Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Variation’ Category

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Taboo, Variation | 4 Comments »

Trick or Treat!

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2011

In the course of writing a Visual Thesaurus column on aspects of the word Halloween, I looked into the history of trick or treat. Some of the questions I had about it were:

  • When did it become a verb, as in trick-or-treating?
  • If its origin is indeed a threat, why is the threat said first and the demand second? That is, why isn’t it Treat or trick, following the same demand-punishment template as Your money or your life or Truth or consequences?
  • What’s with the kids in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown saying “Tricks or treats”? Is that a 1950s/60s thing, or a regional thing?

In the book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, I learned that trick-or-treating in the United States began only in the 1920s, or possibly slightly earlier, on a regional basis. Skal adds that it “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property-protection strategy during the late Depression” (54). The sugar rationing of World War II put a damper on it, but trick-or-treating really took off in the post-war years.

The earliest attestation of trick or treat in the OED is from right after the war, in a 1947 article in American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”

However, Skal has the phrase eight years earlier, in a 1939 article in the same magazine. It’s not talking about trick-or-treating as we know it, but as sort of a password for a Halloween party, put on for the same purpose of allaying Halloween vandalism. Skal writes that this attestation is “apparently the first time ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States” (p. 53):

…they found our front door open and a jolly Jack o’lantern grinning from a window at them. Seeing me, they summoned nerve to speak the age-old salutation of “Trick-or-Treat!”

Skal notes that even though the article refers to Trick or treat as an “age-old” greeting, it gives no support for this claim.

Returning to the post-war years, Skal writes that the Donald Duck cartoon “Trick or Treat” in the early 1950s helped popularize trick-or-treating on a national scale.

All this agrees with the picture you get from the Google Ngram viewer:

So how soon did trick or treat become a verb? The earliest example in the OED is from 1950:

So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating.

As for the order trick or treat instead of treat or trick, as far as I can tell, the trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or treat doesn’t have a front vowel followed by a back vowel: [I] adn [i] are both front vowels. And the initial consonants are the same, so whatever explanation you have for hanky panky instead of *panky hanky won’t apply. I tried to think if other common words or phrases had the [I]-[i] sequence, and didn’t come up with much: snickersnee (a kind of sword) striptease, and Mister T, but that’s about it.

Tricks or treats actually antedates trick or treat, as far as I’ve been able to determine. In Google Books, I found it in a 1938 issue of The Alpha Phi Quarterly:

Yes, it is Hallowe’en — the time for “tricks or treats.” But as far as Alpha Phi life is concerned, we know it holds only treats.

In an archive of Peanuts comics, I found that Charles Schulz had his characters saying “Tricks or Treats” all through the 1950s (sometimes with the addendum “Money or eats!”), though once he introduces storylines involving Linus and the Great Pumpkin in the 1960s, you don’t see it so much. Jumping forward to 1993, though, there’s a Sunday strip with Linus and Sally in the pumpkin patch, with Snoopy making an appearance at the end. In Snoopy’s thought balloon is “Trick or Treat!”, so somewhere along the way Schulz fell into line with the rest of the country. You can see in the Ngram View above that tricks or treats peaked in the mid-1950s.

One last item for those who read this far: Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat! is noted as early as 1966 in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. As for the further extension involving the pulling down of underwear, I can only date that back to my childhood in the 1970s.

Posted in Diachronic, Halloween, Phonetics and phonology, Variation | 11 Comments »

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:


Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on seriouseats.com, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

Posted in Consonants, Food-related, The darndest things, Variation | 14 Comments »

Shtraight Talk

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2011

When Adam’s Cub Scout den planned a trip to go horseback riding early last summer, I signed up to ride, too. I wondered why only one other parent in the den was going to ride. What were they going to do while the boys all saddled up and went out on the trail?

At the stable, all the kids and parents stood along the wall of a big room with a dirt floor while the horse handlers did a 15-minute lecture on safety around horses. Then they had the boys come up one by one to receive a Post-It with a piece of a horse’s anatomy written on it, which they were then to stick on a cooperative model horse named Jet. That part was interesting; I finally learned what a horse’s withers were, although I forgot later.

Then it was time for the riding. Each boy stepped up onto a platform, where an adult volunteer (me), helped him onto the horse. The handler then led the horse away, walking with it to the far wall, around to the side wall, along the side wall to the near wall, and from there back to the platform, where the one boy got off and another one got on. And that was the horseback ride I had paid for. I went ahead and chased that sunk cost (as Glen would say) by taking the ride when it was my turn.

After the excitement of the ride, the scouts and their parents relaxed with a tour of the stable. In one room, the handler showed us the hay and the straw, and asked if anyone knew the difference between them. I didn’t, so I listened carefully. She began by mentioning a practical difference:

Horses eat hay; they sleep on shtraw.

What? What was that? Did she say “shtraw”? Maybe I hadn’t heard right. The handler went on to explain the essential difference between hay and straw:

Hay is grass; shtraw is the stalks of oats and things like that.

She did it again! Oh, and of course, oats are a kind of grass, too, but I got the idea. But back to the phonetic point: The handler had substituted [ʃ] for [s] twice. She didn’t do it for all /s/s; she pronounced grass, stalks, and oats with [s]. Did she do it for any /s/ before a /t/? No: stalks. How about for any /s/ before /tr/? During the rest of the talk, I listened for more [ʃ]-[s] substitutions, and heard her use the words “stronger” and “street”, pronouncing each with [ʃtr]. No other /str/ Word came up, although the handler did utter an interdental /l/ when she said, “Horses eat a LOT of food.” Otherwise, her /l/’s were alveolar, so she might have been one of the speakers who pronounce their /l/’s interdentally for emphasis in a word that begins with /l/.

But back to the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution: I first learned about it in a paper called “Getting [ʃ]tronger Every Day?: More on Urbanization and the Socio-geographic Diffusion of (str) in Columbus, OH,” by David Durian. He notes that in this area, it’s more common among younger speakers, working class speakers, and speakers who grew up in the city of Columbus rather than its suburbs; and this last set of speakers is spreading the change to the suburbs they’ve moved to as adults. He also cites a 1984 study by Bill Labov which documents widespread [ʃtr] in Philadelphia.


Patricia O’Conner wrote about the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution in a Grammarphobia post in May 2008. Three months later, the topic came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list in August 2008, when Herb Stahlke reported hearing it in a speech by Michelle Obama. (More on that at the end of this post.) Since becoming aware of this sound change, and since that visit to the stables, I’ve been hearing [ʃ] in place of [s] in /str/ clusters in other places, too…

  • When my wife and sons and I were watching the movie Independence Day (1996), I heard Harry Connick Jr.’s character say to Will Smith’s character, “You’ll never get a chance to fly the space shuttle if you marry a shtripper.” I made everyone wait while I rewound twice to make sure I’d heard right.
  • A month later, we were watching Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and I heard Eddie Murphy’s character utter this other sentence about stripping: “The only reason these officers were in a shtrip club….”
  • A couple of weeks into the school year, I overheard a conversation among a couple of Adam’s fellow fourth graders as they picked up their “Grab n Go” breakfast in the school hallway on the way to their classroom. Apparently the school can’t count on parents actually giving their kids breakfast every morning, so they provide snacks before school for any kids who want them, so they can start off the day with something nutritious and be able to concentrate better in class. This morning, it was Pop Tarts. One girl said to another, “It was funny, because you said brown sugar and I said shtrawberry!” It really must have been funny, because the girl said it again, and again pronounced strawberry as shtrawberry.
  • At about 7:51 into episode 414 of This American Life, the producer of the first story, Ben Calhoun, says, “These weren’t regular uniformed cops. They were the guys in shtreet clothes.”
  • In the past year, I’ve heard one of each of Doug’s and Adam’s friends pronounce /str/ as [ʃtr], usually in the word destroy.
  • During a family trip to New York City last month, a bus tour guide consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr].
  • In a subsequent whale-watching trip that departed from Long Island, a guy from Madison, Wisconsin consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr]. I later learned he’d grown up in Long Island.
  • One of the audiobooks we listened to in the car on our trip was Judy Blume’s Blubber. The reader has [ʃtr] for /str/ about 80% of the time, I’d guess offhand. I’ve heard it in street, strip, stripe, and elsewhere. The occasional [str] pronunciations that come up make me imagine the reader in the studio, with the engineer making her go back and re-read those words, but giving up because the reader’s [ʃtr] is just too consistent to fight.

At this point, I’m starting to forget all the places I’m hearing [ʃtr] for /str/. But my question is why it would occur in the first place. Summarizing previous research, Durian mentions three possibilities. One is that it’s a case of the /s/ assimilating to become more like the /r/; specifically, it’s pronounced with the tongue pulled further back toward where the /r/ is pronounced. That’s a little unusual, because it would be a case of “long-distance” assimilation: The /s/ is taking after not the /t/ right next to it, but the /r/ after that. I’ll add that for some speakers, this could actually be a more typical case of assimilation. Speakers who produce a retroflex [r], by curling their tongue tip backwards, might well retroflect the /t/ before it as well, and if that /t/ is retroflected, the /s/ before it is liable to be retroflected, too. When that happens, it sounds like “sh,” but not quite like the [ʃ] version I’ve been talking about. In the IPA, this retroflex sibilant is written [ʂ]. Under this scenario, the “shtr” pronunciation is [ʂʈr] instead of [ʃtr]. (Most English speakers, including me, cannot hear the difference [ʂ] and [ʃ].)

A second possibility is restricted to a subset of those speakers who, like me, turn /t/ into an affricate before /r/, pronuncing trap as “chrap”. In particular it’s limited to those speakers who (unlike me), even affricate their /t/ when an /s/ comes before it. That is, some speakers (including me), pronounce trap beginning with [ʧr] (“chrap”). Within that group, some (including me) pronounce the trap part of strap with a [tr], while others pronounce it with [ʧr]. Within that smaller group, some speakers pronounce the /s/ as [s], to produce “s-chrap”, while others assimilate the /s/ to the [ʧ] by making it palatal: “sh-chrap”. I imagined a scenario like this near the end of one of my posts about /t/ affrication. But I can’t really tell if I’ve been hearing, say, “shtreet” or “sh-chreet”. In this paper (note 9), Brian Joseph and Rich Janda profess not to have found any reports of [ʃʧr] in the literature.

The third possibility, and the one Durian favors, is proposed by Joseph and Janda. It so happens that when [ʃtr] occurs in the middle of words, the preceding vowel is almost always a high vowel such as [i], as in restructure. Therefore, it may be a case of the tongue not lowering fast enough after the high vowel, resulting in the [s] turning into [ʃ]. Then, once the [ʃtr] cluster became familiar, speakers started using it at the beginnings of words, too. This would account for why in his data, [ʃtr] occurs more in the middle of words than at the beginning.

Let’s hear from some of the /s/-retractors out there. Do you pronounce str as “shtr” sometimes? All the time? Does it depend on the word? On the social context? Give it to us shtraight.

Posted in Consonants, Variation | 60 Comments »

Breaking and Entering Double Passive

Posted by Neal on August 20, 2011

I listened to a podcast of PRI’s The Changing World while I was shopping for groceries last week, an episode called “America’s Own Extremists, Part 2”. A BBC guy named Jonny Dymond was interviewing an educator who had been threatened by some white-supremacist types. She said,

Since then, every residence I’ve lived at has been either attempted to be broken into or actually broken into, in some cases burglarized.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about double passives, but this example was so nice I just had to collect it. Passive is a good choice here because first of all, she doesn’t know exactly who did the break-ins (though of course she has strong suspicions), and second, the important thing is that her home feels unsafe. Every residence I’ve lived at has the prominent subject position, with the stuff that happened to it in the passive voice. Except that one of the things that happened is that someone just tried to break in. How do you express that if you’re already pretty well committed to using passive voice? English, at least standard English, doesn’t have a solution, but one that has evolved outside the rules of the standard is just to passivize both try and break into. So we get has been … attempted and to be broken into in the same verb phrase.

I also got a smile out of hearing Dymond ask a follow-up question, asking how the woman had felt when her home was “burgled”, smoothly changing her burglarize into the equivalent British English backformation of burglar.

Posted in Double passives, Variation | 2 Comments »

Prom

Posted by Neal on May 9, 2011

I was surprised to see some linguistic observation in Entertainment Weekly‘s review of the movie Prom last week :

A mere decade ago, the event was still called ”the prom,” but in Prom, the shrewdly wholesome and likable new Disney teen movie directed by Joe Nussbaum, it is never referred to as anything but ”prom” — as in, Who are you asking to prom? It’s not even fully clear whether prom is now a noun or a verb (are you going to prom? We’re going to prom like it’s 2099!). And that signals that the prom is no mere party but, in fact, a state of mind.

That’s right, when you can’t tell if word X is a noun or a verb, that means X is a state of mind. That’s deeper linguistic theory than I can explain in a blog post, so I’ll leave it alone. Instead, I want to look into whether it’s more common these days to use prom with or without the definite article.

Going by this graph from the Google Ngram viewer, it looks like the prom is still well in the lead, but EW is right that people have begun to use plain old prom a lot more in the last decade. (Click to see the full image.)

Even so, it’s been around almost as long as proms have. Check out this attestation from 1913, in a college fraternity magazine:

I can’t quite remember how I talked about (the) prom when I was in high school. We had both a junior and a senior prom, and I definitely can say that when you’re specifying which one, it sounds better to use the definite article. This is corroborated by Google Ngram search for the “go to (the) prom” strings with junior or senior before prom: The lines for the article-less prom ngrams disappear. But when I asked Loretto to go to (the) prom my junior year, or Julie my senior year, I can’t remember if I used the or not. (This was in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1980s.) In any case, plain prom sounds natural enough to me that I can certainly imagine myself having used it.

I wonder if the loss of the article has to do with the fact that another high-school ritual that, graduation, usually doesn’t take an article. Or that (the) prom has accumulated such disproportionate importance that it’s referred to like a holiday. Maybe there’s no good explanation at all, the same way that there’s no accounting (that I know of) for why British English has in hospital while American English has in the hospital. Comments are open: Do you refer to prom or the prom? How old are you and where are you from?

Posted in Movies, Syntax, Variation | 47 Comments »

Two from The Ridger

Posted by Neal on May 9, 2011

Karen Davis, who blogs at The Greenbelt and frequently comments here using the handle The Ridger, emailed me a couple of interesting linguistic finds this week.

First up, a quotation from someone named Matt Smith on BBC America, on what is evidently a feature called “Dr. Who Insider”. He seems to have said it around April 23:

River Song sort of beguiles, infuriates, endears, and turns the Doctor on, all at the same time.

Karen had two things to note. First of all, there’s the unusual usage of endear. For her and for me, endear has to be used in the frame X endear Y to Z, in which X causes Z to like Y. In this passage, though, the frame is X endear Y, with X pleasing Y (or Y liking X).

Karen wondered if this might be something specific to British English. I don’t know. I haven’t found this usage in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, though I didn’t look through every hit. I did find one example of it in the British National Corpus:

Our impression over a two week jaunt round the Republic was of a country shedding the shackles of its tortured past without sacrificing its most endearing features. What endeared us most was the CRACK — convivial evenings of booze, banter and traditional music.

Leaving that aside, Karen’s second observation was that the whole coordination is one more example of right-node wrapping. All four verbs (beguiles, infuriates, endears, and the phrasal verb turn on) share the Doctor as their direct object, but the last one wraps around it. If we were to interpret this coordination as a parallel coordination, we would end up with ungrammatical phrases like *beguiles the Doctor on, *infuriates the Doctor on, and *endears the doctor on.

Karen’s next example is from a workplace flyer for an employee referral program. It says:

Think about getting eight hours paid time off or possibly up to $5,000 for every one of those people you refer and are hired.

She stumbled over the relative clause you refer and are hired. In the first part of it, the noun phrase those people is the understood missing direct object of refer, but in the second part, those people is the understood missing subject of are hired. As Karen puts it, the omitted relative pronoun in for the first clause is whom; for the second clause, it’s who. It’s another case of coordinated relative clauses with different kinds of gaps. Sometimes these sound OK; other times, like this one, they sound strange. Karen suggests that the problem is the case clash between who and whom, but I don’t think so — first, because these coordinations sometimes work; second, because whom is moribund, and many speakers, if they used a relative pronoun for the first clause at all, would use who; and third, because those relative pronouns aren’t there, so I don’t think they can cause a case clash. An example of this kind of coordination that sounds pretty good is this one from one of the other posts on this topic you’ll find under the relevant category at the bottom of this post:

New Mexico, which the president leads [] but [] was still uncalled as of noon Wednesday…

If any of you have some ideas on why this sentence sounds better than Karen’s example, comments are open. (Of course, they’re open in any case, but you know what I mean.)

Posted in Lexical semantics, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations), Subject and object gaps, Variation | 19 Comments »

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Pronouns, Variation | 15 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

Senators, Representatives, and Congressmen

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2010

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column about how and when congressman, which on its face would seem to be synonymous with member of Congress, came to refer to members of the House of Representatives to the near-exclusion of senators. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I heard someone on NPR talk about a low-population Western state’s “lone congressman“. Wait — the fewest congressmen (or congresswomen) any state should have is three, right? Two senators and one representative. As is often the case, it turns out that this usage been going on for a long time, in this case maybe even for as long as there has been a U.S. Congress, since the word congressman predates it.

But these days, congressman is even less appropriate than it was a hundred years ago, since now there are women in the House (not to mention the Senate). So the feminine equivalent congresswoman has been created, and to refer to either congressmen and congresswomen, the supremely awkward congressperson (first citation in OED, 1972). This word should never have been created. (Note: I’m not taking the untenable position that it’s not a word. But I still say it was stupid to create it.) If you want to talk about a representative, why not just say “representative”? Or, if you want a word that can refer to either a senator or a representative, member of Congress will do the job less awkwardly, and without the confusion that’s bound to occur when people interpret congressperson to mean “representative”. And what about more than one congressperson? Congresspersons? Congresspeople?

In the VT column, I attributed the constrained meaning to Q-based narrowing, which I’ve also talked about in these posts. However, representative also has semantic and phonetic factors working against it. On the semantic side, congressman/-woman does have an advantage over representative: It refers to a member of Congress, as opposed to some other kind of representative. Anyone who represents someone is a representative, but only a representative in Congress is a congressman/-woman.

Phonetically, representative is a troublesome word because it has an [r] in a consonant cluster beginning with a bilabial stop, i.e. [p]. Furthermore, this [pr] cluster is at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, and these circumstances almost guarantee difficulty in pronunciation. Look at what’s happened to Feb(r)uary, p(r)erogative, and lib(r)ary. (Nancy Hall at California State University at Long Beach has done some research on this “short-distance r-dissimilation,” but it’s not published yet. But if you’re curious, you could take a look at some of her other work in progress, on long-distance R-dissimilation, in words like pa(r)ticular and gove(r)nor.) There’s also the fact that representative has five syllables to congressman‘s three, or congresswoman/-person‘s four. Finally, there’s the decision you have to make when pronouncing the nt in the middle. Do you do a nasalized flap (scroll down), or carefully pronounce the [nt]?

In the course of my research for the VT column, I also found that usage of congressman/-woman and representative varies by region. In one post to the alt.usage.english newsgroup, Ed Williams wrote:

I’ve found that the term “congressman” can refer to either a Representative or a Senator depending on the local parlance of different areas in the US. Back in New England where I grew up, for some reason we always talked about “congressmen and senators.” When I lived near Wasington, DC, you tended to hear people refer to the Representatives as just that. Out here in the western US, everyone seems to speak just of “congressmen” in the broad term. What’s odd around here, however, is that when you hear people addressing the politicians directly, you hear “Mr or Ms So and So” for Representatives and “Senator” for Senators. Different traditions, I suppose. Personally, I find using the term “Representative” all the time to be a little too officious and that “congressman” (or “-woman”) just feels a little more neighborly.

There were two threads on this topic on alt.usage.english. The Williams post was in the earlier, shorter, and more even-toned thread. The later, much, much longer, and at times rather heated thread was entertaining because of the strident posts by a guy named Bob Lieblich, who insisted that not only was congressman/-woman used exclusively to refer to members of the House, but that even the plural congressmen/-women only referred to representatives, never to a mixed crowd from both houses, no exceptions. Here’s a sampling:

i don’t know what to say. Where I am (see below), “Congressman/woman/person” means someone in the House — period. It does not mean or include “senator” — ever. I live three miles or so from where these people hang out (when they’re not fund-raising), and maybe out there in Podunk or Peoria there is someone who, hearing the word “Congressmen” or the phrase “Members of Congress,” allows for the possibility that some senators are meant, but that’s not what the words mean where the people described by those words assemble.

Interesting: For Lieblich, even members of Congress doesn’t cover both houses. But continuing, when one participant wrote, “Neither Congressman nor Congressperson should be used as a title, Lieblich showed little patience:

Sorry, both are, by the very people to whom the title applies.

Can’t argue with the content. Upping the stakes, Lieblich wrote:

And here’s a dare: Find anything in the Congressional record that clearly uses “congressman” or “congressperson” to mean or include senators.

Okay, senators and congressfolk are not the final word on English usage. (Thank God.) But they use the labels for their positions the way I use those words, and until I am shown something (other than unsupported opinion) that indicates I am wrong, I’m going to keep insisting that I’m right.

Bob Lieblich
I am, you know

When one participant told Lieblich, “I can say: Senator Boxer is a congressperson,” Lieblich responded with this howler:

Well, of course you can. And any knowledgeable American speaker of English will wonder what you are trying to convey. Forgive my asking, but are you a knowledgeable American speaker of English? If so, what has led you to think that you can call a Senator a congressperson and have anyone understand what you are saying?

I guess it just goes to show that word meanings, like Constitutional rights, fade when they’re not exercised.

Posted in Ambiguity, Consonants, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance, Variation | 13 Comments »