Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Peeving in Bath

Some people feel very strongly about the use of the phrase train station. They say that it ought to be railway station. No doubt they're right, as it's a station on the railway. But since when did logic dictate usage? We all have our peeves, and there's not a damn thing we can do about the way other people speak. Anyway, someone has got cross enough about signs pointing people to the 'train station' in Bath that they have done something about it:

People modifying signs in that neighbourhood has a good pedigree though. My grandparents live in one of a row very old Georgian houses, built around 1740. They're known as Ralph Allen's Cottages, because a chap called Ralph Allen built them for his workers to live in. Unfortunately, the sign at the end of the street says Ralph Allens' Cottages. The man was not called Ralph Allens. No one is called Allens. His name was Allen. This made my granddad so cross that he crept out one night with a paintbrush loaded with a bit of white paint (he's an artist) and very neatly painted the apostrophe into the right place. 

What's even worse is that the sign next to it, which is the same design and looks like it was made at the same time, denotes the first house in the row as Ralph Allens Cottage. They can't even be consistent in being wrong. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Cairo - not XP

That title doesn't say XP as in 'maximal projection', incidentally - it's the Greek letters chi and rho, which look infuriatingly similar to XP.

I was listening to the excellent A history of the world in 100 objects podcast from the BBC, and there was a programme about a very early representation of Christ, on a floor mosaic in Hinton St Mary.

We know that this is him, even though there weren't many pictures of him yet, because it says his name behind his head. Those are the letters, X and P, or chi and rho, the first letters of Christos.

Chi rho, I said to myself, wondering what the letter chi (pronounced kai) was, and then something occurred to me. I don't think I would have had this thought if I'd seen the words written, but because I was listening to audio, I heard chi rho and thought Cairo.

I wonder, I thought, if Cairo is for some reason named after old Jesus himself. Obviously Egypt is an Arabic country with Islam as its major religion, and so has less reverence for some minor prophet than Christian cities would have, but Cairo's had a long history of being pinched by various European nations on account of it being a nice city with a lot of wealth. Who's to say that we don't have our own name for it which is completely different from the Arabic name? It wouldn't be the first time (after all, we call Egypt Egypt, not Misr. See also Bangkok, Germany, Japan and Finland, among many others. Croatia, which I initially thought was another example, turns out to be from the same root as Hrvatska, which is what the Croatians call it).

So I checked Wikipedia and it's not. It's from the Arabic name for the city, al-Qahira (literally the Vanquisher). Ah well. Another theory quashed.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Call centres and attitudes to accents

What accent do you like best? What accent would you most like your doctor to speak with?

The UK is lucky enough to have a fantastically wide range of accents and dialects (the two are different - accent refers specifically to the way you pronounce words, whereas dialect includes vocabulary, grammar  and all aspects of language). We're also very sensitive to other accents, for many reasons. The great diversity itself is one reason: people speak so differently in places really not that far away, you can't help but notice it. Perhaps another is that our society is (and was even more so until recently) class-based, and 'having an accent' (i.e. speaking an accent other than Received Pronunciation) used to mean you were working-class. This was a Bad Thing if you were looking to get on in life, but equally 'speaking posh' could get you ridiculed among your peers.

Thankfully times have changed and now a regional accent shouldn't hold you back from getting that well-paid job or place at Cambridge. But we do still unconsciously make judgements about people based on the way they speak. This is a topic that's been extensively researched, and the results consistently come out the same. If you ask people to make judgments about a speaker based solely on their voice (under controlled conditions known as a 'matched guise' test), you find that people with accents like Yorkshire, Geordie and Glaswegian are considered to be friendly, honest, but not the sharpest tool in the box. Conversely, people who speak with an RP accent are thought to be haughty and unfriendly, but authoritative and intelligent.

For this reason, call centres are commonly based in places where the people speak with an accent that other people like and consider to be friendly. That's why half of Newcastle works in a call centre. Likewise, Irish always comes out well in popularity surveys. However, you'll not find many call centres deliberately using Birmingham, London or Liverpool speakers (personally, I've nothing against these accents, but they always get judged as 'thick' or 'untrustworthy' or just plain 'horrible'). Incidentally, 'Asian' was one accent cited by the BBC Your Voice site as one that people find 'unpleasant to listen to', which might actually be a result of the number of call centres outsourced to India. I can't imagine that people actually dislike the accent that much; it's a reaction to the associations it has. And actually, this is more generally the case:
"American listeners, who do not recognise a Birmingham accent when they hear one, who know nothing about Birmingham and who probably don't even know where it is, do not find the Birmingham accent unpleasant at all. And everything they know about London leads them to find London accents highly attractive." (Bad Language, page 136: Andersson and Trudgill, 1990)
Anyway, I've recently had reason to think about this because I've been spending an inordinate amount of time talking to people in call centres. I had quite a lot of problems with my broadband (it was rubbish) and before I could get out of my contract, Virgin needed me to do the same things (changing the name of the network, plugging it into a different socket, etc.) over and over again with about six different 'technical advisors'. None of this worked, of course, but because I talked to so many different people, I noticed that they all spoke with a strong Welsh accent (I'd guess South Wales, I think).

Alex Jones (the one on the right) has a strong Welsh accent
I don't know if it was a deliberate decision on the part of Virgin to locate their call centre in Cardiff/Swansea/wherever - a few years ago the Welsh accent was not a popular one, but I think that's changed now, when more celebrities have a Welsh accent (Alex Jones, who presents the One Show on the BBC, springs to mind). I recall noticing similarly that BT's technical support (though not all their call centres) was in Ireland. Now, all right, these accents are liked and the speakers thought to be friendly and down-to-earth. But you'll recall, they are not thought to be intelligent. When I talk to a technical person, I want to think that they are authoritative and know what the hell they're doing when they're getting me to scrat about on the floor plugging different cables into things. This would indicate that technical bods should be recruited from among speakers of RP (or as close as it gets these days).

Now I've moved to Plusnet (going well so far, so fingers crossed it stays that way) which makes a big thing about being a Yorkshire company. In fact, they're a subsidiary of BT, and when I rang I spoke to a non-Yorkshire person, but anyhow. It's their big selling-point, and they say things like 'Good honest broadband from Yorkshire' and 'By 'eck that's good'. They're selling their brand as being good value, honest, salt-of-the-earth, not-like-those-cheating-buggers-from-the-South. They advertise that they have UK-based call centres (not Yorkshire-based). I hope never to have to speak to someone in their technical department but I'd be interested to know where it is.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Sweet tooths

I heard an interesting example of how irregular plurals can become regular when they're part of an exocentric compound idiom: sweet tooths.

In case you don't know, the idiom 'to have a sweet tooth' means that you like to eat sweet things. It's not very often used in the plural, because you're usually either saying that you (singular) have one or asking/telling someone else (singular) (if) they have one.

But of course it can be, if for instance you were talking about your two children and saying that they've both got a sweet tooth. You might say it as I just did, or you might say they've got sweet tooths. It sounds a bit weird, but it sounds even weirder to say they've got sweet teeth - the idiomatic meaning is completely lost and it becomes just an odd fact about their teeth.

The same thing happens with Walkman, the personal music player Sony makes (MP3 these days, but used for cassettes, CDs and minidiscs at various times in the past). The plural is notoriously variable. Some people will adhere to the 'man' part and say Walkmen, but most will go for Walkmans.

It's because, as I said, it's both exocentric and idiomatic. Exocentric means that it's not a type of tooth or a type of man - the 'head' of the compound doesn't match what the whole term describes. The opposite would be an endocentric compound like blackbird, which is a type of bird. And idiomatic means that it has a meaning that can't be readily deduced from its parts - so you couldn't predict the meaning if you didn't know it (because it's not a man that walks or a tooth that's sweet - it goes hand in hand with the exocentricity). These two fact together lead to a pretty opaque term, and the irregularity (which tends to erode over time anyway, as evidenced by all the irregular forms we've lost over the centuries) doesn't seem to apply any more, so we apply the default regular plural.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Quantifier fail

This is an illustration of yellow.
When the UGs at my university hand in their essays, we have a big massive 'handing in day' where two-thirds of the School turns up within 4 hours and they submit all their work to one of four PhD students (one of them being me). It's a bit manic because there's so many of them, and because there's a lot of form-filling to be done, and UG students may be bright but they certainly aren't good at following instructions.

They have to fill in one white form for each piece of work they're submitting, which has the details of that essay on it, and then there's a yellow form which is a global cover sheet and lists all the modules they're submitting work for. Simple. Er... no.

So lots of them apparently haven't read the careful instructions they've been given, and come to ask us what forms they need to fill in. We say to them,
You need one white form for each essay and one yellow one for all of them.
This leads a number of them to think that they need a yellow one for each essay too (if we meant that we'd be violating at least one of Grice's maxims - perhaps the maxim of quantity?). We tried calling it a 'global sheet' instead but that didn't seem to help that much. The trouble is the word all. If I was to say that
all of the essays need a yellow form,
I think that would fairly unambiguously mean that they needed one for each of them. What about this:
You need a yellow one for all of them.
I think that's probably ambiguous too - but not if it follows the instruction about the white forms. Then if you add in the word one, I think the contrast between each and all should really be clear. And yet, for many people (admittedly sleep-deprived and stressed people), it isn't clear at all.

I can't quite work out, actually, if it's a problem with the quantifier or with the article. Perhaps it's because we have two possible interpretations of the indefinite a yellow form: generic or specific. On the sense we mean, a yellow form refers to one yellow form; on the misunderstanding, it refers to multiple instances of a generic type of yellow form. Then compounded by the fact that all can mean 'a set as a whole' or 'every member of a set', we have an issue.

Hey - everyone got their work handed in (apart from one poor chap who turned up ten minutes late), I drank two cups of coffee and ate two chocolate biscuits, and we'll do the same thing all over again in the spring.

Friday, 13 January 2012

I just said no to some work

This is possibly a world first. I find it hard to turn down work, because the twin draws of money and experience are irresistible to me, and I feel like I'm letting people down. But today I turned down teaching work that was not only amazing experience (teaching on a TESOL MA course) but worth around £1400. That's a heck of a lot when you're in the last (unfunded) year of a PhD with no savings.

I would have loved to do the MA teaching (there was also some other teaching that was more appealing for the money than for the experience, though it would have been another string to my bow - discourse analysis, which I'm not sure what it is, and I don't think it's real linguistics, but apparently it's a thing), but it was just too much work. It was the phonology component of a linguistic theory module on the TESOL MA. I'm not a phonologist by a long chalk, but I've been teaching quite a bit of it so I can get by. But for an MA course, that's quite a lot of preparation, which eats into the (generous) hourly rate. Then there's the assignment, which requires them to transcribe their own speech. That means that I have to teach them phonetics as well as phonology (even more not my thing) and also, marking it means checking their transcription. This is a thing that takes a Long Time. So, regrettably, I said no.

But on the up side, that means I have more time for thesis-writing. And I've still got some teaching, just not that teaching.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

'Abbreviated clausal analysis'

I teach syntax seminars to first-year students. We follow Noel Burton-Roberts' Analysing Sentences, which I think is a decent introduction to the complexities of syntax (I'm biased though - see the image at the bottom of the post).

Some parts of the analysis are very different from 'real' syntax, but it provokes thinking about why certain facts are the way they are and what the explanation might be for that. We also try to get the students to see that they can do scientific tests to find stuff out, and that the data should be their guide.

Anyway, the students find it quite hard, but over time they become skilled at identifying adverbials, complements, subjects, noun phrases, possessive determiners and whatnot. They'll sit their exam next week and most of them will pass, and some will excel.

But one thing that they find particularly hard, I've found, is what we call ACAs, or Abbreviated Clausal Analyses. This means that they have to analyse complex sentences with two, three or even four clauses, but they don't have to draw a full tree, only an abbreviated one (using triangles to represent the clauses).

Today, I ran a 'syntax surgery' and we spent ages doing these. One that was especially problematic was this one:

He suggested that the recipe should remain a secret until all the food had been eaten. 

We have three clauses here, each headed by a verb: suggested, remain, and eaten. The trick is to find the clauses, and then to say what the function of each is. Here's the sentence bracketed into clauses:

[S1 He suggested [S2 that the recipe should remain a secret until [S3 all the food had been eaten]]]
The problem we had was with that until. They thought, and actually I agree with them, that until should be in S3. However, the analysis in the book is that because until could also take an NP complement, it must still be a preposition heading a PP. This is a bit hard to grasp, but once convinced of it, they argued that the PP crosses two clauses (I was so pleased that they thought this was a problem, because at the start of the semester they have no sense that that's bad). It doesn't, though, because the whole PP until all the food had been eaten is within S2, and only indirectly within S1. That PP has within it a clausal complement. This is a concept that they've seen before, many times, but the fact that it's a clause just adds that extra difficulty.

Still, hopefully they'll keep their heads and perform brilliantly in their exam.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Weird and wonders

Recently there was a trailer for a Radio 4extra programme hosted by Mel Giedroyc. In the trailer she used the phrase
Life's weird and wonders
and I liked it. I don't know if it was a slip of the tongue which they decided to leave in, or if it was done on purpose. I presume, as it was a scripted and recorded thing, that it must be on purpose.

What's unusual about it is that we have an adjective weird co-ordinated with a noun wonders. Normally this would be bad. But we have a phrase that's become a fixed expression, weird and wonderful. When a phrase becomes fixed like this it can engage in some odd behaviour that a composite phrase wouldn't normally do. It starts to behave almost like it's a single word (it's become lexicalised). And wonderful can be made into a noun by removing the adjectival suffix -ful, so it stands to reason that the 'word' weirdandwonderful can as well. More lexicalisation!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Improving linguists' cocktail party performance

Linguists have a (well-known, among linguists) problem. People don't know what linguistics is. So when you tell people you're a linguist, or that you study linguistics, you get one of a few responses:

  1. The person is interested, has studied a bit of linguistics at uni, and tells you what they found most interesting about it. This response is rare. 
  2. The person asks you what linguistics is. This response is good, because you get to tell someone what linguistics is and the world is a slightly better place. 
  3. The person looks bored/scared/turned off and moves away. This is an undesirable result. 
  4. The person gives you well-meaning but useless information or asks you a well-meaning but irrelevant question about something that isn't linguistics. This is quite nice, really, if not that helpful, but it's hard to get them back on the right track after they've put that effort in. 
  5. The person asks you about split infinitives, semi-colons or ending sentences with prepositions. You then either a) tell them that linguists don't give a monkey's about that kind of thing and they go away all hurt, or b) give in and tell them the answer and perpetuate their misconception.
  6. The person asks you how many languages you speak. To this the correct reply is: 
Would you ask a doctor how many diseases they have?
 It's what I like to say, though I don't know who originally came up with it.

Anyway, Speculative Grammarian, the satirical linguistics magazine (yes, there is one) has a nice article about linguists at cocktail parties, in which this crops up. It shows, by means of statistics, that the diseases line plays the best. There's an alternative which is nearly as good but not as reliable, but that I like:
Would you ask a geologist how many rocks they have in their head?
And it also shows that you shouldn't conduct surveys at cocktail parties. As the article notes,
Taking surveys at cocktail parties is not a good way to improve the perception and reputation of our field or ourselvesthat must be why syntacticians only ask themselves and their indentured-servant grad students for data.  

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Swedish words of the year

Why Swedish? Well, why not. They're so much better than our boring old candidates for this honour, anyway. 

One I like is åsiktstaliban. It means 'opinion taliban'. Perhaps related is attitydinkontinens, which if you read it carefully says 'attitude incontinence', or an inability to keep your opinions to yourself. 

As proof (if we needed it) that knowing the etymology doesn't affect your use of a word, they have juholtare, which describes 'a situation when someone says something hastily and then has to take it back', and terja, which is to manipulate a photograph. Both handy words, and both come from the names of people you've probably never heard of if you're not Swedish. Håkan Juholt is the leader of the Social Democratic party and apparently keeps making rash and incorrect statements. Terje Hellesø is a nature photographer who confessed to having messed about with his photos (which won an award). This also makes him unusual in having a word based on his first name rather than his surname. 

appa, which means to solve a problem by using an app, is another good word which we simply don't have in English and I think might be usefully borrowed. We could just use app as a verb, as in:
What's the weather going to be like tomorrow? Hold on, I'll just app it.  
Some of the words are frankly bizarre. Take Säpojogg ('Säpo jog'), 
a term describing a run or race emulating how security service agents jogged in suits and ties behind a vehicle, such as at Crown Princess Victoria's wedding.
Why would you need such a word? Why would there be a race like that? 

And what about mobildagis ('mobile phone daycare')? It means  
a place for the collective storage of multiple mobile phones
What? What is such a place? Like the place in the house where everyone's phone lives? These crazy Swedes.