Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bas Aarts, grammatologist

Oxford has recently published the Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts. It is a relatively slim and accessible reference grammar at a reasonable price. It is modern both in that it looks at modern English and that it takes account of modern linguistic description. If you find the CGEL daunting, this might be a good alternative for you. Although Aarts has not adopted all the innovations in the CGEL, he does follow it in many respects.

Interestingly, Aarts is described on the OUP website as "one of Britain's leading grammatologists." This word was new to me, but when I looked it up, the OED has, of grammatology

  1. The study of writing systems and orthography. 
  2. Literary Theory. The critical analysis of the relation between text, spoken language, and meaning.

As far as I can tell, neither of those descriptions applies to Aarts, a linguist who seems to focus on syntax. Any guesses?
[Update: April 4. The word has now been changed to grammarian. I guess it was just a mistake.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Needs and aspirations

This is just a quick graphic followup to Mark Liberman's recent discovery of the Great Victorian Wistfulness Bubble. Make of it what you will.
hope, wish, want, desire, need

Monday, March 21, 2011

Radical Radiational Pragmatics - Japanese Nuclear Edition

Like everybody else in Japan (or elsewhere), I have been reading and hearing about radiation levels around the troubled nuclear power plant. It cannot really be good news - I mean, what do you expect from a nuclear plant that has been hit by a huge earthquake, and then by a massive tsunami. There have been a couple of explosions. Radiation levels keep going up. Meanwhile, tap water in the area has been found contaminated; so have milk and spinach now.

But it is not like the end of the world, really. The whole incident is pretty much confined to that particular area. You just want to know the facts - just how things are.

And that's exactly what we are not getting from Japanese officials. You are all sympathetic at first: yeah, of course things are chaotic. But now, over a week later, you start wondering, what the hell is this, really?

They repeat abstruse phrases like 'The radiation level is higher than what is considered safe, but it is not critical, so it should not be a matter to be concerned'. But of course they themselves are concerned, which is why they are telling that to everybody in the first place. This is a remarkably interesting use of language.

As I was listening to yet another strange official statement, I was reminded of a passage from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which goes like this:

'I know you don't mean any harm. But there's just too much talk like this. I hear it all the time, it's been allowed to go on, and it's not right.... The problem, as I see it, is that you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.'

I think there is a little more than the Gricean maxims business in this 'telling and not telling'. In any case, it is not working; am I witnessing a Japanese pragmatics meltdown?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Language Wars: the Empire Strikes Back

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings is out now. It is one of those books that I would definitely like to have a look at. You can take a look, and even watch the author talk about it here.

I would love to order a copy right now - a Kindle edition if possible (please!) - but here is the thing: it is available only in the UK right now, as far as I know. Not yet in Japan, in the US, or in Canada. Why, oh why? Is this the British Empire striking back?

This is not the first time, and I have never got used to this. Yes, I can order one from Yes, I can sort of understand it takes time to put ink on paper. But why not just release a digital version internationally?

OK, at least I have something to look forward to. And you know about the book now. That's good.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Or is it "Turk"?

Yesterday, I thought I'd scored a bit of a coup by finding the earliest known use of jerk to mean a stupid person. But Ben Zimmer posted it to the American Dialect Society mailing list, where Doug Wilson suggests it's Turk, not jerk. Listen here and tell me what you think.

I can't find an authoritative source for the lyrics. The web certainly prefers jerk to Turk by about a factor of 10 to 1. But there's the book, Nowhere in America: the Big Rock Candy Mountain and other comic utopias, which claims to use the lyrics by permission of McClintock's estate, and it has Turk.

[Update, March 9: Royalty Recovery Inc negotiated the royalties for McClintock's estate for the O Brother album. Sadly, Jeff Gandel from Royalty Recovery confirms that the original lyric is Turk. Oh well...]

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Antedating "jerk"

[Update, March 9: This post about jerk was the result of my mishearing of Turk, so there's no antedatingSee here for details.]

Another musical antedating! Last year, as I was working away with music in the background, something in the back of my mind went sproing, and I realized Art Blakey had just used I'ma in an unexpected way. I notified Mark Liberman who brought it up on Language Log.

Just now iTunes threw up Harry McClintock's 1928 recording of "Big rock candy mountain", which contains the line, where they hung the jerk who invented work. "Hey," my mind said, "I'll bet that's a very early recording of the word jerk." So I hied myself over to the OED website to check it out.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The FBI and splitting infinitives

John Markoff has an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about the legal uses of natural language processing. Apparently, companies have begun using software to scan documents and e-mails for information relevant to legal cases rather than pay for hundreds of thousands of lawyer hours.

Friday, March 04, 2011

A word for these kinds of words

From the Jan 22 issue of New Scientist's "Feedback" column:
AT THE end of last year, Alastair Beaven asked if readers had examples of people using words in a novel sense without knowing their original meaning - and he wondered if this phenomenon has a name (25 December). He gave the example of an interpreter in Afghanistan who knew about viruses in computers, but not about biological viruses.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Mandating the subjunctive

The other day at the school council meeting, the principal of my kids' school told us that the board "mandates that there is" ...I forget. I was just struck by that is. Even knowing full well about the decline of the subjunctive, that sounded weird, so I made a note to follow it up and then tried to refocus on the topic at hand.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Another "Grammatically Speaking", another error

In this month's column Leo Schmitt takes up a question about relative pronouns, who or whom.

And gets the answer wrong.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Vocabulary, reading, and hockey sticks

Yesterday, the Modern Language Journal published new online content, among which was an interesting paper entitled "The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension" by Norbert Schmitt, Xiangying Jiang, and William Grabe. (The preprint is available for free on Schmitt's website.) It's a very readable article, clear in its description of the procedure, and well worth reading.

More on semicolons

Mark Davies has fixed the COCA and COHA, so I can now look more closely at historical uses of semicolons. Click here for a chart. It tells pretty much the same story as yesterday's post, but you can click it and find the actual usages from each decade (or even year if you care to drill down that far).