Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Handouts and Stephen Hawking

I was watching a documentary about Stephen Hawking the other week. Among the many interesting things I learnt was the fact that he doesn't use handouts at his talks. Or at least, he didn't at the talk that was shown in the film. I'm assuming that to be representative of his general practice.

For those not accustomed to the wonder that is the conference handout, an example is here. Its purpose varies. For me, it's a prop for your audience, a summary of what you're saying so that they can follow along while you're saying it and have a record afterwards. I think it should be clear enough that someone who wasn't there can read the handout and understand the basic idea of the talk. It might, if you use Powerpoint, be a printout of the slides (often this is what you will get).

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Theirselves and meself

As you know, the paradigm of reflexive pronouns in English is as follows:
What I had never noticed until yesterday was that it's not logical. No surprise, we are talking about English, a language not known for its logicality (not that any languages are, particularly). But I'd never spotted the illogicality in this context before.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Vocabulary quiz

I found this vocabulary quiz. It's by Merriam-Webster Online and quite good fun, though a bit too easy. Points for getting it right, and more points for getting it right quicker.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Syntax for beginners

I'm teaching some syntax revision sessions yesterday and today, for students who have to resit first year syntax. Yesterday only one student came, and then one more turned up right at the end having got the time wrong. But still, the one who was there said she found it helpful so my time wasn't entirely wasted.

The night before, I tried teaching my partner how to do syntax. He has never done any linguistics in his life, and isn't even academic (he left school before he got his A-levels). Nevertheless, we thought it would be interesting to see if he could understand it.

Rather than try to teach him all the terminology, which of course you can't just learn instantly, I had him work it out logically, asking him how he would split the sentence into two, and then that constituent into two, and so on. I had him thinking about the relationships between the constituents, and what modifies what (a lot of terminology actually transfers well to real life). And he was surprisingly good at it - he got everything right, pretty much first time.

So why can't the students do it? It's partly because they get bogged down with having to learn all the terminology and what's an NP, what's a modal and so on. But it's also noticeably the non-scientifically minded students that end up resitting. We get almost all arts students doing linguistics, because they've followed on from an English language degree, and they aren't the best at linguistics. Often the best linguists are the science students, the ones who are good at maths and logic and understand relationships and hierarchies between things. That's what my partner is good at and he picked it up straight away and totally got the basic principle, which is something that a lot of the students miss completely.

Weekend in London

Clock tower at the Palace of Westminster (Big Ben)
View of St Paul's cathedral from the Millennium Bridge
Sculpture on the wall of LSE by Richard Wilson
Lion on the Palace of Westminster

Sunday, 21 August 2011

If we do be clever

I have a pub quiz team, and one of the quizzes we go to has a bonus question which is worth five points if you get it right, but you lose five if you get it wrong. You can also choose not to play, and not take the risk.*

We were deliberating this one week, as we had an answer but it was risky, and we wondered if we should try to be clever or just play it safe. My team-mate said to me,
If we do be clever...
Copula be is not normally a verb that can take an emphatic do in Standard English. (It can in some dialects - it sounds kind of West Country to me, I think.) However, in this instance, it was required. If she had said
If we are clever...
then our cleverness is an attribute that we have, not a temporary behaviour. Be in this utterance is a dynamic verb rather than a stative one, but that doesn't quite explain it. Other verbs that can be stative and non-stative can take do:
She has two children.
She is having a baby.
If she does have a baby...
I think this might just be a lacuna, a gap in the language. There's no grammatical reason, as far as I can see, for be to act like a stative verb even when it isn't.

There are other tests for whether a verb is stative and be in this sense has mixed results:
We are being clever [progressive]
??They forced us to be clever [complement of force]
??Be clever! [imperative]
??What we did was be clever [pseudo-cleft]

*In fact, that's a linguistic issue in itself. The wording of the instructions is:
Five points for a correct answer, five away if you get it wrong or don't play.
This is ambiguous, with the scope of the disjunction not clear. Is it that there's five points off if you get it wrong OR you can choose not to play, or is it that you lose five points IF you either get it wrong OR don't play? In other words, is the structure this:
...[DisjP [DP 5 points off if you get it wrong] [Disj or [CP don't play]]]

or this:
...[CP if [DisjP [TP you get it wrong] [Disj or [TP you don't play]]]

Saturday, 20 August 2011

You literally take them literally

Literally gets a lot of bad press. It's a word in a state of confusion. It's busy getting a new meaning as a kind of intensifier, but it's also stubbornly hanging on to its old meaning of 'in actual fact'. (Really and actually have gone further down this road.) This allows pedants to say things like:
Really? You literally exploded with excitement? That must have caused a mess.
And so on. The Oatmeal does a good comic of it, actually. Part of it's here, but there's more of it, including the punchline, at The Oatmeal:
So, on Eight Out of Ten Cats (Channel 4) the other night (12/08/2011), I heard one of the panellists, the comedian Jon Richardson, tell a story which included two uses of the word literally.

[The footballer Wayne] Rooney said "We literally don't know when a game's over", and they're so thick you take them literally.

Both uses of literally appear in that story. First of all, Rooney says it in the new sense, using it as an intensifier. But then Jon uses it in the old sense, meaning 'at face value'. But he can't have noticed, so much have the two senses diverged, that Rooney has already used it, because it takes all the sting out of his joke. He means, 'they said this, not meaning it literally, but they're so stupid it might actually be true'. But if Rooney's already said literally, then you've got no humour in trying to take them literally unless the word has lost all of its original meaning. There's nothing very unusual in that, metaphors lose their meaning all the time and we cease to notice them, but not usually when the original sense of the word is also used in the same sentence.

Friday, 19 August 2011


Welsh stories in the news (OK, Welsh news: they're from Wales Online).

The first one is about a book review that appeared our friend the Daily Mail, written by Roger Lewis (who is in fact Welsh) which included a racist diatribe against the Welsh language and culture. A Plaid Cymru MP has complained to the Home Secretary about it, and the author of the book under review notes quite rightly that this kind of thing could not have been printed if it was about any other ethnic group.

It was interesting that the MP said that
Welsh is one of the oldest living European languages.
I wonder what criteria he was basing that on. If he means that, say, the Romance languages are newer because they came out of Latin, then I suppose he's kind of right, though there are lots of other languages that are just as old. But you can't really say that. I mean, where do you draw the line for English? We have periods that we separate into Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Saxon etc., but they're not black and white, obvious boundaries. They're based on changes in the language and it's a case of picking a date that gives the best fit.

The second article concerns the soon-to-be-appointed first Welsh Language Commissioner. I suppose this person will be in charge of making sure companies comply with providing services in both languages. (Most if not all Welsh speakers also speak English, though I don't know whether there might be people who don't speak English very well. In any case, most Welsh speakers want to be able to access stuff in Welsh, which is fair enough.)

I wonder if he or she will sort out the signage. I don't know what the quality of the printed material companies provide is like, but if the signs are anything to go by it's probably pretty poor. I don't speak Welsh at all, but even I can work out that three signs saying the same thing differently can't all be right. For example, I saw several different ways of writing 'car park'.

Another thing I noticed was that the grammar/morphology is quite ropey. Welsh has this thing called soft mutation, which means that the first sound of the word changes depending on what comes before it. So the [k] of Cymru (Wales) becomes [g] after certain sounds, and the [p] of Doc Penfro (Pembroke Dock) becomes [b]. I saw a lot of signs which had observed this change, and a lot that hadn't.

If they're genuinely serious about writing signs in both languages, they need to get their act together, because it's kind of insulting to do this sloppy kind of a job. They should put in the little bit of effort it would take to get it right.
The Welsh reads "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated." (Source: BBC)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Project Nim

I went to see the new film Project Nim with some other linguists last night. We knew there wouldn't be much linguistics in it, but still - we had to go and see a film about Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee famously named after Noam Chomsky. (The film sort of gave the impression that the chimp was named Nim from birth, and then didn't really make anything of the Chomsky connection. They were playing down the linguistics, but still. Unless he was really called Nim Chimpsky - that really would be an example of nominative determinism.)


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Mark Zuckerberg and his writing style

A little while back, a linguist was called to provide a judgement in the case over the ownership of Facebook. This linguist, Gerald R. McMenamin, had to say whether Zuckerberg really did write some emails that it was alleged that he had. McMenamin did this by comparing them with some emails known to have been written by Zuckerberg, and noting points of difference. I don't know what his methodology was (e.g. did he identify the criteria first, or just see what jumped out at him?) but the results were quite interesting. 

A) Questionable Zuckerberg writes:
"doesnt," "parents" (parents'), "sites" (site's = contraction for “site is”), and "sites" (site's = possessive)
B) Real Zuckerberg's contractions and possessives are all used correctly.     
Suspension Points [ellipsis]
A) Questionable Zuckerberg writes:“. . . I've been tweaking the search engine today,” with spaces in between his suspension points.
B) Real Zuckerberg doesn't space out his suspension points. For example: “So let me know…”
A) Questionable Zuckerberg writes these words as follows:“back end” (two words), “internet” (lower case “I”), and “can not” (two words)
B) Real Zuckerberg writes:“backend” (one word), “Internet” (capital “i”), and “cannot” (one word)
Syntax: Single-Word Sentence Openers
A) Questionable Zuckerberg opens his sentences with the following:Further,Additionally,Thus,Again,First,Mostly though,Paul,
B) Real Zuckerberg opens his sentences more casually:OkayAndAnyhow,Also,ButBut regardlessThenHowever
Signing Off
A) Questionable Zuckerberg closes his e-mails with “Thanks!”
B) Real Zuckberg, however, also closes his e-mails with “Thanks!”
The things that occur in the 'questionable Zuckerberg' emails are mostly more non-standard - incorrect apostrophes, for instance, or spacing out the ellipsis (three dots...). Presumably, the person that allegedly faked these emails had received genuine emails from Zuckerberg at some point,, so they can't have been doing that careful a job of copying them. 
Full report here

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Eddie Izzard buys a cow in Old English

English is a Germanic language, so it's closely related to German, Dutch and varieties thereof. It's changed a lot over the years: it's got a lot of French/Latin vocabulary due to those pesky conquests, and its grammar has changed in various ways (loss of inflections, loss of case, word order changes). But Old English was much more like those German/Dutch varieties, and Friesian in particular. Of course Friesian has changed too, but not as much as English has.

So obviously Eddie Izzard is going there, armed with only a smattering of badly-pronounced Old English, to try to buy a brown cow. Why he wouldn't buy a Friesian cow (the 'classic' black and white ones) I don't know, but whatever. Anyway, he totally manages to talk to this Friesian farmer in Old English, and they understand each other. It's brilliant:

Monday, 15 August 2011


I snapped this graffito in the pub the other day:
I don't know who Helen Willis is, but I like the graffito.

It doesn't just say, like so many other graffiti, that X is gay: it says she's STILL gay. And STILL is all in capitals. The implication is that the writer is waiting for her to no longer be gay, and is getting impatient about it.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Oh no, Starkey, not again

David Starkey, the historian and broadcaster seems to have put his foot in it yet again. After he got into a spot of bother at Jamie's Dream School by insulting one of his teenage pupils in what seemed a largely unprovoked attack, he's done it again, and worse this time.

He was on BBC2's Newsnight, and gave an odd speech saying that he thought the problem was that "the whites have become black", and that the fact that young people are using "this wholly false language" of Jamaican patois means that this is "a foreign country". Here's Geoff Pullum at Language Log to deal with this properly.

Friday, 12 August 2011

More on the language of the riots

This time, it's about the slang the rioters use (article from the BBC).

They call the police 'feds', obviously borrowed from US TV and films, where it's been used for ages to refer to the FBI. Of course they know the metropolitan police are not the FBI, but the term seems to have been adopted and broadened to refer to police officers.

They talk of defending your 'yard', apparently a West Indian term for your home (presumably after the government yards in trenchtown, as sung about by Bob Marley, and the origin of the term 'yardie'). The BBC attributes this mix of slang to Multicultural London English, a mixture of the cultures that are either found in the city or enter consciousness through the media.

There are two terms cited that I don't know at all:
Another, widely reported in the aftermath of the chaos, urged everyone to "up and roll to Tottenham [expletive] the 5-0". There were myriad references as well to the "po po".
 Is 'the 5-0' a reference to Hawaii 5-0? Seems unlikely somehow, given how long ago that was on TV, but Urban Dictionary tells me this is the correct derivation.

'Po po' I'd never heard, but the BBC article says it's from The Wire. I've never seen The Wire, because I'm an idiot, and because I was busy watching Battlestar Galactica when it was on, so there's a lot of Baltimore street slang that I'm not aware of. This is my own failing, and I freely admit it. Urban dictionary just says it means police, though one entry does suggest that it means 'pissed off police officer'. I'm not sure I'm buying that, though; it smacks of folk etymology.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Rioters, terrorists, protesters, whatever

The Guardian newspaper has an article about the word the media is using for the rioters currently causing havoc in some of the UK's cities. I used the word 'rioters' - it seems quite neutral to me, as they are undoubtedly rioting. But the controversy the Guardian describes (or creates?) is over the use of the term 'protesters'.

Apparently the BBC was calling them protesters early in the proceedings, and this is fair enough because after the first night, it still seemed like it was a protest that had gone too far. It began over the shooting by police of a man called Mark Duggan, a shooting which we still know nothing about (why it happened, whether it was unlawful etc.) because it's still being investigated by the IPCC so no one can talk about it. Some people in Tottenham took to the streets in protest, and somehow it became a rioting-and-looting.

This has since escalated, and on the second night it was clear that people weren't protesting about this shooting, they were just taking the opportunity to loot shops of expensive clothes and electronics. You don't protest about a shooting that you don't know anything about by stealing yourself a new hifi. And they came out dressed for crime, in balaclavas and so on.

So, not protesters then - now they're definitely rioters.

By the third night, things had really got scary. Police stations in Nottingham had been petrol-bombed, shops in several cities had been emptied of all their stock, burnt out, and otherwise destroyed. People were terrified. In Salford they shut the shops on the fourth day and boarded up the windows, because they were scared of being looted and burnt down.

So - are they now terrorists? Some Tweeters have being saying so, but that's Twitter: you can always rely on finding some nutters to quote. Other choice terms include 'scum', 'thugs', 'criminals' and so on. 'Criminals' is certainly accurate, as there's no doubt crimes have been committed. Hundreds of people have been arrested and many charged. The UN, as the Guardian says, defines terrorism as:
"acts ... designed to create a state of terror in the minds of a particular group of people or the public as a whole for political or social ends". (The UN also makes clear that "having a good cause" makes no real difference).
 Whether there's a deliberate aim to create a state of terror or not, I don't think it's for 'political or social ends' (vague as that is, I don't think wanting free stuff counts as social ends). You could say it's making a point against the police, because people feel like they have no rights or whatever, but it seems like that's an excuse for a lot of these people. They do hate the police, but this isn't an organised campaign, just an opportunity to cause trouble. Not terrorists then.

The media all seem to have settled on 'rioters' as a name which is accurate (unlike 'protesters' and 'terrorists') and not subjective or heavily value-laden (like 'thugs' or 'scum').

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


There was a good programme on BBC Radio 4 this week, in the Archive on 4 series. It'll be available here for a few days.

Melvyn Bragg discusses Received Pronunciation, and like all of his programmes on language, it's thorough, accurate and interesting. He's one of very few broadcasters who manage to talk about language without annoying linguists (at least, he doesn't annoy me). The programme is about the decrease in the use of RP in Britain. It covers a wide range of topics, including attitudes to accents, history of accents and so on. Well worth a listen.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Orang utans can learn English in a few months

I'm sure this is just a case of very bad reporting. I'm sure that this scientist is not crazy. 

The link is to a Sarawak Star article about a Dr Francine Neago, who wants to set up a centre to teach language skills to orang utans. Nothing new here, no. But the article says things like "Dr Neago said it would take a few months for the orang utan to learn English", and "tests had proven that a primate could acquire sign language and phonetic spelling skills". She clearly doesn't mean that tests have shown that a primate can fully acquire language, as it then says "she taught a one-year-old orang utan named Bulan to express itself through the computer by learning to use up to 150 words", and 150 words is not 'sign language'. But this really is quite spectacularly sloppy reporting, even for a local paper. 

How do you revive a lost language?

There's an interesting article today about the language of the Tunica tribe, who come from Louisiana. This language hasn't been spoken since the 1930s, and a woman called Brenda Lintinger decided to revive it. The question is though, how do you revive a dead language? There are no speakers left, and from the sounds of the article, not much documentation either. There is a 'short grammar' and stories and so on written in the IPA, which would go a long way to understanding it, but surely not enough to learn to speak the language? If you've ever tried learning a language just from a basic grammar, it's pretty tricky. I wonder if there's more available that the article mentions, or if they're only able to get quite basic competence. Still, an admirable effort.

Caption fail

The Daily Mail has a story today about a Hollyoaks actress who learnt sign language after her father, who was deaf, died. It's a nice story, she wanted to help others who suffered as he did from being unable to communicate easily, so she qualified as a BSL interpreter.

But the caption under the photo is bizarre:
Handy skill: Actress Rachel Shenton signs learned sign language after her father became death
It says "Actress Rachel Shenton signs learned sign language after her father became death".

The first weirdity, "signs learned sign language", is almost understandable - she is signing the sign language that she has learnt. But, I mean, obviously she learnt it, you don't need to distinguish between learned and unlearned sign language, usually. Seems like a straightforward cut-and-paste fail: they started out saying what she's signing, and then changed it to "learned sign language" and just botched it.

The second weirdity is interesting: "after her father became death". Now you might think it's just a simple substitution of "death" for "deaf" - it means after her father became deaf. But in fact, she didn't learn it after he lost his hearing; she learnt it after he died. So it really does mean death. But you can't say that he "became death", of course. So what's happened here? Did the sub-editor think to themselves, "no, it was after he died, not after he became deaf", and then have a total language malfunction? Is it really a typo and just a coincidence that it reflects the facts? Either way, I think I shall refer to people becoming death instead of dying from now on.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

No evidence for Muphry's Law

By the rule of Muphry's Law, this Daily Mail article ought to be chock-full of errors, as should the comments. It's about 'Grammar Man', who has been taking a white marker to the graffiti in Kent, correcting the punctuation and grammar. Here's the example all the papers have been using:

The article notes that Grammar Man is himself committing an error by using a capital L in the phrase 'English Language', and unnecessary capitals throughout his corrections.

Muphry's Law states that if you write anything criticising editing, proof-reading, and general lapses in writing skill, there will be an embarrassing error in what you've written. Grammar Man has indeed fallen prey to it, but it's somewhat astonishing that not only is the article itself clean, as far as I can see, but so are the comments (apart from deliberate errors for 'comedy' effect). One commenter does think that 'misspelled' in the headline ought to be 'misspelt', but I think that's allowed variation.

We must conclude that Muphry's Law is not universally true. More on the news story here.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Learning about monkeys

Today I'm cracking on with this index I'm compiling for an edited volume (not my edited volume, one of the professors at university's). It's really slow going. I've got 40 hours to do, and I'm doing the easy ones first in order to maximise those 40 hours and get the most done I can. It took me a whole afternoon to do the 'learning' entry, with all its sub-entries, so now I'm focussing on the ones without sub-entries because with those you can basically just list all the pages they're on without having to read too much. There aren't that many of them though.

I'm learning quite a lot doing it, because for so many of the entries you do have to read the context. The volume is on language evolution, so there's a lot about early hominins, chimps, birdsong, stone tools, brain size, etc. etc.

Hi, I've just moved in.

I've been over at Tumblr but I don't like Harry Potter. They do let you in, but you have to accept the vast amount of Potter love, mixed in with the Doctor Who/Sherlock adoration. I like Doctor Who, but not to the point of obsession. So I've come here where things might be more sensible and grown up.

I like linguistics, making things and reading. I blog mostly about linguistics. For making things, see my other blog.