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Ryan's linguistics blog

Ryan's linguistics blog
Updated : Sun, 03 Aug 2014 23:16:59 +0000

crucially
Since I began working in theoretical linguistics several years ago, I've been struck by a specific usage of the word "crucially". In common parlance, we typically use "crucial" to mean "absolutely necessary" or "the best course of action". We might say "It's crucial that we arrive before midnight", perhaps because the road closes at that time. But I'd say the adverbial form is less common. COCA returns 15344 hits for "crucial" and 417 for "crucially", for a ratio of 37:1 in favor of the adjective. On the other hand, "quick" returns 33060 hits, and "quickly" returns 61284, showing the adverbial form is significantly more common, with a ratio of 2:1 in favor of the adverb. In scientific parlance, on the other hand, "crucially" is typically used to indicate a piece of data that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the argument goes through. As an abstract example, let's say we want to show that the numeral "one" is more common than the numeral "two" -- in all languages. We compare a number of languages, and all but language X show "one" with a higher frequency than "two". This goes against our argument, unless we can show a specific reason why we would expect "two" to be more frequent in language X in a way that does not predict this in the other languages. We might say "Crucially, the numeral 'two' in language X forms a part of the common idiom 'blah blah blah'". This crucial piece of data shows that language X does not form a counterexample.

I was interested in seeing if this use of crucially (or rather, the overwhelming commonality of using "crucially" when relating an argument) was specific to theoretical linguistics, or if other fields also present arguments this way. To examine this, I did a text search for "crucially" in the New England Journal of Medicine (non-social science), Natural Language & Linguistic Theory (theoretical linguistics), International Journal of American Linguistics (less theoretical linguistics), Political Behavior (non-linguistic social science), and Philosophical Issues (non-science). NEJM returned 19 articles in the past 10 years, for a rate of around 2/yr. NLLT returned 198 in the past 28 years, for a rate of around 7/yr. IJAL returned 23 for the past 18 years, for a rate of around 1/yr. PB returned 10 for 1979-2007, a rate of less than 1 every 2 years. PI returned 212 for 1991-1998, a rate of over 30/yr. My inability to verify how all of these journals and web sites conduct text searches makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from these numbers, but it does seem that compared to at least some other fields, theoretical linguistics uses the word "crucially" more often. (I'm for the most part leaving aside the issue of whether every article uses "crucially" in the sense I'm talking about; however, I did hand-check a number of the articles, which did indeed use it in the argumental sense I described above. Additionally, "crucially" is fairly rare in standard language, as evidenced by the COCA search.) The PI numbers I believe are ridiculously inflated; it looks like the results I got were for any issue of the journal that contained the word "crucially", rather than searching within the individual articles.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 19 Nov 2011 16:28:00 +0000

nominal tense
I read a headline the other day that gave me pause: "Cleveland to demolish serial killer's home". The reading I got initially was that someone charged with murder was living in a house, and the city of Cleveland was getting ready to tear it down, perhaps as additional punishment for the man's heinous crime. Of course, in reality the article was about the demolition of the house where the serial killer had lived and disposed of the bodies of his victims. It would be rather strange to demolish a home just because a criminal had formerly occupied it, but it makes perfect sense to demolish a home that had been used as a crime scene and tomb. I think it was "home" that threw me off -- this calls to mind homey connotations for me, rather that simply referring to an inhabited structure.

Another source of ambiguity is that English has no nominal tense. (There are numerous theoretical reasons to distinguish nominal "tense" from relative-to-utterance-time markers on verbs, but I'll stick with the term here since it's descriptively useful, especially in languages that use the same affixes on nouns and verbs.) In English, when I say "my house", it could mean a number of different things depending on context. I could say "I like my house", meaning the one I currently occupy, or I could say "My house was small", discussing the one I grew up in. To overtly signify that the house in question either no longer exists or is no longer attached to me, I could use "former". Some languages (such as Wakashan languages), on the other hand, have tense affixes that attach to nouns as well as verbs. The most natural translation in English is usually something like "my former house", with the ambiguity between whether the house is former because it no longer exists or still exists but is no longer in my possession. If we all spoke Nitinaht, maybe the headline would have been less ambiguous. Or maybe not.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 10 Dec 2011 18:48:00 +0000

Rocket Languages
Over the summer I was asked if I would review Rocket Languages, a language learning company that sells online and physical media for language learning. I'm not typically the language course type (I prefer to buy grammars and dictionaries and dig through them with no hope of ever speaking the language conversationally), but I had a lot of fun poking around the online course I was given access to (the Premium online version of the Beginning German course). I found the site set up easy to navigate, with a simple table-of-contents style interface to choose lessons from. I've checked out sites in the past that make it virtually impossible to do one thing at a time and then come back to the content later, so this was a plus for me. As always, I wanted more overt grammatical content (one of the reasons I've never tried Rosetta Stone), but overall there was a decent balance between learning conversational phrases and looking at things like verb conjugations (biased towards the former, as with most popular language courses). There's also a handy "My Vocabulary" section where you can save words you find interesting or difficult to memorize for later reference. The feature I was able to use the least (because of my own busy schedule) is probably also the most exciting: the site has a community section where people can post about their language learning experiences. I think this is a great feature of Rocket Languages, and one I haven't yet encountered elsewhere (though surely it has been done before). The only way to learn a language is to use it, so the forum feature is in my opinion a necessary component to online course, even though many lack it.

In summary: if what you're looking for is an online language course, I can recommend Rocket Languages more than most. Note that for those who are looking for CDs, these are included at the higher levels. As with any online course, you're not going to be a fluent speaker just because you completed the course, but the forum feature goes some way toward encouraging learning to actually use the language rather than just reading about it. While this is no replacement for oral conversation, it's definitely a step up from just reading and listening on your own. For those who are turned off by the high price tag ($299.95 for physical media, $149.95 for online), they have a promotion through November 7 where you can gain access to the online version for $99.95.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 05 Nov 2011 13:33:00 +0000

N N N N N N
Just a quick post before I get back to reading Seth Cable's recent article on Tlingit and Q particles. Last month CNN ran an article called "Titanic 100th cruises spark buzz, debate". Even before looking at the content of the article, I understood the basic gist of this headline: there are going to be cruises on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, and these cruises are sparking buzz and debate. However, I find it amazing that I was easily able to understand what seems like it should have been a crash blossom. The headline is a string of six words that could almost all be nouns or verbs. Titanic and 100th can only be nouns, but the other four words could go either way. The anniversary is cruising some area called a spark buzz? Without the comma there would be been even more possible permutations.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 30 Oct 2010 14:52:00 +0000

heritage languages
Many Americans don't give a thought to what their heritage language is. No doubt this is partly because we are titans of assimilation and monolingualism (and I don't mean that entirely as a bad thing -- it's no doubt the reason why it's not ridiculous to speak of "Americans" in a country with dozens of ethnic groups spanning almost 4 million square miles). I'm only the third generation born in the U.S. on my maternal side, and I know exactly three phrases in German (excluding things I learned outside my family), and one of them is "Gesundheit". I think another reason we don't think about heritage languages is that we have so many of them. I don't know if I know a single second-generation (or greater) American who has ancestors from a single ethnic group. Depending on which line I'm tracing, my "heritage language" might be German or Scottish or Irish (or maybe even Italian or Hungarian -- old census and shipping records aren't the clearest).

In another sense, we all speaker our "heritage language", if we define heritage language to refer to the language of the culture we identify with. While the U.S. has no official language, English has become the de facto lingua franca, with 82% speaking it natively and up to 96% fluently. Insofar as English is the national language of the U.S., and insofar as I consider myself an American, English is in some sense my heritage language. But I think for many people that use the word "heritage", it means a lot more than this. It's not just about genes or cultural affiliation, but about self-identification. If a German child is adopted by Lakota parents and grows up speaking Lakota without knowing a word of German, is Lakota his heritage language any less than his parents? I don't doubt that there are many who would say "yes", but it's a touchy subject trying to foist heritage languages on others.

It's not by accident that I chose Lakota in the above example. The concept of a heritage language is of utmost importance for people who are losing their language. For native peoples of the Americas (I'm choosing North America because that's where I live and those are the languages I've studied the most), language is much more bound up in culture than for Europeans. European traditions, religions, and politics have been translated and adapted so many times that I have met very few people of European descent who identify strongly with the language they speak. While nuances are of course lost in translation, I would wager that few would say that the ideas in Machiavelli's The Prince would be lost if we lost the original Italian printing. On the other hand, there is a very strong feeling among American language speakers that losing their language means losing their culture, and means losing unique ways of looking at the world. (NB: there are other American language speakers who feel equally strongly for the opposite view.) Thus the concept of a heritage language is a very important one.

These are just musings. You may disagree with some or all of them. That's fine. One final thought: given that languages evolve, where does our "heritage language" begin and end? If English is John's heritage language, is Middle English? Old English? Proto-Indo-European?
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 02 Jan 2011 03:37:00 +0000

Review: Punctuation..?
I've posted a number of book reviews on this blog, but I think this one is the first I have concrete plans to use in the near future. I was asked to review "Punctuation..?", a short 35-page saddle-stapled book published by User design press. The main definitions for correct usage are taken from the Oxford English Mini Dictionary (can you imagine -- a usage book that actually cites its sources). The book briefly covers usage and suggestions for apostrophes, parentheses, colon and semicolons, dashes, slashes, and more. Each usage description is accompanied by an (often humorous) line drawing referring to or illustrating the usage. One thing I liked about this book is its mostly descriptive attitude. This isn't a prescriptive diatribe about how texting is ruining our punctuation use; it's a light-hearted and well-informed instruction manual for actual English. The errors it discusses are real errors that everyone, native speaker and learner alike, should avoid for the sake of clear writing, not elitist shibboleths for posh hipsters to complain about. Since this is a British publication, some of the terminology might be confusing for American audiences (though I would guess that most people are familiar with the main differences across the pond: period vs. full stop, single vs. double quotation marks). The only difference that would introduce a genuine error for American writers would be the claim that we should not use a period after abbreviations like Mrs., Mr., and Dr. (where in America we obligatorily do use a period in such cases). Other than this all the advice is applicable for American as well as British audiences, modulo terminological differences. As an erstwhile teacher of English as a Second Language, I definitely plan to use ideas and usage suggestions from this text in the classroom. Not only is the advice clearly presented and playfully executed, but also great attention is paid to proper typesetting. I would guess that most anyone who has occasion to write/type in English would fine use for the section delineating the typographical and usage differences between the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. The comma usage section, also, should prove useful to anyone teaching writing. While some of the advice is too simplistic (we use commas to join any two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, not just ones with a change in subject), there's a lot of information packed into this very short and eminently readable book.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 01 Sep 2013 16:45:00 +0000

pre-fixed menu
I saw a nice example of an eggcorn the other day, advertising a "pre-fixed" menu. This is of course referring to the phenomenon of a "prix fixe" menu, where restaurants offer a multi-course meal for a set price (typically one that's cheaper than expected). Even though I don't speak French, I've always thought this phrase was fairly transparent: as an English-speaker, I'm familiar with the fact that French adjectives (like most other Romance languages) have adjectives after the noun -- we even have some traces of it in English, e.g., Attorney-General. And if you know that much, it's not a big stretch from prix fixe --> price fixed --> fixed price. But for someone who's only ever heard the phrase pronounced, the similarity might not be as obvious: /ˌpriːˈfɪks/. This certainly does sound almost identical to a standard pronunciation of "pre-fixed". And since prix fixe menus have a price that's already set, the semantic notion of a menu being "pre-fixed" makes sense as well. Phonetic similarity + semantic compositionality = the perfect scenario for eggcorn formation.

Just for fun, some examples that I found online:
http://www.afridom.net/lesouk-harem/menu.html
http://www.thespot-restaurant.com/party.html
http://www.clarksbarandgrill.com/Menu/Dockside-Grill-pre-Fixed-Menu.htm
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 13 Nov 2010 15:21:00 +0000

another crash blossom
As those who are regular Language Log readers know, a crash blossom is a news headline that leads us to an incorrect parsing of its meaning. In many ways crash blossoms are similar to garden path sentences, the classic one being "The horse raced past the barn fell", which lead us down a metaphorical garden path by presenting information that can be parsed easily into a certain structure, only to ruin our structural hypothesis later on. In the case of "The horse raced past the barn fell", our hypothesis is that "raced" is the main verb of the sentence, rather than part of a relative clause describing the horse. Thus we parse "The horse raced past the barn", and then have to completely redo our structure when we get to "fell".

The crash blossom that caught my eye the other day is similar: "Stepmom charged with murder has baby". The main headline on the full story is no better: "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". Again we have a relative clause with the relative pronoun omitted, leading us to think that what is in fact part of a relative clause is the main verb of the sentence. So in the full headline, we think the story is about a stepmother in Alabama being charged with murder, when in fact the story is about the woman in question giving birth.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 25 Feb 2012 15:20:00 +0000

new Collins dictionary site
I had my attention directed to the new Collins dictionary site this week. For the most part it's your standard dictionary site -- definitions, usage examples, etc. The IPA transcriptions are solid, though don't include syllable boundaries, and I have yet to find a word improperly transcribed. The search function is predictably fine, though doesn't have autosuggestions. What got me excited, though, was the information about the relative frequency of the word in each entry. In the top right of each entry is a "commonness" bar, which indicates how common a word is by shading between 1 and 5 circles. Additional mouseover text mentions the size of that category, e.g., "X is one of the 30,000 most commonly used words". Though there are obviously questions about what corpus is being used for these calculations, it's still a neat feature. Another cool graphic is featured in the bottom right of each entry, which features an adjustable chart showing how common the word has been for a specified time period (from the last 500 years to the last 10 years). Perhaps not as detailed as COCA's interface, but still a great addition to a dictionary web site. And let's not forget the "translations" section, which gives translations of the word into other languages. Okay, Blackfoot isn't included, but you can instantly see translations from all the most spoken languages. Overall, it's pretty cool; I'll probably be using it as my go-to dictionary site from now on, mostly because of the frequency statistics.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 03 Mar 2012 14:20:00 +0000

new Clarion blog post on writing systems
If you're interested in writing systems, check out my post this week for the Clarion Foundation blog: Writing Systems. As an amateur writer, I sometimes wax a little authorial on these posts, but if you've found them too fiction-oriented so far, know that I'm intending future posts to be more strictly linguistic in nature.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 09 Oct 2010 14:10:00 +0000

language as technology
My friend and erstwhile colleague Josh Birchall posted a link on Facebook to an interesting TED talk by Mark Pagel entitled How Language Transformed Humanity, on the development of language as a communicative tool and how it presented a huge evolutionary advantage over non-linguistic species. It isn't difficult to see how language, an infinitely productive system capable of expressing ideas that are not tied to a specific time and location, confers a greater benefit than other forms of communication. Language can be used to transfer abstract ideas and share a much wider range of information and technology compared to, say, the system of pheromones that ants use to communicate. It is for that reason that many archaeologists typically assume that the rise of abstract expression (viz., art) and the exponential proliferation of tool development coincides with the rise of language.

At any rate, it's an interesting talk, even if it's not perfect, and I think well worth watching.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 21 Jan 2012 14:56:00 +0000

past participles
Many verbs in English have three basic forms: a present tense form, which consists of the bare stem (plus -s in 3rd person singular), a past tense form (usually -ed), and a past participle form (often irregular, but quite a few end with -en). Notice I say "many" and not even "most", much less "all". There are infamous examples of verbs like lie/lay/laid vs. lay/laid/lain, which have three distinct forms but overlap in two of them, or teach/taught/taught, which has an irregular past tense and identical past participial form. The participial form appears in perfect constructions such as "I had just gotten to work when the boss walked in" or passives like "The wine was drunk in less than an hour". However, since many such participles are rarely if ever used, some people are uncomfortable using some of them, or simply unaware that a separate form exists. (Test yourself: I have swum, or I have swam? Swum is the historical past participle.) While I am somewhat of a past participle enthusiast, I rarely really notice the substitution of the simple past with verbs like "swim" and "drink". The ones that do strike me as odd are those that I perceive as common, which is why constructions like "was began" catch my ear. "Begin" is significantly more common than "swim", as evidence by the 106,952 hits for "began" in COCA versus the 2,069 for "swam". Likewise, "begun" gets 19,007 hits while "swum" only gets 186. And note that the "begin" to "swim" ratio is twice as high in the participial form than in the past. I think it's for this reason that constructions like "was began" strike me as odder than mere "had swam". COCA gets 26 hits for "had began" versus 4,865 for "had begun", and 3 for "had swam" versus 59 for "had swum". In other words, the past-for-participle substitution rate for "swim" is an order of magnitude higher than for "begin" (.5% for "begin", 5% for "swim"). At this point in the evening I'm not about to embark on a frequency analysis journey, but my guess would be you'd find similar patterns for many other verbs: past-for-participle substitution rates rise as raw usage frequency decreases.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 21 Nov 2010 00:38:00 +0000

thinking scientifically about language
I just submitted my grades for my fall LING 101 course, and I'm busy preparing for my spring LING 101 course, so the question of how to get people to think scientifically about language has been much on my mind recently. I've found that one of the most useful entry-level questions is "How is human language difference from other forms of animal communication?" The media loves animal language stories, and so the uniqueness and complexity of human language is one of the first things I cover. One of the most important things about discussing such topics is not "Is human language unique?", but "What concrete properties of human language distinguish it from animal communication?" We're doing science, and so we want to point to specific criteria to distinguish the two; we want a theory of human language that predicts specific empirical facts. This is not how the general public usually thinks about language (or about anything; critical thinking is far removed from the natural pattern of human cognition).

Another topic I've always wanted to cover in more detail is speech perception. Often when I tell non-linguists that I work on how we perceive speech sounds and assign them to various categories, I get blank stares. Certainly before I was in linguistics I gave no thought to speech perception. When I lived in Italy in elementary school it was inconceivable to me that Italian speakers couldn't understand English; my first hypothesis (admittedly quickly discarded) was that when someone spoke English they simply heard nothing. We think of language as magic: direct communication from one mind to another. It takes a bit of work to transition into the type of thinking that evaluates the creation of sound by the human vocal tract and analyses how these sounds are transmitted as vibrations through the air, and then perceived by the human auditory and perceptual apparati (yes, I know that's not the proper Latinate plural). The question of how we distinguish a bilabial nasal from an alveolar nasal is not a natural one to ask, but it's an important question for linguists.

These are some of the basic concepts I'm planning to use in my 101 class next semester. If anyone has suggestions for other concepts useful for introducing people to the scientific study of language, I'd be glad to hear about them in the comments.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 17 Dec 2011 15:17:00 +0000

allophones and marginal phonemes
One of the most basic concerns of phonology is determining what phonemes constitute the phonological inventory of a given language, i.e., which sounds are used contrastively. Sounds are used contrastively if switching one pronunciation for another could result in a change in meaning (it may not be the case that a new word thus formed actually exists, but I think the point still holds for pairs like brick~blick). I can pronounce the word "atom" with an alveolar flap or with an alveolar stop, but the choice does not produce a difference in meaning. At worst I sound British if I use an alveolar stop rather than a flap. One of the ways phonologists look at contrastive versus non-contrastive sounds is the distribution of sounds. Contrastive sounds will typically have the same distribution. In English, for instance, /t/ and /d/ are contrastive, and we can find them in the same environments. Each one can occur in the onset or coda of a syllable, including before sonorants in a complex onset or after sonorants in a complex coda. As mentioned before, alveolar flaps and stops are non-contrastive in English, and are viewed as variant pronunciations. Another example is aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops -- we perceive the /p/ in "pit" and "spit" to be somehow the same, even though one is aspirated and one is not.

Problems arise when phonemes are in complementary distribution but don't in any real sense seem to be allophones. An example from English is the case of /h/ and /ŋ/. /h/ occurs only in onset position, and /ŋ/ only in coda position. We might have to do a little bit of hand-waving, but as long as we don't insist on following our rubrics with machine-like strictness, we can say something about the fact that we don't have any external evidence that these two sounds come from the same phoneme, e.g., alternations that we do find in "atom" (with a flap) versus "atomic" (with a stop). We also have evidence from historical English sources (including modern orthography) that explains why /ŋ/ only shows up in coda position -- it arose from place assimilation when /n/ appeared before /g/, which is why we spell /ŋ/ as ng, as in "sing". Another difficulty appears when sounds only contrast in some environments. This is called neutralization. For instance, in Blackfoot, /t/ and /ts/ contrast in most environments. Both can appear in onsets and codas. However, only /ts/ appears before /i/. Thus we can't simply say that /t/ and /ts/ are or aren't contrastive; we have to specify the specific environments in which they are contrastive.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 14 Jan 2012 20:45:00 +0000

time adverbials
I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but I found the SFMTA page a couple weeks ago, and was interested in a completely ordinary construction on their home page, namely that their railway "today carries over 200 million customers per year". If we take the more narrow meaning of "today" as the day of the utterance, this sentence is nonsensical. You can't have a certain number of customers per year carried on a single day. But of course that's not how we actually interpret the sentence. Here we use "today" in a more general, perhaps not quite metaphorical sense, simply to mean the current relevant time. That could be limited to the actual day in question, but it could also be a month, a year, or a millenium -- we could also say "today the planet has significantly lower oxygen levels than during the Cretaceous", and we'd be talking about the current geological era. This type of coercion is extremely common in English, though it isn't possible in every language. We're quite willing to reinterpret the semantics of a verb or time adverbial in order to make the sentence interpretable. The predicate "reach the summit" is a classic example of what is typically called an achievement, a predicate that happens all at once. You've either reached the summit or you haven't; there's nothing in between. But we're perfectly happy to say "they reached the summit in twenty minutes", because we attach a preparatory process that consists of the stages coming immediately before actually reaching the summit (hiking, climbing, etc.).
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 12 Mar 2011 22:02:00 +0000

-kin
The suffix -kin seems to have a somewhat variable distribution across speakers. For some it appears to be a productive suffix that means "little" or "baby": if you have a wug, a wugkin would be a small or juvenile wug. For other speakers, like myself, -kin is not productive, and in fact I barely noticed the fact that it has any sort of smallish connotation until this was pointed out to me. How can this be the case for a single language like English? Because we're all exposed to differing dialects, registers, and ultimately, types and amounts of data. Someone growing up as an only child on a rural farm during the 13th century is certain to be exposed to less language that a child from a family of fourteen growing up in modern day New York. And even leaving aside such differences, we all hear slightly different corpora from slightly different speakers as we grow up. (This is, of course, the source of language change, especially when speaker communities have little interaction with each other.)

Perception also plays an important role. Words ending in -kin have a fairly fixed distribution in English. Despite what I said in the previous paragraph, I'd be surprised if words containing it varied significantly across regions, registers, or dialects (and of course this could be empirically tested). When I was acquiring English, I perceived the suffix as being rare enough that I did not generalize it to other forms, unlike very common suffixes like -er for 'one who...', e.g., farmer 'one who farms'. It also may be due to the fact that if you ask me for a word ending in -kin, the first one I go to is "munchkin", which is certainly not "a small munch". So why is this interesting? I find it interesting because it shows that even when exposed to (essentially) the same data, speakers will or won't generalize different patterns. Patterns that are pervasive in a language (75% seems to be the magic number in Artificial Language Learning tasks) are for the most part generalized by all speakers: everyone who speakers English has the suffix -er and is willing to use it on novel forms. Patterns that derive from a previously productive affix but are now opaque are almost never generalized: the prefix "with-" as in "withstand" indicating "against" is, I would wager, never used with novel forms. The interesting patterns are those that occur in a small but semi-regular subdomain of English, as with the Germanic "strong verb" pattern of strike/struck generalizing to sneak/snuck, or the case of -kin. (Firefox won't recognize "snuck", but it gets millions of ghits, including an entry on Dictionary.com.) Speakers have to decide when confronted with such data whether these cases are simply a handful of random exceptions, or if there is some regular pattern that applies to only a small subset of lexemes.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 27 Feb 2011 01:01:00 +0000

pragmatic ambiguity?
Last weekend was the annual LSA meeting, and so I drove to Pittsburgh, PA to spend a few days carousing with linguists. On the PA Turnpike there are a number of tunnels through the mountains in central PA. Naturally, you should have your headlights on when driving through these tunnels (though they are somewhat lit). Signs just before the tunnels instruct you to do so: "Turn on headlights". However, I was more puzzled by the signs after such tunnels: "Headlights on?" I knew how to answer the question: "Yes." But why was it being asked? Clearly the designers thought it was an obvious question to ask, but I was more confused. Were they making sure I still had my headlights on, because I was going to be going through another tunnel soon? This doesn't seem right, because I'm pretty sure the signs appeared after every tunnel, including the last one coming through the mountains. But in that case it would seem they're asking to make sure I remember to turn them off. This seems odd because daytime running lights are a common safety feature on newer vehicles, and in fact some areas of the country require you to drive with your lights on all the time, since it increases the visibility of your car. So I'd be surprised if they were reminding me to turn off my lights. However, I can't really think of any other options. It seems insane to say that they're just calling my attention to the state of my lights so that I can adjust them as I see fit. What else is there?
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 16 Jan 2011 02:02:00 +0000

an eggcorn and a spelling pronunciation
In this post I just wanted to quickly document two items I came across recently.

The first is the substitution of "upmost" for "utmost". This fits the classic definition of an eggcorn: mistaking a particular turn of phrase for a phonologically similar word or phrase that makes more intuitive sense. When we talk about something "of the utmost importance", we mean something of the highest import, something that should be at the top of our list. Thus it makes perfect sense that some people would reanalyze "utmost" as "upmost", especially given that the stops are in coda position next to a bilabial /m/, making the phonetic distinction between the two probably very slim. This substitution seems to be fairly common; I got almost 5M ghits, and the top one was an article called "Don't Confuse 'Utmost' with 'Upmost'", hosted on a site related to grammar tips. COCA only returns 8 results, not all relevant, but given that "upmost" is most likely to occur in speech, and transcribers may simply hear "utmost" since that is the standard, most likely there would be significantly more results.

The spelling pronunciation I came across recently is "half to". While not an eggcorn ("half to" makes no more intuitive sense than "have to", in fact I'd say it makes less sense), I still find this interesting. Most likely the writer here is thinking of the fact that the word 'have' contains a /v/, and since the /v/ in "have to" is devoiced (obligatorily, at least for me), "half to" more accurately represents the phrase phonetically. Voicing the /v/ in "have to" sounds quite archaic to me, and primes constructions like "I still have homework to do" much more than the relevant meaning "I am required to X". Unfortunately constructions like "one and a half to two" and "half to death" make it almost impossible to turn up genuine results of this online. A similar situation obtains with "supposed to": if you tell me you're "suppo[zd] to do" something, my first thought is that someone's making a supposition about you, rather than giving you a requirement. The devoicing here is so necessary in my idiolect that voicing the final cluster sounds like hypercorrection to me. The spelling "suppose to" again seems very common: almost 7M ghits, with several grammar sites warning against this "mistake". COCA actually turns up some instances that seem to be genuine as well. This type of phonological reduction is common with set phrases, and I'm guessing is assimilation in voicing to the following /t/.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sun, 30 Jan 2011 03:12:00 +0000

Let's see if we can't do that
Last week Vicki Hartley wrote to ask me about "the use of a negative construction when a positive construction is simpler". One example is "I'll see if I can't do that". Strangely, this sentence means essentially the same thing as "I'll see if I can do that". Another example she asked about was, e.g., "I don't have but three students", to mean "I have only three students". The way I see it, these are two separate constructions, though there is an underlying theme.

In the first, you're saying that you'll try the opposite of what you intend. I told Vicki that I saw this as similar to what goes on in the scientific method -- we'll start with our hypothesis and try to disprove it; hopefully we'll fail. Logically, this seems to make sense, since either way the result is the same: you find out whether or not you're able to do something. On the other hand, as a speaker, I wonder if this "scientific method" approach is really what's going on here. To me "I'll see if I can't do that" really doesn't mean "I'm going to attempt to not do that". To me I can't find any semantic difference in "see if I can't" versus "see if I can". Pragmatically there are differences -- the redundant negative version seems to presuppose that there will be some difficulty associated with the course of action, hence the negative. On the other hand, it seems to also presuppose that the course of action will result in a positive outcome. To me, telling a sopping wet child "let's see if we can't find you some dry clothes" would be infelicitous if it were my child at my house. I could only felicitously say that to my child's friend at my house, where there would be no reason to expect to find them dry clothes that fit properly. (An aside: I picked this example because I associate "let's see if we can't..." with a parent talking to a child -- not sure if this is relevant to the discussion at hand.) However, I'll also say it implies that I'm relatively sure of a positive outcome (finding dry clothes that fit). If I say "let's see if we can find you some dry clothes" I don't get quite the same expectation; there's more tolerance for the negative outcome "oh well, I guess not".

The second construction is a slightly different version of the redundant negative. For me, "I don't have but three students" is slightly marked, but fully grammatical, whereas "I have but three students" sounds archaic almost to the point of ungrammaticality. So we have the following, which all entail having three students:

1) I have three students.
2) I have only three students.
3) I have but three students.
4) ?I have but only three students.
5) I don't have but three students.

I have a question mark by (4) because I'm not sure if I like it or not. I
think I don't, but it doesn't seem totally wrong. And then we have the
following, which all entail NOT having three students:

6) I don't have three students.
7) I don't have only three students.
8) *I don't have but only three students.

I'm pretty sure (8) is bad, but if it's not, I think it would mean the
positive, not the negative.

My guess is that we should treat this second construction as parallel to the first one. Despite my archaic interpretation of "I have but three students", this was definitely fine in earlier versions of English, and my guess is that many people would find it unremarkable even today. Thus "I don't have but three students" is essentially the same phenomenon as "Let's see if we can't do that". One avenue of research that might prove useful is semantic research on some of the North American languages. Salishan languages have suffixes that create a "managed to" reading (non-control transitivizers, for those in the know). Navajo has an adversative reading that indicates that a proposition is counter to expectation. Blackfoot (an unrelated language) has the same thing (which coincidentally is also the affix for "please"). This might be what we're seeing in English: variation based on presuppositions of the speaker's ability to bring into being some desired or discussed resultant state.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 23 Oct 2010 20:02:00 +0000

out of proportion to
I was reading something recently and the expression "out of proportion to" caught my eye. Somehow the preposition "to" seemed odd, but at the time I couldn't figure out what I would rather use. Since then I've decided that I probably use "out of proportion with", though I'm much more likely to rephrase the entire sentence so that I can use "disproportionate(ly)". So I thought I'd do a little searching and see which is more common. Sure enough, the "to" version is significantly more common, with 8.7M ghits versus only 1.5M for "with". Those seem to be the only prepositions possible, both from my own intuitions and looking around on the interwebs. COCA gets 161 hits for "to" versus a mere 21 for "with". I did turn up one more preposition that I hadn't thought of, and didn't find from random google searches: "out of proportion from". COCA gives two hits ("Pain out of proportion from injury" and "privileges and a scale of living that were not only far out of proportion from what we had experienced back in the United States"), and google gives ~95k hits, only about 30% of which seem to be genuine "out of proportion P" constructions, so this usage seems to be rather rare. Not sure why I felt "to" was odd, and honestly I'm not even sure that if I used the construction I wouldn't use "to", but I find this sort of variation in prepositional choices interesting.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 12 Feb 2011 19:38:00 +0000

might didn't
A few weeks ago I caught myself saying "might didn't". When it came out I was confused, and assumed, like my cohorts, that it was a speech error. But the next day I did a bit of google searching, and realized that in fact "might didn't" is a construction associated with the use of double modals, and that perhaps I was successfully integrating double modals into my grammar.

One example: "Great Tools For YouTube And Online Music Streaming You Might Didn't Know Of"

In standard English this would be "Great Tools...You Might Not Have Known Of", or hypercorrect "...Of Which You Might Not Have Known". The "might didn't" construction indicates to me that syntacticians are missing the boat if they claim double modals are merely lexicalied constructions inserted whole into T. "Did" isn't a modal, and there are clear syntactic parallels between "might could" and "might did". What we need is a theory of grammar for double modal dialects that correctly accounts for the pattern of usage, not a theory that best fits standard dialects and half-heartedly accounts for certain superficial aspects of double modal grammars. Personally, I'm interested in a proper syntactic account of double modals because I'm all for accurate description of minority languages and dialects, but I have a feeling that such dialects could also reveal important things about what might could be a part of Universal Grammar.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 27 Nov 2010 17:35:00 +0000

English is hard
I ran across an interesting spelling pronunciation the other day (I have the sense that it was on Not Always Right, but I've been unable to find it). A woman ordering quiche asked for kwɪki rather than kiʃ. These types of spelling pronunciations are not uncommon for low-frequency words, where low-frequency varies according to dialect and context. Of course, English pronunciation rules don't get you from kiʃ to kwɪki. Since English has borrowed heavily from a number of languages (viz., French, Latin, and Greek), we have to figure out the source of a word before we can come up with a reasonable pronunciation. In the case of "quiche", we have to realize that the word originates in French, in which case we will probably know that "qui" is [ki] and that "ch" in French loans is typically a postalveolar fricative. It seems, however, that this woman thought the word was Greek, where word-final "che" is not uncommon in terms borrowed from Greek (e.g., synecdoche), and is pronounced [ki]. "Qui" as [kwɪ] is typically for English, though unusual for foreign loans. These types of errors are consequences of borrowing from so many different sources, and even more so of having a non-phonetic orthography.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 12 Nov 2011 20:35:00 +0000

"the written word"
I was interested to see the headline "LOL -- 'Webspeak' invades Oxford dictionary" on CNN this week. The article is little more than a blurb about some new additions to the Oxford American Dictionary, but I was struck by the first line: "Are years of e-mails, text messaging and status updates finally affecting the written word?" When I read that I did a bit of a double-take, as you might be doing right now. "Hold on a sec," you might think, "aren't ALL of those things written words?" This usage takes to the extreme the idea that "the written word" as a set phrase is somehow not compositional; it doesn't literally mean "a corpus of written materials in contemporary usage", but rather some lofty edifice culled from esteemed writers and curmudgeonly literary critics. While I acknowledge that "the written word" is a semi-idiom in many dialects of American English, I would never use it quite as idiomatically as in this article -- literally juxtaposing a huge corpus of written material with the ethereal ideal of "the written word".

Despite this opening line, the article isn't critical at all of this move by the OAD. The author in fact notes that "It is nice to see Oxford attempting to get with the times" by including expressions that many of us see every day. Lexicographers are often remarkably descriptive, despite the tendency for prescription among those who use their products regularly. However, the author does fear that this will make difficult times for English teachers, as students back up their usage of TTYL and LMAO in academic writing with dictionary citations. I can certainly see English teachers cowering in terror, even though this seems to me ridiculous. As long as we talk about what is appropriate rather than correct, there's no need to fear descriptivism. For instance, I rail against those who teach that it is "incorrect" to use "which" in restrictive relative clauses, or that it is "ungrammatical" to use double modals. On the other hand, in some contexts there are reasons for teaching that it is inappropriate to use these in academic papers (although frankly I'm always against the claim that "which" should be only used for nonrestrictive relative clauses).

The problem with the absolutist view of English is that it isn't absolute. If you try to teach students that "which" should only be used for nonrestrictive relative clauses, you don't have anywhere to turn. The dictionary won't tell you this, esteemed authors don't show this usage, even the venerable old Strunk didn't keep his whichs and thats complementary (though when White came along he added the rule and edited all of Strunk's examples to make them fit the rule). Too often what people think of as "correct" grammar is simply bits and pieces of inconsistent jargon they've internalized from many different, often conflicting, sources. What students need to be taught is that academic writing is a formal style with strict rules. It's not that double modals are wrong, it's that double modals are frowned upon in academic writing. And that's a reason not to use them in such contexts if you want to get a job.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 25 Sep 2010 19:30:00 +0000

some, or all?
I ran into some difficulty during a LING 101 lecture the other day. I was talking about entailments, and focusing specifically on superset/subset relations. I started with some simple examples: "I eat bacon" entails "I eat meat", because bacon is a type of meat. I then moved on to what I considered were essentially identical statements. One of these was "John hates music" entails "John hates country music". Here I started getting blank looks. Several people didn't understand why this was the case, since John could hate some other type of music. After a second of musing, I found the problem: mass and bare plural nouns in English. If I say "John hates music", this can mean one of two things. The first is what I had in mind: that John hates all music. On this reading, "John hates music" entails "John hates country music", because country music is a subset of all music. However, there is another reading for "John hates music": that there is some type of music that John hates. On this reading "John hates music" does not entail "John hates country music", because John's hating black metal could satisfy the "some music" reading of "John hates music" without satisfying "John hates country music". General plurals (and mass nouns like "music") have a funny way of interacting with verbs in ambiguous ways, a fact that has led Mark Liberman to propose a voluntary ban on generic plurals to express statistical differences between populations.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 03 Dec 2011 21:52:00 +0000

positive anymore
English, like most if not all languages, has what are called Negative Polarity Items (NPIs). NPIs are words or phrases that have to be scoped under some sort of negation, irrealis, or otherwise nonaffirmative clause. One example in English is "ever". We can say I haven't ever been to Atlantic City, because "ever" is scoped under negation. We can say I wonder if John has ever looked at syllable-initial geminates, because if-clauses are irrealis or nonaffirmative. We can ask Have you ever ridden an elephant?, because questions are nonaffirmative (they don't contain any at-issue assertions). But we can't say *I have ever been to Jane's house, because this is a declarative, positive sentence that makes an at-issue assertion.

For most(?) people, "anymore" is an NPI. Thus for most native English speakers, I don't smoke anymore is fine, whereas *Young people are so rude anymore is bad. However, there is a small subset of American English speakers (and possible speakers of other dialects) for whom "anymore" can be used in positive contexts, as in the second preceding example. My grandmother was one of these, which is probably the only reason I know this. For her, it was fine to say "The buttons on phones are so small anymore". I can't think of a good way to easily find good examples of these constructions on, e.g., google or COCA. Suggestions would be welcome.
Author : noreply@blogger.com (Ryan Denzer-King)
Publ.Date : Sat, 11 Dec 2010 17:49:00 +0000
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