Monday, 30 September 2013

Onomatopoeia from my students

In my first-year introductory seminar, I had the students coming up with new onomatopoeic words, which we then tried to guess the meaning of (spoilers: you usually can't guess, despite the supposed relation of the sound of the word to the sound it describes). Some of the words seemed quite useful, so here they are:
frip: the sound of flicking or rifling through a sheet or sheets of paper.
shplup: the sound of dropping something damp onto a hard surface.
zhoom: the sound of a car going by at high speed.
ouge (pronounced like 'rouge'): the noise of a washing machine.
mmm: the noise a fridge makes.
shlup: the noise it makes when you drink from a bottle with a 'sports cap'.
twing: the melodious jingling of windchimes or bracelets. 
I thought there were some very nice creative ones, and some interesting similarities in words or definitions.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Yes or no what?

I was sort of half-heartedly watching ITV's 'This Morning' programme while I was working yesterday (honest) and they were talking about vigilantes. They had one of those viewer polls, where viewers have to text or tweet their opinion about an issue and either the result is an equal split or it confirms what we already knew. 

This was the question put to viewers about this 'issue': 

Perfectly reasonable question. Two opposing points of view to choose between: either vigilantes have a valid role (in the process of catching criminals) or the job of catching criminals is one that should be left to the police alone. Choose the position you agree with and tell ITV. 

But here's how the results were presented: 

Well, yes or no what? Yes, either vigilantes have a valid role or catching criminals should be left to the police? And no, neither of the above apply? 

Clearly not. Obviously, what they meant was yes or no to the first part of the question (do vigilantes have a valid role), as this clearer presentation shows:

Probably no one except me was confused by the wording. I've spent more time than most people thinking about questions over the last few years, though, so I noticed this strange construction. 

The question was presented as if it was an 'alternative question': one where the answer is one of the alternatives that are mentioned in the question. More everyday examples tend to have smaller parts of the sentence given as alternatives, as in Are you coming for lunch or tea? The answer is either 'lunch' or 'tea'. The question from ITV had two whole questions as the options: Do vigilantes have a valid role? and should catching criminals be left to the police?

This kind of alternative question, as far as I can tell, is hardly ever used as a real alternative question (as the lunch or tea example is). More often, the second part isn't a real alternative, and you aren't meant to pick one of them as the answer. Instead, the question is really a 'yes/no' question, or one where the answer is either yes or no. You can't answer yes or no to a real alternative question (where # means that the utterance is strange in some way): 
Did you buy that suit or hire it? #Yes.
But in the poll above, and in most cases of apparently alternative questions with two entire questions as the 'alternatives', the answer can be yes or no, showing that they must really be yes/no questions. But! You can also answer by providing one of the alternatives. This is sort of the case for yes/no questions as well, in a trivial sense which I won't go into here, but it's different with these strange halfway things.

This was actually pointed out to me pretty early on in my PhD (by Sten Vikner), who gave an example like Have you done the washing up or have you just been sitting in front of the TV all day?. The question provides two alternatives, and you can answer it by providing one of them as the answer, but it's really just asking Have you done the washing up? and it's more natural to answer with yes or no. I didn't really address this problem then, but perhaps I ought to now.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


I snapped this photo while I was in London recently, at the annual LAGB meeting. It's a newsagent just next to Russell Square tube station, and it offers, among other things, 'tobaccos'. 

'Tobaccos' is a word you won't hear much. You're far more likely to hear the singular, 'tobacco'. In fact, it's not quite right to call it the singular, because 'tobacco' doesn't usually refer to a single tobacco. It's a mass noun, and what that means is that it's a substance rather than individual things that can be counted (those things are called count nouns!). Water is a mass noun, as is rice, bread, tea, juice, gravel, and so on. Some mass nouns are physically uncountable, like water - it's one continuous thing, unseparable unless you're looking at the molecules. Others, like gravel, are composed of little bits you could count, but we don't refer to each one as 'a gravel' or 'a rice' (for rice, we have a separate word 'grain'). As I've mentioned before, 'pea' is now a count noun, but used to be a mass noun 'pease' before it was reanalysed as a plural, with each individual bit of pease being a pea.

So normally, you can't pluralise a mass noun because it's uncountable. You don't order some rices in a restaurant, for instance. However, there is one time when you can, and that's when it refers to types or instances of a thing. Let's take rice. I wouldn't ask for rices in a restaurant, but I might if I was a rice salesman wanting a wide selection of rices to sell - basmati, long grain, brown, etc. Then I could ask 'What rices do you have?'. Or beer: I might ask for 'two beers, please', and I mean two instances or servings of beer.

This makes me think that this shop might have a wide variety of tobaccos, from all over the tobacco-growing world. Alternatively, it might have been written by someone who didn't know that tobacco is a mass noun and pluralised it to mean 'tobacco products'. This would actually be a perfectly legitimate use of the plural, but we just happen not to use it to mean 'different types of tobacco products'.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Sensible advice from Morrison's

Morrison's offers this advice to shoppers at its Margate branch: 

I intend to accept no responsibility for any of the above, even if I cause the damage myself. Thanks, Morrison's!

(We can talk about why it's 'on' this car park rather than 'in' another time.)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Lembit, txt spk, computer programming

I wrote this post and then didn't post it on the day GCSE results came out, a couple of weeks ago. Here, have it now.

Lembit Opik was on the Wright Stuff talking about GCSEs being dumbed down (always a nice thing to talk about on the day kiddies are finding out if their hard work has resulted in a bright future). The conversation inevitably became about what's wrong with education today, and he said that kids use text speak and 'there is no doubt that this causes problems'.

No doubt? In his mind, maybe. But if you asked, you know, an actual expert on language, you'd find that the exact opposite is true.

For instance, this article describes a study looking at literacy levels of users of text speak and non-users, and says that there was no difference in their literacy (although interestingly, the study participants themselves believed that text speak did have an effect on their literacy!).

This article discusses how the ability to speak in more than one register is no bad thing. It's called code-switching (the term also applies when you switch between languages).

If you don't have access to academic articles, here is Language Log discussing another study about this. You could also do worse than read David Crystal's various books and news items on this topic.

And one point to bear in mind is that kids don't use text speak any more.

All this raises a perennial complaint among linguists: why are random commentators' views more valid than actual experts'? If something about almost any other subject is in the news, they bring in an expert on that topic (or at least something close to it - Dan Snow, for instance, does have a history degree and therefore has some level of history knowledge). If there's an item about language, they'll either trot out some insufferable know-it-all who's totally unqualified, or the presenters will simply discuss amongst themselves. This isn't really acceptable. For one thing, it's not at all useful, whereas an expert might actually provide some new information or a perspective not known to the general public. I may have said this before and I'm just ranting. And linguists' weariness with this situation perpetuates it, because it makes them less likely to want to try to correct misconceptions on breakfast television.

Of course, linguistics is not special in this respect. We all think we know something about a topic if we have even the slightest experience of it. At another point in this programme, someone (I think it might have been Saira Khan) said computer programming was important but not covered in GCSEs. Lembit, in his wisdom, said kids don't need to learn that because they know how to use computers. Saira pointed out that this is true, but they don't know how to programme them. You know what he said? They don't need to know that because they can already use them better than he can. The mind boggles.