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).

Monday, 11 August 2014

Annual check-up on my dialect

I moved to Kent two years ago now, or very nearly, and we've been properly living in Margate for just over a year (I semi-commuted for the first year between Canterbury and Newcastle). Seems about time to do the annual check-in with what language changes I've undergone in that time.
Margate Main Sands
It's notoriously hard to analyse your own speech, but I'll have a go. I do know that the very instant we moved here, I dropped almost all the Newcastle features I'd spent 20 years very slowly acquiring and enthusiastically embraced a southern accent. This is a departure from last year, when I was trying to create an identity for myself and was 'the Geordie', and played up my accent a bit. I suppose now that my partner is also here, who has a much stronger accent than me, I can't be the one with the Geordie accent. Maybe it's also to do with the fact that I'm now settled here, whereas last year I was still not sure I'd be here any longer than that one year.

Some accent features I spotted very quickly were a change in my long vowels, which I can't quite pinpoint but I think it's a slight lengthening and lowering (technical stuff - they're basically very slightly different), and l-vocalisation. This means that your l's sound more like vowels, or w's, so you say 'miwk' rather than 'milk'. In addition, I've been levelling my copulas (oo-er). That means that instead of saying 'I was' and 'we were', you say 'we was' - just using that one form. You can also do it the other way, and say 'I were', but I've not been doing that one. This is funny because they do a similar thing in Newcastle and I hardly picked it up at all, but I got the southern one straight away.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

So syllogisms are tricky things

Hooray! It's been too long since Richard Dawkins last tweeted something massively ill-judged for me to blog about.
The context: Dawk is back in a previously-contested argument in which he says that 'mild' rape/paedophilia/violence is not as bad as 'violent' rape/paedophilia/violence, and then the rest of the internet gets cross with him about it. Previously, criticism was mostly around the debatable existence of 'mild rape' or 'mild paedophilia', whereas this time he has been more precise and talked about date rape versus violent rape at knifepoint. We don't need to debate which is worse, or if there is any need to have a hierarchy of such crimes (that's for judges or experts in traumatic incidents to decide, I suppose). What I want to focus on is two vaguely linguisticky things: Dawk's utter failure to grasp the need for something beyond logical truth, and 'so'.

Dawk is presenting this as a logical syllogism (in response to criticism; it wasn't how he first presented it). It isn't actually a classical syllogism, which is the 'all men are mortal' type of deductive reasoning. Really, he's just refuting an implication that some people inferred from a statement of comparison. It's unfortunate that the newspapers that get their content by summarising twitter feeds (I'm looking at you, Independent) couldn't be bothered to find this out, but no matter. While syllogisms and other logical arguments are relevant to linguistics (and I have fun teaching them in my semantics module), more important here is the fact that Dawkins is just banging on and on about logical truth, never seeing that the logical truth of his statement really isn't the point. Nobody seems to have put this in a way that he can understand, so it's not entirely his fault, but still: rape, paedophilia and the like are highly emotive topics and there is currently a lot of discussion about 'rape culture'. Given this, it's not surprising that many people would be less concerned with logical truth and more with the rhetorical effect of such public statements. Many people are extremely worried that some instances of rape are trivialised or simply discounted because the victim was drunk/married to the rapist/didn't say no etc. Saying that date rape is less bad than violent knifepoint rape may be logically true (or it may not be - Dawkins is agnostic on the matter), but humans do a lot more than just compute logical truths. We actually have to work quite hard to see purely logical truth (hence the zillions of logical fallacies that we can make), and we set a lot of store in the inferences we make. Even though saying that X is not as bad as Y doesn't condone X, it still appears to make excuses for those people who dismiss the 'date rape' cases as 'not really rape'.

So, on to 'so'. In the tweet pictured above, someone passive-aggressively tweets about Dawkins, not to him, while @ing him so that he sees it. This is the height of bad twitter manners. Dawkins, in his response, takes exception to Sequester Zone's use of 'so', asking why they used it. I assume that Dawkins is making bizarre linguistic assumptions again, and would hazard a guess that he considers 'so' to be incorrect when it is used as an introductory particle, similarly to 'and' or 'but'. I've seen some other peeving about this lately, with people claiming that 'everyone is starting their sentences with so these days'. As it happens, I agree with much of what it says in the article linked via the response above, but 'so' doesn't always indicate a rehearsed pitch or dumbing-down. It's long been used as a turn-beginning marker, or as a way to indicate that you're returning to a previous topic, or many other things. The OED's got an example from 1602 in their sense 5c, where it's a kind of 'hey I'm talking' marker:
So, let me see, my apron.
And in sense 10b(a) from 1710 (Swift, no less), where there is no preceding statement but one is implied:
So you have got into Presto's lodgings; very fine, truly!
And 10b(b), which it attributes to 'reflecting Yiddish idioms', where there is no preceding statement, or where there is adversative force (probably the use in the tweet) from the 1950s (this example is 1960):
‘I warn you..I ain't got no wine.’ ‘So who wants wine?’
Note, though, that it serves another function within twitter. In a tweet, if you begin with an @-name, it will only be seen by people that follow both parties. The convention, therefore, if your tweet begins with a name but is a mention rather than directed at that person, is to begin with a full stop so that all your followers will see it. Alternatively, you could make sure that the @-name isn't at the beginning of the tweet by using an introductory particle such as 'so'.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Noun phrase juxtaposition confusion

Associated Press caused a twitter hoo-ha when they mistakenly led a lot of their followers to think that there had been yet another air crash, this time involving the plane carrying the bodies of people who were killed in the recent Malaysia Airlines crash. They phrased it like this:
Breaking: Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven.
Lots of people reasonably thought that this meant that this plane had crash landed in Eindhoven. It didn't; it meant that the bodies from that crash have been taken to Eindhoven, where the plane has landed safely. You can read the Gawker article linked above for all the responses (my favourites are those who say 'well, AP style is 'crash-land' so it clearly didn't mean that').

One of the tweets, about halfway down the Gawker article, says that 'AP should have thrown some tactical commas/hyphens/apostrophes in that one'. Bear with me while I derail my linguistics blog into the realm of punctuation for today's post.