Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

How Do You Say Hubert?

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2011

In a post at Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum writes about reading a novel and being pleasantly surprised when the protagonist referred to the “th” sound in that as a voiced dental fricative, which, in fact, it is. (Interdental, more specifically, but still.) But his admiration turned to disgust when he read another novel in the same series, and the protagonist tells the Secret Service that from their recording of a bad guy saying, “You won’t get that lucky again” and “Hey, I want to talk to you,” they have all the phonetic information they need to identify the guy: “All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

A panphonic set of unscripted utterances consisting of only 13 words? Pullum sets the record straight in his usual style. I already knew firsthand how difficult it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, check the other posts in the Panphonic Phun category.

As it happens, I was thinking about my panphonic poem just the yesterday. I had just read a post at Grammarphobia about the pronunciation of h before [ju], as in Hubert or Houston (the city in Texas, that is, not the street in Manhattan). Here’s Patricia O’Conner’s description of it when it is pronounced (instead of dropped, as some speakers do):

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

I was surprised for a moment, since I’m used to thinking of [h] as a voiceless glottal fricative, made simply by opening your vocal folds wide and letting air from the lungs pass through the opening between them (i.e. the glottis). But then I realized that I do pronounce Hubert and Houston with a palatal fricative at the beginning. I started to say Hubert, but quickly switched to home after saying the /h/, and the pronunciation sounded off.

This phonetic realization makes sense, since [j] (that is, the “y” sound) is a palatal consonant, and turning the glottal fricative [h] into the palatal fricative [ç] before [j] is a typical assimilation. Alternatively, instead of producing a fully palatal fricative, a speaker might get the back of the tongue only as far forward as the velum (aka soft palate) before making the /h/ sound, in which case it would come out as the voiceless velar fricative [x]. If you speak German, you’ll recognize [ç] as the sound at the end of Ich, and if you listen to Bill Cosby comedy routines, you may recognize [x] as the way he often pronounces /k/, but that’s about as but English doesn’t have /ç/ or /x/ as phonemes in their own right, so using them for /h/ here and there doesn’t cause confusion.

The significance for my poem, in which I had attempted to use not only every phoneme but also every allophone (way of pronouncing) every phoneme, was that I had learned about one more allophone that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in. I had /h/ in the words he, him, and horrible, and in all those words I think it’s realized as simply [h] and not [ç] or [x]. Some speakers might have it as [ç] in he, but not as reliably as they would in Hubert.

What about you? Do you use a glottal, velar, or palatal /h/ before the “you” sound?

Posted in Books, Consonants, Panphonic Phun | 2 Comments »

Only the Celebrity’s Name

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2011

I was reading an article in the newspaper last week about how celebrity-written novels are almost always ghost-written. It’s kind of funny how insistently celebrities will say they really wrote the novels themselves, and then still admit they used ghost writers. This passage made me laugh:

When [Snooki] Polizzi appeared on Today in January, Matt Lauer asked, “Did you really write this book?”
“I did,” Polizzi said, “because, if you read it, you’ll know the first page that I wrote it — ’cause, like, it’s all my language.” (When pressed further, she admitted she had a co-writer.)

This one, too:

[Hillary] Duff … said in an interview that she came up with the plot and characters. … “It is my story,” Duff said. “It is my book. I wrote it, and she helped guide me through the process.”

But this sentence was quite surprising to me:

When the typical celebrity novel is published, only the celebrity’s name is printed on the book cover.

No kidding? They seriously leave off the title? I thought the celebrity’s name usually went above the title, and in a bigger typeface than the title, but always, there was a title. Looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I could see that Snooki’s book had “SNOOKI” across the top, but underneath was the title, A Shore Thing. Nicole Richie’s book clearly had the title Priceless on it. Turning again to the text, I read on:

Generally, publishers think two names on a cover is a turnoff to readers, especially in fiction.

Aha! It’s another case of only scoping not over an entire noun phrase, but on something within the noun phrase. In 2009, I wrote about thinking the sentence Only the manly men came in meant that no women came in; the only people who came in were men (and manly ones at that). Really, it meant that, in addition to whatever women may have come in, the only men who showed up were manly ones. I was thinking only scoped over the manly men, but really it was scoping over just the adjective manly. This time, I thought only was scoping over the noun phrase the celebrity’s name, but really it was scoping over just the possessive noun celebrity’s.

Once again, it just goes to show that even following the rule of placing only closest to what it modifies won’t always make things clear.

Posted in Books, Focus-sensitive operators, Scope ambiguity | 8 Comments »

Before or Since

Posted by Neal on March 1, 2011

The latest book Doug and Adam and I have been reading aloud is <Joan Dash's The Longitude Prize, a young adults’ version of the story made popular by Dava Sobel. In the latest chapter, we read about a famous trip that would have suffered a lot fewer casualties had there been a reliable method for finding longitude at sea. It was the voyage of the HMS Centurion in 1744, under the command of George Anson. At one point, the Centurion captured a Spanish treasure ship, and

Anson kept the treasure of solid gold ingots, and gold and silver coin, whose value would come to about fifty million pounds in today’s money — no greater prize has been captured by an English ship before or since. (p. 78)

Interesting, that before or since. Let’s take the disjuncts one at a time. With since, we would need to use the present perfect tense, has been captured, because we’re talking about a period of time that started in the past and extends until right now. The past perfect, had been captured, doesn’t work:

No greater prize has been captured by an English ship since.
*No greater prize had been captured by an English ship since.

With before, on the other hand, it’s the present perfect that’s no good. What we want is the past perfect, because we’re talking about a period of time that began at the beginning of English history and extended to that date in 1744:

*No greater prize has been captured by an English ship before.
No greater prize had been captured by an English ship before.

How do you put both thoughts into one sentence? You could do it the long way, and use two verb phrases (leaving captured understood in the second one if you wish):

No greater prize had been captured by an English ship before, or has been [captured] since.

But what if you want to avoid the repetition? Which tense do you choose? Dash chose the present perfect, to go with since. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), there seems to be a fairly even split between present perfect and past perfect, with a few “split the difference” simple past tenses thrown in there, too; for example:

nothing they did before or since had the impact of their major-label debut.

Now I know I’ve heard and read the expression before or since many times, but this is the first time I’ve noticed the conflicting demands it puts on verb tenses that refer to the disjoint intervals of time that before and since establish. The reason, I believe, is that there are constructions where the verb tense doesn’t need to be expressed, so the confict never gets thrust out into the open. For example, in this other example from COCA,

Ibn Khaldun explained this better than anyone before or since.

we have an ellipsed (i.e. missing) verb phrase between anyone and before or since. Should it be understood as anyone has explained it or anyone had explained it? Neither works with both before and since, but since it’s not expressed, there’s no problem!

Another situation where you don’t need a tensed verb is in a reduced relative clause. To illustrate with one more example from COCA,

The New Madrid earthquakes overshadow all other midcontinent quakes recorded before or since.

the verb recorded could be expanded out to that had been recorded or that have been recorded (or in a different context, that were recorded or that are recorded). But since it’s not expanded, there’s no conflict! Sneaky, huh?

Posted in Books, Semantics, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Softly and Slowly

Posted by Neal on June 18, 2010

I’ve been hearing about the unfortunate choice of words by Carl-Henric Svanberg, the Swedish chair of BP, after meeting with President Obama: “We care about the small people.” I didn’t know what was the big deal about it, such that it’s been getting media attention comparable to that given to BP’s out-of-control Gulf of Mexico gusher, but Lane Greene (writer of The Economist‘s new language blog, called Johnson) explained it well: The phrase “conveys either an aristocratic hauteur or a vision of tiny fishermen straight out of a David Lynch film, neither one of which BP’s chairman intended.”

All this discussion about a phrase that didn’t work so well when translated from Swedish to English reminded me of an email my dad sent me a couple of weeks ago. By the way, Dad (a retired chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry) has an opinion about this mother of all oil spills, too: It’s way, way past time to blow the well up, with nukes if necessary, and the only reason we haven’t heard more about this option (which has been used before) is that BP is still more concerned with protecting its investment in the well.

Where was I? Oh, right, Dad’s email. He wrote:

I am reading an English translation of a novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by a deceased Swedish author named Stieg Larsson and translated by a guy named Reg Keeland (nationality unknown). I came across a sentence that sounded weird to me:

What he found was a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly.

The weird thing about it was the adverb phrase even more slowly, which implies that there must have been some degree of slowness already mentioned, but the only other adverb in the sentence is softly. My hypothesis was that slowly and softly were translations of a single Swedish adverb, which was appropriate in Swedish for both moving and speaking. I kicked the question over to reader Ingeborg Nordén, who speaks Swedish, and she responded:

According to the online dictionary I checked, the Swedish adverb sakteliga can indeed mean both “softly” and “slowly”. The original author probably used that word twice in the sentence your father quoted … and the translator must have been uncertain about dealing with an “even more” which wouldn’t feel right in English.

So has anyone read this book in the original Swedish? Are we right?

Meanwhile, what could the translator have done to make this work in English? In English, we can compare different adjectives; for example, “You ain’t as green as you are young”, but it’s a bit harder to do it with different adverbs. It sounds awkward to say things like, “He speaks as well as he writes poorly.” And it’s pretty dicey when you compare adjectives with adverbs, too: “If only we swam as well as we look good.” Larsson’s sentence would turn into something like, “a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly than he spoke softly.” It sounds pretty bad, but perhaps better than, “who moved softly to degree X, and spoke slowly to degree Y, Y greater than X.”

Posted in Books, Comparison | 11 Comments »

Imma Update

Posted by Neal on May 16, 2010

In my post and Visual Thesaurus column about I’ma a few weeks ago, I speculated a bit about how long it had been around, even if it didn’t make it into print until recently. The earliest I had was a Tom and Jerry cartoon from the 1960s that Doug brought to my attention. We now have an attestation from a decade earlier. Brett Reynolds of English, Jack wrote to Ben Zimmer and Mark Liberman at Language Log to say, “I just noticed [Imma] in the patter on the end of track 4, ‘Now’s The Time’, from the Art Blakey Quintet’s A Night At Birdland, Vol. 2 [Live].” If I can trust the Wikipedia entry on Art Blakey, this recording is from the mid-1950s. The quotation goes:

Yes, sir, I’mma stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m (n?)a get some younger ones.

The above transcription is from Reynolds, and I agree that it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on with the second possible Imma, but the first one is quite clear. Mark wrote a post on Reynolds’s find, and included the clip that Reynolds had so helpfully provided, along with spectrograms he made of both possible I’mmas.

I, meanwhile, was on a road trip with my wife and the boys. In the car, we listened to an audiobook version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I’ve never read this book, but I remembered the TV miniseries of it that I saw years ago was pretty good, and I know it’s been popular for more than 100 years. I also figured that, based just on the title, Doug and Adam were unlikely to ever read it on their own, or even be seen with it, but we could all enjoy it in the car, and no one would be the wiser.

So as we were driving back today, we were listening to Chapter 10, in which the protagonist Anne Shirley has to apologize to a neighbor, Mrs. Lynde, for an outburst of temper when Mrs. Lynde had insulted Anne’s red hair. On the way to Mrs. Lynde’s house, Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla wonders what Anne seems so cheerful about, and asks her. The text that follows:

“I’m imagining out what I must say to Mrs. Lynde,” answered Anne dreamily.

“Pause!” Doug said. “Did you hear that, Dad?” he asked after my wife had paused the audio. “Imma. When was this book published?”

“No, she said, ‘I’m i-MAGining’,” I replied. Then it hit me what Doug had really heard: I must say! Phonetically, the [t] between the two [s]s just dropped out. The only phonetic clue that Anne was saying I must say instead of Imma say was the geminated [s] (i.e. pronounced for longer than a single [s]): We heard [aImɘsːeI] instead of [aImɘseI].

Ha! For one brief moment, Doug thought we’d found an Imma in print to precede the earliest spoken attestation by half a century! Wouldn’t that have been something?

Posted in Books, Diachronic, Morphology, The darndest things, Variation | 2 Comments »