Monday, December 31, 2007


Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) posted about a term he learned from his in-laws: double-bagging. His story about what it means in this context is cute, but you can read about it at his blog. What I find interesting is the use of an ordinary term typically referring to using two bags instead of one for groceries (as reinforcement) for the unusual situation involving the dog Millie. Like most linguists, I was required to study some historical linguistics and socio-linguistics involving language change. My memory is fuzzy, but I recall vaguely that there are models of neologism formation that account for the various ways an existing term gets transferred to a new domain.

What's interesting to me about "double-bagging" is that the salient part of the term is the instrument, not the action, because the only thing the two uses share is the need for two bags. The way in which the two bags get used in each situation is, in fact, quite different. So, rather than foregrounding the similarity of the situations (the way metaphor might), this is a case where two unrelated situations happen to share an instrument in common and it is the instrument which forms the neologism. I wonder if instruments in general lend themselves to this kind of linguistic process? Are there other cases where two dissimilar situations share an instrument (used in different ways) but have the instrument form a neologism?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

“A Star-Making Turn”

I guess this is my week for movies and linguistics. I just saw Juno and while being completely smitten by the movie I couldn’t help but think of the cliché that this is a “star-making turn” for its young star, Ellen Page. Before turning myself towards that construction, I want to say that Juno is one of the best comedies to come out in years. Its author, Diablo Cody, has a back story worthy of its own screenplay, but you can Google around yourself to follow-up on that. The characters have dialogue that snaps in the fashion of classic noir and screwball comedies and the cast is exceptional. Though it’s somewhat in the same genre as the disappointingly vacuous film Waitress, it’s a lot snappier and smarter; if you’re a fan of the recent great neo-noir film Brick you’ll probably love Juno.

Now, on to linguistics: As I thought about the construction “a star-making turn” I thought it was an unusual NP and I wasn’t sure why, but it has something to do with the metaphorical mapping of turns coupled with the ambiguity of the adjective “star-making”.

To begin, I Googled the phrase a bit to confirm my intuition that this construction is most common to entertainment news, and that seems to be true as these few examples should attest:

--Lily Allen Plots U.S. Takeover, Ben Gibbard Plans Star-Making Turn In Geeky Flick and More
--…including his star-making turn in the sleeper hit comedy,
--Rudy Giuliani's star-making turn in "Monsters Attack Manhattan

Then I wanted to see what, if anything, could replace star, so I got the following Google results:

42,400 for "a * making turn"
205,000 for "an * making turn"

There are few variants for “star”, although “epoch” came up more than I could have predicted and “career” appeared too, but I was surprised to find one use of match-making turn (this will turn out to be quite an instructive example).

epoch-making turn
--This is an epoch-making turn for Iran
--Then came an epoch-making turn in the history of student politics from 1966.
--Classical economists' emphasis on labor was certainly an epoch-making turn if one thinks about it.
--The appearance of our first book triggered an epoch-making turn in the Japanese media's treatment of homosexuals.
--These have been composed at various times and languages, each at an epoch-making turn in the long history of the religion.

career-making turn
--an actress' career-making turn

match-making turn
Humming to himself an air from "Faust" no one would have thought that he was deliberately contemplating doing a match-making turn, but certain it is that his brain was busy devising means of suggesting to Arthur what a splendid girl Martha was.

I believe that match-making turn above is a different use than star-making, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The head noun turn can be used to mean either of the following:

1) A change in direction (making a left turn)
2) The opportunity to do something (to take a turn Xing)

In the case of (1), the turn would presumably refer to an anonymous actor turning from the path of anonymity to the path of fame. The case of (2), however, is more complicated: there would seem to be a metaphorical mapping to the concept of a person X taking a turn doing Y, in the case where Y causes the performer of the turn to become a kind of Z (I suspect that Z must be some kind of category name). But is it inherent in the act of Ying that one becomes a Z, or is it a special case that this time around in the otherwise ordinary and banal performance of Ying, X happened to become a Z?

Let me put it this way: imagine I formed two lines of people.

· In line A, each person steps up and got a turn starring in a movie, but the movies are mostly dull and ordinary and few people ever see them, but one in a thousand make the actor famous. Line A is easy to get into and is quite long.

· In line B, each person steps up and gets a turn starring in a movie that is guaranteed to make the actor a star (I’m very choosey about whom I allow to stand in line B).

So, in using the phrase “a star-making turn”, are critics saying that an actor is in line A or line B? (a similar ambiguity exists in (1) as well, as far as I can tell). This could be stated as a structural attachment ambiguity of the phrase “star-making”. Is it (a) or (b) below:

a) [[star-making]ADJ[turn]N]NP

b) [star-making-turn]N

There is now the contrast between “a star-making turn” and a “match-making turn”. They require quite different mappings, don’t they? Whereas a “star-making turn” causes the performer of the turn to become a kind of star, a “match-making turn” does NOT cause the performer of the turn to become a kind of match.

I remember a friend of mine years ago saying something to the effect you linguists make language more complicated than it really is. Well, that may be the case. Language may indeed be primal and simple. But it remains the case that in reading the phrase “a star-making turn”, we all somehow navigate multiple metaphorical mappings and structural ambiguity. How exactly that is done remains a mystery.

Now go see Juno. It’s an adorable frikkin movie.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

My Sweeney Todd Review

Well, I saw Sweeney Todd yesterday afternoon as promised. Sigh, I was yet again underwhelmed by Hollywood. I have enough affection for the play to have basically enjoyed the movie and it’s certainly worth any Broadway fan’s time. But there is nothing particularly special about this movie. It is a competent adaptation of the play. But one shouldn’t strive to be competent, should one?

Director Tim Burton has a reputation for visual splendor; but his skill is almost strictly static. He can create beautiful looking things, but he has no particular gift for interesting interaction. There were few moments of interesting choreography between character movements or scene juxtaposition. It also lacks interesting camera angles. We spend virtually the entire movie at eye level and at a medium distance from the characters. This is classic mediocre filmmaking.

The first minute of this YouTube clip of the play shows the sheer genius of Broadway artists. They have created a center stage round-about that acts as Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and Sweeney Todd’s murderous barber shop, as well as other setting. It is constructed to allow multiple scenes to unfold simultaneously, one right on top of the other, each playing off the others and it’s visually the stuff of genius.

I could watch the video of the play a dozen times and still want to see it again. Sadly, I’m done with the movie, forever.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"The demon barber of fleeT...streeT!"

A rare non-linguistics post: I'm quite a movie buff and predictably underwhelmed by the last decade of pedestrian films. If it weren't for Quentin Tarantino and Julie Taymore, this might have been the most banal ten years in movie history. But, to my great surprise, there are no less than five movies currently out that I'm excited to see, and three others that I wouldn't mind seeing. I'm not sure that has happened before. Ever!

By far, the movie I am most anxious to see is Sweeney Todd. I was heavily involved in theatre in high school (and college) and I have a strong memory of watching the great Broadway play starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in drama class. I have spent that last 20 years with the chorus sounding in my ear, "Sweenyyyyyy ... Sweeny Todd ... The demon barber of fleeT...streeT!" The brilliant over-articulation of the final voiceless stops still slices through me (see, I got a little linguistics in there).

(UPDATE: I found a great YouTube clip here of the opening song from the Broadway play video I mentioned above. And here is a sample of Depp talking about singing, then some of his vocals)

(UPDATE 2: My Sweeney Todd review is here)

I heard some snippets of Johnny Depp's vocals this morning on NPR. He's a competent singer and smart enough to stay within his range, but he really does not have the strong and confident voice of a Broadway star. Nonetheless, he's truly an actor's actor (hmm, an interesting construction, I may follow up on that one) so I'll be seeing the film within hours of this post.

The Five (in order of preference):

First: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Second: I'm Not There
Third: Across the Universe
Fourth: The Kite Runner
Fifth: Charlie Wilson's War

Three that I wouldn't mind seeing:

a) Juno
b) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
c) No Country for Old Men

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Speech-to-Text Searching

A colleague just pointed me to the new search engine EVERYZING which searches digital media audio and video (YouTube, podcasts, etc.) for your search terms using a commercially available speech-to-text engine. I’m not in love with the results, but it’s a great application for a classic computational linguistics technology.

How does EVERYZING work?
EveryZing creates a text index of the audio data from audio and video files, using the industry's leading speech-to-text technology from BBN Technologies, to enable search within the spoken words of media, not just within the metadata.

In the interests of full disclosure, though I do not work for BBN, my company does have some customers in common with them and we have utilized BBN products in service of a couple contracts (but I have not personally had any contact with BBN personnel or products).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Preposition 'from'

Having just now discovered I missed National Preposition Day, I offer a post relating to the preposition from and my dissertation.
It has long been noted that the English preposition from most typically occurs with Source (Huddleston and Pullum 2002; Van Valin and LaPolla 1997; Jolly 1991; Clark and Carpenter 1989a; Clark and Carpenter 1989b; Quirk 1985; Vestergaard 1977; Wood 1967).
(1) a. Chris returned from California.
b. Hide took the book from Atsuko.
c. Mike drove from Buffalo to Toronto.
There are some uses, however, where it appears to occur with Goals and Themes as well.
(2) a. The fence blocked the car from the driveway.
b. The tent shielded the kids from the rain.
When from occurs with verbs denoting barrier events like bar, ban, block, shield it can marks NPs representing either the unattained goal of the entity being blocked, or the restrained theme which failed to attain its goal. Interestingly, it can also mark VPs as in (3):
(3) The judge barred the journalists from entering the courtroom.
In my first qualifying paper (SUNY Buffalo’s linguistics department uses qualifying papers in lieu of a master’s thesis) I argued that from acts not as a preposition, but rather as a complementizer with barrier verbs.
The class of English “barrier verbs” (as originally sketched by Len Talmy) are negative causative object control verbs which encode the relationships between a goal directed participant (or “agonist”), its goal and a barrier participant (or “antagonist”). They are negative verbs in the sense of Laka 1994: they encode the negation of an event. Think of the verb neglect. If you neglect to do X, then X did not happen. With barrier verbs, if you ban X from doing Y, then Y did not happen.
These verbs fall into the following general constructional template:
NP1 verb NP2 from NP3/VP.
In this construction, the subject of a barrier verb (NP1) acts as the barrier (either directly or indirectly) to the achievement of a goal event (NP3/VP) by a goal-directed participant NP2).
I have recently discovered that Idan Landau has a detailed analysis of negative verbs in Hebrew which, extended to English prevent, suggests the complementizer interpretation as well. Though we have very different theoretical frameworks, I think we share some conclusions.
I’m interested in a variety of the phenomenon associated with barrier verbs (including the potential for a coercion analysis of the NP replacement of complement VPs)
. UPDATE: Barbara Partee discusses negative events in this Language Log post.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Causative Productivity

Andrew Sullivan used the phrase “has decided me” and I thought it was odd to use decided as a causative (it sounded like a child’s error) but I found numerous examples by Googling “decided me”, including some by highly respected authors:

Some examples

Andrew Sullivan:
I was undecided up to now, but forty seconds of YouTube has decided me:

Booker T. Washington (1903)
The course of events has decided me. I have determined to go South to take one of the numerous positions awaiting my acceptance.

John Austin Lectures on Jurisprudence, Or, the Philosophy of Positive Law
'It will be a great and difficult labour; but if you do not do it, it will never be done.' This decided me.

It’s been a while since I studied the syntax of causation. There must be a name for this phenomenon, right? I mean, other than causative productivity which I invented as a title for this post.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Okay, like most straight men over 30, I’m in love with Sarah Chalke from Scrubs. A big part of the infatuation comes from the way she says “frik!”.

In this one minute YouTube of Elliot Reid moments, there are a couple of nice examples of “frik” (included a precious “double frik”) near the end

In my non-blog, non-professional life, I swear like a drunken sailor (always have, always will). I love cursing and make no apologies for it. Given my comfort with, even preference for, all breeds of vile, contemptuous speech, I am surprised to find myself taken with a special fondness for the euphemism “frik” and its variants. But I love it.

frikkin -- 638,000 Google hits. The Urban Dictionary's def:

In between "fuckin" and "effin". A term used in the classroom or where your not allowed to cuss.

friggin -- 669,000 Google hits. The Urban Dictonary's def:

A word used by cowards who are too afraid to say "fucking"

299,000 for freekin
18,300,000 for freakin
3,870,000 for frickin

Chomsky on Prescriptivism

I just skimmed a 1991 interview with Chomsky where he discusses the role of prescriptivism in writing and formal language (HT: London Language).

Q. In College English in 1967, you wrote that “a concern for the literary standard language—prescriptivism in its more sensible manifestations—is as legitimate as an interest in colloquial speech.” Do you still believe that a sensible prescriptivism is preferable to linguistic permissiveness? If so, how would you define a sensible prescriptivism?

A. I think sensible prescriptivism ought to be part of any education. I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on because that’s a real cultural system, and an important cultural system. They should certainly know it and be inside it and be able to use it freely. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. You don’t have to teach people their native language because it grows in their minds, but if you want people to say, “He and I were here” and not “Him and me were here,” then you have to teach them because it’s probably wrong. The nature of English probably is the other way, “Him and me were here,” because the so-called nominative form is typically used only as the subject of the tense sentence; grammarians who misunderstood this fact then assumed that it ought to be, “He and I were here,” but they’re wrong. It should be “Him and me were here,” by that rule. So they teach it because it’s not natural. Or if you want to teach the so-called proper use of shall and will—and I think it’s totally wild—you have to teach it because it doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if you want to teach people how to make passives you just confuse them because they already know, because they already follow these rules. So a good deal of what’s taught in the standard language is just a history of artificialities, and they have to be taught because they’re artificial. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t know them. They should know them because they’re part of the cultural community in which they play a role and in which they are part of a repository of a very rich cultural heritage. So, of course, you’ve got to know them.

On Errors

Apropos of my previous rant, I just discovered Invented Usage which has several recent posts on errors. In one, they ask a damned good question:

isn't it a contradiction for something to be a common linguistic error?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Linguists vs. Economists

CAVEAT: I have knitted this post together from random scraps of thoughts I’ve been collecting for the better part of two months. I make no apologies for its speculative nature and erratic structure. Here we go…

A rather rambling post on observing versus prescribing.

My Basic Question: What’s the cognitive difference (if any) between linguistic decisions and economic decisions?

My Other Question
: What’s the difference between the way linguists study data and the way economists study data?

As I’ve said on this blog before, over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in economics, particularly macro-economics. I follow several econ blogs like Greg Mankiw, Brad DeLong and Freakonomics (have not yet read the actual Freakonomics book, though)and have read a variety of popular econ books by Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz. For what it’s worth (not much) Mankiw can count me as a member of the Pigou Club.

But the more I read, the more uncomfortable with basic economics analysis I am becoming, and I think I’ve finally hit on why. It’s because, as a linguist, I’ve been trained in descriptive analysis, but it’s my impression that economists are in the business of prescriptions. Specifically, they prescribe optimal decision making. All economists I’ve encountered (liberal, conservative, libertarian) assume a model of human decision making where some decisions are good and others are bad (presumably based on the utility of the outcomes of those decisions). If I’ve gotten this generalization wrong, please let me know. Though I’ve never studied it formally, this seems to be the basic point of game theory.

I think it’s fair to say that few linguists think of linguistic decisions as either good or bad. Linguists avoid labeling decisions as “bad” because that would be a fundamentally prescriptivist approach. Linguists simply record decisions as facts (e.g., Americans say “ain’t” in context Y but not in context Z) then try to model the decision making as it is.

Part of the difference is probably due to the fact that economists work under the assumption that economic decisions are conscious and rational while linguists work under the assumption that linguistic decisions are automatic or unconscious; it’s not as though we think people are weighing the option between ain’t and am not then making a rational choice regarding which to choose to articulate. It is the natural human language system that makes the decision, and it’s our job as linguists to figure out what factors influence that decision. Weighing the option between a 25 cent/lb orange from California vs. a 35 cent /lb orange from Florida seems like a very different kind of decision.

This descriptive/prescriptive distinction is fundamental to studying linguistics, and it’s also the one point above all others that causes the most friction between linguists and non-linguists when discussing language issues. Popular perception holds that linguists want to change the way people talk. But this is pure fantasy. Maybe high school English teacher do, but linguists don’t. Linguists are first and foremost observers.

Can this also be said of economists? Are they trained to avoid prescriptions? My impression is, no. Quite the opposite. Economists are trained to provide prescriptions. Economists seem to be primarily concerned with policy. Policy analysis is about prescribing decisions.

For a recent example of this, see Mankiw’s post Must or Should. It seems to be the case that what Mankiw calls positive vs. normative statements, is basically the same thing as what linguist call descriptive vs. prescriptive statement.

This all started with Mankiw referencing some neuroeconomists support for the claim that the comparative size of a reward affects people’s happiness (not just the absolute size).

According to Mankiw, he and Brad DeLong have different views about people’s basic motivations (a descriptive fact). DeLong made this descriptive comment September 3, 2006:

My point was that the rich are spiteful--that they enjoy the envy of the poor.

Here’s Mankiw’s summary from Sept 3, 2006:

Brad seems to see the rich as especially mean and spiteful. I see them as some combination of more talented, hard-working, and lucky than average but otherwise like everyone else. (Or maybe Brad views everyone as mean and spiteful and the rich as having more opportunities to exercise these vile attributes.) I wonder if our varying perspectives on human nature can partly explain our different positions on public policy.

It seems to me the basic problem facing both Mankiw and DeLong (and any policy minded economist) is the challenge of teasing their respective descriptions of how people really do make decisions apart from their respective prescriptions for how governments should affect people’s decision making. Economics is fundamentally about human decision making, making it, in essence, a branch of cognitive science.

I recognize my own need to tread carefully on the ground of economics since I have no training in the area. I will gladly stipulate that economists like Mankiw and DeLong are very smart, well trained scholars who understand the complexities and nuances of economic decision making far better than the vast majority of people on this Earth (certainly far better than little ol’ me). I fear I might be reducing their analyses down to an absurd straw man out of my own ignorance of their actual, detailed work which may be far more savvy about descriptions of decision making than I am currently giving them credit for.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of off-the-top-of-your-head blogging, I wonder if they are trained in the descriptive/prescriptive distinction in the way the linguists are?

Linguists are explicitly trained to describe language as it really is (if North American English speakers say "ain't" and end their sentences with prepositions, then so be it, we study that). In fact, most linguists are trained to despise prescriptivism as inherently unnatural and counterproductive. Language is what it is.

But when I read the popular work of economists (Mankiw's blog, Sach's books, Stgilitz's book, etc) I often wonder if they are keeping the distinction straight. It seems like they confuse their prescriptions for the way people ought to make decisions with the facts of how people really make decisions (and that was the point of the neuro-economics study). Any policy suggestions linguists may recommend (e.g., anti-English only) are based on our understanding of the facts about how people really use language, not on opinion about how we feel people should use language. In other words, it seems like economic policy suggestions from Mankiw et al. are based on their (educated, intelligent) opinion about how people ought to make decisions, with the, at least implicit, hope of changing the decision making system of the average person.

I doubt any serious linguist would make policy suggestions in the hopes of changing the way people naturally make linguistic decisions.

Do economists try to sculpt economic policy suggestions to try to change the way people naturally make decisions? My hunch is, yes. And I fear this is a fool’s errand.

I have a close friend who did a B.A. in economics at Berkeley in the early nineties and graduated 3rd in his class. He went on to UCLA law school, and finally got a Harvard MBA. The guy knows his stuff. I emailed him the following questions about his economics education regarding this distinction: Were you explicitly trained to tease these two things apart? Do you recall this distinction being a principle of economic analysis? Do you think economists try to sculpt economic policy suggestions to try to change the way people naturally make decisions?

His answer:

The answer is that I don't remember much emphasis on doing things one way or the other. We clearly did want to create theories that would help people make better choices, but there were also theories about why people made bad choices where there were market break downs (generally problems with information or instances where group benefits conflict with individual benefits). Clearly though I don't remember us ever being told "do not try to change people only observe." Changing for the better would have been seen as good I think (emphasis added)

Interesting. We seem to have hit on the crux of the issue.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Geeking Out

Though I’m not really a geek or nerd myself, I have spent a great deal of the last 10 years living and working amongst the amusing creatures and I find a few of their habits have creeped into my general behavior. And so it was that I found myself today quite distracted by the various terms software developers use to refer to the things that they put into data structures (like vectors and arrays). Please note that this is a linguistics inquiry, not a programming one. There may be prescriptive uses of these terms, but as a linguist, I’m interested in the descriptive facts of how people actually use them.

Programming tutorials will often refer to these things as members, elements, or items, but they are not consistent with their terms. For example, one Java author uses both “objects” and “elements” here:

The main key difference is that this one doesn't actually remove objects at the end; we just leave them inside. [clip] Printing is accomplished using an Enumerator; which we use to march through every element printing as we move along. (emphasis added)

Here’s the creator of Python, Guido van Rossum, using both “item” and “element”:

insert(i, x)
Insert an
item at a given position. The first argument is the index of the element before which to insert, so
a.insert(0, x) inserts at the front of the list, and a.insert(len(a), x) is equivalent to a.append(x). (emphasis added)

The folks at use “element” for lists, vectors, & Double-ended Queues and “item” for sets, multisets, multimaps and maps here:

insert (Vectors) inserts elements into the container
insert (Double-ended Queues) inserts
elements into the container
insert (Lists) inserts
elements into the container
insert (Sets) insert
items into a container
insert (Multisets) inserts
items into a container
insert (Multimaps) inserts
items into a container
insert (Maps) insert
items into a container
(emphasis added; modified from a table)

But in another place, they switch from elements to members:

Individual elements of a vector can be examined with the [] operator.
Two vectors are equal if:
1. Their size is the same, and
2. Each
member in location i in one vector is equal to the the member in location i in the other vector.

There are two things at play here: 1) lexical preferences and 2) discourse preferences. Though we may have a default preference for a particular term, in certain contexts we may choose another term, (e.g., to avoid repetition). Exactly what the relevant context is, and what function the choice serves, is not clear to me. I suspect that one factor is whether or not the author wants to foreground the content of the container or the structure of the container.

In classic empirical fashion, I performed a lightweight Kitchen Experiment to collect some facts about usage. I Googled the constructions “X in a vector” and “X in an array” where “X” was replaced systematically by a series of possible “item” words. The info below present the results ordered by number of hits (in its infinite wisdom, Blogger kindly removed my formatted tables and replaced them with tabbed lines).

"X in a vector"















"X in an array"















Of course, and as always, I continue my use of the term Kitchen Experiment to avoid being sued by Mark Liberman for trademark infringement.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Andrew Sullivan, Please Take a Cog Sci Class!!!!

Even though he blogs at a mere undergrad level (I’m slightly higher, heehee) I basically respect Andrew Sullivan as a blogger. He blogs about a diverse set of topics and has thoughtful and intelligent (even if controversial) comments and analysis. And he’s prolific, to say the least (surely the advantage of being a professional blogger, rather than stealing the spare moment at work while your test suite runs its course). That said, he can sometimes really come across as a snobbish little twit. Like yesterday when he linked to an article about Shakespearean language which talks about a psycholinguistics study initiated by an English professor, Philip Davis; as is so often the case, the professor has wildly exaggerated the meaning of the study. Please see Language Log’s post Distracted By The Brain for related discussion. Here’s crucial quote from that post:

The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

My claim: the neuroscience study discussed in the Davis article distracts the reader from Davis’s essentially absurd interpretations, and Andrew Sullivan takes the bait, hook, line and sinker (and looks like a twit in the end).

The article does not go into the crucial details of the study, but it says that it involves EEG (electroencephalogram) and MEG (magnetoencephalograhy) and fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) noting that only the EEG portion has been completed. A pretty impressive array of tools for a single psycholinguistics study, I must say. Most published articles in the field would involve one or maybe two of these, but all three for a single study? Wow, impressive.

It’s not clear to me if this was a well designed study or not (my hunch is, no, it is a poorly designed study, but without the crucial details, I really don’t know). However, it is undeniable that professor Davis has gone off the deep end of interpretation. The study does not even involve Shakespearean English!!! It involves Modern English! Then Davis makes the following claims (false, all of them, regardless of the study):

["word class conversion"] is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another(underlines added)

This is the classic English professor bullshit. I don’t even know what “economically compressed” means (Davis gives no definition); it has no meaning to linguistics that I know of. The quote also suggests Shakespeare’s English had some sort of magical linguistic qualities that today’s English does not possess. FALSE! Modern English allows tremendous productivity of constructions, neologisms, and ambiguity. A nice introduction to ambiguity can be found here: Ambiguous Words by George A. Miller.

Davis ends with a flourish of artistic bullshit hypothesizing:

For my guess, more broadly, remains this: that Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them—away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences.

Neuroplasticity is only just now being studied in depth and it’s far from well understood, but the study in question says NOTHING about plasticity!!! There’s also no reason to believe that Shakespeare’s language does anything that other smart, well crafted language does not do. And we’re a generation at least away from having the tools to study any of this.

I’m accustomed to simply letting these all too common chunks of silliness go without comment, but then Andrew had to slip in his unfortunate bit of snooty arrogance. After pasting a chunk of the obvious linguistics bullshit on his site (then follow-up comments), he has to finish with "I knew all that already". Exactly what did you know, Andrew? Since all of the major claims Davis makes are obvious bullshit, what exactly do you claim to have had prior knowledge of? What did Andrew know, and when did he know it?

Really, Andrew, did you never take so much as a single linguistics course during all your years at Harvard and Oxford? The University at Maryland has excellent psycholinguists as does Georgetown. Please, consider sitting in on a course, won’t you?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Ling-O-Sphere

I spent a good deal of Sunday afternoon trolling around linguistics blogs. While there are dozens of linguists with blogs, it’s hard to keep track of them all. The linguist List has a modest static list here. When I scan the blog roll at Language Log, it’s not even clear which ones are dedicated primarily to linguistics since many of the blog names are intentionally obscure. Also, many are defunct or stale as wishydig recently noted . I found a couple which had no posting in 2 years, many none for months. (UPDATE: while doing something else mildly productive, I literally clicked on EVERY single blog listed in Language Log's blog roll. If you deleted each one that was either dormant for at least 6 months or had little linguistics content, you’d delete at least 70%).

It would be nice to create a single site that aggregates all of our posts with regular updates. I mean something beyond Technorati or Digg or

I put the term “linguistics" into each of the three major social bookmarking sites above and frankly, the results were far from encouraging. Even though Technorati has a “blogs” tab, the first page of hits were not really linguistics blogs, as far as I could tell (the second page was more relevant). The Digg results were disappointing, to say the least. One reference to a Chomsky interview and one to a study on swearing, but again, none of the top hits appeared to be from blogs I would consider “linguistic blogs” (e.g., none are on the Language Log Other language blogs list). The returns at least put Language Log on top, but most of the first page returns were resource pages for computational linguistics, not blogs per se.

Imagine a site which automatically checks a given set of linguistics websites, then updates a topic cloud which clusters posts according to relevance for a particular topic, with links to each post within the cloud, plus a blog roll of all participating blogs on the right margin. I could imaging this happening in one of two ways (I prefer the first, but it's computationally complicated):

1) Search the participating blogs and perform some sort of cluster analysis of the words in each post, taking all the posts together as a corpus (perhaps an LSA style analysis), then create the cloud.

2) Create a fixed set of topic key words, and search for semantically similar words in each post. I could imagine WordNet being used for this

Whadda y'all thank?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Killer App!

Finally, someone has found a way to make automatic speech transcription USEFUL!

Robot to Replace Professional Bloggers: NEC's PaPeRo is Programmed to Listen and Blog!

By Mark Rollins (march 2007)

…the PaPeRo looks like a cute anime critter that apparently you are supposed to be comfortable having a chat with. That's right. You interface with the PaPeRo via conversation, and you tell it about your day, just like you would write in your blog. The PaPeRo then processes your conversation by searching for keywords. It surfs the net for you, and finds you the appropriate video and audio images that you would use for a blog entry.


Sigh. Yet more proof that I am woefully ignorant of pop culture. I only just today discovered The Urban Dictionary. I love the fact that users can vote thumbs up or down on a definition, and the one with the best up-to-down ratio gets ranked first.

I discovered this because a colleague of mine swears he caused the tipping point of the urban usage of “krispyin white, nerd sub-culture (in Buffalo, at least). I’d be shocked if anyone wanted to challenge him for that title, so I’ll give it to him uncontested.

Now, who the hell is Rihanna?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

War on Colbert!!!

I hereby declare war on Stephen Colbert!

During a The Word segment called College Credit, that rat bastard Stephen had the cheekiness, the impudence, the audacity, the temerity, the mendacity, to lump linguistics in with classics and comparative literature in the lowest tier of his new pricing system for college majors. His new three tiered system includes the following:

You know this is killing your parents.

Here is my transcription of his profane comment:

...and the lowest tier which includes classics, comparative literature, linguistics. Basically, anything taught by someone who says he lives to teach.
(starts at the 1.08 minute mark)

Now, I’m on board with Stephen’s plan to charge for individual facts, this makes perfect sense (that’ll cost you $1). But I’ll be damned if I’ll let some plastic-haired, thin-lipped, southern-fried ninny sully the name of my chosen profession. This bozo couldn't even get on the ballot in South Carolina years after porn stars, muscle men, and Gary Coleman broke the ballot-box glass ceiling in the California gubernatorial election.

So, be ware! Stephen Colbert (hey, that rhymes), I was a wrestler for 13 years. I know from pain.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Corporate Semantics

I took precious time out of my busy day (I'm giggling right now) to complete my company's "Employee Preferences Survey". Part of the survey provided a series of work environment descriptions of two different jobs and asked me to decide my preferences between them (assuming everything thing else about the jobs were the same). However, the differences between the two were often pinned to my semantic judgments of lexical items. I cut-and-pasted a few of the actual questions below.

Seldom vs. Sometimes
Job 1: Company seldom recognizes employees' individual performance and work contributions
Job 2: Company sometimes recognizes employees' individual performance and work contributions

Sometimes vs. Frequently
Job 1: Company sometimes recognizes employees' individual performance and work contributions
Job 2:Company frequently recognizes employees' individual performance and work contributions

Another part of the survey asked me to rate on a scale of 1-100 how likely I would be to leave my current job for a new one of the given description. In the description below, taking (a) and (g) together leads to the conclusion that my current pay must be WAYYYYYYYYYYYY below "market rate". Is this what my current employer believes? Is it time for me to ask for a raise, or am I to draw the inference that this hypothetical job will be offer me (an only me) substantial compensation? More importantly, how do I answer the question?

a) Company typically pays well below "market rate"
b) Direct manager is one of the worst in quality
c) Always working on challenging and "leading-edge" work in your field
d) Company frequently recognizes employees' individual performance
e) Depending on your performance, bonus can add up to 20% to your pay
f) About 10% out-of-town business travel
g) Base pay 30% more than current
h) Coworkers are above average in quality

OMG!!! It actually asked me to rate my agreement level with THIS:

I am “emotionally attached” to (company name).

Dude! WTF? Is someone out there actually “emotionally attached” to their company? If yes, would they be willing to admit this on a survey? (I am willing to stipulate that some professors may in fact be “emotionally attached” to their university employers, especially if they teach at the same school they graduated from. I could see professors Harvard and Stanford being a tad “emotionally attached” to their employer – but we all know that professors at Harvard and Stanford don’t count; they’re not normal people like the rest of us, hehe).

Finally, double how's are tough:

How satisfied are you with how the performance management system reviews your accomplishments?

“I don’t believe in X”

Is this a snowclone? I can’t find it in the database or on the queue. It’s certainly a different use of ‘believe’ than “I don’t believe in unicorns”. In this special use of believe, the speaker does in fact believe X exists, but they disagree with it in some way.

Google results for “I don’t believe in”:

a) I Don't Believe In Failure.
b) I don't believe in the death penalty.
c) I Don’t Believe in Atheists.
d) I don't believe in spreading liberty.
e) I don't believe in war.
f) I don't believe in guilt.
g) I don't believe in Richard Dawkins.

X = deverbal nominal
X = noun
X = descriptive noun
X = VP
X = eventive nominal
X = emotion noun
X = Person noun

While X is almost always a noun, it can be a VP as in (d), and it’s often an eventive nominal as in (e) or a deverbal nominal as in (a).

TV Linguistics - and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...