Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

Posted in Inversion, Music | 8 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bot, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

/nene/
nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

/nini/
nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

/nono/
no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

/nunu/
Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.

>

/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
papa
pepe
pipi
popo
pupu
fafa
fefe
fifi
fofo
fufu
tata
tete
titi
toto
tutu
zaza
zeze
zizi
zozo
zuzu
ʒaʒa
ʒeʒe
ʒiʒi
ʒoʒo
ʒuʒu
kaka
keke
kiki
koko
kuku
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
baba
bebe
bibi
bobo
bubu
vava
veve
vivi
vovo
vuvu
dada
dede
didi
dodo
dudu
ɹaɹa
ɹeɹe
ɹiɹi
ɹoɹo
ɹuɹu
ʧaʧa
ʧeʧe
ʧiʧi
ʧoʧo
ʧuʧu
ɡaɡa
ɡeɡe
ɡiɡi
ɡoɡo
ɡuɡu
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
mama
meme
mimi
momo
mumu
θaθa
θeθe
θiθi
θoθo
θuθu
nana
nene
nini
nono
nunu
lala
lele
lili
lolo
lulu
ʤaʤa
ʤeʤe
ʤiʤi
ʤoʤo
ʤuʤu
haha
hehe
hihi
hoho
huhu
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/
wawa
wewe
wiwi
wowo
wuwu
ðaða
ðeðe
ðiði
ðoðo
ðuðu
sasa
sese
sisi
soso
susu
ʃaʃa
ʃeʃe
ʃiʃi
ʃoʃo
ʃuʃu
jaja
jeje
jiji
jojo
juju

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | 6 Comments »

Sara Squint

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2014

In an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, I read an article about Sara Bareilles, a name I recognized from a music video that used to play on the overhead TVs at the gym, back when I used to go to the gym. The song was called “King of Anything,” and aside from having a good hook, it piqued my interest with the mismatch between its title and its lyrics. The title suggested “free-choice anything,” as in “I can do anything I want!” But in the song, it turns up in a line in the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to it.

However, this article wasn’t about “King of Anything.” It was about “Brave,” a song Bareilles released last year, and which was nominated for a Grammy. I found it, listened to it, and bought it. Not only is it a great tune with inspiring lyrics, but as a bonus, there is linguistic commentary to be made on it.

First of all, there’s the Lehrer-worthy rhyme in the first verse:

You can be amazin’, you can turn a phrase in-
to a weapon or a drug.

Love that enjambment!

As you can tell from the title, the theme of this song is bravery, but it always appears (as in the title) as the adjective brave, even in this line, where Bareilles shamelessly turns brave into a noun:

Show me how big your brave is!

By itself that’s not worth a blog post, but since I’m blogging anyway, there it is. The main things I wanted to comment on were from the chorus, which goes like this:

Say what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly
I want to see you be brave!

The first time she sings it, she leads into it smoothly from the last line of the previous verse, like this:

I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you want to say

I was just talking to my ESL students about open and remote conditionals last week, after having them watch my video about them. What tense is would, I asked them? Right, past. And what time is this sentence talking about? The future. So what kind of conditional is it? Remote: We’re talking about something that’s not likely. Since what would happen is the main clause of a remote conditional, we also expect a past tense in the if clause, to continue showing this remoteness. What we get, though, is say what you want to say, in the present tense: an open conditional. Why did Bareilles say that instead of said what you want to say? The students came up with several good answers:

  1. The way Bareilles does it, you get the repetition of say at the beginning and end of the line.
  2. It’s easier to put emphasis on say, with its open syllable, than on the closed syllable said.
  3. Maybe it’s a stand-alone sentence, not part of an if-clause. (This is definitely true for the later repetitions of the chorus; for here, it’s probably done for consistency.)
  4. In addition to all that, maybe she’s aiming for the semantic difference, starting with a phrasing showing that something is unlikely to happen, and then changing her mind and ending with more confidence that it can and will happen. (OK, that one was mine.)

Finally, let’s look at the Honestly in the chorus. It’s a squinting modifier! Or as I like to call these constructions, a forwards-backwards attachment ambiguity. Should we parse it as

And let the words fall out honestly

or as

Honestly, I want to see you be brave!

Both parses make sense. The song is about telling the truth, so you could easily take honestly as a manner adverb to modify let the words fall out. However, honestly also works as a sentential adverb, like frankly or seriously, so the second parse works, too. In fact, this is the first squinting ambiguity I’ve seen in which the adverb works as both a manner adverb and a sentential adverb.

So which one is it? You don’t get a clue from timing, because in the song there’s a pause both before and after honestly. Of the few written versions of the lyrics that I looked up, most don’t have punctuation there, but they do break the lines so that honestly goes with I want to see you be brave, so I suspect they’re going with the sentential-adverb parse. But honestly, I think the manner-adverb parse is better.

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Conditionals, Music | Leave a Comment »

Sublime

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2013

This is a sub!These are limes!

“What’re you listening to, Holt?” Ken asked as Holt climbed into the back of the van.

Longtime readers may remember Doug’s friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and played the straight man in Doug’s impromptu bit of lunchroom comedy involving the lost-and-found. Now all three of these guys are going into high school, as members of the marching band, and have spent the last couple of weeks of summer break going to practice and rehearsal from 8:00 until noon. I was the morning car pool guy for them and one other friend who isn’t relevant to this story, so we’ll just ignore him.

Removing his earbuds, Holt said, “Sublime.”

“It’s ‘Sublime,’ not ‘Sublime,'” Ken told him.

This sounded interesting. “Uh, what’s your complaint, Ken?” I asked.

“It’s ‘sub-lime,'” Ken said. “Not ‘suh-blime.'”

“So when he pronounces it that way, it sounds like he’s saying ‘Blimey!’ or something?”

“Yeah.”

Actually,” I said, “that’s what we linguists call the Maximal Onset Principle at work. It’s a phonological rule of English. When you have a consonant cluster, you put as much of it as you can at the beginning of the next syllable, instead of at the end of the last one. Since you can start a syllable in English with B-L, you get blime. If the word had been sudlime instead, then he’d have pronounced it ‘sud-lime,’ because dlime isn’t a good English syllable. That’s why we say that someone’s taste in music is ‘e-clectic’ instead of ‘ec-lectic,’ even though that’s how the word roots break down.”

“That,” said Holt, “is exactly what I meant to do.”

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology | 5 Comments »

How Bad Girls Get

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2013

Last night I got to meet Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor and book author, whom I’ve mentioned in several blog posts. He was in town promoting his latest book, Yes, I Could Care Less, and had a reading and Q&A session at the home of his colleague Mark Allen. During the talk, Walsh mentioned the ambiguity in this line from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police (you can hear it at about 1:17 in the video at the end of this post):

You know how bad girls get.

I knew instantly what he meant. First, there’s the “Girls can become so bad!” reading:

Those girls can get so bad!

Then there’s the “Those bad girls–you know how they can be!” reading:

Bad girls; you know how they are.

I’m surprised I never got around to blogging about this line before, what with ambiguous song lyrics being a recurring theme here. Heck, I’ve even written about another ambiguity in a song by the Police somewhere here. Where is it? … Really, where is it? I know it’s here somewhere? Why isn’t it showing up in my search?

Oh yeah! It was the subject of my very first blog post, back on my brother’s blog, Agoraphilia! Back before I discovered how to put pictures in a blog post. Back before I made nifty syntax diagrams for you to read, and just used nested brackets. Wow.

But back to the current ambiguity. This one reminds me of a joke I read in a joke book back in second or third grade. It went like this:

Do you know how long cows should be milked?

Find the answer below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Attachment ambiguity, Music | 5 Comments »

Very Frightening

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2013

Life, as we know, is full of tough decisions.

Participles are often described as “verbal adjectives,” but recently I was called on to be more specific with a participle: was it a verb, or an adjective? (Sorry, I can’t tell you why I had to do that; it’s TOP SECRET.)

In high school, I was unconflicted: Participles were a kind of adjective, end of story. Even in a sentence like The kids are frightening the cats, I considered frightening to be an adjective, and frightening the cats to be an adjective phrase, just as proud of themselves is an adjective phrase in The kids are proud of themselves. I was annoyed to lose a couple of points over it in a quiz. However, I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t considering the other properties of adjective phrases that frightening the cats didn’t have, such as these that I read about in CGEL.

First of all, you can’t make the head participle comparative or superlative, the way you can with typical adjectives. You can’t modify it with very, either:

  • The kids are prouder/proudest of themselves.
  • *The kids are more/most frightening the cats.
  • The kids are very proud of themselves.
  • *The kids are very frightening the cats.

It’s for reasons like these that frightening the cats is considered to be a participial phrase — i.e., more verby than adjectivey.

On the other hand, with frightening by itself, you can make comparatives and superlatives and use very:

  • The kids are more/most frightening.
  • The kids are very frightening.

So by itself, frightening can be considered simply an adjective.

In fact, frightening can even be an adjective inside an adjective phrase. The key is that you can’t just go putting a noun phrase complement (such as the cats) after it, the way you’d do with a verb. Instead, you give it a complement more suitable for an adjective; namely, a prepositional phrase. Here’s how it shakes out with the PP to the cats:

  • The kids are more/most frightening to the cats.
  • The kids are very frightening to the cats.

Frightening is actually an unusual case: It’s a participle that in one guise has completely crossed over to become an adjective, but in another still works as a verby participle in progressive tenses. Other participles like this are loving, (for)giving, disturbing, and amazing. In contrast, participles such as running never pass the comparative/superlative/very adjective tests: Sam is more/most/very running.

So with all that said, now we can talk about what the fictional kindergartner Junie B. Jones has in common with the glam rock group Queen. From Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, by Barbara Park:

The creamy filling was very squishing between my toes. (p. 25)

From Queen, of course, we have this line from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with our much-discussed participle frightening:

Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! (~3:18 in the video)

In both examples, the very tells us to take the participle as an adjective, but other factors force us to take it as a non-adjectival participle. In the Junie B. Jones example, it’s the context of a progressive tense that does it; in the Queen example, the NP complement me.

I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of Junie B. Jones’s grammar, when these books have certainly been criticized for daring to have a six-year-old over-regularize her past tenses and use accusative pronouns where nominatives are called for. Probably it’s because the other grammar complaints are so easy to make, while this one requires some analysis in order to put your finger on the problem. (JBJ uses very with other non-adjectival participles, too, such as watering and practicing, also from JBJ:YBF.) As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that song is weird in too many other ways, I think, for people to have focused on the grammar of that one line that comes just between the “Scaramouche” and “Galileo” bits.

There’s more to come about participles, adjectives, and even gerunds, in my next post!

Posted in Books, Gerunds and participles, Kids' entertainment, Music | 3 Comments »

Lay Down and Throw Up Your Arms

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2012

In my last post (so very long ago!), I said that the song “Twenty One Guns” by Green Day was linguistically interesting to me for two reasons, one of them being the pronunciation of twenty one guns. The other was that it reminded me of writing chapter 2 of my dissertation. Now, over a month later, I’ve finally pulled myself out from under a pile of teaching and grading obligations and am here to finish what I had to say about “Twenty One Guns”.

So as you’ll recall, the refrain went like this:

One
Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

One
Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

First of all, a correction: The chapter I was remembering was chapter 1, not chapter 2. In chapter 1 of my dissertation, I was writing about diagnostic tests for whether you have a pair of homonyms or a single word whose meaning is vague enough that it can cover the meanings you’re interested in. I summarized some of these tests from a classic work by Arnold Zwicky and Jerry Sadock (which itself was a summarization of various ambiguity tests they had seen in the literature), and one of them they called the crossed-senses test. Take a sentence like

Doug and Adam both like rock.

This could mean that my sons both like rock music, or that they are both geology enthusiasts. But how about this: Could it mean that Doug likes rock music, while Adam likes igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary pieces of the Earth’s crust? If it can, then rock passes the crossed-senses test for these two meanings, indicating (according to the theory) that musical rock and geological rock are not homonyms, but a single word with a meaning vague enough that it encompasses both meanings of rock.

As it happens, I can’t get this crossed-senses reading, except as a joke. For comparison, if I said Doug and Adam both read a book, it could certainly be true if one read a hardback and the other a paperback. If you can’t crossed senses for both like rock, then for us at least, musical and geological rock are homonyms: separate words that happen to sound the same (and be spelled the same too). Since they’re separate words, you see, the single utterance of rock can only be one or the other.

Years after Zwicky & Sadock, a paper by Alex Lascarides, Ann Copestake, and Ted Briscoe observed that failing the crossed-senses test wasn’t enough to conclude that you had a pair of homonyms. Why? Because you get the same kind of goofiness even when you repeat that word with the two meanings. Using the rock example again:

Doug likes rock, and Adam likes rock.

Can you get the crossed senses now? I can’t. So at this point, whatever is blocking the availability of both meanings of rock, it’s not that they are homonyms instead of a single, vague word. If they’re homonyms, there should be no problem with having the geological one in the part of the sentence about Doug, and the musical one in the part about Adam. There must be something else going on, and whatever it is can also explain why Doug and Adam both like rock fails the crossed-senses test, too. For what it’s worth, LC&B argue for a pragmatics-based explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about recently when I listened to the chorus of “Twenty-One Guns”. The plural noun arms has two meanings. In the phrase lay down your arms, it refers to weapons. In the phrase throw up your arms, it refers to the body parts between your shoulders and your hands. Now suppose we had a sentence with just one token of the word arms, but with both meanings needed; something like…

Lay down and throw up your arms.

Does it pass the crossed-senses test? No way. For me, it cannot mean to surrender your weapons and then quickly raise your arms above your head. It could mean to lie down (with the nonstandard usage of lay) and then quickly raise your arms above your head. Or it could mean to place your body-part arms on a table in front of you before raising them in the air. Or it could mean doing the same thing with your weapons. Of course, throwing up your arms could also mean vomiting them up, whether you’re regurgitating weapons that you’ve eaten, or your own arms that you previously chewed off in an act of autoanthropophagy. So the three meanings multiply out to six, but in no case can I get arms referring first to weapons and then to one’s upper limbs (or vice versa).

But unlike the example with rock, which fails the test whether you say Doug and Adam like rock or Doug likes rock and Adam likes rock, this one improves greatly when you say the word arms twice. I’d been listening to the song for a couple of years before I ever took note of the two meanings of arms coexisting in the same refrain. How does that happen?

Actually, arms doesn’t pass the crossed-senses test so easily in a sentence like this:

Lay down your arms, and throw up your arms.

I can get the crossed senses, but not as easily as I do when listening to the song. The context helps: The idiom lay down your arms always refers to surrendering your weapons, and more figuratively to “giv[ing] up the fight”. The phrase throw up your arms doesn’t have an idiomatic meaning that I’m aware of (beyond that of vomiting, as noted earlier), so that would nudge listeners toward the more literal body-part meaning. Maybe the typical hip-hop exhortation to “throw your hands in the air” (usually in a manner so as to suggest that you just don’t care) helps a bit, too. Even so, the meanings rub against each other enough to make me think about the other possible interpretations, and smile to myself.

So once again, how did the song lyrics manage to slip these two meanings of arms past the crossed-senses barrier without my noticing for all that time? My only guess at this point is that in addition to the context cues, you have those extra words in between, giving more space for the first arms activation in your brain to die down before the second one comes along. That, and the fact that Green Day sing this chorus so very slowly!

Posted in Ambiguity, Music | 6 Comments »

Twenty Wung Guns

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2012

Glen once noted that the trouble with being able to put all your favorite songs on one convenient device is that you have to consciously decide to listen to new music. Motivation to listen to the radio plummets: “Why listen to someone else’s lousy mix plus advertisements, when you can listen to the best mix ever without advertisements?”

So true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going on. As I noted in that earlier blog post, in 2010 I heard a few new songs I liked only because I made a point of listening to the pop station every day for two weeks while I was writing a column on the use of the word <I>Im(m)a</i> in popular songs. I’ve heard a new song here and there in the bowling alley with Doug and Adam, or in the movie theatre while I’m waiting for the previews to begin.

And, as it happens, in the roller skating rink, too. That’s where, at Doug’s birthday party later in 2010, I heard a song that I identified with my song-identifying phone app as “21 Guns” by Green Day. I added it to my iPod, and now, two years later, “21 Guns” has become just one more piece of music that I listen to to the exclusion of new stuff.

After a couple of years of listening to it, I’ve gradually become interested in the chorus:

One
Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

One
Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

Two things are interesting about the chorus, one of them because of the way Green Day sing it, and the other because it brought back memories of writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation.

In English, the phoneme /n/ might be pronounced not only as [n], as in Neal, but also as [ɲ], as in In your face!, or as [ŋ], as in drink. That last assimilation is consciously known to most literate English speakers, some of whom had to be taught that ng was actually pronounced [ŋ], and not [ng] “nuh-guh”, as it was spelled.

In fast, or even normally paced speech, these assimilations can cross word boundaries, as happens in my example of In your face! Speaking carefully, I would pronounce 21 guns as “twenty [wʌ̃n] guns”. But speaking freely and easily, I would (and do) pronounce it as “twenty [wʌ̃ŋ] guns”. (The ~ is supposed to go over the ʌ in those transcriptions

In fact, Green Day sing it this way, too, as you can hear in the video. What I find unusual, though, is that they do this even though the song is somewhat slow (about 80BPM, the low end of “andante”, according to my metronome). Nevertheless, every time they sing that chorus, it’s a very carefully enunciated “twenty wung guns”. Why?

Posted in Consonants, Music | 12 Comments »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on EnglishForums.com:

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 20 Comments »

If I Just Lay Here

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2011

First of all, I think I have a pretty good handle on the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here is a possibility that I’m considering (though I may be leaning toward rejecting it). The past-tense form sat in If I sat here, my pants would get wet suggests that I’m not seriously considering the possibility.

Second, I got straight many years ago on the workings of lay and lie–though I’ve also learned that lay and lie have flip-flopped and varied in their usage over the centuries, and that it’s more or less accident that the system currently considered standard was settled upon. This Grammar Girl piece lays it out (get it?) pretty clearly, with a nice diagram. This Language Log post goes into more detail. For what it’s worth, I say lie in the present tense, lay in the past tense, and lain in the perfect tenses to talk about being recumbent. (Or lied if I’m talking about telling untruths.) I say lay (something) in the present tense, laid (something) in the past tense, and lain (something) in the perfect tenses to talk about putting something down carefully. At least, I think I do.

Now with those two points made, consider the refrain from the song “Chasing Cars”, by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here,
If I just lay here,
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though I am accustomed to hearing past-tense verbs in if-clauses to introduce remote conditions, and even though I accept lay as the past tense of lie, I still, still, just can’t parse these lyrics as the hypothesis and conclusion of a remote conditional. Instead, I find myself just figuring that the singer uses both lay and lie to mean lying down, sometimes saying one (“If I just lay here”) and sometimes the other (“Would you lie with me?”). Why is that?

Other grammar-watchers have had the same difficulty I have. Benjamin Barrett brought up the lay/lie verse on the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread beginning here), and wondered if the alternation was just for euphonic purposes. The possibility of taking it as a remote conditional seems not to have occurred to him. In a response, Larry Horn raised the possibility, and made his point by replacing lay/lie with the less-confusing sit/sat,:

If I sat here,
If I just sat here,
Would you sit with me and just forget the world?

With sit/sat, I have no problem getting a remote-conditional reading.

The Master of Grammar got tripped up on these lyrics too, and publicized his misunderstanding in this blog post. Three commenters set him straight, but I take the difficulty of getting this parse, even among the grammar-savvy, as a sign that the lay/lie distinction is on its last legs.

So it looks like “Chasing Cars” may be one of those songs that “get it right”. Against all expectation, it uses the standard option when faced with a grammar shibboleth, like Beyonce Knowles singing “If I were a boy” when you’d expect just about any pop singer to go with “If I was a boy”. But wait a minute…

I’ve just watched the video, and every time the singer gets to the refrain, he’s lying on something: twice on a bed, once on some asphalt, and once at the top of a subway escalator. He’s not standing up and thinking about lying in some location; he’s actually doing it. He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man. What do you think? Is If I lay here being used in a standard or nonstandard way in “Chasing Cars”?

Posted in Music, Prescriptive grammar, Uncategorized | 23 Comments »

 
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