Monday, July 07, 2014

Proscribing, narrowly

Over at the NYT, Alexander Nazaryan has a rather strident article about "The fallacy of balanced literacy." Therein, he writes, "balanced literacy is an especially irresponsible approach, given that New York State has adopted the federal Common Core standards, which skew toward a narrowly proscribed list of texts, many of them nonfiction." [Now changed to narrowly prescribed.]

These texts are prescribed. That is, they're imposed, not declared unacceptable or invalid. Nevertheless, the Google Books corpus suggests narrowly proscribed is a new and growing phrase.
So, I'm curious: was this simply a typo, or did he have in mind some metaphor of narrowing down by proscription. Or was it something else?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Thinking like a freak

I listen to the Freakonomics Radio podcast from time to time, and back in May they aired an episode called "the three hardest words...," which, purportedly, were I don't know. The premise was that people hate to admit ignorance and so they hardly ever say, "I don't know."

Except that in most corpus studies, the head-and-shoulders most common, number one, top-of-the-heap three-word string in English is I don't know (It's a three-word string, not four, since -n't is an inflectional suffix, not just a contraction as is taught in elementary schools, but that's another issue.) For instance, in the 3-grams list from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I don't know is by far the most frequent 3-gram with 199,110 instances (second is one of the at 167,785). In business meetings, we find the same results. Consider table 3.10 on p. 59 of this book, or table 5.8 on p. 183 of this paper.

Now, these are not mostly "I don't know (period)." Far more commonly, they're "I don't know if..." "I don't know what..." etc., which can often be used as a signal of disagreement rather than as an admission of ignorance. Nevertheless, the data stands in rather stark contradiction to the freaky claim. It looks pretty silly to be saying people should fess up to their ignorance, while basing the argument on a point on which you're so ignorant that you assert the most common phrase is the least (or at least the hardest).

(If you're interested in other freaky foolishness, see Joseph Heath's recent post on their simplistic view of the UK medical system.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Audio and the OED

As I mentioned, Schwa Fire is now out, and I've been quite enjoying it. Arika Okrent (whose name I have inexplicably misread for years as Akira) has written an article called "Ghost voices" about preserving audio-tape recordings of our all-too-impermanent voices, dialects, and languages. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that the OED should include audio recordings of the quotations it uses. These should be in the dialect, and where possible the actual voice, of the original author.

Schwa Fire

Back in November, 2013, there was a proposal on Kickstarter for a new language magazine. I chipped in to sponsor it and ended up on the editorial panel as a result. The first issue is now out.

Issue 1, Season 1

May 16, 2014• Schwa Fire

The golden age of language journalism begins now. In this inaugural issue, Arika Okrent tells the story of 5,700 hours of Yiddish recordings that were almost lost ("Ghost Voices"), and Russell Cobb writes about Americans' fondness for the Englishes we used to speak and what that fondness obscures ("The Way We Talked"). Michael Erard describes and defends "language journalism," and Robert Lane Greene provides a lesson on the languages of love ("Wooing in Danish"). Also included: an English homophone puzzle.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When "syndrome" is a final "s"

1982 gave us the acronym AIDS formed from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. This is pronounced /eɪdz/. The fact that the final S is pronounced /z/ is notable, since a final s is typically pronounced /s/ (e.g., bus) unless it is an inflectional morpheme (e.g., dogs). There are cases such as news and lens, in which a final s is pronounced /z/, but the -s in news was originally a plural morpheme. That leaves lens, which comes from the Latin word for lentil. Apparently, it was pronounced /leːns/ in Latin, so why it has a final /z/ in English is something of a mystery to me. I cannot find another example of an English noun with a final s pronounced /z/.

This brings us back to AIDS. Presumably, this final /z/ was influenced by the homographs aids, the noun, and aids, the verb. But then in 2003 we got SARS. There is no English word sar, so there is no preexisting homograph from which to analogously get /sɑɹz/, but that is the only pronunciation I've ever heard. I've never heard anyone say /sɑɹs/. So this seems to be an extension of the AIDS analogy to aids.

And now today we have MERS. On CBC's Metro Morning this morning, Matt Galloway started out pronouncing it /mɜɹs/, which initially threw me. I'd been mentally pronouncing it with a final /z/, and indeed Galloway finished up with /mɜɹz/ (I couldn't tell what the person he was interviewing was saying, but I suspect she was using the /z/ form, given his shift.)

So perhaps we have a new rule developing: acronym-final s for syndrome is pronounced /z/.

As I was looking around writing this post, it appears that at least one other person has taken note of the pronunciation of MERS.

[John Wells points out "Latin fifth-declension nouns in -es have final noninflectional /z/ in English, too: species, series... Why that should apply to MERS is a further question, which I cannot answer: but compare Mars."]

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's turtles round and round

Part I
I've been trying to understand categories better, and one of the books I've been reading in pursuit of this goal is George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. In fact, a few nights ago, I fell asleep reading it, and it must have stirred something in my mind because the next morning in the shower, it occurred to me that perhaps categories are just a distraction and it's really properties we should be looking at.
The category of red things is just a human convenience. But red is a property. Almost immediately, though, I realized that red is a category of electromagnetic waves and that electromagnetic waves are themselves a category. And from there, well, it's turtles all the way down. I set the idea aside as I dried myself and got ready to leave home.

Part II
When I got to work, our Blackboard system was down, so I couldn't do the grading I had intended to do. Distractedly I opened the Simple English Wiktionary and saw that somebody had edited the entry for preposition pace. The change was an improvement on, what I thought was a rather odd previous definition. Going through the history, though, I noticed that the older definition was one I had provided. Curious about what I had been thinking, I went to the OED's entry for pace. There I found the following example:
1995   Computers & Humanities 29 404/1,   I do not believe, pace Peirce and Derrida, that it is signs all the way down.
This struck me as a huge coincidence. The expression shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English about once per 150 million words. I had encountered it, or a variation thereof, twice in a morning.

Part III
I looked up the expression and found that Wikipedia has an entry (linked above). One of the citations listed there is due to John (Haj) Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation Constraints on Variables in Syntax. I followed the link and opened up his dissertation, which indeed contains the story with the line "It's turtles all the way down."
On the next page was the Acknowledgements, which list a number of linguists, but on page x, Ross writes,
This thesis is an integral part of a larger theory of grammar which George Lakoff and I have been collaborating on for the past several years.
This is, of course, the same Lakoff whose book I had been reading the night before.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Looking to the futurate

The verb look has been used to talk about the future for a long time. Perhaps the most common use is in the expression look forward to (something). This use may be based on the metaphor that time is a landscape we move through. As such, our future should be visible to us. This is probably the same metaphor that underlies the use of go for the future in expressions like we're going to get to that in a moment.

Despite its venerable history, futurate look began a significant upsurge in about 1980, particularly, in the looking + to infinitive construction.
I noticed that this seems to be particularly common with are. Especially, you are. And even more specifically if you are. By this time we are looking at a small minority of the cases. But I wondered if it might tell us something about the meaning of the looking futurate as opposed to the going futurate. When I started looking at various corpus genres, though things got a little to complex. Maybe you have some thought to add.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The opacity of etymology

The word disseminate is a familiar one. It appears hundreds of times on my hard drive and in well over 20 email messages I've read or written in the last five years. But until today, I had never seen the seeds in the word.

We often use a plant metaphor to talk about words. Morphology is a branch of linguistics just as plant morphology is a branch of biology. Both sciences talk of roots and stems, but in linguistics, seeds aren't part of the metaphor.

The root of disseminate though is semin or semen, from the Latin word meaning seed. Dissemination is the spreading of seeds. Semin is also the root of the word seminary, literally a seed plot, but now metaphorically used to mean a place to train priests. This is also where seminar comes from. I hadn't connected up these words either.

Disseminate appears in a passage that my level-8 class is studying. It's a passage that I've been over many times with other classes, and I have had to explain the word before. But never before have I made this connection.

How could this be?

On the flip side of this are cases of people seeing connections where there are none. Consider the regular flare ups about the word niggardly based on a mistaken perception that it's based on a racial slur. There are so many opportunities for false positives. The string semen, for instance shows up in a variety of words such as basement and horsemen, and nobody would ever think it referred to seeds.

How does this noticing thing work?