21 January 2013

anaphoric clogs

in the past week i have seen two different signs, in two restrooms separated by several hundred miles, one typed and one handwritten, that both said:

Do not put paper towels in the toilet!!!
It clogs them up.
wait, what? that should be the other way around: They clog it up. the paper towels are the clog-ers, not the clog-ees. how did such a complete mix-up escape from the pens of two people who are presumably competent speakers of English, if not native speakers?

it requires some charitable grammatical analysis, but i think there could be a few contributing factors. first, it is probably intended as a propositional anaphor, referring to the act of paper-towel-putting. one way to render the intended meaning is It clogs it up, which is a little confusing, since there are two occurrences of it—one propositional and one referential. this is probably the moment during the composition of this sentence when panic set in, and—with a gentle semantic push—the second anaphor became them. despite the unambiguously singular antecedent the toilet in the previous sentence, what the sign-writer means to convey is that paper-towel-putting leads to toilet-clogging in general. that generic reading involves (potentially) multiple toilets, and hence them.

the misfortune lies in the fact that it clogs them up is such a short sentence that the reader can latch on to them before they've even decided that it should be a propositional anaphor. in that case, both get interpreted referentially, with the strange consequence that paper towels are being clogged up by toilets. that would be quite the plumbing problem.

21 May 2012

what's in a language's name?

a few weeks ago we held the 7th edition of the Semantics of Semantics of Under-Represented Languages in the Americas conference at Cornell. we had a great bunch of speakers, working on a wide range of languages. besides the variety, i was very interested in the way that languages were represented in the program. issues of identity and linguistic and cultural preservation are of major concern for most native communities. as a result, there's a trend towards using speakers' preferred name for their language. frequently this is an endonym — the name of the language in the language itself.

i decided to compile a list of all the languages represented in talks and posters and see how far this trend has gone. i was a little surprised how few endonyms there were, although some of them jump off the page. in the list below, the name on the left is how the language appeared in the program; on the right is an alternate name. endonyms are italicized.

YucatecMàaya t'àan
TseltalBatźil Ḱop
NavajoDiné bizaad
Yauyos Quechua           ------
Nez PerceNiimiipuutímt

aside from Blackfoot and Nez Perce, the SULA linguists didn't use any names that clearly came from Euro-Americans naming other peoples or languages. (i'm fairly sure that in these two cases, the Euro names have been claimed by the associated groups, and are considered standard and non-deprecating.) there are some such names that seem over the line for 21st century use. when constructing a LING 101 phonology problem set once, we had to turn to Wikipedia to find a less awful-sounding name for Swampy Cree; the endonym is Omaškêkowak.

nevertheless, just shy of half of the presenters used the endonym for their language of study. some of them are on beyond tongue twisters for native English speakers (i'm looking at you, Nɬeʔkepmxcín). some seem downright otherworldly. i'm considering using a selection of these in an exercise for my freshman seminar on constructed languages. if i give my students an unannotated list of language names, and ask which are natural languages (not telling them that they all are), i wonder which ones they will peg as constructed? i feel like Q'aanjob'al may trick them along the lines of space opera, and the all caps neo-orthography of SENĆOŦEN and the very non-English consonant clusters of Lnuismk could be a trap too.

keep in mind that this is not limited to Native American languages. much more familiar languages have strange endonyms that could trip up even well-educated English speakers. some examples would be Euskara, Suomi, and Cymraeg. (those are Basque, Finnish, and Welsh, respectively. all European languages, all of which i didn't know the endonyms for until after i became a linguist). the question is whether they would just be unfamiliar, or actually make people believe they were constructed. i'm not teaching my course again until next spring, but when i do i'll report back with results. if anyone else wants to try something similar in the meantime, i'd be interested in hearing how it goes.

11 January 2012

'only' peeving on the comics

i read all of my daily comic strips online now.  one of the serious downsides to this is that gocomics.com has a comments thread(!) on every single strip that they post.  they don't generate the same type of bottom-dwelling stuff as youtube comments, but they are some of the most mirthless places on the internet.  nothing is worse than going all Van Hœt on something that's just supposed to be harmless fun.  so i wasn't surprised, but still baffled when i saw this response to a Frazz comic a few weeks ago:

misplaced a modifier? what? i wasn't even familiar with this language peeve. yesterday i was catching up on my RSS backlog, and found a post about "The elusive 'misplaced only'" on Jan Freeman's blog Throw Grammar From The Train. it details how this peeve works: basically people swear up and down about a relationship between linear order and scope involving only, despite the fact that English doesn't work that way.

so the "only fetishists" would like Caulfield to put only immediately preceding heartburn, because they are blinded by dogma and can't see that it modifies the entire VP. all in spite of the fact that putting it there makes the sentence actually sound worse. in other contexts it would sound worser and worser. compare the following constructed sentences, also using heartburn just for fun.
my uncle went to the ER yesterday because he thought he was having a heart attack…

but it turned out he only had heartburn.
?but it turned out he had only heartburn.
moving only makes the sentence sound worse.  put it in the progressive and it becomes even more terrible: he was having only heartburn??  not modern English. so no, our only conclusion here is that neither Caulfield nor Jef Mallett misplaced a modifier.  he put it exactly where it's supposed to go.

09 January 2012

"un reality" and unreality

today, the following bit of Italian headlinese came across the tubes to my RSS reader:

Napoli, presentato Vargas: "Mi sembra di essere in un reality"

the post is about a new acquisition of the soccer team in Naples, and his reaction to arriving in the city. the quote in the headline appears to be "I seem to be in a reality." this would be a decidedly odd thing to say in English — some sort of metaphysical claim.

but actually, it's just the result of a creative borrowing from English. if we were talking about reality vs. fantasy, there's no doubt that the headline would have used the word realtà or verità. (note that i have absolutely no idea what Vargas actually said; the quote is given in a different form later in the article, although still including the word reality, and it may be translated from his native Spanish.)

so what is un reality? it's a reality TV show. wordreference.com even has a separate Italian to English entry for reality indicating this. Italian has a propensity for this type of clip-and-borrow process, often taking just the attributive piece of a phrase or compound, and they turn up very frequently in headlinese, where space is at a premium. (another famous example is Italian basket for English basketball, which is more common than the native pallacanestro.)

perhaps more interesting than the morphological process here, though, is the semantic shift. Vargas' use of un reality clearly indicates that the content of un reality is anything but reality! replace reality with sogno 'dream' or fantasia 'fantasy' and the sentence means basically the same thing. of course, the blame for making a compositional phrase that can easily shift to mean the opposite probably falls more on English here, but Italian helps to obfuscate the process. i'm sure if we start using a reality to mean a fantasy in English, peevers will tell us that it's just another sign that 2012 is certainly the end of days. i guess we'll just have to wait and see what the realtà turns out to be.

23 December 2011

"grammar" as catch-all

yesterday, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) posted a link to "The 20 Most Controversial Rules in the Grammar World" on Google+. sufficiently baited, i read through it. as i did, i noticed that "The Grammar World" is a very vast place, and may in fact encompass several galaxies.

i went through the list a second time to categorize each of these alleged "grammar" points in terms of what linguistic realm they fall under. (several fail to qualify for any linguistic subfield.)  here were the results.

  1. the Oxford Comma
    orthography / style
  2. the pronunciation of "controversial"
    morpho-phonologycalling it that may be generous.
  3. double negatives
    they give a lousy example and fairly tone-deaf comments, but it's definitely a syntactic issue.
  4. "irregardless"
  5. ending sentences with prepositions
    while writing this post, i noticed that when you create a link in the new blogger interface it asks you "To what URL should this link go?" at least it's reassuring that my blog software is a robot, not a native speaker of English.
  6. "hanged" vs. "hung"
  7. "like" as a conjunction
    hold on, this is a double problem. anyone criticizing someone for using like as a conjunction should first ask themselves whether they know what a conjunction is. this peeve requires it to be anything that takes a clausal complement. the built in Mac OS X dictionary lists such uses of like under a subheading "conjunction", and does the same for when (which also baffled me: apparently Saturday is the day when I get my hair done contains a "relative adverb" while     I loved math when I was in school contains a "conjunction". this is completely backwards terminology, since it's clearly the latter that's modifying something verbal, the VP [loved math].)  however,  the entry for "after" has no erroneous label as conjunction, despite the fact that it too can clearly take clausal complements.
    so if this one was controversial, it's more likely because it's poorly defined, rather than having zealots on two sides of a clearly drawn line.
  8. "good" vs. "well"
    again, generously. this is a fight over the meaning and distribution of lexical items.
  9. text/internet speak
    vague orthographical morass
    not particularly grammar-y, and a grab-bag unto itself. this should have failed the criteria for inclusion on the list by not being a rule.
  10. starting sentences with "however"
    syntax / style
  11. starting sentences with "but" or "and"
    syntax / style
    should've been 10b.
  12. gender-neutral pronouns
    totally misses the point by not even mentioning singular they. in an article about controversy, we're failing to teach the controversy.
  13. split infinitives
  14. passive voice
  15. punctuation inside quotation marks
  16. possessive apostrophes on words that end in 's'
    side note: my students this past semester were unduly concerned with this. apparently this is a failing offense in certain US high schools now.
  17. "e-mail" vs. "email"
    very specific piece of orthography
    all the rest up to this point were at least generalizations that had to be applied to individual circumstances.
  18. universal grammar rules
    what is this i don't even.
    we are informed that Noam Chomsky is an "influential linguist", but otherwise…i mean sure, there's some controversy over whether UG exists, and plenty over what it contains, but this description of it says so little. and if you were thinking that this doesn't seem like a "grammar rule" on par with the rest of the list, just wait for the next one.
  19. the fact that there are different kinds of dashes
    GAH. orthography, ok. punctuation, at the fringe of orthography, maybe. EM AND EN DASHES ARE GRAMMAR? about as much as camera ISO settings are visual cognition, or audio file formats are hearing. this wins the award for shameless list-padding.
  20. "who" vs. "whom"
    infamous. covered previously. (now with dead Google Video link!)
the final tally, giving benefit of the doubt: 13 items that could actually be considered on the spectrum of "grammar" from phonology to pragmatics; 4 orthographic points that tangentially bear on the written encoding of language; 2 ill-defined bits of nonsense; and 1 complaint about the geometry of making writing look pretty.  i give it a C- and suggest it repeat its course on the definition of grammar.