Archive for the 'Use' Category

My San Francisco by the bay

It is perhaps well-known that natives of San Francisco are very particular about their city’s appellation. There is the abhorrent Frisco and the marginally-better-but-still-hateful San Fran. The longer San Francisco and initialism SF are just around okay. The preferred term is, of course, the City.

I personally find the first two listed nicknames rather bad-sounding, though likely due to being informed of their taboo status before having moved up to the area. I stick to SF or San Francisco. I have only once ever said the City to refer specifically to San Francisco, and it was completely by accident (I swear). Otherwise, I actually find the use rather, shall we say, pretentious. This makes reading the SF Examiner (a daily free newspaper) rather annoying, as they seem to have a policy of always referring to San Francisco as The City. The only exceptions I’ve seen are names that include “San Francisco,” as in San Francisco Fire Department. Some examples from recent articles:

… during a March 30 meeting as part of an ongoing effort to tackle one of The City’s biggest quality-of-life issues. (link) “We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” Newsom said in April about The City’s efforts to address the problem. (same) The City removed the former coin and parking-pass operated meters in the busy tourist district and installed four new meters for the entire block. (link)

In all or most cases, you could just replace “The City” with “San Francisco” and get a perfectly fine sentence. You could also just put it in lowercase and get a similarly fine sentence. But it would be surprising if you never got anything strange from this policy. For one thing, it’s not just typographic, it indicates a particular linguistic choice, namely using the city to refer to San Francisco in particular. And it no doubt functions as a geographic and sociolinguistic index (“I’m from the SF Bay Area and I love San Francisco!” or something like that). This means that there are nontrivial consequences for using “The City” within direct quotation: Read more »

Passives with a purpose

The passive construction (at least in English, Spanish, Japanese, and probably many other languages) promotes what is normally a direct object to the subject position, demoting the subject to an oblique position that may be omitted (not to be confused with some rhetorically similar moves). However, the poor subject, if it is semantically an intentional actor, is certainly still part of the sentential semantics. This can be demonstrated by adding a purpose clause:

Many believe their leader was killed simply to demonstrate the power of the opposition.

Now, consider the following paragraph, from a recent special from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, on 9 hidden gems.

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Since Grant’s useful comment on skeuomorphs, I’ve started keeping my eye out for them. I’m not entirely sure how to characterize the difference between the linguistic and non-linguistic versions of this. Additionally, there is apparently a thing called path dependence, which is common in talk of economics and history/sociology in general, whereby decisions made at some point in time turn out to be non-optimal or non-suitable for some point much later in time, though by that point there’s no way to switch paths. Or, as some people seem to sloganize the concept, “history matters.” This seems like a nice, general concept, perhaps illustrated by my recent difficulties in getting the sysadmins at work to let me use a dvorak keyboard interface (actually, they’ve been very nice about it, but once they had to do maintenance on my machine, and it was a real pain when they didn’t know the key layout; so it’s all on hold for now).

Path dependence may or may not subsume skeuomorphy, though this latter concept seems to be more in the realm of aesthetics, rather than somehow being “stuck” on some path. That is, designers of (say) audio software make the GUI look like a regular stereo interface, knobs and screws and all, to make the experience easier for the user, and also to make the experience more “authentic” (becuase clearly computer software is always a replication of what we used to do without them). It’s all about familiarity. On the other hand, the typical examples of path dependence, like usage of VHS and QWERTY, or the various standards for railway guages, are not about aesthetics, I suppose, and more about the fact that changing is just not very easy. It’s a variation on the “keep things familiar” tune, though in a different domain.

On the other hand, this terminological distinction may simply be…uh, an accident of history, so to speak. In any case, we can always borrow real science terms and talk about “inertia.” Inertia of design features, inertia of symbols, inertia of the familiar.

In any case, a couple of examples I came across yesterday. First, in a (non-new) standup routine Ellen Degeneres commented on the common gesture that people use to get someone to to roll down a car window, namely, miming a circular hand crank. There are two parts to this. First, that gesture is simply carried over from when that was the only way to roll (roll?) down a car window. Second, the new way to lower a window doesn’t involve a very unique or visually salient gesture: you hold down a button. Assuming that it isn’t interpreted as simply pointing downward, there is still the question of disambiguating all of the things that could be accomplished by holding down a button. And even if the only likely thing in context is “roll down your window!”, there’s still factor number one, i.e., there’s already a gesture for that, so this must mean something different.

The second example came when I was watching Star Trek Voyager (one of the very rare good episodes), and the holographic doctor said that he would be ready as soon as he finished “scrubbing,” which appeared to be moving and rubbing one’s hands underneath a dull orange light (which I assume also emits cleansing sound waves, as supposedly the general self-cleaning method in Star Trek is the “sonic shower”). Now, the rubbing was still there, so perhaps scrub is not so much of an anachronism. But if it were simply moving one’s hands underneath the cleaner, it probably would be. I’d guess that the choice of that word was quite conscious, in order to show the viewer how certain mundane things change over the centuries. The significance might have been lost if the doctor had just said “I’ll be there after I finish disinfecting/cleaning/sanitizing my hands”. (Uh, and let’s ignore the fact that this shouldn’t really be necessary, given he’s a hologram: he could just disappear and then come back, presumably all cleaned up)

Now do Tibetan!

Yesterday David Beaver posted about a discussion he’d had with Elane Chun (of UT Austin) regarding probable causes of the outrage stemming from a well-known talk show host miming Chinese using ching chong and similar forms. I think the conclusions are probably near the mark, adding a slight variation on Answer C: possibly a sometimes-assumed compliance among Asian Americans that they will (and perhaps should) be treated as a non-mainstream group, for a variety of reasons (recentness of immigration, recentness of “on-screen” activity in the media, being a “model minority”, and perhaps others). I, at least, am somewhat pleased when I see an Asian American role in a TV show or movie wherein their Asianness is not made special mention of, or even silently included (for instance, in some aspect of costume or set design). This is not to say that such things should not be included, but simply that the inclusion of an Asian in a production should not necessarily entail a lot of extra cultural baggage.

In some ways, I wonder if there is a very slightly analogous issue with sign languages. After decades of persuading everyone that sign languages are true languages, on a par with spoken languages like Russian and Hindi, now there is the need to take a broader look at the differences between signed and spoken languages. Of course this must now be done with some caution, without disturbing the status built up for sign languages. Yes, each ethnicity and nationality, even after moving to a melting pot like the US, retains some (or much) of its cultural items, but nonetheless is still on a par with every other group in the nation. But you could still give up some of that cultural stuff and still have some sense of identity with your ancestor’s culture. But, you might not want to. But, …. and so on, and so on.

[Perhaps you’re wondering about the title of this post. Well, I was reminded of an activity that I did in fourth grade, where we students were paired up and then asked to prepare a news broadcast in another language. But most of us were monolingual, and so we were encouraged to mimic the accent and words of our target language. Other members of the class would then have to guess the language. Looking back, this strikes me as a very very strange exercise, and I’m not entirely sure what the goal might have been. But I did learn something significant: to have any effect on the audience, there has to be some common ground. Being the strange sort of lad that I was, I decided to do a Tibetan broadcast. I’ll leave it to your imagination what exactly the reaction was. But I have to wonder, what sort of feedback would ching chongs have gotten?]


In a couple of previous posts I explored a bit of the meaning of the sequence no yeah (and yeah no) as (roughly) a part-denial/part-affirmation technique. Though I haven’t thought about it in super-great detail since those posts, I did realize something rather obvious this morning. Namely, there is some severe lexical restriction going on. For the yeah-no version, it basically really is the lexical items yeah and no that go into this phrase. The yeah part can sometimes be replaced with words into the same family: yup and uh-huh also are sorta okay. Yes, though, is pretty bad. Similarly, for no-yeah, you can also replace the no with some other words. But in general, the first word can be fiddled with, but the second one is more fixed. So it can’t simply be that a combination of affirmation and denial get you the semantics and pragmatics of yeah-no and no-yeah: you need, it seems, to take into account the meanings of those particular lexical items.

And then this brings up the potentially thorny issue of “pragmatic compositionality.” That is, though there are constructions that specify idiosyncratic (truth-conditional) semantics to certain combinations of words or phrases; but are there any that assign unpredictable pragmatics to a combination of already pragmatically-rich lexical items? Actually, I can probably already answer that question in the positive, since Japanese yo-ne has a usage that is really hard to get just by combining yo and ne. (Yes, I know, many have tried, and I reviewed some of that literature for my honors thesis a few years ago; let’s just say that any claim that yo-ne is compositional must first have a full account of the two words individually, which I guarantee doesn’t exist.)

[And, after some consultations with colleagues, another possibility is the may…but construction. It contains a may which expresses concession, even though usually it has either has permission-giving (deontic) or possibility-asserting (epistemic) meaning. Granted, in this construction its use is epistemic in a certain way, but surely in a slightly different way than normal. However, the meaning of but remains what it usually is, so far as I can tell.]

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