Monday, February 17, 2020

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 ... since ... um ... okay, the most linguistics oriented sitcom episode EVER! But thanks to the innerwebz, I have caught up on my TV addiction.

The set-up has Jack Donaghy being the voice of, (I BEG you to sign up, PLEASE!!!!)  a website that demonstrates the correct pronunciation of all English words. Apparently, when Jack was a poor undergrad at Princeton, he was hired by the "Linguistics Department" to pronounce every word in an English dictionary to preserve the correct pronunciation for generations to come. But they sold his readings, and hence his voice is now the voice of (as well as the first perfect microwave...).

Here is as faithful a transcript of the critical dialogue as I can muster:

Jack: Those bastards!
Liz: Who bastards?
Jack: Part of my Princeton scholarship included work for the Linguistics department. They wanted me to record every word in the dictionary to preserve the perfect American accent in case of nuclear war. Well, the cold war ended, and Princeton began selling the recordings.
Liz: So people can just buy your voice?
Jack: Ohhhh, the things it's been dragged into. Thomas the Tank Engine; Wu-Tang songs...

This must have been the glory days before the hippies took over and started "protecting" undergrads from "exploitation." Whatever...

In any case, it's understandable that this trivial tid-bit of academic minutia blew right by most people, but it is a fact of the world we live in that Princeton University does not have a linguistics department per se. They do offer an Undergraduate Program in Linguistics in which students can "pursue a Certificate in Linguistics," but this is not an official department as far as I understand it. Jack, if he is the same age as the actor Alec Baldwin, would have been at Princeton in late 1970s. Maybe they had a full fledged department back then, I honestly don't know.

You can watch the episode College at NBC, or wherever else you prefer. BTW, there's an awesome ode to color perception conundrums at the end as well. It's all kinda linguisticee/cog sciencee (I never know how to add the -ee morpheme?).

Random after-point: Near the end of Thursday's episode of Community, Dean Pelton actually utilized the Shakespearean subjunctive construction Would that X were Y... He says "Would that this hoodie were a time hoodie" around the 19:20 mark (see Hamlet, would it were not so, you are my mother). Just thought that was kinda awesome.

And not for nuthin', but if you haven't seen Tina Fey's Mark Twain Prize speech, it's a gem: HERE.

TV anachronisms - The birth of a metaphor

[reposted from 4/12/13]

A Twitter exchange with Ben Zimmer over the metaphorical use of the phrase "pause button" in the new TV show The Americans (set in 1981) led me to think about how metaphors begin their lives. I didn't watch the episode in question, but apparently several viewers noticed that the show used the phrase "pause button" metaphorically to mean something like to put a romantic relationship on hold.

Ben tweeted this fact as a likely anachronism, presumably because the technology of pause buttons was too young in 1981 to have likely jumped to metaphorical use by then. I was not the only one who immediately took to Google Ngrams to start testing this hypothesis. In the end, Tweeter @Manganpaper found a good example from 1981 from some kind of self-help book.

But what interests me is an example I found from 1987:
Consumers have pushed the "pause" button on sales of video-cassette recorders, for years in the fast-forward mode.
Ben reluctantly conceded the example:

I'd have to review my historical linguistics books, but I don't think words necessarily shift their meanings radically all at once. I believe they can take on characteristics of associated meanings slowly, thus widening or narrowing their meaning as their linguistic environment unfolds. Eventually, a word can come to mean something quite radically different than it originally meant. I see no reason that the life of a metaphor could not follow a similar trajectory. Ben objected to the fact that the 1987 use of "pause button" I linked to was semantically linked to the literal use of actual pause buttons because it dealt with the conceptual space of VCR sales. But my hunch is that this is how many metaphors start their lives, making small conceptual leaps, not big ones. I could be wrong though. The sad truth is that finding good empirical data for the life span of metaphors is extremely difficult. The fact is that even with the awe inspiring large natural language data sets currently available in many languages, studying a linguistically high level data type like metaphor remains out of reach of most NLP techniques.

But this is why our NLP blood boils. There are miles to go before we sleep...

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 ...