Friday, March 14, 2014


The Atlantic has an online article about Russian nutball Vladimir Zhirinovsky wanting to get rid of "the letter ы" because it sounds "nasty" and "only animals make this sound."  Zhirinovsky is reported to have said that the "primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don't like us in Europe."

The sound in question, represented by the letter ы in the Cyrillic alphabet, is a high mid/back unrounded vowel, [ɨ] or possibly [ɯ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Zhirinovsky is correct that this sound occurs in any number of Asian languages, including Korean and Japanese; it also occurs in some Native American languages, such as Aymara (Bolivia/Perú), Yanomama (Brazil/Venezuela), and Garifuna (Central America).  He's probably not correct that animals can make it, since it involves raising the back of the tongue toward the soft palate in a way that it is pretty unique to humans.

The problem with getting rid of "the letter ы" is that this letter represents a phoneme in Russian that is distinct from the phoneme represented by the letter и, which is a high front unrounded vowel. The two sounds in question belong to separate phonemes in Russian because they can be found in minimal pairs, the first of which Zhirinovsky himself offers:

мишка    /miška/       'bear'           мышка    /mɨška/        'mouse'
бить        /bit'/           'to beat'        быть        /bɨt'/         'to be'

Because these two vowels are contrastive, asking Russians to ditch one of them would be like asking English speakers to stop using the vowel [ɪ] (as in bit) and just use the vowel [i] (as in beat) in its place.  This is the sort of thing that can happen over generations of natural language change, but it's simply not the sort of thing you can do by command from on high. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Students, argh!

Time for a rant. On our take-home, open-book midterm in linguistics, one question was: "Which statement best captures the relationship between language and dialect?" Of those who answered (n=32), just 9 chose the correct "groups who have power speak languages; groups without power speak dialects." Of the 23 who gave an incorrect answer one chose "less-educated people speak dialects; educated people speak languages." The rest (22) all answered "dialects are simple forms of languages."

Sigh... How is it possible to spend half a semester with me and not get this most basic thing right? Anyway, coming soon if I have time, an analysis by academic major...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Say what?

So, just awhile ago on The Diane Rehm Show some numbnut was claiming that Arizona's "religious freedom" law was good because it would have allowed businesses to refuse service to skinheads and white supremacists and such. Right. Like being gay or Black or Hispanic is exactly like being a klansperson or Nazi. Are we really this bad at teaching critical thinking skills?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stewart on the Coca-cola Superbowl ad

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart tackles the brouhaha over Coca-cola's multilingual Superbowl ad.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Post-debate analysis: Bill Nye on The Last Word

Lawrence O'Donnell discusses the Nye-Ham debate with Bill Nye on "The Last Word":

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ken Ham was there, but Bill Nye brought home the bacon

The "debate" last night between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis ended with a sigh of relief from many of us who worried that Ham's skill at lying about the nature of science and tossing out incoherent and unanswerable bits of nonsense like broken bottles onto a road would trip up Nye.

No such thing happened. Nye was relatively cool and collected, and in command of a nice array of facts, while Ham spent most of his time asserting that creationism is true because The Bible. Whenever Nye asked him to provide some evidence for the assertion that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, Ham simply repeated: The Bible. Evidence for just one all-encompassing catastrophic flood: The Bible. And so on. He was unable to respond at all to Nye pointing out several times that "The Bible" which Ham depends on is a translation into "American English" of a very old book that was originally written in several different languages.

 One of Ham's themes, from the beginning, was to draw a bizarre distinction between what he called "observational" science, the kind he trusts, and "historical" or "origins" science, which he does not. Observational science is OK because it deals with the here and now, and we are witnesses; historical science is invalid, because we cannot witness the things we are talking about. And, The Bible. This strange paradigm was overthrown in the 19th century by Charles Lyell, a contemporary of Darwin, who showed that the understanding of current processes can be used to reconstruct the past history of the earth, based on the not unreasonable hypothesis that the same gradual processes of erosion and uplift that change the earth’s surface today had also been at work in the past. How could Ham miss this? And again, what evidence does he hand over that this is not the case? None. So when Ham asserts that "we cannot observe the age of the Earth," he is wrong. We can bring material into lab, date it in a variety of ways. We can observe the age of the earth in the observations we make during the dating process. Ham is just plain wrong, but, you know, the Bible.

Quick take: The Smothers Brothers

The Smothers Brothers sing the "anthropologist" verse of the song "My Old Man."