Monday, 20 October 2014

Geek English

This is an open question, or an idle wondering, depending how you view it.

I've noticed a particular variety of English which I'm calling 'Geek English'. I'm calling it that because I notice that it's particularly used by people who I would broadly identify as geeks, nerds, whatever you like, in a basically positive sense. You know, the kind of people who spend time playing online games, a lot of time in the internet in general, and are happy to be thought intelligent. It might also be people who would otherwise sound quite posh. For instance, some of the QI elves on their podcast 'No Such Thing as a Fish' have this accent (particularly Anna).

My question is, what characterises it and where does it come from? I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, but my immediate impression is that it has a vaguely transatlantic sound. There's a bit of what sounds like 'flapping' of the t's, and also the intonation is quite distinctive, and I think perhaps the vowels are a bit non-UK-like. But then, all this could be an incorrect assumption based simply on its unfamiliarity to me. A proper phonetician needs to study it.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Postik notes

I was recently at the excellent Petrie museum in London. It's got loads of ancient Egyptian stuff, including a lot of beads. They also had this board:

It says 'Please write any comments on postik notes'.

Someone has rather snarkily corrected the error by putting a squiggly line under the word and writing the correct word and putting 'sp' next to it. This is overkill, but no matter.

I thought the mistake was quite charming. Post-It notes are sticky, after all, so 'postik' is kind of an eggcorn, almost (it doesn't quite fit the definition). And 'post' is used in a not-very-British way - I think you post things on walls more in American English than UK English, and Lynne Murphy confirms this at her blog Separated by a Common Language. So that makes it more likely that the person didn't realise the meaning of the name Post-It (i.e. display it on the wall).

Monday, 13 October 2014

On being impolite to our smartphones

I'm behaving like an old person and getting disgruntled at new developments in technology. Google and Apple both have a voice-controlled thing in their various devices which allows you to speak your search query. You can activate this with a button, but now there's a way to make it notice that you want it by saying a specific thing. In the case of Google you have to say 'OK Google' and in the case of Apple you have to say 'Hey Siri' (Siri is the name of the pretend person in your iphone).

Both of these are very rude, 'Hey Siri' perhaps less so, but still rude nevertheless. I think it's just about OK to say 'hey' to a real person if, say, you were just talking to them and you're walking away and then you remember something and you want to signal to them that you want their attention again. Or you can say 'hey' instead of 'hi', if you know the person quite well. So perhaps you can say 'Hey Siri' as if you're saying 'hi' to it, but I haven't tested it to find out. From the inflection in the advert, it's much more like you're summoning a minion (which you are, but if they're going to make it sound like a real person, then you ought to treat it like a real person).

'OK Google', on the other hand, is just downright rude. It sounds to me as if Google is consistently messing up and you're resigned to that but giving it yet another chance to get it right. Poor Google. Or perhaps you're challenging it, like 'OK Google, you think you're so clever, try this'.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Web developer - literally

This screenshot and associated comment are linguistically interesting for (at least) two reasons:


The first reason is the meaning of the phrase 'web developer'. This is Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web (which is different from the internet in slightly complicated ways). Therefore, he is a web developer in the everyday sense of the term, in which he writes code or whatever it is that web developers do, but he is also the person who developed the web - literally, the web developer.

This is an insight into the way that the meaning of compounds in English (and other languages) can be arbitrary, in that a blackboard is a board that is black while a washboard is not a board that is wash, but also follow common patterns. So we can't know out of context that 'web developer' is a developer for the web, we just have to know that that's what it conventionally means. But we can make predictions based on common ways of combining words to make compounds. You wouldn't expect a hand mixer to be a thing that mixes hands, for instance - you'd expect it to be a mixer that is operated by hand, as that's more sensible. But grammatically, both are possible. The former is what's known as a synthetic compound, in which the first part (in English) is the object of the verb in the second part. So a hand mixer mixes hands, a lorry driver drives lorries, and a web developer develops the web. The latter doesn't have this relationship between the parts. Instead, the first part modifies the thing in the second part. A hand mixer is a mixer that is hand-powered, a safe driver is a driver who is safe, and a web developer is a developer who works on the web.

Secondly, this is a good example of the way a word can switch to meaning the exact opposite of what it used to mean. I'm talking about 'modest' in the comment above the photo. Modest is my contender for 'Word Most Likely To Mean Its Opposite In Fifty Years'. It's mostly used nowadays (in my unscientific opinion) in fossilised phrases like 'modest income' or in a sarcastic sense ('Oh, modest as well!' when someone boasts). That to me is prime material for reanalysis as its own antonym. For that to happen, there has to be some confusion or obfuscation of the meaning. In that comment, it's not clear if the commenter is being sarcastic (ie using the 'invented the web' reading of the job title) or genuine (using the 'programmer' meaning). Someone for whom the word means 'proud' or 'boastful' could interpret it their way, and one more instance of modest means the opposite of what it does to someone else. If they then use it in an unambiguous way to mean 'proud', well, that meaning scores one more point and semantic shift marches on.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mispronunciation humiliation

[Sorry - this is a short and rushed post. It's Week 0.]

I was reminded the other day (because I mentioned it) that I only recently discovered how to pronounce the word archipelago. As I said in that conversation, discovering how to pronounce words as an adult tends to be an embarrassing realisation that you've misinterpreted something your whole life, usually in front of more people than you would like.

In this case I suppose it's not so embarrassing, but the reason for my mispronunciation (with stress on the -la- syllable rather than the -pel- syllable) was because I was simply looking at the word as an undecomposable whole. Had I known that the word came from a Greek prefix arkhi and root pelagos (which I ought to have recognised, really, given how much I like the word pelagic), I might have had a better chance (though perhaps not, as I also pronounce pelagic with stress on the penultimate syllable).

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The complicated strange business of stacking up adjectives

There was recently a nice Slate article on adjective ordering. I won't repeat it all here, as you can go and read it if you're interested, but it seems to me to be a very clear and interesting description of which order adjectives can appear in, and why it's weird to say bad big wolf rather than big bad wolf. It discusses the clearly sensible idea that a more 'intrinsic' or 'permanent' or 'inherent' property is closer to the noun than a temporary one (happy French student vs. *French happy student), but also notes the fact that not all adjective orders can be determined that way, and some orders are actually in contradiction to that idea. It also provides a spectacularly unmemorable mnemonic, GSSSACPM. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two working toilets

I get the train to work, and I'm by now very familiar with the various announcements (and the different announcers, some of whom are very funny and all of whom are cheerful and polite) throughout the journey. My home station is at the end of the line, so they do a sort of 'welcome to this service' announcement when we set off. Part of this reveals a funny little quirk of the standard blurb.

On the train I get, there are six coaches and there's a toilet in the first and last coach (or if it's peak time, they combine two of these six-coach units). The conductor says this:
There are two working toilets on this train.
This is an existential sentence, asserting the existence of something (the toilets). This is what we need to know, along with the information that they're in coaches A and F. The extra fact that the toilets are working is also provided, and while it's arguably essential information, it introduces some other implicatures.

Take this alternative wording:
There are two toilets on this train.
Wouldn't you assume that they're both working? OK, previous experience of British railways might make you wary of such an assumption, but the lack of an apology for an out-of-service lav would leave me reasonably confident that the toilets are at least working when we set off, whatever may happen to them later on.

This means that the extra information 'working' is not required: it can be inferred without needing to be explicitly spelt out, along with everything else in the world that is either not relevant or assumed to be true unless otherwise indicated (so, for instance, you don't preface everything you say with the assertion that you are of sound mind, telling the truth, in possession of the relevant facts, and that grass is green and so on). The fact that it's there means that we assume it's relevant in some way. What could it relevantly mean? Well, that there are some other toilets that don't work, perhaps. Perhaps there's a toilet in every coach but only the two at either end are in working order. Or perhaps - and this is more likely - the toilets are often not working, leading to a long walk along the length of the train, so the fact that both are working today is worth knowing.

Either way, it's not giving the right impression of the train's toilets (which are actually clean and in working order most of the time).