Monday, July 11, 2016

English is weirder than most people realize

OK, so I just encountered this on Facebook, representative of the many "English is weird" memes floating around out there. And as I nearly always point out, the spellings shown here have nothing to do with the English language itself. If you want weird, consider this:
To make an English statement into a question, one of the rules is to "move the auxiliary to the front of the sentence."* E.g.
The mouse is eating the cheese > Is the mouse eating the cheese?
But what if there's no (apparent) auxiliary? Then you have to create one and move it:
Mice eat cheese > Mice do eat cheese > Do mice eat cheese?
Wait, there's more. If an overt inflection is present on the verb, the created auxiliary strips it off the verb and attaches it to itself:
Judy walks to school > Judy do walks to school > Judy does walk to school > Does Judy walk to school?
That's something truly weird about English!

* It's not that simple. The Aux really moves to a position under C in the CP that dominates the sentence. But this is enough for one day.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers Day!

In honor of Fathers Day, here's a photo of my Dad in 1945.  He's standing on a hill in Auxier, Kentucky.  Note the coal-company style houses down the hill behind him.

This was around the time I was born, July 1945.  In later years, but while I was still pretty young, Auxier was kind of a magical place for me.  Almost a Tom Sawyer kind of place.  When we were there in the summers I spent the entire time barefoot, and at the end of a day my friends and I would be pretty well powdered over with coal dust.  When I was big enough, my chore would be to tote a bucket down to the nearby well and pump water to carry back to the house (not too far).  I'm pretty sure that was the best water I've ever had.  We used the water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, because there was no piped water into the house.  We also had no indoor toilet, so the restroom was a short hike back past the cornfield.  Good times!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Culturally-induced psychopathy

Just a quick thought on our latest mass shooting:

This kind of thing is not going to go away until some of the basic features of our culture change.  Probably central to that would be a weakening of our cult of extreme individualism, which is reproduced every generation via the mode of socialization known as independence training.  Independence training reduces personal responsibility to the larger society, and also reduces empathy.  It helps us remain a nation suffering from culturally-induced psychopathy.

The strength of this cultural feature varies through time, as it does also across social and geographical space, but it's always there.  
The "Reagan Revolution," as well as Trump's "Make America Great Again," were/are revitalization movements for this cult.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cranky Linguist 2.0

I was getting tired of the colors on the blog here, so I have changed it up a bit in the hope of getting motivated to do some more consistent writing.

Meanwhile, here's a violin I inherited from my Dad.  It was made in Japan in the 1920s, and I never saw or heard him play it.  It's been laying around unused, so I had a local violin repairer spruce it up a bit, glue what needed to be glued, put on new strings, and so on.  Now to practice and hopefully be able to post a tune here soon...

Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Thinking like a linguist

Classes started last week, and in my first Linguistic Anthropology class I did an exercise that I often do to begin making students aware of the difference between linguistics and the "language arts" they have mostly been exposed to.  I ask them to write down, quickly, without overthinking, their immediate answer to the question: "How may vowels are there in English?"

Without exception, the reported answers are either "five" as in a e i o u or "six" as in a e i o u and sometimes y.

I then answer them to think a moment, and tell me what question they actually answered.  Somebody usually figures out that the presumed question was "How many vowel letters does English have?"

Then I suggest to them that an important first step in learning to think like a linguist is to stop assuming that any question about language defaults to the writing system, rather than to the language itself.   The question that a linguist  would have assumed is "How many vowel sounds does English have?"

As a wrap-up, I offer to "show them my vowels."  I don't use phonetic symbols in this lesson, I just write words that illustrate the vowel sounds in my English repertoire.  However, for this post I'll include the phonetic symbol:

[i]  beat
[ɪ]  bit
[e]  bait
[ɛ]  bet
[æ]  bat
[ɑ]  cot*
[ɔ]  caught*
[o]  coat
[ʊ]  look
[u]  Luke
[ʌ]  but

I added that because I come from the southern Appalachians, I have probably the rarest vowel in the world:

[ɚ]  Bert

This gives me a total of 12 vowels (not including diphthongs), quite a lot more than the "language arts" answer of "five."  The awareness of this difference, and the awareness of what language questions mean to linguists, provides a first step in learning to think like a linguist.

* I am careful to point out that my difference between caught and cot is not universal among English speakers.  Some students volunteered that these words are homophones for them, as they are for many North American English speakers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Columbus Day Ja Vu

Here it is again, late as usual but still worth a look if you haven't seen it:  My essay intended for the Florida Times-Union but never published.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

One more thing making me cranky

It occurs to me that if you wanted to design a course on sociocultural dysfunctions, you could almost use nothing but Republican speeches for the readings.  The topics would include sexism, classism, ethnocentrism...