Thursday, 31 March 2016

Kisses at work

A friend drew my attention to this story about a judge who ruled that an MP was representing a constituent as a friend, not an MP, based on 'familiarity of the wording' and a kiss at the end of an email.

MP Jess Phillips was acting on behalf of a woman described as 'frail' and who is having her PIP (disability benefit) stopped by this brutal government. Her appeal had gone to a tribunal and Jess wrote to the constituent to update her with what was going on, and this email was the one that the judge based the decision on.
Hi [name redacted]
Hope you are well and are keeping smiling. Below is the email trail with the DWP, I will let you know as soon as I hear anything.
The 'familiar wording' is presumably the use of Hi, the constituent's first name, the cheery greeting, and the sign-off with her own first name. More on the kiss later.

Emails are not formal letters, or at least not usually (they can be). They don't need to begin with Dear Madam, or even Dear anyone: Hi is perfectly acceptable. If I'm writing to someone I don't know, I'll always used Dear the first time, but I'll usually switch to Hi once we've established a connection, which is to say fairly quickly. I'll almost always use first names right from the off; only with very senior people would I use a title. But then that's academia, where things are pretty chilled. What about this, where the MP has a professional duty to the member of the public? I think that given they've probably met several times, and had many conversations about this matter, it would be strange to stick to the formality of a title and surname. Similarly with Jess's own first name: they're on first name terms. I generally prefer the use of my first name with anyone I'm interacting with regularly: when my bank person who sorted my mortgage kept calling me Dr Bailey, I had to make him stop because I was calling him Jamie and there was a weird sort of mismatched power thing.

A cheery greeting is nice: as Jess has said, she was acting in a compassionate way towards her constituent, and included a little message to show that she was thinking of her. The rest of the email is entirely formal language (there's a comma splice, but that's a punctuation error rather than an inappropriate register).

And then that kiss. Kiss etiquette is hard. Another friend of mine, from Germany, was talking about just this the other day. How many, and when to use them? I had a more or less accurate rule of none for work friends, lots for family, and other friends somewhere in between. Then it gets messy, though. I use them in text messages but not chat conversations, except for sometimes when I do. Male friends get them less often than female friends just in case it seems inappropriate, except that some male friends do because that's just what we do. Some female friends don't because we send short and frequent messages. Sometimes I include kisses for first and last messages but not for the bulk of the conversation. I think I tend to mirror what other people do, just as in real life (in real life, my preference would be for hugs for all greetings with friends, but in practice some people get hugs, some kisses and some nothing because I am bad at initiating hugs). Lynne Cahill from Sussex University is preparing an article on this very matter, which I'm looking forward to reading.

That's my complicated system, though. Jess might be someone who always puts kisses on her emails and texts. Many people do, especially if they're young, which she is - she's 34 and 34 is definitely still young (I am telling myself this). In addition, she is old enough to have gone through school before email was really a thing, and therefore, like everyone my age, not been taught how to write an email in an appropriate register. We learnt how to write a formal letter, but we hadn't yet realised we were going to need to do something different for emails. We've made it up as we go along, getting less formal along the way - even a few years ago I always included a salutation and sign-off in emails, but now I often don't, even at work. It's not necessary. It's like putting your name on a text message.

What I'm saying is, it's a minefield. The judge was mean.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Rotate, but don't turn

I've been looking at mattresses lately. It's bewildering. Not least is the instruction that some of them have:
No-turn mattress. Rotate regularly. 
Rotate and turn are one of many pairs of words that English has that are more or less synonymous but come from different sources. Typically, the one that we get from Romance (French or Latin) is used in more formal contexts or has a technical sense: here, that word is rotate. The Germanic counterpart (here, turn) is usually used in a more everyday sense.

That works for this pair. The OED has examples like The whole stage rotates concentrically and the kid turns on the spit, where each could be substituted for the other. The definitions are also more or less identical:
Turn (intrans): to move round on an axis or about a centre
Rotate (intrans): to turn about a centre or axis
We actually have the transitive senses here, as there is an implied object the mattress, but the transitive definitions are based on the intransitive ones.

The above discussion implies that it ought to be contradictory to say no-turn; rotate regularly, as how can you rotate something that can't or needn't be turned? Of course they mean it doesn't need to be flipped over, but you should turn it 180 degrees about its vertical axis (is that what I mean?? the thing stays flat, anyway) now and then to make sure it wears evenly. Here's an example of a pair of synonyms getting put to use in a situation where two different words meaning turn are needed. If one were so inclined, one could check whether the specific meanings each has (turn = flip over and rotate = stays flat) were generally consistent or if it's random which is used for which. That'll have to wait for another day, though, unless one of my readers wants to do it.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Do you yourself say themself?

The other day, I used the word themself during a lecture and on the spur of the moment, conducted a brief poll of whether the class would use it or themselves to refer to a singular individual.

Here's an example of themself with a singular referent:

I always use themself because it is singular to match the semantic singular of the referent, and also because I like to upset Word's spellchecker whenever possible. But themselves is plural to match the grammatical plural number of the pronoun: we always use plural agreement on the verb, too, never singular. Spellcheckers disagree with me on the use of themself and give it a red squiggly.

The results from my class were overwhelmingly in favour of themselves, with only one of the group saying they'd use themself, but then English Language and Linguistics students are a fairly linguistically conservative lot (this changes if they grow up to be linguists, but many of them are in it to be writers or teachers). I followed this poll up with a twitter poll:

As you can see, it was pretty equal with themself ahead by a narrow margin. I predict full matching to logical number before much longer. Here's Stan Carey's post which is more detailed on the history and usage patterns of this word.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Mandarins and oranges, tortoises and turtles, rolls and sandwiches

Recently, a story appeared in the news about some plastic-wrapped peeled mandarins for sale in Whole Foods. Whole Foods swiftly removed them and said 'our mistake'.

Here's the tweet that the BBC story used in its report:

Nathalie uses the term 'oranges' to refer to these fruits, which the story refers to as 'mandarins'. In my own native dialect, orange refers to something different from mandarin as well, with oranges being bigger, harder to peel, full of pips and generally a nuisance to eat. Clementines and satsumas are smaller but similar tasting, easier to peel and a much more pleasant experience. Mandarins are something I hardly ever eat, but they have a sharper, almost sour taste which is quite nice but very different again.

Many of the dialect differences I've experienced come from the time when we moved from Shrewsbury to Newcastle when I was 11, and this is one of them, although I don't think it's really a regional difference: I think that it just emerged through mixing with a different peer group. Plenty of my friends did call all these orange citrus fruits oranges, and I assimilated (though I still do make the distinction myself).

This kind of variation in the semantic coverage of a term is one that often causes great debate. A surprising one was tortoise/turtle. To my mind, it's easy: tortoises live on land and turtles live in the water. Americans (I thought) simply call all of them turtles. It turns out that not only is my classification of chelonians not quite accurate, neither is my classification of Americans (they vary! who knew?). I'm yet to work this one out fully, but it sparked a full-on twitter row last time I tried.

The most bitterly-fought battle is probably the one over what different kinds of bread should be called (buns, rolls, baps, etc.) but a related one is what counts as a sandwich. An effect of moving south a couple of years ago was that I would sometimes order a bacon sandwich in a takeaway place and get bacon between two slices of bread. Now stay with me, this is complicated. At home, or in a place where I'm sitting down to order a bacon sandwich, I expect this. But in a takeaway place, I expect it to come in a bun (bap, roll, whatever). In places round here, it seems that sandwich is more restricted in meaning, and covers only those made with sliced bread. You can have a roll, but you have to ask for it specifically. A bacon roll is a taxonomic sister of a bacon sandwich, not a hyponym of it (in other words, bacon rolls and sandwiches are two different examples of bacon-in-bread items, rather than a bacon roll being a sub-type of bacon sandwich).

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Covert swearing

Following on from my last post about mishearing words in connected speech, here's an example of when I deliberately do this: covert swearing.

Covert swearing demonstrates that the taboo of swearing is not about the words themselves, or at least not the sounds of those words. I frequently utter the very same string of sounds found in the worst swearwords, but it's not swearing. We all do it, in fact: it's just that I do it on purpose. I don't know why I do this, but I find it amusing in a daft way.

To ease you in to the idea with an example that is inappropriate but not actually swearing, I'll always say penis instead of pianist. They sound more or less the same. Once you've smooshed together the vowels (basically, you don't really pronounce the second vowel in the first syllable of pianist) it's just a matter of reducing the consonant cluster at the end, which you might well do in connected speech anyway. I don't think people notice me doing this, or if they do they don't let on. I therefore sometimes say to people that Elton John is a penis.

More inappropriately again, when I say if I can... I'll more often than not reduce the initial vowel to nothing, and the second and third ones to schwa, so it sounds like /fəkən/, or in other words exactly the same as fucking (try and just pronounce the consonants and you'll get the idea). I'm almost certain people don't notice this, or they would surely say something. 

And so on. Nice demonstration that words are not just sounds: there has to be deliberate intention to say some particular word as well as the correct string of sounds. And in fact, the sounds can be extremely different from the carefully-pronounced version, as long as the intention is there and there is enough context to allow understanding. See this old post for an example. This is also why every now and then there's a toy-swearing story in the newspapers. 

I'm going to have to stop doing it now I've revealed it, though, else it'll feel weird. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Eggcorn morphemes

Twice this week I've heard a phrase that sounded like the speaker had misheard it. On the QI podcast 'No such thing as a fish' Andy said that meteors/meteorites came from out of space rather than outer space, and a television continuity announcer said that a garden in an Alan Titchmarsh programme needed some tender love and care rather than tender loving care.

These, I think, count as eggcorns. I'm not certain, because 'eggcorn' has a very specific definition: it's misinterpreting a word or phrase as something else that makes sense. It's named after an example of itself: an acorn looks like an egg in an eggcup, so eggcorn makes sense.

In this case, it's a function word (or part of a word) that's been misheard as something else that makes sense. In outer space, the -er is just a schwa if you have a non-rhotic accent (you don't pronounce the 'r' at the end). As it happens, so is of in connected speech, at least a lot of the time. We even have a way of writing it: o' (although this looks affected or like you're mimicking an Irish accent or something). Another way of writing it is when we merge it into another word: a lotta fun, a lorra lorra laughs. And it's reasonable to say that a meteorite has come from out of space. The Eggcorn Database has an example of outer body experience, which is the same thing in the opposite direction.

In tender loving care, it's the -ing morpheme (part of a word) that's misanalysed. Again, the pronunciation in normal speech may be reduced to 'n', and so might and. And again, it's just as reasonable that you would give a garden tender love and care as that you would give it tender loving care (maybe more so, actually).

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Building sites is dangerous

There is a building site at my work (show me a university that doesn't have at least one building site on campus at any given moment) and it has this sign:
'Building sites are dangerous; Keep out'
Every time I walk past it (a couple of times a day at least) I think to myself 'Building sites is dangerous'. This is a sort of in-joke that me and approximately one other person in the world will find amusing, and he probably doesn't read my blog, so I'm going to explain it to you all instead and tell you about the moment I decided to become a syntactician.

It wasn't exactly the moment I decided to do it as my job, but it was the point of no return. It was in my very first syntax lecture, in September 2004, when aged 21 I had decided to go to university to do Linguistics. Why linguistics? Not sure. I don't think I was specially bothered about English Language in 6th form, but I did do three languages and enjoyed the grammar. (That's why I signed up to do Latin as my optional outside subject, and it's why I'm currently learning German.)

Anyway, back to the syntax lecture. The lecturer was Noel Burton-Roberts. I can't remember what else he said in that lecture (I've got the notes so I can look it up) but he used an example to show that syntax is a thing, and that words aren't just strung together in order.
Flying planes are dangerous (=planes that are flying are dangerous)
Flying planes is dangerous (=the activity, flying planes, is dangerous)
The verb has to agree in number (be singular or plural) with the subject of the sentence, and specifically the head of the subject. The subject of that sentence is flying planes both times, but in the first instance flying describes planes, so planes (plural) is the head and we have are, while in the second example it's flying that's the head, and planes could be left out (flying is dangerous), and flying is singular so we get is.

Such as simple example, but upon seeing this something just clicked in my mind. It's a cliché, but it's true. It was as if I had suddenly discovered this whole secret world, where the language we speak every day had proper structure and rules and could be explained. Everything from that point on just made sense.

I suppose that makes me a bit weird. But it's why I'm a syntactician now.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Linger with Laura

It's election season at the university: the students are voting for their union officers for next year. This means that the campus is covered in scruffy handwritten cardboard signs in support of one candidate or another. There are some common themes.

Some are old-fashioned and simply go with this format:
[Name] for President
Many, however, have chosen an alliterative slogan which functions as an exhortative speech act:
Rely on Ruth
Stand with Stuart
Make it Millie
And one candidate had instead chosen a (near) rhyme and an alliterative nickname:
Only Sam can / Super Sam
She has a superman outfit to campaign in as well.

I don't know if these things go in fads, or what. The most effective signs by far (in my opinion) didn't have any of these gimmicks, but had the same logo (a green pharmacy-style cross) and the candidate's name and one of her sensible policies, a different one on each poster, clearly written. The others don't put their policies on their signs, apparently assuming the alliteration will be enough.

Friday, 4 March 2016

I were saying I wa'

It's National Grammar Day! Sadly this isn't as fun as it sounds due to the idiots on the internet. However, here is a thing I have learnt. Jeremy Butterfield wrote an article about how linguists and other people have different ideas about what grammar is, and in the comments someone mentioned the famous(?) Dennis Skinner complaint about being misquoted as saying I were. It's mentioned at the bottom of this link.

As he says there, he's not saying I were, because that would be 'grammatically incorrect'. He's saying I wah, as in dropping the 's' from was, and it just happens to sound like I were. Someone from Yorkshire in the comments agreed with him:

This is fine, I suppose, except that I really want it to be I were. It's a nice symmetrical counterpart to the We was found in many other places. Both are examples of levelling of verb forms, and I  teach it as an example of how levelling is something that tends to happen, but that it's more or less chance what form is chosen in what dialect. If it's not levelling, then that means the the levelling only takes place in some dialects, and it's always towards was.

On the other hand, if it is a phonological reduction of I was, then there's other interesting questions to answer. Why don't these dialects level? Do other dialects actually have I were? If not, why would there be a preference to level towards was? How can we tell, for sure, that it's I wa and not I were?

Thursday, 3 March 2016

It's hard to close the windows after you've left the room

I was in a room at work today that had a sign on the inside of the door saying something like this:


Underlining is the written form of stress on that word (before), and that kind of stress in that position can only make the word contrastive. That is to say, it contrasts before with after and any other word from the appropriate semantic and syntactic class (while, during, etc). It also makes before the focus of the sentence, so that the rest of it seems to be already-known information. The implication is that people have been trying to close the windows after they've left the room, it hasn't worked out well, so now we're being reminded to do it before and not after we leave.