Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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 »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “

What?

Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.

Why?

To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting


The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 5 Comments »

Getting Away Without It

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2014

When the previous blast of arctic air passed through last week, it put enough snow on our driveway and sidewalk that I really should have shoveled it, but it wasn’t enough to force me to do it in order to get the car from the garage to the street. And, you know, I was in a hurry… I knew I’d regret it later, as I backed the car down the driveway and looked at my tire tracks cutting through the blanket of snow. It would be icy and compacted there when I eventually did shovel.

But when I got home that afternoon, I saw that someone had shoveled our sidewalk! I guessed it was good karma kicking in from the times I’d shoveled the sidewalk in front of our next door neighbors’ houses. No more snow had fallen, and this snow was kind of the dry, crunchy kind, so it wasn’t really a slipping hazard on the driveway and walk to the front door… And a couple of days later, it was even starting to melt!

Then the weekend came, and the current cold snap hit us, kicking off with another couple of inches of snow. I drove Doug to school on Tuesday morning, and as we backed down the driveway, I looked at the fresh set of tire tracks in the fresh layer of snow.

“Until last night,” I said to Doug, “I was like, ‘Wow, I totally got away without shoveling the driveway!’ “

Thirty seconds later, I asked Doug, “Would you have said ‘got away without shoveling,’ or ‘got away with not shoveling’?”

“‘Got away with not having to shovel,’ ” Doug said.

Interesting. On the one hand, we have a division between the string get away with and the thing that you’re not supposed to do: not shoveling. That’s right, you’re not supposed to not shovel. On the other hand, I took the with from one side of the break, and the not from the other, and combined them into the negative version of with: without. Could I do that? Is getting away without something even a thing?

The OED has the expression get away with as a piece of American slang dating to the 1878. As I had imagined, the earliest examples have get away in its sense of escaping some situation, and to “get away with X” meant to make your escape while in possession of X, often something you’re not supposed to have. Here’s the OED‘s example from 1886:

They got away with the pennant three successive seasons.

The modern examples have a more abstract meaning of simply not being punished for something, without a physical escape from a place required. The nouns that show up in them are more abstract, too, such as shoddy work or murder. To further tease out the meaning difference between this usage and the current one, let’s compare how they can be paraphrased:

  1. Newer use
    1. He got away with (doing) shoddy work.
    2. She gets away with (committing) murder. [Note: Inserting the gerund takes away the figurative meaning, so that we're saying she gets away with actual murder. However, this is often the case with idioms, and the literal meaning is available with both phrasings.]
  2. Older use
    1. He got away with (*doing, *making) $1,000,000.
    2. She got away with (*doing, *making) the artifact.

In short, the meaning has shifted from escaping a place while possessing something you shouldn’t possess, to escaping punishment for doing something you shouldn’t do. The OED‘s first attestation of get away with with this more abstract meaning is this one from 1912:

In the Elizabethan days you could assault the watch..and have a jolly set-to with the blades in any convenient angle of a wall and ‘get away with it’.

As for get away without X, that goes back to about the same time as get away with X. I found this example in Google Books from 1882:

Was it a clean job if he was caught in the act, or if he got away without being caught? If he got away without being caught it was a cleaner job. (Link)

Two things to notice about this early example of get away without X:

  1. Even though it already has an abstract noun for X (being caught), it still has a comparably literal meaning to the older get away with X: something like, “escape from a situation without X occurring.”
  2. It just means not getting caught; it does not mean not getting caught and never suffering undesirable consequences for it.

For comparison, here’s a more modern example of get away without X from 2011:

Likewise, it is an affront to honest taxpayers that one, let alone most, of the clients of John Mathewson’s Cayman Islands bank got away without paying.
(Link)

Going through the above two points in this later example:

  1. It has followed the same concrete-to-abstract path as get away with X: The meaning here doesn’t involve physical escape.
  2. Unlike the 1882 example, it doesn’t just mean the clients didn’t pay; it means they never suffered undesirable consequences for not paying.

Summing up, it looks like getting away without X is indeed a thing, and whether you choose it over getting away with X depends on whether you think of X as something you shouldn’t do or something you should do. If I had been thinking of not shoveling snow as an act in itself that I should not do, get away with not shoveling might have been the better choice. But thinking in terms of shoveling snow being something I should do, I chose get away without shoveling. The only choice that’s not available is referring to X with the pronoun it if you’re using the without version of the expression: You can’t “get away without it.”

In any case, I’m not getting away with not shoveling or without shoveling anymore. After the additional six inches we got over the weekend, I’ve now shoveled our walk and driveway twice in 48 hours!

Posted in Ambiguity, Ohioana, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

How to Talk to Drug-Free Kids

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2014

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Gabriel Sherman, the author of a book on the history of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. Sherman was talking about TVN, a precursor to Fox News that ran for a time in the 1970s. Its producers wanted to provide a counterweight to the liberal media, and consulted extensively with conservative groups as they tried to hammer out how they would run the program. Summing up, Sherman said,

They were basically saying, “How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?” (13:34)

If it’s news that already appeals to a conservative audience, I thought. why is how to package it such a big question? In the context of the story, of course, the actual meaning was “How do we package (any) news in such a way that it will appeal to a conservative audience?”

I remembered the title of an article I’d seen advertised on the cover of a Reader’s Digest one time:

How to raise drug-free kids

Step one, I had thought at the time: Acquire some kids who are drug-free. Step two: Raise them. Like the sentence from Gabriel Sherman, this sentence was ambiguous between two readings:

    How to VERB NOUN with PROPERTY X

  1. (Intended meaning) Let y be a NOUN; how to VERB y such that y comes to have PROPERTY X
  2. (Stupid meaning) Let y be a NOUN with PROPERTY X; how to VERB y

But standing in the checkout line, looking at a Reader’s Digest cover, I had been in an ornery mood, looking for an obtuse reading of the title. The intended meaning was one that the grammar licensed, even though I was overlooking it for my own amusement. Listening to the interview with Gabriel Sherman, I was just interested in hearing about this Roger Ailes guy, but the goofy reading was still the one that jumped out at me. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think the quotation was ambiguous after all. The only available reading is the unintended one, and the intended, resultative meaning is delivered only by sheer force of context, in the same way that I’d know that We had a talk about our son with drugs actually meant “We had a talk with our son about drugs.” So my question is: Why are both readings available with the Reader’s Digest title, but not with the Gabriel Sherman quotation?

Here are the syntactic and semantic differences between the two quotations that I notice:

  1. finite (do we package) vs. infinitive (to raise)
  2. relative clause (that is…) vs. adjective phrase (drug-free)
  3. creation nature of verb: package (no) vs. raise (yes)
  4. definite noun (the news) vs. generic (kids)

Flipping these conditions one by one in the Sherman quotation, I judge that the resultative reading becomes available when package is swapped for a verb whose meaning involves creating something. Red font indicates that the resultative meaning is unavailable; green font that it is available:

  1. (original) How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  2. (finite > infinitive) How to package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience
  3. (relative clause > adjective phrase) How do we package the conservative-appealing news?
  4. (ordinary verb > verb of creation) How do we create the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  5. (definite noun > indefinite noun) How do we package news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?

How about when we do the same thing to the Reader’s Digest title? When does the resultative reading here become unavailable? As expected, it looks like replacing the creation-verb raise with a non-creation verb (talk to) bars the resultative meaning. Furthermore, changing the indefinite drug-free kids to the definite the drug-free kids also makes the goofy reading the only one available.

  1. (original) How to raise drug-free kids
  2. (infinitive > finite) How do we raise drug-free kids?
  3. (adjective phrase > relative clause) How to raise kids who will stay off drugs
  4. (verb of creation > ordinary verb) How to talk to drug-free kids
  5. (indefinite > definite) How to raise the drug-free kids

To sum up, you need a verb of creation and an indefinite direct object in order to be sure of having a resultative reading in sentences like these. Sometimes you can get the resultative reading even with a definite object (as in How do we create the news that…), but it doesn’t always work (as in how to raise the drug-free kids). I still don’t know why the definiteness of the direct object makes a difference, at least in these two examples, but that’s as far as I’m pushing the issue tonight.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

Ten years ago today, I published my first blog post, on my brother Glen’s blog, where I continued to post for several months. In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to be a guest on The Volokh Conspiracy, and used the platform to announce my own blog, on the Blogger platform. A year or so later, I moved the blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since. (And the old Blogger web address has been taken over by a spam blog, which remains there to this day, with a final, spammy post from November 21, 2007 up top.) Thanks to all the readers over the years, and especially to those that have been reading the whole time, or close to it: The Ridger, Ellen K, Ran Ari-Gur, Ingeborg Norden, Ben Zimmer, Gordon Hemsley, and Glen are those that come most immediately to mind, as I post my 806th post today.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Politics | 1 Comment »

Stop Creating!

Posted by Neal on January 13, 2014

You know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his last name, which I knew from high school French II should have been LaBoeuf, but I wouldn’t let a petty thing like that cause me to boycott a movie. But I’ve been increasingly incredulous of the unfolding story about LaBeouf and a graphic novelist named Daniel Clowes, and I’m inclined to boycott LaBeouf now. Here’s the recap for those who haven’t been following it:

  1. LaBeouf produced a movie titled Howard Cantour.com.
  2. Daniel Clowes observed that large portions of the dialogue were plagiarized from his book Justin B. Damiano.
  3. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter.
  4. LaBeouf apologized numerous other times on Twitter, plagiarizing other notable apologies.
  5. LaBeouf apologized via a message in skywriting over LA.
  6. LaBeouf then tweeted a storyboard, supposedly for his next movie project, which clearly plagiarized from another of Daniel Clowes’s works.
  7. Clowes’s lawyer sent LaBeouf a cease-and-desist letter demanding that “he must stop all efforts to create and produce another short film that misappropriates Mr. Clowes’ work….”

You can read more about this here, here, and here, but here’s where the story takes a linguistic turn, so this is our stop.

Ben Zimmer emailed me to tell me about how LaBeouf was deliberately misreading the cease-and-desist letter. He sent along a few links that I’ll share. First, here’s an image of the original letter, along with LaBeouf’s edited version:

And here’s another message he delivered via skywriting:

In addition to copping out with the bullshit claim that all authorship is plagiarism, LaBeouf’s carryings-on exemplify two argument techniques that really get under my skin. One is the deliberate cutoff, exemplified in the classic dialogue:

A: Why did you do this?
B: Well, I didn’t think I–
A: That’s right! You didn’t think!

The other is the straw-man technique, which I often get from my sons. Take a demand from your opponent, amp it up to its most extreme, idiotic version, then belittle your opponent for being so naive as to make such an extreme, idiotic demand. In this case, “stop creating a particular kind of thing” becomes “stop creating (anything)”.

Thinking about the syntax of the butchered sentence, though, I wonder if LaBeouf has realized that he can carry his half-ass mis-parsing even further, to arrive at a completely grammatical parse that’s even more to his liking. Here’s the structure of the intended parse:

A conjoined verb

The and is joining the smallest constituents it can join: the verbs create and produce. The shared direct object is another short film that misappropriates the word of Daniel Clowes. But LaBeouf wants to break the connection between create and produce, and have create its own verb phrase, meaning “engage in any kind of creation.” Well, in that case, what do we do with the and? Instead of hooking up the two single verbs, it will have to hook up the next larger constituents: the verb phrases stop all efforts to create and produce another short film…. So the parse would be like this:

Coordinated verb phrases

So if he wanted to, LaBeouf could argue that this letter actually requires him to produce another short film that misappropriates the work of Daniel Clowes. Syntactically, it’s impeccable. Semantically, there’s the problem that the verb produce in the movie-making sense entails creating, so he couldn’t satisfy both requirements. Pragmatically, there’s the oddity of requiring that someone do something that involves lawbreaking (i.e. misappropriation). But hey, it’s about as logical as what he’s been doing already, so what the heck?

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Coordination, Movies, Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

Gerund Movie Titles Revisited

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2014

Tom Hanks will save you!

We had a few friends over near the beginning of Doug and Adam’s winter break. The conversation turned to movies, and my wife said that two movies she really hoped to see over the holidays were American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks.

“I don’t want to see that,” I said. “It’s already got a couple of strikes against it because of the title. It’s another gerund-plus-proper-noun cliche.”

“What, is that ungrammatical?” asked our guest Brian.

“No, it’s grammatical, just lazy and overdone,” I answered, and listed a few of the examples I’ve written about before.

“But it’s been getting good reviews!” my wife said. “Can you just ignore the title?”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, moving aside to let Adam get to the fridge. “Clearly, the producers’taste is not good enough for them to avoid this lame title. So I have to question their artistic judgment in other aspects of the movie.”

“Is this about Saving Mr. Banks again?” asked Adam.

Well, I couldn’t help it. This title is particularly annoying because the gerund is saving. Along with being and finding, that’s the most overdone gerund in this worn-out title template. Worse, Tom Hanks seemed to be making a habit out of starring in movies titled Saving someone, what with Saving Private Ryan from 1998.

Later on, I checked Tom Hanks’s acting credits on IMDB, and found to my surprise that in the 71 entries, Saving Private Ryan and Saving Mr. Banks were the only movies with GPN titles. So the good news is that Tom Hanks usually isn’t associated with gerundially-titled movies. Even so, he’s still in these two, both of them with saving

In a guest script for Grammar Girl a couple of years ago, I talked about two kinds of gerunds, one that behaved more like a verb, and one that behaved more like a noun. I illustrated with this example:

  • the quick defusing of the bomb
  • quickly defusing the bomb

The first kind is the more nounlike gerund. It can take an article (in this example, the); it is modified by an adjective instead of an adverb (quick), and the complement NP the bomb is introduced by an of. This kind of gerund is sometimes called a nominalization.

The second kind is the more verblike gerund. It does not take an article; *the quickly defusing the bomb is ungrammatical. It is modified by an adverb instead of an adjective (quickly); and its complement NP the bomb comes directly afterward, just as it would if we were dealing with a plain form (defuse the bomb) or a tensed form (defuses the bomb).

I hadn’t really thought about this difference when I was thinking about movie titles, but I notice now that the movie titles that drew my attention all involve the verby kind of gerunds. That is, we have Saving Mr. Banks and not The Saving of Mr. Banks. I did a search on IMDB for “the *ing of”, and found only one result, The Rican-ing of the White Boy (2012). An anonymous plot summary explains what Rican-ing is:

What happens when a paternally adopted forty seven year old schmuck from Queens, New York, sets out for the first time to meet his long lost Puerto Rican family, after being raised by a tribe of white people?

However, I know there are at least two more nominalization-style movie title from recent years: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and The Haunting of Hill House (1999) (though this title came from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 story). I don’t know why it didn’t show up in the search results. If you have some other examples that the search didn’t find, leave a comment.

I wondered what the GPN movie titles would sound like with nominalizations, and started going through the list I’d put in my earlier blog post: The Finding of Nemo, The Chasing of Amy, The Driving of Miss Daisy… Then I realized that some of these titles couldn’t be rephrased as a nominalization:

  • *The Becoming of Colette (1991)
  • *The Becoming of Mozart (1998)
  • *The Being of John Malkovich (1999)
  • *The Being of Julia (2004)
  • *The Being of Flynn (2012) [a new one!]

It seems that linking verbs that take an NP complement don’t work as nominalizations. This is probably something that syntacticians have known about for a long time, but I haven’t found it in CGEL, or in a classic paper by Noam Chomsky, “Remarks on Nominalization“. If anyone knows of research that has been done on this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, since I’ve moved beyond gerund+proper noun titles and into nominalizations, I might as well finish with a nod to nominalizations without an of phrase following them. These are the mark of a horror movie: The Shining, The Haunting, The Howling, The Fruiting, and others.

It’s late now, though, so as I told Doug and Adam earlier tonight, it’s time for the going-to of bed.

Posted in Movies, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

Changing History

Posted by Neal on November 30, 2013

So, about that news-related idea for a post that my mother had last week

Another of the reporters talking about the Kennedy assassination said something along the lines of:

Fifty years ago today, Lee Harvey Oswald changed history.

Mom’s observation (eagerly seconded by Dad): No, he didn’t. You can’t change history unless you have a time machine, and even then you can’t do it unless we’re living in a Back to the Future-style universe instead of an Anubis Gates-style universe.

That last observation was my contribution to the conversation. Mom’s complaint has occurred to me before, when I’ve heard the phrase. I haven’t blogged about it, because all I’ve had to say about it is what I just said. I would have categorized it under “You’re so literal!” and said how in contexts outside of science fiction and theoretical physics, change history is shorthand for change the course of history.

Now that I think about it, though, why should <I>change the course of history</i> get any closer to the desired meaning than change history? Isn’t that just shorthand for something like change the course of how future history would most likely have turned out, had you not intervened? Or to put it more concisely, make history? So, change history, make history, synonyms.

But one video put this topic on my to-be-blogged list, where it was then kicked to the top by Mom’s observation. The video, sent to me by my Uncle Ricky, is about the Boeing CHAMP missiles, which are designed to use a microwave pulse to disable all electronics in a target area. It’s about a successful test flight in Utah last August. “Today we made science fiction science fact,” said Keith Coleman, the CHAMP program manager. At the end of the video, the narrator says that Boeing and Air Force researchers

… are now analyzing data and telemetry from this flight, which not only made history, but stands to change it as well.

What? Not only … but … what do they mean? I think this commenter on the article got it right:

Sorry, I must’ve missed the bit describing its time travel abilities.  Bloody reporters speaking out of their a*se!

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

Posted in Ambiguity, You're so literal! | 1 Comment »

A Handful of Language Links

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2013

Learn to read Korean in 15 minutes, in comic form, by Ryan Estrada. (Hat tip to All Things Linguistic.)

Written by psycholinguist Jessica Love, Psycho-Babble is the Thursday flavor of the Daily Scholar column, which is part of Phi Beta Kappa’s online magazine American Scholar. In what I take to be a misguided attempt to be timeless, none of the posts have dates on them, but if they come out every Thursday, this column seems to have been going for about a year and a half. I’ve been browsing through the columns, and have enjoyed all the ones I’ve read. But I’m linking to this one, on the past tense of irregular verbs like pet, because I’ve written about this topic a few times. (Incidentally, I guess I shouldn’t complain about the use of the word blog to refer to both blogs and blog posts, if column can refer to both the column space that a writer fills, and the individual pieces they fill it with.  But it still sounds wrong to me!)

Michael Erard wants to create the online Sports Illustrated of linguistics. He’s calling it Schwa Fire, and has started a Kickstarter campaign to launch it. As of today, there are 13 days left in the campaign, and it’s 75% of the way toward the $25,000 goal. I’ve made a modest pledge, and invite you language enthusiasts to do the same.

From James Harbeck, a history of click sounds in African languages.

Just in time for both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, for the only time in your lifetime, Nancy Friedman briefs us on the stupid-sounding but surprisingly interesting word Thanksgivukkah.

Of course, if it’s language link collections done right that you want, Stan’s the man to see, as always.

Posted in Linkfests | 4 Comments »

 
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