Friday, December 27, 2013

Some kind of abusive behavior?

Republican Congressweasel Paul Ryan (R-WI) is reported to have said:
I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.
Isn't this some kind of abuse?  Or harassment?  Or a violation of something?  Rand was a demented sociopath who modeled the hero of one of her novels on a man who kidnapped, killed, and chopped up a little girl, and then put her back together on a bench to make her father think he was picking her up after leaving a ransom.

Rand was a despicable human being, and so is Ryan.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A (post-) modern problem

I think postmodernism has created a generation of people who are afraid to commit themselves to an answer to a question, even when the question involves empirical data to be examined.  For example, my final exam in linguistics, just given, contained the following problem:

Review. Examine the data from Tongan (Polynesia). Then answer the questions. Assume that this data set is representative. (3 points)

[tauhi]   'to take care of'       [sino]   'body' 

[sisi] 'garland'                     [totonu] 'correct'
[motu] 'island                     [pasi] 'to clap'
[mosimosi] 'to drizzle'          [fata] 'shelf'
[motomoto] 'unripe'             [movete] 'to come apart'

Based on the evidence, the sounds [t] and [s] are: ___ Contrastive?  ___ Predictable?
Defend your choice.

Now, the correct answer is obtained by noticing that [s] always occurs before [i], and that [t] occurs before other vowels.  Thus [t] and [s] are predictable. In linguistic terms, we can rite a phonological rule:
/t/  ➔ [s] / __ [i];  [t] elsewhere.
However, I didn't require them to write the rule out.  As long as they noticed the distribution of these two sounds, they got credit.  The problem comes when, despite the admonition to take the data set as representative, stuff like this shows up (my emphasis):
[t] is predictable because it is used the same way in the middle of the text and usually following or followed by by a vowel. [s] is also following/followed by a vowel which seems to always be [i].
No, it doesn't seem as though [s] is always followed by [i]; in this data set it is the case that [s] is always followed by [i], and [t] is followed by vowels other than [i].  And then there's this:
[s] is always followed by [i] in Tongan, and [i] can't follow [t]. We don't know if they are phonemes or allophones though, it could be a coincidence that they don't follow [t]'s with high front vowels, maybe [ti] is [di] and we just don't have that data, or
I should point out that we've been working these kinds of problems all semester, and all semester I've stressed that the data sets used in the problems are to be taken as representative of the languages as a whole.  I really do think that postmodernism, despite the good things it's done for us, has damaged students' ability to commit to the solution of a data-based problem.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Stephen Fry on language prescriptivism

Actor Stephen Fry (the Master of Laketown in the new Hobbit movie) does a nice job of dealing with the grammar nazis, who in fact are almost never really complaining about grammar, but that's another post.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The Sound of Music"

On a lighter note, sort of. Willy and I are watching "Sound of Music," the remake, on NBC.  My memory of this story cannot be separated from how I first saw it.

It was summer 1968, and my friend George and I had just hitch-hiked from Italy into what was then Yugoslavia.  We stopped in a little town in Slovenia, right on the coast, checked into a campground, and then wandered thru town.  I actually managed to get my hair cut, using my feeble Russian to communicate with the barber.  We noticed a poster for "The Sound of Music" and managed to decode that it was being shown that night.  So we went.

The film was projected onto the wall of what I recall was the town hall.  Many of the chairs arranged in front of the wall were occupied by little old ladies in black peasant garb.  As we watched, they cheered every time the nazis got their comeuppance, and especially when Liesl rejected Rolfe. Surreal, but that's how I prefer to remember it.