Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The location of 'not'

I overheard an interesting conversation on the train this weekend. One man was telling his friend about 'the most racist moment ever on live television'. It went approximately like this (and I don't know what TV programme it was - he'd seen it on the internet):

On a television programme, some people had to choose who to give the money to out of a couple of women, a black man, and someone else of some ethnic minority (the speaker thought 'maybe Hawaiian'). Someone on this programme apparently said of the black man,
'I don't think he should get the money because he's black'. 
He apparently followed up with some justification about it giving ethnic minorities a bad name, 'always playing the victim'.

This is not great however you spin it, but there are actually (at least) two interpretations, and one is way worse than the other. It has to do with what's called the 'scope' of the negation. In other words, what is it that's negated here?

One meaning is something like this: 'I think that this man should not get the money, and the reason I think that is because he is black and I'm against black people being given money'. On this interpretation, the speaker simply doesn't want the black man to get the money.

The other is something like 'I don't think that this man should get the money simply by virtue of his being black, because racial discrimination is a bad thing even if it's positive discrimination'. On this interpretation, the speaker may decide that the black man should get the money for some other reason, but doesn't think his race should be the criterion for making the decision.

We can see what's going on if I write out those paraphrases using some formal phrasing 'it is the case that', which means something like 'the following is true', and put each part of the sentence on a new line:
It is the case that
I think that
he should not get it because he is black
It is not the case that
I think that
he should get it because he is black
You can see that the not, which I emboldened in the examples above, is in a different place in each one.

In the first one, the negation is part of the 'lowest' level of embedding and only negates the 'getting the money' situation: he should not get the money because he is black. The higher levels tell us that the speaker does indeed believe this (negated) proposition.

In the second one, the negation is 'higher up' - it negates the whole situation of the speaker thinking something. The lowest level is the proposition that he should get the money because he is black, and the not tells us that speaker does not believe this.

Maybe it's hard to follow this if you just read it through, but if you think about the two paraphrases you'll probably find you have these same two interpretations. I leave you with a joke that requires a similar scope-of-negation ambiguity:
A newly-wed couple are leaving for their honeymoon. The man says to the woman, 'Would you have married me if my father hadn't left me a fortune?', to which she replies, 'Darling, I'd have married you no matter who had left you a fortune'. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Physically the new literally

Usual disclaimer: while I am talking about the language use of actual people, it's in the spirit of interested observation and not at all critical, and the examples used here are made up but based on real ones.

You'll have noticed that quite a lot of people get upset about the use of literally when it's used non-literally (though, as Jesse Sheidlower notes (thanks to Stan Carey for alerting me to this) its literal use is rarely very literal).

I've recently noticed what I think might be a similar phenomenon in student assignments. They need to express something precisely and explicitly, but they lack the skills to do it quite right. For instance, we asked them to say whether a phrase some books was 'referential' in a particular sentence or not. The correct answer needed to point out that as the sentence included a past tense verb, referring to an event that had already happened at the time of utterance, there had to be certain specific books that were found and the phrase was, therefore, referential. Many of the students could see this and got basically the right answer, but didn't realise that it was the verb tense that was the thing to mention, and instead fumbled around a bit with this kind of thing:
There are some actual books that Mara physically found.
Given that this is a fictional world and a made-up sentence, this cannot be true. But you know what they mean, don't you? This is where the line blurs between actually literally literal use and actually not-very-literal use (and just look how non-actual 'actual' is nearly every time it's used).

I mentioned this on twitter and people responded with examples like this:
@johnthejack also noted that he thought this usage began with things like I physically can't do that, where it's more or less literal but starting to have its meaning bleached, and then expanded into more and more abstract territory, as is generally the case when words change their meaning.

A quick look at a twitter snapshot from today (19th April 2015) shows that most of the time, it's used in opposition to mentally:
I'm mentally and physically exhausted
Or to refer to the body:
I'm going to paint it on you - physically on you 
Sometimes, it's emphasising that the person really does mean 'in real life' where there might be the possibility for ambiguity (which indicates that it's already well on the way to metaphorical use):
He physically hit me
Sometimes, it's referring to 'in real life' but as an exaggeration for comic effect:
It doesn't matter how cold my feet are, I'm physically incapable of wearing socks to bed. I like them to just cover my toes with heels out. (@geekhag)
There's also a lot of use of the set phrases physically sick and physically attracted to, which can be interpreted literally or with physically as an intensifier. This leads to the use of the phrase physically impossible, where it also may or may not be an intensifier.

I also noticed this nice metalinguistic comment:
My favourite is when people say things like "Physically murdered." @jake_lach)
While physically seems to me to have pretty much the same meaning as actually, there are others going through the process with slightly different effects:
Stan thought this is 'typically used to stress agreement or the truth or facts about something'.

I should point out that all of these are non-academic language and so shouldn't be used in assignments, but that's another matter. I'm not saying anything more about this just now, but let it be noted and I'll keep an eye out for it, and see how it develops. Will it sneak in unnoticed, or will people start to get annoyed about it as they do with literally?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Daily Fail fails to ask a linguist (again)

It's no surprise when a newspaper publishes an article about language and fails to ask a linguist. They rarely do. It's even less of a surprise when the newspaper is the Daily Mail and the 'article' is actually just a summary of a website (note to newspapers: this is not journalism. It's lazy. Especially when you get to it two weeks after the rest of the internet has already seen it).

This 'article' summarises a reddit thread for us, which is actually quite handy because reddit threads are horrible things to read. The questioner wanted to know what the hardest English words to pronounce are. Here's the top ten, as reported by the Mail:

  1. Worcestershire
  2. Specific
  3. Squirrel
  4. Brewery 
  5. Phenomenon
  6. Derby
  7. Regularly
  8. February
  9. Edited
  10. Heir

The Mail then helpfully made some very condescending comments about how specific and squirrel are 'apparently easy' and brewery and edited 'seem rather straightforward to the average Brit', while February and phenomenon are 'notorious tongue twisters even for native speakers'.

So far, so utterly, utterly dull and vacuous.

Among the linguistically interesting things to note here is the fact that there are two types of difficulty: hard to articulate, and hard to predict. Derby is very easy to say for most people, but it's hard to predict its pronunciation from its spelling. Similarly heir and, of course, Worcestershire, which has the further problem of being long and daunting.

On the other hand, specific, squirrel, brewery, February and edited are all pronounced more or less like they're spelt, but it's actually saying them without stumbling that can prove tricky. They have consonant clusters like [skw], and lots of [r] sounds and 'glides' [w] that occur between vowels, making them hard to keep control of. February causes native speakers less trouble than the Mail would have you believe, because we don't try to pronounce both those [r] sounds.

[r] in general crops up a lot here, probably because a lot of the contributors to the list speak a first language like Chinese where [r] and [l] are not two different sounds, but rather two 'versions' of a sound ('allophones'). English contrasts these sounds (so read and lead are different words), but doesn't contrast the two 'k' sounds in car and key, for instance (so you can't the difference unless you're trained to do so). If your language treats [r] and [l] as being as similar as those English considers those two 'k' sounds, you can imagine the difficulty regularly or squirrel is going to cause you.

Likewise, edited contains a string of short, similar vowels separated by [d] or [t]. Those two sounds are very similar to each other, differing only in terms of whether they're 'voiced' or not ([d] is, [t] isn't) and again, many languages don't contrast these sounds. In many English dialects (e.g. US English), they are actually pronounced more or less the same in this word. You end up with some sequence of rapid tapping of the tongue against the back of the teeth which is over almost before you realise you've begun it.

(Incidentally, no one in real life pronounces the name of the sauce as Worcestershire - everyone calls it 'Worcester sauce'. Apparently this is frowned upon by the company that makes it, but it's true.)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

I'm a linguist however I correct mistakes

I teach, among other things, first-year syntax seminars. I've found that this year's cohort are pretty good at knowing the basic parts of speech but one of the things we do at degree level is learn how to identify nouns, verbs and so on based on their behaviour and question mis-classifications. The other day, I said English really only has three conjunctions: and, or and but. (Actually this isn't totally accurate but those are the common ones, I think. Note that I'm only referring to what are sometimes called 'coordinating conjunctions' - subordinating ones are another thing.) One of my students asked whether however isn't a conjunction as well.

This is an excellent question. And as with most excellent questions, the answer is 'yes and no'. I was suddenly, in a 9am seminar, suffering from severe tiredness, faced with the descriptivist academician's paradox.

This is one of the things that is mentioned time and again when lecturers compare notes on common writing mistakes in student essays: however used as a conjunction. Here's an example:
This argument is very persuasive, however I believe the premise is false. 
This sentence could be written perfectly grammatically with but instead of however as follows:
This argument is very persuasive, but I believe the premise is false. 
With however, it's a comma splice and at best, clumsy, and at worst confusing. If you're desperate to use the word however, because you're keen to use polysyllabic words wherever you can, the following is acceptable:
 This argument is very persuasive; however, I believe the premise is false.
 So far, this is not linguistics so much as standard essay-marker's griping. The linguistics comes now. As linguists, we are descriptive, no matter how prescriptive we are as essay-markers. For that reason, we apply writing rules in what I think is a more sensible manner than many other subjects do (in my former life as a writing tutor I heard of history lecturers with flat-out bans on completely innocuous things for no discernible reason). We allow things that others might outlaw as long as it's done well. Lately, for instance, I've noticed that I no longer care about contracted forms in essays, as long as the apostrophes are correct and the style is otherwise formal and reads well - correcting this might lead to stilted, lumpy writing. We allow first-person pronouns (why on earth not?) as long as students don't use them to say things like 'I believe' (cf. my example above). Passive voice is perfectly fine as long as it's not used to pad out the essay with extra words.

So what of however? It all depends. Is the error in my example above a punctuation error, in which case it most definitely is an error and deserves the red pen, or is it a reflection of a change in language which will be permitted before long? The only way we could check would be to listen to the intonation. Is there a semicolon break preceding it and a comma break following it in speech? If so, it's wrongly punctuated. If not, perhaps I'll have to learn to live with it. Unfortunately, this isn't really a feature of everyday speech: it's formal style, and formal style is highly influenced by written style. If that written style is wrong to start with, we have a chicken and egg problem on our hands.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Language, Gender and the Power of Stereotypes

Our Head of Department, Amalia Arvaniti, gave an inaugural lecture last week and we livetweeted it. Here's the Storified version, complete with my sarky comments.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


It's more and more common for linguists of all types to use quantitative methods in their research. This used to be something that only certain people did, because it was the nature of the method/subject matter etc. Now I increasingly get the feeling that those who don't are seen by some people as somehow not doing work that is as valid. I'm still pretty well in the theoretical linguistics camp (which doesn't mean we don't use data, interestingly, but it's not quantitative data). This means that my ability to wrangle statistical packages and interpret complex facts is close to nonexistent, but even I could spot some clangers in a recent episode of More Or Less (a BBC World Service programme).

First, there was an item about the apparent rapid increase in antisemitic attacks. The organisation Campaign Against Antisemitism had carried out a survey which revealed a worryingly high rate of British Jewish people being concerned about their long-term future in this country. It's not in question that there is antisemitism to some extent, but the presenter, Tim, noted that it's hard to sample the Jewish population in a fully representative way in this country. In response to Tim asking the reasonable question 'How do you know your respondents aren't disproportionately worried about antisemitism?', the spokesman for CAA said 'If you look at the results, they represent a range of views'. Well. Maybe so, but I think it's quite obvious that you can't judge how representative your sample is just from the responses of your own sample, if you don't have anything to compare it to.

Then there was an item in which someone (I think a Manchester police spokesperson but I could be wrong) talked about 60 men found in canals over the last few years and put this high number of deaths down to an as yet unidentified killer. The programme's researchers looked into how many deaths from accidental drownings one might expect over a similar period. When this chap was told that one would expect 61 accidental drownings, he said this: 'You can't ignore the statistics - well if you want to ignore the statistics...' and went on to speculate further about these deaths being linked. But it's him who is ignoring the statistics, in this case, and speculating on the basis of misleading numbers.

I find More Or Less and similar 'behind the numbers' things really interesting, because I'm fascinated by how easy it is to confuse ourselves and others with statistics. I remember one particular example from Bang Goes The Theory where Dr Yan demonstrated (with bacon sandwiches) how nearly everyone fails to spot that 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer by 20%' and 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer from 5% to 6%' are making exactly the same claim. We are apparently very bad at this kind of thing.

Friday, 30 January 2015

More pronoun fun

As an update to the pronoun post, here's a good alternative pronoun set from Futurama, brought to my attention by Jonathan Kasstan.

However, despite the pronouns shkle and so on being required because Yivo is gender-neutral, there's a replacement for each of him and her: shklim and shkler.
Yivo is the lover of all beings male and female. But Yivo has no gender. Thus Yivo has proclaimed that instead of he or she we are to use the word shkle. And instead of him or her we are to use the word shklim or shkler.