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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As you leave, I was wondering

Play-by-play sports commentators are, I believe, sometimes noted for their novel uses of language. Now, the only sports I watch on TV is baseball, but there are some interesting things to say about the langauge of even the most mundane of sportscasters. Take, for instance, predicate inversion, which I have the impression is used more often in play-by-play discourse than elsewhere (don’t know about baseball vs other sports, though).

Coming in safe at second is Giambi

Out at third is Ichiro

In from center field to catch the ball is Davis

One particular construction that I’ve noticed, which I previously thought was impossible, is using temporal as on the speech act level. Like this:

When you’re a catcher it’s important to make sure you’re always on the same page as the rest of the infield, as Ichiro takes Hudson the other way for a base hit.

What the as is doing is not saying that “it’s important to…” and “Ichiro takes Hudson the other way…” are happening at the same time. Rather, the base hit is happening as the commentator is saying “it’s important to…” This happens all the time with other temporal subordinators like before and while:

Before you leave, when are you coming back next?

While you’re here, I was wondering if you could help me out.

What happens “before you leave” is that I’m going to ask you a question (namely, when are you coming back). Similarly for “while you’re here”: it’s (crucially) during the time that you’re here that I’m making (or able to make) a request.

But I always though that as didn’t have this sort of use. It sounded (and still sounds) ridiculous to say, As you get ready to leave, when should I meet you tomorrow?. But I thought about it some more, and maybe as you get ready, I have a question for you isn’t that bad. Then, taking a cue from the sports-as, I put it at the end, sort of as an afterthought: I still have one question for you, (uh), as you get ready to head out. Not bad. But that’s getting uncomfortably close to a strict temporal use: my having a question and you getting ready are taking place at the same time. Saying “I have a question” isn’t the same as “let me ask you a question,” and certainly not the same as “when should we meet up?” So there’s still some strange limitations on as. Except in spontaneous play-by-play talk, where it seems be a sort of way to transition between commentary and reporting the action: you can never plan very far in advance to use as in this way.

(There is of course a “causal” use of as, which allows “speech-act” modification as you’re staying another week, would you like to use our guest bedroom instead of the sofa? But you can do that with because and (causal) since, so it’s not that surprising to me.)

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)

Living with a soft j

I suppose I shouldn’t really care that nearly every time someone one the news utters the name of the capital city of China, they use a “soft j” (aka [ʒ]), rather than the standard Mandarin “hard j” ([ʤ] would be the closest sound in English). I mean, it’s not that big a deal, and hyperforeignization is, after all, a fact of linguistic life. Probably serves me right for trying to be bilingual.

[Update: Ben Zimmer's pointer to Bill Poser's similar comments reminded me of another set of cases: pronunciation of Chavez with initial "sh" (as in, say, Cesar Chavez Street (formerly Army St) in San Francisco). The same probably goes for several other cases of "ch" in Spanish (machete anyone?)]

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."]