Archive for the 'As seen on TV' Category


Order strikes again

So, you know the old (?) ABC (?) Saturday morning cartoon jingle: “After these messages, we’ll be right back.” Well, back when I was in first grade or whenever it was that I remember them from, I thought, “Why do they have it in the wrong order?! Shouldn’t it be ‘We’ll be right back after these messages’?”

In my more advanced age, I had a rather different reaction to the Target Christmas commercial with a bunch of elementary school students reciting, “There’s no place like Target / at Christmas to save.” Since it’s in verse, the order isn’t so exceptional. What’s interesting is trying to figure out the semantic parse — and if any of the various parses actually means anything different from any of the others. What’s clear, I think, is that to save is an infinitival relative modifying place. What’s up for grabs, I suppose, is whether at Christmas hooks up with save or with be, and if like Target modifies place, place to save, or place to save at Christmas. I think basically all of these mean about or exactly the same thing.

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Frication can cost a lot

Speaking of fricatives in Bei”zh”ing:

I just got through watching today’s episode of Jeopardy!, and an interesting thing happened between the end of Double Jeopardy! and Final Jeopardy! During Double Jeopardy!, Carolyn D’Aquila had given the correct response “Who is Michael Keaton.” Or so it seemed. Before the final round, Alex Trebek announced that upon review, D’Aquila had been found to say “Michael Heaton, as in Patricia Heaton” (that’s [hi:tn]), and so her some money was deducted.

The first thing I thought of was one of my very first assignments in undergraduate phonetics, which involved as-narrow-as-possible transcription of some clips of people speaking English. One of the clips was of someone saying “two candidates,” but the initial sound of “candidates” was [x], the voiceless velar fricative. It was close enough to a [k] sound (plus, once you’ve done word recognition, it’s hard to notice that it’s not a [k]) that it took several listens to catch it. It certainly wasn’t anything like an [h], but you gotta wonder. In fast speech, could a /k/ become an [h]? How about in the particular phonetic context of “Michael _eaton”? Did the Jeopardy! officials hear an [h] or an [x]?

(and yes, I realize the irony of attempting to disambiguate “hard j” and “soft j” by using zh in the context of Mandarin)

MLC from the mouth of a bunny

Multi-level coordination is when you get something like this:

She has been around the world, climbed the tallest mountains, but won’t eat a simple sea cucumber.

Where the first two coordinated verb phrases are inflected to be complements of have (has been, has climbed) while the final one is not (*_has won’t eat_). For many examples and discussion thereof, you need look no further than here.

Just the other day I happened (by complete accident I assure you) to have my set-top box set to the Disney Channel (by no, or at least little, fault of my own) when a children’s show called Bunnytown started. The first thing I heard was some bunny addressing TV land, saying something like (IIRC):

Are you tired, sick, or have the flu?

You know, this sort of stuff is what the TV ratings system was designed for: TV-7:L-NCC (that’s “7 and over, due to language – non-canonical coordination). Parents need to be able make informed choices about the language they expose their kids to, and as a non-parent, I should think that some kids just aren’t ready for, prepared to deal with, or have the linguistic self-awareness to understand, complex coordinate structures, let alone from cute bunnies.

On losing your shirt to non-specificity

At the beginning of the Double Jeopardy! round of today’s Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek noted to one contestant, “Robin, I see red on you and red in front of you: let’s try to get rid of one of those this round.”

Robin had a negative score, and was wearing a red shirt. Thank goodness for specific indefinites.

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Hawai’ian okina a diacritic

Today’s Teen Jeopardy’s final question/answer was (paraphrasing)

This is the only [US] state that, when written correctly, has a diacritical mark [see below]

After going through my inventory of diacritics and possible parts of state names other than the proper name part (as in The State of California, or something like that), I came to the conclusion that it must be Hawai’i. And indeed this is the response Alex was waiting for.

It’s really too bad, because as far as I can tell, the ‘okina should be, and usually is, considered a separate character (a “letter”), expressing the glottal stop. It is not a diacritical mark, which intuitively is supposed to alter the pronunciation of a letter, not indicate a separate sound. Of course there are many cases where an a diacritic in fact does something rather more (e.g., the cedilla in several Turkic languages). And IIRC there are orthographies in which a true diacritic is used to mark glottal stops. But the ‘okina is not (in) one of them.

[edit: Some websites report the exact final Jeopardy answer as: "It's the only state name that when spelled officially contains a diacritical mark."]

The game-game post

There’s a show called Cash Cab. Comedian Ben Bailey drives a cab in New York and offers to give people a free ride for as long as they can answer trivia questions without getting three wrong – and they get cash for each correct answer as well.

One question that came up today had to do with games. I have to admit that I don’t really remember the question, except that it was something like, “Inspired by light guns … [blah blah blah] … this game is known as WHAT?” The two guys in the cab seemed stumped, thought about it for a while, and just before time ran out, answered, “Space Invaders!” Way wrong. Bailey responded, “Sorry! It’s laser tag.” One of the contestants (who seemed to be in his late 20s) then said, “Oh, an actual game.”

Nice. We can see something interesting about prototypical games for these two guys and in particular the one quoted above. And not just prototypical games, but “games” as mentioned in different contexts. Now, I’m not sure what sort of context a quiz question is, but it’s probably close to neutral (the ever-elusive message-in-a-bottle-received-while-on-a-deserted-island that (many) semanticists and (some) pragmaticists wish they could get a handle on). Whatever context it was, it led them to interpret “game” as “video game” (could have had something to do with the actual content of the question…I really should have been, uh, paying more attention? Instead of doing coursework?) while the question was asked. But then when the answer was revealed, somehow a game like laser tag is more like an actual game: a game game, if you will. Now, laser tag is pretty video-game like in concept – but you just run around and such. Seems to suggest that an “actual” game is one that involves physical activity. Makes you wonder if, say, Battleship would have been an “actual” game. It involves interaction with things that are not displayed on a monitor, so much closer to physical activity than space invaders.

[The title should have reminded you of a certain paper by Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell on how to find good salad recipes.]

Which which

A great example of what me some others (okay, just one other) are calling the Japanese-style relative clause in English can be found in the script for Serenity. After watching a video showing River being given given a key phrase, which causes her to pass out (after having beaten up the male population of an entire bar), Mr. Universe remarks,

Mr. Universe: And, she falls asleep. Which, she would be sleepy.

Called “Japanese-style” because there is no necessary grammatical gap in the relative clause that could correspond to the modified head (which in this case is probably just the previous sentence). There is of course a semantic and/or pragmatic (i.e., discourse/text-cohesive) relation between the two clauses.

Passive voice on a map

I was reminded today of the results of a geography quiz/survey reported on by National Geographic News. Basically, the geographic and demographic knowledge of young Americans is abysmal, despite geography being a core part of primary and secondary education (often under the category of “social studies”). The article links to the website of a campaign called My Wonderful World, which aims to “expand geographic learning in school, at home, and in the community [...] to give our kids the power of global knowledge.”

This reminded me of the plight that faces the field of linguistics, which so far has been mostly unable to get itself into the pre-college curriculum. Of course, it’s probably not exactly easy to convince people that knowing how to recognize grammatical functions and phonological alternations is important (and certainly not compared with knowing the locations of nations we’re currently occupying…or, say, the states that we live in). But in any case, I watched the 60-second ad available on the site, transcribed it, and then altered it as little as possible, to create the following. I recommend checking out the actual video first, though…

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