Thursday, 11 February 2016

Why did the dinosaurs die out?

The other day (cannot now remember where but I suspect QI), I heard someone ask this question:
Why did the man who invented the weather forecast think that the dinosaurs died out?
My suggested answer was:
Because they did?
In fact, the answer was supposed to be:
Because they were too big to fit on the ark. 
You see the problem here. I have (some might suspect wilfully) misinterpreted the scope of why. I understood it as referring to the verb phrase think that the dinosaurs died out, and so asking why he thought that. It in fact referred to the verb phrase died out, and was asking why they died. The why-question could be asking about either of these things, as in both cases the corresponding because-clause would be at the end of the sentence:
The man who invented the weather forecast thought that the dinosaurs died out because they did (in fact) die out.
The man who invented the weather forecast thought that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark
The difference in meaning comes about because of a difference in the syntactic structure. We can't see or hear this, but it's there. I've colour-coded the clauses here to make it clearer what belongs to what:
[The man who invented the weather forecast thought [that the dinosaurs died out] because they did (in fact) die out]
[The man who invented the weather forecast thought [that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark]]
In both cases, the man who invented the weather forecast thought something. In the first example, he thought that the dinosaurs died out, and we also get to hear the reason why he thought that. In the second example, he thought that the dinosaurs died out because they were too big for the ark (and all of that is one single thought).

I think that I was led towards the interpretation I chose because of the presence of that, which is optional here. When it's present, because it doesn't have to be there, my little brain wanted to assign it some job, and that job was to kind of turn the clause it introduced into a finished-off unit (that is a declarative clause introducer). So my little brain said 'it is a fact that the dinosaurs died out. Why did this man think that this thing happened?'.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

You never got in the market

I was watching a programme about Spitalfields market. A man, aged probably in his early 60s, who had worked there his whole life, was talking about how you got a job there in the early days:
If you never knew anyone, you never got in the market. 
This illustrates a characteristic of many non-standard varieties of English: the use of never as a past tense negator instead of as a negative temporal adverb. Jenny Cheshire describes this as a difference between referring to universal time (the not ever meaning) versus a particular point in time (the not meaning). I'll not say more about this here because if I start trying to summarise it all, that's my day gone, as I find it so interesting. But suffice it to say that if you look it up there's a ton of research on it, and much of it pretty accessible to a non-linguist.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

German lunchtime

Sorry for the gap - marking nearly killed me but I made it out the other side. I haven't got long but I thought I'd share what I learnt in my German class today: Germans eat lunch at midday, no matter what time they eat lunch.


Well, the German for 'to have lunch' is zu Mittag essen, or 'eat at midday'. I asked whether you would still say this even if you have lunch later (which I usually do), and the answer was 'well, midday is usually lunchtime' but that yes, you would say it anyway. So in my homework I have written Um 1 Uhr esse ich zu Mittag, which literally means 'at one o'clock I eat at midday'.

Monday, 25 January 2016

El Gato, the nameless cat

It was revealed last week that Jeremy Corbyn's cat does not have a name, and he simply calls it 'el gato'. Or is that El Gato? It was in an interview with the Independent, and you can't hear capital letters, so we may never know. Perhaps it doesn't matter. But perhaps it does!

Image result for corbyn el gato
El Gato, the cat. 
Corbyn himself appears to regard this as not a name, as he goes on to talk about how cats don't know their own names anyway. However, El Gato could be a perfectly good name, if he chooses to think of it that way. Yes, it means 'the cat', but we can use common nouns as proper nouns quite easily. My friend does exactly this, as her car is nicknamed El Gato. Another friend's mother has a cat whose name is The Little Cat. Ella Fitzgerald and all the other Ellas are just called 'her', by the same token, but we think of it as a name. Adam West and all the other Adams are just called 'man', but again, no problem here.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A-g-nother g-nu

In the recent series of University Challenge: The Professionals, shown at Christmas time, Jeremy Paxman asked a question involving a gnu. A gnu is an animal, also known as a wildebeest. Here's what they look like:

Brilliantly, Wiktionary captions this photo as 'a few gnus'
It's pronounced the same as 'new', where the 'g' is not silent, exactly, because it changes the pronunciation of the 'n', but it's not pronounced as a /g/. However, in the well-known Flanders and Swann song The Gnu, some of the joke is centred around the pronunciation /gnu:/, with a hard 'g'. This animal isn't that commonly talked about, so you most often hear it in the context of this song, which means that it can be quite hard to remember it's not actually pronounced /gnu:/. Paxman apparently failed to remember this as well, as he pronounced the 'g' when he said it. I'll add this to the list of 'language influenced by comedy'.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Ne translatez pas les languages

A friend posted this photo on facebook the other day:

A number of highly intelligent people then missed the point of the joke and began to comment on how bad the translations are. I think they're pretty good imitations of the languages in question, with one big error: the 'German' looks (unmistakably) more like Dutch in the second half of the sentence.

These are not intended to be translations, of course, or rather they're deliberately not accurate. They're just meant to amuse the English-speaking audience by including funny words to compound the humour of the warning in English ('avoid pouring on crotch area'). After all, we love nothing more than when a foreign language does something in a funny way (cf. Welsh popty-ping for 'microwave' or German Handy for 'mobile phone') so it's nice to imagine that these might be for real.

Let's begin with the French. The grammar is fine, as far as I know: you'd make an imperative in French with the negative and the 2nd person plural inflection, just as it's done there. The phrase dans l'area seems OK to me, too. The vocabulary used just isn't French, that's all. The verb for 'pour' should, I think (Google Translate helped) be verser so you'd have ne versez pas. I don't know if you'd also need a pronoun in there (don't pour it) or not. And, of course, no French person ever says ooh-la-la, but it's stereotypically French and referring to ones' crotch that way goes nicely with the French reputation for romance.

Next, the 'German'. This one caused a bit more controversy in the comment thread, because it very obviously isn't German. My German is less good than my French, but I'm pretty certain the word order here is wrong as well as the vocabulary and morphology. I think you would say literally 'drop you not...' rather than 'not drop...', which is what we appear to have here: nein is German for 'no'. Then the verb is obviously just English again, with droppen instead of pourez. I think they've simply selected words that have a combination of letters that resemble the language in question (so French has a word pour, for instance, but it doesn't look very Germanic).

Next, though, I think we've got a nice case of representing an accent in words that look like (or indeed exist in) the language. So ze haut kaffe does not mean 'the hot coffee' in German (haut apparently means 'skin', for instance, and the German for 'coffee' is in fact kaffee, which they could have used instead), but it looks German-ish and sounds like someone saying the hot coffee in (some kind of representation of) a German accent. It reminds me of this a bit. Notice also that the 'German' has an overt object with article, while the French has nothing at all ('don't drop _ on the crotch area' vs 'don't drop the hot coffee on the crotch area').

Then it most definitely switches to Dutch-looking words, if we hadn't already. Dutch word order is a little bit more familiar to English speakers as well, I think, although I know even less Dutch than I do German. Anyway, here we've got a dead giveaway for Dutch: that word oont. It just has a Dutch-like feel to it, though I don't know why (double 'o'? final 't'?). And then finally the lovely phrase, ze knakkers. Again, this is definitely Germanic and in fact Google Translate does give 'knackers' as the translation of this as a German word (it gives 'frankfurter cherry' if you tell it knakkers is Dutch!).

Good work, coffee-cup-humour-producing-person!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Oldman, not old man

Another thing I watched over Christmas was a repeat of A Touch of Cloth, a comedy detective series by Charlie Brooker. There's a character in it called Detective Oldman, and many jokes are had around her surname and the phrase old man. The thing is, the name is pronounced differently from the phrase. You pronounce the name with a reduced second vowel, so it's [ˈɒldmən], whereas the phrase old man is pronounced something like [ɒldˈmæn] (the first vowel varies a bit). Even if you don't read IPA, you can see they're different in the vowels used and where the stress is placed. This meant that in the programme, for the jokes to work, her name had to be pronounced like the phrase rather than in the usual way, which sounds decidedly weird.