June 2007 Archives

Sometimes Linguists Use Swearwords


Linguists don't just use cuss words when the computer dies, but also as sources of linguistic evidence (especially for sound patterns).

For instance Arnold Zwicky notes that this cartoon of gag gifts of for Tony Blair crucially relies on puns that only work if you drop the final /r/ (Hint: Tony got a "fur cuff" from the new PM). Oh...now I get it!

Hundreds of years from now, linguists will use this vulgar pun as evidence of final /r/ deletion in British English. They already do it with Shakespeare where hour still rhymed with whore - look the vowel shift was still in progress!

American English also has its share of swear word phonology. For instance, I came up with a "clean" example of how African American English mo' [mo:] (more) does not quite rhyme with mow [məw] even though both have lost the /r/.

Can you guess what the original example I noticed was? Yes - it was based on the famous Eddie Murphy skit explaining "how to be a Ho" where ho = [həw], but not [ho:] It took my a while to determine which career path he meant since it did not rhyme with the original. Basically, it wasn't until Murphy said you could work "without even leaving the comfort of your own bedroom" that I determined what a ho was.

I'm not going to lie to you - it was a little embarrassing to explain this important phonological distinction in public the first time I noticed.

P.S. I was able to confirm that Murphy pronounced ho as [həw] because I checked on an online video. The internet CAN be an effective research tool.

Chat Txt: An Older form of Writing


Every now and again, I read news stories about how the "chat" is changing language, and as with many language stories, I end up shaking my head in disbelief at how little linguistics society has absorbed. So here's my take:

1) Most of the new "chat" language is really a new set of abbreviations. Although there is a change in slang, it's not really a profound structural change. Many industries abbreviate at the drop of a hat.

2) Whenever you have limited space or time to get a message through, you will get abbreviations. Thus, we have telegraph speech (e.g. SOS for "Save Our Ship) and various forms of shorthand, not to mention weird DOD (Defense) acronyms like NATO, RADAR and NORAD. It's also a fun way to confuse outsiders (like civilians and parents).

Ironically, many abbreviations can be longer in speech than the "long form." Take the ER (emergency room) jargon GSW (gun shot wound.) In speech "gun shot wound" has 3 syllables, but the abbreviation "G-S-double-U" actually has 5 syllables. It was a little cumbersome and had to be repeated (and clarified) by the intake coordinator.

Another case of this was a recent cell phone commercial where a poor mother was trying to spit out each letter for TISNF (That is so not fair!).

This is one reason IMHO that I don't worry about teenager speech patterns just because ISALOA (I see a lot of abbreviations). I just remind them to spell it out on actual assignments to be turned in.

3) BTW (By the way) the oldest forms of writing are often full of weird abbreviations. The Old Irish liked to save manuscript space by using abbreviations like ".i." (or "i.e.", the Latin abbreviation of "id est" or "that is") and "7" (corresponding to modern "&" or "and". It's enough to make researchers WTTTHO (want to tear their hair out).

4) BIF (Before I forget), it should be noted that our alphabet started life as a Semitic consonant-only system (and it's still consonant only in Hebrew and Arabic). So...drpng cnsnts isn't tht wrd ithr.

No, what's really unusual is a writing system that fully spells out each word and includes a robust punctuation system. So for that, I do thank our grammarian friends for standardizing long-form English spelling in most cases.

Tones & Genes - Still Dubious


Note: This entry replaces an earlier entry which has been de-published.

The controversy over the article by Dediu and Ladd on a possible connection between genes and tones has been simmering the past few weeks.

However, I do compliment Robert Ladd for doing outreach to the linguistic community. He's posted his own commentary site and contributed a guest post to Language Log. It's clear that he understands some of the implications of what he's claiming for language theory.

He invited linguists to write comments and I took him up on it. Still I remain skeptical, if more neutral. Here are some of my comments to his hypothesis.

Differences in Linguistic Ability?

It's clear that individuals differ in their ability to speak and use language, but Ladd is proposing that there could be subtle differences across populations. On the other hand most linguists tend to believe that language ability is the same across populations. That is, an average child of Asian descent has the same ability as a child of European descent.

Where does the original assumption of equal language ability come from? It's rooted in the observation that an infant typically gains the ability to become a native speaker in whatever language he or she is exposed to. Immigrant children coming to the US gain native speaker proficiency in English. More crucially, European children living in China can gain native speaker like proficiency in tone languages. A famous example is American author Pearl Buck.

Another aspect is that children tend to acquire language at the same rate, and in the same order. In most cultures, it is expected that five year old children can speak with a certain level of proficiency. In order for this to be the case, the assumption has been that language has to fit within certain parameters. I would expect that tone languages would fit within those parameters. If it didn't, I think you would expect that European children would have significant delays learning language.

Ladd says he will be conducting experimental studies to determine if this is the case. However, I would object to characterizing the "equality of languages" as dogma. It's a reasonable assumption given what we know about language acquisition in general.

Neighboring Tonal and Non-Tonal Languages

Ladd claims that the genetic propensity for tonal languages would be subtle. How subtle?

There are many cases of East Asian speakers NOT having a tone language. Mongolian and Manchurian are non-tonal and are spoken by "Western desert barbarians" (the kind of people the Great Wall of China was trying to keep out). Yet both a Mongolian dynasty (Ghengis Khan) and a Manchu dynasty (Qing dynasty of the "Last Emperor") were established in China. We know Ghengis's DNA got into China as well Manchurian DNA. Yet the tonality of Chinese has never wavered in that time...nor have Mongolian and Manchurian appeared to have moved to being more tonal.

Yet Ladd is predicting that one of the populations should have drifted either towards tonality (if they have the tone genes) or away from it (if they're missing it). Instead the [±tonal] distinction has been in place in each language family for centuries if not millennia.

Another question is if a language with a Middle Eastern or European population could be tonal. Well Ladd's map identifies one tonal language in the vicinity of Iran, and that is well within Middle Eastern "non-tonal" territory.

The predictions, if any, would be extremely weak.

It would almost be like saying that because many people of African descent have the ability to excel in basketball, it should have been invented in Africa. The reality is that was invented by an Anglo Canadian (James Naismith) in the US, and that it is played by people of all ethnic backgrounds.

You might be able to predict the line-up of the NBA, but the sport itself is enjoyed by people of all populations.

P.S. Speaking of Ladd's map - what's the tonal language of Japan? Ladd's text excludes Japanese because it's "pitch accent", but it can't be Ainu either.

What Tonal Advantage is There?

It's not clear what advantage the tone genes would give you.

I'm not sure it's a perceptual advantage. The inventory of the English intonation system (as itendified by Pierrehumbert 1980) includes both simple tones (H,L) and complex tones (*LH, *HL, etc) - the difference is that they are distributed across a sentence or phrase...and that we do not use tone to distinguish different types of vocabulary items. But English speakers regularly use differences in pitch to determine speaker focus and mood. It's not a universal intonation system either - non-natives have to be trained in it (see Learn English intonation)

It would have to some sort of switch in the phonological system that says "we can do phonemic tone" but again how does this interact with the ability of Pearl Buck to acquire a tonal language?

Or does it have to do with tonogenesis (the creation of phonemic tone)?

Origin of Tones

There are cases where we can see tones coming into a language. One is a dialect of Kammu (Svantesson & House, 1996).

In this case, the non-tonal dialect dialect distinguishes voicing (level of vocal cord vibration) in the initial consonants, but the innovative tonal dialect has reinterpreted that as tone.

East vs. North Kammu
E. Kammu (No Tone)N. Kammu (Tone)Translation
klaaŋkláaŋ (H)'eagle'
glaaŋklàaŋ (L)'stone'
taaŋtáaŋ (H)'pack'
daaŋtàaŋ (L)'lizard'

As it turns out, this is pretty much how all documented cases of tonogenesis works. A population reinterprets a distinction in vocal cord vibration for voicing or aspiration as a difference in pitch. This type of sound change where a sound is reinterpreted is not that unusual. For instance French nasal vowels are reinterpretations of vowel+nasal.

An interesting question is if the tone genes affect how you hear voicing NOT tones per se. Can a Middle Eastern or Asian language go through the same tonogenesis phenomenon?

Apparently Punjabi (related to Hindi) is classfied as a tonal language. It's population is in Northwest India, so is probably mostly "Middle Eastern" (it's relatively close to where the Indo-European speakers probably came into India)

So the answer is...yes?

So my conclusion on Ladd's hypothesis is still - I just don't think so.

Is Rap Poetry?


Warning: I am answering this as a linguist, not a literary critic.

One of the eternal debates of the popular arts is whether rap music is a form of poetry. English teacher Christina M. Rau claims that it's not in this guest commentary from The Irascible Professor.

My answer is that it is although a lot of rap is BAD POETRY, it is in fact poetry. That is, rappers are manipulating their lyrics to fit a metrical pattern. If it doesn't fit the metrical pattern, it's not rap. You can't read any blank verse poem as is and have it be accepted as rap...it will just be blank verse poetry.

The problem is that mediocre rap tends to repeat the same phrase over and over and restrict their themes to "booty". The good rap tends to include social commentary (some serious, most more light hearted) and have more complex lyrics. Here's an example of what I would call a good rap song (from Eminem).

The traditional line break looks like this:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

According to this, the song rambles a bit and has only one rhyme scheme, but it's missing where Eminem is placing his emphasis.

My line break looks like this. Here you can see that there are multiple rhymes and that the foot structure is complex (I would say nested).

You better lose yourself in
the music,
the moment
You own it,
you better never let it go
You only get
one shot,
do not
miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes | once in a lifetime yo

It's got a rhyme scheme - so even by traditional standards, it fits the definition of poetry.

The interesting thing about this question is that it is about ground zero of how linguists versus most other people view language. Rau's two main objections to rap are 1) it's not good standard English and 2) it's not pretty. I don't think they're valid objections.

For instance Rau complains

First off, "lil" isn’t a word; it's a lazy man's version of "little" and the only time "lil" is acceptable is when we’re talking about Lil' Abner. Secondly, "drop it like its hot" should be "drop it as if it were hot" and what does "it" refer to anyway? And why do I have to drop it? Why can’t I place it down gently?

And why does Fifty Cent refer to himself as "fitty" as if there weren't another "f’" in his name? Since when did f and t switch places And why is the th sound now an f? Take P. Diddy's lyric from his cover of Sting's "Every Breath You Take.' [Rau's punctuation] He talks all about the "strenf" he needs. What is strenf and where can I get some?

My response - it's not written in standard English, but some form of African American Vernacular English and the phrase "as if it were" is just not commonly used in that form. Nor is there a "th" - they've all become "f" as in "strengf". Deal with it.

Or in more academic terms - you cannot rule out that a form is NOT poetry just because it's in a non-standard language. If you did that you'd be ruling out bluegrass music lyrics which many people do feel is lyrical art (although that may also be a recent shift in attitudes). However most people associate art with prestige language so Rau is not unusual here.

Rau's other complaint seems to be the lack of prettiness in rap.

When we get to poetry, I amaze them with Marlowe: "'Come live with me and be my love' . . . isn't that pretty? See how the shepherd is wooing her?" They don't seem impressed.

My objection here is that this criticism is based on a subjective judgment. Rau is expecting a certain romanticism found in older styles of English poetry, but is extremely rare in rap.

However, not all poetry around the world is "pretty". Epic poems like The Iliadand the Táin (Ireland) could be damn blood thirsty at times, especially when heads were being chopped off or bodies dragged around the city. In fact many older European cultures separated war poetry (bloody) from other types of nature or romantic poetry (pretty). So again, I can't use "prettiness" as a criterion for poetry.

That means I'm struck with "uses some sort of metrical system" (rhythm, rhyme or alliteration) as my definition of poetry.

Most rap seems to have a staccato rhythm, so it's not surprising to me that romance is not a major theme (although L.L. Cool J. is an interesting counter-example). Rap seems to be the bloodthirsty and lusty form of the genre. And believe me, if you think rap is lewd...you haven't seen Middle Welsh "erotic" poetry. The imagery there is about as subtle as the ads asking if I want to impress my girlfriend in bed more.

BTW - It's not that the culture is lacking romance. Many R&B songs are very romantic and even "poetic".

P.S. I normally like the Irascible Professor blog, so I was very disappointed in this column...but not enough to stop reading it.

The Right to Create Schlock


If you haven't heard this before, there's a lot of schlock on the Web. If you're out on the loop on this, check out this review from the Times Online of The Cult of the Amateur.

In an alarming new book The Cult of the Amateur. [Andrew Keen] argues that many of the ideas promoted by champions of web 2.0 are gravely flawed. Instead of creating masterpieces, the millions of exuberant monkeys are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary, unseemly home videos, embarrassingly amateurish music, unreadable poems, essays and novels.

I actually agree with Keen's assessment on the schlockiness of most Web 2.0 content, but do we have any right to stop it? Don't we have a right to express ourselves...even if others find it tacky? Maybe you find this blog tacky, but I know that I've had a chance to express myself in a way I couldn't before. Unlike child pornography, tacky content doesn't really hurt anyone except for the media that might be used up (which is usually pretty cheap).

Actually any media that is accessible to the mass populace will inevitably be dominated by schlock in the short term. Jane Austen is a notable author from the Regency Era, but she was hardly the only one out there. Dime novels are a cliche based on reality.

Even writing itself is dominated by schlock. How many grocery lists have you written in your lifetime? Or silly postcards? And would you want your teen diaries to be published? I didn't think so... Even letters from the Roman outpost of Vindolania include requests for socks.

What Keen forgets is that the marketplace actually filters out the worst of the content. You Tube contains some trite material, but little of it will ever reach the front page. Pretty much every "featured video" (as determined by votes) has been what I would deem "quality" (if not literary masterpieces).

Sometimes a genuine new talent will be discovered.

Yes the tacky "bestseller" will still sneak through, but then there's the power of time which may be the deadliest foe of all to schlock. The surviving cannon of Greek drama and poetry is all first caliber, but scholars still wonder what other gems we lost in the meantime.

"Standards Angst"


Part of my job is to monitor discussions of various internationalization and Web standards, and I've noticed that whenever any group tries to agree on a standard - it gets real ugly real fast.

Indeed one of the most flame-prone Listservs I'm on are the international tech lists. XHTML isn't too far behind and sometimes the people on the accessibility lists can be a little touchy. I myself have been known to get heated in defending the Mac over the PC (I try not to start a fight though).

Some of my favorite discussions include

* Grilling - Charcoal or gas?
* XHTML - STRONG tag or B tag?
* Language - Which of 2-3 Cornish spelling systems to use?
* Punctuation - P's and Q's or Ps and Qs?
* Blackwork Embroidery - Backstitch or Double Running? (if you don't know, don't worry)
* Metric system or Imperial measures?
* Mac or PC? (for heaven's sake only ask one person at a time)

I got so overwhelmed (and annoyed), I was forced to a coin the term "standards angst" to refer to the phenomenon of getting nasty over a somewhat minor point in procedure. I'm sure there's a better, more technical term for this, but darned if I know what it is.

FYI - I've also seen "standard angst" used in reference to obsessing about getting your product 100% standards compliant.

My anthropological question is ... why?

There are cases where the stakes are pretty high. For instance, if the US ever goes "hard metric" (all metric, all the time) we will have to buy new thermometers, reprogram weather reporting devices to read centrigrade only and invest in new set of drill heads and nails. This is probably why the US is still "soft metric" (we tolerate metric use in certain contexts which we understand).

Other high stakes standards include Unicode and spelling system (especially if you want Microsoft to program you a spell checker).

But frankly, other cases are very low stakes. If it's your grill, I believe you have the right to choose whichever one you want. In fact, I understand both their pluses and minuses - charcoal is great for steak, but gas may be better for chicken and pork. Maybe you really need to know and use BOTH.

So again...why?

Is it that:

1. Your identity has gotten tied to the one method via family tradition or personal experience? For instance, Baltimore (my hometown) is the home of McCormick's spices...so clearly it is the best product out there.
2. Is it an in-group vs out-group issue? Stitchers who can stitch on fabric with small holes almost invariably feel superior to those who cannot.
3. Do you just detest the other way that much? There are times when the other way is just plain WRONG HEADED!!!

Taking a breath now.

Hate Social Computing? Think Role Play!


I am one of those cranky people who see new social technologies like Twitter and MySpace and ask "Why do I want to tell this stuff to strangers?" or "Why should I care what some guy in Denver is doing Friday night?

But I am intrigued by the FICTIONAL incarnations of these tools where people assume virtual identities based on know historical or fictional figures and then do their blogs, Twitter and MySpace profiles.

Many classes like history and business have latched on to role play, but these technologies take it to a whole new level. Man

Thus far my favorite examples have been:

Silliness aside, there is a chance here for students to explore the messiness of politics and daily life from previous generations in a way that makes it more real. Thomas Paine had his pamphlets, but I'm pretty sure he'd be a prolific blogger today.