November 2009 Archives

Rhyming vs. Rap


I just saw a great video of Neil Young covering the theme song "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

It's fascinating on many levels including the fact that Neil Young makes the song sound like an epic saga of the American dream as well as the fact that Young is apparently familiar with TV show. But on a linguistic level, I noticed that that while Young's acoustic folk style preserves the original rhyme scheme of the Fresh Prince classic, it loses the "rap" quality.

The difference is that the rap is emphasizing an overall stress pattern in a the folk version is not. In other words, rap is both rhyme and rhythm. The stress pattern in the rap version is distinct from that in spoken English, which is probably one reason why many report that rap lyrics are harder to understand. It's hard to systematically define the metrical scheme Will Smith is using (especially since I think it changes), but there is a tendency to put a heavy stress on the final syllable ("I'll see when I get there / I hope they're prepared / for the prince of Bel-Air").

I've written about rap as poetry (not always great poetry), but I think Neil Young's rendition effectively shows the more classically poetic side of rap sometimes lost in the rhythm. I am amazed at the linguistic complexity of the good rap, especially since none of the artisans have ever gone to a formal rap academy. Then again, there was no bluegrass or jazz academy back in the day either.

Semantic Shift for Dude


Something I have noticed but haven't commented on is that the meaning of "dude" has shifted. In my generation and a little earlier, dudes were exclusively male, but by the time the critically acclaimed Juno was released, dude could be used as an affectionate term of address for females as well as males as in:

Juno: Anyway dude, I'm telling you I'm pregnant and you're acting shockingly cavalier.
Leah: Is this for real? Like, for real for real?
Juno: Unfortunately, yes.

The usage of dude as male is still around as in:

I'm curious if a third person reference to female dudes is possible (e.g. "Dudes who are knocked up"). So far entering "dude" and "pregnant" has mostly turned up references to males including The Dudes Guide to Pregnancy: Dealing with Your Expecting Wife and, of course, pregnant males.

First Klingon-English Bilingual Child?


It's an experiment that was bound to happen - a linguist has taught his child to be fluent in both Klingon and English. There is a lot of mockery occurring...even though this story is on a science fiction forum. It's definitely an unusual concept.

So what are my thoughts? While I'm not sure it would be something I would do, it may or may not be too drastic. A lot depends on whether the parent, computational linguist d'Armond Speers spoke ONLY in Klingon or BOTH Klingon in English. The original story from the Minnesota Daily says only Klingon, but a comment from Ultralingua (who uses Speers as a consultant) claims it was both Klingon and English.

Given that Speers is said to be a linguist and that news articles often distort linguistic issues, I will give Speers the benefit of the doubt. Even if he only spoke Klingon, I will assume that other relatives used English, so his son would be in a bilingual environment. That means, that I think it's safe to assume that the son did acquire English. (P.S. According to Wired, his wife used English so that their son could become bilingual)

What about the Klingon acquired? One question I had is how different the phonology would be from English. In theory Klingon has non-English sounds...but again there are no real native speakers of Klingon. For most adult speakers, I am assuming that Klingon in the U.S. is essentially spoken with a U.S. English accent (and local accents elsewhere). I don't know what Dr. Speers Klingon accent is like, but I will assume HE learned it as an adult and that his native language(s) will impact his Klingon phonology.

I would have the same question about morphology and syntax. Although there are non-English features built in to Klingon, again the fluent speakers are almost all adult learners (who probably use it in limited circumstances). I suspect that local language features creep in.

The result may actually be something like a creole Klingon, similar to creoles in the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific. These are the result of children being exposed to pidginized European languages. In many cases, particularly in the South Pacific, we know that the result is a language with a European lexical items but with lots of Austronesian features included (words, grammatical structure, changes in pronunciation). These features are one reason why an English creole like Tok Pisin is unrecognizable from standard English

Another question is whether the child will maintain Klingon or not. In theory he could remain bilingual...but I suspect he will begin to encounter "negative attitudes from his peer group" in elementary school if not sooner. That is, if he speaks Klingon with other children, few will understand and there may be serious jeering involved. We do know from research that if your peer group does not use a form and/or expresses a hostile attitude, the child will NOT be motivated to maintain it. Both is pretty fatal. There is a good chance the Klingon fluency will be diminished from lack of overall use.

The truth is that the "Klingon community" has a hard battle. Obviously, its nobody's native language, and unlike other minority languages, few professional linguists are interested. They tend to worry more about languages with longer histories and actual native speakers which are in danger of becoming extinct. The fact that the language is associated with a "fringe" culture gives it even less credibility.

We linguists may be acting a little closed minded though. Clearly someone cared enough about this language to pass it on. And it is not the first time an "artificial language" has been acquired by children - I have heard that some children have been taught Esperanto from birth. One commenter says that some people meet and marry through learning Esperanto, so that Esperanto would become the household language. Again I assume that an Esperanto speaking child would eventually become bilingual in some other language (because I am really not aware of a large-scale monolingual Esperanto community).

I do think it is worth investigating the Esperanto phenomenon, because we would be seeing another way to create a "new" fully human language. Ironically though, I think if more Esperanto native speakers are born, Esperanto will do the one thing it's not supposed to do - develop into local dialects and begin to get the irregularities that other human languages have.

P.S. - Actual Results

Trust Wikipedia to have additional information. Apparently this experiment was attempted in the late 1990s, but as expected the child Alec eventually chose English as his main language. The article also reports that there were many missing lexical items in Klingon including table and pacifier. If this were like other dual language scenarios, I suspect that Klingon would be acquiring a lot of English borrowings....

Book Review: Righting the Mother Tongue


Book Product Details (from

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Smithsonian; First Edition edition (October 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 006136925X
ISBN-13: 978-0061369254


One of my Christmas gifts last year was Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling (Hardcover) by David Wolman. It's obstenaibly a history of English spelling, but really it's a history of English spelling reform. That is, if you are curious as to why there's an "e" in Phoenix, this book may or may or may not have an answer. But if you've ever wondered why they have to keep teaching this spelling in school even though the "e" is not really pronounced...then this book is for you.

One thing I like about this book is the hard-nosed attitude towards English spelling. Wolman is one of the many people in modern society who's been chided all his life for his non-mastery of the crazy rules of English spelling. He's realized that it's not that he is who is lacking logic...rather it's the English spelling system that could use some reform. He, along with many in the English spelling reform movement, ask if it is really necessary to burden our children with learning the difference between 'night' versus 'knight' when 'nite' works just fine.

Of course spelling reform is easier conceptualized than implemented, especially in a society which has forgone an official language board. This is a history of spelling rule formation, disintegration and call for reform. The book begins in the Old English period when spelling was something scholars made up as they went along, but at least it was phonetically consistent.

It moves quickly through Middle English when French brought some new spelling conventions to England to the era of printing, which is where most of the problems began. Widespread literacy requires a standardized spelling, but the codifiers were actually just printers trying to get a publication to press. Occasionally, they may have been Dutch printers at that who guestimated English spelling convention. Combine that with the fact that English already had both English and French spelling rules and was going through some serious sound shifts, and you will end up with a decidedly quirky system.

The rest of the book runs through different standardization and reform events ranging from Samuel Johnson who created the first modern English dictionary to Noah Webster who created the first American English dictionary and advocated some reforms...some of which stuck (e.g. plow vs plough). The chapters cover other major figures including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and others. Many have really, really tried, but usually with limited success.

The story ends with one mechanism which may actually cause reform to happen - the Google spell checker. The difference between Google and other efforts is that Google treats spelling like a socially defined convention. In English, most people spell the dark period after day as "night", but maybe you also want "nite". Google pulls up both if its database think they are alternate spellings. Wolman also notes the tactful way Google gives a suggested correction. Google never says yells or gives an error if you type "frend" instead of "friend", but merely asks "Did you mean 'friend'? when you type "frend". Usually the answer is "Uh...yeah", but it's a relief Google doesn't make fun of you or mutter under its breath about the decline of the English language.

And interestingly, may really mean "frend" either as an obscure word (e.g. the FREND spacecraft arm or director Charles Friend) or even as a check to see if speakers are using "frend" as an alternate spelling of "friend" (they are). Wolman argues that Google was instrumental in persuading some spelling authorities that spelling "r(h)ubarb" would not cause the end of the world, and might be...acceptable.

Ending with Google is interesting because spelling or any writing is really an arbitrary set of conventions...which people like to mess with for purposes of establishing linguistic identity. This is why the Pan Celtic word for three - /tri(:)/ is spelled as trí in Irish, trì in Scottish Gaelic (see the accent flip) tree in Manx, but just tri in Welsh and try in the modernized Cornish spelling system (Heaven forbid the European languages use the same spelling system).

In the end though, why shouldn't Google decide? It's much more democratic, and probably will have more acceptance than anything an official panel will decree. And it will be gradual enough to please those attached to the old forms. Nothing rouses outrage so much as a full-blown replacement of "corrected forms." English spelling will probably be never fully "fixed", but it would be nice if there were a better way to tame it.

My Rating

I would say a 4 out of 5. Ironically, I would have liked more discussion of some of the quirks of English spelling. Not so much to maintain them, but to help current speakers understand what is going on (hint: it's usually a question of language origin plus some sound shift rules).

On the other hand, I am happy with any book from a non-linguist who understands that language is not made of up grammatical decrees.