Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Linkfests’ Category

May Linkfest

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2010

Wow, it’s almost the end of May. If I want to put out a batch of language and linguistics links for this month, I’d better hurry. I missed April entirely. It’s not that there hasn’t been interesting language-related stuff to read (or watch) online. I blame my smartphone.

Back when I did all my Internet surfing at a computer, I could immediately put links to interesting blog posts in a draft post for that month’s link collection. But now that I’ve installed an RSS app on my phone and subscribed to my favorite linguistics blogs that have feeds that way, it’s harder to grab the URLs and put them in a blog draft. There’s actually a WordPress app for the phone, but it’s so buggy and hard to use as to be almost useless. As a result, I have about 20 blog posts that remain undeleted in my RSS reader that I’m going to clear out now.

Another reason I blame my cell phone is that I installed a Twitter app on it, and now many of the language-related things I read, I find because someone tweeted them. What I like, I retweet. I think in my last link collection, I collated these tweets, but that’s a hassle and I’m not going to do it now. If you find that you like reading the stuff I recommend, you can follow me on Twitter, or just glance at the latest tweet, which should appear in the Twitter widget on the left (though I am frustrated to see that it doesn’t always update in a timely manner). Or, follow @StanCarey or @hyperlingo, the source of many of these retweets.

And now for the links. First of all, I was glad to finally find where the New York Times kept their link to the index of On Language columns. Here it is; it’s also now in the blogroll as “Zimmer On Language”. His latest is on the history of the word cool in its non-temperature-related sense.

And while I’m talking about newspaper (or newspaper supplement) language columns, I’ll remind readers that Jan Freeman’s column “The Word,” which is now co-written by Erin McKean, is in the blogroll, too, as “Freeman and McKean’s The Word”. One recent entry was particularly interesting was on the word untracked, which was new to me.

Another word that was new to me, unce, is the subject of a Language Log post by Mark Liberman.

Glen put me onto this article on the plateauing of improvement in automatic speech recognition.

And now to clear out the blog posts saved in my RSS reader:

  • Bradshaw of the future on the etymological connection of grammar and crayfish
  • Brett Reynolds muses on backshifting (what I learned to call “sequence of tenses” in Latin II): They thought the earth {is? was?} flat.
  • From Russell Lee-Goldman at Noncompositional: Take a sentence like I didn’t do the job because he told me to. (I did it because it was the right thing to do.) In other words, the negation in the first sentence scopes over the because: “It’s not the case that X because Y…” Now, make X itself a negated clause, and look what happens!
  • Also from Lee-Goldman: We know what it means for something to have a long shelf life, but what does it mean to have no shelf life?
  • From Ryan’s Linguistics Blog… oh, forget it, I’ve saved too many to talk about conveniently. I’ll do them next month, when I clear out the entries for Sinoglot, Throw Grammar from the Train, and Polysyllabic.

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March Links

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2010

I’m getting more links these days from some of the linguists on Twitter. Unfortunately, it’s been easy for me to forget to include the name of the person who tweeted the links and brought them to my attention. I know that several in this installment are from @Language_Today.

If you like the occasional stories about Doug and Adam here, you’ll like Thomas Hinkle’s stories about his daughter Grace’s language acquisition at Language Hack. He also writes about his experiences teaching Spanish.

A fascinating look at the grammar/etiquette of creating namesigns (sign-language proper nouns).

The LA Times interviews Franz Josef Ochs, in charge of machine translation for Google Translate.

From the Schott’s Vocab feature in The New York Times, an interview with Arika Okrent (author of In the Land of Invented Languages) and Paul Frommer (creator of the Na’vi language for Avatar) on how to create a language.

From Reuters, an article on China’s minority languages.

Erin McKean takes on guys as a gender-neutral term in her latest Boston Globe column. Here’s an argument for it that I hadn’t heard before: “we’re already used to words in English that have different meanings for the singular and plural: look and looks, arm and arms, manner and manners, and custom and customs all give a wider meaning to the plural without anyone raising a stink — and it’s easy to imagine guy and guys joining the list.”

And lastly, here’s Ben Zimmer’s first column as the new regular “On Language” columnist at The New York Times Magazine, where he explores the nounification of yes and no a bit further.

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February Links

Posted by Neal on February 14, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter, you may recognize some of these links. I’ve taken to tweeting some of the links instead of waiting to put them in the next month’s collection of links here. But I’m also putting them here for the rest of my readers.

First up: John McIntyre has launched another Grammar Noir serial, and the first installment had me laughing out loud with lines like this one, put in the mouth of Mignon Fogarty as a woman in distress: “I’ve been followed. I think my phone is tapped. My mail is being tampered with. My car is making a funny noise. I think it needs an oil change.” Be sure to follow the link to last year’s story, too. (HT to Editor Mark.)

Next, if someone asks you “Do you mind if…?” and you answer “Yes,” the literal meaning is that you mind; in other words, permission is denied. But even I have come to accept a “Yeah, sure!” as permission if it’s expressed with enthusiasm. From The Volokh Conspiracy, here’s commentary on a legal case where a cop asked, “Do you mind if I look [in the car]?” and the driver said yes.

Grant Barrett wrote today’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, on a piece of linguistic folklore that I’d heard once or twice, but never realized how enduring it was. It’s on the claim that the semantically unexciting word cellar door is phonetically the most beautiful word in the English language.

Now for a couple of items from blogs on the blogroll. From Dennis Baron, a Web of Language post on how “It’s possible to get on a plane with explosives hidden in your underwear, or even with unconcealed English-language pamphlets advocating “Death to America” … But overt displays of Arabic are no more acceptable to the TSA than water bottles or nail clippers”.

I have two from Robert Beard of Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog. First is a funny story involving regional accents and breakfast in a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant. In the other one, he offers an explanation for something I’ve wondered about on occasion: When and why did the idiom make love come to mean exclusively “have sex”? I thought it had entered the language that way until I read it in materials and heard it in songs from the first half of the 20th century and didn’t think they would be talking about sex so overtly.

Finally, sociolinguist Alexandra D’Arcy has begun a monthly column at the Oxford University Press blog. D’Arcy talks about her grandmother: “When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. … I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue.” Read the rest of the story here.

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January Links

Posted by Neal on January 16, 2010

We’ll start off with a really cool video that’s been in the news recently (and will be featured Monday the 18th on Rachael Ray’s show): An Oregon high school rivalry led to some video challenges posted on YouTube. Student Javier Caceres got the cooperation of what seems to be his whole school, along with his video-production teacher and classmates, to do a music video. It’s a lip-sync of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams (Come True)” (featured in the movie 500 Days of Summer, which is undoubtedly how these teenagers come to be doing a video of a song from the 1980s). The linguistics-related piece is the most interesting part: Even though the song sounds normal, and the lip-syncing is pretty good (different students lip-sync with different levels of proficiency), it gradually becomes clear that this video is playing backwards, with cheerleader pompons jumping from the floor to their hands, etc. Therefore, when these actions were filmed originally, it must have been the lip-syncing that was done backwards. The story I read talked about the hours Caceres sent listening to the song and figuring out what mouth gestures the performers would have to make. This is an amazing phonetic achievement! It would have been even more amazing if they had done it karaoke-style, providing their own vocals. In that case, he’d have had to have the singers:

  1. pre-aspirate their stops,
  2. post-nasalize (and not pre-nasalize) vowels after nasal consonants,
  3. put in [ʒ] before the [d] in the backwards dreams, and make sure not to let the [i] turn into an [I] before the [r]: [zmirʒd] (zmeerzhd), not [smIrd] (smeared). (More on that in a later post.)

But impressive, nonetheless.

Here’s a Wishydig post from 2006, on the unusual powers of coronal sounds (i.e., the ones made with the tongue tip: [t, d, n, s, z] and a few others).

On day I heard on NPR that full-body scanning “may have prevented” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from getting on the plane he tried to bomb. “Well, obviously not!” I thought. “Everyone knows he made it onto the plane!” Then I dimly remembered someone writing about how some speakers say may have in situations where people like me would say might have. I tracked it down: It was one of Jan Freeman’s blog posts, and when I found it, I discovered that Jan had imported the posts from her Boston Globe-affiliated blog to a non-Globe-affiliated blog she calls Throw Grammar from the Train.

Lastly for this batch of links is an episode of a web comic called Girls With Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto. (HT to @erthsister, via @GrammarGirl.) I was further interested in this web site because of a couple of interesting words/phrases. One was weekdaily, which describes when new episodes of GWS come out. It took me a few seconds, but it suddenly clicked and I completed the analogy: day:daily::weekday:weekdaily. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard such a useful word before. It’s in Urban Dictionary, but not yet in OED. In the FAQ, one question was whether the characters were “based off” people in real life. Corsetto repeats this phrase in her answer: based off (as opposed to based on). I’ve read about this construction before, but can’t remember where (can’t find it in Language Log or the American Dialect Society mailing list archives, though it does come up tangentially in a Linguistic Mystic post). This was the first one I noticed on my own in the wild. CoCA gives 53,590 hits for based on; 14 for based off, with the earliest from 1993. Google News Archive has earlier hits for based off, but a lot of them are examples like based off the coast of Lebanon, so I haven’t got a good fix on how long based off without a coast has been around.

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December Links

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2009

My Aunt Jane has sometimes complained about people saying “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome.” She’s far from alone, but I never really understood what the big deal was. In high school French, they teach you to say de rien, and de nada in high school Spanish, and both of those mean approximately, “It was nothing,” so why is it so bad for English to come up with a similar option? Erin McKean takes up the issue in this installment of “The Word” in The Boston Globe. I’ve pointed to other columns McKean has written for the Globe when Jan Freeman was away, but now she’s got a regular byline over there (as you’ll note in the blogroll). This is great, because now instead of poking around searching for her name there, you can pull up the archives of all the columns she’s written in this space.

Nancy Friedman gets my “You’re so literal” award for the week, with this post on some ad syntax that (we’re sorry) just can’t mean what the copywriters want it to.

From another Nancy who blogs about names, how to find a boy’s name that won’t become a girl’s name in years to come, on Nancy’s Baby Names.

Associated Press is on Twitter, with the handle APStylebook. I’ve never read any of their tweets. I have, however, been following FakeAPStylebook, which puts out several bogus grammar or style tips every day; for example, “The passive voice should be avoided by you,” and “The word ‘totally’ is redundant except when describing how rad something is.”

Now for a couple of items spotlighted by members of the American Dialect Society listserv. First there’s the father who spoke nothing but Klingon to his son for three years until I read this. Then there’s this interactive map showing the popularity of recipe search terms by region. As James Harbeck noted, there’s “a fairly rough hint of an isogloss or two.” This came out near Thanksgiving, so you can find out where stuffing is more prevalent than dressing, and vice versa, along with a lot of other Thanksgiving recipes that apparently are regional favorites.

And last for this batch of links, an AP article on preserving indigenous languages in South America. (Thanks to Karikuy on Twitter on the #linguistics tag for this one.)

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November Links

Posted by Neal on November 17, 2009

Joel Stickley’s blog How to Write Badly Well. Each entry is in the form of a paragraph or verse illustrating that kind of bad writing. As you laugh over entries like “Change sentence structure for the benefit of your rhyme scheme” and “Describe every character in minute detail, taking no account of narrative pacing”, you can also think about how this blog’s title shows once more that adverbs don’t just modify individual words; they can modify phrases. If they could only modify words, then write badly well would just be nonsense, but when you take well to modify the phrase write badly, the resulting semantics perfectly matches what Stickley does in this blog. (Hat tip to Laurie Abkemeier.)

Ben H. Winters, the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies writes at Visual Thesaurus about how he learned the plural of octopus was not what he thought it was. My favorite line: “I could not have been more surprised if my inbox had contained an actual octopus.”

Hey, I know that linguist! An article at tells about how fellow Ohio State alum Amanda Miller figured out a better way to measure and describe the phonetics of clicks. Hey, did you notice how I cleverly used alum? I couldn’t call her a fellow alumnus, or a fellow alumna, and certainly not a fellow alumni or alumnae, but the clipped form alum is vague enough to cover us both. And I know nobody will think I’m talking about KAl(SO4)2.12H2O, since I used an indefinite article before the word. (Hat tip to Adrian Morgan, the Flesh-Eating Dragon at The Outer Hoard.)

And now, the funniest introduction to Indo-European and Proto-Germanic sound changes you’re ever likely to watch, in three parts. (Hat tip to Mr. Verb, via Bradshaw of the Future.)

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October Links

Posted by Neal on October 20, 2009

A couple of posts on baby names. First, here are David Crystal’s thoughts on on when and why books about babies (and, I might add, advertising copy and articles in some magazines) refer to your baby as Baby, as if it were a proper name.

The other post on baby names is actually three posts, but it’s well worth reading them all. Laura Wattenberg of The Baby Name Wizard starts with a tiresome email I’ve received a few times, about a child supposedly named Le-a. It’s pronounced Ledasha, because “the dash don’t be silent.” From there she gives a really enlightening and well-researched argument on how this and other urban-legend names (you know them: Orangello and Lemonjelo, Eczema, etc.) are a covert, or sometimes not so covert, way of talking about race.

Hat tip to Ben Zimmer for the Wattenberg pieces. Ben himself authored this next article: A Word Routes post on the expanding set of un-verbs. Follow link there to the related article he wrote while subbing for William Safire. Below that article is a note saying that Safire would be away “for a few weeks.” Little did I know…

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September Links

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2009

It’s just about time for Talk Like a Pirate day again, so with that in mind, here is a useful resource on how to speak pirates’ language.

Seriously, though, I wonder how much play TLAP Day will get this year, now that piracy off the Horn of Africa has been making pirates much less entertaining. Just the other day, I saw an announcement that the Wiggles were going to be in town soon, and it mentioned Sam, Murray, Jeff, Anthony, and the characters of Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog, and Henry the Octopus. I immediately noticed the absence of their fourth extra character, Captain Feathersword, the friendly pirate. Anyway, about this time last year I wrote about arrr-colored vowels; now, here’s a very informative Wikipedia page on how the vowels before /r/ used to sound in English.

Next, here’s Arnold Zwicky writing about one of my favorite topics, non-parallel coordination. This time we’re dealing with the correlative conjunctions not … but.

Michael Erard writes in Search magazine about the uneasy, increasing reliance of linguists on Christian missionaries to do most of the linguistic fieldwork since the 1960s.

The origin of the word hut in football contexts gets the full Ben Zimmer treatment in his latest Word Routes column.

If you like that, then you’ll love this week’s episode of This American Life: “Frenemies” (#389). In Act Two (about 22 minutes in), Rich Juzwiak traces the history of the phrase I’m not here to make friends. Can you guess where you hear this phrase before you click over and read the summary? The fun doesn’t end with Act Two; immediately following is a history of the word frenemy, as told to Ira Glass by none other than Erin McKean.

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August Links

Posted by Neal on August 11, 2009

Last month, I wrote about fail and other words becoming mass nouns, as in bucket of fail or made of awesome. If you found that interesting, be sure to read a couple of items from Ben Zimmer. First is his fuller discussion of fail in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, as he subs for William Safire. The other is his latest Word Routes column, where he gives some details that didn’t make it into the NYTM article. Also, he makes a simple yet insightful observation that ties together the various verbs, adjectives, or interjections that are doing duty as mass nouns: They all were interjections before making the shift to mass noun. And finally, Zimmer clears up something I’d been wondering about: In my post on the topic (which he kindly links to), I mentioned a line from the movie Juno: “That’s a big, fat bag of no!” I tried to find the line in the script to make sure I had it right, but “bag of no” didn’t get me any hits. Zimmer was smart enough to try the phrase “sack of no”, and found that the actual line was indeed “That’s a big, fat sack of no!”

Next, Dr. Goodword asks, “Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first ‘African American’ female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?” I’ve wondered about this, too.

My brother Glen, who is busy writing for the second season of Fringe, went to a seminar held by the FBI for the benefit of screenwriters. He now reports a semantic shift in the verb forfeit in FBI jargon. Specifically, the subject of forfeit gains something rather than lose it. Don’t believe me? Read his post at Agoraphilia and find out how it happened.

You’ve probably wondered on occasion why the inverted-question contraction of am not is aren’t, as in Aren’t I? If so, read David Crystal’s sketch of the development of aren’t I.

And for a limited time only, you can listen to Stephen Fry‘s BBC Radio miniseries “English Delight”. This week’s episode, the first of three, is “So Wrong It’s Right”. (Hat tip to Damien Hall on the American Dialect Society email list.)

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July Links

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2009

The website Google has given us the verb Google. Now, Microsoft has rolled out its competing search engine, Bing, and apparently its creators are happily anticipating the verbing of this proper noun. But have they considered the morphological ramifications? The Name Inspector explains. Hat tip to Lexiophiles’ list of candidates for the Top 100 Language Blogs of 2009. Speaking of which…

This blog has been nominated for the Top 100 Language Blogs of 2009, so thank you to whichever of you nominated it. The voting is going on even now, until July 27, and the button near the top right of the header will take you there. The voting is a bit more rigorous than you’d expect from a deal like this: They only let you vote once, and only for one blog, as I discovered. I visited the list of nominations, selected a half-dozen of my favorite language blogs, and clicked Vote. Then I visited a few more language blogs I liked, and went back to cast some votes for them, too. Only then did I notice only one button would stay marked at a time, and I wasn’t allowed to cast a vote for that entry because I’d already voted. So who knows which blog my successful vote went to? Whichever one it was, it was worthy, so I’m not too distressed. But the moral is: If you’re going to vote for this blog, do it first! (Or find yourself a fresh IP address.)

OK, so back to the links. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about fail and win as mass nouns. Now, Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic reports on newer developments: fail as an adjective. Also, in an email to the American Dialect Society mailing list, Kari Castor says, “Win is commonly used the same way, especially among us wacky internet geeks and gamers.”

Hey, want to learn how to produce a sound that’s not in English, but which isn’t too hard to learn? Read John Wells’s instructions on how to make a voiceless lateral fricative, the sound represented by the double L in Welsh, in words like Lloyd. I never knew how to make this sound, but thanks to his instructions, I think I do now. I hope he does a walk-through like this for Mandarin Chinese /r/.

For non-linguists, the word Aryan probably has strong associations with Nazis and neo-Nazis. Actually, it does for linguists, too. But linguists are accustomed to seeing Aryan in the term Indo-Aryan, an out-of-date term for the Indo-European languages, or for the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. So how did it get its racially charged meaning? Goofy at Bradshaw of the Future explains it, along with the connection to Iran. This post is one of a series of posts there, each of which takes a pair of phonetically and semantically very different words, and traces each of them back to their common Proto-Indo-European root. Another in this series that I particularly liked is on opulent and manure.

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