Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

Image Provided By: www.StockMonkeys.com

Image Provided By: www.StockMonkeys.com

Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

She succeeds at not entertaining.
succeed(NOT(entertain))(ann)

Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.
NOT(succeed(entertain)(ann))

On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 2 Comments »

Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

Last March, while prowling through my son’s and his friends’ social media timelines (this is called “creeping,” by the way), I noticed the word bae starting to appear. “How long have people been saying that?” I wondered, and whenever I wonder that, it means I might have a good topic to write about for Visual Thesaurus. So I pitched the idea to Ben Zimmer; he gave the go-ahead, and over the next week or so, also provided helpful leads to follow up involving bae in several internet memes. When Ben published my column, he gave it the title I wish I’d thought of, “Bae Watch“. And having satisfied my curiosity, I moved on to other topics.

As it turns out, though, other writers on language were just beginning to get interested in bae, and Ben watched the developments with interest. In July, he sent me an email:

It’s funny … your column still gets widely shared (I think because it appears near the top of Google search results for various “bae” searches)…

He included a link to a column in Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz, who went over in much less detail both the almost certainly bogus origin of bae (it stands for “before anyone else”), and the more boring and more likely origin (it was just shortened from babe), inspired by the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams’s song “Come Get It, Bae.” Although we covered some of the same ground, it was Steinmetz, and not me, who was targeted for criticisms like this one:

It wasn’t enough to determine the gist from the context of the sentence. Nah, she had to take it three steps further, starting with an etymology and ending with an example and her ability to use it in a sentence. With extra credit. … TIME needn’t covet, claim, or break “bae” down for us, though. We already use it, so let us have it. We got this.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this post by Yesha Callahan in The Grapevine, which went on to say

Next up, Time will attempt to explain the term “turnt up” by explaining that it’s not actually something you do to your thermostat in the winter.

A later piece in The Root took this thought and expanded it into a whole list of slang terms that Time should take on next. It was clearly a sarcastic list, but to tell the truth, I’d be interested in learning more about the origin and spread of several of these. In fact, turnt was the subject of my April Visual Thesaurus column, and I may yet write a piece on or nah?

Two days later, Ben emailed me again to tell me, “Everybody’s getting on the ‘bae’ train…” (another play on words, which I’ve stolen for this post), this time with a link to an article by Natasha Zarinsky on the Esquire website. This article was annoying. It spent a lot of time speculating about the origin of bae and concluding that no one really knows, when, it seemed to me, she could have just read my column and had her answer. So I left a somewhat ungracious comment, to which Zarinsky and some others responded:

I'm not particularly proud of this comment, but there it is.

In addition to the comment by Jacob Difiore, an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted asked me, “Sarcastic much?” before observing that I didn’t have a copyright on an idea. True enough, but I still say that after Zarinsky found and read my column, it would have been better to change the tone of her piece from “We just don’t know” to something else. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Difiore called me “that big of an asshole” instead of just “that big an asshole”. This was one of the first topics I blogged about.)

Things died down for a few months, until Steinmetz revisited bae in November to include it in a list of nominees for words to be banned, which was called racist and sexist. (The winner was feminist.)

Last month, Ben emailed me again, saying, “Your piece is still generating heated discussion!”, linking to some tweets that took me to an article in by Rhodri Marsden in The Independent, complaining about the word bae. After his article was published, Marsden got into a pissing match with a guy named Larry Fisherman (handle @eynahK) on Twitter. Fisherman seems to have removed his tweets on the matter, but from what I remember, he took issue with Marsden’s failure to do even the minimal research that would have told him that bae was an acronym for “before anyone else.” Looking for support, Marsden tweeted Fisherman a link to my column, to which Fisherman responded that that was just one source, compared to the many people who say otherwise. Then Marsden came back with two more tweets, which basically said “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!”

Next came the Dec. 27 entry for bae in the new online resource The Right Rhymes, “a historical dictionary of hip-hop slang based on a corpus of rap lyric transcriptions.” This is a great source for hip-hop slang, even better than Genius (formerly RapGenius), because it has better date citations. Their earliest is from 2007, in Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”:

Hey, bae, lately, you been all on my brain

Most recently (to my knowledge) are two pieces from last week, both on Dec. 30. First, there’s James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic, which declares bae to have become so popular, and its meaning to have become so diluted, that it is effectively dead. Hamblin cites both Steinmetz’s and my articles, and links to an August YouTube video by William Haynes that’s still promulgating the “before anyone else” story. It’s hard to say if Haynes is serious about the origin, since the rest of the video is tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, there’s Katy Waldman’s post on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, talking about the Twitter feed @BrandsSayingBae, which collects all the tweets from corporations that are trying to be hip on social media by using slang such as bae.

So that’s the year in bae. Have I missed some sources? Leave a comment!

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 8 Comments »

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 »

Open Conditionals with the Past Perfect

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2014

Flashman and the Redskins

When Glen and I were kids, for a couple of years our family would read aloud from novels after supper. I remember we did a few that you’ve probably never heard of, plus a Hardy Boys mystery and Johnny Tremain. But by the time we hit junior high school, the habit had kind of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve maintained the tradition for longer than it lasted from my childhood. And now I can read them R-rated stuff that I could never have read them a few years ago–for example, our current selection: Flashman and the Redskins.

This is one of my favorites in the Flashman series, so I’m having fun re-reading it now, complete with a British accent that I wouldn’t dare do within earshot of any actual British people. As I was reading from it a few days ago, my eye was caught by this sentence, which had seemed unremarkable in 1993, when I first read the book:

If the Apaches had posted sentries, I suppose they had been dealt with. . . .

What was the big deal? Well, a few years ago I wrote this post about conditional sentences. Following the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, I divided them into open conditionals (describing situations that might actually happen in the future, or may have happened in the past), and remote conditionals (describing situations that are unlikely to happen, or probably did not happen). Also following CGEL, the past tense can show actual past time (see the bottom left corner), or remoteness in the present or future time (see the top right corner). What it can’t do (at least in Standard English) is show both past time and remoteness simultaneously. For that, you need the past perfect tense. This is what you get in the dark green, bottom left corner: If he had been sorry, he would have apologized. In my diagram, that’s the only place the past perfect tense appears.

Open and Remote Conditionals

Open and Remote Conditionals

But I got to thinking later on… You could have open conditionals where both sentences were in the present tense, like If he’s sorry, why isn’t he apologizing? You could have open conditionals in the past tense, as in If he was sorry, he never apologized. And there were even possibilities that I hadn’t put on the diagram; for example, why couldn’t I have an open conditional with present perfect tense? Something like … If Doug has finished his homework, then he has definitely left the house by now. If I could do an open conditional with the present perfect, why couldn’t I do one with the past perfect? Why couldn’t I have an ordinary, open conditional, in which the past perfect wasn’t showing a combination of past time and remoteness, but was just performing its usual function of showing a past time prior to another past time? I imagined sentences and contexts like these:

Back in those days, Doug liked to go out and ride his bike at every opportunity. I was coming home from work and wondered if he would be home. I knew that if he had finished his homework, then he had certainly already left the house.

Back in those days, when we went to Adam’s weekly violin lesson, I could always tell if Adam had practiced earlier in the week. If he had practiced, then he wasn’t nervous. [Actually, this one is a mixed past-time/even-further-past-time conditional.]

So now you can see why the Flashman example caught my eye. It was a real example of an open conditional with past perfect tenses. In fact, it isn’t the only one I’ve found. I’ve collected a couple of others, but this most recent example gave me three, which made enough to post about. One was from an article in New Scientist entitled “How did we lose a 1400-tonne ocean liner?” They wrote about a plane searching locations where radar had registered an object:

But the plane dispatched to the position of another smaller blip found nothing. If there had been a lifeboat, it had sunk.

The other one came from a book Glen gave me a few years ago, The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do, edited by Samantha Ettus. One of the essays is “Make Conversation,” by Morris L. Reid. One of his rules was to keep up with current events in order to be able to have topics of conversation. He gave this analogy:

What happened in school if you hadn’t read the previous night’s assignment? You most likely had nothing to say.

And now to finish with a more typical conditional with a past perfect tense: If I hadn’t been thinking about open conditionals, I wouldn’t have noticed anything interesting about these three examples!

Posted in Books, Conditionals | 8 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

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 »

What She Cooks Like

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2014

One day last month, Doug and his classmates watched part of a Disney movie during one of the many wasted class periods he’s had this year (thanks to the busiest, most pointless, and most disruptive standardized-test schedule I’ve ever seen). He liked it, he said, and he’d figured out that the person who voiced a dragon in the movie was that guy who had done Donkey in Shrek.

“Oh! Mulan!” I said. “That’s one of the last movies your mom and I saw before you were born.” I also clued him in on the name of “that guy who did the voice of Donkey,” as he and his classmates think of Eddie Murphy. He wanted to put it on our Netflix queue so he could see the rest, so we did.

Chien-Po

I didn’t tell Doug my secret reason for putting Mulan in the queue: a line in one of the songs that I’ve occasionally considered blogging about, but hadn’t wanted to go to the trouble of watching the movie again so I could get the exact wording. But if Doug wanted to watch the movie anyway, I could conveniently accomplish the goal.

So last weekend, I saw Mulan for the second time. Adam pointed out that the voice of Mulan herself was done by one of the stars of Agents of SHIELD. Doug noticed that the enemies that were clearly supposed to be Mongols were actually referred to as Huns, probably because Huns was easier to rhyme in a song than Mongols. (They rhymed it with sons.) The wife noticed an “American Gothic” reference she hadn’t remembered. And I got to hear the line in the song I’d been trying to remember. I had to pause and rewind a couple of times before I could write it all down, but luckily, nobody minded.

It comes in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” as the members of the Chinese army who are prominent enough to have names sing about their dream women. About 40 seconds into the song, the baby-faced big fat one, named Chien Po, sings

I couldn’t care less what she’ll wear or what she looks like.
It all depends on what she cooks like.

Hah! Looks like … cooks like! Oh, and notice the standardly negated couldn’t care less, too. But still: You can say someone looks like a god, or cooks like a chef, so why is looks like … cooks like so funny?

In the question what she looks like, the what corresponds to the missing object of like. But the key, I think, is that what she looks like has essentially the same meaning as how she looks, where how could be standing in for an adjective (she looks good) or a prepositional phrase (she looks like a statue). With these two equivalent sentences available, we can set up an analogy:

how she looks : what she looks like :: how she cooks : X

What does X equal? what she cooks like, naturally! But why is it so funny?

How is the question word we use in order to ask about a predicate adjective. Questions like How do you feel?, How does it taste?, How did they sound?, and How does she look? are typically answered with adjectives: great, good, bad, swell, or maybe prepositional phrases such as like a million bucks. But how is also the question word we use to ask about the manner in which something was done. Questions like How did he do it? and How does she cook? are typically answered with an adverb, like well or poorly, or some other kind of phrase that tells how something was done: with a ball-peen hammer, for example. Only the how corresponding to an adjective means the same thing as what … like, and the analogy that gets us what she cooks like totally ignores this fact.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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 »

 
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