Archive for the 'Linguistics and the world' Category


An adjective quantified-noun

Back on the best holiday of the year, Mark Liberman wrote on LL about some strange claims about the constituency and plurality of a million dollars. In a comment, I noted some perhaps genuinely-strange uses of “a,” leading to this follow-up. Having had the fear of Zwicky etched into my brain, I thought I would avoid a too-long comment and just talk about it here.

First, the sentences:

He was there for a good seven years.

An additional three people are required.

A mere four nations recognize that standard.

She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

What we have is “a” and then some adjective phrase, and then a quantified nominal. There are some interesting questions to be asked: first, what is the range of adjectives? It seems sort of limited: a grueling 100 miles, but ?an asphalt-paved 100 miles. All the examples given so far involve some sort of “evaluation” (shock, amazement, disappointment, unprecedentedness, etc.). Maybe someone nice will do a corpus study and report the findings (and of no one does it soon, I might just have to).

Next question: does the whole thing act as a singular or plural phrase, for the purposes of subject-verb agreement? The comments seem to show that, depending on the “context” (how the NP is construed semantically, let’s say – either as a divisible group of individuals or as a lump), you might get singular or plural agreement.

A good 100 people have/*has arrived.

A mere four nations recognize/*recognizes that standard.

A mere four nations is/are not enough

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Symbols want to be free

Over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum has posted on the ongoing story of Gillian Gibons, a schoolteacher teaching in Khartoum, Sudan. She has been charged with blasphemy for naming (actually, for accepting the class’ suggestion for naming) a teddy bear “Muhammad,” apparently after one of the most popular boys in the class.

I don’t want to get into the details of this particular case, but I do want to comment on something in Geoff’s final paragraph, which begins:

Here on the Linguistic Crimes desk we try to highlight the lighter side of language offenses: the zany character of victimless criminality that amount to no more than uttering strings of letters of syllables, the mad asterisking of words too awful to print, the giggleworthy character of loony attempts to suppress free speech.

Now I am sure Geoff has thought about the philosophy of language, and in particular the philosophy of what language “means,” far more than I could have if I had started when I was born and not stopped until last night, but there is something interesting in this particular statement. That is, on the one hand, we have the fact that “uttering of strings of letters and syllables” cannot reasonably constitute victim-ful criminality (being inherently meaningless, one presumes). On the other hand, we have the importance of the freedom of speech, which one presumes is an important thing to do because sometimes speech is meaningful or somehow experienced as meaningful.

But like I said, I’m no philosopher.

Staying alive

In case you haven’t seen it, the LA Times has an article, A final say? They hope not, that describes the efforts to describe and revitalize Washo, a severely endangered California Indian language. A nice story (and very cool for Alan to have his picture in the [online version of the] paper).

A side-note: check out the photo of Alan facing Ramona. On the shelf in the background there’s a crank-style pencil sharpener. Anyone else think there might have been a better place to install it?

What’s in that name

A recent PC post on envelope-pushing names in China reminded me of the situation on names in Japan, where there is a government-sanctioned list of Chinese characters (kanji) that can be used in personal names. This doesn’t limit the possible sounds that can go into a name (beyond the phonology of the language), as you can just use hiragana (or katakana?) to indicate the appropriate pronunciation.

The approved list of kanji, the Jinmeiyoo Kanji (‘Chinese characters for use in personal names’), consists of 983 kanji that do not appear in the standard 2000-odd standard kanji used in everyday writing, giving parents about 3000 characters to chose from. Excluded from the list are many characters that indicate culturally taboo or offensive concepts, like prostitution, cancer, and various emotional states (resentment, e.g.). Once, there were parents who attempt to give their child a name like ‘demon’ or something similar, and this name was rejected as a form of abuse of parental powers, due to the expected social difficulties that the child would be expected to experience (but, I haven’t heard anything about Japanese parents tying to put symbols in names, like in the Chinese story).

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No labels, just the East Bay

My near-daily travels down the peninsula to Stanford for the LSA institute this past month gave me an intensive course in Caltrain, the communter rail that serves San Francsico, San Jose, and the cities in between. I noticed as the train approached Millbrae station something interesting in the announcement. Millbrae is the only transfer station between Caltrain and BART (the rail service for San Francisco and the East Bay). The Caltrain operator would usually say something like

Now approaching Millbrae station. Millbrae is your transfer point for BART, SFO, and the East Bay.

This would be made when heading either south or north. I found it a little odd that BART would not necessarily be a transfer point for, say, San Francisco. After all, as far as I can tell, there aren’t any other places where a person might actually want to chose between going to a BART station or a Caltrain station – they kind of service different parts of the city, at least if you’re walking or biking. So it seems like either they wanted to save a little time, or just didn’t want to reinforce the idea that you could travel to important locations in SF via BART (in fact, several more locations than you could get to on Caltrain).

Now, something else interesting happens on BART. Actually, it doesn’t “happen,” it’s printed on their system maps. In addition to BART lines, other rail systems like Amtrack and Caltrain are shown, with thinner lines and smaller station labels. interestingly, all the Caltrain stations south of Millbrae have station labels (Palo Alto, Redwood City, and so forth), but none of the stations north of Millbrae, where BART has service, have station labels. Nice one.

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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Room for literal legs

A recent Jet Blue radio commercial features a (probably) staged telephone conversation between a potential flyer and someone from customer service. The service rep says that now all people on Jet Blue flights have extra leg room because they’ve removed a row of seats, giving everyone an extra few inches. The caller then asks, “If I don’t have an extra leg, can I use the room for something else?”

There is then some back and forth between the two, and eventually everything is clarified. Then the caller, being exlanatory/self-deprecatory, remarks that he tends to “take things literally.”

Though the caller may indeed take many things literally that aren’t meant to be, perhaps in this case he should have said that he tends to screw up interpretations of series of adjectives. No doubt his friends avoid talking to him about their Turkish history teachers and fake leather wallets, hoping to avoid wasting precious minutes explaining what they’re actually talking about.

The question is, assuming that most people understand this fellow’s self-characterization, what the heck does “literal” mean? Now, in the context of the commercial it’s clear what is meant by “literal,” since the source of the guy’s misunderstanding obvious. I just wonder how many people, asked to give examples of misunderstandings due to taking things too literally, would provide cases of attachment ambiguity. (“Oh, the guy you were spying on had the telescope? I guess I just take things too literally…”). Perhaps a native interpreter can provide intuitions.

As a side note: the service rep, when she gets that ridiculous question, admits that the words “extra leg room” do “imply” the meaning that the guy initially had. That’s also interesting, since when I think of something implying another thing, both things can be true at once. But in the extra leg room case, one reading can’t really imply the other. My guess that this is related to, loosely speaking, “perspective.” That is, for the rep there was a the “core,” intended meaning, but there was an additional one that was slightly covert, i.e., “implied.” Somehow I’m reminded of the semantics of a (medicinal) “side-effect,” which of course can become the main effect if the drug is repurposed.

Hair and Time Magazine

It’s funny. There’s been an issue of Time magazine sitting on my coffee table for at least a week now, dedicated to the brain and recent research in neurology and psychology. Until tonight, I hadn’t looked through it much (it’s my roommate’s subscription), but I picked it up while eating dinner and started reading an article about the neural-computational basis for consciousness. I skimmed to the end, and found it was written by Stephen Pinker. This becomes particularly relevant later. I then went back and read the article more carefully.

I then flipped through a few more articles, and found in the middle of one a blown-up quotation (what are those things called?) that mentioned mirror neurons. Now, the mirror neuron is a relatively significant finding in some corners of cognitive linguistics, so I took a closer look. I found that one of the researchers mentioned (and indeed, the one mentioned at the very beginning of the article) was Lisa Aziz-Zaheh, who I met when she spent a year at ICSI. See, it’s really only a few steps until mainstream linguistics gets the front page treatment from Time!

Then, later this evening, I found that Stephen Colbert had interviewed Pinker last night. I watched the interview (which was nice, with some good lines from Colbert; I enjoyed the geek/rich geek analogy), and was amused that the first question from Colbert was about Pinker’s hair, which is admittedly quite noticeable. Noticeable enough that, in fact, it’s pretty easy to find somewhere on the web evidence of yours truly also commenting on the psychologist’s hair (though at a time when it was a bit shorter than it is now).

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