Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Doug’ Category

Books That I Want to Come Out or Get

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

I was ripping sheets out of a memo pad this morning, trying to find a blank one for a grocery list, when I came across one with two quotations from Doug, dated October 18, 2008. I guess I meant to write about them at some point, so why not now? Here’s the first one, with Doug talking about a lot of books in series he was reading whose next volume was to be published soon, or was already available:

There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get.

Let’s expand that out into two sentences. First, there’s

There’s quite a few books that I want __ to come out.

Here, want is a verb that takes an NP and an infinitive as its complements: You want something to happen. The gap I’ve left in the sentence corresponds to that NP complement of want, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause that I want __ to come out, which modifies books.

Now the other sentence:

There’s quite a few books that I want to get __.

In this sentence, want just takes an infinitival complement: You want to do something. The gap here corresponds to the direct object of get, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause I want to get __, which again modifies books.

What I find interesting is that a single token of want is used in two ways, with different syntactic requirements and slightly different semantics. I wrote about this kind of thing in my dissertation, where I had another example a lot like Doug’s, taken from a newspaper article in 2001 or 2002. It was a handwritten list confiscated from a high school girl, which got her in a lot of trouble in the post-Columbine atmosphere. The list was titled:

People I want to kill or die

That is, all persons x such that she wanted to kill x, or wanted x to die. Actually, since then I’ve realized this construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence of my failure to kill x.” But in context, it was clearly a structure like Doug’s.

The other Doug quotation was:

Here comes him.

Not much to say here except to note it’s another illustration of the colloquial rule for use of nominative pronouns: Use them only as simple subjects that come before their verb (e.g. Here he comes). Use objective in all other cases: coordinated subjects (me and him have the same teacher), standalone pronouns (Him?), predicate nominatives (It was him), and in this example, subjects that come after their verb.

Posted in Doug, Fillers and gaps, Non-ATB coordinations, Pronouns, Syntax | 10 Comments »

Or Will We Have?

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2010

Doug likes to say he has no interest in the kind of linguistic stuff I talk about, but every now and then something will catch his ear. For a while, there was a videogame that Doug and Adam had been helping each other on, and one day Adam said to Doug that after they completed their current quest, “We will have gotten all the items!” (Nice future perfect tense, Adam!)

“Yeah!” Doug said. But his confidence was quickly replaced by doubt. “Or will we?”

A pause. Then: “Or will have we? Or have we?” I was charmed by his grappling with the finer points of subject-auxiliary inversion, verb-phrase ellipsis, and perfect tenses. For the record, he should have said, “Or will we have?”

Or should he have?

Posted in Doug, Ellipsis, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Doug and Adam Say Peyton

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2010

A couple of posts back, I wrote about my pronunciation of Peyton and similar words. My ordinary pronunciation, you may recall, was [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn], illustrated in the spectrogram below:

My ordinary pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of Peyton)

My wife says it the same way. Here’s a spectrogram of her saying Peyton; note the 75nmilliseconds of silence, highlighted in orange, where she has a glottal stop:

My wife's pronunciation of Peyton

I discussed two other pronunciations as well, which I called the careful pronunciation and the weird pronunciation. Commenter Dw said:

Another possible pronunciation in words like “Peyton” is an alveolar stop with nasal release (in IPA, [pʰejtn]). That is the one I myself would most likely use in normal conversation. One could easily imagine it becoming [pʰejʔn] over the generations.

In other words, my only pronunciations where the final vowel dropped out and the final [n] became syllabic also had the insertion of the glottal stop [ʔ]. Dw is pointing out that you don’t have to insert a [ʔ] in order for that to happen. I responded to Dw:

Funny you should mention this other pronunciation. … Despite this physical possibility, I’d still thought that only people who inserted the glottal stop did the syllabic [n] … until I learned someone very close to me was an exception.

I promised a follow-up, and here it is. Take a look at Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton below. When I recorded him saying it, it sounded like he was pronouncing it the same way as I did. But when I created a spectrogram for it, I was in for a surprise:

Doug's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton)

As best I can tell, the ey and syllabic [n] parts are as labeled, leaving only the teeny little sliver of silence between them. I think this is where he says his [t]. In any case, there’s definitely no stretch of silence corresponding to a glottal stop like there is in my and my wife’s spectrograms. Once I realized this, I wanted to get a recording of Adam, too, to find out if his pronunciation was more like Doug’s, or my wife’s and mine. Here’s a spectrogram of Adam saying Peyton:

Adam's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Adam’s pronunciation of Peyton)

Adam’s spectrogram is even harder to read than Doug’s. There doesn’t quite seem to be an area of silence, so I’ve made my best guess at where his [t] is. But as with Doug’s spectrogram, one thing is clear: There’s no glottal stop in there.

So is it coincidence that the two adults in my house insert a glottal stop in Peyton and the two kids don’t? Is Doug and Adam’s pronunciation like those of their peers? What about when they pronounce pate? So many questions…

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 18 Comments »

Witcha Pants on the Ground

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2010

Doug and Adam have been watching the American Idol auditions for the past couple of weeks. It was Doug who wanted to do it, but I figure it’s a good thing to do just for socialization purposes, like learning to watch football. I didn’t figure out until my first year in high school that the reason I’d come to school some week and hear everyone singing some new song was that they listened to the radio! And not just when they were in the car with their parents, but in their own rooms, on stations they chose themselves! Oh, and they also watched some cable channel called MTV or something, I came to understand.

I can just imagine if these American Idol auditions had been on the air when I was Doug or Adam’s age. For the past two weeks, I would have been wondering, “Where the hell did this ‘pants on the ground’ song come from, and why is everyone singing it all of a sudden?” But not Doug and Adam: They laughed at General Larry Platt’s audition when it came on, chanted it with their friends at school the next day, and found a dozen clips of it on YouTube the next afternoon.

What, you haven’t heard “Pants on the Ground”? Well, watch the video! It’s a riot: a 62-year-old African-American busts out with a rap making fun of the more ridicule-worthy aspects of hip-hop culture. It’s like the kind of rant Bill Cosby sometimes does nowadays, except funnier.

So what’s the linguistic point of all this? I’ll start by writing out the first few lines, indicating the pronunciation. I don’t think I need to go so far as to use the IPA for it; I’ll just use an apostrophe to indicate a sound missing (from the standard pronunciation), and the in parentheses to indicate a nasalized vowel in pa(n)’:

Pants on the groun’
Pants on the groun’
Lookin’ like a foo’ with yo’ pants on the groun’!
With the gol’ in your mouth, hat turn’ sideway’
Pa(n)’ hit the groun’, call yourself a coo’ cat
Lookin’ like a foo’
Walkin’ downtown with yo’ pants on the groun’, get it up!

Platt’s pronunciation has a number of features typical of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). (The following is taken from Wikipedia, in an entry backed up by many academic citations.)

  1. “Homorganic final consonant clusters (that is, word-final clusters of consonants that have the same place of articulation) that share the same laryngeal settings are reduced.” Ground is pronounced groun’; turned as turn’: [n] and [d] are both made with the tongue tip; both are voiced; and the second one in the cluster disappears. Similarly for gold with its [l] and [d].
  2. “AAVE is non-rhotic, so the rhotic consonant /r/ is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel.” Platt pronounces your as yo. (This is not exclusively an AAVE feature; other dialects of English are also non-rhotic.)
  3. “/l/ is often deleted in patterns similar to that of /r/ and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].” Platt pronounces fool as foo (or maybe it could be spelled foow, to represent the off-glide).
  4. “[F]inal consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. … Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained.” Platt pronounces sideways as sideway, and pants in what I’ve written as the fifth line as pa(n)’.

There’s also the pronunciation of the suffix -ing as -in, but that’s so common in American English in general that I’m not putting it in the above list. However, there’s one feature of AAVE that Platt doesn’t have, or at least, doesn’t use when he performs this song. As Wikipedia puts it: “Word-medially and -finally, /θ/ is realized as either [f] or [t]….” I listened to Platt’s performance on American Idol and in The View, and he’s very consistent. As far as I can tell, he pronounces mouth as mouth, not mouf, and with he definitely pronounces as with, not wif or wit.

For speakers who do pronounce with as wit, there’s an interesting consequence when it comes before a y sound. In many dialects of English, the sequence [tj] becomes [tʃ] (especially when the following vowel is [u]), an example of a process called affrication. Thus, I know what you want becomes I know whatchu want; Tuesday becomes Chewsday; and (for some British English speakers) tune becomes chune. In AAVE, wit’ you / wit’ ya becomes witchu / witcha. (But wit me does not become *witch me, and wit her doesn’t become *witch her.)

I noticed Platt’s pronunciation of with from the first time I saw his audition, because I was expecting him to say witcha pants on the groun’, and in all the times he repeated that phrase, it was always with yo’ pants on the groun’. But when Doug sings it, he puts in all the AAVE features he’s absorbed from black classmates or rap songs, and corrects with yo’ to witcha. So do all his friends, he says. “It just sounds better,” he tells me, “along with foo for fool.” He agrees that that’s not how Platt actually sings it, but suspects that most of his friends probably think it is. There are certainly lots of people on the Internet who evidently think so.

If I were a sociolinguist, I’d probably have something interesting to say about construction of identity through use of various dialect features, but I’m not. If any sociolinguists are reading this, I’m interested to hear your opinion.

Posted in Affricates, Doug, Variation | 3 Comments »

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

Posted in Adam, Cats, Doug, LSA, Pragmatics, The wife | 7 Comments »

A Predicate Has to Have a Verb?

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2009

About a month ago, I was reading a draft of a five-paragraph essay Doug had to write for language arts. I pointed out a couple of run-on sentences, and a minute later, he had separated them with periods. Then I moved on to the fragments. One of them was something like, “His brother, who wants the duke’s title.”

“But that’s a complete sentence!” Doug protested.

“OK, then what’s the subject?” I asked.

“His brother.”

“And the predicate?”

“Wants the duke’s title!” Doug answered.

I’ll spare you all the arguing that went on during the next half hour. Eventually, Doug grudgingly and still somewhat incredulously conceded that sentences could be packed inside larger things that weren’t sentences. The most eye-opening moment I had, though, was when I asked, “Is Nick the cat a complete sentence?”

“Yes!” Doug said. The subject was Nick. The predicate was the cat. Likewise, in the kitchen was a complete sentence, with subject in, and predicate the kitchen. “The subject comes first,” Doug told me, “and the rest is the predicate. That’s the rule they taught us.”

“I see the problem,” I said. “You’re right that every sentence has to have a subject and a predicate, but what you didn’t realize is that not everything is a sentence. Predicates have to have a verb, at least in English they do. If there’s no verb, it’s not a predicate, and you don’t have a complete sentence.”

“A predicate doesn’t have to be a verb!” Doug said. “They never told us that!”

“Well, what you probably didn’t notice on all the worksheets you did where you identified subjects and predicates was that the predicates all had verbs.”

Doug was furious with his previous teachers for having allowed him to arrive at this overgeneral definition of a sentence.

“Do you think other kids have this same misunderstanding?” I asked. “Or other misunderstandings about sentences?”

“Yes!”

“Hmmm,” I said. At the beginning of the school year, Doug’s language arts teacher had given me an invitation to come in and speak to her classes about linguistics when I had a chance. She didn’t even care about the topic; whatever it was, she’d find a way to connect it to the objectives the students were working on. She’s been doing Latin and Greek word roots with them, so I’d been thinking about bringing in an exercise in reconstructing words from proto-languages, if I could find one that didn’t require too much preparation work in phonetics. Now, though, there seemed to be a more immediate objective that I could give a linguist’s perspective on.

So it was that last Tuesday, I stood in front of Doug’s language arts class, asking how many had ever lost points on a worksheet or test because they hadn’t written an answer as a complete sentence. Just about all of them had. Only a few dropped their hands when I asked if they’d ever wondered what the big deal was, as long as the teacher had understood their answer. Then I moved to a different topic, and reminded them about learning about parts of speech in previous years. My question: Who had ever wondered what they were supposed to do with this knowledge now that they’d learned the eight or ten or however many parts of speech. They all had. My aim, I announced, was to take these two topics, parts of speech on the one hand, and sentences on the other, and fill in the missing material that connected the two. We’d start with a sentence they’d probably heard before…

To be continued

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Posted in Doug, Elementary school linguistics, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Lollipops, Suckers, and Maggots in the Trash

Posted by Neal on August 26, 2009

While eating breakfast yesterday, Adam was somehow reminded of the time I videotaped maggots in the garbage can.

It happened when Adam was in kindergarten. One Thursday afternoon I set about taking the emptied garbage cans back into the garage, and as I pulled one of them upright, I saw some stuff in the bottom. It turned out to be maggots, eating what appeared to be pieces of chicken from a fast-food sandwich. I figured my wife must have gotten the sandwich on her way home from work earlier in the week, and tossed the bag with the leftovers directly into the garbage can in the garage on her way into the house. The food had spilled out of the bag sometime after that, to become accessible to the flies. I hosed out the can, but not before I’d fetched our videocamera and taken a couple of minutes of footage to show Doug and Adam later on. Apparently it made quite an impression on Adam.

MaggotsI think Doug remembered it, too, not because he said, “Yeah, that was cool!”, but because he told Adam, “It wasn’t a garbage can, it was a trash can.”

“Garbage cans and trash cans are the same thing,” I said.

“Oh? Well, I say garbage can for the small ones in the house, and trash can for the big ones in the garage.”

“You’re free to do that,” I told him, “but don’t expect everyone else to know about or respect this distinction you’re making.”

I looked it up just now, and my Random House Unabridged Dictionary has garbage for the wetter, slimier stuff, typically from the kitchen; trash for dry refuse. I’d never known about that difference. Doug never did, either, and instead created his own distinction, at least between garbage can and trash can.

It reminded me of an idiolectal distinction of my own that I had from toddlerhood to my junior year in high school.LollipopsSuckersI had two words for two similar kinds of candy: A lollipop was a sphere of hard candy on a stick, while a sucker was a disk of hard candy on a stick. This distinction was reinforced by the existence of Tootsie Pops and Blow Pops, two kinds of spheres of hard candy on sticks (with the added attraction of Tootsie Roll stuff or bubble gum in the center), with names that obviously contained a clipped form of lollipop. As I grew up, on occasion I’d hear people get it wrong, calling a lollipop a sucker. I was finally moved to comment on it one year in high school, when the band was selling Blow Pops to raise funds (or should I say, to fundraise?). Every day for several weeks I’d see classmates buying or (in the case of band members) selling these lollipops, but not once did I hear anyone call one a lollipop. They might refer to them by the brand name of Blow Pops, but otherwise, they called them suckers. I finally complained to a friend about it one day, wondering if people just didn’t like the word lollipop because it sounded childish or something. I was puzzled when I learned that the meaning difference between lollipop and sucker didn’t exist for her.

I tried to remember how I’d learned the distinction, but couldn’t. All I can guess now is that the first time I saw a globe of hard candy on a stick, it was just chance that whoever told me the name called it a lollipop instead of a sucker; and vice versa for the first time I saw a disk of hard candy on a stick. Then, finding myself with two words for a similar kind of object, I looked for the difference that would explain why one object was called a lollipop, and the other a sucker. The difference I seized upon was the difference in shape. Carving the distinction in this way made it hard for me to know what to call squares or cubes of hard candy on sticks.

What Doug and I did is a manifestation of a tendency that linguists call “One Form, One Meaning.” The idea is that there are no perfect synonyms, and that even if two words start out as synonyms, over time speakers will create a distinction between them, even if it’s just a distinction in degree of formality. Arnold Zwicky has blogged a lot on OFOM as it relates to prescriptive rules on grammar and usage. For example, when some English speaker decided there must be some meaning difference to account for the different forms of healthy and healthful, it was the same kind of reasoning I used when I beheld the maggots in the garbage can and decided that the longer, fatter, slightly yellow ones and the shorter, whiter ones must be different species of flies.

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Posted in Doug, Food-related, Lexical semantics | 18 Comments »

Odd Ones Out Are Not Like the Others

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2009

I see an odd one out!One Sunday morning not long ago, I was making breakfast for everyone. The grits were almost ready to dish up, but before I did that, I had to heat up the water for Doug’s instant oatmeal, because he doesn’t like grits! And after I’d cut wedges of watermelon my wife and Doug and me, I got out a banana for Adam, because for some reason he didn’t want any watermelon that morning. Then I got juice for Doug and Adam and myself; I didn’t have to get any for my wife, because she was just going to keep drinking the Diet Coke she’d popped open. So finally all the different combinations of food and drink were on the table, and we sat down to eat. That’s when Adam observed:

“Doug’s the odd one out because he’s having oatmeal.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Adam, Doug, Food-related, Morphology, The wife | 12 Comments »

 
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