Tuesday, 29 November 2011

When does waste yeast become Marmite?

There's been a Marmite spill on the M1. This has led to many, many jokes about sending soldiers to clean it up, etc. The way that Independent article reported it though was a bit odd.

Now, for what follows you need to know that Marmite is a spread, and its generic name (i.e. what the supermarkets have to call their own brand) is 'yeast extract'. It's apparently similar to Australian Vegemite, but not to NewZealand Marmite, which has a different flavour, according to Wikipedia. It is a very dark brown, sticky goo and has a very strong flavour. I can't really describe the flavour but it's what they use to make roast beef flavour crisps. It's basically pure umami and I love it, but their slogan in 'Love it or hate it' because some people can't stand it. My mother won't have it in the house. At my grandma's 90th birthday party earlier this year, me and my dad and my uncles and cousins were all standing around eating Marmite on toast and I think my mother left the room and started thinking about disowning us.

So, what the Independent said was this:
A large-scale clean-up operation is under way after a tanker carrying more than 20 tonnes of yeast extract - believed to be Marmite - overturned on a busy motorway.
So it is probably Marmite, OK? But later in the article they quote the South Yorkshire police spokeswoman:
We were called at 10.15pm yesterday to reports of a tanker, which was carrying 23.5 tonnes of waste yeast, overturning.
Now it's waste yeast? Marmite was originally a by-product of the brewing industry. This means that technically, it's not much different from waste yeast. But it is different, in the crucial sense that you can't just eat waste yeast, and I imagine that there is a fairly complicated (but secret) manufacturing process to obtain one from t'other.

Newspaper articles often end up using a lot of synonyms or near-synonyms because they value variety of expression over clarity. This can lead to phrases like 'the busty blonde, 23' or 'the former banker' which, while adding extra information, are often superfluous. I think that's what's caused the problem here. But waste yeast and Marmite are NOT synonyms. As Lynneguist said over on Twitter:
Britain, a land where 'waste yeast' and 'food' can be considered synonyms
Anyway, to finish all this up, here's Nigella's Marmite spaghetti recipe, which is surprisingly delicious (though you do have to like Marmite; it's not going to convert any haters):

Cook spaghetti.
Melt 50g butter and Marmite (as much as you like - a big spoonful or so) and add the drained pasta. 
She suggests serving with parmesan - we didn't have any and it's fine without, but adding it would add to the immense umami overkill. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Fenton the dog. Or Benton the dog.

A video has gone viral of a dog chasing some deer in Richmond Park in London. It's quite funny, I suppose, though it's odd the things that catch people's attention.

Anyway, everyone thought the dog was called Benton, which is I suppose a reasonable enough name for a dog, to call him after Eriq LaSalle's character in ER. My goldfish is called Steve, named after Miles Davis. But it turns out that the dog is called Fenton, perhaps named after Alvin Stardust.*

That reminded me of the McGurk effect, which is an amazing illusion that illustrates just how bad we are at hearing stuff right when our eyes tell us different. Watch this clip from BBC's Horizon: Is Seeing Believing? (from earlier this year, I think). It illustrates it quite nicely.

Weird, isn't it? Maybe the dog didn't come back when he was called because he heard Benton as well.

*OK, that got a bit surreal there for a moment. So, my goldfish is called Steve. We did have two, called Miles and Davis. Miles went to the big fishbowl in the sky, and we felt we really couldn't be left with a fish called Davis. So we started calling him Steve, as in Steve Davis.

The Alvin Stardust/Fenton thing is an interesting story. The man later known as Alvin Stardust had hits in the 60s as Shane Fenton (and the Fentones). However, that's not his real name either. He was born Bernard Jewry, and was hanging about with a band, Shane Fenton and the Fentones, who were waiting to hear back about a demo tape they'd sent to the BBC. But then the original Shane Fenton (also not his real name) died, aged 17. The band were going to break up until suddenly they got the call from the BBC they'd been waiting for. Fenton's mother asked them to continue, in memory of her son, and Jewry became the new Shane Fenton. Apparently Fenton had chosen the name because it sounded 'American' and therefore (at that time) cool.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Posthumous reform

I got an email today telling me this:
On Saturday 26 November 2011, Seaham Harbour's A Woman of No Importance will reform to play a special show at Newcastle Arts Centre, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. The band will perform their posthomously released compilation album, 'AWoNI' (fakeindielabel, 2007) in it's entirety, in order.
I'm intrigued as to what tragedy could have wiped out the whole band, but what I really want to know is how a band can possibly reform and perform their posthumously-released compilation album.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Who are 'Asians'?

So, there's this book. (You can't Click to look inside!, that's just part of the image. Go to Amazon if you want to do that.)

I'm not going to review it because I haven't read it (it's only on Kindle and I don't have one, as you know), and it's not fair to review a book based on the publisher's blurb. Let me just say that I'm deeply sceptical about its central claim, which is
that "human cognition is not everywhere the same"-that those brought up in Western and East Asian cultures think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology (as articulated by Steven Pinker and others) and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are "hard wired." 
Of course there are cultural differences, and they may well be measurable, but I really don't think that this challenges the idea that all human cognition is basically the same.

[Update: I found this blog post with the text of an article submitted to Cognitive Linguistics. It reanalyses Nisbett's work and reckons it's due to linguistic differences rather than cultural differences, as Chinese people respond differently from Japanese people in tests. For instance, head-directionality, they claim, means that Japanese people mention context first, whereas American people mention salient information first.]

Anyway, like I say, I'm not reviewing it. I'm quibbling about a decision (by the publishers?) to keep the subtitle that was used in the US edition. It's this:
How Asians and Westerners think differently... and why.
I'm reasonably comfortable with the use of catch-all expressions for broad ethnic groupings; sometimes it's necessary. So 'Westerners', for me, means North Americans and West/Central Europeans, and probably also Eastern Europeans as well nowadays. As far as I can tell from the blurb, that's pretty much what the author intends:
those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon-descended cultures
But 'Asian', to me and to most UK English speakers, means people who look a bit like this:

That's Nihal, a well-known DJ on BBC stations Radio 1 and Asian Network. This differs quite a lot from what most US speakers mean by 'Asian':

Presumably the publisher knows about this difference. And presumably they didn't put the subtitle on the front cover for this reason. And throughout the blurb, it refers to 'East Asians', which is presumably a concession to this difference in the meaning of the word. But still, it makes me think the whole book is equally as careless (I'm sure it's not) and puts me right off reading it.

(Actually, we really could do with a better term than 'East Asian'. 'Oriental' doesn't seem to cut it these days, even though it just means 'eastern'. I'm fresh out of ideas though.)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Measuring impact

These days researchers are asked to assess the impact of their research. It's not good enough to say that you're doing it out of a quest for ever greater knowledge, or because as humans we should strive to find out how our world works. It also isn't going to wash if you point out the great amount of mathematical work that seemed to have no practical application when it was first done but now underpins and is vital for absolutely everything in our day to day life (computers, for instance - the principles behind them preceded the technology by centuries).

So we need to know how to measure impact, or at least how to convince the funding bodies and the REF that we are doing stuff with impact. Even though we don't need to worry about the REF yet, as PhD students, it's wise to get to know about this stuff early.

With that in mind, here's a link to an LSE site with podcasts on just this, aimed at us folk. There are also other resources on the site, and they are holding an event on the 1st December for PhD students.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Penelope Keith and the stress pattern of English

In this week's Radio Times, the actress Penelope Keith gets worked up about the pronunciation of certain words: 
If I hear 'lamentable', she says with a shudder, 'or worse, 'irrevocable', I want to get a brick and throw it at the wireless. We have to keep screaming[...] because if we don't, this kind of this will become current.
Disregarding (or 'irregardless', if you prefer - it would undoubtedly annoy Penelope) the fact that it's already current, of she wouldn't be hearing it on 'the wireless', what's her problem?

Well, I don't have access to the OED here but Dictionary.com tells me that it is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable. In fact, Merriam-Webster gives it with the stress on the ment syllable, and stressed on the first as an alternative. Clearly, this is an old and well-established pronunciation. Still, Penelope Keith doesn't like it and others probably feel the same way. This is just yer basic peeving and not to be worried about.

But what interested me was that it actually seems odd to pronounce it the way she would like. English generally, in long words, puts the stress on the antepenultimate syllable:
an.te.pe.'nul.ti.mateex.tra.te.'rre.stri.al'fru.mi.ous 'ban.der.snatch
Not always, of course, there are exceptions:
I don't know enough about this kind of thing to know what causes these to be different, but I suspect it's something to do with the morphology and compounding involved in creating these words. But for lamentable and irrevocable, it seems absolutely natural to follow the pattern and stick the primary stress on the ment and voc bits, not least because we have la'ment and re'voke, although of course stress often changes when words are inflected (cf. pho.'to.gra.phy and pho.to.'gra.phic above). 

So why would we expect the pronunciation preferred by Penelope? I don't have an answer to this one; it's a genuine question. Answers on the back of a postcard (or in the comments). 

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Rules of language vs prescriptivism

I blog this blog over at Tumblr as well, as there's a linguistic community over there and Blogger is so uselessly hopeless at having any kind of interaction between bloggers. There was an interesting post recently from Lesserjoke, which I replied to.

He was asked this question:

Question: Hey, I’m just wondering- and totally not in a sarcastic/condescending way- from a linguists perspective, if there’s no “wrong” usage of words or grammar, why have rules at all? Are there any that matter? Just wanted to get your views on it.

And this was his reply:

Answer: Linguists really do vary, and most are not as pigheadedly anti-prescriptivist as I am. =) But, from my perspective, we don’t need rules at all. English survived for quite a while before people started writing down the rules to it, and there are many societies around the world still today that don’t actively enforce linguistic rules.

There’s a huge pressure on people who directly interact to understand one another. If X and Y are going to communicate to each one’s benefit, they’re going to need to be able to successfully pass messages back and forth. And when you expand that to an entire society, the principle remains the same: the language of people who are forced to communicate naturally converges to the point of understandability, without the need for actively prescribing rules.

Due to that pressure, most variation within a language is just statistical noise: it’s interesting, it can teach us a lot about the principles of grammar, and I would even say it’s beautiful… but it’s so minor that it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension. It’s really rare for two speakers of the same language to truly not be able to understand each other.

And if that were to happen — if, without the active enforcement of grammatical rules, a formerly common language begins splitting apart… who cares? Historically, that’s happened plenty of times. The various Romance languages all descended from dialects of Latin, Old English branched away from Old Germanic, and so on and so forth. Languages split when that social pressure goes away: when one population of Old Germanic speakers no longer are interacting enough with the others to need to maintain cross-group intelligibility. It’s a perfectly natural linguistic process, and it almost doesn’t make sense to stand in its way. If we need to understand one another, we will, and if we don’t, what’s the point of making sure we can?

So that’s my answer! The explicit enforcement of grammatical rules is unnecessary and only serves to unfairly shame speakers of nonstandard variants. If we just let the invisible hand take care of it (the way many societies have done and continue to do today), an equilibrium of necessary intelligibility in language would soon be achieved.

I thought that was broadly right but overlooked a fundamental aspect of language, which is that it is strictly rule-governed. I agree that we don't need to explicitly enforce the rules, but speakers of language enforce them themselves without outside interference. I replied stating as much, as follows:

A crucial point is the difference between prescriptive rules and the principles of grammar that underlie language. I agree with the above regarding the explicit enforcement of ‘rules’ - but these are the little things, the things that vary in non-standard usage and so on. 
The fact there are asymmetries that hold across every language tells me that there are underlying principles (rules) that form the structure of language. Variation is on top of that and provides the difference languages that we see. For example, there is no language, not a single one, which has the opposite of V2 (i.e. that places the verb in the penultimate position). There are loads of these facts and they tell us that there must be some kind of rules. 
And furthermore, although speakers can communicate even when there’s a lot of variation, there are limits to what speakers will produce and judge grammatical. It’s basically the difference between saying that you can’t say ‘I done it already’ and saying that you can’t say ‘already it I’ - a speaker may well say the first and a prescriptivist would rule it ‘wrong’, but no speaker of English would produce the second. 
These are examples from syntax, but we can look at phonology too. We can say that it’s fine to pronounce the vowel in ‘grass’ (there’s a massive difference between the north and south of England on this one) in two wildly different ways, and both are fine and understandable. One might be judged wrong by certain people, but as long as both say ‘grass’, it’s not wrong from a linguistic point of view. But it’s simply not possible for an English speaker to pronounce a word [rgas]. It’s against the rules of the language - not the ones someone made up, but the real, natural rules that underpin the structure of the language. 
So I would say we DO need rules; we don’t need prescriptivists because speakers enforce the real rules themselves naturally. This doesn’t preclude language change, because the rules can change, but at any one time, the language is stable enough for us to communicate. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Linguistics in the news - really!

Normally when I write of linguistics being in the news, what I mean is that there is a news item with a linguistic angle that I can write about, or that some news item is about language and I can discuss the 'proper' linguistics behind it. This time, the BBC has attempted a genuine linguistics item.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Kate Bush, Eskimos and snow words

It's a well-known linguistic myth that 'Eskimos have [insert high number here] words for snow'. This has been conclusively shown to be stupid*, and I think a lot of people now know this. But it's still a nice little 'factoid' and Kate Bush has made good use of it in her new album, 50 words for snow. Via Language Log, which documents this sort of thing, I found out about the album and now a link to listen to the song online.

Ben Zimmer at LL has put the link, together with the lyrics, online in a nice blogpost on the topic. The title song features Stephen Fry speaking the titular 50 words (English words and phrases, not Eskimo - although there is a Klingon one) and the results are really quite beautiful. The words are a mix of nice-but-nonsense and witty, like blown from polar fur, spangladasha and icyskidski.

*For many reasons, argued persuasively by Laura Martin some years ago. For instance, what do you mean by Eskimo? It's kind of a blanket term for a group of languages. What do you mean by 'word'? That family of languages is polysynthetic, which means there's a heck of a lot of affixes and you can make many words from a single root. In fact, a single 'word' can actually be a whole sentence, making the number of 'words' presumably infinite.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Chomsky by Chomsky

I was very pleased to hear a linguistics-Chomsky question on University Challenge last night, so in celebration I thought I'd blog this great infographic. It presents the generative ('Chomskyan') view of language acquisition in a nice smart postery-type way, as an imaginary class on the topic.

Here's the image, or click the link to see it at the original site (worth doing as there's more to look at there).

Friday, 11 November 2011

An hypothesis or a hypothesis?

I stumbled across the phrase an hypothesis in a book yesterday and it gave me pause. Surely, I thought to myself, that can't be right? I never use an with words beginning with the [h] sound myself, but even if you do, I thought, you wouldn't use it with hypothesis. Here's approximately what I assumed was the rule, never having troubled to learn it:
If the word once had a silent h (because it was borrowed from French), use an. Otherwise (f'rinstance if it's borrowed from Greek), use a. Therefore it would be an hotel but a hypothesis.
Not so. I looked it up. Nowadays, of course, the rule is to use a wherever [h] is pronounced (a hotel), and an wherever h is silent (an honour), and very sensible the rule is too. But if one did want to use an, one should properly do so with words longer than 'about three syllables' and which have an unstressed initial syllable. Hypothesis, for instance.

And it turns out not to be a stupid left-over-from-history rule either: it really is easier to say an when the syllable is not stressed, because it takes too much effort to stop after a and start again on the relatively weak [h] sound in an unstressed syllable.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Ambiguous signage

Faced with this sign, what would you do?

Today I saw a woman frankly baffled by it. I'm not picking on the civic centre, really I'm not, but I do happen to pass there often and their signs are just so very unconventional. 

To clarify, the building has two sets of doors on either side of this sort of corridor. On each side, one of the sets is out of order due to the weight of the glass. This sign, saying 'We are sorry - this door is not in use', is stuck on the glass next to one of the sets of doors, with an arrow pointing towards that set of doors. The question is, is that the door that's out of order, or is it the door you should use? 

The answer is (a), it's the door that is out of order. Of course it is: this door (points) is not in use. But it's really quite odd to point towards the thing that you're supposed to be getting people to not use. Normally an arrow would direct people towards the correct door to use. This leads to a conflict between apparent meaning and expected use of arrows, and people get baffled. 

(The sign is, of course, intended to be the precise bridge between these two conditions: it should be placed on the out-of-use door, with the arrow pointing towards the door that people should use instead. It's just been the unfortunate victim of poor sign-redeployment.)

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Handy IPA tool

While writing yesterday's post, I needed some IPA symbols, as I frequently do (far more often than I should, not being a phonologist). I stumbled across this handy website which allows you to type your text in a text box and then copy and paste into whatever you're writing. You can toggle between this simplified keyboard which gives you what you need for English, and a full IPA one with loads of symbols. There are also keyboards for other languages, such as an Italian one with accented vowels (not IPA) and an Icelandic one which gives you thorn and so on.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Odd abbreviation reveals spelling over phonetics?

It was my friend's birthday the other day so we met in a pub for lunch, which is the accepted correct way to celebrate a birthday. Another friend hadn't been to the pub before and an interesting misunderstanding ensued.

We were going to a place called LYH. It's a nice pub, though you wouldn't know it to look at it from the outside. It does good grub and nice beer. This particular friend not only hadn't been there before but hadn't even heard of it before. However, we have been several times to another pub, called Mr Lynch. (Also a nice pub, though different - less about the beer, more about the partying, but still good grub.) This friend thought that in my text message 'LYH' was an abbreviation for 'Lynch'. Don't panic folks, she realised in time and made it to the correct venue. But the question is, how did this misunderstanding occur?

I wouldn't have abbreviated that word anyway, as it happens, but if I did, I think it'd be to 'Lch' or something similar. It would have included the important sounds of the word, the initial and final consonants in this case. The particularly odd thing about abbreviating it to 'Lyh' would be that the last letter, the 'h', doesn't even represent a sound of the word 'Lynch'. In broad phonological transcription, the word is [lɪntʃ]. That last sound, the 't' and the long 's', together make the sound we write as 'ch'. At no point in saying the word 'Lynch' do you make the sound [h], which is the sound you make if you say 'huh'. This is evident if you try to say 'Lyh' as a word - doesn't sound good, does it? 

So it would have been a strange choice for me to abbreviate to if I was going off the sounds in the word. But this highlights the fact that in written communication we can dissociate ourselves from the sounds of words and refer only to the spelling. Some people do this more than others, I think, though I don't know what makes the difference. Perhaps those who read more do it more. You know sometimes on 'Come dine with me', the participants read an unfamiliar item on the menu, say it's 'taramasalata', and instead of reading out what's there, they instead guess a word they know, like 'tiramisu'? I think it's the opposite of that. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Kindle is for lowbrow, hard copy for highbrow?

That's the main message of this Telegraph article, which did some kind of statistically dodgy survey and found that while 71% of the books (real ones) on respondents shelves were 
autobiographies, political memoirs and other weighty non-fiction titles,
the most popular books on Kindle are - surprise - the popular genres like mystery, thriller, romance and fantasy. It's supposedly because if you're using an ereader, people can't judge a book by its cover, as it were. It frees readers from the shackles of their intelligent, thoughtful public image and allows them to indulge their mucky desires for fluffy pink romance and heaving flesh. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Day of the Dead

Today (and tomorrow) is Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico and elsewhere. Sadly we don't go in for it much in the UK, because the artwork is really cool. It's not as creepy as it sounds: the idea is that you remember family and friends who have died. In many places it's traditional to visit graves and take offerings including flowers and the dead person's favourite food, and on the second day the spirits come to enjoy the gifts and festivities prepared for them. Sugar skulls are popular too, as gifts and tokens. 

Like all festivals in parts of the world that aren't the UK and therefore rainy, there are parades and street parties and people gather to remember their dearly departed. The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico, so the whole day is one long celebration. And it is a celebration, not a sad day.   

The name for the festival in Spanish is Dia de los Muertos (our name is a literal translation). Although it coincides with the Catholic festivals of All Saints' Day and All Souls' day, which is also about honouring the dead, it's an indigenous festival with its origins in Aztec worship of the goddess Mictecacihuatl (says Wikipedia).She's queen of the underworld (possible sacrificed as an infant) and these lovely ladies are catrinas, the modern representation of her. Apparently her jaws are often depicted agape because she swallows the stars during the day. 

This post is not strictly about linguistics, I admit (and nor is tomorrow's, actually, though it's a good one) so let's try and drag it back on-topic:

That tl sound at the end of the goddess's name is pretty common in Central American languages (like the language Nahuatl). It's on the  end of the word for chocolate too, chocolatl - which is what Lyra calls it in the His Dark Materials trilogy. And it's pronounced something like the ll sound in Welsh.