Archive for the 'Linguistics' Category


This past Tuesday it was raining down hard, so most people had their umbrellas out. I witnessed one umbrella that I thought I should mention to some friends. Here’s how it came out:

> There was this woman who was carrying the smallest umbrella I’ve ever seen! They were less than the width of her shoulders!

No idea why I thought that was allowed.

What a linguist does

This past Friday I went with my fiancée to [Mrs. Dalloway’s]( bookstore in Berkeley to see [Deborah Tannen]( talk about her new book about communication between sisters. She told some great stories about the interviews she conducted while researching the book. I got the impression that the book is mostly about the relations between sisters, and how these are reflected in (and can be discerned by looking at) their conversations. But I’m still not sure how much of the analysis comes from author-sister interaction, or sister-sister interaction (I bought the book as a gift, so I haven’t looked inside).

The last several questions afterward had to do with how a linguist’s perspective on communication might differ from that of a psychologists (or a sociologist, etc; no one actually mentioned other fields, though Tannen mentioned psychology). That lead to wondering what the heck linguistics was anyway. After briefly explaining that, Tannen offered something that Robin Lakoff had once said (light paraphrasing on my part):

> I know what I do is linguistics, because I’m a linguist, and I do it.

The sound of capitalization

I’ve been rereading the [Wheel of Time]( book series, half because it’s fun and half because soon the antepenultimate installment will be released. In case you couldn’t [tell]( And there’s one particular way the author, Robert Jordan, describes how people in different societies react to each other’s use of language — especially terms of art and ritual language — that gets to me. I can only recall it happening maybe three or four times as of the 7th book, but it gets me every time.

> “Yes, but there is the matter of the Bargain.” That word was plainly capitalized in Harine’s tone.

Much as this particular narrative technique grates on me, let’s set aside the translation from whatever orthographic conventions we imagine the folks in this universe use into the notion of English spelling. Let’s just pretend that “that word was plainly capitalized” means “that was clearly a special word, denoting a special referent.” I have to wonder: what features of pronunciation, either of the word or the utterance, could tell you that? If “tone” includes pauses, then perhaps a longer-than-average pause before “the Bargain” might do it. Though the way most characters in the books seems to simply presuppose that outsiders know How Things Work, this would be a marked difference. Or maybe Jordan simply meant that Harine used [air quotes](

Envious, meet Spider

The epic fantasy series [The Wheel of Time]( features a rich world of characters and history, including a language spoken approximately 3000 years prior to the action of the story, called by modern folk _the old tongue_ (the OT). There is also a group of about a dozen evil villains from that same time period. After a war that ended 3000 years ago, they were imprisoned in a timeless sleep, but escaped (I think) a few decades or so prior to the main action. One could complain (nitpick) about the plausibility of a single world language, and the likelihood that an entire continent would still speak mutually-intelligible dialects descended from said language, even 3000 years later. But anyway, that’s not the point.

These old school villains (the “Forsaken”) have all adopted for themselves names given them (in scorn) by those they fought so many years ago. For instance, in the prologue of _The Eye of the World_, we learn that Elan Morin Tedronai is now called Betrayer of Hope. This works out to _Ishamael_ in the old tongue. Based on other words in the OT, we know that _mael_ is ‘hope’ and _isha_ has something to do with ‘destroyer’, but it’s unclear if these are bound or free morphemes, whether this is more like a compound (hope destroyer?) or a name-ified phrase. Anyway, that’s how it goes. In the OT, these baddies have names like “Spider” or “the Envious” or “Daughter of the Night.”

Now, there are some scenes in which these Forsaken talk amongst each other, and one can surmise that they use the old tongue. For instance, in the prologue of _Lord of Chaos_ (p57) we have the point of view of one of the Forsaken

> She felt the first spinning of _saidar_ a moment before the glowing line appeared and became a gateway.

Modern day people speak of weaving, not spinning, _saidar_. There are a couple other things like this, I think. of course it could be that they are actually speaking a modern language, but using lexical items from their own time period. But it’s not clear why they would do so. Maybe to keep up their language skills? But these Forsaken have in general such a poor opinion of modern people that it seems they’d relish any opportunity to abandon the parts of their language, culture, etc that they had to adopt in order to fit in.

Yet, in contrast to the Prologue of the very first book (where a good guy, speaking the OT, says “Betrayer of Hope”), the thought and language of the Forsaken, in every other part of the series, uses the OT names untranslated. The line after the one quoted above reads,

> Graendal stepped out, …

where _Graendal_ means something in the OT (though not known to mere mortal readers). This is to be contrasted with the italicized _saidar_, another OT word, probably complex but no gloss has ever been given. So, the generalization here is that, with the exception of the first prologue of the first book, chapters from the POV of an OT speaker look linguistically just like POVs from modern speakers, with some lexical items switched out to remind us we’re dealing with really old people here.

From a certain point of view this makes sense. It would probably be rather difficult and confusing to make the OT/modern differences more apparent. And while it might satisfy some geeks, it could well take away from the storytelling proper. And for another thing, it might be pretty darned hilarious to read

> The Betrayer of Hope wondered what could be keeping Spider. She and the Envious always worked together, but surely they would not openly show their alliance…

Which brings up the next question: do these guys ever feel funny talking to each other with these names? I realize that analyzable names pretty quickly become opaque to casual thought (how often do I wonder about the creek in Walnut Creek? Almost never). They do, from time to time, mull over the suitability of their names, but I guess it’s mostly in the background of their thoughts. So, maybe the rendering of their names as non-italicized old tongue (amidst what we can imagine is translated OT) is a way of representing that.

Final note: in _The Eye of the World_, on pages 619-20, you can find [another]( example of the whole worm/wyrm/Worm thing. I never noticed it the first time through, but after rereading the book a few weeks ago, I found it chuckle-worthy.

> “They were scared off by worms?” Mat said incredulously. […]
> “A Worm” — there was a sharp difference in the way the Warder said it from the way Mat had — “can kill a Fade, if the Fade hasn’t the Dark One’s own luck with it.

What I wouldn’t give to know what that sharp difference was.

Graduate, promote, advance

Several months ago there was a sign outside a middle school near where I live which read,

> Congratulations to the promoting class of 2009!

I was familiar with the use of _promote_ as something a school does to a student advancing to the next grade, and the particular significance of being promoted from middle to high school. But the syntactic contexts for this were _school promotes student_ or _promotion of student_, etc., roughly transitive uses. This contrasted in my usage with _graduate_, where a student may graduate or a school may graduate a student. So, for me, _graduating class_ was perfectly normal, while _promoting class_ was out. But it seems to be not all that rare, and after all, why not? If it’s to be used pretty much parallel to _graduate_, why not let it take syntactic positions more like the latter?

But still, would you expect to find it as a main rather than in the _-ing_ form? From [here](

> 6th grade students who have promoted in 2008 will attend a middle school campus and 8th grade students who have promoted will be assigned to a high school site.

So far I’ve found only one such thing.

Then, there’s also _advance_. Students and classes advance to the next grade, and there are advancement ceremonies. But would anyone congratulate the _advancing class of 2009_?

Astronomy, Physics, Biology, Linguistics

Here at UCB there are a few classes that are commonly recognized as part of the essential undergad experience. They’re beginning-level survey courses taught by distinguished faculty members (do I sound like a brochure?): Intro to Astronomy (Alexei Filippenko), Drugs and the Brain (David Presti), Physics for Future Presidents (Richard Muller). Well, in today’s issue of [The Daily Californian](, among [a list]( of five of the “Best Classes on Campus” is _Linguistics 55AC: The American Languages_.

From the official catalog:

> A linguistic view of the history, society, and culture of the United States. The variety of languages spoken in our country and the issues surrounding them: language and ethnicity, politics of linguistic pluralism vs. societal monolingualism, language and education, language shift, loss, retention, and renewal. Languages include English (standard and nonstandard; Black English), pidgins and creoles, Native American languages, Spanish, French, and immigrant languages from Asia and Europe.

The recommender (Daniel Kronovet) writes,

> You’ll have no idea how deep language goes until you’ve taken this course. […] It’s everything you never knew you should know about.

So sign up! (or request that it be webcast)
(but note that this semester, the instructor is Bill Weigel, not Rose Wilkerson)

Actions and comments

Facebook statuses take the form of your name (linked to your profile) followed by whatever you type in the box. Many people take advantage of this to make their name the subject of a sentence:

> Russell doesn’t update his blog much.

But this is by no means universal. Many an update on my home page look like

> Russell updating your status is boring

And many other sorts of formats. But what about the comments you can leave in response to others’ status updates? Those too begin with a linked, correctly capitalized name, but I have yet to see (or at least remember) a comment that used that name as the subject of a sentence. They all look like

> Russell that’s great, Bill!

and not

> Russell thinks that’s great!

Russell wonders why.

I thought it might be because the main status field tells you your name will appear in the beginning of your feed, while the comment field doesn’t. But that’s not true. It doesn’t seem like the different prompts (what’s on your mind? vs write a comment) would necessarily do it. Maybe it’s about topicality: the status is about the status-holder/typer, but the comment isn’t necessarily _about_ the commenter.

Or Maybe it’s more historical? Earlier, all status updates started with “[name] is”, but even with the demise of that restriction people still like to exploit the fact that their names appear right before their custom text. I don’t know when comments started being implemented, but perhaps they came in after any facebook-enforced subjecthood requirements, so the custom never caught on.

Or maybe it’s something more genre-like: the status is an broadcast announcement, so it makes sense for it to be a sentence about you, while the comment (while also potentially readable by everyone) is more personal and so a more flexible information structure and syntax is needed?

Fillmore Fest

Well, I’m back from a trip to Australia, and almost back from the flu that I got basically as soon as I landed.

Going on now: [Fillmore Fest](

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