18 April 2007

waesucks for the late-night paper writer

a couple nights ago i was up late working on a final paper about Latin interjections and their use in one of Terence's comedies. the first part of the paper was devoted to grouping the interjections based upon their semantics and looking for any commonalities they may have. i was dealing with the set of interjections representing "woe, grief, or dismay" (which in fact, do have some interesting phonological features: most of them contain diphthongs and none of them contain obstruent consonants). one of the three Latin interjections in question was vae. since i had just used the word woe a few sentences prior, i headed to the OED to verify my sudden hunch that the two are in fact cognate.

one of the points i made in a footnote of my paper is that English woe is a bit more productive than Latin vae because it is no longer strictly an interjection, but has gained new life as a noun. apparently, woe had quite an interesting life in the early history of English, when it was very productive, combining with other words.

the absolute best of these, in terms of sheer entertainment value? waesucks!

if waesucks hadn't died out and instead had gone on through the sound changes which altered the two morphemes which comprise it, in modern English we would have some word woesakes. as it is, the word appears not to have made it to the 20th century (but is attested as late as 1867). that, i'm afraid, is the 20th century's loss. some other fun facts:

  • it's pronounced just like it looks: [wesʌcks]
  • waesucks appears to select a CP as its complement, and in the examples which the OED cites this CP is always headed by for
  • both WAESUCK and WAESUCKS are good in Scrabble, so remember that the next time you see ACEKSUW on your rack

13 April 2007

a piece of pasta

today's Frazz muses on plural and singular forms of words that have been borrowed into English:

for a Bryson Elementary student, this girl has quite the knack for spotting such words, and is basing her assumption on such common pairs as cactus~cacti or syllabus~syllabi (to avoid the issue that standard English plural formation works perfectly fine with these nouns, yielding equally valid* cactuses and syllabuses). she's unfortunately made her morphological leap of faith based upon the wrong language. although ravioli looks like a Latin plural, it is—just like the food it represents—purely Italian. thus the singular should be raviolo. raviolo is actually quite well attested: 95,000 Italian Google hits and citation in Wiktionary, which is even so bold to say that raviolo is the English singular form!
*apparently the Firefox spellcheck doesn't think so, but the OED backs me up.

i already knew that words for different types of pasta inflected for singular and plural in Italian, from the first time that i heard the phrase un gnocco (which rather startled me at the time). it seems that virtually all of the food terms borrowed from Italian to English are in the plural for some reason.

uno zucchino ~ due zucchini - English zucchini/zucchini(s)
uno cannolo ~ due cannoli - English cannoli/cannoli(s)
uno gnocco ~ due gnocchi - English gnocchi/gnocchi

i only got used to using the singular forms after i had spent some time in Italy.

but what about spaghetti? the singular form exists in Italian, but is rare. but given the proper context, it can be used, such as:

c'e solo uno spaghetto sulla piata
"there's only one piece of spaghetti on the plate"

aha! there's the difference! words falling under the semantic category of pasta are count nouns in Italian, but are treated as mass nouns in English. to refer to just one piece in English, a partitive construction is required. but in Italian, a simple singular will suffice. this fact also can account for why the plural form was borrowed into English, since mass nouns almost always exhibit plural morphology. it doesn't quite explain zucchini and cannoli, which are clearly count nouns, but perhaps if spaghetti made its way over to English first, their plural forms followed simply by analogy.

the real question is if whether we had borrowed zucchino and cannolo whether we would refer to multiples of them as zucchinos and cannolos, or if we'd louse up their plural formations as we have with so many other words. if we were real sticklers for retaining native morphology we could have such fun words in English. to close, some of my favorite foreign plurals that lost out to Latinate or regular English plural formation:

hippopotamus ~ hippopotamoi
octopus ~ octopodes
prospectus ~ prospectūs

doubly headed DPs (or, why linguists can never explain themselves to writers and editors)

i swear this isn't a sports blog, but i'm a sports junkie and thus we have yet another post that's inspired by sports journalism of one type or another. this comes courtesy of a quote from The Mining Journal via mgoblog:

“It was The Eric Puls’ Show,” Marquette head coach John Tiziani said.
there's something wrong with how coach Tiziani's quote has been transcribed. looking only on the surface, the answer is quite simple: there is an extra apostrophe where there shouldn't be. but that little squiggle carries different weight on different levels. it is orthographically overt, phonologically null (to some at least...i would read [pʊlz] rather than [pʊlzəz]), and syntactically rich. it is, after all, a determiner.

i remember thinking that it was crazy when i was told that the genitive ending in English is actually a determiner akin to the, his, a, etc. yet the Mining Journal's extra apostrophe gives just the data necessary to prove it so. consider:
  1. The Eric Puls Show (1 Det)
  2. Eric Puls' Show (1 Det)
  3. ?Eric Puls Show (0 Dets)
  4. *The Eric Puls' Show (2 Dets)
(1) and (2) are both perfectly fine syntactically, even though they carry slightly different meanings. (3) is not so good, and (4) is right out, and for good reasons. there is only one DP, but two determiners: the and 's. a clear violation of one of the central principles of X'-theory, namely that every X0 head must have one and only one maximal projection and that each Xmax phrase must have one and only one head.

this is all well and good for syntacticians. now try to explain it to Mr. Bronz of the Alpena News who wrote this article. or to the editor of the Mining Journal. after all, he left the extra apostrophe in (or worse, added it himself). chances are quite good that they have no conscious knowledge of what a determiner is. then you have to convince them that 's is one. then you have to give them a crash course in phrase structure. by this time, they'll have erased and re-inserted the apostrophe three or four times. and if you're lucky they'll finally cave and say "yeah, there was an extra apostrophe. it's gone now. (crazy linguist...)"

11 April 2007

tu sai che Kobe Bryant parla italiano?

well, i sure didn't, until i was browsing the homepage of Gazzetta dello Sport this evening. near the bottom of the page was a link to a video interview entitled Kobe Bryant si confessa (in italiano). i presumed that the interview must have been done through an interpreter, or that Bryant's answers were dubbed over.

i was quickly proved wrong. it turns out that Bryant is in fact a decently fluent speaker of Italian, since he spent a good chunk of his childhood there while his father played in the Italian top-level basketball league. Kobe hasn't had a whole lot of occasions to speak Italian since his family moved back to the US when he was in high school, so he was, as he predicted at the start of the interview, a bit rusty. as the questioning wears on he is more and more tempted to codeswitch, and he exhibits some interesting phenomena which people who are interested in such things should definitely take a look at. most noticeable are his variations when using proper names. whenever he utters a name in isolation in an otherwise Italian sentence, he pronounces it with what could loosely be termed an "Italian accent." breaking it down phonologically, what he's really doing is using only the vowel quantities present in Italian to approximate the English pronunciations. but when he begins to list several American names, the Italian phonetics slowly drop away, and furthermore if he drops all the way back to the American pronunciation, he tends to speak in English when he continues, resuming Italian at the beginning of his next sentence.

Bryant follows good precedent, as far as i know. i've only heard one other American basketball player talk about the game in Italian. last spring, SportItalia had Dan Peterson, an American who coached for many years in the Italian league, doing commentary for the NCAA tournament. his color commentary was peppered with English, much like Bryant's. his most noticeable tendency was to start his Italian sentences with "well..." other than that, his codeswitching ability led to the creation of a new catchphrase: if you don't like the call that was made, just yell "hey, arbitro!"

10 April 2007

ESPN fags out on fagging out

SportsCenter has taken absurd taboo avoidance to new heights.

late last week, the big linguistic scandal in the sporting world was CBS commentator Billy Packer's comment in an appearance on PBS's The Charlie Rose Show in which he used the phrase "fag out" in reference to the fact that Rose never followed through on an offer to act as a runner at the NCAA basketball tournament. people who take such things far too seriously raised a huge outcry that the remark was a slur against homosexuals. ESPN naturally jumped on the story, producing both an online article as well as a brief segment on SportsCenter.

here is where things get ridiculous.

the SportsCenter segment proceeded generally as follows. the story was introduced, mentioning that Packer had used a potential slur on Rose's program. they then play the clip including the use of "fag out" in its entirety and unedited. shortly thereafter, a later quote from Packer justifying his previous statement was put on the screen. it read:

I said he fagged out on me and it had nothing to do with sexual connotation.... I can assure you I will use that phrase again and I won't think twice about it. My meaning is genuine.
and the anchor read it off of the screen as:
Quote: I said—...the phrase in question—and it had nothing to do with sexual connotation...
what the hell!? it's ok to present video footage in which the phrase was produced; display a printed quote in which the phrase is written out; yet heaven forbid a real human being should say it live on tv, even preceded by visual and aural reinforcement that he is quoting another person's words?

congrats, ESPN. you really fagged out on this one.

words of introduction

welcome, welcome, one and all. here begins my foray into the linguablogosphere. the plan is for it to not suffer the same fate as my other blogging attempts, which if they are not dead are at least in some sort of persistent vegetative state. they all wound up that way because after a couple months the novelty wore off and they became little more than obligations. therefore, the goal of Descriptively Adequate is to be a little more freeform, without any regimented posting schedule. with any luck that means that it will live a long healthy life, and it will pleasantly surprise you, the reader, when new posts arrive.

although my own linguistic musings certainly have their own flavor (i've been accused of being a derivationalist, and Noam Chomsky is not my best buddy), i would be remiss in not acknowledging some inspirations for this project, namely Language Log and Polyglot Conspiracy.

with that, time to move on to actual posts (i've got a couple in the writing queue already). also in the works are changes to the site's appearance (because geez, these blogger templates are either ugly or old), but that will require some serious css-wrangling over the next few days and weeks.