Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Real gone difference

I was somewhat taken aback recently when a disucssion on the ETJ mailing list brought to light the different interpretations of the 's in "Where's my car? It's gone." It turns out that most North American speakers of English interpret this as "My car is gone?" while British speakers tend to parse it as "My car has gone."

In the NA interpretation (and my own), gone is an adjective meaning "to be no longer in a particular place". Furthermore, in NA English, the present perfect construction favoured by the Brits is interpreted to mean that the car itself left, but that's discounted as the car can't leave of its own accord. Strictly speaking, this use of go is not limited to animate agents; yet the agent must at least appear to move on its own. Consider:
  • The mist is gone. (The mist seems to move of its own volition; the wind and sun are unseen.)
  • The pain is gone. (We view pain as an entity which comes and goes.)
  • The bus is gone. (The bus driver is an integral part of the bus and can be expected to be inside.)
The British interpretation takes the verb go to mean disappear, which is indeed the sense that the NAs have of the adjective, but don't accept for the verb.

I wonder how many other contractions are masking interpretations that have gone their separate ways.

Monday, October 16, 2006

No Ojibwe owns a skunk

The linguist Bill Bright, has passed away. While I was reading through some of his talks, I came across the following story about Edward Sapir.
"Examples presented in the grammar should be based as much as possible on naturally occurring utterances, not on strings of morphemes or words which the linguist creates himself, or obtains by direct elicitation from speakers. To whatever extent examples fail to represent natural utterances, they fail to represent the cultural context of the language. Sapir is said to have asked an Ojibwe to say “my skunk, your skunk” etc., in order to test a morphophonemic hypothesis; but the Indian rightly refused , saying “No Ojibwe owns a skunk.” The fact that no Ojibwe owns a skunk is a cultural fact which should not be falsified."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Search terms

I will admit to regularly and vainly checking my blog hit count. Part of the report tells me how you got here. Many users find their way over from Language Log, but it's amazing to me how many of you arrive because you've searched for wake woke woken waked awakened or some combination of the above (which I discussed here). In fact, of the past 25 viewers, fully 1/5 of you came because something has awoken in you a curiosity about these verbs. And this has been going on consistently since mid September when I brought it up.

Who knew woke was such a burning issue?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Asking why

The Toronto Star has been running a series of promotions with the tag line, "ask why". Unfortunately, their misuse of numbers might lead many to ask why they are promoting their inability to explain research results and numbers.

On Saturday, they wrote that "A comparison of seven Ontario municipalities has shown that Torontonians are by far the most diligent recyclers in the province." This could only be true if it had already been established that those seven were the top seven in the province.

Today, the "ask why" promo makes the suspiciously exact yet meaningless assertion that "242 new immigrants call Toronto home." No time period is mentioned.

[They now have corrected the second ad to read "242 new immigrants call Toronto home every day." (my emphasis)]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

They live in what?

One of my students submitted a rough draft recently with the sentence, "While coffee makers take large profits, coffee farmers must live in extreme puberty."

Probably the Cupertino effect.

(Please, note, my intention here is not to disparage my students, who are writing in a foreign language.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Popular graded readers

And speaking of extensive reading, our department has recently been given a bit of money to expand our catalogue of graded readers, so I asked the library to get me the circulation data on our existing books. Although we have a variety of titles, the top 20 were almost all from the Oxford Bookworms series, and most of them were classics. Here are the top 10 (from most popular to least)
Oliver Twist Dickens, Charles
Sense and sensibility Austen, Jane
Tess of the D'ubervilles Hardy, Thomas
Far from the Madding crowd Hardy, Thomas
Great expectations Dickens, Charles
Wuthering heights Bronte, Emily
Ring, The Smith, Bernard
David Copperfield Dickens, Charles
Little women Alcott, Louisa
Three men in a boat Jerome, Jerome
Of these, only The Ring is not from OUP (it's a Penguin title). The other two in the top 20 that are not OUP are The Client, also Penguin, and Help! from Cambridge.

Anybody care to share their students (or their own) favorites?

Extensive Reading for the budget conscious country

On the Extensive Reading mailing list, Dave Kees floated the idea today that China (or likely any developing country) could use extensive reading exclusively. (Extensive reading (ER) involves reading tens of thousands of words per week in the target language. This is made possible by keeping the difficulty of the material largely within the comprehension level of the reader, usually by controlling the vocabulary of the text.)

Dave suggests that, even if ER weren't quite as effective as using a variety of teaching methods,
"China should think about what the impact would be and the cost savings be (sic) if they gave Comprehensible Input a wholehearted tryout, especially considering the difficulty of many high-maintenance foreign teachers and the trouble, heat and friction of the age-old academic battles between grammar-translationalists and communicative approachers."
If I had all the freedom in the world to set up my ideal program, I don't think I'd go for 100% ER, or even 100% ER with accompanying audio, as Dave is suggesting. Still, if you look at the cost/benefit ratio of French classes in English-speaking Canada or of English classes in Japan, it would be hard to do worse.