Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big news!

Today President Obama announced the start of more normal relations with Cuba. This, after over 50 years of treating Cuba and its people really badly.  There's been the embargo, immoral and condemned by pretty much the entire civilized world.  Perhaps more egregious has been the US's support for terrorist activities against Cuba originating in Miami, and in some cases perpetrated by people who actually brag about what they do.

There's a lot to say, but for now I'll point to some photos I took during a visit to Cuba in 2002. I was attending a conference on education and language at the Universidad de Pinar del Río, which is out at the western end of the island.  They're on Facebook, but they're set to "public" so if you have an FB account you should be able to view them.  Here's a teaser:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Time to lose that imaginary friend!

OK, here's the thing. I'm pretty sure that religion is not the root of *all* evil. But I am sure that if your imaginary friend is telling you to kill schoolchildren, you need to lose that imaginary friend.  She/he/it is not doing you or the planet any good.  Just lose them.

While we're on the subject, I might give the same advice if your imaginary friend(s) are telling you to hate homosexuals, Blacks, poor people, foreigners, or almost anybody.  Except those whose imaginary friend tells them to kill schoolchildren.  With them, you're on your own.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What do "White" people know?

In my linguistic anthropology class we are doing semantics, the study of meaning.  Yesterday, the class was presented with pairs of sentences, and asked to decide whether their meanings were the same or different.  For the purpose of this exercise, three kinds of "meaning" were considered: referential, social, and affective meaning.  Referential meaning has to do with what the sentence (or word or phrase) refers to externally: 'the dog' refers to a definite member of the genus Canis.  Social meaning is what the sentence implies about the speakers' membership in some social group or the context (e.g. formal, informal) surrounding the speech event.  Affective meaning is what the sentence implies about the internal state of speakers with regard to what they are saying.

An example might help.  Here are two sentences:
  • I don't see anything.
  • I don't see nothing.
These sentences are the same referentially; they both refer to my not having anything in my field of vision. (Yes, I know, some grammar nazi will try to chime in and claim that the second means that I do see something, but that's just nonsense.)  They are also the same affectively, in that we can't infer anything about the speaker's inner state.  However, they are different socially: we might infer that the speakers are different, with the second belonging to a group that uses non-standard English; or, we might infer that the same person said both but in different social contexts.

Now, in the class yesterday one of the pairs of sentences was this:

  • Is there a Miss Smith in this office?
  • Is it a Miss Smith in this office?

The students presented all sorts of contorted calculations attempting to construct different referential meanings for these two sentences. For example, the 'it' in the second dehumanizes Miss Smith; and so on.  Not one of these students recognized that the second sentence is from African American English, and that it's referential meaning is the same as the first one.  Not one.  I should add that the students in this class were all "White," or rather, none of them belonged to the US hypodescent group labeled "Black."

This led me to wander a little off topic in the class, by questioning whether the lack of knowledge that White people typically have about Black people contributes to situations like what we see happening in Ferguson, etc.  Of course, this little bit of AAE grammar is a little thing, almost inconsequential in itself, but not knowing lots of little things adds up to not knowing a lot.

And, why don't White people have this knowledge?  Why is it that at no time in their "language arts" classes have these students been presented with facts about the linguistic variation that exists all around them?  They've had to wait until they got to university, and then happened to take linguistics for one reason or another.  And some of them are English Education majors, destined to themselves be language arts teachers.

The answer, it seems to me, is that we don't value what Black people know.  To the extent that it differs from more mainstream English, their speech is just a broken, deficient form of that wider English.  Nothing to see here; move along...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22, 1963

Today is the day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

I was in my first year at St. Johns College, Annapolis, Maryland.  I was about to go for a run before my Dad picked me up to drive home for Thanksgiving.  As I was leaving the dorm someone yelled out that the President had been shot, and we spent some time listening to a radio.  The run was scuttled.

On the drive home Dad and I listened to the radio in the car.  As I recall (it's been a while) he didn't say anything.  He had always been a Republican, and later became a fan of Rush Limbaugh etc.  I am not sure how he felt about what happened to Kennedy.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

How's your "grammar?"

I took this "grammar quiz" yesterday, more curious about what sorts of questions they would ask than whatever my "score" might be. As it turned out, I got them all "right."

(1) Of the 12, only 3 were really about "grammar." And one of those asked for a form (whom) that is essentially obsolete, what one writer calls "nostalgia as repression." Another asked for the past tense of "lie" (as in "lie down"); which is "lay" but that's also somewhat archaic at this point. The one legitimate grammar question had to do with subject/verb agreement (is v. are).

(2) Perhaps one (lose v. loose) was about lexicon, although this spills over into...

(3) ... spelling, which is what the rest were about, and which is not "grammar."  One of the more egregious examples of this is the distinction in spelling between the two forms pronounced [ɪts], written its and it's.  The first is possessive, 'belonging to it'; the second is the contraction of it and is.  This is not a confusion that anyone would or could make in speaking, because they're homophones!  It's only in spelling that they get separate treatment, and this is not where the grammar is.  Another frequently cited "confusion" is that of there - they're - their.  No English speaker would actually "confuse" these while using English, because they're different things: an adverb, a subject-verb contraction, and a possessive determiner.  They might confuse the spellings, but not the grammatical functions.

It would be nice if the people who make up these things would actually learn what "grammar" is.  A linguistics course might help...

Friday, September 26, 2014

I never expected this...

This happened yesterday:  I had finished the lecture part of my large intro class and was starting to tell them about their Test, which would be online through the weekend. Things like what topics to expect, the window the test would be available, how much time they have once they launch the test, and so on...  And as I was doing so, about a third of the class got up, gathered their stuff, and headed for the door.  While I was talking. This is the first I recall something like this happening, believe it or not, in about 30 years of teaching.  I have until next Tuesday to prepare a way to shame them into never doing this again, although I suspect, given that this is the United States of America, it would be pointless.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering 9/11?

In my opinion, the best way to remember 9/11 would be to issue arrest warrants for George W Bush and all the members of his admin who either failed to protect us from what happened, even though they had intel that it might, and/or who lied the country into the ongoing wars that followed and in the process killed more Americans than the actual 9/11 terrorists did. That is all.