fMRI while selected fearful and control participants view a range of neutral, emotionally arousing, and fear-relevant pictures", and found an "individually-sensitive, positive linear relationship between the arousing quality of visual stimuli and activation in amygdala and ventral visual cortex". Subjects were 18 females from an undergrad psych course, half selected for "high snake fear". Stimuli were 60 color pictures showing "complex neutral scenes, neutral people, non-threatening animals, snakes, erotica, and mutilations". You'll never guess: "participants reporting elevated snake fear were more reactive while viewing pictures of snakes than unselected volunteers". Nothing here about sex differences or social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.

7. Viau 2005: "To explore the nature by which gender differences in HPA [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] function emerge we examined in prepubertal (~30-d-old) and postpubertal (~60-d-old) male and female rats HPA activity under basal conditions and in response to 30 min of restraint." They found sex and age differences, and concluded that "gonadal regulation of the HPA axis develops via distinct mechanisms" in male and female rats. Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or about preserving relationships.

8. Wilson 2005: They tested 4 dominant and 3 subordinate female rhesus monkeys, and found that estradiol replacement increased plasma levels of cortisol compared to a placebo and treatment with P4. Because Penn lacks a subscription to this journal, and I was unwilling to pay $30 for a 7-page article, I'm not sure about the details. Unlike the other articles cited, it does have something to do with social interaction, but there's apparently no direct relevance to social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.

9. Phelps 2004: A review article about how the amygdala and the hippocampal complex interact: "the amygdala can modulate both the encoding and the storage of hippocampal-dependent memories. The hippocampal complex, by forming episodic representations of the emotional significance and interpretation of events, can influence the amygdala response when emotional stimuli are encountered." Discussion of sex differences is interesting but equivocal: "Recent brain imaging studies have suggested that the left and right amygdala could be differentially involved in memory for emotional stimuli depending on the sex of the subject. Specifically, two recent studies have shown that the left amygdala is correlated with later memory for emotional stimuli in female subjects, whereas the right amygdala is correlated with memory for emotional stimuli in male subjects" [...] "However, studies examining emotional memory or physiological responses to emotional stimuli in patients with amygdala damage have failed to find such sex differences. These studies have tended to be consistent with previous studies on hippocampal function showing a material specific involvement of the left and right amygdala for verbal and visual material, respectively." Nothing here about social conflict avoidance or preserving relationships.

Brizendine cites these nine studies in support of her claim that

Studies indicate that girls are motivated -- on a molecular and a neurological level -- to ease and even prevent social conflict. Maintaining the relationship at all costs is the female brain's goal. This may be especially true in the teenage female brain.

Yet only one of these studies has anything to do with social interaction at all -- and that's about the effect of estradiol in preventing cortisol suppression in subordinate female rhesus monkeys. There's nothing about girls' motivations (or anyone else's), the female brain's goals, the maintenance of relationships...

But I'm not going to complain again how Brizendine brandishes irrelevant journal articles like magical talismans to impress her audience. You can read my earlier posts on the subject, linked below, if you're not already completely sick of the topic. I took the time to follow up these references in order to underline Henig's point that if we're going to bring science to bear on public-policy questions -- from single-sex education to the number of female scientists or the role of women in public life -- everyone has to be able to look at the science that's cited.

In an open-access world, people writing books like Brizendine's would be expected to put their citations on line, with links, as I've done in this post and earlier ones, so that readers could evaluate the connection between their rhetoric and their references. This applies equally well to all the many other public-policy debates with scientific content: global warming, genetically-modified foods, early-childhood education, methods of teaching reading, and on through a long, long list.

[I read through those nine papers (well, eight papers and one abstract) rather quickly, so if you discover that I've mischaracterized any of them, please let me know.]

Previous posts on Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The superior cunning of women" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)

And on the similar rhetorical practices in Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters, and in Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens' The Minds of Boys:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2005)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)
"The vast arctic tundra of the male brain" (9/6/2006)
"Girls and boys and classroom noise" (9/9/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:10 AM

Unintended Implicatures

At the grocery store today I bought some croissant. They have two kinds: regular and "multigrain". The funny thing is, they don't label the bin with the regular croissant "regular croissant" or just "croissant": they label them "fresh croissant". The implicature is that multigrain croissant are not fresh. If I were the storekeeper, I don't think I'd want to suggest that.

Quite a few years ago Canadian Airlines (since absorbed by Air Canada) had a similarly questionable naming policy. First class was called "first class", but second class was called "Canadian class". You'd think that a Canadian airline would not suggest the equation of "Canadian" with "second class". At least they didn't pour salt in the wound and call first class "American class". Sometimes I wonder what business people must be thinking.

Posted by Bill Poser at 05:37 AM

September 09, 2006

18th-Century Grammarians vs. Shakespeare et al.

I got back early this week from a conference on World Englishes at the Mekrijärvi Research Station of the University of Joensuu, Finland, just 30 km. from the Russian border. As with most conferences, the papers ranged from terrific to uninspiring. One of the best talks was Terttu Nevalainen's, on "Default Singulars with Existentials in the Normative Eighteenth Century" -- specifically, on the use of singular there is and there was with plural noun phrases, as in there has been great Benefits (from ca. 1755). Faithful readers of Language Log will be intrigued by one particular comment Prof. Nevalainen made during her presentation. She said that, in a 1991 survey of 200 18th-century prescriptive grammarians' works, the following authors and works were most commonly cited as sources of errors (not quite in this order): the New Testament, Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Addison, and The Spectator. (Prof. Nevalainen's source was Bertil Sundby, Anne Kari Bjørk, and Kari E. Haugland, A Dictionary of English Normative Grammar, London: Longman.) So now we know, those of us who might have had doubts about it: the horrors of non-agreement denounced by the 18th-century grammarians was perpetrated by some of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. If we adopt an all-too-common mode of reasoning, we can conclude that if we does the same, we too can achieve the status of Great Writer of English. As someone else cited by Prof. Nevalainen wrote in 1800, there is some small hopes of that.

For a typical Language Log take on the closely-related issue of plural pronouns with singular antecedents, see Geoff Pullum's Shakespeare Used They with Singular Antecedents So There.

Posted by Sally Thomason at 10:55 PM

Abbreviatory oddities

Orphan abbreviations (including initialisms and acronyms and some things that are a little bit of both) are notable in that they look like abbreviations -- they are spelled with upper-case letters (sometimes mixed with other symbols and some lower-case letters) -- and they originated as abbreviations, but it's now claimed that they no longer stand for some other expression. 

This is a different phenomenon from a much more common case, in which orthographic expressions that were originally abbreviations, of one type or another, have been naturalized as, assimilated as, ordinary words (fully lower-cased, if common nouns, or with initial caps only, if proper nouns), their abbreviatory ancestry now lost to all but experts and etymologists: radar, scuba, modem, and the programming language names Lisp and Algol, for instance. 

In still another set of cases, abbreviatory "readings" are assigned to words that in fact have no such actual history (in acronymic etymythologies like "To Insure Promptness" for tip) or to words that have such a history, but not this one ("Drugs Are Really Evil" for DARE, "Drug Abuse Resistance Education"); these are various types of backronyms.  The novel readings may be simple errors, arising from people's desire to find meaning wherever they can, or deliberate inventions -- for institutional purposes ("Trans World Airline" for TWA, replacing the original "Transcontinental and Western Air"), as bits of language play ("Bill's Attempt to Seize Industry Control" used jocularly for BASIC, "Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code"), or as attempts to achieve a memorable name by coercing an abbreviation: BASIC, for example, and the spectacular short title USA PATRIOT Act (of 10/24/01), whose name is presented as an abbreviation for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism".  In coerced abbreviations, as in the replacements, there's a sense in which the abbreviation comes first, with the "reading" jiggled to fit it.

People have been writing me tons of messages about all three of these phenomena, as well as about garden-variety, unproblematic abbreviations.  This is fascinating stuff, though a bit overwhelming.  Let me stress here that my purpose is only to distinguish between some phenomena, illustrate them, and find suitable terminology for talking about them.  I am NOT proposing to create an encyclopedia of orphans, or (goodness knows) any of the other types. 

That said, the mail contained several especially interesting observations.

From R. Michael Medley, the tale of the orphan acronym NAFSA (pronounced in two syllables), originally abbreviating the "National Association of Foreign Student Advisors".  At some point the members of the organization switched from referring to the people they advised as "foreign students" to referring to them as "international students", and NAFSA ceased to be treated as an abbreviation for anything, but continued to serve as the name of the organization.  Rather than just changing its name to something more appropriate -- "Association of International Educators" was what got chosen -- the organization went instead for the double-barreled "NAFSA: Association of International Educators" (see the website).  In effect, the orphan acronym NAFSA got adopted by the Association of International Educators.  As far as I can tell, the adoptive parent never goes by the initialism AIE  (or an acronymic version pronounced like the exclamation "aiee!"; note that there's a slew of AIEs around the world, from the American Institute of Engineers to the Australian Institute of Energy, but I suspect they're all treated as initialisms).

Meanwhile, Vance Maverick points out that the websites for both SRI and Texas A&M acknowledge the initialistic origins of their names, though they're clear about the current names being just as above.  SGI hasn't gone all the way (yet), since its company fact sheet refers to "SGI, also known as Silicon Graphics, Inc." (though the rest of the website uses "SGI" throughout).

From Victor Steinbok, a cornucopia of orphan-related references, including the case of Crisco, which according to its Wikipedia entry, derived "from the initial sounds of the expression 'crystallized cottonseed oil'".  This is yet a new case, in which some original expression motivates a brief name, but does not actually have currency as a name in its own right.  Think of it as a muse rather than a parent.

Steinbok also asks about Cisco Systems: is Cisco an acronym?  No; as the Wikipedia site explains, it's a clipping of San Francisco.

Finally, the world of names for programming languages, text editors, operating systems, and the like is an abbreviatory morass, with older all-caps names (FORTRAN, BASIC, LISP, COBOL, ALGOL, EMACS, UNIX) alternating in common usage with initial-caps names (Fortran, Basic, Lisp, Cobol, Algol, Emacs, Unix).  In some cases, the all-caps names are now the trademarked versions (UNIX), and the official websites use only these versions.  In other cases, the initial-caps names are standard (Emacs).  In still other cases, the all-caps versions are almost universal (GNU, which, entertainingly, stands for "Gnu's Not Unix").  Few people know the origins of these names, however, or even recognize them as (opaque) abbreviations; probably, many assume that the upper-casing is just a commercial bid for attention.

(Thanks to Cameron Majidi on modem and Adam Roberts on TWA.  The now-standard source for "etymythology" is Larry Horn's 2004 article "Spitten image: Etymythology and fluid dynamics", in American Speech 79.33-58.)

[Update 9/18/06: "Tenser, said the Tensor" writes to point to an entertaining posting on this blog about orphans, under the name "disabbreviation", with still more examples.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:43 PM

Girls and boys and classroom noise

Here we go again -- yet another dissection of the misuse of science to make an ideological point about sex differences. If you're bored with this stuff, you can read the rest of this post for its information about the psychophysics of hearing, or for tips about how to concoct an effective argument by misrepresenting unrepresentative numbers.

We're back with Leonard Sax's book, "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences". The theme of this book is that that "Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently. They hear differently." And as a result, they need sex-segregated education.

Sax's proposals deserve a hearing -- and they're getting one. David Brooks, in the New York Times, called Why Gender Matters "a lucid guide to male and female brain differences". A Time Magazine cover story said that "Until recently, there have been two groups of people: those who argue sex differences are innate and should be embraced and those who insist that they are learned and should be eliminated by changing the environment. Sax is one of the few in the middle -- convinced that boys and girls are innately different and that we must change the environment so differences don't become limitations." As an educational philosophy, this is plausible and interesting (though the devil, of course, is in the details).

But a very large part of the argument that Sax presents is based not on educational philosophy, nor on educational research, but rather on what Sax calls "the emerging science of sex differences". Sax has both a PhD and an MD, and he supports his position with extensive citations of results from neuroscience, psychophysics, cognitive psychology, social psychology and related areas. However, when I've followed up on the research mentioned in his text or cited in his end-notes, I've been shocked by the deep disconnect between the actual content of the research and the rhetorical use that Sax makes of it. Although I'm sympathetic to Sax's goals, this carelessness (or worse) leaves me worried about the competence and effectiveness of his movement's educational prescriptions.

This post presents another example of the disconnect between Sax's rhetoric and Sax's science. We're focusing on the "They hear differently" part of his theme, which I've examined earlier ("Leonard Sax on hearing"). In the argument we're going to discuss, Sax picks two unrepresentative numbers (from a set of 144 numbers in a published table) so as to exaggerate the point he wants to make. Then he claims that his selected numbers imply a difference of 10 to 1 or 100 to 1, whereas they actually imply a difference of about 1.4 to 1 on the relevant scale. And then he weaves the result, which deals with the difference between young women and middle-aged men, into an argument about how "Girls won't learn as well in a loud, noisy classroom ... [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys."

Here's the passage in question (p. 18 of Chapter 2, "Female Brains, Male Brains"):

The difference in how girls and boys hear also has major implications for how you should talk to your children. I can't count the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I'm yelling." If a forty-three-year-old man speaks in what he thinks is a "normal tone of voice" to a seventeen-year-old girl, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing.18 He is yelling at her, but he doesn't realize it. The father and his daughter are experiencing the same sound in two different ways.

The gender difference in hearing also suggests different strategies for the classroom. [...] Girls won't learn as well in a loud, noisy classroom ... [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys.

End-note 18 turns out to be this:

18. Actually, the girl is going to experience her father's voice as being more than 100 times louder in amplitude than what the father himself is experiencing. Corso (1959) found that the threshold for a 3-kHz tone for a 43-year-old man was 30.5 decibles [sic] (dB), while the threshold for a 3-kHz tone for an 18-year-old girl was 7.3 dB. That's a difference of 23.2 dB (30.5-7.3 = 23.2). A difference of 23.2 dB corresponds to more than a hundred-fold difference in the amplitude of the sound. If you're a little rusty on this, recall the definition of decibels (dB):
    Sound in dB = 10 log [amplitude/reference]
23.2/10 = 2.32, so a 30-5 decibel sound has an amplitude that is 102.32 times louder, or > 100-fold louder, than a 7.3 dB sound.

These passages contain multiple examples of using "science" to mislead people. I'm going to focus on three of them: selection of unrepresentative values, misleading interpretation of values, and misleading transfer of results from one context to another. (There are some others, such as use of average values without considering variances, which I'll leave for another time.)

1. Selection of unrepresentative values.

Sax's cited threshold values come from a classic study: John F. Corso, "Age and Sex Differences in Pure-Tone Thresholds", The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 31(4), pp. 498-507 (1959). Corso measured how loud tones of different frequencies had to be for subjects to hear them, across a range of frequencies from 250 Hz to 8,000 Hz. He tested a large number of males and females of different ages from the students, faculty and staff at Penn State. He presents the results in multiple tables of values, providing means and standard deviations of thresholds for different ears of subjects of different ages and sexes, for sounds of different frequencies. He presents one set of tables is for his whole population of subjects, and other set of tables from a "screened" group from which he eliminated subjects who had abnormal amounts of hearing loss. You can see copies of three of these tables here, here, and here.

Corso's work established without any question that (on average) "women have more sensitive hearing than men". He also showed that "[f]or both men and women, there is a decrease in average hearing sensitivity with increasing age, and a progressive spreading of the loss from the higher to the lower frequencies. Men are more affected than women, with the hearing loss occurring at an earlier age and producing a greater degree of auditory impairment."

The question is, how much impairment is there, and what does it mean for perceived loudness levels in speech?

Corso's multiple tables contain hundreds of values. His Table 1 alone ("Summary of threshold data (SPL) by age groups, sex and ears for the original sample of subjects") offers 144 thresholds to choose from. Sax gives us two thresholds taken from this table: the threshold for a 3-kHz tone for a 43-year-old man was 30.5 decibles [sic] (dB), while the threshold for a 3-kHz tone for an 18-year-old girl was 7.3 dB.

Let's zero in on the slices of this table for the age ranges that Sax has chosen, which are 18- to 24-year-old females and 43- to 49-year-old males. I've added a central column with the threshold differences, and in an attempt to make the table easier to read, I've reproduced the standard deviations only for the right-ear thresholds:

Frequency Ear 18-24 females
 43-49 males 
    mean s.d. mean    s.d.  
250 R
500 R
1000 R
1500 R
2000 R
3000 R
4000 R
6000 R
8000 R

The two values that Sax has chosen, indicated in red in the table above, compare the left ears at 3 kHz. If instead he had chosen the right ear at 1500 Hz (which is the middle of the range of frequencies most important for speech -- the "telephone band" of 300 to 3200 Hz) he would have gotten a threshold difference of 9 dB rather than a difference of 23.2 dB. A more reasonable solution would be to weight the whole range of frequency and ear differences according to their likely contribution to the perception of loudness in speech. The energy in speech across frequencies follows a 1/F distribution, which means that speech is heavily weighted toward lower frequencies -- so that this approach would suggest a substantially lower estimate for the relevant overall threshold difference.

2. Misleading interpretation of values.

Whatever value we choose to represent the difference in thresholds, what does it mean about loudness perception? The threshold measure tells us about the level of the softest sound that you can hear -- how does this apply to your perception of relative loudness at moderate or higher sound levels? Sax claims in his text that "If a forty-three-year-old man speaks in what he thinks is a 'normal tone of voice' to a seventeen-year-old girl, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing." In his end-note, he says that "Actually, the girl is going to experience her father's voice as being more than 100 times louder in amplitude than what the father himself is experiencing."

These statements are seriously mistaken. Even if we accept Sax's misleading selection of threshold values, the predicted difference in perceived loudness for the sound of an animated conversation would be about 1.4 to 1, not 10 to 1, much less 100 to 1. If we take the (more reasonable) estimate of a 5 to 10 dB difference instead of the unrepresentative 20-dB difference that Sax picks, the predicted difference in perceived loudness would be much smaller.

Here are the details...

The subjective dimension of loudness is measured in sones, where 1 sone is the perceived loudness of a pure tone of 1 KHz at 40 dB, and a doubling of subjective loudness is matched by a doubling of the loudness measure in sones. In general, the slope of the function relating objective sound level to perceived loudness is less than one, so that if you double the objective sound level (in dB), the perceived loudness (in sones) is less than doubled. And the slope decreases as the sounds get louder. As a result, elevated hearing thresholds (including those routinely associated with aging) cause a relative compression of perceived loudness levels, which increases with increasing sound levels.. This phenomenon is known as "loudness recruitment", and it's a significant problem for the design of hearing aids.

These effects are illustrated in a figure from chapter 7 of Stefan Launer, "Loudness Perception in Listeners with Sensorineural Hearing Loss" (1995), which shows the relationship between sound level in dB and perceived loudness in sones, for listeners with different thresholds:

Fig. 7.2: The loudness functions in units of sones are plotted versus stimulus levels with different thresholds EThQ as parameter. Note that the loudness functions grow at a higher rate when threshold EThQ is increased. EThQ = 10,30,40,50,60,70 dB, curves from left to right, respectively.

I've added vertical lines at sound levels of 40 dB and 60 dB, which correspond to the range of sound levels encountered in normal conversation. (Genuine "yelling" might get up over 80 dB, but as you'll see, this would just increase the effect I'm describing here.)

At each of these two objective sound levels, I've added two little blue circles, on the loudness functions corresponding to hearing thresholds of 10 dB and 30dB, which are fairly close to Sax's "daughter" and "father" thresholds, and two horizontal lines that map the points identified by those circles to the corresponding subjective level in sones.

Thus at a simulus level of 40 dB, the pseudo-daughter's loudness perception would be 1.0 sones, while the pseudo-dad's loudness perception would be 0.4 sones. At a stimulus level of 60 dB, the pseudo-daughter's loudness perception would be about 4.5 sones, while the pseudo-dad's perception would be about 3.2.

Thus even if there's a difference of 20 dB in hearing thresholds, the predicted difference in loudness perception over the range of normal conversational sound levels is predicted to range from 1.0/0.4 = 2.5-to-1 for soft conversation, to 4.5/3.2 = 1.4-to-1 for loud conversation. If we get up into the 80 dB range of serious yelling, the difference of perceptions will have narrowed almost to nothing.

So even if Sax's claim about the typical difference in hearing thresholds were correct, the difference in perceptions would not be 10 to 1, as he claims in the text, much less "more than 100-fold louder" as he claims in the footnote. Instead, it would be a difference of about 1.4-to-1 for moderately loud conversation, and progressively less as the sound intensity increases. If we re-do the calculation based on the overall amplitude spectrum of speech and the range of threshold values given in Corso's tables (which will result in a difference that is more like 5-10 dB rather than 20+ dB), the predicted difference in loudness perception will be negligible.

3. Misleading transfer of results from one context to another

Amid all this detail about the psychophysics of hearing, let's not lose sight of the point. This is supposed to be about the fact that "[g]irls and boys ... hear differently." But so far, we've been comparing women 18-24 years old to men 43-49 years old. This allows Sax to bring in an evocative anecdote about teenage girls who think that their fathers are "yelling" at them when their fathers think they're talking at a normal level (see "The emerging science of gendered yelling" for more discussion). But what about how girls and boys hear? Sax doesn't provide any scientific evidence to support his assertions about this -- or rather, the evidence that he cites is irrelevant or interpreted backwards. And Corso didn't test any subjects from the primary- or secondary-school years. But let's take a look at the most relevant comparison in his paper, namely the sex difference in hearing thresholds for 18-24-year-olds. As I understand it, the differences for school-age kids should be similar.

Here's the relevant slice from Corso's Table IV ("Summary of means and standard deviations combined for right and left ears of male and female subjects in the screened sample"):

Frequency Females 18-24 Female-male
Males 18-24
Mean s.d. Mean s.d.

I've stuck in a central column with the male-female differences in dB -- and I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to look at the loudness-function plot given above, so as to verify that at classroom sound levels of 60-80 dB, the predicted average difference in female and male students' perceived loudness due to these average threshold differences will be around the thickness of the plotted black lines, if not less. [This is assuming a weighted average difference in thresholds of around 3 dB, translated into sones at a classroom noise level of about 70 dB.]

Girls and boys do hear differently -- but not by very much. If it's really true that "Girls won't learn as well in a loud, noisy classroom ... [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys", it must be for some other reason than the (small) differences in their average hearing thresholds, which over the relevant range of frequencies is about 2 or 3 dB, representing a quarter to half a standard deviation, and at most a few percent average difference in loudness scaling.. And given how careless Sax is about interpreting his references on the psychophysics and neuroscience of hearing, I don't have much confidence that he has good evidence for sex differences in the educational effects of classroom noise.

Earlier Language Log posts on Leonard Sax and Why Gender Matters:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2006)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)
"The emerging science of gendered yelling" (9/5/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:22 AM

September 08, 2006

Commas for kids: the critique

Arnold Zwicky alerted us a few weeks ago that best-selling punctuation nag Lynne Truss had adapted her international blockbuster Eats, Shoots & Leaves into a kiddie edition (perhaps taking her cue from Bill O'Reilly?). Now Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded gives us a well-rounded review, based on a thorough testing with Neal's sons Doug and Adam. Here's the conclusion:

Despite my criticisms of ES&L for kids, I had fun reading it with Doug and Adam. Many of the examples were well chosen, as noted above, and the pictures were always fun, and sometimes pretty clever. (Can you guess how they illustrated I've finally decided to cheer up, everybody!? I couldn't have.) But as an educational experience, the book ranges from unhelpful to misleading or false. The grammar lovers/parents that it targets should expect more.

And for more Truss-busting, see this article in the Guardian's Sunday Observer all about David Crystal's new book, deliciously titled The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 02:10 PM

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

About a decade ago, I began to encounter a surprising number of well-groomed mentally ill people wandering around talking to imaginary companions. Of course, it turned out these people were talking on cell phones with earbuds and microphones. Now, hands-free cellular telephony is so normal that I sometimes encounter slightly scruffy people who seem to be using a bluetooth headset, until it turns out that they're tuned in to a completely internal service provider, offering an unlimited number of anytime minutes per month. So I was amused to see this cartoon a couple of weeks ago:

The cartoon brings out something that I've often wondered about. Cell phone conversationalists sometimes use hand gestures and head-and-and-face movements. Why? And how does this compare to what they would do if their interlocutor was physically present?

In the cartoon, it looks like only one cell phone speaker -- the second from the left -- is gesturing, and none of the speakers seems to be modulating their head position and facial expression (unless those odd hooded eyes are supposed to be some kind of communication-related behavior.) My informal observation -- and it's easy to get lots of data, walking across the Penn campus -- is that hand gestures are rare, but a certain amount of head-and-face-wiggling seems to be pretty automatic. At least, you see lots of cell phone speakers with eyebrows going up and down, heads nodding and shaking and posing, etc. Yesterday, for example, someone walking towards me, deep in conversation with an etheric companion, said "um, I don't know", and furrowed his brows while moving his head to look up and to the right, as people sometimes do to signal that they're searching their memory.

The obvious thing that's got to be missing, I guess, is shifting gaze towards or away from the person you're talking to. You can't look someone in the eyes -- or avoid their eyes -- if they're not there. But otherwise, the whole package of gestures and expressions and postures seems to be in play, at least sometimes.

This highlights a puzzle about meaning. When people communicate, they do a lot of things that seem cleverly calculated to influence the knowledge and beliefs of others. The calculations behind these actions represent what psychologists call "theory of mind" reasoning, and they seem to involve a complex and many-layered logical analysis of the beliefs and goals of the speaker and hearer, the nature of the context, and general assumptions about the cultural norms of communication. Philosophers and linguists often refer to this kind of calculation (especially when conversational norms are involved) as "Gricean"; and they generally assume that speakers and hearers are actively carrying it out all the time. Conversation, on this view, is a sort of interactive cascade of theorems.

The first aspect of this puzzle, I guess, is how in the world people who show no signs of being able to apply simple logical reasoning in other cases can be so extraordinarily good at acting out theory-of-mind theorems. Evolutionary psychologists tend to take this as evidence for "modularity" -- humans, on this view, have evolved a specialized cognitive module -- perhaps even a specialized brain circuit -- for theory-of-mind reasoning, which is "encapsulated" and thus not available for theorem-proving in other areas.

However, many theory-of-mind calculations are obviously not carried out in real time, so to speak, but instead represent the application of communicative habits that are more-or-less well matched to the needs of the context. You can see that especially clearly in the case of gestures, whose connections to the content of speech can certainly be treated in terms of the logic of communication, but which continue to be used to some extent even when the person you're talking to can't see them.

Perhaps there's no real puzzle here -- people chatting in a bar are proving theorems only in the sense that the planets whirling in their orbits are solving differential equations. But I'm not sure.

[David Nash writes:

My off the cuff reaction is that flicking the eyes up and to the right like this feels like a help to memory retrieval, and isn't intended as a signal to someone else.

Maybe so -- I believe that I've heard claims about this, and maybe even some stuff about when people look right vs. left while trying to remember. The thing is, I don't think that I do this when I try to recall something while writing or programming, though I definitely do it when conversing, whether face-to-face or on the phone. Of course, intuitions about the distribution of such behavior are not very trustworthy.]

[Ben Zimmer suggests that I should offer our less clueful readers a link to the background of the "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" quotation.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:26 AM

September 07, 2006

One rather late vote for truthiness

Our friends over at The American Dialect Society recently are engaged in a debate over whether that society's annual proclamation of the Word of the Year is sullying its reputation as a serious academic organization. At its 2006 meeting, members attending that jovial and popular session (and anyone else who wanted to vote) selected "truthiness" as this year's WOTY (yes, that's what they call it), a word extracted from Stephen Colbert's Comedy Central progam. Apparently, culling this WOTY from a fake news comedy show seemed to some ADSers like a shift to academia's darker side. After the WOTY was announced in January, Language Loggers, always alert, leapt into the fray with posts including, but not limited to, these (here), (here), and (here). One of the constitutional mandates of Language Log seems to be to reveal concepts in search of everyday terminology, as is aptly illustrated by Arnold Zwicky's quest to find a good term to describe acronyms that have lost their initial (sorry about that) meanings.

I'm not sure "truthiness" is so bad. For some time now we seem to have had a need for a layperson's word like "truthiness" to describe a form of truth that is, well, true, but not exactly what the listener or reader thought. Peter Tiersma called our attention to such a phenomenon in his 1999 book, Legal Language. After describing how the field of law first converts spoken language into written transcripts, leading judges to interpret the transcript as though it were an authoritative text rather than a mere record of spoken language, Tiersma (p. 178) gives a telling example of "truthiness" (he didn't call it this) in an actual perjury trial, Bronson v. United States:

Samuel Bronston was president of a movie production company that petitioned for bankruptcy. At a hearing, the company's creditors were trying to locate his personal and company bank accounts in various European countries. The transcript contained the following exchange between the lawyer for a creditor and Mr. Bronston:

Q: Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?
A: No, sir.
Q: Have you ever?
A: The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich.

Bronston was telling the truth here. Well, sort of. It turns out that he did have a personal account in a Swiss bank but, whether cleverly or naively, he interpreted the lawyer's "you" to mean his company, not himelf. This pronoun lets us do this if we are so inclined. It seems to be up to the questioner to figure out what the answserer meant. In short, this seems to be a reasonable candidate for truthiness.

But we don't have to go to law trials to find truthiness. After my recent post about the names of window washing companies, Margaret Marks emailed me about a Google Video called "Topless Car Wash." Sorry, I  couldn't get the link to work but you can get it by going to Google Video and typing in Topless Car Wash. Beautiful young women in bikinis, conducting one of those impromptu, street-side car wash businesses, are gyrating and holding up signs to attract male drivers. After a curious man stops, the women tease and promise to be right back. Next they go into a building, supposedly to undress. Out bounce five very fat men,  topless of course, who start washing the car.

Is this an example of "truthiness" or what?

Posted by Roger Shuy at 02:27 PM

From the annals of lexical spread

Again and again, people decide to invent a word and see if they can get it to spread.  This kind of deliberate seeding rarely works at more than a very local scale -- you end up with, at best, a "family word", used literally within a family or within another small group of intimates (but not outside it) -- though occasionally someone achieves at least a moderate success.  Here's one story.

This is Susan Dennis, telling a story on her livejournal three years ago about a seeding from some years ago:

Years ago, I was a communications manager for IBM. There was one of us at every plant and every division hq making about 50 of us total around the United States. We were a kind of club. One member of the club had this theory about word usage. He allowed as how if you made up a good enough word and got three people to use it, within a year it would get back to from a fairly untraceable source. I'm obviously forgetting the details of the deal but I do remember the word that proved his theory.

Festuche. It's pronounced fess-toosch (accent on the second syllable). A festuche is a brohaha or a big deal or a tado. "He forgot to get the approval and pretty soon we had a major festuche." or "She's such a drama queen. She could make any staff meeting into a real festuche."

It's a great word and one that doesn't have much competition. When something is a real festuche, the other options for describing it just do not measure up.

About two years after this guy introduced festuche at a bar in White Plains, NY (a few of us gathered to discuss the day long meeting we had just been subject to), the head of communications at IBM stood before a gathering of about 300 IBMers and urged us not to make 'a festuche out of today's announcement'. It was a major coup and one that called for a festuche of a celebration.

This morning I had to use the word with a guy here at work. He allowed as how he had never heard the word before and thought it was a great word and planned to use it a lot. Maybe we'll see a revival?

(Yes, I noticed "tado" in there, for "to-do".  Looks eggcornish, with "to-do" reshaped to echo the "ta-DAH" that introduces some big announcement, imitating a trumpet flourish.  Googling on <"a big tado"> gets 43 raw webhits, most of them relevant; the more clearly onomatopoetic <"a big tadoo"> gets even more, 95; <"a big ta-do">, with its visual separation into two parts, gets 267, of both "a big ta-do" and "a big ta do"; and <"a big ta-doo"> gets 54 more.  Not (yet) in the eggcorn database, though we do have an entry for "ado" >> "to do, to-do".)

Well, it looks like it's achieving some success within the IBM world.  Here's Dennis, in her livejournal of 8/30/06, telling her readers about a

comment I got yesterday that is still making me smile...:

Hi - just wanted to comment about your (three year old) entry about the origin about the word "festuche" - my mother (an IBM employee) used it when talking to me last weekend while I was home visiting, and caused quite a dinner table discussion. We broke out the OED and couldn't find it there, and my little brother booted up the computer and tried Failing that, he googled the term. Imagine my surprise when the usually somber and sullen 22 year old burst out in hysterical laughter upon finding your story...

Isn't that the most wonderful comment? Festuche is a gift that just keeps on giving!

(Thanks to Dean Allemang for the pointer.)

[Follow-up.  Nothing is simple.  When I read Susan Dennis's blog entries, a little bell went off in my head, but I didn't know why it was ringing.  Now Ben Zimmer has written to tell me why: we discussed festuche / festouche / festoosh / festush on the ADS-L back in 2001.  Joan Hall posted a query from someone asking about festouche and festush, both of which could be found on the web at the time.  ADS-Lers noted that the word looked a lot like a dialectal variant of Italian festuccia 'little party' (festa + -uccia), and numerous Italian Googlehits for festuche supported this idea.  The point is that maybe Dennis's acquaintance didn't just make the word up out of thin air, but might have been retrieving a dimly remembered word.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 11:50 AM

Orphan initialisms

While relaying a report on The University of Manchester's name a little while ago, I mentioned three initialisms that people now staunchly maintain DO NOT STAND FOR ANYTHING (despite their history, of course): UMIST (one of the predecessors of Manchester as we know it today), Texas A&M, and SRI International.  Right after that, I wondered out loud on the ADS-L if there was a name for these things.  I suggested the lame term opacinym (for terms that had become "opacified by institutional fiat").  But now we have a much better candidate, orphan initialism (the poor thing has lost its parents), and a runner-up, empty initialism.

Orphan initialism comes from Dan Puckett of the San Antonio Express-News, who was moved to insert an entry into the style book of his previous employer, the St. Petersburg Times, about these annoying abbreviations.  This was in mid-2005, and the entry read:

Orphan initialisms

Many initialisms no longer stand for anything. If one has changed recently, inserting the former full name is a good idea: "the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons."

Some of the most common:

AAA: Formerly the American Automobile Association.
AARP: Formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.
ACT Assessment: Formerly the American College Test.
AT&T: Formerly American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
FFA: Formerly Future Farmers of America.
KFC: Formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken.
SAT: Formerly Scholastic Assessment Test, and before that, Scholastic Aptitude Test.

So nice to have a good crunchalicious term.  A Golden Terminology Palm to Dan.

Soon after, orphan acronym appeared on the net (for what are in fact initialisms, with the names of the letters pronounced separately, rather than the whole thing being pronounced as a solid word, as radar and scuba are; NARAL is an actual orphan acronym):

Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Do the Hustle

You can count me as one of those people who've never forgiven AMC -- it used to stand for "American Movie Classics"; now it's an orphan acronym, like KFC -- for adding commercials and dropping its former emphasis on classic movies.

posted by John @ 1:36 PM

A Silver Terminology Palm to John of

No doubt claimants will appear to demand their awards for earlier uses of the term, but I'm sticking with Dan, because he got to me first.

On ADS-L (9/6/06), Ben Zimmer then supplied two links to net discussions of the phenomenon (without a label), on Slate and Snopes, and added ESPN and the acronym IHOP to the list of examples.  There are, of course, many more examples, and probably more public discussions of orphans; they're the sort of thing that people notice.

Meanwhile, the term empty acronym (for what should be empty initialism, if we're being sticklers) has gotten some play.  Another Silver Terminology Palm for:

Since the mid-1990s, SAT has been an empty acronym. (Daily Californian, 7/29/03)

Other mentions of "empty acronyms" refer to acronyms or initialisms that aren't orphans, because they never had parents, never were abbreviations: a t-shirt saying "I.C.O.N.", which truly DIDN'T stand for anything (link), except maybe the word icon, and "NRG" (link), which is just a way of spelling energy (though, entertainingly, there seems to be a company called "NRG Energy, Inc." -- is there an echo in here?).

What makes orphan initialisms so annoying is that they LOOK like they ought to have calculable content, but are presented as just a string of letters.  They frustrate the natural human desire to find compositional meaning in things that so ostentatiously look as if they should have one. 

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:43 AM

September 06, 2006

Vande Maataram and the Pledge of Allegiance

A question that has aroused much controversy in the United States in recent years is whether it is constitutional for public schools to require the recitation of the version of the Pledge of Allegiance that contains the words under God. The argument against this practice is that this violates the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. In my view, this is clearly the case. Not only are the words interpreted by nearly everyone as having religious implications, but we know that the reason that these words were inserted into the Pledge was to reinforce religion against "Godless Communism", and it is clear that proponents of the use of this revised version of the Pledge advocate it out of a desire to impose their religious views on school children. A scholarly argument can be made that these words have a different origin, but even if true it is an argument with little relevance to the actual meaning and interpretation of the Pledge.

A nearly identical dispute is now raging in India.

India has both a national anthem, জন গণ মন, a Bengali song composed by Rabindranth Tagore, and a Bengali "national song" known as वन्दे मातरम् "Vande Maataram". The dispute is over whether school children should be required to sing Vande Maataram. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party favors this, and in the states of Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which it controls, singing of the song in schools, including Muslim schools, has been made mandatory. There are, however, strong objections, mostly on the part of Muslims, on the grounds that the song is associated with Hindu nationalism and is offensive both to secularists and to non-Hindus, especially Muslims. Here is an op-ed piece from 1999, and here is one from today's The Hindu. Here is a news item from today's DNA India, and here is one from a Bengali newspaper.

Proponents claim that this is just a patriotic song with no religiouos significance, and a few Muslims even back them up. As the article from The Hindu notes, BJP national council member Arif Mohammad Khan has even translated it into Urdu. Nonethless, even before investigating carefully, you can be confident that the politicians are up to no good. After all, has it EVER happened that politicians required the recitation of something uncontroversial and of unquestionable educational value, say the laws of thermodynamics? Of course not.

The most insightful discussion that I have seen is this editorial in the Hindustan Times by Inderjit Hazra. (You've got to admire a writer who begins an essay: "The best way to read Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay is in a Scottish pub.") One of the main points that he makes is that the song has a different history in Bengal and elsewhere in India. To a certain extent, in other parts of India it is associated with the anti-colonial movement and so has a generally patriotic association, but in Bengal it became very clearly associated with Hindu anti-Muslim sentiment. Indeed, the song appeared in 1882 in the violently anti-Muslim novel আনন্দমঠ Anandamatha "Temple of Joy". Here is an Indian Muslim's take on the song.

I've given this in Devanagari script, which is not the usual way of writing Bengali, since this is the form in which the song is known to most Indians. In any case, the song is not in ordinary Bengali but in the now largely disused highly artificial and Sanskritized form of literary Bengali known as সাধুভাষা, which the great Bengali linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee once described as follows:

with its forms belonging to Middle Bengali, and its vocabulary highly Sanskritized, it could only be compared to a 'Modern English' with a Chaucerian grammar and a super-Johnsonian vocabulary, if such a thing could be conceived.

Here is the full text of the song together with Sri Aurobindo's English translation.

वन्दे मातरम्
सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम्

बहुबलधारिणीं नमामि तारिणीम्
रिपुदलवारिणीं मातरम्॥
Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Green fields waving Mother of might,
Mother free.
सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम्
सस्य श्यामलां मातरंम् .
शुभ्र ज्योत्सनाम् पुलकित यामिनीम्

फुल्ल कुसुमित द्रुमदलशोभिनीम्,
सुहासिनीं सुमधुर भाषिणीम् .
सुखदां वरदां मातरम् ॥
Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.
सप्त कोटि कन्ठ कलकल निनाद कराले

द्विसप्त कोटि भुजैर्ध्रत खरकरवाले
के बोले मा तुमी अबले
बहुबल धारिणीम् नमामि तारिणीम्
रिपुदलवारिणीम् मातरम् ॥

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands
When swords flash out in seventy million hands
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and stored,
To thee I call Mother and Lord!
Thou who saves, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foe drove
Back from plain and sea
And shook herself free.
तुमि विद्या तुमि धर्म, तुमि ह्रदि तुमि मर्म
त्वं हि प्राणाः शरीरे
बाहुते तुमि मा शक्ति,

हृदये तुमि मा भक्ति,
तोमारै प्रतिमा गडि मन्दिरे-मन्दिरे ॥
Thou art wisdom, thou art law,
Thou art heart, our soul, our breath
Though art love divine, the awe
In our hearts that conquers death.
Thine the strength that nerves the arm,
Thine the beauty, thine the charm.
Every image made divine
In our temples is but thine.
त्वं हि दुर्गा दशप्रहरणधारिणी

कमला कमलदल विहारिणी
वाणी विद्यादायिनी, नमामि त्वाम्
नमामि कमलां अमलां अतुलाम्
सुजलां सुफलां मातरम् ॥
Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,
With her hands that strike and her
swords of sheen,
Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,
And the Muse a hundred-toned,
Pure and perfect without peer,
Mother lend thine ear,
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleems,
Dark of hue O candid-fair

श्यामलां सरलां सुस्मितां भूषिताम्
धरणीं भरणीं मातरम् ॥
In thy soul, with jewelled hair
And thy glorious smile divine,
Loveliest of all earthly lands,
Showering wealth from well-stored hands!
Mother, mother mine!
Mother sweet, I bow to thee,
Mother great and free!

Now, it is plain as day that this is not a secular song. The third stanza is implicitly addressed to the goddess काली Kali. The fifth is explicitly addressed to the goddesses दुर्गा Durga and लक्ष्मी Lakshmi. Overall, the song conceives of India as a female deity. Tagore himself wrote: "The core of 'Vande Mataram' is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it.". The use of just the first two stanzas in the schools is for the purpose of omitting the more explicitly religious material, but everyone still knows what the song is about.

Posted by Bill Poser at 06:31 PM

How to know who can wash your windows

I was sitting here at my desk, gazing idly out of my window and thinking noble thoughts, when I saw a truck marked, "The Window Washers," park in front of the building next door to Language Log Plaza. No question about what it was doing there. Its name was clear enough. The neighboring building wasn't getting sprayed for termites or getting its leaking faucets fixed. The people who own this window washing company made it very clear that they, well, wash windows.

From the consumer's perspective, there's something rather comforting about generic and descriptive names. But I know what you're thinking -- trademark laws make generic and descriptive names impossible to protect and another company can use that name whenever they want to. Guarding against name theft, most corporations aim  for a suggestive name, one that, according to trademark law, requires some operation of the imagination to connect the name with the product or service, like Tide or Visa.  To protect their name even more, they could try to create a fanciful name, one that is coined for the express purpose of functioning as a trademark, like Xerox or Kodak. Or they could go for an arbitrary name consisting of a word or symbol that's in common usage but is arbitrarily applied to their goods or services in such a way that it isn't descriptive or suggestive, like Shell gasoline or Apple computers.

Suppose for a moment that the nice people at "The Window Washers" were worried about someone else using their name. To avoid this, the owners could have called it "Alpine Cleaning" or "Nu-View" or "Optotex" or "Kenny's Cleaning Service." Maybe this would prevent other companies from trading on their name but I, for one, wouldn't be sure we should call them to wash our windows  here at the Plaza.

A lot of  work goes into finding a suitable trade name that can be protected. For example, The Igor Naming Guide is at our disposal. Its goal is to help companies "customize" their name and "make sure that all aspects of a work plan are designated to complement your naming project, corporate culture, approval process and  timeframe." For some reason Igor doesn't always deal with the categories of trademarks used by trademark law. It refers to suggestive names, for example, as "evocative" (maybe an improvement) and wisely puts much of its focus on this category, probably because most trademark litigation relates to whether or not a name is suggestive.

Igor provides lots of interesting examples. In the category of airline names, for example, it notes that  Qantas, an invented name like Kodak and Xerox, stands alone in this category. Most airlines choose functional names, like Alitalia, Jet Blue, Air France, Midway, and Delta. But even evocative names can backfire if you're not careful. For example, Igor points out that the name, "Virgin Airlines," is capable of confusing the company's positioning with its services, noting that "Virgin" says essentially, "we're new at this," while the public may want an airline to be experienced, safe and professional. Not only this, but religious people might be offended by this name and investors might not take the company seriously. Igor also analyzes the possible down sides of the names, "Yahoo" ("nobody will take stock quotes and world news seriously from a bunch of Yahoos"), "Banana Republic" ("derogatory cultural slur"), "Oracle" ("unscientific, unreliable, only fools put their faith in an oracle, sounds like orifice"), and "The Gap" ("means something is missing, incomplete, negative"). On the other hand, Igor points out that "Virgin" also suggests that the airline's corporate positioning is "different, confident, exciting, alive, human, provocative, fun" while "Oracle's " positioning is "different, confident, superhuman, evocative, powerful, forward thinking."

As our President often says, "It's a lotta work." This doesn't come close to doing justice to Igor's analyses of corporate names, but I think you can get the point.

"The Window Washers" apparently didn't feel the need to delve deeply into their "corporate positioning" or whether they might "achieve separation" from their competitors. They weren't trying to demonstrate that they are different or to create an unforgettable name. I don't suppose they were trying to "dominate a category" either. They just wanted to tell us what they do in the simplest and clearest way possible.

I kinda like that.

Update: Several readers have written to tell me that Qantas is not an invented name. It is an acronymn meaning Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service. They appear to be quite right but I was citing what Igor said here, not my own analysis.
Posted by Roger Shuy at 04:55 PM

Another New Source of Lexical Change

Some time ago I reported my discovery of lexical change through consumer fraud. Well, I've just been reading Geoffrey Lewis' fascinating book The Turkish Language Reform: a Catastrophic Success and have learned of another mechanism of lexical change not listed in the handbooks.

A less obvious example of the influence of English is a new phenomenon: the current greeting Selâm in place of Merhaba. This is not evidence of increasing religiosity, but is due to the prevalence of English-language films on television.

At this point you're probably thinking that he is nuts since in your experience, as in mine, in English-language films people don't greet each other with Selâm any more frequently than they do with Merhaba.

Lewis goes on to explain that he is talking about English-language films as shown on Turkish television, dubbed into Turkish, which results in what is known as dublaj Türkçesi   'dubbing Turkish'.

The aim when dubbing is to use Turkish words requiring lip movements similar to those of the original, and the lip movements for Selâm are closer to those for 'Hello' than to those for Merhaba. Other such phenomena may be on the way. Another instance of television's effect on speech: according to Hasan Pulur, writing in Milliyet of 4 February 1995, Vay anasımı! is no longer the normal way of expressing surprise, its replacement being Vavvvv! 'Wow!'.
Posted by Bill Poser at 02:06 PM

The vast arctic tundra of the male brain

Jessica Richard sent in another sighting of the sex-linked word-budget meme. Kim Underwood, writing in the Winston-Salem Journal, quoted it in describing a recent talk by Michael Gurian, who was speaking to "parents, teachers and others" in a North Carolina school auditorium ("HARD-WIRED: Many learning differences between boys and girls are innate, expert says", August 27, 2006):

Words come more readily to girls. Even as adults, men use fewer words than women. Studies have shown that, on average, women speak about 20,000 words in a day. Depending on the study, men use 7,000 to 10,000.

"That is a big difference," Gurian said. "Most guys all the way through life are going to use less words."

Boy, I wish that I could find even one of those studies! As I wrote in my earlier posts on the subject, lots of writers and speakers throw such numbers around, but none of them ever actually cite a reputable scientific study -- or even a disreputable one. ("Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006, and "The laconic rapist in the womb", 9/4/2006.) If you can point me to a study that supports such numbers, please write.

Gurian frames his picture of innate sex differences in roughly the same terms as other authors such as Leonard Sax and Louann Brizendine:

We need to understand that many of the differences between boys and girls are hard-wired, he said. (In an interview before his talk, he said that you could say it's because God made us that way or because men developed as hunters through time. Either way, it is the way it is.)

Boys' brains are designed to focus on - among other things - the ways that objects move through space. Girls' brains are designed to focus on - among other things - language and establishing and maintaining connections.

This perspective is neither unique to scientists nor especially new, though it's recently been given new life by being linked with new research in neuroscience. Gurian has been doing business at this stand for while -- his popular books on the subject include:

Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, The minds of boys: saving our sons from falling behind in school and life, 2005
Michael Gurian, Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents, 2002
Michael Gurian, The wonder of boys, 1997

All of these authors present their ideas as good for both boys and girls -- if we recognize the innate differences between the sexes, and treat them in appropriately different ways in school, at home and in the workplace, both sexes will benefit. That's the theory, and it might well be true.

But there are two things about this that I find disturbing.

In the first place, the ideas about what men and women are like haven't really changed much from the days when such theories were used to argue against women's suffrage or careers for women outside the home. The stories are now usually framed so as to make fun of males and praise women, but that's just a matter of how the advertising copy is written. These authors generally present a rather unpleasant picture of what boys and men are like: uncommunicative, out of touch with their emotions, distractable, obsessed with sex, aggressive and competitive. The idea seems to be that this is OK as retribution for all the years of negative stereotypes of girls and women -- and after all, similar ideas have been endorsed by many feminist writers. But the inverse picture of girls and women, though now framed in positively-evaluated terms, is pretty much the same the old negative stereotype of women as over-sensitive, over-emotional, manipulative gossips, who need to be protected from the rough-and-tumble world of men.

Maybe these ideas recur so consistently because they're true. But the second thing that bothers me about the stuff I've seen recently is that the "scientific" evidence presented for these allegedly innate cognitive differences is incredibly shoddy. It's full of selective viewing, over-interpretation, mis-interpretation and good old-fashioned invention.

You can see some of this in Underwood's article about Gurian's talk in that high school auditorium in North Carolina:

... listening to Gurian - who spoke to teachers, parents and others on Monday in the auditorium at Summit School - was like listening to a stand-up comic present a scientific paper.

Gurian elicited one of the bigger laughs when he projected images of brain scans on a screen. One showed a male brain at rest. The other showed a female brain at rest. As he described what the different colors meant, it became clear that even at rest, a female brain is still pretty active.

The male brain, on the other hand, brought to mind the vast, treeless plains of the arctic tundra. Pointing to one of only a couple of spots of modest activity, Gurian said, "The guy has got to breathe."

This is clever, I think, because it validates the idea of innate sex differences by making fun of men's calm rationality empty-headed cluelessness compared to the frantic scheming active mental life of women. The trouble is, any way you spin it, the "neuroscience" presented here appears to be a total fraud.

Gurian makes what seems to be the same point about resting brains on p. 51 of his 2005 book with Kathy Stevens, The minds of boys: saving our sons from falling behind in school and life:

As Ruben Gur has observed, "In the resting female brain, we find just as much neural activity as in the male brain that is solving problems." The female brain, in other words, doesn't really go to a rest state in the way the male does. Female blood flow even during brain rest is very active. Male blood flow during a rest state is not.

The book then shows two pretty random-looking brain scan pictures as illustrations (I presume that Gurian's road show shows such pictures in more impressive color versions):

I couldn't find any reference for the quote from Ruben Gur, who's on the faculty here at Penn. I'll ask him if he ever said this or something like it; but until I hear from him, we can rely on what he wrote in (what I think is) the only scientific paper that he's published on this particular subject: RC Gur et al., "Sex differences in regional cerebral glucose metabolism during a resting state", Science 267(5197) 528-531 (1995) . The abstract:

Positron emission tomography was used to evaluate the regional distribution of cerebral glucose metabolism in 61 healthy adults at rest. Although the profile of metabolic activity was similar for men and women, some sex differences and hemispheric asymmetries were detectable. Men had relatively higher metabolism than women in temporal-limbic regions and cerebellum and relatively lower metabolism in cingulate regions. In both sexes, metabolism was relatively higher in left association cortices and the cingulate region and in right ventro-temporal limbic regions and their projections. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that differences in cognitive and emotional processing have biological substrates.

(Note that glucose metabolism in the brain is a good proxy for neural activity, and is the basis for the hemodynamic reactions that are the basis of fMRI imaging.) In the body of the paper, we learn that

Average metabolism calculated from WB [whole brain] counts did not differ between men (mean ± SD, 4.66 ± 0.97 ml per 100 g of tissue mass per minute) and women (4.62 ± 1.09).

There were some local differences, some favoring men and some favoring women, as shown in the following figure:

In contrast, Michael Gurian's story, as filtered through the perceptions of the reporter who heard his talk:

...even at rest, a female brain is still pretty active. The male brain, on the other hand, brought to mind the vast, treeless plains of the arctic tundra.

In Gurian's own published words:

The female brain, in other words, doesn't really go to a rest state in the way the male does. Female blood flow even during brain rest is very active. Male blood flow during a rest state is not.

If there's some other research out there that supports Gurian's claim, I'll apologize to him. But on the basis of what I can see so far, it looks like he's presenting a fable entirely lacking in scientific foundation, and using some irrelevant brain-scan pictures to try to snow people into believing that it's neurological gospel. If so, this is a great example of the effect that Deena Skolnick recently demonstrated, in which completely irrelevant bits of inserted neuroscience cause readers -- even sophisticated ones -- to see bad arguments as satisfactory ones.

[Update 9/6/2006 -- Ruben Gur responded:

I'm not entirely sure where Gurian got that quote, it doesn't sound like something I wrote although I could have said something like it in a talk. It would be in reference to one of first findings on sex differences, even before the age of PET. We used the 133-xenon clearance method for measuring cerebral blood flow (CBF) and found that women had higher rates of CBF. At the time I was confronted repeatedly with the question: "well, perhaps women just have to think harder, put more efforts into thinking". My stock answer was similar to Gurian's quote, as I would point out that we measured CBF at rest and during problem solving, and womens' resting values were already higher than that for men. Indeed, they were at about the range we found in men when they were solving problems. [Gur RC, Gur RE, Obrist WD, Hungerbuhler JP, Younkin D, Rosen AD, Skolnick BE., Reivich M.  "Sex and handedness differences in cerebral blood flow during rest and cognitive activity". Science, 1982, 217,  659-661.] The rest of the quote from Gurian is his own take, which I'm not sure about. I actually think the story is a bit more complicated, and interesting, but I doubt that it means that women "think harder" when they rest .

The higher CBF in women was since replicated in many studies with PET and more recently with perfusion MR. This is noteworthy especially given that the cerebral metabolic rates for glucose (CMRgl) are identical in men and women (as shown in the paper you quoted). It suggests that women have "luxury perfusion", i.e. more CBF than is needed for CMRgl. This could possibly explain why they have more robust brains (at least ones that survive a decade longer). But this is a paper i'm still working on "as we speak".

Here's the relevant figure from Gur et al. 1982:

The paper states that overall, the size of the CBF difference between females and males was about 15% (at least as measured by the initial slope of 133Xe clearance in the particular regions of brain seen by their detectors). And the figure certainly does show higher CBF rates for females in the resting condition than for males in the two problem-solving conditions. So I guess I owe Gurian an apology. He didn't just make this stuff up, he got it from Ruben Gur, perhaps with a bit of embroidery.

However, the apology is a qualified one, for several reasons.

First, as I understand the situation, rate of glucose metabolism is a better proxy for "neural activity" (say in terms of rate of neuron firing) than cerebral blood flow is -- see Wikipedia's summary of the relationship among neural signals, CBF and fMRI BOLD measurements. As Gur et al. said about the sex difference in CBF in the 1982 paper:

"...its explanation is unclear. An interpretation of the functional significance of this difference would depend on whether it is accompanied by sex differences in neuronal activity and cerebral metabolism, which are highly coupled in the normal brain. Sex differences in metabolism could be directly tested in humans by use of positron emission tomography."

That PET testing is what Gur et al. 1995 did, 13 years later. They found no sex difference in CMRgl. Thus the measured sex difference in CBF does not seem consistent with a sex difference in "neural activity".

Second, some of the measurements we're talking about are expressed per unit volume, or calculated in a way that compares comparable volumes, while others are calculated for the whole brain, or with other, more complex, geometric properties. Gur's CBF measurements rely on detectors that "measure flow in a cylinder of tissue that includes primarily cortex and underlying white matter, and to a diminished extent deeper structures". Keep in mind that cerebral volume is about 10% greater on average in males than in females, from childhood onwards (e.g. Reiss et al., "Brain development, gender and IQ in children: A volumetric imaging study", Brain, 119(5) 1763-1774, 1996). There are also sex differences in relative volumes of gray matter and white matter -- and different differences in relative thicknesses of gray matter as seen from a given point on the cortical surface -- and "gray matter ... has a perfusion rate approximately four times and a clearance rate approximately seven times that of white matter", according to Gur et al. 1982.

I'd like to see a careful analysis of the effects of these anatomical differences, which are by far the best-established sex differences in brain parameters, on the issues under discussion here. Which differences in measured functional parameters are functionally meaningful, and which are just a function of geometric scaling interacting with the known anatomical differences and the techniques or scales of functional measurement?

This question of sex differences in brain function has serious implications for public policy. As I've explained in other other posts on this topic, some of the compelling pop-neuroscience stories in the news these days are based on misquoted or simply invented numbers. But even when the numbers are real, let's not jump to conclusions about their meaning -- whether those numbers seem to show an advantage for women, as the current fashion dictates, or seem to "explain" the dominance of men in certain areas of human activity. You might enjoy the idea that female brains are warm, busy, colorful places, while male brains are "like the vast, treeless plains of the arctic tundra". But it doesn't matter who you're rooting for in this "neuroscience world cup" that compares sexes, races, national groups, professions and personality types on a host of anatomical and functional dimensions. Once you start accepting simplistic over-interpretations of such results in connection with your favorite group stereotypes, pretty soon you'll find yourself confronted with some similarly evocative results that you don't like at all.

And that's not just because there are facts of group differences that "are what they are", as Gurian and others like to tell us. It's also because some people will use isolated, misinterpreted or even invented bits of "science" for reasons of political calculation or personal ambition, and some groups will latch onto any neuropolitical memes that suit their interests or their prejudices. So let's be careful out there. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 05:02 AM

September 05, 2006

Definitization: a >> the

A few days ago Geoff Nunberg passed around in the LLP offices a query sent on to him by the "Fresh Air" staff about all of the sudden for all of a sudden.  Maybe a slightly more dramatic 'suddenly', or just a mishearing.  And then I found myself adrift in a historical sea of idiomatic articles and prepositions.

1.  Turns out that this one's in Brians and Garner and a pile of on-line advice material.  A number of commenters on the eggcorn database have suggested it as a possible eggcorn.  And it's frequent and widespread -- over a million raw webhits, from all over the place:

I all of the sudden feel stupid... (link)

is there anyreason why my RSS feed would fail all of the sudden? (link)

All Of The Sudden, Mel Gibson Doesn't Seem So Bad. More tolerance and promotion of diversity, courtesy of the anti-war left. (link)

The OED entry for sudden has a subentry for of a sudden 'suddenly' that notes this was in fact earlier of the sudden, a variant that is now obsolete (1590 is their last cite).  The modern occurrences are mostly of all of a sudden -- unmodified of a sudden is just impossible for me -- though there's an 1890 plain of a sudden cite from Arthur Conan Doyle.

Presumably the occurrences of all of the sudden that are all over the place these days involve later replacements of a by the, and are not survivals of long-ago the.  But the question is worth looking at.

2.  I'd somehow missed all of the sudden until this query came in, though I was aware of all on a sudden, which gets about 33,200 raw Google webhits:

... as he sat on the shore with his rod, looking at the sparkling waves and watching his line, all on a sudden his float was dragged away deep into the ... (link)

the sea, all on a sudden, began to roar, and rise in billows; the birds flew about astonished; the cattle ran crying in the fields; and ... (link)

Maradona is a player of that class who can change the environment all on a sudden just being himself present. (link)

The OED lists on/upon a/the sudden but labels them archaic.  Most of the cites i've looked at either have a somewhat old-fashioned tone to them (to my ears) or come from Indian sources (the expressions may have survived in Indian English).  (The OED also lists the obsolete variants at a/the sudden and in a sudden.)

3.  At this point I wondered if a had been replaced by the in other idiomatic expressions.  I searched for once in the while (for once in a while) and got 746 raw webhits, among them:

Every once in the while the color goes very blue on the Old Faithful WebCam image. Why? (link)

Working Stiff is a webzine that aims to help average working people put in fewer hours for more pay and win arguments with the boss once in the while. (link)

And thanks for the reminder. I need a good kick in pants every once in the while on this topic. (link)

This time the OED has no the variant (though it gives once and a while as an "occasional" variant; once and a while is already in the eggcorn database).

Once in the while isn't in MWDEU, Brians, Garner, Trask, or Fiske.  Garner does list once in while and once and while as manglings of once in a while, though. 

4.  Once in while gets an impressive 130,000 raw webhits, including:

After the conclusion of proceedings one juror was heard to say "Every once in while you get the chance to do the right thing. We did it in there today. (link)

Every once in while, a person will do something obvious and direct that is no more than it appears to be. (link)

How about that we would meet for lunch once in while, ... (link)

And once and while gets 51,900, among them:

Technology comes in handy once and while... (link)

Everyone screws up once and while. (link)

... near as thin as girls like the olsen twins. they don't eat "hamburgers every once and while". they have to hardly eat anything to look like that! (link)

5.  Oi!  it then occurred to me to check once and the while (combining in >> and and a >> the), and yes, there are a few occurrences:

There are natives that have evolved to live in damp soils such as Culver's root, Mallows, etc., I water those once and the while and plant them closest to ... (link)

Just keep your ears clean and rinse off your tips every once and the while and you will have no problems whatsoever... (link)

If Jewish invasion and occupation affords an extra loaf once and the while at cost of my children getting murdered by Israeli troops and Jewish degradation ... (link)

6.  At this point I wondered if there were any other candidates for a >> the (or the reverse).  These aren't things you can search for directly.  You have to think of a larger idiom and then search on it.

Well, there are a fair number (a few hundred) of once in the blue moon hits, like this one:

Question 1: How often do you feel your partner doesn't really know who you are? Most of the time. Sometimes. Once in the blue moon. Never. (link)

So no doubt there are a lot more based on other idioms with the indefinite article.

[First version posted to ADS-L 9/1/06. Addendum, 9/6/06: Ron Butters on ADS-L adds one at the time for one at a time.  Easy to find cites, like the politeness advice, "Speak one at the time."]

zwicky at-sign period csli stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 07:07 PM

Manchester mouse born from mountain

My postings on university names have elicited a flood of wonderful details about one naming history after another, many of them remarkably twisted.  I don't think I'm up to coping with the story of CCNY, or even the full tale of CSU, and I had planned to avoid the tangled Manchester history, but now a colleague at Manchester has supplied a sprightly narrative from the inside.  I have suppressed this colleague's name, in case the Manchester administration might seek revenge (tempers run high in such matters, egos are easily bruised, and memories are regrettably long).

My institution was for many years known interchangeably as "University of Manchester" and "Manchester University", thus illustrating one of the threads you have covered in Language Log.  Only when feeling very pompous and formal did it use its full title, "Victoria University of Manchester".  It had a sister/offshoot institution called, almost universally, "UMIST", which stood (or had once stood) for "University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology".  The relationship between them was complex and had changed several times in the course of the twentieth century.  In some respects UMIST was legally one faculty of Manchester University, in others a separate and thriving institution.  (I have not checked any of these details, which were confusing enough even when fresh in the memory.)  By the end of the millennium, UMIST had effectively become a wholly separate university.  Then a grand plan emerged to bring them together again as a single university in 2004, one of the largest in the UK, and - yes - with one of those resounding mission statements about world domination by 2015.  [AMZ note: 2015 figures very prominently in these Mission Statements, 2010 apparently being just too soon to achieve lofty goals.]  It was really quite a large-scale merger by British university standards.  But what to call the important new arrival?  It clearly had to have the words "University" and "Manchester" in it, but it could not be called "University of Manchester", lest UMIST people should feel that they had been absorbed by the larger partner.  Consultants were employed, meetings were held, questionnaires went out to all stakeholders (as they are called) in both institutions.  It all took a long time.  Eventually we in the "University of Manchester" learnt what our new name was to be:  it was "The University of Manchester".  We had gained a definite article.  Our "The" must always have initial caps (and its font, size, colour and spacing in logos and letterheads and posters and websites are minutely regulated).  It's a very definite article.

Yeah, I know, those of you who know me fairly well will have immediately figured out who my correspondent is.  I'm just trying to maintain plausible deniability.

Notice the "or once stood for".  It's like the Menlo Park research company SRI International; "SRI" DOESN'T STAND FOR ANYTHING, they say.  No Stanford in there, no way.  Like "A&M" in "Texas A&M University" DOESN'T STAND FOR ANYTHING.  There's no "Agricultural and Mechanical" in the name, absolutely not.  We have the legal documents.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 06:09 PM

The the in The Ohio State University

Readers continue to wonder about the the in The Ohio State University: what's up with that?  I can give the explanation that was given to me many years ago, but not everybody will find it entirely satisfying.

What I was told was that this usage stresses the fact that there is only ONE Ohio State University; there are many California State Universities, but only one Ohio State University.  Granted, there are a number of Ohio state universities (Ohio University, Kent State University, The University of Toledo, and so on), but there's only one institution named "Ohio State University".  "California State University", in contrast, is the name of a system of institutions, each of which has "California State University" as part of its name.

What makes this argument really subtle is that Ohio State has a number of branch campuses: Lima, Mansfield, Marion, and Newark, plus an agricultural institute and two research centers not in Columbus.  These, however, are not treated as separate institutions (as the UC and CSU campuses are, and as the constituent institutions of the University of London are); they are just geographically dispersed pieces of Ohio State.  So there's just one Ohio State University, hence the definite article.

(In an entertaining side development, a number of Ohio state universities have followed Ohio State down the definite-article route, complete with capitalization: The University of Toledo (otherwise UT) and The University of Akron (otherwise UA), for instance.)

Compare Ohio State to Oklahoma State and Oregon State.  Ohio State's logo says "The Ohio State University"; Oklahoma State's has just "Oklahoma State University"; Oregon State's webpage is headed "Oregon State University  OSU".  Well, Oklahoma State is a system, though if you refer just to "Oklahoma State University", you'll usually be taken to be referring to the institution in Stillwater (whereas "California State University" picks out no physically located institution at all).  Oregon State is not a system, so it's just as unique as Ohio State, but those folks in Corvallis are happy without the definite article.  (Omit Needless Words!)

In its on-line materials, Oregon State uses "OSU" pretty consistently.  Oklahoma State uses "Oklahoma State University" and "OSU".  Ohio State largely avoids the definite-article issue by using "Ohio State" most of the time, "OSU" occasionally, and never "The Ohio State" (which would be ill-formed) or "The OSU" (which would be a strange mixture of the abbreviated and the expanded).  But on first reference, the full form is often used, as in a recent press release (8/18/06), which begins (the bolding is mine):

COLUMBUS - According to the U.S. News & World Report 2007 edition of America's Best Colleges released today, The Ohio State University has been named 19th among the nation's top 50 public universities, up from 21st in 2005, 22nd in 2004 and 2003, and 24th in 2002.

The article then continues with "Ohio State" everywhere, until the final paragraph, where the writer slips into ordinary, rather than official, usage:

Founded in 1870, Ohio State University is a world-class public research university and the leading comprehensive teaching and research institution in the state of Ohio.

It's just SO hard to stick to "rules" that don't make sense to you.

An alternative hypothesis about Ohio State's insistence on the definite article comes from Nick Piesco (who also describes my university naming postings as "just the kind of esoteric geekitude that makes the Internet grand" -- which was meant as a compliment and was so taken).  Piesco alludes to an OU-OSU tiff about the use of the name "Ohio" (and nothing more).  From a 1997 Cincinnati Post article:

It began in 1993 when Ohio University went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and secured a registered trademark for the word ''Ohio'' on licensed athletic gear and in connection with athletic events. In 1995 it filed a separate trademark application for a new ''attack cat'' logo [a snarling bobcat].

More than vanity is at stake: OU clears about $110,000 a year from licensed sporting apparel.

The trouble began when OU's legal counsel telephoned his counterpart at Ohio State University - excuse us, the Ohio State University (you guessed it - another trademark) - and suggested, among other things, that OSU get the ''Ohio'' name off the cheerleaders' uniforms.

The OSU lawyer thought the OU lawyer was joking. But he wasn't.

Ohio University, with an absolutely straight face, claims that Ohio State University can't use the word ''Ohio'' commercially.

''Ohio State'' is all right, it seems. But ''Ohio,'' appearing alone on, say, a red and white OSU sweatshirt, might not be all right.

OU (which prefers to be called ''Ohio'' on second reference) says it has no problem with OSU calling its football stadium ''Ohio Stadium,'' and swears it's willing to let the OSU marching band continue its hallowed ''Script Ohio'' routine at halftime.

(Note OU's preference for being called "Ohio" on second reference.  OU's website is packed with references to the university as "Ohio" (as well as "OU").  In my "University Name Bulletins" posting, I got this just wrong.  My apologies to my colleagues in Athens.)

What surfaces here is another fact about Ohio State: it's proud of its status as the premier public institution of higher education in the state of Ohio; it's inclined to see itself as representing the state -- another reason for cherishing the definite article.  And so it's inclined to think that "Ohio" belongs to Ohio State, as in "Ohio Stadium" and "Script Ohio".

I don't know how this dispute got resolved, but at the moment neither institution seems comfortable with t-shirts that say just "Ohio".  The closest the OSU Bookstore gets is an "Ohio Stadium" t-shirt and one that has only a plain "O" ("the OSU Block O").  The OU Bookstore offers exactly one t-shirt that has "Ohio" on it without some further identifying material (like the bobcat logo, the word "Bobcats", or the Mid-American Conference seal): one with "Ohio" plus the Adidas logo, which of course doesn't pick out any particular institution.  They're not exactly flaunting "Ohio".

In any case, OSU's commitment to the definite article long antedates this legal spat of the '90s, though that commitment might have been helped along by the OU-OSU rivalry.

(An irrelevant side observation.  Looking at these university websites, from all over the world, I am startled by the number of institutions that propose to attain "world-class" status, or some similarly described goal, by <insert year here>.   There's a lot of striving and boasting out there.  But whatever you do, don't read the "Mission Statement" of a university, unless you're really interested in contentless administrativese.)

[One item from the e-mail avalanche: EJ Pryor writes to say that The Evergreen State College (in Olympia, Wash.) almost always has the definite article included, and capitalized. Pryor says: "The abbreviated name is Evergreen (never Evergreen State), and the accepted acronym is TESC (never ESC).  As a student I was told that the reason for the "the" was that the name should be analyzed not as 'The <Evergreen><State College>' but rather '<The Evergreen State><College>'."   That actually makes some sense.  Back on the Ohio State front, several correspondents have reported the web abbreviation "tOSU" -- note lower-case "t".]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 12:37 PM

The emerging science of gendered yelling

According to Dr. Leonard Sax, one of the reasons that girls and boys should be educated separately is that girls are more sensitive. In his recent book, Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences, he presents a number of variants of this argument, but the simplest and most compelling version is that girls have more sensitive hearing, and therefore need a quieter classroom. He presents some serious-seeming science in support of this argument. In an earlier post ("Leonard Sax on hearing", 8/22/2006), I pointed out that he simply misreads one of papers whose results he cites: Cone-Wesson et al. 1998 found that newborn boys had (slightly) more sensitive hearing (on average) than newborn girls, not (as he asserted) less sensitive hearing. Later, I'll analyze his compelling but misleading use of numbers from a classic study of grown-ups' hearing thresholds.

But Sax is a skillful writer, and so he doesn't neglect the need to make this issue come alive for his readers by using evocative anecdotes drawn from personal experience:

I can't count the number of times a father has told me, "My daughter says I yell at her. I've never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I'm yelling." ... The gender difference in hearing ... suggests different strategies for the classroom. ... Girls won't learn as well in a loud, noisy classroom ... [but] the rules are different when you're teaching boys.

Sax argues that the dads are using a normal vocal level -- for them -- which the daughters hear as yelling -- for them -- because of the (real but small) differences in hearing thresholds between males and females, as well as the (real and larger) differences between people of different ages. (More on that later.) The fact that Sax hasn't kept a count of his anecdotes doesn't weaken his argument, since the plural of anecdote is not data. But the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, all the same, and in the Internet Age, we can easily count things on the web as a proxy for counting them in real life. So I'm going to play "dueling anecdotes" with Dr. Sax, not by claiming priority for my own remembered experience of gendered yelling, but rather by scanning for patterns like {"mother yelled"} and {"father yelled"}, and comparing the resulting counts.

Here's the anecdata:

  yelled yelling yells is yelling was yelling Total
mother 26,700 19,800 22,800 5,050 16,100 90,450
father 23,900 11,800 17,600 3,200 10,700 67,200
F/M ratio           1.36
girl 17,700 11,800 753 1,610 31,300 63,163
boy 18,600 926 886 2,830 21,500 44,742
F/M ratio           1.412
wife 21,200 10,500 13,800 14,800 19,300 79,600
husband 984 3,320 12,200 5,390 10,100 31,994
F/M ratio           2.49

In the world of the web, a mother is 36% more likely to yell than a father; a girl is 41% more likely to yell than a boy; and a wife is almost two-and-a-half times more likely to yell than a husband.

In my opinion, these numbers are not telling us anything about the facts of gendered yelling or gendered perceptual thresholds. Instead, this difference is about sexual stereotypes, and perhaps about a confusion between perceived animus and produced sound intensity. But in this duel of stereotypes, as measured by an exercise in Google Social Psychology, Sax's anecdote loses. According to the perceptions of the web, females do more yelling than males do. Sorry, Dr. Sax, but that's how it is. By the numbers.

[Update -- Karen Davis writes:

I can't resist pointing out that perhaps females yell more because males don't hear them unless they yell? At least, that would be the answer consonant with Dr Sax's position, if not with the truth.

That's the great thing about this -- any way the facts come out, you can tell a good story about it. In fact, it's not easy to distinguish empirically among several different good stories. For example, if it turns out to be true that members of group X are perceived by members of group Y to be yelling when the Xs think they're talking normally, this could be because the Ys have extra sensitive hearing and perceive normal levels as too loud; it could be because the Xs have especially insensitive hearing and actually do raise their voices to speak at what they think is a normal level; it could also be because the Ys seem to have trouble hearing, so the Xs raise their voices in order to be understood; it could be because the Ys see the Xs as frightening, and so over-estimate their level of vocal effort; or it could be because the Xs see the Ys as threatening and so raise their voices in order to forestall anticipated aggression; or it could be because there's a social stereotype among Ys that Xs are loudmouths. If you're creative, you should be able to think of quite a few other stories that would make sense of this observation -- and that's assuming the observation is true in the first place.]

[Update #2 -- Sybil Shaver writes:

My own anecdotal take on the claim that girls feel "yelled at" in situations in which boys do not, assuming of course that the claim has any merit:

From time to time a student will accuse me of "yelling" at him or her (and in my memory it is usually a "her"), when I have been deliberately and carefully modulating my voice downward and trying to speak slowly and calmly, so I believe that an objective observer would report that I was not "yelling" as that term is normally interpreted, by me anyway. But why was I being so careful to modulate my voice at that moment? Because I had an unpleasant message to deliver (such as "You are disrupting the class" or "Your comment is out of order" or even just "No, your answer is wrong") and past experience had taught me that I needed to use every trick I could muster up to try and lower the emotional temperature in those situations: modulating my voice and phrasing my message carefully.

My take, for what it's worth, is that when those students said I was "yelling" at them, what they meant was that I was being critical of them. They were not reporting my tone of voice, that is, but rather the fact that I was saying something unpleasant and they felt attacked despite my efforts to maintain calm and to express the message neutrally. (I still don't know what more to do in those situations: even saying "Let's talk about this later" seems to come across as an attack sometimes.)

So without prejudging the question of whether it is really true that girls feel "yelled at" in more situations than boys do, is it possible that "yelled at" doesn't mean the same thing to all of these young people?

I suspect that this is a better approximation to the truth than any story about hearing thresholds. Speaking for myself, if I think back over times in my life when I've said things like "stop yelling at me", I believe that what I've generally meant is "stop saying mean things to me", even if I also genuinely felt that an excessively harsh tone of voice had been used. I have no idea whether young women feel or express this sentiment more often than young men, but if they do, I very much doubt that the explanation has to do with hearing thresholds.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:44 AM

The surreptitious history of -licious

The year 1992, as Arnold Zwicky observes, was a high-water mark for the jocular suffix -(V)licious. That morpholicious year brought us not only babelicious of Wayne's World fame and the hiphop group Blackalicious, but also the flexible neologism bootylicious. Snoop Dogg used it in a guest appearance on Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic in a pejorative fashion to diss a fellow rapper: "Your bark was loud, but your bite wasn't vicious / And them rhymes you were kickin were quite bootylicious." Beyoncé Knowles and Destiny's Child would later celebrate an ameliorative interpretation of the word (more callipygian than steatopygic, let's say) with their 2001 single "Bootylicious." But Beyoncé didn't coin the term even in its positive sense (despite the claims of some silly news stories earlier this year). The Oxford English Dictionary has print citations for the 'sexually attractive' meaning of bootylicious back to 1994.

Yes, bootylicious is in the online edition of the OED now, and it has been since September 2004. (Since then, it has also entered the latest editions of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English.) Babelicious is in the OED too, with a first citation slightly predating the 1992 release of Wayne's World: it appeared in the book Wayne's World: Extreme Closeup a year before the movie came out. Both entries cross-reference another new addition to the dictionary: the combining form -(a)licious, defined as 'embodying the qualities denoted or implied by the first element to a delightful or attractive degree' (as in hunkalicious, attested from 1989). The OED takes this formation back to the '50s, but the long and largely undetected history of -(V)licious can be traced back even further than that.

As early as 1958, S.J. Perelman could write satirically in the New Yorker about a slogan-writer coming up with this bit of ad copy: "Victor Hugo—the Soup That Babies Your Palate. Appeteasing—Goodylicious." Perelman was mocking the Madison Avenue penchant for silly blends like appeteasing (appetizing + teasing) and goodylicious (goody + delicious). And ad copy is indeed where we can find earlier examples of -(V)licious as a combining form or blend component. The OED gives a 1951 cite for an ad appearing in the Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe: "It's the dog food that packs all the nutrition a dog needs into one dog-licious meal." (Needless to say, dog-licious here means 'delicious to a dog,' not 'delicious like a dog.') That line is from an ad for the Kasco brand of dog food, and the ever-expanding Newspaperarchive database now finds earlier examples of dog-licious in Kasco ads (two of which adorn this page) going back to 1949 in papers such as the Kingsport (Tennessee) News and the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette.

Much as fantastic began spawning other -tastic forms by first shifting one vowel to funtastic (see this post for a discussion), many of the early -licious forms weren't too far removed from delicious, involving a change of just the initial consonant. For instance, a rayon crepe "tea dress" from Mary Muffet was advertised in the Oct. 23, 1941 Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press as tea-licious. (And later in 1963 the Los Angeles Times carried a recipe for a tea-licious, i.e., tea-flavored, pie.) An ad in the Oct. 15, 1952 Syracuse Herald-Journal trumpeted Downey's Honey Butter as bee-licious, while the Albuquerque Tribune of Feb. 24, 1955 carried a notice for sea-licious breaded shrimp from Lucky Supermarkets. All of these examples are helped along by the emphatic form of delicious with stress on the first syllable, frequently represented as dee-licious in advertising of the early to mid-20th century.

An even earlier example of -(V)licious from Newspaperarchive doesn't involve a simple consonant switch from dee-licious and also doesn't come from ad copy. The Nov. 8, 1933 Syracuse Herald features a recipe from a reader for applelicious, a dessert consisting of vanilla wafers and sliced apples. The same recipe turns up in the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle Telegram the following year, so applelicious clearly got around.

Going back further still, the American Periodicals Series reveals a punny example of the -(V)licious formation while it was still very much in its infancy. This poor excuse for a joke appeared in the New York Observer and Chronicle of Jan. 3, 1878, in the "Odds & Ends" column:

There are beautiful warm soda springs in Colorado, and people who go bathing in them at once exclaim: "Oh! but this is soda-licious!"

So delicious, soda-licious, get it? Yep, pretty bad joke. But it must have had some staying power, because by 1911 there were drug stores in different parts of the country (Ada, Oklahoma, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, if not elsewhere) that advertised their carbonated drinks in local newspapers as soda-licious. Notably, the sodalicious blend was prominent enough to attract the attention of such word-watchers as H.L. Mencken and Eric Partridge. So perhaps this form laid the groundwork for later morpholiciousness.

Nowadays, if you want to get a sense of the productivity of -(V)licious, just head over to Mark Peters' Wordlustitude, where recent in-the-wild discoveries include kegelicious, stigmatalicious, tentaclicious, non-suckalicious, crony-licious, conjugalicious, and many more. What once was an occasional delectation is now just a bit too overkillicious.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at 12:47 AM

September 04, 2006

Till the cows come 'ome

Type "jeopardy" in the search field on the main Language Log page and you'll find several posts (most of them by Bill Poser) discussing how language and linguistics are represented on the TV quiz show Jeopardy: mostly badly, but occasionally OK.

Type "wait wait", though, and you'll only get one result: a relatively recent one by Geoff Pullum on how the research staff at Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! seemed to have been a little late to the game of making fun of Powergen Italia's old URL

The good folks at Wait Wait seem to be a little more on the ball these days, but it's clear that they haven't been reading Language Log. Here's an excerpt from the Monday, August 28 podcast edition of the show.

(You can also listen to an archived edition of the show here (broadcast on August 26); the lovely Rita Rudner is the guest celebrity who (very entertainingly) plays the Not My Job game. If you're just interested in the segment at issue, click on the "Panel Round Two" link, subtitled "The new musical, My Fair Guernsey.")

[ Comments? ]

[ Update -- John Wells writes:

Interesting that the people on the sound clip imagine that west-of-England = Cockney. This is presumably because Americans have a stereotype of a Cockney accent, but none of a West-Country accent - unlike us English. For us the chief stereotypical characteristic of a west-of-England accent is that - like most Americans but unlike the rest of us - it is rhotic, i.e. there is an /r/ corresponding to every orthographic/historical r. The stereotyped west-of-England interjection is "ooh-aar". (western aar = everybody else's ah) For cows to have a Cockney accent would be ridiculous!

-- end update ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at 11:01 PM

Barbed, not bitten

I was surprised to hear a man who knew Steve Irwin talking on NPR this morning about his tragic death from being "bitten" by a stingray. Perhaps he just misspoke under the stress of a phone interview after the death of a friend. I know people talk about being bitten by a bee or a wasp, but I had always thought that the origin of that usage had to do with lack of understanding of the mechanisms: bees and wasps are very small, and you generally don't see them doing what they do (injecting you with a sharp poisoned barb at the rear ends of their bodies). But stingrays are huge.

Perhaps it's just me, but my understanding of what bite means is that it's about gripping and usually puncturing or tearing through the use of teeth or fangs operated by jaws or mandibles of some kind, or possibly a beak, but definitely not stabbing with a pointed implement. Steve Irwin, the irrepressible crocodile wrangler, would have died of a bite if ever one of his beloved crocodilians had gotten to him; but the irony is that the fatal reptilian bite never came. He was stabbed in the heart by a fish. "Barbed", as the Boston Globe put it. I shall miss him. Having seen Australian saltwater crocodiles in the wild while I was in Queensland to work on The Cambridge Grammar with long-time Australian resident grammarian Rodney Huddleston, I had the deepest respect for Irwin. A braver man than I. I wouldn't go near one of those creatures, ever. But then, come to think of it, I also swam on the Great Barrier Reef. It could have been me that startled a stingray and got an unlucky hit in the chest. With Queensland's wonderful but extraordinarily dangerous wildlife you never know what'll ultimately kill you.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at 09:55 PM

Barney Miller and the linguist

So back in the -Vlicious thread I remembered a guy on "Barney Miller" enraged by pickle ad copy along the lines of "crunch-crunch-crunchalicious". This might or might not have happened, though the wonderfully fey "ko-ko-kosherific" (note portmanteau of kosher and terrific) pretty clearly did. And the language loony was identified as, oh dear, a LINGUIST.

Thanks to John O'Meara for the "ko-ko-kosherific" reference, which resonates with me.  My recollection is that it was the second portmanteau in the show, though I could be wrong.  (I'm still working on getting to the original material.)  In any case, it was in the seventh (of eight)  seasons:

135 The Psychic    First Aired: February 5, 1981
Writers: Tony Sheehan, Frank Dungan, Jeff Stein
Director: Noam Pitlik
Guest Stars: Kenneth Tigar, Fred Sadoff, Rod Colbin, Larry Hankin, Robert Burgos

A linguist vandalizes a billboard to protest improper grammar in advertising; and a psychic foils a purse snatcher--before the crime is committed.

Yes, someone who presents himself as caring about language is a "linguist".  We go around vandalizing vulgar errors and terrorizing their perpetrators.  Everybody knows that.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 06:48 PM

-Vlicious invention

A little while back I looked at the Snickers coining substantialiscious, possibly a portmanteau of substantial and delicious, or an occurrence of a recent jocular suffix -Vlicious (spelled -alicious, -elicious, -ilicious, -olicious), maybe with a nod to luscious as well. I offered the further examples crunchalicious, crispalicious, and yummalicious, and passed on citations of a 1994 portmanteau sacrilicious from "The Simpsons", which some correspondents speculated might have been the model for the other examples.

Well, we can now toss the Simpsons idea, since there are cites of babelicious and blackalicious from 1992, which seems to have been a particularly morpholicious year.  The larger point is that -Vlicious words are likely to have been invented independently on many occasions, as portmanteaus, leading eventually to the emergence of the jocular suffix.  Some innovations in language have no clear single moment of creation, but arise as natural re-workings of the material of a language, by many different hands.

Babelicious turns up, not in "The Simpsons", but in another fount of popular culture, the movie "Wayne's World" (1992).  Andrew Whitby supplied the crucial quote to me:

[Talking about Claudia Schiffer]
Wayne Campbell: She's a babe.
Garth Algar: She's magically babelicious.
Wayne Campbell: She tested very high on the stroke-ability scale.

Babeolicious (with that spelling) made it into the Urban Dictionary in 2003, with the definition "A person good looking enough to eat!"  Google webhits include references to babeolicious dresses, hunky guys serving as "babeolicious eye-candy", the "über-babeolicious Emmy Jo" on the television show "The New Zoo Revue", the "babeolicious yet dull" Jadzia Dax in "Star Trek: Deep Space 9", you get the idea: high physical attractiveness.

Babelicious gets the following Urban Dictionary entry in 2005, from an enthusiastic Australian guy:

A combination of the words "babe" and "delicious", where "babe" refers to a very attractive woman, and "delicious" refers to the fact that you'd be onto her like a lion onto a prairie dog if she gave you the slightest encouragement. Things that are babelicious include supermodels, certain singers/actresses (if you're thinking Britney or Madonna here go and wash your mind out with soap), any female gymnast/contortionist over the age of 18, and that chick I walked past on the street on my way into work this morning.

Now, blackalicious.  Alexandra Zuser pointed me to the rap group Blackalicious, formed in that morpholicious year 1992.  Vast number of webhits.  It's not so clear that this is a portmanteau; this might just be -Vlicious conveying a highly positive evaluation.  The semantic development would be from 'extremely good tasting' (of food) to 'physically very attractive' (delighting senses other than taste) to 'intensely good'.

Some coinings in -Vlicious are pretty clearly portmanteaus: they refer to yummy food and drink (Eat'elicious, a London restaurant; sip-elicious; and bub'olicious, with reference to champagne, that is, to "bubbly"), and some of them also have first parts ending in d, which can then overlap with  the d of delicious (Bread-elicious; squidelicious -- "You can walk along with them on a stick and eat them like a lollipop. Squidelicious! (or is it Octopussilicious!?...)" (link); and bird foods BirD-elicious and Seed-elicious).

Portmanteauing of a word denoting food, eating, drink, or drinking with delicious is an entirely natural bit of word play, something that people could hit on on their own, or on exposure to ANY single example of the formation.  There's no need to search for an ur-portmanteau serving as a model for all the others.

Eventually, we leave the world of portmanteaus and reach X-Vlicious words that merely express a judgment of great goodness or intense Xness:  scarf-elicious, referring to an excellent scarf; a "Mac-alicious brain transplant", on the site; a photo showing lots of bikes and titled bike-olicious; a photo of a dog named Bug, which elicited the comment "You have captured the essence of Bug-olicious in this one".  In such examples, -Vlicious is a jocular suffix of approval.

Now, a little puzzle.  I have a recollection of a "Barney Miller" episode in which a man is arrested for assaulting someone responsible for a pickle ad that offends the assailant deeply.  I remember the pickle ad as having the text "It's crunch-crunch-crunchalicious" -- to which the assailant objected on the grounds that there is NO SUCH WORD as "crunchalicious".  No doubt I've mis-remembered the word, but it was certainly some jocular formation, and I'm sure about the pickles.  But I can find nothing relevant by searching for <"Barney Miller" pickle>.  Anybody have any idea what I'm thinking of here?

You can see why I'm asking.  The show "Barney Miller" ran from 1975 to 1982, so a "crunchalicious" (or something similar, like "crundelicious") in it would move the -Vlicious sightings back at least a decade before "Wayne's World" and Blackalicious.

[Breaking news: Paul Deppler reminds me of Bubblicious Gum, which, according to the wikipedia entry, dates back to 1977.  Forward into the past!  And now, Brett Altschul writes to observe, perceptively, that the "Wayne's World" exchange is surely modeled on Bubblicious Gum: "'She's magically babelicious,' must have been written with the gum specifically in mind, since the phrasing is also a joke related to marketing of sweets to children; it parodies the Lucky Charms slogan, 'They're magically delicious.'"]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 01:25 PM

The laconic rapist in the womb

Page 14 of Dr. Louann Brizendine's recent work of popular neuroscience, The Female Brain, offers a vision of the "innate biological destiny" of men and women in which key cognitive differences are determined long before birth:

Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female -- female is nature's default gender setting. If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones. A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers. If the testosterone surge doesn't happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. The fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion. How does this fetal fork in the road affect us? For one thing, because of her larger communication center, this girl will grow up to be more talkative than her brother. Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand. For another, it defines our innate biological destiny, coloring the lens through which each of us views and engages the world. [emphasis added]

"A huge testosterone surge" that "[kills]... communication" and "[grows] ... sex and aggression". Already in the eighth week of fetal development. This is strong stuff, reminiscent of some of the fiercest anti-male rhetoric of thinkers like Mary Daly, who believes that the world would be better off without any men in it. And unlike Daly, Brizendine supports her vision with a dense series of end-notes referencing big-time scientific journals like Science, Endocrinology, and Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

The trouble is, this vision is mostly not true. As far as I can tell, it's Brizendine's personal echo of current sexual stereotypes, unsupported by any of the scientific papers that she cites.

The end-notes for page 14 of The Female Brain are on page 192. Let's take Brizendine's references one line at a time, and see what support she offers for her powerful vision of sexual stereotypes determined by fetal brain development.

Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female -- female is nature's default gender setting. If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.

14: ". . . both genes and sex hormones.": Glickman 2005; Arnold 2004.

The two end-note citations resolve to four papers in B's bibliography:

1. Glickman, S.E., R.V. Short, et al. (2005) "Sexual differention in three unconventional mammals: Spotted hyenas, elephants and tammar wallabies." Hormones and Behavior 48(4):403-17.
2a. Arnold, A.P. (2004) "Sex chromosomes and brain gender." Nat Rev Neurosci 5(9):701-8.
2b. Arnold, A.P., and P.S. Burgoyne (2004). "Are XX and XY brain cells intrinsically different?" Trends Endocrinol Metab 15(1):6-11.
2c; Arnold, A.P., J. Xu, et al. (2004) "Minireview: Sex chromosomes and brain sexual differentiation." Endocrinology 145(3): 1057-62.

What these recent papers add to the earlier consensus is an emphasis on the role of differential gene expression in the brain, in addition to the previously-established effects of testosterone and antimüllerian hormone. Arnold (2004c) in particular suggests that the female development is not entirely "passive", in the sense that X-inactivation ("the process of transcriptional silencing of one of the two X chromosomes in each non-germline XX cell") might be incomplete, so that "[s]ome X genes ... escape inactivation, and therefore could be expressed at a higher dose in females".

None of the papers cited, however, offers any information at all about the nature or magnitude of sex-linked differences in the "circuit diagram" of the brain of human embryos. That's because, as far as I know, essentially nothing is known about this. Brizendine's image of "[watching] a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography" so as to "see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones" is a striking metaphor. But it's entirely hypothetical . No one knows what those "circuit diagrams" are, in detail; and in very broad-scale terms, such as the basic layout of sensory and motor cortex, all normal humans are the same. We do know, however, that the details of the brain's circuits develop via a complex interaction between genes and environment, which continues for a long time after birth, and that they are quite different from person to person, independent of sex.

Nevertheless, Brizendine invites us to visualize a sort of embryonic testosterone-poisoning, creating communication-impaired and sexually aggressive males:

A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.

14: ". . . the sex and aggression centers.": Sur 2005.

This reference resolves to

3. Sur, M., and J.L. Rubenstein (2005) "Patterning and plasticity of the cerebral cortex." Science 310 (5749):805-10.

which is a fascinating review of recent research on cortical development:

The degree to which our genetic endowment (nature) versus our experiences (nurture) mold the development and function of our brains has been the subject of robust discussion and experimental investigation. Research before 1990 led to two general hypotheses: the Protomap (1) and the Protocortex (2). In their most extreme interpretations, the former postulated that the cortical progenitor zone contains the information that generates cortical areas, whereas the latter postulated that thalamic afferent axons, through activity-dependent mechanisms, impose cortical areal identity on an otherwise homogeneous cortex. In the intervening 15 years, tremendous strides have been made in understanding cortical development with molecular, genetic, imaging, and electrophysiological approaches. The new evidence indicates that the development of cortical areas involves a rich array of signals, with considerable interplay between mechanisms intrinsic to cortical progenitors and neurons and mechanisms extrinsic to the cortex, including those requiring neural activity.

Sur and Rubenstein conclude that

The Protomap/Protocortex controversy no longer remains: It is clear that the parcellation of the cerebral cortex into discrete processing areas involves an interwoven cascade of developmental events including both intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms. The field now has the intellectual foundation and tools that will enable it to elucidate more complex features of cortical development, such as the formation of higher order cortical areas and circuits (which are a robust feature of the primate brain) and the lateralization of cortical functions (136). Insights gained from such studies will undoubtedly facilitate understanding of the mechanisms underlying the evolution of neural systems that control cognition and emotion as well as the etiologies of disorders that derail them.

Great stuff! But there's absolutely nothing in this article about sexual differentiation. Specifically, there's no mention whatsoever of the concept that "[a] huge testosterone surge ... will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers". The terms "sex", "male", "female", "testosterone", "Y chromosome" don't occur in this paper; and Brizendine offers no other support for this claim.

Brizendine contrasts the results of fetal testosterone poisoning with the "unperturbed" "female brain" of the talkative and empathetic "fetal girl":

If the testosterone surge doesn't happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. The fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion.

14: ". . . areas that process emotion.": Hill 2006; Herbert 2005; Sun 2005; Witelson 1995; Goldberg 1994.

These five references resolve to:

4. Hill, H., F. Ott, et al. (2006) "Response execution in lexical decision tasks obscures sex-specific lateralization effects in language processing: Evidence from event-related potential measures during word reading." Cereb Cortex 16(7) 978-989.
5. Herbert, M.R., D.A. Ziegler, et al. (2005) "Brain asymmetries in autism and developmental language disorder: A nested whole-brain analysis." Brain 128(1):213-26 .
6. Sun, T., C. Patoine, et al. (2005) "Early asymmetry of gene transcription in embryonic human left and right cerebral cortex." Science 5729:1794-98.
Witelson, S.F. (1995). "Women have greater density of neurons in posterior temporal cortex." J Neurosci 15(5, Pt. 1):3418:28.
7. Goldberg E., K. Podell, et al. (1994) "Cognitive bias, functional cortical geometry and the frontal lobes: laterality, sex and handedness". J Cog Neurosci 6:276-96.

Executive summary: there's nothing in any of these papers to support the view that "[t]he fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion". You can read them for yourself, if you have the needed subscriptions, or go to a library that has them.

In a bit more detail:

Hill et al. 2006 argue that ERP ("event-related potential") measurements of adult word reading are somewhat sexually differentiated, contrary to previous research which "reported a left-lateralized activation in both sexes". They "used a delayed response to separate semantic processing from response selection and execution", and found that the ERP in the semantic processing phase was more lateralized in male than in female subjects. They don't give any information about the effect size or about the amount of within-sex variation, and overall, this tells us nothing about fetal brain development, or for that matter about how many connections adults have in "communications centers and areas that process emotion".

Herbert et al. 2005 "report a whole-brain MRI morphometric survey of asymmetry in children with high-functioning autism and with developmental language disorder (DLD). Subjects included 46 boys of normal intelligence aged 5.7–11.3 years (16 autistic, 15 DLD, 15 controls)." They found that "[t]he larger units of analysis, including the cerebral hemispheres, the major grey and white matter structures and the cortical lobes, showed no asymmetries in autism or DLD and few asymmetries in controls. However, at the level of cortical parcellation units, autism and DLD showed more asymmetry than controls." Note that this study deals only with the differences in brain structure among boys -- autistic, DLD and controls -- and says nothing about sex differences, fetal or otherwise, and especially, nothing to indicate that "[t]he fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion".

Witelson 1995 is discussed in another post ("The main job of the girl brain"). It's about neuron density of various cortical layers in certain language-related temporal-lobe areas, in post-mortem studies of five women and four men with a mean age of 50. There's nothing about frontal-lobe language areas or about "areas that process emotion", Nor is there anything about neural connections, only about the number of cell bodies per unit volume. The results are complicated: the sizes of the areas vary from individual to individual, as do the measured densities of neurons in different layers of different areas. A crude summary of the results, as I read them, would be that volumes and densities tend to vary inversely, so that the total number of cell bodies remains more nearly the same. The most relevant sentence is probably this one: "Due to the small sample size and the homogeneity of the cases studied, generalizability of the results requires replication by other studies."

Sun et al. 2005 is an attempt to understand the embryogenesis of human cortical asymmetry, independent of sex. The authors "studied gene expression levels between the left and right embryonic hemispheres using serial analysis of gene expression", and found "27 differentially expressed genes, which suggests that human cortical asymmetry is accompanied by early, marked transcriptional asymmetries". They analyzed the brains of one female and four male embryos. Nothing whatever about male/female differences is mentioned. Specifically, there is nothing about "[a] huge testosterone surge ... killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers", nor anything about how "[t]he fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion". In contrast to Brizendine's vision, these authors assume that female and male brains are similar enough that female and male data can be pooled (which is what they do).

Goldberg et al. 1994 looks at the results of administering the so-called "Cognitive Bias Task" (CBT) to a sample of brain-injured adults and normal controls. Here's their abstract:

Examined handedness and the role of the prefrontal cortex (PC) in 2 cognitive operations: those guiding behavior by internal representations and those ensuring an organism's ability to respond to unanticipated environmental conditions. The Cognitive Bias Task (CBT) was developed and administered in right-handed (RH) and non-RH male and female Ss who were either healthy or had acquired PC lesions. Response biases were more context-dependent in healthy RH males and more context-independent in healthy RH females. Frontal lesion effects were asymmetric in males but symmetric in females. Right frontal lesion effects were similar in females and males, but the effect of left frontal lesions was sexually dimorphic. Conversely, the effects of left posterior lesions were similar in females and males, but the effects of right posterior lesions were sexually dimorphic.

This is very interesting stuff, but it has nothing to do with either comunication or emotion, and says nothing about fetal brain development. If you want to learn more, I suggest you try a later paper by the same authors: E. Goldberg and K. Podell, "Adaptive decision making, ecological validity and the frontal lobes", Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 22(1) 56-68 (2000).

How does this fetal fork in the road affect us? For one thing, because of her larger communication center, this girl will grow up to be more talkative than her brother. Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand. For another, it defines our innate biological destiny, coloring the lens through which each of us views and engages the world.

14: ". . . women use about twenty thousand.": Deacon 1997; Garner 1997; Lewis 1997; Pease 1997; Lakoff 1976; Thorne 1983.

The references resolve to these books:

8. Deacon T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.
9. Garner A. (1997) Conversationally Speaking: Tested New Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness.
10. Lewis, M. (1997) "Social behavior and language acquisition." In Interactional conversation and the development of language, ed. B. Haslett. New York: Wiley. 313-30.
11. Pease. A. and A. Garner (1997) Talk Language: How to use conversation for profit and pleasure.
12 Lakoff, R. (1976) Language and Women's Place.
13. Thorne, B. (1983) Language, Gender and Society.

The only empirically-testable part of this is the daily word budget stuff, which is also featured in the book's jacket blurb. As discussed in an earlier post ("Sex-linked lexical budgets"), this meme began to appear in works of pop psychology in the early 1990s, which (in all the cases I've been able to track down) assert the difference without citing any empirical support. Garner 1997 and Pease 1997 are works of this type, and other works by Pease definitely include versions of the claim. I've read all the other books on the list, except for Lewis 1997, and I'm pretty certain that nothing can be found in them to support the idea that the "Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand". Since writing that post, I've continued to look into this, and what I've found confirms my belief that this like the "Eskimo words for snow" case analyzed by Laura Martin ( "Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example", American Anthropologist, 1986, pp. 418-423), in which an invented statistic mutates and spreads through the literature on a purely ideological basis, without any empirical support at all.

As for Brizendine's reference to Lewis 1997, which her bibliography lists as

10. Lewis, M. (1997) "Social behavior and language acquisition." In Interactional conversation and the development of language, ed. B. Haslett. New York: Wiley. 313-30.

there seems to be some sort of mistake in it. I can't locate any work with the title Interactional conversation and the development of language. There's a 1977 Wiley book by Michael Lewis with a similar title: Interaction, Conversation, and the Development of Language. And there's a 1997 LEA book by Beth Haslett and Wendy Samter, Children Communicating: The First Five Years. Could Brizendine have conflated the two? If you know anything more about this, please tell me.

To summarize, there are five empirically testable claims in this passage:

1. Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female -- female is nature's default gender setting.
If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.
3. A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.
4. If the testosterone surge doesn't happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. The fetal girl's brain cells sprout more connections in the communications centers and areas that process emotion.
5. because of her larger communication center, this girl will grow up to be more talkative than her brother. Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand.

#1 and #2 are more or less true -- except that (a) the research Brizendine cites says that there may be some differences in gene expression in neural tissues from the beginning of fetal development, not necessarily mediated by testosterone and AMH; and (b) the brain's "circuit diagrams" are not laid down once and for all as the embryonic brain grows, but continue to develop for a long time after birth (and in some ways throughout life) .

As for the striking claims #3 and #4, none of the references that Brizendine cites in support of this passage provide any empirical support for them at all.

And claim #5 appears to be a scientific urban legend. There's apparently no evidence that it's true, and some reason to think that it's false.

[Links to other recent Language Log posts on the New Biologism in neuroscience can be found here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:40 AM

Who knew?

The real added value in the multi-billion-dollar scientific publishing industry is -- wait for it -- copy editing! Well, that and pagination.

Back in the July 13 issue of Nature, Emma Maris buried the lead in her article on the latest skirmish in the Open Access wars ("PS I want all the rights", Nature 442, 118-119 7/13/2006). Maris reminds us that "[f]unding agencies are increasingly adopting policies to make the results of the research they fund free for all", and features the news that

Ann Wolpert, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has launched an initiative that she says will clearly assign rights to the author in a way that would satisfy funders. Wolpert has drawn up a document that researchers can add on to the rights agreement the publisher gives them to sign.

Wolpert's amendment has been endorsed by MIT's Faculty Policy Committee, its Vice President for Research, and other officials. You won't be surprised that Nature Publishing Group thinks this is a bad idea.

"This isn't a balance of rights. This is giving MIT all the relevant rights," says David Hoole, head of brand marketing at Nature Publishing Group.

However, the scientific and scholarly publishers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their traditional insistence on copyright assignment. I'm used to reading arguments about the value that they add by typesetting, printing and distribution; by providing administrative support for organizing the peer review process; by guaranteeing long-term availability; and so on. But these arguments have apparently been abandoned, in the face of new publishing technology, new distribution methods, and new archiving techniques, all of which make it possible in principle for the research literature to function without the traditional heavyweight -- and high-cost -- infrastructure. Instead, we now have this:

Publishers point out that most journals already allow authors to post the accepted version of their paper online, as required by the NIH and the Wellcome Trust. Such versions have been peer reviewed, but aren't copy-edited, formatted or paginated. But giving authors rights to the final versions, they say, could make it impossible for journals to earn a living.

Jerry Cowhig, managing director of the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics, says that the institute provides articles free online for 30 days after publication, and that he is happy for authors to post the accepted versions of their papers. But he is not in favour of making the final, edited version of a paper freely available everywhere. "That would be a real threat to the continuation of established journals, and the eventual outcome would be to damage scholarship," he says.

Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, agrees. "The final version is where publishers add value," she says. [emphasis added]

So the publishers' added value comes when the submitted paper, after peer review and author revisions, is copy-edited and paginated?

I have the highest personal regard for copy editors. But I suspect that even to our esteemed copy-editing colleagues at headsup: the blog and A Capital Idea will be surprised to learn that their profession is held in such high regard by publishers. And I wonder, how much of the several billion dollars a year in subscription and advertising charges for these journals winds up in the pockets of copy editors?

[Here's Wolpert's "Amendment to Publication Agreement". You can read more discussion of it (from an open-access perspective) in Hemai Parthasarathy, "Instituting Change", PLoS Biology, 4(6) June 2006.

The Nature article quotes Wolpert:

I look at it as responding to a request by faculty members to simplify their lives. They say 'it is crazy that we are supposed to read and understand these publishers' agreements. Give me something that I can just staple to any agreement, so I can comply with NIH or Wellcome Trust policy'.

A great idea.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 06:05 AM

September 03, 2006

I hope the skirt is waterproof, too

On Future Now, Alex Pang posts a video of a 1960's Braniff Airlines ad that depicts the future of air travel, which was picked up by Boing Boing. The problem, Alex notes, is that

the commercial makes the classic mistake of positing vast technological changes, with no accompanying social changes. When you watch, notice that the pilots are all men, and the cabin crew is all female. This is something you see in lots of "home of the future" exhibits. Geoffrey Nunberg wrote about this so eloquently, it should be called the Nunberg Error.

I can't think of anything more satisfying than having an error named after me -- for one thing, errors tend to have much longer half-lives than theorems, laws, and conjectures. One small thing, though: Alex links to a paper of mine called "Farewell to the Information Age," where I discuss a picture from the 1950 number of Popular Mechanics that bears the caption "Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose." It's nice example of the way these representations tend to naturalize contingent social categories like "the housewife" even as they exaggerate the impact of technological innovations like synthetics. But that article doesn't contain the picture itself, which deserves reproduction here:

Note, among the other anachronistic touches, the ashtray on the table.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 08:16 PM

University name bulletins

Four follow-ups to my posting on university names:

» Covert premodification: American universities that are called "University of X" but are also referred to by the initialism "YU", where Y is the first letter of X -- though never as "X University"

» U.K. universities with official names that are premodifying

» A brief report on Australian university names (short summary: mostly like the U.K.)

» Some reflections on universities in China (and elsewhere) having official names IN ENGLISH

Three people have written to report on covert premodification: Mark Liberman, with a pointer to Chris McConnell's infobang blog on the subject (citing the Universities of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma); JS Bangs (on Colorado); and Ken Carpenter (on Kansas and Oklahoma).  Usually, "University of X" gets the initialism "U of Y" or "UY": "U of T" or "UT" for the University of Texas.  But for these three states, at least, you get the reverse order, and it's not just in conversation; the premodifying initials are there on football helmets, on homepages ("Search CU-Boulder", "KU The University of Kansas", "What do you know about OU?"), and in the case of Kansas and Oklahoma, in the URLs (,; Colorado is just

I think I understand what happened here: the Universities of California, Kentucky, and Oregon are referred to as UC, UK, and UO, respectively (Oregon even gets the URL; Kentucky is, and the campuses of the University of California have their own URLs), so Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma distinguish themselves with the reverse ordering.  Connecticut isn't a problem, because it has the abbreviated form "UConn", and there is no University of Ohio, so that's all the state competition.  (True, there's now an ambiguity with Ohio University -- which has the URL, but is referred to as "OU" and not "Ohio" -- but you can't win 'em all.)

Other state universities just live with ambiguity.  The Universities of Alaska, Alabama, and Arizona, for instance, are all referred to as "UA" (Alabama got the URL, though Arkansas seems to use "U of A" only.  And for "X State University", there's pretty much nothing to do, so Ohio, Oklahoma, and Oregon State Universities are all referred to as "OSU" (Ohio State got

On to the U.K.  It turns out that though most universities in the U.K. present themselves prepositionally, as "University of X", a few take the premodifying route, "X University": Bath Spa (but: University of Bath), Bournemouth, Cardiff, Coventry, Cranfield, Durham, Keele, Lancaster (but: University of York!), Loughborough, Middlesex, Roehampton, Staffordshire.  As  far as I know, people still use the prepositional version as well.  This is certainly true for the two of these universities I've visited, Cardiff and Lancaster.  [Andrew Gray suggests that universities see the premodifying form as modern (stylish, progressive, with-it, etc.), which might explain the gradual shift from entirely prepositional naming in earlier times for official purposes to more and more premodifying forms; Durham is a recent convert.]

And now to Oz.  George Kesteven tells me that place-name universities in Australia are mostly given officially in prepositional form, but that in general the premodifying form is available as an alternant (just as in the U.K.), so long as the place name is a single word, and suggests that multi-word names aren't used in premodifying form.  So: Sydney Uni(versity) (and Adelaide and Melbourne and so on).  But not: New England, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, or Western Sydney University.  (Kesteven adds that some of these are also referred to by initialisms -- UNE, UNSW, UWS -- even by the universities themselves.)  This would make some prosodic and processing sense: the premodifying forms are left-heavy, while the prepositional forms allow heavy names to be postponed to the end of their phrase.

Here in North America, we don't have a whole lot of premodifying "X University" examples, but some of them have multi-word place names in them: for instance, New York University, Cape Breton University, and (my favorite) Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, B.C. (which began life in 1970 as Cariboo College, became University College of the Cariboo (UCC) in 1995, and then TRU, incorporating a reference to the North and South Thompson Rivers, in 2004).

And now to China (and elsewhere in the non-Anglophone world).  Jim Gordon writes to wonder about an institution telling other people how to TRANSLATE their chosen name.  I put this down in part to the enormous importance these days of English as a world language; I suspect that Beijing Daxue (known colloquially as Beida) has not recommended translations of its name into Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, French, German, or Spanish.  But part of the issue is that English provides two alternative translations (leaving "Beijing" untranslated, of course) that are equally acceptable, while for many other languages the choice of translation would be obvious and wouldn't call for comment.  In addition, there was probably a feeling that proper names should be unique and invariant, an idea that might have been further encouraged in this case by an acquaintance with the American system of university naming.

Let's recall the facts here.  The name of the institution in Chinese is not changing.  But the university presents itself to the world in English as well as Chinese -- those are the only two languages available on its website (which seems to be five years old, by the way) -- and so the issue of translation comes up.  Here's a piece from the China Broadcast site on 8/28/06:

The university says "Beijing University" can be its English name but in written English, "University of Beijing" should be used.

It also specifies that "Peking University" and its abbreviation "PKU" are long-accepted English names of the university, so they will continue being used.

(The university's web site is, so "PKU" isn't likely to go away.)

Well, good luck.  As others have commented, "Beijing University" is being used in writing, extensively.  And there's nothing wrong about that.

Interestingly, there's another university in Beijing that has opted for the premodifying (rather than the prepositional) form in English, despite considerable left-heaviness in the result: what is now Beijing Language and Culture University, which teaches Chinese to foreign students and foreign languages to Chinese students.  The institution has been through three names in 44 years: School for Foreign Students in 1962, Beijing Language Institute (BLI) in 1964, BLCU in 1996.  (I taught a couple of courses at BLI in 1985.)  In each case, the name was changed in both Chinese and English. 

[Breaking news, 9/4: Apparently this institution, ever restless, has changed its name once again, in both Chinese and English.  Chris Waugh, who lives in the neighborhood, tells me that the words "culture" and "wenhua" 'culture' have recently disappeared from the university's gates, signs, and vehicles.  The news of Beijing Language University has not yet reached the web world, however.]

The premodification in "Beijing Language Institute", rather than "Language Institute of Beijing", is heavily determined.  ("Beijing Institute of Language(s)" would also have been possible.) As I noted in my previous posting, names with "College" in them strongly favor premodification, and this seems to be true in the U.K. as well as North America.  And "Institute" behaves like "College".  So "Beijing Language Institute" is like "Monterey Language Institute" (in Monterey, California).  [The official name of the Monterey institute is Defense Language Institute, but MLI is how lots of people know it.]

With the next name change, there were several ways to package the parts "University", "Language and Culture", and "University": prepositional "Language and Culture University of Beijing" and "University of Language and Culture of Beijing" (ugh), premodifying "Beijing University of Language and Culture" and "Beijing Language and Culture University" (the winner on compactness).  Back in the early '90s, I had some discussion with colleagues at (what was then) BLI about a new name (in both Chinese and English) for the institution, which was now describable as a university and had also expanded its scope from language instruction.  My candidate for the English was "Beijing University of Language and Culture", but my colleagues worried that this name would suggest that the institution was connected to Beijing University (as people were already referring to what was still Peking University in English).  BLCU was the next-best option.  Note the assumption that there should be a unique translation.  [John Mathis writes to note that that both BLI and BLCU fit a standard CHINESE template for institution names: location, subject, institution type.]

For a truly serious translation problem, consider the Free University of Brussels.  A perfectly good English name for what was once a single institution, which had -- remember, this is Belgium -- both a name in French (Université Libre de Bruxelles, or ULB) and a name in Dutch (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, or VUB).  If you were a student there and someone asked you in English what university you went to, no problem: Free University of Brussels.

But then, this being Belgium, the two parts became separate institutions, in 1969.  And kept the old names in French and Dutch.  So now if you're a student at one of them and someone asks you in English what university you go it, you have a choice: reply in French or Dutch, whichever is appropriate, or give the now-ambiguous translation "Free University of Brussels", or resort to something like "the French/Dutch Free University of Brussels", supplying material that's not in the original language (and potentially introducing other sorts of ambiguities).

Apropos of none of this, have I mentioned that I'm a faculty member at two institutions that like to insist on the definite article in their full names: the Ohio State University and the Leland Stanford Junior University?  (Yes, I teach at a junior university, one too cheap to spring for a few commas.)  At Stanford this isn't much of an issue, since hardly anyone, even the people who write the university's website material, has occasion to give the university its full name (the definite article isn't even on the seal of the university, for goodness sake); it's "Stanford University" in formal contexts, "Stanford" for everyday wear.  At Ohio State, this administrative mania for the definite article is fairly annoying, but at least no one insists that you use it whenever you represent yourself as connected to OSU -- a good thing, since I'm damned if I'm going to sign letters "Arnold M. Zwicky, Distinguished University Professor (Emeritus) of Linguistics, The Ohio State University".

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 03:19 PM


Please extend your sympathy to Prof. John Wells in his hour of need. A little while ago, a PR firm working for a cheese company called him to ask whether it was possible that cows might moo with regional accents. Rather than tell the flack where to stuff his cows, John responded with a politely-worded negative, adding a few choice intellectual nuggets as professors are wont to do. Then the BBC ran the resulting press release as if it were not only real news but even real science; the story was picked up and embellished around the globe; and now John writes

This appeared in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper. I have only just seen it.
I fear my scholarly reputation must have been destroyed for ever.
For the record, I have never claimed that cows moo with a regional accent.

One possible lesson, I suppose, would the one that W.H. Auden drew in his 1946 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, "Under Which Lyre", as the Sixth Commandment of the Hermetic Decalogue:

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms...

Or else we could take the Observer's advice, and revel in the pleasures of linguistic foolishness, watching as the BBC floats a series of increasingly preposterous pseudo-scientific fantasies. Did you know that British pigs grunt in a sort of ballad stanza, while French pigs snort in alexandrins? Or that the rhetoric of crows is full of irony, while sparrows are inordinately fond of anacoluthon, and parrots are addicted to the passive voice?

In any case, it helps to have a blog.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 11:46 AM

September 02, 2006

Bards of Speech

I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeares.
It was Bush's claim that he'd read Camus that got the most ink, of course, but his reference to "three Shakespeares" also got a lot of people wondering. There was clearly something odd about the construction -- all the newspapers put the phrase in quotes -- but it was hard to pin down. "God, that was FUCKING EMBARRASSING," wrote ginmar. "Who calls reading Shakespeare.....three Shakespeares? Does this guy count on his damned fingers?"

Everybody seemed to sense that the phrase was revealing, but how, and of what? Well, you've come to the right place. Are you sitting comfortably?

Generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with using the name of an artist to refer to his or her works, as in The museum bought two Picassos and a Matisse or She was wearing this fabulous Jill Sander. That's merely a special instance of the process that I described as "systematic polysemy" in a 1995 paper in the Journal of Semantics, a term that covers more or less the same ground as James Pustejovksy's "logical polysemy," Juri Apresjan's "regular polysemy," and Gilles Fauconnier's "connectors", among other terms. Those are the various functions that allow us to use the name of an animal to refer to its meat (the rule called "grinding"), as in We eat rabbit; the name of a place for its inhabitants, as in Utah voted for Bush; the name of a color for a chess player (White to mate in one); and so forth.

But while patterns like those often operate very generally, they can be subject to idiosyncratic language-specific conditions. As Annie Zaenen and I have pointed out, for example, the rule of grinding doesn't usually apply in English when the substance that the derived noun would denote is a liquid -- you can say They sprinkle basil on the meat but not They sprinkle safflower on the meat. Nor do we say I enjoy a glass of orange with breakfast, even though it's perfectly clear what the sentence would have to mean. And the "portioning" rule that allows you say I drank three beers last night doesn't work with wine -- I drank three wines last night can only mean "I drank three types of wine," not "I drank three glasses of wine." (Those hungering to learn more about these restrictions can consult my article on polysemy in the Blackwell Handbook of Pragmatics and a very nice 1991 Siglex paper by Nick Ostler and Sue Atkins.)

As it happens, there are curious conditions on the transfer that takes the names of artists into their individual works (i.e, into count nouns -- it's another rule that takes the names of writers into mass nouns that denote their oeuvres, as in "300 pages of Marx"). We can use the name of a painter or sculptor freely to refer to his or her works -- three Picassos, a new Giacometti -- though we don't ordinarily do this with the names of composers (*We heard four Beethovens). And we can only use the names of directors and authors in this way when they're associated with genre films or genre fiction. It's a lot easier to say There's a Hitchcock playing at the Bijou than There's a Bergman playing at the Bijou. When we speak of "a John Ford" or "a Kurosawa," we're probably thinking of the director's genre movies (Westerns or samurai films as the case may be) rather than his other works. And "a Woody Allen" is much more likely to be, say, Annie Hall than Another Woman.

It's the same with works of fiction. It seems normal to say I love to curl up with an Agatha Christie or a John Grisham, but odd to say the same thing of Doystoyevsky or Italo Calvino (I can imagine saying that of Dickens). And while it's fine to say That's my favorite Neil Simon, you probably wouldn't speak of my favorite O'Neill in that way. With literary or cinematic works, that is, the name-to-count-noun construction presumes that the works by the author are of a generic muchness: one's pretty much the same as the next. (As Marc Cooper noted, Bloomberg's Roger Simon picked up on this point.) Which is what makes W's "three Shakespeares" so revealing. It suggests that the President thinks of Shakespeare's works as undifferentiated stuff like Agatha Christie's: for purposes of edification and personal improvement, what matters is how much, not which. But then a lot of people have suspected that this particular president has trouble telling comedy and tragedy apart.

Added Sept 3: Richard Bell of the Upstart Crow theater company in Boulder writes to remind me that theater people do speak of "three Shakespeares," "several Shaws," and so forth:

From the point of view of a director, all of a a given playwrights work are pretty much the same in terms of how one approaches them and considers them for production. Every Shakespeare... means expensive costumes but a cheap set, the need for a glossary for the actors, a large cast and a role-doubling scheme, but no need to secure performance rights. Every Moliere requires a special acting style drawn from Commedia dell'Arte and a search for a translation. Every Synge requires a dialect coach.

Point taken, though it's doubful whether it was the costuming expenses that were uppermost in Bush's mind when he made the remark.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at 03:59 PM

What's the name of your university?

Mark Liberman reports on the renaming of Peking University as the University of Beijing (in English), with a shift from the premodifying form "X University" to the prepositional form "University of X", the reported justification having been a "rule of English grammar" that "place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun."

Mark notes that this purported rule of grammar (call it the P Rule) is easily refuted -- I'll expand on this point -- though he admits that the statistical preference seems to be for the prepositional form; I'll expand on that point, too.  And then I'll refute the claim that the premodifying form is found mostly in abbreviated names in speech.  Along the way I'll point out a part of this system of naming where variant forms, not differing in meaning, are freely tolerated -- against the pronouncements of many usage advisers, who take the position that consistency requires choosing a single form in such cases.

I'll start with the U.S.  For good practical reasons -- the country has such a huge number of universities, most with place names in their names -- for each U.S. university, only one of the two forms is acceptable.  There is no alternation between the premodifying and the prepositional forms, no "Pennsylvania University" as an alternative to "University of Pennsylvania" (even the university press takes the long form: "University of Pennsylvania Press"), no "University of New York" as an alternative to "New York University".

In any case, exceptions to the P Rule are easy to find: with state names, Indiana University and Ohio University; with city names, Auburn University, Boston University, New York University, Princeton University, Santa Clara University, Syracuse University.  In Pennsylvania, the second-tier state universities systematically have premodifying names: Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, etc. University.  In two cases, additional material is needed to avoid ambiguity, but the premodifying form is preserved: California University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

A further wrinkle in the U.S. university system is that many states have public universities with the word "State" in their names, and these are almost all premodifying: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc. State University.  The State University of New York is the really notable exception here.  (Rutgers is officially "Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey", but nobody refers to it as SUNJ, parallel to SUNY.)  In most of these cases, "X State University" has to be distinguished from a distinct institution named "X University" (Ohio State University vs. Ohio University) or, more often, "University of X" (Arizona State University vs. University of Arizona).

As this were not already complex enough -- foreigners find this profusion of minimally different names baffling -- very often "X State University (at) Y", where X is a state name and Y is a city name, presents itself as "Y State University", giving still more premodifying names: California State University at San Jose = San Jose State University.  Along the same lines, State University of New York, Plattsburg = Plattsburg State University.  Note how alternative names have crept into the system.  (In some states, some universities are officially named "Y State University", with no available longer alternative "X State University (at) Y": Kent State University, in Ohio, for instance.)

These alternative names are, in a sense, abbreviations, but they are not particularly informal in style.  Informal abbreviations are often available, however: "X" for "X University", "X State" for "X State University: Syracuse = Syracuse University, Kutztown = Kutztown University, Chico State = Chico State University (= California State University at Chico), Kent State = Kent State University.  When no confusion of names can result, "X State" can sometimes be further abbreviated to "X": Chico = Chico State. (There are a fair number of wrinkles in the scheme of abbreviations: for instance, "Boston University" and "New York University" are never abbreviated to "Boston" and "New York", but instead are referred to informally by the initialisms "BU" and "NYU".)

Meanwhile, institution names with the head "College" are almost all premodifying: Amherst, Boston, Colorado, Connecticut, Haverford, Ithaca, Middlebury, Santa Clara, Wabash, etc. College.  (There are exceptions: the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, for instance.)

On to the prepositional forms.  The big generalization here is that almost every U.S. state, from Alabama to Wyoming, has a "University of X" in it (Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio are notable exceptions).  And an enormous number of cities have a "University of X" in them: Akron, Baltimore, Bridgeport, Cincinnati, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Evansville, Hartford, Houston, just to pick some random examples from early in the alphabet.  Remember that Beijing is a city name, so that "University of Beijing" would be a reasonable choice for a university name.  But "Beijing University" would be entirely well-formed; there is no P Rule.

(As for abbreviations, "University of X" and "University of X (at) Y" are often informally abbreviated as "X" and "Y", respectively, when no confusion can result: Alabama = University of Alabama, Akron = University of Akron, Berkeley = University of California at Berkeley.  Once again, there are a fair number of wrinkles and anomalies, like Berkeley being referred to informally as "Cal".)

Names change over time.  Santa Clara College, founded in 1851, had a premodifying name, as we'd expect for a name with "College" as its head.  (The College of New Jersey, founded in 1746, took the other route.)  When Santa Clara  College presented itself as a university, in 1912, it changed its name to the University of Santa Clara, in line with the dominant "University" pattern.  (The College of New Jersey, meanwhile, made the leap to university in 1896, and shifted to a premodifying name, Princeton University.)  By 1985, the University of Santa Clara had wearied of being confused with that other, much bigger California university USC, the University of Southern California, and switched back to premodification, as Santa Clara University.

Keeping universities apart can be tricky.  San Francisco has a branch of  the California State University in it: California State University at San Francisco, which can then be known as San Francisco State University, or just as San Francisco State.  (An initialism, "SFSU", is also used.)  Fine.  San Francisco also has a branch of the University of California in it: the University of California at San Francisco, which might, parallel to Berkeley, have been referred to just as "San Francisco", except for the existence of yet another institution, the University of San Francisco, whose name would also abbreviate to "San Francisco".  So neither of them abbreviate this way; people use initialisms -- "UCSF" and "USF" instead.  Down south, the San Diego area has both SDSU (a branch of the California State University), also known as "San Diego State", and UCSD (a branch of the University of California), known as "La Jolla", from the town it's located in.  Yes, outsiders find all of this endlessly confusing.

The U.K. has many fewer universities than the U.S., but the explosion of institutions since World War II has produced some nomenclatural subtleties, though nothing as severe as in the U.S.  There's the Brighton area, which has the University of Brighton and also the University of Sussex, Brighton; the latter is actually in Falmer, outside of Brighton, but nobody calls it "Falmer" -- or, of course, "Brighton", that would be just too confusing -- so people call it "Sussex".

Here's the thing:  in the U.K., the official names of universities with place names in them are (I think) all of the prepositional form, "University of X", but almost all of these names can vary freely with the premodifying "X University".  "The University of Sussex" and "Sussex University" are SYNONYMS, and the latter is not notably informal.  If you go to the websites for the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, you'll immediately see premodifying references: "a brief history of Cambridge University", "information about: Oxford University".  And the legal names of their presses are premodifying: Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press.

Some other websites are sticky about the prepositional form -- The University of Edinburgh (yes, with obligatorily capitalized "The", even in references to "The University") and The University of Manchester, for instance -- but outside of printed material subject to university enforcement of this form, you can find plenty of premodifying variants, and the university press names are premodifying: Edinburgh University Press, Manchester University Press. 

The alternation between prepositional and premodifying forms is so natural for the British that they find the rigid American naming schemes bizarre; surely, "Arizona University" is just another way of saying "the University of Arizona", they think, and are annoyed to be told sternly that there is NO SUCH UNIVERSITY as Arizona University.

The notable exception in the U.K. is the University of London, possibly because it's a particularly loose federation of "colleges".  "London University" really doesn't work, and the press's name is "The University of London Press".

Otherwise, variation is all over the place.  People might be getting slightly different effects by choosing one of the variants over the other, but I suspect that mostly people choose the premodifying variant because it's shorter, by two words, the "the" and the "of": Omit Needless Words!  There certainly is no meaning difference.

Now, this is just the sort of situation that most advisers on usage just hate.  Given two very similar forms to choose between, they'll strive mightily to tease out a subtle semantic difference that has to be preserved by choosing correctly (seasonal vs. seasonable, or in behalf of vs. on behalf of, or on the contrary vs. to the contrary) or they'll label one variant as colloquial, informal, conversational and so to be avoided entirely in formal writing (determiner a lot of, lots of), or they'll proscribe one of the variants entirely (restrictive relative which and hundreds of other cases), in the name of consistency.  What they don't like is people choosing one variant in one place and another in another place, apparently on a whim.  Ordinary people, however, like variety; they like being able to make choices, even if they can't explain why they make one choice one time and a different one another time.  The British university naming scheme is a triumph of variety over enforced consistency.

I've looked some at the Canadian system, which looks much like the U.S. system, though perhaps with an even stronger preference for the prepositional forms when place names are involved: University of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ottawa, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Sudbury, Toronto, Victoria, Windsor, Winnipeg, etc. (but: Cape Breton University, and a few others).  No one refers to British Columbia University, Ottawa University, or Toronto University. (Here, as elsewhere, premodifying names tend to be very strongly preferred when personal names rather than place names are involved: McGill University, for instance, and Victoria University for universities named AFTER Victoria, as opposed to U.Vic., which is IN Victoria.)

The one island of variation I've found so far is the University of Waterloo, which is sometimes referred to as Waterloo University, and has a premodfifying press name, Waterloo University Press (compare University of Toronto Press, UBC Press, etc.).

Australian usage (or, for that matter, New Zealand or South African or Indian) I don't know enough about to comment on sensibly.  The websites for Australian universities whose names involve place names seem to be uniformly prepositional, but actual practice might be closer to the British system than to the North American one.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at 02:29 PM

Towards proto-cow

Despite the recent surge of interest in the emerging science of cow dialectology, one crucial piece of the puzzle has been lacking: the perspective of historical linguistics. There have been few advances since Ferdinand le Taureau's pioneering "Mémoire sur le système primitif des meuglements indo-européennes" (1879). But it turns out that Christina Skelton, from the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas, has been on the case since 2001:

Posted by Mark Liberman at 10:33 AM

The superior cunning of women

A hundred years ago, many scientists saw cognitive differences between human sexes and races -- or thought they did -- and hypothesized that these differences were biological, due to inborn, instinctual differences like those in aptitude and temperament between animal breeds. During the middle of the 20th century, this perspective had a run of bad public relations, but recently, biologism is back. In the modern version, it's sometimes women and members of other disadvantaged groups whose innate characteristics are depicted more positively. But we need to remember that this was also often true of the stereotypes in vogue a hundred years ago.

Thanks to Google Book Search, I recently stumbled over a lovely example of this, in the conclusion to a paper by William Isaac Thomas, "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races", reprinted in his collection Sex and Society, which was published in 1907 by the University of Chicago Press (p. 312 of this 5 MB .pdf):

Indeed, when we take into consideration the superior cunning as well as the superior endurance of women, we may even raise the question whether their capacity for intellectual work is not under equal conditions greater than in men. Cunning is the analogue of constructive thought -- an indirect, mediated, and intelligent approach to a problem -- and characteristic of the female, in contrast with the more direct and open procedure of the male. Owing to the limited and personal nature of the activities of woman, this trait has expressed itself historically in womankind as intrigue rather than invention, but that it is very deeply based in the instincts is shown by the important role it plays in the life of the female in animal life.

Compare this passage from Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain (p. 21):

So why is a girl born with such a highly tuned machine for reading faces, hearing emotional tones in voices, and responding to unspoken cues in others? Think about it. A machine like that is built for connection. That's the main job of the girl brain, and that's what it drives a female to do from birth. This is the result of millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring that once had -- and probably still has -- real consequences for survival. If you can read faces and voices, you can tell what an infant needs. You can predict what a bigger, more aggressive male is going to do. And since you're smaller, you probably need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman -- or cavemen.

If you're a girl, you've been programmed to make sure you keep social harmony. This is a matter of life and death to the brain, even if it's not so important in the twenty-first century. [...] Typical non-testosteronized, estrogen-ruled girls are very invested in preserving harmonious relationships. From their earliest days, they live most comfortably and happily in the realm of peaceful interpersonal connections. They prefer to avoid conflict between discord puts them at odds with their urge to stay connected, to gain approval and nurture. [...] The testosterone-formed boy brain simply doesn't look for social connection in the same way that a girl brain does.

The "superior cunning of women... very deeply based on the instincts" and the "need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman" due to "millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring" are congruent stereotypes.

Similarly, in 1911, Rudyard Kipling foreshadowed the modern stereotype of male communicative inadequacy: "Man's timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say" -- struggling as he is with testosterone poisoning on the fringes of the autism spectrum. Of course, Kipling's purpose was to argue against women's suffrage:

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her

But we need to remember that biologism's connections to politics are flexible. At the very end of "The Mind of Woman and the Lower Races", William Isaac Thomas came down on the opposite side from Kipling with respect to women's participation in public life.

Whether the characteristic mental life of women and the lower races will prove to be identical with those of the white man or different in quality is a different question, and problematical. It is certain, at any rate, that our civilization is not of the highest type possible. In all our relations there is too much of primitive man's fighting instinct and technique; and it is not impossible that the participation of woman and the lower races will contribute new elements, change the stress of attention, disturb the equilibrium, and force a crisis which will result in the reconstruction of our habits on more sympathetic and equitable principles. Certain it is that no civilization can remain the highest if another civilization adds to the intelligence of its men the intelligence of its women.

And biologism's connections to science are equally flexible. In this connection, I'd like to reiterate something that I wrote a couple of years ago:

[This is an area] where published claims sometimes contradict one another, and where the various things that "everybody knows" are not always confirmed by experiment. This happens in every area of rational inquiry, but it's especially common in cases where generalizations are associated with strong feelings. In this case, we're talking about the nature of men and women as biological and social categories, and the way individual men and women interact in both private and public spheres. There aren't many topics that generate stronger feelings than this one.

Strong feelings tend to generate contradictory research for two obvious reasons. First, systematic observation sometimes fails to confirm evocative anecdotes, which may be evocative because they resonate with stereotypes rather than because they genuinely confirm experience. Second, even systematic observation can be misleading, if you don't make the right observational distinctions or don't control for the context in an appropriate way. When the emotional stakes are high, people should in principle be especially careful not to overinterpret or overgeneralize their findings, but in practice, the opposite is often true.

Unfortunately, much of the "emerging science of sex differences" -- at least in its popular presentations -- seems to trade not only in overinterpretation but even in outright misrepresentation.

Other LL discussion of Leonard Sax, Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2005)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)

"Girls and boys and classroom noise", (9/9/2006)

And of Louann Brizendine, The female brain:

"Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (8/6/2006)
"Sex-linked lexical budgets" (8/6/2006)
"Sex and speaking rate" (8/7/2006)
"Yet another sex-n-wordcount sighting" (8/14/2006)
"The main job of the girl brain" (9/2/2006)
"The laconic rapist in the womb" (9/4/2006)
"Open-access sex stereotypes" (9/10/2006)

If you're interested in the science in this area, a survey that (in my opinion) gives a fair presentation of the evidence (as of 1999) is Doreen Kimura's Sex and Cognition. Kimura believes that "the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so early in life that, from the start, the environment is acting on differently wired brains in girls and boys", but she doesn't make stuff up. She also emphasizes the need to think about within-group variation as well as between-group differences in averages, to the extent of devoting an 11-page appendix to this question.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 08:27 AM

The main job of the girl brain

Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain has "80 pages of notes and references supporting 190 pages of text", as Deborah Tannen observes in the Washington Post ("A Brain of One's Own", 8/20/2006). At least with respect to matters of speech, language and communication, however, the scientific support for Brizendine's picture of biological determinism seems to slip through the fingers as you try to grasp it.

I've discussed this is some earlier posts, starting with "Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes" (see also "Leonard Sax on hearing" for additional discussion of a related issue.) This post will take up a small series of connected examples, in an attempt to illustrate the frustrating process of trying to use Brizendine's voluminous references to substantiate her claims.

Let me stress that I'm not cherry-picking problems here -- I'm just working through the material in Brizendine's book that deals with speech, language and communication. Let me also stress that I have no a priori beliefs or preferences about the existence of sex differences in cognition, nor about the roles of nature and nurture in creating those differences.

One of Brizendine's themes is that the female brain is "[a] machine ... built for connection." [p. 21] "That's the main job of the girl brain, and that's what it drives a female to do from birth. This is the result of millennia of genetic and evolutionary hardwiring... [S]ince you're smaller, you probably need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked-off caveman..." On page 36, she reiterates this point with some modern numbers:

Many women find biological comfort in one another's company, and language is the glue that connects one female to another. No surprise, then, that some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men and that women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men. The numbers vary, but on average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys. We know that young girls speak earlier and by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies than do boys. Boys eventually catch up in their vocabulary but not in speed. Girls speak faster on average -- 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males.

Her book doesn't have footnotes; instead, at the end, each chapter has a set of end-notes that are connected to the text by quoted fragments associated with schematic references. So turning to p. 195, we find that those five sentences are supported by five references:

36 ". . . talk a lot more than men.": Light 2005; Knaus 2004; Witelson 1995; Hyde 1988.
36 ". . . vocabularies than do boys.": Hyde 1988.
36 ". . . versus 125 for typical males.": Ryan 2000.

To resolve those references, we turn, in turn, to the bibliography (pp. 211-269).

1. The first of the five papers that she cites is Light, K.C., K.M. Grewen, et al. (2005). "Oxytocinergic activity is linked to lower blood pressure and vascular resistance during stress in post-menopausal women on estrogen replacement." Horm Behav 47(5): 540-48.

I think this reference must have slipped in by mistake. There's nothing in it about verbal areas of the brain, or about women finding comfort in one another's company; nor is there anything about amounts, rates or content of talking or listening by people of any sex or age. In fact, there's nothing much in it about speech or language or communication at all, except that one of the "stressors" that was used to raise blood pressure was "a Speech task that involved 2 min of silent preparation, then 3 min of giving a tape-recorded speech on a recent interpersonal interaction". This increased the subjects' blood pressure somewhat more than putting ice on the forehead did -- the "recent interpresonal interaction" was supposed to be one that made them angry -- and about as much as taking a cognitively difficult test on the computer did. Otherwise the paper is just about, well, oxytocinergic activity, blood pressure, estrogen replacement and so on, just like the title says. Here's the abstract, in case the link above doesn't work for you (increase the font size in your browser if you really want to read it):

Estrogen administration results in increased release of the oxytocin (OT) prohormone reflected by increases in oxytocin intermediate peptide (OT Int) in both animal models and humans, and sequential treatment of ovariectomized rats with estrogen/progesterone then progesterone withdrawal leads to increased hypothalamic OT mRNA. Blood pressure (BP) reductions have been related to increased exogenous and endogenous OT in rats and to higher endogenous OT activity in premenopausal women, but not previously in postmenopausal women. Thus, we used plasma obtained at rest and during a speech stressor from 54 postmenopausal women who participated in a 6-month randomized trial of oral conjugated estrogens vs. placebo to examine effects of estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) on plasma OT and OT Int levels and their relationships to changes in BP during the trial. ERT alone and with progesterone (but not placebo) led to significant increases in plasma levels of OT Int, but no change in plasma OT levels. Women showing greater increases in OT Int during treatment showed greater decreases in BP and total vascular resistance during a series of behavioral stressors compared to women with moderate or no increases in OT Int, even after controlling for effects related to treatment condition or to changes in plasma estradiol. The findings suggest that enhanced oxytocinergic activity may contribute to BP decreases associated with ERT in more responsive postmenopausal women.

2. The second paper that Brizendine cites is Knaus, T.A., A. M. Bollich, et al. (2004) "Sex-linked differences in the anatomy of the perisylvian language cortex: A volumetric MRI study of gray matter volumes." Neuropsychology 18(4):738-47. This one is relevant to one of Brizendine's claims -- it's about the relative size in men and women of some language-related brain areas. Unfortunately, its findings directly contradict her assertion that "some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men".

Knaus et al. looked at 8 language-associated brain areas (the left- and right-hemisphere instances of Heschl's gyrus (HG), the planum temporale (PT), the posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTG), and the posterior ascending ramus (PAR)). They found that all 8 areas were substantially larger, on average, in their 12 male subjects than in their 12 female subjects. Because total brain volume was about 26% larger on average in their male subjects than in their female subjects, they adjusted the brain-region measurements with respect to each subject's total brain volume. (The magnitude of the TBV difference in their study seems surprisingly large -- I would have expected something more like 10%. Their table of raw and adjusted results is here.) In the adjusted measurements, 6 of the 8 areas were on average larger in their male subjects, while 2 of the 8 areas were on average larger in their female subjects. (Those two areas were Heschel's gyrus in the left hemisphere, and the posterior ascending ramus in the right hemisphere.)

So Brizendine's statement "some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men" is simply false, at least with respect to the data in this study. To make it true, her clause would have to be amended to read something like "all verbal areas of the brain are larger on average in men than in women, but when area sizes are adjusted for total brain volume, women came out ahead in two out of eight areas examined in one study". (A tabular survey of the -- variable and inconclusive -- results of other studies of sex differences in language-related brain areas, reproduced from the Knaus et al. paper, can be found here.)

3. The third paper that Brizendine cites is Witelson, S.F. (1995). "Women have greater density of neurons in posterior temporal cortex." J Neurosci 15(5, Pt. 1):3418:28. Since this study is mainly about neuron density, about which Brizendine says nothing, it doesn't bear directly on anything that she says. The most relevant thing in this study is "Due to the small sample size and the homogeneity of the cases studied, generalizability of the results requires replication by other studies." (The sample size was 5 women and 4 men, with a mean age of 50.) The second most relevant thing, in my opinion, is a comment on the cortex-wide difference in neuron density reported in other studies: "The magnitude of 11% for the sex difference in NV for the total cortex corresponds closely to the 10% sex difference in brain size (Dekaban and Sadowsky, 1978). Such a result raises the hypothesis that one possible cause of the greater NV in women is a simple mechanical compression or geometric consequence of a smaller brain." (NV is the number of neurons per unit volume.) The details of the Witelson study are extremely complicated. I'll just say that given the tiny sample, the large amount of individual anatomical variation, and the large number of different measurements made, it's probably premature to try to put much meaning into the fact that some parts of posterior temporal cortex seem to show sex differences (in various directions!) in depth, size and neuron density, while other parts don't.

4. The fourth paper that Brizendine cites is Janet Shibley Hyde and Marcia C. Linn, "Gender Differences in Verbal Ability: A Meta-Analysis", Psychological Bulletin, 104:1 53-69 (1988). This paper doesn't discuss brain size, nor does it discuss whether "women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men". However, it does relate to Brizendine's general perspective that the female brain is "a machine built for connection" (in a way that the male brain isn't), or at least to the aspect of this hypothesis that is engaged by psychological measures of verbal ability. Here's the start of Hyde and Linn's abstract:

Many regard gender differences in verbal ability to be one of the well-established findings in psychology. To reassess this belief, we located 165 studies that reported data on gender differences in verbal ability. The weighted mean effect size (d) was +0.11, indicating a slight female superiority in performance. The difference is so small that we argue that gender differences in verbal ability no longer exist. [emphasis added]

Hyde and Linn are using "effect size" to mean the difference in group averages, normalized by the group standard deviations. (To be more precise, I think that their "weighted mean effect size" is what the wikipedia entry on effect size calls "Hedges' ĝ"). As the wikipedia article explains, "0.2 is indicative of a small effect, 0.5 a medium and 0.8 a large effect size". In a later post, I plan to take this up in more detail, comparing the effect sizes for sex differences in cognition, sex differences in height and weight, and looking at some recent research on the effect sizes for cognitive differences associated with socio-economic status. [Update: that discussion is here.]

Brizendine's end-notes for p. 36 cite "Hyde 1988" twice:

36 ". . . talk a lot more than men.": Light 2005; Knaus 2004; Witelson 1995; Hyde 1988.
36 ". . . vocabularies than do boys.": Hyde 1988.

The second citation apparently covers the stretch of her text that reads "The numbers vary, but on average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys. We know that young girls speak earlier and by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies than do boys." But there's nothing in Hyde and Linn 1988 about how many words anyone speaks per day, nor is there anything to support that assertion that "young girls ... by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies". The only thing that Hyde and Linn say about developmental trends is this:

Meta-analysis is capable of detecting age trends in the magnitude of gender differences. For example, Hyde (1984) found that gender differences in aggression were twice as large for preschoolers (d = .58) as for college students (d = .27). The present analysis, however, found little evidence of age trends in the magnitude of gender differences, either when considering the evidence from all measures of verbal ability combined or when considering two particularly frequently studied aspects of verbal ability, vocabulary and reading comprehension (see Table 6). The majority of the effect sizes are .11 or less. The largest value is −.26 for vocabulary measures with 6- to 10-year-olds, based on nine studies. This finding of male superiority can be traced to four studies (Buswell, 1980; Corah, 1965; France, 1973; and Rebecca, 1974), all of which found moderate to large differences favoring males. Of those studies, two of the four were unpublished, and three of the four had rather small sample sizes (N s = 36, 60, and 40). It is difficult to say whether there is sufficient evidence of this effect to warrant pursuing it with further research.

The only other paper by Hyde in Brizendine's bibliography is that 1984 study on the development of aggression, which has nothing in it that bears on the claims about speech and language in the passage we're discussing.

5. The fifth paper that Brizendine cites

36 ". . . versus 125 for typical males.": Ryan 2000.

is Bruce P. Ryan, "Speaking rate, conversational speech acts, interruption, and linguistic complexity of 20 pre-school stuttering and non-stuttering children and their mothers", Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 14(1), pp. 25-51 (2000). I discussed this case at (excessive) length in an earlier post ("Sex and speaking rate"). You can read more about it there than you probably want to -- let's just say here that there's nothing whatsoever in that paper comparing speaking rates of boys and girls. I concluded that

I'm at a loss to see how Prof. B. can interpret anything in this paper as support for the view that "girls speak ... 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males". Perhaps her research assistant pulled the wrong index card for that talking point?

So let's review the connections between Brizendine's five sentences and five references:

Many women find biological comfort in one another's company, and language is the glue that connects one female to another.

This is certainly true for many women, but it's also true for many men. It's even true for mixed-sex groups. Brizendine offers no references to support this generalization -- not that any are needed, except to the extent that she argues by implication that men find less comfort in company, and make less use of language as social glue.

No surprise, then, that some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men

This appears to be false. Some verbal areas of the brain are less smaller in women than the brain as a whole is. Some aren't. What this means, if anything, is unclear.

and that women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men.

There is no evidence relevant to this in the five references that Brizendine provides for this passage.

We know that young girls speak earlier and by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies than do boys.

There is no evidence relevant to this in the five references that Brizendine provides for this passage.

Boys eventually catch up in their vocabulary but not in speed. Girls speak faster on average -- 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males.

There is no evidence relevant to this in the five references that Brizendine provides for this passage.

Frankly, I feel a little silly devoting so much verbiage to investigating these five little sentences and five little references. However, the issues about language and gender that Brizendine raises are serious and important ones, and the evidence that she presents all seems to be as illusive as these examples have turned out to be. In that situation, it seems wrong to simply dismiss what she says without trying to engage it seriously -- but it's hard to do that briefly.

So let's sum up. Of the five references that Brizendine provides for this passage, two (Light 2005 and Ryan 2000) have no connection whatever to its content; one (Witelson 1995) is vaguely relevant but does not directly address anything that she says, and is a small study with very complex and hard-to-interpret results; and two (Knaus 2004 and Hyde 1988) directly contradict either the letter or the spirit of her assertions.

Coming at it from the other side, let's list the seven assertions in this short passage that are susceptible to empirical test:

  1. some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men
  2. women, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men
  3. on average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys
  4. young girls speak earlier and by the age of twenty months have double or triple the number of words in their vocabularies than do boys
  5. Boys eventually catch up in their vocabulary
  6. but not in speed.
  7. Girls speak faster on average -- 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males.

Point #1 is contradicted by one of the references she cites, and none of the other assertions are addressed one way or the other. I'm quite certain, based on results from other studies discussed here, that point #7 is spectacularly false, and point #6 as well; and I'm also fairly certain that points #2 and #3 are false.

As for point #4, none of the citations offered for this passage addresses it, but it is more or less true, at least of average values. For example, according to Svetlana Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen and Peter Raggat, "Foetal testosterone and vocabulary size in 18- and 24-month infants", Infant Behavior and Development, 24:418-424 (2002), in a sample of 18-month-olds,

For boys, vocabulary size ranged from 0.0 to 222.0, M = 41.8 (SD = 50.1). For girls vocabulary size ranged from 2.0 to 318.0, M = 86.8 (SD = 83.2).

while at 24 months,

For boys, vocabulary size ranged from 0.0 to 414.0, M = 196.8 (SD = 126.8). For girls vocabulary size ranged from 15.0 to 415.0, M = 275.1 (SD = 121.6).

Thus at 18 months, the girls' average vocabulary was roughly double the boys' average. Given the cited variation, if we were to pick a girl and boy at random from their sample, we would expect the girl to have a larger vocabulary about 68 times out of hundred, while the boy would have the larger vocabulary about 32 times. At 24 months, the girls' average vocabulary was only about 40% greater. The betting odds haven't changed much, though -- a random girl would have a larger vocabulary than a random boy about 67 times out of a hundred.

And point #5 (that boys catch up in vocabulary) is also true, as Table 6 from Hyde 1988 shows:

Overall, none of the seven factual assertions in this passage is supported by the references that she provides for it. One of the assertions is contradicted by a reference she gives, and four seem to be contradicted by studies she doesn't cite. Two of the seven assertions seem to be true, based on research that she doesn't cite (at least not in support of this passage).

This pattern of disconnection between assertions and cited science is not what I expect from a book with "80 pages of notes and references supporting 190 pages of text", written by a professor at UCSF, one of the world's foremost biomedical research institutions. But I'm afraid it seems to be all too common in what Leonard Sax calls "the emerging science of sex differences".

[More discussion and links here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:49 AM

September 01, 2006

Pullum, there and then

An interview with Geoff Pullum, recorded some time ago, aired today during the noon hour today on NPR's Here and Now show. A streaming RealAudio version is here. The podcast mp3 version is here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at 02:03 PM

Another grammar hallucination

Mark Swofford at Pinyin News has an interesting post on Peking University's decision to change its English name to the University of Beijing ("English tips from the school formerly known as Peking University"). The interesting part is why PKU will be University of Beijing (UBJ?) rather than Beijing University (BJU): "that is, according to the school, because in formal English names the place name has to come after 'college' or 'university'".

Mark links to Joel Martinsen's translation of Fang Zhouzi's blog entry making fun of this "rule of English grammar" ("评北大将规范英文校名为University of Beijing"):

However PKU wishes to standardize its English name is its own right, but to manufacture a "rule of English grammar" like "place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun." This can't but bring ridicule - or jokes that there's no one in PKU's English department - from anyone in the world who knows English. When former PKU English professor Shen Hong came to New Threads in early February preaching this "rule of English grammar," he was sent packing in embarrassment. Who would have thought that the PKU administration would still take it as a golden rule?

Alas, it's not only native speakers of Chinese who make up arbitrary "rules of English grammar" that are trivially refuted by a few minutes of research into the norms of educated usage. It's true that PKU's new "rule" is a problem for Princeton University, New York University, Boston University, and many others. But compare the proliferation of which hunting, which is refuted on line 15 of Lord Jim, line 56 of Wuthering Heights, line 8 of Dracula, line 103 of Moby Dick, line 143 of Alice in Wonderland, and so on.

(FYI, more on Beijing vs. Peking vs. etc. is here.)

[In fairness to Prof. Shen Hong, whose views on this matter I've encountered only via Fang Zhouzi's indirect characterization, we have to admit that "University of <PLACE>" seems to be more frequent in standard names than "<PLACE> University". Thus Prof. Hong might have made a sensible argument on statistical grounds for "University of Beijing", which was perhaps then mischaracterized by a reporter or editor at China Times. Attributional abduction arises again.]

[Update -- Merle T. wrote:

I got a kick out of your comments about Peking University becoming the University of Beijing.  All to the point.  As a private institution, they can do that, but in their zeal to replace all vestiges of Wade-Giles transliterations with Pinyin versions, I hope they keep their grubby reformist paws off of “Peking Duck”.  I believe a “Beijing Duck”—oops, I mean a “Duck of Beijing”—would not taste nearly as sweet.

But I don't think that PKU, by whatever name, is a private institution. The English-language "about" page says "Peking University is a comprehensive and National key university", and its "history" page says that

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government carried out, in 1952, a nationwide readjustment of colleges and universities with the aim to promote higher education and quicken the training of personnel with specialized knowledge and skill by pooling the country's manpower and material resourses. After the readjustment, Peking University became a university comprising departments of both liberal Arts and Sciences and emphasizing the teaching and research of basic sciences.

(Of course, a public-sector university is just as entitled to re-name itself as a private one is.)

Also, Bill Poser explained that <Peking> is actually not Wade-Giles, but rather "the old postal system romanization, which was based either on the pronounciation in a Southern dialect or an archaic pronounciation in Mandarin of the current official name".

And as for name of the duck dish, I'm afraid that it's too late. Google has 71,600 hits for {"Beijing duck"} (though {"Peking Duck"} is still ahead with 1,510,000). The guide site calls the dish "Beijing Duck or Beijing Roast Duck", though "Peking Duck" and "Peking Roasted Duck" also appear on the same page. Even the English wikipeida entry for Peking Duck says that "[i]t is also known as Beijing Duck or Beijing Roast Duck".

If it's any comfort, Merle, {"duck of Beijing"} has only got 536 hits, most of which seem to be variants of "...distinctive regional cuisine , from delicate dim sum in Hong Kong to the succulent roast duck of Beijing and experience the highlights..." ]

[Update #2 -- Fang Zhouzi writes:

I understand you couldn't believe a professor of English department at a prestigious university could be so ignorant, but Prof. Shen Hong did explicitly state that it's a "simple rule of English grammar which all universities must obey when naming their universities". He even presented it in a paper to a linguistic conference held at Beijing University. In fact, what the reporter cited ("place names used as adjectives in school names are frequently found only in abbreviated names in speech; in formal written language, the place name should be placed after 'college' or 'university' as a noun.") was what Prof. Shen Hong exactly stated in his paper.


[Much more on the linguistics of university names can be found in a series of posts by Arnold Zwicky, initially stimulated by the PKU name-change affair:

"What's the name of your university?" (9/2/2005)
"University name bulletins" (9/4/2006)
"Manchester mouse born from mountain" (9/5/2006)
"The the in The Ohio State University" (9/5/2006)

And quite a bit of additional discussion of Australian in a post by Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon, "Names of universities" (9/4/2006).


Posted by Mark Liberman at 07:09 AM